Monday, December 31, 2007

When the Novelty Wears Off

2007 is at a close, and tonight people are ringing in the new year. I am glad this means there's only one more year where we'll see stupid novelty glasses like these:


The whole thing of using the zeroes as the lenses of the glasses was pretty novel when we were all welcoming the year 2000, but even by 2001, it was starting to get old. Now, the gag is just so... well, I'd say "last millennium," but that gag is old too.

The point is, this isn't going to work anymore when 2010 rolls around. Well... wait. Someone could put the one on the bridge of the nose and still use the zeroes for lenses. Damn. I guess that means it won't be until the calendar is turning to 2011 that we'll finally be rid of these damn things.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

If Only He Really Wasn't There

A few days ago, I did something that I haven't done in... well, I can't remember the last time I did it. I walked out on a movie.

It was I'm Not There, the bio-pic about the life of Bob Dylan, in which six different actors portray Dylan at different points in his life.

I should start all this by saying I am not a fan of Bob Dylan's music. I find his voice obnoxious, and I've never been particularly impressed with his lyrics, which I find incomprehensible even if one can actually understand any of what he's singing.

What got me to even consider seeing this movie was all the critical praise being lavished on the acting in this film. Many people have been talking about how phenomenal Cate Blachett is in this movie, and high marks are being given to Christian Bale and Heath Ledger as well. I was going to the movie theater with a friend who'd heard similar things, and we decided we'd give it a shot.

Well, the first thing I learned is that it's possible that seeing the movie Walk Hard has absolutely ruined "life story" movies for me forever. The same hackneyed writing conventions that were skewered so aptly in that movie were well on display here. ("Son, this is 1957! Ain't no one gonna..." Everyone know where we're at in the timeline now, audience??!!!) I almost could have laughed.

...except that I was so phenomenally bored that laughter was simply too far a journey.

My friend and I sat through about 30-40 minutes of the film, waiting for something coherent to happen. But the movie seemed to have made the stylistic choice to be opaquely poetic and non-sensical, just like Dylan's lyrics. There was no real narrative to be followed, no character journey being undertaken, no mental foothold of any kind. Just disassociated vignettes. It was so jarring and disorienting a film, it felt like the reels from 10 or 12 movies had been dropped on the floor somewhere and mistakenly cut together in a random order.

But Cate Blanchett, the rumored star of the whole show, hadn't really appeared in any significant way on screen yet, so for a time, I was determined to try and stick it out. But finally, I checked my watch a few too many times, realized just how slowly time was passing, and I began to wonder how I would possibly make it through another hour-and-a-half of this stupifying crap.

I leaned to my friend and whispered, "are you liking this?" She replied, "I don't know what's going on." There was still time to jump ship and go see Juno instead, so that's precisely what we did.

It's possible that whatever gene allows someone to enjoy Bob Dylan would allow a person to also enjoy this movie. I don't possess it. And I also confess, I didn't really get to the part of the film that every critic was crowing about -- I couldn't make myself endure any more. So maybe -- maybe -- some of you out there would find something to enjoy in this movie.

But why take that chance?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Shakespeare!

Tonight I had a very enjoyable and highly unusual night at a small local theater company, the Buntport Theater. I went to see their performance of "Titus Andronicus! The Musical!"

This is, in their words, "Shakespeare's bloodiest and, by many accounts, worst play." They move along at a brisk clip (very vaguely in the vein of the Reduced Shakepeare Company's Complete Works, if you're familiar with that), using only about 50% of the actual text, and adding in songs.

Already, you may have the sense that this is a highly creative production, but that hardly begins to describe it. The entire play is performed by five people; roles are tripled up in cases (or more, with one cast member playing various "Someone Probably About to Be Killed" parts). Two of the characters are presented as hand puppets made out of an old car stereo and a gasoline can. A board is placed in view to help track who's playing who in all this, with labeled pull-chain light bulbs arranged in five neat columns, switched on and off by various cast members to indicate the characters currently on stage.

A slate attached to that board is used to keep a running tally of the Death Toll.

The one piece of scenery is a huge old van. It's painted on all sides, each representing a different setting from "Rome" to a forest to a house. The cast all bands together to push the van (while one steers) into one position or another to reveal the appropriate side for a given scene. This is all supplemented with holes cut in the roof, horizontal blinds installed on one window, various contraptions fixed to the body, and anything else needed for this one van to serve as the backdrop for the entire play.

And then there's the blood. They gleefully spew strawberry syrup all about the stage to cover stabbings with swords, trombones, the oil dip stick from the van's engine block, and more. It gushes forth from Lavinia's mouth -- her tongue having just been cut out -- before she begins to sing her big (and utterly incomprehensible) musical number.

There are ridiculous accents aplenty, creative and humorous props, and lots of inserted wry jokes about how truly ridiculous the source material is. (I'm only familiar with about half of Shakespeare's plays, but I can most certainly agree that this seems to be by far the worst of those.) And yet it's actually all pulled off with some real acting skill, such that the preposterous plot is indeed comprehensible as the too-quick two hours whips by.

It's doubly rough that I should so enjoy this and then attempt to talk about that here, since A) many of my readers don't live in the Denver area, and 2) this engagement of "Titus Andronicus! The Musical!" closes tomorrow night (to an already sold-out house, no less). But this theater company does perform regularly, and they certainly won a fan in me tonight. Point then being, if you do have the chance to check out another show of theirs, I recommend it. Or, to those of you who live elsewhere, you might take a plunge some time and try out a small local theater company. You never know what gem you might discover.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Good But Not Great

The main factor in getting me out to see Charlie Wilson's War was the writer, Aaron Sorkin (the man behind Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, as well as the movies A Few Good Men and Malice). There were other things in its favor, though. Mike Nichols is a great director, Tom Hanks a reliably good actor (overlooking a few missteps that would be inevitable in such a long career), and Philip Seymour Hoffman brilliantly gifted at creating memorable characters. (Well, and Julia Roberts. I have nothing against her, but she's not exactly a major draw for me either.)

This concoction of prime ingredients did turn out to produce a quality "meal." The movie is indeed very well written, moving at a brisk pace, peppered with the trademark Sorkin wit, and managing to make the world of politics interesting to watch. The directing is indeed excellent, carefully balancing character with story, and artistic staging without getting into needless "showiness." The performances are great across the board, particularly Hoffman's scene-stealing turn as a feisty and caustic intelligence agent.

But good though the movie is on an intellectual level, it never quite manages to engage on an emotional level. I found myself admiring the technique from a distance and appreciating the way it was all put together, but without ever getting "lost in the story." So much of Aaron Sorkin's work (particularly on television) manages to "educate" in this way while still moving the viewer to sit on the edge of his seat, or stand up and cheer, or sit back in or near tears. Not Charlie Wilson's War.

I'm sure I've said this several times before, but ultimately what I look for in a movie is to be engaged emotionally in some way. I did like this movie, and I do recommend seeing it (particularly to anyone who was a fan of The West Wing), but I ultimately can't rate it higher than a B+.

Granted, that's not exactly a low mark.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Barberism

I recently went to see the movie Sweeney Todd (or, by its full title, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). Of all the late-in-the-year film releases, this was the one I was most looking forward to, and I was hoping I hadn't built up my expectations too much.

Pleasantly, I had not. The movie proved to be a wonderful fusion of a number of great talents.

First, there was the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. I've never seen a production of the original musical, though I am familiar with several of his works. I thought the style of this music somewhat similar to his Sunday in the Park with George, though I don't consider that a bad thing. It was clever and sophisticated, with dense lyrics and unusual melodies. (Hallmarks of most any Sondheim show.) I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it made me want to seek out an original cast recording, to hear the numbers that were cut from the film version.

Second, there was the direction of Tim Burton. I haven't always been a fan of his; sometimes, it seems like he's "trying to hard" to evoke a style in his work. (Some people praise his work on the Batman movies, but I consider them to be the prime example of what I'm talking about.) Here, however, he's a perfect fit for the subject matter. The story and setting hold Burton's brand of strange like a glove. The desaturated colors and cold atmosphere he chooses definitely heighten the experience.

Third are the actors. Johnny Depp once again does his magic, creating a very vivid and specific character that's incredibly compelling to watch. Alan Rickman is great, as usual. Sacha Baron Cohen is fantastic in his all-too-brief role. And though some reviewers have been critical of Helena Bonham Carter's singing ability, I think she does quite fine. If indeed there are any shortcomings there, I found them immaterial, because her appearance and demeanor add so much to the character and the film that it's hard to imagine another choice as appropriate.

Other elements factored just as strongly in the film. The costuming, sets, effects -- all worked wonderfully. The arrangement of the music was incredibly powerful. It was tooled for an orchestra several times larger than the typical musical, and dialed up in volume to rattle the brain and threaten the speakers at effective choice moments.

Not only did I find this a good movie to see, but I must recommend it as a movie worth seeing in a theater while the chance is there -- with an audience. I found a whole added layer of entertainment in the reactions from people who didn't quite know what they were in for when they came to the movie. Some clearly had not taken notice of the R rating, or at the least did not know it would be as gory as it was. The shocked gasps from select audience members when things became violent were another thrill in the experience.

I give the movie an A. It's possible it will break into my top 100 list. (You know, the list I keep mentioning I have to reexamine and revise to restore its validity?) I think I might wait and see if a second viewing also packs a strong punch before I make that official, but either way, it's one of my favorite movies of the year.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Enough with the "Let It Snow"

Colorado broke with tradition this year and delivered an actual "White Christmas" -- not just snow already on the ground from days earlier. In fact, we're now at one foot of snow and still falling, so I've actually had all the White Christmas I can stand at this point. Before things got too bad, though, I did get out for a great morning with family at my parents' house.

I hope all of you had a pleasant holiday as well (or simply "day," if Christmas isn't your thing).

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Night the Lights Went Out

Last year, I skipped a holiday tradition of going to visit the three crazily decorated houses that make up the local "Holy Trinity." But tonight, I went with my family to go check in.

...only to find out that the "trinity" is now down one house. The house shown in that picture on my blog two years ago, actually. The other two were still going strong, though. One, in fact, had upped the ante in a bizarre way, by posting a giant Colorado Rockies banner (right below their faux "Star of Bethelehem," but above their "Happy Birthday Jesus" marquee) congratulating the baseball team on an amazing season. A mixed message in the extreme, if you ask me.

What happened to the third house, though, I wonder? It seems unlikely that after years of decorating, they simply would have stopped. Perhaps they simply moved away, and some other city somewhere is now enjoying their particular brand of insanity. If so, I wonder if the new home owners knew when they bought the house about the thousands of strangers that went tromping through their new home every December for more than a decade to see the hundreds of porcelain Christmas figurines on display. Did neighbors explain to them the legacy they'd bought into? Or were they happy to have "one down," and are now looking for a way to get rid of the other two houses so that "Peace on Earth" might actually come to their suburban street for Christmas one year?

In any case, traditions change over time, for whatever the reason.

Although I did just get finished watching Scrooged.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Selling Like Hotcakes?

Exactly where are these unbelievably large numbers of hot cakes being sold? The only place I know of that actually calls them "hot cakes" is McDonalds, and they're not exactly flying out of there like... well...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dewey? Indeed!

Last night, I went to see "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" with a couple of friends. I must say it wasn't the highest on my list of "things to see" that came out this weekend in theaters, but it was the right movie for our frame of mind. We were all varying degrees of exhausted, and decided that we weren't looking for a movie that would make any great demands on us.

How much that mindset or that level of fatigue factored in, I can't say for sure, but we all got a lot of laughs out of the movie. It's an absolutely spot on shreding of the ubiquitous biography "event movies" engineered almost disingenuously for the purpose of garnering Oscar nominations. It had all the clichés, pushed an extra notch over the top -- actors playing characters of proposterously different ages, manufactured moments of "when a songwriter first invented the lyrics that would become famous," the biography subject coming from a hard and humble beginning, and so much more.

The acting is great throughout. John C. Reilly is... well... a rock star in this movie. He's been quietly playing supporting "character actor" type roles for years, and finally gets the center stage he deserves. Jenna Fischer is as hilarious here in this fantastical world as she is in her very realistic and more subtle role on The Office. Kristen Wiig, the only reason I didn't stop watching Saturday Night Live about a year sooner than I did, is a riot.

And the scene featuring The Beatles is the funniest thing that has been put on film this year. Paul Rudd as John Lennon leads four hysterically miscast actors doing the most deliberately bad impressions of the Fab Four you could ever hope to see. They're exaggerated, stereotyped caricatures that had me laughing to the point I couldn't catch a breath. This single scene is worth seeing the movie for.

But unfortunately, that's also pretty much where the movie peaks. Razor-sharp and witty up until that point, things start to get a bit repetitive and boring after that. It's very strange to say that a movie that lasts barely an hour and a half felt "too long," but that's the truth of it. In the last 30 minutes, the same set of running gags finally start to lose steam, the fake songs aren't so clever, and I felt myself starting to check my watch. I wouldn't say it fell apart so badly that I wouldn't recommend seeing it, but it did derail a movie well on its way to an A in my book, to end up at a B+.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Benefaction

Over on his blog, Brad still has his link to The Hunger Site. (And I have known him to come after you if he detects that you've visited without clicking that link.)

Well, I figure he (and others among you) might get a kick out of FreeRice.com, which takes the same idea and puts a game with it. You get a series of vocabulary words, and each correct definition you choose racks up the rice to be donated.

The very example of "fun and easy."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

No Comprende

Does anyone else out there occasionally get these random phone calls on their cell phones (always from a different phone number), only to answer it and hear a strange recorded message chattering on in Spanish?

Well, let me re-phrase. I know this is happening to other people, because when I attempted to Google up an answer for "what the hell are these calls?" (using various combinations of "phone call," "cell phone," "Spanish," "recording," and so forth), I found lots of hits describing the same thing. But what I failed to find was an explanation for just what these calls are all about. Even trusty old Snopes, that usually has an answer for every urban legend-like phenomenon, came up empty on this "Spanish recorded crank cell phone caller."

If anyone reading this has an answer, I would love to hear it. Failing a real answer, made up theories could be entertaining too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bond, Part 4

It's time I concluded my series of reviews of the James Bond movies, with a look at the four films starring Pierce Brosnan. (I already reviewed the lone Daniel Craig entry thus far, Casino Royale, when I saw it in the movie theater.)

Pierce Brosnan is a great James Bond. He's really able to pull together some of the best traits displayed by the other actors who played the role. He has Connery's strength and charm, Moore's wit and humor, and the hard edge that was supposed to have been Dalton's stamp on the part. Not that Daniel Craig made a bad Bond, but I'd have been thrilled to see Brosnan continue on to do a few more films before having his "licence to kill" revoked.

But how do the four films Brosnan did make stack up?

GoldenEye - Put simply, this is the best James Bond film of them all. Everything comes together well. It has a great cast of actors. Judi Dench is a brilliant choice to take over the role of M. Sean Bean makes a great match for Bond. And Famke Janssen takes an outrageous part and somehow makes it believable by tearing into it with such complete relish.

The movie has a coherent plot that actually makes sense, while having an appropriate scope and just the right amount of fantasy for a Bond adventure. The action sequences are all put together well, from the aerial tricks of the pre-credits adventure to the final battle atop a radio telescope. Even the credits themselves deserve a mention. The visuals depicting the two-faced nature of the film's main villain, and the fall of communism, are among the most striking seen in a Bond credits sequence. The song, composed by Bono and The Edge, is in my opinion the absolutely perfect tone for a James Bond theme, and Tina Turner the perfect performer for it. (Never mind that the lyrics actually make no sense whatsoever, when you stop to think that the "GoldenEye" of the film's title is actually an orbital laser.)

There are really only two small flaws in the movie, in my mind. First, the hacker character played by Alan Cumming seems too campy for the general tone of the rest of the movie (though I don't hold the actor responsible). Second, the musical score feels like a misfire. There are some neat ideas in the music, here and there -- such as treatments of the Bond theme on timpani drums rather than a traditional melodic instrument, and the including of a Russian-sounding choir. But this music, composed by Eric Serra (who worked extensively with director Luc Besson) is presented almost entirely on synthesizers -- and sounds like it. It feels like the progenitor of his score for The Fifth Element. In that science fiction movie, it worked. Here, it doesn't do it.

Still, the film is an A- in my mind, and as I mentioned, the very best of the James Bond films.

Tomorrow Never Dies - What follows is almost the very worst of the James Bond films, the boring On Her Majesty's Secret Service notwithstanding. Tomorrow Never Dies is such a preposterous movie, with a plot so ludicrous, it makes the "laser guns in space" battle at the end of Moonraker look like a documentary. There's simply not a single frame of this movie that can be taken seriously.

Teri Hatcher appears in a small role that's the most bland performance of her career. Jonathan Pryce chews the scenery more than any Bond villain ever has (and that's saying something, considering his company!). Michelle Yeoh is grossly mismatched with this film; her fight scenes are basically the only enjoyable thing in it, but they feel ripped from the cutting room floor of some other movie and edited in here.

In the course of the film, James Bond's escapades include: stealing a fighter plane from dozens of terrorists while being strangled by the man in the gunner's seat behind him; jumping over a helicopter on a motorcycle he's driving while handcuffed to another person; and taking part in a car chase while driving by remote control from the back seat. Said car is also the most ridiculous gadget Bond has ever had. More so than ever before, it's outfitted with otherwise utterly useless devices that are somehow precisely what is needed to get him out of his jams. (A pop up hood ornament that can cut through a metal cable strung at exactly three feet above the ground in front of the car? Give me a break.)

Even the opening credits sequence of this movie is awful. The visuals are flat and uninspired, and the song by Sheryl Crow sounds banshee-like and off key. The only virtue of this film is that at 1 hour and 57 minutes, it's the shortest James Bond film made since the 1960s. It's an unqualified F.

The World Is Not Enough - There are some good ideas at work in this film. The main henchman played by Robert Carlyle has the interesting characteristic of being unable to feel pain. The woman originally thought to be the "Bond girl" of the tale is revealed to be the big bad. The character of M is given a greater role in the story, when she is deceived and abducted by the villain. The theme, by Garbage, really fits the musical style of the best Bond themes.

But unfortunately, this movie doesn't quite know when enough is enough. Every major action sequence starts out interesting, but runs on too long. In the course of this movie, we see what feels like the longest boat chase ever put on film, the longest ski chase ever put on film, the longest stuck-on-a-runaway-hand-car-in-an-oil-pipeline chase ever put on film... well, you get the idea. More exacting editing could probably have put more tension into this film, but as is, it's the very example of "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

And then there's Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones -- the most horribly miscast Bond girl. Ever. Asking the audience to accept her and her half-airhead, half-robotic delivery as a nuclear physicist? What on earth could the producers have been thinking? Well, other than, "let's get her in a tight tank top and put her in a leaky submarine."

In the end, the bad far outweighs the little good at work in this movie. I rate it a D.

Die Another Day - There's basically one good idea in this film, and it's a real shame it doesn't get realized fully. The opening sequence of the movie has James Bond getting captured by North Koreans. The titles themselves are actually used to advance the plot, showing him undergoing repeated torture throughout a 14 month incarceration. When the main action resumes, he is released, battered and defeated...

Which seems to have absolutely no lasting effects on him whatsoever. In a matter of minutes, Bond is back on his feet, kicking ass, enjoying life, and generally acting like nothing happened to him. Here was a chance to really show the character in a different place, and present a different kind of movie. Instead, he pairs up with Halle Berry in a lame attempt to start a spin-off movie franchise.

The movie feels like a desperate list of "things we haven't seen in a Bond movie yet," stitched together like Frankenstein's script. Bond surfs, he fences, he drives an invisible car... he visits a freaking palace carved out of ice.

The jokes are weak, and the action mixed. The editing is truly bizarre, with randomly inserted speed ramps and slow motion patches. CG is suddenly used to realize many of the stunts in the film, where such things were always actually done for real in earlier films. And it's very obvious and badly-rendered CG; not as well done as what you can see on television now, just a few years later. The Robocop-esque outfit worn by the villain in the final act of the film actually made me laugh out loud. And that opening theme by Madonna? A completely inappropriate techno cut that feels like it just wasn't good enough to make her Ray of Light album.

How to rate this film depends on whether you're inclined to give points for the "tortured Bond" idea, or take them away for completely wasting that idea. I'll settle on a little of both, and call this a D- movie.

So in all, though I may have thought Pierce Brosnan perhaps the best actor in the role of James Bond, his films are overall the worst of the worst. They average out to a D+, and that's even with the exceptional GoldenEye factored in, stretching out the average. I get the impression that the producers knew they'd made some bad movies too, which is why they took their cues from the Bourne movies in "re-booting" things with Casino Royale. Still, I think they unfairly made Brosnan a scapegoat for their bad production decisions, letting him go from the role as though he was the reason Bond films had become so deplorable.

In all, an unfortunate ending to what had otherwise been a mostly enjoyable marathon of 20 movies. (If indeed it could be called a "marathon," spread out as it was for me over the entire year.) I hope my journey might be of use to some of you thinking of watching an old James Bond movie sometime; perhaps you'll steer clear of the sinkholes I fell into along the way.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Story Time

Sunday night, I attended a somewhat unusual theater event here in town. It was part of a monthly series called "Stories on Stage," and it has evidently been going on here in Denver for quite some time, though I was unaware of it until now.

Local actors are brought in to basically give "story time" to adults. They take turns, standing alone on stage, reading bits of short fiction from various authors. At the conclusion of the evening, the theater even serves up cookies and milk to the audience.

Back in high school, a friend and I shadowed an actor in the largest local theater company. In the intervening years, though my life has headed off in another direction, she has continued to pursue the theater as a career path, and has kept in touch with this actor we met. He was one of the four to read a story this month, and so it was we found out about the performance.

This was a Christmas-themed show, with short stories by Ellis Parker Butler, John Cheever, and Truman Capote. The finale was "A Child's Christmas in Wales," by Dylan Thomas. It turned out to be a very entertaining evening. In these skilled hands, the stories were fully engaging and enjoyable, even despite the minimalist presentation. I was a bit disappointed to learn that in earlier months this year when "Stories on Stage" have been presented, I missed "Masterpieces of Science Fiction" (including works by Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, and Ray Bradbury). But I've now got a month's notice to catch "Tales of Mystery and Suspense," featuring Edgar Allan Poe, among others.

I suppose that this is ultimately something I can only recommend to those of you who live in the Denver area. But then, it's possible something like this might be going on wherever you live. If so, it could be well worth your time. I found it a very refreshing reminder that the simple spoken word can paint so powerful a picture.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Not-So-Dark Materials

This past weekend, I got out to a movie theater again for the first time in several weeks, and saw The Golden Compass. I'd read the book years beforehand -- before a movie studio had even picked up the rights to adapt it, in fact. That series, His Dark Materials, is really great.

How the books came to be considered "children's books" in so many literary critiques is a real mystery to me. I don't say this as any sort of snobbish "it's too good to be a kids' book" way, because I don't think quality has anything to do with audience. But just because the main character is a child hardly means that's the primary intended reader.

In any case, I was very nervous to see how a book I'd enjoyed so much would be adapted into a film. The results were a bit mixed, I'd have to say.

As you've probably read if you follow entertainment news, much of the "message" of the story had been scrubbed away. That message, by the way, is not really anti-God, despite what you might have heard -- it's more anti-organized religion. In any case, I'd expected that material to be stripped away, and so it was. This was disappointing to me, but I must admit that this first installment of the trilogy didn't suffer too much from the loss.

If anything, the story simply didn't have enough room to breathe from a pacing standpoint. Details about the world, its magics, its politics, and its primary conflicts -- which are revealed gradually in the book -- are rolled into a huge monologue at the start of the film, crumbling under the weight of exposition. It feels artless to me as a reader of the book, and yet at the same time it left me wondering how well anyone who hadn't read the book would find their feet afterward.

From there, it bounced from event to event at a furious pace. It was as though the screenwriter was committed to cutting as few subplots as possible from the book, choosing instead to whittle every single plot point down to its bare bones just to be sure of getting it in there somewhere. Most of it was realized pretty well on the screen, but when combined with the stripping away of some of the book's subtext, it felt too much like the movie was trying to satisfy viscerally and not intellectually.

But there were good elements, to be sure. The casting was uniformly excellent. The young girl playing the lead character of Lyra was a solid actor. Nicole Kidman was a deliciously sweet villain that, in any other year that hadn't had Imelda Staunton as Delores Umbridge in a Harry Potter film, would have been a really outstanding performance. Daniel Craig made the most of a role that doesn't really grow large until later books in the series. (Well... or the very dark ending of the actual book, which was "postponed" from the finished film, given the uncertainty of there being any sequels.) Ian McKellen voices a great Iorek, and his opposite number from The Lord of the Rings, Christopher Lee, does a great cameo as (what else?) a power-hungry villain.

The CG used to realize the characters' "daemons" is generally pretty strong. Even though some of these animals are more commonplace things like dogs or insects, the filmmakers seemed to go for rendering even these on a computer -- and I thought this a wise choice, since it gave an overall consistency, where sometimes using real animals would probably have made the not-as-good CG moments more jarring.

In all, I'd have to say it was a good movie. It's just a much better book still. I give it a B.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Outrageous Fortunes 2

It's been a long while since I got a really strange fortune in a fortune cookie, but it happened again yesteday:


An "almost perfect day?" Almost? What kind of hellish curse is that? Anyone taking that fortune seriously could be having a fantastic day, except they'd be going along dreading that at any moment, the shoe would drop and whatever the "almost" was would happen. Or maybe the mere act of walking around constantly on your guard for this dreaded "almost" would transform an awesome day into this "almost perfect day" -- you know, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In any case, I had a great day, thankyouverymuch Mr. Fortune Cookie. So kiss off.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Something Special for the Holidays

The problem with naming your Christmas-themed movie "A Perfect Holiday" is that you have no idea how theaters with limited marquee space will choose to abbreviate that title:

Friday, December 14, 2007

Meow-ter Space

If you, like me, are not a cat person, then you're going to find this video as funny as I did:

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Starting the Band Tour

I made my "public debut" at Rock Band last night, as I went to a local bar with several co-workers to attend a charity fundraiser where Rock Band was being played on stage for anyone to come up and jam.

The room was absolutely packed -- surely to fire capacity. The lines to play were long, but we'd arrived fairly early in the night, and were able to get up there a few times before the wait grew too outrageous.

The first time around, only three of us were together and willing to jam for an audience, so we had a complete stranger throw in with us to sing the vocals on Garbage's I Think I'm Paranoid. All of us -- including the stranger -- seemed to be on our best instruments. We had a great time, and rocked it big time.

Later on in the "set," two guys were looking for people to fill in for them on drums and bass, so I and one of my co-workers were quick to throw in. Unfortunately, this time, we had rotten luck with the strangers. The singer butchered Don't Fear the Reaper (Even the cowbell parts! Travesty!), and the guitar player wasn't much better, biting off more than he could chew with too high a difficulty setting. Though we tried our best to carry the song, the singer failed three times, and that was the end of it.

While I wish the night had ended on the first successful song rather than the second, it was a great time nevertheless. If there's ever a next time, though, I plan to go with three of my friends so we can "bring it."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bond, Part 3

It's time for the third installment in my series of reviews of the James Bond movies. This time, I'm looking at the brief stint Timothy Dalton had in the role.

I remember thinking that at the time, Timothy Dalton was an absolutely horrible James Bond, and that the movies he was in were even worse. Years later, I think I was having a bit of an unfair reaction to the change of Bonds from Roger Moore. Just as many fans of the generation before mine rebelled against Moore and celebrated Connery as the "one true James Bond," so I and my generation rebelled against Timothy Dalton.

But now that I've seen the movies again recently, I have to say I don't think the reaction was entirely off the mark. Through his own acting and the choices of the producers in casting him, the decision was made for "Bond after Moore" to become a much more dour character. He was a real ass to everyone. He was very dark and broody. He smoked. All designed to be truer to the character in the original books, as I understand it (never having read any of them myself).

All well intentioned, I suppose. But there are still certain qualities Bond has to have, and Dalton didn't exhibit them, in my opinion. Bond is supposed to be charming, but in the moments Dalton tries to turn on the charm in his movies, I think he comes off smarmy. When he has to deliver one of James Bond's pithy one liners, he seems entirely too pleased with himself, almost like he's breaking the fourth wall.

But how were the movies themselves?

The Living Daylights - The pre-credits sequence of this film, about a test exercise turned real, is merely average, as are the credits and the theme song themselves. After that, though, the film gets interesting for a while. Helping a Russian defector get out of the country makes for a adventurous and sometimes suspenseful tale, and then the revelation that it was all a hoax is also engaging.

Unfortunately, then the "Bond girl" of this film hits center stage. Where I found the love interest of A View to a Kill annoying for her acting, this time I can't fault the woman playing the role. No, here it's the writing that's making her such a nuisance. The whole subplot of looking after her cello is annoying (and culminates in a fairly ridiculous sledding-in-a-cello-case chase). She's another one of the Bond girls that's supposed to be strong and independent, but she's more often shown as truly dense and helpless. Part of the "new Bond" of this film is that he's monogamous within the confines of this one movie, so he's shackled to her for the entire journey.

The climax lacks any one real, major villain that has enough screen time for you to get invested in. The action sequences are exciting, but not very well connected to one another. In the end, it all amounts to a C.

Licence to Kill - This is actually not a bad film. But it's a pretty terrible James Bond film. The real problem here is that this feels like some straight-up revenge movie, and it lacks any of the trappings that makes Bond what he is.

It has an awesome cast of character actors. These are "working actors" whose faces you've probably seen in countless other movies, and they're all collected here and doing good work. It has a great theme song (one of the few "Bond-like" elements in the movie) performed by Gladys Knight -- one of the "unsung heroes" of Bond themes, in my mind. It has an opening pre-credits sequence that, for once, is actually connected to the main plot of the movie, and not just an unrelated 10-minute adventure to get things rolling.

But Bond films bring certain expectations. Even the newest, Casino Royale, with its approach to reinvent the James Bond franchise, still honored these elements. Normally, Bond movies have enormous scope, jetting to several exotic locales and showing us amazing things we'll never see in life. Here, the entire movie is set in South Florida and Mexico. Normally, Bond is up against a villain with a slightly- to totally-larger-than-life scheme. Here, the villain is a simple drug lord that happens to harm one of Bond's friends. Normally, comedic moments are sprinkled throughout a Bond movie as part of the fabric of the story. Here, Wayne Newton is brought in for a cameo (mostly in the final act) to awkwardly punch up a story that's been too dark for too long.

Totalling it up, I give the movie a C+. I could mark it higher, if only I could divorce it mentally from the heritage of the series. (In much the same way that I must say that a lot about the movies Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection isn't bad, if you could somehow get away from the fact that they're supposed to be sequels to the completely-out-of-their-league-and-awesome Alien and Aliens.)

It's weird to "average" just two grades, but I guess technically you can do it. Dalton's movies come out a C+... or a C, depending on where you decide to round. Either way, unlike Connery and Moore, this is not a case of there being some good films and some bad ones. Dalton's are both middle-of-the-road. Worth seeing if you're being a completist (as I'm currently in the process of becoming), but otherwise probably best ignored.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Khan You Hear What I Hear?

For years, Hallmark has been making Star Trek ornaments for the Christmas trees of all the uber-Star Trek geeks out there. I thought they'd peaked a few years back with the Seven of Nine ornament, but then "giromide" e-mailed me about this year's ornament:


That's right. It's not the Reliant. It's not Admiral Kirk or Captain Spock or anything so mundane. This is a whole scene from Star Trek II captured in ornament form. It's not a Christmas decoration, it's a diorama!

And before you ask -- no, I'm not getting one. I'm a big geek, to be sure, but I draw the line before this. (Or should I say, "the line must be drawn here!!!!"?)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wiither

One of the free software add-ons you can get for your Nintendo Wii turns one of the "channels" on the menu into a weather station. I got it because, as I mentioned: free. But it's really, really pointless.

Without getting into a lot of extra clicks, the only thing it can really tell you is the current weather. Current-ish. Sometimes, the "current temperature" it's giving you is a few hours old. It certainly doesn't beat looking out the damn window for learning what the current weather is.

Friends of mine suggested that perhaps one good use for this weather feature would be to give it some distant friend or relative's zip code as "your" zip code, and then you can use one button to get the general weather that day wherever that person lives.

You know... if you're way into weather, I guess.

Tales from the Internets 5

It's time for another short look at the bizarre Google searches that somehow led someone to my blog. This is a special "Heimlich-themed" installment in the series, as my choice in blog name has led to a bunch of rather odd searches. (That, and the weirdest comment exchange ever to occur here.)

heimlich and the maneuvers -- Not bad, but I ended up naming one of my Rock Band bands "Heimlich and the Upchux" instead.

heimlich maneuver made sexy -- Cause choking is hot.

heimlich for burps -- I'm not really a doctor, nor do I play one on T.V. Yet I'm fairly sure someone burping doesn't need the Heimlich Maneuver.

celebrities who had heimlich performed on them -- Cause choking is hot.

Heimlich Maneuver in the spanish language -- That would be, what... "el gasp! la (cough cough) ... aaaaiiiiii..... (thup) ... muchas gracias." ??

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Cream Covered

I think a capella music might be one of those things Shocho would call "cool/stupid." That is, you either think it's really cool, or totally stupid.

If you're in the former category, then I think you'll find The Bobs' rendition of White Room really, really cool. Particularly the "guitar solo" at the two minute mark:

Friday, December 07, 2007

It's Showtime!

Are you a film buff? Have you got $600 just burning a hole in your pocket? Well let me suggest that this Tuesday (when it releases), you pick up the UA 90th Anniversary Prestige Collection. It's 90 movies in one package.

Holy crap!

It's not that I'm saying 90 movies is a lot to own on DVD. Looking at the size of my DVD collection, I've no room to talk there. But I can't say I've ever bought 90 movies all at once.

I suppose it works out to less than $7 a movie, which is less than you'd probably pay to see them just about any way other than NetFlix or slavish searching of AMC over a period of several years. But damn, who would have the time to watch 90 movies?! Not me. I know this for a fact -- I kept track of the movies I saw in 2006 just for the hell of it, and while this year's tally is well ahead of that, I'm not to 90 yet.

It sure puts a top 100 list (the AFI's, or mine, or anyone else's) into perspective when you're actually confronted with how much time you have to devote to watch that many movies.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

End of Another Era

So, as someone noted in the comments of one of my recent posts, The Company I used to work for in Virginia has announced this week the end of Star Trek CCG. I'd be remiss not to acknowledge the end of the line for the game, since it's what got me into my career as a game designer. I also had a lot of fun as a player of the game for years before I became a designer of it.

I made a lot of friends over Star Trek CCG, many of whom I'm still in regular touch with. I still have framed uncut sheets from the game hanging on the walls of my apartment. (The rare sheet from Premiere, both First and Second Edition.)

All that given, though, I'm not really feeling like I've lost anything this week. For me, the end really came in January of 2005, not this week. I don't have any hard feelings left over it; I've just moved on already. For some time now, I've had the good memories and not the bad.

But for those feeling the end of this era now, for the first time -- I kind of know where you're at. I would most certainly be in an entirely different place in my life today were it not for Star Trek CCG.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Power of 17

Tonight, I'm celebrating my 1,017th post. Why? Well...

I missed my 1,000th post a couple weeks ago.

I've got absolutely nothing else to talk about tonight.

It so happens that 17 is a very cool number, and I'm not the only person who thinks so.

I remember every detail of the moment the number 17 first got onto my radar. Waking up in a hotel room in Las Vegas, shared among a group of friends, we turned on the television to something -- anything -- while we were all taking turns showering and getting in motion. It happened that the thing that was on was Sesame Street.

Almost any American kid from my generation will have certain songs about numbers written indelibly in their brains from Sesame Street, Schoolhouse Rock, and the like. ("One-two-three FOUR FIVE six-seven-eight NINE TEN... eleven twelve. Dooooo doo-doo-do-doo doooo.....") Well, that morning, on came a similar piece designed to brand the number 17 in your brain.

First of all, it was weird even by Sesame Street standards. They just kept flashing the number on the screen again and again, as this voice kept saying again and again: "seventeen." Except sometimes it was shouted, sometimes whispered. Sometimes a long pause, sometimes twice close together. "SEVENTEEN! .... seventeen-SEVENTEEN! .... SevenTEEN!!!"

Juxtaposed over this weirdness was the realization: wait a second... when did Sesame Street start counting up past 12?! When I was a kid, nothing past 12 even existed on Sesame Street. Now this crazy drug trip simulation for toddlers was going on about 17?

Possibly, this all seemed more bizarre that it actually was, given that I was waking up in a strange bed after an uneven night's sleep, following a long night of gaming in the casinos.

In any case, I will always remember it.

SEVENTEEN!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Bond, Part 2

It's time for me to continue my account of watching all the James Bond movies. For those who missed the first part, in which I looked at the Sean Connery films, you can take a look back here. But this installment is all about Roger Moore.

As I mentioned last time, Moore was really the Bond of my generation. I'd seen several of his Bond movies long before I ever saw my first Connery film. Moore's Bond started out fairly similar to Connery's, actually. There seemed to be a few lines in the scripts designed solely to set him apart in the role (ordering a bourbon in Live and Let Die, for example, rather than a martini), but really they just seemed like window dressing.

Soon, though, Roger Moore's take on the character would develop, for better or (and?) worse, into a more relaxed and at times comedic take on the character. Moore Bond films were more fanciful and more elaborate than Connery's, and not just for the far larger budgets. They simply didn't take themselves as seriously. And in my opinion, this worked very well in some films, and failed miserably in others. Here's how I chart Moore's career as 007, film by film.

Live and Let Die - The first Roger Moore Bond film was a strong debut. The action really moved in a way that the last couple Bond movies did not. The villain's "heist" to establish dominance over drug distribution in the U.S. wasn't that great a caper in the grand scheme of the series, but he was nevertheless a compelling screen presence, thanks to actor Yaphet Kotto. He also had some great henchmen in Tee Hee and Baron Samedi. And of course there was Jane Seymour as Solitaire. Other women may have created more iconic moments in their roles as Bond women, but to this day, I don't think there's been as skilled an actress cast as one -- and she manages to do quite a lot with it, too. There are several comedic moments in the film. Some work (Bond's escape from a den of crocodiles), and some don't (everything with the bumbling Louisiana sheriff J.W. Pepper). Bonus points for a theme song that I personally think kicks ass. I give it a B- overall.

The Man With the Golden Gun - Christopher Lee as the villain, Hervé Villechaize as his henchman? This movie starts well ahead of the game. The plot is primarily about an alleged death threat against Bond by Lee's character, Scaramanga. But it gets a little muddy with a stop off at a karate dojo, and muddier still when solar-powered lasers and other nonsense appears that probably seemed way cool in 1974. Oh, and the reappearance of that God-awful J.W. Pepper character from the last film? Dumb, dumb, dumb. But once again, it all comes out to a B-.

The Spy Who Loved Me - Most film buffs will tell you this was the best of the Roger Moore Bond films. I have to agree. The pre-credit sequence is one of the best in the entire series, ending in a stunt that's arguably the most iconic image in any Bond film. Carly Simon's title song is unforgettable. Jaws is a great thug, though they do let him get just a touch too comical at times, robbing him of some of his menace. The main villain, Stromberg, touches a lot of the buttons that made Blofeld such a good nemesis in the earlier Bond films. But the middle chunk of the movie does drag a bit. The Russian spy Amasova doesn't seem quite strong and credible enough by today's standards, which means the whole "Bond's equal" idea seems a bit dated today. And speaking of things that don't hold up, there's the entire musical score -- James Bond's themes rendered as disco music. Ugh. Still, much more of this movie holds up with the passage of time than does not. I give it a B.

Moonraker - Roger Moore was having a great track record as Bond, until this movie came along. And it all seems to start so well. The pre-credits sequence of Bond falling out of an airplane without a parachute is just great. Bond then begins his investigation of the villain Drax, who seems intriguing and dangerous. But sadly, this movie was all about the producers wanting a piece of that "Star Wars" movie that had appeared two years earlier. Completely ridiculous notions of space flight soon intrude, and in the climax of the film, Bond actually goes to outer space, where he and a bunch of space marines get involved in a laser gun fight with Drax's army. I've seen it, and I don't believe it. They also bring back Jaws from the previous film, which ought to be great, but they turn him into a completely comical character, putting him in a romance with a pig-tailed blonde (whose shiny gold spacesuit has matching hair ribbons). The first 20 minutes of this movie are great, but the rest comes across like a parody of a James Bond movie, rather than the genuine article. I give it a D+.

For Your Eyes Only - This movie is crammed full to bursting with random ideas, like nobody really knew quite what they wanted here. And sadly, most of the ideas are boring. There's scuba diving (even more boring than the material from Thunderball), lots of skiing (not as compelling as the material from The Spy Who Love Me), and an opening sequence that sees the return of Blofeld (yes!) only for the purpose of getting rid of him in less than six minutes of screen time (why bother?). There's a bait-and-switch surrounding the bad guy that feels rather pointless. The ending of the film seems to render the entire proceedings moot. And inexplicably, disco is back, even though this movie was released in 1981. The musical score is simply terrible. There is a fairly good sequence that involves Bond being dragged by a boat, a car chase of a little interest because Bond is deprived of his super car, and a rock climbing sequence near the end that is pretty exciting (mainly because one can tell it was actually done for real, and not through visual effects). But ultimately, this is a boring movie. I rate it a D+.

Octopussy - Somehow, this title character of this movie is involved both in jewel smuggling and running a traveling circus. That ought to give you a sense of how at odds with itself the plot is. Really, it all just seems like a way to connect specific action sequences the writers had in mind. Fortunately, most of those sequences are good: a small aircraft fight before the opening credits, a fight through the streets of a city in India (engaging, though at times almost offensively cliché), and a foot chase on top of a train. Louis Jourdan is a pretty good villain, oily and slick. And the way he pronounces the name of the title character ("OCK-toe-pooo-see") is great every time. Still, the wait between the "good parts" of this movie feel pretty long. I give it a C-.

A View to a Kill - Moore's final turn as Bond was also the first Bond movie I ever saw. I worried it wouldn't hold up when I saw it again, but for the most part it did. Christopher Walken and Grace Jones?! How could that not be awesome? There's also Patrick Macnee (of The Avengers) in a small role, and that famous Duran Duran title song. Still, things get a bit camp at times -- setting the "snowboard" chase to the song "California Girls," and well, like I said, Christopher Walken and Grace Jones. (They're awesome, but campy at times.) There's an unneeded side trip in the plot, involving the fixing of horse races. Then there's Bond girl Stacey Sutton. She's supposed to be a strong, independent career woman (see how progressive Bond is being?), but she's really quite unintelligent most of the time to facilitate her becoming the damsel in distress. And she'd have a scream to shatter glass, except that it sounds like she's smoked three packs a day for her entire life. For my money, there was never a Bond girl so annoying until she came around. But hey, back to Christopher Walken and Grace Jones rocking! And an awesome heist: destroy all of Silicon Valley to seize control of the world microchip market. In all, there's a lot of good here, and I give it a B-.

And there you have it. In my opinion, there were more "good" Moore Bond films than Connery films. But man, the ones that were bad really did stink up the joint. In fact, if you average it all together, these seven movies only get a C+ from me, which is only one notch higher than the Connery films got. Again, it's a matter of picking and choosing the right movies.

That's it on Bond for now. Next time it comes around, it's Timothy Dalton's turn at bat.

Monday, December 03, 2007

End of an Era

I know some people with a fairly strict "don't ask me to help you move, and I'll never ask you to help me move" policy. Maybe that's a sound policy, too. But for me, that ship has sailed. I've enlisted help in moving before, and from time to time comes the payback.

And payback's a bitch, as was affirmed this weekend, when I helped some friends move into a new house. There were a lot of examples of how this move was going above and beyond the call of duty for all who helped.

There was the fact they've been living in the old house for 15 years, acquiring stuff and throwing little away. Despite the fact they'd already filled a good-sized storage space, it took us two full trips, each time completely loading U-Haul's largest moving van, a passenger mini-van with the seats removed, two large pick-up trucks, a jeep, and a station wagon.

There was the moving of the heaviest entertainment center you've ever seen. (Getting it into the new place required six or seven of us working in tandem.)

There was the unloading of the Tardis-like attic crawl space at the old place, in which we found (among too many other things to list) three sealed cases of Sterno. You know, in case of Y2K or zombies or something.

But despite all that, there were also a lot of good memories of the old place, and a lot of laughs -- though perhaps those were mostly augmented by extreme fatigue. In all, it honestly wasn't such a bad weekend.

Or should that be weakened? Cause I'm still completely exhausted and I think I'm getting sick.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Enjoy the Ride

I recently received the newest expansion for Ticket to Ride, Switzerland. This is designed for two or three players, which is really just the ticket (pun intended -- though I also considered "just what the Doctor ordered").

I've often played the various incarnations of Ticket to Ride with three players, and we've been on a search to find ways to tweak it just a bit. We've found the board feels a little too restrictive with the "players can only use one side of a double track" rule that comes in for three players, though clearly something needs to change from the game that's usually meant to take four or five players.

The creator's solution? A new board with a new map. And we found it to be a big improvement on the usual three player experience. Things felt just "congested" enough for the competition between players to be at the right level. There was a real pressure to start placing trains and not wait around, but you weren't conpletely screwed if someone got a crucial length of track before you -- there were alternate ways around, if you put a little effort into it.

The tickets also showed improvement. I've long felt the best strategy in the original game is simply to do your starting tickets, then do nothing but claim as many random six length train routes as you can until the game ends; taking tickets never seemed to be worth it. As the 1910 expansion successfully fixed this flaw from the original game (by changing the number of tickets players draw; and creating lots of tickets with common cities, thus increasing the chance you'll have part of a new route you draw already built), these Switzerland tickets were created in such a way that they felt worth the effort.

A new type of ticket was also introduced in this set -- tickets with a single origin point, but a player's choice of four destination points. This allows some flexibility in strategy, and further increases the likelihood of getting usable tickets.

The game also seemed to play much more quickly. In part, this was the rule telling us to play with 5 fewer trains than the standard game, but it also had to do with the greater pressure to compete on the board for prime tracks, and the average shorter lengths of routes on the map -- less time was needed to gather the cards to claim them. It's not like I felt Ticket to Ride was a long board game before, but I found it more enjoyable at this quicker pace.

In all, I thought it a very successful expansion, and I look forward to trying it out some more. I can imagine all the other versions of Ticket to Ride hanging out on the game shelf in favor of this version -- at least, whenever there's only two or three players on hand.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Time is Relative

I only subscribe to one magazine, Entertainment Weekly. I don't know if other magazines are like this, but it seems like EW is constantly trying to get me to renew my subscription -- regardless of how long it's going to be before it actually expires.

Literally six months away from the end of my current subscription, I got my first notice to "Renew Now!"

Four months away came, "Hurry, before time runs out!"

Last week, three months away from the expiration of my subscription, I actually received an issue wrapped in an extra paper cover telling me it's time to renew.

I'm curious to see what they might escalate to next, but I'm also thinking I really ought to just renew (because I do intend to) to shut these people up and make them stop wasting trees to send me all these damn notices.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Crash is Right

Speaking of David Hasselhoff (which I kinda-sorta was, by way of Knight Rider), Knight Rider is not the campiest thing he ever did in his career.

Nope, neither was Baywatch.

Behold, Starcrash:

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Black Knight

Maybe you've heard, maybe you haven't -- but a new version of Knight Rider is being made. It's actually just a two-hour TV movie for the moment, but with the possibility of a new series in mind.

This is all part of the Battlestar Galactica wave, I figure. "Remember that old super-campy TV show? Let's update it and do it seriously and gritty and realistic!" Worked great for Galactica. Sucked out loud for The Bionic Woman. We'll see what it means here.

But I will say this... the first pictures of the new K.I.T.T. car have been released, and in my opinion, the thing is damn fugly:


It's all built up and box-like and trying to be vaguely S.U.V.y when K.I.T.T. is supposed to be sleak and sporty. I say this as someone who really doesn't know much what I like in a car, but I know damn well what I don't like. Honda Elements, all Scions, the Pontiac Aztec, and now apparently this can be added to the list. It's a Ford Shelby GT500KR Mustang.

And it's hideous.

Monkey Humor

Courtesy of Brad, this video is part nostalgia, all weird:

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bond, Part 1

Much earlier this year, I set out on a little movie "quest" to watch all of the James Bond movies in order. Well, "re-watch," for the most part; I had seen nearly all of them, though some I remember much better than others.

I'm still working on it, but I'm close enough to the end now that I'll probably find time to finish by the end of the year. So I figured I'd start a short review series detailing my thoughts as I've been chugging along. First up, the Sean Connery years.

I know for many that Connery is and always will be the James Bond. But by the time I was old enough to see my first Bond film, Roger Moore had been doing them longer than Connery ever did. This is not to say that I necessarily think of Moore as the definitive James Bond (though I think you'd find many in my generation who indeed feel that way). Rather, I just don't overly romanticize the Connery films.

He did make a good Bond. A real jerk at times, which I suppose is accurate to the books. But very smooth, and very much the one who set the tone for spy thrillers in general for many years to come. But how were the movies?

Dr. No - Anyone who tells you that in the beginning, Bond films weren't so crazy and over-the-top needs to go back and watch Dr. No. Sure, things got more lavish and ridiculous later on in the series, but this first movie is hardly grounded in reality. The title character has two black prosthetic hands, runs a nuclear-powered secret base on a Caribbean island, and tries to have Bond assassinated at one point by releasing a tarantula in his hotel room. Some parts of the film are pretty cool, but overall it feels very slow-paced to me. The middle act is a fight to stay awake at times. This film is strong for its characters, not for its plot. I give it a C+.

From Russia With Love - This film was the first time a "title song" was recorded for the opening credits of a Bond film. It's languid and slow, and likely to induce coma. Rather like the film. Much of it takes place on a train from... well, somewhere to somewhere else... I forget now, months later, because I was so bored. There's some fun moments with Blofeld, crazy Rosa Klebb and the knife in her shoe, and not much else worth your time, in my opinion. I give it a D-.

Goldfinger - Now we're talking. There's a reason this film is one of the most highly regarded of the Bonds. There's a great heist at the core of the plot. The villain delivers one of the most memorable lines in all cinema ("No, Mister Bond, I expect you to die!"), and then that great scene is followed up seconds later with the unforgettable introduction of Pussy Galore. There are flaws in the film, to be sure (and I talked about some of those a few months ago, when I got to see Goldfinger on the big screen), but I still give it a B.

Thunderball - A very cool opening sequence involving a jet pack, and then it almost immediately starts going downhill. Something about a missing plane, and lots of ploddingly slow underwater action. Not as boring as that damn train ride two movies earlier, though. I give it a D.

You Only Live Twice - I know Goldfinger's supposed to be "the best Connery Bond film," but for my money, it's this one. Maybe it's just that I loved astronauts and outer space growing up and still have a soft spot for it all. (And this film's take on it all, though stretched at times, isn't patently ludicrous like Moonraker... but more on that another time.) But how can you not love a hidden volcano lair? A frakkin' helicopter you can build from a few briefcases? A giant group of ninjas laying the smack down at the end of the film? This movie has it all.... including, unfortunately, some casually racist handling of the Japanese that is a mark of time period. I give this film a B+.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - This was actually not a Connery Bond film, but it fell here chronologically. George Lazenby took over the role, and it's not hard to see why that lasted only the one film. This should have been a very cool story, with Bond actually settling down and marrying (Diana Rigg!) only to have his wife killed by evil agents. And a big ski chase for the first time in a Bond film. But no, this is absolutely a drag from start to finish -- all 2 hours and 16 minutes of it. I can't think of a single reason why anyone should see this movie. I give it an F.

Diamonds Are Forever - Connery's last "official" turn as James Bond (not counting the unaffiliated film Never Say Never Again). It involves the villain Blofeld, usually a good sign. Much of the film is set in Las Vegas, which is a complete head trip to see circa 1971. There's some good action and engaging sequences. But there are also many of the worst "minor villains" to ever appear in a James Bond movie. The kickboxing bimbos known only as Bambi and Thumper? The gross caricatures that are Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd? This odd blend of action, nostalgia, and annoyance is worth a C in my book.

Average all these grades together (throwing out Lazenby, of course), and Connery's James Bond filmography gets a C from me overall. But I think it's not entirely fair to look at that average as a reflection on what I thought of him as Bond. He definitely made some films worth seeing... and some films to avoid like the plague.

Sometime in the next week or two, I'll be moving on to the Roger Moore films. Until then...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Decorations

Now that Thanksgiving is passed, I can no longer take issue with people having their Christmas decorations out. I saw a number of houses that had them up all last week, though, and those people are entirely too festive for their good or anyone else's.

I mean, this year had almost as many days as there can possibly be between Thanksgiving and Christmas, thanks to the extra Thursday in November. Isn't a full month (plus the week until New Year's, which is also "fair game" in my book) enough?

Also, you notice how ever couple years, there's some "new technology" in Christmas lighting that seems to seize everyone in a fad? I remember when the so-called icicle lights appeared for the first time. Every single house on the block had to get them (and those strings that still work are still in use). Well these days, the trend seems to be those giant inflatable lawn ornaments that are distant cousins of the "Wacky Wailing Arm Inflatable Tube Men." It seems no lawn can have just one.

One thing a lawn should have only one of, though (if any at all), is those wire-framed light-up reindeer. More than one, and you're just begging for prankster kids to come by and mount them on each other for a laugh. (This happened to the family across the street from my house all the time as I was growing up.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Razor

So, this weekend brought our first new Battlestar Galactica in (unbelievably) eight months. And (worse) our only one for another four. It was definitely great to have it back even for a short time, but I have to say it felt like only a "very good" installment, and not an "excellent" installment like so many have been.

I think that for me it fell short because it covered a lot of ground we were already well aware of, because of all the material centered on Cain in command of the Pegasus. Don't get me wrong, it was fun to see Michelle Forbes again. It was nice to see return appearances from many of the Pegasus characters who are no longer alive, or haven't been seen since the second season. Sort of a greatest hits album.

But also kind of like a greatest hits album recorded by a cover band. We already heard the tale of how Cain executed her X.O. right there on the bridge (and it was far more chilling to hear Fisk tell it to Tigh than it was to see it). We already heard the tale of Laird being forcibly conscripted off the civilian ship after watching fellow passengers be killed. We already saw the results of the torture of the Cylon Gina. And so forth. Shocho hates prequels, and this is a very vivid example of why. Not only did we know the end destination in this case, but we knew a lot of the steps on the journey.

Fortunately, the rest of the two-hour episode was more compelling. The flashback material of Admiral Adama's mission at the close of the first Cylon war, and all of the material surrounding Lee Adama's early command of the Pegasus (pre-fat suit) was interesting stuff. Seeing "classic model" Cylons was just a big "squee!!!" moment. I mean, there was the gold one as the leader, and they said "by your command," and all that fun nostalgia that made the original Galactica series so much better in your mind than it actually was.

Still, with all the balls thrown in the air at the close of season three, this episode was rather frustrating in its inability (by its very time frame) to address any of those issues. We'll have to wait many more months to learn anything of the Cylon sleeper agents that have been with us from the beginning, or of Starbuck's mysterious journey to Earth and back. (Though I suppose the hybrid did give that brief, tantalizing hint that it will in fact prove to be a very bad thing for our heroes.)

As I said, it really wasn't a "bad" episode, by any means. But it couldn't really live up to the burden of being the one and only installment of the show in a year-long period.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Galactic Plumbing

I recently received Super Mario Galaxy as a birthday present. I've only been able to sample it so far, but it was enough for me to conclude a few things.

This feels a lot less like a traditional Mario game and a lot more like a Zelda game to me. (Perhaps this is because I somehow skipped over playing Super Mario Sunshine.) In any case, this is a plus in my book.

I think this is not a game for those with weak stomachs. You do a lot of running around on spheres, and it doesn't take long before your character is running any which way but with his head pointed toward the top of your television. You can push a button to "right the camera," but sometimes this re-orients things so that you're actually upside-down on the little planet you're running around on. Moving in this environment doesn't take as much getting used to as I thought it might, but looking at it certainly does.

I don't know that this is "the game you want to buy a Wii for," but it certainly is a game that makes me feel better about having purchased a Wii. It seems really fun so far, and there's no other console I could be playing it on.

Now, how I'm supposed to make time for this and Rock Band, I don't know... but I feel like I somehow want to try.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Play Misty for Me

My buddy Sangediver set me up to write this review, so I figure I'd better deliver. The night before Thanksgiving (and all through the house?), I caught The Mist at the movie theater. Any lover of scary movies should see this film. I believe I enjoyed this more than anything in the genre I've seen in several years.

It starts with very cool monsters, which are effectively revealed bit by bit. First, you don't get to see anything at all -- only very well-created sound effects. Gradually, you see more and more varieties of critters, each nastier than the last. Very creepy and very clever.

That underpinning is then built upon by very good characters. To me, this can be a hit-or-miss area for a Stephen King story, but either the source material was good this time, or Frank Darabont improved on the original in his screen adaptation. You do get drawn in to what many of the characters are going through. You really get worked up to cheer for some, and boo others. Where many films would just line up lambs for the slaughter, the people in this film matter.

Indeed, some of them fulfill very specific narrative roles, because it turns out the movie has a few points of biting social commentary to make. In a perfect story, I might prefer it to be a little less overt and on-the-nose than depicted here, but it's sort of hard to quibble with it. For one, these characters are facing down "the end of the world," which will surely bring out some melodramatic behavior. And secondly, most horror movies don't even bother with a "message." (George Romero's stuff, and maybe almost nothing else?) So points here for that, especially since the movie still manages to be scary at the same time.

Actually, not just scary. The movie does have its "jumpy moments," but it has even more genuinely tense moments. A sequence involving a person heading out into the mist, tied to the end of a rope, is one of the best sequences in the film, and there's not a single cheap scare in the entire scene. Perhaps the most impressive thing is that the movie is able to regularly generate this suspense without the aid of the music. The film does have a score (by Mark Isham), but it is used very sparingly. I believe that over half of the movie plays "dry," including every scene that takes place in the supermarket. Yet the movie doesn't need an orchestra to put you on the edge of your seat.

Then there's the ending. Very strong, very unconventional.

I give the movie an A. It might even make the bottom few of my top 100 list, though I must admit that when I looked at the list to try and slip it in somewhere, it only made me realize it's well past time I did some housekeeping on it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

JoCo

Happy Thanksgiving -- to those of you here in the States that celebrated it, that is. I'm taking it easy for the day, so I have even less of interest to say than normal. Instead, courtesy of one "Snarky Smurf," I'll share with you the humorous musical stylings of Jonathan Coulton.

Every track I've sampled off this web page is funny and great, but I particularly recommend his rendition of Baby Got Back.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Band Together

So, the PS3/Rock Band purchasing saga was fun and all (or maybe you didn't think so), but what about the game itself?

It's only the most awesome freaking thing ever. Playing the game is just one of those experiences where the world compresses into tunnel vision in front of you, and next thing you know, hours and hours have gone by.

This feels like it must have been the game the people at Harmonix wanted to make all along, and were working toward it inch by inch with Frequency and Amplitude, and then Guitar Hero. There were so many brilliant new touches in this that seemed like the most natural evolution of Guitar Hero. It was basically the opposite of my reaction to Guitar Hero III, where I felt they'd slightly messed up dozens of tiny little things throughout the game. Here, they added countless details that added up to the perfect package.

First, the guitar stuff. When you earn Overdrive (this game's version of Star Power), deploying it doesn't turn the notes a different color, thus making the patterns easier to follow. You can also still earn more Overdrive even while you're using it, just raising your reserves and continuing the double point streak. They've added highlighted sections for guitar solos, where the game scores your accuracy within the solo, and gives you a bonus for a good percentage.

The new guitar control adds some cool new features. There's a second set of fret buttons up the neck that you can play solos on without strumming. (Difficult to switch to, really -- but cool looking.) There's now a working modulator switch on the front of the control, which actually switches your in-game sound when using Overdrive to have echo effects and distortions.

Then the drums. Awesome. You trigger Overdrive for the drums by actually improvising your own drum fills during select portions of the song, then slamming on the "crash cymbal" at the end of the fill to deploy it. Whatever you improvise in the drum fill, you actually hear live in the game. It's really easy to start believing you're actually playing the drums when you play the game... especially if you're able to hack it on higher difficulties.

The vocals seem pretty fun so far too, from what I've seen. I know very few of the songs well enough to even dream of attempting them on higher difficulties, where you really must be pitch perfect and rhythm accurate. But on easy, it's forgiving enough that it's possible to flub your way through even a song you've never really heard before. You can hear the actual vocals in the background (which can be turned off, once you feel secure in your singing), and a line on screen helps guide you toward the proper pitch.

Singers get Overdrive too. Like the drummer, you'll have sections come along where you just improvise anything you like. (Even an oh-so-rock "HELLO, [insert city name here]!") Bang, your Overdrive is deployed.

All of this gets exponentially cooler and more fun when you play multiplayer. You can use your Overdrive to pull back in fellow band members who failed out of the song. You can further increase the multipliers on your band's Overdrive if you deploy yours while one or more other band members have theirs on. You get bonus points for playing sections of the song accurately all at the same time. And some songs have those sorts of crazy, open free-styles at the end of the song where the singer just wails away, the drummer does his best impersonation of Animal, and the guitarist strums until the strings threaten to snap. Your score goes up and up and up, provided you all brings it back together and hit the down beat to close out the song at same time.

The multiplayer mode has you earning money and fans, managers and roadies, playing dives until you can afford a tour bus to get to other cities, playing actual sets of songs, one right after another after another. You can sell out for big buck concerts and sacrifice some fans, or play charity events for no cash but lots of fan cred. Incredibly well thought out and authentic.

None of which says anything about the graphics, which are also just great. You can completely customize the appearance of your in-game characters. Dozens of hair styles, face types, attitudes, and more are just the beginning, as you can spend money you earn playing gigs to buy new clothing, jewelry and other accessories, and of course, better instruments. The characters you create then actually appear on the load screens in various freeze frame settings while you're waiting for the songs to start.

During the songs, all sorts of fun touches come out to play. You do some songs in black lights with glowing drumsticks and shiny teeth. You see camera angles in black-and-white, shot by some bootlegger in your audience. The lead singer actually whips out a cowbell to play the opening of Mississippi Queen. And these are only the things I've been able to notice so far.

I only have a couple small complaints about the game, and they all have to do with that new guitar controller. I mentioned some new things that are really awesome. But there are also a few differences that can really mess you up if you've played on the standard Guitar Hero controller for two years like I have.

The strum bar (though now silent -- a plus!) is kind of spongy in feel, and when you're strumming up and down rapidly, not every "click" seems to register, causing you to miss notes. The buttons are flush against the neck of the control, which makes it nicer looking, but easier to potentially lose your place mentally -- especially because the raised markings telling you where the center (yellow) button is are far less obvious than before.

My only other complaint as far as the guitar control goes is that the game only comes with one, and because of the demands to produce the "full package game" for the holidays, you won't be able to buy one separately until next year. Many earlier Guitar Hero controls aren't compatible with it either. (On PS3... none.) Which means unless you have a friend who also bought it, no fourth player for you until the new year. No bass player in your band. (Or guitarist, depending on your preference.)

Other than that though, this is a top notch game on every level. If you're a Guitar Hero fan, try not to let the high price tag on Rock Band scare you away. It's worth every penny.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Console-ation

So, after several days of agonizing with my PS3 vs. XBox 3609 dilemma, I pulled the trigger and got a Playstation 3. (The larger model with some PS2 compatibility, for the curious.)

Ultimately, there were two main factors that tipped the balance. One, the XBox doesn't come standard with Wi-fi; that's an "optional" attachment. Let me tell you, where I'd have to run wires in my place to plug the thing in? Not optional at all. And by the time you factor in the cost of getting that Wi-fi attachment, the 360 wasn't that much less expensive than the PS3.

Secondly, it's Microsoft. If I can reasonably avoid using their products, I'm going to do it.

So I'm in the store on Monday night, getting ready to make the purchase, and I get into a conversation with one of the clerks about their stock on Rock Band. Not high enough for comfort, as it turned out... 60 copies for XBox, and 12 (only twelve!) for PS3. In other words, not a snowball's chance in hell of still being there if I waited until after getting off work to pick up my copy.

Time for a phone call to the family. As I was wrangling someone to go at store opening and pick up a copy of the game for me, my sister comes through with the scoop: some Best Buys are supposed to actually be open at midnight selling the game. Well... clearly not the one I just bought my PS3 at, or the guy would have said something. I do some research. One store, in all of Colorado. About 25 minutes from my place.

Now, I've never done the midnight wait to buy something before. Like for the Harry Potter book? Never considered it. There was no possibility that that book would have sold out, so the way I saw it, the only reason to do the midnight wait then was if you were going to stay up and start reading the thing right then and there. (If you did, hey... more power to you! But I have an awfully hard time reading when I'm sleepy.) Here, this was shaping up to me to feel a lot like: "be there at midnight or don't get one."

So I went. And though the line I found wasn't preposterous, it wasn't small either. The PS3 stock was especially limited too. A store employee was pointing to my range of the line, saying, "I'm afraid we might be running out right around in here, from the quick count I've taken of PS3 users in the line." Was this some sort of sign that I'd made the wrong choice?

Well, a few minutes later, the same employee comes back, and now he's actually handing out tickets to the people who want the PS3 version. And he reaches me...

And hands me the last ticket.

Perhaps some sort of sign that I'd made the right choice.

I got my copy of the game, having a second chance at that thrill of getting "the last one" when the sales clerk actually puts it in my hands. I loaded it in the car, drove home, got there at about a quarter to one...

And went to bed. I had to work the next day, and I'm not young enough for all-nighters anymore. But I've got the system and the game, and after what seemed like a particularly long day at the office, I got to try it out tonight.

Which I think will be a topic for another night, because this story has gone on a while already, and it's late, and I didn't get to bed on time last night. (grin)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Newtonian Recreation

I've never quite understood why people get excited about the "physics" in video games. Probably this is because this issue really only comes up in what... First Person Shooters and realistic auto racing games? Neither of which thrill me. I mean, seriously... who says:

"Man, I was really liking that game already, but damn, those physics!"

"You know what really would have put that game over the top? Physics!"

"I've been thinking about getting that new game system, but the games they've released for it so far just don't have enough physics."

So you'd think that a game with the word physics right in the title would be a pretty big stinker in my book. But what can I say? This is pretty damn cool.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Wait is Almost Over

Less than 24 hours remain on the Slap Countdown. And though it may be strange to use a Barney-ism here, since he's the one who's going to get slapped, I think it's going to be "legendary."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Playing with Your Food


This pretty cool display of food carving can be found in this collection of "what chefs do when their bored."

I'd like to get one of these artists to do my next Halloween jack-o-lantern.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Time For a New Toy?

So, Harmonix's brand-new music game Rock Band comes out this Tuesday... for the XBox 360 and Playstation 3, that is. The PS2 version is due next month. And up until recently, I was pretty sure I was going to wait that month and then start rocking out. But then a few things happened.

First was Guitar Hero III. I noted in reviewing it that I thought the new developers had messed up a number of things with the game. I said less about the graphics, other than to mention the butt-ugly lead singer and the way the PS2 version looked like an after-thought. Since then, I've been able to see what the game looks like on one of the "next generation" consoles, and what can I say... it looks a lot better. Way faster load times too.

Second, I learned that the PS2 version of Rock Band really is an after-thought. Its development was outsourced to another company. And while this particular article I linked to says that the translation "looks great and plays as well as the in-house developed Harmonix next-gen versions," I'm not quite willing to believe that. And I guess I shouldn't be surprised at any of this; the PS2 version was only even announced in the U.S. a few months ago.

Third, there's the downloadable content. The PS3 and XBox 360 versions are going to be adding new songs all the time through their online connectivity -- whole albums, even. And it's not like I have to have every song ever programmed for the game, but I'd certainly feel like I was missing out not to have, for example, the Police three-pack of Roxanne, Synchronicity II, and Can't Stand Losing You. And missing out on more all the time.

Fourth, if I'm going to buy the game with its pricey peripherals (the drums and the mic), what happens down the road when, inevitably, some sequel isn't available on PS2? Am I to spend that money to buy the accoutrements all over again?

So... it all seems to add up to this: I'm suddenly thinking pretty seriously about buying an XBox 360 or a Playstation 3. There's just one problem with that: up until now, I haven't wanted either of them.

I never owned an XBox, and never for a moment considered getting an XBox 360. In the nearly two years it's been around, I've never regretted not having one. It seems to my like anything worth having on that console is available for some other console. The only high profile exclusives seem to be First Person Shooters of one variety or another, which I completely despise.

On the other hand, I've loved having my Playstation 2. But I was not an "early adopter" of the system. It had already gone through two price drops before I finally picked mine up. I've always sort of assumed that I'd get a PS3 someday, but I've had one eye on the games available for it, and have yet to see anything to sell me. I've figured that, like with the PS2, I'd probably wait out a few price drops before there was a critical mass of games to get me involved.

But just one game? I've been in this position before, debating whether to upgrade my PC for Civilization IV. And while I didn't quite end up upgrading just for that game, I did soon end up upgrading. (And of course, I bought the game.)

Then I think about my Wii. I've had it since March, and I have to admit that it has been virtually a one-game console. I've picked up a few things here and there, but the only game I seem to ever play on it is the one that it comes with -- Wii Sports. But you know what? I don't regret that purchase, either. I've gotten a lot of enjoyment out of that game, and I'm sure that eventually, more games will come. (Super Mario Galaxy is on my Christmas list.)

So, despite the somewhat scary price tag on the PS3, it seems I have plenty of precedent that type of purchase. I guess maybe I'm just looking for a nudge from somebody.

Can anyone out there think of any non-shooters that might convince me I've been wrong about XBox 360?

Does anyone out there own a PS3 and been happy with the purchase?

Any other thoughts?