Monday, January 17, 2011

Funniest reviews in a long time...

All for Little Fockers...

Anders Wotzke of Cut Print Review: "Schindler's List was funnier than this."

Susan Granger of SSG Syndicate: "I bet the Robert De Niro of Taxi Driver would shoot the Robert De Niro of Little Fockers."

Kimberly Gadette of Indie Movies Online, on the prospect of more Focker movies: "We're all severely focked."

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dez Reviews George W. Bush's book, Decision Points

As much history as I have read, I've never picked up a former president's memoir. I don't know why, perhaps I assume it will be a less than candid assessment of his term, trying to paint it in the most positive light as possible. But I was quite interested when I heard that George W. Bush wrote his. He had been either so villified or so defended. (The knee jerk hatred of anything Bush always bothered me, as does the same knee jerk reactions to Obama today. Bush could have cured world hunger, and people would have still hated him. I am reminded of a quote from the ever quotable LBJ, "I could walk on water and people would complain that I can't swim.") Bush was often painted as a shallow thinker and he definitely did not come across as an articulate speaker when he had to deviate from a written speech. I guess I was just very interested in what this guy had to say.

First off, I like the way he organized his book. As the title suggests, he made each chapter center around a particular (or series of related) decision(s) that he had to make as president. (The first chapter is pre-presidency, and focuses on his born again Christian experience after being an alcoholic, which is crucial in understanding how he operates, but the rest of the book is all about his eight years in office). Although I read it cover to cover, one could feasibly pick it up and flip to the "Katrina" chapter or the "Surge" chapter and focus just on that issue. In the intro, he describes the presidency as a series of crucial decisions, and I like how he decided to make the book reflect that.

ABOVE: "I'm the The Decider"

The stress of the presidency must be overwhelming (although he never wallows in self pity, which he could have, being hit by 9/11 and Katrina in the same presidency just doesn't seem fair). As I was reading, I thought to myself that each of these individual issues would be intense enough to deal with, but then imagine many of these issues that are divided into nice chapters here were actually occurring simultaneously and overlapping. No wonder Clinton, W. and now Obama all seem to substantially age before our eyes as their presidency unfolds.

The first thing that struck me is that this guy really is thoughtful and articulate when given the chance to reflect and choose his words. Yes, I know he probably had some help and a good editor, but so has every other president who wrote a book. This book does seem to have W's authentic voice. I'm no big W. fan, I think he made some big mistakes while in office. But I wanted to read this because I wanted to understand his own reasoning behind the decisions that he did make. I came away with a much deeper respect for the man, even though I still disagree with him on certain issues. He thoroughly explains why he did what he did, he admits mistakes in many places, talks about how in hindsight he wishes he had done some things differently, but also defends his decisions very well. Of course, it is all his side of things and there is nobody here to present the counterarguments. But that is the privilege of writing a book, isn't it?

One of the things that I enjoyed was that W. pulled no punches when assessing other politicians or foreign leaders. He rips baffoon Howard Dean ("I really wanted him to be my opponent in 2004") and almost any French leader he meets. I love this story about one of his many encounters with Russia's Vladimir Putin: "On his visit to Camp David, I introduced Putin to our Scottish Terrier, Barney. He wasn't very impressed. On my next visit to Russia, Vladimir asked if I wanted to meet his dog, Koni. Sure, I said. As we walked the birch-lined grounds of his dacha, a big black Labrador came charging across the lawn. With a twinkle in his eye, Valdimir said, 'bigger, stronger, and faster than Barney.' I later told the story to my friend, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada. 'You're lucky he only showed you his dog.'" Funny story, but he goes on to explain how that story was very instructive to him on Putin's dangerous competitive pride, personality and desire to make Russia powerful and great again. Most accounts of W., even unfavorable ones, admit that he has considerable personal charm one on one. W. makes a point that "personal diplomacy" was very important to him. When there was a problem with a foreign leader, he would often "clear the room" of handlers and assistants, and talk one on one to settle problems.

The 9/11 chapter is quite riveting, as you might imagine. He goes through the entire day in great detail, hour by hour. Bush has often stated that 9/11 shaped his entire presidency. He describes those first famous moments when he was reading to children in a Florida school and Andy Card whispered the news. (You know, the moment that Michael Moore obsessed over in his Farenheit 9/11 "documentary"). Bush describes how he didn't want to just get up and walk out in a panic, how he was using those moments to collect his thoughts and emotions. And it is visceral, because while he was the president, he was also an American and a citizen of this country that had just been attacked in such a cowardly fashion. "My blood was boiling. We were going to find out who did this and kick their ass."

I was especially interested on the 'Katrina' chapter. My opinion was, and remains after reading it, that mistakes were make at all levels, local, state and federal. But I did not realize how much blame needed to be laid at the feet of then Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco. W. describes how frustrated he was in those first few days when he literally begged indecisive Governor Blanco to request that the federal government take over. Constitutionally, the feds can't take over a state emergency unless the governor of that state requests it. The only way around that is if the president declares the state or locality "in rebellion." Bush talks about how he considered doing that, but he rightfully points out the possible consequences of a white male president declaring a largely African-American population "in rebellion" in a Southern state with a female governor. W. does admit that he made some crucial mistakes during the crisis, but a lot of the blame falls on Blanco and Mayor Ray 'School Bus' Nagin. (W. seems particularly sensitive about Kanye West's infamous "Bush hates black people" comment on the telethon, as he spends over a page venting about it and defending his record on race relations).

I could go on with other examples, but suffice it to say that this book is an excellent read and Bush does an admirable job explaining his thought process on almost every major issue that confronted him. From stem cells to the financial meltdown, from Iraq to Afghanistan to taxes, he covers the bases. His chapter on the AIDS initiative that he pushed through to help Africa (and a funny summit with Bono) was especially interesting, and one that all Bush-haters should read. It is not talked about very much, but Bush pushed hard for the most sweeping AIDS assistance in world history. Thousands, if not millions, in Africa were directly saved by Bush's efforts. That should be commended.

I recall when I was writing my Presidential Rankings posts, some readers asked why I did not include W. I commented, and Bush says the same thing in the book, that he cannot be judged for at least several decades. That is true of any president, but especially this one. His decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan are far reaching, and they will change the Middle East in future decades, for better or for worse. We cannot know for some time. I do know that this book will be an important historical document for future generations to study, as Bush lays out exactly what he was thinking and why he did what he did. I like his closing thoughts too, expecially where he is talking about retirement and walking his dog as his dog does his business on a neighbor's lawn: "There I was, the former President of the United States, with a plastic bag on my hand, picking up that which I had been dodging for the past eight years."

**** out of *****

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Death and Renewal

In the past year, many of the large stores like Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and Borders have drastically scaled back their CD inventory. I have also seen in recent years a resurgence in the popularity of the good 'ole LP. Vinyl is back, which makes me extremely happy. The ultimate sign: I was in Best Buy the other day and while they continue to scale back their CD offerings and throw the entire section to the back of the store, I saw a freakin' vinyl section. At Best Buy. And good vinyl too. I saw Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison, some Police, Coldplay, Springsteen (both classic and new), Band of Horses, Hendrix and much more.

I’ve wanted to write this post ever since I started GNABB, so I guess I should go ahead and get it out there. It appears that the unlikely tag team of vinyl and MP3 are delivering the CD its death blows. I, along with most other audiophile music fanatics, have long sung the praises of vinyl. Let me give you the science and expert opinion first, and then I will give you my more personal feelings on the subject.

Record store geeks have long claimed that vinyl sounds superior to CD (or digital in general). So, what is the truth? The answer is that it can sound better. Sound is analog by nature. How a record works is that the analog sound waves of the music are “captured” or recreated in the grooves of the record. The record is then played through a music amplification system (your stereo with a turntable) and you have music. The sound started as analog and always remained analog throughout the entire process.

ABOVE: These are record grooves. There's music in there!

CDs are digital. So the analog sound must be converted to digital. How that is done is that thousands of digital snapshots, like a rapid-fire camera, are taken and measured of the analog sound to make it digital. For CDs, it is a little over 44,000 snapshots / second. That sounds like a lot, and it is. To casual listeners, that is enough to accurately reproduce the original sounds. But it really isn’t. 44,000 / second covers most of it, but there is still sound that falls out of the snapshots, between the snapshots, that is not captured. As one record manufacturer recently put it, “digital will never get there,” precisely because however much you increase the rate, they will still be snapshots of sound vs. the whole analog signal. It has been compared to a digital photo of the Mona Lisa vs. viewing the actual Mona Lisa. You can still see everything, but it is still different.

What does this mean in practical listening terms? Obviously it depends on the equipment that you have. You need an excellent turntable and system to hear the benefits that vinyl offers over CDs. Many audiophiles claim that the vinyl sound is “warmer,” richer, fuller and more nuanced. They complain that the digital version allows too much separation of the instruments and voices and can sound tinny. In a strange way, with digital you can pick out more detail of each instrument or voice, but with good vinyl you can pick out more nuance in the whole sound. Which is why some people describe the vinyl sound as more “organic.”

Also, the controversial “loudness wars” in CD manufacturing in recent years has made CDs sound even worse. Have you noticed when you compare a CD you bought ten years ago to a disc that you just purchased last week, the recent one’s volume is much louder? To get that, they compress the music, and then raise the volume all together, without regard to how each instrument was originally mixed by the artist. It is louder and coarser, but the detail and nuance is lost. Metallica’s latest Death Magnetic was panned in music circles for being the worst offender in the loudness wars. The music was good, but the production was criminal.

Some limitations of vinyl are that the needle and cartridge can produce more hiss and interference. Surface dust on the record and so forth can also interfere with the sound. The laser for a CD is a cleaner transfer vs. the needle and cartridge. But, the other benefits as far as the straight analog vs. analog to digital outweigh the above needle vs. laser issue, as long as you have the right equipment.

An issue where digital is superior is copying. When you make copies of analog, each copy is a new copy and degrades from the original. People of my generation can relate to this. Just remember back in high school when you made a cassette tape copy off your vinyl, or a cassette copy off another cassette. The copy did not sound as good as the source. With digital, the 100th copy sounds as good as the 1st. Some record players being sold now have the capability of making MP3 files from the vinyl.

Record makers are playing the game smart these days. Record sales are continually on the rise, for new releases and for older ones. Many of these releases contain a free code to download an MP3 version of the same release. So you’ve got your vinyl, and an MP3 version for your iPod. That is how vinyl and MP3’s are cutting off and suffocating the CD market. They have figured out how to circumvent the entire portability issue with vinyl.

ABOVE: John Cusack's Rob from the film High Fidelity is one of the patron saints of vinyl collectors

My personal take and feelings? At present, I do not have a record player that is of sufficient quality to enjoy the benefits of vinyl over CD. I’ve got a player, but it is very old. I plan on getting a good one in the future. I still have all of my old vinyl (except for a box that was stolen during a move many years ago). I also buy new vinyl. The new generation of vinyl is even better than the old ones.

This is the subject of parody, I know, but true music lovers have a special relationship with vinyl that cannot be replicated in the digital realm. It starts with a premise that I have always maintained, there is something about holding an object in your hand vs. having it just exist in the digital ether. Before even listening to it, there is more of a connection between you and the music. A big part of music in the old days that has largely disappeared in the CD and especially MP3 era is album art. I’m talking about the artwork or liner notes on the sleeve, the gatefold artwork. With an LP, it was big enough to make a striking impression, and therefore artists took it very seriously. I can recall the excitement of picking up an album in the record store, being excited and anticipating the music (an impression had already been made) just by what the artist chose to show on the front and back covers. Then racing home, unwrapping it with that new album smell and giving it a spin on the turntable. That same sense of discovery is not there when you click on your iTunes icon and download a group of songs that happen to be bunched together and are called an album. With records, the artists would often view the work as some sort of cohesive whole. It doesn’t have to be a concept record a la Tommy or Dark Side of the Moon, but more thought was usually put into how these tunes worked together.

ABOVE: One of my most prized possessions is a first pressing of the Andy Warhol designed LP of The Rolling Stones's Sticky Fingers, with the working zipper on the cover!

Then there is the work involved by the listener. Another subject ripe for parody is how particular record lovers are about how their records are handled and filed in their collection. You take care of your records, like you do a vintage car you love. You are more engaged with the music when you listen to a record. Why? Because there is more work involved. You have to retrieve your record, take it out of the sleeve, put it on the turntable, flip it halfway through. There was a time when Side A and Side B of an album had their own distinct characteristics and moods, and you chose which one to listen to. By being more engaged, the music itself took on a more central role in whatever you were doing. With digital, it is more often turned on in the background and almost forgotten.

I know that many artists feel the same way. Neil Young has long been a digital basher, loudly proclaiming analog’s superior sound. As Matador Records exec Patrick Amory said, "For many of us, and certainly for many of our artists, the vinyl is the true version of the release. The size and presence of the artwork, the division into sides, the better sound quality, above all the involvement and work the listener has to put in, all make it the format of choice for people who really care about music."

ABOVE: Neil Young hates CDs

So there you go. Vinyl is back and I couldn’t be happier.

Coming soon to GNABB…a remembrance in honor of Paul Newman (not the actor, but Kinkaid alums and many people in the debate community knew him) and a review of George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points.

Monday, January 10, 2011

RIP Dick Winters, 1918-2011

One of my pet peeves has always been the casual use of the word "hero." Defining what is and is not a hero would be an interesting post for another time, but I can say with confidence that a true American hero passed away last week. This dude was the real deal, the kind of man you think only exists in classic WWII movies. Maj. Richard "Dick" Winters was one of the prime inspirations for the Stephen Ambrose book and HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which for my money is the greatest depiction of World War II ever put on screen, big or small. Winters was an officer in E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division ("Easy"). Easy was a paratrooper unit that jumped behind enemy lines the night before D-Day and subsequently fought throughout Europe in some of the fiercest fighting on the Western Front until the surrender of Germany.

Winters was that rare combination of traits that made him a born leader. Modest and unassuming, yet decisive and quick thinking in times of crisis. He was universally loved by his men. Decades later, his men still talked of Winters in reverential tones. Winters himself, while willing to talk about his experiences for the miniseries and in his own book he wrote, never took the glory for himself. His famous quote that he borrowed from a fellow veteran, when asked whether he considered himself a "hero" and responded "no, but I served in a company of heroes," became the tagline for the miniseries.

ABOVE: Maj. Winters with actor Damien Lewis, who portrayed Winters in HBO's Band of Brothers

When asked about leadership, Winters once stated "If you can, find that peace within yourself, that peace and quiet and confidence that you can pass on to others, so that they know that you are honest and you are fair and will help them, no matter what, when the chips are down." Calm under fire was one of the characteristics that his men often mention.

Winters didn't have a lot of preparation for his leadership position. The commanding officer of Easy was killed on D-Day, and Winters took command of the Company in the field behind enemy lines in France. Winters's exploits are legendary. Early during the invasion, he led 13 men to destroy a German battery and recovered detailed plans of German defenses on Utah Beach. He later led 20 men in a successful attack on 200 German soldiers. His intricate attacks are still reviewed as case studies at West Point.

William Guarnere, one of the men who served under Winters, summed it up when he stated "I would follow him to hell and back. So would the men from E Company." As long as there are men like Dick Winters in our military, and I do believe that there are, The United States will remain a strong and honorable country.

RIP Maj. Winters.

Below, split into two parts, is the assault on the German battery where Winters and his men recover the German defense plans from Band of Brothers. A fantastic 12 minutes.