Sunday, May 30, 2010

An Early Memorial Day Thought

Since tomorrow is Memorial Day and I'll likely be too busy to post anything here, I'm going to do it a day early. 

I read the book Flags of Our Father some time ago, and that book really changed how I thought about World War 2. The utter hell that millions and millions of men and women willingly went through to preserve the freedoms enjoyed by America and many other great nations is something I can't really grasp. I then went to Europe for 3 weeks and basically did a WWII tour with my uncle, an historian. We walked along Point du Hoc, where hundreds of artillery craters still stand and barbed wire still lines the tops of the cliffs. We walked along Omaha beach where 65 years earlier our soldiers were being riddled with Nazi bullets. I walked in foxholes dug by Easy Company in the forests around Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and saw buildings still covered in bullet holes. We visited countless cemeteries and museums and historical battle sites and monuments. 

It was really an eye-opening experience for me and a trip that I'd encourage every American to make at least once. 3.5 million people since 1776 have died on our Armed Forces in order to preserve the freedoms that we hold so dear, take for granted and sometimes don't even realize how much of a privilege they are to have.

I'm sure everyone has heard this before, but freedom truly isn't free. I could post countless quotes by many people way smarter than me on the subject, but I'll keep it simple. Freedom is not free. Period. There will always be those who want and hate freedom and want nothing more than to take it away from others, and it is in defense of that freedom that 3.5 million people have died.

 There are just wars. There are necessary wars. There are times when it is necessary to kill. That's just how it is. That's how it will always be. Regardless of the opinions of countless anti-war groups, people, etc, that's how it is. To quote a member of Easy Company, Herb Suerth Jr.:

"It does no good to wish that other countries would simply lay down their arms and be nice to us. It ain't going to happen. Unless you stand up and be counted for what you believe in, you will lose all the freedoms that are important to you. Freedom isn't, and never will be, free."

3.5 million people have died to ensure that everyone who came after them would not have to. Freedom is not free, and to all those serving in the Armed Forces, and to all the veterans who given so much to keep us free, thank you. Thank you. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Rorschach Test

In case you don't know, I'm an avid fan of Watchmen, both the novel and film. I'm particularly drawn to one of the central characters, Rorschach, named for the ink-blot test commonly used in psychotherapy. His mask is one of ever changing Rorschach patterns, but the black and white never mixes and are always symmetrical. This is a reflection of his thought process, that while his views do change, they are always absolute in their conviction. This is his greatest strength, more so than his immense physical strength and his extremely agile mind.

He believes in absolute good and absolute evil, often to a fanatical degree. That which is good he will protect, by punishing that which is evil in any way possible, often by killing it outright. While his views do lean towards the extreme to the point of impracticality, its his unwavering devotion to his ideals of good that I admire. His refusal to compromise in any way, even at the expense of world peace and in the end his own life is a spirit that is sorely lacking in todays world of moral relativism. Instead of taking the easy way out, instead of compromising his ideals and beliefs, Rorschach trudges on sullenly, doing his part to rid his world of evil in the form of killing all those who threaten the good and innocent.

While I don't necessarily advocate vigilante justice (though it is a topic I would be willing to argue in favor of) the thought process being it, that of absolute uncompromising devotion to good, is something I do advocate and try to practice in my own life, though with less than stellar results in many cases.

The challenge in all this is determining what really is or isn't "good." There's only one standard that I can really call absolute, and that is the Bible. Attempting to hold fast to any other thing is, while maybe with admirable devotion, in the end doesn't amount to much. There's simply no other book of absolute good in this world. There are some fine teachings from ages and ages of philosophizing and thinking, but when you boil it down, the Bible, being the written word of God, is really all you can call absolute. I make no claim to be perfect, but I try my best to simply not compromise on things that are in that Book.

It's not something one can do on one's own though, and despite Rorschachs godless world, it is only though God that one has any chance of adhering to the Bible at all. Through God.

Anything else, any other attempt through any other means will be, to quote Rorschach, "Nothing Short of compromise."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Review - Rocket Men

Going to the moon was pretty much the biggest deal in human history. There's no way around that. It was a big freaking deal, and it really still is. I'm sure most everyone has seen documentaries on the History Channel or National Geographic on the moon landings and/or seen the movies Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff. If you're an American, then it's pretty much your default setting to know at least a little about the moon landing. There are also quite a few books on the subject, and most of them are pretty darn good. There are a LOT though, so for one to really stand out it'd have to be pretty darn spectacular. A blurb on the cover of this book, Rocket Men, says that it's "brilliant" and "spectacular". Well, I have to disagree on those two, but it's still a good read nonetheless.

This is basically a more behind the scenes look at the Apollo program, with hundreds of memoir-like quotes from engineers, pilots, scientists and politicians on the moon landing. The more personal and historical side of the book is actually very interesting as it really shows the human side of the people involved and just how much of a strain this task really was. The astronauts become less mythical and much more human, and their differing views on the project and all around world-views are something I hadn't heard a lot of before this book. Like I said, when the story becomes focused on the people and the history of the Apollo program, this book really soars. The downside is that a lot of the book is engineer/scientist talk, with pages of technical details and things that just plain old didn't interest me very much. I'm not downplaying the importance, obviously, but to someone like me who isn't an engineer it just wasn't conveyed in an interesting way.

There's some really good stuff here though; the politics and infighting of things like who would be the first man to walk on the moon, what he would say and what would be on the plaque left on the moon are all things I didn't know before. The history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War and how it related to the Space Race were fantastically conveyed; as I said before the historical narrative is where this book really shines.

Overall, this isn't a book I'd really call epic and spectacular. It's a well-written and very informative look at the more historical and personal side of the Apollo Program, which isn't usually the norm for books on the subject. Rocket Men, while not really reinventing the wheel for Space Race books, gives a good in depth look at the Apollo Program from a much more personal and human perspective than most books on the subject. It's well-written and something I recommend for any fan of space or American history.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Music Review - Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos

I have to say, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this album. I love Dream Theater and no one can deny that the band members are incredible players, but this is an odd album for me. There's times when I listen to it and love it, and then times when I listen to it and really don't think it's that great.

There is some top-notch stuff here, though. The opening two songs are fantastic, with the former (In The Presence of Enemies Pt. 1) being a pretty solid Dream Theater song, with lots of soloing and terrific playing all around. It's sort of the kind of song I expect them to do on a regular basis; it's not amazing but it certainly isn't too shabby at all. Forsaken, the second track, is a terrific shorter piece, focusing more on a slightly darker (and dare I say "gothic") atmosphere and a good catchy chorus. Forsaken was the single and if I'm not mistaken the song that got radio play. The rest of the songs sort of waver between okay, good and not that great, except for The Ministry of Lost Souls. This is the kind of song Dream Theater need to be writing; long, technical, multiple long solos and non-conventional structuring. It's one of my favorite Dream Theater songs and definitely the strongest on the whole album. There's a few interesting moments here and there, such as the Opeth-like psychedelic rocker Repentance, which is a good relaxing song and something of a throwback to the psychedelic/trippy feel of 70s progressive rock. Other than that though, the songs are just not that great. The solos are all cool, the band is in top form and James LaBrie sounds terrific, but the songs just don't pack any real punch.

I don't hate this album and I listen to it fairly often, but my selection of songs on it is pretty thin. When the band tries to sound heavy and metallic, like on Constant Motion and The Dark Eternal Night, it just plain old doesn't work. However, the softer songs like Repentance and the more typical Dream Theater songs like the opener and The Ministry of Lost Souls really let the band shine. This isn't a bad album, it just lacks some of the fire that other Dream Theater albums have. Thankfully the slight slump in songwriting isn't an ongoing problem, as the latest album has shown.

In conclusion, Systematic Chaos has a couple of good Dream Theater songs and a couple of not so good songs. Don't expect to be blown away by this album but don't expect a total failure. I'd recommend buying a couple song off of iTunes or whatever service you use, and leave the rest alone.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Father and Son

I was recently talking to a fellow blogging (and real life) friend about various books we've read, and one of the books I had out was The Road. If you've read some of my posts you'll know I'm a big fan of both the book and movie, and of course, the author. I was making a point about one particular line of narration, my favorite in the novel and my favorite from recent times. It describes how the Man and Boy sustain each other in their hellish world:

"Each was the others world entire."

What a powerful idea...the love between father and son is so strong that that's simply all there is to their existence. That's quite the love, if you think about it. Love so powerful between two people that it literally is the only thing keeping them alive. I wouldn't imagine there's too many people who would use something like that to describe how they feel about most anything or anyone.

I don't really have a profound statement to make on this subject, but I suppose my conclusion is that that's the kind of love that really should be manifesting itself in ones life and that one should be striving for. Again, I have no deep thesis on this, this is just something I was rolling around in my head. Give it some thought.

"Each was the others world entire."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Movie Review - Robin Hood

I will be blunt with this. Robin Hood was not as good as I was hoping for it to be. This was a plain old not very good movie, which was really disappointing. Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe have done some fantastic movies together and on their own, but this is definitely not one of them.

Throughout this movie, there was just an overwhelming sense of...almost laziness. The characters of Robin Hood, Marion, Will Scarlet, Allan a Dale, Little John, the Sheriff of Nottingham are never really expanded on and developed; most of them with the exceptions of Robin and Marion remain mostly background characters. The scenes feel rushed, as if all that was really wanted was to do as many cool battle/action scenes as possible, and even those aren't all that impressive. While Rusell Crowe is a brilliant actor, the portrayal of Robin Hood here is actually boring in spots, as is Cate Blanchett as Marion of Locksley. This isn't entirely their fault though as the script is very, very weak. The dialogue is totally unremarkable and simply doesn't do anything. It is some words spoken by actors. That's it. Even the scenes where "epic" speeches are given fall flat; there's just no fire in the script. Like I said before, the script just feels rushed, like it's just filler in between "epic" fight and battle scenes that aren't that cool, which is really disappointing considering some of the movies Scott has made that incorporate those. The story is just plain simplistic, weak and not even well thought out. The movie as a whole suffers from flat out poor script writing.

There's not a whole lot more to say on this wasn't a terrible film, but it certainly wasn't amazing or exceptional or even memorable. There's just nothing here really but negatives: next to no character development, flimsy dialogue and half-hearted battles scenes. Ridley Scott has done some terrific period epics, like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven that really are terrific movies, but Robin Hood is nowhere near as good as those. I'm hard pressed to find any real big redeeming factors about this movie, but it's just so mediocre and halfhearted I can't really find any. I don't really recommend this movie, as there's really nothing to see here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Essential Listening- Dream Theater - Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory

I have to admit, I'm something of a Dream Theater fanboy. With the exception of some of their earliest albums, there's nothing of theirs I don't like. I honestly believe that they're one of the most talented groups of musicians to ever form, and this album to me is the high point of their entire career and one of the high points of music as a whole.

There is a LOT going on in this album, so I'll start with some general specifics. This is a LONG album. Three of the 12 tracks are over 11 minutes long (Beyond This Life, Home and Finally Free), and each of these is basically the band playing as furiously as possible for as long as possible. These do take some getting used to just because of how long and drawn out they can be, but they're balanced by several shorter and more accessible songs. These include Fatal Tragedy and Strange Deja Vu, which while having incredible solos throughout are also catchy and more conventionally structured songs. There's also shorter interludes (Regression, Overture 1928, Through My Words, and One last Time ranging from a minute to four minutes, and these are actually very enjoyable.

While not really what I would call a "metal" album, it does have its heavier and more metallic moments, involving very fast double-bass drumming courtesy of Mike Portnoy and some good heavy (but still very catchy) guitar riffs delivered by John Petrucci. The tempo is generally mid-to-slow paced and airs more on the progressive rock side, as opposed to metal. The writing here is superb in every area, with elements of classical, jazz, blues, psychedelic rock (Home), ragtime (The Dance of Eternity) and gospel (Through Her Eyes and The Spirit Carries On) all being used and used brilliantly. Since this is Dream Theater, no real explanation is needed on the proficiency of the actual playing; every member here is a virtuoso, period. James LaBrie is brilliant here as well, hitting some absolutely terrific high notes and putting a tremendous amount of feeling and soul into his singing.

The two best parts about this album for me would be the instrumental The Dance of Eternity and the ballad The Spirit Carries On. The Dance of Eternity is nothing short of a mind-blowing display of technicality from the band, with something like 130 time changes in 6 minute song, a ragtime piano solo, an insane bass solo and more guitar and drum solos than you can count. Incredible piece. The Spirit Carries On is quite the opposite; it's a very relaxed ballad but I'm willing to say it's the single best Dream Theater song ever written. Flawless vocals and a guitar solo that would make Pink Floyd blush as well as a full gospel choir, this is the epitome of brilliant.

While Dream Theater have had a fantastic career with some truly brilliant albums, this is the pinnacle of it all. Technically brilliant but still having real soul and emotion in every song, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory is definitely essential listening for anyone who likes good music.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Music Review - Earth - Hex-Or Printing in the Infernal Method

The Old West was a brutal place to live. In fact, I'd rank the Old West as the worst time and place you could have been alive, after ancient Egypt and the Dark Ages. Life was dangerous, harsh, monotonous and dreary, which is almost exactly how I'd describe this album by drone pioneers Earth. This is an interesting album, and of a style that isn't too often seen. Instead of the enormous fluctuating walls of bass and low end that usually define drone, this is made up of entirely clean instrumental playing that includes banjo, steel lap guitar and even some tribal drumming in a style that really brings the epic Western music of Ennio Morricone to mind.

This album is basically 45 minutes of really, really, really slow and really, really, really heavy country/western music, with hints of the bands drone history as well as some psychedelic moments thrown in. The guitars twang sounds like something out of a Johnny Cash era country album and definitely give the album a real authentic Western flavor. There's no real amazing solos or crazy riffing going on here; this is pure mood/atmospheric music. Some songs, such as An Inquest Concerning Teeth and Tethered to the Polestar convey feelings of hope and more uplifting themes, while tracks like the ominous Raiford (The Felon Wind) really bring to mind images of the Badlands in all their desolate and harsh glory and is the only time I've ever heard a banjo sound heavier than a metal guitar. Raiford (The Felon Wind) is the probably my favorite song off the album simply because it's one of the most crushing songs I've ever heard yet still manages to retain its country/western style. Being a drone album (and I use "drone" loosely here) this is very slow and repetitive music; it really has more in common with ambient than drone, I think. There's moments here and there where the music really isn't that interesting, and part of me thinks that this goes along with the dreariness of pioneer life, and the other part of me says they just ran out of ideas for the song at hand. But for the most part the music is engaging and genuinely atmospheric, calling up images of vast deserts and canyons, vultures circling and many other harsh realities of life in the Old West.

If you're looking for normal, happy and upbeat western music, this is not for you. However, if your looking for authentic, truly mood setting western styled drone/ambient, or just interesting country/western music in general, this album is for you. While not perfect, as it can drag on as ideas are simply repeated over and over, this is an all round interesting album by a fantastic band.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Movie Review - Watchmen

Zack Snyder, director of 300 and Dawn of The Dead, decided to tackle one of the most complex and in depth  pieces of modern fiction ever penned, the graphic novel Watchmen. Translating this 12 volume work to the big screen was obviously something of a challenge, as the extremely complex ideas, psychologies, mythologies and many plots and subplots were all crucial to the story itself. In bringing Watchmen to film, Zack Snyder made not only a terrific adaption of the novel but also one of my favorite films of all time. 

This is not a normal superhero movie, and it is definitely not an action film. In fact, this is basically a long, slow, dialogue filled drama that happens to have a few action scenes in it. For those looking for cheap thrills and predictable heroes, look elsewhere . The "heroes", which I use loosely (since with the exception of one, none have any real powers) are from all different walks of life; one of the main ideas behind the novel was to create several radically different views of the world and let the reader decide which was best, and radical they are. From the brutal black and white moral absolutism of Rorshach (played by Jackie Earl Hayley) to the equally brutal and extreme amorality of The Comedian (played by Jeffery Dean Morgan) to the morally relative Nite Owl and Silk Spectre (played by Patrick Wilson and Malin Ackerman)  to the uncaring god-like Dr. Manhattan, played by Billy Crudup), the differences in world views and vast and thought provoking. The philosophizing and ethical dialogue here is worthy of very close study and honestly have given me hours and hours of thought and even debate as to some of their meanings and implications, but since this is a film review and not a philosophy class I'll leave that for another post.  

Watchmen is very, very stylized, and those who saw 300 will have a pretty good idea how this movie will look. While the stylization is frequent, it's all done very tastefully and never comes off as overdone, though it certainly is over the top. But there lies one of Zack Snyders strengths: making overdoing and overdone look really, really, cool. This is a dark, bleak, violent and sometimes disturbing movie though, make no mistake about it. The novel itself was all of those things, but the film takes it to another level. There's scenes of violence here that are genuinely hard to watch, simply because of the brutality of it all, and I have to say there's a few places where I disapproved of the way a scene was portrayed. Theres two in particular that I dislike, and both were dramatically altered from the novel in ways that leave me to think that Snyder was going more for shock value than artistic integrity. So as a warning to those faint of heart, this is a hard movie to watch.

However, despite the dark and in places film-noir feel of the movie, it does have it's lighter moments, and you'll know exactly when those are when the music cues. The soundtrack here is one of the best I've heard; while composed mostly of pop hits such as Bob Dylans The Times are a Changin, Simon and Garfunkels The Sounds of Silence and Jimi Hendrix's version of All Along the Watchtower every song fits absolutely perfectly with the scene at hand. Kudos to the man behind the music selection and editing for doing a brilliant job.

Watchmen, with it's cynical look at humanity and bleak outlook on life, is a very, very interesting film. While not the most true adaption to the book as it could have been, Snyder and Co. have done a fantastic job brining to the big screen one of the most well-written stories ever. Watchmen, in my mind, has also set the bar for superhero movies. Shying away from predictable plots and plot devices, Watchmen is a thought provoking, deep and interesting take on humanity, that also happens to be one of the most entertaining and satisfying movies I've seen in a long, long time. 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Book Review - No Country for Old Men

This is the second Cormac McCarthy book I've read, the first one being The Road. While written in the same sparse and minimalistic way, this is a very different tale than The Road, focusing on what happens to people thrown into out of control situations and forced to survive. The main difference between the two, in my mind is the dialogue. There is a lot more of it here, and it's less sparse than The Road was, much less so in fact. It's altogether more accessible, I think, simply because it's a more normal kind of story. The story itself is simple, but don't let that fool you, as it's through this simplicity that McCarthys strengths shine through the brightest.

The dialogue here is what really stands out to me. There's just so much of it; most of the novel is not carried by harrowing action scenes but by page after page of banter between killers, police and drug runners. Action is present though, and quite forcefully so. McCarthy is typically blunt in describing gruesome scenes of violence and murder here, but these are outnumbered by terse conversations leading up to and following the action scenes. I generally prefer dialogue to action, as long as it's well done, and I could honestly read the narration and dialogue between characters over and over and over again. Like I said before, the strength of this novel is in the dialogue.

No Country for Old Men is a few different things: it's a western, it's a mystery/detective story, it's a chase story and it's even a psychological thriller. Theres pages of thought provoking narration and revealing and even intimate dialogue and glimpses into the minds of the characters that McCarthy has created, and that's why I like this book so much. While it is a grim and gruesome read at times and not recommended for the faint of heart, No Country for Old Men is a sparse, hard edged and brilliant novel that I highly recommend.