Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday time means movie marathons!

The holidays are great because not only do we get to watch great old Christmas movies, but the cable networks also capitalize on this time to run various movie marathons, from James Bond Fests to John Wayne Westerns and other themed parades of great films. Here are a few of the latest gems I've been able to catch:

"Miracle on 34th Street" (1973)

This film has been made and remade several times and this version is certainly not the best, but is still entertaining to watch because it captures the zeitgeist of an early 70s Christmas, reminiscent of my formative years growing up. Watch this with a fellow TV buff and have fun picking out all of the stars. Kris Kringle is played by Sebastian Cabot (Mr. French on "Family Affair"), Roddy McDowall as the psychiatrist ("Planet of the Apes"), Jim Backus ("Gilligans Island" and "Mr. Magoo"), David Doyle as Mr. Macy (Bosley on "Charlie's Angels"), Tom Bosley as the judge (Mr. C on "Happy Days"), and James Gregory as the District Attorney (Fish on "Barney Miller")!! ABC opened up their cavalcade of acting talent and threw them all at this camp Christmas classic. I'd stick with the original 1947 version for pure entertainment or the very well done 1994 remake, but this one is still fun for viewers like myself who grew up in the 70s and 80s.


If you like John Wayne or westerns, this is one good flick, based on a Louis L'Amor story and filmed in 1953 during the height of the Western's popularity. Here's a brief summary without any spoilers: Wayne meets rancher's wife and kid, Wayne falls in love with said rancher's wife, Wayne tussles with local Indians, everyone ends up happily ever after...that is after plenty of gun fights and positive male role-modeling!

"Jeremiah Johnson"
This 1972 Robert Redford film directed by the recently deceased and brilliant Sydney Pollack chronicles the fabled life of the 1800s mountain man named in the title. Not really a western, but still of that genre, this drama does not follow the typical Hollywood version we often see of historical figures, which makes it refreshing and interesting to watch. This film is only very loosely based on a real mountain man, but still provides some history lessons for viewers dealing with the cruel realities of life during that era and the hardships that accompanied.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Kitchen Nightmares are my TV dreams

You've probably all at least seen the commercials if not the actual program "Hell's Kitchen." I haven't yet but I know the charismatic and angry main character Chef Gordon Ramsay well.

I was introduced to him on a more personal level when I saw his other show, "Kitchen Nightmares," now in its second season on FOX. I never thought I'd care about a show focusing on chefs and restaurants, but this one is a winner.

The show follows Ramsay as he criss-crosses America, visiting some of the worst restaurants you could imagine, each of them on the brink of bankruptcy, failure, and utter collapse. The kitchens are dirty, moldy, and infested with vermin, and the owners, chefs, and other staff are usually egotistical and often inept.

That's where Ramsay comes in. This tall lanky Englishman with a penchant for the "F-word" swoops into these places, immediately determines their fallacies, and attacks them with furious anger. Unafraid of even the largest megalomaniac culinary personality, he cuts master chefs, head cooks, restaurant managers, and owners down to size, usually with tremendously entertaining results.

He calls them losers, horrible businessmen, pigs (usually for the less than clean state of their kitchens, walk-ins, and food prep areas) along with a never ending list of other colorful epithets, usually with plenty of bleeped out swear words mixed in that are easy to decipher for even the most church going of viewers.

No one is sacred in Chef Ramsay's world, and it's a guilty pleasure to watch him work.

What's best about this show is that he doesn't even try to baby these people. He tells them their shortcomings blatantly and without hesitation. In turn they cry, they scream, they even break things. Under this deluge of honesty and the subsequent breakdown of their tremendous egos, most of them hate Ramsey passionately for the first three days that he spends trying to resurrect their failing restaurants.

By the end of the week, though, he revamps the menu, the staff, the decor (ala several other home makeover type shows) and most important of all, he turns these places into operations that finally turn a profit. As a result, most of these eating establishments even manage to dig themselves out of hundreds of thousands of dollars of paralyzing debt.

And despite the venom and turmoil he unleashes on each of these restauranteurs and the businesses they run, each one of them learns to like Gordon by the end and even thanks him for coming. More than one owner has called the Chef an "angel" or a "blessing" on the program.

And they have good reason to do so; he's saved more failing small businesses in the last two seasons than Roosevelt's New Deal.

I used to hate that Ramsay guy, always swearing at the poor defenseless young chefs on "Hell's Kitchen," but now I respect him. Because, behind the yelling is something that this country and her citizens could use, especially in these tough financial times we're experiencing: It's honest talk that motivates good people to do what will make them successful.

And its this straight talk that Ramsay delivers which makes the program "Kitchen Nightmares" successful as well.

I give Chef Ramsay and "Kitchen Nightmares" five Ginsu knives out of five.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fallout 3 not for me

I read the reviews. I watched the trailers. I thought I would like the game.

Unfortunately, less than an hour, and 20 achievement points into the new release "Fallout 3" I knew I wasn't going to like it.

Why? Too much reading.

Okay, I'm not trying to sound like a Neanderthal, but I love a good old fashioned first person shooter. When I read about Fallout I did indeed realize that it was supposed to be a role player mixed with a shooter rather than a pure shooter. But from what I gathered -- or maybe just my own high hopes -- I figured there would be enough action to balance the talking parts. The game's story and setting just seemed too cool to pass up.

But that wasn't the case, at least for me. The game just doesn't suit my personal gaming sensibilities. I'm a moron shoot 'em up guy without the patience or time to walk around talking to citizens of the video game world for hours on end. For the same reason, I didn't like "Viking" either.

I get bored just interviewing people and aimlessly wandering around an open world map trying to figure out the best place to go next. Some people love that, and that's great, but if I wanted to play "World of Warcraft," I would have bought WOW. I guess I just need more direction in my games to keep me engaged.

Oh well, you live and learn. Hopefully Gamestop will buy it back and not hit me too hard...

I give Fallout 3 one mutant zombie out of five.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dead Space is rather lively fun

I recently finished the title "Dead Space" on the XBOX 360, and found it to be the most fun I've had since Bioshock. The story has a true cinematic feel to it, and there are some scary moments that will keep you on the edge of your seat during gameplay. The weapons are diverse and require some skill to determine which tool is the right one for each job or each creature.

Each mission is challenging yet not so difficult that you'll be running to the walkthrough to leaf through and find the answers. There's also a unique set of skins, weapons, and other add-ons available for download which will enhance the gaming experience.

With multiple difficulty levels to suit every style of gamer and plenty of room to roam and explore what feels like a working mining ship which has been invaded by an alien presence, this game will give 12 hours plus of playtime and will make it difficult to put down the controller for any lover of first person shooters.

I give "Dead Space" four and a half severed limbs out of five. Oh, yeah, did I mention the best way to kill the mutated monstrosities in this game is to shoot off their limbs? How cool is that?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Battlefield: Bad Company isn't bad at all

As a purchaser and player of all the "Battlefield" titles from the PC days on up to the next gen consoles, I have to admit, I got burned out on the World War II gaming genre.

Then came "Battlefield: Bad Company," a game set presumably in modern day that includes big guns, comedic content, and the ability to blow apart just about anything your heart desires -- such as walls, trees, you name it. This game plays like a dream, has no blaring technical problems, surrounds a decent storyline, and is, as hell.

The story mode is pretty easy to play on "normal" but still has its challenging moments filled with plenty of bad guys to kill, mortars to dodge, and heavy artillery to blow up before advancing to the next chapter or mission. You can drive, fly, or boat (is that even a verb?) about in a number of vehicles as well. The helicopter, unlike other games, is actually not too hard to fly once you get the hang of it, either.

For more hardcore first person shooter fans like myself, you can go back and play through the game on "hard" for an even greater challenge. Some sections get tedious because of their difficulty, but going through a second time allows you to gather all of the collectables (which are in the form of a couple dozen different weapons), and of course the all important gold bars that the game bases its story around.

Expect to use a walkthrough in order to find all of these prizes, though, as they aren't easy to stumble across. In fact, expect to have to use more than one walkthrough and maybe a user created map of locations in order to find the little buggers at times.

Not usually a fan of online play myself, I have to say, "Bad Company's" multiplayer content sucked me right in and kept me playing for over 100 quick matches. There are plenty of additional achievements you can earn along with patches and other trophies for which you don't earn any gamer points but nonetheless are fun to see pop up on your screen during a match.

I got more than the $39 I plunked down for this on Ebay in terms of gaming hours and enjoyment, and rank it one of the top three games I've played in recent months. I give "Battlefield: Bad Company" four and a half blown up tanks out of five.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What's new on TV

I have to admit I wasn't too excited about the new shows this fall season but here's one to watch: "True Blood" on HBO.

Yes, HBO has been churning out hit after hit, and with "The Wire" over, I had given up almost entirely on them, but this modern day vampire tale starring Ana Pacquin is a good watch. TiVo or DVR it and see for yourself. This isn't your father's well-worn vampire tale.

Speaking of HBO, "Generation Kill" from the writers of "The Wire," which follows a company of Recon Marines during the Iraq invasion is another excellent 6 program series. There's plenty of great dialogue, action, and character study that we've grown to love from this writer/producer pair.

Seen from the prospective of the grunts on the ground and an imbedded journalist, this "warts and all" view of the war is telling, informative, and moving -- sometimes even hard to watch.

Fans of HBO's "Entourage" who felt that maybe they strayed too far from the winning formula of season one in their sophomore year will be glad to see that season 3 is back on track. With this triad of hits, HBO is still a good alternative to the blah broadcast TV networks this fall.

I give "True Blood" 3 fangs out of four but expect that number to increase as the season plays out, and the miniseries "Generation Kill" gets five spent shell casings out of five. Entourage as a series gets 4 stars, but the direction this season is taking could add a half point to that summation.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

TV series review: The Wire

As the credits rolled on the series finale of season 5 of HBO's "The Wire" (just released on DVD this month) I felt as if a family member or two had just died. There was a definite disturbance in the force -- the "quality television" force that is.

Okay, I know I'm being melodramatic, but I haven't felt this maudlin since the M*A*S*H series finale almost 25 years ago. If ever I didn't want a series to end, this was the one.

Written and directed like a television novel, "The Wire" introduced audiences to a cavalcade of characters: from cops, crooks, judges, lawyers, and politicians to schoolchildren and newspaper writers. Each one was multidimensional, real, and endearing in their own way to fans of the critically acclaimed program. Not one of them was without flaws, and each were presented, warts and all, to the viewing public.

I have to admit that while the series was in its first run I never watched the show and was a little suspicious of the hype. I have to be when the phrase "best show ever on television" is bandied about so readily. But I eventually found myself with some free time and a few bucks to spend on Amazon, so I bought season one. Then in rapid succession I gobbled up season two, three, four, and finally season five; each time barely able to contain myself as I waited for the UPS truck to arrive.

For those who aren't familiar, the show explored the lives of several characters, but the most important one was Baltimore. Like the river in "Huck Finn," the city of Baltimore stood as the real main character of the show, with the myriad assortment of other flavorful players all orbiting around this colorful town and the themes of corruption, bureacracy run wild, urban blight, crime, an educational system in crisis, the abondonment of the working class, and the scourge of drugs in the inner city -- to name but a few.

Each season highlighted a set of these topics while still pulling along all of our favorite characters -- those who were still living that is -- and gave us multiple viewpoints which made good storytelling rise to the level of greatness. Created and penned by a former Baltimore City "Police" and inner city teacher, along with a former Baltimore Sun reporter, viewers were instantly aware that this was a no-holds barred, zero B.S. representation of the real goings on of a major metropolitan city with major problems -- the same problems shared by all large cities across the U.S.

Film, communications, and journalism students will be dissecting and writing about this show for decades to come, and discussions of "The Wire" will show up on college curriculums as an example of what quality telvision should aspire to. TV critics, similarly, will hold this as an example of writing at it's best and characterizations that haven't ever been seen on this scale in the television medium.

You might think that this praise for "The Wire" is far too high -- as I once did -- but I ask you to set aside your skepticism and run to the local rental store to obtain a copy of season one to see for yourself. It's obvious immediately that this is something different and special.

"The Wire" was a true treat every step of the way from start to finish, one which I will sorely miss. I can only hope that this amalgamation of writing, acting, and storytelling will once again come together in some future program.

Odds are that it won't, though.

I give the entire series of "The Wire" six wire-taps out of five, my highest rating ever. And deservedly so.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My new favorite TV show: Cash Cab

Informed by a recent health fair at work that I could stand to lose a few extra pounds, I immediately ran to a local gym and signed up. Little did I know that this would lead to the discovery (pun intended) of a new favorite television program on (you guessed it) the Discovery Channel.

It just so happens that the treadmills at the athletic club are fitted with schnazzy tv monitors to which I can plug my MP3 player's headphones, and the programming during the wee hours of the morning before I must arrive at work are filled with new and exciting adventures such as the one I will describe for you.

That program is "Cash Cab," a television game show shot right inside a working N.Y. taxicab piloted by host Ben Bailey. Unsuspecting riders hail the cash cab and once seated are informed that they have wandered onto the mobile game show set by flashing lights and music. Those who agree to be contestants will have until the end of their cab ride to answer general knowlege questions at $25 apiece and increasing in difficulty and value up to $100 apiece, with the total amount of money to be won determined only by the random length of the cab ride they have requested, making this a unique game show format to say the least.

In "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" fashion, riders are allowed two lifelines, called "shout outs," one via mobile phone and one to selected passers by on the street, adding an interesting facet to the program. Three wrong answers amount to three strikes, where host Bailey kicks the contestants out of the cab, sometimes into the rain blocks from their destination.

Added to the mix are special bonus questions when the cab encounters red lights, and video bonus questions at the end which give contestants the opportunity to double their money. Most New Yorkers, I have noticed, choose to keep their winnings rather than gamble it all at the end. Also of note is the fact that most of the everyday schmoes who stumble into the Cash Cab possess a fairly good knowledge of trivia.

In terms of originality and enjoyment, this game show rates five hack licenses out of five from this reviewer. Cash Cab makes my torturous time on the treadmill each morning a little more tolerable.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Movie review: Death Race

If you're looking for one more relatively brainless summer thrill ride of a movie, look no further than "Death Race," out in theaters Friday, Aug. 22. This remake of a Roger Corman film has plenty of action along with a little sex appeal and a bit of gore thrown in for good measure.

Think "Running Man" meets "Mad Max" and you've got a pretty good idea of the story here, as "Transporter" star Jason Statham reprises his bad ass image to play a framed prison inmate who must race to the death in an armor plated Mustang to win his freedom and claim his infant daughter against unbelievable odds and a corrupt corporate prison warden played by Joan Allen. It's a Hollywood-style script filled with plenty of predictability and cliche, but fun nonetheless.

Paul W.S. Anderson directs, the man who also brought us the "Resident Evil" films. If you're a fan, you'll probably like "Death Race" as well. The direction plays out as part music video, part video game, and while the story doesn't have much depth, popcorn summer action movie fans will be pleased with the results.

I give "Death Race" three 50-caliber hood mounted machine gun turrets out of five. The rating is three rather than two strictly because of the presence of the ultra-hot Natalie Martinez, who Anderson showcases quite heavily in the film (see photo for clarification.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

John Adams: An enjoyable and valuable history lesson

Garnering a slew of Emmy nominations was this year's number one mini-series "John Adams" appearing on HBO. It's out on DVD now so I highly suggest you check it out. Paul Giamatti, who received rave reviews for his role as "Pig Virus" in Howard Stern's film "Private Parts," and in a more dramatic vein for his great work in the 2004 film "Sideways" with Thomas Hayden Church, along with a slew of other great underated performances, plays the series' namesake.

For history buffs this is a must see. For fans of good acting, the same can be said. The story, which skips over the revolutionary war and instead focuses on the political, social, and diplomatic woes of our early founding fathers, provides a great deal of insight into the thought processes and struggles faced at the birth of our nation. Bringing this historical material to life, the mini-series does high justice to the subject matter and sheds light on topics which anyone calling themselves a "real American" should become well versed in.

I give "John Adams" four and a half three cornered hats out of five.

XBOX 360 Game Review: Turning Point

I just finished the first person shooter "Turning Point," and found it to be pretty satisfying. The story is based on an alternate reality where Winston Churchill is struck by a New York cab and killed years before the onset of World War II. Without his leadership in Great Britain, Europe falls to the Nazis while America stays out of the war completely.

Unfortunately, the war comes to America when the Nazis air drop from zeppelins in New York with crack commando troops and new technologies like jets and of course the atom bomb, set sometime in the 1950s. You are Carson, a high-steel worker who turns underground freedom fighter, joining the brand new war against Nazi oppression.

This game is built on the Unreal engine, and they get it right for the most part, but the game's environments are sparse, the aiming engine a little too loose for my taste, and there's some noticeable glitches along the way which are too numerous to skip mention. Clipping issues occur often, with Nazi soldiers poking their head through doors (doors, not doorways), dead soldiers falling inside of walls, their weapons stuck inside other elements of the environment.

The AI is a little more "A" and far too little "I." Enemy soldiers take a few seconds to notice your presence, making them easy to pick off, and soldiers on your own team help little and move unpredicatably.

Overall, this was enjoyable, at times challenging, with an interesting premise. The story wasn't very deep, though. I give it two and a half zeppelins out of five.

Not much to say about Dark Knight

If the headline of this entry angered you, allow me to explain. The reason I don't have much to say about the film "The Dark Knight" isn't because I didn't like it; it's just that the movie is so good and so well received that I can't add anything to the buzz that is already out there.

We expected it to be good. We heard Heath Ledger put in an Oscar-worthy performance. We were told it was going to be even better than the original.

True on all counts.

I'll make this simple: See it, then see it again. Rent it and watch it a third time. Tell your friends (if it's possible there's anyone left who hasn't seen it yet.)

I give this film five bat signals out of five. 'Nuf said.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

LOST: Now in video game form!

Let's face it. Summer TV sucks.

All of my favorite shows have gone into hibernation - "LOST," "Rescue Me," "Heroes," "Battlestar Galactica." But there's still a way to get a decent "LOST" fix with the "LOST: Via Domus" videogame, which I played on the XBOX 360 platform.

This one's been out for a few months but I kept a close eye on it and waited until it was available for $20 since the reviews I read told me that the title would only take about 5 hours to complete. I rarely pay the full $60 for a video game, especially if it's as short in the gameplay category as this one.

For the price, though, if you're a fan of the TV show this is worth your time, and for those XBOX 360 achievement point whores out there, LOST has a potential of adding a whopping 1,000 points to your gamerscore total. They aren't hard to get either. Without even trying I was able to rack up 810 points in achievements during the course of normal gaming.

Fans of the TV show will appreciate this far more than non-fans. Despite the fact that the gameplay consists basically of solving fuse puzzles and garnering story clues from the island's castaways and other cast of characters, it's still a blast to walk around in 3D representations of the shows locations (Yes, you can explore the entire hatch and even enter the numbers into the computer and push the button!) Before playing this game, I could only pause the show on my 2D TV screen and attempt to examine each scene for clues to the big questions posed by producer J.J. Abrams' cryptic storyline.

There aren't any clues to be found in the LOST video game as to any of these mysteries, though, to the dissapointment of fans like myself. Despite that, it's a load of fun to talk to Claire, Hurley, Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Locke, Charlie, and the rest of the gang, even though your questions and responses are somewhat limited and only intended to move the story forward.

I'd recommend this title for any LOSTIES with a diehard love of the show, even though the character you portray is in no way connected with the TV program and the events you must live through, along with the storyline presented, are completely separate from the beloved television drama.

As a video game title it's far too short and a sequel with a richer storyline and deeper gameplay would be very welcome in the years to come. I give "LOST: Via Domus" two hatches open, three if you're a true LOST fan in search of a quick fix during the summer hiatus.

SF Comedy Competition launched a bevy of stars

Hundreds of comedians audition each year to compete in the Annual San Francisco International Stand Up Comedy Competition – but out of this group of talented comics, only thirty are chosen. More than just a run of the mill comedy contest, over the years many now famous performers have taken part in this renowned competition. In 1976, the first year it was held, Robin Williams came in second place.

And in the years since, many other talented comedians have emerged from the competition as well. 1977 Comedy Champ Dana Carvey went on to fame on Saturday Night Live and several feature films. Marsha Warfield won in 1979 and went on to star as everyone's favorite Night Court bailiff. Two first runners up — Ellen DeGeneres and Mark Curry — landed their own TV series. 1993 Crown Prince Patton Oswalt has appeared on a number of television programs as well as serving as a regular on King of Queens and the voice of Remy in the successful animated feature “Ratatoullie.”

Other entertainment industry notables followed. Carlos Alazraqui, 1993 winner, was the voice of several animated characters in addition to the Taco Bell Chihuahua and is now a regular on "Reno 911." Well known actor comedians Kevin Pollack, Sinbad, and Rob Schneider have all become successful stars on both the big and small screen.

Some non-winners also achieved fame. Roseann Barr, Janeane Garofalo, Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, Christopher Titus and DL Hughly all competed in the San Francisco International Stand Up Comedy Competition despite never making it to the finals.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Adventures in DVD repair

Anyone who owns an XBOX 360 has personally experienced or at least heard stories about discs becoming scratched by moving the game console from a horizontal to a vertical position or vice versa while the disc is inserted and spinning.

Why would someone do this, you might ask? Well, as a victim of this phenomenon, I will attempt to explain. For years I worked on my own computers - upgrading, souping them up, and tweaking my PC's to within an inch of their cybernetic lives. This meant that many times I would move the PC tower around while a disc was playing in order to open up the back and fix a problem or perhaps to silence a noisy fan. Never once did I have an issue with this practice.

So I thought nothing at all of moving my XBOX 360 console to evade the grabby hands of my one year old while my 9-year-old son and I were playing Guitar Hero III. MISTAKE!

What resulted was a horrifying GRAAAKK! sound, followed by some adult terms emitting from my mouth because I knew exactly what had just happened. Opening the CD tray confirmed my suspicions.

I had scratched the disc irreparably, rendering it unplayable. After contacting customer service at Microsoft I found that there was nothing which could be done for me in this particular situation. A trip to their website warned users of moving the unit while a game disc was madly spinning away. Perhaps they felt that this exempted them from any responsibility.

But I digress. Because of this unfortunate incident, I was forced to shell out another $60 for the game. I'm not a poor man, but I'm also not wealthy, so $60 isn't a small sum for a father of three whose PR man salary supports the entire family.

Fast forward a few months to a rather intense Grand Theft Auto IV gaming session (God I love that game.) Let me set the scene:

I had nearly completed a critical key mission - the second to the last one in the game as a matter of fact. My son and his friend were playing in his room, far from where the ultra-violence and virtual slew of "F-bombs" were dropping like spring flower petals in the living room. For some reason the boys wandered out to the living room, perhaps on their way to the backyard to take in some wiffle ball practice, and my son's friend decided at that particular time to body tackle our 90 pound yellow-labrador.

In the midst of this impromptu wrestling session - which lasted mere seconds mind you - the young lad kicked out his foot, struck the XBOX squarely with his heel, and I heard that dreaded sound once more - GRAAAK! A sinister noise which could only mean I had destroyed yet another $60 game (one which I was THOROUGHLY enjoying I might add.)

This time instead of feebly calling Microsoft and facing their denial of any liability, I chose to turn to the God of all information - the Internet - in an attempt to solve the problem myself. What follows are the results I gathered from my research. I present them in the hopes that you may be able to apply these techniques to solving your own scratched CD or DVD dilemmas; whether they occur from an XBOX mishap, an overactive child, or other calamitous situation.

The first thing I discovered in my reading was that disc scratching is a common problem with the XBOX 360, so much so that there is a website which sells a kit to correct the problem. Since the 360 requires special tools and tricks to crack them open in order to install the buffer pads included in the kit, I decided instead to leave my XBOX case, and in turn the manufacturer's warranty, intact.

Learning my lesson the hard way, I now leave my console in the horizontal position at all times and take extreme measures to assure that all horseplay or other similar ruckus-induced activity is kept to a minimum near the XBOX while I'm gaming. That didn't help me much with my existing scratch, though. Since the damage had already been done, I had no remorse but to try and repair the disc.

A trip to Radio Shack yielded a couple of different potions which were touted as disc scratch removers. Neither one repaired the deep groove which afflicted my GTA IV disc so it was back to the Internet, specifically YouTube. Before you google "disc repair" yourself, be aware that there are dozens of interesting videos out there, some very creative but essentially useless, so you'll have to weed through them to find the methods which work the best. I'll boil them down for you to save some time:

1. A banana rubbed on the disc followed by a banana peel rub. After running the disc under water and wiping it off with a cloth, this seemed to hardly make a difference.
2. Toothpaste plastered on and washed off. This didn't do much either, even after multiple attempts.
3. Toothpaste, then peanut butter on top of that, followed by a bath in a tupperware vat of coca cola. Surprisingly enough, this removed some small scratches but not enough to repair the nasty groove I was working on.
4. Buffing with super fine sandpaper. I didn't have the cajones to attempt this one and I still have doubts about whether or not it will actually work without destroying the disc entirely. One guy even used an electric drill with a buffing wheel to wear down a thin layer of the disc's acrylic surface. This method may work but seems dangerous and carries the possibility of completely melting the disc.
5. THE FINAL SOLUTION. One of the YouTube videos which advocated sanding the disc finished the process off with a hand cloth buff on/buff off with rubbing compound - the same kind of compound used to take scratches out of a car's finish. With nothing to lose I decided to try the rubbing compound without the sanding to see if it actually worked. So with a tub of compound in hand I rubbed on the goop, let it dry, then rubbed it off three times, trying the disc in the XBOX after each try. My efforts yielded no success at all. The disc would begin to load, then freeze on the opening screen.

Just when I was ready to give up, I remembered that I had another kind of rubbing compound in the garage that was a little bit grittier called "Blue Magic." This different formula also left behind an acrylic coating after it was applied and subsequently removed.

The first time I used this new product on my scratched disc, the game went from completely freezing up when I put it in the console to actually advancing almost to the point of gameplay. My spirits soared!

I ecstatically ran back to the garage and grabbed my tube of Blue Magic and applied a few more coats, being careful not to use too much and to spread it evenly across the entire disc. I finished with a clean cloth (actually an old T-shirt), buffing the affected software delivery device to a bright sheen. Even after I was satisfied that I had worked the lotion into the surface of the disc sufficiently I could still faintly see the scratch, but it certainly had been reduced signifigantly.

But would it play?

Well...I'm happy to say that Blue Magic really was magic, because I was able to get the game to reboot with no further problems, even throughout multiple additional playing sessions. I'm also happy to say that I've finished the game now and I'm gleefully playing in free mode in an attempt to rack up as many achievements as I can before I get tired of carjacking and senselessly killing bad guys and move on to some other game. For the price of $0 and about 15 minutes of my time I had saved $60 and a lot of frustration from not finishing my game.

Since going through this ordeal I've found a couple of websites where you can send a disc at no shipping charge and a company will use a $2,300 "disc repairing machine" (as seen on CSI!) to take scratches out of your games, CDs or DVDs. If I would have known about that then I might have used them instead.

But for now I'm happy with my rubbing compound and an old T-shirt.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Hellboy II - Hell yes!

The best films during this summer in the year of our lord 2008 have all had their origins in the world of the comic book or graphic novel. "Ironman" kicked off the season with a remarkably well done film which took the box office by literal storm.

Then followed "The Incredible Hulk," which similarly thrilled audiences whether they were comic fans or not. I have yet to see "Dark Knight," but based on the first film of the series and the early fan feedback, I can virtually guarantee that I won't be dissapointed.

This past weekend I found my self in a rare situation - my wife and kids were out of town and I was able to fill my time with my two other loves: movies and videogames. The film I chose to see in the theater was the sequel to 2004's "Hellboy," - "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."

As a sequel this film did what many follow-ups do not; it outperformed the original. At the hand of director/writer Guillermo Del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth and the upcoming "Hobbit") the Hellboy story continued, with his evolution as a character and continuing struggle with the oppression of having to live a secluded, sequestered existence in the bowels of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense's New Jersey branch office.

Del Toro did what he does best, creating a layered and rich background filled with more interesting and creative creatures than the Star Wars Cantina on acid - a true delight for the eyes. Oh yeah, besides looking good, the story was interesting, the acting solid, and the overall action moved the film along at an even, steady pace.

Ron Perlman showed that he's still the king of heavy prosthetic acting, along with other master prosthetic-laden actor Doug Jones, who turned in performances in three different roles. The new freak on the block, Johann Krauss, was acted by two performers and voiced comically by "Spawn" creator Seth MacFarlane. Jeffrey Tambor put in a conservative comedy peformance as the Bureau boss, with Luke Goss and Anna Walton as the prince and princess doing some nice work despite the fact that Walton was a spot on look-alike for Calista Flockhart in her heavy albinoesque makeup.

While it wasn't the standout film of the summer, it was entertaining and worth viewing. Besides, in this comic book blockbuster heavy summer, being better than average is a tough chore, and worthy of applause.

I give it three and a half sawed off demon horns up...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Batman Begins - Finally somebody got it right!

Sometimes, (rarely) I like being wrong. Let's just make sure that I'm being clear here - I'm talking very rarely, especially when it comes to my love of and opinions regarding feature films.

I resisted one particular film - "Batman Begins" - with every fiber of my being. But why? Everyone loved it. Everyone recommended it. Audiences flocked to it.

Still, I refused to see it in the theater. And for three years I let it languish on the shelf at Blockbuster - going from new release, to recent release, to just plain old release in the dusty annals of the action section.

Why, you may ask?

Because my heart was broken before by the caped crusader. And it still stung a little. You see, I grew up watching Adam West and Burt Ward camping it up on TV's classic "Batman." I LOVED "Batman" when I was a young lad. I even had Batman colorforms (those of you over 35 may remember colorforms. The rest of you will have to google them). I had comic books, too, and "Superfriends" on Saturday morning TV was the cornerstone of weekend viewing.

So when I found out that Tim Burton was set to helm a rebirth of the man we call bat, I was pumped and ready to enjoy my childhood hero on the big screen. What resutled was, well...interesting.

Yeah, Jack Nicholson was fantastic and the effects were cool, but the goofy art direction and diversion from what for years we had come to love from Batman made this a less than enjoyable experience. Adding to the disasterous results was the flip-flopping of the lead actor.

Michael Keaton? You mean Mr. Mom? Val Kilmer? But he was the lizard King! George Clooney? His suit had nipples! This was not Batman. And don't get me started on the other villains they trotted out for us after the demise of the Joker. (My current governor was one of them, so out of respect I'll just let it go.)

The tone set in these films was increasingly dissapointing with each successive foray onto the silver screen. I watched them all regardless, and my heart shattered a bit more with each passing attempt.

Then came Christian Bale and what was touted as the more true to form "Dark Knight" approach to the Batman legend. Sorry, I'd been burned too many times before. No more Batman movies. I was done.

Or so I thought.

Now, with the newest "Dark Knight" film breaking the record for a movie opening, surpassing Spiderman 3, and my son asking repeatedly if he could see it, I had a choice to make. So I swallowed my pride, marched down to Blockbuster, and rented "Batman Begins."

What I discovered was a slightly dark, innovative, and well delivered origin film which hit the perfect tone for a whole new generation of Batman devotees. The movie is fun and well-paced, introduced the staple characters we've come to love and expect, and gave us the action that we crave along with the techno-gadgetry that Batman has become famous for in his numerous incarnations.

I will admit it. I have been converted. I'm a Dark Knight fan. I can't wait to plunk down my matinee ticket at the local multiplex and introduce my son to my favorite crime fighting idol of all time. Make note, because I don't admit my errors often or freely, but this time, I have to. And what a great cast: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, and the great Rutger Hauer. Very good stuff all around. (Yeah I know I didn't mention Katie Holmes. That was on purpose.)

I give "Batman Begins" five flying Batarangs out of five...

Now on DVD-American Gangster

In New York during the mid 70s the Italian mafia wasn't at the top of the food chain in the Heroin production industry - at least if the facts in the film "American Gangster" are correct.

Starring Denzel Washington, who never dissapoints, this crime drama set in the 60s and 70s in New York is well shot with spot on costuming and art direction, right down to the automobiles and shaggy hairstyles, helping us to get into the mood as the story unfolds.

Russel Crowe is the cop who is tasked with taking down drug kingpin Frank Lucas, an actual criminal player during the time period depicted by master director Ridley Scott. With a wonderful supporting cast putting in some good performance, including Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., Armand Assante, Ted Levine, Josh Brolin and "The Wire's" Idris Elba, this is a good movie to watch on DVD, and is sure to entertain.

I give it three needles up...

Want the power to bend time? Try TIMESHIFT

"Timeshift" is a pretty standard first person shooter, the kind we've experienced time and again over the last 10 years or so. What sets this game apart is the uniqe timeshifting feature.

The main character (you) is wearing a time suit which allows you to pause, slow or reverse time, which makes for some interesting puzzle solving during the game. If an enemy throws a grenade, just reverse time and try a different attack. Need to take on a dozen guys? Just pause time and blow them away - or steal their weapon and watch as they stand there bewildered while - you guessed it - you blow them away.

The time features also allow you to walk on water, elude fire and electricity, and evade a variety of other dangers. Don't think you can muscle your way through this action title, either. Shortly into the first chapter it becomes evident that it's impossible to complete the game without mastering the time suit's abilities.

It all makes for good fun, and there are plenty of weapons, either longe range, multi-fire, or sniper-like which all must be used in conjunction with each other to progress through the various chapters of the game. My favorite weapon was a crossbow with exploding bolts which dropped the baddies with just one shot (even the machine gun took about a clip per guy to elicit a kill because of the use of body armor). Pausing time and sniping enemies from a half mile away is as good as it gets, and there's plenty of sniper action to be had in "Timeshift."

I give this one four wristwatches out of five...

Now on DVD-The Simpsons Movie

Fans of the longest running prime-time animated show on television waited for years for the advent of a Simpsons movie. Show creators said that they waited so long because they wanted to get it right - which they did.

"The Simpsons Movie" has plenty of laughs, a decent story-line, and cameos by all of our favorite characters. While the story doesn't exactly blow the audience away, it does what it sets out to do: bring the funny.

Seeing the film on the big screen in crisp color with full movie sound is worth the ticket; even if the feature is only viewed on home video. What made "The Simpsons Movie" the most enjoyable for me was seeing the types of comedy moments that the television show can't produce because of network censoring: We see Barts' doodle, Marge says God-damn, Homer gives the rest of Springfield the bird, and we see Otto toking from a bong, for example.

I give this one four "Dohs!" up...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Vantage Point - from where I'm sitting, it ain't good

What a great idea for a movie. Take one catastrophic event - the assasination of a U.S. president making an important political speech abroad in Spain - and tell it from the vantage point of eight different people with eight different perspectives. Then unravel the plot through multiple flashbacks, each with a different piece of the puzzle to help propel the plot forward and determine the killer.

The only problem is that the plot didn't do much propelling, and by the third time you're forced to watch the same event over again, as a viewer you beging to get a little bored. Make that A LOT bored. I watched this on DVD with my wife, and several times I just stood up and went into the other room to sort the mail or fold laundry - anything to escape this stinker.

It had such promise too, with a star-studded cast the likes of which any 70s disaster film would have embraced: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt...but none could combat the myriad of plot holes, plot problems, location issues, and overdone film staples - most notably the car chase, the variety we've seen over and over again.

Want to see a good car chase? Rent "Ronin," "The Transporter," or any "Bourne" film. Want to see a good film about assasination? Watch either version of "The Manchurian Candidate."

But definitely skip this turkey.

This film gets one-half measly star, only because I did manage to somehow see the film through to the finish after the mail was sorted and the laundry was folded.

Don't feel like making a new movie? Copy some old ones...

I finally caught a couple of films now on DVD or pay-per-view that I've been meaning to see and I noticed a running theme: non-originality. As my good friend Derrick Goulet likes to say, "Let's not REMAKE movies people, lets MAKE movies."

Oh, how he hits the nail on the head.

Flying back from Michigan recently on a four and a half hour flight, I passed the time watching the film "21." As I work in the casino business, of course I've seen plenty of films regarding the subject of casinos and gambling, and I intimately know the subject matter.

Before I go any further, I'd like to point out that I love Kevin Spacey. "Swimming with Sharks," the 1994 masterpiece also starring Benicio Del Toro and Frank Whaley is one of my all time favorites, and my introduction to Spacey's inimitable style of acting.

This film, however, seemed like little more than a paycheck for him, as he was able to mimick any of a dozen other performances he's done in similar films as a former card cheat turned MIT professor who wrangles a group of mathematically inclined students to act as his own personal card counting crew, subsequently earning him and them hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Las Vegas strip.

All the film cliches are here. There's the poor kid who can't afford to go to the expensive college (think "Goodwill Hunting"), the smart kid who becomes the prodigy of the professor who uses him for his own ill gains (think "Real Genius"), the unobtainable hottest chick in school who somehow ends up romantically entangled with the geek (think several other movies, most notably "Can't Buy Me Love").

At least a half dozen film titles are gleaned of their most notable plot points in "21." The Matt Damon/Edward Norton film "Rounders" is robbed as well, with the hero of the film making money, forsaking his geeky friends, seeing that there is more to life than a minimum wage job and taking the safe route, betrayal, redemption, and revenge. Sounds great, but like I said, we've seen it all before, and done much better.

I know this film did relatively well at the box office and critics were warm to it, but I have to give it a single star, frowny face, and thumbs neutral (sorry Roger, I know you own the copyright to that - I hope you'll forgive me.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The 35+ video gamer reviews two new ones

I just finished "Conan" for the XBOX 360. And if you're curious, no, I didn't kill the end boss. I just gave up. It took so long and it was so excruciating to execute the quick time button mashing at the appropriate times during the final showdone that I got bored and started a different game.

It's a pity, since I thouroughly enjoyed the gameplay and the number of cool moves you could execute and master in this interesting and engaging hack and slasher. I'd still recommend it for someone who has more time to mess with finishing the ending than I did -- or more interest in beating the game. This title does get some extra points for the voluptuous half naked vixens you get to save while playing. Just make sure the kids aren't in the room...

I also just finished "Prey" -- in which I did kill the end boss. This easy to play game is based on the "DOOM 3" engine and has the look and for obvious reasons has the look and feel of previous Doom and Quake titles. In Prey, you're a Native American fed up with the reservation who is abducted by aliens and must fight to try and save your girlfriend and escape the alien ship. You have an array of interesting weapons which are a mix of tech and biology, with none of them really feeling like they pack that much of a punch.

The levels are easy and move quickly; and once you get into the game, you want to see it through to the end. Along the way there are some interesting level bosses, none of which are difficult to defeat since in Prey you cannot really die. If you do run out of health you're merely transported to the spirit world where you can use your bow to shoot targets which will restore you to health. The game's autosaving feature is also very generous in dropping you right where you left off so you won't have to repeat any of the gameplay.

While being in general a pretty basic first person shooter, the game has a few interesting features like gravity powered walkways and panels which when shot will flip you upside down or sideways in space. Strange portals also allow you to travel between sections of the ship through some type of interdimensional gateways. A few puzzle-like situations are also solved by entering spirit form where you can walk through force fields and across unseen spirit bridges.

For the 35+ gamer, this game is a good distraction from the everyday doldrums of work and family life, while still leaving some time for, well, work and family. Don't expect to be blown away, though. Do expect to feel like a stud for being able to finish it in a relatively short amount of time, say 10 hours or less.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

RAMBO - familiar face, new story, good film-making

Growing up in the 70s and 80s allowed me to enjoy some classic eras for cinema. One that I'm thinking of in particular is the well-loved genre of the "80s action movie," which includes films like "The Terminator," "Lethal Weapon," "Die Hard," and of course the series of "Rambo" films.

You'd have to be living in a shack somewhere in Thailand to have missed the release of the most recent of this series -- titled simply "Rambo" -- which is now on pay per view but soon to be in wide-release on DVD. The first film in the franchise, 1982s "First Blood" introduced us to John Rambo, a former Vietnam Vet who has returned to the States to find that he is not welcomed as a hero. Dissillusioned, he becomes a drifter, hitchiking from town to town, visiting his former war buddies and living a simple existence.

Brian Denney, the sheriff of one particular town in Oregon (ironically named "Hope") runs our hero out of his little berg figuring him a trouble maker. Rambo of course rebels, is jailed, abused by the deputies, escapes into the dense northwestern forest, and proceeds to take out every member of the sheriff's department (and later the national guard) who they send against him.

Not just a blood and gore shoot 'em up, "First Blood" carries the underlying theme of the forgotten Vietnam War Vet -- a segment of the American population who never received the credit they deserved nor the treatment for the physical and mental wounds which they carried off the battlefields of Southeastern Asia.

Due to the popularity of "First Blood," we were treated to the sequel "Rambo: First Blood Part II," also penned in part by Stallone, focusing on his return to Vietnam in order to save some left-behind POW's. Released in 1985, the idea of missing Vietnam Vets forgotten by the U.S. government and unacknowledged by communist North Vietnam and their allies the Soviet Union was fresh in the minds of many, and made for yet another underlying theme in which to set the distruction and mayhem that Rambo laid upon the evil "commies."

Even more violent than the original, but still packed with plenty of drama and male bravado, this was the best in the original three films, and 80s audiences (including myself) ate it all up and asked for more. This was the height of the 80s action movie era and fans knew that a second sequel was a foregone conclusion. Notable in other key roles in the film are Richard Crenna, who returned as Rambo's commanding officer Colonel Trautman, and Martin Kove, who many will remember as the leader of the Cobra Kai's in 1984s "Karate Kid."

The third film, while not as good as the second, still held plenty of action, drama, explosions, cool kill scenes, and lots of delicious cold war tension. In this installment Rambo takes the Russians straight on in Afghanistan where they have taken his former commanding officer Colonel Trautman hostage. Released in 1988, in the waning years of the Cold War, it's ironic to note that the Soviets would withdraw from Afghanistan less than a year after the release of "Rambo III."

Twenty years would pass before the simply named "Rambo" came out in theatres, not only partially written by, but also directed by Sylvester Stallone. Although he looks a little more ragged and a few years older, our hero is now resigned to a life of capturing deadly snakes for a seedy backwater tourist trap in Thailand when a group of Christian missionaries persuade him to take them up the river in his boat to do some missionary work in Burma. What could go wrong?

Of course everything does, and who else can save the day but John J. Rambo? Shot with a dark and realistic sensitivity, this film didn't try to do too much and kept the action and the story simple but tight. Coming in at about 90 minutes, the film moved quickly and hit all of the right notes as Rambo faces the fact that he was born to wage war and to him it comes "as easy as breathing."

The message of this film -- that there are still war-torn hell holes in the world where unthinkable atrocities occur daily -- are strong but not preachy, poignant but not too political. Most astonishing of all, this film accomplishes what I never thought it could: it is the most violent of the four films; with realistic, barbaric, and sometimes unbelievable scenes of death, distruction, and dismemberment that leave a viewer saying "I can't believe they just did that."

Scenes like these in "Rambo" don't feel gratuitous as much as they serve to drive home the realism of a barbaric world that we as Americans living in the most free democratic society in the world cannot even fathom. "Rambo" is not only a perfect vehicle for Stallone and company to bring back this beloved character forever etched in the collective moviegoing mind of the last quarter century, but is also a fantastic vehicle for laying the franchise to bed in a dignified and appropriate manner. Seeing our man in action one last time brought nostalgia and closure at the same time for this penultimate child of the 80s. *****

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I hate end bosses

Yeah, I'm just going to come out and say it: I hate end bosses. Level bosses, I don't have such a problem with, but those super villains you have to fight at the very end of the game can be rather irritating at times.

Let me give you an example. I played the excellent, well-conceived and executed title, "Gears of War" for the XBOX 360. I cruised through the levels, sometimes having to take multiple tries to get through some of the rougher spots or to beat a particularly difficult level boss. That's great. It's all part of playing a good game. You get your money's worth if you have to put in some time to complete all the missions and win.

The only problem is that the end boss General Raam is just one heck of a hard guy to beat. I tried several dozen times, and even watched a tutorial video on XBOX Live in an attempt to beat him, but still couldn't land the hits to kill him. I'm not what you'd call an "elite" gamer, but I'd like to think I can hold my own. I just don't have the time to invest to beat some of these uber-hard end bosses.

I think that the last guy (or girl I suppose) that you have to beat in order to complete a game should be tough, but not so tough that you get bored of trying to finish him off. Don't get me wrong, I loved "Gears of War" and I'll probably buy the second edition coming out later this year. The gameplay is interesting, fun, and the story moves along well. I just got tired of trying to take down Raam and eventually moved on to another one of my new games.

Now some of you will call me a wimp or a quitter, and if I kept trying I'm sure I would have beat him. I just plain lost interest. It was no longer worth the achievement points or bragging rights.

Currently, I'm at the final boss for the game "Conan." "Conan" is the first "hack and slash" game I've ever played and I was a little concerned that I wouldn't like it. I do like it, though, and would recommend this game to anyone who likes a good swordplay adventure. I've tried to beat the final villain a few times now, and I haven't gotten discouraged yet. I looked him up on the walkthrough, though, and I'm told that there are seven stages required to beat him.

Seven stages!

And if you fail any one of them, you drop back and have to try again. That's fine, but your game doesn't save your progress, so you either have to beat all seven stages in one sitting or keep dropping back all the way to the start of the level each time. I've got three kids and a demanding job. I don't have that much time all in one block to spend playing a video game.

I wish I did, believe me.

I'm determined to complete "Conan," though, and get those coveted achievements that make the XBOX 360 so much fun. Maybe my wife will take the kids away for the weekend so I can go back and complete some of the titles gathering dust on my shelf, waiting for me to tackle those end-bosses I loathe so much.

If not, there's always the trade-in option at Gamestop.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Video games you might want to check out

Okay, as a 35+ gamer, I'm into those titles for my XBOX 360 which are fun, different, and not too tough for an old guy to conquer. I don't actually think I'm that old, I just don't have the patience and time that a 14-year-old has to try and beat a really difficult level boss for two hours straight. As a gamer since the days of the Atari 2600, I'll go head-to-head with any 14-year-old, any day.

With such limited time, I like to get my gaming fix in small bursts, where I can advance in the game without too much trouble, and put it aside until the next day when the kids are tucked in bed again and my wife is occupied with something else.

I've almost finished Grand Theft Auto IV, which I was addicted to for several weeks, playing whenever I could fit it in, much to my spouses dismay. The storyline is rich and interesting, with a few places where the gamer can choose which story branch to take, and there are plenty of side missions and other interesting achievements which keep a gamer engaged right up until the very end.

Unfortunately, I made it to a point where I had only two missions left and one of my son's nine-year-old friends accidentally karate kicked my XBOX, causing the disk to scratch to the point where it no longer will load the game. I sent an angry email to Microsoft, as this is not the first time I've scratched a game by bumping the console, but they don't feel that they have any fault in the matter, so I'm out 60 bucks and the 50-100 achievement points I'd earn by finishing the game. Maybe I can rent the title for a night from Blockbuster just to finish it off -- but I digress.

GTA IV, despite the controversy and hype, is violent, fun, and engaging. It should only be played when the kiddies are in the other room since the characters drop the "F-Bomb" like it's going out of style, though, and I definitely wouldn't recommend it for immature players. The game is just good, (not clean) adult fun.

Another game which I just sold back to GameStop (God I love that place) is Dead Rising. It's a zombie hack and slash game with a free-play design. Like many other free-play titles, there are time limits and missions to accomplish. It is inventive, creative, and often fun to play, but where the game fails is in its saving system. I stopped playing the game because I got to a certain point and hadn't left myself enough time to complete a particular mission that was absolutely necessary in order to advance in the game.

Since there isn't an autosave feature, and it isn't always easy to reach a save point as often as you'd like, my only option would have been to revert to a save point so far back that I'd have to fight two difficult level bosses all over again and hopefully leave myself enough time to complete the necessary mission. I still think it's a good game, but if you buy it, be extra conscious of finding those places to save the game and save often, but be careful, because you run the risk of eating up valuable mission time trying to make it to a place in the game which allows you to save. One way around this would be to switch back and forth between saving on your hard drive and saving on an MU.

For a busy dad like me, though, this one was too time consuming, so I turned it in to buy a few new games like Prey, Conan, and Viking, which I'll review in the coming months.

What not to watch

With three children in our household, my wife and I have little time to enjoy watching a movie together. Somehow, amid the chaos of temper tantrums, bottle feedings, and diaper changes, we actually sat down and watched TWO movies over the weekend, one on DVD and the other on pay-per-view.

After viewing both, I was left wondering what exactly, I felt I was missing.

The first film we watched was "National Treasure 2," which I thought would be fun for us to see since my wife doesn't like action or horror movies, and this was pretty clean fun the first go-around in the franchise.

Let's just say she didn't thank me for renting it. Nicolas Cage, who I've loved in past films, looks gaunt and tired these days, and his conspicuous lack of sideburns and strange hair color are distracting. Not distracting enough, however, to deter us from the fact that the entire film was hokey, predictable, and unsatisfying. Jon Voight walks through his role, as he does in so many roles these days, and the remainder of the supporing cast were stereotypes in a film filled with hackneyed movie cliches such as:

- A character gets millions of dollars, invests it poorly, and then has trouble with the IRS.
- The husband and wife are having problems but, after living through an adrenaline filled adventure, get back together.
- The sidekick who never seems to get enough credit finally receives his due when a tip from his book helps to propel the plot forward.
- The main character does something outrageous (like kidnap the President) and gets away with it scot-free.
- A character must go to his ex-wife because she's "the only one who can help him" after being estranged from her for 30 years. Their bickering is then supposed to be great movie fun!

The cliches went on and on and on like this and it felt like a film that was written by a couple of film students by using a dozen other popular films as templates. It's too bad, too, because the first "National Treasure" was hokey but in a fun and interesting way. Unless you're bored and there's nothing else on the hotel pay-per-view, skip this one.

That same fateful weekend, we watched "Fools Gold" on pay-per-view. My wife enjoys a good romantic comedy, and she enjoyed that other fine piece of cinematic art that Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson made - "How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days."

Well, as I said, she enjoys a "good" romantic comedy, and neither of us cared for whatever this was supposed to be. Think of "Romancing the Stone" meets "Into the Blue" meets...hell, meets "How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days."

But the only thing it shared with the great Kathleen Turner/Michael Douglas film mentioned above was the fact that there was a male and a female lead who end up in bed together. Other than that, it fell FAR short. It was so close in fact, actually to 2005's "Into the Blue" that it could almost have been the same script with a little light comedy added. Unfortunatley it was even worse than that horrible Jessica Alba film.

The only reasons I could see for these two to even make this movie was an attempt to capture the magic of their previous film together, and also the film's tropical setting where McConaughey could spend most of his screen time with his shirt off (which he LOVES to do in this one, folks.) You can also tell he REALLY enjoys the constant dialogue eschewed about his sexual abilities. This was truly a vanity piece for Mathhew to indulge himself in, and oh yeah, I'm sure the paycheck didn't hurt either of the main stars, either.

One other thing bothered me, and that was the presence of the great Donald Sutherland. Not to take anything away from him, because I think he's great, but he was completely wasted in this one. I think he was bored, too, because he chose to do the entire film with a British accent. Maybe he was able to immerse himself into the film by creating such a layered character that he could forget what a ludicrous plot and horrible execution of it he was involved with.

Again, please skip this one unless you're stuck on an airplane and its the only thing showing. If you must watch it, at least you'll get to see Kate Hudson in a bikini for part of the picture, and of course a mostly shirtless Matthew McConaughey, if that's the sort of thing you're into.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hulk improves on the original

I got to see the "The Incredible Hulk" in a media preview screeing in Sacramento with my son this week, going into the film with low to medium expectations, especially after what I consider to be a disaster with the 2003 Ang Lee version starring Eric Bana.

As the new lead, Academy Award nominee Edward Norton struck the proper sensibility for the character of Bruce Banner, the tortured scientist who is struck with gamma rays, leaving him with a Jekyl and Hyde condition which has him alternating between himself and his alter ego "The Hulk" whenever someone makes him mad. Fans of the comic book and multiple animated series, as well as the live action version starring Bill Bixby will enjoy the little touches put into the film paying homage to those other incarnations of the franchise.

Where the 2003 version waited far too long to introduce a good view of the title character, this newest entry gives us a healthy taste of the Hulk right in the opening credits, followed up with the full body views within the first 25 minutes. There were far too few action sequences in the first film, but this one made up for that defecit with good action scenes in the beginning and final fight sequences, and only a bit of a slowdown in the middle, which still did little to detract from the overall fun of the film.

While it would be hard to take down the mega-hit of early summer "Ironman," I would place "The Incredible Hulk" firmly in third place at this point in the summer movie enjoyability scale, with the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones franchise in second place. I recommend this film to anyone with older grade school children, and thirty-somethings like myself who grew up appreciating comic books, super heroes, and the accompanying animated programs which made growing up in the 70s and 80s so much fun. I'm calling this "the summer of Marvel," and wish the new movie studio lots of luck as they move on to other projects such as "Captain America," "Hulk" and "Ironman" sequels, and "The Avengers."

I look forward to all of them with the same glee I had when peeling open the cover of a new comic book back in the days before cable TV, next generation video game consoles, and computer generated movie effects.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Teacher ousted after Stern appearance

Southington, Connecticut second grade teacher Marie Jarry was forced to resign recently from her job after appearing in a bikini as part of her appearance on Howard Stern's Sirius radio program. She and her husband were contestants in the "Ugliest Man Hottest Wife Contest."

This week, Jarry has decided to fight the decision with some monetary aid from the sponsor of the contest,, who has pledged $5,000 in addition to the original $5,000 she originally won. Comedian Artie Lange of the Stern show has also offered to do a benefit show to help raise money for the legal battle.

Hats off to Jarry, who did nothing wrong in her Stern show appearance except show that teachers are human beings who have lives outside of their day jobs just like everyone else. Unfortunately, the media jumped on the story and school officials hastily made a bad decision in pressuring her resignation. In those news stories related to the firing, one parent described Jarry as an "outstanding teacher." So why would her one day stint on Stern's program be cause for ousting?

One reason cited is that she used a sick day to appear on the show. I'm pretty certain she isn't the first person in history to call in sick when she actually wasn't. If that is a firing offense, half of the working population of the United States would be let go tomorrow.

The real reason for this tragedy - and yes, I think it is a tragedy when good people lose their jobs due to ignorance - is the vilification and demonization of Stern in the eyes of conservative uptight individuals, most of whom have never heard or seen Stern's show, and just don't get what he's all about.

I'm reminded of Senator Ernest Hollings, who chastised "Beavis and Butthead" to Janet Reno and couldn't even pronounce their names, instead calling them "Buffcoat and Beaver," while admitting he had never seen the show. How can school adminstrators make sound decisions about our children's teachers when they rely on third-party opinions of media personalities to make their decisions?

Stern's show can only be heard by subscribers to Sirius Satellite radio, which requires special equipment and a monthly fee of approximately $12. How many second graders are listening to his morning show? Certainly parents who listen are fans, so they wouldn't have a problem with Jarry's appearance. School administrators surely couldn't have listened, or they would have heard how innocuous the appearance on the program truly was.

Also cited as examples of "inappropriate behavior" by the school board and media are pictures of the teacher from Stern's website showing Jarry in a bikini. Upon seeing these, there is nothing lewd about the photos and there isn't anything shown that can't be seen as she walks down the beach.

Another admonishment by media is that she talked openly about her sex life with her husband to Howard. Anyone who actually heard the show (as I did) would find her comments to be mild and honest, and reflected her genuine love for her husband. Teachers are allowed to have sex just like everyone else.

If there is justice in the world, Jarry will win her fight against the Southington School officials and regain her job. She's guilty of nothing more than taking a sick day when she wasn't sick and being a mature, honest, down-to-earth human being who has actual emotions and a well-defined sense of humor.

That is exactly the type of person I'd like to have as a teacher to my own children.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

We've come a long way since 1980

I've always been a gamer, since my friend first got his Atari 2600 for Christmas back in the early 80s. We would spend hours in the basement, staring at a 20 inch television playing games like "Vanguard" and "Pitfall" until our thumbs blistered. I had a TRS80 with a crateful of cartridge based games that we played at my house, too, so we never missed out on any of the video gaming action during those early years.

As time passed, my gaming turned to the PC primarily, with a wealth of great titles to choose from. Although I spent most of my time glued to the computer monitor, I still played with other systems like the Intellivision, Sega, Sega Genesis, and Dreamcast. But it wasn't until a few years ago that I finally broke down and purchased a next generation gaming system - the original Xbox - when it was bundled with the much anticipated "Halo 2."

From those first days playing those pixellated, antiquated games with horrible graphics, sound, and minimal storylines, I never would have dreamed about the types of rich, realistic, innovative games we play today. The latest titles seem to continually push the envelope in terms of story, technical and aesthetic quality, and playability.

Today, as a husband and father of three, I'm not always able to find the time to play my newest system, the Xbox 360. That's why it's so important that I do my research and find quality affordable titles to play in my valuable and minimal spare time.

Here's a sampling of the games I've been playing lately:

Stranglehold: This Chow Yun Fat John Woo collaborative title is filled with plenty of gunplay and an army villains to kill, with a movie-style storyline and well-voiced cut scenes which propel the story nicely.

The "bullet time" slow motion feature, (in this game called "Tequila time" after the last name of the main character played by Fat), is worth the price of the game. This player-triggered ability allows you to have the ability to slow down time while jumping "Woo style" in the air, firing two-fisted pistols into endless enemies, sliding around on carts, down banisters, and busting through walls and furniture. Other unique abilities such as pushing off of walls while shooting and other special attacks make this game difficult to put down.

The Simpsons Game: This co-op game is the best in the Simpsons series so far, taking a lot of pot-shots at it's own franchise, the television program, and the video game industry in the process. I played this one with my nine-year-old son, who had very few problems solving the game's often challenging puzzles and gameplay, referring only a few times to Internet walkthroughs to get through the rough spots.

This is a good game to play with an older child, but there are some adult references made and some questionable language (Marge yells "cmon bitches!" to some compliant dog characters for example.) The only problem I had was that the two copies of the game I purchased both became scratched and rendered unusable by the Xbox 360 for some reason. Luckily, we had already solved the game.

Bioshock: The graphics, story, and voice-characterizations in this game are eery and excellent. Gameplay is unique -- this is perhaps the most original title I have ever played. I haven't finished this yet but it is already on my short list of the best games I have ever played. I'd try to explain the story to you but it may only confuse you further. Check out the review on

The Bigs: This underated baseball game downgrades the difficulty of most MLB-based titles by translating them more into an arcade-style format. Instead of playing full games or focusing on manager-oriented franchise modes, "The Bigs" takes all of the fun aspects of traditional baseball games and focuses them into the most enjoyable option, the "Rookie Challenge" which has gamers working to hit home runs, steal bases, and achieve other milestones (with their self-created rookie player as the star) in three to five inning mini-games against teams with authentic rosters.

Successful players are granted money they can use to upgrade the abilities and physical appearance of their player. All of this combined makes the game fun and far less frustrating than the often difficult to master pitching, hitting, and fielding models which plague other games of this genre.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Currently on DVD

Charlie Wilson's War:
The Aaron Sorkin, Mike Nichols directed sometimes light drama shows a lot of the "West Wing" writer's knowledge of current and what were once current issues geopolitically. Hanks is solid as usual as the drinking womanizing lawmaker who champions the fight to arm the Mujahedin against the Soviets in cold-war Afghanistan. Julia Roberts' role could easily have been filled by any other actress, and it is interesting to note how remarkable she looks in a bikini despite being a few months pregnant when principal photography for the film took place. The real reason to watch is a stellar performance by the always-on Philip Seymour Hoffman as a CIA operative, who is both amusing and fun to observe as he goes through the paces in the world of black-ops and espionage.

The film nerds and comic book guys panned this film as an unoriginal rip-off of "The Blair Witch" project meets "Godzilla," and faulted J.J. Abrams for not showing us enough of the monster. But I enjoyed this film in the theater, and had no issues with the handheld photography, which I felt added to the frenetic pacing and anxiety created by the plot.

If you want to see monsters, watch the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but if you want to see an interesting, different than the mainstream film that tries to go against the norm in Hollywood, "Cloverfield" will still hold up on DVD, and will have audiences asking for more. Extra credit should be given to the film's producers for the masterful viral marketing campaign that will be copied for years to come.

Lars and the Real Girl:
I was lucky enough to catch this on an academy screener copy before it was released wide on DVD, and I have to say that this was a great premise which was squandered by the filmakers. Good performances didn't help to overcome the feeling that this film never quite hit the right note of either comedy, drama, or dramedy. It was too uneven, neither playing it for laughs enough, or letting us in on the backstories of the main characters, especially Lars.

His psychotherapy sessions, if developed a bit futher, could have helped us to determine exactly why he found solace in taking what is essentially a high-priced sex toy and giving it life as his girlfriend. There were some character relationships that were fleshed out less than the rubber real doll who served as one of the movie's co-stars.

Friday, May 2, 2008

IRONMAN delivers the goods

I read the previews, watched the trailers, and salivated. Growing up a Marvel comics kid and a movie geek, the premise of an Ironman movie sounded like a home-run. But dissapointments have often plagued the comic book translated to film genre. "Daredevil" was hideous, and the original "Hulk" left me wanting for the slow boring Lou Ferrigno drama of the late 70s and early 80s. Also, did anyone watch "Electra" for anything more than the chance to see Jennifer Garner flit about in a sexy outfit?

With Jon Favreau of "Elf" and "Swingers" directing, and Starring Robert Downey Jr., I had to admit, I was a little bit worried going into this one. Still...all of the trailers looked great, and I held out hope that they could actually pull this thing off.

So I plunked down the extra cash to buy an advance ticket for the Thursday before the movie opened, to see a special DLP "print" of the film with my nine-year-old son. The first showing at 8:20 p.m. wasn't full, but the crowd was boisterous as the trailers for the new Hulk movie with Edward Norton and the latest installment of Indiana Jones flashed across the high definition screen. The audience was filled with film nerds and fanboys on this pre-opening eve for sure.

When the frenetic Marvel comics brand sequence danced across the screen and the lights went down, the audience was prepared for a thrill-ride -- which they got. Downey was spot-on, chanelling the cocky, womaninizing, smart-ass quip filled military weapons industrialist Tony Stark and making the character his own. Any lulls in the script were filled in by Downey's on-screen presence, ripe with one liners and a likeable rogue quality.

But the script wasn't played for laughs. Although there were light moments which delighted my nine-year-old and caused the adults to laugh out loud as well, the script still had serious points, while not over-politicizing. As Stark grew a conscience and decided to change the direction of his "arm the masses in the name of peace" Stark Enterprises, it would have been easy to lay the anti-war message thick -- which Favreau thankfully chose not to do. For a director known primarily for comedy, he pulled off the action and special effects scenes with ease, keeping both in good balance with character development along the way.

Gweneth Paltrow as the sidekick girl Friday, in an interesting co-starring appearance, hit all the right notes, never openly judging Stark's womanizing, never preaching, but still doing what it took to keep her boss relatively in line. Jeff bridges, sporting a bald pate and gray beard, looked like a classic comic nemesis, and played against type as a symbol of the military industrial complex gone berserk.

Terence Howard as Stark's pal Colonel Rhodes went through the paces like a pro but wasn't really given much to do in the film. But there were hints of what he could add to a sequel sprinkled in to the script. Performances by the other supporting actors were true to the comic genre without being too over the top.

As I write, the grosses are yet to be tallied, but I predict a weekend take in the high 80s, with a summer ranking of number two, ahead of the Hulk, and behind only Indiana Jones. On a scale of best superhero movies of all time, "Ironman" falls somewhere between the original Christopher Reeves' "Superman" and edition two of the "Spiderman" series, solidly in the top five of all time. Burton's dark "Batman" and the newer, even darker "Dark Knight" films will still fall short of the "true to the comics" take that "Ironman" successfully mastered in this sure to be sequelled blockbuster.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Yearning for more BSG action

Okay, I’m ready for some season one dog fights, gun battles, and good old fashioned “war with the Cylons action” on the Sci-Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica. We get it – there’s one Cylon yet to reveal. It could be Starbuck, it could be Baltar, it could be the Admiral for all we know. Let’s get on with it already.

Am I the only one who’s tired of the “Baltar is Jesus storyline?” He’s an interesting character regardless of the weekly dilemma they put him in, though, so this is easily forgiven. But can we go back to having Starbuck kick ass rather than whine about finding Earth? I love this show, but we’re forced to endure episodes every so often like this one which advance the story at a snail’s pace. I really don’t think it’s necessary to agonize with the four “skin-jobs” aboard the Galactica who just realized they have been living a lie their entire lives. Boo-hoo, you’re a Cylon. Get over it.

Okay, I’m just kidding, but much truth is often said in jest.

Our favorite characters seem to be wallowing in their story arcs, playing against what we’ve come to love over the last few years. We like seeing the Chief up on deck, rallying his flight crews to whip Vipers back into battle status with nothing more than duct tape and spit. Now he’s gotten himself purposely thrown off the Battlestar out of the fear that he’ll get someone killed.

Why can’t he just “man up” like Sol said and “be the man he wants to be until the day he dies?” Of course, old Sol has his own problems with the number six Cylon in the Galactica brig. He can’t decide if he wants to kiss her or have her punch him in his empty eye socket. (BSG producers please note: No more shots of Sol’s dead wife in the slinky number six dress. Those of us watching in HD can see every wrinkle and sag on her body, and it’s downright disturbing.)

A few others notes for the producers as well. First of all, can we kill the president off sooner rather than later? She’s kind of a bitch, always messing with poor old Baltar, Starbuck, Apollo, and Admiral Adama. And do we really buy Apollo as a legislator? He belongs in the cockpit of a Viper, playing wingman to his gal-pal and bed buddy Starbuck. One last note which has no actual value to the plot or story: More Grace Park; for no other reason except that she’s reeeal purty.

I don’t mean to complain – this is still some real good TV. I’d just like to see a little of the action, depth of character, and sci-fi yumminess that we all fell in love with when the Battlestar Galactica mini-series aired all those years ago.