Tuesday, January 12, 2010

2000s - Movies

I figured I should join in on the best of the decade talk. I have read lots of lists and seen some consensus, but everyone seems to have their individual flair. I decided to go with a different criteria than the rest, so my list will not be filled with critically acclaimed artsy films. I am basing this list upon nothing less than "Rewatchability". I have seen lots of films that were good this decade, but it turns out that I don't want to watch a lot of them over and over again. I also notably left out some recent movies because I frankly don't know yet if I will want to watch them over and over again. So I made the following list counting down the films that I have watched countless times and that I think I will continue to watch in the decades to come.

10. Gladiator

This movie is known for its action sequences, but the famous monologue that screams righteous defiance is the pivotal point in the film. "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next." The cheap political pandering that Commodus tries is still a tactic used today. The movie is probably short on historical accuracy, but comes up big in its defining moments.

9. Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers

I will admit that I own the super-extended version of the series. All 13 hours of it. But what do I want to watch over and over again? The Battle of Helms Deep. The main ideas that it conveys are that you can "Lay Down and Give Up or Fight for what You Hold Dear" and that "There are No Neutral Parties because all are affected". Like its predecessor, the cgi balrog scenes are great to watch. Gimli and Legolas baiting each other during battles successfully lightens the mood. The scene with the Uruk-Hai smashing their shields in front of Helms Deep is the most memorable point in the film.

8. National Treasure

For History Channel nerds, this movie had enough truth in it to make it enjoyable. Everyone loves a good treasure hunt as well and this movie delivered. Its just a fun film to get in to. I am sure that the historical sites have had to beef up security because of tourists wanting to see the 'secret passageways' and such. Nicolas Cage plays his stereotypical self, but for once it may actually be called for.

7. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

This is a film that caught people of guard with its strong characters that defied convention. It is way too much fun and humorous for a swashbuckling tale. The film also defined Johnny Depp. His quirky self keeps reappearing in other films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland. It will be interesting to see if he can escape the typecasting. The film's successors tried to remake the magic, but the original is by far the best. "I think we've all arrived at a very special place. Spiritually, ecumenically, grammatically."

6. Harry Potter

Yup, I am one of these people. I have read all of the books. I have seen all of the movies multiple times. For some reason these are comfort movies for me. I do not think that they are Oscar worthy; but when nothing else comes to mind, I will watch any one of them. My favorite so far is The Prisoner of Azkaban and its time travel sequence. Like almost all instances, the books are better. The later ones are so long that they cut out many key things in the films. If you need more of the backstory, read the originals.

5. Elf

This over the top bowl of sillyness is always good for a laugh. The notable quotes are abundant and the fact that it does not take itself too seriously adds to the humor. If you have a chance, check out the soundtrack as well. Faizon Love's scenes as the Gimbel's manager are probably my favorite. Who can forget: "Buddy the elf, What's your favorite color"

4. Night at the Museum

Another nod to us supposed smart people. The humor is slapstick and is frankly my style. Mickey Rooney (Andy Hardy movies) and Dick Van Dyke (tons of stuff, with Diagnosis Murder being the most recent) are old favorites of mine and they play their part well. The scenes of Ben Stiller and Dexter, the capuchin monkey, slapping each other are great. Octavius and Jedediah are greatness together. Like many fell good movies, it has a great dance scene at the end. This light-hearted fun is a great way to unwind.

3. Oceans Eleven

The movie Maverick said it best: "there is no more deeply satisfying religious experience... than cheatin' on a cheater." This series epitomizes that phrase while being quite humorous. The movie leaves out details on purpose until the end and then it seems so obvious and so doable when in reality it is not. The second film got all artsy and such a key point was left out so early, it was infuriating. The third film was better and included the famous line: "Willie Bank: This town might have changed, but not me. I know people highly invested in my survival, and they are people who really know how to hurt in ways you can't even imagine.
Danny Ocean: Well, I know all the guys that you'd hire to come after me, and they like me better than you.
" These films get better with each viewing. Why is that? Well, now that you know the entire story, you can search for all of the connecting pieces that were purposefully left out. In this way, watching things happen in chronological order is fun vs. the order that they actually tell you. This series is also about the legitimization of Matt Damon. He moves from bumbling novice to running the show in the three films. His bumbling youngster routine has hopefully been left behind for good.

2. Ratatouille

This is a very close 2nd for me. Pixar created a lot of quality in the decade. Their films as ranked by me are Up, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Wall-E, and Cars. But the creme de la creme for me is this film. The writing is superb, the delivery is well timed and not forced. The animation is more than good enough. This is my comfort film. I can go to bed with a smile on my face after watching it. I love Skinner's line: "Let us toast your non-idiocy." Peter O'Toole's delivery of the best line is magnificent: "But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

1. The Bourne Identity

I debated about putting this here, but in the end I had to. I am fairly certain I have seen this movie more than any other during the past decade. I know that I saw it 4 times in theaters. This film came out right after I studied in Europe. I was at both the Zurich and North Paris train stations right before I saw the film. I knew the climate over there right after 9/11. This movie resonated. I still enjoy the tale and find myself enjoying the sequels more and more. Marie Kreutz's cynical line: "Nobody does the right thing." is probably a view held by more people than will admit it. I love how this was a throwback film. I say that because after The Matrix came out in 99, everyone went to the super-stylish computerized fights. Next came Mission Impossible 2, The latest Bond films, X-Men, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Now compare those to the action sequences in this film. They suddenly felt both raw and plausible. It reminded me somewhat of the film Bullitt. The sequels were good, but it took time for me to warm up to them. The Supremacy seems better with every passing year. The Ultimatum seemed a little over the top, but then again it was more about closure. The uniqueness and timing of the Identity hold up. By far my film of the 2000s.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

How To Build a Flower Bed

Three months ago I started a seemingly innocuous project. "How hard can it be to make a flowerbed?", I said. Well I learned along the way and so I am now going to share what I learned and the steps to make your project easier.

The major milestones are:
  1. Design the Area
  2. Excavate the Area
  3. Construct a Border
  4. Refill with Good Soil
  5. Plant the Flowers
  6. Cover with Mulch

Required Tools
  1. Work Shoes - At several points it stormed and flooded my half-dug bed. After working for just 15 minutes I would have 2 inches of mud on the bottom. Be prepared to throw away your shoes or be stuck with permanent junk shoes.
  2. Work Gloves - This pair is actually the 2nd that I used. The first pair is in the trash. I wore through all 10 fingers on the first set.
  3. Large Spade - This is the best way to get soil up. I tried a shovel and had no luck. This worked especially well with the black clay that we have.
  4. Whatever This Is - Yup, I have no idea what to call it, but it is the best tool for clearing out defined areas. I used it dig out the outline for the bed before I started.
  5. Spreader - I used this to spread out the new soil evenly throughout the bed.
  6. Small Spade - Most people have this already. You dig holes for the bulbs and flowers with it.
  7. Heavy Duty Cart - Now I did not have this wonderful contraption for most of the project. For the first 40 or so bags, I just manually carried them to their locations. This will save your back when hauling a lot of soil.

Now you may ask why I am going to all this trouble. Well that is because I have lots of Black Texas Clay underneath my yard. It has the nickname of "Black Gumbo". It soaks up water and swells. This is one of the reasons that so many people have foundation problems in our area of North Texas. Most plants need "Well Drained Soil" which is pretty much the opposite of what I have. So I replaced it. I ended up digging up only about 1 - 1.5 feet down. Others have done more, but I frankly got tired of digging. Here is what I replaced it with:
  1. Peat Moss - 10 Bags
  2. Top Soil - 20 Bags
  3. Manure - 10 Bags of the cheap stuff. They have premium manure... but I can't imagine what that means.
  4. Compost - 10 Bags
  5. Top Soil - 20 Bags
  6. Mulch - 12 Bags

So let's take a look at those milestones again.
  1. Design the Area - This is probably the most important step. This allows you to put in a lot of effort without having to redo things. My wife gave in to my pleadings and helped measure the back yard space beforehand. The map came out like this: I went online and printed off a grid and then with help of a ruler hand drew the dimensions. Next, we did an initial master plan, or how we want it to look in the end. Our friends, Karson and Sharon, helped in this process. This keeps each sub-project from being vastly different and looking odd in the end. Next, we prioritized the sub-projects and focused on our first bed, outside of our bedroom. We found a plan in a landscaping book tailored to our area and used it as our base: This plan came from Creative Homeowner's Texas Home Landscaping book. I would highly recommend it. We then took our master plan for the backyard and fit the plants that we wanted into it. The end result looks like this: Sp now that you have a good plan, digging in the right spot and building a border is not a game of chance.

  2. Excavate the Area - This where all the oomph comes into play. At least 50% of my time on this project was spent digging. I am estimating that I dug out about 3,000 lbs of dirt. So be prepared for this phase to go slower than you thought.

    The first thing to do is to dig out the border a little bit. This allows you to be reckless inside that border with your spade. I used our hose and snaked it around into the shape that I wanted the bed to be. I then used the yet-to-be-named tool from above to strip the grass along the hose. I then removed the hose and dug a little trench and shaped the border a bit.

    The rest is just good ole-fashioned hard labor. One thing that I did not consider before starting this phase was where on earth all of this dug up dirt was going to go. Luckily, the lot next door to me is empty right now.Now lifting all of that dirt over the fence was no fun, but at least it is out of my yard.

  3. Construct a Border - I used two different kinds of border. We have leftover brick from the house construction and so I turned that into a decorative border: I had enough brick to go vertical and it looks good from the grass side. You can also see that famous black clay with the brick there. The fence did not need anything fancy, so I bought the cheap pliable plastic border from Lowes:Before going to the next step of refilling the area, it is a good idea to consider drainage and watering levels. I have a downspout that was pouring right into the middle of the new bed and would erode my hard work. I got a very cheap solid black tube and extended the drain out of the flower bed:I also had four different sprinkler heads that were designed for a lawn and not a flower bed. I found replacement heads that are gentler and used a simple female-female connector to attach them to the main line:
  4. Refill with Good Soil - Now is when all of those bags of 'the good stuff' comes into play. I put the good stuff in quotes because frankly anything was better than my black clay. So when I see a $20 miracle bag and a $1.85 pretty good bag, I choose the cheaper. With the number of bags that I bought, this added up to a lot of savings. I layered Peat Moss, Top Soil, Manure, Compost, and Top Soil. I had a friend recommend a combination similar to this and so far I like it. I used my spreader to evenly mix the dirt around the entire bed. Make sure at this point re-check your drainage. Make sure that it slopes away from the house for instance.In the end, my nasty soil was transformed into this:
  5. Plant the Flowers - This is the part that you actually planned for. This is the easiest stage. We planted a bunch of bulbs and using our nifty plan, I knew exactly where to go. This stage is fairly anti-climactic.

  6. Cover with Mulch - Protect your plant from moisture, bugs, and weeds with a good mulch. This last step also adds a colorful layer to the top

Hopefully this guide can help you. Feel free to post and questions or suggestions. I will be following up in the Spring and beyond with how the plants grow in and look.