The Shapiro Files

Monday, February 27, 2006

Netflix Weekend Wrap-Up #5

Previous installments: #1, #2, #3, #4

With the Olympics, the return of 24 and American Idol, a busy period at work, and parenting-related responsibilities (the most important of all), our Netflix queue hasn't gotten much attention lately. But I did manage to squeeze in two movies over the past month all the same. Although I didn't actually see these films over the past weekend, I'm going to cheat and still make these movies the subject of my latest weekend wrap-up entry anyway!

For my first Netflix Weekend Wrap-up entry, I shared my thoughts on The Island, a sci-fi/action movie with a great premise but which ultimately failed pretty miserably. Shortly after seeing it, I learned that it was largely derivative of two films from the 70's that are both about controlled societies of the future and the attempt to escape from them. And yes, now that I've seen them, I agree that The Island "borrowed" (stole?) a great deal from both.

Logan's Run (1976) - A very dated, but still enjoyable look at a society of the future in which its members aren't allowed to live past their 30th birthday. Sure the special effects are cheesy (something that never bothers me when watching older films...are you listening George Lucas?!) and some of the supporting actors are quite wooden in their acting, but Michael York makes the most with his material. The film overstays its welcome after a while and its episodic nature can be a little tiresome. Still, the film has some good moments and an especially intriguing premise. Not a bad "old school sci-fi" rental. My Netflix rating: 3 stars

THX 1138 (1971) - George Lucas' very first feature film. Similar to Logan's Run, THX is about a controlled society of the future. But whereas the world of the former film is downright hedonistic, the world of THX is bleak and sterile. Society members are kept sedated by drugs, spirituality has been replaced by mechanized confession booths encouraging visitors to "buy more, buy more," and all physical manifestations of love are illegal. This is a very dark look at the future indeed, and like all good movies about the future, it's really about us today. Unfortunately, George Lucas has once again felt the need to dress up one of his early films with modern CGI additions that I found completely unnecessary and distracting. The film's aesthetic is a low-budget minimalism that works very well. So the CGI additions are especially pointless and took me out of the film every time. But despite the annoying CGI retouching (plus a slightly hokey ending), THX 1138 is still a very good piece of work and arguably George Lucas' best film. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Catching Up

For those of you who are always so kind to check my blog regularly, I have to apologize for yet another large gap between postings. Upon returning from Florida (more on this in just a moment), I entered one of my regular crazy-busy times at works — I usually have one of these every couple of months (sometimes more frequently). During such times, I often end up working pretty late at home (after Melody goes to sleep) to keep on top of my workload and this tends to take away from my usual evening blog writing time. But at last, things seem to be getting back to normal and I can finally return to posting regular entries (such as this one) again.

So first of all, I wanted to thank everyone who posted such kind comments to my Feb. 3 entry in tribute to Grandma Sophie. I flew to Florida early the next morning to attend her services and be with my family. On Monday morning, I was able to quickly get online at the West Palm Beach Airport just before boarding my flight and was very touched to find your comments. Thank you again for your warm wishes and the comfort they provided.

As I mentioned in my response to your comments, Grandma Sophie would have been thrilled to know her family were all together. So although it was a terribly sad occasion, it was really wonderful to see my extended family again.

The cousins (from left to right): Bonnie, Jonathan, Donna, Andrew, Greg, and me.

Friday, February 03, 2006

A Tribute to Grandma Sophie

I'm very sad to report that my maternal grandmother Sophie Portnoy passed away this morning. Grandma Sophie was the quintessential Jewish grandmother. She was very outspoken, had a Yiddish-like accent, called us "Bubbala," gave big sloppy kisses on the check, and was happiest when she knew we were well-fed ("You're so thin! Eat Bubbala, eat!"). She was never afraid to speak her mind, often saying some things that were both shocking and incredibly funny.

It's always been disappointing to me that once my family moved to California in the 70's, we only saw our grandparents infrequently. I do remember some memorable trips to Florida to see Sophie and her husband/my grandfather Curley (real name: Herman) and their trips to visit us in the San Fernando Valley during the 70's and 80's, but such visits all but stopped entirely by the 90's. I am extremely happy that Grandma Sophie made the trip to California to attend Marcie's and my wedding in September 2000. I was thrilled to finally introduce Marcie to her and it made that weekend especially meaningful knowing she was there.

And speaking of our wedding, I will always remember the message she left on our answering machine in September 1999 when she learned of our getting engaged:
"Uh, hello. Uh, Stephen [pronounced "Stay-ven"], uh, hello. Congratulations on getting engaged. I'M SENDING YOU A CHECK! Uh, okay. Goodbye. Oh, this is Grandma Sophie. Okay, goodbye."

(This is probably funnier if you knew how she spoke and what her voice sounded like. But you get the idea.)

I saved that message on our machine for months, but as it was a digital answering machine, it finally was erased when we moved and it had to remain unplugged for a couple of weeks during transit.

Marcie and I last saw Grandma Sophie at my cousin Andrew's wedding a couple of years ago. Upon her arrival, she immediately launched into telling us about a young couple sitting in front of her on the plane who were acting a bit too affectionately. In relating this story, she used a few choice words (something she never hesitated doing) in describing her observations and consequently had us in stitches. Later at the reception, she didn't hesitate to join her fellow wedding guests on the dance floor despite otherwise having difficulty walking. Her love of music was so strong that no amount of discomfort was going to keep her away from cutting a rug at her grandson's wedding.

And on the topic of music, during one of our trips in the 80's, I remember Grandma Sophie constantly listening to an oldies radio station that seemed to play nothing but Frank Sinatra. We always got such a kick out of hearing her singing along with Sinatra's songs--even though (or possibly because) she didn't have what would normally be considered a particularly great singing voice. I also had the pleasure of acting as Grandpa Curley's accompanist (on an electric organ no less!) one evening during the same trip. Curley had a wonderful singing voice and was a true pleasure to listen to. He managed to rig up the organ and a microphone to his tape deck so we could make a recording of our "jam session." Twenty years later, that tape is still among my most cherished recordings in my collection. One of the best parts of listening to it is hearing Grandma Sophie humming along (albeit off key, but endearingly so) in the background.

So, here's to Grandma Sophie. We love you and will miss you terribly. I'd like to imagine that you and Grandpa Curley are together again. And just maybe, he's singing a Sinatra song and you're humming along.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Of Groundhog Day and Time-Looping Films

Today is Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow and it looks like we're in for six more weeks of bad weather. In honor of today's annual celebration of our beloved season-indicating rodent, I thought I'd take a moment to set the record straight about the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day. When the film was released in 1993, I avoided seeing it because I was a little annoyed by all the reviews praising its "unique" premise. Why? Because in 1990, three years prior to its release, I saw (and tremendously enjoyed) a short film called 12:01--a film with an identical time-looping premise. The only difference between the two is that in 12:01, the protagonist endlessly relives a single hour, whereas the Bill Murray character endlessly relives a whole day in Groundhog Day. And we're not talking about an entirely obscure short film either; it was nominated for an Oscar for best live action short film and aired regularly on cable TV. Yet there has never been any mention of this excellent short film in any of the marketing or reviews for Groundhog Day.

(Incidentally, because of the popularity of Groundhog Day three years later, 12:01 was turned into a full-length television film. I bet people at the time mistakenly thought it was 12:01 that was copying the premise of Groundhog Day, when it was really the other way around.)

In all events, I finally did get around to seeing Groundhog Day last year (ya gotta love Netflix). And I'm happy to say that I enjoyed the movie very much. Although none of the filmmakers want to acknowledge 12:01 as a possible influence (and I watched all the DVD supplements and listened to the director's commentary just to be sure), I have to admit it's a a really sweet and funny little movie. The hilarious scene of Bill Murray kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil alone makes the film worth seeing.

As a final note, it seems that several television programs have also employed the "time looping" plot device in the years following the release of 12:01. Here's an fun site I found by way of Google that lists a bunch of these.

Coming soon in a future blog entry: A discussion of time-stopping movies/television programs. (Ever hear of a television film called The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything?)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Spam Blam Revisited

Last week, I posted an entry about my dramatic increase of email spam that I thought came about from including my email address (with spaces around the "@" symbol) in my first "Netflix Wrap-up" posting. As it turns out, that earlier blog posting wasn't the reason for the new influx of spam after all (and perhaps that trick of spacing out email address to avoid being captured by spammers still potentially works).

To see if there was any way to curtail the spam (roughly 100 emails a day now), I started looking at the text and raw source code of the messages (with remote HTML image linking turned off for protection) and noticed that the bottom of almost all the messages said I was signed up for their mailing by way of IP address A simple whois search revealed this address to be owned by AOL/Netscape. This instantly reminded me that at just about the same time I started getting hit really hard by the new spam, my father, an AOL user, innocently tried sharing an online cartoon flash movie with me by way of a "Share with a friend" web form. However, instead of entering my email address into the "to" field, he accidentally entered it into the "from" field, which the form cunningly leveraged as an opt-in request for a shared mailing list used by an endlessly growing collection of spammers. In this way, they are able to trick people into getting added to such lists without recourse as it makes it appear that users are intentionally adding themselves to a mailing list. This illusion of legitimacy finds its way into the spam messages themselves, as most include the aforementioned "added by" IP address at the bottom of each email. By doing this, they are basically saying, "Don't want these messages? Too bad. After all, you added yourself to this list, as you can see by this IP address right here."

Of course, this doesn't stop someone else from adding your email address to a list as my father accidentally did. As a result, he has inadvertently added me to what could easily be the worst spam list on the planet.

So what's the lesson learned here? If you want to share a flash movie or other speciality web page with people, simply copy and paste the URL (web address) into an email and avoid "Share with a friend" forms at all costs!