Monday, May 30, 2005

Movie Micro-Reviews: Before Sunrise/Before Sunset

If you are a Gen-Xer who has not sold your soul to Jerry Bruckheimer, there's a chance you will enjoy Before Sunrise and its recent sequel, Before Sunset. To call these films dialog-driven is to underplay how much text, and how little action, occurs. These are finely tuned character studies that genuinely capture the sensibilities of worldly people in their early twenties, then again in their early thirties. Before Sunset, which we saw this weekend, surprised me. I expected a letdown after the imaginative Before Sunrise, but I was instead moved by the depth of emotion that I believe accurately reflects the dilemmas of these thirtysomethings. The stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, were heavily involved in the writing of the second film, but rather than turning it into a vanity-driven piece of tripe, their involvement in their characters led to a surprisingly touching denoument to their story.

Are these movies chick flicks? Sure, to a certain extent. However, both movies offer a depth and cleverness that redeems them from the typical Hollywood formula, which is reason enough to watch them, as far as I am concerned.

Memorial Day Weekend: Best Sports Weekend of the Year

There may be some debate about this, as some people point to the last weekend in March (NCAA basketball final four, opening of the baseball season). However, if your sporting interests include the unconventional, this weekend is without question the topper.

On Memorial Day weekend, professional basketball's interminable playoff process nears a critical juncture with conference finals ongoing. Summer can be sensed just around the corner as the boys of summer play meaningful games under warm skies. Even better, the NCAA contests its final four and championship game in lacrosse. For the last several years, I have happily spent the Saturday and Monday mornings of the holiday watching the finest collegiate lacrosse players play for the love of the game. A compelling combination of hockey, soccer and football, contested at a very high level by young men who appear to embody what is good and traditional about scholar-athletes, college lacrosse is a fantastic sport to watch. The players, unlike most college althetes seen on television, are not preening for agents. Many players metioned on the telecasts are high-achievers, with impressive SAT scores and Wall Street jobs awaiting them (fulfilling the Ivy League stereotype). In fact, one David Evans, a midfielder for Duke, the championship runner-up, starts his new job at Lehman Brothers Tuesday morning at 7. The games this year were great, particularly the semifinal involving eventual champion Johns Hopkins. Virginia broke a tie with 14 seconds remaining, then Johns Hopkins forced the match into overtime with a goal 13 seconds later. Johns Hopkins ended up winning dramatically on a fast break following a long Virginia possession. Great stuff.

Of course, Memorial Day weekend also means the Indy 500. This year was the first I've watched in many years, now that some of the Champ Car guys are coming back after the senseless split caused by Tony George and his IRL. The race this year was fast, well-driven, and particularly dramatic thanks to the presence and strong performance of Danica Patrick, a legitimate contender who just happens to be a woman. She didn't win, but she led a bunch of laps, only losing the lead five laps from the end when she had to run lean in order to conserve fuel. More good stuff.

We're not done! Memorial Day weekend also mean the Grand Prix of Europe in Formula One. This year it was contested at the "new" Nurburgring. As Speed TV's Bob Varsha aptly introduced the venue, the Nurburg castle stands guard over one of the most revered race circuits in all of motor racing ... and Formula One will be racing right next door. (Please see here for my entry on the "old" Nurburgring.) The race was as good as F1 gets these days (which, frankly, isn't that exciting if you're not completely fanatic about the sport due to infrequent passing) thanks to a spectacular suspension failure on race leader Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren on the final lap presaged by a fierce vibration owing to a flat-spotted tire over several preceding laps. The announcers noted the problem and anticipated the breakdown, which allowed Fernando Alonso to bring home his Renault for his fourth win of the year.

If you live on the West Coast, you must be truly dedicated (or simply daft) to follow Formula One, as the practice sessions, qualifying and race are broadcase live at 4:30 a.m. I have reconnected with Formula One, my passion as a teen, since the Monaco race last year, shortly after our cable system added Speed TV to the lineup. Good times, but lots of lost sleep. I can usually use the digital video recorder, but this Sunday, since I was going to record the Indy 500, and only had about four free hours in the afternoon between church and a pool party, I had to watch the F1 race live so that I could watch Indy before the party.

I had to, I tell you.

RIP Pre: January 25, 1951 - May 30, 1975

Memorial Day marked the 30th anniversary of the death of America's premiere distance runner, Steve Prefontaine. Not only was Pre an running icon at the dawn of the fitness movement, he was instrumental in the creation of Nike and the reorganization of world amateur track events. At the time he died, Pre owned every American record from 2000 to 10,000 meters, and from 2 to 6 miles. Because some of the distances he ran are no longer contested, some of his records stand to this day. His accomplishments are too numerous to mention; go instead to the University of Oregon's excellent summation of his racing career or this official site for the mind-bending numbers. Nike is also running an interesting ad campaign describing his life.

The U of O reference hints at my interest in the man. My grandparents have lived in Eugene for more than fifty years, and my family and I were living with them in May 1975, awaiting the birth of my sister, who would arrive three weeks hence. Pre lost his life in a single car accident on a little road in the hills above the U of O, about a quarter mile from where my great-grandparents once lived. For those who do not know, the University of Oregon was, and to some extent still is, the center of the American collegiate running universe; Pre was a big reason why.

Being a little kid, I wasn't aware of the accident at the time. However, thanks to a movie called Without Limits, I was brought back to the story. In my humble estimation, Without Limits is one of the finest sports movies in existence. Qualifying the film as a "sports" movie accurately describes the subject matter, but unfairly and unintentionally diminishes its power as a great film, period. I became a Billy Crudup fan because of this movie; he bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Pre, and gives a masterful performance depicting a complicated, driven person. Donald Sutherland, as coach Bill Bowerman, was beautifully understated in his role as Pre's muse, tormentor, teacher, friend and business partner. The movie was filmed in Eugene, including Hayward Field, which still looks much as it did when Pre ruled the track there. I have had the privilege of running on that track, which is a surreal experience when one is mindful of the history that has taken place in those lanes.

Pre's Rock, where he crashed his car, is now a shrine where runners leave tokens of their craft in memory of Pre. If you have any interest at all in Pre's story, Without Limits is a pretty powerful memorial in its own right.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Headin' Down Lousiana Way

I, along with approximately 25% of my readers, will be going to New Orleans in a few weeks for a wedding of a college friend. It will be my first excursion to the Big Easy; as an all-purpose adventurer, I'm really looking forward to the trip.

Believe it or not (and if you are my wife, I really need you to believe it), this hotel, where we will stay, is significantly less expensive than almost any other suite or double-room alternative we explored. Sweet!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Flying in Dramatic Style

Recently, I have had the rare opportunity to travel frequently. In addition to the trip to Virginia we took as a family in April, I made four trips to the Bay Area over the course of three weeks thanks to a case in which I became entangled very late in the game. I had the opportunity to sample an interesting variety of travel options: different airports, airlines, ground transportation and travel times. Of the many conclusions I could draw, here’s the one I confirmed first: for all of its convenience for being our local airport, I detest landing at the Burbank Airport (officially known as the Bob Hope Airport).

I have probably now taken more flights into and out of Burbank than any other airport. I have had more rough landings than anywhere else, as well. Two such landings were hard enough to result in overhead bins flying open; the first of those events caused my daughter to fear flying for several years (she has only now reached the point of tolerating airplane flights). I assumed my odd landing experiences were merely a consequence of the fact that I have taken more flights through there, or because I fly Southwest a lot, but my research suggests that there may be reasons why landing at Burbank really is a white knuckle ride.

The Burbank Airport is not a large place. The terminal is relatively small, and one comes to discover that the airfield itself is not particularly expansive. Jammed into a densely populated urban area, none of the approaches to the runways include empty green space. The typical landing pattern is to approach from the west across the vast expanse of buildings, freeways and roads that is the entire San Fernando Valley. The long, slow approach is often complicated by buffeting winds that come from the north, which on bad days form the famed (and feared) Santa Ana winds. On final approach, the aircraft swoops over a series of low industrial buildings, a street, and suddenly, there is the runway. Just as suddenly, the airplane should be on the ground, reverse thrusters and gear brakes on full. The Southwest pilots will often yank the airplane directly into the gate (perpendicular to and immediately adjacent to the runway) as it is still on rollout from the landing. Whee!

Even worse are the landings from the north, which bring the airplane in very close alongside a hill and over more industrial buildings on a steep glide path. This typically leads to a very hard landing and rollout, particularly for the Southwest pilots, who try to stop their airplanes before they overshoot the taxiway to the terminal to the left, effectively shortening the runway by 1000 feet or so. To put this in perspective, here is an overhead view (north to the top) of the airfield. The Southwest terminal is to the right; the United/American terminal is in the lower part of the image.

Why do I feel increasingly anxious about landing at Burbank? Why is it so often as exciting and bumpy as an amusement park roller coaster? Why are landings at other airports such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, or even small regional airports like Oakland and San Jose, so much more relaxed?

It’s not an illusion: size matters.

Here are some images of LAX, the San Francisco Airport, the San Jose Airport, and the Oakland Airport. All of them are on the same level of magnification as the Burbank image above. Notice a difference? They are all substantially larger than the Burbank airfield. FAA data backs this up. While the main runways at San Francisco and San Jose are each at least 11,000 feet, Oakland's runway is 10,000 feet, and LAX has runways of 13,000, 12,000, 10,000 and 8,900 feet, the Burbank Airport’s main landing runway is only 5,800 feet. The north-south runway is only marginally better at just under 6,900 feet. It is no wonder, then, that a Southwest jet ran off the end of the runway in a heavy rainstorm in March 2000, coming to rest mere feet from a gas station across the street from the airport.

So the next time you fly into our fair region, try not to think about how your pilot has half the distance to bring your airplane out of the sky and to a halt that he would have at almost any other major airport. If they bring the plane down hard, there is a reason.

(Cool site discovered during the composition of this entry:

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

In Honor of a Certain Movie Opening This Week

This one is for my Dad, who never met a substance he couldn't turn into mulch, and Andy, for what should be obvious reasons.

UFO Over Florida!

Looky here!

Monday, May 16, 2005

New Hope for Radio

For those of us who have not embraced the monthly fees and parking garage uselessness of satellite radio and are frustrated with the endless radio airtime taken up with advertisements and promotions instead of commentary or music, the solution is here. Known generically as "Jack" radio, KCBS here in Los Angeles has gone to the format, which seems to be characterized as having an unusually large playlist and no DJs. Advertisements still run, but far less than usual, and there is no idle chatter every 11 minutes from the "talent." Plus, the playlist is genuinely broad. One might call it "eclectic," if that term had not come to mean "weird." I've tried "eclectic" a few times, when I wanted to pretend to be sophisticated. Unfortunately, I can only take so much of Ani DiFranco. The "Jack" rotation generally consists of anything that has been on a rock Top-40 list in the past 35 or so years. Like a combination of classic rock and Star stations, you get Guns-N-Roses mixed with Echo and the Bunnymen, Michele Branch and Dire Straits. It sounds a little weird, but oddly enough, it works, if you are no too smug to admit that you like popular rock music. Thankfully, the playlist is large enough to avoid the endless ZZ Top repetitions endemic to classic rock stations or the non-stop Matchbox 20 love-fest of a Star-type station. Everything in moderation; not a bad deal, especially for the price.

A Good Old Warbird

On my way home from work tonight, a B24 Liberator rose up in front of me as it took off from Burbank airport. I pulled off to the side of the road and jumped out on the sidewalk to watch it go by. The takeoff of a four engine WWII bomber is a rare and wonderful sight. Old propeller driven aircraft are not capable of the steep climb angles of jet aircraft, so the departure of a B24 from a crowded airport like Burbank, hemmed in on all sides by civilization, is something to behold. With long, thin wings stretched straight out from the fuselage, engines throbbing, the old bomber was a beautiful, terrible thing to see.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Early Review: Star Wars

For those who care about such things, here is a Variety review of Episode III. There have probably been others, but this is the first I've seen (not that I've been looking, mind you; I still haven't seen Episode II).

Beware: spoilers abound!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Lament of an Early Adopter

I feel that I’ve always been on the vanguard of technological innovation, largely by virtue of the careers of my Dad and stepdad, and because (as a result) I grew up in the Silicon Valley. We had a very early VCR, an original Atari 2600 (before they called it that), a TV with infrared remote control at about the same time, a 1200-baud terminal when the concept of a BBS was brand-new ... lots of neat stuff. As an adult, I joined AOL in 1993 and used the buddy list to communicate long before IM became the bane of schoolteachers’ existence. Chris and I signed up for this newfangled “e-mail” thing in college that required us to tromp down to the computer labs and wrestle with UNIX-based terminals, all so we could send messages to Andy like, “wow, isn’t e-mail neat?” In law school, I was one of the first people to lug a laptop to class. We moved to cable modem before broadband was a household word. We upgraded to digital cable, then HDTV, on the leading edge of those burgeoning trends.

We have also been unafraid to use the internet to find and purchase relatively big-ticket items since before that was customary. Among the tools we have used to great effect at times, we started using Travelocity back in about 1993 or so. Booking one’s own flights; what a novel concept! Today, of course, it is de rigueur, but when Travelocity began, self-booking was quite a novelty. Based upon recent evidence, Travelocity has become the General Motors of online businesses: mature, fat and happy, putting out a shoddy product with little or no regard for the people who make use of its services.

One would think that a simple flight from A to B would be simple to arrange, even if it involved a connection or two, when one’s business is to, well, arrange such events. Through the mysterious marvels of technology, Travelocity conjures up dozens of potential flights, even illustrates which seats are available, and leads the user through the process of buying space on the flights. Travelocity will even throw in a discount on fleabag hotels for the mere click of a mouse button; what could be easier?

Neurosurgery, apparently. I found the flight I wanted, proceeded all the way through all of the selection screens, only to be brought up short by a screen indicating that an “error” occurred. Either I hit the return button on the browser, or there was an internal error. So sorry, start over. Okay, fine. Try again. All the way through, but no dice again. Fine, use the handy toll-free number to speak to a person. Good news: I’m speaking to a human within moments, who walks me through the very same steps, we pick seats, she takes my credit card info, all is good. She is in the middle of the “thankyouforusingTravelocityforyourtravelneeds” speech when she stops cold. It seems that she has run into a screen that says she cannot complete the transaction. Apparently my outbound flight is full. Gee, that’s odd, since it shows lots of seats available on their clever seat-picking graphic. Well, reservations come in from all over, I’m told. With a vision of the dizzying array of flight options dancing through my brain, I decline her offer to select a different itinerary and hang up.

After running through a number of other scenarios with other flights, none of which is nearly as satisfactory as the one I wanted, I followed a flash of inspiration and went directly to United. Mentally holding my nose at the prospect of dealing directly with United (the reason for which could easily fill another blog entry), I found both legs of the round trip, found seats, and booked the trip. For five dollars less than Travelocity. Simple! And, notably, available! All’s well that ends well.

If only it would end. In addition to a confirmation from United, my e-mail box contained a happy confirmation of my trip … from Travelocity. Calling up the document, it confirms that I’m reserved on the very trip I was told could not be booked because it was full, which I now know was not the case two times over. Great. I’m now overbooked. I’ve been warned thirty times in the last 24 hours that I’ll owe my first child’s lifetime income stream as a penalty for cancellation. A call to Travelocity dumps me into their mysterious voice-activated phone system, then into hold purgatory. Funny, when I wanted to book the flight, I got right through to a chipper young woman with a charming Southern accent. Now that I want to cancel, I cool my heels for twenty minutes before Bangladesh picks up the phone.

I may have been ahead of the curve on many things in the past, but experience with outsourcing is not one of them. Now I am forced to explain a mildly complicated situation to someone whose English skills do not give me any confidence that the outcome will be favorable, seeing as how I can understand only two out of every three words she says as she attempts to confirm what I am saying in a language that she probably barely understands. Fortunately, she cheerfully agrees to refund the amount of the ticket, sans airline penalties. Ah, but there is the matter of Travelocity’s five dollar fee. Ordinarily, I might let that go, but I find something slightly askew about being charged for the privilege of having my reservation screwed up. After ten additional minutes on hold while she tracks down her supervisor, the service fee is refunded as well.

Happy ending! Well, no. I am helpfully informed that every dollar I was charged will be refunded to my credit card … within 30 days. Whoa. Did I hear that right? Ms. Bangladesh concedes that it may not take that long, but it will take at least 10 days for the refund to occur. Slick operation, that. They ping my card while my voice intoning the last numeral of my card still reverberates softly in the air, but they can’t reverse the charge for 10 days. I’m thrilled that they will make pennies, maybe even nickels, off that 10 to 30 day float while I run the risk of being forced to pay for the flight on one statement to avoid finance charges, all the while knowing the refund will show up on my next statement, leaving me with an utterly useless positive balance on my credit card. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

My message to Travelocity is the same as what David Spade used to say to frazzled airline passengers in the SNL skit, “buh-bye.”

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Movie Micro-Review: The Interpreter

This love letter to the United Nations was a reasonably engaging whodunit (or rather, whosgonnadoit). Nicole Kidman was, well, Nicole Kidman, with a lock of blonde hair fetchingly drawn across one eye through much of the movie, and an accent that can't decide if it's Oxford, Dutch or Africaans. Sean Penn was, well, Sean Penn, charisma-free and grimacing humorlessly throughout as if fighting persistent intestinal cramping. Still, it was a well-paced film with plenty of tense moments and a backstory that unfolds gracefully. And Nicole Kidman. That factor cannot be stressed enough.

That, of course, is the primary weakness of the dozens of films Hollywood spews out every year. As much as we all like to see Nicole Kidman (or George Clooney, or whatever star you care to name who spends as much time on the cover of People magazine as on the big screen), these kind of films never let you forget that you are watching a star, first and formost. The lighting, camera angles, extreme close-ups, flattering makeup and wardrobe; all of these conspire (by the director's design) to keep the thought of "ooh, look at him/her act" at the forefront of the brain. Because it is the star that sells the tickets, not the character. For a star who takes his or her craft seriously, it's as dangerous as typecasting. In this celebrity-addled culture, rather than being stuck in a role, they are stuck in a persona. Actors can "play against type;" stars can never break free of being stars. Tom Cruise, for all of his "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Collateral" efforts, is still "Tom Cruise" when you see him on screen.

It doesn't hurt his ability to put food on the table, but it is ultimately distracting for the viewer, who watches the star act, rather than enter the world of the character played by the actor.

Lame Rock Lyrics, Take 1

Certainly this isn't the worst offender, but I was reminded on the way home this evening of how much this one bugs me:

"Only time will tell if we stand the test of time."
-- Van Halen, "Why Can't This Be Love"

I'm sure Sammy thought he was plumbing new depths of profundity, but it comes across as simple and silly.

Please feel free to submit your candidates.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A Reason to Love Netflix

Sure, Netflix is incredibly convenient, and reasonably priced. That's not what makes it so great, though. No, Netflix's presence in the culture is a net gain for all for this simple reason: it has made the use of the word "queue" commonplace. No longer consigned to usage by the effite or the British, "queue" should soon be bedeviling elementary school children routinely on spelling tests.

Come Visit Los Angeles!

But bring your flack jacket.