Tuesday, November 27, 2007

No Thanks, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabian duplicity remains a serious threat to America's war against Islamist violent jihad. The New York Sun carries a story today about the Kingdom's release of 1,500 Al Qaeda members from custody on the jihadists' promise not to do violence on the Arabian Peninsula.

The jihadists were released after they were declared reformed by a special committee in Saudi Arabia that is deprogramming prisoners from their violent ideology, known as takfir. But as with all things Saudi, things are not necessarily what they seem.
"The ideology of takfir is prevalent in both fundamentalist interpretations of Sunni and Shiite Islam, and it holds that there are separate rules that allow Muslims to kill, lie to, and steal from nonbelievers.

"While the Saudi state has at times been targeted by Muslims embracing the philosophy of takfir, its mosques and Ministry of Culture and Information also have been exporting the strain of Islam that encourages this doctrine." (Here.)
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is behind the recent return to Pakistan of so-called opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. A story from the New York Times News Service does a favor by reminding us why the return of Sharif to Pakistan might not necessarily be the blow for democracy that opponents of Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule might hope.
"[Sharif] is best remembered here [Islamabad] and in Washington as the Pakistani leader who brought the world a nuclear Pakistan, flirted with war with India and forged strong ties to religious conservatives. His tenure was marred by charges of rampant corruption and run-ins with the courts and the media as well." (Here.)
If strongman Musharraf loses power, democracy will not necessarily triumph. And if Saudi Arabia is pushing Sharif on Pakistan, it's a good bet that he will side with Islamists.

Past revolutions around the world teach us that the party that replaces the strongman is the one that has the guns. Islamists in Pakistan have proven their willingness to use guns to achieve their ends. The question for Pakistan is whether any guns will line up on the side of democrats. If Musharraf goes, where will the Army go? And if Saudi Arabia's ally takes power in Pakistan with an Islamist government, where will America's army go?



Beginning To Close The Deal On Victory In Iraq.

Critics of the liberation of Iraq complain that the war there is unwinnable and without strategic purpose. The agenda for talks next year between the United States and the elected Iraqi government suggests an answer to both complaints. A declaration signed by President George Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
"calls for the U.N. mandate to be extended one year and then replaced at the end of 2008 by a bilateral pact governing the economic, political and security aspects of the relationship." (Here.)
That would be a bilateral pact between the United States and Iraq. The pact between the two countries envisions Iraqi agreement to
"a long-term U.S. troop presence in return for U.S. security guarantees as part of a strategic partnership. ... Iraqi officials foresee a long-term presence of about 50,000 U.S. troops, down from the current figure of more than 160,000.

"Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the new negotiations will provide benefits for both countries.

"For Iraq, he said, 'it means a clear definition of the relationship and also some security guarantees that the U.S. will protect the political system and constitution until we build our forces and troops.'"
Four years ago when the United States undertook to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Iraq was ruled by a murderous dictator hostile to our interests. Now Iraq has an elected government interested in establishing a long-term security partnership with the United States.

Whether an Iraqi-American security partnership will happen remains an open question, but if it does, that's what victory will look like. (The New York Sun has more analysis here.)



Sunday, November 18, 2007

Raptors Rule!

My fascination with birds took me out on a guided bird walk today sponsored by the local Sierra Club. Our group took a 3 hour tour at the Tijuana River Estuary down by the border. (Here.) Real birders make lists of what they see, so let's get that formality out of the way.

Great Blue Heron
Snowy Egrets

American Coots
American Avocets
Bufflehead Ducks
Surf Scoters

White-crowned Sparrows

American Kestrel
Northern Harrier
Red Tailed Hawk


(Here's a link to Cornell University's online bird identification site, if you want to see pictures of the birds on today's list. The oddest-looking little birds today were the Surf Scoters and American Avocets.)

The Great Blue Heron was our first sighting and a beautiful sight standing alone. But by far the best sighting was the Osprey. We first saw the large raptor about 100 yards away sitting on a dead tree trunk. It looked very ominous, almost like a cormorant. The bird was huge and distinctive looking with its white head. The Osprey then took off and began to circle high in the sky over the creek below. Then it dove and plunged into the water, feet and head first. Unfortunately, it came up empty. It circled and dove a few more times but didn't enter the water again.

Identifying birds does have its appeal. Our leader today was not an expert in identification but that made for a better experience for us because we were forced to consult our own books and make the identifications ourselves. There is a lot to be said for the excitement of making your own identifications without being spoon fed by an expert.

But the most interesting part of birding for me is observing bird behavior not so much the identification. That's why the Osprey was so exciting to see today.

When I arrived home my resident Coopers Hawk treated me to another show. It landed on the utility line above my neighbor's yard. It sat there looking around for a while and then flew directly toward me. It made a sharp turn and climb before diving down into the bottle brush tree that the little birds who come to my feeders use as a sanctuary. There was the sound of rustling leaves from inside the tree and then the hawk jumped out of the top and flew back to the utility line. No prey in his claws. It sat on the line and stared at me for a few minutes as if to say, "there's no way you can protect the birds you're feeding." Then it flew off.

If Eastern religions are correct about reincarnation, I sure don't want to come back as some hapless little seed-eating bird. Put me in the line for the raptors.


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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Barry Bonds Indicted; Better Late Than Never.

The feds finally got around to indicting Barry Bonds for perjury and obstruction of justice. (Here.) The indictment is available on MSNBC. (Here.) It's about time.

I've written more than a few times before about the importance of holding Bonds accountable for his cheating. (If you're interested, you can read the posts at my old blog, misteramericano.com. Here.) The bottom line for me is this.

Like it or not, sports in America, especially baseball, is much more than just a game or a business. It's an iconic activity where our culture plays out our notions of fair play, competition, ethics, and character. If Bonds is never held accountable for using steroids, then a cheater will go down in American baseball history as the greatest homerun hitter of all time. That is not good for our culture because it undermines the value we place on integrity and fair play and because it nourishes cynicism.

Bonds may be a scapegoat for the entire steroids era, but Bonds is the guy who broke the most important hitting record in baseball. Who really cares what happens to the players who weren't as great as Bonds cheated himself into becoming? We can paralyze ourselves out of doing the right thing based on a sense that it's not fair to single out Bonds and let others get away with their own misdeeds. But it's an entirely appropriate allocation of resources to go after the most notorious offender and use that person as an example.

If we're lucky, this investigation will spread wide and baseball's dirty secrets will finally be revealed as facts rather than as rumors. Anybody who paid any attention to the mafioso-like arrogance on display when baseball executives and players testified before Congress over the past two years has to recognize that Major League Baseball needs a comeuppance.

In the meantime, it will be good to see Bonds on the defensive for his cheating and it will be even better if he has to pay for it. Bud Selig take note, what's good for Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, is good for Barry Bonds.



Carnival Of Space: Week 29.

This week's Carnival of Space is at the website, Riding with Robots on the High Frontier. The link is conveniently placed within the parentheses that follow this sentence. (Here.)

Ridingwithrobots.org is a great website. The site hosts photographic images taken by the robots that humans have sent into space to explore our solar system. It is a really cool site and well worth exploring in full. Do so now. (Here.) Please.



Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Keep On Rockin' In The Free World!

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was my first exposure to serious adult music when I was about 12 years old. I quickly gravitated away from Graham Nash and David Crosby and toward Stephen Stills and Neil Young. Something about the songs of those two singer-songwriters touched the outsider in me and spoke to the budding tragic sensibility that still colors how I view the world. (I confess, that's a bit melodramatic. A 12 year old with a sense of tragedy? I was raised Catholic, okay? And I started reading adult fiction from the library at about age 10 and history books soon after.)

Stills was my first favorite musician. The day his music died for me came in college almost 10 years later when he gave a concert at my school. The show was professional and I liked it for sentimental reasons alone, but it was clear that Stills was an artist past his prime. It didn't help that the next day I had a brush with fame with him and his entourage at a local mall where they were looking for a sporting goods store. I didn't know where he could buy a football and he wasn't interested in hearing a fan say nice things about him. His entouragees apologized but there it is.

Young was my other favorite and remains so. Unlike Stills, Young has kept his artistic edge over the years. He produced one great album after another throughout the 1970s and since then he has given us good albums like Hawks and Doves, Freedom, Harvest Moon, Greendale, and even Trans.

The last show I saw of Young's was the road show for his album, Greendale. The album was a concept that told the story of a small town being changed by larger forces. The live show was a musical play with actors playing the parts of characters in the songs being performed by Young and his band. The play ended with a rousing, patriotic, flag-waving number with the entire cast dancing and singing. The play was clearly an attempt by Young to redefine patriotism and recapture the flag for the dispossessed in America and those fighting to save the planet. Even with all the American flags waving on stage, the performance was not preachy, which is a testament to Young's artistic talent.

Perhaps another testament to Young's talent and continuing relevance is the performance today at a San Diego neighborhood bar of various local musicians playing covers of Young's music. It was his birthday yesterday. Happy Birthday, Neil. Long may you run.


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Monday, November 12, 2007

Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse.

I've watched so many zombie movies, I've lost track. It hasn't been a complete waste of time as those movies have taught me something about surviving a zombie attack. Still, I've only got a 67 percent chance of survival, according to this web quiz at justsayhi.com. (Here. I just love the internet. It's so informative.)

One reason my percentage is so low is that I don't have enough canned goods in my house. Apparently what's good for natural disasters is good for supernatural disasters, too. Who knew?

Another reason could be that I still have below average aim. Today was a day off from work so I took my .38 snub-nose revolver to the shooting range and practiced a zombie survival trick, "not in the chest, head shots are best."* The results were not good with about 25 percent head shots on the paper target from less than 10 yards. Fortunately, I've got this.A killer kitty named Kimba and a Mossberg 500 Persuader.


* That "head shots" quote is from a lesson taught to grade-schoolers in the Canadian zombie movie, Fido. More on that later.

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More Lunar (Mis)Deeds

From Arkansas comes a story about another company claiming to own the Moon. (Here.) Not content to just own the Moon, Space Pioneers is in the business of selling parcels of lunar land at $28 per acre.

The company's claim to own the Moon is, of course, utter legal nonsense, regardless of what its ownership may believe. (Read the entertaining legal babble at the company website here. Their "claim is for all of mankind which includes the planets in the Milky Way Galaxy; with an amendment to specify the inclusion of the moons.")

In the real world, consumers are either being fooled by Space Pioneers out of $28 for a worthless piece of paper or they are willing buyers of a novelty gift. Maybe what the company is doing counts as fraud and maybe it doesn't. It doesn't matter in the United States because law enforcement officials don't seem to be interested in pursuing companies selling worthless deeds to land in outer space. China had the right idea when it gave Lunar Embassy the boot and shut down the company's nascent operations there in 2005, a decision upheld by a Chinese court in a victory for the rule of law just this year. (Here.) But the real harm from schemes like this one isn't to the pocketbooks of individual consumers it's what the publicity does to the vision or real private space development.

Humanity has a future in space. One day we will live up there and use the resources of space to better our lives there and down here on Earth, and to make money. When that day comes legal issues involving ownership of land or minerals will have to be resolved. I can assure you of one thing. When some legitimate company finally has the wherewithal to put a mining operation on the Moon and lays claim to the minerals it is extracting, some $28 per acre owner of a deed from Space Pioneers won't be able to stop them and won't see a dime in rents or profits no matter how many cease and desist letters the owner writes and how many lawsuits get filed.

The current legal regime governing space will change when the vision of humans making space our home becomes a reality. Schemes like those of Space Pioneers and Lunar Embassy make a mockery of that vision. The sooner these kind of operations are shut down the better.


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Friday, November 09, 2007


Although 24 has fallen prey to the Hollywood writer's strike, fans of the best little animated scifi show ever made can rejoice. Futurama is coming back!! The straight to DVD movie, Futurama: Bender's Big Score, is slated for release on November 27, 2007. November truly is the month for giving thanks. Pre-orders are available at Foxstore.com. (Here.) A preview is available though Comedy Central's Insider blog. (Here.)


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The best adult Saturday morning serial broadcast at night is being delayed by the writer's strike. Jack Bauer won't be kicking butt and taking names on Fox Network's 24 come January. (Here.) The show is postponed indefinitely. Where's the Pinkerton Detective Agency when you need it? (Here.)


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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Proof That God Exists And Loves Us: Part 4.

Noble scientists studying diet and health have given us the good news before. Wine, moderate alcohol use, chocolate, red meat, and even nicotine, can be good for you.

Today comes more good news for those of us who want to enjoy the good things in life during our allotted time on this world. Those extra 15 pounds or so of fat that just won't go away could be a lifesaver, and not just the buoyant variety.

A new study of mortality statistics confirmed that there isn't much good that comes from being obese.
"But being overweight – having a BMI between 25 and 30 – did not increase the risk of dying from heart disease or any kind of cancer.

Also surprising was that overweight people were up to about 40 percent less likely than normal-weight people to die from several other causes including emphysema, pneumonia, injuries and various infections. The age group that seemed to benefit most from a little extra padding were people ages 25 to 59; older overweight people had reduced risks for these diseases, too." (Here.)
As with every study that reports counter intuitive health findings, there are the usual cautionary statements about not overdoing it, and, indeed, overweight people are at greater risk of dying from diabetes and kidney disease. But the good news remains.

Carrying around a little extra weight isn't going to kill you. As my college friend's Italian mama used to tell me when I'd take my then skinny body over on a visit 40 pounds ago: "Manjia."


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Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Birds Of Paradise: Part 16.

San Diego's fires created half a million temporary refugees when they were burning out of control. Most people have returned to their homes and the routines of their lives. Some lives remain disrupted. This Great Blue Heron perched on my neighbor's roof is one whose life is upended. (Click image to view.) This kind of bird has never before come this far into the city to visit my neighborhood. The destruction of its habitat by the fires clearly has caused it to roam far beyond its home territory in search of food or shelter. Here it is flying away. (Click image to view.) She's welcome to return to the shelter of my backyard any time she wants.*


* The sexes of herons are outwardly alike. This could be a male. But there's something about the grace of this bird that says female to me.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Possums In The Backyard.

San Diego has over a million people living in its neighborhoods but for all that, there is a lot of wildlife living within the city limits. My suburban neighborhood is well away from the back country but there is a small isolated canyon across the street. Coyotes sometimes run down the street. Birds fly by all the time, from sparrow, finches, morning doves, pigeons, seagulls, to hawks. Raccoons, squirrels, skunks, foxes, and other small animals are often seen in backyards.

Right now my backyard is home to two possums who spend some of their days sleeping in the space between two wooden fences, parts of most every night feeding on the birdseed that litters the ground underneath my five feeders.

Here's one of the possums hiding during the day in the space between the wooden fences. (Click image to enlarge.)
He's not too happy because I just woke him up from his nap. With that snarl he's trying to scare me off. All it's really doing is making me want to hug the little guy. He is so damn cute.

Here's either the same possum or another on a recent evening. (Click image to enlarge.)
He was sitting on top of the fence not going anywhere for the longest time. I came out and photographed him in the dark and he froze there looking at me. After I went indoors he remained in place for a minute or so. Then he walked off along the top of the fence looking for whatever he was waiting for before I interrupted him. I like to think it was his lost possum girl. I hope he found her.*


* I know, I know. He could be a she. But I like this story better.

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Some Worthy DVD Rentals

Now that baseball season is finally over, it's time to watch DVDs again. Here are capsule reviews of some worthies, all available through Netflix.

Love Stories and Dramas.

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1992) Dir. Peter Kosminsky. Notable cast: Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes

You can hardly go wrong with Ralph Fiennes or Juliette Binoche and neither disappoint in this well-made and watchable adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel. But it's difficult to like the two star-crossed lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine, because they remind us how intensely narcissistic, selfish, and obnoxious certain lovers can be. Heathcliff especially is a brute who confuses love with selfish obsession. Indeed, this movie is a cautionary tale for women; if you ever find yourself loved by a Heathcliff, run, run, run away as fast and as far as you can. If you don't he'll drive you to your death and blame you for it. Your life will be remembered as tragic melodrama but without the great soundtrack of this movie. If that's your thing, get a vicarious experience and watch the movie instead.

Junebug (2005) Dir. Phil Morrison. Notable cast: Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Celia Watson, Scott Wilson, Ben McKenzie, and Amy Adams.

A very simple plot involving a newly married couple traveling from Chicago, where the wife is an art dealer, to North Carolina, where the husband is from, opens a window into family and relationships in an honest manner rarely portrayed on screen. This movie has the most integrity to its characters and story than any movie I've ever seen. The family relationships are uncomfortable to watch because they are so frankly portrayed. This is a slice of life story about characters who are very much real people. No sugarcoating, no judgments, and no pandering are what make this movie so good. That and the acting.

Zelary (2003) Dir. Ondrej Trojan. Notable cast: Ana Geislerova and Gyorgy Cserhalmi

This is a moving love story about two opposites, (she, the sophisticated urbanite, he, the simple farmer) who are forced together into marriage in order to escape the Nazi occupation of their country. "Green Acres" it is not, yet as the woman says goodbye to city life, she comes to love her new village, and love the man that fate chose for her even more. But this is an Eastern European movie, so it has a tragic sensibility. It's set during World War Two, so fate will touch the couple's lives again. Watch the movie and weep.

Asylum (2005) Dir. David Mackenzie. Notable cast: Natasha Richardson, Martin Csokas, and Ian McKellen.

An affair between a psychiatrist’s wife, unhappy in marriage, and a psychiatric inmate, provides the framework for this tragedy. Those who say this movie starts well and ends badly are exactly wrong. Force yourself to sit through the first 2/3 of the movie and the sordid inexplicable affair. The ending's intriguing psychological twist will stick with you.

Closer (2004) Dir. Mike Nichols. Notable cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen.

In the Era of Asymmetrical Warfare, of terrorism, of dirty warriors, this movie is a love story for our time that portrays love as a combat for affection. Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts and Jude Law play four strangers who fall in and out of love with each other.

Early on, Larry (Owen, who reigns supreme in this movie) says of his rival Dan (Law), "I could have him. in a scrap." Larry, brutally honest but with the morals of a thug, recognizes the combat to follow and plays his part with relentlessness and brutality. Yet he never confronts his enemy straight on. Instead, he lays landmines of brutal truth that he knows will destroy his opponent.

But what about the women? Anna (Roberts) is an enigma who first appears strong but later becomes simply the prize. Alice (Portman), on the other hand, is nobody's prize and that's exactly how she wants it. She survives by telling lies. She lies so much and so well, that when she finally tells a truth, it's taken as a lie. Most important, she survives by keeping men just outside her emotional space. She moves through life unchanged by others. We see her at the beginning and the end of the movie walking down a sidewalk, cutting through the crowd the way a duck glides across the water: parting the water, leaving a wake, but never getting wet.

The movie leaves the viewer wondering about the motivations of the characters. That doesn't matter because this is not a movie about intimacy, it's about closing the deal. The lesson of Closer,for men anyway, is that love goes to the man who knows what he wants and fights the dirtiest to get it. Not a pretty picture.

War Stories

Japan’s Longest Day (1967) Dir. Kihachi Okamoto

This movie is the antidote to The Last Samurai. Japan's Longest Day shows the fateful 24 hours when Japan surrenders to the Americans and fights off a revolt of Army officers, who are overzealous with the bushido so admired by Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai, but which also led to the deaths of millions in World War II. Unlike America's The Longest Day, the movie about the Normandy invasion, the action in this Japanese movie involves less combat and more government officials arguing over the wording of the Emperor's surrender announcement and lots of anguished confrontations between soldiers forced to face defeat. There is the occasional sword and gun fight to whet the appetites of fans of war and samurai movies. But this movie is more about a militaristic country facing up to the shame of total defeat.

Bravo Two Zero (1999) Dir. Tom Clegg. Notable cast: Sean Bean

A remarkable movie about contemporary warfare based on an autobiographical book. Sean Bean is perfect as the lead. The movie follows British special forces soldiers during the Gulf War. The soldiers fly to the Middle East on what appears to be a commercial jet. A small squad is transported behind enemy lines on a sabotage mission, defeats a much larger Iraqi force, is captured, abused in captivity, and eventually released. Along the way the movie reveals what it's like to be a modern special forces soldier going from home to war and then back again in the space of a few short months. It's an insightful movie on the life of a professional soldier at war. Not an anti-war movie by any means. Not pro-war either. It's about war as a job.

Science Fiction

The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1966) Dir. Jan Schmidt-Garre

When the world ends in nuclear holocaust a small band of Eastern European women, up to no good themselves, walk the landscape searching for survivors. There are two kinds of apocalypse movies. The Anglosphere genre is exemplified by The Postman, The Mad Max movies, Waterworld, even The Terminator. Despite the end of the world as we know it, each tells a story of personal heroism and hope. The other kind of apocalypse movie is European. It's exemplified by Le Dernier Combat, The Time of the Wolf, and this movie, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone. These are all movies of despair. The end of civilization is the end of the world. There is no personal heroism and no hope. Why the difference? Perhaps it's the Anglosphere's elevation of the individual. I don't know for sure. Watch them all and you decide, they are all worth the watch. (No doubt there are other types, and certain Anglo movies would fall into the European category, for instance, 28 Weeks Later, but for the moment, allow me this dichotomy.) Hotel Ozone shows animals killed on screen. The dog shooting is controversial as it appears to be an actual killing. It looks faked when slowed down, however. If that sort of thing bothers you, this might not be the movie for you.

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) Dir. David Twohy. Notable cast: Vin Diesel, Judi Dench, and Colm Feore.

If you like spaceships and action, The Chronicles of Riddick could be your movie because it provides plenty of both. Although its quality doesn't measure up to its predecessor, Pitch Black,it is worthy as a sequel because it takes Riddick's story in an entirely other direction. The visuals are stunning. The plot is hardly more than an action movie, there's no situation so dire that it can't be beaten to death by Vin Diesel's fists, but the story does end at an unexpected place. It's also suggestive of today's world of religious combat with an invading army crossing the galaxy and converting the conquered along the way. And did I mention that the movie looks darn good?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Dir. Michael Gondry. Notable cast: Jim Carrey, Kirsten Dunst, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Wilkinson.

Eternal Sunshine was for my money the best science fiction movie of 2004. Not too much in the way of special effects in this movie, just good screen writing that keeps tight control of the plot, well-managed direction, and superb acting by some of my favorites. It takes place in the present but it's pure science fiction as it explores the mind-bending consequences on human behavior of a new technology that can selectively wipe away bad memories from a person's brain.

Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead and Bedlam (1945) Dir. Mark Robson. Notable cast: Boris Karloff.

Horror films in the 21st Century are dipping more and more into the gore bucket. The shock value is high but is it art? Producer Val Lewton's horror movies aimed higher, whether because of the censorship of the times or because of good taste and intelligence. Isle of the Dead is the one supernatural movie on this disc but the horror in this movie is what ignorance and superstition will lead human beings to do. Bedlam doesn't really count as a horror movie. Instead, it's a morality tale about an 18th Century English insane asylum, its evil proprietor, and the people who would reform the place. The commentary track of Bedlam is worth the listen as it explains the inspiration for the movie.

The Island (2005) Dir. Michael Bay. Notable cast: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi.

Okay, I'm a sucker for concept science fiction and action movies. This movie combines both. The first 20 minutes or so set up the concept. Why are these people living pampered lives in an enclosed and antiseptic habitat and why are they all so childish? Then suddenly the movie changes from being a "film" into being a Michael Bay movie, with the running, and the jumping, and the fighting, and things blowing up. Very exciting! There are some great chase scenes in this movie. Special effects have come a long way or somebody has invented really cool flying motorcyles. There's something for the brain too, with the movie's exploration of what it means to be human and the morality, or not, of treating human beings as tools for the benefit of others. Something for contemporary society to think about. Can you say “embryonic stem cells”?



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