Archive for July, 2008

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.

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.

>Adventures in DVD repair

Posted: July 29, 2008 in Entertainment

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.

>Hellboy II – Hell yes!

Posted: July 28, 2008 in Entertainment

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…

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…

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…

“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…

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…

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.

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.)