Monday, February 1, 2010

The Aughts in Movies: 80-76

Apologies for the delay.  To make up for it, I'm gonna bombard you with the rest of the list right now.  If you need a refresher, check out #85-81.  Let's get to it.

80. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
(Garth Jennings, 2005)
A lot of people complained that the film version of Douglas Adams' book wasn't faithful to the original, completely forgetting that each adaptation of the story is fundamentally different from the last.  What Garth Jennings manages is to take Adams' story and use it to satirize some of the more ridiculous conventions of modern sci-fi cinema.  It's a damn shame the film didn't make any money, because this was a franchise that could've only gotten better.

79. Stranger than Fiction
(Marc Forster, 2006)
On the outside the film feels like a poor man's Adaptation, but underneath cursory similarities, Stranger Than Fiction is a sobering reminder of just how confined we are to routine, the mundane, and the blandness of the real world.  While the central conceit is pure fantasy, the only magic in Harold Crick's life is the magic he has to create himself.  This is easily Will Ferrell's best performance.

78. The Village
(M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)
People love to dump on Shyamalan lately, and despite the fact that The Happening is easily his worst film, I still don't understand all the hate for The Village.  It's less about the scares than most would have liked, and the twist is pretty easy to see coming.  Despite that, this is a remarkably deft film about how we handle our fears, and the performances by Bryce Dallas Howard and Adrien Brody are some of their best work.  Screw the haters, I love The Village.

77. Speed Racer
(Andy & Larry Wachowski, 2008)
Speaking of 'screw the haters', Speed Racer is awesome.  After the disappointing double-whammy of the Matrix sequels, I was eager to see how the Wachowskis would bounce back.  I never expected a live-action remake of a classic anime series.  The sheer amount of energy and aggressive effects wizardry on display here is infections.  Sure, it's a big, silly cartoon, but it's one of the most purely entertaining films I've ever seen.

76. Clerks II
(Kevin Smith, 2006)
Clerks II is the sequel nobody asked for, let alone expected.  As it turned out, there was still material to be mined from Dante and Randall ten years after the fact.  In a sense, it's basically the same as the original Clerks.  Where this film shines is in creating a long, slow burn that eventually explodes in one of the strangest third acts I've ever seen.  It's equal parts disgusting and poignant, and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

The Aughts in Movies: 85-81

You know the routine.  Click here for 90-86.

85. Bowling for Columbine
(Michael Moore, 2002)
Sure, Michael Moore is an exploitative blowhard, but when he gets it right, he really gets it right.  He raises a number of difficult questions over the course of the film, like "Why is America so gun crazy?"  The answers ultimately become "That's just the way we are," and it's a sobering admission.

84. Best in Show
(Christopher Guest, 2000)
While I prefer A Mighty Wind, Best in Show is clearly the better film.  The characters in this film just feel a bit more realistic, and at the same time utterly ridiculous.  It's hard to pick a standout performance from the bunch, though Fred Willard's dog show commentator is easily the funniest. 

83. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
(George Clooney, 2002)

It's one of Charlie Kaufman's lesser scripts, but as directed by George Clooney, the story of Gong Show host Chuck Barris' stint as a government assassin is as warped and twisted as it is fascinating.  Sam Rockwell's performance is one bright spot out of half a dozen great performances.

82. Crank / Crank: High Voltage
(Neveldine/Taylor, 2006/2009)
I realize I'm cheating by choosing both, but the two fit together so well that they almost demand to be seen back to back.  Whereas the first Crank was a frantic attempt to become the ultimate cinematic video game, the sequel manages to up the ante by offending just about every sensibility in the book.  Statham is a blast to watch in both, and the third act of Crank 2 has to be seen to be believed.
81. Idiocracy
(Mike Judge, 2005)
Mike Judge's third feature was criminally dumped onto DVD by 20th Century Fox, but since then it's gained a sizable cult following.  Judge's vision for the year 2505 is a bleak one for the human race, where everyone is an idiot and smart people are labeled 'fags'.  We may never get to see the original cut of the film, but what we've got is still one of the sharpest satires of the decade.

Next up, five that you'll probably think I'm crazy for including.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Aughts in Movies: 90-86

For #95-91, click here.  Otherwise, let's continue.

90. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
(Adam McKay, 2004)

The sheer amount of ad-libbing on display in Anchorman is amazing, amazing enough that they cut together a second movie from the remaining footage (a shitty movie, but a movie nonetheless).  I'm honestly not too thrilled about the prospect of a sequel, but if it's half as good as Anchorman, it'll be way better than any of his recent comedies.

89. Primer
(Shane Carruth, 2004)

Here's proof that in the right hands, $7000 can make a great movie.  Those who love Primer always talk about how plausible Carruth makes his time travel story or how it's some kind of DIY sci-fi treatise.  What I love about Primer is how the actors treat the dialogue as though it were a Robert Altman film.  The film doesn't care if you keep up or not, so you'd better pay attention.

88. The Brothers Bloom
(Rian Johnson, 2009)

Most of you never saw this, because it only played in a couple hundred theaters, so when it hits DVD (if it hasn't already), go find it.  Nine times out of ten, I hate caper movies, but Rian Johnson's goes so far out of his way to make this the Ulysses of caper films that it won me over in spite of myself.  Style by the truckload, humor by the gallon, and probably the best expletive use of the decade.

87. Walk the Line
(James Mangold, 2005)

Reese Witherspoon may have won the Oscar for her turn as June Carter, but Joaquin Phoenix is infinitely better as Johnny Cash.  Of all the music biopics of the decade (not that there were that many to begin with), Walk the Line is easily the best.  Great cover songs and strong performances.  Does a rock biopic need anything else?

86. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
(Guillermo del Toro, 2008)

It's a difficult thing to combine sci-fi and fantasy and have the result be a success.  While del Toro's Hellboy sequel is really more of a remake, it's better than the original in almost every way (Danny Elfman's score pales in comparison to Marco Beltrami's original).  The fantasy elements are some of the most interesting you'll ever find, and the performances are uniformly brilliant.  Comic book films rarely look this good.

Come on back for #85-81.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Aughts in Movies: 95-91

If you missed 100-96, click here to catch yourself up.

95. Hot Rod 
(Akiva Schaffer, 2007)

Here's the part where I have to say, "Hear me out on this one..."  As far as straight comedy goes, I'm a pretty tough sell, doubly so when we're talking about anything involving SNL cast members.  So it came as a pretty big surprise when I found Hot Rod to be unexpectedly hilarious.  The plot itself isn't anything special, but the way Schaffer, Samberg, et al string together absurdist humor is...let's say unique.
94. The Terminal
(Stephen Spielberg, 2004)

Sandwiched firmly in the middle of Spielberg's 2001-2005 creative spurt is The Terminal, one of a litany of films dealing with post-9/11 anxieties.  Spielberg's decision to apply a Capra-corn approach to the tale of Viktor Navorski (a role in which Tom Hanks provides a square mile of heart) may make it seem needlessly schmaltzy to some, but for me it makes the film infinitely more palatable. 

93. Superbad
(Greg Mottola, 2007)

With the explosion of the Judd Apatow brand of comedy, one of them was bound to rise above the rest.  Some prefer Knocked Up, others prefer Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  For me, the best is Superbad, not because of how crude the humor is or how incredibly, latently gay Seth and Evan are.  This one stuck with me for recapturing the notion of the teen sex comedy as some kind of grand adventure.  And the opening credits are pretty classy as well.

92. Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
(George Lucas, 2005)

What separates Revenge of the Sith from the other two prequels is that things actually happen, and they're things that the fans actually care about.  Just as this was the story the fans had always wanted, it's pretty clear that this is the prequel that George Lucas always wanted to make.  The other two were just filler.  There are a couple of groaners, sure, but the sheer entertainment on display here is a reminder of how good Star Wars used to be.

91. The Hurt Locker
(Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)

How do you make a movie about a war where there is no clearly defined enemy?  Remove the enemy entirely.  Bigelow's film about a bomb squad in Iraq is incredibly well photographed, and each scene in which SSgt. James defuses a bomb is exponentially more tense than the last.  The Hurt Locker is a very different kind of war film, and it's all the better for it.

Come on back for #90-86.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Aughts in Movies: 100-96

The Aughts have come and gone, and that means lists of every damn thing under the sun.  My primary focus is movies, so that's where I'll start.  Of all the movies I've seen this decade, I've paired my list down to 100 (could've probably made it smaller, but 100 is a good number and it'll make for quite a few posts).  Now certainly, there are movies that I haven't seen that might potentially wind up on this list later, and still others whose absence you might find egregious.  Tough.  This is my list.  If you don't like it, go make your own.  Here's what I'll do.  Five movies a day throughout January 2010.  20 posts, 100 movies.  Let's get crackin', shall we?

100.  Cloverfield 
(Matt Reeves, 2008)

It's a simple enough concept.  Take a modern spin on the kaiju monster film and tell it through the lens of a group of 20-something hipsters with a video camera.  The gimmick works more often than not, and there are some genuine scares to be found.  As far as these camcorder flicks go, Cloverfield is head and shoulders above the rest.

99. Team America: World Police 
(Trey Parker, 2004)

It's a real shame that Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to hate the filmmaking process so much; when they do make a movie, it's hysterical.  As utterly ridiculous as the film is, the puppetry is top-notch, and Bill Pope's cinematography turns this silly puppet show into something as visually stunning as it is obnoxiously crass.  If Team America had been a musical (and it very nearly is), it would've been even better.

98. Kung Fu Panda 
(Mark Osborne/John Stevenson, 2008)

  After some ten years of truly groan-inducing animated films, Dreamworks drops Kung Fu Panda on us.  I was elated to find that Kung Fu Panda is every bit as good as some of Pixar's work, and infinitely better than most Dreamworks films.  The fluidity of the animation, a timeless story with a decent message, and one of Hans Zimmer's best scores all help make this one of the most fun animated films of the decade.

97. Millions 
(Danny Boyle, 2005)

Between Danny Boyle's zombie movie and his Oscar winner, this one got lost in the shuffle, but it's every bit as good.  The story of a kid consulting the saints on how to spend his found million dollars is a simple enough one, but Boyle paints a multi-faceted portrait of greed, honesty, naivete, and a truckload of other personality traits.  And if you're in the right mood, Millions even works as a Christmas movie.

96. Drag Me to Hell 
(Sam Raimi, 2009)

As entertaining as his Spider-Man films are, Sam Raimi's expertise is in horror, and his little PG-13 grossout flick was a breath of fresh air in a genre overstuffed with J-horror remakes and increasingly lame slasher flicks.  Drag Me to Hell is a ton of disgusting, goofy fun, and proof that Spider-Man hasn't dulled Raimi's style.

Keep an eye out for 95-91 in the next day or two.

Monday, November 23, 2009

To Ride or Not To Ride

Ever since their inception, the whole point of video games has been to recreate a virtual world in which one could do things one normally wouldn't (nor couldn't) do.  Squashing Goombas, bombing dodongos, rushing Zerg; if any of these phrases make any sort of sense to you, then I'm sure you've spent you're fair share of time behind a controller or keyboard.  Anyway, the point is, video games were created to allow us to do the impossible in a virtual environment.  Of course, this didn't stop some developers from trying to create as realistic an experiences as humanly possible.

Which brings us to the topic of today's little temper tantrum.  Tony Hawk Ride.  If you're not familiar with the series, it's a skateboarding series in which you traverse various environments on a skateboard, searching for that ever elusive perfect score by performing tricks, stringing together combos, and generally goofing around on a skateboard.  The series began as purely trick-based, but as the franchise went on, it began to delve further and further into the ridiculous (particularly in Tony Hawk's Underground 2, in which the Jackass crew hijacked the entire game and all but ruined everything great about the first Underground).

Ride, the most recent installment, is apparently seeking to take things back to basics with perhaps the most pointless of all gaming peripherals.

It's a wireless, board-shaped controller that's essentially a skateboard without wheels.  There are sensors lining every corner of the board, which control your skater based on your own movements.  This seems like a simple enough concept (and frankly, one I'm surprised they haven't resorted to sooner), but what concerns me is execution.  Now, I'll admit, I haven't actually tried this thing yet.  I'm not about to drop $120 on a game franchise that hasn't seen a decent installment in six years.  ...Okay, Project 8 wasn't bad.

Anyway, just from looking at this thing, I can guess that the entire game must be predicated on the player's own hand-eye-foot coordination.  I imagine a veteran skateboarder like, say, Tony Hawk might be pretty good at this game.  A guy like me, who can't walk six steps without tripping over a pine cone, might have a bit of a problem.  And if the actual reviews are any indication, my assessment is perfectly accurate.  IGN refers to the game as the "skateboarding equivalent of button-mashing."  What appears to require a good bit of finesse to perfect is, in fact, a chore for the casual player and, to some extent, the hardcore gamer.  In essence, this makes Tony Hawk Ride the rare hardcore game that is only playable to someone who's hardcore at something other than gaming.

But my quibble isn't so much with the controls as the board itself.  In theory, it's not that bad an idea.  I mean, we already have fishing rods for fishing games and steering wheels for racing games, so why not a skateboard for a skateboarding game?  Well, does anyone remember an arcade game called Top Skater?

This game first appeared in arcades in 1997, and I vividly remember wasting many a dollar in an effort to figure the damn thing out.  Functionally, the two games operate the same way.  You're asked to control a stationary facsimile of a moving skateboard.  The problem with this approach is two-fold.

First, you have to maneuver the board the same way you would in real life, only in this instance the physics involved are completely different.  The primary agent involved in real skateboarding is momentum.  With Ride and Top Skater, though, it's imperative that you stay in one place.  Ride does, at least, have an advantage over Top Skater, in that it's operation is based on motion-sensors rather than mechanics.  The problem still stands, though, that you're being asked to manipulate the board in more or less the same way that you might in real life.  And you're just as likely to awkwardly trip over the board as you are to pull the tricks off effectively.  Again, it comes back to experience.  If you already know how to do this, then you're in no need of any tutorial.

Secondly, it dictates the style of gameplay.  Tony Hawk Ride's casual mode is essentially a souped-up version of Top Skater.  You're character is on-rails, so to speak, being thrust through the course by the invisible hand of Mr. Hawk himself.  According to the reviews, the free-roaming modes of the game are nigh unplayable precisely due to the awkwardness of mimicking the action of skateboarding.

Again, having not played it, I really couldn't say for myself.  So what's my point, then?  I'm not sure, exactly.  You could probably dig out a thesis for this post if you tried hard enough, but I guess what I'm more concerned with is that this once great gaming franchise has been reduced to pulling stunts like asking $120 for a gimmicky controller and a half-assed game.  It's not enough to pretend to be skateboarding.  They now want us to pay double price to pretend to pretend to skateboard.

Complain, complain, complain.....

Monday, November 16, 2009

Zombie Haiku Zen

Last month, I entered a zombie haiku contest.  Didn't think I'd win.  Multiple entries were allowed, so said the site's editor, so I sent in five.  Checked my email this morning and lo and behold I 'd won the contest.  The prize was a signed copy of this book, written by FoG's own Don Roff.  I don't know if they'll publish my zombie haiku, so I'll just post 'em:

The shamblers approach.
I cock my rifle once more,
And it's out of shells...

When bullets dry up
and the gasoline is gone,
just use a pick-axe!

"This is too much fun!"
Mike said, hacking up two more.
I think he needs help...

Cities deserted,
They've eaten everyone else.
A farm life awaits.

Dear God, it can't be...
First they learned to congregate,
Now they're on horseback!

And there you have it; five haiku about zombies that won me a book.  Also, just for fun, this entire post can be read as several haiku.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Food That Will Kill Me: The Twinkie Weiner Sandwich

In the world of junk food, there is a legend.  A concoction so equally beloved and reviled, that a simple google search will bring up hundreds of sites from people detailing their experience with the monstrosity.  I'm speaking, of course, of the Twinkie Weiner Sandwich.  Because I'm a glutton for punishment, as well as shitty food, I thought I'd try out this culinary disaster for myself.  And because I refuse to simply make one, eat it, and then tell you about it, we're going to treat it like an experiment!

1.  Define the Question: What does a Twinkie Weiner Sandwich taste like?

2.  Gather Information:  The most notable appearance of this nightmare fuel comes from the 1989 cult classic UHF.  Thanks to the powers of YouTube, we can watch Weird Al Yankovic himself prepare such a feast.

Seems straightforward enough.

3.  Form a Hypothesis:  The Twinkie Weiner Sandwich is the most disgusting invention ever to spring forth from Satan's gaping maw.

4.  Collect Data:  First thing's first.  You'll need the ingredients:

A pack of hotdogs, cheez whiz, and a box of Twinkies.  Serves eight (or nobody, depending on who you ask).  For the purposes of this experiment, and because I may not live that long, we're only going to prepare one.
Wrap the hotdog in a paper towel and microwave for one minute.  The hotdog may whistle and generally sound like a lobster screaming bloody murder, but this is normal.  It's just the hotdog splitting in half.


Next, split the Twinkie in half from underneath, in the shape of a hotdog bun.  You could probably just do this with your hands or a butter knife, but I decided to take the Tim Taylor approach.  WARNING: DO NOT LICK THE KNIFE WHEN YOU'RE DONE.


 Place the hotdog inside the Twinkie.
Next, apply the cheez whiz as desired.  I imagine you could replace cheez whiz with your condiment of choice, but I also can't imagine anything actually making this abomination any better.  If I had to guess at a more suitable replacement, I'd say...marshmallow cream?  Maybe?
And now we enjoy the fruits of the Devil's Workshop.  The only thing we're not going to follow Weird Al on is dipping the Twinkie Weiner Sandwich in coffee.  Ugh.
5. Analyze the Data:  The first bite yields surprising results.  It's not quite the abomination I was fearing it might be.  The intense sugar overload of the Twinkie is balanced out by the equally high sodium content of the hotdog and cheez whiz.  The result is a surprisingly smooth sandwich thatOH GOD MY INSIDES ARE SCREAMING!!!!!


 (Hours later)  I felt it necessary to at least finish eating the Twinkie Weiner Sandwich, which was a bit of a chore, as it was firmly in the middle of the food spectrum, between inedible and delicious. 
6. Interpret the Data:  After the first bite sank in, things pretty much went south.  Compared to the taste, which was surprisingly not awful, my stomach reacted with a series of pangs and gurgles which would probably translate to "What the Hell is all this???"  The digestion process is accompanied by a wave of terror that can only be explained as the body's fight-or-flight response to the hardening of one's arteries.  Once it was all gone, there was only one thing that could cleanse the palate:

7. Draw Conclusions:  I do not recommend this disgusting thing to anyone.  I fail to see how anyone, least of all Weird Al Yankovic, can stomach such garbage.

Friday, July 10, 2009

LiveBlogging Call of Duty 4

A couple days ago, I used my Twitter feed to liveblog my thoughts on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Since it was the first time I'd either A) played a Call of Duty game or B) liveblogged anything, I thought it might be fun to recount my limited thoughts on what was supposedly one of the best games of 2007/2008. For my part, I enjoyed it, and might do it again if the mood strikes. Who knows, maybe I'll turn it into a running series?

Just started playing Call of Duty 4. Never played one of these before. First impression: Why play Syriana when I could just watch the DVD?

3:28 PM: Wait...I just witnessed a tertiary character's execution from a first person perspective? WTF?

3:45 PM:
The "Protect person X" mission is the clear sign that a game has run out of ideas. This is only level 2.

3:47 PM:
Third world country? Helicopters? Are we ripping off Black Hawk Down already??

3:49 PM:
I love how I unlock achievements for doing things that the game requires me to do anyway.

3:58 PM:
Wait... "1/30 of enemy intelligence retrieved"? Is this a fetch quest?? (Edit: It wasn't.)

4:09 PM:
I love how for all of CoD4's supremely impressive graphics, 90% of the shrapnel flying around is still crappy 2D sprites.

4:31 PM:
Stuck in a firefight at some TV station. No snarky comment for now.

4:37 PM:
The game's strict "Friendly fire is bad" restriction apparently only applies to officers. Privates are fair game. Good to know.

5:11 PM:
The game just quoted Robert McNamara; reminded me that he died a couple days ago. Guess I'll play this one for him today.

Early on, I made the mistake of convincing the game I was up to playing on hard mode. Eventually, I got a little too into the game and ended up getting stuck on a number of levels where, if I played the level for too long, I'd forget what I was even supposed to be doing. Suffice it to say, liveblogging was no longer the priority.

This all culminated in a mission called "One Shot, One Kill", where I botch an assassination, only to have to flee from a city's worth of soldiers with a wounded douchebag of a partner in tow. At level's end, you're tasked with holing up inside a fairground (ferris wheel and bumper cars and all), waiting for the chopper to pick you up, all the while wave upon wave of enemy soldiers keep trying to pick you off. Thanks to "Hard Mode", I got stuck on this level for a good 3 hours before giving up and taking the game back to the store with the excuse that it was 'defective'.

Stupid Call of Duty...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

21st Century Uplifter

I want to share with you a story about my most adventure in buying music.  This story takes place in a Best Buy, partly because they've driven out every Mom-n-Pop music store in town, but mostly because it's where I buy most of my music anyway.

Anyway, I went to Best Buy with the intent of picking up one of two new albums from two bands that I've grown up listening to: Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown or 311's Uplifter.  Shut up, I like what I like.  The buzz surrounding the new Green Day album has been deafening.  It seemed like everywhere I looked someone was raving about it (Rob Sheffield's review seems particularly delusional), and I was already kinda sick of the constant pounding and shouting of "Know Your Enemy".  So I went into the store with two strikes against that one.

On the other hand, "Hey You" is easily the best new 311 song I've heard in five or six years.  So that's one point for 311.  The downside is that it seems no matter how hard I look, I can't find anything written about Uplifter.  Even Rolling Stone is ignoring this one, and they review everything.  So that wasn't really a good sign.  One strike against it.

Once I got to the store, my decision was pretty much made for me.  Best Buy was ALL SOLD OUT of 21st Century Breakdown, unless I wanted to buy the super-deluxe version or the LP for an extra ten bucks.  I didn't.  That sealed the deal for me.  I went to grab a copy of Uplifter, only to find that seemingly nobody had bought the dozens of copies Best Buy had.  Doesn't surprise me; nobody is promoting it, and "Hey You"'s been getting minimal radio play at best.

As a Green Day fan going all the way back to Nimrod, it kills me to say that 21st Century Breakdown is just going to have to wait.  Instead I bought Uplifter and was pleasantly surprised at it.  An album this diverse and enjoyable deserves to be heard by more people.  

So I'd like to say thank you to all the teenagers out there.  You made my purchase decision that much easier.