Archive for July, 2004

Review of Bubba Ho-tep

July 29, 2004

I must preface this review by stating that I am a big Bruce Campbell fan. If you haven’t seen Army of Darkness or Evil Dead II, I can’t recommend them enough. Bubba Ho-tep is really a showcase for Bruce Campbell’s talent more than anything else; the plot is completely absurd.

The action centers around the Shady Rest Nursing Home in east Texas and its most famous resident, Elvis Presley (Campbell). The story is that Elvis tired of his fame and lifestyle and decided to switch places with Seymour Haff, an Elvis impersonator. All was going well in his new life until his trailer caught fire, destroying the contract that could allow him to go back to his previous life, and he fell off a stage during a concert, injuring his hip and sending him into a coma. He’s now seventy years old and waiting for the inevitable.

Strange things are afoot at the nursing home as resident after resident dies. The staff, of course, sees nothing strange in these events since the patients are basically transients as far as they’re concerned. Elvis and his friend John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis) aim to get to the bottom of things. JFK was sequestered in this rest home after the staged assassination and was “dyed” black to further cover the plotters’ tracks.

The dynamic duo come to realize that there is a resurrected Egyptian mummy, nicknamed Bubba Ho-tep since it is dressed in schlocky cowboy duds, loose on the grounds and it must suck souls out the residents’ anuses in order to stay allive. They decide to take matters into their own hands because, as Elvis says, they’re not going to “let some foreign, graffiti writin’, soul suckin’, son of a bitch in an oversized cowboy hat and boots take [their] friend’s souls and shit ’em down the visitors toilet!”

That’s about as weird of a plot as you can get and it really doesn’t work well. It’s got some really slow parts and it falls apart the more you think about it. There’s no overarching theme to the movie: it’s simply a vehicle for Bruce Campbell. I’m sure the producer and director would disagree, but that’s about the only thing this movie has going for it.

Campbell is at his acting best here. He’s playing a 70-year-old geezer who thinks—and probably is as far as the movie goes—he’s Elvis Presley. Most of the movie consists of him meandering around hallways in his walker contemplating what his life has become. Fully a third of the movie features the ersatz Elvis laying in his bed. It’s a huge bet as an actor to take on that sort of a role and Campbell nails it. I quickly started thinking that I was watching the real Elvis as a senior citizen: he played it exactly as I think an actual down-on-his-luck celebrity would act at the end of his life.

The movie is not particularly worth seeing unless you are a fan of Bruce Campbell. His acting carries the movie and is easily the best (and most nuanced) performance of his career. Without him, the movie simply would not work. The plot is contrived and incredible; there’s very little of value besides the excellent performances. Veteran actor Ossie Davis is excellent as the matter-of-fact JFK and Ella Joyce is more than adequate as the resident nurse.

It’s a very difficult film to classify, much like Army of Darkness. It’s got some very funny moments, but it’s not a comedy. There’s a mummy that eats souls (and evacuates their residue), but it’s not really a horror film. There’s a fight sequence, but the participants are a boot-wearing, ambling mummy, an old guy in a motorized wheelchair, and an old guy in a walker. It’s hard to say that that’s action. There are thrilling moments and dramatic moments. I guess we could call its genre sui generis.


Review of The Last Samurai

July 20, 2004

I’ve got a soft spot for samurai movies. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but something about the discipline, the focus, and the prowess of the samurai resonates. The Last Samurai, unfortunately, did not.

The premise of the movie is that a veteran officer (played by Tom Cruise) of the U.S. Army, scarred by Indian War battles, is hired in 1876 by the Japanese government to assist in the modernization of their army. The Emperor and his advisers have one major obstacle to overcome in fulfilling a complete modernization: a band of samurai intent on clinging to the old ways. In his first encounter with them, Cruise’s character reluctantly leads a contingent of poorly-trained conscripts that is completely decimated by the superior force of the samurai. He is captured and nursed back to health after impressing the samurai leader with his valiant resistance prior to capture.

After several months of observation, Cruise’s character sloughs off his resistance to the samurai culture, learning Japanese and the way of the samurai in quick succession. He gradually achieves a grudging acceptance among the elite samurai for his bravery and attempts to learn their culture. In a surprise raid on the samurai camp by ninja forces unknown and never identified, Cruise’s character saves the samurai leader’s life several times and earns his respect. They part company as friends.

Cruise’s character then comes to learn that the samurai leader has been captured and will be executed. Inexplicably, he decides to rescue him and join his rebellion. The climactic battle scene rivals Braveheart and The Patriot in its complexity and the viewer’s inability to follow the action. Anyone who knows their Japanese history (or even anything about World War II) will know the results of that skirmish. Suffice it to say, the samurai did not bomb Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The story is hackneyed: the thoughtful turncoat is pervasive enough to probably be an archetype. The inanity of the plot is compounded by the sugary sentimentality of Cruise’s outbursts, the cravenness of his U.S. Army superiors, the dishonorability of the Japanese modernizers, the maudlin plight of the samurai, and the historical blind-eye turned toward the realities of the samurai. I’ll briefly take each in turn.

Cruise, we come to understand, was a captain in Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s cavalry during the campaigns of the Indian Wars, where he witnessed the killing of women and children. These episodes haunt him, driving him to drink and relive flashbacks. We see that Cruise’s Captain Algren is a sensitive soul who recognizes the evils of the American imperialists against the pacifistic and noble American Indians. His foil, a superior officer, chides him, “Just tell me one thing, what is it about your own people you hate so much?” This is for the cheap seats who might otherwise have failed to get the unspeakable evil of the American bloodlusters.

The problem is that this conception of the Indian Wars ignores the wider context in which they took place. While there were certainly American officers who perpetrated great cruelty, they were by and large normal men placed in the most extraordinary circumstances and left to fend for themselves. They witnessed horrifying atrocities early in the campaigns as they were outnumbered and outclassed by the fierce Indian tribes. They learnt that mealy-mouthed treaty signing and formation fighting didn’t cut it in the midwestern plains; they reconceived their strategy and fought the Indians at their own terms.

The Japanese at the turn of the century were doing exactly the same thing. In their initial encounters with Americans and foreigners, the completely homogenous Japanese realized that the Westerners held the keys to a glorious future and began the process of shedding the thousand-year culture that was trapping them in a feudal subsistence farming society. They saw themselves as doing the right thing and they really were, until they experienced a resurgence of samurai-inspired militarism prior to 1937.

That resurgence, much like the “noble savage” notion that swept nineteenth century Europe, was based on a romanticized view of the samurai that had little to do with reality. The samurai were the thugs of the Japanese warlords and they showed little mercy or recognition of the peasantry, who they regarded as their servants. They regularly swept into peasant villages and demanded tributes, slaughtering whole towns if they didn’t receive it. Like the medieval knights, they didn’t have any particular allegiance to their warlord. Instead, they fought for whoever paid them and they could be persuaded to switch sides if the offer was right.

It wasn’t just the plot: there were too many silent scenes where someone asks Tom Cruise’s character a question and he icily stares back at the questioner rather than answering. One or two times and you get the idea that he’s not afraid to refuse to answer his superiors; four or five times and it becomes a cheap device.

There was also the utterly banal scenes where samurai were escaping while guards were shooting at them with rifles at relatively short distances yet managed to score very few hits. It worked when we believed that the soldiers were untrained conscripts, but it didn’t when they’ve had six or seven months of training.

I’m not entirely certain what the movie’s theme is and I’m not even sure that it had one. It seems like more of a vehicle for revisionist history, lecturing the audience about current events indirectly, and glorying in a simpler past. I did not enjoy the movie, but there were parts that were exciting and visually compelling. Unfortunately, the plot they were hung on tried to do too much. The samurai leader was well cast, but Cruise’s Algren was a stereotype and seemed to be pulled out his memory from Born on the Fourth of July.

Exciting News

July 20, 2004

I just found out some exciting news but I can’t share it with anybody. Grrr. This entry is just so that I can have a record for when I can talk about it. Move along—nothing to see here.

Retro Google

July 20, 2004

Here’s Google as it appeared in the Sixties. {via}

Terrorists and Planes

July 16, 2004

This + this = scary.

[UPDATE (7/21/04): Apparently, the Syrians in question were members of a band. Doesn’t explain the erratic behavior, but their cover story checks out.]

The Ivy League

July 15, 2004

Steve Ivy, master of nigritude ultramarine, has finally finished importing the archives and they stretch back to June 2000. As a fellow Phoenician (transplant from the Old Dominion) and Mac OS X afficionado, Steve Ivy is the local face of blogging for me and a friend. And now his transition from Conversant to WordPress is complete.

Corporate Ricochet

July 15, 2004

Looks like Ricochet Networks was just sold again to YDI Wireless for $3 million from its previous owner, Aerie Networks.

For those of you not following the Ricochet saga—probably anyone reading this entry that’s not me—Ricochet was a wireless Internet access point network built by long-defunct Metricom in a spectacular burn of nearly a billion dollars. The wireless network achieved reported speeds of 400+kbps and offered amazing reception. The downside was that the service cost upwards of $75 per month for unlimited access. Consequently, they attracted at most 50,000 subscribers and that wasn’t nearly enough to cover operating expenses or interest on the debt incurred.

So Metricom filed for Chapter 11 and Aerie Networks bought its assets for $8.25 million in a fire sale. They scaled back Metricom’s nationwide—well, major metropolitan areas around the nation, to be precise—rollout to only Denver and San Diego. They also priced it more sensibly at $24.99 per month for unlimited service. The new owner never revealed its expansion plans but the underlying theme was that these were just the first two test markets.

Those were the only markets for several years and it quickly became apparent that those would be the only service areas so long as Aerie maintained ownership. Obviously, Aerie executives realized this since they sold the assets yet again for 36% of the price they paid. I don’t know anything about the current owners, but I sure hope that they fulfill the Metricom dream of universal, speedy wireless access.

Why do I care so much about this corporate ricochet story? Because I can’t get DSL out at my house and I refuse to get a cable modem since I have DirecTV, the prospects of Ricochet loom large in my broadband decisions. Their coverage map way back when showed that I could have high-quality, fast wireless service at my house and at my work. Such service is effectively like dial-up in that it follows you but with the speed of broadband.

So here’s hoping that YDI, whoever they are, will finally re-activate Ricochet service in Phoenix and make a successful go out of a great idea. I say hope because the press release linked off of Ricochet’s home page is a PDF browser capture of a page displaying their press release. That’s unnecessarily weird and probably doesn’t mean anything, but it’s not a good start.

The worst case scenario is that Ricochet’s assets keep getting bumped around so often that they will eventually enter my price range for purchase and I can open the network solely for my own usage.

Copyright Is Alright By Me

July 13, 2004

For my future reference, Cornell Training Programs on Copyright.

[UPDATE (7/15/04): More good resources: Project Gutenberg’s Copyright Clearance, UPenn’s Online Books Copyright FAQ and Copyright Renewal FAQ.]

Decade of Employment

July 7, 2004

July 5th marked the anniversary of my starting at Desert Schools. The year was 1994 and I was moving from being a swing manager at McDonald’s (Pima and Indian Bend, for the curious) to a part-time teller at Desert Schools. It represented a 20% off-the-bat pay increase (from $6.04 to $7.28 per hour, for the curious) and a substantial gain in opportunity.

In that decade of service, I languished for 2½ years as a teller (went full time by August 1994), moved to our main office as a front desk clerk for about 6 months, became a loan officer for maybe a year or two, moved to Training for about two years to maintain the WinHelp employee handbook and transitioned that to a CHM file which spawned the corporate intranet, and then transferred to the Web Services department at its creation where I’ve been a Web Developer for the last three years.

It’s been a wild ride. Desert Schools is a nice place to work: it’s not perfect or necessarily great, but it’s definitely a pleasant enough way to occupy your work hours. The great thing about a decade of service is that I move up a notch in the vacation accumulation schedule from 18 days per year to 21. I just wish I was more inclined to actually use them; I guess that’s a occupational hazard of a web developer (or programmer in general).

Stylish Litter

July 6, 2004

I think that every use of “! important” in CSS is like admitting that you’ve lost control of your inheritance design—you are the cascade’s bitch.