Thursday, November 5, 2015

Is it me or is it the movies? Part III

An article about a remake of Ocean’s 11 with an all-female cast appeared in my newsfeed recently. Skimmed through it. Skimmed through the comments. Some pros. Some cons. The usual casting arguments and the inevitable personal flame wars. However, nowhere did I see anyone mentioning the elephant in the screening room. That this is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea!

And no. It’s not because it objectifies women in film (or depending on your political leanings objectifies men). It’s not because it doesn’t address the wage gap in film (or depending on your political leanings politicizes film casting). It’s not because it casts (insert actress of choice) as (character of choice) when it should cast (actress of choice) as (character of choice)! It’s not because they should remake (insert favorite movie of all time) first. It’s not because … HEY!!! OBAMACARE SUX. VOTE TRUMP!

It’s because (SPOILER ALERT!) … it’s a gimmick. Nothing more. It has nothing to do with anything other than a marketing talking on point on some Hollywood exec’s power point presentation. Don’t know who pitched this and who greenlit this, but I am pretty sure the conversation went like this:

Pitcher: Ocean’s 11, but with women in the main roles.

Greenlighter: Go!

I don’t claim to be a Hollywood insider (in the interest of full disclosure, however, I was an extra on The Package once) or much of an expert (I did, however, see The Player), but I have watched a lot of films and over the years it seems as if the reasons to make films have now been reduced to their most simplistic basic principles.

Superheroes? Go!

3D? Go!

Tom Cruise? Has he done or said anything stupid lately? No. Go!

Remake (insert old popular TV show title)? Go!

Remake (insert old popular film title)? Go!

Hot selling novel? Go!

Spiel…? Say no more! Go!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a Cahiers du Cinema subscriber (okay, the fact that I know that there is a Cahiers du Cinema taints me a little bit, but in my defense I don’t know what Cahiers means and I left off the doohickey over the e in Cinema). I realize show business has always been a business first. It’s first and main objective, and always has been, is to put butts in seats by whatever means necessary and reap as much financial rewards as possible. Awards and critical acclaim are all nice, but they don’t pay the rent. Nor am I unaware of the fact that the rent for making films is mighty high. The risks great. Hollywood invented creative accounting so it’s hard to give a definitive answer, but most estimates put the average Hollywood budget to get a movie from alpha to omega somewhere between $100 million to $150 million. The reasons for this are complex, but mostly they are the creation of Hollywood itself. It’s mostly due to egos and about who makes more than whom. It’s about the progression from making $3 million in the box office from a $1 million budget and being satisfied with that to wanting to make $999 million and therefore now having to invest $333 million. Either way, that’s a lot of risk and if it was your money you too would want some safeguards to guarantee a return on your investment.

And yes, I realize that it was always this way. All you need to do is pick up some books about the old (old being a relative term to your own age) Hollywood moguls and stars or just Wikipedia them to see that it was so. But that’s not the elephant either.

Nor does the elephant have anything to do with the age old art v. commerce argument. I like Tarkovski as much as the other guy. I saw Stalker twice. His mastery of ambience is second to none. He is a true artist. Will I ever watch Stalker a third time? Only if you pay me. Citizen Kane? Greatest movie ever made. 400 blows? One of my favorite films. Bicycle Thief, Rules of the Game, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Battleship Potemkin, Medium Cool, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now? Seriously! Don’t insult me by even asking. I can appreciate when films become something larger than just mere entertainment. I relish the moments when they do. But I also happen to love comic books. If it has Marvel in the title I will see it at some point. Not a huge fan of 3D but I did go to see Hugo simply for that reason because I wanted to see what Scorsese will do with it. Tom Cruise I can take or leave, but if Jackie Chan makes a movie odds are I will see it some point. Taranti… I’ll see it! Long story short, if I have a life or death choice between a Terrence Malick film and whatever the latest entry is in the Fast and Furious franchise is I will probably go with Furious and fast. Not proud of it, but I’ve had a very long day.

Let’s get serious and dig deep here. Why do I/we watch? To be entertained. What entertains me and whether I am one of the masses or the ruling culture elites is debatable, but when all is said and done I/we all watch to be entertained. Some might be entertained by things blown up real good. Others by stupid teenagers in skimpy clothing running into seemingly deserted houses that are rumored to be haunted while an escaped convict\mental hospital escapee\the unpopular ugly kid with a sharp object fetish is on a rampage. Or perhaps you are entertained by metaphysical ruminations on the nature of the universe and what does it all mean shot in soft focus and slightly off angle?

Regardless of what that is what really entertains us? It’s not the casting. It’s not the genres. It’s not the format. It’s not the marketing. All play a role, but none of them are the elephant in this room. It’s the story and how we feel while being a part of it. To borrow AMC’s slogan: Story Matters Here! [Sidebar: While I love the tagline and think AMC’s Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, and even Hell on Wheels are excellent examples of everything that is good about that slogan, AMC itself is part of the problem due to how they choose to present their shows. Do we really need three episode mini-seasons with long gaps in between? Does it make the story matter more? Does it give the creators more time to create a more mattering story? Does it matter to the audience? No. The only reason they are doing it is so that they would have a longer period to charge advertisers higher rates. I predict it will eventually fail and 5 years from now we will be talking about how do you remember when there were really good shows on AMC. And yes. I know HBO actually started this long gap thing, but their reasons are different since they don’t care about advertisers, and at least in between gaps they take chances and release really good shows so it takes some of the sting out.]

Ask yourself this question. When you talk with your friends and peers, whether they be wine cork sniffing caviar truffle soufflé eaters or beer swilling hot dog heavy on the mustard munchers, what was the last movie you talked about or really excited about seeing in recent years? I am not talking about your occasional James Bond, Bridge of Spies, Imitation Game, Guardians of the Universe, Interstellar, Jurassic Something somethings. And please, please, please don’t anyone mention that story that began (in the middle) of a galaxy long ago and far away… These are to be expected. They’re merely statistics. No more than expected blips. Sooner or later there will be something X. Either due to scarcity or by actual merit.

Now ask yourself this question. When you talk with your friends and peers about TV shows which TV shows do you talk about or can’t wait to watch? Just off the top of my head and with no particular genre or target audience in mind here are mine: Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Gotham, Fargo, 30 Rock, South Park, 24, Walking Dead, Rescue Me, Nip and Tuck, Downton Abbey,  Sherlock… The list can go on and on. We can argue about the relative merits of any individual show, but that’s not really the point. These are shows that people feel passionately about. What was the last movie you felt truly passionate about? I can’t think of many. Or at least not as passionately as the audiences of these shows feel about their shows. If you were to go back 20 years or so I can give you a full list of films people felt passionately about. TV shows? Not so much. Of course it’s possible it’s simply because I’ve seen so many films and I am getting older and older and ultimately you will see the same story no matter what package it comes in, but I don’t think so. I’ve seen many TV shows over that time span as well and I stopped watching TV because I didn’t find anything on it all that entertaining and have now resumed because I find it to be so. Pretty sure it’s not more entertaining because TVs now have bigger screens and HD.

Is there any real difference between films and TV shows? Media geeks can excuse themselves from answering this question. I know there are, but this isn’t about the mechanics of the relative media. It’s about the entertainment value each brings to the audience and as such they’re very close together. Is making a TV show cheaper than a movie? Not really when you boil everything down to their basic components. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Are television creative and business types any less greedy than their film counterparts? Don’t think so. Is there more creative freedom in TV? Are you nuts? So if none of these things is the elephant what is? Story, story, story.

TV started taking chances. They put the cart and horse (or elephant as the case may be to untangle my own metaphorical meanderings) back in the correct order. TV realized that, yes, story matters. Start there. Write the story you are interested in telling. If you tell it well and give it time it will find an audience. There will still be plenty of time to run focus groups and tailor for demographics and find product tie ins and talk about corporate synergies and vertical integrations and make lots and lots of money. First be good and be patient. The rewards will come. Don’t rush them. Don’t underestimate your audience. Make the story matter. Everything else is secondary.

In Hollywood this is reversed. Story shmory. Who is the star and how much did their property bring back last time out? I know this will be a story about a Holocaust camp survivor taking in Syrian refuges, but have you considered Adam Sandler? There is X% of people who will see an Adam Sandler film regardless of what it is so that means $XXX already that we can bank on. Maybe Will Smith. We will just change the Holocaust to Rwanda. Who is the writer? Never heard of him. No worries we’ll buy the screenplay sight unseen and then have Hot Writer of the Week rewrite. Did you know the last thing he rewrote brought in $XXX so that’s another chunk we can bank. You want Old Hack to rewrite? Can’t do. You see what This is a Sure Fire Moneymaker did? Box office poison! Can we get Spielberg to executive produce? He won’t do anything, but we get to put his name on the film and that’s another $XXX guaranteed. There’s this young director we have an eye on. He did this slasher film on his IPhone for $100. Grossed $12 mil. He would be perfect for this. It’s a shame we actually have to shoot the damn thing because right now on paper we are about $100 million in the black. Adrian, call our guy at Variety so that this thing makes it into the news tomorrow! Our corporate stock will jump at least 6 points. Tiffany, call my broker now! Sell if it hits 7. If they also finally bring that Infinity Vacuum cleaner to market at the same time the stock will really jump! We will do a two for one split and a 0.7 dividend. Tiffany, hold that call!

Anyway, what were you saying about the story? Something to do with an elephant?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Lesson

Written by Lauris Gundars, Andris Gauja, Aleksandrs Grebņevs.
Directed by Andris Gauja.
Filmed by Aleksandrs Grebņevs.
Starring: Inga Alsiņa, Mārcis Klatenbergs, Andrejs Smoļakovs, Gatis Gāga, Liena Šmukste, Marina Janaus, Edgars Siliņš, Ieva Apine, Elza Feldmane, Agirs Neminskis.

Andris Gaujas' The Lesson is a feature film which looks and feels like a documentary by design. It was originally meant as a documentary following a high school class through graduation, but fell apart during the filming once the principal of the school decided that the film was revealing too much.
The film tells the story of Zane Sirma (Inga Alsina) who is about to start her first year as a Russian language teacher in a Riga, Latvia's capital, high school. In addition to her duties as an instructor she is also to serve as the mentor for the current graduating class. She has just ended a relationship, her new coworkers seem indifferent to her for the most part, and her students resentful and rebellious. Zane grows close to one student , Inta (Ieva Apine), who is being abused by her father while one of the other students, Max (Marcis Klatenbergs), in the class seems to be developing a crush on Zane herself.
In documentary films we naturally accept that what we see on the screen is that way because that's how it happened. The filmmaker might have control over what he chooses to show us but not over what actually happens. In a narrative film our assumption is that the filmmaker has his hand everywhere and every single thing up on the screen is fraught with meaning. The documentary film approach doesn't really work for the first part of the film. As characters get introduced and the narrative arc established it all feels a little stilted and artificial. Empty spaces and extended silences seem to be just that. Characters seem to act and events unfold simply because someone wrote it that way in the script.
However, despite the documentary approach failing in the early, expository, parts of the film it really pays off towards the end. The narrative has been established, for better or worse, and now the film becomes about emotional truth. As Zane's and Max's relationship develops and races towards the inevitable cliff, the hand held camera shots, the odd angles, the extended silences and empty spaces enhance the tone and mood of the film and its story.
Overall, The Lesson despite it's early failings is a very good film that  truly captures both the tender moments between two persons as they grow closer and closer united against the world and the awkward moments as they start to drift further and further apart after being beaten down by that world at almost every turn.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rocks in My Pockets

Written, directed and voiced by Signe Baumane.

 As someone who has struggled with depression for most of my life I can say first hand there might not be a lot of fun in depression but there is a lot of funny. Perhaps its the predisposition to seeing doom and gloom even when they are not there that allows for the reverse on rare occasions and for most of us those rare occasions can be enough to carry us through the bad times.
Rocks in My Pockets, the first feature-length animated film by New York based Latvian artist Signe Baumane, is a very funny film about depression and mental illness. Baumane uses her life experiences as well as those of her family to draw a world that is both unique and personal and at the same time universal. Tolstoy was only half right when he wrote: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The ways might be different, but the scenery and destinations are all pretty much the same.
Starting with her grandmother the film's narrative arc follows the women in Baumane's family as they make their way through life. Their worlds and circumstances might change but certain patterns start to emerge. First there's grandmother Anna, bright and educated, who starts out as a young woman with seemingly endless possibilities and ends up as a desperate mother of 8 beaten down both by the events of history and personal circumstance who dies at 50. Cause of death undetermined, but whispers of empty bottles of pills and suicide attempts lurk in the shadows. Then there is daughter Miranda, bright and artistic, who sees beauty all around her but sinks into the deep well of despair following her marriage and the birth of her child. Then there is granddaughter Linda, bright and beautiful, who is undone by an obsession with a marriage that doesn't exist anywhere other than in her imagination, and granddaughter Irbe, quiet and musical, who eventually succumbs to the voices that only she can hear, and finally there is granddaughter Signe, the thread that ties it all together, whose search for meaning leads to an obsession with ending it all.

It would have been easy to over-dramatize the above. Especially in an animated film. Baumane's film works so well simply because it's not. The animation and art are simple and almost primitive. Her language is matter of fact and straightforward. Her voice-over at times droll and ironic and at times emphatic and melancholy. The humor emerges naturally from the narrative. She captures both the absurdity and banality of normal life as well as the highs and lows of those abnormal moments and people. Baumane is not a professional actress and gives most of the credit to her voice-over coach and co-producer Sturgis Warner. They rehearsed for 7 weeks, but having seen the film I can't see it working with anyone other than Baumane doing it. Her "unprofessionalism" adds a layer of personal honesty and intimacy that might not have been there with anyone else. It is after all her story and while it might be personal and intimate we can all see parts of ourselves and those around us in it.

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.