Avatar is a spectacular film whose main flaw is the perception that the plot is a short-cut recycling of a more familiar story. The protagonist is a member of a species who is invading the territory of a nature-worshipping people, who infiltrates an foreign culture, becomes accepted as one of their own, admits he was a spy, decides to ally himself with his new people, and attempts to fight off the greedy invasion force.

Dances With Wolves, the well-known 1990 Best Film Oscar winner, was not the first to use the fish-out-of-water theme, but did it most recently, most memorably, and with a great sense of tragedy. Because this has been so entrenched in our cinematic consciousness, it’s difficult to not see the overt similarities between Avatar and Dances, and feel that director and writer James Cameron took a short-cut to originality.

I chuckle to myself in writing that, despite the pervading feeling that it is true. What is also true – before I get back to the plot – is that all Cameron has done with Avatar is to create the most enthralling and unique movie-going experience I have ever seen.

The much-ballyhooed cutting-edge digital effects (presented in 3D, as I saw) are worth every accolade they have been given. It is a breathtaking experience -- yes a true film-going experience -- to be immersed in the picture that lasts 2 hours and 40 minutes, not once did I glance at my watch. You can have all the visuals you want, but you can’t get attention buy-in like that without some crisp storytelling. I can’t think of a throw-away scene or overlong scene that didn’t move the story along or add critical background information. In other words, Avatar almost feels a little tight.

Consider Dances told the epic journey of a man in search of himself on the plains of the old west, meeting alien cultures, identifying with them, and ultimately fighting with them and breaking from his own. Avatar has all that, and also has to infuse and explore an entirely new and incredible world, alien species galore, alien technology, and, oh yeah, the “Avatar” technology itself of embedding human consciousness in an actual physical body of an alien. In order to do all that Cameron’s imagination demanded, he basically had teams inventing the film techniques for the movie. Avatar defines the word epic, and given all that it sets out to do in such a short time frame, this movie is impeccably and spectacularly told.

In the age of DVD special features, it can be easier to edit some of the background and story-building from the main release. This gives the true film enthusiasts an avenue to see the director’s cut and also allow the average film-goer accessibility to the story without feeling that they have to wonder if they’ll be able to make it through without a hasty visit to the restroom.

Cameron has done this before with Aliens. I ultimately thought the thirty added minutes of footage was unnecessary and rightly cut from the theatrical release. The deleted scenes shown in the context of the film gave more substance to the story, but detracted ultimately from the pace. Inserting the scenes of Newt and her family on the planet before they stumbled upon the aliens gave you more background and connection (somewhat) with her, but delayed the entrance of the major baddies by a good 15 minutes. It felt way too long before anything really happened in the film.

The other most notorious case (to me) is what I have referred to as the Raping of Riddick, where central plot points were edited from the theatrical release of Chronicles of Riddick. As I wrote back then, the DVD restored the scenes, and the logic of the film without disrupting the the pace, resulting in one of the best films of the decade. (I was contemplating calling it one of the top 10 science fiction films ever, but then I started mentally trying to rank and catalog and just got too weary.)

I digress mightily, but Avatar’s plot feels a little short-cutted or cribbed because there just wasn’t enough time to tell all that needs be told in the space of a single seating. I can feel the gamble between the director telling his story and ultimately losing much of his audience and profit by making it overlong. This film is rumored to be the most expensive ever made and therefore needs repeat viewings to get the most return. Some sacrifices surely had to be made, but I can happily say that nothing that jeopardizes the cohesion of the film was removed.

Cameron embraces the Campbellian archetypes as George Lucas did. Reading such references as Myth and the Movies you will recognize many of the central characters from the hero’s journey in the tale -- "the trickster," "the shadow," "the hero”, “the threshold guardian”, and realize that the epic tales of the journey we love have used the same formula, tweaked, over and over again. This one is in 3D, is a true film adventure and awesome to behold.


America's Sweetheart

Whatever you may think of Courtney Love, the girl can 'bring it' when it comes to writing and performing hard rock music. I would argue that her 2004 album, America's Sweetheart is one of the best alternative rock albums of the decade, if not all time. What? Who? Are you joking? No, I'm not.

The album, like Courtney's public persona, careens all over the place, but never loses focus. The album displays Courtney's range, from arrogant, angry rock ("Mono", "All the Drugs") to jangly, alt-pop ("Hold on to Me", "Sunset Strip"), the occasional funny, angst song of having heard a tune one too many times ("Zeplin Song") to heart-felt sadness with resolve ("Never Gonna Be the Same"). Courtney brought it, I bought it, and it never leaves my play list. Dismiss her if you must, but don't underestimate the music.

Terminator Salvation

Although we finally get to see the grown-up soldier John Connor, played by Christian Bale, Terminator Salvation is not about John Connor, nor has the series ever been. He is the protagonist, but it is the terminators themselves, both playing the heroes and villains, that dominate the screen. In the fourth installment, we stick to roughly the same formula that has emerged since the second film -- both good and bad machines. One to hunt Connor, one to rescue him. The window dressing has changed, and the movie has moved solidly into an apocalyptic future, but the theme remains the same.

The compelling actor Sam Worthington plays the good terminator (you aren't going to improve over Kristanna Loken), a person who has been willinging (and unwillingly) transformed into a kind of hybrid human/terminator. Why? That's the question that Connor tries to answer while compromising to help save his future father, Kyle Reese, using the hybrid's help. Formulaic, fun, and just what you expect. If you are surprised by any of the revelations, or how the film ends, you really haven't watched this series very closely.

Demon in the Freezer

Every now and then I like to read a non-fiction book to mix up my sometimes steady-stream intake of vampires, zombies, and the supernatural. Some non-fiction books, like The Demon in the Freezer are much scarier and fascinating than any bloodsucker.

I've listened to the audio of Richard Preston's tale of the history of smallpox three times now, and it never fails to impress with its detail and its scary story of the effort to eradicate the world's most volatile and dangerous virus ever. The story should have ended with the official removal of smallpox from the natural world in 1979, but like a bad science-fiction tale you know is going to end badly, the smallpox virus is still to this day kept in two official locations... that we know of.

Having grown up without the threat of smallpox, it's hard to fathom how this virus cut a swath through humans for most of our existence on a regular basis -- smallpox kills 1 in 3 infected and is spread through the air -- and how it's very likely that it is kept alive today in secret laboratories that are only trying to improve its effectiveness. Unleashed today, it would likely wipe out over 2 billion people. Conservatively. A fascinating tale of the greatest natural threat humans have ever known, and unfortunately may know again.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Today's news that Natalie Portman has been cast in the lead in the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies reminds me that I have read that book and not written about it. It was okay.

My underwhelming synopsis is generated from a lingering disappointment. The book was clever, inspired in parts, but it never quite measured up to its brilliant concept. Jane Austen... and zombies. It sounds hilarious. Indeed, it should have been more hilarious, but alas my expectations were a bit too lofty for the material. It was okay.

I can't help but feel that this concept should never have been a book, but a script to be made into a movie. If made with the same balanced tone of comedy and serious horror, like Shaun of the Dead (I wouldn't be shocked if the idea to write PP&Z came after watching that film), this would be a delight to see. A fleshy, decapitating delight.


The Assassination of Bobby Bowden by the Coward Florida State

If you are fortunate enough to live long enough and be really good at something, you may have to deal with forced retirement, just because you are perceived to be too old. I’ve never liked Florida State, or the state of Florida. I don’t like Bobby Bowden, but it is with a mix of sadness and satisfaction and historical relief that I mark his forced retirement from being the head coach of Florida State for 34 years.
It’s tough to see a living legend be forced out by the university before he felt it was his time to go. That he had bowed to the pressure of naming a head-coach-in-waiting and set off the ticking clock did him no favors.

Florida State’s “tradition” of dominance had fallen in recent years, but not nearly to the depths that his contemporary, Joe Paterno, had dealt with from 2000-2004. Over that span, Penn State was 26-33 with only one winning season and one bowl appearance.

The years 2000-2004 were tough for Paterno (who is five years older than Bobby), when had to deal with incessant retirement questions. There was talk of him being forced out. I never thought it would come to that, but that’s not to say I wasn’t worried. There was a lot of pressure on Joe, and the media and rabid, stupid fans can drive you (i.e., me) insane. I’m thankful that Penn State University had enough courage and loyalty to its legendary coach to stick with him in the fallow years. Their reward has been a 50-13 mark from 2005-2009, and yet another recruiting class (for 2010) that is rumored to be second best in the nation.

Compare Bowden’s 2005-Present, where he is 37-27, with zero losing seasons and four – soon to be five – bowl appearances, having split the previous four 2-2. How embarrassing. Let’s take him out back and beat the shit out of him.. The contrast to Florida State’s handling of Bowden’s exit is so jarringly different that it is difficult to watch, much less comprehend. Here’s a man who (hey, let’s not quibble about records – Joe will now not have to look over his shoulder at Bowden for most wins ever) is a fantastic coach who built Florida State football up from nothing. NOTHING. And his reward would have been the university allowing him to keep coaching in a limited capacity in his final year. Like a pet figurehead. Bobby said thanks, but no thanks. Who can blame him?

It’s a sad way to treat your living legend. I hope for a little more from Florida State. A little. On the other hand, this could also be exactly what I expected: stay classy FSU.

The Night College Football Went to Hell

To this day the most satisfying Penn State victory ever is the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, a game where the underdog of all underdogs fought and won an impossible victory against a swaggering juggernaut. The most satisfying article on the subject is the following piece by Michael Weinreb written for ESPN the magazine. The link is here, but as links tend to break, here’s the article in its entirety. Enjoy.

The Night College Football Went to Hell
Two decades later, and the real world has been kind to the quarterback, even if no one can remember his name. He lives in what can only be described as a sprawling manifestation of the American dream, an enormous stucco house on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in a tony New Jersey suburb. He has a wife, and he has four children, and he has a den with a wet bar and a pool table, and until recently, when corporate restructuring rendered him a temporary stay-at-home father, he had spent 18 years as a star at Merrill Lynch.

Hardly a household name, John Shaffer won a national title and lost only one game as the starting QB at Penn State.

John Shaffer. The name, like the way he played quarterback, is bland and forgettable, which is why few people outside of the state of Pennsylvania even recall it anymore. When he graduated from Penn State as an academic All-American in the spring of 1987, he had a national championship ring and a reputation as a solid citizen who had no legitimate shot of making it in the National Football League. He went to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. By the end of August, he did something that many football players could never muster the courage to do: He asked to be cut. He had a degree in finance, with an internship waiting on Wall Street. He had another life to start. Maybe, he says now, he could have hung around for a couple of years, could have made a roster as someone's second or third option, could have spent that time aspiring to be something he'd probably never be. Maybe, if he had lost that one game, on a January evening in the Arizona desert, he would have felt he had to aspire to something more. Maybe, if he had lost that game, his entire life might have unfolded differently. But that was the thing about John Shaffer: He was one of those quarterbacks who specialized in not losing, one of those quarterbacks you hardly see anymore in major college football, one of those quarterbacks who not only shows up for class but actually cares about his classes, one of those quarterbacks whose job is not to alter the course of the game but simply not to screw the damn thing up. Shaffer was not fleet of foot, and he did not have a prodigious arm, and while he was broad-shouldered and generically handsome, he was not an imposing physical presence. Yet, in all of his games as a starter dating back to the seventh grade, Shaffer won 66 times and lost only once, on New Year's Day 1986, to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. This is not the story of that game. This is the story of a game that took place exactly one year and one day later, the last game, the best game, and the most important game Shaffer ever played. And it's a funny thing. Because if you go by the statistics of that night, if you measure a performance purely by the numbers, John Shaffer could not have been worse.
    WINSTON MOSS, LINEBACKER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI: "Their quarterback? I don't remember their quarterback."

    DON MEYERS, FIESTA BOWL SELECTION COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: "Joe (Paterno) had this quarterback -- I think his name was Shaffer. Joe told me, 'He'll never get a call from an NFL team.' I do think Shaffer would have a hard time playing big-time college football today."

    BEANO COOK, COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORIAN: "Penn State had less firepower than Sweden did in World War II."

    DANIEL STUBBS, DEFENSIVE END, MIAMI: "They couldn't throw the ball! All night, we're screaming at them, saying, 'Throw the ball!' They couldn't do it!"
But this was not the type of game you could judge by numbers. This was a game that turned every number and every statistical notion and every prediction upside down. This was a game shaped by its own hype and pregame story lines, by its own bloated sense of self-importance, by the fact that it served as a thumb in the eye of the bowl system and its antiquated sense of propriety.

This was Jan. 2, 1987, and for the first time, the college football season had been extended beyond New Year's Day. Because of a quirk in the system, because Miami was ranked No. 1 and Penn State was ranked No. 2, and both schools were independents at the time, with no ties to any conferences, meaning no affiliations with any specific bowls, the Fiesta Bowl landed the dream matchup. Before this, the Fiesta had been second-tier, unable to stand up to the cabal of Rose, Cotton, Sugar and Orange, but now the Fiesta Bowl was in the right place at the right time, and so was NBC, which took the radical step of shifting the game to a Friday night and preempting its most popular television show to make room for, of all things, a college football game.
Two decades later, the men who played that game have become stock traders and broadcasters and salesmen and coaches and ministers. Some have fallen ill, and some have died, and some have spent time in police custody and some have spent time in the Canadian Football League and two of them, a punter and a quarterback from Miami, have defied the laws of genetics and are still playing in the NFL. But wherever they may be, wherever they may end up, they will remain united by this moment, a game between two teams with such contrasting styles that it felt like maybe something much larger was at stake, that maybe this was a referendum on where American sports were headed, for better or for worse.
    BRUCE SKINNER, FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE FIESTA BOWL: "We had just signed a contract with Sunkist. It was the first title sponsorship of a bowl game. So, yes, I'll take the blame for that. There was a certain feeling that a title sponsorship should not be involved in a college football bowl game. But the Sunkist sponsorship allowed us to be competitive. Those other four bowls, they wanted to keep it as the big four, and I don't blame them for that."

    MEYERS: "I started going down to Miami and talking to Sam Jankovich, their athletic director, and the coach, Jimmy Johnson. They said there was no way they were not going to the Orange Bowl, it was right in their backyard. But I kept going down there. We had to come up with a way to match the Orange Bowl's payoff, so we went to NBC and said if we could move this game off New Year's Day and move it into prime time, we could sell ads for a lot more money. They said, 'You're not moving it into prime time, because you're talking about preempting the most popular prime-time show on television. You're talking about "Miami Vice." ' But we sensed that this could change the entire bowl picture in college football. It was a true No. 1 versus a true No. 2, both undefeated, playing on a neutral field. And from NBC's perspective, it could change college football, too."
This was his vision, grandiose and bold, and Meyers was unwilling to compromise on the scope of it. He exploited every angle. He stroked every ego. He played off the media. He worked his way up the ladder at NBC, and eventually he twisted enough arms in the entertainment division that they agreed to accommodate him, if he could actually secure the matchup. Getting Penn State wasn't much of a problem. Joe Paterno was 3-0 in the Fiesta Bowl; why wouldn't he want to play there? His team had more than a dozen fifth-year seniors who wanted nothing more than another chance at a national championship after the loss to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl the previous season. "If we have to play this game in a parking lot in Brooklyn," Paterno told Meyers, "we'll do it." But Penn State was never the No. 1 team that season, and in the end, the decision would not be Penn State's. There was never a question that Jimmy Johnson possessed the best team in the nation that year. The only question, in fact, was whether this was the most talented team college football had ever seen. It had a Heisman-winning quarterback in Vinny Testaverde, a top-flight backfield anchored by fullback Alonzo Highsmith, an unbearably cocky wide receiver, Michael Irvin, and a defense rife with size and speed and bubbling over with attitude. (Even the punter, Jeff Feagles, was one of the best at his position.) This was a new breed of college football team, an NFL developmental squad disguised as amateurs.Johnson was new to the politics of the bowl picture, having come to Miami from Oklahoma State as a no-name coach in 1984. He saw no real reason for his team to leave Florida, home of the Orange Bowl, the Citrus Bowl and the Gator Bowl. His team had outscored its opponents 420-136, had already beaten Oklahoma, the defending national champion, and had been No. 1 ever since. Whoever they played, wherever they played, it would be a formality, a culmination of a season guided by destiny. What was the point in hauling across the country to play a team that might have been undefeated, yes, but had nearly lost to Cincinnati and barely beaten Maryland? So even after Meyers had secured more money from the sponsors, even after he'd coaxed more money out of NBC, even after he'd set up a fundraising banquet with Bob Hope, even after he'd delivered black satin sweat suits to the entire Miami team, and even after he'd arranged for the wives of the Miami coaches to get free treatments at a highbrow desert spa, he realized he needed one more flourish, one last appeal to the ego of a coach whose immaculate coiffure had already assumed a mythical significance. As an insurance policy, Meyers said he began calling reporters. Jimmy Johnson doesn't want to play Joe Paterno on a neutral field, he told them. Jimmy's afraid. When anyone at Miami asked him whether he might be the anonymous source making such statements, he denied it. Immediately after Miami's last victory over East Carolina, Johnson stood in front of a room full of reporters and confirmed that his team would be playing in the Fiesta Bowl, in prime time, against Penn State. With this team, why should he be afraid of anyone?
    TREY BAUER, LINEBACKER, PENN STATE: "As a group, they didn't seem very smart to me. No way that (expletive) would have happened at Penn State. But they were clearly at the front end of all that (expletive) you see now."

    STUBBS: "They were just ... bland. And we were doing things that teams are still doing today. You know how everybody puts up four fingers when the fourth quarter comes around? That was us. We were the first ones to cut our jerseys, and the NCAA made sure that isn't around no more. When we played Oklahoma, we didn't shake their hands, and now there's a rule you have to do it. People didn't respect us? We didn't care."

    ALONZO HIGHSMITH, RUNNING BACK, MIAMI: "Yeah, Jerome Brown had a gun on campus, and that put the program in a bad light. But they didn't mention how many of us graduated, how we weren't allowed to take those easy courses like other programs get away with. We were brash, and we did a lot of talking on the field, but if you asked the majority of college players, they wished their coaches would let them play like us."

    BAUER: "They made us out to be a bunch of choirboys, but that wasn't the case, either. It wasn't like we were locked in the library 24/7."

    COOK: "The general feeling was that Miami was just a bunch of rogues. They made Penn State good because everyone wanted to say Miami is evil, and so it became good versus evil."
The idea? Two decades later, who can remember how the idea came about? According to Highsmith, it started with a few of the seniors, like him and like Brown, the incorrigible All-America defensive tackle. And then it spread, and it became the latest outlandish brainstorm of a team that felt like it could do absolutely no wrong, even as the improprieties and transgressions mounted and the self-righteous criticism came hard and fast. They were thugs. They were outlaws. They were the Oakland Raiders of college football. So when somebody came up with this new idea, the notion of wearing combat fatigues all week long, to show the world that they meant business, that they were there to do a job, they all seemed to think it made perfect sense. Johnson and Jankovich were already out in Arizona, so the players were flying out on their own, and there was no one to tell them otherwise. It wasn't until they stepped off the plane in their fatigues and saw the Penn State players walking around in suits and ties that they realized what their outfits had wrought. This had already become the most hyped game in the history of college football, and now here was an organic story line: The bad guys had dressed the part.
    JANKOVICH: "I was decimated. We didn't know anything about it, and if we were on the plane, they probably wouldn't have done it. From that point on, it was really downhill."

    STUBBS: "People need to understand, we didn't have a dress code. It's different now, with all the teams wearing shirts and ties. While we were out there, we visited some Army base in the mountains and we bought me some medals. I was a 17-star general, because I had 17 sacks that season. That was something we did. It ain't gonna be repeated again."

    HIGHSMITH: "If we win the game, no one cares about it. It might be a fashion statement or something."

    BAUER: " We thought it was absurd. Like, what are these guys doing?"
At a news conference in which he referred to Paterno -- anointed that week as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year -- as "St. Joe," Johnson affirmed that he didn't care much how his players dressed, or how they went about motivating themselves. He told the assembled horde -- and in the end, about 1,500 media members flocked to Phoenix to cover a game that was beginning to feel like a Super Bowl -- that he couldn't wait to see what they came up with next.

He had other things on his mind. Meyers had never seen a coach so ... uptight. Johnson complained about the carpeting in the locker room, so at the last minute Meyers had carpenters flown in from Los Angeles to replace it with something in Miami's green. The day before the game, each team was scheduled to do a walk-through on the field at Sun Devil Stadium. Meyers called Paterno and asked him what time he wanted. "Four o'clock," Paterno told him. He called Johnson. "What time does Joe want to go?" Johnson asked. Meyers told him 4 o'clock. "Then we want to go at 4," Johnson said. Meyers called Paterno back. "We're going out at 4," Paterno said. Jankovich called Meyers sometime around midnight that night. He was upset, claiming favoritism toward Penn State. According to Meyers, Jankovich might even have cried, though Jankovich says he can't recall any of this. All he knows is that the Hurricanes were promised certain things. They wanted the bigger locker room; they got the smaller one. They wanted to be the home team, but Penn State wore its home blue jerseys. When 4 p.m. came, Miami showed up for the walk-through. Penn State never did. By then, the Hurricanes were primed to implode in a bizarre display of rebelliousness that still lingers, two decades later. Both teams attended a steak fry, where they were supposed to deliver a brief skit. Penn State's players wore suits and ties. Miami's players wore their black sweat suits, only because, Highsmith insists, the Fiesta Bowl officials told them to. The Penn State punter, John Bruno, made a couple of jokes, dragged out a garbage can labeled with masking tape as Jimmy Johnson's Hair Spray, and made a crack about how much racial harmony there was at Penn State: "We're one big family," he said. "We even let the black guys eat with us at the training table once a week." So now it was Miami's turn. Jerome Brown stood up and unzipped his sweat suit to reveal his fatigues. "Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?" he said. "No. We're outta here."

Out toward their buses went the men in the fatigues, cementing a reputation that Miami still cannot shake, 14 years after Brown's death in a car accident. Bauer started to laugh. Bruno stood up, made some crack about Miami having to leave so the players could begin filming "Rambo III," and then delivered a quote that Penn State football fans still evoke, 14 years after Bruno's death from melanoma: Miami/Collegiate ImagesAlonzo Highsmith carried Miami's vaunted ground game.

"Excuse me," he said. "But didn't the Japanese lose the war?"
    TIM JOHNSON, DEFENSIVE LINEMAN, PENN STATE: "When they walked out, that was the moment where the heat turned up 100 percent. I was ready to go find our locker room, suit up, and play right now. It's on. It is on."

    STUBBS: "We weren't there to have fun. We had some mariachi band come on our bus, and they were passing out oranges, and we were like, 'We're here to win a game.' Then we went to this steak fry and they made us put on a show, and we said we're not here to do a show. But then the Penn State players get up there and they're ripping us, and they're ripping Coach Johnson. So when it's our turn, we just said, 'Dude, we're out of here.'"

    BOB WHITE, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, PENN STATE: "If you're told a lie for long enough, you start to believe it. They were talented, but they bullied people by running their mouths." JEROME BROWN (from a pregame news conference): "I think they're nothing. Shaffer thought he had a bad bowl game last year. That was nothing. After this game, he'll wish he'd graduated. The dude's about to star in a nightmare."

    JERRY SANDUSKY, DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR, PENN STATE: "That game took on everything that went on around it until it became more than a game."

    PATERNO (From "Paterno: By the Book," by Joe Paterno with Bernard Asbell): "I don't know whether Jimmy helped his kids plan their disgraceful walkout. ... But I know he was there. Nor did he raise a finger of caution when we were climbing out of our bus for the locker room as his team ... just about blocked our path, waving and taunting and yelling, 'We'll get you, you mothers.' (I'm only using half their word)."

    MEYERS: "By game time, it felt like the place was going to explode."
A year and a day removed from the only loss of his football career, a year and a day removed from the moment when he insisted on accepting the blame for his team's 25-10 defeat to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, John Shaffer walked onto a field in Tempe and tried not to think of anything except the first play of the game. It was going to be a pass. They were going to throw on first down, to try to catch Miami off guard, and then Shaffer found himself distracted by the presence on the sideline of David Hartman, one of the anchors of "Good Morning America," who had been hanging around all week. And he saw all these famous alums from both teams -- Kenny Jackson, Curt Warner, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly -- and the whole thing began to sink in: This was bigger than last season. This was bigger than any college football game he had played in. This was bigger than any college football game anyone had ever played. For a few more moments, they had to muzzle themselves. Miami's Irvin walked over to Penn State's undersized safety, Ray Isom. "You're Isom?" he said. He was laughing; all week, Miami had been ridiculing Penn State's defensive backs, likening them to Smurfs -- they were too small and too slow to cover Irvin and Brett Perriman and Brian Blades. Penn State got the ball first. Shaffer called that pass play. Then he looked in the eyes of his offensive linemen, and they were glassy and unfocused. They're not here yet, he thought. He took the snap, faked a handoff to his All-America tailback, D.J. Dozier, and dropped back four or five steps. One Miami lineman, Winston Moss, came charging in from the outside, unblocked. Shaffer ducked, Moss overran him, but here came two more linemen, charging straight into him. Shaffer wound up twisted in the grass, 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He never had a chance. It would go like this all night for Penn State's offense. They could not throw the ball, and even behind Dozier, they could not run the ball either. At the end of the first quarter, they had seven total yards. Shaffer finished 5-for-16 for 53 yards. They managed only one sustained drive, of 74 yards, which ended in an ugly dive by Shaffer to tie the game at 7-7 in the second quarter, and negated Shaffer's only crucial mistake of the game, a fumble deep in Penn State's territory that led to Miami's first and only touchdown. That Nittany Lions drive accounted for nearly half of their 162 yards of total offense; Miami would finish with 445.

And all of this was fine with Paterno, and it was fine with Sandusky, because they had built this team on a philosophy that, two decades later, has begun to seem more and more quaint: You win with defense first, and you win with special teams second. And all your offense has to do -- and all your quarterback has to do -- is avoid screwing the whole thing up.
    SHAFFER: "We really trusted authority. We felt like if we listened to the coaches, we'd be successful. And our offense was very comfortable taking a secondary role. I think for a young head coach today, with all these wide-open offenses, it would be very hard to win that way."

    BAUER: "When I watched the film, I remember thinking, 'Are these guys that good or are the teams they're playing that bad?' It looked like a flag football game. But we had a veteran defense, and we had six weeks to prepare. We had 150 different looks on defense just for that game."

    SANDUSKY: "They weren't very concerned in warm-ups. I remember Vinny and Jimmy coming over to check out our defensive backs and I'm thinking, 'Man, I wish we looked more impressive.'"

    STUBBS: "I'm a Jersey guy, and the one thing I knew about Penn State was that their defensive backs could hit. They crushed Michael on one play, and he came to the sidelines and I said, 'I told you so.' "

    BAUER: "Irvin got totally jacked up early in the game by one of our guys. I mean, he got hit. And I don't think he did much of anything the rest of the game. I think in the press conference afterward, he said the ball was slippery or something."
Sometime around the start of the second quarter, the talking subsided and this game settled into a rhythm: Penn State stalls, Bruno punts the ball deep into Miami territory, and Miami turns the ball over. At halftime, Bob Costas conducted a rambling interview with President Reagan. Meyers' vision had come to fruition. The ratings were enormous, larger than even the network could have expected: 25.1 percent of households with televisions (more than 70 million viewers) were tuned to NBC that night; no college football game has gotten that kind of ratings share, before or since. In the third quarter, All-America linebacker Shane Conlan made an interception for Penn State, then stumbled and fell on a bad knee that had been bothering him all night long. After Penn State gave the ball back, Miami missed a field goal.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, linebacker Pete Giftopoulos made an interception. Then the Lions missed a field goal. Penn State was rushing three men and dropping eight, and instead of running the ball with Highsmith, Testaverde kept throwing. He threw into coverage. He threw to the wrong man. His receivers dropped passes. Even so, Miami went up 10-7 on a field goal with 11:49 remaining because Penn State simply could not move the ball either. On Penn State's next possession, Jerome Brown sacked Shaffer, leapt up, and saluted the crowd. The swagger had returned. But after another Bruno punt, Testaverde, looking as perplexed by Penn State's shifting schemes and coverages as he had all night long, threw another pass directly into the arms of Conlan, who returned it to the Miami 5-yard line. Dozier scored, dropped to a knee and said a prayer. Penn State led, 14-10. Rob Tringali for ESPN.com. Shaffer left Tempe with memories and mementos that no one will ever take away from him.

Both defenses stood up once more. Miami tight end Alfredo Roberts fumbled the ball away, but Penn State could not manage a single first down and Bruno punted the ball back with 3:18 left. A minute later, after Bauer dropped a potential interception, Miami was facing fourth-and-6 on its own 26-yard line.And then, as if perhaps they had both finally awakened from an evening's slumber, Testaverde found Brian Blades for a 32-yard gain. Soon the Canes had moved to the Penn State 26, and then Testaverde hit Irvin at the Penn State 10 with a minute left. Conlan went down on his bad knee, stopping the clock. Testaverde hit Irvin again, and it was second-and-goal at the Penn State 5 with 45 seconds left.
    SANDUSKY: "After Conlan got hurt, Bauer came over to the sideline. He looked at me and I said, 'I can't help you. Good luck.' Then I asked Trey if he knew what to call if they went without a huddle and he said he did. And then he got lockjaw."
    BAUER: "That's (expletive)! The coaches were confused! They never sent in the play!"

    STUBBS: "On the sidelines, we're all saying we should run the ball. Run a delayed draw to Alonzo, and he'll carry somebody in to the end zone. But Vinny wanted to throw."

    HIGHSMITH: "To this day, I have no clue what happened. All I know was they weren't gonna stop me that day. I always figured I'd get one or two carries on the goal line."
On second-and-goal, Testaverde dropped back, and Tim Johnson burst through the line, wrapped an arm around Testaverde's neck and sacked him. On third down, Testaverde dropped back again, and threw incomplete in the flat. And on fourth down, with 18 seconds left, Testaverde dropped back once more, looking for ... well, who knows? In one last burst of confusion, he threw left, toward the end zone, toward several Penn State players, and Giftopoulos, the soft-spoken linebacker from Ontario, Canada, intercepted his pass -- Testaverde's fifth interception of the game, and Miami's seventh turnover -- and then, not knowing what else to do, started to run aimlessly, like a foal lost in the woods.
    SANDUSKY: "I've always prided myself on being able to handle pressure, but on that fourth down, I couldn't even speak to make the defensive call. When it was over, I just walked over to the bench and sat down by myself and started to cry."

    SHAFFER: "Joe was going crazy to get people off the field, because there was still time on the clock. We had to snap the ball once more, and I told our center, Keith Radecic, just hold the ball up and don't move your hand."

    BAUER: "I lost 12 pounds that night. Afterward I couldn't go out, I couldn't celebrate, I couldn't do anything."

    COOK: "I had picked Penn State to win. But I was one of the only ones. A few years ago, I saw Joe at a dinner and he told me, 'To this day, I still don't know how we beat Miami.' There's always a game that every Hall of Fame coach loses and wakes up years later at 2 a.m. in a cold sweat thinking about it. For Jimmy Johnson, this was that game."

    MOSS: "We thought we were the superior team. And I still feel that way. But we've won, what, four titles since then? And we won the next year, in '87."

    STUBBS: "The next year they made us sign some paper, saying we'd be good. I don't even know what it said. I just signed the (expletive)."

    COOK: "That game did cement Miami's reputation, though. And they still pay for it. A lot of it is unjustified, but it's true -- that was the college football equivalent of the scarlet A."

    SKINNER: "Not only did it mean a lot for both programs, but I think it really implemented the idea that we need to have a national championship game. It was a big domino, at least for the BCS."
Of course, even today's BCS system is deeply flawed. Games like this do not take place every year, and even when they do, the hype is often manufactured and artificially inflated. Rarely is the contrast so stark, so obvious, and rarely is the game so competitive, and rarely is the emotion so palpable. To play with a swagger, to high-five and taunt like those Hurricanes once did -- this is, for better or for worse, the rule, not the exception. So much so that even Penn State, long an oasis of high-mindedness, is no longer immune from harboring such an attitude.

Two decades later, the game has changed, both because of and despite what happened that night. But one thing has not changed: The anonymous quarterback, one of the last of a breed nearing extinction, still has trouble proving his worth. Not long ago, Shaffer watched the most important football game of his life with his son, and while they were watching, his son turned to him and said, "Did you actually talk to Joe Paterno?


The Road

Cormac McCarthy's 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction novel, The Road is barren, bleak, and haunting, but not necessarily a book I would recommend, and certainly not one I care to see translated to screen. It's a story of survival in some post-apocalyptic section of the eastern United States, between a father and his very young son who face starvation, sickness, and the scum of whats-left-of-society.

It's not a futuristic tale, but one where all the remnants of a recently (nuclear fallout appears to be the cause) hostile earth environment conspire in a real and cold manner. The majority of dialogue is between the father and son, and it's brief and repetitive to the point of irritation. I was surprised that the book was as short as it was, but thankful in the end.

Aside, there's a purveyance of guilt, perhaps with a bit of confusion I feel when I read a highly-praised novel and I come away with disappointment. McCarthy's work may be lauded by critics, but the material is a lacking follow-up to the film No Country For Old Men. Of course, I never read the book, but read repeatedly how it was very faithful to the book. Maybe the books really weren't up to snuff and the translation by the Coen brothers (and Javier Bardiem) made up for the source material. Or maybe each book is different in its own way. Regardless, The Road didn't do it for me, whatever 'it' is.

PS. Upon further review, the award Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, deals with "distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life". My interests in fiction generally do not fall in the everyday American life category. Wrapping the folksy tale in an apolocalyptic blanket clearly didn't help.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson movies are difficult to evaluate on first viewing, so it is with hearty 'meh' of assurance that The Fantastic Mr. Fox was something less than that, but certainly one day could be like the title. Anderson's adaptation of the beloved children's book (beloved in the sense that that is what I heard -- I never heard of the book until last month) is successful as a fun, quirky, sometimes funny tale of some wild animals struggling with their duties as domestic beings while still embracing their wild side.

The film itself is clever, perhaps too clever to take in one sitting. There was a direct line stealing / homage to an older film early on that caused me to drift off and think about what movie it was from. Minutes later when it finally dawned on me that the line was James Dean from "Rebel Without a Cause", I was wondering just what audience that line was in there for -- a film reference from an (relatively) obscure line from 55 years ago probably didn't get recognized by the target audience. I enjoyed it nonetheless, but only because I happened to remember the film line, which makes me wonder how many more subtle references are made in the movie. Wonder and irritate.

My gut feeling is that repeating viewings will make this film more enjoyable, perhaps on a fantastic level, but I don't know if I'm going to invest the time and effort to getting there.

PS. I had no idea Roald Dahl (author of Fantastic Mr. Fox) also wrote the screenplay to You Only Live Twice. This might explain how the giant volcano base came to be.



Decidedly different from the masterful sci-fi horror original, Aliens in its own right is a thrilling action/suspense sequel that launched the series -- really re-created the series in its own image -- and took no prisoners. Boasting a colorful and memorable cast, the film hits all the right emotional notes. Sigourney Weaver owns the character Ripley, but she has plenty of talent to work off. From Michael Biehn's reluctant corporal-turned-commander to Jenette Goldstein's tough-as-nails Vasquez, to Bill Paxton's quote-making-masterpiece as doomsayer Private Hudson, to Lance Henrikson's quiet but emotional performance as the android Bishop, you feel for the characters and their hopeless situation of escaping from hundreds of Aliens.

James Cameron's ultimate strength remains in weaving memorable characters to a well-paced plot and action. (Did I mention James Horner's score is awesome?) Once caveat is that length does not necessarily make a film better, so I'll have to disagree with him that his 1991 director's cut (157 minutes) is better than the original theatrical cut (135 minutes). I have to side with the studio that the twenty minutes of footage actually serve to draw out the lengthy beginning of the film -- you don't even see an Alien until well-over an hour in. While this works in Jaws, I didn't feel it worked to make a better film here. In the original, Ridley is rescued, you get her situation, get the urgency of the colony, and bam-- we are on our way. Forty-five minutes of tension is plenty before all-hell breaks loose, but either way, Aliens still stands up as one impressive piece of action-filmmaking.


Imagine a story featuring a world-class hacker whose foolish double-cross of his bosses led to them forcing him to undergo surgery that prevents him from jacking into the matrix. And now imagine that a slender female, who has surgically implanted mirrors for eyes and retractable razors for fingernails, and a former soldier whose personality has been replaced, recruits the hacker on behalf of a ruthless Artificial Intelligence who wants to be set free from its network. Pretty cool concept, kind of a The Matrix meets Terminator meets AI meets The Cell. Now imagine this story was written before any of these movies were made, 25 years ago.

To call Neuromancer a ground-breaking work is an understatement. I've read the work four times now, and there are things about William Gibson's novel that never get old.

Certainly, the further along we get in technology, the more interesting and astounding it is to read about these visionary concepts when the vast majority of people had little idea what a network was let alone RAM. Virtual reality was years away from being even a cult phrase, and hacking was a threat without a target -- who even had a computer at their desk at work in 1983? I still get a tingly thrill reading a story whose made-up-technology coined many of our current concepts and language and remains for the most part (the size of RAM needs updating, but EVERYONE who wrote about advanced computers in the 80's and 90's got the rate of growth wrong).

Of course, the concepts are fascinating, but without the story and Gibson's breathtaking description (opening line: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."), it would be as interesting as a Nostradamus portent. The first act of the story involves the hacker, Case, working with his hired-gun Molly, to break into a highly-guarded computer facility to retrieve the "flatline" of a former hacker. The "flatline" is a self-contained program that resembles the personality of the former hacker and will work with Case to break through the security that houses the AI. Using an implant, Case can 'jack-in' to Molly to receive all her inputs during her break-in, including feeling the actual pain of a gunshot wound and her playful nipple pinch. That caper proves simple compared to the ultimate goal, which they must recruit a sociopath who can project holograms and travel to an orbiting multi-layered mainframe to accomplish their mission.

Wildly creative and original, Neuromancer remains the holy grail of cyberpunk novels, and stands up today as strong as it did 25 years ago.


Clash of the Titans (1981)

With one minute of teaser trailer footage, the 2010 Clash of the Titans remake has firmly grabbed a hold of my youthful nostalgia and nearly made me frothing with desire to see this film in March. This is not because I thought that the original was lacking, but rather that 1981's Clash of the Titans holds up as great adventure tale whose film techniques could use a 21st-century treatment.

1981's Clash was a "big-budget" film using stop-motion animation, the premiere technology at the time for special-effects. While stop-motion animation is still in broad use today, it is relegated to animated films; CGI effects have all-but replaced the technology for realistic effects. Although it was obvious back in '81 that the Krakon was a big clay sculpture, it was enough for the time to get absorbed in the film. Today, watching the piece, it is a lot more noticeable as times have changed and we are used to digital characters that seamlessly integrate with real ones.

What sets Clash apart is the execution of a gang-buster story. Interweaving dozens of classic Greek mythological heroes, gods, and villains, the story still resonates with urgency and menace. One of the classic scenes involves Perseus' confrontation with Medusa, the Gorgon who cannot be looked upon without turning to stone. Perseus must use all his wits and skill to defeat an opponent who has acidic blood, a marksman's skill with arrows, and a face that literally could kill. It's obviously claymation at work, but the scene still to this day carries palpable menace and tension throughout.

The legacy, and challenge, of this remake is to take what was once great and make it great again for a new audience. It's probably the easiest upgrade I can think of; you've got the story, now all you've got to do is throw in some one-liners and adjust the action. And maybe lose the comic-relief gold owl.


The Men Who Stare At Goats

It's often in IT that you see a case where an idea is brilliant in concept, but in execution the flaws become obvious. This is the reason most IT projects or code go through pilot testing to shake out the flaws. If caught early enough, the flaws can be corrected, or the requirements changed to something more practical. But at some point, the cost of changing what you have outweighs the benefits of change, so you have to just do your best and hope the product works out.

In The Men Who Stare At Goats, the main character and narrator, Bob Wilton, is a reporter who travels to Iraq to find some worth in his life. There he meets a man who claims to be part of a secret army crew who are referred to as "Jedi". Throughout the film, Bob plays the neophyte follower who is trying to learn about their "Jedi" ways. As such, he often asks plenty of questions about the "Jedi" and acts confused when new concepts of the "Jedi" are discussed.

In a brilliantly clever, but ultimately undoing casting decision, Bob is played by Ewan McGregor. Anyone who has seen the recent Star Wars films can see the ironic humor of Obi-Wan Kenobi going around befuddled by these New Age "Jedis". If this had been a throw-away concept, a one-time joke, it would have served the film as a clever aside. But, with Ewan / Obi-wan glaring back at you as the narrator constantly confused by references to Jedi, I found it impossible to relax into the film. Instead, it became a meta-character. When the character is not so much enhanced as dependent on the actor being recognizable in another role, and that joke is hammered home repeatedly, the result is you have reminders that these are actors.

Yes, I realize that I was sitting in a theater, and I paid money to watch a film, and yes, these films have actors, and no, it's not real. My problem come in with suspension of disbelief -- the ability of the audience to accept the concept of the film in order to enjoy it. For instance, it's very difficult to enjoy Star Wars if every time you see the Millenium Falcon jump to hyperspace, you snort and deride that is ridiculous. An instance more similar to the casting problem is breaking the fourth wall, where one of the characters address the audience directly. This does not break suspension of disbelief BECAUSE the characters stay in character. It would never work for Woody Allen in Annie Hall to say "You heard that! I know because I wrote this script!" versus "You heard that!" Ewan McGregor as Bob doesn't break the fourth wall, it sneaks around it. It's funny as a Saturday Night Live skit, but not as film.

If the character of Bob is played by ANY other actor (except Liam Neeson or Mark Hamill -- the latter being the most distracting), then entire feel of the film changes. Instead, I have to wonder if the script was written precisely with Ewan in mind, if the producers where intending you to go, "that is ironic and funny that Ewan is asking about Jedi again" every time he's up there, or if there was a pilot process to any of this.

And then there's the ending. The very last scene changes the entire feel of the preceeding 110 minutes. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but I'll guess that you, like me, expected an entirely different result to Ewan's experiment. Where most of the film is grounded in psychic powers that may-or-may-not exist, but if they do they certainly aren't capable of some things, then the end is completely head-shaking.

Did I mention I liked the film? It's a solid 'B' experience, except for those two things. Casting and end. Come to think of it, that's grounds for an official "bungling in execution" label. Next time get Harrison Ford. Wait, maybe not...


The Girl Who Played With Fire

As a sequel, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire is as satisfying a follow-up as they get, if not downright superior to the first book, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Indeed, while I was reading it, I was savoring each page of character development, malicious characters, and odd anti-heroes. This is the kind of book you are sad that it is so good, because you don’t want it to end. You are also sad because you realize towards the end that the author has given you a giant fucking cliff-hanger. And while you are thoroughly satisfied, thirsty and irritated by the thrall Larsson has over you in his fascinating tale, you really, really hope that the late author wrapped up the story in the third book to be released next summer. Anger, fear, aggression. Well-played… for a book.

Just a note about the movie, and there will be a movie. (There is the Swedish Men Who Hate Women -- the original title of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- which ostensibly looks to have gotten it right. I’m guessing there will be an American series when all is said and done.) The absolute crucial (and probably most sought-after role) casting that will make-or-break the film is for Lisbeth Salander. I could try to explain it using a bunch of adjectives, but suffice to say she’s one of my all-time favorite characters and an absolute joy to follow. Kind of like how Harry Potter fans rabidly follow the casting of those films, this one will be for adults. Or at least those without brooms.

The development of Salander is the most intriguing thing about the series. As I’ve mentioned before, the original title of the first novel, actually the current title in his native Sweden, is “Men Who Hate Women”. This is certainly an appropriate descriptor of the book (and sequel), but somewhere along the line, I get a sense that Larsson discovered what a wonderful character he had developed and slowly, perhaps unconsciously, the book(s) became more about her and her interactions with the plot than the plot itself. And we are rewarded for it.

I wrote a bit about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo previously, but I am now more struck by the emotional denouement of the piece. At once heartrending, appropriate, and realistic, the end could have entirely been left out of the book, and the novel would have been just as complete. Including the last bit about Salander not only develops the character more, almost as an afterthought, but demands more to the story. Contrast to the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire, which is a downright cliffhanger. Larsson knocks us over the head with one, and teases us with another. Both ways left this reader salivating for more.

PS. The third book is not due for US release until May 2010. So I paid the extra to get it now from the UK. Speaks for itself.


The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death: A Novel

I can't quite put my finger on it, but I think there's something about making your hero a self-avowed and proud-of-it slacker that's an instant turn-off for me. Instead of conforming comfortably into Joseph Campbell's hero arc, or partaking in the ridiculous humor of his situations, I found myself reading Charlie Huston's 'The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death: A Novel', brooding, wishing the "hero" would grow up a little, and get exasperated with his bad attitude. Not a good place to start.

Charlie Huston has written better books, more enthralling books. In fact, every book that I've read of his prior to this one -- seven, the three Hank Thompson series and four Joe Pitt books (going to dig into book five eagerly soon!) -- was better. This story seemed a little too cute for me, a little watered down compared to his other pulp noir works, and just a little too mainstream. That sounds a little strange about a book where its main character makes his business cleaning up gruesome crime scenes. In those areas, the book is interesting, engaging, and amusingly gory, true to Charlie-form. And if you take this book by itself, I think it was good, just good, but not really representative of what Charlie can do. Anyone else, I would give this book a B+, but Charlie gets a B-, because as my favorite 'student', I know he can do better.

Angels & Demons

Angels & Demons, the first book written with character Robert Langdon, is not a prequel of The Da Vinci Code; Da Vinci Code is a true sequel to Angels & Demons. And an inferior one at that, both in novel and film. Not that the film Angels & Demons was any great work, but it's source material was much more tailor-made for screen than it's predecessor. Er, successor. Er, something.When it comes to how so many people I have encountered inexplicably either think The Da Vinci Code book is better than Angels & Demons or the same book is beyond me. Perhaps a clue can be found in the order in which the novels are read. I won't say definitively that every person (let's say my sample size is about 10 people at this point -- in other words, statistically irrefutable so don't even try it!!!) falls in this category, but I found that 9 out of 10 preferred whichever of the two books they read first. The only circumstance I can recall where the audience tended to prefer whichever they saw first was between Austin Powers I and II; in that case, the audience didn't like the second as much because it was mostly the same jokes over again.

I can totally understand that case, but it baffles me where the two Dan Brown books are concerned. You have some common elements -- the church, conniving priests, and mysterious symbology that leads our hero Langdon on a time-intensive desperate search. Granted, the books are similar in this regard, but these are common themes that are expected. Langdon is a friggin' symbologist. This is what he does. It's the formula Brown is using. To expect him to do otherwise would be to expect Indiana Jones 5: Courtroom Drama!

And after that, all the similarities subside. There is science-fiction, more murder and mayhem, more danger, more action, and better pacing in Angels and Demons. Ultimately, The Da Vinci Code is a story about finding the truth, whereas Angels & Demons is a thriller about a race-against-time to save the Vatican from a technological time-bomb that reveals to be a power-grab maneuver from multiple parties. So when people (say of the 5 that liked Da Vinci better) say it's "just the same stuff all over again", I wonder (a) did their parents beat the sense out of them and (b) did I leave the iron on this morning? The answer to both is usually "yes, sadly".

Angels & Demons is a worthwhile, fun and riveting read, but I can't say it fared much better with me at the theater. I can understand (as I have a keen understanding) how The Da Vinci Code would fall short as a film -- it's not exactly a thriller book. But all the potential made me somewhat bitter as I slowly became bored with the film version of Angels & Demons. It's not that I have a problem with Tom Hanks' hair (problem solved in this one!) -- but more of the editing and direction. Historically, Ron Howard has been a drama director (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Backdraft, Frost/Nixon), and the only thriller on his list that I can see is Ransom, although I think that's again mostly drama -- you know who the kidnapper is most of the way through. This film doesn't excite, and it should. I mean, who isn't excited about priests getting murdered? Who??

In short, your scoring guide, and only reference you'll ever need, for Angels & Demons is book: A, movie: C. For Da Vinci Code, book: B, movie C.


Unknown Pleasures

The cover to Joy Division's debut album, Unknown Pleasures is at once minimal, striking, and thought-provoking. The image was:
    originally published as a green-white image in 'The Nature of Pulsars' by Jerry Ostriker, Scientific American 224, #1, Jan 1971, page 53. It shows 80 successive pulses of the first pulsar observed, cp1919 stacked on top of one another using the average period of 1.33730 seconds.
From those galactic beginnings, just beats in the distance representing awesome powers, come this amazing debut.

My reaction to listening to Joy Division was akin to the first time I heard Morrissey's voice, but a slow, delayed reaction. Of course I had heard Joy Division's seminal swan song, "Love Will Tear Us Apart", but very little else. I don't know if I can chalk that up to having young ears (again, first time I heard it was in college), or the fact that the song was so unlike Joy Division's other music that I didn't explore their other songs more. Whatever the reason, these songs I had only marginally noticed suddenly became the ones that made my heart thumb nearly 20 years later. It's hard for me to fathom how now anytime I hear Peter Hook's driving, devastating bass line, Sumner's spare and suddenly thickly one-note guitar, Stephen's pounding drums and Ian's compulsive, desperate lungs on "New Dawn Fades", that I could be so drawn in and given pause now, where I would dismiss the song years ago. Unknown Pleasures is just a stunning album filled with that sound, the garage-punk-new-wave-lyrically-tight-somber-jumparound sound. You know, that one. The Joy Division sound. Or if you don't know it, or even if you think you knew it, listen again. You may now be ready for it.

Man on Wire

The aftertaste is as important as the taste itself. I was intrigued by the outrageous concept behind the documentary Man on Wire, the story of the covert wire walking act between the Twin Towers by Philippe Petit. The story and footage of the feat itself were mesmerizing, but its final denouement left me with a shake of the head. I speak of the trivial reenactment of Petit's sexual encounter with a random fan after his famous walk. Given that the story incorporates his relationship with his then girlfriend, who was incredibly supportive and there to help and document much of his experiences, this appears as jarringly out-of-place. It's said and demonstrated the Petit is unconventional and given to very liberal tendencies. And he's French, of course, who would ridicule traditional sexual roles. I don't have any issue with Petit or the way he lives his life.My issue is with the documentarian Marsh, who somehow thought this was necessary to the story, or that it would be good for a laugh. Instead, it comes off as a final unnecessary and out-of-chord note to an otherwise excellent film. When Rotten Tomatoes give a film an across-the-board 100% rating, I guess I expect something near-perfect. To get a positive approval, all you need is a positive recommendation, not an acknowledgment of superiority. In short, I believe this to be a universally liked, not loved, film.

Veronika Decides to Die

I am a sucker for a good title, but unfortunately this sometimes falls under the "you shouldn't judge a book by its cover" rule-of-thumb. Veronika Decides to Die, by celebrated author Paul Coelho, tells the story of the title character who wakes up from an initial suicide attempt with a damaged heart and only a week to live. The trouble with the book is that the author did not in turn decide Veronika would die. The result from an interesting premise is a predictable tale where Veronika discovers that her other asylum mates are real people, that she decides she wants to live, and really I can't type any more about it without boring myself. I'm not the kind of person to try to figure out plots or stories; I enjoy letting the author tell his/her tale and become immersed. So, when I say something is predictable and each new "twist" is pretty much what I anticipated, it will be even more predicable for your average novel sleuth.

But in saying that, I may be missing the point of the novel. Such books are about emotional journeys, not discovering what's going to happen. Fair enough. Unfortunately for me, I could not appreciably connect to the characters in the story, and I found Veronika herself to be, well, petulant. At 24, we mostly are, but I found the character's motivation for attempting suicide to be a product of elitist thinking. Further, the scenario that was set up for an interesting "battle-of-wills" between her and her doctor never really materialized. This may be another prediction, and one that did not play out as staid, but it was also something that I was looking forward to seeing. I didn't get my money's worth.

(For full disclosure, this is the second book I've read of Coehlo, the first been the universally acclaimed bestseller, The Alchemist. That book bored me so thoroughly I nearly did not finish it. Perhaps Paul Coehlo has it in for me. Yes, that's it. He is conspiring to make me look insane. I will consider a reprisal. Perhaps this boring blog will teach him a lesson.)

I feel like it was a good book, but only good. And it deserves a lower grade because I think the author fell short on not just a great title but an interesting premise.

PS. Even Sarah Michell Gellar in the movie version couldn't interest me in watching this. I barely made it through the trailer.

PPS. Ever notice sometimes how your disdain for something will surprise even yourself? I started out intending to write about how this book was pretty good, but in retrospect, I should start a bonfire with it. Surprise hate!


MS Project VBA: Coloring Gantt to match Resource

I had copious amounts of spare time working as a technical writer 14 years ago, but one of the things I'm proud of is that for as much time as I wasted, I also invested in my future. I knew the IT guy at the workplace, and convinced him to install a copy of Visual Basic 5 on my computer, and then picked one of those "learn in 21 days" books. Although I have never really had use for Visual Basic in my travels, the Visual Basic for Applications knowledge -- writing macros for MS Project and MS Excel, for instance, has been invaluable in every job I've had since.

Coding isn't for everyone, but I find it interesting and a challenge. It appeals to the geek in me. Had I had more intererst at an earlier age (or VB existed back then -- I have always thought if anything I was born too soon), I would have probably become a master hacker by this point. I love logic and coding problems, and it's amazing to me how few people in business have the skills to do these things.

As an example of geeking out, on Linked In I received a notice of a discussion about how to automatically have the Gantt chart bar (in MS Project) change color depending on the resource. A scheduler had posted the question (posed by the client) and then asked if there was an easy way to do it.

The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is to do it with VBA coding or a lengthly formula and field links. But, I couldn't turn away from the computer, even though my bathroom tub cleaning was really on my agenda for this morning, so I spent about a half-hour figuring out how I would do it. My guess is that this will turn out to be a requirements-changing product -- what I mean by that is once the client sees the rainbow of colors on the Gantt, he'll rethink his request. (Business "idea people" often need this reality check.)

Of course, the sad (and my girlfriend says "really attractive") thing is that this whole little coding experience was fun. Really fun. Embrace the geek.

Here's the code I wrote below. To work, cut and paste into a module in MS Project. Not that you'll need it.
    Sub BarColorByResource()

    'This sub will work only if the resource name matches correctly. The units removal section is
    'not needed if every resource is allocated at 100%. If no resources match, default bar color is reset.

    'Color constants (use on Middle color) ------------------------------------------
    'pjColorAutomatic pjNavy pjAqua pjOlive pjBlack pjPurple pjBlue pjRed
    'pjFuchsia pjSilver pjGray pjTeal pjGreen pjYellow pjLime pjWhite pjMaroon

    Dim Tsk As Task
    Dim sResource As String

    'Scroll through all data rows in project
    For Each Tsk In ActiveProject.Tasks

    'Ignore tasks where there is no data (blank lines)
    If Not Tsk Is Nothing Then

    'Remove units brackets
    sResource = Remove_Brackets(Tsk.ResourceNames)

    Select Case sResource

    Case "Matthew Jones" 'Matthew Jones

    EditGoTo ID:=Tsk
    GanttBarFormat MiddleColor:=pjAqua

    Case "John Smith"

    EditGoTo ID:=Tsk
    GanttBarFormat MiddleColor:=pjNavy


    Case Else

    EditGoTo ID:=Tsk
    GanttBarFormat MiddleColor:=pjBlue 'default color restore

    End Select

    End If

    Next Tsk

    End Sub

    Function Remove_Brackets(sTmp)

    'Function will remove multiple instances of bracketed [] text in a string

    iLen = Len(sTmp)

    For i = 1 To iLen

    sTmpChar = Mid(sTmp, i, 1)
    If sTmpChar = "[" Then iLeft = i - 1
    If sTmpChar = "]" Then

    iRight = i
    sTmp = Left(sTmp, iLeft) + Right(sTmp, iLen - iRight)
    i = 1
    iLen = Len(sTmp)

    End If


    Remove_Brackets = sTmp

    End Function


The Manchurian Candidate

The story goes that without John F. Kennedy's personal intervention, at Frank Sinatra's request, the The Manchurian Candidate would have never been financed as a film. The film was pulled from wide distribution -- allegedly at Sinatra's insistence -- following a similar train of events in the real-life assassination of Kennedy. While the background machinizations of Kennedy's end are still speculated on, the fully-revealed plot intricacies of The Manchurian Candidate leave me in silent amazement.John Frankenheimer's political thriller features a brainwashed set of Korean soldiers, one of whom has been so mesmerized he does not even realize he's now a Communist assassin. Lawrence Harvey's performance as the "unlovable" Raymond Shaw is wrenching to watch. His final tragic arc, where you believe is somehow aware of the crushing murders he has just committed though powerless to stop himself, is hard to take. His final solution, enabled by Sinatra's beleagured intelligence officer who was just a little too late, is one of my favorite endings of all time.

I have not seen the "updated" version, because there are some films I don't think need to be updated. The Manchurian Candidate is still an iconic achievement.


Writer's block... in the details

Charlie Huston's post about writing details made me laugh and cry because, well, it's so my achillies hell, too. And that is the little petty details that actually flesh out a scene. I've always been one to skip that details and go back and add them in, because I can't waste time pondering what color the character's t-shirt is -- I need to get to the MEAT of the scene. Yet, sometimes those little things are what you remember most when you read something and resonate. But just like anything else, it doesn't come easy. Makes me feel good to know others just struggle with this stuff:
    September 16th, 2009 — Charlie Huston

    Getting stuck sucks.

    I’m not talking writer’s block here.

    When I imagine writer’s block, I have visions of a vast balloon inflated in the middle of my brain, squeezing all thoughts against the inner surface of my skull until they are flat, two dimensional and useless.

    I’ve never been hit with anything like that.

    (NOTE: yes, that is the sound of me knocking wood in the background.)

    But getting stuck is another matter.

    I get stuck on little things, tiny things, inconsequential things that I should not be stuck on, hook me and keep me frozen.

    That whole dialogue thing I do:

    He snaps his fingers.
    -You know, using a character’s action to set off their line of dialogue.
    She nods.
    -Yeah, so it tips off who’s talking?
    He males horizontal cuts in the air with the edge of his hand.
    -It helps to balance the lack of quotation marks and the bits of narrative a smart writer would use.
    She stirs her index finger next to her ear.
    Yeah, you are crazy for making this any harder than it has to be.


    It’s those little gestures and movements that fuck me up. I use those not only to indicate who is speaking, but also to tip off emotion. My characters generally don’t spend much time expressing their feelings to each other, the reader or even to themselves. Sometimes all the person flipping the pages has to go in is the way a character kicks the ground before they speak.

    And the thing is, I have a ton of those beats in every book. Because my characters may not talk about what they feel, but they are total fucking chatter boxes. And when I’m writing all that dialogue, I have to come up with god knows how many tiny actions and gestures to compliment the words.

    fuck me.

    And let me tell you , there are only so many times in one fucking book that Joe fucking Pitt can light a cigarette, take a drag off a cigarette, flick ashes from a cigarette, crush a cigarette butt under his heel, or stare at the floor, before it becomes utterly fucking repetitive and I want to fucking run screaming.

    So I sit there.

    Full of the knowledge of what the next line, is, knowing exactly where the story is going, fully prepared to write the next five fucking pages, I sit there, hung up on whether Joe should shrug or tug his ear lobe.

    No fucking lie.

    An hour or two can disappear as I work through one stanza of dialogue.

    Ever seen the 1972 TALES FROM THE CRYPT?

    It’s one of those British horror anthologies.

    Best story is called “Blind Alleys.” In which the cruel new director of a home for the blind is taken captive by the residents. While he’s captive, he can hear them doing two things, building something large, and not feeding his viscous German Shepherd. After a few days, the door to his room opens and he finds himself at the mouth of a booby-trapped maze that zig-zags through the corridors. After negotiating the maze, he finds himself faced by closed door, behind which he can hear his growling dog. The door flies open, the dog comes after him, he runs back into the maze, and the lights go out on him. Actually, the lights go out on him when he’s in a very narrow run of the maze where the walls have been studded with razor blades.


    Here’s what it’s like writing dialogue some days.

    It’s like edging down a narrow corridor of razor-studded wall and constantly snagging your hands, legs, elbows, cheeks and ears on the protruding corners of the blades.

    And when it’s at it’s worse, and there’s a deadline behind you, the lights sometimes go out.

    OK, yeah, that’s a little melodramatic.

    But it does suck.

    And it’s not just dialogue.

    Deciding what kind of car a character is driving, what they’re eating, whether they have a limp, if the sky is overcast…


    And don’t get me started on guns.


    Here I am today, this guy I’m writing about has on a frock coat, but what kind of shirt is he wearing under it?

    Fucked if I know.

    And he won’t just turn the fuck around and show me.

    Razor blades.


Beat the Reaper

The story of author Josh Bazell is an interesting contrast to that of Stieg Larsson's; while Stieg died shortly after delivering his manuscripts for what would be a bestselling series, Josh wrote his debut novel to kill time during his medical internship, already having a BA in English from Brown and a MD from Columbia. In short, I felt the Larsson's story made me want to read his book, whereas Bazell's story made me want to roll my eyes at his already achieved levels of success. Really, you went to Brown? You have an MD? You make lots of money? And you can write? Puke!So, my guard up, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the praise heaped on Bazell's book is largely deserved. His style reminded me a lot of Charlie Huston, only Charlie's "Caught Stealing", which this reminded me of, is superior is every way. Beat the Reaper is a solidly entertaining book, but feels like a first effort. More details of the characters should have been put in to flesh them out, and the ending felt truncated. Certainly enough medical insights and gore to keep your average reader glued, this was a good debut that will earn a look at his second, but not enough to expect a great sequel.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (film)

I am a fan, not a fanatic, of the Harry Potter books. I have never read the books more than once. My favorite is still "Goblet of Fire". To a lesser degree, I am a fan, not a fanatic, of the film adaptations of the Harry Potter books. In this case, the best film (by far) of the series has been The Prisoner of Azkaban, a film I have seen many times. Although also a superior book, the film to date has been the only one I felt has captured the essence of the book and improved upon it.

This is not a requirement for a film adaptation. Rowling's books are sprawling works that (after Azkaban, the last "short" book), were typically over 700 pages. Film adaptations are hard enough with short material, but the Potter books also present a situation where material MUST be left out in order to keep the running time under 4 hours. And why must a film be under 4 hours, or 3? It doesn't have to, but the point is to entertain, not catalog events to screen. The film is an adaptation for a larger audience, not just those who demand to see every single scene transposed. I truly feel sorry for one of my Potter fanatic friends who couldn't wait to see her favorite line from the Half-Blood Prince shown on screen. It wasn't. And she felt that overall Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was a let-down for that and continuity errors between it and the book.My policy on seeing a film that is an adaptation from a book is, if I have read the book, I need to allow a minimum of a few months before seeing the film. Never, ever read the material before you go into the theater (Potter fanatics do this, you see), for then you are ticking off your moments. I can't think of a better way for me to ruin my own fun. This all started back when I read High Fidelity, and then a week later went to see the acclaimed film adaptation. Despite the rave reviews, the film was such a faithful adaptation that I was UTTERLY BORED watching the film. I just ticked off the plot points as they happened. In short, reading the book totally ruined the film for me. But I love reading, and I love film, so I had to adapt a buffer strategy.

The stategy served me well with Azkaban -- I had forgotten so much of the end that I was actually surprised when it was revealed who was the stag in the forest, and of course I kind of teared up. Those moments are magical for me, but it would have been ruined had I just been waiting for it to happen.

Which is why I can say that I thought Half-Blood Prince was an entertaining film. No Azkaban, but what is? Now, I think it's brilliant to split the seventh book into two films to cover your adaptive bases (and make twice as much money!), and deserving for the series finale. Which I've read and won't be reading again before I see the films.

Kitchen Remodeling

I don’t think I ever really considered getting a new kitchen until I started to spend more time in it. For the first 35+ years of my life, I would describe myself as a person who “eats to live” rather than “lives to eat”. Gradually, over the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate good food and cooking. I watch “Top Chef” weekly, which I find to be immensely entertaining. I shop at Whole Foods and find myself becoming something of a food snob (i.e., shopping at Giant or Safeway is only for condiments and paper products), know what an heirloom tomato is and love to eat them raw, download and try new recipes, and generally appreciate the act of cooking much more than before.It’s not that I was ever disinterested in cooking, but disinterested in cooking just for myself. Becoming domesticated (i.e., cooking for more than 1 person) is a huge factor; when the girl is away, I find motivation to cook something for myself to dwindle back to frozen food. (The first meal I “cooked” for us was store-cooked chicken and box macaroni and cheese. Seriously. I didn’t know any better, but it makes me laugh to think about it, since my new found snobbery allows me to laugh in horrible embarrassment at my naivete.)There is something to be said for the notion that adults are still in essence kids, just with bigger, more expensive toys. Having purchased a home with an kitchen that is over 30 years old, and acquiring a taste for cooking eventually conspired to make for that high-end expensive new toy: remodeling.(Yes, those are before and after pictures. Yes, that is the same kitchen area.)

I had actually thought about doing it for some time, but it was only when I had gotten to a comfortable place financially, and I was sick of looking at my kitchen that I motivated. Okay, I admit that it was also motivating that I accidentally burned a hole in my linoleum floor and charred my existing cabinets with a flaming wok – we don’t talk about that incident, nor were the paparazzi allows to film the evidence. Suffice to say, I felt it was a Holy Sign, akin to the Burning Bush, one that in no uncertain terms declared that ye should really think about putting in a new kitchen. And as we all know, I never, ever turn my back on imaginary friends.Nor should I turn my back on real friends, which I happen to have in the way of a contractor who does this kind of work. I contacted THE CONTRACTOR (His site is here with more in-progress pictures), who was very excited about the project. I mean, the kitchen was shoddy, and I wanted to put in something nice, classy, and expensive. I don’t mean like diamonds-in-the-counter, but I definitely want quality. Darryl's the kind of guy who looks at a problem and sees a challenge. (Needless to say, I highly recommend his work.) And I wanted a breakfast counter.Also, I wanted to time it so I could be on vacation for at least a week while this was done. In retrospect, probably the wisest decision I could have made, but seemed like a no-brainer to me. (Hardwood floors at Christmas?) So, while we traveled to glorious Michigan (pause for sarcasm, but not really – we had a great time, I just can’t help it being a PSU alum), Darryl and his crack team of specialists crafted a superb product, as you can see.We now have more cabinet space (and closeable cabinets next to the fridge!) than we can fill, even after ripping out the L-shape and turning it essentially into a galleon-type kitchen. The effect is startlingly different, and it feels like there is so much more space. I couldn’t be happier with the product, and I feel now that I have a show-model type kitchen. Which means the pressure is on to step up my cooking skills to match. Which means no more burning woks. I hope. Cheers.