Avatar (2009). 162 minutes, Twentieth Century Fox. Written and Directed by James Cameron.

When I first went to college in 1980, I started out in Tech. I was going to major in Computer Science. But after a year learning hard-core assembly language programming, building functioning computer processor gates, and studying electrical engineering technique, I realized that what I really wanted to do was direct.

I wanted to direct movies, that is. And so at the beginning of my sophomore year, I switched to the School of Speech, and switched my major to Radio-TV-Film. I did this because although I am fascinated by computers and technology, I was fascinated because of the creative possibilities – not by the computer science in and of itself. And I wanted to learn the creative side a lot more than I wanted to learn the technology side. Luckily for me, that combination of skills sets turned out to be very savvy in the long run.

I switched to being a Film major because of one, overarching reason: I. Love. Movies.

And when I say “movies”, I mean “Hollywood narrative storytelling kind of movies”. I grew to appreciate and even seek out all kinds of film as my education expanded my viewpoint, but I never have lost my undying love for a pure, unabashed good ‘ol rip-roaring, entertaining Movie.

I like a good story with fleshed-out characters, in a film that is well-acted and has great visuals. And lately, that’s been getting harder and harder to find, especially if you also like science fiction / fantasy type films. It seems that every film in that genre (with a few notable exceptions like District 9) are just video games or toy advertisements rendered for the big screen.

Thank god for James Cameron.

Yesterday morning, I sat in a nearly-sold-out theater wearing a pair of surprisingly comfortable 3D glasses, and was transported away into another world. I got a feeling of rising joy as the story unfolded. It wasn’t a very original story, but it was told very well. And everything on screen was beautiful. And the acting was excellent.

For two hours and forty minutes, I wasn’t on Earth at all. I was gripping my armrests, muttering under my breath for the good guys to win, the bad guys to fail, and drinking it all in. I’m pretty sure I had a smile on my face the entire time, a smile of wonderment and pleasure.

I love a good movie. And Avatar is a very, very good movie.

I’m not going to say much about the way the movie was made, or how long it took, or how much it supposedly cost, or any of that stuff. If you’re interested, there are a bazillion articles about that aspect of the movie all over the net, including a ton of “making of” videos already out there. I’m just going to talk about the movie itself and the experience of watching it.

Avatar is the first real 3D movie I’ve seen in a theater (well, I saw the Michael Jackson Captain Eo short film at Disneyland several times, but I did say “first real 3D movie”). So right away, the experience of putting on the 3D glasses was different. And the film began, a point of view shot of flying over a canopy of trees…

It’s the year 2154. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-marine, now a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair due to injuries suffered while in the service. As he explains in a voiceover while he’s being awakened from a 6-year cryogenic sleep aboard a spaceship, broken spines can certainly be repaired – but it’s very expensive, and his VA benefits don’t cover that level of treatment.

So Jake took advantage of a very unique opportunity. See, Jake has – or had – an identical twin brother. And his twin brother was a scientist, working on a project concerning the planet Pandora. Pandora is a planet full of life, but unfortunately the atmosphere is poisonous to humans. So the scientists came up with the concept of “avatars” – hybrid human/alien bodies that humans link into and control.

Each of these avatar bodies is a unique DNA construct, and has to be custom-grown for each individual whose brain the body will be linked to. Jake’s brother was one of those individuals – until he died in an accident. So Jake is recruited to take his brother’s place, seeing as how they already have an avatar that matches his DNA, all ready to go.

Linking into the avatar allows Jake to inhabit a fully functioning body again. A body that is, in fact, stronger and tougher than his pre-injury body ever was. A body that looks exactly like one of the intelligent inhabitants of Pandora, the Na’Vi.

The scene where Jake first links up with his avatar is wonderful. Jake crawls into a coffin-like contraption, glowing optical fibers light up, and in the next second he wakes up in his new body. He’s 10 feet tall, blue, with feline eyes and ears that swivel around like a cat’s. He’s told to take it easy, but Jake can’t wait, and runs outside in his new body, just to enjoy the feeling of standing, running, rubbing his toes into the dirt.

The movie proper really begins at this point. Jake’s assignment, since he has no scientific training, is to act as an armed bodyguard for scientists (who are all also in avatar form) working on the planet. They all work for some company – a company who is trying to get the natives to move away from their current home – which, inconveniently for the company sits right on top of a huge deposit of a very rare mineral that the company wants to mine at almost any cost.

The scientists haven’t been having much diplomatic success, however. The Na’Vi immediately recognize the avatars as being “meat puppets”, or “dreamwalkers”. They are not fooled, and for the most part shun the avatars as being poor duplicates of “real people”. So, the company has paid a huge sum to host a entire Marine brigade, whose job it will be to forceably remove the Na’Vi.

His first day on the job, Jake is separated from the rest (in a fantastic sequenece involving some very nasty alien predatory animals), and has to spend the night out in the forest. During the night, he’s just about to meet his end at the hands of a large pack of dog-like creatures, when his life is saved by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), one of the natives.

To Neytiri, Jake is a baby, a moron who doesn’t even know how to live in the jungle. Nevertheless, she agrees to help him learn the ways of life here in the Pandoran jungle, and introduces him to her village, including her mother Moat (CCH Pounder) and father Eytukan (Wes Studi). As soon as he falls asleep that evening, he wakes back up in his real body. His teammates, especially Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) are thrilled to see him safe and sound.

Later that day, the scarred and very-obviously-evil Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, chewing the scenery for all it’s worth) makes a special deal with Jake: Gain the trust of the Na’Vi, and then get them to move. He’s got three months. If he fails to get them to move, then the Marines will swoop in and destroy their home out from under them. In return, the Colonel says, he’ll make sure that the company immediately pays to have Jake’s broken spine repaired. Not surprisingly, Jake agrees.

And so every day, he spends most of his time in the avatar body. Then a few mournful hours back in his own broken body, keeping a sad video log. But, as the months go by, Jakes feels less and less like a human, and more and more like a Na’Vi…

And that’s where I’ll stop the recap. I will say that if you’ve seen Dances with Wolves, you know a lot of the rest of the story already. Of course Jake falls in love with Neytiri, and of course he switches his allegiance completely to the Na’Vi. But, so do a number of the scientists… and that makes the company and the military very, very unhappy.

Avatar is two hours and forty minutes long, and I didn’t notice the time. I never even looked at my watch. My eyes stayed glued on screen the entire time. Not since Jurassic Park have I felt so convinced by what is, after all, a very large special effect.

Pandora and the Na’Vi are, simply put, breathtaking. The actors playing the parts inhabit their alien “avatars” completely, using a performance capture technique that is light-years better than anything I’ve ever seen before. The planet itself glows with life. Everything fits together perfectly.

The storyline helps quite a bit. To be sure, it’s not the most unique storyline, and it is very much lifted from other movies you’ve seen before. Paradoxically, however, this is part of what makes the film work so well. The environment of Pandora is so unique, so vibrant, so… wonderfully alien, that having a familiar and easy-to-grasp love story at its heart ties it all together.

The middle section of the film, where JakeSully (all one word, as the Na’Vi call him) learns about how to live on Pandora, tames a flying reptile as his steed, and falls in love with Neytiri, is astonishing. This section of the movie lasts almost an hour, but it never, ever drags.

The 3D works very well. For the first five or ten minutes, I “noticed” it. And then it just faded away into the experience. My eyes didn’t hurt, I didn’t get any kind of a headache, I just fell into Pandora and into the story that James Cameron was telling.

Avatar is, simply put, a great experience. This is Filmmaking at its finest. This is why I love the medium. This is the kind of movie that everyone involved in film dreams of making, and loves watching. This is one of those quintessential movies that is going to define things for a long time to come.

Titanic was a good film (yeah, I still feel that way, so sue me), but Avatar is a great film. If it’s playing in 3D anywhere near where you are, go see it. You will not be bored, and you will not regret seeing it. I am planning on seeing it again later this week myself.

And when you come out of the theater at the end, I bet you will never say the phrase “I see you” in the same way again.

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Little Brother

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2006). 384 pages, TOR Books.

I really enjoyed this book. If I were fifteen, I would love this book.

Little Brother is classified as a “Young Adult” or “Teen” novel. Amazon lists it as being for “Grades 10 and Up”. It’s even printed under publisher TOR’s “Teen” imprint. So why did I decide to read it?

One of my oldest friends (college buddy, former roommate, all around great guy), Jonathan Green, recently asked a bunch of us via Facebook to recommend appropriate science fiction for his 11-year-old son, Dash. I made the suggestions of A Wrinkle in Time and the Golden CompassHis Dark Materials series, among others. Several other people suggested Little Brother.

I’d heard of Little Brother, but hadn’t thought much of it, since it seemed so obviously aimed at teenagers. But since several of my fellow Galaxy Rangers (not the cartoon show – the Northwestern University Science Fiction club from the early 1980’s) had mentioned it, I figured I should check it out. And, it’s written by Cory Doctorow, whose short fiction I have always enjoyed – not to mention his excellent blog BoingBoing.net.

After a quick download to my Kindle DX, I started in on the book. And was transported back to high school…

Little Brother reminds me very much of the “juvenile” science fiction novels of the 1950s and 1960s. Robert Heinlein was the master of these, including Podkayne of Mars, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, Starship Troopers, and – my personal favorite – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. However, unlike Heinlein’s quite obviously right-wing themes, Little Brother is just as obviously left-wing. I remember sometimes reading Heinlein’s books as a teen, and thinking, “Man. Don’t they ever care how about how the rest of the (world / aliens / humanity / planet) is going to survive?” Little Brother has all the excitement and techno-friendliness of Heinlein, without the creepy Ayn Rand vibe.

Little Brother takes place in the near future. Marcus Yallow is a 17-year-old high school student in San Francisco. He’s a gamer, a technology geek, and a decent student. He and his friends like to spend their spare time building computers, programming new and interesting games, and generally enjoying themselves in the 21st century. Hackers, but without the criminal part, you know?

In order to play a geocaching game, Marcus and three of his friends ditch school early one afternoon. But just as they are about to find an important clue in the game they are playing… terrorists strike the city of San Francisco. The Bay Bridge is blown up in a massive explosion, and thousands of people are killed. Almost instantly, the government panics, sending in massive squads of troops to restore order to the city. In the confusion and paranoia after the attack, Marcus and his friends are swept up in a security raid, and are taken prisoner by the Department of Homeland Security.

The next few chapters are gritty and gripping, as Marcus – along with literally hundreds of others picked up in the raid – is imprisoned and tortured for nearly a week, before the DHS becomes moderately convinced that he is not one of the terrorists. So they let him go, with the assurance that if he breaths a word of his capture to anyone, even to his parents, they will pick him up and ship him off to a foreign location for torture.

And although Marcus is frightened enough to keep his capture secret, he’s angry enough to decide to fight back. Using his computer skills, his army of geek friends, and his fervent belief in the power of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, he begins an underground war against the DHS. He and his gang become “Little Brothers” and “Little Sisters” in the fight against “Big Brother”, the DHS.

I won’t lie and say the characterization in this novel is on point and well done, because it isn’t. Marcus is a relatively two-dimensional character, as is everyone else. The bad guys are Bad and the good guys are Good. The DHS as portrayed in this book is almost (but not quite) laughably evil. I almost (but not quite) felt that their actions were so extreme, so one-sided, that even the frightened population of a post-attack San Francisco would never have gone along with it.

But then I remember 2001, and 2002, and the Patriot Act, and the war in Iraq, and the Military Commissions Acts, and Gitmo, and the secret torture prisons of the CIA… and I realize that this novel’s villains are not so far-fetched at all. And each time I’d read, and think “Oh, now, come on!” … well, after a few seconds, I would change my mind and think, “Yeah, that actually could happen”.

This is a first-person novel, and sometimes the story gets bogged down in techno-jargon as Marcus goes off on a tangent, describing the technology he’s using or the cryptography technique he is employing. But, as in any good Young Adult novel, the slight sidetrack for a lesson pays off well, so I found myself actually looking forward to Marcus’ little digressions.

There is real danger in this novel, and there are times when reading it that my heart raced and I gripped the Kindle in both hands, reading faster to see how it was going to play out. Marcus is a true hero – near the end of the novel he is ready and willing to sacrifice everything, even his life, to protect the freedoms that are provided to us in the United States.

As I said at the beginning, I really enjoyed this novel. But then again… I’m a 47-year-old liberal-leaning technology geek. Of course I would like it. The question is, how does Little Brother rate as far as my friend Jonathan’s original question: Would it be good for his 11-year-old son?

I can’t completely answer that. Little Brother does have some mild, non-graphic descriptions of sex (the characters are high school students, after all), although I am pleased to report that the characters involved clearly make use of condoms. So even that is educational. The overall subject matter is “deep”. And it’s really just barely science fiction… everything described in Little Brother already exists (or could exist) today, for example.

I can say that if I had children, I would very much endorse them reading this book. It’s the specific age that I’m just not sure about. I read my first Stephen King novel (Carrie) when I was 12, and I absolutely loved it. My mother was smart enough to bring it home one night and said “You’ll love this, and I guess you’re old enough”. If I were 12 today, I would hope my mother might hand me a copy of Little Brother and say exactly the same thing.

It’s not exactly a secret that I was beyond horrified at the extremes the Bush administration went to in curbing our civil liberties during the first half of this decade. For a while during the 2002 to 2004 period, I seriously lived in fear that The Government was going to literally be in control of every facet of our lives – all in the name of “protecting” us from “terrorism”. I’ve said it over and over: Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda must have jumped for joy when our paranoid and frightened political leaders rolled over and gave up our hard-fought freedoms in just a few months.

During that time, I kept wondering, “Why isn’t anybody fighting back? Why aren’t young people taking to the streets in mobs?” But no one ever did. In Little Brother, the young people do fight back. And they do take to the streets. And in the end… well, I won’t give it away. Read the book. Or give it to a Young Adult and have them describe it to you later.

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Halloween Double Feature: Orphan and Frankenstein

Orphan (2009). 123 minutes, Warner Bros. Pictures. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Frankenstein (1931). 70 minutes, Universal Pictures. Directed by James Whale.

Last night was Halloween. Back in the days when we lived in Los Angeles, Frank and I would have either been at a party, or at the West Hollywood Halloween Parade. Or both. We would be in some sort of adult-apropriate costume, hanging around with other adults engaged in Halloween fun.

But now I live in suburban Miami-Fort Lauderdale, within a gated McMansion community, and the closest thing to a costumed Halloween parade is the little gathering in the cul-de-sac for the neighbor kids. Not exactly my idea of fun. So, after a couple of hours handing out candy to the trick-or-treaters, we retired to the theater room to watch a horror film. We figured we had to show the day some respect.

We decided to watch Orphan, a recent horror film about a family who adopts a nine-year-old girl. And it turns out the girl is Not What She Seems. The little girl, an orphan from Russia, appears to have it in for every member of the family except for Daddy. She also takes revenge on any schoolmates who make fun of her. The film is pretty much a modern take on The Bad Seed . Except with a very silly twist near the end.

I won’t spoil the twist. Even though, honestly, the film isn’t worth keeping a secret for. This is not exactly The Sixth Sense we’re talking about here. I actually figured out the surprise twist about half an hour before it was revealed. Sadly, after The Big Twist, the movie keeps going for about another half hour, getting sillier and sillier. I love a good gore fest / slasher film as much as the next guy, but come on. Give me some credit. The end ties things up in pretty much the same way as the Friday the 13th movies always did – which means I fully expect to see “Orphan 2” showing in theaters next summer, if not sooner.

The nature of the twist is such that, once revealed, I actually felt kind of icky realizing that an actual ten-year-old girl had to go through that performance. I had hoped that perhaps the actress was really a young-looking adult just playing a child, but I looked it up, and little Isabelle Fuhrman really was ten years old when this film was made. If you ever felt that Linda Blair was being pushed a bit too far in her performance in The Exorcist… then by all means do not see this movie.

Unfortunately, Orphan didn’t scare me in the slightest. It did gross me out in a few scenes, and I certainly felt a bit of stomach-churn after one or two scenes, but that’s it. The one thing that really stood out for me was the use of music. I don’t recall any horror film that pulls the “dun-dun-DUN!” trick as much as this one does. No kidding, almost every single door opening, draw slide, footstep, turning of the corner, you name it – every single visual transition in the entire movie is punctuated by a “Mickey Mouse”: a loud, shrieking, syncopated music cue that tries to fool you into thinking that every single second of this film is shocking.

Which it definitely isn’t.

The film left a bad taste in my mouth. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t scary, and it wasn’t so bad that it was “funny-bad”. It was just… not good. So, even though Frank fell asleep the second the movie was over, I decided that this Halloween I needed a double feature.

I saw that the original Universal Pictures version of Frankenstein was available in high-def on iTunes. Curious to see if an HD transfer of such an old film would look better than my DVD copy, I went ahead and rented it. I guess not many people were bogging down the internet on Halloween, because the film downloaded almost immediately, and I started watching.

As it turns out, the HD version appears no different at all from the DVD version I already had. I guess the film is so old, there just isn’t any more resolution to be gained… or maybe the iTunes folks were cheating me, and this was just a “fake” HD upgrade to justify the extra $1.00 in rental. But it was still the same film, and I watched the whole thing.

Other than being in the same “Horror” genre, the two films in my double feature could not have been more different. This is the original Frankenstein – the film version that started it all. This was Boris Karloff in his breakthrough role, as the square-headed, bolt-necked lumbering monster who tosses a little girl into a lake and grasps at sunbeams in the air.

I had forgotten the little introduction at the beginning of the film – in which a man in a suit steps out from behind a curtain, and warns the audience that this film will be shocking and horrifying, and if you can’t take it, you’d better leave the theater now. To a modern audience, it seems ridiculous. There’s all of about two drops of chocolate blood in the entire movie, not a single curse word, not a single hint of sex of any kind. I’m almost positive it would get a G rating if it came out today.

It is, of course, in glorious black and white. Frankenstein was made during the heyday of black and white filmmaking, and the sets and lighting make full use of it. It has a look that is impossible to duplicate these days, a theatrical quality that is mesmerizing at the same time it is nostalgic. This is a supremely visual movie. All of the horror here is visual: the angles on the monster, the reveals of his face for the first time as he turns around in a doorway, the closeups of the anguished faces of the characters.

Being made in 1931, it’s still one of the very early talking motion pictures. Sound technology did not yet allow for mixing music and voice together on a soundtrack, and so the only music heard is during the beginning and ending credits. Not a single music underscore appears anywhere else in the movie (Check out the 1933 King Kong for the first dynamic use of a full orchestral score intermixed with dialog).

And that’s what struck me as supremely different about Orphan and Frankenstein. These two movies are separated by almost eighty years. Orphan, a not very scary horror movie, lays on a thick soundtrack of dubbed music, auditory cues, and surround sound effects that try to make you scream and jump to what is, after all, just a ten-year-old little girl in a dress walking down a hallway. Frankenstein, also not very scary to jaded modern senses, accomplishes its shocks solely in the visual medium.

When I was a kid, the Universal horror pictures were “thrill-scary”. Of course I didn’t actually worry about the Frankenstein monster or the Wolfman or the Mummy or the Creature from the Black Lagoon coming to get me in the middle of the night. Well. Not most of the time, anyway. But they were – and are – thrilling to watch. And although Frankenstein isn’t the best of them (I’d vote for Bride of Frankenstein in that spot), it still holds up pretty well.

I expect to still be around in 2031, when Frankenstein will be 100 years old. I will be willing to bet that there will be a commemorative version re-issued then, maybe looking better than my current DVD if they can find a decent print to restore. And I bet it will still be somewhat thrilling, and still visually interesting, and still give new viewers a bit of a shiver.

So, if you’re looking from some chilling fun, forget Orphan and Saw 2 through 6 or whatever they’re up to now. Go back in time and watch horror films from a time when they weren’t really scary… but they sure as hell were a lot of fun.

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Heroic Measures

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment (2009). 208 pages, Pantheon.

This is an absolutely wonderful little book. And I mean that as a true and sincere compliment.

Sometimes with books, I get the feeling that an author is trying way too hard to tackle A Big Subject. Other times it feels like the book has been padded by an extra hundred (or sometimes even two or three hundred) pages to make it seem more “weighty”. Heroic Measures is little in both ways: It is a short novel (just 208 pages), and its subject matter could not be more prosaic: This is the story of an elderly couple and their elderly dog. Over one weekend. And the plot? They’re selling their condo.

Yes, that really is the main plot. Ruth and Alex, married for 45 years, are trying to sell their 5th-floor walkup apartment in New York City. Although they bought the place for $5,000 40 years ago, they have a real estate agent who says she can get them one million dollars for their place. And with that kind of money, they can afford to buy an apartment in a building with an elevator.

The novel starts on a Friday. Their agent is planning an open house on Saturday morning, and Alex and Ruth have to get their place ready for potential buyers. But, two terrible things happen: their elderly dachshund, Dorothy, suddenly can’t walk. As the couple frantically try to find a 24-hour emergency vet to treat their beloved dog, news of a possible terrorist attack ripples through the city. A tractor-trailer hauling gasoline has stopped in one of the city’s tunnels, and reports are coming in that there may be a bomb on the truck…

What follows is 48 hours of hectic turmoil in Alex and Ruth’s life. Will Dorothy survive back surgery? Will they be able to sell their condo while the city is in full-fledged panic mode? And what about the offer on their new place, whose owners demand an answer and a down payment by Sunday afternoon?

One of the charming – and poignant – aspects of this book is that periodically, there will be a short chapter from Dorothy’s perspective. Yes, from the point of view of the sickly dog. And these chapters are among the most tense moments in the novel. You’re pulling for Dottie, you want her to survive and get out of the hospital so badly. From her point of view, she’s been abandoned and she’s in pain. She comes up with her own theories as to what is going on, and she is determined to get back to “her people”.

Reading that back, I see I haven’t done this justice – I’m making it sound like it’s a silly story about a heroic dog, when that is not the case at all. Ciment writes Dottie’s point of view the way you’d imagine a dog would actually think, not in some sort of storybook or Disney fashion. It’s extremely gripping, so much so that when the action switches back to Alex and Ruth’s point of view, I wanted to cheat and skip ahead to find out what was going to happen to Dorothy!

I can’t tell you anything about the author, Jill Ciment, other than to tell you she is one hell of a great writer. She has taken a mundane plot and created a terrific, wonderful novel out of it. The characters are real people. The situations are heartfelt and true. And the plot is every bit as gripping as a bestseller from John Grisham or Dan Brown. It sounds crazy, but trust me – it’s true. She has a way with words and storytelling that I have not encountered in quite a while. Take this passage, where Ruth is looking wistfully out of her favorite window:

The rise of the sun is like the opening of a novel she’s read so many times that she can take pleasure in the details and nuances without having to race to the end to find out what happens.

Or this passage. Here, Alex, an acclaimed artist, is working on what he imagines may very well be his last great work: an illuminated manuscript taken from his and Ruth’s FBI files, created when they were peace protesters back in the 1950’s:

It will take in not only the manuscript page he is finishing, but all six hundred and ninety-nine pages still waiting to be illuminated, and his studio filled with a lifetime of work in the terrified city on the panicked island by the nervous continent.

If you love New York City, or any big city, you’ll love this book. If you love dogs, you’ll love this book. If you’ve ever had a tense weekend filled with possible life-changing challenges, you’ll love this book.

Frankly, if you simply like to read, you’ll love this book. Heroic Measures is a truly heroic slice of life, and you should not miss it. This is a book you will read with pleasure, and one you’ll think about with satisfaction long after you’ve finished it.

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The Rickety Bridge: A Health Care Post

I haven’t written much in a political vein in a long time. In fact, looking at the dates on this blog, I see that I haven’t posted anything, period, in quite a while.

I blame the length between posts on my current job. Now that I am a partner in my own company (shameless plug: check out Clever Giraffe if you haven’t already), I’m busy all the time. And not just busy, but busy in a creative sense. All day long I write scripts, draw storyboards, edit video, create graphics, and compose special effects and composites. After a full day – quite long days, I might add – I just don’t have the energy or interest to write at night like I used to.

And as for politics, well, since Barack Obama took the oath of office, I really haven’t had anything of significance to say. Like everyone, I’m annoyed with the economy, but there is nothing to be done about that except wait it out. I was appalled at the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler – I thought they should simply have been allowed to go bankrupt and let that be the end of it – but it certainly wasn’t that big of an issue one way or the other to me.

And of course, I very much wish Obama and the current Democrats would go all out in restoring our essential liberties – close Guantanamo, prosecute the Bush Administration traitors, restore the proper balance between the three government branches, etc. – but sadly, I realize that that is just never going to happen. We’re not Japan or Germany – our citizens will never admit fault, and there will never be any trials or justice for the evil men who destroyed our country over the last eight years. In that regard, I kind of feel like the murdered girl in The Lovely Bones: better for everyone to recover and move on than to fixate on justice. I neither forgive nor forget, but I do accept it for right now.

But this health care debate. I’ve been watching, reading, and listening to this whole thing with astonishment. I assumed that passing a solid health care bill would be an absolute no brainer. We’re in the middle of The Great Recession. More people are without health insurance than ever before. Health care costs are higher than ever before. And, as happened with our financial system, we have learned the hard way that ignoring a problem does not make it go away.

I also have a personal oar to row in this boat as well. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve had to pay for my own health insurance. My company, at two full-time employees plus a few freelancers, is far too small to get coverage from any insurance company. There is literally no way to do it, not at any cost. So our only option is to pay for it as individuals. And for me, personally, that’s $345 a month. Three hundred and forty five dollars a month. Blue Cross / Blue Shield. And the only way I even qualify for that “low rate” is via the COBRA plan, since I had the same insurance company at my last job. So, after 18 months, that rate will go up significantly. And I know damn well that should anything major happen to me – anything at all – that coverage will be cancelled in a split second.

To me, that’s pretty damn unfair. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’m not overweight. I’m 47 years old, and apart from the regular creaks and sighs of middle age, I am in pretty good health. I should not have to worry every single day about how expensive basic health insurance is, and whether or not I can even keep it at all.

I figured a lot of people are like me. So, when Obama said he was going to champion passing a bill that would attempt to rein in health care costs, guarantee that anyone and everyone could get health insurance, forbid health insurance companies from canceling willy-nilly, and provide a public health insurance program (aka “Medicare for everybody”), I thought, “Well, this will pass quickly and easily”.

How wrong I was.

I’ve listened to more misleading craziness in the past two months that in eight years of Bush nonsense. And every single bit of it is either pure fiction – I’m talking literally made up out of thin air, total and absolute fiction – or else is based on such shocking ignorance that even Cynical Me finds it hard to believe.

I mean, come on. “Death Panels“? Jeez, people, you can read the bill yourself. There’s nothing in there that even remotely, even vaguely, even hints at such a thing. Where did that come from? You can say over and over again “There is no such thing as death panels, there never was, and there never will be”, and yet people still keep insisting they exist, that Obama “wants to kill Grandma”. It’s as if legislation is being judged using the same standards as people’s belief in Bigfoot or UFO abductions.

Then there’s the “Government can’t run anything” fable. Right. So, let’s see, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, NASA, FBI, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the entire Civil Service… I guess they’re all terribly run and about to collapse at any moment? Because each and every one of those is a government service. And each and every one of those is budgeted and legislated by that exact same Congress and that exact same President.

I grew up in the military. I had government-run health care for my whole life, up until I was 21 years old. And I was in very good health, and so were my parents and brother and sister. In fact, my parents have had government health care for their entire adult lives, up to and including now, and I’ve never heard them complain about it once. Their health care rates never go up. They never get denied coverage. They never have to worry if they’ll have health insurance next month.

My favorite is the meme about “socialism”. Does anyone even own a dictionary any more? The word “socialism” means: the government owns the means of production. Now, the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler? That truly is socialism, since it was the government buying and running a physical means of production. Government regulated or government run health care? Uh, sorry, but no. That’s called a service, folks. A service. It’s even right in the Constitution: “Provide for the general welfare.” Article 1, Section 8.

Every time I hear people say that, I wonder… do these folks think police are “socialism”? Because that’s the government providing a service. How about firemen? The military? Government regulated health care is no more or less “socialism” that are any of those services. Now, you can have a reasonable and logical debate about which services the government should and should not provide. That’s quite sensible. But to call any possible government service “socialism” is just plain ignorant.

To me, our current health care situation is like a very rickety bridge that lots of people travel on. And so, since the opponents of health care seem to love myths and fables, I’ll provide my own:

The Rickety Bridge by Jonathan Henderson

Once upon a time there was a land with a great bridge that spanned an enormous river. The bridge had been built many years ago, at an enormous cost. Thousands of people went back and forth across the bridge every day. The fortunes of this land rose and fell based on how many people were able to cross the bridge.

But as time went on, the bridge got older and older. It began to break here and there. Toll-takers were set up at each end of the bridge, to decide who could and could not cross the bridge. “Sorry, you’re too fat”, the toll-taker said to one man. “The bridge is very rickety, and we can’t afford to fix it if your weight caves in part of it.” “No smoking!” said another toll-taker. “You might set the bridge on fire!”

The bridge, however, continued to rot.

The Experts noticed the bridge was crumbling. They told the King and his Ministers that the bridge needed repairs soon, or else it would collapse. The Kind agreed… but his Ministers did not. “Your highness, it will cost too much to repair the bridge”, one said. “It is not our job to fix bridges”, said another. “The bridge has been fine for centuries,” said a third. “Why should we risk repairing it?”

The Experts pushed hard. They told the King that if the bridge collapsed, the cost to build a new one would be far greater than repairing the existing one. And, of course, thousands of people would die if the bridge collapsed. And, there would no bridge for a very long time, so many people would starve because food could not be brought over the bridge. And business would fail, because commerce could not function without the bridge.

The Ministers did not like people disagreeing with them, so they went straight to the people. “The Experts want us to destroy your bridge!” they said. “They want to put trolls at either end that will eat your Grandmother, instead of letting her pass! The Experts hate you and the bridge!” The people, of course, got very angry, and yelled and threw things at the Experts.

The bridge continued to rot.

The Ministers began holding town meetings. They would invite Experts to the meetings. People would scream at them: “Why are you putting trolls on the bridge to eat my Grandma”? The Experts would sigh, and say they had no intention of putting trolls on the bridge. They just wanted to repair it. “Well, what about the trolls?” another would cry. The Experts kept saying they didn’t know anything about any trolls, but the people would not hear of it.

The bridge continued to rot.

Some people began falling through holes in the bridge. But since most people could still cross the bridge just fine, the people shrugged and said that only lazy or stupid people fell through the holes anyway. “Better than the trolls that the Experts want!” they said.

Big chunks of the bridge fell off.

Now the Ministers told the King that just maybe, possibly, there perhaps could be some rules about who might use the bridge, but certainly nothing more. The King sighed, and said he guessed that would have to do. He did not like to go against his Ministers.

By this time, many people could not cross the bridge at all.

And then, finally, the bridge collapsed. And the once great land fell from grace, and the people became poor and hungry. Only the very, very rich could get across the river now. The people huddled together, and remembered what the Experts had said. Many people wished they had listened to the Experts. Most said the Experts were right, that perhaps they should have repaired the bridge after all.

But the Ministers stubbornly insisted that they had been right all along.

“Well”, they said, “at least we didn’t get eaten by those damn trolls”.

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The Wiz: What The Hell Happened To Michael Jackson?

The Wiz (1978). 134 minutes, Universal Pictures. Directed by Sidney Lumet.

The Wiz came out in the fall of 1978. I was a junior in high school at the time, and most of my spare time was spent practicing and competing on the school’s debate team. That year I also got my driver’s license, and so it was the first year I was able to drive myself to various places. And, more importantly, to drive to places with my friends. There was no movie theater in the small town of Hodgenville where I went to high school; we had to drive 10 miles away to Elizabethtown to get to the nearest theater. And I hope I don’t have to remind you that this was before the era of home video…

My debate team partner Mark Shelton didn’t have access to a car (nor did he even get his driver’s license until after graduation!), so if he wanted to see a movie, he had to persuade me or another of our friends to go see it. Such was the case with The Wiz. I had no interest in seeing it; I was not a fan of Michael Jackson, and I had never heard of Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, or anyone else who was in the cast. I did know who Richard Pryor was, but I knew him only as a raunchy comedian, and didn’t see what good he would be in some cheesy musical.

But Mark had seen a stage production of The Wiz two years previously on a trip to New York, and he was desperate to see the movie. I was easy to convince, since even then everyone knew I loved movies and would go to see almost anything. And in truth, I did (and do) like musicals – I just wasn’t familiar with The Wiz.

So, one Friday evening in November of 1978, I drove over to Elizabethtown with a couple of friends, and we saw The Wiz. I was not very impressed with the movie as a whole. It seemed too long, but in an odd way: The good parts were too short, and the bad parts were too long. The tone of the film was somehow all wrong, although it was not easy to say exactly how. My friends and I were especially dismissive of Diana Ross as Dorothy. As I recall, we made fun of her portrayal in the car on the way home, and for at least a few days the following week.

There was one thing in the movie that I was very impressed with, however. And so were all of my friends. That was Michael Jackson, 19 years old at the time, as The Scarecrow. He was the only really outstanding thing in the movie. I was astonished at how good of an actor he was. I knew Michael Jackson only as the singer from The Jackson 5, as a guest on The Sonny and Cher Show, and as a cartoon character on Saturday mornings. I had no idea he had that in him.

We all agreed. Mark, who was very disappointed in the movie version, did say that Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow was the only thing in the entire movie that was better than the stage version. I remember thinking, well, Michael Jackson is obviously going to become a famous actor.

The following year, Jackson’s first solo album Off The Wall came out, but I was not much of a music fan at the time, and wasn’t interested. In fact, I never even heard the album until I was in college. I was, instead, waiting for an announcement of what his next movie role would be.

But there never was another movie. The Wiz ended up being Michael Jackson’s one and only film.

As the years went by, and I saw Michael Jackson in various music videos, I’d see occasional glimpses of that fine acting talent. But it was always apparent that I’d seen him at his best back in 1978. Of course, the 1970’s were the last decade that you could hear or see Michael Jackson and just enjoy him solely as a performer. After that, his strange personal life became what everyone thought of when they heard the name.

When Michael Jackson died last week, and all the cries of “Wacko Jacko” turned into “Michael Jackson the Legendary Musician”, I was reminded again of The Wiz. And so, Saturday night, I downloaded the HD version of The Wiz over iTunes and watched it on the Apple TV. I wanted to see that Michael Jackson again, and see if my impressions from 1978 would match my impressions in 2009.

The Wiz is a retelling of Frank Baum‘s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Although it’s a musical, it does not share anything with the famous 1939 movie version of the same book. The Wiz is an African-American (we said “black” back in the 70’s when this was made, though) twist on the same story. Instead of a farm girl in Kansas, Dorothy is a black girl in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Instead of a twister, a blizzard takes her away to Oz. And the magical land of Oz is like a magic version of New York, rather than some fairy tale forest.

Seeing it again as an adult, with four years of film school and a lifetime of experience under my belt, it’s much clearer to me how and where The Wiz succeeds – and even more clear how it fails. The production values are good. It’s wonderful to see the World Trade Center intact, as the center of the Emerald City. The sets are marvelous, the costumes are elegant and spectacular. At least every other song is good and tuneful. In the spots where the movie is good, it’s very good.

Ah… but the rest. It’s even worse than I remembered. I now see what the wrongness of tone was that I could only feel back in 1978. There is no magic here. The sets, while beautiful, are grim. This Oz is no fairy-tale land that you would want to stay in – it’s a creep hell hole that you would see only in your nightmares. Almost every shot makes the wrong choice, like long wide shots when someone is singing. The film seems edited wrong. Some scenes go on way too long, others seem cut short. The film actually has several jump cuts, and they don’t look intentional. As a movie, it has no flow at all. Literally every single creative decision made during filming and editing appears to be the wrong one.

Diana Ross is terrible, absolutely terrible, as Dorothy. It’s not just that, at 34 years old, she is way, way too old to be playing Dorothy. The movie tries to gloss over that by explaining that she’s a 24 year old kindergarden teacher (sadly, Ross looks older than her age here, not younger). To me, the whole point of the story is that Dorothy is a child. An adult just wouldn’t accept Oz in the same way. Her Dorothy has no spunk, no fire. Honestly, the kid in the local elementary school did a better job with Dorothy than Diana Ross did. She is just wrong, so wrong, and that wrongness pulls the whole movie down with it. You know the story. And if you don’t accept Dorothy, you just can’t accept the story.

Michael Jackson, however, is even better than I remembered. The 10 minutes of the film where he first appears, singing “You Can’t Win” and then “Ease on Down the Road“, are fantastic. Watching him again, I am convinced that Jackson made a big mistake when he elected not to do any more film roles. He is magic here. He is the Scarecrow. His movements, his expressions, everything, are absolutely perfect. And of course, he sings the song wonderfully. But more than just his great singing, it’s his facial expression, his hand movements, that sell the songs. It is an absolutely wonderful acting job, hands down one of the best.

One other observation I have after seeing this movie again. In this film, Michael Jackson’s speaking voice sounds… normal. I mean, sure, it’s that same high voice we all know. But the way he speaks, that sounds normal. Not that odd, somewhat feminine lilt that you always heard him speak in throughout his public life. But you know who does talk like that in the movie? Diana Ross.

It’s well known that Michael Jackson was enamored of Diana Ross. After seeing The Wiz again, I’m convinced that Jackson’s odd way of talking was either his conscious or subconscious imitation of his idol Diana Ross. I think he must’ve been studying her during the entire time they were doing the movie, and then he started talking like that. That’s my observation, anyway. Take it as you will.

I don’t pretend to have any idea what the hell happened to Michael Jackson. What happened to that earnest, hard-working 19-year-old actor in The Wiz? Where did he go? What drove him to make the decisions that he did? I certainly don’t know. I doubt if even Jackson himself knew.

But I do know this: If you want to see Michael Jackson before he became “Wacko Jacko”… if you want to see how he could have become one of the great actors of our generation… if you want to see the best performance of Scarecrow ever (and yeah, I do mean better than you-know-who in the 1939 version), then see Michael Jackson in The Wiz.

Fast-forward through the rest of the movie, however.

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American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2006). 240 pages, Square Fish Press.

I love stories where there are one or more plots that seem to be completely unrelated. Then they come together, one by one, in a way that I never saw coming. Sometimes it’ll be two stories that run at the same time. Sometimes you follow different characters doing completely different things. I always enjoy seeing how the author twines plot lines together.

But every once in a long while, I come across a book where I don’t even realize I’m reading an integrated story. And then an amazing feeling creeps over me, as it becomes clear that the stories – which I thought were completely unrelated – are in fact all part of one single story.

The graphic novel, as an art form, is quite new. The vast majority of graphic novels are actually collected reprints of comic books (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Sandman, etc). A great trend over the past decade, however, has been the emergence of the true graphic novel – a work created from the beginning as a single book, one single story, told by the author in words and pictures in such a way that it could never be done with words alone.

Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese is a wonderful book. It has won all manner of awards, and it deserves every one of them. This is a book that reveals so much to the reader, so cleverly drawn and written, so perfectly plotted, that it literally took my breath away as I neared the end. And it is the perfect, the absolutely perfect, example of how seemingly completely and utterly different stories merge together in a way that is totally unexpected and seamlessly plotted.

As I began to read American Born Chinese, I just assumed it was a collection of short pieces, just grouped together under the theme of being written by the same author, a man who is an “American-born Chinese”. It wasn’t until about page 200 that it became clear that I was reading a true novel, and that the three alternating, seemingly completely unrelated stories were all part of a whole.

The three individual plot lines take the form of alternating chapters. The book begins in the “ancient past”, and relates the myth of the Monkey King – a monkey who is determined to shed his animal nature and become elevated to a God. The Monkey King is an actual Chinese folk hero; I cannot say how much of the Monkey King story here is “the real story” and how much is Yang’s invention, but it reads like a real folk story.

The second story is that of Jin Wang, a lonely Asian-American kid from San Francisco whose parents move to the midwest. Suddenly Jin is one of only two Asian kids in the entire school, and his natural shyness becomes all encompassing. He’d do anything to fit in with his white classmates, especially to win the heart of the girl he has a crush on.

And the third story – written with an accompanying laugh track and applause – is the sitcom plight of Danny, an All-American white teenager who is mortified every summer when his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit. Chin-Kee is a painfully obvious ethnic stereotype, complete with buck teeth, a pigtail, and yellow skin. Even his name is an ethnic slur – which I didn’t figure out until after I finished the book, by the way. Spell it slowly to yourself, stopping after the fifth letter…

Each chapter of the book alternates, one after the other, between these three stories. Chapter 1 begins the tale of the Monkey King. Chapter 2 begins the story of Jin Wang. Chapter 3 begins the story of Danny and Chin-Kee. Chapter 4 picks up with the Monkey King again… and so on throughout the book. Each story line is very good, although I found myself particularly drawn to the saga of Jin Wang. His painful attempts to make friends in his new school reminded me a lot of my own life during middle school – minus the racial problems, of course.

As the book nears the end, each of the three stories seems to be reaching their own, separate conclusions. But then – no, sorry, I can’t and won’t spoil it. It was just too well done.

What I liked so much about this book is that it’s a small, human story. Here is a fantastic, wonderful, modern graphic novel that doesn’t have any super heros. No aliens. No vampires. Just good, honest storytelling, combined with a bit of Chinese folk wisdom. The “big reveal” at the end of the book is not really “big” at all. It’s just about one person, one character. No one dies, no one saves the world, no one makes news, none of that. It’s just the story of a few people, and how they live their lives, and a great lesson.

Obviously, I’m not Asian. Gene Yang could have made up the entire folklore part of this book from whole cloth, and I would never know. All of the Chinese symbols that are integrated into the typography and layout of the book could be gibberish. I doubt it, however. Those elements just feel… right.

In Chapter 2, when we first meet Jin Wang, he’s a small boy in San Francisco. His mother likes to visit an ancient herbalist in Chinatown for her allergies, and Jin sits out in the waiting room while she takes her treatment. Jin is playing with a Transformers toy, and he tells the herbalist behind the counter that when he grows up, he wants to become a Transformer.

He stares at his toy, embarrassed, and tells the old lady “But Mama says that’s silly. Little boys don’t grow up to be transformers”.

The old herbalist looks at him with a baleful eye. “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” she says. “I’m going to let you in on a secret, little friend.” The next panel is an extreme close up of the old woman’s face, as she tells Jin: “It’s easy to become anything you wish… so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul”.

And that is the heart of what the book is all about. Better to be who you really are, than to forfeit your soul in an attempt to become something else.

Go get a copy of American Born Chinese. Buy it at your bookstore. Order it from Amazon. Or check out a copy from your local library. Even if you “don’t like comic books”, or have never read a graphic novel, or if you think this book looks like a collection of cartoons, please – take a chance on this book. You won’t be sorry. It’s charming, enlightening, and breathtaking.

My hat is off to Gene Luan Yang, and I hope he writes-and-draws many more books to come.

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A Memorial Day Dining Story

This morning, Frank and I decided to have breakfast at a local favorite, Weston Diner. Weston Diner is one of those great places where people line up to have their names put on a list for breakfast, where the waitresses remember your face and what you want, where the food is plentiful and the menu contains exactly what it should. There are gum-ball machines near the door. There are little tiles at each booth with pithy sayings like “A house should be clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy”. The coffee is good and continually refilled. The owner’s name is Sam.

I had corned beef hash and eggs, Frank had the “2-2-2”: Two eggs, two pancakes, two pieces of bacon. We sat in a booth in the corner and quietly ate our breakfast, occasionally looking at something on our iPhones or engaging in brief chit-chat.

The threesome in the booth behind us, however, were not so reserved. We’d paid them scant attention when we sat down: Two guys and a girl, all in their late teens. I would guess just out of high school, first year of college, thereabouts. One guy was sitting on one side of the booth, the other guy and the girl were sitting on the other side. Nice looking kids having breakfast together.

Being young and much more carefree than us two old fogies , they were talking loudly and laughing. And so, even though we were not eavesdropping, we could not help but hear the vast majority of their conversation. LIstening to them talk while we ate our breakfast, we got a slice of young life, circa 2009.

“Eye-RACK!” the guy sitting next to the girl said loudly. “When you say it like that, it sounds so much worse than it really is, you now. Eye-RACK! You gotta say the last part of it really loud”. The other two chuckled. I couldn’t hear what the girl was saying, but the other guy was in my line of sight, so I saw his reaction to his friend’s comment. “Is that how they say it over there?” the other guy asked.

“I don’t know”, said the loud guy. “My Staff Sergeant was telling me Friday that’s how we should start saying it. Loud and with emphasis. Eye-RACK!” He laughed again.

Growing up in the Army, I knew my share of Staff Sergeants. I had this guy’s sergeant pictured in my head as he talked: A grizzled guy in his thirties, close-cropped hair, five o’clock shadow, maybe smoking a cigarette –

“She’s been there twice, so she wants us all to be prepared, you know”, he added.

My imagined Staff Sergeant vanished in a puff. I wasn’t sure how to picture a female Staff Sergeant who was advising this young man. Frank raised his eyebrows at that, and despite ourselves, we listened a little closer.

“Dude, right after Memorial Day, too”, the other guy said. “That’s wicked.”

“Thirteen weeks of training, I know, and now I’m shipping out the day after Memorial Day!” said the fellow with the Staff Sergeant. He told his friends about how he negotiated a later curfew from his mother the previous night. “I mean, normally, she’d say I have to be home by midnight. But I was like, Mom! I-m going to eye-RACK day after tomorrow! So, she said OK, I could stay out as late as I wanted”.

About then I got a refill of coffee, Frank and I talked about something else, and I stopped paying attention to the youngster’s conversation. Maybe ten minutes later, we heard them talking again.

“I hope my motorcycle’s in good shape when I come back”, the military kid was saying. “And I’m gonna get a new car too! You know… when I get back from…” and all three of them said loudly “Eye-RACK!!”

The kid was talking so fast and so loud, I felt sure that he was overcompensating. Was he trying to make sure his friends didn’t worry? Was he trying to cover up his own fear? Was I just projecting way too much onto a complete stranger?

As we were leaving, I was rehearsing a line. I was going to say to the kid, “Hey, stay safe over there”, or “Thanks for your service”, or “Come back in one piece”, something like that. But when I stood up and saw his face, I decided to just keep my mouth shut. They were three teenagers, and one of them was about to go away to war. It was not my place to insert any tone of worry or concern into their happy breakfast.

Paying the bill, I had a clear view of the T-shirt the kid was wearing. In the center was the Marine Corp emblem. Above the emblem it read, “To err is human. To forgive is divine”. And under the emblem, it said “Neither is Marine Corp policy”.

For some reason, that just really hit me hard. The shirt seemed so much more grown-up than its owner. I turned 47 last week, a big fat happy man in a nice house, cars in the garage, my own business. And here I am, looking at an 18-year-old kid smiling and grinning as he’s about to be shipped off to Iraq.

So, instead of intruding on his last breakfast with his friends, I sent him a silent wish for an uneventful tour of duty and a safe return.

Our flag flies over our driveway this Memorial Day, in honor of the men and women who gave their lives for our freedom. Who go out and do what they are asked to do, whether they think it’s right or wrong.

To my friends and family in the military, whether you’re Over Here or Over There, my best wishes. I hope with all my heart that all of you – including the loud teenager in the booth next to me whose mother extended his curfew the night before he was to be shipped out – are safe and sound next Memorial Day, and for all future Memorial Days.

Stay safe out there, guys and girls. Thanks for everything that you do, and for everything that you’ve already done.

Let Memorial Day be a day of celebration, and not a day of mourning.

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Kindle 2: The Review

Kindle: Amazon’s 6″ Wireless Reading Device, $359.00

I’m living on a greatly tightened budget. I’ve cancelled satellite service, land phone service, pool cleaning, book and magazine subscriptions, and I’m buying all our food at Costco and Wal-Mart. So why, why did I just spend $359 a month ago for a new Amazon Kindle 2 – to replace the perfectly good, still working Kindle that I bought only a little under a year ago?

Because I love to read, I love books, and the Kindle 2 (now referred to as just the 6″ Kindle by Amazon) is the best book reader I’ve every encountered. That’s why.

LIke many others, I had some complaints about the original Kindle. Amazon listened to me and countless others, and they fixed (almost) everything that was wrong with the original Kindle. And, let me be clear, the original Kindle was a very good device (and still is, for that matter). The Kindle 2 literally fixes every single complaint I had with the original – with the exception of the screen size, which is the same as the first Kindle and is still too small.

Thin Is In – And Oh So Shapely!
The first thing I noticed when I removed the Kindle from its (very nice and very Apple-inspired) packaging was the thickness of this device. As in the lack of it. You may have seen some ads for the Kindle 2 that show it on edge next to pencil – and the pencil is noticeably thicker. Those pictures aren’t lying. The device is thinner than an iPhone 3G, thinner than any remote control I’ve got, thinner than any other electronic gadget of any kind that I currently own. It’s about the thickness of 30 sheets of paper.

And the thickness (er, thinness) of the device is constant. It doesn’t curve out anywhere or bulge up at any spot. The edges taper in somewhat, much like the edge of a MacBook Air do. All four corners are rounded identically, following the same gentle taper toward the edge. The overall effect feels very good in your hands. It just feels… right. The specs say it weighs 10 ounces. I haven’t verified that independently, but it feels about like holding a sheaf of paper.

The back of the Kindle 2 is smooth aluminum. There are tiny grills in the lower back for speakers, used for the audio book and music playback features (which I completely do not care about and never use). Even the holes in the speaker grills are carefully milled and feel good under your fingertips. And the smooth brushed metal doesn’t get slick as you hold it for a long about of time, as plastic usually does (think how a phone feels after you’ve been holding it for a long conversation).

Interface Reface
The Kindle 2 sports a revamped version of the Kindle interface to go along with the new physical design. The main outward aspect of this is getting rid of the “sparkle bar” and wheel that was the navigation system for the original Kindle. It’s been replaced with an easy-to-use four-way joystick type toggle. You just use the little joystick to point to the item you want, then push it in to select. Amazon refers to this as a “five-way control” because it’s up, down, right, left, and select. Anyone who has used a remote control for a Tivo, satellite, or cable box in the last 10 years will instantly know how to use the control. It also makes it possible to scroll right and left of text in order to bring up menu options.

Magazines and newspapers, two things that I absolutely love on the Kindle, are much, much easier to navigate with the Kindle 2. In fact, it’s so obvious now that I can’t believe Amazon didn’t do it like this to begin with. You get a straightforward table of contents, with sections from the magazine in question. Next to each section is the number of articles in each section. You can select the section’s name to go straight to the first article, or click on the number to see a detailed sub-table of contents for that section, with longer descriptions of each article.

Reading Newsweek and the New York Times on the Kindle is now much better than reading the print editions. Now I really wish every magazine was available on the Kindle! I’m still pushing hard for The Economist and Rolling Stone. Come on, publishers!

Nice little tweaks and additions are scattered throughout. For example, the little status bar at the bottom of every page now shows you what percentage of the way through a book you are. This helps a great deal to duplicate the feeling of “I’m half way through this book” that you get from a physical book.

Size Does Matter
Amazon fixed all but two thing I didn’t like about the original Kindle. I felt, and still feel, that the Kindle needs some sort of built-in reading light, or at least a custom-made “snap on” light that is low profile and fits neatly onto the device. And, I opined that what the Kindle really needed was a larger screen – I felt that it needed about a 9″ to 10″ diagonal screen, one that would let you read a book page at approximately the same size as the print edition. And magazine articles would also “feel” about the right length.

But when the Kindle 2 came out, I though, oh well. I’ll continue to just use a clip-on reading light, clamping it in ugly fashion to the top of the Kindle. And, it looks like they just couldn’t manage to get a larger screen, so I’ll just buy this one and —

Crap. The Kindle DX is Announced.
Well, damn. Only six weeks after I got my Kindle 2, Amazon announces the Kindle that I really want: The Kindle DX. Yup. A larger sceen, almost 10″ diagonally. The screen it should’ve been from the start. With auto rotation. And native reading of PDF files. Literally everything except a light.

I’ve watched all the videos for the Kindle DX I can find. I’ve seen the pictures. I’m salivating for its arrival. I pre-ordered one the day they were announced, even though they won’t be shipping this reading wonder until “summer” (which could mean anywhere from late June to late September, really).

I’ve read the criticisms lobbed Amazon’s way over the price point – the Kindle DX will be a whopping $489, and the Kindle 2 will remain at its current $359. For me, a Constant Reader, this price is worth it. I find it interesting to read the snarky comments on Engadget and Gizmodo trashing the device, with person after person saying they’ll never buy one until it has a color screen or blah blah blah. (An aside: Of what use would a color ebook reader be? Every book I’ve read consists of exactly two colors: white paper and black ink. And no, I’m not counting graphic novels / comic books. Those will always need to be in glossy print).

The Kindle Market
I get the Kindle. I really do. And I think anyone who reads a lot – people who list their hobby as “reading”, people who regularly buy lots of books – they will want a Kindle. As for anyone else? I can’t see why they’d ever want a device that is a dedicated book reader at all.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine, who was listening in on a conversation me and some other guys were having about an iPod. He volunteered that he didn’t have an iPod, and couldn’t understand why he’d want one. We all looked at him funny, and I said “Well, what do you listen to music on now”? He said, “I don’t even listen to music. I don’t like music, and I don’t own any CDs or records or anything”. And my answer was: “Then there is absolutely no reason at all for you to own an iPod”.

So, if your’e one of the many tech geeks out there who looks at the Kindle and says “Why? I already have an iPhone, I can read web pages on that”, or “Blech! It’s not in color. I can’t read graphic novels on it”, or “It has to display video and play music and accept a mouse and…” then I have to say: You’re not in the target market. You don’t need a Kindle, nor should you want one. And please go away and stop bothering me, OK?

But for those of us who Read. Read every night. Read all the time. Read magazines that consist of nothing but printed words, magazines where the only picture is the one on the cover or the occasional graph on the inside. Read the New York Times Book Review. Read works in translation. Read the classics, new and old. Read read read read… We need a Kindle. You need a Kindle. You want a Kindle.

You want to be able to buy a new book at 2 in the morning, have it instantly delivered to you in about a minute, and start reading immediately. You want to be able to highlight sections and save them for reference later. You to be able to get on a plane and bring a hundred books with you, on a device that weighs less than a pound.

So, if the above description fits you, and you don’t already have a Kindle, then go to Amazon now and order one. If you can afford it and if you can wait until “summer”, then I’d suggest waiting for the Kindle DX. But on the other hand… well, this economy ain’t gonna stimulate itself, y’know.

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Beverly Hills Chihuahua

Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008). 91 minutes, Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Raja Gosnell.

This is not so much a review as it is a warning.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a very slight Disney movie about talking dogs. A spoiled Chihuahua from Beverly Hills (voiced by Drew Barrymore) accidently gets lost in Mexico. She befriends various “street dogs” who help her find her way around. Later, she runs in a band of “Chi-Warriors” who tell her she comes from an ancient breed of Aztec fighting dogs. She has a few more adventures, learns that she is bratty and should be nicer, then goes home. The End.

With that single paragraph review out of the way, you may well wonder: What is the point of this post? Well, it’s mainly about truth in advertising. I’m very used to movie trailers editing scenes in such a way as to make the movie look a lot more exciting than it really is. It’s only natural that filmmakers will use their very best footage, and will assemble it in the most inspiring manner possible, to make a mediocre or even downright bad movie look good. I still remember how I saw the trailer for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and was sure that it was going to be great.

But… I do expect that what’s shown in the trailer is going to actually be in the movie. In other words, I don’t expect to watch a trailer showing certain actors saying certain lines, and then go see the movie in question… only to find out that those actors aren’t even in the movie, and it’s a completely different subject matter. Everyone with me so far in this? We’re in agreement? OK, then.

About nine months ago, I saw the teaser trailer for Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Now, Frank and I own an incredibly cute, smart, and cuddly Chihuahua named Ricky, so we are suckers for something like this.

Pictures of my incredibly cute Chihuahua, Ricky.

The trailer shows a slew of CGI-enhanced talking and singing Chihuahuas. They’re all dancing around an Aztec pyramid, singing proudly about their breed:

We’re tiny! We’re mighty! We’re number one!
We’re the real hot dog, yo – hold the bun!

What can make you move? Chihuahua!
Can you feel the groove? Chihuahua!
Oh… Chihuahua!

A gang of Chihuahuas is playing instruments, banging drums, and engaging in all kinds of musical shenanigans. Oh boy! A musical Chihuahua movie! And one of the lead dogs actually looks a lot like Ricky! Well, we’re certainly going to see this one.

Then about two months before the movie was released, another trailer came out. This one showed the lead dog Papi, in the same Aztec location as the first trailer, leading a massive army of Chihuahuas in declaring “No Mas!” And then clips from the same musical number. I was surprised they didn’t include some other dance number from the film, but it was still enticing.

The movie was a moderate hit – but there is no way in hell that I was going to see a Disney kid’s movie in the theater. I may like a lot of children’s books and movies, but mass quantities of children in public places I’m not so fond of. So, we waited. And bought the movie on Blu-Ray last week, when it was released for home video.

Well, guess what. Not a single scene from either trailer is in the movie.

That’s right. There are no singing Chihuahuas. No dancing. No musical numbers. No giant Chihuahua statue. Papi never even meets the “Chi-Warriors”, much less leads them in a speech of “No Mas” as seen in the second trailer.

As an adult, I just feel cheated. Ha ha, Disney, you tricked me. But I gotta tell you… if I were a kid, I’d be furious. When I was a kid, if you saw a Disney preview with a singing bear in it, you could be damn sure that the actual movie would have a singing bear in it! (The Jungle Book). If you learned parts of the song from the commercial, you could be assured that the full song would be in the movie. And then harass your parents into buying you the record so you could sing along to it after you watched the movie. And there would be even more songs to sing along to!

Not this. With this trailer, Disney cheats and lies to little children. Pass it on.

So, if you like formulaic stories with talking dogs, go ahead and rent Beverly Hills Chihuahua. But if you were expecting a musical, or at the very least a single musical number as was promised in the preview, then Sorry Charlie. Do not pass “Go”, do not collect $200, go directly to jail.

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