Posts from June 2008.

The Bad Review Revue

College Road Trip: “Phi beta crappa.” — David Hiltbrand, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

Made of Honor: “Director Paul Weiland and the three (!) screenwriters it took to boil down thousands of bad movies into 101 minutes haven’t provided this one with a single original thought; it should only entertain those still getting adjusted to the idea of talkies.” — Robert Wilonsky, VILLAGE VOICE

The Happening: “You feel like you’re not watching the end of the world but the end of a career.” — Ty Burr, BOSTON GLOBE

Speed Racer: “This toxic admixture of computer-generated frenzy and live-action torpor succeeds in being, almost simultaneously, genuinely painful — the esthetic equivalent of needles in eyeballs — and weirdly benumbing, like eye candy laced with lidocaine.” — Joe Morgenstern, WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Love Guru: “The most joy-draining 88 minutes I’ve ever spent outside a hospital waiting room. ” — Dana Stevens SLATE

What Happens in Vegas: “New York strangers meet and marry in Vegas and find their annulment delayed when he hits a $3 million jackpot on the slots using her quarter. If you don’t see where this is going, you’ve never seen a movie. Sorry it had to be this one.” — Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE

Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?: “Morgan Spurlock is a living, breathing cautionary tale. Take a good, long look, kids: This is what happens when society validates really annoying people.” — Jessica Reaves, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

* * *

Games: Fury of Dracula

After a decade of obsession with “European” boardgames, I have a rekindled interest in American-style fare, games steeped in theme, more confrontational than their cordial cousins from abroad, and requiring several hours to play. Part of it is just the swing of the pendulum, part of it is spill-over effect from my (continuing) infatuation with Twilight Struggle, but a lot of the credit (or, from a financial standpoint, blame) goes to a single game company, one that has released a tsunami of awesome titles onto the market: Fantasy Flight Games. They are responsible for the aforementioned (on this site) Doom: The Boardgame, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, Descent and War of the Ring. And my latest FFG acquisition, Fury of Dracula, has rapidly become one of my favorites.

When I introduce Fury of Dracula to new players, they often exclaim, “hey, this is like Scotland Yard!!” I am always gratified to hear this, because (a) it’s nice to know that so many folks were exposed to that great game as kids, and (b) it greatly simplifies the explanation of rules. As in Scotland Yard, players in Fury are divided into two teams, with one player as the hunted and the rest as the hunters. Here, the hunted is Dracula himself, while the Hunters are composed of the characters from the book who sought Ol’ Toothy’s destruction: Lord Godalming, Dr. Seward, Van Helsing, and Mina Harker.

The board shows a map of Europe, with cities connected by a web of roads and rails. Each Hunter starts in a city, as shown by the initial placement of the corresponding figures; Dracula also begins in a city, but his location remains a secret. The Hunters careen around the countryside, searching for clues as to his current whereabouts; once they have located Dracula they move in for the kill, hoping to reduce his “blood” to zero and win the game.

But although Dracula spends much of the game on the lam, he is not without a few tricks up his sleeve. The game is divided up into “day” and “night” rounds (three of the former followed by three of the latter); as you would expect, Dracula becomes an exponentially tougher foe once the sun goes down. In fact, the Hunters typically spend the days trying to corner and kill Drac, and the nights fleeing for their lives. All this makes for a tense game of cat-and-mouse, with the roles of feline and rodents swapping at regular intervals.

Dracula can win the game by amassing points; he does so by “defeating” Hunters (they are never entirely killed, instead limping off to a hospital to recuperate from their wounds), creating new vampires, and simply surviving from day to day. The longer the game lasts, the more likely Dracula is to win–and the more desperate the Hunters become to stop him before he does so. This gives the game a narrative feel, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Fury of Dracula takes three to four hours to play. The rules are so Byzantine that you will refer to them constantly during your first (and second, and third) game. And the match is lopsided, with Dracula getting his goose cooked more often than not. In other words, this is not your elegant and scupulously balanced “European” game, and will therefore not be to everyone’s liking. But if you are willing to buckle down and master the rules, if you can talk a few of your friends into joining you for a looooooong game, and if you don’t mind an “unfair” fight, you are in for a treat. Fury of Dracula is a showcase for all that I love in “American” style games: a clever system married to a superb theme, one that so immerses you in the atmosphere that you feel as if you are not just playing a game, but living out the sequel to Stoker’s classic novel.

* * *

Woodwind Hero

Harmonix should release a new video game for the Xbox called “Marching Band”. The target market would be kids who played guitar in high school, went on to form actual rock bands, and are curious to know what it’s like to not get laid.

* * *

Food For Thought

As you know, the Summer Solstice is not only the day on which the sun is at its northernmost extreme, but also the date after which you can no longer dismiss those extra pounds you gained over the holidays as “Winter Weight” and instead have to face the bleak reality that they are now, officially, fat.

In recognition of this fact I spent the week eating less. It sucked. Particularly because the following events also transpired in that time frame:

I Began Reading Kafka On The Shore In this book, the protagonist–a young Japanese man running away from his home in Tokyo–eats about once every three pages. Seriously, if I had to identify the major motifs explored in this work of literature, I would itemize them as:

  1. The alienation of youth from the culture in which they were raised.
  2. The loss of control that accompanies rage or other overpowering emotions.
  3. Noodles.

Worse, since the kid is on the lam, he’s typically half-staving before he eats. So the book is always, like, “I was really hungry. Oh man, so hungry. Can you even imagine how hungry I was? Go ahead and try. Are you imagining it? Are you imagining how hungry I was? It’s awful, isn’t it? Anyway, then I ate an enormous bowl of udon–yum!”

My Place Of Business Became A Landfill For Leftovers: Sometimes when you walk into the break room at my work you will find Krispy Kreme donuts leftover from a morning meeting, pizza from a lunchtime seminar, or an assortment of food from an event in which the caterers went overboard. This happens very rarely, perhaps once every other month. This week however, every time I went in there to get an 8 oz. can of V8 juice I would discover, like, a cairn of Macadamia nut and white-chocolate cookies on the counter accompanied by a Post-It note reading, “FREE! I IMPLORE YOU TO EAT SINGLE ONE OF THESE!!!”

I Got Stuck In Traffic Jam Alongside A Taco Truck I spent 40 minutes staring at the menu through the passenger-side window, thinking “Chimichanga with pico de gallo for $2.50? FUUUUCK!”

Man, even writing this post was a mistake. I should have {sigh} had a V8 …

* * *

Books: The Ruins

There are many qualities for which one might recommend a novel . Profundity. Innovation. Eloquence. Erudition. A book may skimp in one nor two elements, but make up for it by excelling in other areas. Take, for instance, The Ruins by Scott Smith. Here’s a book which, on a scale of 1 to 10, scores about a 2 in every conceivable category, except for “readability” where it clocks in at about a 27.

Seriously, this book is like a 48-hour meth addiction. I bought in from a grocery store one morning when I had a one hour wait before me at had forgotten to bring a book along; I finished all 528 pages of it at 11:30 PM the following day. These were work days, mind you, so it’s not like I was sitting in the back yard under my apple tree all day; I was reading the book over my lunch “hour”, on the stationary bike at the gym, at stoplights …

Which isn’t to say it’s a great novel. Far from it. There’s not a whole lot of profundity or innovation or eloquence or erudition. Think early Stephen King without the character development. Just a lot of page turning and wondering where the hell Smith is going with this.

Smith previous penned A Simple Plan, a fantastic thriller that was turned in an equally riveting film. Apparently they also made a movie of The Ruins, but … well, let’s just say it hasn’t been as well received. Frankly, that doesn’t surprise me, as the allure of the novel is precisely in it’s Summer Bookability. This is the quintessential airplane book, something to cleanse you palate between “good” books or just get lost in for a day or two. That would be damning with faint praise perhaps, if The Ruins aspired to be more than that. But it does not. Judged by the goals Smith clearly had in mind–to write a compulsively readable thriller–the novel is an unqualified success. And if that’s all you go in expecting, you won’t be disappointed.

* * *

Recent Tweets

  • The older I get, the less certain I am that the events depicted in Blue Thunder actually took place. June 02, 04:07 PM
  • Million dollar idea: contact lenses with tiny barbs on the inside to constantly scratch your eyes during allergy season. June 03, 08:12 AM 2008
  • Oh god, I shouldn’t have eaten that Speed Stick. June 03, 03:40 PM
  • I wish my printer were a person so I could stab it to death with a grapefruit spoon. June 04, 10:47 AM
  • Why I love Wikipedia: “When invigorated by spinach, Popeye can lift or press about 36 tons. [citation needed]” June 09, 08:19 AM
  • I’m going to have to add “Read entire history of Green Lantern on Wikipedia” to my daily to-do list just so I have something to cross off tonight. June 09, 12:55 PM
  • Dear NPR: I will give everyone on your staff a dollar if you stop saying “anti-war protesters.” No one is protesting anti-war. June 10, 08:33 AM
  • Whoa, shred WAY too much cheese for our dinner tonight. If you or someone you love needs shredded cheese, contact me IMMEDIATELY. June 10, 08:10 PM
  • Rode bike to work to combat global warming; nature’s thanks: a bee sting in the thigh. Fuck you, globe. June 11, 09:44 AM
  • Hearing Third Eye Blind on your Pandora Sigur Rós Radio station is like finding a testicle at the bottom of a latte. June 12, 03:32 PM
* * *

Typical Infographic

Typical Infographic
* * *

We’re Here To Pump {Clap, Clap} Some Gas

You can tell my gym is situated in the suburbs because it has no bike racks out front, instead boasting an enormous parking lot in which SUVs and Hummers endlessly circle as the drivers search for a spot close to the entrance to minimize their walk.

* * *

Typical Reaction to the Revelation That I Do Not Own a Cell Phone, By Year

1998: Solidarity (“Yeah, me neither–I hate those things!”)

1999: Envy (“Lucky you; I had to get one for work.”)

2000: Indifference (“Okay, what’s your home phone number then?”)

2001: Encouragement (“You should get one–you can play Tetris on them now!”)

2002: Confusion (“I thought you were, like, a tech guy.”)

2003: Sympathy (“They’re getting pretty cheap. You’ll be able to afford one soon.”)

2004: Irritation (“So how am I supposed to get a hold of you?”)

2005: Derision (“If we go out tonight I’ll send you a fax.”)

2006: Skepticism (“Are you serious?”)

2007: Awe (“Wow, you’re like the last one.”)

2008: Incomprehension (“You don’t … how …?”)

* * *

Movies: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

No film in recent memory has received as divergent reviews from my friends as Indiana Jones and the [inhale] Kingdom of the Crystal [inhale] Skull, having been declared AWESOME or AWFUL, but rarely anything in between. And so, while I hadn’t intended on seeing it, it clearly fell to me to make a Definitive Ruling on the quality of the film.

Thus, having viewed and contemplated the film, I am ready to render judgment: Indiana Jones and the etc. etc. Skull is … AWESOME! Mostly. Except for the five minutes of every 20 that were apparently set aside for AWFUL.

I could recap the plot, but what’s the point? If you guessed that the film would contain ancient artifacts of purportedly mystic power, a multi-stage globe-spanning quest, boatloads of nazis russkies, guns that fire an inexhaustible supply of bullets that never strike the protagonists, a big red line zig-zagging across a gargantuan map, a John Williams score, and lots and lots of leaping and punching and dodging and whipping and driving and running and wisecracking–well, then, nice guessing there, Tex.

Unfortunately, Crystal Skull also contains something that the previous films did not–scenes so beyond the realm of believability that they jar you completely out of the narrative flow. And I’m talking scenes that are incredible even by the standards of an Indiana Jones film, events that abuse your willing suspension of disbelief. A third of the way into the movie it is essentially established that Indiana Jones is invulnerable; two-thirds in it’s implied that his companions are likewise impervious to harm. By raising the dramatic stakes in these scenes (and then letting the characters walk away without adverse effect), Lucas robs subsequent events of their tension. You’re, like, “well, if he didn’t even sprain an ankle before, he sure as hell ain’t gonna die now …”

And while the Indiana Jones franchise has always been a homage to the Saturday morning serials, they go overboard in trying to honor them here. By throwing in elements from pretty much every adventure subgenre–from armpit slicks to war to science-fiction to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs–the Crystal Skull sometimes feels like the “Scary Movie” of pulp, filching recognizable scenes from earlier works instead of minting new ones. (Lucas even manages to sneak in a fair amount of American Graffiti.)

So what’s good about the movie? Pretty much everything else–including, to my surprise, Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s protege. Lucas has a terrible track record of picking young actors (as the Star Wars prequels attest), but I quite enjoyed LaBeouf’s performance, and wouldn’t mind seeing him in future films as well.

And oh yes, there will be more installments in the series, a fact the film makes clear. Curiously, this has generated no end of grousing from the fanboys on Teh NetarWebs. The same people who popped a boner two years ago when Indiana Jones 4 was announced and held it until they attended the special 12:01 AM showing on opening day are the same ones bellyaching about the possibility of sequels–go figure. Apparently it is best to leave those films we enjoyed as children as pleasant memories rather than to mine them for OH SHIT DID YOU SAY GREMLINS III DUDE I AM SO THERE!!!!

* * *