Sunday, December 30, 2007

Armchair QB: And so it ends...

The same way it began -- with an ass-whipping. Sure, there was only a touchdown difference in the final score, but the game wasn't that close. It was another Saints special. Putting the ball on the ground, getting stupid penalties, even the incredible night that Pierre Thomas had couldn't overcome the boneheaded mistakes.

Thomas is about the only bright spot to take out of this game. I've been a fan since preseason, and I was very pleased to see him get a chance to show what he can do this week. What can he do? Well, over 100 yards rushing and over 100 yards receiving is definitely not a bad first start. The best performance of a Saints running back this year. I don't want to discount the great play of Aaron Stecker over the past few weeks, but I do wonder what we might have done with Pierre Thomas in the game all those games when we were trying to get Reggie Bush to be the man.

Another disappointing end to a disappointing year. While I'm upset at the way the season went, I still feel like there's a bright future for this team. I'm just having a little trouble seeing it tonight.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Armchair QB: SOS

That would be Same Old Saints.

How many times have we been here, especially in the last few years. We've got to win to get in, and we can't get the job done. In fairness, the Eagles played very well today and our sideline looks more like a hospital ward than a football field, but we still had the chances.

The twist of the knife, of course, was the fact that Washington beat the Vikings, meaning that if we had found a way to win, we would control our own destiny. Now, we're hoping for the stars to align and planets to collide. We have to win, Washington has to lose to a Dallas team that's clinched home field and likely won't play any of its starters, and the Vikings have to lose to Denver. Mathematically, we're not eliminated, but in the real world, we blew it.

Of course, when the game starts on the crazy note today's did -- a fumble rolling around for 30 yards and ending up in the end zone under an Eagle -- you know what kind of day it's going to be. I felt pretty confident after our first drive and then the forced fumble that ended in a touchdown, but after that, it just seemed we couldn't do anything until the end of the first half. That last-second Grammatica field goal turning a disaster into three points has to be one of the top plays of the year. We go into the second half with a great drive and three chances to put the ball in from the one, and we can't get the job done. Give the Eagles defense credit, they whipped us up front. I don't disagree with the decision to go for it on fourth and goal, but as much as I like what Aaron Stecker has done for us, I question giving the ball to a guy with a bad wheel after we've been stuffed on the two previous running plays. Then, of course, came the questionable roughing call and the downward spiral.

As disheartening as yet another home loss in a key situation was, there were a few good things to talk about. I continue to be impressed with Stecker's performance. He looked like a monster in the early going, then came back after being carted off to finish the game strong. The guy has shown nothing but heart since replacing Reggie Bush, maybe more than anyone else out there in black and gold. He deserves a shot at earning a starting job somewhere, and as much as I'd like to keep him in New Orleans, he may just get it after this performance.

And what about Martin Grammatica? Sure, it's only four kicks, but after what we went through with Olindo Mare early in the season, it's pretty exciting to this Saints fan -- especially the 55-yarder under pressure at the end of the first half.

So, there's still hope, but getting to the playoffs at 8-8 isn't exactly an exciting proposition. It's almost like cheating in a way when you get in because someone loses instead of because you won the right. It feels like a recipe for one and done.

Don't get me wrong. Next weekend, I'll be in front of my TV, screaming for the Saints. I'll be back there cheering for Denver, and even though I'd rather have my fingernails ripped out than cheer for the Cowboys, I'll even hope they win. At this point, though, I think it's time to start talking about getting our key players healthy, the draft and fixing our defensive problems for next year.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Armchair QB: Hype

The hype is back on. I guess, as long-suffering fans of the Saints, we're just too eager to latch on to any kind of hope. It seems that some fans and analysts already have us pencilled in for that last wild card spot. Let's not forget, though, that some of us had the NFC South championship pencilled in a few weeks ago.

I was definitely pleased with the Saints' performance today. We did what we should have done and took care of business in a must-win situation. Drew Brees is looking great again, and how about Aaron Stecker? As strange as it sounds, perhaps Reggie Bush going down might be the best thing that could have happened for our playoff hopes this year.

I think too often since the loss of Deuce, the Saints have tried to cram Bush into a hole where he doesn't fit, as a head-down, plowing through the defense kind of runner. But Bush really needs a guy like Deuce to be the workhorse and give him a chance to get out in space and make the kind of plays he can make. Bush is not a guy that can carry the load himself. Stecker's shown over the past two games that, with a little relief from Pierre Thomas, he can. It gives us a solid running attack, and the coaches don't feel pressure to get the ball into Stecker's hands if the run's not working the way they do with Bush. It simplifies the gameplan.

As far as playoffs go, I have just as much hope as any Saints fan that we can finish 9-7 and sneak in, but I temper that hope with reality. First, we have to take care of our end of the deal, which includes beating Philadelphia and Chicago. That's not a given, particularly since we'll be going to Chicago on December 30, where it's likely to be snowing and cold. I don't need to remind anyone about that NFC Championship game last year. And even if we take care of our end, the Vikings have to lose, and they've been hot lately. It's definitely possible, but I wouldn't be making my plans for a playoff tailgate party just yet. For Monday night, all I can say is "Go Bears."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Armchair QB: Playoffs? Are you kidding me?

So with all the announcers' talk about the Saints climbing back into playoff contention and the team looking fantastic in blowing out Atlanta last night, they almost got me amped up again. Then I remembered that we were playing the Falcons, and there are some high school teams out there that might have a legitimate shot at beating the Falcons this year.

Still, it was a satisfying victory for me. I've always said, no matter how bad the season, it can be redeemed by sweeping the Falcons (or beating the Cowboys in a year that we play them.) So, yeah, I'm happy. But playoffs? I'm not ready to go back down that road yet. That's three straight wins away and a little help from some other teams, and I remember a couple of years when all the Saints had to do was win one of their last four games to get in, and they couldn't do it. I'm not buying into it yet. Impressive wins over Arizona and Philadelphia could get me back there, though.

I wasn't going to mention the Vick thing, but I have to say that I found it annoying to see players and fans paying tribute to him as though he were the victim of some tragedy. The only thing Vick is the victim of is his own stupidity. He knew what he was doing was illegal, and it follows that he should have known he was risking his freedom and livelihood in doing it. Sorry, but to me, dogfighting is a pretty stupid thing to gamble a multi-million dollar NFL contract and even more in endorsement deals on. The guy did the crime, he's got to do the time. End of story.

I also found it somewhat annoying that all the post-game talk was about Vick and Reggie Bush, two guys who didn't play a down last night and one that may never again. How about a little thumbs up for Aaron Stecker and Pierre Thomas who combined for the best rushing game of the season? Sure, it was against the Falcons, but it's nice to see the two-back attack again -- even if it wasn't the two we planned.

New mag

Just passing along a little info on a new magazine that the metalheads here might be interested in. It's being done by metal folks for metal folks. Looks like it might be cool -- and the price is definitely right for the first year. Check it out.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Armchair QB: WTF?!?!?!

I'll be 35 next Saturday. I've been watching football for at least 25 of those years, probably a few more. On Sunday, I witnessed what might be the absolute worst play call that I've ever seen in my life.

We've just sacked Luke McCown for a safety and gotten the ball back with a three point lead. There are three minutes left in the game. Momentum is with us. All we need to do is get first downs and eat up clock. Why are we running a trick play? I understand we're missing Deuce, who is the go-to guy in this situation, but give the ball to Aaron Stecker behind Mike Karney and run the damned clock out. But not the Saints, we try a reverse, put the ball on the ground and lose the game. We effectively blow our season on a trick play that made no sense. Even Jim Haslett wouldn't have made a call that boneheaded.

All I can do is shake my head.

There's a point when even the most optimistic fan has to admit that his team is going to miss the playoffs, and even my rose-colored glasses are starting to fog up from the steam coming out of my ears after that play. This team is far too inconsistent and makes way too many mistakes to get there. Their best shot was winning the NFC South, and I think Tampa pretty much has the conference wrapped up now. They'd have to lose a lot of games to weak opponents and we'd probably have to win out. I don't see either of those things happening.

Here's hoping Deuce gets healthy and we can somehow fix our defensive problems in the offseason. There's always next year.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Random Rant: Another ebook push

So, we're back to the ebook push again with the launch of two new readers from Amazon and Sony. I've made my feelings on ebooks pretty clear in the past, but with the launch of these new readers, I dutifully made the effort to check them out.

I first looked at Amazon's Kindle, and much to my surprise, I was actually kind of impressed with it. No, I don't believe I would like it as much as a real book, but, at least from the shots of it on the site, this looks like the most readable reader I've ever seen. The screen looks very much like a real book page, and with the cover they offer, you could almost hold it the way that you hold a book. I thought this might be worth at least checking out. Then I got to the price -- $400. After I put my eyes back in my head, I cruised on back over to the regular book section of the site. No thanks.

I next took a look at the Sony E-Reader. It looks a little less clunky than the Kindle, but, at least from the images I've seen, the screen doesn't look as easy on the eyes. Again, though, there's a $300 investment up front. That will buy a whole lot of traditional books.

Putting aside that I love my dead tree books and the fact that I hate the way the electronic format makes books somehow feel disposable, these readers, while the best we've seen so far, still have a lot of challenges. The biggest I believe, as I pointed out above, is the price. To your average person who doesn't have money to blow, a $400 upfront investment doesn't make a lot of sense. Most new releases that I've seen in ebook format cost $9.99. That's more than the average paperback, and not a whole lot less than what you can usually find the hardcover for online. (Not to mention the fact that, if you don't want to keep it, you can resell the hardcover or paperback, pass it along to a friend or donate it to a book fair. Things you can't do with the electronic copy.) It's a price point that I don't believe a whole lot of people are going to be willing to pay -- possibly only techies and hardcore environmentalist types who will feel better about themselves because they're saving trees. That's not a big audience, and not enough, I believe to push ebooks mainstream.

Then there's the fact that the software for these machines is proprietary. Want to download an ebook from the library onto your Kindle or E-Reader? Too bad. The only way to get the book you want is to purchase it from either Amazon in the case of the Kindle or Connect in the case of the Sony. I bristle at proprietary formats anyway. It's the reason that I have an MP3 player that's not an iPod -- one that allows me to load music from many different sources and from many different services. I'd say very few bibliophiles buy every single book that they read brand new. If we did, we certainly wouldn't have $400 to drop on a reader. This cuts out those of us who like to save a few bucks by buying used or going to the library.

So I hear the same argument building from some quarters that the music industry has already used on us. Authors deserve to get paid for their work and reselling or sharing a book with a friend is wrong. *sigh* I'm a writer. I hope to one day be a published writer. You can bet your ass I believe authors (and musicians) deserve to get paid for their work. When I am published, though, I will be delighted if someone likes my book well enough to pass it along.

It's an argument that's never made much sense to me. Someone that's not familiar with your work is much more likely to give it a shot if a friend passes the book along than they are to drop $10 on it at the store. I don't know how many times a friend has passed along a paperback, and I've liked it enough to go out and buy all the author's work. I don't know how many of my favorite bands I was introduced to by someone handing me a dubbed cassette (those are the little plastic things with wheels and actual tape in them for my younger readers.) I've literally spent thousands of dollars on authors and musicians that I took a chance on because they were handed to me for free.

Back to the subject at hand, I'll admit that these new readers have my attention, and that's quite an accomplishment considering my love of real books and my mindset about ebooks. But they've still got a long, long way to go. For right now, I still don't think they're ready for prime time and that little paper, ink and glue loving part of me smiles at the thought.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Armchair QB: Who are you?

Attention real New Orleans Saints team: Will you please take the field for the remaining five games of the season?

Seriously, whichever one you are, please show up for all of the remaining five games. If it's the team that stomped Carolina today, the one that looked like the team that went to the NFC championship game last year, that's fantastic. If it's the team that looked absolutely horrible in losing to Houston last week or the team that gave St. Louis its first win of the season, well, there's always next year. But give us some semblance of consistency. Don't toy with us poor, deluded fans who are hanging on with blind faith to the hope that we can make a run in our pitiful division and make the playoffs. Either give us a reason to hope or put us out of our misery.

Next week should be the telling game. While I still think 9-7 will win this division, which gives us enough wiggle room for one more loss somewhere down the stretch, I don't think it's possible to win the division if that loss is to Tampa Bay.

So, here we are, a far cry from my foolish prediction that the opening game of the season would be a preview of this year's Super Bowl. Now, I'm digging my fingernails into the hope just to get a playoff game and watching them rip off as we continue to slide down the cliff. Here's hoping the team that played today shows up for the next five weeks and lets me keep as many of those fingernails as I can.

Oh, and by the way, will someone (Steelers, I'm talking to you) please beat the damned Patriots so I can stop hearing how they're invincible, unbeatable and destined to go 19-0 already? Thanks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Review: "Making Money" by Terry Pratchett

Once upon a time, a new Terry Pratchett novel was mandatory reading for me, but I just haven’t found his last few books as funny as expected. I’ve even missed a few completely over those years. So I opened “Making Money” ($25.95, HarperCollins), it was without the excitement that I once had.

The book returns to the story of the unfortunately named Moist von Lipwig, introduced in “Going Postal.” The former con man was given a new lease on life in that book when Lord Vetinari, the patrician of the city of Ankh-Morpork, spared him from execution to put him in charge of the floundering post office. In a few years, Moist has used his former criminal skills to get the post office running more smoothly than ever.

Now, Moist is bored and has returned to his criminal ways, in secret, for some excitement. The city also has another problem — its banks are failing. Vetinari once again turns to Moist to “persuade” him to take over the royal mint. Throw in the conniving family of the late chairman who want to seize control of the mint, an assassin’s guild contract and a girlfriend who is head of a golem liberation organization, and you’ve got all the makings of a zany Pratchett tale.

Once again, though, “Making Money” just doesn’t stack up to past Discworld offerings. The book will hold the interest of Pratchett fans, but don’t expect many laugh-out-loud moments, just a chuckle here and there. The satirical element of Pratchett’s work does run through the entire book as he takes stabs at several social and political issues, but it’s not quite as cutting as he’s been in the past.

The characters here also don’t seem as colorful and well-realized as some of Pratchett’s past heroes and villains. Maybe its my affection for older characters like Rincewind the Wizzard, Granny Weatherwax and, of course, Death, but most of the new characters don’t seem to connect the way those did. (This from the guy who was happy to see new blood in the books just a few years back.)

Storywise, the book is interesting and enjoyable, and it’s a step above some of his considerable output over the past decade or so, including “Going Postal.” If you’re new to Pratchett, though, I’d advise digging back into the Discworld catalog before trying out the newer volumes.

Read my reviews of past Pratchett novels. (Please note that some of the first reviews on this page are very old and rudimentary.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Armchair QB: Stupid games

Well, it certainly didn't take long for the "I told you so" crowd to come out. In fact, they were out before the game ended Sunday. I wasn't going to be home for the game and was recording it. I stopped at a restaurant around 2 p.m., a guy there saw the Saints license plate on the front of my truck and started in. Mind you, at that point it was 20-7 in the third quarter.

Let's put aside the fact that we never should have been down 34-7 to St. Louis in the first place and just look at that fourth quarter. At least they gave us some excitement, and I still believe that had Josh Bullocks come down with either of those onside kicks that passed through his hands, we win that game in an incredible comeback. I certainly think there was more drama than Chris Berman's enthralling ESPN analysis of the fourth quarter: "the Saints scored some points late."

I felt pretty good after the Jacksonville game, but I told my wife, I'll feel much better if we take care of St. Louis next week and don't have one of our stupid games. Saints fans will know what I mean by "stupid games." It's when the team gets on a roll, wins a few games, starts looking better, then in rolls a winless or one-win team and not only beats us, but thrashes us. It's a very familiar pattern, one I hoped we'd break. But, we had a stupid game.

It's the same old Saints inconsistency. True, the Rams didn't play like an 0-8 team on Sunday, but the Saints did. Unlike the unflappable Drew Brees of last season, the one that started the game on Sunday was the Aaron Brooks impersonator from earlier this year. The guy that senses pressure and puts the ball up for grabs. And why is Jason David still on the field? I know Fred Thomas isn't the answer, but I think we'd be better off with him in there. Every smart quarterback in the league has the number 42 etched in his brain coming into a game with New Orleans. Drop back, look for 42 and let fly. Your receiver is as good as open.

Luckily, we're in the weakest division in the league, so we're still in the hunt for the NFC South. I think 9-7 wins the division, possibly even 8-8. Also luckily, we don't play the Dolphins.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Armchair QB: Four in a row -- wow

Though I never gave up hope, I'll admit that four weeks ago, it was even hard for me to look at this team and think it could make something of itself. I was preaching patience to my fellow Saints fan, but everything I was saying was about next year. Even I had pretty much given up on doing anything this season.

So it took some time for me to really embrace the fact that we might be back when we started to win. I was heartened by the victory over the 49ers, and though there were certainly a lot of things to work on, I had to admit that we did what you should do against a weaker opponent we took the lead and we kept it.

I was a bit more impressed with this weekend's victory over Jacksonville. Sure, they were without their starting QB, but I don't think that would have mattered. Our offense seems to really be clicking again, and the defense is looking good up front. We still have some problems in the backfield (Jason David burned again) and Olindo Mare has still got to go. Should we make it to the playoffs, which now looks like it might be a possibility again, I don't want him trotting out there with the game on the line. Unfortunately, Sean Payton doesn't seem to agree.

Overall, though, I'm happy at the halfway point, particularly considering how we started. Certainly 6-2 would be better, but in the NFC South, 4-4 is still very much alive. I am, however, holding my breath as we face the winless Rams next week. On paper, it should be a laugher for us, but the Saints have a historical way of making really bad teams look better and giving winless teams their first W. If we win this week, I'll feel a lot better.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Review: "The Name of the Wind," by Patrick Rothfuss

Normally I hate it when a writer starts one story then morphs into something else, but I really can’t hold that against Patrick Rothfuss in his excellent debut novel "The Name of the Wind" ($24.95, DAW).

It starts with the tale of an innkeeper with a secret past and some strange spider-like creatures who are attacking people on the road around the village. When a scribe comes to town and discovers the innkeeper’s secret, it changes to the life story of the innkeeper, who is actually the hero (and villain) Kvothe. In the end, the reader is left without any real resolution and with very little knowledge of what was going on at the beginning of the book. The spider-like creatures remain almost as much a mystery as they are when a guy walks into the bar with a dead one. As frustrating as that might sound to some, it’s really not at all.

The reason is that Kvothe’s story is fascinating. We follow him from his childhood with the traveling Edema Ruh and the tragedy he faced there, to his time on the streets in the city of Tarbean, to his quest for magic and the name of the wind at University. Along the way, it mixes elements of a lot of different stories.

Overall, the character of Kvothe reminds me a little of David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but there’s just something about the feel of the story that gives me that same vibe. Maybe it’s the quiet, stoic heroism — though, I believe we’ll discover that hasn’t always been Kvothe’s way. Certainly, there’s the feel of a very dark and dismal "Oliver Twist" during Kvothe’s time on the streets, and much of the character’s experiences at the University will remind readers of the Harry Potter stories, though with a much more adult tone.

That said, "The Name of the Wind" doesn’t seek to emulate any of those stories. Despite perhaps reminding readers of those and more, Rothfuss’ debut stands on its own as a fascinating story about a fascinating character. The book creates a lot of questions in the reader’s mind, but answers few of them, instead hinting that all will be revealed as Kvothe’s story continues. There’s also something about Rothfuss’ style that seems to reassure the reader that patience will be rewarded and all will be revealed.

"The Name of the Wind" is a very well-crafted story with complex and likeable characters, and to me, that’s really what you look for in a fantasy novel. I highly recommend it.

Get "The Name of the Wind."

Armchair QB: Two in a row

So I'm a little late on this one. I was out of town for the Seahawks game and watched it late, then was playing catchup at work, dealing with elections and fall's my busiest season of the year. I'm behind on lots of stuff. It happens.

At any rate, you've got to be pleased to finally get in the W column and almost ecstatic to win two in a row at this point. I've been preaching patience in the Saints circles that I run in. It seems after the 0-4 start a lot of the folks around me had forgotten that Sean Payton led this team to its best season ever just last year. They were calling for wholesale changes to the team. Some were reasonable -- a new kicker. Some were ludicrous -- trying to get Ricky Williams back if he's reinstated. No thanks.

I've got a theory, though, and that is that teams who have success quickly and unexpectedly like the Saints did last season aren't really prepared to deal with all that comes with it. Certainly, we were overhyped coming into the season, and fan expectations, including my own, were running way too high. Then there's the fact that never in the history of the team have faces from the Saints been as prevalent as Reggie Bush and Drew Brees are right now. I mean, you see one, if not both of them, during every commercial break during every game. That has to be a bit of a distraction if you're not used to dealing with it. I think the team is just finally settling down and getting back to business. Better late than never.

That's not to say that everything is fixed. They gave us a good scare at the end of the Seattle game, and barely survived against an awful Atlanta team -- though certainly you have to note that's a rivalry game, too. Then there's the fact that we punted from the 35 because we don't trust our kicker to send him out for a 52 yarder. I'm still not sure that we did the right thing by not signing one of the kickers we tried out, but for now I'll trust that Payton knows what he's doing. He served us well last season.

Still, looking down our schedule, it doesn't look too bad. Niners, Jags, Rams, Texans, Panthers, Bucs, Falcons, Cardinals, Eagles and Bears. There are definitely some tough games there, but with the Eagles and Bears struggling, it certainly doesn't look as vicious as it did at the start of the season.

Certainly the Saints have got a tough mountain to climb. They'd have to finish 8-2 to match last season's total, 7-3 to salvage a winning season. I haven't given up hope yet, though. They'll definitely have to play better than they have even in their two wins, but I think a 9-7 finish and sneaking into the playoffs as a Wild Card team is not out of the question at this point. It's not the Super Bowl that we hoped for before the season began, but I think most of us would be happy with it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Armchair QB: U-G-L-Y

Feels like old times, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Ugly. That's really all I've got the energy to say right now.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Random rant: Extra room on the bandwagon

Some people might think that an 0-3 start would cause people to question their loyalty to their team. Those people have probably never been real fans. They’re like this guy.

It may sound funny, but in some ways, this year’s start has made me a more fierce fan of the Saints. Sure, I’m as frustrated as anybody about the underachieving team. I’m upset that Deuce McAllister is done for the season. I’m mad because our offensive line can’t block anyone this year and our defensive backs can’t cover anyone. I’m disappointed that what I thought would be a dream season now looks like a season in which the Saints won’t even make the playoffs. But at least I’m not like that guy and the thousands more out there like him who have turned on the team only three games into the season.

I’ll still be in front of my TV every Sunday afternoon if I can’t actually be in the Dome. I’ll still wear my black and gold proudly whether we end the season 13-3 or 3-13. If we don’t make the playoffs, I’ll still believe next season will be our year, and the season after that, and the season after that. That’s what being a fan means — not cheering for the team when they’re winning.

I’ve been a Saints fan since I was a child, and I’ve been through highs and (mostly) lows with this team. I’ve jumped up and down in the Dome and screamed my head off as they won the big game. I’ve also sat until the bitter end of a lopsided loss as the building emptied on more than one occasion. Sure, I like to gripe about them when they’re struggling and wonder why I continue to follow them, but the next time they kick off, you can bet I’ll be there. That’s what being a fan means.

All my life, friends and family have poked fun at me for being a Saints fan through the losing seasons. They’ve taken great joy during the years when the Saints flopped in saying, "I told you so," and they may get to do it again this season. But guess where many of those people were sitting on Sunday afternoons during the Saints’ run last year? Yep. Right in front of the TV acting like they’d always been fans. They went out and bought their hats and T-shirts when it looked like the Saints might go to the Super Bowl. Now, they’re neatly tucking those away, and they’re back to laughing at those of us who still believe.

All I can say is good riddance. I’m thankful for the extra elbow room up here on the bandwagon, and I’ll enjoy it while it lasts. I know you’ll be climbing back up here when things turn around.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Armchair QB: Thank God for the bye

Three weeks into the season, and I'm already stunned into numbness. I watched the last quarter of tonight's game with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, akin to the one I had after the NFC Championship game last year. Like so many others, I had high hopes and lofty predictions for what this season would be like. At least 11 or 12 wins, a Super Bowl appearance. Seems a little silly now, sitting here at 0-3. The hard facts are that, as the commentators pointed out several times, only five teams in history have started 0-3 and made the playoffs. None of them have made the Super Bowl. The even harder fact is the team we've seen these first three weeks doesn't look remotely like a playoff team. To paraphrase Dennis Green, they're not who we thought they were. That galvanizing force that brought this team together last year -- the fire, the drive, the heart -- just doesn't seem to be there. Even the home crowd couldn't jumpstart them.

The mistakes keep coming from the guys you least expect. Last week it was Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister putting the ball on the ground. This week it was Drew Brees, one of the most accurate passers in the league last year, throwing four interceptions and fumbling. In fairness to Drew, he got zero protection. The Titans were in his face almost as soon as he got the ball on almost every play. That line that looked like a brick wall looks more like a picket fence with a bunch of boards missing this year.

The hardest part to take is that you know they've still got the talent. We saw it in the third quarter on a scoring drive that looked like last year's team. Heck, even Jason David made a few plays. I thought they'd finally found that old rhythm again, but after Drew's fumble, things just seemed to fall apart. It's another scene that's eerily familiar to Saints fans.

Perhaps the worst news of the night for fans though, was the report that Deuce's knee injury could be a season-ending ACL tear. That would definitely steal the thunder from the Saints' running game -- quite literally. Not to mention likely ending the career of one of my favorite players. Here's hoping that the "sources" aren't correct and we can see 26 back out there in a couple of weeks.

Update: It appears the reports of Deuce's injury were true. Very bad news indeed.

Perhaps with a week off, the Saints can regroup and find something to rally around and come out with a little more intensity and consistency in week 5. You've got to have faith. That's about all we've got left at this point.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Random rant: No, really, our envelopes cost $8 each

If you've been reading regularly, you might remember that my son is a Thomas fanatic. So, in preparation for Christmas I've been doing a lot of eBay shopping for trains since the retail price of the wooden Thomas trains is ridiculous. (There's no way I'm buying that a 2 ½-inch wooden train with a magnet on each end is worth $12, but that's another rant.)

Luckily, I've found a great seller for my Thomas needs, but when it comes to other things, I always get a chuckle out of shopping on eBay. It happens every time I click on something that seems to have a reasonable price only to find out that shipping on the item costs twice what the item itself costs. Last week, I was shopping for some SD cards when I encountered this. The 1 GB cards were $5.99, which I knew was too cheap, so I also knew the shipping would be outrageous. In this case there were several sellers offering those cards with shipping ranging from $10 to $11.

What sent me into peals of laughter, though, was the one seller I clicked on who was positively indignant about people complaining about his inflated shipping charges. Did I mention that he also wouldn't combine shipping on multiple items? So two SD cards, shipped in the same envelope = $22 shipping, three cards in the same envelope = $33 shipping, etc. He explained that it was not just shipping but the price of the envelopes and labels that you were paying for, before ending angrily, "if you don't like my shipping charges, don't buy the item." OK, no problem.

I've sold on eBay and for years, and I understand you have to pay for envelopes, labels, etc., but let's break this down. First class shipping on an SD card in a padded envelope is, maybe, $1.50 max. Then, let's just assume that your envelope and your label cost $1 each (and those would be some very, very expensive labels and envelopes -- mine cost less than $1 combined), that's still $3.50. Don't try to tell me you need $11 to cover the cost of labels and envelopes.

Of course, we all know what's going on here. It's rampant on eBay. People want to offer a super-cheap price on the merchandise, so they jack up shipping rates to cover the loss they're taking on the sale price. It looks a lot better to have that SD card listed for $5.99 than for $13.99, and you hope people won't pay attention to the shipping until it's too late. I'm just wondering if anyone's really falling for that. Judging by the fact that I constantly see people bidding more on items than they can buy them for in the store, I'm assuming just for the feeling they get from winning, I guess there probably are. (That's also backed up by eBay's latest slogan, "shop victoriously.")

Here's a thought. Don't try to make up your losses on shipping and shovel crap down my throat about envelopes and labels. Give me the best possible price that you can give me on your item with a reasonable shipping cost. If it beats my local store, I'll buy it. If not, I won't. You won't have to worry about going on the defensive with people who are angry over your inflated shipping, you'll look better and your customers will feel better about you. Imagine that. Of course, it will never happen. That's just not the eBay way.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Armchair QB: In for a long season

Another week, another ass whipping, another frustrating season as a Saints fan. At least that's what it's looking like from here.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not ready to bail yet, but I am getting that familiar sinking feeling. I'm remembering those times the Saints had a good year, sent expectations through the roof and then tanked. I'm seeing the pattern come into focus again.

I expected the team to come out of the gate blazing this week after last week's embarrassment in Indianapolis. I expected not only a win, but an impressive win. I expected a statement game against a division rival. I guess maybe I got that statement. It was definitely not the one I was hoping for, though.

The sad thing is no one seems to know what the problem is. Sure there's Jason David who gets burned every week like a pasty guy on a beach, and we can't forget Olindo Missé, but the problem goes deeper than that. With the possible exception of the defensive front, these guys just don't look like they're ready to play. Deuce and Reggie both put the ball on the ground. And what about that offensive line? The one that didn't let anyone get to Drew Brees last year? This year, he's running for his life. There have been moments in these first two games that reminded me of the Archie Manning years.

I haven't been this disappointed in a Saints team since the infamous late-season collapse in 2002.

Next up, the home opener against Tennessee. In the Dome, Monday night. No, the atmosphere won't be anything like last year's home opener against the Falcons, the return after Hurricane Katrina. But the Saints need to treat it just like that game. I'm sure I speak for most of the Black and Gold Nation when I say that I need to see something next week. It's time to show the fans that have supported this team through thick and thin (mostly thin) that you're not about to disappoint us again. To paraphrase a famous New Orleans saying, show me something, mister.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Review: "Dragons of the Dwarven Depths" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

During my junior high and early high school years, I was a devoted follower of the Dragonlance series based on the world from then-TSR's (now Wizards of the Coast's) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. If you'd asked me in ninth grade to name my favorite books, the Legends trilogy would have been right there near the top. In fact, my first novel, written in my high school years, was a complete ripoff of the Chronicles trilogy.

Somewhere during those last couple of high school years, I lost interest as the company began pumping out a series of lousy novels that were really only connected by the Dragonlance logo on the cover. But when I saw this new installment, "Dragons of the Dwarven Depths," from the original writers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, I just couldn't pass up the chance to revisit my childhood.

I had some reservations going in. After all, this is the beginning of a trilogy that promises to fill the gaps between the books in the Chronicles trilogy. I thought those three books covered the story pretty well. Also, there's always that nagging feeling about revisiting something I really enjoyed 18 or 20 years ago and finding it isn't as special as I remembered. I revisited the Chronicles a few years back and still found them fun, and I enjoyed Weis and Hickman's more recent War of Souls trilogy. Nostalgia won.

"Dragons of the Dwarven Depths" tells the story of the finding of the Hammer of Kharas, the tool used to forge the legendary dragonlances. The companions are trying to lead a group of former slaves from Pax Tharkas to safety after the fall of the Dragon Highlord Verminaard. But a pair of draconians have stepped up to take Verminaard's place, determined to destroy the former slaves. The only place of safety available is the dwarven kingdom of Thorbardin, which hasn't been opened in 300 years.

The book is tough going through the first 100 pages or so. There are huge information dumps throughout as Weis and Hickman try to recount the events of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight" and offer up backstory on the characters that long-time readers already know by heart. They're so big and come so often that I was going "OK, let's get on with the story already," and I almost didn't make it through the first part of the book I understand the need to get new readers up to speed, but I think perhaps there are better ways to go about it.

Once that's out of the way, the pace picks up a bit, but there are still a few problems. One of those is that we already know how the book turns out. So, for example, when Tika is attacked by a draconian or when the companions are prisoners of the Hylar dwarves and under attack by the Theiwar, there isn't as much suspense as their could be. After all, we already know that all of the companions survived and made it through to "Dragons of Winter Night." It's a challenge of any prequel and one that's hard to overcome.

There's also, at least in the hardcover edition that I read, a serious editing problem. There are tons of missing words, misspellings and incorrect grammar. I'm an editor myself and know what the job is like, so I'm pretty forgiving of a few mistakes, but these were so frequent that they took me right out of the story on several occasions. That's never good.

Finally, there's the question of the characters. Most of them seem somehow different from the characters that I remember. Two decades ago when I was reading these books, I cared for these characters deeply. Here, most of them seem very shallow to me and there were only a few moments when I was genuinely pulling for them. That could be the product of faulty memory or the passage of time and experience as a reader. I'd have to revisit the originals to say for sure.

So there are a lot of factors stacked against "Dragons of the Dwarven Depths." Are there any good points. Sure. The latter part of the book moves swiftly and is a lot of fun. Then, there's the nostalgia factor. It's always nice to visit with some old fictional friends, and there are a few moments in this book that offer a little bit of extra insight into favorite characters.

If you're a newcomer to the Dragonlance world, I'd still recommend reading Chronicles and Legends first. For fans of the original two trilogies, though, it's a nice, enjoyable little walk down memory lane. It wouldn't be at the top of my reading list, but it's probably worth a look.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Armchair QB: Stupor Bowl

Well, my Super Bowl preview prediction tonight turned out to not be so super. Apparently, the Saints' explosive offense got confiscated at the Indianapolis airport and our defensive backs spent the whole night there filling out the forms to try to get it back.

I was prepared for a loss going into the game. Of course, I wanted the win, but I don't mind losing to the defending champs in their house on opening night of the season right after the Super Bowl banner has been unfurled in the rafters. That's a lot to overcome. But to get a royal ass-whoopin' was not something I was ready for.

That snippet of "The Saints are Coming" that played right after the lone New Orleans touchdown might have been the highlight of the night at my house. Granted Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison are not the easiest guys in the league to cover, but at times, it didn't even look like our guys were trying. Our offense was more conservative than Bill O'Reilly, even down by 24. Where were the shots down the field? Just one or two is all I ask.

Sure, it's only the first game of the season, and we were in the defending champs' house on the night they celebrated their championship. But, if you're a Saints fan, it gives you some cause for concern. We've seen it all before. The team has a fantastic season, gets everyone fired up and lays a big egg the next year. After a performance like tonight, you've got to wonder if it's "here we go again." I don't think so. I think this team is a lot better than that, and I think this coach is a lot better than that.

So we're 0-1. That leaves 15 more games, and we'll get another shot at the Colts in February.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Stuck in my Head: "The Saints Are Coming," U2 and Green Day

For every music fan there are those bands that seem to surround you. They're critical darlings, everyone seems to love them and it seems that if you're not a fan, you're somehow disconnected from the rest of your generation. For me, one of those bands is U2.

I've never disliked U2. In fact, I really like a few of their songs, but overall, I'm indifferent. If they come on the radio, I won't switch the station, but neither am I likely to turn up the volume.
But my perception of U2 changed on Sept. 25, 2006, when before the Saints' triumphant return to the Superdome, they took the stage with Green Day (a band that I truly do not like) and pounded out a modified version of The Skids tune "The Saints are Coming."

I wasn't one of the ones in the stands that night, but even through my television the energy and spirit in that building came through. It made me want to stand up off my couch and jump up and down and scream like I was in New Orleans. It was the perfect choice - the kind of high energy song that could pump a crowd up to an even higher level, with lyrics that just about everyone filling the Dome that night could relate to. Sure, the night would have been special and probably just as electric without U2's performance, but it provided the icing.

It provided a triumphant beginning to what was a year of many triumphs in New Orleans, a year where Louisianans love of football really did matter in the wider world and a year where a sports franchise really did make a difference, on and off the field. Every time I hear the song, I'm taken back to that night and a little of that feeling returns.

With the Saints set to kickoff the regular season Thursday night against the Indianapolis Colts, I guess it's only fitting that "The Saints are Coming" should be running around in my head. I've got more excitement about this season of Saints football than I've ever had in my entire life. Prediction? Tune in Thursday to see a preview of this year's Super Bowl.

Stuck in my Head is an occasional feature about whatever song happens to be running around incessantly in my head at the moment.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Random rant: "Street" cred

I was a bit taken aback earlier this week when I sat down to watch an episode of "Sesame Street" with my son. Instead of the familiar theme song, suddenly this hip-hop beat thing was coming out of my television. I looked to my son, who was staring at me with this bemused look on his face as if he suspected I had secretly replaced his real "Sesame Street" with a new version to see if he noticed. He was trying to sing along with the theme song, as he often does, but having a little trouble, looking confused, as if to say "what happened to Sesame Street song?"

Now, I'm not against updating things, and yes, they did keep the basic vocal melody from the favorite. I just have to ask why they felt it necessary. Lest you think I'm picking on it because it's hip-hop, which I'll readily admit that I just don't care for, let me say that I don't particularly want to hear a country or metal version of the song either. The song has been just fine for almost 40 years with only minor modifications.

Here's what I figure happened: some marketing geniuses were sitting around a table (probably one or two of the guys that came up with these ad ideas), and one of them says, "We've been the most popular kids' show on television since most people can remember. We've really got to change something. You know what the kids like today? That hip-hop thing. We ought to turn the theme song into a rap tune. That would really get the kiddies to watch." Leave it to marketing guys to say, "Hey, we've got a good thing going here, let's mess around with it?"

The fact of the matter is, there are just some things you don't mess with. You wouldn't make Big Bird red or Oscar happy. It just wouldn't work. So why change a theme song that millions of kids have sung along with every morning since 1969? It doesn't make sense.

Look at the numbers. It's estimated that 75 million Americans watched the show as children, and Nielsen Media Research shows that 99 percent of American preschoolers recognize the characters, 81 percent of kids under the age of 6 own a Sesame Street toy or game and 87 percent own a Sesame Street book.

The show doesn't need street cred. It's already got plenty.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Review: "Red Seas Under Red Skies" by Scott Lynch

I was very impressed with Scott Lynch's debut "The Lies of Locke Lamora," which I read a few weeks ago and eager to jump into the second volume, "Red Seas Under Red Skies" ($23, Bantam Spectra).

Some time has passed since Locke and partner in crime Jean Tannen fled Camorr after the events of the first book, and their relationship has, at times, been strained in those years. The book opens with a huge hook, the ever-loyal Jean seemingly betraying Locke, which makes the reader wonder what might have brought them to that pass. It takes about 500 pages to find out, and that's one of the weaknesses of this book compared to "The Lies of Locke Lamora."

Like the first book, "Red Seas Under Red Skies" takes some surprising turns and leaves the reader wondering how Locke and Jean will pull of their capers and what's going to go wrong next. The two have fled to Tal Verrar, gotten things back together and are working on a scheme to rob the Sinspire, a high-stakes gambling house for the very wealthy. They're nearing the completion of the two-year plan when they get a threatening message from the Bondsmagi of Karthain, after the pair for injuries inflicted on one of their own in Camorr. Then, Locke and Jean begin to encounter assassins after them for some unknown reason and get drawn into a scheme involving the Archon, who hopes to essentially become a dictator.

And there's where the story begins to break down. It seems that Lynch has woven one too many threads into "Red Seas Under Red Skies." With "The Lies of Locke Lamora," the action began early and didn't let up. In this book, there's a huge lull. The Sinspire scheme of the beginning is intriguing, though not shaping up to be as interesting as the first book. Then there's the encounter with the Archon and a lot of perhaps necessary, but dull space as they dance around with the Archon, Sinspire owner Requin and train to pass themselves off as seamen.

Once they're aboard the pirate ship that they end up on, things pick up again, but ultimately it doesn't all mesh together the way the multiple storylines in "The Lies of Locke Lamora" did. It feels almost as if Lynch got lost somewhere in the middle and lost sight of where the book was going, then zipped it back up at the end.

The characterization is still just as strong as the first book. This one is loaded with colorful players, and we see a lot of development with Locke and Jean. For me, Jean really eclipses Locke and emerges as the hero in this book. There are also a lot of secondary characters here that I'd like to read more about, so Lynch has left himself some possibilities for future volumes.
"Red Seas Under Red Skies" is certainly still an enjoyable book despite the lull in the middle. When things are clicking it's great fun, and it ends with an incredible flurry of action and a few central questions to carry forward. It's definitely worth a read for those who enjoyed "The Lies of Locke Lamora."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Two years

Two years. That’s how long its been since some of my favorite places were, essentially, wiped off the map.

I hate cities. Hate the traffic. Hate the attitude. Hate being crammed into a relatively small place with a large number of people. So it was a bit of a surprise to me the way I came to gradually love New Orleans over several years of regular visits. You see, New Orleans is very different from other cities. If you’ve been there pre-Katrina, you understand what I’m saying.

I certainly won’t say that we never encountered a rude person or an unpleasant situation, but by and large the people that we met in New Orleans were friendly and seemed to be happy that we were there. In fact, before Katrina, that’s the word I would have used to describe the city — happy. There was always a good time to be had there — and I’m not talking about the debauchery of Bourbon Street, either. In fact, of all the times that I’ve been to New Orleans in recent years, I’ve never been drunk and I’ve always had a good time. (We won’t talk about the couple of times I went in college.)

Though I think everyone should probably have a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s just to say they had the experience, there are much more worthwhile things in the Big Easy than booze and Mardi Gras. There are great museums, some of the best live music venues in the country, the zoo, the aquarium, great food. Like a lot of people, I haven’t done any of those things in two years.

What I miss most of all, though, are my New Orleans Saints games. You see, that’s the main reason I visited so many times in recent years. I’ve been a Saints fan all my life, and there are few things in the world I love more than being at the Superdome on a Sunday morning (and for those who know me, and know I don’t like to see anything outside my bedroom until noon or so on most Sundays, know that’s saying something).

Even in an awful year, I’ll put that Sunday morning Superdome crowd up against any venue in the country. It’s a beautiful experience. Unfortunately, I haven’t had that experience in two years, either. It’s a good news, bad news situation for me. I can’t say how happy I am to see the Superdome sold out on season ticket sales alone, but I also can’t swing the prices that the resellers are asking for tickets these days, so as much as I would have loved to have been there for the first game back last year against Atlanta, I had to experience it on television.

That’s one of the reasons I haven’t been back to New Orleans. I also have to admit I have a few safety concerns. The level of violence in New Orleans has been well-publicized, and I’m not sure it’s a place I want to take my family right now. More than anything, though, I think there’s a little bit of fear of what I might see.

New Orleans wasn’t the only one of my favorite places that was hit hard by Katrina. For years, I’ve enjoyed short vacations and weekend trips to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When I graduated in May, after a year of working more than full time and going to school at the same time, I needed to just relax and do nothing for a week or so. We rented a cabin on the lake in southern Mississippi and decided, on one of those days, to take a ride down to the coast to see how the rebuilding was coming along. I expected to see a lot of new construction, a lot of things going back up. I left the experience a little shell-shocked.

Coming into Biloxi, we could see signs of the storms. The casinos, which of course had boatloads of money to throw at it, were mostly back up and operating. The remnants of the storm were still visible, empty foundations, lots of for sale signs and a lot of things under repair. Biloxi looked positively normal compared to the rest of the trip down Highway 90, though.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in Biloxi on our trips, because we’re not really the casino crowd. On the occasion that I went into a casino, I gambled up my 20 bucks and was done. We tended to stay in Gulfport, Pass Christian, Long Beach, places a little farther away from the mass of people. We looked for those spots on the beach where the small hills partially blocked out the busy highway and you could feel a bit more secluded. Those hills are gone now and those beaches are closed.

All I could do, for the whole trip down the beach, was stare, my mouth hanging open as we passed mile after mile of absolutely nothing. Here was a little hotel that we stayed in, now just an empty concrete slab. There was a restaurant where we ate a few times, no trace of it left. There were those lines of huge gorgeous houses lining the beach, the ones we often wished we owned, now just empty lots, many with for sale signs out front. Heck, even the monstrous brand new Super Wal-Mart we’d stopped in to pick up some things we forgot, vanished without a trace. As we passed over the just-opened bridge at Bay St. Louis, I looked out to catch a glimpse of a small boat, still resting in the branches of a tree.

There were few reminders of the Gulf Coast that I’ve been visiting regularly since I was a small child. Most of those iconic landmarks of my life were demolished. There was the remnants of the green shed that used to cover the Marine Life sea park, which at last visit had certainly seen its better days but was a favorite of my childhood. There was the boat that stood in front of the S.S. Camille gift shop, the one we always stopped at when I was younger. Of the store itself, there was no trace. Of all the kitschy shops that used to line the strip selling shark’s teeth, figurines made out of shells and overpriced beach supplies, only one remained, in a brand new building. The little aquarium that we enjoyed visiting had disappeared. Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis home and library, in shambles.

I kept driving, looking, gasping and thinking to myself, "My God, it’s been two years." All I could do on the hour-plus drive back to our cabin was shake my head, imagining what the area must have looked like right after the storm. We’ve all seen the footage on television, the houses turned into splinters, huge boats and buildings tossed around like my two-year-old’s toys. But it’s different when you’re there on the ground, even two years later. There’s a visceral reaction that you could never get from watching TV, a new perspective on just how destructive the storm was and just how far the people there still have to go to bring it back.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Review: "Ghost Rider"

I'm a lifelong comic book geek. After years of horrible adaptations of comics for TV and movies, I was thrilled in the late 1990s when the technology finally caught up to allow Hollywood to make good big screen versions of my favorite comics. When it comes to the resulting glut of comic movies, I've seen them all, from the very good ("Batman Begins," the X-Men franchise) to the downright horrid ("The Hulk," "Elektra") and a whole bunch that fall somewhere in between.

For the most part, I've never really been drawn to the Spider-Mans and Supermans of the comic world. I've always preferred the darker characters, the ones that, at times, make you wonder which side they're really on -- guys like Wolverine, The Punisher and, of course, Ghost Rider.

I was actually quite interested to see how they would handle Ghost Rider in a live action movie, and after seeing the film, I now understand there are some things that are probably best left in the comic books. My first problem with the movie is in casting. Nicolas Cage is just a little too old to play Johnny Blaze. They dyed his hair black to make him look a little younger, but in truth, it just made him look like a guy in his mid-40s with his hair dyed black. I could live with Cage because at least I know he has respect for the comic, but I just didn't buy Wes Bentley's turn as Blackheart at all. I have a hard time picturing the son of Mephistopheles as the clean-cut John Stamos look-alike that Bentley played him as. He either needed to be a little more refined and sophisticated or a little more, well, black-hearted and evil. As it was, I kept expecting the young Olsen twins to show up to ask him a question. It's tough to build a comic book movie with a villain the audience is indifferent about.

Other roles were cast much better. I like Sam Elliott in most anything, and he does a great job as Carter Slade, as he usually does with Western themed characters. Peter Fonda's turn as Mephistopheles is also memorable.

Now, we get to the CGI, which for the action scenes is incredible. When riding or fighting, the Ghost Rider looks great. When speaking and trying to be menacing, the CGI fails completely. Here's why I say some things are better left to comics, or at least animation: A live action skull just can't be expressive in any way. No matter what the lines are, the skull looks the same. At times it's downright silly, especially when the witty repartee is like the first meeting of Ghost Rider and Blackheart. Ghost Rider: "You're going down." Blackheart: "I don't think so." Man, where's Spider-Man when you need him?

I wouldn't say that "Ghost Rider" is a horrible movie. There were some funny bits, the action sequences were very cool and I actually enjoyed it in a shut your brain down and watch kind of way. It is, however, definitely one of those middle-ground productions that will probably be enjoyed much more by fans of the comic than those unfamiliar with it.

Get "Ghost Rider" or the 2-disc version.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Review: "300"

Effing amazing.

Truthfully, I could leave my review at that and it would be entirely accurate. Of course, that wouldn't make for very good reading, would it?

There's always this little tinge of apprehension when I approach a Hollywood adaptation of something I know and enjoy, whether it be a favorite book, comic or graphic novel. Tinseltown isn't known for its faithfulness to the source material, and in many cases will just downright destroy a good thing. So even having seen the fantastic previews of "300" and having heard nothing but good things about it from people whose opinions I trust, I wondered if it could really match Frank Miller's graphic novel. Like "Sin City" before it, the answer is a resounding "yes."

Films that blend CGI and live action as liberally as "300" does have been a mixed bag in the past, but this movie gets it entirely right. The CGI creates a sense of unreality that makes the movie feel like Miller's comic book. The live action performances give it the grit that's required for the brutal battle scenes that make up the movie.

Critics, of course, had plenty of bad things to say about the movie, and I have to roll my eyes when I hear complaints about the movie putting style and action ahead of the story. I mean, the style and action are kind of the whole point here. Like Miller's graphic novel, this adaptation of "300" is a visceral display of the kind of unflinching machismo that most men, whether they're willing to admit it or not, wish they could achieve.

You don't see this kind of movie looking for a deep statement on the human condition. What you want in "300" is exactly what you get - some of the most epic and breathtaking battle scenes ever put on film, great one-liners and heads flying. You want something that speaks to that archaic, chest-beating, testosterone-fueled warrior that still lurks somewhere inside. You want a movie that makes you want to grab a sword and dive into the enemy ranks, even though most of us know realistically we'd get our soft butts kicked before the blade cleared its sheath. "300" delivers that and more.

Want a movie that dissects the whys of war and makes a statement on it? Pick up something else. Want to revel in the bloodlust of one of the best action films in recent memory? Grab some popcorn, sit back and enjoy.

Get "300" or the 2-disc special edition.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Review: "The Lies of Locke Lamora" by Scott Lynch

I strive to never judge a book by its cover, but sometimes a good cover helps. Take Scott Lynch's "The Lies of Locke Lamora" ($6.99, Bantam Spectra). It first landed on my desk in hardcover last year with an artsy deep purple and gray cover, and I thought it sounded interesting, but never got around to picking it up.

The paperback version, with a much more interesting cover, arrived a couple of weeks ago, and reminded me that the book had interested me originally. I picked it up this time, and was very sorry that I hadn't read it a year ago. It is, perhaps, one of the best debut novels that I've ever read.

Locke Lamora is an orphan in the city of Camorr who escapes slavery following a plague outbreak by sneaking into a group of children purchased by a gang leader known as the Thiefmaker. Locke turns out to be a little more than bargained for, and as a last resort, the Thiefmaker sells him to Father Chains, the supposedly eyeless priest of Perelandro.

Under Chains' tutelage, Locke grows up to be the leader of his own gang of thieves, quietly and happily breaking the doctrine known as the Secret Peace between the thieves and the nobility and taking the upper class of Camorr for thousands. But Locke's happy existence is about to be turned upside down.

Part "Oliver Twist," part swashbuckling fantasy and part caper, the first half of this book is amazing fun. The roguish Locke and his band of merry men (yes, there's some Robin Hood in there as well) are charming to spend time with and will amaze with their ability to pull off complex heists. Then, around the midpoint of the book, Lynch delivers a hard punch in the gut, and the book becomes much darker and much more personal. The final 300 pages are almost like a different book than the first 400, and both are powerful stories in different ways.

Lynch also takes chances in the delivery of the story, relying on trips to the past to flesh out the action in the present. That could be a fatal flaw, but the author handles it deftly, making the flashbacks as immediate as the current action and always relevant to what's going on. They serve the dual purpose of offering insight on Locke's past as well as clues to his current actions.

Another impressive point of this book is the world that Lynch has created. While it would have worked in the standard medieval fantasy milieu, Lynch has built a well-developed world for Locke Lamora that is part Venice, part alien landscape and holds plenty of mysteries to be explored.

And, if you still need one more reason to read this book now, consider one of the best gang names ever - the Gentleman Bastards.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Review: "Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s"

With the exception of the "Madden" football series, I rarely find a video game that comes anywhere near an addiction. (I'm in the 20th or so season of my Saints franchise in Madden '05, the most recent version I own.) Usually I get a game, play it a good bit the first week or two I have it and either finish it or hit a dead end. Then it goes on the shelf, and I may pull it out occasionally and give it another shot.

When I received "Guitar Hero II" as a Christmas gift, I'll admit, I got addicted. I lost hours of my life to this game. For those who are unfamiliar, the game comes with a plastic Gibson SG with five fretting buttons, a picking button and a whammy bar. You follow along with the songs in the game by hitting the appropriate fret buttons and the picking button. The whammy is used to pick up power-ups. The most surprising thing to me, being as I could play many of the songs in the game on my real guitar, was that, often, the songs are tougher to play on the game than in real life.

So, when "Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s" was announced, I had to get it as soon as possible. After all, I love the game, and I'm a child of the '80s. The song list covers most of the bases of the 1980s. There's the new wave sound with Oingo Boingo and Flock of Seagulls, the pop of The Go-Gos and Scandal, arena rockers such as Billy Squier and The Police and metal masters like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. There are even a few off the wall choices, such as the fictional band Limozeen. (Then again, Spinal Tap and Dethklok, the band from Cartoon Network's "Metalocalypse," were featured in GHII).

The first thing you should know is that this isn't really a new game. With "Guitar Hero III" due out for the next gen consoles in October, this is more like a supplement to "Guitar Hero II" to hold fans over. The story arc of the game is the same as GHII, there aren't any new characters or twists, and the guitars you win by mastering the different levels are the same as GHII. I also miss the ability to buy more songs that you have in the last installment and there are fewer characters and costumes, but none of those are fatal flaws.

If there's one thing that's most disappointing about "Rocks the '80s," it's the brevity of the game. There are only 30 songs here. I breezed through the easy and medium levels in two nights. True, there were only 40 songs in GHII, but there were many more available to purchase with the points you earn through performances.
Though a few songs, like Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock" and Judas Priest's "Electric Eye," are originals, most of the songs, as in the first two games, are done by a cover band. That means a few of them are really bad. The vocals on this version of Dio's "Holy Diver" are cringeworthy, though to be fair, it's a bit tough to compete with Ronnie James Dio in the vocal department. Most of them are at least passable, and one or two (usually songs I didn't really like to begin with) I actually like a little better.

So, it sounds like I didn't like the game, which isn't true at all. It was just a little disappointing after the great GHII. It is what it is, an add-on to the game to give fans 30 new songs to play to hold them over until GHIII arrives. As far as gameplay goes, it's just as much fun as its predecessors and if you enjoyed them, you'll enjoy this installment. Here's hoping for a few more bells and whistles in October.

Get "Guitar Hero Encore."

Get "Guitar Hero II" with guitar for PS2.

Get "Guitar Hero II" with guitar for Xbox 360.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Random rant: My child will never act like that

The initial purpose of this blog was for me to rant about things that hacked me off. But, for a variety of reasons, I decided a couple of months ago to revamp it and take it in a different direction. But some fans of the blog (and by fans, I mean my wife) missed the rants, so maybe I’ll still offer up an occasional one.

This morning, I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Behind the Counter. Having had to deal with the public in my job basically since I was 16-years-old, I often find the posts there hilarious. I’ve dealt with a lot of those people over and over again and most of the time I can commiserate.

Occasionally, though, I have to laugh a little at the author, particularly in the views on “howler monkeys.” (Yeah, I’ve called them that myself on occasion, even my own.) The most recent post talked about some kids riding in the buggy eating Goldfish crackers out of a Ziploc bag. The author observed that provisions were not necessary for a trip to Wal-Mart, to which I could only respond, you obviously have never been around a 2-year-old. I don’t know how old the kids in question were, but I can assure you that a few Goldfish crumbs are nothing compared to what happens when said 2-year-old decides it's time for a cracker, and you don’t have one.

I know there are a few of you reading this making some snide comment about the parenting abilities of someone who can’t keep a 2-year-old from screaming his head off, and again, I say, you’ve obviously never been around a 2-year-old. You see, a 2-year-old doesn’t understand inconvenience. A 2-year-old doesn’t understand later. A 2-year-old understands that he’s hungry, and you’re not doing anything about it, so the only possible solution is to say it louder and try to get it through mommy or daddy’s thick skull that he’s hungry — RIGHT NOW. Reasoning with a 2-year-old is useless because he doesn’t understand reason.

There are two really silly things that all young non-parents say — and they’ll say them over and over again. No. 1 is, I’ll never have kids. No. 2 is, my kids will never act like that. The fact is, in most cases, you will and they will.

Now I’m not saying that there isn’t bad parenting out there. I see it everyday. I was recently in a toy store where my son was playing with a wooden Thomas display set. Another child about my son’s age wandered over and started playing. The child’s mother just continued shopping and left her 2- or 3-year-old son with us. She’d never seen me before and had no way to know whether or not the kid that was with me was actually my child and not some kid I was trying to abduct. She just saw an opportunity for a free babysitter.

Not wanting to leave the kid where someone could abduct him, my son and I continued to play with him for another 20 minutes or so until his mother found her way back to where we were, still very unconcerned about the small child she’d left with a complete stranger. At that point, I decided it was time for us to leave and cajoled my son into visiting another part of the store (which is no easy task where Thomas is involved.) The poor kid wanted to go with us, and his mother had to physically restrain him. I felt sorry for him.

Then, of course, I made a mistake. One of those “my child will never act like that” mistakes. You see, we had gone to the store to get my son a new Thomas toy. I’d promised it to him. We’d had a bad experience in Wal-Mart the night before where I had promised my son a Thomas video with a toy included, and when we got to the counter, they wouldn’t sell it to us because of the recent recall (even though I’ve been keeping up with the recall for obvious reasons and knew that product wasn’t part of it.) The hurt in his eyes when she took the video that he’d been clutching to his chest for 30 minutes and put it behind the counter made me furious (if it’s recalled, it shouldn’t be on the shelves), and it got worse as we walked out with my child looking about as pitiful as I’ve ever seen him, searching through all the bags and asking, “Where’s Thomas video, daddy? Where’s Thomas video, daddy?” I was not happy, so we left quickly before I could land a starring role on Behind the Counter.

At any rate, we now had to go back to the Thomas section to get his toy. As soon as we rounded the corner, he darted right back to the play table. I let him play for a few more minutes and started trying to convince him to choose a toy. He was more interested in the broken toys out on the display. Problem coming.

I picked various toys from the shelf, showing them to him, thinking he’d latch on to one and come peacefully, because we have to go. No such luck. He shoves the toys back at me, turns back to the table and says, “play trains more.” Back to exhibit A. The 2-year-old doesn’t understand that he’s going to get a train to take home. He understands that he’s having fun playing with the broken down trains in the store display, and when daddy tries to take him away from those, the obvious solution is to tell daddy he wants to play trains louder until it gets through daddy’s thick skull that he wants to play trains. Of course, sometimes as a parent, you can’t give in. So, instead of getting a toy, I walked briskly out of the store with said 2-year-old kicking and screaming and a whole bunch of people looking at me thinking, “My child will never act like that.”

Yes, he will.

(For another exploration of the "My child will never act like that" phenomenon, check out the post titled "The Pot and the Kettle" at Does This Mean I'm a Grown-up?, which also played a part in inspiring this rant.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review: "Hannibal Rising"

One thing that Thomas Harris seems to have forgotten in his last two novels and screenplays about cannibalistic killer Hannibal Lecter is what made Lecter such a fascinating character in the first place - his personality and the performance of Anthony Hopkins.

It's much more chilling to hear the smooth, smiling Lecter talk matter-of-factly about eating someone's liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti than to actually watch him do it.

That was the problem with "Hannibal" and also with "Hannibal Rising," which tells the tale of the young Lecter and how he came to be Hannibal the cannibal.

It begins in Lithuania during World War II, when Hannibal is a small child. The Nazis and the Russian army clash on his family's land, resulting in the death of his parents and leaving Hannibal to fend for himself and his younger sister. When a band of rogue locals who have been denied entry to the SS come calling at the house where Lecter and his sister are hiding, things get worse - much worse.

We're then introduced to the teenage Hannibal, who escapes from the orphanage that used to be his family's home, sneaks across the Soviet border and winds up with an aunt by marriage who lives in Paris. Lecter starts a new life and begins medical school, but he hasn't forgotten the horrors of the war, seeing the men who tormented him in his dreams every night.

"Hannibal Rising" is a far superior movie to "Hannibal," but it still doesn't stack up to either "Red Dragon" or "Silence of the Lambs." This is a brutal vision of the young Lecter, far from the suave mastermind of his later years, though he does occasionally show the tendency toward the killer he'll later become (the last scene in the film, in which the violence isn't shown, is perhaps the most Lecter-ish moment.)

Gaspard Ulliel steps into some big shoes taking on the role of Lecter, and handles it well. While he portrays a younger, more brash and less scheming Lecter, we do see him develop the cold charm and show flashes of Hopkins' famous portrayal. Ultimately, though, he's stuck in what is more or less a gory revenge tale. While it shows us Lecter's origins, it offers little insight into the character once he has that revenge. To me, the more interesting tale may be the transformation from the angry young man bent on revenge to the cold habitual killer of "Red Dragon" and "Silence of the Lambs," and it might offer more of those things which make "Silence of the Lambs" a creepier film.

"Hannibal Rising" is an enjoyable enough revenge tale, but in a couple of years when I'm flipping channels and see it on TV, I'm not likely to stop and continue watching the way I will when I see "Silence of the Lambs."

Get the "Hannibal Rising" DVD.

Get the novel.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," by J.K. Rowling

Note: This review is as spoiler-free as I could possibly make it, but if you don't want any clue whatsoever about Harry's fate, don't read the last paragraph.

I opened my copy of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" feeling equal amounts of anticipation and regret. Here, finally, was the conclusion of the seven-book cycle (conclusion being something that most fantasy series these days never seem to reach), the answers to all the questions, the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort. On the other hand, I also knew it was the end of Harry's story.

The book starts with a bang. More than any other book in the series, the action begins immediately and never lets up. By page 50, there's carnage in what becomes a dark and bloody chapter of the saga. It almost had to be that way. Though we've never truly seen Voldemort and the Death Eaters in action, we knew they would be vicious, blackhearted and evil. They live up to their reputation here.

As we learned in "The Half-Blood Prince," Harry is not going back to Hogwarts for the new year. He's about to turn 17, legally able to use magic outside school grounds, and he's going to collect Voldemort's horcruxes, the pieces of his soul that he's split up and hidden, and destroy them. Hermione and Ron, of course, are going with him, despite his protests. The downside of turning 17 is that the spell protecting Harry will fail and Voldemort will be able to find him, so the Order of the Phoenix has to spirit him away from the Dursley's home and hide him in a safe house, and that's where things start to go wrong.

While the Order of the Phoenix tries to protect Harry, Voldemort and the Death Eaters are maneuvering to take over the Ministry of Magic, implement their anti-Muggle policies and, of course, declare Harry an outlaw. Harry and his friends go on the run on a wild magical journey that leads them to new places and forces them to take a hard look at themselves and those that are closest to them.

As promised by Rowling, people die and people change - or at least our perception of those people does. Actions both heroic and not-so-heroic come from unexpected sources, and by the end of the book nearly every character has undergone some sort of transformation.

I quibble with one point late in the book, which I won't reveal here so as not to spoil it for those who haven't finished yet, but I was left with mixed feelings. While a powerful scene, ultimately, I felt that Rowling may have cheated a bit. But it wasn't enough to ruin the book for me.

SPOILER ALERT: There are clues to Harry's fate in the next paragraph. If you don't want to know, don't read it. You've been warned.

"The Deathly Hallows" is a fitting ending for the wizard who is no longer a boy in this book. And though fans around the world will protest, wanting to read more about Harry, it should be an ending. Like all true heroes, Harry has played his part in the grand story and deserves some peace. No future story could match up to the one told in these seven books, and would only cheapen what Rowling has accomplished with this story.

Read my thoughts on the ending of Harry Potter.