Sunday, November 25, 2012

So I'll freely admit, my attempts to create a long-running Blog have hit a few snags.  Part of the problem is trying to post about events after they've happened.  The rest is

But, the true sign of character is trying again even after stumbling.  So on that note, let's discuss Life of Pi and Sherlock, Jr.

I caught Life of Pi (in THREEEEEEE-DEEEEEE) on Friday, and the most trite thing I could possibly say is "I enjoyed it."  For me to "enjoy" a movie, one of five things needs to happen:

1) It needs to affect me on an emotional level.  This is where movies that range from Marley and Me to Iron Jawed Angels fall.  I leave the movie-watching experience not feeling like the same person anymore.

2) The acting needs to simply blow me away.  This is where you'll find films like On The Waterfront or Mystic River.  These are the ones where an actor just manages to hit every mark dead on and you can see them swinging for the fences with every line.

3) I develop a complete respect for the craftsmen involved.  These movies are a bit trickier.  This can be either a producer or director who I think crafted a very well-made movie (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), or one of the stars has such a gift at something that I can't help but enjoy it (Amy Adams' performance in Enchanted, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat).

4) It's so bad, it's hilarious.  Yor: The Hunter From The Future resides here, and I suspect the last Twilight movie, from what I've heard, would as well.

5) It's just fun without insulting me.  Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang resides here, as does Maverick and Iron Man.

Life of Pi falls in the third camp with some heavy leanings towards the first and second.  There are a lot of comparisons to it right now as being the next Avatar (which I also enjoyed), but it is not anywhere near as big a visual feast as Avatar.  Of course, I also didn't see it in IMAX, so for all I know, I missed out.  But here's what I do know: 

Life of Pi is better, visually, than Avatar, and the story works on levels Avatar couldn't even manage with double what James Cameron paid into it.  Instead of assaulting the eyes with 3D effects, Ang Lee manages to use 3D to add a layer of depth to the film, making you feel like it naturally belongs, and that it's never being used to assault or surprise the audience in a way that feels cheap.  There are scenes involving water and people moving through water that simply astonish and amaze.

I also have to give the film credit for the tiger.  The movie does not make anything sentimental about the tiger.  This is a wild animal, and not some creature from Disney that we learn does have a human side to it.  This is established early on, and how the human in this movie learns to try to control the beast and how the animal learns that it has to adapt to the person being in its space has as much tension to it as wondering just how the main character could survive in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie more than I did anything else I saw this year...except for Sherlock, Jr.

Sherlock, Jr. is movie starring Buster Keaton filmed in 1924, and this movie falls squarely into third camp as well.  It's freely available to watch online through Vimeo, but I was able to catch a viewing on Turner Classic Movies.  Nobody, and I say nobody had more dedication to their craft than Buster Keaton, pulling stunts and falls in films that had never been done before, and were probably never done again without stuntmen, gimmicks, or CG.   To watch this movie is to see someone who loved movies and would do whatever it took to make them memorable.

For instance, there's a scene in the film where our main character leaps into a movie screen and moves around, even while the movie scenes around him change.  Now, keeping in mind that this isn't done as a close-up of the screen, but is seen from the theater's point of view, it's important to note that when the scene changes (say from the front door of a building to the edge of a cliff or a jungle scene with lions), that Buster Keaton had to remain absolutely motionless while the sets were changed, and fancy equipment was brought in to make sure everything remained perfectly level.  Then, when filming began, you got as near a perfect cut as you could with the actor.  Other visual gags (one involving a pool table that I still cannot figure out) seem almost on par with the CG work done today, and there are times I had to remind myself "Wait...they didn't have computers back the hell did they do that?"  I honestly cannot remember the time before that when a movie made me feel so alive and full of laughter and happiness to watch, and the pratfalls and jokes that happen then still feel fresh to the actors involved.

I'll also tell this small story that's been circulated for years:  There's a scene in the movie where Buster Keaton runs atop a train that's pulling out of a station, and he manages to grab hold of one of the large pipes that fills the steam engine with water.  It slowly and gracefully starts to lower him to the ground, when a huge burst of water suddenly pours out and slams him into the ground.  He gets up, there's one more pratfall sight gag, and he runs off.

Now, as the story goes, he complained for a day of having a severely bad headache, but soon went back to work, falling and jumping and making great films.  Ten years later, at a routine exam, his doctor asked him when he broke his neck.  Buster Keaton had no memory of such an event, but his doctor showed him on an x-ray where he had scar tissue surrounding where there had been a neck fracture.  They realized it must've happened when he was slammed into the ground by a jet of water.

Somehow I don't expect many Hollywood stars would be so able to get back to work after such an injury.  And it's that dedication to the craft that elevates this film up to probably one of the best I've ever seen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Like the last one, this post won't make me a lot of friends either, but here goes: let's talk about casinos.

Now, I don't have a many pictures for this one.  The times I spent on tribal land, I saw a lot of things that made me ask a lot of tough questions.  However, taking pictures not only seemed like poor taste, but it's also a practice the tribe frowns on.  As my father explained, the tribe doesn't really appreciate their experiences being exploited for the media.  Since this is technically a blog, I figured I'd respect that.

Now, a little bit of history of the area.  The tribal lands I saw the most of belonged to the Salt River tribe, located just across an underpass from Phoenix. It really is as simple as simply making a left turn and boom, you're on a land controlled by its own government, with its own laws and justice system. (Legal alert: when the speed limit on a tribal land road says "25 mph" you drive 25 mph)

Something important to note is that the members of the tribe don't own any of the land themselves, the tribe owns it.  The Salt River tribe (and many others) believe that a person cannot "own" the land they are on, you're simply "using" it.  Therefore, plots of land are simply being "used" by families, but they cannot simply do what they want with the land because they are not the "owner" of said plot.

Indirect thought: I commented to someone recently that, when you look at things happening in the universe and see the scope of events, disasters, and wondrous creations, it becomes harder to get your brain back into being able to "appreciate" smaller versions of things happening here.  One such thing was when I learned about the tribe's perspective on land "ownership" was right after my evening at the observatory.  I was still coming down from seeing entire other galaxies, and hearing that a group of people don't feel it's possible to "own" land really seemed to connect with that same "grander" scale of thinking.  Anyway, back on topic.

There is a lot of tribal land still undeveloped. The phrase "dirt poor" wasn't just a turn of phrase for them. Families lived in single room shacks or trailers, many of which were in total disrepair when I saw them (to be honest they didn't look like much to begin with). There was no irrigation, very little plumbing.  The tribe couldn't grow anything besides dust and cactus, and they relied on the city for their resources.  Poverty was rampant, and with poverty came having to rely on cheaper foods, which caused health issues to skyrocket.

Now, the tribe has two casinos. Each member on the tribe who lives on tribal land now gets a share of the casino's profits. I don't know how much that is, but the Puyallup tribe in Washington State gets about 25 to 30 thousand per member, and they control one of the most important shipping ports in the west coast.  Any member of the tribe who wants a job at the casino gets one (after all, each one has a stake in it, so why not?).  And where has that money gone?

Right next to barren, dust-layered lots, there are now acres of fields of corn.  Gardens are everywhere, thanks to the latest in irrigation being used to in water.  Trailers and shacks are being hauled off of the land and demolished, replaced with simple houses families can raise their children in.  I saw a new house being built next to an old trailer a family had lived in with the ceiling almost completely collapsed.  It looked like someone dropped a car on it, or something from space landed smack in the center of the building.  Streets are actually paved.

The people of the Salt River tribe are healthier (they still have a ways to go, as do we all, since junk food and fatty food is still so widely available), and they're also more active in the community around them.  They're turning what was once a wasteland into a place people can actually survive on.

Now, here's where I get political.  If you want to skip this, scroll down past the picture of the casino I visited for a few more rambling thoughts.

In 1980 the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was put in place, paying the tribes $81.5 million dollars in exchange for the tribes giving up all claims to land in Maine (their original suit against the state called for the return of what would've been 60% of Maine to be handed over to them).  One provision was that all tribes are subject to Maine law, and that any future federal legislation regarding Indian tribes had to include special language specifically discussing the Maine tribes, or Maine would refuse to acknowledge it.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1988, and it did not have any special language in it to include the Maine tribes, so Maine's "no gambling" laws trumped the federal law stating that governments are required to negotiate with tribes to allow casinos to be built.  As far as I'm aware, Maine is the only state to limit its tribes this way.

There have been many appeals, all of them shot down by the federal courts, and so this is why Maine has the only tribes that are required to let people vote whether or not they can have the same opportunities as every other Indian tribe in the United States.  Hoo-ray.

But that's a longer topic for another day.  Here's what I wanted to discuss: the arguments.  The biggest argument I heard in 2003 and again in 2007 was that allowing a casino would "increase crime" in areas.  Commercials and ads promoting fear made it sound like every street corner would become a drug dealer's heaven, that robberies, rapes, and murder would run rampant, and the entire state would turn into New York, but "Escape From New York" New York.

Here's a fun fact: the Arizona tribal casinos and the surrounding area have ridiculously low crime.  Many tribes outlaw drinking at all on their lands, meaning you don't even get drunk drivers heading home from losing their money and deciding to plow their cars into oncoming traffic.  Why?  Because it's tribal land.  You grab someone's purse?  Deputy Barney Fife can't come over and arrest you, you're getting taken down by the tribe's own personal police force.  And the tribes don't think crime is very funny.  You sell drugs or kill someone?  Congratulations, you just committed a federal crime, meaning the DEA or FBI are on your ass, and they also don't have much of a sense of humor when it comes to crime.  I also asked around to see how rampant crime was in Phoenix since the casinos went up.  There are a lot of businesses on the other side of that overpass I mentioned before, and it didn't seem like crime spiked dramatically since the casino's construction.

Now, here's my other issue with Maine, and it can be summed up with a motto I often hear repeated:  "The way life should be."  Maine is very...quaint.  I really get the impression that Maine wants everyone else in the nation to picture them as the first twenty seconds of "Murder, She Wrote."  Angela Lansbury rides her bike down a quaint city street, walks with her fishing pole across a dock, runs in a field, waves to a passing boat...truly, a relaxing vacation spot for anybody willing to visit.  Let me point out that opening was first played in 1984.

Now, I hear complaining about paper mills shutting down when more and more businesses strive to become "paper free" and more people read their news online than from newspapers.  Attempts to bring in new power sources are spit upon because of their affect on nature, or are too noisy, or, and my personal favorite argument, "are ugly."  I know several people who have told me, regarding Somali refugess who live here, that they understand why they had to flee their homeland, but a) "why don't they learn our language if they're going to live here?"  b) "Why can't they understand that we don't do things their way?" or c) "Why are they so different?"  NIMBY runs rampant, and, as a state, Maine seems determined to refuse to admit that it's becoming somewhat antiquated.

(Disclaimer: I'm not saying anybody's opinion is wrong, I'm simply stating things I observe and might, perhaps, strongly disagree with.  People who state or believe the above things are not bad people, and having differing opinions is what fuels debate, advancement, and new ideas, and I encourage everybody to research topics and come to their own conclusions on matters.)

I hope Maine's aware that a state can still be a gorgeous nature preserve and have major industry and cities.  Washington state has the only full rain forest in the continental US, and Seattle's just a short drive away.  I could easily see Portland becoming another San Francisco or Seattle, finding a balance of "classic" tastes mixed with modern technology and business.  You can't have an entire state of Cabot Cove, because, much like "Murder, She Wrote," the steadily-aging population will just keep dying off, and you won't see anybody new coming in to take their place as tourists- I mean, "guest stars."

Oh, and as for that "ugly" argument, the same one was used against building a casino here in Maine.  Let me show you all the casino I stopped at in Arizona:

That's it.  First floor is casino, the rest of the floors are hotel rooms.  The casino itself wasn't as garish as the ones you see in movies from Hollywood either.  They had a large open front area that let in some sunlight.  It was noisy, but not so you couldn't hear yourself think.  TVs located in different areas allowed people to keep track of what time it was (CNN, ESPN, and local news stations were playing when I was there).  Maine's a big state, I don't think a building that size would suddenly appear as horrible as a pimple on a teenage girl's nose during prom.

Anyway, that's my quasi-political rant.  This has been something weighing on my mind since the trip, and I know it's jumbled, not very clear, and I don't quote my references (a history of Maine's tribal disputes with the state government can be found at, but for an amateur blog post?  I think it works.

Coming up next:  The time a monkey jumped on my head.

Don't let the cuteness fool you.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Excuse me for a moment while I blow off some dust here.

*puff* *cough* *gack*

Okay, I think we're good.

I had promised a few of these when I went on my most recent trip to Arizona, and hey, if anything's going to get me excited about writing again, it'll be writing.  So let's get a few things out of the way first.

1)  Arizona is hot.

This falls under "well, no kidding, next you'll be telling me the ocean's wet."  But perhaps it's just because I've lived in many places, but the heat is less unbearable there than it is in Maine, which doesn't come anywhere near those temperatures.  And why?  Humidity. When I lived in Virginia, every house had central air conditioning.  Temperatures rarely went past 100, but, well, let's look at the weather for this upcoming Friday.

And now here's the weather for Phoenix the same day.

Okay, if I had to pick one to be in, you know where I'd go?  I'd go to Phoenix.  Why?  Because there's very little humidity.  Humidity assaults people.  It clings to everything and absorbs ambient heat so you can never cool down.  It soaks your clothes the moment you step outside, it seeps into your house, and it feels like all it wants to do is kill you.  If the weather was a horror movie, humidity would be zombies.  Always present and you can fight for a while, but eventually you have to face it.  And you'll lose.

Now, I'll be honest, 112 is really goddamn hot.  When I was in Phoenix, the hottest it got was 107, but before you feel sorry for me, know this:  I walked around outside almost every day for most of the day.  I didn't get a sunburn from extreme sun exposure (hell, I barely tanned at all, I'm just "less white").  I was absolutely fine every evening.  The thing about Phoenix is they know it's going to be hot.  They aren't surprised by it any more than people in Florida should be surprised that huge storms come through and knock over all their stuff.  They have shaded sidewalks with awnings, they have trees strategically planted to shade street corners, and the most awesome part?  Check this out.

You see that mist?  Many stores in the Phoenix area run pipes along the edges of their awnings and overhangs that spray a mist down.  This cools you off by not only being cool water, but it also drops the temperature a few degrees in the immediate area.  Just don't go running through it like a child in a sprinkler, or you'll look like a total tourist.

Fact #2:  Phoenix is in a desert.

Again, "no kidding" but, here's something you might not know.  1) The definition for a desert depends on how much rainfall it gets, not how much plant life it has.  2) Arizona has gotten really, really good at irrigation.  Someone I know commented during their trip to Arizona that nothing was alive and it was brown everywhere.  Well, I'll admit, there is a lot of brown, but you work with the stone and dirt you've got, right?  But does this look like barren land to you?

Does that look barren to you?

...okay, the last one's a bit barren in the front, but in the back it's not!  Just...look behind the dust devil that was blowing right beside the road.  ...right.  Anyway.

Maybe it's just because the other person I know went in winter, but every time I looked around, there was greenery.  Plants, trees, cactus, grass, it was all around me thanks to Arizona having really hardy trees and doing a damn good job irrigating it.  In fact, right outside the city where the Salt River tribe lives, they have crops.  Honest to god crops.  I saw corn growing in fields out there (but that's another blog post).

Fact #3: There's a lot of southern culture in Arizona.

Okay, now I'm just getting stupid with these, so this is going to be my last one.  Something I know about the northeast is that if you've seen one city, you've seen most of the cities.  If someone asked me to tell the difference between Kennebunkport and Freeport, my answer would be "one has LL Bean."  Falmouth and Windham?  "One's closer to the ocean, one's closer to a lake?"  Gorham and Hudson?  "Gorham has paved roads."  But once you get past the quaintness, it's all rather...bland.

Man, this post isn't going to make me any friends, is it?

Here, look at some of these pictures I took.  

This is the hill alongside the highway that leads to the wall blocking sound from the residential areas.  That pattern on the ground is all made out of small rocks arranged just so in this really elaborately done style.  Next up:

The walls of overpasses and on-ramps are decorated with all sorts of designs.   Lizards, cactuses, figures from Native American myth, designs, patterns, pictures telling short stories, all these creations that add character to a town.  And this is just the roads.  Buildings, parks, sidewalks, all parts of the city embraced the variety of cultures and history of the region and display them prominently.  The area is trying to tell you its story, and each road you take and each time you look around, you see more of it.  They even managed to balance this delicate level of classic design with modern technology.  Their new mass transit system, the light rail, maneuvers down roads passing statues, signs, and memorials of what used to be.

Overall, Phoenix is, in my opinion at least, a gorgeous city, one rife with culture and flavor (not just in the food, but I'll get to that later as well).  I'd highly recommend anybody visit it, and not do it during the winter.  From what I saw, Spring is the slow tourist season there, so it's a good time to visit (my father told me that through a time-share company he deals with, I could get a week's stay in a two-bedroom condo with a kitchen for $180.  Per WEEK.)

Hell, there's enough stuff to do there, I wouldn't mind going back.  Anybody want to split a condo?