THE ESSENTIAL FILMS, PART 1 & WINDOWS LIVE

Greetings,

It’s been a busy last couple of days. But, in the midst of everything and the intense heat (only a month and a half until autumn, yeah!), I’ve been doing some thinking about some films that have made a profound difference to me. I have no idea why I’m doing this. Just for fun.

So here they are, in no particular order.

HEAT (1995)

What’s it about: Two men, a hard-boiled career criminal named Neil (Robert De Niro) who specializes in low-risk, high-yield robberies, and an intense, driven cop named Vincent (Al Pacino) who face off in a complex, morally ambiguous saga involving lots of other cops-and-criminal types, all set in the backdrop of a dark, moody L.A.

Why it’s awesome: Terrific story, great, multi-dimentional characters, a great-looking film that features one of the most incredible urban crime showdowns in film history, director Michael Mann’s finest work.

Why you should see it: One of the 1990’s best films, Heat’s neo-noir style and superb story makes it totally worth it.

ALIENS (1986)

What’s it about: The sequel to 1979’s landmark sci-fi/horror flick Alien, the sequel picks up right where Alien left off: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has to go back to face her fears again on LB-426, now a colony for humans that has been overrun by those pesky, acid-filled Aliens.

Why it’s awesome: James Cameron accomplished what only a few films in a series have done before – written and directed a sequel that improves on elements of the original. Weaver is note-perfect as Ripley, the action is intense and anxious, the shock factor much higher than the original, and those Aliens have never been more scary than here.

Why you should see it: This is gripping stuff from the get-go. The feminist overtones of Aliens is interesting stuff for film critic-types, the action is mindblowing and it’s incredibly dark in tone and style. The aliens are also pretty friggin’ awesome.

MINORITY REPORT (2002)

What’s it about: a pre-crime detective named John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is framed for a murder is supposed to commit sometime in a few days – through the help of psychics or “pre-cogs” he attempts to save himself and figure out how he was framed.

Why it’s awesome: Philip K. Dick’s genius once again shines through here. Steven Spielberg directs this film as a kind of cautionary tale on the future: what happens when we put too much fatih into science? What is the nature of the spirit and flesh?

Why you should see it: Edgy, bold, deeply fascinating and full of interesting ideas on the nature of metaphysics and has some pretty cool action sequences too.

THE GODFATHER & THE GODFATHER, PART II (1972 & 1974)

What’s it about: The sprawling, lush story of the Corleone crime family told with expert flair, acting and writing. Simply put, some of the greatest cinema ever produced. If you’ve lived in a hole in the ground, check out the talent here: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall…

Why it’s awesome: Have you ever seen a film once and been changed by it on a deeply personal level? This is the one that did it for me. I saw these films back when I was 14 and it was one of those moments when I realized how much I loved the movies. Evoking a spirit of America (and begging some interesting questions about how much the mob was actively involved in the building of America) that exists only a romanticized, mind’s eye sense of the term, these films are must-sees for anyone.

Why you should see them: See above.


L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)


What’s it about: Based on a James Ellroy novel, three cops – Bud White (Russell Crowe), Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) – try to piece together a conspiracy over murders of local mob boss Mickey Cohen’s associates. A very moody, post-war L.A. never looked so good.

Why it’s awesome: Because it doesn’t let up for a minute in action and story. If you turn away for a moment, you can miss something. The performances are amazing, particularly Kim Basinger’s remarkable comeback role as Lynn Bracken. The look of fedora-wearing, seedy underworld-dwelling L.A. in the 1940s is amazing. Film noir at its finest.

Why you should see it: Nominated for about a billion Oscars in the Titanic onslaught, this is the film that should have won Best Picture that year. Extraordinary in every respect, it’s a very complex story that rewards on multiple viewings.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994)

What it’s about: Louis (Brad Pitt) is a 200-year old vampire who visits with a reporter (Christian Slater) one night and tells an incredible story about his origins as a vampire; the cruel, demented ways of his creator, Lestat (Tom Cruise), his tortured relationship with his adopted daughter Claudia, among other things.

Why it’s awesome:
Anne Rice’s world never looked better than here. An atmospheric, incredibly dark and visceral story, these vampires are morally complex, interesting creatures who evoke powerful emotions and fascinating stories. A bloody romp done with expert work by director Neil Jordan.

Why you should see it: One of the best vampire movies ever made that, while genuinely scary, is fascinating about death, sex, immortality and the nature of evil.

V FOR VENDETTA (2006)

What’s it about: Evie (Natalie Portman) teams up with a one-man army, code named V (Hugo Weaving), in overthrowing the fascist British government of the near-future, run by a crazed madman (John Hurt).

Why it’s awesome: Intense action sequences and some really cool discussion of ideas on politics. Great performances all around. While critics didn’t like all the dialogue and felt it was a bit plodding here and there, I really liked this flick.

Why you should see it: Well, to be honest, I can’t say this will be for everyone’s tastes.

More to come…

WINDOWS LIVE: I’ve tried it but I’m growing frustrated with the new Windows Live email format. You see, as part of Microsoft’s rebranding efforts in preparation for the debut of Windows Vista next year, MSN Hotmail is being changed into Windows Live email.

Right now, Hotmail has the option to go into Beta mode to test Windows Live email. But, unfortunately, it has some tweaks that need to be ironed out, specifically in the layout of the email. So, I had to switch back to Hotmail mode today in order to delete some old messages and organize my email a bit.

MCLUHAN’S WAKE

Greetings,

Last night I saw a fascinating documentary on TVO’s The View From Here show. It was called McLuhan’s Wake – an in-depth look at Marshall McLuhan’s life and his theories.

I’ve been a huge fan of McLuhan since first-year Queen’s. I took a course in my final year of study at Queen’s called Culture and Technology that brought out many of his theories again. I think the man’s spot-on in his observations and he’s kind of an intellecutal hero to me. He’s definitely one of those kinds of writers who you wish you could meet, just to talk to him or her about their ideas and what it all means.

REPAIR THE INFRASTRUCTURE

Greetings,

Check this out: France Telecom is now offering, for $85 (U.S.), 2.5 Gigabits/per second internet connections to select cities in the Paris region. On top of that, you also get free phone and TV.

I’ve written about this before, but North Americans get the royal shaft when it comes to internet connection speeds. Canadian internet companies, like Bell Sympatico and Rogers, offer “high-speed” internet connections that are many, many times slower than most European telecoms. Again, Europeans get it: give the customer what they want! Don’t punish people for wanting more bandwidth!

Now, to explain why this is the case, you have to understand how digital networks were set up. Here’s a chart that may explain some details. It’s very techie, dense and verbose, but needless to say, the summary is clear: North American digital networks are very old and were defined early on with extremely strict hierarchies on how data is separated through digital “pipes.”

In other words, Europeans waited to see it all pan out and have used better, more up-to-date electronics for digital networks. That’s why the Europeans can afford better connections.

Now, the natural course of action here would be for telecom providers throughout North America to collaborate on a faster, better, newer digital infrastructure that isn’t based on technology created around the debut of ARPANET, the precursor to today’s Internet. That was in the early 1960’s.

But no. Like so much of North America’s underlying infrastructure that supports modern civilization – energy supplies, electrical grids to name a few – the networks are, in some cases, hanging on by a thread. Remember the blackout of 2003? That happened due to an electrical grid system that was not only integrated across the entire Eastern Seaboard (holy interdependency chaos Batman!), but is alleged to be structured like a Third World country’s power grid: one ever-so-small mishap in the grid in Ohio and Toronto goes down. Backups? Not reliable, as we’ve learned to believe. Safeguards? Well, when an entire network is connected to a larger interconnected whole, it’s assumed that different power utilities have ways to “detach” from the grid in case of a 2003 blackout-type event. I’d hope that’s policy now. I don’t really know, do you?

It’s incredibly expensive to replace an entire electrical grid like this. So policy makers make due with what they have, holding on and hoping things don’t explode like they did in 2003. It’s foolhardy to think this way, of course.

What does this have to do with internet speeds? Well, everything. It speaks to the idea in North America, we’ve largely divested ourselves from the interest of paying for upkeep on infrastructure of all kinds. Think about it: you walk outside your house and drive along roads that are full of potholes. In Scarborough, potholes are par for the course (and it also has to factor in that not a lot of monied folks live in Scarborough, but more on that in a minute).

On the other hand, the 404/Don Valley Parkway is in excellent shape, full of near-constant repairs and lane widenings (including the HOV-lane, the High Occupancy Vehicle). Of course, the people who can afford to go to work in cars are also more likely to vote, so keeping the 404/D.V.P. in good shape is politically expedient.

But there are other examples of declining infrastructure. The Gardiner Expressway and Lake Shore are passable, but are full of leaky roofs, rusted-over traffic barriers and support towers and hasn’t had energy-sucking lighting systems changed in decades. Why? Because investing in it makes no sense. It’s politically dicey to do it in downtown Toronto but it has become a natural conduit of travel for many people.

But back to the internet. So here comes the standard reply from telecom operators:

“North America’s so much bigger than Europe, it costs more to lay down fibre optic cables here, replacing the entire backbone of the internet would cost too much here.”

Gosh, that’s funny guys, that’s a once-in-a-generation investment that will largely save your collective bacon one day. You can’t deny the future forever, and more to the point, do you really believe net customers in North America will put up with speeds that continue to stagnate while newer products that demand ever-increasing amounts of bandwidth keep coming? Why should North Americans, who pay for these services, be denied the same kinds of access that Europeans and Asians get online? Sure, the Baby Boomers, the ones paying for these services by and large, don’t want video-on-demand or downloadable DVDs right now generally. But twenty years from now? Do you really think the under-35 set will put up with that?

Then comes argument number two…

“It costs a lot of money to make this happen… we either raise prices for high-speed access, charge content providers and make the net two-tier to make what you’re asking happen.”

Uh, no. Bandwidth is getting cheaper and cheaper by the year as more people go online. The basic rule of economics is supply-and-demand, yes? In theory, voice-based communications on cellphone networks cost more than raw data to transmit. Why didn’t you raise a fuss when cellphones became ubiquitous? Further, charging content providers like Google or Yahoo! is dangerous, simply because people won’t put up with it if access to services we use everyday is limited because a telecom picks and chooses what they limit access to based on data streams. What happens when Google debuts its rumoured GoogleNet? You know, that company with billions in its war chest, has been buying up miles upon miles of dark fibre (i.e. unused internet cable) across North America for a few years now? Do you think that’s just for show? No, they’re going to lay down the foundations for their own separate internet. A fast one not unlike European models, I’m willing to bet. Why? Because it is good for business and gives customers what they want.

The most troubling part of all this is the two-fold concept of hierarchy-based infrastructure and “wait-and-see” approaches. This is fundamentally dangerous and counter to the ideals of North America. I’m not just talking internet speeds here. It is becoming more and more clear to me that a customer-based model of service has replaced a citizen-based model of service in the most fundamental ways in North America – you’ve got money, we’ll give you what you want, no problem. No money? Not voting? Well, that pothole and lousy dial-up connection must do.

THE HILLS, MR. MATTHEW DUSK AND TAKING A STAND


“You’re so hot! No really, you’re hotter! We’re all hot!”… man, it’s like Queen’s all over again. And not in a good way.

Greetings,

So in the midst of my regular blog readings this morning, I made a discovery about myself and my character that really worries me.

The Hills deeply fascinates me.

It’s the kind of mindless, self-indulgent television that really shows how, given the choice between focusing on issues that matter and watching superficial people talk about other people while employing the tired-and-true methods of drama and drinking, we’ll pick the latter everytime.

It’s the kind of production value-driven “reality” show that exists in a parallel universe from our own. This world exists in a vacuum, a place where the only problems people have are low-rent Colin Farrell-types screwing with nice girls’ heads, the perils of ordering tuna sandwiches at chi-chi restaurants and drifting along life with lemming-like efficiency.

Basically, here’s the run down.

Main character is nice if somewhat spoiled girl. Friend is arguably the most clueless, brain-dead person ever. Main character’s intern pal plays the dumb blonde stereotype but masks a sharp intelligence. Boys in the show are even stupider than the girls. So it’s pretty much perfect television right there – lots of goofy debates about people that don’t really matter and ripe scenarios for conflict.

God, how can you not love it?

MATT DUSK: I have to admit, I find Matt Dusk to be alright. Unlike his obvious subject of comparison, Michael Buble, Dusk doesn’t give a damn, or at least, doesn’t come across like he gives a damn. Buble – the most “love me! love me! PLEASE!” artist I’ve ever seen in Canadian music – is so overexposed now it’s sad and annoying. Dusk, on the other hand, is about to earn his Ph.D in music.

MEDIA NEUTRALITY: It’s a common myth that media always portrays stories in an even-handed, objective way. It just doesn’t happen as often as people would like. The Israeli-Hezbollah conflict is perhaps the largest example of this so far: my uncle talked to me about how he compared the front pages of two major Toronto newspapers and how the headlines differed (no surprise there) when it came to who’s being portrayed as the “bad guys” in this conflict.

Yet as the brilliant Antonia Zerbisias pointed out today in her must-read Toronto Star Media column, even bloggers have been forced to back down from taking a strong stance on this issue. It’s much, much more complicated than simply saying “Israel is bad” or “Hezbollah is bad” but at the same time, it’s also hard to pin it all down to easy, bite-sized chunks.

JUST KEEP WATCHING

Greetings,

Today was my cousin’s funeral. It was a very classy, dignified service for him. It has been a long, emotionally draining day. So I’m going to do something here I never do. I’m going to write about tabloid culture, specifically a music video. It’s mindless and easy to deal with right now, so bear with me. Besides, knowing me, I’ll find some manner to intellectualize it. I’m that pretentious!

Far be it for me, a guy who reads The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire for fun, listens to fascinating radio shows on CBC Radio about Parisian courtesans and considers a great deal of television to embody the credo of Kent Brockman – “it tugs at the heart, fogs up the mind!” – with the notable exception of The Simpsons and The Hills to comment on Texas’ most vacuous export, Jessica Simpson.

I used to think, during her salad days of Newlyweds, that she was either a woman of above-average intelligence who played the dumb-dumb role with MTV’s expert editing in tow in order to secure that all-important demographic mix of people who adored her “sweetly stupid” personae and those who embraced her undeniable Train Wreck Factor (i.e. it’s so over-the-top dumb that you can’t look away, but you really want to). Or, on the other hand, she was, perhaps ironically, not unlike her rival Britney Spears – a woman so hungry for celebrity, so driven, that she listened only to Svengali-like characters with advice that involves that sometimes-risky combination of tabloid-like insanity and doing incredible, dignity-losing actions that feeds a salicious public. In either case, it’s all about being famous. Famous at any cost. (Sidebar: I’d never link to that normally)

So why is this woman back in the media for reasons other than tabloid-driven gossip (which just keeps beating up real journalism, one day at a time, but it is this era’s version of media fascism – the new-and-improved opiate of the masses)? Well, apparently she’s got a new album coming. But, of course, there’s the hype surrounding her new song, A Public Affair. The video’s got loads of celebrities in it. It’s directed by a guy you may have heard of along the way, he directed some obscure flicks like X-3: The Last Stand – Brett Ratner.

Listening to this song is a lot like drinking yourself into a stupor: you kind of enjoy it at first, but then it really hurts afterwards. It’s a fun track, but you hate yourself. You hate it not because of the song (let’s be honest, when you’re at a night club, even the most rabid haters of pop music will still dance to pop music tracks when they come on), but because it’s the biggest load of B.S. in recent video music memory. It’s emblematic of the digital age – an attempt to nudge-nudge an increasingly media-savvy public through cheap, superficial irony. It’s there, but not at the same time.

First off, does anyone believe girls like Jessica Simpson, Christina Milian, Eva Longoria or Christina Applegate would ever hang out together? These are A-list stars, not hangers-on. And Ryan Seacrest slumming it as a limo driver? I know they’re going for irony here, but this isn’t working. Real irony would involve, you know, quality actors, and the only actor in this bunch worth paying attention to is Applegate. Irony also involves The Funny, and seeing Jessica spout off corn-fed lines like “I wanna be more famous than the internet” isn’t funny. To quote Golden Words, it’s tragic but at the same time surreal. She is more famous than the internet. No really. Think about it.

Then comes the Andy Dick factor.

I wish I could find Andy Dick funny. Watching him grab Pam Anderson’s breasts at her appalling celebrity roast and use them as talking cartoon mouths (it must be seen to be believed, but I wouldn’t want you to see it, it’s *that* bad) could be called funny to some. And his, *cough*, personality, straddles between 21st century-era slapstick and drug-and-booze-fueled unpredictability. Of course, he’s on his best behaviour here, given the kind of talent and power at arm’s length (and I mean that literally). He gets licked by Jessica and Christina Milian, licks a roller skate with erotic fervency and acts like an extremely hormonal teenage boy. But hey, he’s getting paid.

Which leads to another point: the roller skating theme. Wow guys, what a concept. I haven’t seen this before. Oh wait, yes I have. I’ve seen it movies, I’ve seen it on That 70s Show, I’ve seen it many times before. Would it have been too much to do something new? Really Mr. Ratner, you’re a talented guy – seeing Eva Longoria dance on a rink and Christina Applegate doing her best to not burst out laughing doesn’t cut it. Considering the money involved here, the final result’s really lame.

Lastly is Jessica herself, or rather the strange sub-text involving Jessica throughout this video. A veritable Nick Lachey clone makes numerous appearances with her unbridled affection visibly apparent. Of course, she can’t resist some violent pot shots at sexual rivals (cue hair pulling madness!) and even walks away with Clone Boy at the end. Heal Thyself, Jessica. Your reputation is one tabloid piece away from Paris Hilton Territory, so showing Nick your change of heart via music videos is a pretty decent stretch.

All in all, this video’s a piece of eye candy that even Kent Brockman would love. I think I’m going to go back to Law & Order now.

SPACING ART

Greetings,

In the midst of dealing with my cousin’s impending funeral tomorrow, I decided to take a little time out and do a project this afternoon that I’ve been really passionate about pursuing, just because I’m a transit nerd and also because I’m really digging Spacing these days.

Here’s a spiral representation of all the subway stations in Toronto. They start in the middle with Union and then all the way out to the fringe with North York Centre.

They are ranked this way according to the intensity of my memories involving these stations. By no means is it perfect.

Union is ranked number one for the simple reason I’ve used it the most often in my life, but also because of all the sports events I’ve gone to with it, the GO station, the history of Union Station.

North York Centre is ranked last simply because, well, I’ve never used this stop in my life. Also, it’s been a constant source of time-wasting – while at AOL, I’d race to get to the Markham express bus and everytime, without fail, the subway would stop at North York Centre for longer than usual. It was always that way with those trips.

TINA FEY: No! She’s quitting SNL? Well, I guess that’s what the most talented at SNL do. Then again, there’s Joe Piscopo, who left SNL to pursue a movie career that, well, uh, let’s not say it.