Monday, May 18, 2009

Audio View from the Tank: DOOM, Born Like This (2009)

By special request. (Shout out to Upstate NY!)

I had been waiting a while for the return of MF DOOM (now just DOOM), filling the time by playing his previous albums over and over. DOOM has ruined most other rap for me: everything and everyone else sounds stale, tired, bogus. Is there anyone else out there in hip hop as funny, as vibrant, or as mind-blowingly clever as DOOM/MF DOOM/King Geedorah/Victor Vaughn?

First, sighs of relief: Born Like This is mostly awesome and miles better than the misbegotten The Mouse and the Mask. DOOM has somehow managed to stay fresh and compelling over more than a decade now. His longevity is probably due to his humor and his unwillingness to ever grow up: the samples from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Star Trek, The Fantastic Four and all other manner of Saturday morning and afternoon detritus are served up here.

There are some uneven patches here: the excessively long samples of police reports, the litany of disaster from Charles Bukowski at the beginning of "Cellz" (which is interesting only the first couple of times you hear it), etc.

But these minor bumps in the road aren't enough to take away from the joy of the ride. There are several tracks I wanted to go on forever -- especially "Yessir!" (featuring Raekwon in fine, energetic, mid-90's form and DOOM production consisting of a sick ESG sample), "Angelz" (with Ghostface Killah and some very fine late-70's action-drama production from DOOM), and "Still Dope" (with a shockingly good staHHR). There are some interesting experiments, most notably the collaborations with Thom Yorke on the "Gazillion Ear" remix. And the late great J Dilla makes a couple triumphant appearances.

Perhaps not DOOM's greatest album ever, but featuring flashes of extreme brilliance. DOOM is still "in effect like alternative side of the street parking rules." 3 1/2 tentacles.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

When Trekkies Attack

An open letter to the New Yorker:

Re "Highly Illogical" by Anthony Lane (a review of Star Trek)

I'm quite sure this letter will end up a thick file labeled "Angry Trekkies," but I will send it anyway. Anthony Lane gets Lieutenant Uhura, the Enterprise's linguist, quite wrong, in an amusingly ironic way. He says that she is "said to have 'exceptional oral sensitivity.'" Uhura is a linguist who spends most of her time listening to faint transmissions in alien languages: her exceptional sensitivity is "aural" -- not "oral."

Unfortunately for Lane, his aural sensitivity isn't quite as exceptional as Lieutenant Uhura's. Subtitles might help him with those confusing English homonyms.

Octopus Grigori
Los Angeles, California
Yeah, I know. I wouldn't publish it either.

Monday, May 11, 2009

View from the Tank: Star Trek (2009)

I was worried about this movie, and hesitant to embrace it, especially as everyone began raving about how exciting, sexy, and action-packed it was. I was, in fact, like the fanboys The Onion parodied, worried that it was a thrilling, accessible blockbuster.

But I had no reason to fear. Star Trek is the best film in the series, with the possible -- possible -- exception of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It is thrilling, it is slick, and it's even sort of sexy. But it is also true to the essence of the series, to Gene Roddenberry's vision, to what makes Star Trek the most important and influential science fiction series in American television history. The film captures the optimistic vision of the universe so many of us were entranced by in the Original Series, The Next Generation, and the other progeny of Star Trek. At its heart, Star Trek is about the hope that logic and ethical actions will win out in the end and that we must approach the universe with an openness to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

After seeing this film twice in four days, I appreciate this film most for its faith in the fans of of the series. J.J. Abrams and the screenwriters recognized something that maybe some of us had forgotten as Star Trek became steadily ossified in an endless series of lifeless museum pieces in films numbers three through ten: Star Trek is about accepting new ideas and new realities. This film has the faith in its fans to take away (almost) everything we know. The arrival of a Romulan ship from the future (and a very special Vulcan ambassador) fundamentally alters the course of Trek history at the very beginning of the story of James T. Kirk, Spock, and crew. As Spock explains mid-way through the movie, the arrival of the Romulan ship has changed the course of history and set them all on an alternative timeline: as he says, their destinies have changed. The Original Series, the Next Generation, etc. -- none of these "exist" any longer as we know them. The new series can go anywhere it wants, almost entirely unconstrained by any of the previous Trek series.

What is especially wonderful is that this creation of an entirely new "reality" for the crew of the Enterprise is done in a way that honors the very best of TOS: the greatest episode in the original series, City on the Edge of Forever (written by the great (and litigious) Harlan Ellison) featured a similar diversion of history, when McCoy travelled back to 1930's America and accidentally prevented the entry of the U.S. into W.W.II. There are other ingenious quotations from earlier Trek: e.g., Kirk's goading of Spock, straight out of This Side of Paradise, the upgrading of Uhura's abilities to expertise in xenolinguistics (from Hoshi Sato in Enterprise), etc. And don't miss the tribble hidden in the film. (Hint: you'll hear the tribble cooing and purring before you see it.)

The casting is phenomenal -- as in perfect. I liked the controversial casting for Chekhov quite a bit: the whiz-kid math genius angle works. John Cho as Sulu seemed a little shaky to me at first, but you will be won over once he pulls out his sword -- I almost jumped out of my seat cheering. Zoe Saldana as Uhura is a revelation, and I do appreciate the efforts of the filmmakers to add some depth to this crucial character. Simon Pegg is delightful and appropriately zany as Scottie (I even liked his ewok-like sidekick as a frivolous add-on). Karl Urban is phenomenal in capturing McCoy, and his performance is the closest to impersonation, though it's much richer than that. Chris Pine won me over, despite my initial impulse to dislike him, with his thoughtful balance of Kirk's narcissism, cocksureness, and comic side, while avoiding falling into easy caricature. Finally, Zack Quinto has offered us a deeply textured Spock, bringing his emotional torment to just below the surface -- constantly simmering. (Never before have the words "Live long and prosper" so clearly meant "fuck off" as they do in a key scene here.)

Eric Bana does what he can with the Romulan villain Nero: he's got no real story and no real depth to work with. The much ballyhooed presence of Leonard Nimoy is just okay: I found some of his lines a bit cheesy and manipulative. (I thought the use of the line "I have been and always will be your friend" was an unforgivable abuse of that historic and moving line.) There are some stupid and cheesy monsters, and more than a few holes in the plot. And perhaps you will be as put off as I was by the less than convincing reaction of some of the characters to the destruction of an entire planet. Finally, what was with all the lens flare?

It's not a perfect movie -- but it's pretty damn good. It's a fresh and thrilling reboot (paging Daniel Craig), opening the door to a new chapter of Trek. Oh, and the opening scene may be the single greatest scene that I know of in all of Star Trek.

I've decided to bump up my rating after my second viewing: four and 1/2 tentacles.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

More than 140 characters -- but not much more

Looking back at the weekend now that I've reached the very end again: reading Less Than Zero, watching several episodes of Star Trek TOS, going for a hike in Runyon Canyon with all the dogs and beautiful people, window shopping for a new car, swimming at the Rose Bowl, visiting Mrs. Octopus' parents in Orange County, seeing Star Trek (the new movie) again, and now heading off to bed. There were many things I forgot to get around to doing. That'll all have to wait until next weekend.

My sunflowers are starting to get a bit taller, and the leaves on the plants are getting huge. There's still nothing resembling a flower on any of the plants yet -- maybe by June. The vegetables in the back are doing fine; we'll probably have some vegetables ready to eat by July or August. Plants were not made for the age of the blog post or twitter update.

We visited a model home near Mrs. Octopus' parents' house this afternoon, just for kicks; it was my first time inside a model home. I found it kind of creepy and fascinating how the real estate marketers chose to decorate the model home: they had decided that the fake family inhabiting the model home was Asian, and filled the house with seemingly random pictures of Asian people. I was also fascinated by the choice of books they placed around the house. In the "teenage boy's room" there was a copy of Modern Electroanalytical Chemistry and The Real Anita Hill. The master bedroom featured a copy of Modern Physics. The plants in the model home were, to my surprise, real. It was a strange touch. There were jars filled with cereal, goldfish crackers, etc. I thought about eating from them, but didn't. I checked the fridge: it was empty, except for a box of Arm & Hammer.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

You Are a Reaction

What is memory? And by that, I mean, what is it made of? If consciousness is a set of chemical and electrical reactions and impulses, memory itself must be nothing more than certain chemical compounds and reactions in the brain. Human memory is undoubtedly a material thing, stored in wet, slimy, material form.

It's beyond debate, but still feels strange, somehow. Perhaps because memory seems like such a ghostly, spectral thing -- appearing in visions in our dreams, in our minds as we recall faces, views, words. Memory -- like consciousness itself -- seems too elevated and ethereal -- too incorporeal -- to be nothing more than simple chemical compounds. In the end, everything is something -- as in something physical. My physics professors always used to lord it over their colleagues in biology and chemistry: because, in the end, everything boils down to physics. I guess the question is whether that is depressing or liberating.

Update 5/6/09: Better living through chemistry: BBC reports that scientists at the Alzheimer's Research Trust have had success with a drug that apparently reverses the effects of Alzheimer's disease by boosting the chemical processes involved in memory formation and retention.