Sunday, December 31, 2006

Slight Addendum - 36

So I received a package from GT the other day and it was two other games for review. I burned through Eragon on Xbox in about six hours so that brings the final tally for the year up to 36. There's almost no chance of me ever hitting this high a number of completed games again so I'm just going to take a moment to bask in my nerdiness. Thank you for playing, you've been a wonderful audience this year.

See ya on the flip side.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Now Playing: Brick... Since 10/17

The reason for the addendum on the title is that's how long this gem has been on my shelf. Around this time last month I believe Netflix actually called off the search and shifted resources towards recovery. It's given me a great joy to finally sit down and watch it if only out of pride that it be sent back by the close of the year.

Dear God why did I wait so long to watch this magnificent albeit odd gem?

If the thought of Raymond Chandler and film noir in general scares you then do not rent this movie at all. Do not spend any time on it because I can assure you that none of the joy recently visited upon me will find you. This film fires words at the screen with all the firepower of an assault rifle and it doesn't stop until the credits roll. The entire film is a hardened film noir dropped whole hog into a high school setting, and while I would argue that Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the setting to better effect it is nevertheless a bold choice.

Rob Thomas, crafter of Veronica Mars, explained how he set the series in high school because it was the last place where people across all walks of life, i.e. cliques, were actually forced to interact on a day to day basis. Brick would have been the better for it had it actually applied this lesson, but it chose to walk a different path by choosing to not use the setting to its fullest potential. Every single element down to the authority figure and the femme fatale are ripped straight from Chandler's pen and there is no difference between the use of the high school in Brick and the use of, well, any other setting where class warfare is prevalent.

Were the various cliques actually, you know, present in the movie then I would praise it as one of the boldest films of the year. Yet Brick solely focuses on a handful of characters and the lone authority figure, brilliantly played by Richard Roundtree, is limited to a single scene. The phrase "where people lunch" is used repeatedly but nary was a cafeteria in view. The director obviously chose to not have this high school even remotely resemble reality which, when coupled with how limited parents are seen and used in the film, takes away from any sort of authenticity Brick could have achieved. Does this detract from the fun of watching such a dense story unfold?

Absolutely not.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a star-making performance as Brendan, the loner who simply hangs back watching everyone and waiting to graduate so he can move on with his life. You get the feeling that he's just trying to survive high school but that doesn't mean he doesn't have his finger on the local pulse. He knows who the players are in the various cliques and he knows what the score on the street is. Rumors abound of various goings-on behind the scenes and while he may know more than he lets on, he's smart enough to stay out of the way.

All that changes when his ex-girlfriend calls him and says she's in trouble then turns up dead two days later. As he looks at her lfieless body (which is the opening shot by the way), Brendan decides to bring everything down to find out who was responsible.

This is a stunning debut by writer-director Rian Johnson who must have watched The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, and Miller's Crossing about a zillion times just to get the flavor exactly right on the dialogue. I was not exaggerating when I said the words fly at you so fast they may as well have been fired at you by a machine gun, so be prepared to rewind and listen again to certain scenes. There are also some laugh out loud funny bits like "The Pin"'s mom fixing Brendan and "The Pin" breakfast. The surreal nature of it just made me howl.

Check out Brick if you're looking for a very unconventional slant on film noir, but stand by with that rewind button. It's a tricky and wordy flick, but fantastic if you're a fan of the genre.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

2006 Final Tally: 35

While 2006 may not have wrapped itself up just yet, I have decided to retire from gaming for the duration. I finished off The Thing last night finally and it seemed a good enough way to go out. Fortunately, my backlog didn't explode over Christmas as I was afraid it would. The two games I received I'm anxious to tear into but since they're both 40+ hour affairs (easily twice that in Final Fantasy XII) I decided to let things end now and spend the rest of the week reading and burning off my Netflix queue.

For the curious, the following is the list of everything I finished this year:
Ratchet: Deadlocked (PS2)
Quake 4 (PC)
Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)
Space Rangers 2 (PC)
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones (PS2)
Sin Episodes: Emergence (twice) (PC)
The Godfather (Xbox)
State of Emergency 2 (PS2)
Half-Life 2 (PC)
Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal (PS2)
Psychonauts (Xbox)
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 (PC)
Destroy All Humans! (Xbox)
Pitfall: The Lost Expedition (Xbox)
Rogue Trooper (Xbox)
Commandos: Strike Force (Xbox)
Age of Empires III (PC)
Titan Quest (PC)
007 Nightfire (Xbox)
Secret Weapons Over Normandy (Xbox)
Brothers in Arms: Road To Hill 30 (Xbox)
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood (Xbox)
GUN (Xbox)
Just Cause (Xbox)
Black (Xbox)
Robotech: Battlecry (Xbox)
Run Like Hell (Xbox)
Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (PS2)
Reservoir Dogs (Xbox)
Destroy All Humans! 2 (Xbox)
Call of Duty 3 (Xbox)
LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (Xbox)
The Sopranos: Road to Respect (PS2)
Voodoo Vince (Xbox)
The Thing (PS2)
As you can see, there are more than a few back catalog titles on the list. It's actually taken me two whole years to burn off 90 percent of my backlog and I love that it's nearing completion. Here's the caveat for 2007:

A lot of what remains are role playing games which, by default, clock in at 40 hours or more. I'm including Bully as an RPG as well even though it doesn't necessarily fall into that category. But as I look at all of that I feel proud to have accomplished a sort of purge that removes a ridiculous amount of distractions from my life. While I do enjoy this hobby, I would at some point like for it to go back to being a "hobby" and not "a way of life" which is what it's become for the last two years.

This next year looks to be a defining year for a lot of reasons though and I'm anxious for it to start. The biggest one is that I turn 30 come February and don't think My Fair Lady isn't counting down the days to that particular date. While I've never been big on birthdays, particularly my own, I can't help but feel a special fondness for hitting the big 3-0. Maybe it's the thought of growing older or being a true "adult" for the first time but whatever this odd feeling is it remains a welcome one.

My Fair Lady and I also plan on looking for a house this spring/early summer as we're tired of living in apartments/condos. This depends on several factors but if a few things fall into place as they should come March then we should be all set to go for a house and pay off our debts at the same time. So how will all of this affect my gaming?

In the immediate future there won't be much of a change, however around March things may start shifting. If all goes as planned (though honestly when does it ever?) then constant gaming should shift back towards film watching which is where it belongs. It's helpful that the majority of my backlog consists of RPGs because those require constant attention for such a long time that I won't be blowing money on games that I won't finish for another two years.

Vicious Cycle = On the cusp of being broken.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Satellite Radio - I get it now

So the other day I downloaded and installed at work and home AIM 6.0. Having tried out their Triton beta this summer, I knew they were on the right path with a few things (such as all IM conversations in one window) and absolutely on the wrong path with others (inability to use any buddy icons other than ones bought from AOL). One thing I didn't try was their streaming radio stations because since it was AOL I didn't trust them any further than I could throw them.

Out of morbid curiosity the other day though I bumped my machine up to 6.0 and started playing with it. That's when I noticed the satellite radio features at the bottom (provided by XM) so I started playing around with it. I noticed the veritable smorgasbord of choices all of which were dedicated to a particular music, and each one had dozens of sub-categories that were even further devoted to those specifics. Without even listening to tune one I fell in love with seeing such diversification in practice. This is what happens when you focus on a particular goal or product: It lets you make the most out of something by not dividing your focus by trying to appeal to everyone.

This is what I think will hurt the next-gen consoles because only the Wii seems focused on games whereas the PS3 and Xbox 360 have been pitched from the word "go" as all encompassing media solutions. Hey guys, I just want to play video games, not bask in the glory that is Sony/Microsoft.

Getting back to the music, I instantly went to the Jazz/Blues section and for the last two days I've been listening to a non-stop flow of outstanding live performances from Chicago and other blues artists. Since I hate listening to anything other than talk while in the car then subscribing to the service is a waste of money for me. But streaming this at home and the office for free has been absolutely killer this week and I get how much people dig it. A few commercials here and there but otherwise there is plenty of great music to revel in without having to avoid all the useless DJs.

Excellent work, XM, excellent work.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Now Playing: The League of Ext. Gentlemen

This was beat up a lot when it came out by fans of Alan Moore's graphic novel and it's easy to see why. Moore's book was reverent about the literary sources it cribed from and Moore's usual dedication to the finer points of character, which he then twists inward as hard as possible, was evident from the first frame. Now compare that to the movie version which is a bombastic Cliffs Notes version of the same story as filtered through the American studio system.

Again, I get the hate. But if you come at it like I did (i.e. ignorant of the source material except by proxy) then it's actually not half bad. I would never go so far as to call it great but there are quite a few things director Stephen Norrington and his merry crew of misfits managed to nail. While the effects work ranges from solid to shoddy, sometimes in the same scene, quite a few beautiful pieces emerged. Heck, there were even a few performances I enjoyed though Sir Sean was not among them.

The storyline has a group of fictional characters culled from the literature of the time being forced to work together to combat a foe known only as The Phantom. It seems this mystery man who hides behind a metal mask is stirring up trouble in 1899 Europe trying to provoke a global war. A mysterious British operative recruits these select few and calls them the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Some truly are extraordinary while others have a few secrets they'd prefer to keep hidden.

Naturally, their choice of leader is none other than Alan Quartermain (Connery). The sound of crickets chirping means no one else out there knows who that is, which says plenty about the state of literate history in our society. It hardly matters because Connery plays him exactly the way he plays all of his characters for the past 15 years. I recently found out that Connery was the first choice to play Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy which would have been an absolute disaster. Ian McKellen nailed the nuances of that character whereas Connery would use the exact same mannerisms he does in every film including this one.

On the flip side, Peta Wilson and Stuart Townsend (of all people) nail their roles to the floor and absolutely own them. Wilson plays Mina Harker (of "Dracula" fame) while Townsend plays Dorian Gray (of the Oscar Wilde novel). I've never watched Wilson's Le Femme Nikita but if she was half the animal she is in this film then I can understand the following she's developed. Mina is a dignified Victorian woman with a demon lurking just under the skin that she can barely control. I'm sure Moore milked that metaphor for all it was worth in the graphic novel, but here the film makers went for the violence rather than the social commentary whenever Mina lets her inner side out for a spin. Townsend, meanwhile, is hilarious as the upper crust Dorian who has no trouble throwing out pithy comments while slicing and dicing his foes.

Shane West pops in as American secret agent Tom Sawyer, an obvious addition per the studio, and whlie he fares well as a surrogate son for Quartermain he remains little more than a standard boring action hero. Everyone else has layers of character to draw from, but Sawyer seems to be handy with a rifle and that's about it. Another thinly drawn character was Captain Nemo but at least he had the Nautilus which is easily the coolest, and largest, submarine ever devised. Watching this beast slice through the ocean with ease was beautiful.

While this certainly is the furthest thing from lasting entertainment, it's at least a slick looking actioner. Even the many throw away lines that reference other material (looking at you first mate of Captain Nemo) are kind of fun if you just run with it and don't take them as insults to your intelligence. And did I mention that Peta Wilson is scorching hot as a barely-restrained animal wrapped in a Victorian bodice?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Now Playing: Where Eagles Dare

There's something about WWII movies from the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s that just click for me in ways that the glut of WWII-based video games never do. For every Call of Duty I can point to The Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape, Patton, and so forth. Up until recently the most I'd ever seen of Where Eagles Dare was the last five minutes. For whatever reason, whenever I would catch the film playing it was always during that scene. Courtesy of Netflix I finally managed to check out the whole film and it was terrific. I had a few problems with it to be sure, but overall it was one heck of a fun movie.

Set in the winter of 1943, Where Eagles Dare follows a determined British commando team led by Richard Burton himself who, along with a token American Ranger played by Clint Eastwood, have to break into an impregnable fortress in Bavaria to rescue an American general who is one of the main planners of Operation Overlord, also known as the invasion of Europe. If the Germans are able to break the general and find out what he knows then it could be disasterous for the Allies. But when the team first lands in the Bavarian countryside, they quickly figure out that there is a traitor in their midst who will do whatever it takes to kill them all.

In terms of plot, you don't get better than this and with good reason. The screenplay was churned out by none other than Alistair MacLean who also wrote The Guns of Navarone. It shows because the film feels more like a novel than anything else. There is a lot of setup along the way for a fairly weak pay-off, but if nothing else it entertains along the way. I found it fascinating watching all the little details slipped into the film culminating in a riveting roundtable with everyone held at gunpoint by Burton as he lays out the master plan. What makes this scene even greater is that even the viewer isn't sure whether Burton is telling the truth let alone what he hopes to gain by it.

Eastwood displays plenty of the youthful charisma that makes his early films so much fun, but he's not given much to do other than stand around and grimace. While some might argue that's all he did in his early career, he does score a few times here despite this obviously being Burton's show. Eastwood's physical capabilities loom large over Burton's and this is all the more evident during the fight on top of the ski lift car. Burton fights with a couple of bad guys as the lift descends and it's just hilariously staged. Were Eastwood the one doing the fighting then the dynamic would have been completely different and, I think, the better for it. But Eastwood eventually went on to Dirty Harry while Burton went on to Exorcist II: The Heretic so I'm satisfied justice was eventually served.

But overall the film is a lot of fun despite its rather lengthy run time and a final twist you'll see coming right from the start.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Backlog is Crumbling...

Note: The following post is related to video games so if you have no desire to read about them then rest assured the "Now Playing" column will resume shortly.

It won't last past this coming Monday (aka Christmas 2006) but for right now my console backlog is nearing completion. I finished off Voodoo Vince this past weekend and now my backlog sits at five titles.

Five. Four of which are for the PS2. The lone Xbox title is Jade Empire which I'll confess to a reluctance to burn off if only because it puts me to sleep whenever I play it. Of the PS2 titles though, two of them are role playing games and at least one (Dark Cloud 2) is known for being looooooong. So that one will definitely not be started until sometime next year.

I'm worried though that 2007 is going to turn into the RPG Year of gaming for me which will automatically cut down the number of titles I'll finish. I added up my completed list of games for this year and the number stands at 34. Please understand that prior to two years ago I was lucky to finish five. Hitting double digits was unheard of and I sure as heck would never have imagined completing upwards of 30 games in a single year without actually buying near that many.

I'm not sure what triggered it. Maybe it was something My Fair Lady said in passing, or perhaps it resulted from a heart-to-heart conversation that my brain obviously tuned out of. But two years ago I made the conscious decision to stop buying games for the sake of buying them and actually play through the ones I have.

Working for a gaming website sort of burns you out on the hobby atfer a while. I've very few regrets of my time with Gaming Trend but one of them is having to run the gauntlet of mediocre to awful titles each year. Any fool on the street can spot that Reservoir Dogs is going to be awful, but actually being the one to play through and review it tends to kill one's enthusiasm for the hobby as a whole. I think my goal in finishing off my backlog is to be able to game because I want to. At present, I feel like I have to especially because I've recently developed the attitude that if a game is sitting out on my shelf then it must be completed at all costs.

The result of this is that my wallet no longer suffers flagrant abuse, but the downside is I walk into my house and immediately hang an albatross around my neck. This is to say nothing about my DVD library but that's a different animal altogether. Each film takes around two hours to watch compared to the 8-15 hour window most of my games require to complete.

In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have asked for one specific title for Christmas (Final Fantasy XII) because I know it'll kill me. But I'll wait on it until next year should I get it. In the meantime, I'll burn off the next title I receive for the site (which should come in tomorrow) and then I'm done with 35 completed console and PC games for the year.

Almost got 'em...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Now Playing: The Venture Bros. Season 1

This is a cartoon series that first aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block a few years back and was meant to spoof the old "Johnny Quest" and "Scooby-Doo" franchises. But what it really does is so much better. It provided Yours Truly with at least a half dozen laugh-out-loud moments per episode and with 13 episodes total... well, you can do the math.

In short, The Venture Bros. Season 1 is a laugh riot especially if you don't mind a healthy dose of bodily humor. The series somehow picks the oddest moments to change from overt gross humor to implied gross humor, so you never quite know what you're going to get each time.

What never changes is that glorious he-man masculinity personified Brock Sampson (brilliantly voiced by Patrick Warburton) will swing in and save the day as the two Venture Brothers, Dean and Hank Venture, and their brilliant but narcissistic failure of a father Dr. Rusty Venture, all get themselves into one hot spot after another. It seems that Dr. Venture has racked up quite the collection of mortal enemies in his time, a lot of which was inadvertent, and they all want to see the Venture dynasty brought to its knees. Dr. Venture himself, meanwhile, tries and fails miserably to live up to his world-changing father's lofty status, but since he's completely unable to do so, and his children are both idiots, he consoles himself by popping "diet pills" and berating everyone he sees.

You're either going to love this stuff or hate it but if you're laughing through the first episode then you're good to go for the rest of the season. Because it only gets better/worse from there.

The characters are wildly varied though clearly draw their inspiration from previous trailblazers like The Tick. My favorite, other than Brock Sampson, wound up being a toss-up between Dr. Girlfriend, significant other of Dr. Venture's "arch-nemesis" The Monarch, and Dr. Orpheus, a necromancer who boards in the Venture Compound with his daughter Triana. Dr. Girlfriend's combination of personal neurosis and jaw-dropping beauty are wonderfully off-set by her somewhat "throaty" voice. Dr. Orpheus is hilariously over-the-top as a magician who constantly tries to wow the crowd with spectacle even when it's just him in the room. A close third would be H.E.L.P.R. who for whatever reason kept cracking me up, especially in the episode where the Venture clan goes to the space station.

About the only thing truly "off" with the series would be the endings. Almost without fail, the episodes just end as they seem to build to either a crescendo or punch line. I think only one or two actually had an ending that left me satisfied or laughing whereas the others didn't even have the good grace to build to a solid cliff-hanger. So if you go in accepting this flaw, which reportedly has been corrected with season two, then there isn't much else to complain about.

Even the animation is pretty solid and certainly looks better than the average Saturday morning cartoon. The Venture Bros. adventures span high and low around the globe and when the finale manages to spoof both Perry Mason and Total Recall in the same 22 minutes it makes me angry that the second season isn't on disc yet. It's far too soon to throw out the "classic" label just yet but this is hilariously inspired comedy that hits so many buttons so frequently that it's well worth checking out.

Oh, and stay through the credits as each episode has a moment at the end. Also, the Christmas "bonus" episode alone makes the series worth watching but save this until you've seen everything else.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wallet a Gone-Gone

So My Fair Lady accompanied Yours Truly to get my hair cut on Saturday and from there we went to Lowe's to pick up a Christmas tree. Somewhere in between there my wallet grew a pair of legs and wandered off.

By mid afternoon, the few credit cards in the wallet were cancelled and the respective accounts notified that I was who I said I was and no one else was me. Now it's just a matter of getting a new driver's license and social security card issued because genius me left his SS card in his wallet. When I went to the website to print off the forms I'd need to get a new one, I found the little bon mot advising people to keep the card under lock and key someplace secure. I'm sure they envisioned a battery of machine guns pointed at it along with exploding dogs and a phalanx of dragons guarding it from theft.

Now they tell me.

I swung by the Plano DMV today and was only 300 people behind when I walked in. I waited for a bit, then took off as rumor has it the downtown location is far more accessible to those who lack the patience to queue. In the meantime, I'm studying up on a company I have to pound out a script for this week for their corporate video. They've only wanted to do this since August so naturally they wait until right now to pull the trigger. Add to that three reviews to knock out for the site and I may as well bring my pillow and blanket into the office for the rest of the week.


On the flip side, My Fair Lady is working late as well this week as she has four real estate closings by Friday. The translation being that this past weekend was the most I'll see of her for a while unless I check out the picture I have of her in my wallet....


Now Playing: Wordplay

I've mentioned before how one of the things I love about the internet is how easy it is to stumble onto gems you wouldn't otherwise hear about in daily conversation. One of the places I frequent is Aint-It-Cool-News and despite the regular idiocy on display, their star contributor puts out a DVD blog every so often and it's always chock full of great finds. One of those happened to be a documentary called Wordplay that just so happens to deal with crosswords.

I'll confess that the infamous New York Times crossword is a mark of intelligence I fail to surpass. The people who do that one in pen are far better versed in the art of crossword negotiation than I but Wordplay brings that world to the ordinary person in terrific fashion. To the film's credit, it never dumbs things down either but it makes the world of the daunting puzzles far more familiar than I would have thought possible.

It helps that the focus of the film is so engaging and personable that you can't help but like the guy right from the start. His name is Will Short and he's the section editor of The New York Times. His job is to oversee all the crosswords that make it into the paper and he also hosts a show on National Public Radio devoted to crosswords. He also emcees an annual national crossword puzzle challenge up in Stamford, Connecticut, every March and the documentary builds up to the event.

Along the way we also meet Merle Reagle who actually designs crosswords. Did you know that with the way crosswords are designed, if you turn it around so the top is the bottom and the bottom is at the top it looks identical? Me neither. But watching Merle crank out a puzzle is truly amazing, but what really blew me away was what came next.

Up to this point the documentary interviewed a number of famous people who love doing crosswords including Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the pitcher for the Yankees, and the Indigo Girls. After we see Reagle make his puzzle and submit it to Short for publication, we watch as all of these people work on the puzzle at the same time. It cuts between each one's efforts to finish it and watching how everyone approaches crosswords provides a unique insight into the people involved.

Features Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the pitcher for the Yankees, and the Indigo Girls all working to solve the same puzzle at the same time. As we watch the history of the crosswords and how people came to love these little diversions, including an interesting sub-note on the first editor at the Times directly responsible for crosswords, we meet several people who compete every year in Stamford.

This all leads up to the actual competition in March where it boils down to three people: Al, who's placed third the last four years in a row, previous champion Trip who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, and Tyler who is a 20-year-old college student jockeying to be the youngest champion ever. Remember how I said I couldn't do the Times puzzles at all? Well, these are people who burn through them in less than five minutes. Heck, Al complains at one point that he can never get under that two minute mark.

Wordplay is an exceptionally enlightening and fun documentary on a subject so prevalent in our world that we merely accept it as easy as we do the sun. I love how this documentary fills in the blanks, so to speak, on the subject of something so prevalent in our society that no one up to now has thought to ask, "How did that come to be?" This is a gem that you should definitely check out.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Now Playing: SARS WARS: Bangkok Zombie Crisis

First off, that title is one of the greatest ones I've ever heard and I've heard plenty of them. Second, the film is an absolutely silly cartoon of a flick that will either make you howl with laughter or righteously test your patience. For me, I was definitely laughing start to finish. Just look at the cover art and you'll either want to see a flick like this or not.

SARS Wars: Bangkok Zombie Crisis is many things but deadly serious it is not. The SARS virus has apparently mutated through several forms and spread like wildfire across the globe with only Thailand being spared. That changes courtesy of a bug that escapes from an infected Africa and lands in Bangkok. At the same time, the daughter of a high-profile gangster is kidnapped by some rather ridiculous thugs who hold her in a residential tower downtown. Her father's friend unleashes his "greatest student" and instructs him to rescue the girl from the tower. About the time he gets there is when the infection starts to spread to the residents and all manner of insanity are unleashed simultaneously.

The film establishes right from the start that it's a wild bit of low-budget insanity. The kidnapping itself is just bizarre but if you find yourself even the slightest bit amused then you're good to go for the rest. What makes things even funnier is how the characters don't so much change the rules of the film's universe so much as they make them up as they go along. One minute a horde of zombies are slaughtering party goers and the next a surly old mentor whips out a laser sword while a giant snake eats everything in sight.

Again, you'll either run with it or run from it.

I especially got a huge kick from the self-referential nature of the dialogue. When a government agent holds up a special weapon and proudly says her fellow associates created it, a reporter bemoans the fact that it was "made in Thailand." The characters also routinely take pot shots at the schlock nature of the flick they're starring in. There's some brutally funny stuff pointed squarely at the Thai film commission as well.

None of the characters are fleshed out which may be part of the joke. Everything and everyone involved is little more than a live-action version of a "Tom & Jerry" cartoon only with zombies. But to a person they all throw themselves into their roles so I can definitely admire their enthusiasm. The lead actor in particular has a brilliant poker face which turns the majority of his dead-serious proclamations into howlers.

On the flip side, the low budget shows frequently especially in the effects department. The mutant baby is about the worst thing I've ever seen, but at least it's balanced by the extremely demented comedy involved. Also, there aren't any scares per se in the flick so if you're looking for thrills then look elsewhere.

This is definitely on the opposite end of the spectrum from Dawn of the Dead so a back-to-back screening of these would seem the perfect compliment. One goes for the jugular while the other goes for the funny bone, with neither a true success.

Now Playing: Dawn of the Dead (remake)

I usually find horror films to be fairly vapid experiences. All blood and no guts, if you take my meaning. When the word came down that George Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead was going to be re-made I didn't even have the heart to find contempt for it. While the original is not held close to my heart, it did have plenty to say about the consumerist mentality of the time. Or so I'm told.

Truth is I've never seen the original nor have I cared to. I've seen clips here and there and frankly it just never appealed to me. But I figured I may as well try out the remake if only because it was around Halloween and a stupid zombie flick struck me as a good thing to zone out to. If the entire film had been like the opening half hour, it would easily have been one of the best films of 2004. Right from the start, the new Dawn of the Dead is interested in only one thing: Thrilling you by any means necessary.

The sheer energetic fury of the opening half hour is stunning. Even throw-away moments, like the overhead helicopter shot following star Sarah Polley's car where she barely avoids an explosive wreck, are infused with such vivid passion that I found myself slack-jawed at the sheer audacity of it all. It's awesome how the film throws in little details here and there about the coming apocalypse, then mixes in complete normalcy of everyone's lives. When all hell breaks loose it feels like the entire world has gone insane overnight and it's magnificent. Then the main characters get to the mall and the film came to a screeching halt.

It's never explained as to what exactly causes people to turn into ravenous zombies, nor is it explained as to why they would turn up at a mall by the thousands. But all that is alright so long as we have characters that are interesting and believable. Unfortunately, Ving Rhames is the lone person who fits in this category. Polley is a terrible actress who flat-out annoys me. I hated the entirety of Go for about a hundred different reasons but she was in the top three. She's equally awful here and never conveys anything other than freaking out or completely emotionless.

The rest of the cast barely register save for the head security guard of the mall. Even when they bring in several more people and turn the mall into a mini-commune all we get a sense of is a group of people surrounded by a world gone mad. You never appreciate each individual regardless of the occassional slight detail thrown in because there's jack worth of character development. It speaks volumes when one of the most compelling characters is the one who communicates via holding up white boards (he's trapped across the street from the mall).

There are a few outright shockers towards the end but otherwise things start falling apart around the middle. When we start spending time with the characters and all of them are boring the movie slows to a crawl which is in direct contrast to the manic energy of the opening. Even towards the end that energy is almost wholely absent which is a huge disappointment. I think director Zack Snyder has a solid future ahead of him, and I'm practically drooling thinking about his next project 300 come March, but he needs to work on his pacing.


Thursday, December 7, 2006

Now Playing: Feast

I'll confess to never having seen a single minute of the Project: Greenlight series that aired on Bravo for three seasons. Funny considering how into film I am but I just never gave it any thought. Part of that is my literal zero interest in anything even remotely approaching "reality tv" up to and including an in-depth show based on the film industry. This reasoning will most likely lead me to miss the upcoming Spielberg-produced reality show where he cherry picks a director, but such is life. Feast is the only movie of the three Project: Greenlight's I was interested in because when it actually started screening people actually made the remarks that it was good.

The previous two movies were "coming-of-age" stories which, if done right, can be quite compelling. If they're completely botched in the execution as both were, however, they can practically kill the genre dead. So I'm guessing they decided to use the recent resurgence in horror films at the box office to see what they could cook up.

The result is an uneven, yet preposterously funny gore-fest highlighted by the way characters are introduced. Whenever we see someone new the screen freeze-frames and some text appears next to their head. We learn their name, their occupation, sometimes a fun fact, as well as their life expectancy. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny but for my money the one that caused me to laugh so hard I had to pause the film to catch my breath appears about an hour in. I won't spoil the details because they're too good, but kudos to whomever came up with this idea.

In between the comedic bits are all the bloody ones. This film is long on guts and short on the notion of keeping people alive. The threat comes from a pack of monstrous animals living in the desert that for whatever reason lay siege to a near-by bar. These things are fast, tough, and viscious as hell as the huge body count attests to. One thing this flick does well is slaughter characters as frequently and as brutally as they can. And all this is roughly half an hour into the film...

The cast of B and C-listers deserves credit for sticking through what I'm fairly sure wasn't the easiest shoot in the world. Heck, it wouldn't have been on Bravo in the first place if everything went smoothly.

Henry Rollins is awesome as a motivational speaker and the ways he tries to band everyone together cracked me up. He's an extremely funny guy in the real world and seeing how spot-on he plays this character is just brilliant. The lovely Krista Allen has a decent role as the single-mom eye candy who's practically given up on life (as noted in her "character card," and Balthazar Getty is perfect as a prick who wants to stay as far away from the hero role as he possibly can. This includes abandoning all responsibility as often as he can along with whomever else is near by.

I will make special note that if you're even remotely afraid of witnessing eye trauma on screen then avoid Feast like the plague. Without mentioning the specifics of the inflicted injury, I will say that the scene goes on for about two minutes longer than it should have. Gore hounds will appreciate just about everything regarding the monsters and how they operate, not to mention the very colorful and plentiful deaths.

While Feast is far from a great movie, it's at least a fun movie for people with strong stomachs. Those of us weaned on The Evil Dead may have seen plenty of it before, but the absolute hilarity of the character descriptions combined with some stellar sight gags and one liners makes the movie far funnier than it has any right to be.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Now Playing: X-Men 3: The Last Stand

I completely missed this one this summer yet somehow I managed to stay mostly spoiler free. Oh sure, I heard about the "big character deaths" but when I did I shrugged them off as more corporate level decisions instead of creative ones. Oh how right I was...

From the word go, you get the sense the franchise is in new hands. When Bryan Singer and his team were thrown off the 20th Century Fox lot by head Tom Rothman, many in the geek world (re: AICN and its ilk) were thrown into bouts of geek hysteria that the film would suck. Those suspicions went from loud to deafening when Brett Ratner was hired to replace Singer as the director. No one outside of Hollywood understands how he's considered A-list.

Yet somehow the finished film actually suprised me in very good ways. There is an awful lot to like and even love with X-Men 3 but I was most taken aback by how many things Ratner actually managed to get right. By now, every main actor knows their character inside and out save the still useless Halle Berry. Angela Bassett should have been cast to begin with, but even she may not have been strong enough to overcome the universality of Storm's underwritten character. She's unfortunately put towards the front this time, but it speaks of good things when she's just about my only problem.

Hugh Jackman storms, ahem, the stage once again as Wolverine and right from the start he's back in top form. For the first time in the series Wolverine is finally unleashed and it's impressive seeing just how destructive an animal he is. What's funny though is I found the development of him as a sort of romantic foil to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in the first film as distracting, yet the powerhouse finish of the series would be nowhere near as emotional were anything different.

I do think the writers bit off more than they could chew with the three primary storylines because each of them would make stellar films in their own right. Mutants co-existing with humans and the infamous Dark Phoenix saga from the 1970's are mere sub-plots to the main thread about how the harvesting of a new mutant's genes has resulted in a "cure" for the mutant problem. Yup, just like in part two only, you know, it's different this time 'cause it's from a bald headed mutant. Wait, you say the mutant in the second one was sorta bald to?

Well then, uh, this one is a kid. Around 10 'cause that's different. Yeah.

I tried to read through the original Dark Phoenix saga and to be honest my brain melted from too much nerd. X-Men 3 streamlines it thoroughly while melding it into the universe created by the films. Even without knowing the whole story I do think they streamlined it far too much, and something that should have been told over an entire film, or two even, is handled in roughly 40 minutes spread across two hours. The main plot also isn't all that interesting considering how well the exact same story was handled in the previous movie.

All that negativity aside, I did enjoy the Phoenix effects work and the massive battles both at Jean's house and the finale on Alcatraz Island. There's a particular money shot towards the end that rotates through all the carnage Phoenix wrecks and it's an absolute doozy. Also, the raw power some of the superbeings throw around in the film makes this one of the best examples of what we as fans want to see superheroes and villains do: Make absolute mincemeat out of one another while laying waste to entire regions. As an action film, X-Men 3 definitely towers over its predecessors with things like Magneto (a superb Ian McKellan) hurling cars through the air while Pyro ignites them.

That's my kind of superhero action right there, baby.

The new kids on the block all leave different impressions, but for the most part I was thrilled. Casting Kelsey Grammer as Hank "Beast" McCoy was a stroke of genius and he's perfect as the charming and sophisticated albeit hirsuite bouncing furball. He knows full well how the eyes of the world are on him in particular given his role in the president's cabinet and watching him torn, if only for a moment, between loyalty to "his people" and "the greater good" was very strong.

Ellen Page makes the most of her introduction as Kitty "I can walk through walls" Pryde and she looks like she's going to break an awful lot of hearts when she turns legal. Between this and Hard Candy I think she's more than willing to hurl herself into any role regardless of difficulty and that sort of devotion will hopefully contribute to a lengthy career.

I do hate Brett Ratner for turning Juggernaut into a cartoon and saddling Vinnie Jones with the single worst line in the movie. Jones can be hilarious when he's used correctly which sadly is not here. Check out Snatch instead to see just what Jones can do in the right hands. He's surly and brutish and little more than a thug here though. If you want to see something epically awful, check out the deleted scenes and you'll find one gem that could have replaced the infamous line with something far, far worse.

I think Fox is truly incompetent for shelving this series now, but it's no secret Rothman and Berry both hate the X-Men and everything involved with them. By the very nature of the comics, this is a film series that can go on forever by simply rotating out the cast on both sides and fans and movie-goers alike would remain excited because every time would be a new experience.

"Who's going to be in this one?"

"Oh, do you think they'll bring X back for a cameo?"

This is exactly why the series could bring in the continued revenue the Bond franchise has made for MGM over the years. Here's hoping the Wolverine spin-off is a hit because Jackman was born for this role. Here's also hoping the way they end this film (and I'm talking about after the credits) means they'll at least consider another X-Men film in the near future.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Force is Strong With This One...

My friend CrayolaSmoker lent me this for PC a few weeks ago and after playing it for roughly 30 seconds, My Fair Lady demanded to join in. CS lent me his USB controller which I handed to her, then I quickly found out that controlling the characters via keyboard sucks.

The next week I swung by CompUSA and picked it up for Xbox and we've been playing it ever since.

As maligned as the prequel trilogy was it did have its moments (about 95 percent of which were in the final movie) but the original trilogy is considered sacred ground by my generation. Watching it for the first time was like being shot in the head by a movie, and Star Wars remains in my bloodstream like nothing else. It's as much a part of me as breathing, and despite the vast amounts of attempts to recreate that magic over the past 30 years very few things have come close.

LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy nails the original trilogy in the best possible way - by capturing its spirit. Granted, running around and playing as LEGO recreations of your favorite Star Wars characters may seem a little weird, even childish, at first but once you walk around the Mos Eisley bar you may as well be back in the movies.
"Hey lady, I'm the Jedi here. Would you stop trying to shoot me and aim for the stormtroopers?"
Everything in this game is a work of absolute love and whatever work Traveler Games did on the first one, which I still haven't played, it must have been a warm-up act for this one. I get the feeling they had to impress LucasArts with their concepts before they were given the greenlight to work on this one, and they must have succeeded wildly. The energy and enthusiasm present in even the smallest of details in this game can't be faked. Everyone working behind the scenes brought their A-game to practically every level and the result is a game I've played incessently for the last month.
"Would you please stop Force-throwing the droids off cliffs?"
A lot of my personal joy comes from My Fair Lady demanding to play through it with me, and that I not be allowed to progress further in the story than we had made it as a team. While that may seem stifling for a gamer, I found it oddly refreshing if only because she never plays games and certainly not with me. Sure, she's messed around with Halo with me and a friend, which lead to both of us mocking her while shooting each other, but she's never gone out of her way to play a video game with me. Such is the power of LEGO Star Wars II.
"When 900 years old I reach, spry as a Jedi I plan to be."
The sheer number of unlockable characters, secrets, collectibles, and hidden levels borders on mind-blowing. I unlocked one thing last night I never would have guessed was in the game, and now I can't wait to unlock everything and see what the final puzzle is. Also, despite the way the characters look, each and every one of them has personality to spare. I love that the "Slave Girl Leia" has a special dance just as much as any of the Han Solo variations smirk while opening up a big can of whoop-ass. The cut-scenes in particular are brilliantly funny in that they capture the feeling of the movies while simulanteously paying tribute to and mocking them.

Overall, I'm absolutely in love with this. It's some of the most fun I've had with a game in the last year and certainly gets my nod for game of the year despite a few quirks while playing co-op. If all of the Star Wars games were this much fun I'd be set for life. I'll leave you with the following which was a conversation between Yours Truly and My Fair Lady when we finished the New Hope section:
"What's this?" My Fair Lady asked.

"The awards ceremony at the end of the movie. We get medals and everything it seems," I replied.

"But I don't get to kill anything!"
I've succeeded beyond my wildest dreams in luring her to the Dark Side.

Now Playing: The Matador

I decided to use this poster I found on Google instead of the actual DVD cover art because while the film may have been sold as an action flick, the art you see at left sums up the film in an infinitely superior fashion. Make no mistake about it, The Matador is about as far from a James Bond flick as one can get. If anything, the film is about two men from completely different worlds, yet both are hanging onto the edge of a cliff by their fingernails.

When they run into one another in Mexico while both are on different business trips, they sort of circle each other in an awkward courtship. One is little more than a cypher for the other though, and your enjoyment of the film depends on a willingness to accept how certain details are either left out completely or told directly to one character by another character. It seems like an odd thing to harp on, but whenever I write something I prefer to think of how important details can come out in natural conversation versus having Character A directly tell Character B "something of great historical significance to both parties" again and again. This isn't fatal to The Matador but it does happen frequently enough that you'll either be put off completely or you'll just run with it.

Greg Kinnear's character, Danny Wright, is south of the border trying to lock down a contract that will bring much needed stability to both he and his wife Bean (played by the wonderful and sadly underused Hope Davis) after a few years of seriously bad luck. They lost their son a few years prior and his death hangs over both their heads. Despite this tragedy they retain hope that the future will brighten, but they're not sure when.

The future for Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan), on the other hand, is about as bleak as one can imagine. He's in his 50's with no home, no family, no friends, and he kills people for money one right after the other. He's been a professional his entire career but recently his razor-sharp edges have begun to fray. He's starting to crack and his work is suffering as a result.

I can imagine Brosnan cherry picking every filthy thing he ever wanted to see James Bond do then packing it into this one film because he just unleashes here. This is the kind of performance someone gives when they have nothing to lose, and knowing this was made around the time the Bond producers cut him loose seems to have set him free. Much has been made of him walking through a hotel lobby in nothing more than his underwear, boots and sunglasses, but my money says the money scene is in Budapest when he's banging a woman like a gong and her little dog attacks his leg. Brief though it is, it's a killer bit that Brosnan nails and I howled with laughter.

When Julian and Danny meet in Mexico and eventually wind up at a bullfight, Danny prods Julian into telling him what he does for a living. After some convincing, Julian finally opens up but this proves to be completely unexpected for both men in more ways than one. Danny thinks Julian is just BS'ing him and blows it off at first, but since Julian has never opened up to literally anyone he finds he can't shut up. The results are hilarious as Julian finally acts like a kid in a candy store walking Danny through all the things he does, and seeing Danny's utter terror is hysterically funny.

Kinnear and Brosnan have great chemistry together and while it's clearly Brosnan who has the winning role Kinnear does make the most of what little he has to work with. The role seems underwritten in favor of the Julian character, but that's not what will make or break the film for people. The Matador overall is just an odd film about two men each trying to save the other albeit inadvertantly. It's funny in parts, downright hilarious in its precise placement of Asia's song "Heat of the Moment," but overall feels strange. It's one of those films I'm glad I saw, if only for Brosnan's absolutely killer performance, but I don't think it's one I'll revisit any time soon.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Now Playing: 24 Season 4

Previously on 24...

A personal vendetta from the past culminating in the murder of Jack's wife... a nuclear threat against the city of LA culminating in Jack's daughter terrorized in the wilds of California... a viral threat culminating in a franchise spinning its wheels out of control...

These are the personal trevails of Jack Bauer. His continuing mission: To explore strange, new hostiles. To boldly kick their asses like no man has kicked them before. So it was that Day 4 of the "Jack Bauer Power Hour" was brought forth unto Casa de Skim and explored forthwith. The day began innocuously enough as a train was derailed via exploding truck. A man onboard was found laying next to the wreckage with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. That proved to be no problem for a different man on a dirtbike who drove up, shot the man on the ground, used a bolt cutter on the handcuffs and rode away with the suitcase. Thus bagin Day 4...

I have to say that after the lackluster Season 3 that 24 regains a much needed focus with this season. For starters, we learn who the primary villain is almost from the beginning and he terrorizes everyone for the duration. Habib Marwan, as played by the great Arnold Vosloo, is relentless in his assault throughout the day. He's always two steps ahead of Jack Bauer and CTU and when he strikes he does so with fiendish precision. It was a huge kick to have this sort of recurring villainy throughout the season instead of learning who the main villain is around episode 15 or 16 because the danger to everyone is constant instead of constantly changing.

Welcome Departure #2 was no Kim anywhere at all. There's a single reference to her at the very beginning and after that she's never mentioned again. For the record, this is exactly as it should be.

CTU was also filled out with an almost entirely new crew save for Chloe, pretty much the sole hold-over from season 3. Jack was fired by the new CTU head, Erin Driscoll, and he works for the Secretary of Defense. Once things are in motion it isn't long before Jack starts butting heads against Driscoll and others all while Marwan continues to execute a plan so far reaching in its impact that no one can figure out the end goal(s).

It's exciting stuff and even though 24 is basically a Hollywood action thriller blown up into 24 hours instead of two there are enough twists, turns, and dramatic beats that it somehow manages to sustain the ride for the entire season. This particular season though draws heavily on seasons 2 and 3 with a heavy emphasis on round 3. I found this odd considering the previous year was extremely boring by comparison, but certain character arcs won't mean a thing unless you watch one before the other.

I enjoy large ensemble casts because if the writers completely fail at nailing one character then at least I have a few others to fall back on. ER somehow fails at this entirely but I chalk that up to it being more soap opera than ordinary drama. The fun of 24 though is how there is a large universe of characters established by this point and you never know when someone else is going to drop in. I was stunned outright by one reveal late in season 4 because I figured they wouldn't deal with that character until the final season, whenever that may be.

One other thing they handle well is the derth of utterly stupid sub-plots. Normally, there's one primary sub-plot that brings the show to a screeching halt whenever it's focused on and this year is no different. What is different is how quickly it's resolved and how it removes one of the not-so-interesting characters only to replace them with one of my favorite characters. To the show's credit, as stupid as this one plot thread is they end it very, very well before putting the hammer down and barreling through the second half of the season.

If you stopped watching after the boring season 3 then know that season 4 returns to the all-out frenzy of season 2. That's a very good thing and one I'm personally grateful for. The "Jack Bauer Power Hour" Vol. 5 hits street in the first part of December which gives us plenty of time to get ready for January's premier of season 6. Judging from the preview it looks like a lot of the groundwork laid in the final few episodes of season 4 paid off at some point the following year. Personally, I can't wait to learn how.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Now Playing: The Omen (Original)

The Omen is one of those films you grow up hearing about almost involuntarily. It's one of those '70's horror films like The Exorcist whose reputation far exceeds any actual thrill factor the film possesses, so to speak. When you wind up seeing it, the end result tends to lean more towards boredom than entertainment because what thrilled people as recently as 30 years ago lacks the punch of today's "horror" flicks. That's actually quite a sad state of affairs considering schlock like Saw and Hostel are considered part of a new-wave of horror instead of being called out as the amateurish crap they are.

Even the remake of The Omen went so far overboard with its evil spawn of the devil, and specifically the color red, that it completely muted the sense of creeping dread the original managed so well. When the original The Omen starts, we find ourselves in a hospital in Rome with Gregory Peck and his wife Lee Remick, who's just given birth to a child revealed to be still-born. A priest comforts him though by saying he's just come into possession of an abandoned child born at the exact moment and who was left on his doorstep. Once he gets past his grief, Peck accepts the child as his own.

Only later when the child starts growing up is there any hint that something is very, very wrong with him.

Richard Donner's direction falls right in line with other films made during the period and whether you love or hate the specific style of 1970's cinema will make a big difference in whether you like or dislike this film. I personally am rapid for films made during that period, but I know not everyone else is. The story unfolds gradually even though we all know right from the start that the kid ain't normal. As if we needed any more clear evidence, Donner shows us a dog right from the start that's meant to protect the kid, now named Damian. When the dog shows up the score screams at us, "EVIL!!!"

No, I'm not kidding either. It's not as abrassive as Kubrick's score during The Shining but it achieves the same effect of assaulting the audience with a symphony.

One thing I'll give Donner credit for was casting a kid that looks like the sweetest child on earth. That he could even remotely be pure evil just doesn't enter into people's minds, and little wonder once you actually see him. He's just so... pure. Which is the sort of casting brilliance needed for a story like this. As for the rest of the cast, Peck is his usually stoic self while Remick is fairly annoying as his increasingly frustrated and disturbed wife. I think David Warner as a photojournalist who helps Peck discover the truth, and Billie Whitelaw as the nanny determined to protect Damian at all costs, come off as the strongest characters.

Overall this isn't a scary movie, but it is a very atmospheric one. The undercurrent of dread running through the film right from the start keeps you on your toes. Plus, the decapitation sequence is legendary and once you see it you'll understand why. After seeing The Omen I checked out the other two in the series. The second one sounds like an exact remake of this one only with a teenage Damian. The third one, on the other hand, has Sam Neill as a grown-up Damian who tries to take over the world and that sounds brilliant.

But the first one remains a solid thriller that is very entertaining, and a reminder of the slower, more deliberate pace films once took. Maybe I'm just getting older but sometimes I think it'd be nice if films concentrated more on telling the story than assaulting the audience with camera tricks. On the other hand, it could just be that most directors coming out of MTV lack any sort of true talent or skill and overcompensate with tons of flash.

Yeah, I'm going with the second theory.

Now Playing: The Vice Guide to Travel

I love discovering gems like The Vice Guide to Travel not only because it's completely unexpected but also because it illuminates and informs while it entertains me. I'd never heard of Vice Magazine before hearing about this collection of mini-documentaries, and I was intrigued when I dug a little deeper. Apparently the magazine sends its correspondents to literally the harshest, worst places on the planet, gives them a camera crew and says, "Have at it."

The result is a compilation of seven-minute documentaries that will each blow your mind in different ways. My Fair Lady was immediately put off by the first one we watched which was set in Beirut. The team interviews top Hezbollah members and shows the Palestinian Boy Scouts and their training. For the record, this version of the "Boy Scouts" trains these kids age 5-10 how to blow themselves up for "the cause" and how to hate Jews. Martrydom is made into a game for the kids who laugh and squeal with glee.

While not exactly a ringing endorsement for funny, it does show just how far these guys will go for a story and it sets the bar incredibly high for the rest of the disc. Fortunately, everything else hits home too, but none with such harsh emotional resonance.

One guy goes in search of a dinosaur in the heart of the Congo and what he finds must have been one of the worst hang-overs in his life. One guy hits the favellas of Rio de Janerio and parties with the local drug lords (a particular highlight). Another searches in South America for the rumored lost Nazi refuge with the caveat being that he's black, which guest Johnny Knoxville points out by saying, "They don't really respond well to people of color." The head of the magazine and a Berlin-based staff writer visit the ruins of Chernobyl to hunt "changed" animals amidst the radiation-infested snow while drunk out of their minds. This one would have been far better had the guy let the images speak for themselves versus intoning throughout how man shouldn't mess with things he can't control.

For my money though, the two that truly floored me were the one set in Bulgaria and the one set in Pakistan. The Bulgarian connection came about because a French journalist was able to buy a fully intact and functional nuclear warhead off the black market, so the head of Vice went there to see what he could find. He winds up talking with a weapons dealer (actually, "THE" weapons dealer) who can get anything anyone could ever want. The US state department continually claims that someone making a "dirty bomb" would be the gravest threat to national security, but this shows that terrorists don't need a dirty bomb when they can have a real one from the Bulgarian market.

As for the Pakistan one, we follow a correspondent of Pakistani descent to the world's largest arms market where people make thousands of guns a year by hand. There are countless reasons why all foreign journalists are banned from this area, and the correspondent's "in" is that his mother knows the right people. All the rhetoric coming out of Washington about the war being over in that region instantly fell on deaf ears as soon as I saw this. Regardless of who is in power in Washington, people who see this will note that the war in that region (and against terrorists in general) is so far from cut and dried, let alone over, it's absolutely mind-blowing.

Credit goes to the staffers of Vice Magazine for being as truly insane as they are. My mind was opened a lot thanks to their DVD, and having it stuffed with a bunch of nifty extras like extended footage, outtakes and such was fascinating. Each of these documentaries could have been over an hour long and it would have been equally as engaging if not more so. It's hardly a criticism to say the pieces on the disc were too short and left me wanting more, so deserved accolades go to Vice Magazine for this.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Now Playing: Steamboy

The steampunk genre is an odd one to speak off. Either you get and love the idea of steam powered engines and magics in Victorian times or you toss it aside as poppycock. Rarely have I seen anything in between. So when I threw Steamboy into the queue I knew exactly what I was getting. What I didn't know or expect was just how much I would love it.

The film kicks off in the Artic circle where a team of explorers lead by an over-the-top old man and his son are hard at work trying to harness steam power. When their experiment goes wrong, the scene fades to black and we wind up in Manchester, England, sometime in the late 1800s. The world has changed and both Britain and America are neck-deep in the Industrial Revolution. Environmentalists who complain and moan about how poorly the current generation treats our atmosphere and oceans should collectively look back 100 years to see what happens when no regulations exist whatsoever.

Steamboy, to its credit, never once appears as though the film makers are standing on a soapbox moralizing to the audience about how wrong it is for industry to do what it does in service of pure profit. Nor does it speak out about how much better nature is when left alone rather than used to benefit man. Those elements are certainly there, don't misunderstand me, just as they are in most anime films. But the story is so well told and entertaining in its own right that the "messages" are simply shown rather than hammered into us (I'm looking at you Princess Mononokee).

The story picks up in Manchester and follows young Ray Steam, son and grandson of those guys in the Artic, who is a natural born inventor. He picked up the family gene for technology and can play with something and have it working better in no time flat. When he receives a package from his grandfather at the same time some mysterious men from a shadowy "institute" knock on his front door, the film becomes a literal race to the finish. One bravura action sequence after another follows and as character after character are introduced and the film makers throw marvel after marvel at the screen it takes your breath away.

One of the most annoying characters in the early going actually wound up being one of my favorites by the end. Ray's female equivalent is introduced early on as Miss Scarlett and she's a spoiled American heir to the "institute." She grates at first, but as things explode in the second half of the film her eyes are gradually opened as to what it is her company does. Her relationship with Ray results in some laugh out loud moments, particularly when she can't figure out why he as a boy won't willingly dance with her. It simply baffles her and I was rolling at her reactions.

Another thing Steamboy has going for it is the sense of humor. Far too often anime are weighed down under the combined mass of their "message" along with the sense of self-importance. Steamboy, on the other hand, has several gut laughs in store including the hilarious capper to a deadly serious monologue late in the film. I also was holding my sides at a big "reveal" of the true nature of something at the end, and it's to the film makers' credit that they never went for the cheap laugh at a moment of seriousness. The timing of the jokes is killer, and the quality of the jokes is equally killer.

Steamboy has tons of inventiveness going for it and the details alone in the various applications of steam-powered technologies demands repeat viewings. Steamboy is worth watching a second time not only for the world and its gadgets, but also for the humanity present in its main characters. It would be great to see additional stories in this universe in the future, but only time will tell whether we see the further adventures of Ray Steam and family.

Now that that's out of the way...

Now that The Cruise is finished, relatively regular updates should commence in earnest. Over the past few months I've reviewed several DVDs and have a few more stories to post so these should appear with a relative frequency. By "relative" I mean "better than every so often." I know every time I write something like "I hope to post more frequently" I always come off as lying about it so this time I'm really crossing my fingers and hoping.

We'll see how that shakes out.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Love Boat Saga - The Complete Saga

Whew. After several weeks, endless reams of Word documents, and about a thousand Dr. Peppers later The Love Boat Saga has reached its conclusion. As several readers of various internet blogs also subscribe to the theory of being lazy, which I certainly respect, I've consolidated the saga's posts, and relevant side posts, in one easy to reach, uh, post.

So make with the clicking if you haven't read The Love Boat The Complete Saga and see just what ordeals Yours Truly and My Fair Lady went through on our week-long trip to the Caribbean.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5 Part 1

Day 5 Part 2

We Interrupt This Program...

Day 6

The Finale Approaches

Day 7

Day 8

The Love Boat, Day 8

Day Eight began as Day One had ended: With Yours Truly and My Fair Lady staring out our window at Miami Harbor. The ship docked around 6 a.m. that morning and the unloading began in earnest shortly thereafter. Every night of a cruise your steward turns down the bed and leaves an information flyer on the following day’s activities. The night before we pulled into harbor, however, he left tickets showing what de-boarding group we were in sorted by color, what time we were scheduled to disembark, and other procedures we’d find necessary.

As opposed to just throwing our stuff overboard and making a swim for it. All things considered this would have been the quicker way to exit.

We were scheduled to leave by 9:30 a.m. so we managed to get ready by 8:30 a.m. Since we had an hour to kill we figured we could either go upstairs for one final breakfast or go stand in line. Our appetites won out but since we’d grown tired of running the stairs we opted for the elevators. It’s amazing what happens when a lot of people have already left the ship because the elevators came right to us. Up three levels we flew and away to the breakfast buffet we went.

We must have been the final ones there because while the pickings were far from slim, open places to sit were. In between the pancake and sliced ham buffets we added up what little money we had left and figured it wouldn’t be enough to buy a spot next to the window.
"But we can see Miami Harbor from our room," I whined. "Not to mention we’ll be spending today and tomorrow here."

"I want to see the ocean one last time," replied My Fair Lady. "Besides we’re not going back to our room so this is our last chance to see the water."

"You realize we’re spending the next two days on a peninsula, specifically in a hotel with an ocean view, right?"

"Hush you. Quick! A table just opened up!"
I slung a flapjack like a discus and landed it on the table she’d spied. It is a trick passed down through many generations of Skims but it’s all in the wrist. It helps if the flapjack is somewhat firmer than the fluffy ones I normally cook on Saturday mornings.

We ate in peace and watched as people finished their meals with a weary resignation, took a deep breath, then stood up and headed downstairs to disembark. A "back to the real world" feeling settled across the dining hall but it felt good to be back on land, or at least close to it. We casually finished our breakfast before we too succumbed to the fact that our cruise was at an end. We stood, smiled at one another, then picked up our things and headed back to the elevators.
"Which deck are we exiting from?" I asked.

"Well, it’s decks two and three but we should hit five first and see if we can’t get in line there," said My Fair Lady.
So we took the elevator to deck five and as we exited My Fair Lady snagged my arm and started pulling me away from where the stairs were. I turned my head and saw she was dragging us towards the picture store. Throughout the length of the trip, the cruise line had photographers everywhere. Just about anytime we went anywhere in the ship or stepped off it in port we found ourselves face to face with the flashing bulbs of the paparazzi.

Every picture taken found its way into this one shop and My Fair Lady waited until this exact moment to buy the ones she wanted. A few nights prior she had gone through and selected which ones she was “for sure” on and which ones she could go either way on. But right then and there was the hard deadline to make a decision and she wasn’t going to pass it by.

To be entirely fair to her, every other wife and girlfriend on board had pulled their husbands and boyfriends along at the exact same moment. The other men and I exchanged bemused looks as the women scattered in the store. My Fair Lady proved herself smarter than the average bear because when she was last in the store she had, in a rather clandestine maneuver, taken each one of our pictures and put them all in the same place on one shelf. As such, she went right to them, yanked them out, and put them in front of my face.
"Alright, choose," she said. "But choose wisely. Because while a great picture will bring eternal happiness, a bad picture will take it from us. Me in particular. And by 'me' I mean 'us.' So what do you think of this one?"
She then fanned the pictures in her hand in a move that would make a Vegas dealer proud.
"Uh, which one?" I asked.

"Any of them. We’re on the clock here, so get a move on."

"Well, I’m not too fond of that one," I said as I vaguely motioned to one.

"Good, I didn’t like that either."
We spent another minute or two going through the remaining pictures and settled on a handful. While at the counter we also picked up a copy of the "Cruise in Review" DVD, which I’m sure will see plenty of time in the home player whenever we host parties. If it had so much as a clip of My Fair Lady frying like bacon during The Quest, then it was worth every cent.

Once our account was settled with the photo store, we picked up our carry-on bags and headed to the stairs. We quickly found ourselves swallowed by an enormous, winding python of an escape line. We looked at one another and wondered aloud whether there might be another, saner escape vector. Bear in mind we were still on deck five at this point, and the line in question wound downstairs through the next two decks.
"What about the opposite end of the ship?" asked My Fair Lady. "Maybe people haven’t figured out that there are multiple ways off..."

"SHHHH!!!!" I hushed her. "Do you want to give out the recipe for the secret sauce too? Or maybe where Hoffa’s buried?"

"Well then, do you want to wait here or try something else?"

"Hey, I voted at the start to toss everything overboard and swim for it but someone, and I’m not naming names here, decided that was too 'risky,'" I said.

"Fine, you can stay here but I’m heading to the back of the ship to see what’s available. I’ll call you from the cab on the way to the hotel."
And here I thought hardheadedness ran in just my family.

We ducked out of the line and headed towards the back of the ship and after descending two decks found ourselves in a much smaller line that at least was looking at an exit. I counted maybe 25 people in front of us and My Fair Lady was properly satisfied. We started chatting up a few of the people around us who were equally as anxious to leave as we were. After waiting for a brisk 15 minutes the color group we belonged to, brown, was called so everyone started moving forward. One of the cruise members thanked us for traveling with them, briskly nodding at each and every one of us, and then we were out and into the maze.

The maze is a series of chutes designed to funnel large crowds through enough small corridors that it thins the chafe from the wheat, so to speak. Whoever is left by the end gets to go through customs while those who didn’t make it... well, the less said of those unfortunate souls the better. The line to exit customs defies description. Consider the size of a full cruise ship’s roster then filter everyone from that roster into two lines and put them in a long hallway.

After successfully navigating the maze, we found ourselves at the back of the right-hand line. I looked towards the front of the line and honestly couldn’t see it. We hoped we were in the good line, but as the one to the left started hustling forward while we remained stock still, it quickly became apparent that we had chosen poorly.

Twenty minutes later we had moved maybe 10 feet while people who had disembarked behind us but went to the left line were far ahead of us. Thirty minutes after that, we’d moved maybe another twenty feet when we heard our names from behind us. We turned and saw The Couple from LA waving at us, so we waved back. I made a motion like I was being hanged, which summed up our feelings on the situation in a single gesture.

Within the next half hour, The Couple From LA was neck and neck with us and collectively we’d finally moved within sight of the customs desk. By this point, the pain in our legs was growing after shifting from one foot to the other for almost two hours. Meanwhile, the left hand line continued moving consistently while our line moved in short spurts.

Once we were within earshot of the front we finally saw the cause for the hold up: The Homeland Security Wench. This over-inflated egotist would point at the people in the front of a given line then direct them to one of the five customs desks where they would check out. We’d filled out the declarations forms before disembarking and since we weren’t loaded down with Cuban cigars or crates of alcohol that, for the record, were only about 8% cheaper than at retail, we knew we’d breeze right past the customs desk... if we could just get there.

In the meantime, someone actually had the gravitas to call out Homeland Security Wench on her complete and utter failure to recognize there were, in fact, two lines of people who needed out.
"I’m keeping the lines even!" she bellowed.

I swear to God and all that is Holy I have no clue how this fool could look these long-suffering people square in the face and say she was keeping the lines even. Immediately after she said that, she waved on five more from the left-hand side including The Couple From LA who shrugged at us in slight embarrassment then headed on to check out. We waved them farewell before they disappeared behind a wave of bodies.

Homeland Security Wench continued to hold us up while the left line flowed freely. People at the front of our line started throwing fits of pure rage as this buffoon improperly controlled the flood gates. I know not where she learned the art of crowd control but I’m guessing she failed. Repeatedly.

This explains why she was working for the government.

Eventually, Homeland Security Wench remembered there was another line and started letting people go. There must have been several families standing right in front of us because the line practically vanished. The Wench held us up when we finally made it to the front, and naturally opened the left hand flood gate once more.
"How many in your party?" she asked them. "Five? Alright, you go. How many in your party? Four? Alright, head to that gate. YOU STAY THERE I’LL GET TO YOU SHORTLY!"
She bellowed that last directly at us. There is an endless list of things I hate about the government and government employees, but a ridiculous level of over-inflated self-worth is in my top five. This cast-iron wench was a textbook example of the worst sort of government employee and we just stood there taking it. We were so close to the end that I wasn’t about to screw things up by trying to drive a stake through her heart, fun though that may have been.

Despite the mental daggers My Fair Lady and I were sending her, she finally relented and pointed us towards one of the customs officials. We gritted our teeth and marched to the counter where we handed the man our forms.
"Do you have anything to declare?" asked Customs Official #1.

"No," we replied in unison.

"Do you have any tobacco products that you’re bringing back?"

"No," we replied in unison.

"Do you have an alcohol to declare?"

"No," we replied in unison.
Customs Official #1 looked up and stared us both in the eyes.
"What the hell were you two doing down there? Did you have any fun at all?"

"Plenty of fun was had, nothing was brought back," I said.

"Dude, you’re done. Get outta here."
With that he stamped our forms and shooed us away from his booth with a quick dismissal gesture. As we walked away we glared at each other.
"They need an express lane for people like us," My Fair Lady bitterly complained. "You know, people without booze, smokes, and other crap. How do they expect to get all that stuff on the plane anyways?"

"My guess is they either won’t, or they’re going to have to ship everything back via UPS or something," I replied. "Of course we could see people pounding bottle after bottle in the airport tomorrow which would be pretty funny."
Heading away from the debacle that is the Miami customs area, we made our way to the baggage claim which we found in full swing. Normally whenever we travel we get to the baggage area far ahead of our luggage but thanks to Homeland Security Wench we found our bags already dizzy from going 'round and 'round and 'round without us to rescue them. We picked them up, double-checked to ensure no one else had gone through our things, and then headed for the front door.

The doors parted, the Miami air assailed our nostrils, and we dragged our bags towards the cab area. We noticed several groups were slated to go on the next cruise because the matching uniforms were as far as the eye could see. Some Japanese schoolgirls walked by and were quickly followed by a Japanese basketball team. As we walked towards the cab we heard one of the dock workers shout at us.
"Hey, you can’t go over there for the cabs! That’s only for people coming onto to the ships!"
By this point, we were through being told what to do. Our pace was not even fazed as we hiked over the cabs and flagged one that had just unloaded his passengers. He barely got out of the front before we’d already thrown our luggage in the trunk and piled into the back.
"The Beacon Hotel," we said. "And for the love of God, get there as fast as possible."
To the man’s eternal credit, he knew when hostile passengers were in his cab. He stomped on the gas, the tires squealed as they peeled out, and we shot past the dock worker who was probably still shouting at us that we could only get in a pre-approved cab. Once we cleared the docks and hit the bridge going over the harbor, we looked back and saw business as usual continued on the cruise ships. Our cruise may have come to an end, but new faces were ready to sail the high seas over the next week. We smiled at each other then turned to look out the front of the cab and watched Miami get ever closer.
"How are you today?" the cabbie asked us in broken English. Looking at the name on his driver’s license I pegged him as Turkish.

"We’re good, better now actually," I replied. "We liked cruising, but it feels good being home."

"Very good then," said the cabbie. "What are you seeing while in town?"

"Oh, this and that," My Fair Lady said. "We staying on South Beach so we figured we’d hang out down there."

"Lots of fun down there, especially in ocean," said the cabbie. "Do you surf?"

"I body surf but could never stand on a board longer than about two seconds," I said. "As such, I think we’re just going to lie about for the day."
It took us about 20 minutes to get over to South Beach and as soon as we turned onto Ocean Drive I immediately freaked out. It was exactly like I was living in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and I’m not exaggerating. If you’ve played the game but never once been to South Beach, then let me assure you that Rockstar got the geography exactly right. While most people know the area from Scarface, I personally think the movie sucks so opt to defer to the game... which was more or less based on the movie.

When your head is through spinning from that explanation the rest of the story continues below.

The cab pulled up in front of The Beacon Hotel and we yanked out our bags and walked up to the front desk. Clerk Betty stepped up and welcomed us warmly. We confessed to being early and when she checked the list she found our room was two hours away from ready. She was nice enough to have our bags checked and since we couldn’t get into our room yet, we stepped out onto South Beach to explore for the first time.

If you’ve never been to Miami it simply floors you how bright the sky is. On a clear day you can see for miles, and it was very clear that day. The sand wasn’t what I’d call "white" so much as I would "covered with cigarette butts and miscellaneous grit." The water wasn’t much cleaner thanks to copious amounts of seaweed, but we still enjoyed looking at it all. It also helped that a good portion of the people on the beach were easy on the eyes and not wearing a whole heck of a lot. Hey, when you’re on the beach in Miami you either enjoy it or run from it screaming.
"Do you want to get in the water or lay out on the beach today?" My Fair Lady asked.

"I’d like to have a room to change clothes in first, but otherwise I’d be up for it."
We headed back to the Beacon, but instead of walking inside we opted to hang a right and walk down Ocean Drive. One thing that struck me as inspired was how each hotel had their restaurant outside on the sidewalk itself. Whenever you walk down the sidewalk there you will walk through about a dozen restaurants and most of them belong to a hotel. All of them have barkers who will try with all their might to put your butt in one of their seats, so consider yourself advised to come armed.

As we hiked down the sidewalk we looked at the various menus wondering what would constitute a solid meal for later that evening. We spied a few that looked better than the rest, and made mental notes to return for further review. Or at least I tried to make mental notes, but after walking past one restaurant that can best be described as "Hooters meets the Playboy Mansion" I had trouble focusing. I don’t recall the name of it, but oh man can I recall the, uh, menu.

My Fair Lady failed to see anything on the menu she found appetizing, funny enough.

We headed back to the hotel and Clerk Betty handed us our room keys. When we walked upstairs we found ourselves staring at a floor-to-ceiling picture of Al Pacino from Scarface, specifically the scene in the street immediately after the chainsaw incident, and I started laughing. The thought of Big Al walking through the hotel I was staying at filled me with a sense of awesome. Also, I had another flashback to the hotel your character owns at the beginning of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. These flashes would happen roughly every 15 minutes over the next day so whenever I talk about anything we saw in South Beach, just accept that I was also mentally driving around GTA: VC.

Our room screamed "Art Deco" which was appropriate considering the hotel was in the Art Deco district of Miami. Say what you will about the rest of the city, this district had its own vibe, its own unique spirit. A friend of mine’s family lives there and he has his own opinions on the positives and negatives of Miami, but South Beach has a wondrous flavor all its own. Thousands of people have come through and each of them has left their fingerprints on this area of the city. Combine the flavors of people with the rich, frequently vivid passions raging there through the decades, and South Beach swirls around you in a cloud of energy.

I won’t argue that things probably would have been easier had we been fluent in Spanish, but we managed to have fun walking around. A few streets up from Ocean Drive was a main thoroughfare where we saw a slew of high-end cars. I pass by a Ferrari/Maserati dealership every morning on the way to work and I used to marvel at the testers. Dallas isn’t home to as many Lamborghinis as we saw each day, though it truly pained me to watch them only driving 30 mph. A car like that shouldn't be allowed to go less than 75, which would make it awkward when dropping the kids off to school.
"Duck and roll, little Timmy, just like we practiced! The bruising and pain will fade in time. Trust me!"
After dropping off our bags, we suited out, liberated a pair of towels from the front office and headed across the street to the beach. Ocean Drive is a two lane road separating a row of hotels and restaurants from a giant sea of sand dunes. Inter-spersed in between every fourth dune or so was a path to the beach itself. My Fair Lady and I situated ourselves on the towels and actually laid on a beach for the first time on our vacation. The view of the Miami skyline and the crystal blue sky was the sort of view dreams are made of. We snacked on the gummy candies My Fair Lady brings on every trip, and watched the people walk to and fro as the ocean waves crashed in the background.

We sunned ourselves and enjoyed the sea breeze for close to two hours before clouds rolled in threatening rain. Maybe we were gun-shy coming back from the tropics, where rain storms came and went as fast as a person can sneeze, but we knocked the sand out of our towels as quickly as we could then busted our tails back to the hotel. We actually managed to cross the Beacon’s threshold before the rain hit. Seeing that it was approaching dinner, we decided to clean up and head out to eat in South Beach.

My Fair Lady looked stunning. She belonged in the vast ocean of fantastical beauty on display that evening. As we walked through the restaurants it became apparent how the people of South Beach treat everyone else. It is a see-and-be-seen environment, the very definition of overt narcissism which frankly I found hilarious. The menu which grabbed our attention belonged to the News Café and our table was right on the sidewalk. My Fair Lady ordered a Mojito, an object of desire on her mind since before the cruise began, and when it arrived promptly found another love of her life. I tasted it and my face rapidly contorted into its "anti-alcohol" look of disgust.
"Why even bother trying this when you know you’re going to hate it?" My Fair Lady asked.

"Because there’s always the chance I may find something I like," I replied. "You know, like tequila."

"I still can’t believe that for someone who hates the taste of alcohol that tequila is the one thing you liked."

"Neither can I but I still figure the shot of 151 I had before that burned out the inside of my mouth. At that point, I could have licked a tire and wouldn’t have noticed the flavor."
This, dear friends, is a story for another time.

Dinner was fantastic, and afterwards we walked the neon-lit streets of South Beach hand in hand. Sure, it sounds more than a little sappy but it was a solid capper to our first cruise together. We retired later that night to the Beacon only to hear people coming and going long past midnight. Apparently when we told Clerk Betty we’d like "a quiet room" she took that to mean "by the front door where we can hear everything." Foresight on our part resulted in us being well stocked on books for the trip so we managed plenty of reading that night, though around 2 a.m. words sort of blended together. The good news was that was when everything quieted down in the hotel and we blacked out.

The following morning we had a massive breakfast outside, because the chefs along Ocean Drive apparently don’t subscribe to the South Beach Diet ironically enough, then hailed a cab and returned to the Miami airport. Thank you for coming along with us through these exhaustive blog posts, wordy though they are, and for hounding me on cranking them out. Funny enough, these have given me an extensive creative work-out in terms of writing what has essentially turned out to be a novella and for that alone this trip was worth while. My thanks also to the many people we met along the way who helped us enjoy the journey to its fullest.

Thanks for the memories.