You are my witnesses

Lynsey Addario, New York Times.

Lynsey Addario, New York Times.

Lynsey Addario, New York Times.

Lynsey Addario, New York Times.

This past September I had a chance to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the Smithsonian museums near the National Mall in Washington, DC. From the subject matter you can pretty much guess it’s not going to be a particularly light trip, but it’s an intense, moving experience for all who visit, and I’m sure even more so for people who are more directly affected by the Holocaust than me.

The museum is laid out linearly: you enter through the atrium, take an elevator up to the top floor, then slowly and chronologically work your way down through history before finishing back in the atrium. Visiting that afternoon in September, I took in the atmosphere around me as we made our way into the exhibits. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and the crowd milling around the security lines outside the building was cheerful, most of them tourists having enjoyed a pleasant day so far in Washington, DC. As we made our way inside, it got a little quieter, but mostly because people were simply admiring the beautiful architecture of the atrium and trying to get their bearings and figuring out where to get started. But as we stepped into the elevator to go up to the top floor, the atmosphere changed. It seemed like everyone was more nervous, almost afraid of what we were about to walk into. And as we stepped out of the elevator, everyone went silent.

One step ahead

A review of Steve Jobs

"Steve Jobs", Universal Pictures.

“Steve Jobs”, Universal Pictures.

"Steve Jobs", Universal Pictures.

“Steve Jobs”, Universal Pictures.

Steve Jobs has had a bit of a troubled history. Soon after releasing the universally acclaimed The Social Network, Sony clearly thought it had a good thing going and immediately hired Aaron Sorkin to write another movie about another mercurial Silicon Valley founder. The timing was right: Steve Jobs had never been more famous, had never been more prolific, and it seemed like the entire US population used at least one device that he invented. But soon after Sorkin’s script was finished, problems started cropping up. Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale were both tabbed as early favorites to play Jobs, but both dropped out, along with director David Fincher. Current and former Apple executives attacked the movie before it even came out, along with Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell, and for a while Steve Jobs seemed like the third rail of Hollywood. Undoubtedly unnerved, Sony itself dropped Jobs too, and the movie was left in the less certain hands of Michael Fassbender, Danny Boyle, and Universal Pictures.

Of course, it was still Sorkin’s script, so despite all of this turmoil there was still a pretty good chance that Steve Jobs was going to be pretty good. I got a chance to see it on Friday night, and while it’s not the first movie about Steve Jobs, or the most conventional, it’s certainly the best. Michael Fassbender is convincing as Jobs, the supporting cast is strong, and it’s probably the best writing Sorkin has done since The Social Network. My review of Steve Jobs, with possible minor spoilers, is after the break.

Once more, into the cold

A review of Bridge of Spies

"Bridge of Spies", DreamWorks Studios

“Bridge of Spies”, DreamWorks Studios

"Bridge of Spies", DreamWorks Studios

“Bridge of Spies”, DreamWorks Studios

I’ve had Bridge of Spies on my radar since late 2012. Shortly after watching Lincoln, I checked Steven Spielberg’s IMDb page to see what he was working on next, which listed as his next project was “Untitled Cold War Thriller”. I was sold immediately: any movie directed by Spielberg, particularly the historical movies he’s taken to doing these last few years, has a really good chance of being good, and the Cold War is one of my favorite periods of history. And as the details filled in, I became more and more intrigued and knew I was going to have to see this movie as soon as it came out. Finally, on Friday night, I saw it. Bridge of Spies isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s darn close, and it certainly lived up to the hype I had built up for myself over these last few years. My review, with possible minor spoilers, is after the break.

Progressive Field: Renovated

Progressive Field, 2015

A couple years ago, the Atlanta Braves announced a plan to build a new stadium, abandoning Turner Field before the Braves had even been there twenty years. The move has generated its fair share of controversy and discussion: some don’t like that the Braves are moving out of Atlanta proper and into a more upscale suburban area, and many point out that the stadium — SunTrust Park — will be mostly paid for by Cobb County, which surely has better things to spend its money on. I had just visited Turner Field for the first time a few months before the announcement, and at the time I noted that “I had the feeling that in the 18 years of the stadium’s existence, the owners have taken care to keep it up to date,” and if you asked me what baseball teams needed new stadiums, Atlanta would have been prioritized at best halfway down the list.

Cleveland is a different market than Atlanta, and Atlanta’s situation is different because of its relationship with Disney, but a year later, the Indians’ announcement that they were doubling down on Progressive Field stood in stark contrast to Atlanta’s plan. Progressive Field has undergone several renovations in the past — the most recent major renovation was in 2004 and brought a new Jumbotron and auxiliary scoreboards — but the proposed improvements promised to be the biggest by far. To me, Progressive Field has never really felt outdated, even though it’s now older than all but 11 active MLB stadiums, but I was intrigued and impressed by the scope of the improvements the Indians were making. And while it took me a while, I finally got a chance to check out the (almost) final product. My impressions are after the break.

Mile high baseball

A review of Coors Field

Sunset at Coors Field

Despite its popularity lately, the practice of sports teams selling the naming rights to their home stadiums isn’t new. Usually there’s a tradeoff: the team gets a not insignificant influx of cash for the next few years which they can spend on players, stadium upgrades, or fancy cars for the executives, and in return the company providing the cash gets to name the stadium. The name is agreed upon beforehand, so there aren’t many outright disasters, but the results range from really good to slightly awkward. One of the best fits is Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, which, apart from sounding a bit braggy, doesn’t sound corporate at all even though it’s named after the Great American Insurance Group. One of the more awkward names, on the other hand, is Progressive Field in Cleveland. Like Great American, its named after an insurance company that’s based locally, but the name obviously doesn’t have the same ring to it, and it doesn’t help that Progressive Field went by Jacobs Field for the first 13 years of its life.

So maybe it’s the fact that Coors Field has never known any other name, or maybe the Coors commercials on TV are that effective at equating the Rocky Mountains with their brand, but the name Coors Field is a perfect fit for the home of the Colorado Rockies, in Denver, CO. I recently had the opportunity to visit Denver to attend Gophercon, and there was no way I was leaving Denver without visiting Coors Field. My review is after the break.

Of movies and music

My top ten favorite film scores of all time

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter "Oso" Snell / Warner Bros. Source

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter “Oso” Snell / Warner Bros. Source

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter "Oso" Snell / Warner Bros. Source

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter “Oso” Snell / Warner Bros. Source

In an interview that’s included in the Back to the Future DVD special features, Bob Gale, one of the writers and producers of the trilogy, recounted a story of his co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis giving instructions to the film’s composer. As Gale tells it, Zemeckis said this to the film’s composer, Alan Silvestri:

I don’t have a lot of money, I don’t have a lot of really big images on the screen in Back to the Future 1, so make the music really big, so that it’ll make the movie seem bigger than it really is.

And as Bob Gale later judged: “Alan delivered that in spades.” The idea that a great film score can make a movie sound bigger or more epic than it really is is nothing new, but while the three Back to the Future movies are hardly the first examples of movies that take advantage of it, they’re still really good examples of movies that are allowed to be augmented in scope and altered in tone by a great film score. In other words, viewers feel the way they do about Back to the Future at least partially because of its score, and if there were no score, or it was a different score, your memories of the film would probably be totally different.

I guess I’ve always at least heard the score, and as I got older I occasionally noticed it enough to appreciate the big moments, particularly if the score was loud or bombastic. But in the last few years, I’ve taken to listening to film scores by themselves, while working or driving or running, and now I go into theaters listening for the score. I’ve seen a lot of movies and heard a lot of scores, and in the spirit of full disclosure, there aren’t very many that I actively dislike. But I do like some more than others, and so I’ve tried to narrow down my favorites to a top ten list. Try to stay awake (just kidding, hopefully) as I share my top ten favorite movie scores after the break.

Once more, with feeling

A preview of the 2015 Cleveland Indians

Progressive Field

Going into the 2015 season, the bad news for the Cleveland Indians is that the renovations to their 21-year old ballpark might not be complete by the home opener. It was a historically cold winter in northeast Ohio, and despite the conservative planning and scheduling and the best efforts of the construction crews, the renovations to Progressive Field fell a little behind and it might end up being too much ground to make up this late in the offseason.

The good news is that Progressive Field is really the Tribe’s biggest question mark, which is refreshing because for the Indians that’s pretty abnormal. It seems like most offseasons feature a lot of roster turnover, some low-risk but nominal free agent signings, and at least a couple roster slots that are open for competition if not completely up in the air. But this year, the Indians will enter the season with their 2014 team largely intact: there were no major departures and there was only one major arrival in Brandon Moss. This is a team that won 85 games last season in one of the league’s more competitive divisions, so the fact that it’s mostly the same team returning is a really good thing. In fact, I think this is the best the Indians have looked going into a season in a long time, and with any luck, Tribe fans will be in for a fun summer and maybe even a fun October.

Ten days in Bhutan

Thimpu from above

They tell you that the landing is a doozy. They tell you that the task of landing an Airbus A319 on a small airstrip in the middle of the Himalayas is so difficult that only a handful of pilots in the world can do it. They tell you that even in this world of modern air travel, where a commercial airliner is able to perform all but the last thirty seconds of the landing all on its own, that landing at this particular airstrip is so challenging that the pilots are in control for the last quarter hour of the flight.

I had watched YouTube videos of the approach and landing beforehand, and I thought I knew what to expect. In most of the videos, the plane appeared to make a sharp left turn at about 500 feet off the ground before landing a few seconds later. I said before that only a handful of pilots in the world are qualified to make this landing, and obviously they are skilled and well-practiced because they make this approach two or three times a week. But it’s pretty abnormal for a commercial airliner to perform a turn that drastic that late in the approach; park outside almost any airport in the United States or abroad and you’ll see a long line of jets coming in on a straight approach for each of the runways. Approaches are designed like this intentionally: they’re safer, more fuel efficient, and just generally simpler to execute.

But sometimes, and in some places, like Paro, Bhutan, the straight and simple approach just isn’t possible. And going into that landing I thought I knew what I was getting into for that last 30 seconds in the air. But it’s not just the last 30 seconds that are exciting. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I was: the entire approach, from 33,000 feet down to the ground (a balmy 7,333 feet in Paro) is just as exciting as the final touchdown. Weaving through mountain ranges and valleys, over crystal clear rivers and idyllic settlements, you even pass by a house perched on a mountain ridge at about eye level with the plane (imagine living there and seeing jets fly by your window like that every day). And when you finally land, you realize that you didn’t even notice the crazy left turn. The whole experience sort of blends together in an unforgettable fashion.

That’s how I felt about my trip to Bhutan as a whole. It never felt like a series of moments, but instead an interconnected and unforgettable experience. And so while the following are only snapshots of my time there, they’re not the only moments that mattered, but some of the stories and the experiences I remember most vividly.

If it bleeds, it leads

The best movies of 2014


Happy New Year! It’s now 2015, but before we get too far into the new year it’s worth looking back at 2014, which was another great year for movies. It was another year of sequels and sequels to the sequels (Expendables 3, The Hobbit Part 3, Transformers 4, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but it was also a year showcasing directors at the top of their craft (Gone Girl‘s David Fincher and Interstellar‘s Christopher Nolan). We also had two Liam Neeson movies (Non-Stop and A Walk Among The Tombstones) as well as two other Liam Neeson movies with different actors playing Liam Neeson (The November Man and John Wick). It was harder this year than most to choose a top five, so I’ll also include some honorable mentions before getting down to business. And as a warning, I did my best, but there may be some minor spoilers ahead. So read on, with caution, after the jump.

A life fully lived

Uncle Jim and I

Last August, the world was stunned and horrified when it learned that actor and comedian Robin Williams had committed suicide. Any death is sad, and any celebrity death brings some amount of news coverage, but this one seemed to bring even more than usual because of the suddenness and shocking nature of his death. Regular programming was interrupted for breaking news and wall-to-wall coverage stretched into the next morning. His motive wasn’t immediately clear, and so speculation continued throughout the week on what might have caused Williams to take his own life. Makeshift memorials sprouted up all over the country at sites from his popular movies. Popular lines from his movies were quoted and repeated on social media, and people usually included an anecdote on how Williams or his movies affected them. But when I first heard the news, I didn’t think of his movies or his comedy. I thought of my uncle Jim.