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.)