Thursday, August 31, 2006

And Then There Were 10...

The title refers to the number of uncompleted console-oriented games I have sitting on my shelf. For any gamer, having the console backlog down to just 10 is nothing short of amazing. I'm not trying to blow my own horn here, just saying that a combination of perserverance and budgetary limitations can result in good things. When I lived in my old condo, I bought some shelves from Target for my DVD library. The bottom shelf was for my game collection (the difference between "collection" and "library" will be discussed at a later date) and that is where it's remained despite both continuing to grow.

My DVD library in particular has overwhelmed my shelves so I'm planting the new arrivals and the "Now Playing" titles in front of the others. This hardly masks the problem that I have a very real addiction to the format. If anything, it reinforces it with every new addition. My game collection though I figured out how to separate what I've played from what I need to burn through.

I divide the games by console then alphabetize accordingly. On the left are the PS2 games and on the right are the Xbox games. In front of that one row are two stacks of games, both for their respective consoles. The two stacks are my "on deck" stacks and those are the ones I have not finished. There are a few in the "completed" row that I haven't finished either, but in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds I'd rather not waste another second on them. This week I've already yanked and traded in several titles I knew I'd never spend another second on, and Chaos Bleeds needs to go away as well. But the Buffy fan in me insists on hanging onto it despite it being little more than awful fan-fiction in digital form.

Focusing on the front stacks gives me 10 titles to power through, and that could be down to nine as soon as tomorrow evening. My Fair Lady didn't get home until 10:30 p.m. last night due to insanity at work being reinforced by people who don't know how to communicate worth a flip.

Ironic considering these are attorneys.

What that has meant for me this week is lots of alone time at Casa de Skim which lets me focus on burning off these remaining titles. This won't be completed by next week though because two of them are Jade Empire and Dark Cloud 2, neither of which are considered short RPGs. Fortunately, none of the Final Fantasy series is in there because that by itself would be a 50+ hour timesink and that I just can't do anymore. I tried it with Dragon Quest VIII and while the game was certainly charming for a while, it just dragged on to the point where I would have to power level all four party members by another five levels at least.

All for the sake of beating a single boss not quite halfway through the game. This is when I realized I can't devote 100+ continuous hours of my life to gaming anymore, which is why the goal of completing my backlog is so dear to my heart. If I can absolutely finish off the fabled backlog completely then I might actually be able to enjoy gaming again. As it stands, I've been in a funk lately because Titan Quest is the only good game I've played in months and even that was nothing more than Diablo III in Ancient Greece/Egypt/Babylon.

Oh, and September I'm essentially taking a break from gaming and the internet for the most part. I've been playing around with one particular screenplay for a while now and I'm actually ready to sit down and grind it out. The trouble is I keep distracting myself so for all of next month I'm removing said distractions. No games, no extraneous activities. Only movies and writing about them are allowed as distractions. I'll still be around on the web, and hopefully blogging away in the meantime, but for the most part I'm going to be focused on the 120 pages I want completed by the end of the month.

Finally, I have a goal worth completing. After that, October is Casa Repair Month with every weekend devoted to replacing tile and carpet and finishing off the backyard so My Fair Lady and I can sell the place in the spring. This leads up to the biggest gaming months of the year in November and December when literally everything that can be pushed out the door will hit store shelves. At which point the backlog will swell up again.

It's a vicious cycle, but someone's gotta do it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

CNN: Compassionate Guys Apply Within

Ahh, the joys of technical gaffes. News put up this story about CNN anchor Kyra Phillips pulling a Naked Gun during President Bush's remarks in New Orleans. Apparently she went to the bathroom with her mic on and the following is some of what was said:
Phillips: "Yeah, I'm very lucky in that regard with my husband. My husband is handsome and he is genuinely a loving, you know, no ego--you know what I'm saying. Just a really passionate, compassionate great, great human being. And they exist. They do exist. They're hard to find. Yup. But they are out there."
Bravo, Kyra, bravo. Gems like this is what keep all of us tuned in to the news these days. Funny stuff.

I'm Turning Whiter

Found another white hair on my head just now. I've found them in ever increasing numbers lately so joy upon joys. The upside is that I still have my hair and the same hairline as I had in college. I think my hair skipped right past the grey stage and went straight to white. Not sure what that's about but by the time I'm 40 the last of the brown should be gone from my head.

Of course I'm prognosticating a decade down the road on an internet blog so let me get you a salt shaker with that. Just call me Nostradumbass.

Oblivion Overhauled

This is a game-related post so if you have no interest in gaming whatsoever, I have plenty of other non-gaming stories to choose from so enjoy.

I haven't commented on Oblivion before now in any depth because Bethesda to me is what EA is to a lot of folks. They're a big dog that makes games with a lot of promise but wraps them in a blanket of stupid that's so thick it makes enjoyment difficult. I found a lot to love about Morrowind but you were either not powerful enough or supremely powerful with literally nothing in between, the loot was non-existent, and the storyline was convoluted enough that it screamed "bad anime!"

Where it excelled was in the editor, which allowed the mod community to add in all the missing fun, and Oblivion is no different.

The world is vast and so densely detailed it blows your mind. The screenshots sure as hell did it no justice though because the original game fresh out of the box looked nothing like what we had all seen during the previous months. That's because the PC version was ported straight from the Xbox 360 version and anyone who tells you different, Bethesda included, is outright lying. Everything from the menu screens to the background textures to the way the camera zooms up someone's nose when you talk to them screams console. After installing and playing for a grand total of 15 minutes I couldn't take it anymore.

So I spent the next four hours grabbing texture mods and making graphical adjustments to the game. Now it looks dazzling and runs just fine on my machine. I immediately turned off the light bloom and shadow effects because not only do those automatically kill system performance but I think they detract from the immersion. If you want to see how light bloom can be righteously abused check out Fable. I'm good going without.

After I fixed the graphics, the menus (DarkUI is an absolute must), and the zooming in, I actually started playing the game. This is when I realized just how bloody small and inconsequential you feel at the start of the game. The world is absolutely huge, you will stumble onto at least five sub-quests just walking from Point A to Point B, and all of it feels unique. But the problems with the gameplay don't appear until you level up a few times. By then you're feeling pretty confident that you can take out some rogue bandits and certainly those low-level goblins in that cave you passed by. Not so fast there, hombre.

Apparently everything in the game world levels alongside you. The result is you start out swimming against the current and the situation never improves. That full suit of glass armor you earned? Yeah, the bandits in that cave over there are all equipped with it now to match your skillset. WTF? This is an absolute game killer to me, regardless of any good it may accomplish in other areas. Combine that with Bethesda's staunch refusal to put quality loot in any chest ANY WHERE and us loot whores are out of luck. By comparison, I picked up Titan Quest a few weeks later and haven't put it down since. Not only do I feel like I'm accomplishing things by improving in skills, but I have more loot than I can shake a staff at.

This is all a long way of saying that Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul 1.3 is finally out and I can't wait to dive into it. You can check it out right here and the release notes can be found at this link. There are so many additions and changes in this mod it borders on a total conversion, and I'm fine with that. Oblivion had a lot wrong with it from the start and again it's taken the mod community to fix everything Bethesda should have done right the first time. OOO 1.3 adds thousands of new items, tons of new quests, restricts levels, and ups the challenge significantly. People may point at it and say, "Why would you like this? If anything the mod makes the game a hell of a lot harder!"

Exactly. The point the mod makes is that it makes the game harder by balancing things as they should have been to begin with. I don't expect to be able to take on a minotaur right off the bat, but by level 45 I should be able to wipe the floor with him and anything else coming out of the Oblivion gates. With the default version of Oblivion, that level 15 minotaur I saw at the beginning would increase in strength and power over time so much so that when I'm level 45 he's still several levels higher than me. That's an example of the ridiculous line of thinking Bethesda had when they brainstormed the game. It's the GOTY only in so far as ambition is concerned. The world they created feels like a living, breathing one and you physically can't play for 10 minutes at a time. Fire it up and kiss three to four hours of your day good-bye, even if you curse Bethesda's name in the meantime.

But when you combine OOO 1.3 with a handful of other mods (like I said, DarkUI is a must for the menus before you even start it up once) and Oblivion could well be the terrific RPG everyone claims it was right out of the box. Either I have different standards, or everyone else is in thrall of Bethesda's achievement. Maybe it took getting beaten down by the raging suck that was Titanic for me to refuse to give anyone an automatic pass based on the size of the project attempted versus the end result. I can appreciate what Bethesda accomplished, but now I can enjoy what they should have finished with.

When Your 360 Explodes...

Check out this post at the AVS Forums and you'll see that some people have actually managed to decipher the Xbox 360 error lights. Whenever the consoles go belly up, the green light around the power button turns an angry red and blinks. Several enterprising, not to mention astute, members of AVS figured out how to reset the console and figure out what the blinking lights translate to. For example:
Turn on your "dead" xbox. Wait for the 3 red lights. Once you get them hold the "Synch button and the eject button down simultaniously. All four lights flash. (0) Press the eject button again and only one light (1) press again and all four light up (0) press again and two lights (2). Error code is 0102. compare this code to the table below to find out what is wrong with your X360. Is it overheating? Power Cord? Hardware?

The Code I got is 0102 which means the computer does not know the problem as it is not hardware or heating or anything like that. Could be dust, loose solder or static! I use a can of compressed air and my X360 IS BACK!!!!!! I do not know for how long but I played last night for several hours and had not one Hiccup. This after a whole week of the dreaded RINGS OF DEATH!!
I can't begin to describe how helpful this is, people. As more codes are unlocked, they'll continue updating the list. I'm not surprised that Microsoft never released this info, but I hope they do come out with an official list soon. If you have an Xbox 360 and are reading this blog, then chances are you're at least somewhat technically proficient. If we can repair our own machines without going through the hassle of sending it off to have dust blown out of it then bully for us.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Now Playing: March of the Penguins

This may as well have been titled National Geographic Presents Cuties On Ice. My Fair Lady and I watched it the other night and were thoroughly entranced by the march of the emperor penguins across miles of open, and frequently shifting, ice to their breeding ground where they will pair up with a mate to produce a single egg that may or may not live to see the end of the winter. The lives of these birds is incredibly harsh, but watching them waddle their way across the ice all for the sake of their annual mating ritual was oddly endearing.

Of course, Morgan Freeman's earthy narration maintains a steady course en route to the happy ending. Along the way, there is heartbreak, joy, death, life, and regurgitation. If you're a fan of snow then this is absolutely the film for you because never will you see weather this cold. Even after watching the behind the scenes documentaries, which aren't the usual useless EPK crap, we see just how blasted cold the Antarctic becomes in the dead of winter. Watching those birds cluster together for heat is incredible, as is seeing dozens of birds essentially stuck in a crevice courtesy of the shifting ice mass. Mother Nature is a cruel mistress, and it's to the film makers' credit that they never once try to interfere.

Some real fun comes from watching the penguins with cameras strapped to their backs underwater. It's literally mind blowing to see how they hunt for ice fish. You see them shoot down into the black abyss, only to rocket back up towards the ice and peg a small fish hiding in the ice above. How they do it remains a mystery, even more so after watching it in action. Overall, this is a wonderful documentary from National Geographic and highly entertaining to boot. Plus, those emperor penguins are just as cute as they can be.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Weather Issues

You never really miss rainfall until you're put in a situation where you go without it for roughly three months. Meanwhile, the sky is bright blue, sunny, and cloudless. Oh, and the temperature averages 103 degrees.

My Fair Lady, my parents and I went to Planet Hou-ston this weekend to visit my relatives and it rained there non-stop. It also looked like it had been raining for the last year because everywhere we looked the vegetation was a lush verdant green. Amidst endless complaints (from both of us) regarding our frizzed-out hair, we had a very fun time. My Fair Lady though failed to heed my (endless) warnings of how my family loves everything cold and to dress appropriately. The four hour drive down resulted in My Fair Lady wearing my dress coat because the vent in the front of the suburban was pointed right at her.

My former roommate and his wife love reminding me of how much I hate the cold, yet they've been unaware of the specific nature of my dislike for it. It's not that I outright hate cold weather by itself, it's that I don't like to be unprepared for it. In Texas we have hot weather followed by six weeks or so of cool to cold weather, then the barometer soars back up to hot again. I'm fine with that as it means there's only six weeks or so of the year when I'm uncomfortable. But the flip side to that is we don't stock up on cold weather clothes here since they are largely unnecessary. Were I to live in Quebec or Chicago then I would have the appropriate wardrobe and attitude since cold there is expected.

Where my hatred was born though was in my mother's household. If it's 105 outside, it's at least 68 in her house. If it was 73 outside, it was between 65 and 68 in the house. Every. Damn. Day. My aunt's house in Planet Hou-ston was exactly the same this weekend, and the suburban we rode in was frozen out too. Grow up in a household like that with a natural aversion to cold and see how you feel once you get out of there. My Fair Lady asked recently why we never covered up in blankets, to which I casually asked her to point out how many blankets she saw in the house. She thought about it for a second, then noticed there were none. I nodded and said, "Exactly my point."

Obviously that was a heck of a digression away from the much needed rain currently soaking DFW courtesy of a storm system that hit Sunday as we drove back to town. Along the way we hit a patch where the temperature was 107 out. By the time we again stood on our doorstep it said 77. Any more of this and we'll have to stock up on wood and hot chocolate. But at least the ground is getting soaked, and the entirety of Dallas is no longer a fire hazard. At least until the heat returns, which should be around Wednesday.

Now with 75% Less Flavor

I don't eat cereal as much as a I used to but I'm an ardant fan of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I have been for a long time, as a matter of fact. Since marrying My Fair Lady, she has tried to convince me that eating healthy at least some of the time is a good thing. Apparently she believes in me a "future investment" so it's only a matter of time before I'm traded on the market in Chicago. I can mentally picture investors getting squeamish when they hear I knocked back Jack in the Box for lunch yesterday.

"Sell! Sell! Sell!"

At any rate, we were in Tom Thumb a while ago and came across a box of the aforementioned cereal. The top of the box heralded how it held 75% less sugar and was therefore healthier. I warily eyed it but decided it couldn't hurt. Just for good measure we picked up a second box because they had a two-for-one sale going.

That should of registered as a warning.

I tried some the next morning and could barely swallow the first bite. My Fair Lady looked at me concerned.

"It's like eating fiber straight from the source," I said.

"You mean you don't like it?" she asked.

"Let me put it this way. I may make it through this bowl, I may not. But regardless of that, there will never be a second bowl poured in Casa de Skim so long as I draw breath."

We went to Lowe's last weekend to look at carpet samples because October is overhauling the house month. We're re-doing the tiles downstairs, and putting down new carpet upstairs in addition to painting everything. The intent is to sell the place next spring and buy a house somewhere. While looking at the carpet samples though I spied one in particular. I poked it, prodded it, and paid close attention to it. Then I licked it.

"What the hell are you doing?" asked an incredulous My Fair Lady.

"Taste testing," I said. "This one tastes better than that damn cereal, too."

"Very good sweetie, but I remain dubious on whether Lowe's grants discounts for licked merchandise."

Monday, August 21, 2006

Cheaters and Lawn Care

For those who haven't heard, Texas is in the middle of one of the worst droughts in its history. Actually, that's only partly true. Far West Texas (the El Paso area and such) have received more rain than they normally do and the result is massive flooding. Basically the state weather patterns are backasswards this summer. One thing that has remained constant in the DFW area is the color of everyone's lawns.

Yellow. Or a slight shade of brown.

If your lawn is not one of these colors and even has so much as a hint of green in it then you are definitely cheating on the water restrictions. I'm looking at the Park Cities in particular, but I don't believe they actually have restrictions. They have fountains, and I retain the right to mock them because that's where I was raised.

My Fair Lady and I were talking about what sort of lawns we'd like in any future homes we buy and I would love the lush green and verdant French-style gardens of Louisiana and plantation lands. I would not, however, want to pay the exorbitant costs associated with the required premium landscaping only to see it burned up in a month-long 100-degree heat wave. So we're content to pay over our small backyard with sand and paver stones and call it a day.

This is what happens when both of you have four black thumbs between you. See green grass. Kill green grass through no fault of your own. Pave over it and call it a parking lot.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

PS3 as #1? Uh, Not So Much

Analysts have proven yet again that none of them were at E3 this year. 1Up has this story that discusses findings by The Yankee Group where they speculate that the PS3 will be numero uno this generation, with the Xbox 360 right behind it, and the Wii a distant third.

Pardon me while I snicker. Loudly. With great enthusiasm.

Anyone that was at the final E3 knows Sony had a disasterous showing. It was an absolute disgrace bordering on the level of Biblical regarding how epic a failure it was for them as a company and for the PS3 as a piece of hardware. This generation will set dividing lines among console gamers moreso than it will establish which brand will reign universally supreme.

Japan is Sony country pure and simple. I think the PS3 will absolutely kick butt in Japan, followed closely by the Wii. Microsoft may as well not even try to get into Japan anymore because no one there cares about the Xbox brand, period. My intuition regarding the shortages once the 360 was released was due in part to resources being diverted to the Japan launch because Microsoft actually believed it still had a chance there.

Uh, not really chief. But thank you for playing.

As I've said in the past, this next generation is going to see Microsoft take over the North American market and most of Europe, which will actually be shared with Nintendo's resurgence. Nintendo will absolutely be second at the very least in Japan and if they hit a sub-$200 price point on release, they could well be number one in the US as well as Europe. Every single person that has played with the Wii is sold on it. Absolutely everyone I know that has heard anything about it wants to play with it right this second. The 360 is a close second among them as to which console they want sharing shelf space with the Wii.

I hope to God that Nintendo doesn't take as long as it usually does between first-generation releases as it normally does, but even if that remains the case at least I'll be able to download N64 games on back and buy GameCube titles I missed. Every single Zelda game, Eternal Darkness, the Mario games, and the Metroid series are insta-buys for me. That's several games right there, and I haven't even touched the original Wii content.

Sony as the first place? Not even close. Take the projected Sony and Nintendo numbers and reverse them and you have how this generation will close out. Not the other way around.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Now Playing: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

What is it about Shane Black comedies that makes them "almost ran's" in my book? The first Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout both have moments where they truly work, but for the most part come off as grab-bag cliche-filled explosion-fests where the heroes are screwed up but somehow figure out how to beat the bad guys in the end. The only work of Black's I've ever loved was his contribution to Predator, the success of which I attribute more to it being shot in the jungle far removed from studio interference. The less said about Last Action Hero the better.

So imagine my surprise when I watched Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang this past weekend and spent almost the entire time laughing my head off. This is Shane Black Unfiltered and the result is a film utterly unhinged that gleefully mocks the entire Los Angeles experience. Even when the film turns deadly serious towards the end, it quickly counters with a one-two punch of inspired comedy that do not cheapen the shocks. Instead, the comedy further proves just how out of his league the main character, Harry Lockheart, really is.

Lockheart isn't played by Robert Downey, Jr. so much as lived by Downey. Lockheart is a motor-mouthed petty thief from New York who stumbles into an audtion following a bungled robbery. He's convincing (hilariously so) enough that the producer (a vile Larry Miller) immediately sends him to Hollywood for a screen test. Lockheart gets partnered with a gay private investigator named Gay Perry (an equally inspired Val Kilmer) since the role is for a detective story. Shortly after arriving they become embroiled in a real life murder mystery involving Lockheart's childhood dream girl, played by delicious newcomer Michelle Monaghan.

Both Lockheart and his dreamgirl grew up as fans of hardened detective novellas so that's where they pull ideas from as bodies continue piling up around them. Lockheart's narration is priceless because he frequently breaks the fourth wall, so to speak, by sometimes interrupting his own thoughts during flashbacks with tangents and even telling people to get out of the shot. Black must have had a field day writing the script because the industry spoofs are as spot-on as those in Entourage. Imagine Ari Gold with gun and you have a good idea of the type of guy Lockheart is. You can tell that Black could have gone either way with the ending and he even admits as much via Lockheart's voice over at the end. Overall, the movie is a hugely entertaining, violent, pulpy, and raucously funny noir comedy.

Now Playing: 24 Season 2

I haven't written about my slavish devotion to The Jack Bauer Power Hour because I frankly haven't experienced it. The fanaticism among 24 fans would normally turn me off to a show, but the first season had two things front and center that fascinated me. The first being Kiefer Sutherland and any chlid of the '80's wants certain actors to nail it every time they step up to the plate. I've been a fan of his father's since birth, and I've been a fan of his since cutting my teeth on Stand By Me and The Lost Boys, two films benefitted more by nostalgia than anything else. Kiefer Sutherland somehow always managed to wind up in films that were probably a few million budget dollars away from the Blockbuster direct-to-video bin, and that frustrated me as a fan. I wanted him to succeed, and badly. Then he found the role of Jack Bauer and Kiefer Sutherland will forever be enshrined as a god among men.

The second thing that intrigued me was the format of 24 episodes each representing one hour of a single day. The concept was sound, but since the amount of absurdities the show packs into each hour grows episode by episode you eventually have to look past the concept and just go with it.

Since fans of the show grew rapid around season four then became full-blown fanatics after season five, I figured I would go back and start catching up. I'd say roughly 80 percent of the show's surprises haven't been ruined for me yet, though I am aware of certain places the show had ended up. For the most part though, I went into Season 2 with a clean slate and since I watch Season 1 right before Season 3 started it's been a while since I was last hanging with Bauer. I may discuss some spoilers below if you haven't seen it yet, but I'll try and stay away from the big ones.

Season 2 starts up a year after Season 1 ended. Jack went through hell that first year and came out of it bruised and ruined both personally and professionally. He starts out Season 2 an empty shell of a man, and watching him come back to life over the span of 24 episodes was fantastically entertaining. Sutherland is unbelievably good playing Bauer as the uber-patriot the politicians in Washington would love. He's faced with the ultimate crisis: A nuclear bomb is in the hands of terrorists somewhere in Los Angeles and he has to find them and diffuse the bomb within 24 hours. Of course, he also has to navigate a hellish labryinth of political intrigue, government interferance, rogue agents, a ruined wedding, and his daughter's penchant for being the biggest dumbass ever on television. This last point is one I'd like to take a second to single out and laugh at. Kim Bauer, gamely played by Elisha Cuthbert, is easily the worst character on television in the last decade.

Yes, I'm taking the entire cast of Passions into account here.

Once the season gets going a few episodes in the pace is relentless... except when it cuts back to Kim Bauer. At those points, the show's entire momentum comes to a crashing halt and just lays there whimpering. The upshot to watching it on DVD was fast forwarding through every single Kim scene in the entire season with about four exceptions. Not only did this cut roughly three hours worth of viewing time right off the top, but I survived with my IQ in tact. I laughed the hardest near the end of the season when she's holding a gun on her nemesis while on the phone with her dad. When Jack calmly tells her to do exactly what he says I fell down laughing, but absolutely roared later on when she was suddenly "tougher" because of the experience. In short, Kim Bauer is useless.

On the other hand, literally every second not devoted to Kim Bauer is vastly entertaining. The political backstabbing surrounding now-President David Palmer builds to several emotionally wrenching crescendos with the fates of a few major players ending on surprising terms. Jack Bauer, meanwhile, ends his first day by executing a child pornographer then sawing the guy's head off all to re-infiltrate a gang that may or may not know where the bomb is. Jack Bauer kills more bad guys by noon than most Marines kill in their entire careers. It's gloriously fun stuff watching the bad guys go about their evil ways because you know how seriously screwed they are the second Bauer finds them.

I have to give credit to the show runners because the bad guys are absolute in their convictions, beliefs, and abilities. The threat never veers into silly terrain, and there is no monologuing from any of the villains. The villains have a job to do, and Jack Bauer's job is to stop them regardless of who gets caught in between. Another thing I like about the show is how the mastermind villain doesn't appear until late in the series. However many red herrings there are in the previous 15 or 16 episodes, the arch-nemesis won't show up until the final stretch. Personally, I dig the heck out of that slow build. I wish the uber-villain was a little more substantial this time out, but it works in terms of laying groundwork for the future.

There are more than a few implausibilities throughout the show but I absolutely fell in love with 24 after this season ended. What I loved even more was how ballsy the final episode closed since it ended on a major cliffhanger with a few minor ones thrown in for good measure. This was the season where things were clearly setup for the future and the ending didn't back away from that promise at all. I'm now curious to throw on Season 3 so I'll be moving it up in my Netflix queue soon.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Now Playing: Glory Road

By now, Jerry Bruckheimer has effectively cornered the market on the inspirational "based on a true story" sports drama and I thought Glory Road would be just the latest in a long line of them. Turns out I was right, but it also turns out that the film is vastly better than I initially pegged it. Every sports drama cliche takes its turn on center stage, but the film benefits from a tremendously entertaining cast of actors all led by Josh Lucas in his breakout role. Up to this point I'd considered him an acceptable non-face actor meaning he could hold his own but nothing he did made him stand out.

His portrayal of famed Texas Western coach Don Haskins is tremendous and Lucas brings a world weary gravitas to the role I didn't think he was capable of. Haskins uproots his family from Fort Worth where he coached high school girls basketball and moved them to El Paso, TX, for the chance to coach Division I college basketball. Since the shool was in the middle of nowhere and barely had an endowment for textbooks, Haskins had to recruit wisely. So he sent his scouts out into the field to track down the most talented and unsigned players he could find.

The majority of them were black, and it was to Haskins' eternal credit that he never once viewed them as such. He says right at the start that he doesn't see color. Instead he sees quickness, agility, and skill, all of which can lead the team to the big time if properly harnassed. The fact that all of this is conveyed in the first 20 minutes is a tribute to the economics of the storytelling because one thing Glory Road does is move. It may bob and weave here and there but the film always has its eye firmly on the glory the team would eventually achieve.

Even when the film falters three quarters of the way through it somehow manages to be entertaining. We can't imagine the racial hardships these young men must have gone through, but instead of doling it out throughout the film it seems that everything happens in a single restaurant scene where a player is assaulted in a bathroom while the white customers look away disapprovingly. Meanwhile the coach and players complain about how they're always treated poorly and such. We only see boos and jeers two or three times compared to the constant roars of approval from happy Texas Western crowds.

Of course, it all leads to the big showdown against Kentucky who is coached by a near unrecognizable Jon Voight. He hams things up a bit, but even under all that makeup he pulls a solid performance out too. The ending is never in doubt, and the movie is fun enough that you'll immediately switch on the extras once it's over. Watching Pat Riley (yes, that Pat Riley) talk about that climactic game with awe is beyond cool. Especially when you consider how Texas Western's big center dunked right over Riley's head to start the game off.

Glory Road may not have any surprises, but it's a very fun and well-made movie to just kick back and watch on an afternoon.

Monday, August 07, 2006

#1 of 5

Damn you Dead Rising. Damn you for looking like so much fun it should be criminal. Wednesday sees the release of an all-zombie all-the-time kill-a-thon for the Xbox 360 and I so want it right now. My long standing philosophy regarding video game consoles has been to wait 18 months after release before I even consider it, and then only if there are five must-own titles available.

It hasn't been 18 months yet, but Must-Own Game #1 hits this week. Four more to go and since numero dos, Mass Effect, is slated to hit sometime this fall, then it looks more and more like Casa de Skim will welcome a new console sometime around May of next year. In theory, the infamous BC list will include more of my games than Halo 2 by then. Also, we should have a house by then but I hestitate to say that with certainty. With the way the real estate is going in our area we should be able to make quite the mint on our place especially with the minor renovations we'll perform over the next three months or so.

I remain both anxious and cautious regarding the 360. Anxious because in the next year there are going to be some absolutely killer games released. Cautious because enough people, more than have been officially reported at least, continue to have their consoles fail. My Xbox and PS2 are the first ones I ever bought and that's how they should stay. If I plunk down $400+ for a console then it damn well better work for the next several years.

But Dead Rising looks absolutely brilliant. You play a photojournalist trapped in a small town mall surrounded by legions of zombies who are all looking to take a bite out of you. The theory is that everything around you is a weapon and the demo saw players whacking zombies with teddy bears while running around in a dress, cooking things in the kitchen only to turn around and smack a zombie in the face with the hot frying pan, and so on.

Basically the game could be the smash hit of the summer, and it's earned the coveted #1 spot.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Now Playing: Dog Soldiers

My dear friend Guy was gracious enough to buy this for me around my birthday a year or two ago and only recently did I take it off the shelf and check it out. For that my friend, I sincerely apologize for being late to the party because this is absolutely one of the best action/horror flicks I've seen in years. The banner headline on the cover art isn't far from the truth with the genre masterpieces it references because Dog Soldiers liberally cribs from all of them. What stunned me was how effectively it pulled from those admittedly better films.

When AvP was gearing up there was an interview with Paul "Weak Sauce" Anderson where he talked about how devoted a fan of both Aliens and the original Predator he was and how he'd studied them in depth. His intent, at least in the interview, was to take the best of what worked there and let the two beasts rumble. The result, as we all know, was a disaster. I pull this reference out of thin air because writer-director Neil Marshall must have done the same exact thing with the difference being he knew what the hell he was doing.

The result is an extremely gory, scary, and hilarious thriller set in the Scottish highlands. A team of SAS soldiers is on a training exercise when they find the other team they were meant to rendevous with utterly slaughtered save one. The survivor is pretty much missing his chest and before they can figure out what's going on they get ambushed by something very large and very unseen. During their escape they run into a woman driving past who picks all of them up and takes them to a farm house in the middle of no where. Naturally, their enemy is right on their tail and the result is an Alamo-style stand-off with automatic weapons and werewolves.

To Marshall's credit, he doesn't screw around with needless amounts of setup and he certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension along with the body count. He also spares no expense with the full-body animatronic suits for the werewolves which, much like the Aliens, were shot perfectly. You always see just enough to let your imagination fill in the blanks, except when it comes to the carnage they wreck. If this film is any indication, his next movie The Descent should be absolutely terrifying not to mention extremely graphic in terms of violence.

Which basically means Dog Soldiers resolutely kicks ass and takes names.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Now Playing: Children of Dune

This is one of those reviews that is obscenely late due to many reasons so I'm trying to recall as much as possible several months after the fact. The first thing to state was that I was an unabashed fan of the original novel, hated the Lynch version (which I'm routinely mocked for to this day), and loved the SciFi mini-series version of the first book warts and all. The thing people either immediately accepted or refused to get past was how it would vacillate between sound stages/sets and location shooting. One shot would be out in a real desert and the very next shot would be on a sound stage and people just couldn't get past that.

I liked it because I felt it added to the hyper-reality of Frank Herbert's book which, let's be honest, is more than a little out there. The ideas and themes advanced in the novel are as old as time, but the setting for the discussion was so fantastical that one could only truly capture the feel of the novel by going off the deep end too.

Which brings me to the sequel mini-series set several years after the ending of the first one. Paul has grown tired of being the Messiah to the desert people, The Fremen, and his advanced sister Alia has grown up to be his right hand in governing the galaxy. Naturally, the rival houses in the Imperium and the Bene Gesserit are still fuming over Paul usurping the power they've held over the galaxy for centuries. Meanwhile the Fremen continue to terraform the sand-covered world of Arrakis which has caused the sand worms to move deeper into the desert, taking the spice with them.

If you didn't understand a single word in the above paragraph I'm not going into explanatory detail. Either you're familiar with the Dune universe or you can look it up on Wikipedia. Here is a good starting point. Suffice it to say the second mini-series picks up after the first one and improves on virtually all aspects of the original from the acting down to the sets. This chapter is massive in both scale and budget which helps to keep the jarring transitions to a bare minimum. Out of all the actors I'd say Susan Sarandan is the only one left stranded as she Lady MacBeth's her way through the six hour saga. She does little other than scheme, plot, and chat up her right hand man. Oh, she wears a new costume roughly every new scene she appears in.

In the interim, the first two hour block wraps up the Paul-Chani story in a way I didn't expect, but wasn't entirely surprised by. Barbara Kodetova remains one of the most scorching hot European women I've ever seen, and the fact that she could absolutely kick my ass is immeasureably cool. Ditto Daniela Amavia (Alia) who is both formidable, powerful, and searingly hot. Of course, since all Dune works are Grecian tragedies in disguise Alia quickly goes insane thanks to visions of her (late) uncle Baron Harkonnen, brilliantly played once again by Ian McNiece.

Parts two and three deal with the children of Paul and Chani, Leto II and Ghanima, and their own personal ascensions to the throne. One thing I'll give the crafters of this series major credit for is tapping the spirit of Frank Herbert's novels better than anyone else ever has. Whether the outlandish costumes, which are more toned down this time, or focus on religious iconography tends to throw you, this remains an excellent series to check out.

It would have been nice if P.H. Moriarty hadn't continued to play Gurney Halleck as if he were acting in another movie, but his role is kept close enough to a minimum so that he doesn't outright kill scenes like he did in the first one. Children of Dune is highly recommended from this viewer, but if you're not alreayd familiar with the material then this one won't make things any easier for you.