Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Trans Siberian Orchestra: Beethoven’s Last Night Tour

Most people, if they are familiar with Trans Siberian Orchestra at all, know them for their three albums of Christmas music, or that you tube video of the house with rocking Christmas lights. but what a lot of people don't know is that TSO has released two albums of non Christmas music and they are currently touring for one of them, Beethoven's Last Night. They came through Knoxville last night and put on a show like I've never seen before.

Yeah, there were lights and pyro and smoke and frickin' laser beams, as well as loud guitars, gorgeous voices and beautiful singers just like you'd expect at a rock concert, but the level of musicianship and the theatricality of the performers blew me away.

If you've never seen TSO perform, take the showmanship of Kiss without the makeup, the bombast of Meatloaf without the motorcycles, the lyrical depth of Paul Simon without the pretension, the musical virtuosity of the New York Philharmonic, without the stuffiness, throw it all into a blender with a dash of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, sprinkle it with Yes, and you are coming close to the TSO experience.

Lissa and I have seen the TSO Christmas show twice since we've been together, and would have seen them two more times except that they skipped Knoxville the last two times through. So, when we saw on the internet that TSO was coming through town with the Beethoven show, there really was no question about whether or not we'd be going. The only question was where we would be sitting and how early we'd get there.

The concert was produced by AC entertainment, and promoted by WIMZ, and as we walked towards the Civic Coliseum, I remarked to Lissa that it was probably the first time a lot of these folks had been to a concert promoted by WIMZ. On the other hand, given that WIMZ has the exact same playlist they were using when I was in high school, I could be mistaken in that assumption. (Since when did my music become "classic"?)

Unlike most music performed today, Beethoven's Last Night tells a story. The songs are woven together with a narration to tell the tale of Beethoven's last night on earth. It's a story of temptation and redemption, mistake made and overcome, and the eternal war between Good and Evil set to a thundering score that's part Beethoven, part Mozart, and all Paul O'Neill, the musical brain behind TSO who has been producing larger than life stage shows and recordings for decades. He's the guy Jim Steinman wants to be when he grows up. The short version of the story is that Beethoven is told that he will die on this very night, and the Devil appears, telling him that his soul is forfeit, but that if he agrees to allow the Devil to take all of his music away from the world forever, then his soul will be freed. This dilemma is what drives the music.

While BLN frames the songs with narration in a way similar to Christmas Eve, the feel of the two shows couldn't be more different. The Christmas material is light and playful; it lends itself to humor and there's an air of fun throughout the performance. BLN is many things, but fun is not a word that springs to mind. The themes are heavier and the music matches that tone, conveying the pain of loss and regret as well as the joy of transcending those emotions. It's uplifting and a joy to experience Ludwig's triumph but also draining. The songs generally aren't catchy little ditties that you find yourself humming after the show. Instead, they are more like arias, provoking emotion through the combination of the music and the lyric. In fact, the entire production felt more like an opera than a rock concert, despite the wailing guitars and the leather clad backup singers/dancers.

But this is not a bad thing. It's nice to be challenged every now and again, and the payoff is worth the effort.

When you go to see TSO, you expect stunning sound and visuals, and BLN does not disappoint. The stage was smaller than what they use for Christmas, resulting in a more intimate feel, but the video screens, lighting, lasers and fire pots filled the space, making sure your eyes were just as dazzled as your ears. Lissa is a synaesthete, which means she sees sounds (Nope, no drugs involved.) and she tells me that a TSO concert is the closest thing to what she experiences whenever she listens to complex music. Imporperly done, the amount of visual effects would distract from the music; here, it not just compliments the songs, it completes them.

One thing that's clearly evident is the joy the performers feel while they're on the stage. Violinist Roddy Chong covers the stage, leaping, bending, and stretching as he plays his instrument flawlessly. Keyboardist Vitalij Kuprij attacks the piano with the touch of a virtuoso and the energy of a raging river. Pitrelli leads the guitars, allowing them to shine, but reminding them that he has a few licks of his own.The energy coming off the stage is incredible, and you have no doubt that these people love what they do.

The BLN album runs about 70 minutes; during the show it runs just under 2 hours. But just because the album is done doesn't mean the music is. After finishing the BLN story, guitarist/musical director Al Pitrelli introduced the members of the group, then continued the show with a 45 minute excerpt from the newest TSO album, Night Castle

The music from Night Castle is just as hard and edgy, but not as heavy. In fact, I think the inclusion of the Night Castle material added some needed balance to the show, providing the audience with a way to release some of the tension built by BLN. And yes, I'll be going to see that show when it goes on tour.

Finally, after over two and a half hours of music, the concert was over. But not the show. TSO continued their tradition of coming out to meet the fans and sign autographs after the show was over. The physical stamina it would take to put that kind of energy out on the stage for over two hours, then spend an hour or so shaking hands with their fans before climbing on a bus to do it all over again tomorrow is staggering, yet these performers will continue this tour for another few weeks, and take a few short weeks off before they start preparing for this winter's Christmas tour.

If you haven't seen the Christmas show, get tickets and go. If you have, then I know you'll be going back. And if you get a chance to see BLN live, take it. Like I said, it's way different from the Christmas show, but every bit as entertaining.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Why the Watchmen Movie Fails

This review contains spoilers so, be warned.

Short version: Beautifully filmed but deeply flawed adaptation of Moore's masterpiece.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man

8.5 out of 10

My thoughts:

Iron Man rocks. The story works; the acting is excellent; the effects are spot on.

Robert Downey Jr does a great job at bringing the flawed genius to life, taking him from playboy to hero without caricature and Gwyneth Paltrow makes Pepper Potts stand out as more than just a hero sidekick. Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane is passable, but I was a bit disappointed with Terrence Howard's Jim Rhodes. He seemed too bland.

I was a little bit surprised they let the origin story run for fully half the movie; it never seemed to drag, but it did make the second half of the movie feel a little rushed.

While some reviewers are saying that the movie makes it seem like America is responsible for all the wars in the world, I didn't see that at all.

The special effects were excellent. The blend between model and CGI was nearly seamless as far as I could see.

We went to see it at the Millertown Cinema by Knoxville Center Mall. The 10:05 showing was nearly empty.

The Samuel L Jackson cameo was perfect,and sets up the sequel,as well as an eventual Avengers movie.

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Vantage Point

We went to see Vantage Point Monday night and let me tell you, if you want to have a theater all to yourself, go see a movie on a Monday evening.

Short version: Imagine the plots and subplots of an entire season of 24 edited down to under 2 hours. It would make about as much sense as this movie does. Wait for cable.

Long version: The plot tells the story of an assasination plot against the US President, played by William Hurt, who is about to sign a multi-national treaty that will supposedly end the threat of Islamic terrorism. The gimmick is that the story is told over and over through the point of view of five major characters, including a small girl, a Secret Service Agent, and an American tourist.

Using a non-linear format for telling a story is always a risk. The audience may become bored by the repetition or they may lose concentration and miss a key element. Or the writer may overly rely on the format to try and build suspense. Writer Barry Levy does a good job changing things up enough to avoid the first two issues, but falls prey to the third, ending two scenes with the Secret Service agent, played by Dennis Quaid, seeing something, yelling "Oh my God!" and running off screen. We end up having to wait through another retelling of the story from another point of view before finding out what it was he saw.

But there's a bigger problem. When you tell a story using a non standard format, the story has to be strong enough to be served by the format, not the other way around. In the case of Vantage Point, the format overpowers the story. As we move back and forth through time, subplots and characters are introduced to serve a plot element, then disappear without explanation. By the end of the movie, there are enough abandoned plot threads left dangling to weave another full movie, and sadder, that movie might prove to be the more interesting of the two.

Despite that, the movie is moderately entertaining, and the cast, with the exception of Matthew Fox, gives solid performances. Sigourney Weaver stands out in a smaller role as a cable news producer covering the story. Matthew Fox could have been replaced by Matthew Broderick and it would have been more believable.

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Why Not to Buy a Blu-Ray Just Yet

I was in Best Buy the other day, looking for a mount for the TV I bought for the living room. My middle son just signed a lease for a new apartment and he's moving out. The problem is the boy plans on taking his 50" TV with him. Talk about ungrateful! Anyway, I was in need of a new TV to replace his and I found a great deal on an Olevia 42" 1080p TV at WalMart for under a thousand dollars. I grabbed it but they were out of mounts, so I was off to Best Buy, and while I was there, I looked at a few Blu-ray DVD players. I was reluctant to purchase a Hi Def DVD player until the format war between HD and Blu-ray was over, but now that Sony has won a very expensive victory (while Sony hasn't officially said anything, the rumors are that they gave billions to the movie industry to get them to support Blu-ray) I thought it might be time to consider buying.


There's still a fly in the ointment. You see, Blu-ray today isn't the end standard. Sony was rushed by the arrival of HD players, so they cobbled together a standard that kinda worked, and rushed it out to market. And by kinda worked, I mean didn't really work at all. Most of Blu-ray's touted advantages over HD, like dual layer dual sided storage and built in Java support, failed miserably, especially in the first generation players. Sony had significant technical difficulties in manufacturing the Blu-ray discs themselves, to say nothing of obtaining the blue lasers that their technology was named for. But, taking a page from the Microsoft marketing manual, they decided that market share was more important than product quality, and they shipped what they had.

Here's where it gets fun.

Sony is getting close to perfecting their Blu-ray standard, which they now call Blu-ray 2.0, and guess what? Blu-ray 2.0 movies will not play on Blu-ray 1.1 machines. For those of you keeping score at home, all BluRay drives shipped to date are Blu-ray 1.1. What this means is that sometime in the next 12-18 months, your $700 Blu-ray machine will be obsolete.

That's just a bit too quick for me. I'll wait until they get the format locked down and I can buy a player and not have to replace it within a year or so.

And I really don't expect the movie studios will be releasing movies in Blu-ray 1.1 and 2.0. If they did, that would reduce the demand for Sony's new product line, and after spending billions to win the market, I'd expect Sony to demand that the studios release movies only in the 2.0 format. In fact, I'll make a prediction right now. Some of the most eagerly anticipated next generation releases are Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. I'll bet that you won't see either one of these series released until the 2.0 standard is released, and that they both will be released exclusively in 2.0.

Any takers?

Posted by Rich
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Monday, January 21, 2008

More on Cloverfield


In my review, written in the wee hours of the morning, I mentioned almost in passing that Cloverfield was the first attempt by Hollywood to deal with the reality of terrorism in America. And that it happened in just the same way that Hollywood dealt with American worries over nuclear war, with a monster movie.

This makes Cloverfield, albeit totally inadvertently, kind of important.

Let's go back a couple of decades to the Cold War era, to 1956 and Invasion of the Body Snatchers . Directed by Don Seigel from a story by Jack Finney, (a heck of a writer by the way. Check out "I'm Scared" if you can find it.) Body Snatchers is all about paranoia. People are being replaced with aliens from pods and the aliens are identical to the original, except that it's just a masquerade. The pod people are taking over hiding under the cover of our own friends and neighbors. While Seigel and Finney both denied any deliberate subtext to the story or the film, the obvious parallels with both creeping communism and raging McCarthyism are too strong to ignore. For a story to be effective, it must touch people, and the only way to do that is to play up the things that move them emotionally, the things they love,and the things they fear. The Cold War was a time of deep paranoia and uncertainty, and Body Snatchers played right into that pre-existing feeling.

While Don Seigel set out just to make a good scary movie, he managed to touch on the worries and fears that preoccupied Americans in the 50s, so it's no wonder the movie was so popular.

Now let's look at J.J.Abrams, and Cloverfield. Like Seigel, Abrams claims to have nothing more on his mind than making a good old fashioned monster movie. Well, like we just saw with Body Snatchers, that doesn't mean that there isn't anything more going on under the surface. When you look at the sheer randomness of Cloverfield, combined with the physical devastation, and the utter helplessness of the military, you can't help but see a comparison to the events of 9/11. In fact, the one shot of the Empire State building collapsing, sending a thick cloud of dust roiling towards the camera, could have come from the shots captured on 9/11.

The threat of future terrorist attacks is too real and too big for our minds to deal with. We either reject the possibility out of hand, (read Democrat), or we downplay it, gloss over it by indulging in meaningless actions to try and prevent it from ever happening again (read Republican). The nasty fact that there are people out there who want to hurt us and destroy us, and that those people may have access to nuclear weaponry is our new national nightmare. Nobody wants to talk about it.

So here comes Abrams who taps into that underlying fear with a movie about a random, inexplicable attack on New York City. Whether it was deliberate or not,he tapped into the underlying fear of our time. The cool thing is that by transferring that fear from the real to the unreal, he makes it easier to deal with. We've seen New York utterly destroyed now. We've seen our worst fears realized, even if only in the movies. By experiencing the worst, even vicariously, we remove some of the fear it causes.

I still don't like the movie,and won't bother seeing it again, despite all the little bits hidden here and there in the film, but I can understand how and why it works for so many people.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cloverfield:  The Longest Short Movie Ever

Think Godzilla meets the Blair Witch. Now toss in the motion sickness inducing first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

That's Cloverfield, all 85 minutes of it. Counting the credits.

Nothing new; nothing original, nothing we care about.

The only thing I want to know is what kind of camera the guy was using. Not only did it have an awesome battery life, but it was the most rugged camcorder I've ever heard of.

Spoilers below.

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Sweeney Todd

After watching this movie, I'm thinking that the folks in Sweeney's chair were grateful when he slit their throats so they wouldn't have to listen to anymore of Depp's singing.

OK, cheap shot, I admit it. Besides, as one of the folks I went to see the movie with remarked, do you really want a maniacal barber to have a lovely singing voice?

A few things you need to understand before going to see Sweeney:

First,he's not a nice man. In fact, there's not really a nice man in the movie. For some reason, it's become popular to write plays, musicals,and movies without a protagonist. As a simple minded sort, I like to have somebody in the movie I care about; otherwise I don't care about what happens to them at all. I'm not engaged.

Second, it's more an operetta than a musical. When you think of a musical,you think of a story moved along by the occasional song. Sweeney Todd is the opposite, a long musical number interrupted by bits of dialog. This isn't a bad thing, just something to be aware of.

Third, it's dark, which fits a movie about obsession and revenge. The colors are all washed out, with the exception of blood, and the yellow hair of Johanna. It reminded me of an earlier Johnny Depp, movie,From Hell in it's relentlessly accurate portrayal of the quality of life in London at the turn of the century. Most folks take clean modern cities for granted; it would be nice if they realized the level of technology it takes to support hundreds of thousands of people in a few square miles and not have them wallowing in their own filth. Unfortunately, that light takes a long time to dawn.

Fourth, for those of you unhappy with the fate of the dog in I am Legend I just want to point out that the shepherd in Mrs. Lovett's shepherd pies is purely of the human variety, so rest easy on that score.

With the above out of the way, Sweeney Todd is an excellently crafted, well presented tale of revenge leading to madness and tragedy. I hesitate to call it entertaining, just as I would hesitate to call a public execution entertaining, but both hold that same squeamish fascination. However, unlike Saw and Hostel where the exploitation of our own sick voyeurism is it's only reward, Sweeney Todd uses it to force us to look at ourselves. While none of us, I hope, has resorted to the measures Mr. Todd chose, we have all harbored a grudge far longer and with more intensity than the offense actually warranted. In that way,we can all identify to a certain extent with Mr. Todd. While we never like or admire him, we might just recognize a bit of him in our own hearts.

Johnny Depp does a wonderful job with Sweeney, including singing the part. I do admit that there were times I expected to see him drop into Captain Jack Sparrow a few times, he never did, maintaining the malevolent madness of Sweeney throughout. I was bothered by his hairdo, however. Would you let a guy who looked like that anywhere near your hair? Sasha Baron Cohen was a jarring note in an otherwise well cast movie. Yes, he's talented. He's also annoying. Helena Bonham Carter was effective as Mrs. Lovett, baker of the worst meat pies in London, and would be lover of Sweeney Todd. It was interesting to see her, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall all together again. I kept waiting for Ron Weasley to sit down in Sweeney's chair or for Harry to stop by for a meat pie.

The main reason I liked this movie is it stayed faithful to the source material. There was no happy ending grafted on to make Hollywood happy. Sweeney didn't go off into the sunset with Mrs. Lovett to raise the little boy as their own son. He dies, she dies, everybody dies.

Which fits this story to a T.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, January 06, 2008

I am Legend: IMAX; Regal Pinnacle

First the movie. It would have been nice if director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman had paid more attention to Richard Matheson's novel. Then I wouldn't feel like I just wasted an hour and a half and $25.00.

I Am Legend the novel is a study of what is normal and abnormal in society; I am Legend the movie is about Will Smith proving he can handle extended monologues just as well as Tom Hanks.

He can't.

But that may not be entirely fair, since Hanks was given better material to work with. Protosevich and Goldsman thoroughly scrubbed the story of all intelligence, grafted on a happy ending,and totally missed the point of the novel.

The CGI special effects weren't all that special either. The zombies were unbelievable, and I mean that literally. I've seen more convincing CGI animation in a video game.

And what was with the dog? 6 billion human beings are wiped off the face of the planet, and we're supposed to get choked up over a dog? Please.

Other than that, the movie was ok.

Now,about the IMAX. In order to see the movie in IMAX, you have to pay an extra $4. I remember seeing my first IMAX movie in Gatlinburg. The screen wrapped around us almost 180 degrees, and curved over our heads as well, immersing us in the experience. That's the IMAX I remember.

This IMAX is just a bigger screen. I knew I was going to be let down when, shortly before the movie started, an audio recording came on, telling us how wonderful the IMAX experience was going to be.

Yeah, an audio recording.

Listen, if you want to impress me with a video medium, don't just talk about it over a darkened screen; light that baby up! If you want to show me something, don't talk me to death before hand, show me!

Adding to my disappointment was the lack of care shown by the Regal Pinnacle staff. The upper left corner of the screen showed obvious staining. It looks like maybe some water damage or something. As the movie started, you could clearly see that insects were caught either on the projector lens, or the window in front of the lens. Watching them crawl over Will Smith's face did sort of give the whole thing a drive-in kind of feel, but at $12.50 per ticket, I'm not looking for a drive-in atmosphere.

Clean it up, Regal.

If you haven't read the novel, and don't mind a tacked on happy ending, the movie is worth seeing at a matinee, or when it comes out on cable. But skip the IMAX Experience. It's not worth the $12.50.

Posted by Rich
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Monday, December 10, 2007

The Mist

Rhymes with "I'm Pissed."

Why take an excellent short novel, one with some excellent characterization and a compelling storyline, then tack on a completely superfluous ending that has nothing to do with any of the above?

The movie did a great job of conveying the fear and claustrophobia of the novel,right up until the last 3 minutes, when writer/director Frank Darabont stole an ending from a bad episode of The Twilight Zone.

I'm not going to spoil the ending here, but for any of you that have read the story, think of the most trite, implausible, hackneyed and manipulative ending you could come up with to tack on the end of that story,and you'll know exactly what to expect.

Spoilers below the fold

Posted by Rich
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Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Trans Siberian Orchestra in Knoxville

"My thirst has been quenched." Alex Fardon, 1980

Twenty seven years ago the assignment in my senior English class was to write a tall tale. On the day the assignment was due, we all turned in our papers, then the teacher decided that since tall tales were an oral tradition, he was going to read them out loud and get the class to critique them. As the teacher went through the stories, Alex would voice his opinion by saying, "I'm still thirsty. I want more."

Then came the last tale, a story of an Irishman who fell into a bottomless pit. He fell all the way through the entire earth,plunging through Hell and wrassling the devil himself before rocketing up into the sky on the other side of the earth and plunging into the sun. He fell back to earth in China, and they've called themselves the Celestial people ever since.

When the tale was done, the class was silent, waiting for Alex to weigh in.

"My thirst," he said, "has been quenched."

Tonight, I know just how Alex felt. I've been to several concerts this year, and I've been disappointed with most of them. I went into the Blue Man Group show with high expectations. I'd seen the concert video of their previous tour, and I was eager to see what was billed as a brand new show. Unfortunately, it wasn't a brand new show, just a rehash of the original tour. That wasn't altogether bad, because the show was great; I was just expecting something new. I also went to see Mannheim Steamroller at the Tennessee Theatre. I love the Fresh Aire CDs so I was really looking forward to seeing them performed live, but so much of the performance was electronically augmented and canned that it was very difficult to determine which performances were live and which were the product or pre-production, and that took something away from it for me.

But tonight was different. Tonight, I went to see the Trans Siberian Orchestra and my thirst was quenched. The group's website says that founder Paul O'Neill wanted to create music that impacted on all of the senses, and brother, let me tell you that he has succeeded. The show features a cast of 18 (my best guess as they were constantly moving, entering and exiting the stage as they performed their parts) extraordinary musicians and vocalists along with enough lasers, pyrotechnics, lights, and amps to keep the most jaded arena rock fan happy. The light show was dazzling, which helps explain the 7 or 8 semi trucks I saw parked outside when we drove up. As extensive as the light show was, it all served the music, instead of distracted from it,as is common with other concerts. Every movement of every light was timed to the music and played to the mood or the lyrics of the song.

At one point, they even made it snow in Thompson Boling Arena!

Real, frozen water, snow, falling from the rafters.


As was the music itself. The first portion of the concert was a rendition of the Christmas Eve story from their first CD. In about an hour and fifteen minutes, they told a story centered around two visitors to two bars on two different Christmas Eves. The music ranged from classical to bluesy, from raucous rock and roll to powerful ballads, but the pieces and themes all came together to tell a single story of love, hope, and the redemptive power of God. It was wonderfully refreshing to hear a Christmas concert that actually celebrated the birth of Christ and what that event meant to the world, and one that did so in an entertaining and uplifting way. The band's musicianship is simply incredible, as is their passion for the material, and their love of performing. Our seats were close to the front, and I could see both the effort and the joy of the performers as the show went on.

The second half of the concert is more akin to a standard concert set, with the band tearing through several of their more popular songs, including Christmas Canon Rock, Queen of the Winter Night, and Wizards in Winter (the song those people in Ohio used to program their Christmas lights), as well as some non Christmas related songs, influenced by everyone from Metallica to Queen. Again, the musicianship was incredible, but this section lacked some of the intensity of the Christmas Eve story since it wasn't as thematically focussed. This may actually be a good thing since it gives the audience as well as the band a chance to let their hair down so to speak, and just have a good time. And a good time was exactly what we all had.

The band played a solid two and a half hours without an intermission, and that was just enough. Obviously they've never heard the adage,"Leave 'em wanting more" because they gave us everything we wanted, and then they gave more. After the show, the band came out to meet with their fans and sign autographs.

All in all, it was by far the best show I've been to this year. It surpassed all of my expectations, and I will be going to see them next year, if not sooner. They will be coming back to Tennessee twice more. They'll be in Memphis on Dec 20th, and Nashville on Dec 30th. This concert is well worth the drive to either location, and I'm strongly considering going to the Nashville show.

Yeah, it's that good.

Yes, I wrote the tall tale that quenched Alex's thirst. It was the first time I realized that I had the ability to entertain people through my writing. So Alex, wherever you are, thanks. I'm glad you liked my story 27 years ago, and I hope that your thirst, as well as that of everyone who reads these words, remains quenched.

Posted by Rich
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Monday, September 24, 2007

Gus’s Restaurant

French fries hand cut when you order them. Hamburgers made with fresh ground beef, cooked on a griddle and nestled between to butter grilled buns. Hand dipped milk shakes with real ice cream and milk. All served hot and quick at Gus's Restaurant and Affordable Catering on the Market Square.

Since I had an hour or so to kill between the trial and the Commission meeting, I decided to take the rare opportunity to eat on the Market Square. I chose Gus's because I was in the mood for a good burger, and that's exactly what I got. What I didn't expect was for Charlie to grab a potato and start cutting up my fries right then and there. No bags of frozen, batter dipped fries here; just good old potato fries that only need a hint of salt, and a splash of ketchup.

The burger was hot, and fried up just right. Now normally, I like my burgers grilled, but if you're going to fry it, it is essential to do it right. If your griddle isn't hot enough, you end up with a flaccid beef slug that just sits on the bun, oozing grease. A properly fried burger has a slightly crunchy outer layer that seals in the juices, and helps it stand up to the mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato. Gus's place gets it right.

I finished off the meal with a real chocolate milkshake that finished me off.

Now I need a nap, which is perfect timing, because the county commission meeting is about to start.

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, April 10, 2007


8 out of 10

When I was stationed in Orlando going through Nuclear Power School, just off base there was a drive in, called the Colonial I think, that used to show triple features every weekend. Three movies, one B-grade and two D or worse grade movies (Anyone see Star Crash, starring David Hasselhoff, mercifully hiding his face in a gold mask for 90% of the movie? I have. ), all for $8 a carload. At the time, I was driving a 1970 Cadillac DeVille convertible, and we would load up 4 couples and spend the evening at the movies. $8 to get in, and $20 or so for concessions made for a very inexpensive evening out, which worked out well for us, since we sure weren't getting paid much during training. I remember one particular evening, the three movies all featured the same scene, and I don't mean that they were written similarly, I mean the exact same footage was used in all three movies. We were surprised when we saw the scene the second time, in a completely different movie, but not as surprised as when it came up a third time.

Then again, we only paid $8 for three movies.

You also have to remember that when you went to a drive in, you didn't always see much of the movie. Drive ins were social places, where you went to see and be seen, or not seen for the lucky ones who actually had dates. (Don't worry, I'll get to Grindhouse in a minute. Just setting the stage, so to speak.) Movies tailored for the drive-in/grindhouse crowd had to be short on plot and long on action so distracted viewers could pick up the threads of the story whenever an explosion or particularly gruesome mutilation interrupted their, err, social activities.

When I was stationed in Great Lakes for boot camp and 'A' School, a bunch of us would take the train in to Chicago on the weekends, and hang out downtown, checking things out. One particular evening, we went to see a movie and saw Avenging Angel. (Law student by day, hooker by night.) The theater was somewhere near downtown, and was the first and only true grindhouse I'd ever been in. The crowd was in to the movie in a big way, yelling at the screen, talking to the characters, and swallowing the most unbelievable plot contrivances because it was fun. Nobody cared if it made sense or not.

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino have brought that sensibility back to the movies with Grindhouse, a big, dumb, loud movie with no socially redeeming graces, and it is about time somebody did it! For anyone who has missed the $30 million dollar marketing blitz from the Weinstein brothers, Grindhouse is an homage to those cheaply produced drive in movies of the 70s and 80s where production values and plot continuity were considered secondary to explosions, blood, gore, and of course, bare breasts. They're the kind of movies Joe Bob Briggs would love, and in Grindhouse, we get two of them crammed into just over three hours of entertainment, along with some phony trailers of movies that are just begging to be made.

The first and best of the two features is Planet Terror, an over the top zombie flick that manages to include nearly every B-movie cliche from the hero loner with the secret past to the psychotic doctor to the stripper, pardon me, go go dancer, with the heart of gold.

Oh yeah, and some damn good barbecue.

The second feature, Death Proof, about a psycho stuntman who kills pretty ladies with his car, isn't quite as good, and tends to drag in spots. For a splatter flick, there's an awful lot of scenes of people sitting around and talking. I have a feeling Tarantino did this on purpose though, because B movies often had to pad the movie to get to an acceptable length for the distributer and it's a heck of a lot cheaper to film dialog than action sequences. If a movie was running short on time, and the budget was gone, the director could write a talky scene or two to get to the magic 90 minutes or so.

Both films are artificially aged, with scratches, smudges, and so on, which can be distracting for the new viewer who isn't used to how bad old movie theaters used to be. I have a feeling this may be off putting for many audiences, and I'm certain it will negatively impact DVD sales. After all, who wants to buy a crappy looking movie after spending a couple of grand on an HDTV? It's the visual equivalent of playing a vinyl LP to an audience who've only heard CDs.

I haven't said much about the plots, mainly because there's not that much to say. Movies like this aren't about plot, or character, or CGI effects, or anything like what we've become used to seeing. Instead, they are about provoking a visceral reaction in the audience. I'm not talking about an emotional reaction, but almost a pre-emotional reaction. We're not invested in the characters; they barely exist except as a vehicle for mayhem and maulings. In most movies, this would be a flaw; in these movies, it's a feature. We're not rooting for the humans to win out over the sickos because the humans are the good guys, we just want to see a pretty lady with a gun for a leg lay waste to the zombie horde.

If you go into Grindouse with the attitude that you're going to see a triple feature at a drive in, you'll have a blast. If you're looking for Pulp Fiction, or Sin City, you'll hate it.

I liked it.

Posted by Rich
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Saturday, March 10, 2007

300: The Movie

It was the scene during the council meeting where Theron rapes Queen Gorgo for the second time. A voice rang out in the theater, "He must be a Democrat."

OK, it was my voice.

The comparisons between Greece during the Battle of Thermopylae and today's society are inescapable, and friends and neighbors, we don't come off so well. Can you name any national leader that would not have knelt to Xerxes? Any at all? And I'm not limiting this to American leaders. Is there any leader in the world today that would have had the guts to stand against overwhelming odds, knowing that they would go down in defeat, but doing it anyway simply because it was the right thing to do?


And for the sake of argument, should such a person exist, could he be elected to any position of authority?

The answer, my friends, is no.

Compromise is the name of the game today. Bipartisanship is the way to go. Forget principles; the only principle that really matters anymore is "Go along to get along." The only time our "leaders" stand on principles is when they want to raise the asking price for selling out those principles.

Fanboys in the audience may clap and cheer at Leonidas' courageous stand with his 300, but as for emulating him, forget about it. They're too busy being XBox heroes to be bothered doing it for real. It's much safer that way. If you look to 300 to see a reflection of ourselves, check out Ephialtes the traitor. Ugly, useless, and weak, his is the face we would see reflected in that mirror.

Can you imagine what would happen if that battle took place today? The Greeks were encouraged by the brave men who died at Thermopylae. We'd see the same thing and cry for mercy. Think of the headlines:

"Our troops routed at the gates!!!"
"President's policy leads to disaster!!!"
"Foreign juggernaut is unstoppable!!!"
"Give peace a chance!!!"

The talking heads on TV would go on and on about how we should be trying diplomacy, and that the enemies who slaughtered nations weren't really bad guys, and that we should try to understand them instead of killing them. The minority party in Congress would be busy opposing the plans of the majority, whether for good or ill, because being in charge is much more important than petty concerns like defending the nation against an enemy.

It's depressing, the depths to which we've fallen, and sickening to realize how much farther we can fall. Despite my crack at the beginning of this post, it isn't just the Democrats at fault. It's all of us. We allow it to happen. We watch as our schools are corrupted and do nothing. We watch as our politicians steal the country blind and do nothing. We watch as faceless nameless unelected bureaucrats defile everything this country was founded upon and we do nothing. We live in a country where the police can break into your home and shoot you dead for no reason, and get away with it because they were following proper procedure.

Now think about that for a minute. The police have a procedure that allows them to kill you in your home for no reason, and the penalty they face is suspension, or maybe the loss of their job. And we do nothing about it.

So what will we do when the war comes to our gates of fire? Nothing. And if any among us try to do something, we'll label them as "racists" and "nativists" and revile their names, then pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves on how very civilized we are. But we aren't really civilized; we're decadent, and the root of that word is decay. We are less than we once were, and sadly, greater than we will ever be again.

This rambling rant is just my way of circling around a very personal question as my son prepares to ship out to Iraq later this year. It's not a question of whether we are fighting the right opponent; we are. Islamofascism isn't limited to the Taliban in Afghanistan; it exists in Iraq, and Syria, and Iran as well. They are all fronts in the war against terrorism. The real question is this: "Is my son fighting to defend a country that is no longer worthy of defense?"

I just don't know anymore.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Blue Man Group At Thompson Boling

Short version: It's a great show, but I've seen it before.

For the long version, click for

Posted by Rich
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