Friday, April 27, 2007

A Different San Francisco Treat

So I'm writing up another Odyssey-esque post regarding the trip to San Francisco My Fair Lady and I took in mid-March when my latest copy of Writer's Digest arrives on my doorstep. In addition to the usual bon mots of wisdom and pointers in how whatever I'm doing now, it's not working on my novel/screenplay/short story, I see their annual contest and figure it's high time I enter it just to see what happens.

But what should I submit, I wondered. Then I noticed one of the accepted articles is a 2000 word maximum personal memoir. I did a quick word count on my Day 1 of the trip and it clocked in at 2500. The punchline is that I'm only three-quarters of the way done. But I figured with some judicious editing and killer cliffhanger then I might have something worth submitting to the contest.

The downside for three of you reading this (hi, mom!) is that I'm not able to post it as a "published" article prior to submission. I will go ahead and finish the trip though and have it available via Word document if anyone wants to read it. I'll post here when it's done and if you want to check it out then email me and let me know.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

God of War 2

I was a bit hard on the first God of War for a number of reasons but I'll just right to my favorite for the sake of brevity. Precisely at the 2/3 mark, the game goes off the cliff of stupid and never recovers. Old school gamers all know when programmers can't come up with a quality challenge with regards to game bosses because all of a sudden the boss is a cheating bitch.

You heard me right - a cheating bitch. Which is what the final boss is in God of War.

That by itself would be one thing, but the road leading up to him is paved with suck. This would have been enough to get me to throw away the game and never touch it again but the previous 2/3 of the game were so epic and flawless that it boggled the mind. How could something so good go so wrong towards the end? My prayers were that the sequel would fix everything I hated about the original.

Apparently someone on Olympus was listening because God of War 2 kicks nine kinds of ass start to finish. The story of the fallen warrior Kratos isn't exactly deep. He's a resounding badass with an axe to grind against the Greek gods and throughout the entire story moans about how slighted he's been because of them. I'll be the first to admit Kratos isn't the deepest of protagonists, but the fact that you can rip enemies apart with your bare hands makes up for it. I love how much damage and destruction Kratos can cause right from the start, and the fact that you only grow stronger from there makes me love it even more.

Fortunately, the entire game is entertaining and not just two thirds of it. Despite what anyone said about it, I was determined to play through the entire game before rendering judgement and I have now completed it. The final boss is a challenge, but not absurdly so. It takes skill, knowledge of your abilities, and cracker jack timing to fell the final foe and this is as it should be.

But how epic this game in terms of size cannot be understated. The basic setup is that Kratos must journey to the Island of Time and consult the Fates to change both his past and future after Zeus screws him over during the bravura opening sequence. Kratos' entry to the island is beyond awesome, but then the camera pulls back and we see the island in its full glory. I swear to you now that I was unaware the PS2 could do the tricks God of War 2 pulls. This is easily one of the most gorgeous games I've ever seen and the sequence with the horses has to be seen to be believed. Ironically, this part was the one that almost sold me a PS3.

If God of War 3 hits the PS3 in the next year or two, it's almost impossible to imagine what the team responsible will come up with. I still think the PS3 is a $600 boat anchor, but God of War 3 could be the system-seller Sony needs. If it's anywhere as good as part two, they may have just sold me one.

Friday, April 13, 2007


You know that sinking feeling you get when something is about to go terribly wrong and there is not a single thing you can do to change it? Some might call it a premonition, others might label it "second sight" while still more people would say it's nothing more than one's instincts essentially smelling danger on the wind.

None of that happened Thursday morning as I was driving to work and the serpentine belt EXPLODED under the hood of my car.

I've heard people say that I in particular am "hard" on the cars I drive. This is true to a degree but I certainly don't treat them like I'm racing in NASCAR all the time. But when something under the hood of your car EXPLODES immediately followed by a complete loss of power steering, you start to worry. The good news was that I was exiting the Tollway when this happened and was able to pull into the gas station by the off-ramp.

The bad news is that my car wasn't going anywhere. Period.

I pop the hood and smoke billows out. Once the air clears I examine the remains and find what's left of the belt has shreded almost entirely. It's also twisted around just about everything under the hood like an octopus clutching its prey.

I make a call to My Fair Lady and let her know what's going on and she tells me she's racing to her car to come meet me even before I finish explaining the problem. When she made it to where I was, we contacted a towing company then followed up with a quick call to our insurance. When Big Ed from the towing company arrived about half an hour later, he tossed the car up onto his flatbed and hauled out of the gas station en route to the nearby Firestone. Normally I don't care for them as a company, but I've been to this particular branch off and on for the last decade and they've never steered me wrong.

My Fair Lady drives me over to the Firestone and after briefly talking with them she drives me down the street to work. The funny part about all this is I'd been less than two miles from work all morning but didn't actually walk in the door until 10:30 a.m.

Around 4 p.m. is when Firestone calls back and tells me they've made the repairs and that'll be $450. Apparently when the belt EXPLODED it blew off something important and then the remains were twisted up into a pulley system apparently installed by monks at the Jeep factory in Tibet.

The car now runs fine, but now I need two new tires as well. Ahh, the joys of car ownership.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Prot. U

If you're looking for a book that spoofs collegiate life with an emphasis on student journlism, I highly recommend not reading Prot U by my former newspaper advisor, Eva Rumpf. If you want an exercise in how to write a poorly told, wafer-thin story which involves equally thin, borderline non-existant characters, some of whom don't ever interact with the primary storyline, told by someone clearly looking down their nose at their subject matter, then this is the book for you.

It helps that its less than 200 pages, only about 10 of which I'd point to as "solid." The rest is just a mess of skimmed-over story without any depth to it whatsoever. I can hear Eva's objection right now: "But it's supposed to be satire!"

True, which means it should also bring The Funny while saying something meaningful. Here's a newsflash, Eva: You are not funny, nor have you ever been funny, and I can't recall a single time when you said anything I'd place on a pedestal and label as "Important."

But setting aside the personal baggage, let's examine the actual book. It's 173 pages long and takes place over the course of a full academic year. Here's the first sentence of February:
"The line outside Flowers to Go stretched all the way down the block, mingling jocks, scholars and frat boys who waited impatiently to purchase the Valentine special, one dozen red roses for $59.99."
If you're writing a book, actually paying for an editor is a good thing to budget for. Also, when certain characters are nothing more than soulless archtypes who revolve around the story without ever directly affecting it this tells me that the author missed his/her own point. It doesn't help matters when the main characters themselves are so thinly crafted that they deserve labels in place of names.

The star would be "Idealistic Senior - Male." The co-stars would be listed thusly: "Idealistic Advisor - Female;" "Idealistic Love Interest - Female;" "Spineless Dean (Authority Figure) - Male;" "Nefarious Rancher (Bad Guy) - Male." It goes from there and commits the cardinal sin of being boring. Skip this.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Now Playing: The Eiger Sanction

This was one of those movies I'd always heard about but never actually managed to see. This is why Netflix was invented - to grant me the ability to catch up on flicks I've otherwise missed. Then I watched The Eiger Sanction and realized why I'd missed it.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it obscure but it's not on the tips of everyone's tongues when they mention classic 70's cinema. This one finds Clint Eastwood as an art professor who is a retired assassin for the US government and is pulled into "one last job" for the ripe sum of $20,000 after an American agent is killed. He's to "sanction" the assassin who did in the American agent and if he feels up to it then he'll get the chance to "sanction" a second badguy who was also involved in the hit. I started snickering right away for a number of reasons not the least of which is Eastwood's hilarious delivery of badass lines.

Eastwood is a genuinely funny man. In his heyday back in the 1970's he was the trademark for American gravitas and ball-busting, but the way he delivers venom-filled lines in either this or Dity Harry or anything else is laugh out loud funny. The Eiger Sanction is filled with gems and watching him in his prime throw out one awesome line after another is always a fun way to spend a few hours.

Unfortunately, the film was also directed by him which means it takes its time getting to where its going and once it does... not much happens. Eastwood has improved his style over the years (obviously considering his Oscar for Unforgiven) but you can tell he's still looking for his own voice in his early directorial efforts and The Eiger Sanction is no different. The crux of the movie's threat hinges on him climbing the Eiger mountain with a foreign team, one of who is the other assassin he's supposed to kill. The catch is he doesn't know which one it is and has to climb the mountain with them anyway.

That sequence winds up being the last half hour of the two-hour movie.

Up to this point, Eastwood's character is investigating who the assassin might be and training for the climb. There are a few digressions throughout and eventually he winds up on the mountain. I can respect how the real climbing was achieved, including Eastwood performing his own stunt at the end where he has to cut his own rope while dangling over a 1,000-ft drop, but the movie itself barely gets off the ground, so to speak. It just sort of ambles along and then everything is over and the credits roll.

Overall, it's more a look back at a film in the 1970s than it is a look back at a great film from a defining decade of American cinema. Also, the obsession back then with using natural lighting to make everything look "real" and "authentic" looks really awful with a weak transfer. When Eastwood, or anyone in the film, walks through a dark room the entire screen goes black until someone opens a door or window. That may have been the intended effect back in the day but it looks awful now.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Now Playing: Collateral Damage

One thing I like about Arnold Schwarzenegger movies is they're honest. You know what you're going to see right from the second it starts. Arnold is going to face a crisis, usually personal in nature, then is going to kill a ton of people before squaring off with the ultimate bad guy and killing him/her/them. Good wins out over evil. It's comfort food in a way. Sometimes you get a three course meal though in the likes of Predator or The Terminator where everything is pure cinematic perfection.

Other times you're left with an Almond Joy like Collateral Damage which is little more than a snack that leaves you hungry again 20 minutes after you finish it.

Arnold plays a firefighter named Gordie Brewer whose wife and little son are killed in a bomber's attack on the Columbian embassy in Los Angeles. He swears vengence, especially once the weak-kneed politicians in Washington decide to negotiate with the terrorists to find out what their "special needs" are. And what happens when weak-kneed politicians try to negotiate with terrorists in Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, boys and girls?

Before you have time to try and examine how many plot holes are in the first 15 minutes alone, Gordie has shipped himself down to Columbia and makes a beeline straight for the bad guy's camp. Of course, he runs into problem after problem which fortunately can all be resolved with liberal use of explosives. Apparently Gordie was on the bomb squad prior to being a firefighter, which means he can blow stuff up with the best of them then put out the fire. He's practically a Renaissance Man in that way.

Director Andrew Davis does what he can to spice things up, including a wicked shot at the beginning of the bomber walking on the other side of a barrier from Gordie's son. But the film feels entirely pedantic and workmanlike. This was clearly a paycheck flick with zero passion felt for it and it shows. Heck, even the score is ripped off from a dozen sources.

I'm a sucker for lame action flicks but the only difference between this and one of these from the 1980's is the ending. There's a slight twist towards the end that any one who has ever seen a movie will peg about 45 minutes into the film. But if this were the 1980s the ending would be totally different. Or the exact same only then the producers would get to scream, "Look! We're being edgy!"

Uh, not so much this time, hombres. Maybe someday Arnold will return to us, but if he has his way then this and Terminator 3 might be the last we'll see of our beloved Austrian Oak on the big screen for years to come. Vaya con Dios, Austrian Oak, you will be missed.

Now Playing: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Speaking as a native Texan, the Enron disaster caught us by surprise as much as the next person. One minute we're hearing stories about one of the top 10 companies in the world and how many billions it's making daily, and the next we're seeing live news shots of the corporate HQ in Houston as employees are vacating in a mad scramble. Over the next few months, story after story came out about how this multi-billion dollar corporation was nothing more than a house of cards and that CEO Jeffrey Skilling and top honcho Ken Lay had been the ones stacking the deck over the last decade. The resultant disaster was the equivalent of a tsunami hitting Wall Street, not to mention the billions in pension and retirement funds that went up in smoke overnight for thousands of people.

The investigation into where the company started and what ultimately went wrong is where Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room comes into play.

The documentary states very clearly at the start that this is a story about people and this is absolutely true. We see the beginnings of Ken Lay and get some insight into where Jeffrey Skilling first came into play. We also learn how heavily invested in Enron, and specifically Lay, the Bush family was and probably still is. It was at this point where I instinctively felt my eyebrows raising, but in keeping with it you learn plenty about everyone involved with the company. Was the Bush family involved in the collapse? Not at all. Were they complicit in earning money from the company as it essentially scammed everyone in sight? Absolutely.

But then again, the documentary carefully points out, so was literally every one else.

Enron did deals with every single major bank on the planet and if you were in the energy industry then you had to, by necessity, deal with Enron. The amount of tentacles this beast had is staggering to discover, and even more amazing is how everyone invovled suspected something was wrong right from the start. But since everyone was making record profits (their Houston-based law firm, which is currently going down in flames I might add, was paid $1 million a week at Enron's height) no one cared whether the money was blood money or not. Enron played on everyone's greed so succssfully that the resultant bankruptcy has become a textbook case.

So much so that it's now the opening chapter in corporate bankruptcy class in law schools across the country.

The film interviews everyone it can from Enron insiders, former traders, one of the former PR guys, top executives, and then talks to people outside the company. We meet a line worker who sold his retirement funds off (initially valued at north of $300,000) for around $1,200. We hear tapes of the Enron traders as they gangrape the California power grid time and again. Grey Davis gets his say as well, and I was stunned to feel sympathy for the man by the time the documentary was over. When this was going on, all I knew was that California had rolling blackouts and people were pissed at Davis and that's where the extent of my knowledge ended. I went to E3 back in 2003 and at the time there were protestors outside the Staples Center demanding everyone sign the "Recall Grey Davis" petition but that was the extent of my personal experience with the craziness engulfing the state at the time.

The documentary explains why Enron was doing this, who was doing it, and why Ken Lay had not a care in the world to stop it.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is indeed a story about people, and these are people you will come to despise. The brilliant move by the film makers is how they boil down the complexities of corporatocracy into easy to understand sound bites that don't pander to the viewer. My Fair Lady was a financial analyst for several years and a stock trader before that and she was flabbergasted that Enron managed to get away with the shenanigans they did. She understands all this stuff naturally while it normally sails over my head. But this film very carefully explains the details of what happened and why, so the viewer never feels left out in the cold.

The great tragedy of Enron though is how many people were left out in the cold on account of the insatiable greed of a few. This is a solid film with a skillfully told narrative that anyone involved in business of any kind simply must see. For the rest of us, this is a lesson in what can happen when Big Business runs amok without proper checks and balances in place. But when you consider how WorldCom and Arthur Anderson folded shortly after Enron did, it makes one wonder whether we'll be able to prevent this from happening again.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Now Playing: Cocaine Cowboys

It's funny to look back on your childhood and recognize that momentous events from your formative years are seldom among your personal memories. I have no recollection of President Ronald "Ronoldus Magnus" Reagan being shot by John Hinckly, nor do I recall the bomb that was "Ishtar" when it hit theaters. I do recall the Challenger explosion but that's because I was watching in Dr. G's third grade class in 1986, which is also why I missed both "Predator" and "Aliens" in the theater that same year.

People that lived during those years have very different memories than those of us raised during those years, and it's fascinating to examine the dynamic. Take for example the show "Miami Vice." Personally, I never was allowed to watch it because it was a cop show where the heroes were dark and the violence was serious. Naturally, I gravitated towards "Sledge Hammer" (which remains David Rasche's defining role whether he likes it or not) because it was loud, silly, and over-the-top in a fun, childish way. But one thing "Miami Vice" was centered around was the booming cocaine industry in south Florida and the influence the drug cartels had on both the state and popular culture as a whole completely escaped me.

It did not, however, escape those who survived some of the bloodiest years in an American city since Prohibition. Cocaine Cowboys dives headlong into the 1970s where everything began, and continues right up through the present. This documentary gets so many things right that it is virtually impossible to be bored by any of it. The trick behind a solid documentary is having an excellent story teller behind the scenes, but Cocaine Cowboys goes a few steps further by having excellent story tellers in front of the camera as well. For example, we immediately meet John Roberts and Mickey Munday who prove themselves fascinating to listen to even as they talk about things no sane person would ever do.

Roberts was a guy looking to get rich any way he could as fast as he could. He did some low-level dealing here and there most notably with importing pot. He brought in as much as he could as fast as he could, and eventually met up with Munday who was a redneck bush pilot. Munday came up with various smuggling routes and flew the plane into the state until there was so much pot that you couldn't give it away, much less sell it.

Then they switched to bringing in cocaine from the Columbian cartels and thus began the greatest influx of cash that Miami has ever seen, before and since. But along with the drugs came some bloodthirsty criminals looking to carve out their own piece of the city and the police were overwhelmed almost overnight. The resultant drug war makes Scarface look tame by comparison, and even though I routinely mock that horrible, horrible film I realize now that it was a parody that, if anything, didn't go far enough. Pretty much everything seen in that film had a basis in facts pulled from the streets of Miami from 1975-1980. Yeah, it was that deranged of a town and frankly I'm amazed that the place wasn't nuked from orbit just to be sure.

Cocaine Cowboys is just as energized as its subject matter, but does the viewer a service by peeling back the glossy sheen of the 1980s and examining what was really going on underneath. There are dozens of interviews with the criminals and cops involved and some of the best and worst stories come from the same source - one of the top killers in the drug wars who is interviewed behind bars. His name escapes me but he instantly proves charming and likeable, and his stories of how he grew up are great. Then he starts getting into the details of how he and others killed people and that charm remains in tact. It's then you realize the guy is practically souless (with the exception regarding his stance on children), and his stories become truly scary confessions.

This is a magnificent documentary that covers all aspects of the Miami drug wars and shows its lasting impact on the city and the culture that survived. The "where are they now" segment at the end caps everything off beautifully and the final line of text made me laugh out loud, and drew actual applause from My Fair Lady. Don't miss this one.