November 8, 2013

Welcome to the New Normal

This is horrifying.

Super Typhoon Haiyan -- perhaps the strongest storm ever -- plowed Friday across the central Philippines, leaving widespread devastation in its wake.


With sustained winds of 315 kph (195 mph) and gusts as strong as 380 kph (235 mph), Haiyan may be the strongest tropical cyclone to hit land anywhere in recorded history. It will take further analysis after the storm passes to establish whether it is a record.

As a comparison, the highest official windspeed on land ever recorded is 231 MPH on the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire back in 1934. So imagine something like that passing over you for about a half-hour. That's Super Typhoon Haiyan.

This is now two "super" storms in two years (Sandy being the other one). Which isn't that surprising. The Fifth Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out that climate change can contribute to the formation of these kinds of storms. As the oceans store more and more heat, the overall temperature will rise. Which will provide more energy to these storms. And will enable them to grow stronger and stay intact for longer periods of time.

And this will likely go along with other great things like water scarcity, crop reductions and increased land temperatures that will make large areas of land increasingly uninhabitable. Good times!

Whether this will happen is becoming more and more of an academic question. The real issue is to what degree will these changes occur. But the superstorms look like they are here to stay.

November 7, 2013

Sometimes I Take Pictures

This was back in April of 2011 when I and my brother chaperoned his son at the Boston Anime Convention. We were hungry so we went to the Food Court at the Pru. And there I found someone in a pretty great Master Chief outfit.

Also: Master Chief likes Chinese food apparently. So maybe Microsoft can work that into the next Halo.

November 6, 2013

Movie Review: The Fifth Element (1997)

“I hate warriors, too narrow-minded. I'll tell you what I do like though: a killer, a dyed-in-the-wool killer. Cold blooded, clean, methodical and thorough. Now a real killer, when he picked up the ZF-1, would've immediately asked about the little red button on the bottom of the gun.” – Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman)

Director: Luc Besson

Writers: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen

Producers: Patrice Ledoux, Iain Smith and John A. Amicarella

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Major Stars: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Tommy “Tiny” Lister

When people discuss good sci-fi films of the past 15-20 years or so, it seems (to me, anyway) that people tend to deride or ignore The Fifth Element. I was one of those people once. Likely because when I first saw it back in 1997, I was a little…altered, and I thought it seemed ridiculous. Upon watching it again and again, I was way off; this is a solid, fun action/sci-fi film.

If you aren’t familiar with the film, the plot is pretty simple. Every 5,000 years the Great Evil visits the Earth. It must be repelled by a perfect warrior that releases the Divine Light. That can only be done by arranging and activating four stones representing the four elements (earth, fire, air, water) at a temple in Egypt, with the warrior (The Fifth Element) in the middle of the stones.

In 1914, aliens known as Mondoshawans remove the stones because of the advent of WW1. They promise to return the stones in 300 years, when the evil is supposed to return. 300 years later they do return, only to get blown out of space by mercenary shape-changing warriors known as Mangalores. They’ve been hired by Emmanuel Zorg (Oldman) to retrieve the stones. Of course, it isn’t that easy.

Recovered from the wreckage by the government are a few cells that are reconstituted into the perfect warrior. It’s Leeloo (Jovovich). She escapes the medical facility In New York City and literally falls into a flying cab driven by ex-Special Forces Major Korben Dallas (Willis). He gets wrapped up in the quest for the stones and getting them and Leeloo to the temple before the Great Evil, which has finally re-appeared, can destroy the Earth.

That rough outline doesn’t do justice to the film, which has lots of action and humor throughout. A scene where Dallas disarms a mugger outside his apartment is funny as hell, there’s a great flying car chase through New York, and the last 20-30 minutes of the film is pretty much a well-choreographed, kick-ass firefight between the Mangalores and Leeloo/Dallas on-board a space-liner where the stones are located. Very rarely does the film lag, with humor driving the story along when the action slows.

The casting is great as well. Not only in the major roles, but the smaller ones as well. Ian Holm is great as the flustered priest Vito Cornelius, whose sect has protected the secret of the Fifth Element for hundreds of years. Chris Tucker plays an over-the-top media icon known as Ruby Rhod, who escorts Dallas around the space-liner. Tucker’s manic delivery fits the character perfectly. And Brion James, a perpetual “That Guy” actor (Leon in Blade Runner, Ben Kehoe in 48 Hours) is solid as General Munro, Dallas’ former commanding officer who ropes him into retrieving the stones. And Tiny Lister as the President was inspired.

The music is cool as well. It’s has a Middle-Eastern flavor to it that works well. And there is a opera-techno fusion piece towards the end that is really nice.

November 5, 2013

Hey, a rule is a rule, and let's face it, without rules there's chaos.

Kramer may have been talking about golf with Steve Gendason, but he just as easily could have been talking about gym etiquette. In particular, the etiquette at my work gym.

The work gym is a fascinating place. You go there to sweat and work out, but the people there are the people you see all day outside of the gym. So you can't be overtly rude or insensitive, because it could have real-world consequences. Forget to wipe off the bench press, and suddenly you lose Conference Room B.

But there are really only three rules that need to be followed:

  • Wipe off your sweat when you're done with a piece of equipment
  • Don't turn the heat above 70
  • When you have the remote to the TV in front of the cardio machines, be sure to offer it to the first person who came after you when you are finished.
Can you tell which rule I am going to talk about?

The first one is obvious. The sweat from other people in general is nasty, with the sole exception of whatever you work up in the throes of passion with your significant other. The sweat from other people on gym equipment brings nasty to a whole-new level. And even passion sweat doesn't get a pass on the incline press.

The heat rule is also obvious. No one needs to have the heat at 75 degrees in the gym when your purpose for being there is going to MAKE YOU HOT! Personally, I feel it should be kept at 65. But I also recognize I am an outlier in that department. So maybe it could be a few degrees warmer in the gym. But 75? No frickin' way.

Which brings us to rule #3. This one may not be obvious to some people, so I'll explain.

My work gym has roughly 12 cardio machines (elliptical, treadmill, bikes) at one end of the gym. In front of them is a single big-screen television. The understood rule (which I try to reinforce by following it every time) is that whoever gets there first gets to watch what they want. When they are done, they offer the remote to the first person who came after them. If they refuse it, you go to first person who came after that person. And so forth. It's very orderly, makes sense and is easy to follow.

Which brings us to yesterday. I come out of the locker room ready to hop on the elliptical machine. There are two people there: a man on the treadmill and a woman on another elliptical. A third man has just finished working out. He is about to offer the remote to the man, who was there before the woman. But then the woman belts out "Hey! Can you put it on 71?"

A massive breach of etiquette. The guy with the remote still tried to check with the treadmill guy. At which point she says "Ah, he won't mind!" At which point Treadmill Guy, who didn't look particularly...assertive, backed down. So we flip to 71, which is, of course, Country Music Television. Or as I call it, Hell.

For the next 10 minutes I had to endure watching this twangy claptrap. I'd have rather been under a dentist's drill with no anesthetic. But then, miraculously, she gets off her machine. I'm getting ready to take the remote and flip away to anything. News, MTV, The View...anything as long as it isn't Country Bumpkin and His Downhome Jug-Time Band.

But does she give me the remote? No. She walks over to the TV, puts it back on the shelf, and walks off to the machine behind the television. She thinks she's going to listen to CMT while she does the rest of her workout.

Guess again, sunshine. I get off the machine in the middle of my workout. Which I hate doing because I lose the groove I settle into when working on those machines. I grab the remote and march back to the machine. At which point I do something somewhat juvenile: I jam the volume up about seven steps and flip to ESPN. Which happens to be playing a NFL Films recap of Super Bowl XXVI, or "When the Bills were Halfway to Infamy."

For the rest of my time on the machine, this woman shot me the dagger eyes, vowing some sort of redneck justice for what I did. But there are RULES, madam! And you did not obey them. Don't be angry at me for your transgressions.

And when I was done, I proffered the remote to each of the three people who had gotten on the machines after me. In order. And everyone was pleased and content when I placed the remote back on the shelf, because I followed the rules.

So screw you, Snarky Country Hick Lady.

November 4, 2013

Movie Review: Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo (Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War) (2004)

I wish this was all just a dream. I want to wake up in my bed, and over breakfast, I'd tell you that I had a strange dream. Then I would go to school, and you and mom would go to work. - Lee Jin-Seok (Won Bin)

Director: Kang Je-Gyu

Writer: Kang Je-Gyu

Producer: Lee Seong-Hun

Studio: Showbox Ent. (South Korea), Columbia TriStar (USA DVD)

Major Stars: Jang Dong-Kun, Bon Win, Lee Eun-Ju, Kong Hyeong-jin

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War blew me away. It’s a remarkable film, a war film that holds it’s own with the best of its Western counterparts. It’s a testament to the talent and quality that can be found in Korean cinema.

The film follows the Lee brothers, Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Kun) and Jin-Seok (Bon Win), who live in Seoul with their family as the Korean War erupts in early 1950. Jin-Tae works as a shoemaker to put his brother through school. When the North Koreans invade, and Jin-Seok is forcibly enlisted into the Republic of Korea Army (RoK), Jin-Tae joins him to watch over him and try to get him home.

The only way to get Jin-Seok out of the RoK is for Jin-Tae to win the Taeguk Cordon of the Order of Military Merit, the Korean equivalent of the Medal of Honor. He volunteers for dangerous missions. By succeeding he gains attention from the staff officers and the adulation of his fellow soldiers. And Jin-Tae volunteers for more exceedingly difficult missions. But Jin-Seok sees this as changing his brother, who becomes more violent. And so Jin-Seok grows more distant from his brother.

That is what makes Tae Guk Gi so effective. It marries the dynamic of a deteriorating relationship between brothers to some remarkable war scenes. This is where war films go from good to great.

And the scenes are amazing. The first major battle sequence occurs in the early weeks of the Korean War when the North Koreans have all but taken the South. The Lee brothers and their unit are surrounded by the Nakdong River and are being starved to death. They decide to launch a desperation attack against the North Koreans to break out.

This battle is as visceral and jarring as any scene in Saving Private Ryan. More so in some ways, as this is a blood feud in every sense of the phrase. Soldiers are beaten to death with fists and rifle butts. The filming is done with the shaking camera style Spielberg used for Omaha Beach and it works. You are dragged along and feel the desperation of the RoK soldiers who are fighting for their lives.

There are urban combat scenes that look like they were ripped out of documentary reels. The moment when 600,000 Chinese counterattack across the border is a stunning visual to behold. The work of Hong Kyung-Pyo as cinematographer on this film is absolutely fantastic. Not only in the moments of war but in the moments of peace at the beginning of the film.

What also makes Tae Guk Gi a great film is that it doesn’t pull punches with atrocities committed on both sides. We see the crimes of the North Koreans, with villagers slaughtered and people forced to fight for them. We already know about these. What we see and may be unfamiliar with are the South Korean atrocities. North Korean POWs are forced to fight to the death for RoK soldiers. In Seoul the Anti-Communist Federation executes suspected Communists without evidence as the Chinese approach to take the city for the North once again. This latter atrocity affects the Lee brothers in a personal way and drives the climax of the film. Hats off to Kang Je-Gyu for not holding back in his depiction of the war.

If there is anything negative to say about the film, it would be problems that are common to these types of films. Secondary characters tend to be caricatures to some degree. The plot gets rushed at points as Kang tries to cover an extensive period of time. But that does not detract in a major way from the overall success of this film.

I really cannot say enough good things about Tae Guk Gi. And it earns a really high spot on the current list. I’m placing it a hair behind Letters From Iwo Jima. I think Eastwood’s film was better, but not by much. And yes, I am telling you this movie is better than Braveheart or Where Eagles Dare. It's the simple truth. And this should prove that a great war film doesn't need big names or big bucks. Tae Guk Gi was made for $12.8 million. It looks like it cost 10 times that much.

You must have this film in your collection. I promise you that you will not be disappointed. One word of advice; watch it in Korean with the English subtitles. The DVD has an English-dubbed option and it just looks wrong. Besides, films should be listened to in the language they were shot in...with the exception of kung-fu films from the 1970s and 80s.


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