Movie Review 23: The Muppets

I’ve always been a big fan of the Muppets.  I grew up watching them on Sesame Street and on the Muppet Show on CBS. Later on I had a lot of fun watching the 7-Deadly Sins Muppet Show pilot at the Museum of Television and Radio and doing some voice and script work for our Playcole stop motion video “William Shatner on the Muppet Show.”

I also eagerly watched the previous Muppet film where we learn Gonzo is an alien. While not awful, that might be the low point of Muppet films.

I was skeptical about the new movie, but I needn’t have been. The Muppets was awesome and well exceeded my expectations.

In some respects, this film is a Muppet version of the Blues Brothers.


The movie follows the literal and metaphorical journey Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (a new muppet) take across the country and around the world.

Gary and Walter are brothers living in Smalltown, USA.  They do everything together, but Walter always feels alienated among other people until he first see the Muppet Show on TV.

Fastforward several years and Gary promises to take his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to LA for a trip. They bring Walter along for the journey.

Once they arrive in LA, the discover the Muppet Studios is crumbling and about to be sold to a Texas oilman and destroyed.  Thus begins a quest to find Kermit, get the whole band back together, and a put on a show to try and save the Muppet Studios.

The movie started off solidly, but the moment I really go on board was when they went to find Gonzo and the actions he takes to join the team.

The movie is funny and has plenty of heart. The jokes ranges from the silly, corny ones, to some really Meta ones that play with the idea of the characters being in a TV show and making a movie.

The music is catchy and fun. Jack Black is brilliant in his roll.

They also did s really nice job with Animal and gave him a little depth.  He was awesome to watch even when he wasn’t going Animal Crazy.

The cameos were mostly spot one, especially Jim Parsons.

An interesting concession to the passing of decades is that there is much less domestic violence in this movie than we usually get with the Muppets. I think Miss Piggy only beats one person and it’s not Kermit.

As a character, Mary doesn’t get as much of the story.I’m okay with that. While she does play Gary’s girlfriend, ultimately, the movie is not about her and Gary. It’s about Gary and Walter. It’s about Walter finding himself and Gary letting go of his childhood and redefining his relationship with Walter. While there is growth with Gary and Mary, Mary isn’t the driving force in the story. She’s an obstacle or challenge that needs to be dealt with and a pivot point for Gary’s development.

As Movies go, The Muppets is a winner.  It’s respectful of the Muppet traditions, doesn’t take itself too seriously, had great music, and gives many of our favorites their own moment to shine.

Old fan or new, check out “The Muppets.”


Movie Review 22: In Time

A few weeks ago the GF and I head to the theater to see “In Time.” The movie had gotten mediocre reviews and seemed to be slipping quickly out of the pop culture. Catching a 9:30 show should be no problem, right?  Forty-five minutes before hand it was sold out. That was the first of my In Time surprises for the evening.

In Time

In Time takes the idea of time=money to a new level.  Everyone is born with a time bank of one year in their body. They grow up normally until they turn 25. Then they stop aging completely.  They will look that way for the rest of their lives.  At the same time, they start drawing down on that time bank. A clock embedded into everyone’s arm ticks off the seconds and minutes.  When you’re out of time, you simply die.

People can transfer time to one another, however.  That makes it a currency. Workers get paid in hours for the hours they put in. A cup of coffee costs not just the time it takes to drink it, but the minutes you give to the coffee shop to purchase it.  Time can be transferred person-to-person or between people and machines.  The poor often live day-to-day or hour-by-hour. The wealthy have personal time banks of hundreds or thousands of years.

The difference between the rich and poor is striking. They live in completely separate areas (or “time zones” (cute)). It’s not that the poor are locked out, it’s just that they don’t have the time to pay tolls and costs.   You can tell who is poor and who is rich by how fast they move. The poor run everywhere; the rich have time to walk and waste.

The action starts when Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), a wealthy person, is tired of living.  He can’t see the justice in living forever with the elites while most of society simple drops dead when they run out of time. He meets Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) and gives him the rest of his time – about 100 years – with the simple instruction, “Don’t waste my time.” He then let’s his remaining minutes wind down and he dies.

And we’re off to the races.

I found this to be a very interesting movie in several ways. The basic story is fascinating; I love the concept. The philosophies and questions of right and wrong are interesting to ponder. The way it explores human nature if fascinating.  And stepping out of the movie world for a moment, the way this film fails is also terribly interesting to me.

I liked this movie, but I want to start by talking about it’s failure. I know it sounds terribly pompous, but I think of this in terms of the ancient Greek analysis of rhetoric. In order for a message to be successful, you have to address the Logos (appeal to logic), the Pathos (appeal to the emotion), and Ethos (based on the speaker’s moral character, expertise, competence, spirit, etc).  The problem with In Time is that it successful engages the Logos, but only barely engages in Ethos, and is a complete failure on Pathos. 

While I can appreciate this film on an intellectual level, it it utterly lacking in heart. The emotions are logical and expected, but I didn’t feel them in the audience. It failed to pull me in and get me to cheer for the hero and boo the underdog.

I think that’s the reason it didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. Most people don’t go to the movies primarily to think.  If they did, the documentary genre would have more box office hits.

People go to the movies for the sensory experience and to feel something.  In Time is a great thinking movie; it never successfully grabs the audiences’ hearts.

I did have several other problems with the movie. I didn’t really feel the sudden character change from guy-seeking-justice to Robin Hood.  It just happened suddenly.

They are also sloppy with the “Time Zones” and exactly what they mean. Early in the movie, the trip across them seem like it takes hours.  Later, it seems to take minutes.

The CGI for a car rolling down an embankment is just bad. And I’m really not buying how the characters keep escaping injury.

The ability to track and monitor minutes as they pass from one person to another seems inconsistent.

There are a few other things like that. It seems like the script needed a couple more revisions before being shot.

After reading all that, you might think I hated the movie.  I don’t. There are a lot of things it did well, but that’s mainly in the ideas they explored.

They explore the two different paths one can take when they receive a sudden gift of time or money. For some, it’s self destructive; for other’s it’s empowering.  It’s interesting to consider the high bankruptcy rates of lottery winners and other windfall recipients have in our world.

It explores the difference in behavior between those who have everything and those who have nothing to lose. The wealthy in the film become afraid of anything that might kill them (you can still die accidentally despite having centuries on your clock.  You’re time can also be stolen from you).

The poor, when pursuing what they perceive to be noble goals, will take risk and chances. As the Bob Dylan song goes, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” In Time addresses it at the level of an individual gambler and at the macro level of the society at large.

I always like to be aware of that idea. It can inform negotiations, business strategies, and politics.  It’s an idea that can help explain some aspects of the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It also informs the situation surrounding the Palestinian issue in Israel, or the occasional summer riots outside Paris. 

Our own Occupy [insertnamehere] protests haven’t gotten too ugly because those protesting still have something to lose.

Extreme poverty and desperation are bad not just for the poor, but for the wealthy, too.  When people have nothing to lose, then taking a destabilizing chance is worth a shot.

One lesson my father taught me is that the most dangerous person in a bar isn’t the big guy. It’s the angry little guy in the corner who is at the end of his rope.

In Time touches on the differences between justice and law.  I mentioned Robin Hood earlier and that’s an element to the film. There’s also a very Inspector Javert story line. People in the film are not doing everything for their own self interests. Many characters, even the “villain” in the film are doing what they think is right – they are doing the best the can to help society be the best it can be.

It’s helpful to keep this in mind when dealing with politics and politicians, too. The opposition may or may not be corrupt. They may simply feel that what they are doing is the right thing – it is for the best – regardless of how I may feel about it. 

The movie explores what happens when someone who isn’t “supposed” to have resources suddenly does, and how society responds to that.

In Time explores what it means to flood an area with resources, the role of inflation in affecting those resources, and the role of organized crime when things get turned upside down.

The interesting thing about it (and I’m sure some will disagree) is that In Time is not a liberal screed against those who hoard resources. The movie raises the complicated issues of what happens when Robin Hood gets his way.

In short, I love the premise of the movie. I love the concepts it explores.  I do not care for the inconsistencies in the story and the film’s inability to emotionally connect with the audience. 

But it’s a movie that made me think. It left me with thoughts, impressions, ideas, arguments, and counter arguments bouncing around inside my skull. That I enjoyed.

If you want to think, watch this movies. If the last thing you want from a movie is for it to give you an opportunity to reevaluate the entire world financial system, then this is probably not the film for you.


You can find more of my movie reviews here.


Westlake Christmas Tree Lighting

On Black Friday I opted out of shopping (I've served my time in retail). In years past I've gone to the Holiday parade, but this time, the idea of sleeping late was just too appealing.  Besides, I've taken lots of pictures of the parade over the years:

Normally it's rainy and on TV anyway.

This year, that turned out not to be the best solution.  It was oddly bright and sunny, and for some reason, no one saw fit to broadcast it on TV this year.

Despite the rough start, the day got better and the GF and I went to the tree lighting in Westlake Plaza. We were just two people among the 15,000 who turned out for the event.

The tree and the Macy's star were all set up and ready for the evening to start.

2011-11-25 Tree Lighting 07

2011-11-25 Tree Lighting 04

After and hour of sun setting, crowd plowing, musical renditions, a mayoral greeting (of course people boo'ed the Mayor), the finally lit the tree, carousel, and Macy's star. Then the fireworks started:

2011-11-25 Tree Lighting 29

And then the cell phones came out. It's amusing how any major event these days is surrounded and captured by dozens or hundreds of cell phones, many of which are likely to do a poor job preserving the event. But they still come out.

2011-11-25 Tree Lighting 15

2011-11-25 Tree Lighting 25

The other iconic element of any major Seattle event remain the infamous pile of Starbucks cups. They tower on top of trash cans for miles around as a beacon for the Ghosts of Coffee Consumed.

But don't worry. It's okay. We recycle, tool.

2011-11-25 Tree Lighting 42

Cell phones and Starbucks are not the only Holiday traditions we have in Seattle.  The season would be nothing without annual protesters.  Elements of our city were objecting to consumers and corporate dominance long before Occupy Wall Street made is cool.

2011-11-25 Tree Lighting 02

Overall it was a fun evening and a swell day. It was a great way to green-light the rest of the Christmas season.

2011-11-25 Tree Lighting 22

You can see a few more pictures of the event here.


RIP, Mr. Quigley

At our Junior/Senior Banquet the year I graduated from college, Brent Northup, our Carroll College Forensics coach (Go, Talking Saints!) was one of the speakers. He said that after graduation, we would pick up the alumni newsletter each quarter to find out who died. It was one of those moments that was equal parts morbid and terribly funny.

I thought back on comment last week when I opened the email from my High School’s alumni office and learned that my HS Forensics coach, Andrew Quigley, had just died.

It was quite a surprise because I can’t imagine Mr. Quigley was more than 10 years older than I. And, yes, nearly 25 years later, I still think of him at Mr. Quigley, and I do most adults I met prior to turning 18. But that’s not the point I’m making here.

I remember Mr. Quigley as a smart, nice, and patient guy. He had to be to put up with our team.

He started teaching at our school in 1987 when I was a Junior. That first year, he brought back the Archbishop Molloy Speech and Debate team after a multi-year hiatus. I don’t know why he decided to do that; it never occurred to me to ask. But that decision had a huge impact on my life.

Have you ever stopped to think about how the decisions that other people make for their own reasons can completely change the direction of your life?

I joined the team, and meet some great people. I met new people from my school and from neighboring schools we competed with in the Brooklyn Queens Catholic Forensics League and beyond.

That team is the reason I spent 2 weeks in 1988 at the Baylor University Speech and Debate camp in Waco, TX. I’d spend my entire life in NY up to that point, and on that trip I met people from entirely different cultures – the south and Colorado.

I learned to dramatically read poetry and prose. I learned to support and oppose a positions from both sides and to depersonalize conflict. I learned to process and dissect arguments. And I learned to think quickly.

We had a lot of fun at tournaments, even when we had to pile way too many people into one car to get there. We were a team and we had the team jackets to prove it.

And Mr. Quigley’s decision to start that team led me to one of the most important and best decisions in my life. That was the decision to go to college in a place many of classmates thought was imaginary – Helena, MT. I learned about and attended the school because of the Forensics team.

The skills I use in my job are the ones I learned on that college Speech and Debate team. The stuff I learned in class has less impact day-to-day.

Most of the people I’m still in regular touch with from High School are from the Forensics world. Most of my friends from College are also from the speech team. And the speech team is the reason I know everyone else that met there. I can’t imagine what path my career and social life post-college might have taken had I not gone down this path. And since things have turned out pretty well, I’m not sure I’d want to imagine it.

I guess there are a couple of key take aways from all this:

  • It's cliché, but teachers have a huge impact on the direction of our lives. I wonder if Mr. Quigley had any clue as to the path he set me on.
  • Speech and Debate (Forensics) is a fantastic activity for kids to pursue. The logical, social, communications and team work skills they can learn are invaluable in the future.

RIP, Mr. Quigley. And thanks from bringing that team to life.


Movie Review 21: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

Okay, so this not going to be a lengthy review because:
  1. It's been a few weeks since I saw the movie
  2. You've likely already made your decision about whether or not to see the movie

I'll also touch on a couple spoilers so beware of that.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is a fitting ending to the 8 movie series.  It also does a nice job of explaining the wand-swap and accidental horcrux plot twists that are key to the story. It's a little clearer than in the book.

The movie has an intense pace. The viewer never really has a chance to get bored. It moves from one intense scene to another quickly. Some are emotionally intense; others are action-packed.  I enjoyed the pacing, but it is tiring, and others may not appreciate that.

Most of the main characters get their moments in the film. Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Mrs. Weasley, Neville, Luna, and more all get their chance to shine.  One of my favorite moments is when McGonagall takes her place in running Hogwarts, and leads the defense. The moment she calls down the statues to battle is pretty awesome.

The scale and design of the battles is fantastic. There is a sense of danger, and there is plenty of tension through the long night and into to following gray morning. And the loss of friends and allies is keenly felt.

Here is one of the points I am a little disappointed in.  This is not just a criticism of the film, but the book as well. Tonks, Lupin, and Fred don't get much of a death scene. I would like to have seen them struggling valiantly against the enemies before finally falling, but that doesn't quite happen. We don't really get to see it. In some respects I feel cheated by that.

And maybe that's Rowling's point. Death isn't glorious or something to be celebrated. In battle people die. Perhaps giving them their big death scenes would undermine the idea of the darkness of their death. It may be that she didn't want to glorify death in battle.  I can appreciate that choice, even though I wanted to see more.

There's another choice Rowling made that I feel is a lost opportunity.  The point of the Tri-Wizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was to unite the Wizarding schools against the coming threat of Voldemort.  In the final movie though, the only representative from there is Fleur Delacour Weasly, and that's only because of her marriage.  In the epic battle, where was the Beauxbatons carriage or Durmstrang ship coming to aid or attack Hogwarts?  Failing to bring the schools back when it was really necessary is a missed opportunity. Or perhaps it could have been made clear that the schools had already been overrun by dark wizards leaving Howarts alone.  It could have really added something in either tone or action.

Those concerns don't take away from my enjoyment of the movie.  It's well worth seeing if you are a fan of the franchise.  If you haven't seen the other films, I wouldn't jump in here; go back to at least Part I. It's best if you go all the way back to the beginning, but I you'd rather not go back that far, at least go back to the Order of the Phoenix.


Pawn Stars and business lessons

Have you seen Pawn Stars?  It's basically a white-trash Antiques Road Show, but is oddly fascinating.

It's a reality show about a pawn shop in Las Vegas.  The folks on the show primarily come into the store to sell their items rather than pawn them. People sell family heirlooms, garage sale finds, and assorted things they have lying around the house.

There are reasons to watch it beyond the normal reality show train wreck -- the business lessons.  There are key things to learn about negotiation.

Don't name your price first.

When Rick buys anything from the customer, he always starts the negotiation by saying, "How much to do you want for it?" The customer names his price, and then Rick proceeds to talk them down.  Even if it was a price Rick was prepared to pay, he uses that as the benchmark to talk them down. The customer is never going to get the price they name.

Know the value of your item.  

Many times Rick has to bring in an expert to appraise and item because he's not familiar with it.  In some of those cases, the customer has an idea of the value, but is often wrong.  The only expert involved is the one Rick brings in.  Sometimes they're both surprised by the response.  Other times Rick might not even need and expert, but the customer has no idea what he even wants for the item.  Throughout most of the exchanges, the customer is at a disadvantage, and Rick controls the negotiation.  If you don't know they value of your item, there's no way you can be sure your're getting a good deal.

Be prepared to walk away.

Most of the time customers aren't in a position to say no.  Rick will often say no to a customer if he doesn't think he can sell an item.  Many of the customers are not willing to walkaway with  nothing. They will take as little at 10% of what they wanted sometimes.  If you can't walk away, you can't get a good deal.

Understand what your negotiating partner wants.

Rick almost always understands what his customers really need. They either need to quickly get money or they need to get stuff out of their house. His customers don't always understand Rick's needs.  Rick will tell customer what he claims he needs.  He needs to buy the item, at a low enough price to resell it. Based on the prices he cites, he expects to make 75% to 100% markup on the items he buys. And he expects items will often take a while to sell.  Customers are surprised at this, and they are not prepared to negotiate accordingly.  Whether or not that's a reasonable margin  may be a point to argue, but if the customer doesn't understand that, they are not as prepared.

There's a lot to learn about negotiating in this show. You can also learn some interesting things about the trinkets people bring in to sell.  And, of course, it's just plain good entertainment.

Are you a fan of the show? What lessons do you think viewers can learn from it?


Data Motivates

Wired's cover story this month is about feedback loops. The open the story by talking about how those trailers you sometimes see parked on the side of the road that tell you your speed are one of the most effective ways to actually get drivers to slow down.

In essence, people make changes to their behavior when they have more information about it.  The mind gets into ruts, and data provides the outside perspective that allows us to make the small changes we need to make to improve our lives.  I may be mangling the thesis a bit since it has been a couple weeks since I read the article, but it is worth checking out in full.

This is one of my favorite passages:

The true power of feedback loops is not to control people but to give them control. It’s like the difference between a speed trap and a speed feedback sign—one is a game of gotcha, the other is a gentle reminder of the rules of the road. The ideal feedback loop gives us an emotional connection to a rational goal.

And today, their promise couldn’t be greater. The intransigence of human behavior has emerged as the root of most of the world’s biggest challenges. [emphasis added] Witness the rise in obesity, the persistence of smoking, the soaring number of people who have one or more chronic diseases. Consider our problems with carbon emissions, where managing personal energy consumption could be the difference between a climate under control and one beyond help. And feedback loops aren’t just about solving problems. They could create opportunities. Feedback loops can improve how companies motivate and empower their employees, allowing workers to monitor their own productivity and set their own schedules. They could lead to lower consumption of precious resources and more productive use of what we do consume. They could allow people to set and achieve better-defined, more ambitious goals and curb destructive behaviors, replacing them with positive actions. Used in organizations or communities, they can help groups work together to take on more daunting challenges. In short, the feedback loop is an age-old strategy revitalized by state-of-the-art technology. As such, it is perhaps the most promising tool for behavioral change to have come along in decades.


I've talked about components of feedback loops before, but not directly.  Most recently, I talked about the Fitbit.  A while ago, I wrote about the Wii Fit.  These are all tools that can help with weight loss by providing that data I need to make better decisions.  In the case of the Fitbit, it's shown I don't walk as much as I thought I did. In the case of the Wii Fit, the fact that it gave me scores at a minute level allowed me to make minor adjustments.

These benchmarks can provide a small, frequent, daily update of what I do.  To change the big things, I don't have to change the big thing.  It's about changing those little things.  Do enough of the little thing consistently well, and that results in the big change.

These other items provide the feedback necessary for the loop discussed in the article.

As sensors and mobile technology get smaller and ubiquitous, I wonder what kind of inputs to the feedback loop I'll be seeing in the future.

How do feedback loops and personal data impact your life?


Movie Review 20: Mr. Popper's Penguins

It would be hard to find a movie more different from Norwegian Wood than Mr. Popper's Penguins.

In this Jim Carey, family friendly movie, Carey plays a real estate developer (said in my best movie preview voice) who learns an important less about being human from a flock of silly birds.

Mr. Popper's Penguins

The movie is good for what it is. I had fun watching it.  Don't go to it expecting fine cinema; go to it expecting to see some fun hijinks, featuring the adventures of Captain, Stinky, Loudy, Bitey, Lovey, and Nimrod. They are the 6 adorable CG penguins that are tailor made of merchandising.

There are very few surprises in the movie; it's fairly cliched.  It starts wacky, becomes touching, moves to sad and tragic, and finally becomes happy and redeeming. There are some scary moments, and some really sad moments, but it's pretty easy to see what's coming next.

The CG is pretty good.  The penguins look realistic enough doing things that only vaguely penguin-related; it's not the graphics that give them away as fake birds.  If you can suspend disbelief over the penguins actions, then the computer effects will cause no problem.

If you like anthropomorphising penguins and want a cute, fun movie, Mr. Poppers Penguins is worth the hour and a half.  It has things for kids and things for adults.  Know what you're in for and enjoy the movie.


New Toy: The FitBit

A couple weeks ago I was in the San Francisco airport waiting for a flight to San Diego.  Then I stumbled across a machine of pure evil -- designed to suck more money from my pockets than the tightest slot machine in all of Nevada.  It was a Best Buy vending machine.

Have you seen these things? They are large vending machines that sell everything from $20 headphones to $300 cameras.  You simply pop in your credit card and watch as the cool looking machine grabs your new shiny thing and then presents it to you.  You want to spend more money just so this thing will keep bringing you electronics. Sure, it doesn't get as much traffic as the candy machine around the corner, but that machine isn't charging you $375 for a snickers bar, either.  

Of course the bright-shiny drew me in.  I scanned the shelves and then I saw the Fit Bit. I've thought about getting one of these for awhile.  I believe I first learned about it as Jason Calacanis extolled its praises during an episode of This Week in Tech.

The Fitbit is a fancy pedometer that ties in to a significant web presence.  It's very small and clips to my waist band as I walk through my day.  When I stop to recharge it, it uploads my data to the web.  It also comes with a wrist band so you can wear it at night.  Turn on sleep mode and it will track how long and how well you sleep.

It's incredibly dorky, quite a bit over-priced, and still pretty awesome.

I've learned a few things since I got it:
  • I rarely walk 10,000 steps a day like I should
  • I walk even less than I thought in a trade show booth.
  • I have very high-quality sleep on those rare occasions when I actually do sleep.

As I pretend to work on getting into better shape, the Fitbit gives my one of the most important things to drive towards success. It gives me data.  It gives me number.  It helps me be aware of what I am actually doing (or not doing) so that I can take action as appropriate. And once again, Data sames the day.

In the future I hope to do better at hitting 10,000 steps a day. And hopefully many of those will be steps away from the electronics vending machine.  Vending machines for electronics goods will only succeed in pushing my retirement age back to 132. Damn shiny, awesome things.


Movie Review 19: Norwegian Wood

It will come as no surprise to my long time readers that Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors. I've reviewed several of his books here over the last several years, including:

When people ask me which Murakami book they should read first, I always suggest Norwegian Wood. It is the most accessible of his novels. It has a reasonably straight forward plot, and the reader sort of know what happens at the end.

It's also strange and dark enough to give the reader an introduction to Murakami, but the plot is not so weird as to scare off the novice.  Plus it still has the beautiful language that is a mainstay of Murakami's work. And it's the only one that lends itself to a movie adaptation.

Last weekend (2011-06-11) the GF and I were lucky enough to catch the US premiere of Tran Ahn Hung's adaptation of Norwegian Wood, part of the SIFF. The UK website is here. The Japanese website is here.

It's a very good movie that does an effective job of capturing the tone of the book.  That means it's a dark, depressing story featuring characters with complex relationships and personal issues.  Since it's been several years since I read the book (it was before I even started this blog) I'd forgotten how the story ended.

The movie is in Japanese with English subtitles.  I was a little concerned about that because the magic of a Murakami novel is in the language and flow of the words.  Would subtitles fail to capture that essence or be too overwhelming? I needn't have worried. The Director opted to minimize the dialog in the film, and communicate Murakami's vision with the visuals.  There's relatively little exposition in the film and it works well.

The scenes that make up the film are snapshots of moments in the characters' lives rather than a continual or even flow from one to another. The director is giving the audience a lot of credit for following the story.  It moves forward in sections, and relies on the viewers to fill in the blanks.  Scenes jump, rather than transition, and it works well in this film.

Also striking is how the director used music. In most American films, it seems there is always music in the background, reinforcing the action and further building the tone.  In Norwegian Wood, the director takes the opposite approach.  He minimizes the music and let's a silent background or one of relevant environmental noise carry the scene. The audience hears almost as much water in the movie as it does music -- water in the form of crashing waves, rain pouring down, babbling streams, or bathroom vanities.

In some respects minimizing the music seems a little odd, since one of the selling points of the film is that the soundtrack was created by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.  I'm not sure if this is common in foreign films, but it was certainly interesting to see and not hear, well, here.

The book and the film take place against the backdrop of student protests in Tokyo in the 60s.  While the protests do make their appearance in the film, I don't get the sense that they really needed to be here. Their influence on the main character is more pronounced in the book, but in the film, they almost feel irrelevant. The story feels like it could have taken place in 1985 as easily as it did in 1967. Placing the film in the 60s gave the director the opportunity to costume the actors in period appropriate garb, and to not use cell phones, but didn't feel like it impacted the core of the movie.

Those familiar with the book, may be wondering about the main character's roommate, whom he refers to as the Stormtrooper because of his intense, eccentric ways. He had a couple of appearances in the movie, but not many. It's too bad, because when he does appear, he's really funny. The flag raising ceremonies that also are a feature of the book are mostly left out, too.

It's too bad because those characters, and the deeper discussion of the protests help to reinforce the narrator's own sense of alienation and make it easier for the reader to go on the journey he pursues.  At the same, time, though, it could be that much of that material is better suited for the internal monologue of a book than for the more visual movie. After all, it's not those scenes that make a difference in the book; it's how the narrator reacts to them and feels about them. I can't really fault the film for that, but if you are looking for more of those aspects in the film, you may be disappointed.

The writers do a good job with the lost and generally damaged Naoko. Rinko Kikuchi plays the role well. She plays the delicate and at times dramatic character in a restrained way.  Kiko Mizuhara captures the confidence of Midori, but the script seems to cheat her a bit.  The character lacks the depth of Naoko in the film and as a result, it's more challenging to relate to the tension Ken'ichi Matsuyama's Toru Watanabe feels as he tries to navigate his and the two women's feelings.  Matsuyama himself plays Watanabe as confused and struggling to do what's right as he feels alone no matter what he does.  He seems to do an effective job with the role.

If you are not familiar with the story, know that it is not a happy one.  It's dark and strange. It explores the issues of alienation, grief, regret, depression, and suicide. There are extensive, frank discussions of sexuality.

That said, it is a very good movie.  It's reasonably faithful to the book and is and interesting alternative to the style I've come to expect from US movies. It's is beautifully shot, well acted, and a joy to listen to. It had treats for the eyes, the ears, the brain, and the heart.

But perhaps it's not the best choice for a first date.


Tokyo Travels Part 23: Ometesando and Shibuya Redux

Note:  This is the latest in a series of posts about a trip The GF and I took to Tokyo in May, 2010.  More posts are available here.

It’s tough to take in the sights and sounds of Tokyo in just one exposure -- even if that exposure is to just a small part of the city. One day we decided to head back to Harajuku and to Shibuya during the day on a quest -- a quest for squished pennies.
You may have seen these machines at tourist stops around the country. You put in two quarters and a penny, and then you turn a crank. As you turn the crank, the machine flattens and elongates a penny and imprints a design. You get your now fancy penny back, and the machine keeps the quarters. There are websites that track these machines and a surprisingly large and passionate web community surrounding them. It’s a fairly inexpensive souvenir; the GF has been collecting them for years.

Of course in Tokyo, they don’t use pennies. Or quarters for that matter. The machines come preloaded with copper blanks, so all you need to supply is 100 Yen. Armed with a list of locations, we set off to find the machines.

First we headed to Omotesando-dori in the Harajuku neighborhood to visit Kiddyland, a seven floor toy store known around the world. They have an entire floor dedicated to Peanuts merchandise and another dedicated to Sanrio. It’s a pretty amazing place. A couple months after we got back, they closed the store for remodelling and expect to reopen in 1.5 years. The idea of a store planning to close for a year and half and then reopen is something I have trouble wrapping my head around.


The Omotesando Hills shopping center is across the street from Kiddyland. It’s a high-end mall, surrounded by dozens of high-end, stand-alone retailers. We wandered the narrow streets off the main road and peeked in the windows. We walked through the Tumi store and fortunately did not buy anything. I liked the location of the Tumi store, though. It was just off the main strip on a quieter street.

The wandering itself wasn’t all that pleasant. We were there in mid-May and it was warming up. It was humid. And then the humidity hit 100% and it started to drizzle. So now we were damp and warm and starting to feel a little moldy.

Our next quest was to find the Marimekko store. They don’t have a squished penny machine, but they do have some cool designs (or so I’m told). The GF is a big fan of this Finnish brand and they have stores all over the world.

The challenge was finding this location. This was the only major navigation challenge the two of us encountered on the trip (I did get myself temporarily misplaced in Ebisu, but that’s another story). Google maps wasn’t much help, and neither was the Marimekko site. It listed the address, but the map function didn’t work. And and as I understand it, many Tokyo denizens have trouble decoding local address, so I had little-to-no-chance. I led the GF up and down roads and across boulevards in what I guessed was the appropriate direction. I was usually wrong. I finally found a few directions in an article about the opening that were published a couple years earlier. 
Here's the location, in case you're looking for it:

View Harajuku And Shibuya By Day in a larger map

We got there, walked around a bit, and were distinctly underwhelmed. It mostly had stuff the GF had already seen online and elsewhere. I’m sure we would have been more pleased if it hadn’t taken so much work on our part to find it. I can’t fault them for that; that’s just one of the risks inherent in travel.

We had planned to find a nice ramen place for lunch and headed into the Omotedano Hills Mall.

Ahhhhhhhh. Air conditioning.

When we got there, we decided it was bit too warm for Ramen, and opted for Gelato instead. That turned out to be an excellent choice.

Sufficiently chilled and sugared up, we headed out on the next quest -- the squished penny machines at the Disney store in Shibuya.

We headed down Meiji-Dori. Here is the map of the day’s wanderings (including the train ride from the hotel).

We found the Disney store with no problem and the people couldn’t have been nicer. The first penny machine was right inside the door, and as soon as one of the reps saw us using it, she immediately pointed out the other machine they had, too. She was also more than happy to make change for us. And then we had one of those encounters we would have throughout the week.

She asked where we were from.

“Seattle,” I said.

“Ahh,” she said. “Ichiro”


We wandered more though the streets, visited Tower Records, crossed the street at the Shibuya, and had coffee at the safest and perhaps busiest Starbucks in the world.

This visit to a Starbucks had the distinction of being the most expensive one I’ve had. It’s that combination of Starbucks expensive coffee and Tokyo’s expensive prices.

Okay, that’s not it. Sure I had a Matcha Latte and the GF had an Iced Latte, but what probably put it over the top was the snacks. And the snacks for later. Okay, and maybe the souvenir mugs. Afterall, we needed our toys.

Afterwards, we headed back out to the muggy streets, turned a corner passed a significantly strong and yet limited zone of “fragrant” storm related air as people walked past. We continued to be amazed by the sights and sounds, and after 25 feet, no longer the smells as we plied the narrow streets. After almost succumbing to the allure of the Outback Steakhouse (we resisted) we headed back to the train station to see Hachiko.

2010-05-17 Shibuya (70).DNG

Back at the hotel, and back in the airconditioning (Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh) we caught some rest and began to record the day’s adventures.


Municipal Wi-Fi is a bad idea

Every now and then a city will announce plans to provide free Internet access points around the city, and there will often be praise from the hi-tech community.  Or a state will move to ban such initiatives and heaps of scorn will be heaved on top of them and the local cable and DSL provides.  That's a mistake.

While I realize folk love to hate their cable companies (often with good reason) and the woeful state of broadband in this country, having the cities provide the access is worse idea.

Once municipal broadband is wide spread and available at no additionl cost than the taxes people are already paying, then the rational, individual decision is to stop paying Comcast or someone else for Internet access.  With enough people doing that, residential broadband from private companies will eventually go away.

That may be fine, assuming the municipalities allow free and open Internet access, but I'm not convinced they will. There are many great things on the net, but there are many foul ones as well.  We already see debates in favor of blocking undesirable websites at libraries and schools.  Will a vocal minority really allow the city to make such content available in homes?

Obviously the first target will be block already illegal or obscene content. I can't imagine many city councils will oppose a determined group of citizens who want to prohibit the city from "supplying" child pornography.  You can already imagine the campaign ads.

So what's next? Should the city be in the business of sending regular pornography into homes? Can't children see it then? Is that how we want to use tax money?

Porn is an easy target for those who want to restrict access to content. And a city blocking such content from it's own service may not be in the business of censorship.  After all, it's not like their banning the content.  They're simply choosing not carry it on a municipal service.

So what's next?  In many places, it's probably hate speech.  Should the city be facilitating content that is racist or misogynistic?

There are extremes on both the right and left of our political landscape that would like to see certain content go away.

Many would argue that the city should block sites that enable violence -- perhaps content related to building explosives and fighting a government force.  But what about sites that promote non-violent political unrest?

At this point I think it's safe to say that no city would ban a legitimate new site's content from it's service.  But then who is determining  the legitimacy of a new site?  I think CNN and Fox would be safe from calls to ban it from the city's service, but what about Al Jazeera?

In the recent uprisings in the middle east, one of the first things dictators try to do it cut off 'net access for the people. Can we count on local governments there to not do that if pressed?

The Internet is a powerful tool because of both the good stuff and bad stuff that's on it.  And I trust the users of the Internet, and, yes, many of the private party ISPs out there, to deliver a free 'net experience much more than I trust a city council trying to stand up to a vocal group of citizens barking their vocal call to, "Think of the children!"


Eddie Rabbit meets Anime

My friend Trina posted this video on Facebook. It's anime girls dancing to Eddie Rabbit's "I Love a Rainy Night."  It makes a lot more sense that you would think.

The first 20 seconds or so is a bit jumpy but then it smooths out. Link directly to the video: http://youtu.be/qvE892xEDn0


Shatner-Palooza: Searching for Major Tom

While everyone can surely agree that "Has Been" by William Shatner (earlier comments here, here, and here) is one of the best albums of the 21st Century (oh, calm down, I said one of the best), many have asked what he can do to follow that up.  Well, the answer is he can go find Major Tom.

Major Tom was a great song, and more recently represented a poor marketing decision by Lincoln. But it does have a certain melodramatic element that lends itself to Shatnerness.

Shatner's new album is due out later this year and will feature covers of popular space related ( or quasi-space-related) songs.  Among the songs he plans to cover are:

  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Iron Man
  • Walking on the Moon
  • Major Tom


of course...

the one song that started it all...

and made us love and hate the man at the same time...

bringing silliness and awesomeness to its epic confluecne


You can see the full track list here and read more about it here.

Thanks for the link, Britt!


Obvious Warnings aren't new

We tend to think that obvious warnings (like this one) are a product of our modern litigious society, and that those lawsuits can be traced all the way back to Judge Wapner's People's Court with Doug Llewelyn's admission of "Don't take the law into your own hands; you take them to court."

But silly warning have been around for much longer, as this sign (ostensibly for children) from a 1910 Seattle Cable Car indicates:

2011-04-13 MOHAI (19).DNG


A contained Tulip Festival

The weather was not kind to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival this year.  The chilly spring and non-stop drizzle delayed the tulip blooms quite a bit. Whereas during many years you could drive up there in the mid-April and see acres and acres of brilliant color that looked like you could set sail on and float across a sea of red, this year, it wasn’t quite to be.

When my Mother and I took the drive up there one afternoon, there was plenty of green, and the occasional spot of yellow as the Daffodils made their last stand, the tulip blooms remained scarce.
2011-04-15 Tulips (32).DNG

Fortunately, we still got to experience the reds and purples of the Roozengaarde display gardens. The contained and disciplined gardens showcase a variety of blooms and it was a enough of a tulip fix for the year.
I shot these images using the same macro lens I brought to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show.
This is just a sampling of the pictures from that day.  You can find more of my pictures from that day here, on my Flickr page.

2011-04-15 Tulips (1).DNG

Of course it was drizzling that day, which made walking in the nature more complicated, but it did do some interesting things to the flowers. The water droplets clung to the tulips as though they feared being soaked up by the ground.

2011-04-15 Tulips (7).DNG
2011-04-15 Tulips (15).DNG

They also did something that’s I’d only every seen on CSI. They captured the reflection of neighboring plants, the sky, and me. Granted, it was more of a silhouette and a bit distorted. It would never result in my conviction for anything, but it was still quite cool. 

I’m not sure how well that translates to the small image posted in Blogger; you may need to open the images to their full size on Flickr to check it out (Image 1, Image 2, Image 3).
2011-04-15 Tulips (28).DNG
2011-04-15 Tulips (29).DNG
2011-04-15 Tulips (45).DNG

In this shot, I used the flash.  It made the water droplets on the ruffled petal edges sparkle like an artificial, fiber optic Christmas tree. It’s a little challenging to see it in this post, but you can see a larger version here.
2011-04-15 Tulips (42).DNG

I was able to get very tight on this one.
2011-04-15 Tulips (19)

2011-04-15 Tulips (19).DNG

They did some creative stuff with the flowers, creating a blue river of Irises through the beds.

2011-04-15 Tulips (20).DNG

It wasn’t the wide swaths of color I’d seen in previous years, but it was still worth the visit.
You can find posts from previous visits to the Tulip Festival here:

Tulips and Hail

And you can find more pictures from various years here.


Tickling a Penguin

This may be the cutest thing I've seen all year. The Penguin is named Cookie.

Here's the short version that's been all over the 'net they past couple days:


Here's a slightly longer version that's higher quality on YouTube:



Not much has changed in 90 years

My Mother and I visited the Museum of History and Industry last week, and it is a fascinating look back at Seattle through the years.  They currently have an exhibit called Now and Then, which showcases historical photos of Seattle next to the an image shot from essentially the same location today.

They showed classic images of the opening of the first floating bridge across Lake Washington.  Years later, it would become part of I-90.

Floating Bridge opening

What struck me most was the placard next to it.

Floating Bridge opening

The first line reads:

After 20 years of debate about whether to build it, and where and how, the first bridge across Lake Washington took 18 months to complete.

Twenty years.

Twenty years to make that simple decision.

The most frustrating thing about Seattle and probably what will keep Seattle from ever achieving its potential is its inability to make a decision and do anything in a timely manner. The Seattle characteristic that drove the city to discuss this bridge for 20 years in the past is the same reason why we don't have a significant rail system today. It's why we have 3 yes votes before having a no vote and scrapping the monorail.  It's why we're still arguing about how to get light rail to the east side and why we're still arguing about replacing our crumbling viaduct that was severely damaged in an earthquake 10 years ago.  The contracts are signed and we still may have another vote on it.

I guess it's reassuring to know that this is not a new phenomenon.  Seattle has never been able to make up it's mind about infrastructure in anything resembling a sensible time frame.

I guess this also means it's never going to get any better.


Dinner and a Soda

So on Thursday I turned 27 for the 14th time (everyone else is telling me that is actually 40,but I refuse to believe it).

Here are some random observations about the concept and the day.

  • Dinner at Sullivan's in Seattle?  Definitely a good choice. Located at the former site of the Union Square Grill, it's easy to walk to from my apartment. And they have plenty of meat, which is awesome.
  • Apparently you can get cases of soda from Jones with custom labels. The Shoebox Chef created a batch for me with what had been one of my sillier Facebook profile pictures. It's quite good.
  • My Mother is in town, and that's always fun.  It gives me an excuse to some of the remaining tourist things in the area, and it's always great to see her. Visiting MOHAI was particularly interesting especially when this article in the Seattle Times followed that visit.
  • The age itself?  Yeah. That's a little weird.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.  There comes a point when you start to realize you are no longer preparing for your adult life, but actually living it.  I can see that in the distance.
  • I'm kind of stunned by the number of birthday greetings I got on Facebook this year.  It's awesome, and quite different from years passed.  It's great hearing from the awesome folks I've known over the years, and it's fascinating how this appears to represent a larger cultural shift...but now is not the time to drift into an analysis of the impacts of social media.
  • Perhaps next year it will be time to turn 28. We'll see what happens next spring.

It's been a great 26+14 years so far, and I am grateful for all the awesome people who have been a part of that and contributed in large part and small to making me the person I am today.

Now, let's see what the next 160 years have to bring...


Hurricane Ridge

After a visit to the Olympic Game Farm, The GF and I headed into Olympic National Park to visit Hurricane Ridge.  The trip up there is a beautiful, windy drive through the trees.

This video shows part of the drive.  The GF just held the camera up to the windshield.  We are lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country.

You can also see the video on Youtube here.

One the drive, we pulled off at a scenic turnout.  The overlook was at Ancient Lake Morse.

Thousans of years ago, a great ice sheet from Canada flowed south through the Puget Sound and west through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The ice shee abutted alpine glaciers flowing from the Olympic Mountains. As warming occurred, meltwater from mountain glaciers was dammed by the ice sheet, forming ancient Lake Morse. Continued warming caused the ice sheet to withdraw, draining the lake. Morse creek now parallels the road. In ancient times it flowed over a ridge of soft sediments connecting Blue and Round Mountains. When glaciers dammed the creek, it was diverted to a new path between Round Mountain and the present road, cutting through hard lava rocks. The resulting gorge is visible as you drive down the road or from the short trail at the Tunnels parking area.

The science is cool, but the scene is impressive.  I shot these pcitures with a 10mm - 17mm fish eye lens.  It was my best shot at capturing the land scape, but it's still a poor substitute for the real thing.

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (2)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (5)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (3)

I didn't expect this to be a great portrait lens, but I really like how this turned out.  I had the camera 3 feet from the GF's face, and she thought I was nuts (which puts her into a rather large group).  But I think it worked out.

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (19)

She shot some, as well.

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (14)

We continued up the road to the visitors center and gift shop.  The views were much more open there. And the crowds were much larger.  From here, we could see the glaciers in the mountains and the August snow in the park.

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (25)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (26)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (27)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (32)

From there we drove a short distance to the Hurricane Ridge trail head.  Then we began walking.  Uphill.  It took a little longer than I expected -- probably about an hour (maybe a little more).  It's 1.5 miles to the ridge, but we stopped a bunch of times to take pictures and to take in the scenery. While the guidebooks talked about cold weather in the middle of summer, we lucked out and had gorgeous weather the whole time.

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (104)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (110)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (46)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (70)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (100)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (94)

It was quite a walk, but the views up top made it all worthwhile.  Once we got up there. a deer walked right past us.  It was pretty amazing how close it was.

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (55)

When we turned around, we had fantastic views of the Strait on Juan de Fuca.  See that land across the water?  That's Canada.

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (71)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (48)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (59)

The GF had a lot of fun, too.

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (53)

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (62)

Eventually, it was time to head back.  We made sure to spend enough time up there to be sure the walk was worth it.

2010-08-28 Hurricane Ridge (92)

If you go, dress in layers.  We got lucky with how warm it was.  Also, be aware that the trail isn't wide.  And there are no gurad rails or hand holds.  And off to one side there are major dropoffs.  Bring water and snacks to stay fueld up.  And take your time. The views are worth it and your lungs will appreciate it, especially if you aren't acclimated to the 5700 foot elevation.  You can't count on cell phone service along the way, although I did manage to check in on foursquare at the top of the trail.

It was a fantastic, if tiring experience.

You can see more pictures here.