Friday, November 1, 2013

The Counselor tries for cool, but ends up cold

Sometimes too much of a good thing is not a good thing. The Counselor on paper must have seemed like a cinephile's dream. Start off with an A list cast which includes Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt in the lead roles. Even the bit players read like a whos who of film. Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Dean Norris, Goran Visnjic, and John Leguizamo all play parts that in other films would be given to whomever showed up at the casting call. Not enough? Let's throw in Ridley Scott to direct. Want more? We will have Cormac McCarthy write the screenplay.
Are you salivating yet? No?  Wait until you hear the story. There's an amoral lawyer (is there really any other kind?) (Fassbender), a mysterious middle man of uncertain business background but an interesting taste in clothing and hair styles (Bardem), a cool philosophizing cowboy drug dealer (Pitt), a cold hearted femme fatale (Diaz), a beautiful good girl (Cruz), a cartel boss expounding existential philosophy (Blades), and plenty of nameless and merciless killers. There are even a pair of pet cheetahs.
Have we got your attention yet? I thought so. The plot is set on the Juarez/Texas border and revolves around a drug deal gone bad. There are plenty double crosses, shootouts, car chases and crashes and at least one ingenious decapitation. The dialogue has shades of Tarantino if he had actually gone to university and ended up with a Ph. D. in philosophy. There are noir shades of pretty much every Bogart/Bacall film ever made and, well, shades of No Country for Old Men.
Sadly all of the above never really pays off. The Counselor is lesser than the sum of its parts. Its a collage of "cool" film moments that seems too self aware of how "cool" it really is and none of them ever come together. It tries too hard and never really captures a single genuine moment. Plenty of films can give us amoral characters, but the great ones also give us an inkling of a moral baseline that gives the story poignancy. We never get to care for any of the characters. The lead character doesn't even get to have name and is known simply as The Counselor.
If anyone really wants to see an interesting story dealing with the similar themes I suggest getting the first season of The Bridge. The Counselor feels mostly like an exercise in style and mannerisms. It doesn't seem to be sure if it wants to be "a who done it", "a how they done it", or "a why they done it". It never progresses beyond being "a they done it" and that's supposed to be enough. It isn't.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Further Proof of the Decline of Western Civilization

My week in bullet points.

Tuesday June 26th morning in Riga, Latvia
  •  I arrive at the airport at 5am for my 6:35 am flight to Brussels. Drop off the rental car, scan the screens in the terminal, but don't see my flight listed. Take a chance, wait in line at the baggage check in. Get to the front of the line. The slightly bored but polite agent checks and informs me that my flight has been cancelled. Momentary panic, but figure I'll track down and talk to the Air Brussels agent.
  • Go to the Information Desk and talk to the slightly bored but polite person there. Sorry. There is no Air Brussels agent, or office for that matter, at Riga Airport. Major panic.
  • Pull out IPhone, call friend in the US and ask her to contact Orbitz (they're who I booked the flights with) and find out what's going on.
  • Friend tries, twice, but long and the short of it is that Orbitz says I need to talk to Air Brussels which, if you've been paying attention, we already established has no presence at the Riga airport.
  • Break out in cold sweat. Pull back out IPhone and google Orbitz website to check my itinerary to see if there is maybe something there. All flight segments to and fro (4 in total) seem to be there except from my flight from Riga to Brussels. At least my Brussels to Chicago flight is still there. The problem is that I have no way of getting to Brussels.
  • Decide to call Orbitz myself. Notice that the international assistance number for Orbitz has a 312 area code which ironically is located in Chicago which is my ultimate destiny. Its pretty short conversion the gist of which is the same as before and that I need to talk to Air Brussels, which as we established earlier has no presence in the place I am at present. Hang up abruptly, but not without first thanking the person on the other side of the line with more than just a slight trace of sarcasm. Not their fault, they're just following a script from corporate, but I am more than just a little on edge at the moment.
  • Walk around the airport some more and then decide to take another look at the printed copy of my itinerary and notice that Air Baltic is listed on it. Figure Air Baltic is code sharing with Air Brussels. Worth a shot. Only one I have at the moment.
  • Talk to the agents at Air Baltic. They do their best, but after many side conversations, consultations and calls, the end result is not much they can do. I need to talk to Orbitz. Turns out Air Brussels cancelled the flight on June 6th. Its a mystery to all involved how or why Orbitz did not rebook a different flight or notified me.
  • Pull out IPhone again. Call Orbitz. The person on the other side is exceptionally polite and attentive. I must have finally registered on their radar after my friend calling three times and me calling twice. Watch the minutes tick away on the call. All of these calls and googling are costing me the international rate. Eventually wrap up the call around the 50 minute mark. My phone bill will be something to behold. The good news is that at least now I have a flight via United to Frankfurt at 2pm and then Chicago.
  • Eventually get to Chicago around 10pm. In bed by 11:30am. Asleep by 12:30am.
  • So ends Tuesday.
Wednesday June 27th
  • Arrive to work to the usual work chaos. We are all waiting on the Supreme Court to issue its decision on Health Care and its impact on our version of the Internal Revenue Code. Much stress, much contingency planning, much prep work and anticipating the various outcomes.
  • Put in my 10 hours. Get home around 8, in bed by 10pm. Asleep by 12:30am.
  • So ends Wednesday.
Thursday June 28th
  • The Supreme Court decided to uphold health care.
  • Much rejoicing since nothing needs to be done to our version of the Internal Revenue Code.
  • Rejoicing is short lived because out of left field the do nothing Congress has decided to do something and a transportation bill, HR 4348, somehow makes it out of conference which will have direct impact on our version of the Internal Revenue Code.
  • Much stress, much contingency planning, much prep work and anticipating the various outcomes.
  • Put in my twelve hours, get home ...
  • So ends Thursday.
Friday June 29th
  • According to news reports (ours included) Congress passes HR 4348.
  • Much rejoicing. We have a ton of work to do, but at least no more contingency planning, prep work and anticipating the various outcomes. Much stress, but at least its constructive and tangible stress.
  • Much hard work by myself and countless others, but we pull it off.
  • Still one step left and that is the production of the two volume version of the Internal Revenue Code and we are against a hard deadline of July 3rd when it has to go to the printer. Plan is to work through the weekend and get it done.
  • Put in my twelve hours, get home, make the mistake of checking AOL mail and see an e-mail from Hertz (the rental agency I used in Latvia to rent the car). The header for the e-mail reads: Hertz LV vehicle damages - Payment Request!
  • Note the exclamation point. Never a good thing. 
  • Brain still pretty fuzzy considering the week and lack of sleep and decompression, and then there's the jet lag. But the gist of the e-mail is that Riga Hertz wants 700 dollars from me. Or else.
  • Take a look at the attached photos. Car is certainly dirty (long story as to why, but mainly having to do with having to drive down country dirt roads in a torrential downpour while lost with my mother) but nothing that would justify 700 dollars.
  • Decide not to reply to e-mail just then since the ability to reply in a sane and rational manner is highly unlikely.
  • Sleep does not come easy, but so ends Friday.
Saturday June 30th
  • Arrive at work to start working on the Bound Volumes.
  • Look for enrolled bill of HR4348 on Thomas. None to be found. Google the news to see what's going on.
  • Stumble across a blog post. Looks like Congress actually passed HR6064 which is a temporary extension of transportation. HR 4348 will not actually happen until some time next week. July 6th most likely.
  • I hit borderline psychotic stage at this point. Will not go into too much detail since other than a handful policy wonks or tax lawyers and the production folks at my company would care or understand, but this is a very very bad thing. Pretty much the worst possible outcome of all possible worst outcomes.
  • Send off e-mails to the powers that be. Many e-mails are exchanged, different scenarios discussed and long story short now we wait for someone to make the call which way we go.
  • In the meantime I type up this blog post.
  • Feeling better thanks, but wondering what will go wrong next?
And how was your week?

Friday, December 30, 2011

Rant: Class warfare, tax cuts and deregulation

I'm frustrated. You're frustrated. Everyone is frustrated. Don't believe me? Just read a poll. Any poll. The Tea Party is tired of big government and waste. Occupy [insert location of choice] is tired of big business and big money. The right wants more cuts in spending. The left wants more spending. The young want jobs. The old want more security. Throw a dart and you are guaranteed to hit something that ails this country.
Gas prices are rising, incomes are shrinking and jobs are hard to find. Business isn't hiring and consumers aren't buying (might have something to do with the lack of jobs and shrinking incomes, but that's just me).
And what are the solutions our elected officials offering? Tax cuts and deregulation. If I hear one more candidate claim that tax cuts and deregulation will create jobs I just might have to Occupy something. Either that or become a raving Marxist.
Let's start with deregulation. Its inconvenient to "job creators". It stifles their ability to do the best for their business. You shouldn't tell the job creators how to create. They're the best qualified to know. It kills jobs, etc.
The criminal code is inconvenient as well. My next door neighbor has a really nice car. I would really, really like that car. I am younger, stronger and a better driver and I could use it to get to work that much more efficiently. Too bad about that anti auto theft regulation.
But what  really gets my shorts in a knot is the tax cut argument. Basically, if you cut taxes businesses would create more jobs. Huh? Ask any business person and they will tell you that if you cut their taxes that does not mean that they will hire a single new employee. They'll thank you profusely for the additional income, but no one will be rushing out to put out the help wanted signs.
Demand drives hiring and that's the crux of the problem. No matter how much you cut taxes we aren't necessarily going to consume more. We will not be buying more food. We will not be buying more cars or more clothes. You might buy better food, a nicer car or nicer clothes, but all that means is that Whole Foods, BMW and Prada will gain, Aldis, Hyundai and KMart will lose.
And the ultimate irony is that even if we were, that will not create that many additional jobs. Even if demand rises, business will look to two places. Automation or offshoring since labor costs are lower (and guess what regulation much laxer). Neither of which will make any real dent in job creation. And as to those increased profits due to tax cuts? Businesses will more than likely invest those gains in stocks or sit on the money and not put that money back in the economy.

I love America. I believe its a great country. I believe that America's emphasis on the rights of the individual is what makes it great. To put it crudely looking out for number one is what makes this place tick. But its long time past that this was a country which looks out for number 1. Its now the country which looks out for Number 1%. In many ways economies are zero sum. In order for someone to gain, someone has to lose. Its well documented that the 1% have gained, but does it always have to be at the expense of 99%?
And the solution our leaders have to offer is lower taxes and deregulation? I don't see it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Red Sea - 1996

Was looking for something on USENET and found this thing I wrote way back in 1996. Figured might as well add it to the blog.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Just got back from a three day diving safari of the Sinai with the Red Sea Sports Club/Manta.  In short, I had a great time and the money was well spent.
On our first day we took a Land Rover from Eilat to Sharm Al Sheik.  The dreaded border crossing at Taba, which I was warned can take hours, proceeds smothly.  Except for a short delay while I try to explain to the border official where Latvia is, I have an American passport but was born in Latvia and put down Latvian as my nationality, we are through in about 15 minutes.   Next time, ethnic pride be damned, I will stick to American. First rule of travel: K.I.S.S.  Keep It Simple, Stupid.
The drive from Taba to Sharm takes a little over an hour.  It is hot and raw, but the countryside is so savagely beautiful that the physical discomfort just seems to intensify the beauty of the land.  Afterall, this is the desert.  It is easy to imagine ancient trader caravans traversing the red mountains that surround us on both sides.
We arrive at our first dive site, Ras Um Sid, around 9am.  The reef itself is about a 100 feet from the shore.  We gear up and hit the water. Incredible.  The abundance of coral and marine life is fantastic.  This dive is meant as a check-out dive to test our skills and abilities, but there is so much to see that you quickly forget that this is basically a shakeout dive.
Our next dive site is at Ras Nasrani.  We have a quick lunch on the beach and then take to the water.  We descend to 80 feet.  The amount of fish and coral is mindblowing.  Lion fish seem to be everywhere.  After the dive we load up and head for Shark's Bay where we will be spending the night, having dinner, and in the morning boarding a boat for Tiran.  Our lodgings for the night are to be simple cabanas, but it is simply too hot to sleep in them.  Most of us opt for sleeping on the beach.  I highly recomend the beach option.  A gentle, cool breeze and a giant star filled sky beats a steamy four walls everytime.
In the morning we board the boat for Tiran.  Tiran has four major reefs.
We decide to dive Thomas and Jackson.  At Thomas we see a White Tip Shark and a couple of Sea Turtles, and a ton of fish and corals, but it is Jackson that takes your breath away.  The topography of the reef is amazing.  It seems to stretch into infinity and bend and twist into fantastic shapes.  By far,  the highlight of the trip.  Between dives we have lunch on the boat and snorkle in the South Lagoon.  Fish, coral and more fish and coral.   In more variety and colors that I have ever seen. After the boat ride back we load up the Land Rover and head for Sded where we will be spending the night and doing a night dive.  To kill time until night fall, I do a little snorkeling.  Lion fish, Puffers, Stingrays as far as the eye can see.  To top it off, heading back to the shore, I catch sight of a giant Manta Ray as it glides over the reef and disappears into the deep.  In contrast, the night dive is almost a dissapointment because there are not nearly as many fish.  However, the colors of the coral under the light of the torches are magnificent, and at the end of the dive - once we turn off our torches - we watch the plankton glow like a million fireflies.
We have dinner by the campfire and sleep on the beach.  There is nothing at Sded save for a flagpole marking the spot and the night sky is even more immense than before.
In the morning we head for Dahab, our final destination.  Our first dive is at the Island.  It is a shallow dive, 25 feet, but the amount of coral is incredible.  It feels like being in an underwater forest.  You are surrounded by coral on all sides.  There are also many nooks and crannies to dive through and explore.
Our final dive of the trip is at the Canyon.  Next to Jackson Reef, this is my favorite dive. However, it is more of a cerebral experience, than a visual one.  The Canyon begins at about 60 feet and descends to a depth of 163 feet.  There is a chamber at 100 feet that is used as an exit if you don't want to go all the way down.  For most of it's distance the Canyon is about 8 feet wide with a sandy bottom.  You can see the sky through the cracks overhead.  Overall, it has the effect of diving a cave.  The light is incredible.
We went all the way down to 163 feet.  Resting at the bottom you feel as if you are on the surface of the moon.  The complete stillness and silence is eerie.  The only sound is the sound of your breathing through the regulator.  The only motion is the rising of your air bubbles to the surface.  The ascent seems to take forever.  It is awhile before you can distinguish the surface from the surrounding depths.
After the dive we stop by for a swim with a dolphin at Mahmood's Dolphin Beach.  It is both exciting and sad.  There were about thirty snorkelers and one dolphin.  She didn't seem to mind, but at times the press of the swimmers to reach her seemed to resemble a wolfpack descending on a deer.
Overall, I had a fantastic time.  This was the best time I have had in many years.  I would highly recommend it to anyone.  The staff at Red Sea Sport Club/Manta was highly professional and courteous.  Our guide, Hen, and his lovely assistant Natasha, were excellent and alot of fun.  Hen allowed us to dive to our limits while also keeping a close eye that we didn't exceed them.  And all of this, while nursing a really bad cold.  (I should know because I managed to catch his bug.  It's been a week and I still can't shake it.)  He also has great taste in music.  You haven't lived until you have driven through the Sinai while listening to some trance and acid tapes.  The total cost for the trip came to around $350.  This included tanks, guides, transportation, boat ride to Tiran, border fees, food and lodging.

Finally, two pieces of advice.  If you are the type who is used to air-conditioning, indoor toilets and soft beds, this is probably not the trip for you.  It is hot and sticky and bathrooms and showers are few and far in between.  If you are the type who likes roughing it, then do it soon.  Civilization is fast approaching.  Everywhere we went you could see construction underway.  In a few years this will probably be another Cancun or Florida, so enjoy it while you can.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

There's something about Cancun

The pool at Live Aqua
Those of you who know me know that my tastes usually trend towards the lower end of the creature comforts scale. Not big on linen napkins and room service and pampering. Service staff hovering over me attentively make me nervous. I guess I see myself in their shoes and all things considered you can always blame my Soviet Latvian upbringing.
Some of my best vacation memories, memories that I truly love and cherish, might sound like vacation nightmares to others. There was the time in Dahab when the room we stayed in was so dusty and hot (and then there were the fleas) that we just dragged the straw mattress off the bed and down to the beach and slept under the stars. There was the time in Guatemala (for which Hector still keeps apologizing when he really shouldn't) when after some interesting bus mix ups we found ourselves stuck in some small town in the middle of the night waiting for a ride watching the local constabulary and ladies of the night playing chicken across the main drag. Then there was the time in Cayman where we ended up doing a forced seven mile march expecting the restaurant we were going to to be right around the corner which never quite came (all ended well and we even got a ride from the owner back to our hotel when he heard our story).
Long story short I am not really about the finer things in life. You know that line about the luxuries and comforts of home? Well. If that's what you want then why leave home?
And Cancun is anything but the above. When you think of Cancun think of Las Vegas but instead of casinos you have the beach as the main attraction. Instead of slot machines you have the timeshare bandits. Instead of the strip show shills you have the tour and excursion shills. And both places have buffets and scantily dressed eye candy. Both places are designed to separate you from your spending cash as effortlessly as possible. So what is it about Cancun that attracts me? I've been around 6 or 7 times now and each time I seem to upgrade to a higher level of creature comforts.
Part of it is that its just so easy. Here in the US try any travel site and you'll see an endless list of packages for Cancun. They say that competition leads to savings for the consumer so here's your proof. Then there's the beach and the water. Its one of the few places in the world where I find that the reality of the place matches those glossy pictures in the travel magazines. And then there's the diving. While Cozumel is the place for the diving its only a short ferry ride away.
Live Aqua
This time around we stayed at the Live Aqua. There's something about Live Aqua as well, but almost in the reverse. Don't get me wrong. Its a great hotel. Elegant and beautiful. Great service and good food, etc. But there's something just a little bit off that I just can't put my finger on it. As most resorts in Cancun it has a "theme" and for some reason they selected a semi "asian" theme. It just didn't seem to work for me. Cancun to me is a "hot" place. Its a city on the make. It makes no bones about trying to hustle you, but its done with a nodge and a wink. You know you are being hustled but your in on the joke. Live Aqua is something I'd expect in Japan or Norway but feels out of place in the city of "almost free today" and Senior Frog and Carlos and Charlie's.

Ben is either counting the sharks or making sure he still has all of his fingers.

 The highlight of the trip, however, was finding Scorpio Divers. Since the local diving in Cancun isn't the greatest usually I don't spend too much time looking for a dive shop. I just go with whatever is closest to the hotel and offers at least one trip to Cozumel. According to google Scorpio Divers was the closest (turns out it really wasn't), but google's mistake was my gain. Scorpio Divers is run by Ben and Jorge and both of them just love diving and it shows. Its the nature of the beast that most people who work in the diving industry start getting a little jaded when they dive with their customers since they dive the same spots day in and day out. It becomes a job. I dove with both Ben and Jorge and each time they seemed just as excited about the diving as the paying guests. Just ask Ben about sharks and he gets as excited in anticipation as the greenest of divers prior to his first open water dive. The best sign of a good business is how much repeat business they get. When ever I get back to Cancun and plan to go diving I promise they'll get mine.

More pictures.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cayman Brac

I've always had mixed feelings about the Caymans. I've been to Grand Cayman three times. Once for a week and twice as stop overs on cruises. Each time I've had a decent time, but there was nothing there that I couldn't get at half the price somewhere else and no particular desire to come back again. This is not a criticism by the way. Grand Cayman has a lot going for it and a lot of fans. I wouldn't try to talk anyone out of going there. Its just that for my buck I can find better value elsewhere. Cozumel gives me the same thrils and more bang for the buck.
And yet, since it keeps appearing towards the top of the diving lists I decided to give it another shot, but this time go strictly for the diving and go straight to where the diving is. This leaves you with two options. Either Cayman Brac or Little Cayman. Flip of the coin and Cayman Brac it was.
And now I know why the Caymans are always towards the top of the lists. The diving is indeed excellent and even better than Cozumel. I am not going to go into every single dive site they all have something going for them and in my five days of diving I only got to experience a small fraction. I probably enjoyed Wilderness Reef the most due to its many nooks, crannies and swim troughs, but that's purely subjective.
I dove with Reef Divers. Great group. Very professional, courteous and friendly. Just the right mix. They do what's called valet diving. You leave your gear outside of your room (virtually no crime on the island so you can safely do that) they pick it up in the morning and hook up all your gear on the boat. All you have to do is show up and jump in the water. The first dive was always deep water (110 max) and they always gave you and option of either exploring on your own (assuming you had a buddy) or you could just follow the divemaster. The dive briefings on the boat were always thorough and detailed so either would work.
I stayed at the Brac Reef Beach Resort. At first blush it might not seem like much from the outside. Has a sort of Florida motel (a nice motel) look to it, but don't let that fool you. The rooms are great and the staff and service top notch. The biggest surprise was the food. Being cheap I figured I'd get a better deal on my own so opted out of the meal plan, but eventually ended up eating all of my meals at the hotel anyway. If I have to stay here again I would definitely go with the meal plan. Not that there are many other options available anyway (more on that shortly), but that's not the point. Simply put. The food at the BRBR is that good.
The other thing that the BRBR has going for it is that they have bicycles available for the taking included in the price of the room. Its a great way of exploring the island. The island is relatively small and while you probably won't be able to cover all of it on a bike its a good option to have. Just don't do it the way I did. If you see signs that say restaurants with an arrow pointing that a way, don't believe them. I am sure eventually there will be some restaurants that a way, but I gave up after a few miles. And remember to bring along some fluids because once you've gone that a way you still have to pedal back.
The Brac itself is an ideal place for those who love the water and what's under it. There are quite a few caves and nature trails to explore, but other than that there really isn't much. No real shopping meccas to speak of. No large boisterous entertainment strips. If that's more your speed than you are better off sticking to Grand Cayman. However, if you want some peace and solitude then the Brac is the perfect place to be.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Is it me or is it the movies? Part II

Coming to you soon in glorious 3D!!!

If I see one more preview for a film in 3D I am liable to throw something at the screen. Enough already. Not that there is anything wrong with making films in 3D, but the films being made in 3D are for the most part nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Shows what Hollywood thinks of their audience. Story? Direction? Acting? That's hard and no predictor of success. Let's film it in 3D! Boffo box office! Pretty sure Sophie's Choice in 3D can't be far behind.
On the other hand, there's a part of me that is really tempted by Jackass 3D. If ever there was a gimmick that one's it.



Machete

Robert Rodriguez is a very talented and skilled filmmaker and it really shows in Machete. I saw more than my share of grindhouse films in the 70s. Machete is so good that despite watching it inside of a state of the art movie theater in Riga, Latvia (that's in Europe for the geographically challenged), from the start of the opening credits I was instantly transported to the seedy Chicago Loop of the late 70's. I could even imagine hearing the popcorn popping in the lobby and other not so fond sounds and smells came back in sense memory. Mark of a great film if it can capture the sense and feel of a time and place.
One problem. Grindhouse films were awful. Really, really bad films. The kind of films that distributors would buy the pound and were judged by how many shots of naked women they had and how many kills they contained. These were the type of films that could and would only appeal to 16 year old boys or those who no matter their age still had the emotional maturity of one. So here's the conundrum. If someone makes a great bad film does that make the film great or bad? I don't know the answer, but a part of me wishes Rodriguez would make a straight film for once. Same goes for Quentin Tarantino.

Red

There's a little desperation in my film watching of late. Its not that I haven't seen some good films lately (Social Network, The Town, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), but sometimes you just want something mindless and less filling. I knew exactly what I would get with Red and that's exactly what I got. The only thing I can say about the film is that movie stars should never ever surround themselves with actors. Its just asking for trouble. Bruce Willis is good at what he does. Really he is. I loved Die Hard. All of them. He has even shown an occasional, no matter how brief, flash of acting ability. But in a film with John Malcovich, Helen Miren, Brian Cox and Morgan Freeman, all excellent actors, oops. Movie stars and actors should never mix. The secret of a movie star is that they attract the audience's eye. As Mel Gibson once said they know where to stand and how to look at and look great on camera. As long as they're the focal point of the scene. In an ensemble cast Willis is lost. He just simply does know what to do when the camera is not on him and he isn't the center of the action. And on the few occasions when he tries to act it just falls flat because the other actors don't have to try.