Happy Valentine’s Day

Men say “I Love You” with flowers and jewelry. Laura says “I Love You” with CDs and science-fiction DVDs. Ladies, you’re getting a raw deal.

B-Tribe - Spiritual Spiritual

Spiritual Spiritual
B-Tribe

This is the fourth B-Tribe CD in my collection. The others — ¡Fiesta Fatal!, Sensual Sensual and Suave Suave — are all excellent. The “B” in B-Tribe stands for “Barcelona,” and the music is a sort of techno-latin: flamenco guitars and Spanish vocals mixed with a lot of synthesizers. Spiritual Spiritual is definitely the most low-key and mellow of the four albums, but it still has all the elements that keep me listening to B-Tribe. In fact, I’m listening to it as I write this, and wishing I’d gotten around to replacing my crappy headphones.

The Legend of Johnny Cash

The Legend of Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash

Twenty-one tracks that trace the Man in Black’s nearly half-century career in music, from “Cry! Cry! Cry!” originally recorded in 1955 to his 2003 cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” One of my personal favorites is “Delia’s Gone,” which appeared on American Recordings, Cash’s first outing with famed rock producer Rick Rubin. A bit of Man in Black trivia: the song “A Boy Named Sue” was written by Where the Sidewalk Ends author Shel Silverstein.

Enya - Amarantine

Amarantine
Enya

Amarantine is at least the seventh Enya album in my collection, not counting her work on the soundtrack for The Fellowship of the Ring and the two-track single Oíche Chiún. Alas, my copies of Watermark and Shepherd Moons have gone missing. Enya doesn’t disappoint on her latest release, which is rich with her signature sound. I read a review last week that points to this familiarity as being a bad thing, but for me it’s very, very good. Did I mention that I need new headphones? Man, these things suck.

Serenity

Serenity

Cross another item off the Amazon Wish List. I thought about picking this up about a week after Christmas, but couldn’t find it in the two or three stores I normally visit. I was a latecomer to the fandom of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series, but was just as eager to see Serenity when it hit theaters as the most rabid of Browncoats. If you have to ask what a Browncoat is, I suggest finding a copy of the Firefly box set and setting aside a weekend to watch the entire short-lived series. Then do the same with Serenity. If you ask nicely, I may even loan you my copy.

The Boob Tube: What I’m Watching

Time to talk about the idiot box for a little while. Why? Because I said so.

You may or may not recall that I picked a few new shows out of the fall lineup that looked like they might be interesting: Invasion, Night Stalker, Surface and Threshold. Two of the shows, Night Stalker and Threshold, bit the dust early in the season. I was sorry to see Threshold go, because it was actually getting pretty good. Night Stalker wasn’t great, but the last episode aired was the first in a two-part story, and I would have liked to see the resolution.

Surface had a good start, but it kind of lagged in the middle of the season. The few episodes leading up to the season finale really kicked the story into high gear, and the finale itself was pretty damn good (save for two things that I have filed under “Not Bloody Likely”). Rumor has it that NBC is waffling about whether or not to pick the series up for another season and a final decision won’t be made until May. I’m guessing that time frame might have something to do with DVD sales, but I could be wrong.

Last on the “new stuff” list is Invasion, which has recently begun to get interesting. Unfortunately, ABC has apparently decided to put the show on a six week “hiatus,” during which they’ll quietly cancel it. Invasion, like Surface, seemed to be stalling in mid-season. Though one could argue that the story was making progress, it didn’t seem like creator Shaun Cassidy and company were especially eager to reveal anything significant about the alien invaders, and that’s very frustrating. While Surface has pulled the curtain back on some of its mysteries, Invasion is almost as inscrutable as it was in the first episode. Still, I’m interested enough that I don’t want to see it cancelled.

I’ve also been watching the second seasons of Lost and Battlestar Galactica. Since Laura and I both watch Lost, I try not to watch it unless she can sit and watch it with me. As a result, we’ve got about five unwatched episodes on the TiVo right now.

Timing aside, there’s another reason I haven’t been eager to keep up with Lost: Michelle Rodriguez. I hated Michelle Rodriguez’s character in Resident Evil, and she plays the same damn character in Lost. The main difference between the two roles is that she hasn’t been killed by zombies in Lost, but there’s always next episode, right?

Last but not least, we’ve got Battlestar Galactica, which is the best thing on SciFi. That’s not saying a lot, but it really is a good show. For the most part. See, season 2.0 ended with a cliffhanger after the battlestars Galactica and Pegasus stumbled upon one another and Admiral Cain (Michell Forbes) assumed control of the Colonial fleet, as she outranked Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos). Cain’s hard-line, cutthroat command style didn’t sit well with Adama or the ailing President of the Colonies, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell). The conflict between the characters set up a very explosive situation, and season 2.0 ended on a cliffhanger. Season 2.5 resolved the cliffhanger over two episodes, but rather than force Adama and Cain to resolve the conflict themselves (either by diplomacy or force), Galactica‘s writers opted to simply remove Cain from the picture. It was an incredibly weak, clumsy resolution to a very intense conflict, and I was terribly disappointed.

All done. I guess I won’t feel compelled to talk about the teevee for another six months or so, by which time all I’ll be watching is Baby Einstein and The Wiggles. Stay tuned!

Welcome to Parenthood: The Murdoch Kid

On Sunday, February 12, 2006 at 3:14PM our friends Rob and Beth Murdoch welcomed their son, Lance Robert Murdoch. Lance, being a bit of an overachiever, was born about five weeks early and will have to spend a little time in a special nursery before he goes home, but both he and his mother are doing quite well. At birth, Lance weighed 5 pounds 5 ounces and was 19 1/4 inches long.

Lance, for those who are wondering, is the kid Kyle is supposed to beat up all through childhood. Methinks, however, the tables have likely turned. I’ve seen firsthand how scrappy kids who are born a few weeks early can be, and Lance may have the upper hand. Steps must be taken.

So, congratulations to Rob and Beth. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to start Kyle on his endurance training.

GameDrool: Star Wars: Empire at War

Star Wars: Empire at War

Star Wars: Empire at War (PC)

Remember the Star Wars RTS game Rebellion? Probably not. I think I was one of maybe eight people who actually bought and/or enjoyed that one. Rebellion hewed closer to the Civilization model of gameplay more than the Age of Empires model, which is probably why it wasn’t a terribly popular game. Instead of concentrating on how individual units move on the battlefield, Rebellion tasked the player with coordinating the production and movement of entire fleets across the galaxy. Though there was a mode that allowed skirmish-level interaction in space battles, there was no such option for ground battles. In other words, the player wasn’t pitting snowspeeders against AT-ATs and Rebel foot soldiers against Imperial stormtroopers; the player simply ensured that ground-based defenses were built and troops deployed, then the computer determined the outcome the battles.

Galactic Battlegrounds and Force Commander, on the other hand, were both solely concerned with playing out those ground battles. Unfortunately, Galactic Battlegrounds is merely Age of Empires II with a thin Star Wars patina slapped on the game engine. The facade wore especially thin in the areas of resource collecting and utilization of key Star Wars characters. The resource collection mechanics from Age of Empires (food, ore, gold) do not translate well into the Star Wars universe, even when gold is replaced with “nova crystals.” Likewise, the special abilities of the monk unit in Age of Empires are mapped almost directly to Darth Vader in Galactic Battlegrounds. To make matters worse, the sight of Darth Vader hacking away at a building with his lightsaber is enough to totally dissipate any remaining sense that the game is taking place in the Star Wars universe.

Then there’s Force Commander, which is a prime example of how not to implement a video game: it won’t even run on my system, despite my best efforts to find patches and workarounds to the various technical issues I’ve encountered.

Enter Empire at War, which was either released last Friday (10 February 2006) or will be released this Thursday (16 February 2006); GameStop says the 10th, Amazon.com says the 16th. Empire at War combines the galaxy-wide strategy of Rebellion with the skirmish-level combat of Galactic Battlegrounds, and it appears to do a very good job with both.

A few months ago, Miscellaneous G™ and I were discussing the various shortcomings of Galactic Battlegrounds and I put forth an “if I ran the zoo” scenario describing in particular how resources ought to be handled in games that take place in the Star Wars universe. My primary assertion was that the Imperials would, like most governments, acquire resources through taxation. The rebels, on the other hand, would have to use less overt means. While a certain percentage might come from wealthy members of the Rebellion, a significant portion would be gained by smuggling and/or stealing directly from the Imperials. To simplify things, available resources should be measured in currency (rather than carbon, ore, nova crystals, etc.) and the ability to build or acquire different units would be dependent upon the amount of available currency.

This is pretty much how Empire at War handles resources, but the concept is taken a step further: the Empire spends currency to develop new technologies, while the Rebellion must spend currency to recruit spies who will steal those technologies. Additionally, the Rebels hire smugglers (such as Han Solo and Chewbacca) to siphon resources from the Empire. Should Imperial bean counters discover an accounting discrepancy, they can hire bounty hunters to eliminate the smugglers.

The resource management mechanics I just described are largely a part of the galactic-level scope of Empire at War, as are planetary defenses, mining (which can supplement income), fleet and infantry production, and military deployment. When actions taken on the galactic level result in combat, however, the game switches to what I call “skirmish mode.” In this mode, the game operates like Galactic Battlegrounds, but without all the unfortunate artifacts from Age of Empires II. These skirmishes, which can actually be quite involved and large, take place on the surface of the planet or in space. In the heat of battle, it is possible to switch to a “cinematic view,” which strips out all control interfaces and displays the battle in a manner that resembles a movie.

I have not played the full Empire at War game yet; everything I’ve gleaned about the gameplay thus far is from playing the five tutorials and single mission included in the downloadable demo. It’s pretty safe to assume that I liked what I saw, since the game has been added to my Amazon Wish List. I’m not going to run out and buy it right away, though. I’m going to try to finish several games I currently own, including the crop that I recently acquired. Call it a test of resolve, to see if I can keep Mr. Instant Gratification under control.

PC Game: Dead Man’s Hand

The collection grows ever larger…

Dead Man's HandDead Man’s Hand (PC)

Dead Man’s Hand was released right around the same time as the excellent Red Dead Revolver, and the two games are similar enough that they’re bound to draw some comparisons. They’re both western-themed shooters with a revenge-based story, and both integrate poker into the gameplay — Red Dead Revolver has a poker-themed multiplayer mode, while Dead Man’s Hand allows the gamer to play hands of poker prior to each mission in the story mode to gain extra ammunition.

Poker gimmick aside, both games are fairly standard shooters. Dead Man’s Hand uses the first-person viewpoint, while Red Dead Revolver employs a third-person viewpoint, meaning you are essentially following the main character, Red, through the adventure. This allows for some interesting “cover” mechanics, which allows Red to effectively hide behind obstacles during a shootout. Tejon, the main character in Dead Man’s Hand, is able to crouch, but the notion of “cover” (including what can and cannot be shot through) is a little weak. This can be very frustrating, especially when trying to shoot a bad guy through the gap in a fence and finding that he is able to fill you full of lead, but you can’t return the favor.

Also frustrating in Dead Man’s Hand is the the level design. Areas that should be accessible aren’t, and there is at least one point where Tejon becomes stuck after simply walking through a doorway. No amount of jumping, crouching, shooting or wiggling can extricate him from the predicament, and the only option is to restart the level.

Both games offer a cooperative multiplayer mode, though neither is based on the game story. Instead, the players are pitted against computer-controlled “bots” in an arena. This is all well and good, but multiplayer co-op that proceeds through the story is much more satisfying.

The single player story in Dead Man’s Hand follows former outlaw Tejon as he tracks down the members of his old gang, The Nine, who shot him in the back and left him for dead. Each chapter is broken into two parts: first Tejon shoots his way through a slew of lackeys and lickspittles, then he faces off against his former compadre. Tejon finds Sanchez in the classic Old West town, which leads to a showdown in the saloon. Next up is Flat Iron, who is hiding in the canyons. The face off occurs in and around a group of adobe buildings, and Flat Iron — an expert knife-thrower — weaves in and out of the alleys, nooks and crannies, and proves to be rather tricky to bag. After Flat Iron, Tejon tracks down… well, I don’t know. I haven’t managed to get Flat Iron to hold still long enough so I can retire him.

Dead Man’s Hand doesn’t bring anything new or exciting to the FPS table, and it has its share of flaws, but so far nothing severe enough to make me quit playing. On the whole, I think Red Dead Revolver is far superior, but I enjoy the Old West theme enough that I’ll play ’em both.

Movie Review: Jason X

Jason XJason X (2001)

Starring Kane Hodder, Lexa Doig, Chuck Campbell, Peter Mensah, Melyssa Ade, David Cronenberg and Beka Valentine.

Directed by Jim Isaac.

I think I’m going to have to add Jason X to a couple of my movie lists. The first would be the “Guilty Pleasures” list: bad movies that I love to watch. The second list needs a name, but the only other movie on it right now is Predator. I think I’ll call this my “Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it!” list. These are movies that I can’t seem to help watching whenever they happen to be on television.

Jason X is the tenth installment of the Friday the 13th series, and I guess someone decided that it would be cool to put the main character in a spaceship. This seems to be a trend with horror series, as evidenced by Leprechaun 4: In Space and Hellraiser: Bloodlines. I don’t know how well it worked for the Leprechaun franchise, but Pinhead in space was a bit of a letdown. Oh, and let’s not forget Dracula 3000, which … well, sucked.

Sorry.

Jason X is an interesting beast, because once you put Jason Vorhees on a spaceship you can’t really call your movie “horror” anymore; it’s some kind of weird action/comedy hybrid with a heaping helping of gore and a dash of pseudo-suspense thrown in for good measure.

The plot is pretty straightforward: In the mid-25th century, nosy people find Jason Vorhees frozen in carbonite a cryogenic chamber and do what anyone with half a brain who finds a huge, hockey mask wearing, machete wielding lummox in a block of ice would do: they thaw that sucker out! Four centuries of cooling his heels hasn’t exactly had a mellowing effect on Jason, and he soon goes on a murderous rampage, finding rather inventive ways to kill the various occupants of the space vessel in which he is being transported to “Earth II.”

Doesn’t that sound like a fun movie? Well, it is. Jason X is far more enjoyable than it has any right to be, as long as you set your standards fairly low. It’s not as genuinely scary or suspenseful as a couple of its earlier predecessors, and I doubt anyone is going to lie awake at night, unable to sleep because they are afraid Jason Vorhees will freeze their face with liquid nitrogen and smash their head against a table. The Friday the 13th franchise—like its sister series, A Nightmare on Elm Street—has become what I call “novelty horror.” Rather than trying to actually scare us, the filmmakers have decided to see how clever their villains can be when dispatching their victims.

Jason X works for me because it has a good blend of goofy science-fiction and over the top action. Lots of stuff blows up, lots of people die, Jason gets “upgraded” and then even more people die. Plus, there’s a sexy android who totally kicks Jason’s ass (pre-upgrade). Oh, and the ending has “Jason XI” written all over it.

For an example of novelty horror that doesn’t work, check out the train-wreck that is Freddy vs. Jason. Frustrated because people aren’t afraid of him anymore, Freddy Krueger recruits Jason Vorhees to help him give people nightmares. That’s right, Freddy can’t get his fright on anymore, so he needs Jason Viagra to help him out. Only things don’t go according to Freddy’s (inane) plan and Jason turns on him (hence the “vs.”), resulting in a showdown that should have been worth watching, but turned into a big disappointment. Someone must have liked it, though. I just read today that Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund is talking about a sequel: Freddy vs. Jason vs. Michael Myers. Throw Don Knotts and the Mystery Machine in the mix and we’ve got next summer’s big blockbuster.

Movie Review: The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (DVD)The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Starring Steve Carrell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Seth Rogan, Elizabeth Banks, Gerry Bednob, Leslie Mann and Amelia Earhart.

Directed by Judd Apatow.

Andy (Steve Carrell) is forty years old, lives alone, collects action figures, plays a lot of video games and rides a bicycle to work. He is employed at SmartTech, a Circuit City-esque home theater store, where he works in the stock room with Cal (Seth Rogan). Andy is also a virgin, due largely to some very unlucky encounters with the fairer sex as a young man. Once his co-workers learn if Andy’s “inexperience,” they embark on a crusade to rectify what they consider an egregious and wholly unprecedented situation.

Bam! Premise.

The 40 Year Old Virgin is laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly touching, and unrelentingly crass. It is also not what I was expecting. See, I was thinking it would be the same type of humor as There’s Something About Mary: absurdist and adult-oriented, but never quite jumping feet-first into Lake Obscene. Laura was expecting the same thing and I believe she was put off by the reality. Me, not so much.

That said, The 40 Year Old Virgin didn’t quite live up to the hype. As funny as it was, there was still something missing, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. There are scenes that I could watch over and over, but I don’t know that I’d really want to watch the movie in its entirety again. A fine example of a scene I’ve watched multiple times is one in which Andy’s co-worker, Mooj (Gerry Bednob), explains that life is about people and children and connecting, and not about… well, a lot of other things that aren’t suitable for a semi-family-friendly weblog. It’s a stunning stream of obscenity delivered by an elderly Indian man and it almost makes me squirt whatever I’m drinking out of my tear ducts every time I watch it. That just ain’t right.

Similarly, the shock value of the chest-waxing scene makes it worthy of repeat viewing. If you’ve seen the trailer, I will say that Andy yelling “Kelly Clarkson” is the only piece of the scene that would be viable for a G-rated trailer.

Unfortunately, having a few very enjoyable scenes does not necessarily make a very enjoyable movie. The 40 Year Old Virgin can’t decide whether it wants to be a balls-to-the-wall crudefest or a tenderhearted love story so it tries to be both. I just don’t think it quite succeeds.

Welcome to Parenthood: Colic? Maybe not so much.

So much for amateur diagnosis. Kyle is definitely a gassy lad, which sometimes causes discomfort, but we’re pretty sure he’s not colicky. More than likely, he is a “lazy nurser.” Though he nurses for 30-40 minutes at a time, he’s simply not getting enough to satisfy him. This led to a lot of crying and a lack of pooping. We’ve taken steps to correct this, which has resulted in a reduction in crying and an increase in poop. Stinky, stinky poop.

Welcome to Parenthood: Colic and Your Baby

Kyle’s had a rough couple of nights, and it would appear that he is rather colicky. Colic, for those who don’t know, is “severe pain in the abdomen caused by wind or obstruction in the intestines.” The lad is a noisy feeder, and the amount of air it sounds like he’s sucking is enough to make me belch just listening to him. He tends to be kind of a hit-or-miss burper, and it can sometimes take a good ten minutes to coax a good, manly belch out of him.

The air seems to be getting into the intestine (as evidenced by infantile flatulence), and causing no small amount of discomfort as it makes its way to the exit. This makes Kyle unhappy, and leaves his parents seeking some way to soothe his pain. Of course, the worst possible position for Kyle to be in during periods of discomfort seems to be flat on his back. Last night I found that cradling him in my arms and bouncing him ever so gently seemed to work pretty well. Alas, when I returned him to his bassinet at 2:30 this morning, he soon awoke and began crying. It’s not a little cry, either; it’s a full-fledged wail, and it tears my heart out, because there’s clearly pain behind it.

We’ll see how the weekend goes. Colic generally only lasts a couple of weeks, according to something Laura read to me last night. Of course, he’ll have something new to cry about Monday night, as he’s slated to be circumsized Monday morning.