Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Review: My Name Is Earl - episodes 1 & 2

My Name Is Earl
3 / 5
8 pm Central, NBC

Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) is a low-life thief who suddenly wins $100,000 in the lotto and loses his ticket. He is subsequently hit by a car and ends up in hospital. Flat on his back, his red neck trashy wife Joy (Jaime Pressly) gets him to sign divorce papers. While watching Carson Daly on television, he experiences karma and changes his outlook on life, promising himself to do good to others from now on. He finds the winning ticket while picking up trash and is now plotted against by his ex-wife to steal the money. He makes a list of all the people he has done wrong to and vows to do right by each one, helped out by his seemingly idle brother Randy (Ethan Suplee.)

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The cast of regulars is rounded out by the really laid back Darnell (Crab Man), a cook, the father of Earl's son and future husband of his wife, played by Eddie Steeples. Steeples bears a resemblence to pop culture television commentator Touré. Brother Randy also hooks up with hottie motel maid Catalina (Nadine Velaquez.) The two haven't formed a romantic relationship yet, but like Daisy Duke, she likes to hang out and paly a role in the quest for Earl to right his past wrongs. Early on, Randy called dibs on her and Earl has not made the moves for her. Will that change?

In the first episode, he tracks down Kenny James, a guy he picked on in elementary school. He finds that out that Kenny is gay and takes him, along with his bloated, brother Randy to a gay bar in a nearby town to help Randy meet a man. There are some funny moments, particularly as Randy gets down and snags a man on the dance floor.

The show is a winner, with the down home charm of Earl and his good intentions. Earl is determined to get through his list.

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In the second episode, we find Earl thinking of quitting smoking, but unable to do it. When he gets stressed out he smokes. Catalina randomly picks a task for him tackle. Years earlier, Earl robbed a convenience store and was video taped in a stocking mask and unique t-shirt. An crazed aquaintance of his who was also a small time criminal, was mistakenly sent to jail for two years, without knowing that it was really Earl who did the crime. Earl gets dumped in front of the guys front house while Randy and Catalina speed away in what almost appears to be a Dukes of Hazzard Charger. Earl discovers that the guy found God in jail and felt going to the slammer was the best thing to happen to him.

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Eddie Steeples as Darnell

Jason Lee is excellent and carries the show. It's lightweight fare that's well done and sometimes, it's just what I need. I'll tune in again, but it's also not essential television for me, like how Seinfeld was.

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Monday, September 26, 2005

new televison show: Surface - episodes 1 & 2

7 pm Central, NBC

Yet another aliens-among-us television series, Surface debuted last week with three separate stories of encounters with mysterious unknowns from the ocean.

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A deep-sea diving submersible surveys a part of the ocean where matter bubbles up from the earth's crust. Dr. Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell), the attractive and divorced marine biologist helms the craft and catches glimpses of something swimming outside that her handlers on the surface don't see. The craft goes into a turmoil and loses power. Later, back on land, the government takes over control of the data. They know something is up and are very hush hush about it.

At the same time, roughly, a couple of brothers head out to a oil rig for some deep sea diving and spear fishing. The spy a really large grouper and hide in the shadows for it to swim by. Instead, something massive and fast bears down on them. They duck out of its way by hiding in the oil rig superstructure. The younger brother, out for his for first time, naively spears the creature and is dragged down to the depths, out of site, with green lights appearing as he disappeared. You just know he's magically going to reappear later on. Does this remind anyone of Mulder's sister being taken away in his prescense, when he was a young man?

Finally, a group of kids are out water skiing at night. One of them, Miles Bennett (Carter Jenkins) has an encounter with something in the water. It's mysterious and small. The next night, they sneak back and discover a collection of what appears to be eggs. They bring one back, store it in the family aquarium and hide the resulting growing creature as it breaks out of the glass enclosure and hides in the bathroom.

In episode two, the survivng brother, (Rich Connelly - Jay R. Ferguson) from the diving accident travels to a beach to see some mysterious whale that has become beached. He's quite certain it's the same type of creature that took away his brother. Our stubborn marine biologist also shows up. Eventually, the two hook up in one unlikely scene.

The government officials and scientists begin to examine the deceased creature. It looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a marine iguana. They begin laser drilling into its open jaws when an explosion happens, disfiguring one of the scientists. At the hospital, he nears death and surprise, surprise, crawls out of bed without a scratch on him. Hours earlier, he had lost part of his face.

Our adolescent kids manage to feed creature while keeping it a secret from everyone else. It escapes from it's cooler home in the pool side change room, and runs amok in the pool during hottie teenage sister Savannah's (Leighton Meester) bikini party, causing panic as people mistake it for a rat. Towards the end of the show, the kids realize that it needs to eat live food and they summarily dump live gold fish into the water filled bathtub. Nimmy, short for Nimrod, the creature's name, coos and rolls around like a content sea otter, utilizing both front paws to grasp his gold prey. He emits some green light and all seems well.

This show has virtually no one you can really root for. Dr. Daughtery has little character and appeal. The good ole boy brother Rich has some single-minded intensity that makes his a bit more interesting. The two young boys are annoying and I kept waiting for Nimmy to sink his teeth into one of their hands during Pavlovian conditioning feeding time (with a bell.) Nimmy is just too unrealistically cute when the kids should really be terrified of it.

I believe the writers are trying a little too hard to please a wide demographic. There's the massive ocean-going monstronsity and its cousins sighted around the world and then there's the cudley, Ewok-esque future Christmas toy for the kiddies. Croation actor and all around scowling, bearded Eastern European kingpin Rade Serbedzija shows up as a scientist (Dr. Aleksander Cirko) for the government. He has incredible screen prescence, and it is a surprise to see him sign on for this mediocre series. Time will tell if Surface amounts to much, but so far hasn't given us much to look forward to.

Code Red Battling Google, Microsoft Changes How It Builds Software

Code Red
Battling Google, Microsoft
Changes How It Builds Software

Delay in New Windows Version
Drove Giant to Develop
Simpler, Flexible Product
Engineers Get Trip to 'Bug Jail'

September 23, 2005; Page A1

REDMOND, Wash. -- Jim Allchin, a senior Microsoft Corp. executive, walked into Bill Gates's office here one day in July last year to deliver a bombshell about the next generation of Microsoft Windows.

"It's not going to work," Mr. Allchin says he told the Microsoft chairman. The new version, code-named Longhorn, was so complex its writers would never be able to make it run properly.

[Jim Allchin]

The news got even worse: Longhorn was irredeemable because Microsoft engineers were building it just as they had always built software. Throughout its history, Microsoft had let thousands of programmers each produce their own piece of computer code, then stitched it together into one sprawling program. Now, Mr. Allchin argued, the jig was up. Microsoft needed to start over.

Mr. Gates resisted at first, pushing for Mr. Allchin's group to take more time until everything worked. Over the next few months, Mr. Allchin and his deputies would also face protests from programmers who complained he was trying to impose bureaucracy and rob Microsoft of its creativity.

"There was some angst by everybody," says Mr. Gates of the period. "It's obviously my role to ask people, 'Hey, let's not throw things out we shouldn't throw out. Let's keep things in that we can keep in.' "

Ultimately, Mr. Allchin's warning proved cathartic and led to what he and others call a transformation in Microsoft's most important product. A key reason: the growing threat from rivals such as Google Inc., Apple Computer Inc. and makers of the free Linux operating system. In recent years these companies have been dashing out some software innovations faster than Microsoft. Google has grown particularly effective at introducing new programs such as email and instant messaging over the Internet, watching how they perform and regularly replacing them with improved versions.

Microsoft's Windows can't entirely replicate that approach, since the software is by its nature a massive program overseeing all of a computer's functions. But Microsoft is now racing to move in that direction: developing a solid core for Windows onto which new features can be added one by one over time.

[Slow Delivery]

As always, Microsoft's great fear is that it will lose its near-monopoly on computer operating systems and basic office software. In the short term, there is little danger of that. But the more Google and other software makers encroach on Microsoft's turf, the greater the chance that someday computer users will wake up and find Microsoft Windows superfluous.

"What happened when the American car companies failed to update their manufacturing lines? There was a more efficient way to bring cars to market for a lower price and they lost their market," says Microsoft Vice President Chris Jones. "We're in a little bit of a different industry but it's the same thing."

Microsoft's holy grail is a system that cranks out a new, generally bug-free version of basic Windows every few years, with frequent updates in between to add enhancements or match a competitor's offering.

The Longhorn crisis helps explain the sweeping restructuring that Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer announced this week to organize the company into three major business units. A key goal is to force Microsoft to be more nimble in producing and delivering software.

Mr. Allchin's reforms address a problem dating to Microsoft's beginnings. Old-school computer science called for methodical coding practices to ensure that the large computers used by banks, governments and scientists wouldn't break. But as personal computers took off in the 1980s, companies like Microsoft didn't have time for that. PC users wanted cool and useful features quickly. They tolerated -- or didn't notice -- the bugs riddling the software. Problems could always be patched over. With each patch and enhancement, it became harder to strap new features onto the software since new code could affect everything else in unpredictable ways.

The 53-year-old Mr. Allchin, who joined Microsoft in 1990 and is now co-head of the Platform Products and Services Division, says he always disdained the fast-and-loose culture of PC software. The holder of a doctorate in computer science, Mr. Allchin craved discipline in code writing. But in the booming 1990s, when it seemed Microsoft could do no wrong, there was little Mr. Allchin could do. As soon as Microsoft was done with one version it pushed on to the next. Mr. Allchin was haunted by what he calls his "little demons."

In 2001 Microsoft made a documentary film celebrating the creation of Windows XP, which remains the latest full update of Windows. When Mr. Allchin previewed the film, it confirmed some of his misgivings about the Windows culture. He saw the eleventh-hour heroics needed to finish the product and get it to customers. Mr. Allchin ordered the film to be burned.

When the Longhorn project to build an XP successor got started, teams of engineers set off to develop it as they always had. Mr. Gates was especially eager for them to add a fundamental change to Windows called WinFS that would let PC users search and organize information better. One goal was to let users scour their entire computer for work they had done on a subject without needing to go through every individual program or document.

Mr. Allchin says he soon saw his fears realized. In making large software programs engineers regularly bring together all the new unfinished features into a single "build," a sort of prototype used to test how the features work together. Ideally, engineers make a fresh build every night, fix any bugs and go back to refining their features the next day. But with 4,000 engineers writing code each day, testing the build became a Sisyphean task. When a bug popped up, trouble-shooters would often have to manually search through thousands of lines of code to find the problem.

Mr. Gates's WinFS project was so troublesome that engineers began talking about whether they could make the "pig fly." Images of pigs with wings started appearing in presentations and offices.

And Microsoft's culture was facing a new threat. The mass of patches and agglomerations that made up Windows turned it into an easy target for viruses and other Web-based attacks. Mr. Allchin had to divert top engineers into the effort to fix security problems in existing versions of Windows. "The ship was just crashing to the ground," Mr. Allchin says.

In late 2003, Mr. Allchin called on the help of two men. The first was one of Microsoft's best-known "shippers," people known for their ability to turn around troubled software projects. Windows veteran Brian Valentine had a reputation for booming motivational speeches, beer bashes and stunts like showing up to work functions as Elvis, the Easter Bunny or even once a hula girl with a coconut bra.

The second man Mr. Allchin tapped was Amitabh Srivastava, now 49, a fellow purist among computer scientists. A newcomer to the Windows group, Mr. Srivastava had his team draw up a map of how Windows' pieces fit together. It was 8 feet tall and 11 feet wide and looked like a haphazard train map with hundreds of tracks crisscrossing each other.

[Amitabh Srivastava]

That was just the opposite of how Microsoft's new rivals worked. Google and others developed test versions of software and shipped them over the Internet. The best of the programs from rivals were like Lego blocks -- they had a single function and were designed to be connected onto a larger whole. Google and even Microsoft's own MSN online unit could quickly respond to changes in the way people used their PCs and the Web by adding incremental improvements.

In April 2004, Google, seemingly out of nowhere, introduced its Gmail service, competing with Microsoft's Hotmail program. Tiny Internet browser maker Mozilla Foundation beat Microsoft to market with browser features planned for Longhorn.

Most alarming: By July 2004, it became clear that Google was working on a "desktop search" tool for finding information on a PC -- offering some of the features that Mr. Gates's WinFS program was supposed to bring to Longhorn. Google, previously focused exclusively on the Internet, was now stepping onto Microsoft's turf as the creator of software inside the PC.

While Windows itself couldn't be a single module -- it had too many functions for that -- it could be designed so that Microsoft could easily plug in or pull out new features without disrupting the whole system. That was a cornerstone of a plan Messrs. Srivastava and Valentine proposed to their boss, Mr. Allchin. Microsoft would have to throw out years of computer code in Longhorn and start out with a fresh base. It would set up computers to automatically reject bug-laden code. The new Longhorn would have to be simple. It would leave bells and whistles for later -- including Mr. Gates's WinFS, Messrs. Srivastava and Allchin say.

Mr. Allchin signed on to the plan and broke the news to Messrs. Gates and Ballmer. Mr. Allchin remembers that Mr. Gates pushed him to keep going with the original version of Longhorn, saying if the software writers needed more time Microsoft could ship a scaled-down version in the interim. The executives agreed to reserve a final decision until Mr. Ballmer returned from a business trip, according to Mr. Allchin and Mr. Valentine, who was also present.

Over the next few weeks, Mr. Gates expressed frustration. At one meeting on Aug. 17, he berated Longhorn engineers for the mess, say people familiar with the meeting. (Mr. Gates says he doesn't remember it.) Afterward, Mr. Srivastava says he called his team together, acknowledging that he had underestimated the scope of the challenge they faced in fixing Longhorn, though he was heartened by the group's apparent willingness to change.

As Microsoft's chief software architect, Mr. Gates says that his role is "almost paradoxical" because he has to push for innovation while being the "ultimate realist" when problems arise on that quest. In this case, he says he and Mr. Ballmer needed to make sure that the recommendations from Mr. Allchin's group were sound.

On Aug. 27, 2004, Microsoft said it would ship Longhorn in the second half of 2006 -- at least a year late -- and that Mr. Gates's WinFS advance wouldn't be part of the system. The day before in Microsoft's auditorium, Mr. Allchin had announced to hundreds of Windows engineers that they would "reset" Longhorn using a clean base of code that had been developed for a version of Windows on corporate server computers.

As he started to learn more about Mr. Srivastava's broader plan, Mr. Gates was concerned that the unproven tools for keeping the Windows core clean would levy a "tax" on engineers -- in other words, that they would spend so much time trying to meet Mr. Srivastava's standards that they wouldn't be able to devise innovations for Windows users. At a meeting on Sept. 8, Mr. Srivastava's team was walking Mr. Gates through the plan when he challenged them. Why, he wondered, weren't the reformers asking the mass of Windows engineers for their view of the changes?

"It was all just, 'Hey, bless this process,' which I was unwilling to do," Mr. Gates says. "They're just talking about process and I'm frustrated we're not talking about how the teams are responding to it."

By late October, Mr. Srivastava's team was beginning to automate the testing that had historically been done by hand. If a feature had too many bugs, software "gates" rejected it from being used in Longhorn. If engineers had too many outstanding bugs they were tossed in "bug jail" and banned from writing new code. The goal, he says, was to get engineers to "do it right the first time."

Recognizing Mr. Gates's concerns over the impact on programmers, Mr. Srivastava hit on a plan to win their hearts and minds. On Nov. 5, he visited the computer-filled office of Dave Cutler, a revered elder statesman among Windows engineers and a stickler for good code writing. Would he publicly throw his weight behind the new approach? Mr. Srivastava asked.

On Dec. 1, Mr. Srivastava escorted Mr. Cutler to Microsoft's auditorium where the software guru told 1,000 engineers that he had used the tools to build Windows code that was nearly bug-free. That Mr. Cutler -- famous for never attending meetings -- would emerge to back Mr. Allchin's revolution helped persuade some engineers to drop their objections.

Others weren't so easily convinced. Responding to an attendee questioning the merits of the new regime, Mr. Valentine, the enforcer, shot back, "Is your code perfect? Are you perfect? If not, you should shut up and support this effort," according to one of his team members, G.S. Rana. (Mr. Valentine says he doesn't remember the remarks but doesn't dispute Mr. Rana's recollection.)

As engineers began cooperating and Mr. Srivastava's team worked overtime to refine the tools, the quality of the code flowing into Longhorn began to improve. The time to create a new "build" fell to just a few days, allowing a faster cycle of writing and testing new code. After the Windows group was able to install a workable version of the system on their PCs four days before Christmas, Mr. Srivastava says the group celebrated by not working over the holidays.

Not everything went so quickly, as engineers grappled with the challenge of making Longhorn more like Lego blocks. Microsoft missed its June deadline for the first "beta" or test version of Longhorn. On the Fourth of July Mr. Srivastava monitored the progress on his wireless laptop, set up next to his grill as he cooked veggie burgers and teriyaki chicken for family guests. Mr. Srivastava was so preoccupied with Longhorn that he inadvertently agreed to his wife's plan to remodel their bedroom. He recalls that when he protested, she joked, "You got the Windows job. I get this. It's a small price to pay."

On July 27, Microsoft shipped the beta of Longhorn -- now named Windows Vista -- to 500,000 customers for testing. Experience had told the Windows team to expect tens of thousands of reported problems from customers. Instead, there were a couple thousand problem reports, says Mr. Rana, the team member.

And last month, Microsoft delivered a test version of Mr. Gates's WinFS idea -- not as a part of Longhorn but as a planned add-on feature. Microsoft this month said it would issue monthly test versions of Windows Vista, a first for the company and a sign of the group's improved agility.

It could take years before Windows can be as flexible as Microsoft needs it to be to pump out new features quickly. But the cultural shift is in swing. Hours after showing off Windows Vista to software makers this month, Mr. Gates in an interview noted how Microsoft's Office group is now using some of Mr. Srivastava's tools to improve its code. "It's amazing the invention those guys have brought forward," he said. "I wish we'd done it earlier."

This week Mr. Allchin announced that as part of the restructuring he will retire next year after Windows Vista is in customers' hands. In a recent interview he said his demons aren't fully exorcised. "There're weaknesses in everything we're doing today," Mr. Allchin says. "But it's such a huge step up from where we were."

Write to Robert A. Guth at rob.guth@wsj.com

Sunday, September 25, 2005

new television show: Threshold

Fridays, 8 pm Central, CBS

Touted as being the best of the crop of alien shows this year, Threshold has a decidedly X-Files feel to it. But, an extraordinary premise requires extraordinary writing to give the series legs.

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The series centers around an alien signal that was first encountered with a naval ship, the Bighorn. A small team of civillian experts, headed by Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey (Carla Gugino), who wrote a series of protocols that should be followed in the event of an alien encounter. She is overseen by team member Cavennaugh (Brian Van Holt), a goverment agent who is supposed to provide the protection and who reports to J.T. Baylock (Charles S. Dutton), the Deputy National Security Advisor. Peter Dinklage plays the dry witted Arthur Ramsey, the math specialist who is also keenly interested in womanizing and drinking. Brent Spiner plays forensic microbiologist Nigel Fenway a relectant team member. Rob Benedict is astronomical engineer Lucas Pegg, a seemingly shy person.

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Dr. Caffrey and Cavennaugh

The ship contains dead, physically distorted bodies and one crazed survivor. The team finds and watches a video tape of the alien "craft", which is some type of four-dimensional device that pulsates with light and continuously folds in on itself, while emitting a sound like knives sharpening themeslves. In the lab, the mysterious fractal pattern that shows up on the ship's electronic scopes, is analyzed and reveals a triple-helix DNA pattern. The sounds from the video tape end up affecting those who are exposed to it with strange dreams about being in a glass forest.

At the end of the first episode, we discover that the sounds from the video tape, used to try to trap some of the missing shipmates, who made it to shore, ended up attracting many of the townsfolk.

Threshold occaisionally borders on the downright silly. The crazed survivor jumps off the ship and appears in Dr. Caffrey's house shortly thereafter. Before jumping, he gets shots several times, enough to kill any human or alien-controlled human. Blood congeals into the mysterious fractal pattern. The traffic jam at the end of the first episode, when see from above, has the cars in the fractal pattern. Okay, we get it! There's an intelligent alien prescence that is set to wipe out people by attempting to modify their DNA. Or maybe, wipe out certain people while making others invincible pawns of the aliens?

Episode two centered around a janitor from a military college who went bezerk in a fast food joint and then had his face implode in the bathroom. Either the alien signal reappeared in the vacinity or the man was somehow connected to the ill-fated crew aboard the Bighorn ship. Official records indicated no aircraft or other ships in the area at the time of the encounter with the Bighorn. More accurate records indicated that a plan was flying in the area. The passenger manifest is checked against the list of students and staff at the school. Through some detective work and a hunch, a match is made. The kid is visited and admits that some strange "spyware" appeared on his laptop as he was burning a CD on the flight - the fractal pattern. Back at the dorm, he had some problems with the laptop but the janitor and a few others tried to help out.

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Peter Dinklage as Dr. Arthur Ramsey

Later on it is discovered that the fractal signal doesn't affect pre-pubescents. One the older students, however, becomes infected and tries to upload the signal to the Internet, to spread it world-wide. In the end, he's captured and held in a secret prision, while his family is told that he died heroicially saving the life of a fellow student in a fire. This sort of grand lie is something that you would expect from X-Files. Something tells me we haven't seen the last of this captured but alien-infected young man.

Of course, there are lots of plot holes. How many other people aboard the flight had their laptops, ipods or other electronic devices capture the alien signal? If the older student wanted to quietly upload the signal, why didn't he just visit a cyber cafe or hi-fi hotspot in the neighborhood?

I'm still interested in watching this series since the story just continues on and on rather than neatly wrapping up with some far fetched conclusion. There appears to be a bit of romantic interest between Dr. Caffrey and Cavennaugh and I wonder if the writers will make it an unspoken mutual attraction, like what we had with Mulder and Scully.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Queensrÿche concert - Sept 23, 2005, Winnipeg, Manitoba

venue: Burton Cummings Theatre, Winnipeg, Manitoba
attendence: 800

Making their first appearance in 15 years, Queensrÿche 's first set was comprised of their "hits" (with some noticeable exceptions), followed by the Operation Mindcrime album played in its entirety, complete with actors and footage on the big screen. Notable tracks played included "Take Hold of the Flame","Walk In The Shadows", "Jet City Woman", the massive hit "Silent Lucidity", "Empire", "The Whisper", " Last Time In Paris" and a few others.

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Geoff Tate

Singer Geoff Tate was very intense and used his instantly identifiable operatic voice to its full potential. During intermission, as we queued for the bathroom, I overhead guys discussing how wowed their were with Tate's voice

The second set began with what appeared to be a fan taking to the stage and ranting away, and then being acosted by security. One of the bouncers on the floor lept onto the stage to stop this guy, who turned out to be the actor portraying Nicky, one of the main characters from the Operation Mindcrime album. The story behind Operation Mindcrime involves a mysterious and brilliant geneticist, Dr. X, who develops a compound that he tries to sell to the military for mind control purposes. He experiments on junkies like Nicky. Nicky meets up with and falls in love with one Dr. X's former patients, Sister Mary, a nurse who used to be a junkie and prostitute, but Mary gets killed off. We finally get to see who killed Mary. I've never seen a concept album performed live by any band, let alone a metal band, and I have never seen a band live perform with actors. It caught my attention, although I was happy when it was over. More music and less acting, guys!

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Scott Rockenfield

At the end of the show, some people were moaning about how they weren't into the dramatics and wanted to hear more of the superb old material instead of all of Operation Mindscrime. The band are currently recording Operation Mindcrime II, due out in February. You've got to wonder if they are running out of ideas to cause them to milk a concept that is about 17 years old now. Tracks that I would have enjoyed seeing live from the "hits" opening half of the show include "En Force", "Screaming In Digital", "I Dream In Infrared", "Surgical Strike", "Screaming In Digital", "I Will Remember", "Deliverance", "No Sanctuary", "NM 156", "Before The Storm", and "Queen of the Ryche."

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Sitting in the fourth row, I had a great view. My ear plugs weren't fully inserted but I was glad I had them. While not virtuosos, the musicians in Queensrÿche have such well-crafted and complex but not overly-so material that I had no complaints whatsoever about the playing. The songs I knew were outstanding while the couple that I didn't know didn't strike me as being anything special.

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Eddie Jackson

The roar of approval from the audience at the end was deafening, but like on all their tour dates, they played a promo video with the new song "Hostage" from their upcoming album instead of playing an encore. This disappointed me and no doubt many others.

I always try to buy a t-shirt but they had either 3X size option, which would comfortably fit a 350lb person or some other incredibly lame shirt. There's no way fans should be expected to pay anything for t-shirts with really poor graphics. I opted not to buy a shirt.

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Michael Wilton and Mike Stone

When they are firing on all four cylinders, Queensrÿche are like fast and intricate rolling thunder. This was one of the most intense and enjoyable metal shows that I have seen in a long while. At the end of show, I was almost tackled by some guy behind me, as he saw a drum stick flying right for me. I didn't see it until the last moment when I almost fell over and it magically disappeared on the floor. I also ran into one of my co-workers who probably suffered through the second half, not recognizing anything, even though I played the Operation Mindcrime album practically non-stop at the office today and her office is right beside mine.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

new television show: Invasion

Wednesdays, 9 PM on ABC


A huge storms hits a town in Florida, wreaking havoc and firing up the imagination of Dave, a Jack Black look-alike conspiracy theorist, who appears to play an important but secondary role in this two-family drama. Maybe his character will become the focus of the show.

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Russell Varon is a park ranger, who lives with his television journalist wife, brother Dave (the perpetually beer guzling and unemployed loafer conspiracy nut played by Tyler Labine) and two kids from his previous marriage. His ex-wife Mariel(Kari Matchett) is a doctor who is married to the creepy sherrif Tom Underlay, played to the hilt by William Fichtner.

After the night of the during the storm, the ranger's young daughter goes missing and witnesses "many lights falling into the water." No one pays any attention to her, save for Dave. Both a priest and Mariel go missing during the storm but are later found, naked but without a scratch. Dave heads out onto the everglades looking for aliens and comes across some mysterious wreakage and later a skeleton! He resists turning it into the police since he thinks the authorities, inlcuding the military, will cover it up.

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Tyler Labine

The Dave character is mildly amusing, but the entire show is hopelessly predictable. When Dave and Russell are out on the water, checking out some mysterious, swimming luminescent creature, you just know they will lean over the edge the boat and get pulled into the water for a close encounter. After several seconds, of course, right on cue, they burst through the surface.

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William Fichtner

William Fichtner was born to act as a creep. Witness his performace in 1999's Go. Apart from him and Tyler Labine, the cast are unexceptional. Created by Shaun Cassidy, I don't expect Invasion to make it to the next season. Still, the show should draw in some viewers looking for a continuosly unfolding drama.

new television show: E-Ring

Wednesdays, 8 PM on NBC
2/ 5

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There are five rings that comprise the Pentagon but the most important one is the outer one, the E-ring.

In this new series, created by David McKenna and Ken Robinson, and executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Benjamin Bratt portrays Major Jim Tinewski, new to the Pentagon, who brings fresh thinking and heart to the cold, calculating world of upper echelon military politics. His foils are Dennis Hopper as Col. McNulty and Aunjanue Ellis as Sgt Pierce. McNulty is, of course, crusty and has his own rebelious streak. Sgt Pierce is a humourless, uptight lifesaver who knows all the bureaucratic hoops and procedures that need to be met. Naturally, as it just so happens, Maj Tinewski's main squeeze works for the CIA and is able to unofficially give him feedback and advice, totally off the record and against her better judgement. Joe Morton (Terminator 2) shows up as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Ops, Steven Algazi.

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The pilot, Snatch and Grab, featured a Chinese operative on the run, apparently with some very important intelligence. She's trying to escape the authorities but her CIA handlers don't know if they can get her safely out. The problem invovles a US Navy rescue mission being detected by the Chinese and possibly being interpreted as a first strike.

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Episode two suffers from the usual problems of having a big problem with potentially deadly stakes, some huge hurdles to climb over in order to get permission to implement the plan and finally a neatly packaged resolution with a little of the good guys' blood shed for a little extra drama. The Major tasks his old unit, ready to head home, to stick around for a couple of more days to snatch an Arab terrorist planner. Totally predictable. E-ring is like a Tom Clancy movie squished into
an hour. The gee-whiz high-tech graphics and secret military infrastructure only carry the show so far, which is not far at all, actually. The dialogue in this episode in once again incredibly cheesy and patriotic. This is the kind of media that Team America: World Police spoofs.

At 69, Dennis Hopper looks too old to be in the military, but I suppose they wanted someone in the show with a profile the public would recognize. He goes through the motions and more of a sterotype than a well-rounded character. Benjamin Bratt was very good as someone with a heart but also the guts to take the initiative. Bratt's star will rise with this show, although I don't know if it will last as the audience will be exhasted by "mission impossible" episodes that neatly wrap up in one hour. They would have a much more interesting show if stories would span multiple episodes and hold our attention with intelligent writing. Unfortunately, large mainstream audiences probably wouldn't have the attention span needed.

Co-creator Ken Robinson is a former Green Beret and has consulted for CNN. Can he inject some intrigue into this otherwise cheesy drama? Time will tell. Veteran filmmaker Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer And A Gentleman), directed the pilot.

Monday, September 12, 2005

CD - The Mixed Media Series Basquiat Salutes Jazz

5 /5

The Mixed Media Series Basquiat Salutes Jazz
Prestige PRCD-11031-2
running time 72:12
released August 30, 2005

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988) was a celebrated NY painter who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Beginning as a graffiti artist at the age of 17, spray painting subways cars and buildings, and using that foundation as he developed his output into avante-garde paintings, Basquiat (pronounced "BAS-KEE-AH"), became internationally known before he was 25. He only pained for 8 years, but during that time, he was in the spotlight. He became friends with Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987) in 1983 until Warhol’s death. He was quite a paranoid and dated Madonna before she was famous. He was the subject of the 1996 film, Basquiat, which starred David Bowie, Benico Del Toro, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Walken, among others.

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He found inspiration in jazz and this CD is a compilation put together, with the input of his father, of several of the bebop musicians who influenced Basquiat’s paintings.

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From the 1964 Miles Davis album Blue Haze, the first track, “I’ll Remember April,” leads off the Basquiat Salutes Jazz. Written by Gene De Paul, Patricia Johnston, and Don Raye, this is one of Miles Davis’ most instantly recognizable tracks and for a recording that’s over 40 years old, it sounds great. Don Raye was also known for his composition, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which became a hit by the Andrew Sisters.

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Charlie Parker

The legendary The Quintet: Jazz At Massey Hall is sampled for the Gillespie-Clarke classic, “Salt Peanuts.” Recorded in May, 1953, in Toronto’s Massey Hall, this album brought together giants trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (1917- 1993), Charlie Parker (1920 – 1955) on alto sax, Bud Powell (1924 – 1966) on piano, Charles Mingus (1922- 1979) on bass and drummer Max Roach (1924.) The sound quality is not first rate, considering it was recorded over the venue’s mediocre PA system, but it has been remastered as a 20-bit A/D digital conversion and no doubt sounds better than ever. If you’ve never heard this sparkling, playful tune, you’re in for a treat. I heard it live with Paquito D'Riverra and it’s a delight.

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Dizzy Gillespie

From the 1956 Sonny Rollins’ album Plus Four, “Kiss and Run” is an memorable example of a bebop quintet in full flight. Featuring Richie Powell (1931 – 1956) on piano, George Morrow on bass, Max Roach, once again, on drums, the brilliant trumpeter Clifford Brown (1930- 1956) and Rollins (1930) on tenor sax, this track has a common theme around which each of the players solo like nobody’s business.

Charlie’s Parker’s Billie’s Bounce is one of the most covered numbers in all of jazz and this version features Red Garland (1923 – 1984) on piano, John Coltrane (1926 – 1967) on tenor sax, Donald Byrd (1932) on trumpet, George Joyner on bass and Arthur Taylor on drums. Recorded in 1957, two years after Parker’s death, it’s from the album Red Garland Quintet with John Coltrane: Dig It!

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Max Roach

The quality of the CD’s other tracks make this a suitable introduction to bebop for the casual listener. Some of the other prominent musicians who appear include pianist Thelonious Monk (1917 – 1982), drummer Roy Haynes (1925), drummer Art Blakey (1919 – 1990), trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (1938), saxophonist Wayne Shorter (1923), saxophonist Sonny Stitt (1924 – 1982), guitarist Joe Pass (1929 – 1994), and bassist Ray Brown (1926 – 2002.)

1. MILES DAVIS—I’ll Remember April 7:57
3. SONNY ROLLINS—Kiss and Run 7:10
5. SONNY STITT—Cherokee 2:33
6. THELONIOUS MONK QUARTET—’Round Midnight 6:16
7. MAX ROACH—It’s You or No One 4:15
9. DIZZY GILLESPIE—Be Bop (Dizzy’s Fingers) 4:31
10. CHARLES MINGUS QUARTET—Haitian Fight Song 5:27
11. FATS NAVARRO featured with TADD DAMERON BAND—Anthropology (No. 1) 3:42
12. CHARLIE PARKER—Ornithology 3:30

Definitely visit Basquiatsalutesjazz.com to hear the album.

Also read Gregg Guestchow's Blogcritics.org review of the same CD here.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Best of Youth, Part 2

5 /5

The Best of Youth, Part 2 (La Meglio gioventu)

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Alessio Boni

This is the 3-hour conclusion to the six-hour Italian family epic, The Best of Youth (La Meglio Gioventu.) The first part focused on the two brothers and how they each took different paths in life and how they each coped with big historical events in Italy, over the past 30 years, being brought together for these events, inextricably. One brother, the quiet and brooding Matteo (Alessio Boni), failed to make it in university and gravitated towards the military, and law enforcement, being drawn by rules and discipline. The other brother, the free spirited Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio), headed off alone to Norway after his travelling companions failed to accompany him. He worked in a saw mill, and on the verge of falling in love, headed back to Italy to help out with the 1966 floods in Florence. Matteo meets someone there who plays a huge role later on in the second film for both him and his brother. Nicola, a psychiatrist, also ended up having a family with a beautiful young piano player/ student activist (Sonia Bergamasco) whose piano and motherhood responsibilities get put on the backburner for more extreme subversive activities that come to a head in the second part.

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Luigi Lo Cascio

Part 2 focuses less on the two brothers and more on the surrounding characters, some of whom played very small roles in the first film, but who spring to prominence in Part 2. You really need to see Part 1 to get the most out of Part 2. A chance meeting in a library reunites Matteo and someone he met briefly years earlier (Maya Sansa). This event is the cornerstone event of the second film and without it, we wouldn't have the tantalizing, unfolding events that make this film such an engrossing story.

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Maya Sansa

There is tragedy, and heartbreak, infatuation that blossoms to head over heels love and everything in between. You feel like you are member of an extended family and get to witness the reality of family dynamics in the late 80s/ early 90s.

Winner of 18 awards, director Marco Tullio Giordana's film won the Jury Prize, Un Certain Regard, at Cannes in 2003. Again, I can't wait to buy this on DVD, but for the moment, it doesn't appear to be available anywhere. Not everyone can sit through a 6-hour film, even if it is split into two parts. But, if you are a film connoisseur and are willing to see something that feels like an epic novel in scope, you have to see this film. It's not a strange indie or cult film, it's just long.

The Best of Youth official site.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Review - Lee Ritenour – Overtime CD

Lee Ritenour – Overtime CD
Peak Records PKD-8531-2
released June 7. 2005

One of the best known jazz guitarists in the world, Lee Ritenour has released a live in-studio DVD and companion CD, which attempts to summarize his career by paying tribute to some of his major influences, and covering genres that he’s recorded in, including fusion, straight ahead, Brazil-influenced and contemporary jazz. Of course, it’s not really possible to provide fans with a single-disc live retrospective CD of a 30-year recording career. The DVD is 150 minutes long and features 19 tracks. The 74 minute CD can best be seen as an introduction to Lee Ritenour live with some of his favorite collaborators.

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"This project was a celebration- a look back and a look forward at my music from the 70's to now," notes Ritenour, who spent the better part of 2004 working overtime to choose the music, write new arrangements, organize the recording sessions, and coordinate the participation of top-line players for the set. "There's some new material on the CD and of course there's a reconstruction of a lot of the classic material that I've been associated with for these past three or four decades."

The 13 track CD ended up being a mixed bag, however. Some of the tracks smoke with deft playing, tension, and challenge and compel me to listen again and again. The other half, funky jazz fusion, just don’t hold my interest and sound like bloodless instrumentals - sonic wallpaper. But, as an overview of Ritenour’s career, it’s an honest representation.

There's a gorgeous rendition of the classic Miles Davis composition, "Blue In Green," (from 1959's Kind of Blue) featuring label mate Dave Grusin on piano.

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"She Walks This Earth" (also covered by Sting) written by Brazillians Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins, features Lins on vocals and if you listen to the lyrics, it's almost an update of "The Girl From Ipanema."

The delicious trumpet playing by Chris Botti is featured on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, the Sly and the Family Stone song.

The playing on the funkier tracks is first-rate. Listen to the prominent bass soloing on "Night Rhythms" by Melvin Davis. He and tenor saxophonist Eric Marienthal (a well known band leader in his own right) steal the show.

The final track, "Is It You," is superb smooth jazz with Kenya Hathaway and Grady Harrell on vocals. I usually don’t go for the smooth stuff, but this is a gorgeous R’n’B semi-ballad.

Ritenour’s faultless guitar shines throughout the CD. His playing is distortion free, nimble and reminiscent of Wes Montgomery. In a nutshell, he is a jazz guitar perfectionist. Unfortunately, I have usually found funky jazz fusion and smooth jazz just not challenging enough to listen to as anything other than background music. I tend to prefer players who tend to grit things up more with reckless abandon, like Mike Stern.

01. Boss City (Wes Montgomery) 5:49
02. Blue In Green (Miles Davis) 9:15
03. Ocean Ave. (Lee Ritenour) 4:30
04. She Walks This Earth (Ivan Lins, Vitor Martins) 5:01
05. Sugerloaf Express (Lee Ritenour) 5:14
06. Possibilities (Kenya Hathaway) 4:39
07. Papa Was A Rolling Stone (Barrett Strong & Norman Jess Whitfield) 6:53
08. Morning Glory (Lee Ritenour & Bill Champlin) 5:44
09. Captain Fingers (Lee Ritenour) 7:29
10. P.A.L.S. (Lee Ritenour) 3:47
11. Night Rhythms (Lee Ritenour) 5:57
12. Lil' Bumpin (Lee Ritenour) 5:00
13. Is It You? (Lee Ritenour, Eric Tagg & Bill Champlin) 4:30

Read Warren Kelly's Blogcritics review of the Overtime DVD.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

DVD review - The Moody Blues Live at Montreaux 1991

2.5 / 5

The Moody Blues Live at Montreaux 1991
released: May 31, 2005
Eagle Eye Media
running time: 96 minutes

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Formed in 1964, the Moody Blues are one of the most respected and longest running psychedelic pop bands around. Sure, they have pretty much long abandoned making anything resembling psychedelic music decades ago, but they still play the old hits that brought them to world wide attention. The newer tunes, however, show that the Moodies became a pleaseant adult contemporary band.

For Moodies completests, this DVD is a must-have. For the casual fans, however, this isn't their definitive concert DVD. Filmed seven years before DVDs were sprung on the consumer market, the footage isn't as sharp as you would expect. Further proof that this is more of a "budget" DVD is the complete lack of extra features. No interviews or additional footage. Despite having a large catalogue of albums, there are only a paltry 15 songs here! They should have augmented the DVD with tracks from another show. Live, the Moody Blues are pleaseant but not all that exciting or dynamic.

On the plus side, you can really enjoy the DVD if you play it on the tube while surfing the Internet, reading your e-mails, etc. The songs were obviously well received by the Montreaux audience, including the new material. The newer songs are good for what they are trying to be, middle of the road pop, and usually have delicate but tasty guitar solos. Of course, a lot of people will find the newer material utterly boring. Like so many veteran bands, the Moody Blues exist to tour and play mostly classic tracks for the fans. They are a bona fide nostaligia act who would not have an easy go of it were they a new band starting out with their recent geriatric, adult contemporary offerings. They still record new albums, but they don't sell as well as the olders ones did.

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The livelier tracks caught my attention the most: "The Story in Your Eyes," "I'm Just A Singer (In A Rock and Roll Band)," "Ride My See-Saw," "Gemini Dream," and "Question." In the 80s, they captured new listeners with the album The Other Side of Life and it's hit title track and the upbeat song "Wildest Dreams." Of course, some people accused them of selling out, but they were able to turn new fans onto their ledgendary back catalogue. I definitely know people who had never listened to a Moodies album before, snap up The Other Side of Life, due to all the airplay it received. "Lean On Me (Tonight)" has a subtle reggae feel to it and some tasty guitar playing that barely saves it from being soft rock dreck. Sung by bassist John Lodge, the recording here is noticeably terrible! Not something you would expect from a DVD.

The Moody Blues deserve a well-documented, richly photographed, concert DVD, with a lot more songs. This isn't it. I haven't seen the Red Rocks DVD for comparision, unfortunately.

01. "Lovely To See You" (On A Threshold Of A Dream, 1969)
02. "Gemini Dream" (Long Distance Voyager, 1981)
03. "Tuesday Afternoon" (Days of Future Passed, 1967)
04. "Bless The Wings (That Bring You Back)" (Keys Of The Kingdom, 1991)
05. "Lean On Me (Tonight)"(Keys Of The Kingdom, 1991)
06. "Say It With Love" (Keys Of The Kingdom, 1991)
07. "The Story In Your Eyes" (Every Good Boy Deserves A Favour, 1971)
08. "Your Wildest Dreams" (The Other Side of Life, 1986)
09. "Isn’t Life Strange" (The Seventh Sojurn, 1972)
10. "The Other Side Of Life" (The Other Side of Life, 1986)
11. "I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock & Roll Band)" (The Seventh Sojurn, 1972)
12. "Nights In White Satin" (Days of Future Passed, 1967)
13. "Legend Of A Mind (Timothy Leary)" (In Search Of The Lost Chord, 1968)
14. "Question" (A Question Of Balance, 1970)
15. "Ride My See-Saw" (In Search Of The Lost Chord, 1968)

Some random notes.
Boyish looking Justin Hayward, sported a puffy pirate shirt (Seinfeld!) Drummer Graeme Edge resembled Jerry Garcia. There was a second drummer in the form of Gordon Marshall. Bassist/ vocalist John Lodge and Justin Hayward looked remarkably well preserved. The light show was completely unspectacular. There is a lack of sophisticated camera angles. It appears as if no camera cranes were used. Justin Hayward is one of the few lead singers who doubles as lead guitarist and he manages to hold his own. He won't be compared to Jeff Beck or anyone like that, but he bends the right notes without overdoing it.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

review - The Best of Youth

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Winner of the Jury prize at the Cannes film festival and recipient of glowing reviews everywhere, I decided to take in this Italian family saga over much more flashy fare like Transporter 2, The Cave, A Sound of Thunder, The Dukes of Hazzard, etc. Was I happy with my choice? Absolutely.

The Best of Youth, Part 1, is a three hour epic, based on the lives of Matteo and Nicola Carati, two brothers who we first meet in 1966. Matteo works in an aylum and becomes smitten with a beautiful young patient, Giorgia. He shows his medical student brother photos that he took of her and they discover scars, most likely from excessive eletro-shock therapy. Concerned for her well being, they sneak her out and go on a road trip to find her father. This alone could make for an interesting film, but in the scope of his epic, it's only a small part.

Matteo and Nicola were supposed to meet up with some friends to travel to Norway. After freeing Giorgia from the asylum, they become side tracked and go their separate ways...Nicola the free sprit, to Norway, Matteo, the brooding introspect, back to Rome.

When we first see Matteo, he looks like David Cassidy from the Partridge Family, except with shorter hair. In most of the scenes, he seems to be dark and mysterious, with a wicked temper. It's as if something is constantly eating away at him and he's unable to find peace. He's attracted to the military and the becomes a Riot Policeman, because he loves rules and order. Even as a policeman, his constantly simmering anger gets him in hot water. Nicola, in contrast, is more easy going, and leans more to the left. His life isn't care-free, though. He becomes married to an activist university student, who seems to dislike being a mother and is clearly preoccupied, behind her husband's back, with intense leftist politics and activities...

We see big events that shape the history of Italy from the 60s onwards and how our two main characters are involved, affected and react differently. After the brothers went their separate ways, we see the floods of Flroence from the 60's, students rioting and fighting police, the terrorist group the Red Brigade, etc. This is only Part 1. Part 2 shows at Cinemateque later in September.

Director Marco Tullio Giordana has scored a home run. Had this been a US film, this would easily be talked about as Oscar material. You are constantly watching to see what will happen next and unlike most mainstream Hollywood fare, you get a sense that you are watching a story unfold and want to see where it is going. Most Hollywood films can be figured out within the first hour, if not eariier.

There are no stars who I recognize, but if anything, that's one less distraction. The acting is first rate. The audience appeared to be mostly older folks, possibly of Italian heritage. They laughed a lot at the unique Italian mannerisms and dialogue but this film definitely has a universal appeal. They also applauded at the end.

This is a very watchable film and I look forward to seeing Part 2, and then buying the whole thing on DVD someday. Easily in my top ten films of the year.

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