April 2009

  • The Return of the Native


    Kris Johnson, OverlordWhen I asked Chris Miller if his return to Cleveland would be similar to his arrival in Los Angeles nine months ago—specifically, heralded by the blasts of ten thousand trumpets as he rode atop an eight-story-tall flaming lion-bear-shark hybrid attended by a squadron of Mark V rocket-propelled android shock troopers—I was not at all surprised at his simple, yet elegant, response.

    “No,” he said.

    I asked if he would instead descend from the sky in a massive dirigible, bristling with armaments such as have never been seen even in the pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine, surrounded by a swarm of insectoid attack drones, and again he responded in the negative.

    “Besides,” he said. “That’s David‘s schtick.”

    Would he rise from the depths of Lake Erie in a submersible, escorted by an exotic array of cephalopods, cyborg sharks and the entire race of freshwater mermen we recently subjugated? Again, no.

    “I get a little queasy around watercraft,” he said. “And that’s more Natalie‘s bailiwick, anyway.”

    Yes, the man said “bailiwick”.

    “So what’s the plan?” I asked. “Ride a spout of molten lava through the Earth’s core?”

    “I’m not going for a big entrance,” he said. “Nothing too flashy this time.”

    “Well how the hell am I supposed to know you’re back?” I asked.

    “I will slip in quietly,” he said, “like a ninja in a minivan. The setting of the sun in the West will announce me, and as dusk descends upon northeast Ohio you will know that the passing of the light marks my arrival, for as the day is laid to its eternal rest so shall I rise again to conquer all upon which I have set my eye, my heart and my will.”

    “Sounds good,” I said.

    “Also,” he said. “I’ll send you a text.”

    If you’re wondering whether I received that text, the answer is yes. Nearly two days ago, in fact. Why did I not disclose its receipt until now? Because I wanted to let the feeling of dread that undoubtedly descended upon you at 11:33pm on Monday the 20th of April sink in—absorbed like so much moisturizing cream of evil into your parched skin—for a while before I let you know what caused it. That’s how I roll.

    Mr. Miller is back.

    Brace yourselves.

  • Movie Review: Rogue (2007)


    Rogue (2007)Rogue (2007)

    Starring Radha Mitchell, Michael Vartan, Sam Worthington, John Jarratt, Caroline Brazier, Robert Taylor, Stephen Curry, Celia Ireland, Heather Mitchell, Geoff Morrell and Alice.

    Directed by Greg Mclean.

    Music by François Tataz.

    Rogue is one of those rare beasties: a movie that exceeded my expectations on every level. Rarer still, it’s a giant crocodile tale that manages to escape from the realm of the B-Movie, by my accounting a feat that’s happened only twice before. 1Lake Placid and Primeval, though I wouldn’t argue if the former—intentionally campy as it is—were classified as a B-Movie homage. The killer crocodilian is one of my favorite movie genres, but to love these films it’s necessary to embrace bad acting, fountains of fake blood, dodgy special effects and scripts that are—to be kind—less than polished; in other words, you gotta love schlock.

    Writer/director Greg Mclean’s tale of a tour boat running afoul of a 7-meter rogue saltwater crocodile in Australia’s Northern Territories is decidedly not schlock.

    The acting is fairly solid, with fine performances from Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill) as Kate Ryan, the guide who leads a boatload of tourists to their unfortunate encounter with the titular rogue crocodile, Michael Vartan (Alias) as Pete McKell, a travel writer who is anything but thrilled with his current assignment, and Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) as Neil Kelly, the rowdy local who pesters the tour boat only to find himself stalked by the same killer croc. The rest of the cast is a decent mix of personalities, complete with the quiet guy, the weirdo, the jackass you really want to see get eaten, the lady who’s probably going to freak out at any moment, the kid, the heroic guy who you weren’t expecting to die so soon, and the dog. Of course there’s a dog.

    Blood? Sure, there’s blood—being eaten by a crocodile is bloody business, and this isn’t an Australian retelling of Alive; those tourists aren’t gonna eat themselves (or each other)—but it’s not the typical Festival of the Spurting Artery you (if you’re the type who watches these films) may have come to expect. There are really only four bits of gore that I can recall in Rogue—one done strictly for the shock, the second and third to emphasize just how badly the characters are injured and the last to emphasize just how dead the giant crocodile is 2Oh, hey, SPOILER ALERT: the croc dies.—and they all occur in the last 10 minutes of the movie. I appreciate a horror flick that doesn’t feel the need to spray blood and other stuff that really should stay inside the body all over the scenery. Rogue relies on the looming threat of a monstrous, lurking predator to provide the chills and leaves the fountains of gore to lesser films, like the ill-advised splatterfest, The Care Bears vs. The Killer Unicorn. 3This film is not yet rated.

    Another hallmark of creature features is special effects that look like they were ripped off from a bad episode of Land of the Lost, 4I know, I know, that implies that there were good episodes of Land of the Lost. I’m blinded by nostalgia. complete with a critter that most likely started its life in the discount bin at Pat Catan’s. The crocodile in Rogue is a blend of computer-generated imagery and animatronics, and both methods are put to good use. The DVD extras include a breakdown of one particular croc-chomping, and the mixture of elements (wire-work, stunt actor, real actor, computer-generated imagery, etc.) is impressive; there’s a lot going on for a scene that lasts all of ten seconds. The digital legerdemain used to make it appear that the last half of the movie takes place in the same environment as the first half is impressive, too. The effects don’t look at all like effects, and until the curtain is drawn back you may not even be aware that the curtain was even there in the first place.

    But it takes more than whiz-bang special effects to make a good movie, 5I’m looking at you, Wachowski Brothers. And you, too, Frank Miller. and even a competent ensemble cast isn’t going to be able to do much if your script is crap. 6Your turn to receive my glare, X-Men 3. The story in Rogue isn’t likely to win any awards for writing, but it does the job, which mostly entails getting the characters where they need to be in order to set up the buffet without stretching the bounds of feasibility and then letting the crocodile do the rest.

    Rogue has a couple of other things going for it that didn’t even make the schlock vs. non-schlock list: stunning scenery and an excellent score.

    The scenery rivals—hell, surpasses—the New Zealand vistas into which Peter Jackson dropped hobbits, elves, dwarves and orcs for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mclean shot Rogue in some areas of Australia that, if you believe his audio commentary and some of the DVD special features, have rarely been captured on film. The landscape—high, rocky plateaus surrounding heavily-forested lowlands with a wide, calm river running through it—is breathtaking, and certainly like nothing I’ve seen before; especially not in a horror film.

    Likewise, the musical score by François “Frank” Tataz and featuring aboriginal vocals by Jida Gulpilil is miles away from anything I’ve heard in a horror film. Sure, there are a lot of the familiar tropes—pizzicato strings during some of the more tense, prickly moments and a low, ominous cello-based motif for the crocodile—but the tropes are done really well, and there’s also a beautiful suite that accompanies the first third of the film, a haunting piece that provides a perfect accompaniment to the vast, lush landscape. It’s the first horror score in memory that I’ve wanted to own on CD.

    In case it’s not readily apparent by now, I thoroughly enjoyed Rogue. I’ve seen enough killer crocodile movies to recognize a true diamond in a genre that falls, by and large, almost entirely in the rough. It’s not a perfect film—I thought the close-ups of the rising tide looked particularly manufactured, there’s a line of dialog shortly after the tour boat is disabled that seems to allude to a croc-chomping that never happened, and the crocodile would have to have one hell of a big appetite to eat no less than three and a half full-grown adult humans over the course of just twelve hours—but when compared with the rest of its ilk it comes pretty close.

    1 Lake Placid and Primeval, though I wouldn’t argue if the former—intentionally campy as it is—were classified as a B-Movie homage.
    2 Oh, hey, SPOILER ALERT: the croc dies.
    3 This film is not yet rated.
    4 I know, I know, that implies that there were good episodes of Land of the Lost. I’m blinded by nostalgia.
    5 I’m looking at you, Wachowski Brothers. And you, too, Frank Miller.
    6 Your turn to receive my glare, X-Men 3.
  • Acer Aspire 5102WLMiMy first employer after I moved to Ohio was Micro Center, “The Computer Superstore”, where I worked the sales floor in first the accessories, then the software and finally the peripherals department. It’s been nearly twelve years since I moved on from the store, but Micro Center has remained my primary destination when I want to purchase computer equipment. I know several of the people who work there and I trust them to know what they’re talking about and not feed me a load of crap; unlike some other computer retailers, I don’t immediately feel like I know more than the sales associate when the conversation begins. I have nothing but positive things to say about the staff at the local Micro Center, particularly the handful of people who I know from my days roaming the sales floor.

    I wish I could say the same about the people who service their extended warranties.

    When we purchased Laura’s computer two years ago, we also purchased a three-year Micro Center Protection Plan, which includes (per the information card we received):

    • Priority repairs for carry-in service.
    • 24-hour, 7-day Toll-Free Technical Hardware Support.
    • No deductibles, no hidden charges, no out of pocket expenses.
    • Power Surge Protection.
    • No Lemon Guarantee.

    When the laptop died recently, I was pretty pleased that we’d spent the extra money on the Protection Plan. I dug up the information card, Laura found the receipt for her computer, and she called the Toll Free number for service.

    That’s when the trouble started.

    After running her through some troubleshooting that resulted in a still-dead laptop, 1I strongly suspected a dead motherboard after my own attempts to revive the thing were unsuccessful. The unit would power on, but performed no POST and did not boot to the operating system. the Customer Service Representative informed Laura that someone would be contacting her in two business days about arranging for repairs.

    Wait. What? Two business days to arrange for repairs? Where is that in the features of the Protection Plan?

    Several days later—there was a weekend between the two business days plus a couple of extra business days on the other end of the weekend, which I assume were thrown in at no extra charge—Laura received a call to inform her that a box was on its way; a box into which her laptop should be packed and shipped away for service. I cannot begin to speculate why it took nearly a week to arrange to have the box shipped, except to say that perhaps the one-size-fits-all foam insert was hand-made in Guatemala, or perhaps the shipping label that appeared to be computer-generated was, in fact, drawn by an eyeless Mole-man in the deep recesses of an underground cave where the light of the sun dares not venture.

    After retrieving all of Laura’s documents from the laptop’s hard drive 2Courtesy of an IDE/SATA-to-USB adapter I purchased specifically for the task from, you guessed it, Micro Center. I packed the laptop into the box, along with the power adapter and the system restore discs, and Laura shipped it to Micro Medics, the company that would be performing the repair.

    To their credit, the response from Micro Medics was very quick: the motherboard was damaged due to a power surge 3Hey, our Protection Plan covers that! Right? Right? and the unit was beyond repair. Micro Medics was kind enough to dispose of the laptop (read: part it out for other repairs) and offered to ship the hard drive back to us. They also informed Laura that someone from Micro Center would be contacting her about a “buyout”.

    The hard drive arrived in the mail on Monday. Micro Center did not call.

    March went out like a lamb on Tuesday. Micro Center did not call.

    April Fooled us on Wednesday. Micro Center did not call.

    Nothing at all interesting happened on Thursday. Not even a call from Micro Center.

    Around the world, corporate drones thanked their maker(s) in unison that it was Friday. Micro Center did not call.

    This afternoon, I decided that perhaps Micro Center needed a gentle reminder, so I called the Toll Free customer service line, waded through the automated menu, and was connected to a customer service representative who informed me of two things:

    1. The matter is now in the hands of the claims department.
    2. The claims department is not open on the weekend. 4So much for 24-hour, 7-day support.

    Now, I will admit that once these facts were conveyed to me I became a little irate. Two business days (that turned into more like four) to arrange service was annoying, but five-plus business days without a call after the laptop was declared unrepairable really got under my skin. So, I let the CSR know. And I wasn’t particularly kind or gracious about it. I understand that she was—to the limits of her capacity—trying to provide assistance. But I didn’t care. I let her know that the process was pathetic, the delays were unacceptable, and I wasn’t anything approaching pleased about it. She was more gracious than I, and I give her credit for maintaining a professional demeanor. I was nowhere near as scathing (or foul-mouthed) as I could have been (or wanted to be), but I lost my temper and she did not stoop to my level at any point. She informed me that she would send an e-mail to the claims department and that we would receive a call first thing Monday morning, asked me if there was anything else she could do, and bade me good day.

    And now we wait to see what will happen on Monday morning. Given the level of attention and concern Micro Center has afforded the matter thus far, I fear that the “buyout” amount they’ll offer for the laptop will barely cover the price we paid for the Protection Plan in the first place.

    What’s truly sad about this whole experience is how poorly it reflects on Micro Center. I’ve always been very happy with the sales and service in-store. As I mentioned previously, I know several people who still work there, and I trust them to be straight with me. When Laura was looking for a laptop, there was never any question about where we’d go to buy it. When my mother was looking for a laptop, she made a special trip here from the Upper Peninsula so we could go to Micro Center together and buy one. When my mother’s laptop turned out to be a lemon, Micro Center replaced it; granted, I had to ruffle a feather or two to convince them not to ship it away for service, but in the end they replaced it, going out of their way to make me a satisfied customer. That’s what I like about the store: they know how to make their customers happy, and they’ll go out of their way to do so; I experienced that time and again when I was working there. It’s too bad that spirit doesn’t extend to their Protection Plan services.

    UPDATE: I was not particularly surprised that the Micro Center Protection Plan claims department didn’t call on Monday. Disappointing follow-up has been pretty much par for the course upon which we unfortunately find ourselves. I resisted the temptation to call and raise another ruckus, as I don’t think I would have been able to display even a modicum of poise at that point. 5I wasn’t surprised, but I was very, very irritated. I opted to let it go and give them another day, and they finally called sometime Tuesday afternoon (or perhaps it was late morning). I wasn’t home when they called, so I have no idea whether the claims representative was at all contrite, but I have my doubts.

    The matter has been resolved to Laura’s satisfaction. We’ve been issued what amounts to a Micro Center store credit for nearly the entire base value of the laptop when it was purchased, and we’ll put that toward the purchase of a new laptop. As with all things computeralogical, advances have been made in the past two years, and a laptop with specifications similar to Laura’s Acer Aspire currently fetches about half of what we paid for it in January of 2007. The upshot is that Laura will be able to get a better laptop for the same amount of money.

    I fully expected that whatever settlement we received from the Protection Plan would be in the form of a Micro Center store credit. After all, why send us elsewhere for a new laptop? I’m pleasantly surprised at the amount of the credit, as my biggest fear was that we’d get some manner of depreciated value that wouldn’t be nearly enough to purchase a replacement.

    I’m pleased with the end result (I’ll be more pleased when Laura has her own computer again), but I still feel the process is abominable. The delays—all on the part of the Micro Center Protection Plan organization; Micro Medics was very efficient—were ridiculous. Laura has been without a laptop for several weeks, and the matter—even accounting for shipping the laptop away to Micro Medics—shouldn’t have taken more than a week and a half: overnight us a box, we ship to Micro Medics, they diagnose (this took all of three business days, including shipping) and report back to the claims department, claims department contacts us with the settlement. Done. Instead, we got…well, you know what we got: jerked around for a couple of weeks.

    I should note that I’m perfectly content to go back to Micro Center for the replacement laptop. As I mentioned before, I’ve always been happy with the local store and the people who work there. And, given the trouble Laura had with her Acer Aspire, I’ll probably recommend that we purchase another Protection Plan. Ultimately, it appears to have been a wise investment, even if actually using it was nothing but a pain in the ass.

    1 I strongly suspected a dead motherboard after my own attempts to revive the thing were unsuccessful. The unit would power on, but performed no POST and did not boot to the operating system.
    2 Courtesy of an IDE/SATA-to-USB adapter I purchased specifically for the task from, you guessed it, Micro Center.
    3 Hey, our Protection Plan covers that! Right? Right?
    4 So much for 24-hour, 7-day support.
    5 I wasn’t surprised, but I was very, very irritated.