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Sunday, Dec 16, 2007

Yep, they’re trying to push this argument that copying CD’s and turning them into MP3 files on your computer is illegal in a court case right now.  Hopefully, the court will see the lack of wisdom in yet another ridiculous ploy by the RIAA to squeeze money out of consumers and wrestle control away from them.  That would mean that new computers which do this must be taken off the market and maybe recalls of every computer that does that now (i.e. most of them out there now, including yours) plus all software that does this, including iTunes, Napster (the legal one), Winamp and Windows Media Player.  Hope that sits well with Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Gateway et al who would then stand to lose millions of dollars if not more…

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Saturday, Dec 15, 2007

Every season, some film has to sacrifice itself for the greater good. Either it’s badly marketing, the release is poorly timed, or the concept just doesn’t connect with ticket buyers. Whatever the case, these misplaced movies are often left for dead, swept under the rug of retail for a quick turnaround DVD release. Some, on the other hand, are sleepers, quality efforts that could battle the bad luck that’s befallen them if only given a chance. In this case, the digital domain is a Godsend, allowing audiences who failed to find the film the first time around a second chance to discover its delights.

Thus we have the situation with the ping pong parody Balls of Fury. This little gem from August deserved better than the mediocre response it received both critically and commercially. Thanks to Universal and the current film format, it’s getting another shot at stardom. In standard overreaching athletic film style, we are introduced to a young Randy Daytona, known everywhere as the best table tennis player in the world. It’s the 1988 Olympic Games, and our hero is out to win the gold. Only two things are stopping him—his overly aggressive and wager-addicted dad Marine Sgt. Pete (an aging Robert Patrick) and an obnoxious competitor from the German Democratic Republic named Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Tom Lennon).

Defeated almost immediately, the young Daytona grows up to be a slovenly lounge act (and is played to perfection by Tony Winner Dan Fogler). When the FBI wants to investigate the criminal activities of a reclusive ping pong impresario named Feng (Christopher Walken), they try to hire Daytona to help. But he’s unsure that the agent assigned (a good George Lopez) is capable of carrying out the mission. Eventually, our down and out paddle jockey winds up at the Wong School. Run by the blind Master (a jovial James Hong), Daytona learns the ricochet shot ropes from sexy Maggie Wong (Maggie Q). Soon, he is ready to take on the best competitors on the planet as part of Feng’s illegal, underground tournament.

Right, you guessed it. It is Enter the Dragon with dorks. Director Ben Garant—who along with Lennon is responsible for such half-witted hilarity as Reno 911 and the beloved MTV sketch series The State - recognizes the hoops he has to jump through, and never once misses a formulaic beat. Yet it’s another show that the two were involved in, the highly underrated Comedy Central spoof Viva Variety! , that best coincides with what the duo accomplishes here.

For those not paying much attention, the obvious slapstick and dialed down dopiness earn the requisite guffaws. But there are several sensational throwaways, lines and moments where a tuned in viewer will find pinpoint lampoon accuracy. The most obvious example is Christopher Walken. It’s clear he was given a single mandate from the moviemakers: mock yourself. In line readings and adlibs that seemingly come from another consciousness, the king of quirk really ratchets up the purposeful oddness.

He is matched by a cavalcade of cameos, brilliant bits that really sell the film’s freakishness. Stand-up sage Patton Oswalt shows up as the most asthmatic mouth breathing feeb in the history of regional recreational sports. His single sequence is sensational. Also aces is Terry Crews as a muscle bound paddle head whose entire shtick centers around his inherent bad-assness. Aisha Tyler as the necessary villain sidekick eye candy is a Rosario Dawson role away from real stardom, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is officiously ominous as the henchman with a bad sense of direction. When you toss in the fine supporting work from Maggie Q (though she’s given little to do), Hong (Lo Pan LIVES!) and Lopez, you have a wonderful collection of creative supplements. Without a workable star, however, all of this would be for naught.

Luckily, Dan Fogler is dynamite. He’s an overnight—and slightly overweight—sensation that’s been busting his doughy rump in minor movies for far too long. Like a combination of Tim Curry, Curtis Armstrong, and some roadie for Molly Hatchet, he brings a kind of nuanced knuckleheadedness to what could easily have been a wash out waste of time. Randy Daytona has to come across as a lump, a loser, and likeable all within a single situation.

We want to root for him, but recognize he wears his limitations like the sweat-stained Def Leppard shirt he’s constantly sporting. Similar to any slacker savior, Daytona has to eventually ante up and set off his skills, and when Fogler mans a table tennis paddle, all bets are off. Sure, what we see is basically CGI and stunt work, but you choose to believe the illusion. That’s how important and how powerful this actor’s work is here. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, his celebrated resume cites Balls of Fury as his first legitimate step into the limelight.

Unfortunately, the movie loses direction about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it appears as if Lennon and Garant simply ran out of inspiration, and decided to tread celluloid for a few scenes before righting the cinematic ship and sailing the satire home. The ending is an excellent revamp of the great fortress escape stereotype, and the electrified ping pong armor showdown is a nice touch. Still, right about the time Daytona learns of Feng’s “preference” in concubines, and just before the long awaited rematch between Wolfschtagg and our hero, there’s some significant downtime.

In fact, the whole film has a slight truncated feel, as if honed by one too many trips to the editing bay and far too many focus group/industry screenings. With a potent premise like this, the filmmakers could have easily squeezed another 10 minutes into the movie and no one would have really cared. That’s why the new DVD is so wonderful. Packed with seven deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and two EPK style making-ofs, we are given a great amount of context for a film that’s begging for a little more backstory. 

With its unabashed love of all things idiotic and a humorous heart situated in the proper place, Balls of Fury could have been a classic contender. Maybe 10 years ago, in a less than impressive season that didn’t see a certain industry juggernaut ‘Apatow’ everything in its path, that would have been. And the film really does deserve it. You’ll be reading a lot of reviews that marginalize this effort, reducing it to a lower than lowest common denominator and wondering over who, exactly, would find any of this even remotely funny. To turn the tables for a moment, it’s the same sentiment that could be offered for Lennon and Garant’s entire career.

They were responsible for the painfully dull Night at the Museum, and put the NASCAR spin on the unnecessary Love Bug remake. They even perpetrated The Pacifier and Let’s Go to Prison on an unwitting ticket buying public. So either they’re the smartest simpletons in all of screenwriting, or they’re the dumbest geniuses ever to cash a series of Tinsel Town paychecks. It’s an ambiguous dichotomy that makes Balls of Fury an incomplete success - or perhaps, a nicely noble failure. While conceivably not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.


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Saturday, Dec 15, 2007

Some of the best reporting on the state of the world is in Australian cookbooks.

The Hip Gift of the Year

I live on the dividing line between two worlds in Sydney: Kings Cross with its tawdry burlesque joints and sex shops (with window displays of risque Santa Suits), fast food joints, weird buskers, hookers and drug addicts on the streets and the affluent Potts Point with its luxury apartments, gourmet deli’s and gift shops with ironic, infantile toys for adults, fashionably impractical homewares, and books as decorating details. I’m mulling over the idea of what to give the people I’ll be spending Christmas with, and I’m leaning towards liquid gifts: coffee beans, tea leaves, vodka. Everyday luxuries, not something smartly useless wrapped up in shiny paper. But just to keep my options open I wandered into a few stores when I went out for coffee this morning. Princess Pink and Baby Blue are the colours of the season and the couple of shops I went into seemed to be stacking up gifts for a baby shower: fluffy pink bedroom slippers ($50), Prada soaps in a dusty pink box ($70), and the hip blue object of the moment is Greg and Lucy Malouf’s new cookbook, Turquoise. Its bright turqoise cover so prettily accents the other baby blue gift-giving opportunities arrayed around it.

Greg Malouf is an Australian chef of Lebanese heritage who has celebrated and adapted Middle Eastern food for Australians. His cookbooks and spice mixes are indispensible tools for chefs and home cooks. Lucy Malouf, his ex-wife, is a writer and editor. Eating at Greg’s restaurant Mo Mo, in Melbourne, gave me the understanding of how food in restaurants relates to home cooking. How the grace and courtesy that I’d experienced as a guest at the homes of Lebanese and Iranian friends in Los Angeles and the ceremonial charm of the traditional food is preserved but turned into artistry. The cuisine has been adapted for a new world with the skill and inspiration of an accomplished chef without diminishing or commercializing the generosity of spirit that’s at the base of these refined ancient cultures. I was with my musician friend, Kelly Salloum, who was visiting from Los Angeles. Her family is originally from Lebanon and she grew up in Canada and Kelly steeped herself in the traditions her family brought from the Middle East. She has the soul and well-crafted musicianship of a Bill Evans era jazz musician, but for the last decade has explored and documented the traditional music of cultures from around the world. She learned Sanskrit for her ethnomusicology degree and sings in Arabic, her jazz album is dedicated to the great Egyptian singer Oum Khalsoum. But Kelly is also a gracious and generous hostess well-known for the parties she hosts with tables laden with the food she learned to make growing up, from the same kind of family recipes handed down to Greg Malouf.

Kelly wanted to eat at Mo Mo because Saha, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s previous book based on their travels through Syria and Lebanon, matched the itinerary for her own travels. When I was flipping through her copy of the book it was the writing that caught me. The dazzling photography and design of Greg and Lucy Malouf’s books might make them a merchandiser’s dream, but the text in Saha is equally engaging. The stories the Malouf’s tell are a lament for a threatened civilisation. They visited Beirut as the period of peace that followed its civil war was coming to an end, and they quote articles by Robert Fisk, the Middle Eastern correspondent for the English newspaper The Independent, who genuinely loves and admires the people he’s lived among for the last quarter century. Fisk catches the threads of a world unravelling and the complexities and contradictions of wars fought over ancient beliefs and rivalries from the point of view of the individuals who are caught up in it. A couple of weeks ago he wrote about people moving out of their homes in Beirut.

So where do we go from here? I am talking into blackness because there is no electricity in Beirut. And everyone, of course, is frightened. A president was supposed to be elected today. He was not elected. The corniche outside my home is empty. No one wants to walk beside the sea.

When I went to get my usual breakfast cheese manouche there were no other guests in the café. We are all afraid. My driver, Abed, who has loyally travelled with me across all the war zones of Lebanon, is frightened to drive by night. I was supposed to go to Rome yesterday. I spared him the journey to the airport.

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be in a country that sits on plate glass. It is impossible to be certain if the glass will break. When a constitution breaks – as it is beginning to break in Lebanon – you never know when the glass will give way.

People are moving out of their homes, just as they have moved out of their homes in Baghdad. I may not be frightened, because I’m a foreigner. But the Lebanese are frightened. I was not in Lebanon in 1975 when the civil war began, but I was in Lebanon in 1976 when it was under way. I see many young Lebanese who want to invest their lives in this country, who are frightened, and they are right to frightened. What can we do?

Robert Fisk. The Independent. November 24, 2007

Taking Lessons from Justin North

So what can and should chefs not just in Australia but around the world do to help ease the food crisis, and to protect our land and produce? We must consider sustainability.

My restaurant’s menu takes into consideration particular farming practices and how they affect the environment. We understand more about our produce: where it is from, how it is farmed, raised or caught. Rather than buying from aquaculture farms that dredge their scallops from the ocean floor, for instance, I buy from ones where divers collect the scallops by hand.

Thinking this way is vital if chefs want to avoid a future where all of the best and most interesting produce are protected species. This means changing our practices and demanding that our suppliers change as well.

Justin North. Op-Ed piece. The New York Times. July 29, 2007.

Justin North concluded his New York Times story by saying that Australia’s then Prime Minister John Howard had told farmers facing irrigation shortages to pray for rain. “The Murray cod deserves better than that, and so do all Australian food lovers,” he wrote. Political change is swift in Australia. There was an election one Saturday a few weeks ago and by Monday a new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was at work and his first act was to ratify the Kyoto protocol. In his second week as Prime Minister he was one of leaders from 190 nations attending the United Nations conference in Bali to assess what must be done now to arrest the ravages of climate change. On December 3 The New York Times carried an Editorial on the importance having the huge developing economies of India and China as part of the negotiations.

Whatever happens, China and India have to be part of the equation. Along with other developing countries, both were exempted from making any commitments to reduce emissions at Kyoto on grounds that the industrialized countries bore the heaviest historical responsibility. Given the extraordinary growth in both countries, that argument is no longer sustainable. But it will be much easier to get China, India and others to adopt aggressive policies if the United States is also on board.

The story at the top of the “Most E-Mailed” list today on The New York Times concerns fish being farmed in toxic waters in China.

“For 50 years,” said Wang Wu, a professor at Shanghai Fisheries University, “we’ve blindly emphasized economic growth. The only pursuit has been G.D.P., and now we can see that the water turns dirty and the seafood gets dangerous. Every year, there are food safety and environmental pollution accidents.”

Environmental problems plaguing seafood would appear to be a bad omen for the industry. But with fish stocks in the oceans steadily declining and global demand for seafood soaring, farmed seafood, or aquaculture, is the future. And no country does more of it than China, which produced about 115 billion pounds of seafood last year.

China produces about 70 percent of the farmed fish in the world, harvested at thousands of giant factory-style farms that extend along the entire eastern seaboard of the country. Farmers mass-produce seafood just offshore, but mostly on land, and in lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs, or in huge rectangular fish ponds dug into the earth.

David Barboza. The New York Times. December 15, 2007.

Justin North’s first cookbook centred on the farmers and purveyors who provide the produce he uses at his Sydney restaurant Becasse. But alongside the deep beauty of his food and his enthusiasm for the quality of the produce he uses ran a quiet and warmly intelligent call to action on the problems facing farmers in Australia today: the cleanliness and sustainability of our oceans, the role of scientific innovation in food production, the lack of water, wild and unrealiable changes in weather patterns affecting crops and creeping salinity in the land. His new cookbook, French Lessons, (edited by Lucy Malouf) is a guide to the techniques of French cooking, adapted, he writes, for the modern taste for “lighter, more delicate and intensely flavoured foods”. It has no shortcuts. “It’s important to realise that good food takes a level of care.”

Prime Minister Rudd and his agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, have both been visiting rural areas and talking about the hardships climate change is causing for farmers. On ABC radio the Prime Minister quoted an Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics paper which has projected the effects of climate change on agriculture. “By 2030, we face the possibility of a 10 per cent decline in agricultural production. By 2050, the possibility of a 20 per cent decline in agricultural production against a no-change basis. Then, up to a 63 per cent decline in Australian rural exports by 2030, and up to a 79 per cent decline by 2050.”

In the same radio report Chris Ulhmann asked the agriculture minister to comment on the paper.

CHRIS UHLMANN: The report points out that Australia’s agricultural sector has adjusted an adapted continuously to changes in the natural resource base, including climate variability. In future, it says, Australia will need crops that are water efficient, and that have high tolerance to pests, diseases and salinity. And that presents another problem for Tony Burke because those crops are likely to be genetically modified. He says he will be consulting farmers about it.

TONY BURKE: There’s no doubt there’s some science out there which says some of the climate change issues we’re dealing with, GM, will provide part of the puzzle in dealing with that. It’s still the case, particularly in Western Australia and Tasmania, there’s some particular concerns from farmers there that they want to preserve a competitive market advantage that they see by not endorsing GM. And that’s why the consultation that we’re going through is real.

Australia’s second largest supermarket chain, Coles, has just been acquired by Wesfarmers, a century old company that began as a Western Australian farmers co-operative that’s now a conglomerate that includes home building supplies and electronics stores, fertiliser manufacturers, coal mining operations and an insurance business that includes rural financing. It has brought in an advisor from Britain who applied WalMart methods to lifting the fortunes of an English supermarket chain. ABC news reported that a representative from Wesfarmers talked to the Western Australian Farmers Federation about bringing more meat produced in Western Australia into supermarkets there. Wesfarmers would like to increase local meat supplies, which make up 40% of the current supplies, but claim that they’re unable to acquire the volume of meat they need locally. “It would be very nice to be able to say that 100 per cent of meat in Coles stores in Western Australia came from Western Australia ... but I doubt that that’s ever going to be achievable because of the issues of supply and demand and price and quality,” Keith Kessell told the ABC.

Justin North writes that among the lessons we can learn from the French is their approach to purchasing produce directly from regional farmers, not supermarkets.

Another of my goals in French Lessons is to encourage you, the reader and home cook, to develop a similar approach to food and to cooking to what you find in France. That is, to focus far more on quality and freshness than on convenience when it comes to selecting your produce. In many Fench towns, people shop for food on a daily basis, and fresh produce markets rather than giant supermarkets are still the preferred option, wherever possible. While I understand that not many people have the time or opportunity to shop daily, I do really encourage you to spend more time shopping at markets and greengrocers, to support your local butchers and fishmongers, to spend the extra dollar on organic and free-range rather than mass produced foodstuffs. Not only will your dinner taste better, but you will also be doing your part to keep alive the dream of the small, local and passionate producers who so greatly need your support.

Justin North. Introduction. French Lessons.



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Saturday, Dec 15, 2007

The fall-out continues from the Rolling Stone cigarette ad masqueraded as a feature or vice versa.  Now a coalition of indies has gone public in an open letter to the magazine about their anger over the incident.

Also, in the first part of any Ike Turner obit is his deplorable treatment of Tina Turner and while there’s no justifying that, it’s also ignorant to forget that despite what kind of horrible person he was, he did have an important impact on music as detailed in this BBC article/tribute.


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Friday, Dec 14, 2007

Bookforum linked to this article about the effects of text messaging on traditional courtship practices in the Philippines. I know that sounds fascinating, and you’re probably not even reading this sentence because you eagerly clinked on the link. But as I never have understood the allure of texting, I found the story illuminating.

Clearly it makes sense when to send messages when they are cheaper than talking, as they are in the Philippines, as the article points out. I don’t know if that is true with the typical American cell phone plans, but it ought to be. I have long wished there would be a plan that would allow nothing but text messages, because I’m not much for chitchat—when forced to use the phone, I generally just want the pertinent information, two or three of the the five Ws maximum. And I don’t think I would want a smartphone, which seems like too much technology for my simple needs. I think I need the stupidphone.

Anyway, Randy Jay Solis, the article’s author, suggests that texting is apparently well-suited for courtship because it creates an extra-intimate space in which the communication takes place.

Texting allows for depth in the courtship stage, an efficient way to exchange a variety of important, intimate, and personal topics and feelings. “The mobile phone screen is able to create a private space that even if you are far from each other physically, the virtual space created by that technology is apparent,” Arnel [a random Philippine teen] explains. “No one can hear you say those things or no one else can read them, assuming that it is not allowed to be read or seen by others.”

This is probably obvious to everybody who has ever texted, but it never occurred to me that this would be so, that technology would produce a virtual space that users would regard as more intimate rather than one further step removed from intimacy. I usually construe this kind of technology as a filter, a level of protection, a way to deny presence, whereas it probably can seem more intimate than a whisper in the ear when satellites are recruited into bringing you into a sweet nothing.

Solis points out how texting facilitates the ability of strangers to meet and become intimate whenever boredom strikes. But this intimacy, perhaps because it is technologically amplified, becomes more addictive.

Texting answers the need for a sustained connection necessary to increase and maintain intimacy, but it has also made couples more dependent on each other. “It became a habit,” *Emmy explains. Partners text each other as often as they can and have a compulsion to keep the communication constantly moving. One respondent attributed this to the “unwritten rule of texting.” Clara elaborates, “Once a person has texted you, you have to reply. If you don’t reply, the person will automatically think you ignored him or her on purpose. So you have to reply no matter what, even when you really have nothing to say.”
Since most of the couples initiating a romantic relationship do not have the luxury to meet up in person or talk over the phone regularly, the frequency of texting becomes a distinct indication of their seriousness about the relationship. “To commit is to be there for the person, 24/7. Texting helps in achieving that despite of the barriers in time and distance,” *Von explains.

This pinpoints what is the probably the main reason I have resisted getting a phone all the years, beyond Luddite inertia. I’m a little bit terrified of this kind of dependency and compulsion, of being unable to ignore a message without guilt or to go without sulking when my message garners no response. It’s bad enough with email—I had to abandon instant messaging for the same reason. When the messages are flowing back and forth in rhythm, its like you are wired into your correspondent, but then if there is a gap, it’s like a betrayal, like being abandoned. I would get too impatient and paranoid in the delays, as though I were waiting for someone to pass me the crack pipe. It may takes more maturity than I can muster to presume innocence when an urgent or intimate message goes out there and just hangs, and it seems like the texting life would be filled with such mishaps and emotional misfires. In general, communications technology promotes impulsive immediacy over consideration, yielding a fraught, fragile intimacy that is only as a deep as the last message. All intimacy requires continual reciprocal contact, but accelerating that contact may be more than our limbic systems can handle. That, anyway, would seem to be part of the argument of an essay Solis cites, Heidegger, Habermas, and the Mobile Phone by George Myerson. According to these notes Myerson argues that “mobile communication is fragmented, accelerated, highly commoditized, and ultimately meaningless.” He suggests that mobile phones are a critical step in the effort to meter all communication, to translate it into a purchasable object, to have it measurable in money. It ceases to be communication and instead becomes a species of exchange. That argument verges on a semantic trick, and my susceptibility to it is probably rooted in my bias for pragmatic talk, but it still seems an apt description for texted testimonials, and their cousins, the messages exchanged on social networking sites that are little more than acknowledgments that people are scrutinizing one another. It seems curmudgeonly to complain about there being more intimacy in the world thanks to technology, I know. But ultimately, the way communication is quantified may be what seems so sinister about the heightened intimacy of texting; it turns the freedom of love into a kind of dope high purchasable on demand. And our bodies are supplanted by the devices we use to reach one another, the ones that let us be everywhere at once, and nowhere.


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