The Godfather

Normally I write some rough notes about a film as I’m watching it in order to help me write these reviews afterward. The Godfather had me hooked, and I almost forgot.

The Godfather is a film I’ve been planning to watch for a long time, but have put off (as I wrote in my review for Scarface, I don’t particularly care for gangster films - nevertheless, I’m trying to watch some of the classics). The Godfather is not a film to be enjoyed, but it is a film to see nevertheless. The performances of Marlon Brando andAl Pacino are extremely strong, and it’s hard to imagine that the studio disapproved of the participation of both these actors. Fundamentally, the Godfather is about family ties and trust (or lack of it) rather than dominance and winning, and this - in my crude analysis - is how it differs from a film like Scarface.

It’s also impressive how Pacino managed to pull off a role in both films - despite both being about Italian-American gangsters, his characters in each couldn’t be more different. The mobsters in The Godfather do rule by fear, but they do it subtly. Some scenes made me very nervous - as it turned out, for no reason. OK, the notorious horse’s-head-in-a-bed scene is a bit explicit and gory, but it’s about all the film has to offer in terms of real shock value.

The Godfather isn’t particularly excellent technically. Some of the shots aren’t exactly in focus, there’s some obvious cheap stock footage of various landscapes in the correct period dress, and the film does tend to ramble a little in certain scenes. But nevertheless, I can’t wait to see the much-lauded part II, which has to be one of defining characteristics of a good film.

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The Acid Test

Smoothie Label Fun chemistry fact of the day: Acidity regulators regulate pH in general, not just acidity. Hence (presumably) why this smoothie bottle contains Citric Acid as an acidity regulator (my first thought was: shouldn’t it be an alkali?).

This is when I wish I’d done Chemistry A-Level rather than Further Maths.

Open Mapping Becomes Viable?

A long discussion with plv the other day about open source and what it really meant got me thinking about that model when applied to other domains, such as mapping.

Google have clearly made a success of Google Maps (I’ve discussed Google Maps before as compared to Multimap - not entirely favourably - but whatever I think, the market loves the former). Plenty of competitors have also sprung up, notably from Microsoft. Incidentally, Flash Earth brings together all of these services into one ultra-slick interface; although I’d still love to see them available on Jeff Han’s touch screen (iPhone, eat your heart out - your interface is nothing on this).

However, one thing all these services have in common is that the mapping data is (as far as I can tell) commercially licensed, ultimately from a governmental institution. In the UK, we have the Ordnance Survey (who actually produce excellent paper maps, even if their customer-facing technology is a little backward). The Ordnance Survey gets its revenue from licensing data, selling maps, and so on, rather than from general taxation (which is something that as a libertarian I can almost approve of; although it does raise the question of why the government needs to be involved at all, since there’s therefore clearly a market for the data). The closest equivalent in the US appears to be the USGS (which also has other functions).

It always used to be conventional economic wisdom that mapping (or, to be more precise, surveying) was a function that had to be performed by government, because it was so astronomically expensive - in other words, it cost more than the direct revenues one could possibly obtain (presumably the indirect benefit to society is supposedly significant, which is why we engaged in it). Whether you agree with the morality of this depends on your political views, but it is at least plausible. It’s interesting to see that the Ordnance Survey no longer seem to operate on this model, but clearly many folk still believe surveying should be done centrally.

Now technology might be able to change all of this. OpenStreetMap is showing how it might be done - using cheap GPS receivers, driving along streets, and plotting the resultant data (yes, I know the receivers rely on expensive satellites; but there are only a few of them; and they’d be there anyway). Obviously there’s a long way to go, as shown by the short list of places that have been mapped. There are obviously also concerns over completeness, accuracy, and so on (although most of these have an analogy in Wikipedia, too). However, the potential for these maps is huge if the concept does take off - Google Maps mashups would have nothing on the potential richness of data available. The real concern so far has to be over how many people are really interested in creating this data and keeping it up to date.

As with all futurology (aka: guesswork), time will tell.

Update 2006-01-16: A recent edition of the BBC radio programme In Business (available as a podcast) took a rather quaint look at open-source. Worth a listen as a discussion of how hard open-source is to sell, although not as a rigorous discussion of the technological and legal issues.

Crash

(This review is about the 2004 film directed by Paul Haggis; not the controversial 1996 David Cronenberg film of the same name).

I’ve never been more in two minds about a film than with Crash.

Crash is primarily about racial tension amongst a variety of characters who pop up all over LA. As I began watching, I was getting ready to lay into it for its rather childish and simplistic treatment of these racial divisions. At times, I found it almost insulting to the intelligence. The strongest characters were the cookie-cutter car thieves, who at first seemed to be placed there for some sick comic relief - not an encouraging sign. The film ran through the usual murmurings about stereotypes and making assumptions based on them (some wrong, some right). Roger Ebert thinks this it does well because it shows victimizers being victimized. I respectfully disagree - I think that’s somewhat of a cliché and that it would be more accurate and honest to keep it simple. Scott Foundas describes this position eloquently.

But a touching scene involving a gun and a little girl literally made me cry, and that was a turning point - in those three minutes the film mostly nullified its plodding and pretentious existence up to then. It starts to lay off the racial lecturing, and focus on the human beings involved, and so it becomes touching. Even the evil cop who commits a fairly disgusting assault at the start of the movie seems a decent human being in some significant way (although Wikipedia asserts that ‘[the cop] later relieves the viewers of his racist tendencies’ - an oversimplification if I ever heard one).

Nevertheless, Crash still had plenty of flaws. None of the performances were particularly stellar, although Don Cheadle and Michael Peña put in some solid work. The editing was a bit sloppy, and the whole presentation was a bit too detached and characterless for my taste.

Especially given the bitty storyline that involved so many characters, Crash reminded me of Magnolia - although Magnolia still far outshines it as a film of complexity and beauty. It’s easy to see why one might like Crash, but it’s also easy to see how one could hate it. This is a film I’ll be pondering over for a while yet.

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