Monday, July 14, 2008

Review: Sleep Buddies

THE REALM OF SLUMBER, July 14 -
I vaguely remember a time in my life when going to sleep meant nothing more than going to sleep. Now going to sleep requires preparation, and gadgets, and investment. Add to all that the threat of sleep apnea - the creeping, invisible killer that chips away at the minutes and hours of REM I get each night, weakening my heart muscle, chipping away at my oxygen levels, pushing me, in undetectably teensy increments, towards congestive heart failure and sleep-deprived insanity - and you begin to understand the importance of these little tools listed below.

1. EAR PLUGS
Earplugs come in many guises. You want the ones shaped like little tin cans (E.A.R. Classic, $22.76 for a box of 100). Be sure they're rated NRR 29dB. Don't buy wax stopples (Flents, $2.77 for 6). Stuffing wax putty in your ears is for rubes and suckers and people living in the 1700's. Foam cones (Milwaukee, $23.50 for a box of 200 ) are permissible in emergency situations, but really; if they're smaller on one side, doesn't it follow that they'd be less effective on that side?

Before I used ear plugs to induce unconsciousness, I spent years relying on them to perform live with bands. Once or twice my earplugs fell out mid-performance, and I found myself submerged in a paralyzing, disorienting roar, like standing directly behind a jet engine. I occasionally catch myself reflexively checking my earplugs at night to make sure they're snug.

Earplugs can only do so much. If indifferent neighbors blast DMX or neglect their car alarm, for example, you may find yourself trapped in an anger loop - too tired to take action, too angry to sleep - and no amount of squishy foam will save you. Even nonhuman proxies can trip the switch; my own earplugs are basically useless against the dogs in the next yard. I hear that yalping, yipping, simpering canine bullshit and I'm instantly awake and seething for another hour. In moments like this, it is important to remember that bad dogs wind up in animal Hell, which is much, much worse than human Hell.

2. EAR THINGS
Most stores and catalogs refer to these as "ear defenders". Not caring for that name, I pointed and grunted when I bought mine (Peltor, $14.99) at Home Depot. These are the same basic heavy plastic headphones worn on firing ranges and airport tarmacs. I don't know enough about the weird world of logarithmic scales to understand why defenders of the ear only rank NRR 23dB (6 decibels less than ear plugs?). But these are indeed the heavy duty mothers. Combine these with earplugs and you will find yourself immersed in a total, spooky silence not unlike being buried alive. That's good news if you like to sleep. It's not such good news if you get creeped out by the sound of every insistent heartbeat softly marching you closer and closer to your eventual death.

3. EYE PILLOW
This is another item I don't know the proper name of. Airport gift shops call them "eye masks", "sleep masks", or "sleep masters". I used to associate these with priggish old ladies on overnight flights. Now I can't sleep without one, even in total darkness. Mine, a pair of luscious black cloth lips that fit tight over my slumbering eyes (Lewis N. Clark, 2 for $16.99), must be washed once a month, lest it stink of sloughed off face skin and eyebrow sweat. Combined with the ear plugs and ear defender things, the entire getup can best be described - in that crummy way terms of atrocity quietly seep into everyday usage - as "Guantanamo Bayish".

4. NOSE STRIPS
My alleged snoring has brought tension into my life. A former guitarist, forced to share hotel rooms with me and my alleged problem, once described my alleged snores as "angry and sexual". Without admitting guilt, I have sought help. I've taken pills (SnoreStop, $12.74 for a box of 80), slept on experimental pillows (Sona Pillow, $129, received as gift), and spritzed minty medicine down the back of my throat (SnoreStop Extinguisher, $16.99, plus $175 for a trip to the E.R. after my windpipe swelled shut). Nothing worked.

The jury is still out on nose strips. These springy, elongated butterfly-bandages (Breathe Right, $12.99 for a box of 30) adhere to the nose just below the bridge, flaring the nostrils and increasing air flow. The packaging features photos of slumbering spouses, so the company could be shooting for some sort of placebo effect. In both design and planned obsolescence, however, this is the product to beat. The nose is the greasiest part of the body, and a Breathe Right strip, once used, can never re-anchor itself to this same surface (although it will have no problem clinging to dirty laundry).

43 cents a night is a lot to pay for sleep. I save these for special occasions. My wife claims that Breathe Rights actually facilitate snoring, so it turns out the happily sleeping spouse is me. By my logic, she hasn't woken to find herself a widow due to sleep apnea, so everybody wins. The only real risk is in not paying attention to the mirror in the morning and then the next thing you know you're driving around town with a Breathe Right strip on your nose like a dumb guy. I may have done this.

5. SLEEP WIZARD
Discussions of elective snoring surgery (San Dimas Surgical, $3,495) had been taking on an alarmingly urgent tone when I read of the Sleep Wizard. If anyone could help, I thought with deep gratitude, it'd be the Wizard Of Sleep. I would beseech him directly.

Turns out the Sleep Wizard ($74.99 from sleepwizard.com) is not a kindly old man holding a staff of wisdom. The real world Sleep Wizard is a tailored lycra strap secured by Velcro. It fits over the head and secures the chin like a restraining head bra. I admired this common sense approach - don't want to snore? Then shut your mouth! - but when I tried the thing on it hurt. A lot. The thought of trying to sleep through the pain put me in a wide awake anger loop. It had the feel of a scam.

And a scam it was. The manufacturer, sleepwizard.com of West Palm Beach, has been assigned an "F" rating by the Better Business Bureau, and the impotent rage of past customers reverberates throughout consumer rights message boards. The toll free phone number for sleepwizard.com now runs a message for some sort of phone chat dating service. I see my own Sleep Wizard every now and then under different pieces of furniture, covered in cat hair and unloved, and I think up yours, sleep wizard.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sunday, July 6, 2008

LD50 1986

FROM THE ARCHIVES, July 6 - Here's my LD50 chart from 11th grade science class;

Friday, July 4, 2008

Review: "Last Best Chance" (2005)

originally posted 10/9/07 on sammcpheeters.com

The disappointment of Fred Thompson flows in two directions. The actor, former senator, and presidential candidate recently scolded an Iowa audience for not applauding him. Our disappointment in him is neatly mirrored by his own disappointment in all of us. Thompson lacks the humor and charm of his ideological ancestor, Ronald Reagan. He resembles a melted Kelsey Grammar, and his strong suit seems to be unyielding, unrelenting disappointment. If he wins the presidency next year, we can expect him to sigh and shake his head silently.

But Thompson's candidacy does offer something unique in the history of American politics: he has already played the commander in chief. In HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", he bravely channels the spirit-gum beard of Ulysses Grant, regularly ranked among the worst ten presidents. That performance evokes a melted, disappointed Unabomber in an undertaker's suit (although a brief conversation about bringing democracy to the Indians may prove instructive for a future Thompson cabinet). Far more illuminating is Thompson's turn as President Charles B. Ross in 2005's "Last Best Chance". President Ross is a hands-on guy, engaged, decisive, and hungry for facts. The disappointment is there, but held in check, harnessed for the greater good. In 2007, the film plays out like an extended campaign ad.

It was born of loftier ambitions. The movie was produced by former senator Sam Nunn through his Nuclear Threat Initiative. Nunn is better known for sponsoring the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, an ambitious attempt to secure and destroy old Soviet nuclear weapons. The NTI is a less ambitious attempt to send out free DVDs of "Last Best Chance" to anyone who wants one. The movie presents itself as a political thriller with an agenda, distant cousin to "The Day After", and "The Day After Tomorrow". It aims to scare.

For most of "Last Best Chance", it does seem as if something terrible is just around the corner. President Ross's team frets over intelligence while we follow the progress of stolen bomb materials up the rungs of the third and second world, nations afflicted by jittery handicam and fretful ambience that swells and fades, like wind whistling down a long hall. With al-Qaeda as the villain, the whole project has a distinctly postmodern odor to it, so I'm curious why the producers didn't just cast Fred Thompson as a first term President Fred Thompson (he played himself in his debut film - 1985's "Marie" - just as real flight controllers were coerced into reliving their worst day for "United 93"). Ross makes references to 9/11 and the terror attacks in Bali and Madrid, so the distinct implication is that we are watching # 44 in action, the first post-W presidency.

An interesting little mystery involves a change in personnel. One of the bombs, passed up the terrorist food chain by corrupt Russians and menacing Africans, winds up in the hands of a young white college boy. "It'll make a real impression in New York," the youngster tells a disinterested Canadian customs officer. The young white college boy reemerges a little later, driving a van across a remote border checkpoint with a young white college girl. Who are these two? John Walker Lindh types? Manchurian Candidate types? Two small Yemeni men in latex Caucasian masks? We never find out. The final shot shows the minivan driving away into the bucolic distance. With different theme music it could be a happy ending to a teen romance. Nothing explodes.

At only 45 minutes, LBC is odd propaganda. The film's appeal to fear is similar to 1983's "The Day After", only minus the fear. I actually stumbled upon the last 20 minutes of "The Day After" while channel surfing just last month, and instantly regressed into a terrified fourteen year old. Even now, two decades of bad Steve Guttenberg comedies can't erase the horror of young Steve Guttenberg's grimy, hobo-clown face as he shambles through a gymnasium of dying Kansans. The most memorable face in "Last Best Chance" is Thompson's, and although it was nice to see an adult in charge in the oval office, his big melty mug of disappointment simply isn't that terrifying. "I don't want us sitting on our butts if something's about to happen," Thompson tells a staffer who has disappointed him. Something never materializes.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative is not much help with the scares. The DVD refers us to their website, and the website wants to send us more free DVDs. NTI offers a selection of interesting policy stories (like May's "Nuclear Experts Urge Return to Bomb Shelters", or June's news that U.S. Homeland Security has started recruiting science fiction authors), but nothing in the way of shock value.

Chaos and destruction were beyond NTI's $1 million budget, but it wouldn't have been that hard to make a completely unnerving movie instead of just a movie about an unnerving subject. The consequences of even one exploded U.S. city could be depicted as overheard broadcasts. The recently released "Right At Your Door" accomplishes something like this on a similar shoestring budget, portraying a dirty bomb attack on Los Angeles largely through the anguish of radio anchors. It's a very scary movie. Even scarier is a scene in last year's "Children Of Men", a film depicting a post-post-"Last Best Chance" world, when Clive Owen simply asks Juliana Moore, "Were your parents in New York when it happened?" Behind them, a wall of faded newspaper clippings hints at mushroom clouds and WWII-sized headlines. The props couldn't have cost more than Fred Thompson's suit.

"Last Best Chance" raises another novel possibility. If Moscow got whacked by one of its own suitcase bombs, the deteriorating Soviet early warning system might think it was being attacked by America. Could a terrorist attack on Russia result in the end of the world? Tellingly, there is no mention of "Last Best Chance" in Thompson's campaign bio. There is no mention of Nunn-Lugar, or securing nuclear weapons, in his national security platform. It's probably an emasculating idea, for Thompson, that the Russians and Africans and turncoat college sophomores in our midst could have more sway over the fate of the world than the guy in the White House. Or at least it is a terribly disappointing idea.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Review: "Valley Of The Wolves Iraq" (2006)

Here's how I like my anti-American / anti-Semitic Turkish action films; Insane Style. If a 21st century movie is actually going to present Jews as the villains, it should have the balls to put forth the most grotesque spectacle ever committed to film. The bad guys should be hook-nosed Nosferatus, closer to HR Pufnstuf creatures than actual humans. And if currently engaged U.S. forces are actually going to be portrayed as villains, the filmmakers should have the backbone to depict Americans as soulless Terminator centurion warriors who snack on orphan cuticles. There's no halfway about it. We would have killed everyone on Earth if it hadn't of been for you meddling Turks!

Almost none of these things happen in "Valley Of The Wolves Iraq". The controversial 2006 movie is known at home as "Kurtlar Vadisi Irak", and owes its clumsy title to the hit Turkish TV series "Kurtlar Vadisi". The series hero, Polat Almedar, is a secret agent who specializes in infiltration (in the original "Kurtlar Vadisi", he undergoes plastic surgery and slips into the Turkish mob). Almedar is played, with smoldering inscrutability, by a young Turkish actor named Necati Sasmaz. Mr. Sasmaz's boyish good looks seem to undercut his authority; he resembles a European pop star who has been charged with avenging the deaths of his backup band.

Vengeance is indeed the prime motivator for Almedar in this feature-length installment of "Valley Of The Wolves". A close friend of his in the Turkish military has hanged himself in shame, having been marched about with a hood over his head by American forces. Almedar and his two assistants sneak across the border into Iraq, where they wire a hotel to explode, forcing a meeting with the American overseer, Sam Marshall. Turk offers American a deal; the hotel's freedom in return for Marshall marching around with a hood over his own head. Almedar however, has severely overestimated Marshall's humanity. The villainous American overseer has brought an entire children's choir with him as human shields, and the Turkish heroes, outbluffed, must flee into the night. For the rest of the film the two men hunt each other down through small town Iraq. There are lots of narrow escapes and exploding shenanigans, and at one point a booby-trapped piano is thrown into the mix. I won't spoil the ending for you, except to say that Almedar eventually kills Marshall and then the movie ends.


Sam Marshall is played by the American actor Billy Zane, and his exact title and rank are never made clear. Zane plays the part as a Paul Bremmer caricature in a safari hat, strutting around occupied Iraq like a weary pimp. In a private moment, Marshall beseeches Jesus to allow him to resolve the conflict in Babylon. He's kind of a nut. The role almost seems a continuation of his turn as preppy psychopath Hughie Warner in 1989's "Dead Calm".

It is a little startling to see Americans depicted as villains in a film with the stagnant sheen of a late night Cinemax titty movie. Several U.S. soldiers are portrayed as menacing lunks with conspicuous Turkish accents, although one virtuous American is played by Ultimate Fighting Champion Tito Ortiz. When Ortiz confronts his superior after the indiscriminate shooting of detainees, he is simply shot and left for dead by the side of the road. Marshal snare drums herald a wide range of American wrongdoings, many pulled straight from the headlines. The Lynndie England human pigpile is here, as is the Mukaradeeb wedding massacre of 2004, and the alleged November 2001 massacre of Taliban prisoners, as transplanted from Afghanistan to Iraq (perhaps to defuse bias accusations, one strange scene shows a group of insurgents preparing to behead an American journalist, only to be halted by a wise Islamic elder who delivers a monologue on tolerance that would be comfortable in any Spike Lee movie).

The anti-Semitism charges seem fuzzier. Yes, Garey Busey does play a Jewish American surgeon working in the bowels of Abu Ghraib, and yes, he does harvest organs from condemned prisoners to sell on the black market. For all the hubbub, this is a fairly minor role. Human vivisection aside, "Doctor" is one of the more reasonable characters in the film. It's not until the included "making of" featurette that Busey really lets loose. As he angrily explains; This movie shows what's going on, to stop that from happening. To stop the unity of one. [sic?] The warfare, the killing, the greed, the fear, the anger. All of those emotions that come into play don't have anything to do with the bottom line. Of truth. And reality. And this movie is a surprise movie.

Most surprising about this surprise movie is the event that precipitated it. U.S. forces did march a group of Turkish military personnel in hoods, at the start of the current war. The event was less than a blip in America, but in Turkey it is remembered as "the hood event", a grave, gross insult marking rock bottom in Turkish-US relations. Seen across the divide of a half-decade trail of American abuse, fraud, torture, and waste, the charge seems almost quaint. I just machine-gunned an orphanage, and you're getting bent out of shape because I stole your garden hose? Billy Zane more or less uses this line of defense several times in the movie, and it's disorienting to identify with the bad guy.

Unseen stateside, this film was a big hit in Turkey. Turkish audiences aren't any less sophisticated than other audiences. I'm sure they're fully aware that this - their nation's most expensive film - suffers from abysmal sound editing and dreadful acting and confusing plot points. What they wanted was an acknowledgement that there is such a thing as national honor, and that this honor is real and indivisible. If this was a questionable premise to Americans before 2003, it certainly has no translation now. Our own honor, quite divisible, now comes festooned with asterisk after asterisk; waterboarding, rendition, nude pigpiles. There's no looking back. It's all Insane Style from here on.