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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Fun Countries
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Yes, I'm in Las Vegas this week. This is my third consecutive post using the town as a content hook (I'm pretty busy and have to dash off what's convenient to write about). Worse, I've been snapping low-res digital photos suitable for blog posting, so beware! -- more might be coming. Yesterday evening my wife mentioned that there were no German-themed casinos in Vegas. Hmm. None for Scandinavia. Or Russia, Poland, Belarus, Latvia, Rumania, Senegal, Paraguay and Korea. Not to mention a lot of other places shunned by the corporate bettors wagering hundreds of millions to create a three-thousand room hotel attached to a casino and shopping area. Seeing as how Las Vegas bills itself as a "fun" town (to distill the various advertised elements to the nub), it might be interesting to note the theme locales that are intended to appeal to Americans and tourists from all over the world. To simplify, I'll pretty much restrict my survey to (1) large Strip casinos that (2) I'm somewhat familiar with and that (3) have an identifiable theme. (Some casinos are gamblin' joints, pure and simple. The large Bally's on the Strip as well as nearby Harrah's fit that category.) Perhaps the most common theme is "tropical" -- Vegas is in a desert, after all, and water seems like a nice thing there. So we find Mandalay Bay. It has a (pay-to-see) aquarium and some Southeast Asian decor here and there, but essentially theming is downplayed. The Mirage has lots of palm trees and such, so I suppose it's a desert oasis despite the fact that it has a "volcano" that "erupts" to a schedule. Treasure Island has a Caribbean Pirates theme. Then there are historical/classical themed casinos. Luxor is in the shape of a pyramid and there are lots of ancient Egyptian touches including statues and a sphinx. Caesar's Palace is Imperial Roman. Excalibur has a King Arthur sort of storybook theme. This hotel-casino seeks the family demographic. Getting more place-specific we find Bellagio -- Lake Como villa themed, and my fave. Also Italian is The Venetian, reproducing Venice to the point of including canals, gondolas and singing gondoliers. Under construction is a huge extension that should also have an Italian theme. Paris recreates Parisian bits, including a half-size Eiffel Tower. The Tour d'Eiffel supposedly was to have been full-scale, but had to be stunted because of the proximity of the Strip to the airport. Otherwise, there is New York - New York. What else -- from Hudson Street to Central Park via Radio City. MGM Grand is a mammoth place that used to be Hollywood themed, but that is disappearing refurbishment-by-refurbishment. Aladdin is North Africa - Middle East, as the name suggests. Its shopping mall is decked out as a flashy north African street or souk. Wynn, the latest huge casino/hotel, is simply luxurious. Off-Strip are the Rio (I find little that seems South American) and The Orleans (New Orleans, that is), Other... posted by Donald at November 25, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, November 24, 2006

How's Your Pitch Perception Ability?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have Lake Woebegone ears: I scored 72 on this fun test, a couple of points above normal. Trying to remember and compare musical phrases is kind of absorbing, isn't it? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 24, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Sexy Movies Cheap
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Eva and playmates Amazon is currently selling Bertolucci's Paris-in-'68, movies-and-sex reverie "The Dreamers" for $4.97. $4.97!! Now that's a steal and a half. M. Blowhard verdict on the movie: Not really very good but sexy and enjoyable anyway, as well as an effective mood-setter. Must-see viewing as well for Eva Green fans. Jolie and Mitchell share a vibe I see that Amazon has also put the unrated version of "Gia" -- the 1998 HBO biopic about a coke-snorting, edgy model -- on sale, in this case for $7.47. This is the film that made Angelina Jolie's reputation, and there's no denying her power or her impact. Overflashily directed, but with a shrewd script co-written by Jay McInerny, and full of gutsy performances in addition to Jolie's. I've wondered what has become of Elizabeth Mitchell, for instance, who gave a daring performance as Gia's mustn't-go-there / can't-resist-going-there girlfriend. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 24, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

A Film Canon?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Those who like bickering over canons should enjoy Paul Schrader's reflections about movie greatness, as well as his readers' responses. Schrader responds to his readers here. Me, I'm temperamentally averse to canon-warfare except when it's conducted in the most lighthearted kind of way. Where this particular discussion was concerned, I found myself rooting for David Chute's reaction: "I've never been this kind of critic, the kind who hands down value judgments from on high. In fact my career has probably been hampered by (among other things) my underlying 'who the hell am I?' frame of mind." I did some musing of my own about the greatness thang long ago. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 24, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Daniel Green takes issue with my recent posting about Gold Medal Books. * Insects are weird. * The Onion's A.V. Club movie critics come up with a smart and smartly-annotated list of movie flops that are nonetheless worth watching. * Rick Darby thinks that our elites have turned against us. * Target is marketing some very interesting fashions these days. * Seska recalls a few first times. (NSFW) * Peckinpah-buff alert: Amazon's current price on the DVD of the reconstructed "Major Dundee" is $7.49! * Seattle lefty John Moe dares to spend time in the GOP heartland. "I met a ton of nice people there," he reports. "They were warmer and more welcoming than most big-city Democrats." * Clark Stooksbury volunteers the names of some people we'd do well to ignore on the subject of Iraq. * Michael Bierut recalls growing up in a suburban "snout house." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 24, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

DVD Journal: "MPD Psycho"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Takashi Miike's Japanese cop show "MPD Psycho" is the most mind-bending TV series that I've watched since "Twin Peaks." On the literal level, it's a crime drama along the lines of "CSI": cops, murders, investigations, up-to-date visuals ... But that's where the similarity ends. Miike's show, adapted from a popular manga, is anything but slick and banal. Instead, it's a visionary, five-minutes-in-the-future, low-budget freakout that rolls together cellphones, reality TV, grotesquely beautiful murders, soul teletransportation, dream logic, touches of animation, dementedly commmitted performances, fakey but beautiful video effects, mind-reading, a barrage of inspired style choices, and poetic ultraviolence that'll make you gasp. I'm not at all sure I understood what was going on onscreen, but I was beyond-riveted anyway. Miike's got the best antennae in the movie business, IMHO. He's also a fireball of talent who seems determined to use moviemaking as a form of self-immolation. I don't know what he's on, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear tomorrow that he's turned into a cold lump of cinders. Yet what a show he's been putting on for the past 12 years. His films haven't all been fully successful, god knows. But The Wife and I haven't watched one yet that didn't strike us as crazily audacious, in an exciting way. When we watch his movies together, we sometimes dare to use the word "genius." I wrote a bit about Miike's wild-ass yakuza thriller "Dead or Alive" here. Those curious to sample Miike's movies might want to start with the insanely-brilliant "Ichi the Killer" or the quietly terrifying "Audition." I've written postings about a few other burn-it-all-up / rip-it-down / die-laughing artists too: Townes Van Zandt and Shane MacGowan. Where do these creatures come from? I wrote about some other X-treme movies here and here and here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 24, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've been enjoying the Terry Jones TV series "Barbarian Lives," currently in rotation on the History International cable network. It's a multipart look at the people whom the Romans regarded as uncivilized barbarians: the Goths, the Germans, the Celts ... Jones, a former Monty Python team-member, wrote the shows and hosts them, and he's a terrific presenter of intellectual entertainment. He travels to spots that were important to the barbarians, and he prowls around Rome. He yaks with historians and archaeologists, and he makes superb use of maps and graphics. And he goofs and mugs in ways that I find both respectful of the material and entertainingly endearing. Highly recommended. The gist of the series is that we've been the victims of very effective Roman (and pro-Roman) propaganda. Jones wants us to see that the barbarians were much more civilized than we've been led to believe and that the Romans were much more barbaric. Being anything but a scholar of ancient history, I have nothing to add to what Jones says, and no way to judge how valid his argument is. Is the case he's making a worthwhile corrective to the usual? Or is he trying to put one over on the unsuspecting among us? In any case, I'm certainly looking forward to the episodes I haven't yet gotten around to. What the series has mainly left me musing about, though, is the question: How much is the U.S. like the Roman Empire? Or, more usefully asked, I hope: In what ways does the U.S. resemble the Roman Empire? In what ways are we different? In what ways is the comparison enlightening and helpful, and in what ways does it mislead? How legit is the comparison at all? I'm obviously the zillionth person to be struck by similarities between Rome and the U.S., and it's quite possible that Jones is doing what he can to plant the question in the viewer's mind. Maybe he has an agenda, and maybe I'm a rube to fall for it. Still: our preference for engineering over aesthetics ... Our unstoppable, too-often-unquestioned commercial drive ... Our love of bread and circuses ... The way we debate noble and stirring ideals while our leaders actually attend to raw power grabs ... Our bully-baby touchiness ... Our assumption that everyone really ought to be, or at least wants to be, an American ... Our conviction that we're the center of the world ... It isn't as though it's strange for the question to arise in a person's mind, is it? So: America equals Rome? Yes? No? An enlightening comparison to think about? A question not really worth asking? Friedrich von Blowhard volunteered some substantial thinking about Rome here. I'm looking forward to getting around to this lecture series about Rome and the barbarians from the Teaching Company's excellent Kenneth Harl. (Wait for the package to go on sale before clicking the buy button. On sale, its price will be about 1/3... posted by Michael at November 24, 2006 | perma-link | (17) comments

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Retro People
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards: Broadway, thy name is Revival. And Las Vegas, thy name is Retro People. Show biz people. Dead ones, in many cases. Okay, I probably should have used the word "impressionist" or the word "impersonator" because it's that genre. Or perhaps not: it's not just some guy who's part of the evening's bill doing a minute of Jimmy Stewart and then a snippet of some other personality. Here in Vegas, they have whole shows built around impersonators sticking with one character. For example, two years ago I saw a Rat Pack show where guys did an hour and twenty minutes of Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis. (The Sinatra impersonator was pretty close, as was the guy doing Sammy -- though he was Hispanic, not Black.) That show is still playing. Skimming a Vegas entertainment magazine on my table I see the following other impersonation-based ("Tribute") shows: Neil Diamond (yes, he's still alive), a Frank Sinatra-Barbra Streisand concert (half alive), the Beatles (another halfie), Bobby Darin - Garth Brooks - Sting - Britney Spears - The Temptations - Elvis (more alive than dead), Liberace (defunct) plus the aforesaid Rat Pack. I'm not normally one to draw sweeping sociocultural conclusions from stuff like this. It might simply be targeting older audiences. Possibly it has to do with shallowness of current show business. Or maybe it's because such shows are easy to set up -- no new material to develop. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 22, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Robert Altman
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was very sorry to learn that the film director Robert Altman has died of complications from cancer at the age of 81. Only last month he'd been able to attend a tribute in the Hamptons. Of all the people in the arts whose lives have overlapped mine, I've felt closer to Robert Altman (and to Pauline Kael) than to anyone else. Although I met him a couple of times, I never really got to know him. Far from it; I was just a lucky fan. But I was quite a fan. In fact, I'm one of those X-treme Altman nutcases you sometimes run into. The Altman doofus in this hilarious Onion piece, the one who's reminded by everything of an Altman film? That might have been me. Altman's early movies "M*A*S*H" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" turned me into a film buff; loving movies led me to explore the arts more generally. Whatever shape my life has taken on has been because of my love of the arts. The Wife -- flighty, goofily overpassionate, very L.A., and physically a blend of Sally Kellerman and Daryl Hannah -- is herself like something out of an Altman movie. You should have seen him light up when he set eyes on her! I even married an Altman woman. Where the arts and the bohemian life go, Altman and Kael were my guides, even my surrogate parents. Nothing special about this: I suspect that they played this role in many thousands of people's lives. Still, I've sometimes wondered what kind of life I'd have led had I not early on encountered those two Altman movies, and had I not read what Kael wrote about them. It certainly would have been a very different affair. I've loved many Altman films with a special fervor. For all their facetiousness, their bleariness, and their fleeting casualness, they seemed to me to have a resonant poetic texture -- to connect with, or evoke, or represent a level of existence where dream, fantasy, and daily life all intermingle. I suppose that what I'm describing was nothing more than an illusion that I experienced. But, hey, this is the arts. The feelings and the sensations that Altman's movies elicited in me were very real, and in the arts it's the experience that finally stays with you when everything else washes away. Altman's movies delivered many of the experiences that I've valued most in my culture-going life. Robert Altman's career was as long and as productive as any American movie director's (possible exception: John Huston). And, IMHO of course, he created as many art-entertainment triumphs as any other filmmaker too. While the Boomer movie directors nearly all burned out young, Altman had several slumps and numerous comebacks. He must have been a freak of nature in terms of resilience, energy, and stamina. While many film directors quit, exhausted, by 60, he continued creating rich experiences into his 80s -- and he did so despite... posted by Michael at November 22, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

More on Eating
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- As far as Marion Nestle is concerned, the staying-not-fat problem is easily solved: "Eat less, move more, and eat your fruits and vegetables. It isn't any more complicated than that." So why do many people have such a lot of trouble with their weight? Brian Wansink has some thoughts about why we often eat more than we intend to. One of his findings: People eat 14 percent more of foods that are labeled "low-fat" than their full-fat counterparts. Wansink offers some eating strategies to help you survive the holidays here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 22, 2006 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

But Will They Ever Be White Enough?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Teeth-whitening is now the country's most requested cosmetic procedure, reports MSNBC's Diane Mapes. I wasn't entirely surprised to learn this fact. The radioactive-teeth epidemic of the last few years has left my own smile looking dingy -- nicotine-stained, despite the fact that I don't smoke. The success of the teeth-whitening industry has left me feeling like an old house in bad need of a fresh paint job. The demand for whitening continues to grow rapidly despite the fact that bleaching procedures can lead to hypersensitivity and even, in some cases, to a need for reparative root-canal work. One woman who overdid her treatment found six months later that her teeth had turned semi-transparent. "I thought if a little bleach is good, a lot must be really good," she told Mapes. "But it's not that way. Your teeth will never be porcelain white, like your toilet." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 21, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Amateur Gourmet falls hard for truffles -- and incidentally makes every visiting blogger dream about how cool it would be to do blog-postings in the form of fumetti, aka photo-comics. More on fumetti, a nifty popular art form, here. Comic Life -- the loads-of-fun, Mac-only software that the Amateur Gourmet used to create his blog posting -- can be bought here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 21, 2006 | perma-link | (0) comments

Bond Figures
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Is the Bond franchise the most financially successful one in fiction history? The Times of London estimates that Bond, James Bond has generated $10 billion in revenue. Question for the day: How many contemporary-fiction classes spend any time at all on Ian Fleming? Wouldn't you think a publishing phenomenon on this scale would merit a few moments of attention? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 21, 2006 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, November 20, 2006

Charles Williams
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The reason I was thinking of Gold Medal Books last week was that I'd recently read two novels by the Gold Medal suspense specialist Charles Williams: "The Hot Spot" (source material for the sexy and seedy smalltown Texas noir by Dennis Hopper) and "Dead Calm," a sailboat thriller that was turned into an early Nicole Kidman movie. I loved 'em both. A Texas-born high-school dropout, Williams knocked around a lot as a young man: Merchant Marines, electronics inspector, etc. He didn't publish his first novel, "Hill Girl," until he was in his 40s, but it was a big success. He continued to write popular novels, and he spent time working on screenplays in the States and in Europe. Yet he didn't wind up happy and comfortable. By the early 1970s, his wife had died of cancer and the kinds of books he knew how to write had fallen out of favor. While still in his early 60s, Charles Williams committed suicide. Williams has always been one of the lesser-known of the better-known Gold Medal novelists, if that makes any sense. While Jim Thompson's work was rediscovered in the 1980s, Charles Williams' books have remained far harder to find. You don't see downtown hipsters walking around with Charles Williams novels under their arms, for example. Yet those who have read him have always recognized how good he was. The great John D. MacDonald, for example, several times called Williams the Gold Medal writer who most deserved more recognition: "Nobody can make violence seem more real," MacDonald said. And such contemporary crime-fiction eminences as Ed Gorman and Geoffrey O'Brien have been generous with praise for Williams' work. Gorman called Williams "my favorite of the Gold Medal writers." The two novels I read were very different in most ways yet they shared a a few characteristics too: a grownup view of the world somewhere between hardboiled and John O'Hara; a tone that's both juicy and unsentimental; and a fascination with storytelling, especially (oh bliss!) the mechanics of tension and suspense. "The Hot Spot" (originally entitled "Hell Hath No Fury") is much the tangier, sexier, and more colorful read. It's full of sweaty, smalltown atmosphere, and is populated by no-good characters with a lot of shifty trouble and pleasure on their minds. If you liked the movies "Body Heat" and "The Last Seduction," well, this is those films' grittier, earthier, sexier grandma. And the storytelling! Good lord, what a tour de force. I don't know that I've ever read a better-plotted novel. Jaw-dropping yet plausible and "right" plot twists drop out of the blue about every ten pages. "Dead Calm" is a more impersonal, sleeker piece of engineering. Yet it's shrewd, nervy, and enjoyable -- a humdinger -- in its own way. A couple sailing the South Seas on their honeymoon sees a becalmed sailboat on the horizon. Is anyone on board? Williams -- a sailing fanatic himself -- gives the sailing and ocean-going a lot of convincing... posted by Michael at November 20, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Building Las Vegas, Slowly
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm posting this from Las Vegas. Nancy has timeshare condo and we've been coming here Thanksgiving week since we started seeing each other. That's because, when I was working, I could spend seven days in Vegas while only talking three days of vacation time from the office thanks to the two-day holiday the governor and legislature kindly gave us. Seeing the town at regular intervals is vaguely akin to stop-motion photography: some features remain constant while others flicker in and out of view. Taken as a whole, the Vegas metro area is growing like the proverbial weed. We visited Lake Las Vegas for the fourth year in a row and saw massive amounts of new construction. This is an upscale area containing Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton hotels as well as the homes of Vegas Strip stars such as Celine Dion. About a year ago, architectural restrictions were modified so that multiple houses with the same floor plan could be built, thereby lowering costs (from strictly custom-designed units) and stimulating demand. Southwest of Las Vegas, far less-expensive developments are being rolled out. Billboards in the area proclaim future new projects and forthcoming phases to existing projects. Along with new housing is new retail square-footage, usually in the form of strip-malls. Near the Strip itself, several high-rise condominium structures are rising to join others built in the last few years -- a new wrinkle in the town's housing stock. I should add that some high-rise projects have been put on hold or else scrubbed, demand apparently not strong enough to keep up with the supply surge. So if Vegas is growing like stink, why did I used the word "Slowly" in the title, above? It's the big casinos / hotels. Old casinos are being demolished, usually to make room for new ones. But the new casinos, which can cost more than one billion dollars, sometimes take years to build. For example, the hotel tower of the Wynn stood empty for two of our visits while the casino and shopping area at its base took shape. A shopping area next to the Venetian, across the street from the Wynn, has taken more than two years to emerge, and still wasn't open for business as this was written. There are all sorts of reasons why projects can take years to complete, including financing problems, labor delays, bad weather and design errors requiring fixing. But I suspect that the main reason for the seemingly slow progress experienced by some recent Vegas casinos has to do with opulence. Some Vegas casinos, as the saying goes, have to be seen to be believed. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to check out the Venetian, Wynn and Bellagio (among others). Save your pennies. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 19, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments