Friday, January 28, 2005

Book 5 -- A Biography -- Last Man Down

I just finished my fifth book of the year and I appear to be on pace to complete my goal of 52 books in one year.

I recently went to an event that featured New York Fire Department Battalion Chief Richard "Pitch" Picciotto as the keynote speaker. He spoke of his experiences in the latest World Trade Center terrorist attack in September 2001. It was a moving speech.

It moved me enough that I wanted to meet him after the speech and I was lucky to later that night. We spoke for about 15 minutes about his ordeal and how other parts of the country receive him when he speaks to them. It was an inspiring 15 minutes.

I also maintained contact with him and he sent me an autographed copy of his book -- Last Man Down.

The book is a haunting description of his drive to the Towers, his saving of people, and his unfortunate participation and 4 story ride during the collapse of the second tower. This story was even more dramatic for me as I remembered his speech and his voice while reading it.

The book itself isn't well written as it is primarily the conversation and words of a man who isn't eloquent. That is what makes the book so powerful. It isn't a flashy book that uses a thesaurous to make a wordy impression. It is about the subject and one gritty man's relation of the tale.

By the end of the book, I had forgotten the words and profanity and I moved to a feeling of respect and awe for a man who made a difference that day.

This is an interesting perspective to the events of September 11th and it should be a read for anyone who wants to understand the true terror the firemen and Twin Tower employees went through.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Green Day's "American Idiot"

I finally picked up Green Day’s “American Idiot” yesterday on the recommendation of my co-worker Jason. I wish I had picked it up ages ago. It is one of the best albums of 2004 and deserves every award it gets. Not just because of the political message of the album (very anti-Bush), but the playing and writing is amazing.

It was so easy to write off Green Day. Even for me, who heard “Dookie” incessantly in college in the 90’s. Green Day was the 90’s pop version of the 80’s pop-punk of The Clash and Hüsker Dü. And, much like Nirvana, they owe a big debt to the Pixies.

But, this album is light years ahead of “Dookie.” Like Hüsker Dü, and The Who before them, Green Day has made an ambitious concept album, or, “rock opera.” While concept albums are nothing new, it’s refreshing to see a well-known former MTV darling band basically say “to hell with commercial success, let’s make the album we want - something that means something,” and then be rewarded for it by the press and the public. The accolades are well-deserved and the music industry must start to take notice of the fact that people do want to hear music that is different and challenging, not just simple bubblegum pop (another example: Radiohead).

That is why “American Idiot” is important. This is why it is a great album:

Anyone familiar with The Who or Hüsker Dü will immediately see the musical similarities to the Hüskers’ 1984 punk-opera “Zen Arcade” and The Who’s classic mini rock-opera A Quick One While He’s Away, or even “Tommy.” For those unfamiliar with those albums, believe me: “American Idiot” is a perfect melding of these works into something new and vibrant.

Main songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong (guitar, lead vocals) maintains the classic Green Day huge guitar sound throughout the album, but throws in bits of 1950’s rock, acoustic passages, vocal harmonies, keyboards, exotic percussion and other sounds that surprise throughout. It’s clear that this album is not just four-chord power rock. Some of the songs are quite challenging and the fact Billie Joe, Mike Dirnt (bass, vocals) and Tré Cool (drums, vocals) are excellent (even underrated) musicians means they can pull off the musical twists totally convincingly.

Two of the songs, Jesus of Suburbia and Homecoming, are classic progressive rock-style 9 minute plus songs with rapid fire twists and turns, much like The Who’s A Quick One… But, since Billie Joe has a great mastery of the illusive “rock hook” and catchy melodies, it never sounds like long prog rock. The entire album flows seamlessly and has many highlights and songs that will stick in the listener’s ear all day.

But, the real focus of the album is the subject matter. It tells the story/thoughts of the teenage St. Jimmy of Suburbia and his attempt to make his way in the post-9/11 Bush/Republican/war mongering American suburbs. With lyrics like “The representative of California has the floor/zieg heil to the president gasman/bombs away is your punishment/pulverize the Eiffel Towers/who criticize your government,” it’s clear on which side Billie Joe comes down on. But, the harshness of some of the lyrics never takes away from the album. Billie Joe has a great pop voice and doesn’t sing with an over-the-top punk snarl that could turn the less-than-subtle lyrics into preaching obnoxiousness.

Overall, the lyrics and subject matter are very intelligent and well written. Billie Joe is trying to show how today’s world is confusing teenagers by writing the album from the perspective of St. Jimmy. This is teenage angst music, but not like Nirvana. Instead, “American Idiot” is much more like The Who’s 1973 rock opera/concept album, “Quadrophenia,” where Pete Townsend looks back on the days of the Mods and Rockers in mid-1960’s London (a scene he was a huge part of) not with fond memories, but with the bitterness of someone who now realizes how bad things were.

Like how “Quadrophenia” tells the story of a Mod named Jimmy and how absolutely messed up, confused, and drugged out he was, “American Idiot,” tells the story of a confused, messed up, and drugged out suburban teenager, St. Jimmy (naturally!), has become because of it all. Billie Joe’s songs are teenage angst music that looks at the world around us all and shows everyone how world events are affecting the youth of America (something the government is less than concerned about).

Finally, the last reason why the album is so great: it just rocks and can always be enjoyed on that level if you don’t feel like “getting all political.” The sign of a truly great and multi-dimensional album.

***** out of *****

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

In Good Company -- The Review

My wife and I braved the elements this weekend and made it to the movie theater to see the new film -- In Good Company.

The movie centers around two men from different generations who must respond to a recent corporate takeover. The younger of the two -- played by the increasingly annoying and distracting Topher Grace -- is put in a position of power at a magazine. In doing so, he replaces the newly demoted older character -- played by the incomparable Dennis Quaid.

The movie centers on their relationship as the younger Grace essentially keeps Quaid's character around as he strives to get ahead and somehow be more like him at the same time. In the meantime, he meets Quaid's daughter and the two of them have an interesting love affair.

The movie is a bittersweet tale as two generations learn to come to grips with a changing world. Quaid's world is turned upside down as the "evil corporate empire" takes over the old school way of handling things. Essentially, in his mind -- the art of conversation and salesmanship are being deemed uselss by the hipper and go-getter younger generation. It is a hard concept to handle as he is forced to fire many of his long standing and loyal employees. On the other hand, the younger generation views the world from a corporate side and looks to meet the benchmarks of dollars established disregarding the human factor.

The movie is preachy at times but it gets the point across that the world is an arbitrary place. You could be secure one day and "free" the next day. It also gets us evaluating what it is that we actually value in life. Should we put work at the top of our list or should other things such as family come first. Both are forced to strive towards the middle.

I also saw another struggle in the movie. How should we as the younger generation view the older generation? The movie shows evidence of people being discarded as though they don't have anything to offer. The older generation is often regarded as ineffective and useless by the younger generation. I see that in life in my career. We can't do that to them... they have so much to offer... but I digress.

Overall, the movie is a good movie -- albeit that it relies on a lot of product placements that sometimes distract from plot itself.

After seeing this movie, I am more and more convinced that Dennis Quaid is one of the most underrated actors of our time. He can convey so much emotion without even saying a word. For fear of giving away too much of the plot, I will say that there is a moment when he is openning birthday presents that I will never forget...and he doesn't say a single word.

On the other hand, someone please put Topher Grace out of his misery. Stop spending money on his work. It is only encouraging him to act more and push his distracting and annoying voice on us all. Arbitrary statements? Yes... he hurts me and my sensibilities.

Official rating? Matinee...but if you are a Dennis Quaid fan... then it might qualify as a full price movie.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Live from my floor

I hurt my back. I am currently kneeling at my computer -- my first attempt to even use the computer since Thursday, January 13. You would think that this would have been an ideal time to read a lot. You would be wrong. From last Thursday until Monday I tried to tough out the pain hoping I would get better with rest. I was wrong. The pain has been almost unbearable. But thanks to some prescription drugs and lots of rest over the last week, I am getting better.

Unfortunately, the pain mixed in with the drugs made it difficult to concentrate. So reading has been slow.

I did manage to finish Out of Left Field, How the Mariners Made Baseball Fly in Seattle by Art Thiel.

When I can, I will write a review.

Book 3 of 2005 is Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. A friend recommended a different Kurlansky book, Cod, but this one was on sale.

2 down, 46 to go.....

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Eats Shoots and Leaves

Book Five was Eats Shoots and Leaves....

This review will be quite short... as I do not want to get into an esoteric review of a book about punctuation.

Essentially, the book served the author as she needed to gripe about the downfall of grammar in this country.

On behalf of muh wife and the rest of you grammar geeks... it gives you something to talk about.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Book a Week...4 down... Different Countdown

SZG has decided to embark on a goal of about a book a week. I would like to embark on the same goal... This blog will give me a way of maintaining a list of how well I do.

I enjoy reading and for the most part, I enjoy reading inane or mundane garbage that keeps my brain light and thought free. This year has been a good example of that.

Let's get caught up on the first 19 days of 2005.

I began the year by reading "The Stupidest Angel" by Christopher Moore. This was the second time that I read it in the past month. It is a funny Christmas story that only Christopher Moore could tell. It involves Warriors Babes, Vampire Bats, Talking Corpses, Zombies and a Pot Smoking Native American Sheriff. If that doesn't draw you in... nothing will. Moore is a phenomenal satirist and this book is no exception. I actually found myself laughing out loud.

I followed up the Moore book with "Cold Case" by Stephen White. Stephen White writes a series of mystery books featuring a psychiatrist, his District Attorney wife, and their good slovenly benevolent police detective friend. The books take place in Boulder, Colorado. Stephen White is an example of how I find a new author - normally a mystery writer - and read his or her books all in chronological order. eBay makes it easier for me to do as I can buy a "lot" of books and re-sell them when I am done. If you are familiar with Jonathan Kellerman or his wife, then you know the type of books that White writes. White writes in a much smarter way then the other best selling authors write, which probably explains why his books don't sell as well as Kellerman or the super dumbed down James Patterson.

Immediately following the Stephen White book, my local library told me that "Night Fall" by Nelson DeMille was in. "Night Fall" is the latest book from DeMille and features the return of his beloved chauvinist pig character -- John Corey. DeMille writes his FICTIONAL stories around real life events or things that COULD be real life events. When he began his career, he wrote about spy stuff that could take place in a Cold War setting. When the Cold War eventually passed, he moved on to terrorism. His new characters are part of an anti-terrorist group. "Night Fall" looks into the possible conspiracy that was behind the real life TWA Flight 800 explosion and subsequent crash.

Currently, I went super brain dead and picked up a book that is relevant to one of my guilty pleasures... Professional Wrestling. I am reading the biography of one of my favorite wrestlers -- Adam Copeland (a.k.a. Edge). His life is interesting in the same way that most professional wrestler lives are interesting. These are men that completely dedicate their lives to succeeding in a short term business and live in the crappiest of situations to please an audience. I have read a series of these and in absolutely NO CIRCUMSTANCES have I ever read about a person that wants to succeed for money. It is always about entertaining.

Well... that is 4 books so far... I anticipate that my upcoming vacation and the 28 hours that I will spend on a plane - in total - will assist me with this goal.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Maria Full of Grace

It all began with a mid December issue of Entertainment Weekly, when I read the monthly column of one of my favorite guilty pleasures -- Stephen King. He wrote an article about his top ten favorite movies of the year.

As an avid movie fan, I keep up with all the movies that are released and I have a very good grasp of what movies are "hot" and why they are "hot" whether it is for special effects, a tremendous performance or even a great nude scene.

When I was reading Stephen King's countdown, I was familiar with all the movies that were on his list ... except one. The movie he listed as best movie of the year -- Maria Full of Grace.

After reading that, I was, of course, intrigued. I searched out more information on the movie and saw that it was a critical success across the board. This was later supported by the tons of Top Ten lists that came out. One movie seemed to join Sideways on all the lists of best movies of the year -- Maria Full of Grace. The Yahoo! Movies listing for Maria Full of Grace shows that it received a solid A from the critics (This is an average of all the reviews of the major critics.)

After some quick research, I discovered that it was on DVD, so I immediately added it to my Netflix queue and put it near the top. Two weeks later, my wife and I watched the film.

I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew it was a foreign film and that it would be subtitled. I knew that the lead actress was nominated for a Golden Globe nomination and would most likely be nominated for an Academy Award. And, I knew I was ready for a fantastic flick.

The trouble I have when I sit down to watch a movie that has gotten all these accolades is that I am sometimes disappointed that the movie didn't live up to the hype. This time... I was not disappointed.

The plot is simple. "This is the harrowing story of a (not quite) typical mule: Maria Alvarez (Moreno), an intelligent and fiercely independent 17-year-old girl from Colombia who agrees to smuggle a half-kilo of heroin into the United States. " (Yahoo movies)

The movie shows the trip of the 17 year old girl to the United States and what happens to her once she arrives. It is a one hour and forty one minute movie and as soon as she steps on that plane, I couldn't take my eyes off the film. They had successfully created an empathetic character and even though she was breaking the law and causing damage to herself -- psychologically and physically, you rooted for her.

This movie is a triumph. It shows that you can make an incredible film and not spend big money. You can make people sit on the edge of your seat and not have killer robots to do so. You can intrigue people and make them cheer just by watching a young girl work out of her financial despair.

These makes me want to see another heart warming movie ... In America...

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

1 Down, 47 to go.

I just completed reading The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. Having already read The Soul of A Chef (which was written after this book), I had some idea what to expect both from the quality of writing and the material he would cover. I enjoyed The Soul Of A Chef and wanted more.

In the Making of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman attends the Culinary Institute of America and writes about his experiences there, starting from Skills class all the way through to his final block at the American Bounty Restaurant.

Michael Ruhlman has a passion for food and cooking. This enthusiasm carries over into his writing. Throughout the book he ponders whether passion for food and cooking can be taught. Even if it cannot, his certainly carries us along with him. It was an easy read that held my attention and encouraged me to read more. His exuberance for the material not only encouraged me to continue reading, but made me want to be a better cook.

However, the book is not without is share of flaws. His writing is a bit jumpy at different points and sometimes I wish he explained some cooking terms more fully, especially for those of us that are not professional chefs. Also, because he condensed his stay, skipping over some classes and the required externships he was unable to follow one class all the way through their first two years. This leaves him to introduce new characters about midway through his experience. So while we get a taste of life at CIA, and some of the students and instructors that populated its campus in the mid '90s, I kept thinking how much more interesting the book would be if he had followed the same students. In the end, Ruhlman is forced to insert himself into the storyline more than I would ordinarily like for a book of this type.

Overall -- if you have a passing interest in food and cooking, this is a worthwhile read.

-- Szg

Any links to commercial establishments are not endorsements, nor do they generate any revenue for this author or the website.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Rating Movies: The Smelmooo Way

It occurs to me that when I rate movies to friends, I don't generally give them a 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 star rating. I try to figure out what they like and adapt the rating to them. For example, Dawn of the Dead is a pretty good movie with some cool special effects, but if you aren't into fun horror movies then this might not be your type of movie.

How do you quantify your opinions like that?

To put it into perspective, I would give Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King the same rating I would to Ghostbusters. I think they are both completely perfect films, but for much different reasons.

I decided long ago to rate movies in a different manner -- one that suits my way of thinking and still applies actual worth to a film. You will see that the system is essentially a star system but it is more of a real world way of saying what I want to say and enables me to add caveats.

1. Full Price -- The movie was so good -- whatever kind of movie it was -- that I would recommend that you sneak out right now and see it... no matter what it costs. I would even say that if you had to go on a Friday night with everyone else in the world, it would be completely worth it for you. Full price is a big honor.

2. Matinee -- The movie is good. You should see it. You would like it, but I am not quite sure you would love it... so I don't want to be the guy that told you to go see a movie and made you pay full price... Matinees are always good to see... you see a movie and still feel like you saved a few bucks.

3. DVD -- DVDs on average come out 5-7 months after the movie was in the theaters. This level signifies that it was an ok movie, but if you miss it in the theaters, don't sweat it. DVD is good enough... especially in this world of Netflix when it won't cost you much to see it anyway.

4. Cable -- Movies almost always come out on cable one full year after they are released. It is really recommended that you wait that long to see this piece of drivel.

5. Regular TV -- They release stuff on regular television after removing all the bad words, violence and nudity, a few years after it comes out. Seriously... you can wait that long.

6. Ugh... (Self explanatory.)

Monday, January 10, 2005

My Reading List

About a year ago, I read this post. I am sure that idea was not new or unique, but for some reason it was something that had never occurred to me. 52 magazines in 52 weeks. I did not attempt to read 52 magazines, but I did seek out 5 or 6 that I had never read, just to expose myself to some new things.

Towards the end of last year, again through, I came across this. Someone took the original idea one step further and read 52 books in 52 weeks. 52 books!

That idea inspired me. I always want to read more, but never seem to make it a priority. Like so many others, I get sucked into some inane tv show(s) and time that I should have been reading I "waste'" on TV. Do not misunderstand me, not all tv is bad. Having a guilty pleasure -- The O.C. -- is quite alright. Its the 20 other hours a week that I can no longer account for that have me concerned.

What to do?

My goal is to read 48 books this year, or 4 a month. I may adjust that number if I tackle some of the books that perpetually appear on my list (Master of the Senate and The Power Broker) and are of some heft. Below I have outlined what's on my list so far for this year:

1. The Making of a Chef -- Michael Ruhlman (I have just about completed this one)
2. Cloud Atlas -- David Mitchell
3. Out of Left Field, How the Mariners Made Baseball Fly in Seattle -- Art Thiel
4. American Sphinx, The Character of Thomas Jefferson -- Joseph Ellis
5. An Unfinished Life, JFK -- Robert Dallek
6. Master of the Senate -- Robert A. Caro
7. Sam Adams -- David McCullogh
8. The Metaphysical Club -- Louis Menand
9. Under the Banner of Heaven -- Jon Krakauer

Like Nick Hornby's column in The Believer, wherein the books he buys and the books he reads are never the same, this list is subject to change and will change. I will keep you updated on my progress and changes as they occur. If you have any suggestions, I am open to them.

Friday, January 07, 2005

My view of the world

Before I review a movie, book, or anything else, I thought it important to give you an idea about how I think about these things.

Books -- I read books in spurts. Often I find an author I like and read everything by that author. Other times I find a topic of interest and stick to good books within that topic. And then, other times my reading list is a jumble of books that interest me for some reason or another, but do not follow any rhyme or reason.

What do I like? It's hard to say. I love Douglas Adams, but had an enormously hard time with Terry Pratchett. I loved Christopher Buckley's first few novels, but didn't read the last one and his latest does not look any better.

Over the last year or so, I have been on a nonfiction kick. And I think I am going to remain there for quite some time although I have vowed to read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Movies -- I go into every movie that I watch wanting to like it. I have to really hate a movie to dislike it. I am not some snob critic who will pick apart a movie and point out its weaknesses and faults. I watch movies to be entertained and am willing to overlook a films imperfections if I am entertained. Of course, my view of a movie does change if I see in the movies at full price, as a matinee, or as a rental at home.

Music -- Finding "new" music that I like is my most difficult challenge. I always find books to read and movies to enjoy, but new "good" music I find very elusive. Unlike my attitude towards movies, I am much harsher on music. This attitude is probably based on the different role music plays in my life than books and movies. I read a book, I think about it, maybe I build upon that knowledge with another book on the topic, or not, but at the end of the book I move on. Movies too, I enjoy a good movie, and maybe even see it more than once, but once its over, its over. Music is always around. Its on in my office, in my car, on my ipod, etc.... But getting music "right" for my ear is hard.

Unfortunately, that is not really much of an explanation of my view of the world. I guess as I "review" items and think about the role they play, that will help both you and I to better define what my view of these things truly is.

Ocean's 12

Hi there!

My wife Chris & I went to see "Ocean's 12" over this past weekend. She and I had seen the first together, and wanted to see the sequel. I love sequels. Not because they're better (they usually are not) but because it gives me a chance to compare and look at the first film in a new light.

I have to say that I liked 12, but not as much as 11. It wasn't that 11 was funnier, it was mostly that the novelty was gone. I know, it's weird to call a remake "novel," but, with an ensemble piece, it's the gathering of the different characters that makes the movie. In 12, they tried to replicate that with Andy Garcia's character tracking down each member of the gang, who had taken their shares of the money and started new lives. It was fun, but, lacks the novelty of 11.

What does work in 12, though, are two things: the interactions of the actors, and the locales. First, the actors:

Chris loves Clooney. I mean, she LOVES Clooney! I love Brad Pitt, but I don't LOVE him. I think Clooney is fun and, the wackier character he gets, the better (see "O Brother, Where Art Thou"). The same is true of Pitt (see "12 Monkeys"). In the "Ocean's" films, they both get to be quirky, but not wacky. But what makes them the most dominant on the film (besides the fact that they are the main stars) are their chemistry. This could be seen best in the scene where they are watching TV together at 5AM, both in their bathrobes, drinking a bottle of red. Not only was it hilarious, but they were so natural together, you really felt that Brad popped by George's house often just to have a beer and veg on the couch. That's chemistry!

But, Clooney & Pitt weren't the only actors that chewed scenery. While all the actors were in fine form (my wife thought that Don Cheadle really was British), it was Matt Damon that stood out to me. I got to appreciate him more as an actor in the Bourne films. But, here, he really shines. He plays the clueless young thief so well, and he makes you laugh out loud.

Finally, the locale:

Being set in Europe this time, there are even more beautiful things to marvel at (besides the Bellagio fountain). The scenes at Lake Como are stunning. When my wife and I saw the Amsterdam bar scene, my wife whispered in my ear "I smoked a joint there!" Very funny, but also indicative of how the locale sets the tone of the film. And, how it contrasts with it: nefarious characters like thieves living and surrounded by beauty and grace.

Are these two main things the only reasons to see the film? Certainly not: there are some great gags in the film, and it will make you laugh. But, since the novelty of 11 cannot be replicated in 12, it is these two reasons which make the film worth going to in the theaters, in my opinion.

* * *
- Matt

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Harry Potter at the Movies

Last night, my wife and I popped in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (PoA). It is the third movie in a series of film adaptations.

If I really need to get into Harry Potter and who he is, then let me wipe off the bottom of the rock for you and tuck you back in.

Of the three movies, PoA is the best and the one that I would watch over and over again if given the opportunity.

PoA was a departure from the first two films in two respects. They chose a new director - younger, hipper director that offered a fresh slant to the highly popular and familiar characters and they strayed from the book some. That... for me... made for a much better movie.

The original director - Chris Columbus of Home Alone fame - did a tremendous job adapting the books from book to film. The visuals were stunning and the characters developed exactly as I thought they would. I enjoyed watching the visuals I had created in my head come to life. That is also the reason why I don't necessarily need or want to watch them again.

Although they were triumphs in film making, they were stale. Nothing new was offered. I didn't really need the movie to experience Harry Potter.

PoA however, was fresh. The new director - Alfonso Cuarón - took the book and maintained a strict adherence to the book but didn't rely on all the subject matter. He took what he needed and turned it into a film. He even added new plot elements. He made a better film since I wasn't sure what to expect.

Some of the highlights included:

1. When Harry and Hermione left the inrfirmary to "fix" the problem, (I don't wanna give the plot away to people who want to be surprised) there was a ticking clock. Go back and watch it... it was so subtle but a brilliant addition to the flick.

2. The new director moved the whomping willow tree and Hagrid's hut to a new location -- one that made more sense.

3. I know it is small, but I really appreciated the costume design in this flick. The kids didn't wear those god awful robes for most of the movie. They wore regular kid clothes like sweaters and T-Shirtish type tops with jeans and sneakers. Just a small detail that I appreciated.

4. The casting of some of England's finest actors including one of my top five -- Gary Oldman. When Emma Thompson is playing the smallest of the major roles... you know you got yourself some fine actors.

That's it for now.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Welcome to Smokable Clown

First Post and a Test