Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rushmore Week

Do you remember that short window of time where Owen Wilson wrote nearly as much he acted? Probably not -- that period didn't last long. But you might remember one of the movies he wrote at that time, Rushmore. This is one of those movies "I've been meaning to get around to" that I finally did get around to earlier this week.

I was left with the strong impression that this film heavily influenced the makers of Napoleon Dynamite a few years later. It had that same sort of near-freeform vibe that indulged in occasional weirdness for weirdness' sake. There was one big difference, though; I thought Rushmore had more of a plot and told a complete story, as opposed to drifting from comic set piece to comic set piece.

It's not a razor sharp piece of writing, but it does make you laugh for how odd it is. And the funny quotient is definitely helped by the acting of Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. I can see both why this movie never really caught with a mass audience, and why for some it has become a bit of a cult favorite.

I actually think I liked it more now than I would have if I had seen it at the time it was first released just over a decade ago. Back in 1998, I suspect I would have been expecting to see some sort of Bill Murray comedy in the spirit of a Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day. But the movie doesn't wholly focus on him (or even mainly focus on him), nor is it that brand of movie. Today, knowing that his career has now shifted a bit to include movies like Lost in Translation, I had expectations more in line with what I saw.

If like a little oddness in your comedies, and haven't seen Rushmore, I suspect you'd like it. I'd rate it a B-.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Oath

A wonderfully tense episode of Battlestar Galactica tonight. In the show's history, enough "bad things have happened to good people" that when they do an episode like this about a mutiny/coup -- and with only a handful of episodes left before the series ends -- almost all bets really are off. How successful would the overthrow be? Who would live? Who would die?

Of course, we don't really have those answers, as the hour ended on a cliffhanger. And, in my mind, ended on the one false beat in the episode. I simply don't understand what purpose was served in having Adama or Tigh stay behind. It's not like they actually bought any more time for the Raptor to get away, nor were any arguments made about separating the two leaders in the event the Raptor should get shot down. I'd buy Adama's statement that he "couldn't live" with running, if it was actually necessary for anyone to stay behind and protect the escape, but it simply wasn't. They all could have run together, save for the writers' need to put someone in direct jeopardy at the hour's end.

Still, just about everything else about the episode rang true and was great to watch. Gaeta has now crossed over to the dark side, and given Adama's response, he won't be coming back from it. The reunion of Starbuck and Lee was a nice little moment -- and weird at the same time, since he still had someone else's blood splattered all over his face. The nasty insinuations of what would be done to Athena, recalling the fate of the imprisoned Gina aboard the Pegasus -- very unsettling. The forced alliance of Roslin and Baltar, accompanied with the realization of more things they have in common -- just fun.

They're still on a roll with this final run.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Vending Machine IQ Test

Okay, for your 85 cents, do you get:

A) The two-pack Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in D2; or
B) The three-pack Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in E7?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


This week's installment of Lost was, I thought, an improvement over last week's premiere, but still very much cast in the same mold. Again, the story was heavy on intellectual entertainment and lighter on emotional storytelling.

But the moments were there this week. We saw that Desmond and Penny had a son (and named him after Charlie). Daniel confessed his love for Charlotte. Charles Widmore pleaded with honesty for Desmond to take Penny away and hide her (knowing the threat that Ben had already made against her).

But despite these good moments, the greater emphasis was on making connections in the Lost "mythology." Actually, it was a week to learn tantalizing new bits of information about Widmore. He funded Daniel's original research in time travel, and was also originally on The Island fifty years earlier (which begins to illuminate his eagerness to return there). And in other news (Other news?), it turns out to have been John Locke himself who originally sent Richard to test Locke as a child for his potential leadership ability.

It does now seem that the model for this season is going to have The Island jumping around through time. This is the engine by which random bits of the distant past could be painted in for the viewers.

For example, we could go back to the time Danielle Rousseau first arrived on The Island, gave birth to her daughter, and set the repeating distress signal in French.

We could find out how that crazy four-toed statue came to be there.

We could go back to hundreds of years to when the Black Rock first arrived on The Island. Indeed, it was pointed out to me tonight by a friend that perhaps we now already have the explanation for how that ship came to be stranded out in the middle of land, where it could not seemingly be. If it is in fact The Island itself that is time-hopping and not the people on it, then the Black Rock could have actually been sailing through the empty waters of the South Pacific and had the ship materialize right there underneath it.

Maybe you can think of still more mysteries of Lost's past that we can expect to see resolved this season.

But this all perfectly illustrates what I've been saying. Lost's fifth season seems set up to be a feast for the mind, as your brain whirs away trying to make these connections. But the drama is taking a back seat in exchange for this.

We'll see what comes next.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"You Were Only Supposed to Blow the Bloody Doors Off!"

Have you seen The Italian Job? The original, starring Michael Caine, not the remake. Personally, I didn't think too highly of it when I caught it a few years back, but it is notable for its ending -- it ends on a cliffhanger. Literally.

The crew that pulled off the heist finds themselves trapped inside a bus that is hanging halfway off the edge of a cliff. All the gold they got away with is in the back of the bus, hanging over the abyss; they're all in the front of the bus, and if anyone tries to get to the money or get off the bus, the weight shift will send the lot of them plummeting to their deaths. Roll credits; end of film.

Now the film has inspired more than a remake, it's inspired the Royal Society of Chemistry to hypothesize solutions to the dilemma.

So here again is another case (like "most annoying invention") where some British folks have devoted an incredible amount of scientific effort into something even more incredibly mundane. I understand that "solve movie cliffhanger" scientists are probably not from the same group as the "cure cancer" scientists, but there must be some worthier pursuit they could have worked on, right?

Secondly, I'm shocked that the Washington Post article I linked to managed to get two whole pages out of this story.

Thirdly, and most insanely, the contest winner gave a quote about "great actors -- Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill." Any sentence about great actors that includes Michael Caine and Benny Hill and isn't "there are great actors like Michael Caine, and then there's Benny Hill" is shameful. I don't care what science the guy knows, I don't think I'd believe him if he told me water was wet.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Day 7, 1:00-2:00 PM

Bill and Chloe's bright blue van is as cleverly inconspicuous as the big yellow armored truck the baddies have.

Is this Chloe's first time outside since she got all secret agent badass and shot people up in like season 5?

Here's some more shoe leather to attempt to further justify how Tony is not dead.

Bill says we're "nearing the endgame." There are 18 hours and 50 minutes to go. We don't believe him.

Bill says Agent Walker needs to "stay dead." You know, exactly the way Tony didn't.

Matobo says Jack can't promise his wife won't be tortured. I'm pretty sure Jack can't promise anyone won't be tortured.

Matobo's wife has been by his side for 22 years. That's like 8030 seasons.

They must comply with the terrorist's demands "within the hour." (Drink!)

I really think even with this mystical device, it wouldn't be so easy to engineer a midair collision. There's a lot of air up there, and not a lot of planes filling it except right around airports. To turn two planes to exactly the right angles, and moving at exactly the right speeds? That's like solving a "two trains leave the city in opposite directions..." riddle on the fly -- in three dimensions -- in a matter of seconds.

I gotta side with this Joe guy over the whole resignation thing.

I'm pretty sure that even if it was David Palmer being this stubborn over throwing away American lives, I wouldn't side with him. I mean, they've now been grounding planes for several hours, so everyone is clearly going to know that the White House was aware of a potential crisis and didn't stop it.

Man, it's a good thing the bad guys are taking so damn long to meet up with Jack and Tony.

Colm Feore had an easy week. Just sit there. You don't have any lines.

Really, even Samantha goes into her own apartment using a key under the mat? Does she not have a key ring?

And then she's stupid enough to ask Henry Taylor how he got in? How about the same way you just did?

I've seen enough CSI to think that as nice as those arm-length gloves Agent Gedge is wearing are, he'd still get blood all over his shirt from the way he stabbed Samantha.

One van pulls up, and four bad guys get out. Where exactly are they planning to put Matobo and his wife, in the trunk?

Ah, well, obviously they planned on having two guys killed while they were meeting Tony, because now there's plenty of room.

Samantha sure had one hell of an apartment.

If I ever have a bodyguard in my life, I'm sorry, but he'd better be able to kick my ass. If he can't, then it follows that I can beat up anybody he can, so what good is he? What I'm saying is, Gedge turned out to be such an inept bodyguard that he couldn't stop a half-paralyzed man twice his age from getting the drop on him. So he gets what he deserves.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Lincoln Log

Both Abraham Lincoln and the phrase "team of rivals" have been getting a lot of mention in news and politics lately. You can thank author Doris Kearns Goodwin for coining the phrase in her now rather well-known book with that title, Team of Rivals.

The book was first published a few years back, and I came very close to reading it at that time. But rather that be on the cutting edge, "before it was popular," I only recently got around to reading this much talked-about biography. And it took me a few weeks to do it, too. It's a mammoth tome, thoroughly researched. This is no light read.

The book is actually a multiple biography based on this premise: to best understand and appreciate the political mind of Abraham Lincoln, you should also get a more clear picture of the members of his Cabinet, in particular three men who were competitors against him for the presidential nomination in 1860. And within the first chapters, the author totally sells that premise.

Her writing style is very entertaining and easy to read. While not quite presented in the narrative style of most works of fiction, there is a much more personal and personable approach to this book than the few biographies I've sampled here and there. You get a clear sense of the life of the times, and believe that you're getting inside the heads and private thoughts of many of these people.

But even though most of the book remains compelling for its 750+ pages, I feel Goodwin could still have used some more editing. Her clear passion for the subject gets in the way on a handful of occasions, when she brings in truly mundane or even irrelevant material likely because it simply fascinated her in her research.

Does it matter that Mary Todd Lincoln went vastly over budget when decorating the White House? Or that the young daughter of Salmon Chase (one of Lincoln's rivals/Cabinet members) may have married for money to secure her father funds for a future presidential candidacy? Set in their own book, some other book about say, the role of women in politics throughout American history, I believe this information would have its place, and could even be compelling. In the context of exploring the political genius of Abraham Lincoln, I believe it a superfluous distraction.

Still, Doris Kearns Goodwin stays on her subject more often than not, and displays both a vast understanding of it and a gift to relate her knowledge well. As I said, it's no easy read, but if politics holds any interest for you, or if you simply want to read about one of the great Americans, you may very well want to check out this book. I rate it a B+.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bloody Awful

Earlier this week, I went to see My Bloody Valentine 3D. I wasn't expecting much. What I really wasn't expecting was my reaction. I think this might be the worst movie I've ever actually enjoyed.

The movie itself is just terrible. While most of the lead actors make the most they can out of a bad script, the minor roles are populated with actors who in some cases don't even rate above high school theater. Two old cops that open up the movie are laughably awful in their stilted delivery of horrendous dialogue, and things don't improve much after that.

The script is shoddy. In an attempt to build a whodunnit mystery and cast suspicion on the characters, nearly all the major characters are written to be various degrees of unlikable. You can't root for the sheriff, because he's cheating on his wife. You can't root for the guy returning to town after a decade away, because he's come to ruin the town's livelihood by selling the local mine. And so on down the line.

There's a prolonged scene of nudity that so redefines "gratuitous" as to be preposterous. I defy you not to laugh. Assuming you're not flat out offended.

And the big "twist" at the end is spoiled back in the first act. A shrewd moviegoer can infer from a few particular cinematic clues exactly what is going to be revealed in the final minutes of the film.


Then there's that 3D element. Decades from now, when one can assume all manner of movies will be presented in 3D, anyone who looks back on this movie will find basically nothing of any redeeming value in it. But for today, right now, it's pretty incredible. Sure, there have been other movies to make use of the newer "Real D" technology -- any number of CG-animated movies, a host of IMAX documentaries, and so forth. But strangely, I have to say that this movie had a better command than anything I've seen before on how to use the 3D elements to their best effect.

The film was thoroughly seasoned with well-crafted camera angles and "gags" designed to show off the 3D. Even more than that, moments not so "manufactured" managed to deliver some pretty amazing visuals. Simple aerial shots of the town suddenly sprang to life with layer after layer of scope. The people who processed this movie for 3D knew what they were doing. It's just a shame they did it in the service of something so awful.

As I said earlier, the few leads did the best they could with bad material, and that was just enough for me to rate the movie a D- and not an F. But the experience somehow elevated the whole experience even farther -- all the way to a C-, I'd say.

Basically, my review is this: if you like horror movies, go see this movie in a theater now, where you can watch it in 3D. Otherwise, don't ever see this movie.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Disquiet Follows My Soul

Tonight brought another strong episode of Battlestar Galactica. While it couldn't match the amazing power of last week's installment, it did offer what I like in an episode of the series -- character drama that's true even if it's harsh.

The revelation that Tyrol is not the father of Nicky was a bit of a cheat. My suspicion is this a consequence of these particulars not being planned ahead. At the time the writers gave Tyrol and Cally a child, they didn't know any more than we did that Tyrol was actually a Cylon. And rather than intrude on what makes Helo and Sharon's child Hera special -- and waste precious time of the little remaining -- to explain how another Cylon-Human hybrid could come to be, they just decided to "undo" the damage. I think it's probably for the best.

The Zarek plotline was also a bit weak, in that we've seen the character do this sort of "mustache twirling" a few times before. But at least, though it wasn't anything new for that character, it was part of a new direction for Gaeta. His Cylon hatred seemed a little more pronounced this week than it had been before (but arguably makes more sense in the context of the recent webisodes, set in between the events of this episode and the last). But any quibbles I might have with the setup for the story was forgiven by where it took us. The confrontation scene between Gaeta and Starbuck was great. The two were just plain nasty to each other, and it was really riveting to watch.

As it was last week, the Roslin story here was another highlight. I suppose the Roslin-Adama 'shippers had a fan-gasm over the ending of the episode, but I was most entertained by everything else in their story. Adama tried several ways to pick her back up and get her into the game again -- as he's been able to do in the past -- but this time, none of it worked. In the end, he had to just accept that she's finished, and for at least the two of them, that proved to be the best thing. Bittersweet material.

I must confess I'd sort-of forgotten the earlier revelation that the captive Six was pregnant. So I suppose that even though one "miracle child" was taken off the board this week, there are still two in play.

Once again, I'm looking forward to next week.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

And the Nominees Are...

This year's Academy Award nominations were announced this morning. For the first time ever, I've seen all five of the Best Picture contenders before the they were even announced.

I'll complain one more time (and sorry, but probably not for the last time) that Doubt should receive more recognition as the best movie of the year, and I'm very disappointed it wasn't nominated. Disappointed, but not surprised -- the Academy seems to get uppity about nominating films based on award-winning plays. They don't want to be seen as trailing the Tony's, I think.

In any case, of the films that actually did get the nod, my preference would be to see Milk take home the trophy. I fully expect for Slumdog Millionaire to walk away with it.

In the other major categories:

I'd give Best Director to Ron Howard, for Frost/Nixon. It's not that I thought Milk "directed itself," or that I'd begrudge Gus Van Sant if he won. It's just that I felt the hand of Ron Howard more in his film, and in very good ways. He coaxed more from the material and from his actors than another director would have managed.

I'd give Frank Langella the Best Actor award, again for Frost/Nixon. This hasn't got a snowball's chance in hell of actually happening. All signs point to Mickey Rourke taking top prize for The Wrestler, a film I have not seen. (And I must confess, that I have no desire to see, despite the praise it's been receiving.)

I'd give Meryl Streep the Best Actress prize for Doubt, but I'd admit to a lack of an informed opinion here. Of the five nominated performances, the only other one I've seen was Kate Winslet's in The Reader.

For Best Supporting Actor... well all the nominees here seem like worthy contenders. (Though I can't comment on Michael Shannon, having not yet seen Revolutionary Road.) As I've said, Philip Seymour Hoffman in wonderful in Doubt. I'd gladly see the prize go to Josh Brolin for Milk, and would be pretty much thrilled if Robert Downey Jr. pulled out a win for Tropic Thunder. But the wind is blowing for Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, and it was a fantastic performance. I think the movie -- already good -- would have been even better with more of him in it. And I suppose that's a perfect reason to award the prize to him, completely independent of the "posthumous honor" issue.

For Best Supporting Actress, it's all Viola Davis for Doubt. (Though here, I've seen neither Vicky Cristina Barcelona nor The Wrestler.)

In the Screenplay categories, the Adapted award should go to Doubt, while I'd give the Original to Milk.

WALL-E should get the Animated Feature award; save for Doubt, there was no movie in 2008 I liked better. (Though WALL-E is also nominated in the Screenplay category, I still give Milk my vote there because I felt WALL-E was a triumph of many elements, while Milk presented great writing challenges in how to present the real life story well.)

But I must say, my choices are definitely long shots. Count on WALL-E to take the Animated prize, and Heath Ledger to win Supporting Actor. And I expect every other preference I've expressed here to come up empty.

We'll find out for sure on February 22.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Because You Left; The Lie

Tonight's two-hour premiere of Lost's fifth season was entertaining, but I thought it lacked the punch of last season's premiere. What held back tonight's installment was its relative lack of emotional heft.

On the plus side, it was certainly a feast for the intellect. Tonight was a big reward for anyone who's been following Lost all along, and in all its various venues. There were connections to the "reality game" of several seasons earlier, references to the mobisodes from last summer (also found on the season 4 DVDs), and more connections to past episodes than I can count.

Mysterious time guru lady from Desmond's first time hopping episode? (Third season, not fourth season.) She's back. Want to see the moment the Nigerian plane crashed on the Island? Here ya go, fans. Dr. Halliwax? Here he is at last -- in person, not on a decades-old video. Throughout the two hours, you could trade back and forth moments where you were ahead of the plot because of your knowlegde of the show's history, and moments where you were surprised by some unexpected bit being roped into it all. Assuming you had a flow chart handy to track it all.

But despite having that level of entertainment in abundance, there weren't many strong moments between characters. The reunion of Kate and Sun, Hurley receiving aid from an imaginary Ana-Lucia... and not much else. As I'm sure I've said before, my main interest in Lost is for the powerful drama and character-driven stories they tell. Tonight's episode wasn't about any of that.

Of course, it would be hard to match a creative high like season four. Not that I'm writing off season five based on just two hours. For one, I did enjoy tonight's installment, even if it wasn't the "brand of Lost" I like best. But more importantly, I acknowledge there's simply a lot of story in motion right now, and a need to get through some material before the emotional drama will have room to breathe around the intellectual drama.

Regardless, I'm glad to have Lost back.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reader's Digest

This weekend, I went to see The Reader. It has been the focus of some award buzz, more than ever after the win of Kate Winslet for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes.

That right there is the first lie about her performance in this film -- it is most certainly not a "supporting" role. She's the female lead. In fact, the male character around whom the story revolves is actually played by two different actors throughout the course of the film, while Kate Winslet plays her character in all time periods through the use of makeup. No, her agents (or someone) cooked up the idea of entering her for "supporting actress" in this movie and "lead actress" in Revolutionary Road just to double down on her chances.

The second lie is that she didn't truly deserve to win an award for this role. Make no mistake, she is good. Very good. It might even be unfair to hold any marks against her for the simple reason that we've seen her be better in other films. But that's the truth -- she has been better in other movies, and the Hollywood Foreign Press was just doing what (sadly) so many award-giving organizations do: try to make up for overlooking a deserving recipient in the past by awarding their lesser work in the present.

Of course, in doing so, they just perpetuate a cycle in which today's deserving work is postponed its award due until the future. (And that's exactly what happened here. Viola Davis' work in Doubt was better; for that matter, so was Amy Adams'.) Yes, Kate Winslet was good in this movie. But not the best.

Part of the problem, in my view, is that the material wasn't doing her any favors. It's a weak script with extremely slow pacing, and built around a main character whose motives don't quite seem to make sense.

The film begins in Germany, a decade after the Holocaust, and tells of a love affair between a teenage student and an older woman. Years later, after the affair has long ended and the boy has moved on to attend law school, he happens upon his old flame when she stands trial. It turns out that she worked for the SS during the war, and is being brought up on war crimes for which, for reasons perhaps best not spoiled in this review, she chooses not to defend herself. The young man could come forward with the information that she herself will not provide, but chooses not to. And driven by guilt, he begins to send her audio tapes in prison of himself reading various books to her, as he used to do in their short time together.

From the summary I gave, the young man's motives in this business would seem pretty clear -- that he's paralyzed with uncertainty about what is the right thing to do for this woman, when she does not seem to want to save herself. But it gets murkier as the film works toward its conclusion. I've likely already given away too much for anyone who wants to see the movie, but suffice it to say that by the end of it, my friends and I were all left perplexed as to why a man willing to go "this far" would not be willing to go "farther" -- or withdraw from the matter entirely. He adopts a decided "half measure" of action that the script never really manages to explain convincingly. Sometimes a bit of mystery like this can deepen the appeal of a movie, but we did not feel this was such a case.

In the end, I couldn't help but feel that the joke Ricky Gervais made at the Globes was all too apt: "I told you, make a Holocaust picture," and the awards will come. I had to wonder how many voters of the Globes had actually seen the film, as opposed to those who simply heard that the topic was "weighty" and assumed Kate Winslet was due. Make no mistake -- most of what was good about the movie was what she brought to it. But that wasn't enough for me to recommend the film. I give The Reader a C-.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Day 7, 12:00-1:00 PM

The tac team is upset that they can't go in guns blazing and shoot up Tony Almeida. Aw.

Oh, no! Agent Walker turned off her cell phone. Now the FBI will never be able to find her. Not even by using the GPS one assumes her car must be equipped with.

Emerson was all set to shoot that guy to coerce the Prime Minister. Then he finds out the FBI is coming and decides it's not so important anymore.

After six full seasons of 24, now we have "traffic" hindering the ability of agents to get around town?

Jack Bauer is the Mr. Wizard of toxic gas.

They've got all kinds of stuff to stand on in that safe room. Why don't they at least try to block the vent when the gas starts pouring in?

You'd think the bad guys would pick something slightly less conspicuous than that giant yellow van. Is the Evil Scheme on such a tight budget they couldn't spring for a coat of paint?

The First Gentleman has just been enjoying a lovely view of the Jefferson Memorial for half an hour.

"Perimeter!" (drink)

"I can't stop thinking about last night." So... season 6-and-a-half?

It's an "all van" split screen.

The Prime Minister will arrive at Evil Inc "within an hour." (drink)

I guess Chloe went back to watching C-Span, cause she and Bill are nowhere to be found this week.

Henry Taylor and his bodyguard arrive at some strange apartment. And cue everyone's complete lack of surprise at the revelation the bodyguard is a bad guy in three... two... one...

Hey, the people at the FBI are putting their coffee into the same cups as the bodyguard just used to slip drugs to the First Gentleman. Does that mean they were in on it?

NSA just intercepted the second phone call to reference Agent Walker since she was captured. Why they fell asleep on the job about the first call (about 20 minutes earlier) is strictly between them and the demands of plot.

Jack's now going to do to Walker what he did to Nina. Mid-first season with the fake killing, that is. Not the real killing like in the third season.

And now, in honor of the late Ricardo Montalban... Jack shall leave her "buried alive!!! Buried alive!!!! Buried alive!!!!"

Sunday, January 18, 2009

2008 In Review -- Movies

So, after a sharp spike in the number of movies I saw in 2007, I returned to previous form in 2008. I caught 55 movies last year, just over one a week. Once again, my perpetual Rock Band habits chewed up a huge portion of my free time.

As is my habit, I saw the vast majority of those in the theater -- again, by about a 2-to-1 margin.

2008's "dry spell" came in April, where I didn't see a single movie, period. Of course, that's the month I was moving into my new place, so no real surprise there.

Best movie of 2008? That would be Doubt, the only "grade A" film of the year.

I never did get around to getting the Netflix subscription I'd been pondering, but I think here in 2009, that's finally going to change. I went to a movie earlier this afternoon, and was mildly shocked by yet another hike in the non-matinee ticket prices. While I'm sure I will continue going to the movies, it did make me realize that I only have to get through two movies in an entire month to get more for my money than two trips out to the theater. If "getting my money's worth" was the silly excuse I was using, that seems pretty thoroughly crushed at this point.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Like... A Long Time Ago in, Like, A Galaxy Far, Far Away

This video claims to be The Star Wars trilogy as told by someone who has never actually seen it. (Original trilogy, of course.) I have no idea whether that's a true claim, but it's really not important. The video itself, with its rudimentary animation of this corrupted version of the tale, is where the real funny comes from.

Take the four minutes and watch this.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sometimes a Great Notion

At long last, Battlestar Galactica is back. And back for the last time, as tonight began the final run of episodes leading up to the series finale. Seven months is a long time to lose narrative momentum, but tonight was certainly an episode worthy of the wait.

The theme of the night was hitting rock bottom. It was an emotionally draining episode to watch as character after character seemed to sink as low as they could in the aftermath of finding the ruined Earth. If each moment seemed like you were seeing the worst thing that could happen, the next moment seemed to prove you wrong. This is the sort of brutal, non-glamorous truth that has been the hallmark of the best moments of the show from day one -- from abandoning a ship full of defenseless civilians in the pilot, to the horrid implication of gang rape of prisoners by their captors in "Pegasus," to the grief after Starbuck was thought dead...

And is she? Why not start there? The discovery of the destroyed Viper on Earth's surface was a great moment, expanding the mystery surrounding Starbuck's return. "What am I?" Great question. And a wonderful performance from Katee Sackhoff.

Of course, great as it was, it was outshone almost immediately by the crushing scene of Laura Roslin, having abandoned her cancer treatments, methodically burning out the pages of her holy book. Everything had been stripped from the character, and Mary McDonnell's performance was painful to watch.

Then another slap in the face, as Dualla just shoots herself in a shockingly unceremonious moment. Which in turn left Lee -- who had apparently been finding a way to struggle through things perhaps better than anyone -- completely adrift. And it pushed the elder Adama even farther down.

It had seemed in the last new episode we saw, so many months ago, that that was Admiral Adama at his lowest, when we saw him completely unravel at the revelation of Tigh's true nature. And at the time, I praised the performance of Edward James Olmos. In tonight's episode, he found still more layers deeper down, and left me stunned.

I focus on all these character moments both because they have always been the strongest element of this series, and because they were all just so well done tonight. But you could also easily focus on the interesting progressions and discoveries in the plot. The "thirteenth tribe," the people of Earth, were Cylons? The Final Five lived there among them? The last Cylon was Ellen Tigh? (Explaining why the last of the Five didn't answer the "Watchtower" call at the end of season three.)

All this in just this first of this last run of episodes? Holy frak! If Battlestar Galactica can achieve even a fraction of this quality in the episodes that still await, then it's going to soar out on a high I'm hard-pressed to compare with the ending of any other show I've watched.

I wonder if my hopes are getting too high when I think that, but then I just have to think about how amazed I was watching this episode tonight. I want to go watch it again immediately.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Master of Your Domain

There's another game that's stormed my group of friends lately. This time it wasn't me that bought it. But like Race for the Galaxy, which I recently spoke of, it's been played a whole lot of times in a very short period of time. Also, that initial copy has already prodded others in the group to buy their own.

That game is Dominion. It's a card game that seemingly brings some Trading Card Game sensibilities to a more conventional "complete game in a box" format. The game comes with an array of cards, multiple copies of lots of different things. There are three denominations of "money" used in the game, three denominations of victory points, and 25 different "action" cards (these would be the TCG-like cards) that spice things up and give it variety. Any given game uses all the money and points, but uses only 10 of the 25 different action cards. You can pick what you want, decide randomly which to use, draft, read about particular combinations online that other gamers have liked, whatever. The various combinations lead to a broad variety of ways the game can unfold. All the cards have different "purchase prices" during the game, according to how powerful they are.

Each player begins with his own personal deck of just 10 cards -- 7 of the weakest money, 3 of the weakest points. Each then draws a hand of 5 cards from that deck. On your turn, you show all the money you have in your hand, and use that total to buy one card from the different stacks you have arrayed before you. You could buy more valuable money, victory points, or one of the action cards. Whatever you purchase goes to your discard pile, where (as soon as you exhaust your deck) it will soon be reshuffled to become part of your deck (and thus, your strategy) as the game unfolds. If you draw any of those special action cards, you're allowed to play one before spending the rest of the money in your hand. When the game ends, the player who has acquired the highest total number of victory points in his deck wins.

The game is pretty fun to play and goes at a relatively fast pace. Exactly how fast can depend a great deal on which actions your group chooses to use in a given game. Strategically, I'd say our group is still working through what exactly works. There's been some research online for this one, where you can readily find some very vocal gamers claiming to have found "this killer strategy that always works." That in turn is being denounced by other gamers claiming, "yeah, my group was stuck there for a while, until we figured out you can do this instead."

In short, it's very much the "metagame" dynamic of a trading card game, where strategies ebb and flow over time.

I don't think I've played enough yet to weigh in on whether any particular "killer strategy" is really that unbeatable, but it seems like even if there were a single best way to go, it could be thwarted by the selection of the right action cards for a game. So I don't think I can put forth whether the game is flawed on that level.

But I can and will say that it is flawed on another level: one of the very things that makes it clever is also a bit annoying. Remember I said you build your deck as the game is played, starting with a small pile of 10 cards. It's not easy to shuffle 10 cards. You can't riffle them. You have to "wash" the cards to get any kind of randomness, and you have to do this for many, many "trips" through your deck before you actually get enough cards to start doing a conventional shuffle. And even once you reach that point, you end up shuffling a lot.

To give you some idea how much you're shuffling these cards, remember that you start with 10 in your deck. It seems from my experience that by the end of a typical game, you have somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 55. And you're acquiring these cards basically 1 or 2 at a time every time it's your turn, using a hand of 5 (or more) cards every turn, and shuffling every time you exhaust the deck. I could run some math on this, but it's late and my brain hurts -- I ballpark it that you have to shuffle your deck between 15 and 25 times in the average game of Dominion.

This is time-consuming. Sometimes you feel like you spend more time shuffling than actually playing. And it abuses the poor cards. When I played with my friend's copy last night -- a copy of the game barely a week old and with maybe 10 plays on it at most, there were a few cards that were visibly worn. Play this game at all regularly, and I believe you'll be needing to buy a replacement set in fairly short order.

I suppose time will tell if the game is enjoyable enough to get over the shuffling hurdle, but for the moment my opinion is still somewhat mixed. Forced to rate it today, I'd give Dominion a B-. But that's still a good enough opinion that I'll certainly play it when someone suggests it, which I think is likely to happen a bunch in my play group.

So we'll see how that opinion develops...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Doggie Trauma

You pet owners might want to be warned that if you do this (dress up your dog), it could get you into a spot of trouble in the U.K.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Skip These Beats

I recently had the chance to see Across the Universe, last year's film incorporating songs by The Beatles into a musical drama.

In the plus column was the sound and spectacle of the film. It looked fantastic, with virtually every frame of the movie drenched in color and eye-catching imagery. The orchestrations of the songs were also very good, capturing all different sorts of moods and at times presenting very different arrangements of the classic songs.

But in the negative column was virtually everything else. The film was virtually incoherent. The creators began with the notion of weaving something around The Beatles' songs, but they really ended up smashing together puzzle pieces that didn't fit. There were too many characters, too many uninteresting sidetracks... and that's on the rare occasions that things actually took a narrative shape for longer than the space of a rock music video. Subplots would appear out of the blue without preamble and vanish just as suddenly.

The stakes were neither convincing nor compelling. The main story between the two lovers offered no credible obstacles standing in their way. A subplot involving a young man being sent off to war presented no real consequences for him in his time there or in returning home. And so on through ever less interesting smaller storylines.

Even many of the "music video"-like vignettes within the film are unenjoyable, in that they're unoriginal. You may recall that a while back, I saw the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show, Love, also based on the music of the Beatles. That piece of theater uses a great many of the same songs, and oftentimes in very, very similar ways. With such a large catalogue of music to work with, it's hard to excuse such derivative ideas.

Perhaps a real fan of The Beatles (which I confess, I'm not especially) would find more to like in this movie. I just saw a feast for the eyes and ears that was utterly empty calories for the brain. I rate it a D+.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Day 7, 10:00 AM-12:00 PM

The U.S. miltary forces have to be withdrawn "within 24 hours." So... more "season eight," then?

Jack walks the FBI agents through how the sniper must have had help escaping the "perimeter." Drink! (I have a feeling there's going to be a lot of that tonight.)

Just so we're clear about how we're not torturing Tony: "Is that comfortable?"

"Dammit!" (Drink!)

Money's the only reason Tony has left for doing anything. The same might be said for the writers who brought him back from the dead.

Couldn't Tony have just shouted "Deep Sky" back on the boat when nobody else was around and saved both himself and Jack a lot of grief?

And a hearty "welcome back" to Bill and Chloe. Of course, Truly Evil Tony never seemed likely. But it's almost a shame it wasn't true. The show hasn't had a good baddie against whom Jack has truly personal stakes since Nina.

Yes, genocide sucks. But doesn't America pretty much want its president to put American lives first? And can't they just withdraw the forces and then redeploy them in the "six days" or however long it's going to take to rebuild the firewall?

Now there appears to be another mole somewhere in the President's inner circle. Another day on 24.

Chloe was watching Jack on C-Span while she was monitoring undercover Tony? No wonder Tony got captured.

The late "First Son" has now been murdered-no-commited-suicide-no-murdered all in the space of 15 minutes. Wheels within wheels!

Why is it that the technicians investigating security leaks always have to go by themselves to dark, secluded rooms hidden deep in the recesses of the building where they might get ambushed by the object of their investigations?

Jack and Chloe are doing a lot of "copying."

Jack is sorry he almost re-killed Tony.

It's Chloe vs. Janis in a Geek War!

Are there still any cars on the road that can be hotwired like that? Especially how ever many years in the future 24 must be taking place now after all the years skipped in between seasons?

Somewhere in this escape, there were so many "dammits" that I couldn't even see straight anymore if I actually drank for all of them.

So the FBI really believes that the plan all along was for Jack to convince them of a mole to help spring Tony out later in case the FBI took Jack out of the hearings to help them find Tony in the first place? That would be like what, Plan R?

Obviously, being a rogue former government agent pays very well, judging by the place Bill and Chloe are set up in.

Tony explains how he was only "mostly dead," but that Miracle Max injected him with a hypothermic compound. Gotta get me some of that, just in case.

Bauer and Almeida have gotten outside the "perimeter!" (Drink.)

They're taking Jack down to the basement to make him stand in the corner, Blair Witch style.

Ah, the old "you have failed me for the last time" villain-on-villain execution.

Jack is "back in black!"

Mr. Taylor must have some serious dirt on this poor bodyguard to keep convincing him to do stupid things like taking him out off the records and leaving him alone in a public place. Unless, of course, the bodyguard is working for the bad guys.

Agent Walker spent barely two hours with Jack, but his bad influence rubbed off on her. Badass influence, that is.

The Prime Minister is off to the panic room. Wait, I've seen this movie!

Well... overall, an improvement on last night, I think. Then again, it's rarely been the first few hours that have been the problem with the not-so-good seasons of 24. It's when they get a few hours in and start making stuff up as they go along that things come unglued. Here's hoping that doesn't happen this time.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

And the Award Goes To...

So, 24 premiere and Golden Globes in one night? Yikes!

The night starts off strong with Kate Winslet winning something at last. But what the hell is with that little rectangular strip rising off the center of her dress? It's like a built-in censoring bar for her cleavage. Especially in the close-up camera angles.

So, did they just dress up some homeless looking guy who said he was Sting? What the hell is with the Grizzly Adams beard?

Eva Mendes' dressmaker apparently gets paid more the more fabric gets used. There's no other explanation for the gym towel looking wad hanging off her waist.

So, the official "this person isn't here tonight" camera is placed downstage right, showing the audience and a profile of the presenters.

Ricky Gervais proves his awesomeness (and subtlely referencing his show Extras) by reminding Kate Winslet that he told her Holocaust movies were the way to awards.

Johnny Depp gets paid huge sums of money to stand on marks on the floor. Could he please just hold still for one minute?

Jake Gyllenhaal -- can we get another take? This time with even less emotion?

Drew Barrymore looks like she rode to the ceremony in a convertible with the top down. And she and Jessica Lange are both behaving like they did something naughty together in the bathroom before they came out on stage.

Okay, I'm having a Scrooged moment here. You can see Demi Moore's nipples. She needs Kate Winslet's dress.

Heath Ledger wins, and Christopher Nolan gives a brief but terrific speech.

When Aaron Eckhart says "in her twilight years," Susan Sarandon has just a half-second flash of "hey, you bastard!" on her face.

The writer of Slumdog Millionaire gives a boring, near-Biblical "so-and-so begat so-and-so" kind of acceptance speech. Seeing as how I wasn't all that impressed with his movie, I shouldn't be surprised.

From the expressions on the faces of the Ernst & Young accountants, I'm not sure if they won the office pool and got to be on the show, or if they lost the office pool and had to be on the show.

Renee Zellweger looks so stretched out and squinty, my friends and I thought for a half a second that she was Sharon Stone.

Was anything nominated this year that Ralph Fiennes didn't appear in?

Kudos to Alec Baldwin for prodding drunken Tracy Morgan to thank the president of the network that their show -- and the awards show itself -- airs on.

Tina Fey gives a great, funny speech. Once again, I see evidence that I stopped watching 30 Rock exactly one episode before it started getting brilliant. (That was about four episodes into season one, by the way.)

I'm surprised Steven Spielberg hasn't already been given this award.

Clearly, Colin Farrell didn't expect to win. He's visibly shaking, and seems unable to not say every random thought popping into his head.

But even more "not expecting to win" is Kate Winslet, for the second time. Good for her. (I need to get out and see these two movies, I suppose.)

I understand it's been 20 years since anyone could have reasonably expected Mickey Rourke to be standing on a stage accepting an award. But if they don't cut him off soon, he'll be there another 20 years.

The folks in the booth aren't quick enough to cut away from Darren Aronofsky playfully giving Rourke the finger. You suppose this will be the latest "Nipplegate-esque" outrage?

Slumdog Millionaire, best picture drama? Really? I'm disappointed in you, Hollywood Foreign Press. To not even nominate Doubt, for starters! How can it, by your own acknowledgement, have one of the top five screenplays and four nominated actors in it and not be worthy of consideration?

And frankly, of the nominated films I have seen so far, Slumdog Millionaire is certainly the least of the lot. I reiterate my earlier review. Save for the setting, this is an incredibly conventional love story of a type we've all seen too many times before.

Here's hoping for Oscar to do a better job next month.

Day 7, 8:00-10:00 AM

Jack is back! Let's do this!!!

Hollywood needs to officially retire the "camera looking out the car side window as an oncoming vehicle slams into us" gimmick.

Senator Red Forman tells Jack that he's a "dumbass" for not retaining council.

Jack is of course used to having people question him under much more threatening circumstances.

The FBI needs Jack. "We'll resume at this time tomorrow," says the senator. So... season eight, then?

Janeane Garofalo is the new Chloe. We'll see how she measures up.

And now the "bombshell" that no one has made any effort to hide for the last seventeen months -- this year's bad guy is Zombie Tony!!!! (Who is just as dead as Headless Sara over on Prison Break.) Perhaps he'll later be revealed to be in league with Nina Myers and David Palmer.

Cut back to the captive tech guy, who is now beaten and bloody. This may be the only time 24 has ever passed the chance to show us torture in graphic detail.

The White House elevator is painted like a hospital ward.

Half an hour in and Jack is staring at a computer screen while other people sit in dark rooms and talk. Safe to say the writers are banking on the knowledge they'll be airing a two-hour premiere.

Looks like the First Gentleman's bodyguard is going to be the season's "Aaron Pierce." We'll see how he measures up.

Agent Walker's going to keep Jack on a short leash? She don't know him very well.

The fighters are hidden in three camps: Alpha, Beta, and Delta. They do know Gamma is the third letter of the Greek alphabet, right?

Aldridge has agreed to delay his broadcast for 24 hours. More material for "season eight," then.

Agent Walker suddenly busts out with some kung fu! Then she tells Jack to "do whatever it takes." We might just have to start calling her "She-Jack" before the day is through.

Gabriel's gonna get a ball point eyeball if he doesn't start talking.

Four minutes ago, on 24...

Jack thinks there's a mole in the FBI. Because there's always a mole every damn season.

The incredibly inattentive FBI agents fail to notice the guy lurking in the stairwell.

The Sangala prime minister's "field day ribbon" is sticking up out of his suit pocket.

If air traffic control just reported a "near miss" to the White House, then they go their facts wrong. The airplanes did miss. What happened was a near collision.

The guy in the car with Jack thinks Jack's okay. Apparently he owns past seasons of 24 on DVD.

The sniper and his FBI "pursuer" have a little Return of the Jedi, hide behind pillars kind of moment.

Jack knows it's gotta be the shoes.

Looking none the worse for wear after his encounter with a land mine back in Redemption, Juma's thug appears to join the ranks of the not-really-dead villains this season.

Re-enter the girfriend of the late "First Son." Wearing quite a few more clothes than when we were first introduced to her in Redemption.

Time to blast our way on to the boat. And left and right, henchman you might have thought you'd be spending a few episodes with are dropping like flies.

Just like that, we've caught Tony! They do know this show is called "24" and not "3," right?

For the moment, my opinion is mixed. I think I'm already starting to like a few of the new characters they're introducing, particularly Agent Renee Walker. On the other hand, the story hasn't totally grabbed me yet. We'll see what tomorrow night brings.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Holy Cow!

I got home frakking late last night, so all you get for tonight's blog post is Extreme Cow Tipping!

Save yourself a half minute by skipping directly to the :40 mark.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Double Double, Toil and Trouble

Another new game to join my collection in the recent influx of board games was Witch's Brew, the fourth installment of the Alea "medium-box series." As I noted earlier this week, Race to the Galaxy has momentarily crowded almost everything else, but I have had the chance to try this a few times now and form an opinion.

This is a card game in which players are trying to collect gold nuggets and three different potion ingredients to be used in brewing the most valuable potions. Potions come in five stacks of cards, with increasing point value (and increasing difficulty to brew ) the further into the game you go.

You accomplish your goal using your own tiny "deck" of twelve cards depicting different roles. Each player has an identical deck of twelve, and in each round of play, everyone chooses any five cards they wish from their decks to form their hand. Play then proceeds in such a way where you are mosted advantaged to have chosen cards no one else chose. However, you can also do well by either being last in the play order to have picked a card chosen by multiple players, or by correctly determining whether any players still to act after you in the play order have the same role you're currently playing.

If I were to attempt to compare this game to something else I've played before, I'd have to say it has quite a few similarities in principles to Adel Verplichtet (aka Hoity Toity; aka By Hook or By Crook). Both games set the players against each other in unusual, more complicated versions of "Paper/Rock/Scissors," in which you achieve the greatest success trying to figure out what your opponents will do, and trying to figure out whether you should do something different when you think your opponent thinks he knows what you might do. ("Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.")

Similarly, it's not really all that much a game as an arena in which the players can spend a quick 30 minutes trying to get inside each others' heads. Oh, it is fun. And the fast pace certainly helps with that. But there's only just so much analysis of the moves of so many opponents you can do before chaos intrudes. In short, while every game does offer a few moments of strategic interest, it offers much more randomness than strategy.

It's a good "towards the end of the night" game to pull out when people are too exhausted to tackle something more sophisticated, but aren't yet ready to go home. And not bad, taken fully in that mindset. (Though I think I'd still prefer Adel Verplichtet to Witch's Brew, for a game of this nature.)

I'd rate it a B-. If you're collecting Alea games, you should get this one to keep your collection going. (It's not one of the bad ones I'd encourage you to skip.) Outside of that, it's a "maybe." One copy in a given gaming group is probably enough; I wouldn't think it a game you'd be itching to have a copy of your own.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

So Annoying

First of all, I can't believe the British government has so much time and money on its hands that it's conducting a survey to learn what is the "most irritating invention." (Really, if there so far down their to-do list that they're doing this, I think a fair number of Americans wouldn't mind some people coming over here to address some issues.)

Secondly, the karaoke machine? Most irritating? Rock Band begs to differ, I think. And without karoake, what else would drunk people do besides watch sports and try to hook up?

I'm sure any parent could name two dozen noise-making toys that easily beat the karaoke machine for "most annoying invention."

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

That Most Famous Boy

I've blogged in the past about the writing of Peter David. Having first garnered noticed as an author of "tie-in" fiction for Star Trek, Babylon 5, and a raft of movie novelizations, he is sometimes dismissed by book snobs. It's a mistake, though. The man wrote good books in all of the above categories, and has also written wholly original works; of the ones I've read, I've found all quite enjoyable.

His latest effort is Tigerheart, and it's another winner. Imagine a sort of "alterate reality" in which the story of Peter Pan largely hit the gist of the major points we all know, while being altered in the details. Captain Hack lost his hand to a sea serpent, and replaced it with a hatchet. He's a menacing pirate of the "Anyplace," but is constantly thwarted by his never-grow-up nemesis, "The Boy."

Now imagine someone wrote a sequel to that distorted version of Peter Pan. That book is Tigerheart. It tells the story of a British boy whose parents are separating after a tragedy in the family. He travels to the Anyplace, in the hopes of finding a way to restore the family happiness... but once there, finds the famous hero of the Anyplace is actually in need of help himself.

The characters are well-realized and entertaining, both the new and those cribbed from the works of James Barrie (whom Peter David graciously thanks in the dedication and acknowledgements). The story is high-spirited, adventurous, and keeps you turning the pages constantly. It didn't take me long to finish.

An aspect I particularly enjoyed was a different writing style Peter David chose to use in telling this tale. This time, he becomes a character of sorts himself, inserting himself as an omniscient narrator. He prods at both the characters and the reader with a very dry and dark sense of humor, greatly adding to the sense of fun that saturates this book.

Ultimately, it is a light tale that never really pulls too hard on the emotions of the reader. But it is breezy and fun, and very well written. I rate it an A-.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Outrageous Fortunes 3

Several months ago, a co-worker (who sometimes styles himself as a "rich friend I know") discovered a "new" (to us) Chinese restaurant near work. Great place. Chinese food for lunch instantly changed from a once a month thing to a once a week thing. Unless you count all the Panda Express we were getting before. I don't.

With all those new fortune cookies coming my way, you'd think it wouldn't have taken so long to come across another worthy entry in my Outrageous Fortunes series of posts. But the day finally came yesterday when I opened this perplexing gem:

Bear in mind that every other fortune at the table was in English -- just like every other fortune every one of our lunch crowd has received at every lunch we've had at this place. What the hell?

That's to the internet, I did at least discover this was an actual fortune -- a prediction of the future -- as opposed to those obnoxious "proverb cookies," "flattery cookies," or "advice cookies" you more frequently get:

"Good news from a highly anticipated event will come soon."

Okay, I'm waiting.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Galaxy Awaits

I received a few new board games for my birthday and Christmas this year. One has now been "in the fold" for less than two weeks. And yet, in that time, I've managed to play it a total of nine times. (Rooney: "Niiine times.") This is pretty staggering for both me and my most regular gaming group -- we don't tend to stick with the same games too often.

The game is Race for the Galaxy, a card game that's very similar to San Juan (the Puerto Rico spin-off card game), but in my view more sophisticated. Each round, all players secretly choose one of several roles. When the roles are all revealed, all players participate in the roles chosen by everyone, though each receives a special bonus in the role particularly chosen by him.

So far, I've seen several different strategies lead to victory. I've seen luck of the draw maybe decide a game or two, but strategy does win out most of the time, in which roles to choose and when, and in the picking of which cards to play and which to discard (as payment for the others).

So well liked was the game overall that a copy of its first expansion set ended up in the group's annual "white elephant" gift exchange barely a week later. (An aside here: we don't do the "white elephant" event in the most traditional sense of bringing stupid mystery gifts that no one would want; we strive to actually put cool swag in the mix.) I ended up with the expansion, and the new cards and rules have already found their way into the mix.

So, is the game really all that good as this meteoric rise to popularity in my circle of friends would indicate? Well... maybe not quite. It does have a bit of a flaw in its very low degree of interaction between the players. One person who tried it out likened it to a "multi-player solitaire," not in a necessarily disparaging way, but in a largely accurate one.

The simultaneous picking of jobs -- and allowing more than one player to choose the same job -- removes an element that some players find frustrating in Puerto Rico and San Juan. But it also removes the major element of interaction between the players that is enjoyed in those games. All that remains is a much smaller amount of trying to look in the minds of your fellow players to try and guess what jobs they'll pick (so that you won't have to, and can pick something else you also want to do). But this element is somewhat minimal in my experience. Oftentimes during play, you need the "bonus" of a specific role so much that you would pick it even if you knew for an absolute certainly that someone else will too.

The expansion I mentioned, The Gathering Storm, does assist with this in a small measure, by adding a number of tiles to the game that award bonus points to the first player to achieve a given set of conditions during the game. They put you in a bit more competition with your opponents, trying to claim the extra points first.

Some of these tiles work rather like the "Longest Road" and "Largest Army" of The Settlers of Catan, in that they can pass between players during the game. At least, in theory they do. In practice (in my games so far), I've found that the game's differing paths to victory, which are a plus in every other respect, hurt the possible interaction here. When someone claims one of these "contested" tiles, it's not all that likely that an opponent is on a similar enough route to his own victory to actually compete with that first player for the tile.

Despite the drawbacks, the game is very satisfying even if you do fully subscribe to the belief that it's "multiple solitaire." (And I don't, not completely.) It has very satisfying depth for a game that can easily be played in 30-45 minutes, and so far appears to have a high replay value even once you're familiar with all the cards.

Actually, the only truly bad thing I can say about the game, without reservation, is that I don't care for the elaborate set of symbols used on the cards. In an effort to get the "word count" down on cards (perhaps for fear of being likened to a complex trading card game), someone decided to use extensive iconography to explain what a card does. This made sense to no one I've played with during their first game, and for many it only really started to click near the conclusion of the second game.

Get over that hurdle, though, and Race to the Galaxy is a fun game I can recommend. I rate it an A-.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bring Horribleness Into Your Home

It was about six months ago that I sang the praises of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. (Not literally. That I leave for the cast. Mostly.) It is now time to do so again, as the good (evil) Doctor has jumped into new media.

Available exclusively from, the DVD and soundtrack (either in CD or MP3 form) can now be purchased. If you didn't watch it before, here's your chance to pick it up now. And if you did watch it before, you must surely have loved it, and you should pick it up so you can watch it again and again.

And so that you can partake of what has just become my favorite DVD extra on any DVD I own. (Shame. Tropic Thunder held that title for just a few days before Dr. Horrible supplanted it, with its cast commentary featuring Robert Downey Jr. "not dropping character," just as his character in the film promises not to do until after recording the DVD commentary. If you haven't seen the movie, this makes no sense to you. If you have, then you're already laughing just thinking about it.)

Um... off topic there. Okay, the wonderful Dr. Horrible DVD extra! It's "Commentary! The Musical!" Yes, in addition to a more conventional commentary recorded with creators and cast, a second commentary was recorded which is itself a musical. Running the full length of the show, it features another full array of songs sung by the cast and creators as themselves. Well, satirical versions of themselves, anyway.

There are songs as funny, if not more so, than those in Dr. Horrible itself. Nathan Fillion's "I'm Better" is worth the price of the DVD alone. But right up there is the brilliant "Ten Dollar Solo" (in which an aspiring actress bribes Joss Whedon to get a song on the DVD) and "Nobody's Asian" (a hilarious but not inaccurate assessment of ethnic diversity in entertainment).

Now I need a soundtrack of "Commentary!" to go with the soundtrack of Dr. Horrible I just bought. And you need to go buy this DVD.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Would-Be End of Hitler

Earlier in the week, I saw the new movie Valkyrie, the story of a failed assassination plot against Adolf Hitler by German soldiers. The film itself (as opposed to its content) is an interesting blend of "award bait" and "mainstream crowd pleaser" that doesn't come along too often -- just take a look at its pedigree for the evidence.

It's directed by Bryan Singer, who while most recently known for Superman Returns, first gained fame for The Usual Suspects. It stars Tom Cruise, who used to have a great deal of Hollywood credibility, but is only now starting to regain it (post-Tropic Thunder) after years of bizarre behavior. It features a number of other actors very well-known for powerful acting -- Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Terence Stamp -- but the promotional efforts for the movie call little or no attention to this.

I actually find it all very fitting, because it mirrored my own opinion of the film. It was not quite of high enough quality to be a serious award contender... but neither was it so lightweight as to be easily dismissed.

The acting is indeed good across the board, though none of the performers are really given much material to showcase the full force of their talents. The script has very few truly memorable exchanges, very little effective dialogue. And yet, what the scriptwriters lacked in wordsmithery, they clearly made up for in the technique of their storytelling. The film does arouse your interest, and puts you in suspense even though you know the ultimate conclusion to which it must come. It includes a dozen different carefully placed "near miss" moments, where the audience instantly understands that the whole enterprise might have succeeded but for this one unfortunate happenstance or mistake.

Overall, I'd rate Valkyrie a B. It is engaging without being deeply compelling, entertaining if not a revelation.

Friday, January 02, 2009

2008 in Review -- Games

It's that time! As I've done before, it's time to check my records of the various board games I played in the year just gone by. If you weren't around for this the last time (or are uninterested in following the link I provided), here's a recap of the two provisions on this list:

* Only board games, card games, and such get counted. PC and console games -- even the ones played with other people -- need not apply.

* Games of my own design that I played in the course of working on that design don't get counted.

2008 will be known as the year Rock Band devoured my spare time. I took part in only 162 games (down from 234 in 2007). This 162 is even padded to some extent, because it counts every separate session of poker I sat for in my trip to Las Vegas. Not that Rock Band wasn't fun (and it remains so), but I'm hoping to get back to more board games in 2009.

Here's the list, 61 different games in all:

25 Words or Less (1)
Agricola (1)
Apples to Apples (1)
Attika (1)
Augsburg 1520 (1)
Bananagrams (1)
Blokus Trigon (1)
Carcassonne (2)
Carolus Magnus (1)
Cartagena (2)
Castle (1)
Caylus (2)
Caylus Magna Carta (1)
Clans (1)
Craps (4)
Da Vinci Code Board Game (1)
Downfall of Pompeji (1)
Eketorp (5)
Family Business (1)
Gangsters (1)
Goa (1)
Hey! That's My Fish! (2)
In the Year of the Dragon (6)
Lost Cities (8)
No Merci! (2)
Notre Dame (4)
Oasis (1)
Odin's Ravens (1)
Palazzo (2)
Perudo (1)
Poker (16)
Princes of Florence (1)
Puerto Rico (4)
Quelf (1)
Quiddler (1)
Ra (1)
Race for the Galaxy (6)
Ricochet Robot (6)
RoboRally (1)
Rummikub (1)
San Juan (2)
Scene It! - TV Edition (1)
Set (12)
Settlers of Catan (2)
Sleuth (3)
Snorta! (2)
Speed Scrabble (1)
Squint (3)
Ticket to Ride: 1910 (1)
Ticket to Ride: Marklin Edition (3)
Ticket to Ride: Switzerland (4)
Time's Up (4)
Thurn and Taxis - Power and Glory (4)
Too Many Cooks (3)
TransAmerica (3)
Union Pacific (5)
Up and Down (4)
Vampire (1)
Vikings (6)
Werewolf (1)
Witch's Brew (1)

Some miscellaneous comments on the list.

I was taught "Speed Scrabble" a few years ago by the word-genius mother of a friend. This Christmas, my own mother pulled out an odd zippered bag in the shape of a banana, labeled Bananagrams, and suggested we might give it a try. I skimmed the rules, and realized in a few seconds, "oh! this is Speed Scrabble!" Without the concerns of overt copyright infringement. Anyway, I hesitated to list my one game of each in 2008 separately, but that's what I did.

Blokus Trigon is the only way to go if you have 3 players. Similarly, the original Blokus is the only way to go for 2 or 4 players. Reverse those numbers, and each game plays terribly.

Yes, there is a Da Vinci Code Board Game. It's not great, but not terrible. It's a mystery game that comes with I think 16 puzzles. In other words, you can play the game exactly 16 times, then it's done. At my current pace, I've got 15 more years, so I don't really have a problem there.

I pulled out Family Business one night on a lark, remembering how much fun I used to have with that game back in my college days. Man, have my tastes changed.

I've often explained that I don't buy many 2-player games, because I so rarely have occasion to play one. So imagine my surprise to see that I played 8 games of Lost Cities and 1 of Odin's Ravens.

Yup, more Poker than any other game in 2008. Appropriate.

Somehow I managed to play two games that start with the letter "Q," Quelf and Quiddler.

The Power and Glory expansion for Thurn and Taxis, with its slightly altered rules and substitute board, was such an improvement over the original that I'm not sure I'll ever play it again.

A handful of the games on the list were newly acquired towards the end of the year, as birthday and Christmas presents. I'll probably be reviewing those games in more detail in the weeks ahead, after I get enough time to play them a bit more and fully form an opinion of them.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Shut the Hell Up!

Happy New Year, one and all!!!

I'm beginning the year by pointing everyone to a story that's been the talk of more than one gathering of my friends lately, including at a New Year's party last night. A man's family was chatting away with each other in a crowded movie theater. Another man asked them to be quiet, to no avail. He then threw popcorn at the talkers, who kept going.

Then he took out a gun and shot the father in the arm.

Personally, I hope the right kind of jury gets seated for this trial. Because I say since the shooting victim was not actually killed, the shooter is practically a hero. It's not like he went straight to, "shut up, BAM!" He tried asking, and these people wouldn't shut the hell up in a movie theater like you're supposed to. I hope the shooter gets whatever the minimum possible penalty for the aggravated assault charge can be. (As for the attempted murder charge, pshaw! I give him the benefit of the doubt and say he wasn't shooting to kill.)

I'm not saying that I myself want to go to a movie with this guy. But I think I know at least one family that won't be talking during a movie any more. They'll probably never even go again. That's a public service.