Thursday, December 16, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: Radio Lab

Genre: Philosophy

What It's About: Existing at the intersection of science, philosophy and metaphysics, RadioLab addresses topics from two angles: what we know about it, and what we don't. And then it digs into why we don't know what we don't know, and how we're working to figure it out. How do ants determine their roles in the social order, and how does that relate to the way our individual brain cells organize themselves? Why do we laugh and why is it contagious? What does sleeping accomplish for us? The latest research is addressed, but then things are taken a step further: what does it all mean to us as sentient, emotional beings capable of abstract thought?

Why You Should Care: This is the most unique show I've ever encountered. Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich deliver the hard facts expertly, but are not afraid to delve into metaphorical and existential ruminations. This makes the show more rounded and complete than most. The show also experiments with sound design, creating a wholly original audio experience that both reinforces the subject matter, and creates a lively, witty, engaging listen.

Frequency: Varies, at least once per month

Average Length: 1 hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

[ Special note: At the beginning of this year, I committed to the Podcast Rollcall feature as something that would run every first and third Thursday of every month. I hope you've enjoyed this feature, and found the rate of twice monthly to be just right.

Now that I've highlighted the bulk of the podcasts I listen to, I'm going to reduce the Podcast Rollcall feature to once a month in the coming year. I hope you'll continue to enjoy the feature, and that running it less often will make each podcast stand out more, and give you time to check it out.

I'll be back with more podcasts in 2011! ]

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Who's Ya Daddy?!"

[ NOTE: Originally posted December 12, 2002 on GeoCities. ]

"Who's Ya Daddy?!"

If you can recall hearing this phrase squeaked out in a high-pitched, raspy voice, then you've probably been exposed to the internet phenomenon known as "Elf Bowling."

I was not aware of the game until 2000, when my dad hooked me up with Elf Bowling 2. I had never heard of Elf Bowling one, but assumed it existed somewhere, and had probably been released prior to Elf Bowling 2.

Funny thing about Elf Bowling 2: It's not a bowling game. It's shuffleboard. More on that later.

Once my dad introduced me to EB2, I was hooked. It was immediately added to my list of holiday traditions. It would no longer feel like Christmas, I decreed to myself, if I hadn't been playing Elf Bowling 2 throughout all of December.

It didn't occur to me until this year to seek out the original Elf Bowling. It's a testament to the fun and quality of EB2 that it took me almost three Christmases to seek anything different.

When I went to the website to find the original Elf Bowling, I saw an announcement notifying me that this year would see the release of Elf Bowling 3. Wow! Two new games for me to try! This holiday season will be an Elf Bowling orgy!

Now, as a service to the masses, I present my reviews of the Elf Bowling trilogy...

Elf Bowling

Santa's fiesty elves go on strike. Their demands? Less intensive labor and more money. Santa decides to show them the true meaning of the word "strike."

Some suspension of disbelief is required here. I can't help wondering why the elves would stand perfectly still, in ten-pin formation, as a 16-pound ball is thrown at them. But I guess there wouldn't be a game if they didn't.

Gameplay: This is a fun game to play, although there are a few technical glitches. Setting the aim and speed of the bowling ball the same way each time does not necessarily yield the same results.

Animation: The laws of physics do not entirely apply here. The bowling ball goes too fast. And the elves get knocked around too fast. The action is over in a flash. That just seems like slacking off in the programming stages to me.

Morbidity: Needlessly violent. Elf heads get torn off in the machinery. The bowling ball leaves them excessively bruised and bloody. Your bowling ball squishes innocent animals that wander onto the alley. (Can anyone tell me what a frog is doing in the North Pole?) C'mon, folks, this is a cartoon! We never saw Wile E. Coyote bleed, no matter how many times he fell off the cliff.

Humor: This is why the game caught on in the first place. Without the smartass elves, this would be an unexciting game. The elves are funny here. They smoke cigarettes and carry anti-Santa propaganda. The funniest moment is when they all turn around and give Santa a 20-cheek salute. (This is when the elves speak their catch-phrase, "Who's ya daddy?") It's funny at first when the elves shriek in terror as the ball approaches. But then it happens every single time. It gets old.

Overall: The elves only have a few quips and funny actions. Gameplay is not much of a challenge. It gets old quick. Basically, playing it once in a 24 hour period is more than enough.

Three and a half stars, out of five.

Elf Bowling 2: Elves in Paradise

Dingle Kringle, a used ice salesman, wants to take over his brother Kris's toy-delivery business. He also has his eye on Kris's wife. The two decide to wager everything on a game of cruise-ship shuffleboard.

Ok, so it's not really bowling at all. I don't even know if the elves are on strike again or not. Who cares? This game is superior to the original EB in every way.

Gameplay: A marked improvement. The addition of Dingle allows the game to be played in both one- and two-player modes. As a single player, you can earn bonus points by shooting nearby penguins. The boat buoys with increasing severity each round, adding to the challenge of the game.

Animation: Perfectly cartoonish. And the laws of physics do apply here. Momentum and friction are well-programmed.

Morbidity: They got it right this time. By removing the blood, the torcher inflicted on the elves is much funnier. Even when you're shooting the penguins, you only seem to startle them, not kill them.

Humor: This game is loaded with it. The format of the game allows each elf's quip or routine to take center stage, both before and after he is flung down the deck. It usually takes playing the game more than once in order to see all the funny routines the elves are programmed to do, which keeps the game interesting time after time.

Overall: EB2 is even more creative than the first, expanding on the original premise and adding more Christmas-themed mythology (as well as making up some of their own). More challenging, more humor, and better programming... what's to complain about?

A perfect five stars!

Elf Bowling 3

You know how EB2 took what was wrong with EB and fixed it? Well, EB3 takes everything right with EB, and breaks it. This game is a disappointment, I am sorry to report.

Santa shows up at the North Pole to discover all the elves and reindeer have been drinking. It seems that pesky alcoholic brother Dingle has been spiking everyone's drinks. With the reindeer unable to perform their task, Santa decides to "teach the elves how to fly." He strings up Mrs. Kringle's bra as a slingshot, and a game of elf-tossing ensues.

Gameplay: For whatever dumbass reason, EB3 reverts back to EB's single-player-only format. And, as in original EB, the programming is all off. Careful planning and aiming does not necessarily mean the elf is going to land where he ought to.

Animation: Once again, the word "slacker" applies here. The elves don't move all that much. Their mouths don't even flap around when they speak. And Santa doesn't load them into the slingshot, they just magically pop into place.

While the above-mentioned actions are under-animated, some things are over-animated. When you actually fling the elves, it takes them too long to land. This action should have been faster; maybe almost as fast as the bowling ball in the original EB. Also, the programmers decided to give more details to the coloring of the elves. This is a pointless addition to the game, and renders these elves inconsistent with the rest of the EB series.

Morbidity: Surprisingly -- and disappointingly -- light this time. The elves land softly in the snow. Although they can bump into drunk flying reindeer, this doesn't seem to hurt them very much at all (nor is it funny). If you have the patience to play the game long enough to make it to level 8 (or somewhere around there), a polar bear shows up that will eat the occasional elf. They can also shatter a bone or two when they land on iced targets.

Humor: Agonizingly low. Almost non-existent. The elves don't have nearly as much to say or do as they did in EB2. And most of the things they do say are just plain stupid. In EB2, when an elf says, "I've got crabs," it's funny because they are in a tropical region. In this version, when an elf starts talking about his "wiener," it's not funny. It might be funny if they were in a baseball stadium or something. But they're not!

Overall: I think the creators of the game forgot what made this game great. They're trying too hard to be funny, and most jokes fall flat. The game gets boring real fast, which is why you probably won't make it to the later rounds where that polar bear and Dingle show up. The penguins from EB2 are back, but for no good reason... just because they were popular. The grating pseudo-Danny Elfman music never stops. The elves' voices are different! (That really bothers me. Did the voice-over guy from the first two games quit or something?) They end up sounding much smarmier this time around, which is a turn-off. And the game has no real ending. You just keep playing until you get bored... which will happen very, very quickly.

One and a half stars. And I'm being very generous with that.

Well, here's hopin' for a better Elf Bowling 4...

[ Note from 2010: Unfortunately, it appears the developer has abandoned Elf Bowling altogether - the most recent OS you can play the games on is Windows 2000, which is ancient in computer years. But I've recently discovered an Elf Bowling "movie" (really a half hour special) made in 2007, so I'll be checking that out this year. ]

Monday, December 6, 2010

"A Claymation Christmas Celebration"

Childhood memories are strange things. As kids, we take for granted what adults would find truly bizarre. So when I started remembering this old Christmas special from my youth where camels sang bebop, the California Raisins stood in for Santa's reindeer, and the whole thing was hosted by two dinosaurs for some reason, I knew I had to seek it out and make sure it wasn't just a figment of my sugar-addled young brain.

Sure enough, it was all real. "A Claymation Christmas Celebration" was produced by the Will Vinton Studios and was first aired on CBS in 1987. And thankfully, like most everything else, it's available on DVD.

The show is almost exactly as I remembered it. It’s indeed hosted by two dinosaurs, creatures not historically associated with the yuletide season. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I now know that these two characters -- Rex and Herb -- first appeared in a short film entirely about dinosaurs, then became recurring characters in various Vinton projects.

In the special, Rex and Herb debate the meaning of the word "wassail" while introducing individual, stand-alone music videos set to original renditions of Christmas standards. And all the bizarre imagery is just as I remember it: camels jazzing up the otherwise stodgy "We Three Kings;" animated wisps of sand forming various tableaux; figure skating walruses; and yes, the California Raisins guiding Santa's sleigh. Will Vinton Studios was responsible for the hugely popular California Raisins ad campaign of the '80s, and so deployed their star characters for the final number.

The "Carol of the Bells" video creeped me out when I was a kid, but now it's probably my favorite part of the show.

Now over 20 years old, does the "Claymation Christmas Celebration" hold up? Absolutely! Make no mistake, it looks 20 years old. Technology has progressed and animation techniques have changed. But by focusing on classic Christmas songs, the special achieves a timeless quality that works just as well now as it did back then. Of course, kids these days will have no context for the California Raisins and might wonder why the hell these things get an entire song to themselves. Then again, if talking dinosaurs can host a Christmas special, why can't singing fruit perform the grand finale?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Night of the Kay Jewelers

The holidays are upon us again, and Kay Jewelers has revived the commercial that never should have aired in the first place:

Seriously, did Wes Craven make this commercial? The hilariously inept (or courageously subversive?) director took a concept that's clearly intended to be romantic and turned it into a straight up atmospheric horror show. Every genre earmark is here:

Clearly a soundstage, with overly dramatic lighting, conspicuous use of Hollywood fog, aggressive use of the wind machine, and preposterously amped-up rain. It's not that it's an unrealistic rainstorm; it's just that there are ways of filming such a thing that would make it romantic... which I'm assuming would be a better way to sell jewelry.

Here, the camera angle, the wide lens, the detached and voyeuristic view through the window, and the way the light gives way to encroaching darkness around the edges of the frame give the viewer a feeling of isolation. Also, the lights on each of the actors' faces come from cross angles -- the left side of her face is lit, the right side of his -- which contradict their positions in relation to each other. Where is this light coming from? Things like this have a subconscious effect on the viewer, conveying a feeling that things are "not right."

Looking for something menacing outside. Little does she realize... the killer is already inside!!

I imagine the director said, "On this take, turn around faster and more violently. Let's really see your hair whip around. Trust me - it might feel unnatural to you, but it will look great on film." Nope!

And once again, that tree limb in the foreground suggests that something is closing in. The monster could spring up from anywhere.

Here's the part that solidifies the whole thing: the man's final line. What must have been intended as "intense romantic reassurance" comes off sounding like "possessive psychotic obsession." It doesn't help that the guy looks and sounds like Jeremy Sisto's Billy Chenowith from his mentally unstable first season of "Six Feet Under."

"I'm right here," says the man. "And I always will be." Given everything that came before, would it surprise anyone if he continued, "And when I liberate our souls from these wretched bodies that imprison them, we can be together for eternity," followed by him driving a knife into her chest?

I can't believe Kay Jewelers has brought this commercial back. I'd assumed they only reluctantly aired it last year when it was new. "Well, we already spent the money to produce this thing, so let's just use it." But they brought it back, so they're clearly willing to stand behind it. Are they oblivious to how it plays with the audience? Or is this commercial actually effective at selling jewelry?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: WTF with Marc Maron

Genre: Talk Show

What It's About: Marc Maron invites fellow comedians -- some are friends, others he's meeting for the first time -- for conversations about their lives and projects.

Why You Should Care: This is what the late night talk shows should be. Maron has real conversations with his guests, genuinely listening to what they're saying and asking relevant follow up questions. When the conversation starts to lag, he knows how to steer it somewhere interesting. And he does it all without sacrificing comedy.

Maron's no-bullshit mentality means that when Carlos Mencia was on, he addressed the issue of joke theft straight-on; when Dane Cook was on, he addressed the issue of style over substance. No punches are pulled.

This is one of the best talk shows around, in any medium.

Frequency: Twice weekly

Average Length: 1 hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Thanksgiving Tale

[ Originally posted November 20, 2006 on MySpace ]

NOTE: This story may not be appropriate for my mom. Mom, perhaps reconsider reading.

Sometime last week, a few coworkers got into a laugh-filled banter fest near my desk. I had been tuning in and out of the conversation, until I heard these words: "It's like showing up to a test drunk." Everyone laughed. How preposterous! Who would show up to a test drunk? Well... I didn't laugh...

To my memory, there have only been two times that drinking made me sick. This is the story of the first of those times. And for those of you who are squeamish, don't worry. I won't be detailing the color and texture of vomit, or anything like that.

It was the fall semester of my senior year of college. By this time, I was scheduling all my classes for the afternoon or evening. Mornings were a thing of the past, except for the nights when I stayed up late enough to see dawn. Most of my evening classes were at a separate institution, Pittsburgh Filmmakers; but occasionally, one of my liberal arts requirements would be on the main campus.

And oh, what a campus. Point Park College [ note: now University ] was all of three buildings, and each of those building were connected. Everything you needed was indoors. If it weren't for those Filmmakers classes, I never would've had to go outside.

The centerpiece of Point Park was Lawrence Hall, a 23-story former hotel, bought out and turned into a college in the '70. Food was on the 3rd floor, laundry was on the 8th, and home was somewhere above that.

I was taking an art history class, which I believe was two floors below my dorm room. Despite being a required course, it was only me and three other guys. It always felt very informal. We'd look at some slides, talk a little biography on the painter or sculptor, and then end class early or sit around and talk. Being a 6 PM class, off-campus people sometimes brought dinner with them (I had usually stopped on 3 beforehand). There were so few people in the class, with so few questions, that the teacher's lectures would always end early. Sometimes we'd watch videos from A&E to fill in the extra time.

When it came to Thanksgiving, college classes were always suspended starting the Wednesday before. Art history class was on Tuesday. In the evening. Needless to say, nobody was expecting much to happen during this last-class-before-break. In fact, as I would discover, nobody was even planning on showing up other than me.

I'd finally made it to the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It had been a long, uh, fraction of a semester, and after grabbing some dinner on 3, I decided to start vacation early. I had some Firewater Schnapps in my dorm room, left over from a summer spent in Squirrel Hill wherein the only way to get my girlfriend to join "the party" with the rest of us housemates was to offer her something that didn't taste like alcohol.

For those of you who've never heard of it, Firewater is no light drink. It's an impressive 100 proof. It's a bright, molten red color and has the precise taste of those Fireball jawbreakers. The strong cinnamon flavor disguises the alcohol.

I presumed this last-class-before-break would be a whole lot of nothing. We'd probably just check in, say hi, and be on our way. Maybe we'd watch one of those A&E shows. So I did a shot of Firewater with some friends who were still stuck in the dorms with me. And then another. And maybe one more. And then it was getting close to 6 o'clock, so I grabbed my notebook and headed down two flights of stairs.

Now, at the time, I was a guy who could hold his liquor. Just ask my friend Paul about the time I drank half a bottle of Bacardi during the running time of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, however long that is. Three shots were not going to do much of anything except get me warmed up for the more drinking I anticipated doing after class. I would just sit in the back of the room, keep my eyes open and keep my mouth shut.

But a strange thing happened on the way down the stairs. Those three shots really started to hit me. "Oh well, who cares? We're not going to be doing anything anyway. The teacher will probably let us out after 15 minutes. Just hide in the back of the room, let the other guys draw attention away from you, grin and bear it for as long as it lasts, and then get back upstairs."

When I got to the classroom, no one else was there. It was just me and the teacher.

Caroline was short, with wide eyes and long, fading-blonde hair almost to her waist. She had a great sense of humor, but one that required close attention. She sometimes came off a little flaky, and I often considered the possibility that she might live in some sort of aging hippie commune outside the city limits. But she made the class both fun and interesting, and I enjoyed talking with her. Unfortunately, the friendly nature of our relationship was about to bite me in the ass.

She greeted me with a smile, a joke about no one else showing up, and then dove right into a conversation. I knew that the more I talked, the more I was going to reveal myself as drunk. But there was nothing either of us could do. We were the only ones in the room, so we couldn't ignore each other. And we couldn't pretend that we didn't have a history of easygoing conversation. So we talked. Certainly it didn't take her long to note the state I was in. This realization caused me to drunk-giggle at inappropriate moments in our conversation, only confirming what she must have already suspected. This ship was sinking fast.

We finally came to the conclusion that no one else was going to come to class that day. Relieved, I made for the door. "I guess I'll see you next week. Have a good Thanksgiving."

"Well," she hemmed, "I had this quiz for you guys."

Was she fucking with me?

"Shouldn't it wait till everyone else is here?" I said, as the room buoyed behind her.

"You can take it now. The rest will lose some credit for skipping."

Harsh. For all of us.

Defeated, I surrendered my knees, and they dropped me into a seat. Caroline placed a sheet of paper in front of me. It had five simple questions typed up on it. I began giggling to myself again. I had no idea how I was going to take this test.

Long since exposed as being under the influence, I started making light of the whole situation. I read the questions aloud, causing Caroline to laugh. As I wrote my answers down, I recited each individual word, drawing out everything I was saying as I wrote it. When you're drunk, these are the kinds of things that make sense to do.

Then a funny thing happened. Noticing that I was getting some things wrong, Caroline started correcting me. I looked up from my test to make sure I was understanding the situation. Was she seriously giving me the answers? She was. I began scratching out words and replacing them with what Caroline said.

I went on to the next question. This one stumped me completely. Before I even attempted an answer, Caroline started coaching me. "Remember when we looked at that slide of Donatello's David, and we determined..." We began a conversation, and talked our way through the answer. I wrote it all down.

We got to the end of the test. When I put the last period on the last sentence, Caroline graded my paper on the spot, giving me full credit. "Good job," she said. I felt a little guilty and awkward, but came to the conclusion that I was probably getting full credit just for being the only one to show up. Before I left the room, I shook my head apologetically and laughed some more. Then, with a "Happy Thanksgiving," I left.

Back upstairs, friends started catching their rides away for the holiday one at a time. It was then that I made probably the single most critical error of the night - I did one more shot of Firewater, which I immediately regretted. It did not sit well.

With most everyone gone, I headed back to my room and watched the Peanuts special, "The Mayflower Voyagers." Just as the Schulz-rendered pilgrims started getting seasick on their boat, I myself started to feel a discomfort in my stomach. The Firewater was coming back to haunt me. So I drank some water and decided to sleep it off. Halfway through the night, the Firewater woke me up and sent me running for the bathroom.

And the Firewater still wasn't through with me. The next day, I had to catch an early-morning Greyhound up to Erie to spend Thanksgiving with my family. Head pounding and stomach grumbling, I walked a half mile in a bitter cold autumn dawn through downtown Pittsburgh from my dorm to the Greyhound station. By the time I boarded the bus, it had been more than 12 hours since I drank. Regardless, I had to make use of one of those obscene on-board facilities twice during the trip, dry heaving into the acrid, no-flush chemical toilet.

The moral of this story? Schnapps is evil. It tears your stomach apart, and it has the potential to ruin your holidays. Now, I was lucky and experienced two Thanksgiving miracles that year: an understanding teacher and an amazing total recovery by the time the bus pulled into the Erie terminal. But you may not be so lucky. So this holiday season, I implore you, DO NOT DRINK SCHNAPPS!

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Podcast Rollcall:The Treatment

Genre: Interview

What It's About: Though the title may imply that this show is writer-centric, its scope is much broader, including interviews with filmmakers of every stripe.

Why You Should Care: If you're interested in movies, this is among the best interview shows you can find. Host Elvis Mitchell takes an expansive look at his interviewees' lives -- upbringing, education, relationships, etc. -- and explores how these things have influenced their work, their style, and the career choices they've made. More than most other interview shows, The Treatment places film and filmmaker in context with each other.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 30 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Elusive Thanksgiving Movie

When it comes to Halloween and Christmas, Hollywood's got you covered. More than covered. There are backlogs of Halloween movies and Christmas movies so large that it's probably impossible to watch them all in a lifetime, not to mention the fact that more are being made every year.

But here in America, there's a little fourth quarter holiday that's been greatly underserved by the movie studios. I'm referring, of course, to Thanksgiving. While Hollywood continually churns out new material for The Big Two holidays, it virtually ignores Thanksgiving.

The reason for that is simple: money. You can sell Halloween and Christmas all around the world. But Thanksgiving, as I mentioned, is a specifically American holiday. The studios have good reason to fear limited box office returns, as Thanksgiving has little appeal beyond our borders. (I suppose you could sell a Thanksgiving movie to Canada as well, but you'd have to wait until October of the following year. God forbid an American movie open in Canada before the states... unless it's at the TIFF.)

But Thanksgiving movies do exist. They're few and far between, and the trappings of the holiday are usually just background noise rather than a prominent feature. But with such limited options, you have to take what you can get. Here are a few of those rare gems.

Hannah and Her Sisters. This one is often listed as a "Thanksgiving movie" even though the holiday is only on screen for about ten minutes. Still, it's good - Woody Allen in his prime, with great performances from a great cast. (NOTE: Available on Netflix streaming, so cue it up at your leisure on Thanksgiving day.)

Miracle on 34th Street. Definitely more of a Christmas movie, but the first act is set against a backdrop of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The parade scenes were shot during the real 1946 Macy's parade, and it's interesting to see the similarities and differences between the parade now and the parade 60 years ago.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Thanksgiving is the motivating goal of this movie, but doesn't feature too prominently until the end. Of the movies listed here, this one may be the most effective at expressing the togetherness that Thanksgiving is meant to represent. It's also funny.

Pieces of April. A slight movie, but good for what it is. One of the few movies to place Thanksgiving front-and-center, as the title character spends the entire run time struggling to prepare a feast to impress her family.

Home for the Holidays. Probably the most conventionally enjoyable movie of the bunch listed here. Another one of the rare instances where Thanksgiving is central to the story. Despite being centered around Thanksgiving, this movie ends up having more of a Christmas vibe.

The New World. I haven't seen this movie yet, but it's my selection for this year's ramp up to Thanksgiving. A non-animated telling of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. I don't know how Thanksgiving-y this movie is actually going to be, since the events it depicts predate the Puritans by more than a decade. But I've been meaning to watch this movie for a while now, and Thanksgiving is as good an excuse as any.

As you can see, pickings are pretty slim when it comes to Thanksgiving movies. TV is more reliable for Thanksgiving specials and Thanksgiving-themed episodes of regular series. But if it's a movie you're looking for, I hope this list helps.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: Macbreak Weekly

Genre: Technology

What It's About: Tech journalists from around the country discuss the latest news, software and hardware releases, bugs, and rumors surrounding Apple and its line of products.

Why You Should Care: Home computer technology has been the most important and influential cultural force of the last 20 years, and Apple specifically has taken the lead in innovation over the last decade. No matter your level of interest, the decisions they make and the products they release are affecting your everyday life. This show keeps you up-to-date on those decisions and products, as well as what to expect in the near future. That they happen to be a group of intelligently funny people only makes the show more listenable.

Of note: If you insist on hating Apple, the This Week In Tech network also produces a Windows Weekly series.

Frequency: As the title suggests, weekly

Average Length: 1 1/2 hours

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dee Wallace (Stone): An Appreciation

For the entirety of my life, Dee Wallace had been one thing and one thing only: the mother in E.T. I'd never seen her in anything else. As far as I knew, she was an actress whose career began and ended with that one movie. Then, when I was 16, I saw The Frighteners.

I knew almost nothing about The Frighteners before I saw it. All I knew was that it was about ghosts, it starred Michael J. Fox (who I always liked), and it was produced by Robert Zemeckis (who I always liked). That's all I needed to get me to the theater... well, that and my mom's parental guidance, since I was one year too young to see an R-rated movie on my own. (The theaters were strengthening their admittance policies following the recent institution of the NC-17 rating.)

The Frighteners absolutely blew me away. I'd never seen anything like it; the squishiness of the CG effects, the vertiginous rolling landscapes, the antic logic of the narrative, it was all new to me. And the way the movie started out as an almost slapstick comedy but grew into one of the tensest showdowns I'd ever seen... I was carried away by the whole thing. And there in the middle of it all was the sweet but burdened mom from E.T. delivering a remarkable performance as a batty, disturbed, henpecked daughter. How did they decide on Dee Wallace-Stone, of all people, for this part? I didn't know, but after seeing her giddily dark performance in the movie, I couldn't imagine anyone else playing that part.

I was soon to learn more about the movie's co-writer and director, Peter Jackson. (Weren't we all?) I was given a crash course by my good friend Paul, a horror movie enthusiast. Jackson was already well known in horror circles thanks to delightfully disgusting splatter films like Bad Taste and Dead Alive. He was from, and usually shot in, New Zealand, which explained why I'd never seen towns and landscapes quite like that before. And he had gotten worldwide mainstream attention (and simultaneously introduced the world to Kate Winslet) with the brilliant coming of age drama Heavenly Creatures. After the latter film, Hollywood wanted a piece of him. The fact that he was able to slip The Frighteners through the mainstream studio system when they were no doubt looking for the next Heavenly Creatures made him a hero to me.

Ultimately, I credit The Frighteners with singlehandedly raising my interest in horror films. Up to that point, it had been a cinematic blind spot for me. Through some combination of parental forbiddance, my acceptance of the cultural propaganda that horror movies are worthless garbage, and my own immature fear of being corrupted in some way, I'd just never partaken of the horror genre the way most of my friends had. The Frighteners, followed soon after by film school, kicked that barricade down. I learned what was great about horror films. I came to understand them, appreciate them, and finally love them. (The good ones, of course.)

But by then, I was already so far behind. I had a lot of ground to cover just to get caught up on the horror films that most of my friends had grown up with - your Elm Streets, your Halloweens, your Texas Chainsaws, your Living Deads. Fortunately, Paul was a veritable one-man video store of horror. And not long after college, Netflix arrived on the scene, which made it simple to get my hands on all the horror I needed. Every October is now dedicated to watching as many horror films as I possibly can.

Which brings us back to Dee Wallace-Stone. While getting caught up on horror film history, I began to notice a familiar face popping up over and over again. Dee Wallace had apparently been making a career as a scream queen. That's why I'd never seen her in anything other than E.T. She had been populating the exact movies that I had been neglecting. There she was in the original The Hills Have Eyes. There she was in The Howling. There she was in Cujo and Critters.

I now realized that by the time Peter Jackson had gotten around to casting her in The Frighteners he wasn't merely casting the right person for the role, he was casting someone with horror cachet.

Later, Rob Zombie would pull the same stunt by casting her in his remake of Halloween. And in an amusing twist on the same concept, she was cast in a 2009 horror film that's set in the '80s (where the bulk of her horror work resides), The House of the Devil.

So, to Dee Wallace-Stone: I apologize for only recently becoming versed in your work. Thanks for all the screams.

To everyone else, I hope you're enjoying some great horror movies this season. Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Garfield Holiday Specials

Every year, the television networks treat us to a new crop of holiday specials. These shows used to be built to last, with memorable characters and stories that families would tune in to see year after year. These days, holiday specials seem pretty much disposable, running for two or three years and then decomposing into the mulch used to fertilize the next year's crop.

I've found it distressing that over the last decade or so, the Garfield holiday specials seem to have slipped into the disposable category. As far as I can tell, the networks have pretty much stopped airing them altogether; even the upper-numbered cable channels whose sole purpose is to recycle old stuff.

This is a mistake. The Garfield holiday specials were not only built to last, they are -- prepare yourself for controversy -- every bit as good as the Charlie Brown holiday specials. Different, certainly, but just as good. When I was a kid, the networks used to air the Charlie Brown and Garfield holiday specials back-to-back, so I've always associated the two; they were together in the newspapers, and they were together on TV. But while Charlie Brown (rightly) remains a stalwart perennial, Garfield has apparently been chewed up and spit out by Father Time's cruelly insatiable appetite for The New.

Garfield's specials contain everything a classic holiday special needs: a good story, funny jokes, catchy songs, and a lesson learned at the end. In "Garfield's Halloween Adventure," Garfield schemes to take Odie's share of the trick-or-treating candy. But when the two have an encounter with pirate ghosts, Garfield realizes that friendship is more important than candy. And by the way, those pirate ghosts are genuinely creepy!!

"Garfield's Thanksgiving," like Charlie Brown's, is the weakest of the three holiday entries, but still enjoyable. Jon invites Liz, the veterinarian, to Thanksgiving dinner at his place. Liz has just put Garfield on a diet, and Garfield is none too pleased. When Jon ruins the meal he was cooking, Garfield clues him into the best way to solve the problem: call Grandma over to make a new meal. Liz, impressed with the meal, loosens the strictness of Garfield's diet and gives Jon a kiss on the cheek.

"A Garfield Christmas Special" is loaded with classic moments. Garfield eating his way to the Christmas tree via a stack of "Christmas lasagnas" Jon has prepared for him. "The gift that keeps on giving." Dad's dramatic reading of "Binky: The Clown Who Saved Christmas." Jon and Doc Boy arguing the semantics of when Christmas Day begins, so they can open their gifts sooner. But most importantly, this special has a lot of heart, mostly centering around the relationship that forms between Garfield and Grandma.

Garfield's holiday specials were great when I was a kid, and I'm happy to report that they've aged well. So as the holidays approach, I recommend that everyone rent or buy these classics. The TV networks may have stopped airing them, but they can still be a valuable addition to your holiday entertainment.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: Road Stories

Genre: Comedy

What It's About: Comedians recounting some of the most interesting and outrageous things that have happened to them as they've traveled the country (or the world) doing their shows, interspersed with general interest conversations.

Why You Should Care: Because it puts you in a privileged position. The road story is a thing of myth; a time honored show-business tradition where entertainers earn their stripes and encounter some of the most bizarre people and situations imaginable. Their awkward situations are your gain. Needless to say, with some of the top comedians participating in the podcast, the stories are excellently told and hilarious to hear.

Frequency: Posts very infrequently; so far, there have only been three episodes in 2010

Average Length: 1 hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Best Game Show of All Time

There will never be a quiz show better than "Jeopardy!"

Now in its 27th season, the show perfected its formula a very long time ago and has sustained its success by never deviating. The most radical change in the show's history was host Alex Trebek's decision to shave off his signature mustache at the start of the 18th season.

All quiz shows are required to do the same thing: ask questions and give rewards for correct answers. The creators and producers of these shows work hard to come up with clever ways of doing so. Unfortunately, all that does is create lard that fills up show, taking time away from what we, the audience, really want: more questions.

Let's take a look at some recent successes in TV quiz shows.

"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (no question mark)": Egregious time-waster. The host reads the questions and the multiple choice options very slowly. The contestants are encouraged to hem-and-haw, verbalize their thought process, utilize "lifelines," and then finally select their answer. And after all that, still more time is wasted when the host stops to verify whether or not this is, indeed, the final answer the contestant would like to give. (Has any contestant ever taken that moment to say, "You know what, I'm changing my answer"?) The maximum number of questions a contestant can be asked is 14. The only way to get a decent number of questions asked in a single episode is to hope the contestants get eliminated quickly.

"The Weakest Link": Significant time-waster. When questions are actually being asked, this show rivals "Jeopardy!" in the quantity department. Unfortunately, the longest round is only three minutes, with each successive round reduced in time. Far too much time is filled between question rounds with host banter and contestant-elimination voting.

"Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (question mark kindly included)": Biggest time-waster. Only six questions per contestant, with a typical maximum of two contestants per episode. In other words, maximum lard.

Look, these shows can be enjoyable I suppose. But you have to be really into host banter and hope that the contestants they get are remotely interesting. Me? I don't care how funny the hosts think they are, and I rarely find the contestants interesting. I watch quiz shows for one reason: to answer the questions myself.

The genius of "Jeopardy!" is in its gimmick -- the host gives the "answers" and contestants give the "questions." They don't have to waste time justifying the presence of 9-year-olds or gussying up the question rounds with needless frills. This allows a maximum number of questions to be asked in a fast-paced half hour format.

When it comes to question volume, memory recall speed, and overall challenge, I doubt anything will ever top "Jeopardy!"

Bonus: recording "Jeopardy!" on your DVR and skipping past the contestant interview segment. Because CONTESTANTS ARE BORING (see above)!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yield Signs

[ Originally posted July 12, 2006 ]

Why do we have Stop signs AND Yield signs? Is it really necessary to draw that distinction? When it comes to driving, shouldn't things be kept as simple and straight forward as possible? Stop or don't stop.

I bring this up because I was nearly hit yesterday by someone who wasn't quite on top of the whole "yield" concept. Maybe a Stop sign would have been a little more clear to him. In an age when coffee cups are required to warn people that their contents might be a bit on the toasty side, perhaps the Yield sign is a little too vague for the average driver.

But if they're going to do both, why did they quit there? I, for one, would like to see more variety in the "don't drive for a few seconds" road sign department. And I've gone the extra mile of coming up with a few new ideas.

*The Cede sign. I'd imagine it could be some sort of rectangle, probably colored blue.

*The Forgo sign would be a good one. I think it should shaped as some manner of circle or oval, and should probably be colored fuchsia. I don't even know what color fuchsia is, but fuchsia and Forgo just sound like they should be placed together.

*My absolute favorite of the new signs would definitely be the Acquiesce sign, which I imagine would be on some sort of pentagram shape. Magenta. Definitely magenta.

If the preceding sign ideas were implemented, I'm convinced the roads would be a safer place. We're going to have to do this thing on a state-by-state basis. Write your congressman.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: NPR Pop Culture

Genre: Pop culture, surprisingly

What It's About: A compendium of pop culture stories culled from the full roster of NPR programming.

Why You Should Care: While NPR doesn't dip into pop culture reporting too often, when it does it's worth a listen. Unfortunately, such reporting is typically a drop in the bucket relative to the many hours of reporting NPR does per week. This podcast does the hard work for you, rounding up the pop culture stories from all those different programs and assembling them into one simple digest.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 18 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Along Came Miss Blankenship

[ SPOILER ALERT: This entire post covers important season four plot points of "Mad Men." ]

From its beginning, "Mad Men" has been one of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time. And for good reason. It's smart, moody, attentive to detail, and depicts a range of tragically flawed characters you can't take your eyes off of. It's a master class in motion picture storytelling. It's strikingly original, and always plays against your expectations.

But then, earlier this season, "Mad Men" introduced a character straight out of a horrible, hackneyed sitcom. She was your classic Batty Old Woman character. She did her job with a put-upon sigh; she was barely able to perform the tasks of said job, and we were meant to laugh at her ineptitudes and failings; she said exactly what was on her mind, which was usually just south of appropriate. Her glasses and wig were just a notch too big to be taken seriously. She was even given a silly name - Miss Blankenship.

Everything about this character screamed "jumping the shark!" She was comic relief in a way we'd never seen -- or, frankly, asked for -- on this show. Tonally, she didn't fit in with the series. She was an overworked Neil Simon derivative, akin to The Dumb Blonde.

Here's a typical Blankenship scenario: A character waltzes into Don Draper's office. Don and the character begin to have a conversation. A second and a half later, Miss Blankenship's voice comes in over the buzzer announcing, "Mister Draper, [character name] is here to see you." Don rolls his eyes, and the conversation continues. Like I said, the stuff of bad sitcoms.

But it worked. It shouldn't have worked, but it did. Why? Why didn't this character signal the beginning of the creative decline of "Mad Men," as she would on any other show?

A cynic might say that the "Mad Men" audience drank the kool-aid a long time ago, and they'll give their darling show a pass on anything. This may prove to be true eventually, but it's not true yet. Season four is proving to be the series' strongest yet. Fan enthusiasm is well warranted.

One reason this character may have worked is precisely because she didn't belong. She was a new and unexpected brand of comic relief for the show. We never would have thought a show like "Mad Men" would drop the "ill-timed intercom gag" on us.

But that sells the show and the character a bit short.

For me, this character fell into place when Don delivered a particular line about her. Another character asked Don why he hadn't replaced Miss Blankenship yet. Don responded that Miss Blankenship was exactly the person Joan knew he needed. And now I'm going to take this opportunity to put up a bunch of pictures of Christina Hendricks as Joan.

Joan is the secretarial manager in the advertising firm that is the show's setting, so it was her decision to place Miss Blankenship as Don's new secretary earlier this season. Don's previous secretary -- young, pretty and vulnerable -- was forced to leave her job after Don took advantage of her. Joan's decision to assign Miss Blankenship to Don not only took away the "young and pretty," but added a dose of surly. Just what Don needed, indeed.

The reason critics, if not a wide audience, love "Mad Men" is because it's so carefully structured. Nothing happens in the storylines that doesn't come out of, and relate back to, the characters. Miss Blankenship wasn't there simply to give us some brainless laughs. She was there to make us consider the cleverness of Joan, the resigned acceptance of Don, and the casual rudeness the other characters demonstrate in the face of the elderly.

Then came the matter of Miss Blankenship's death. Even here, the writers dispatched with her in a classic hack-sitcom manner. A character was talking to Miss Blankenship, unaware that she was already dead. Getting no response, the character tapped Miss Blankenship on the shoulder, at which point her body slumped over in her chair, head thumping against the desk. How many times have we seen a character talking to someone he or she didn't know was dead, only to be hilariously shocked by the revelation? Too many to count.

As the sequence continued, a small team of office employees went about getting rid of the body in the background, while in the foreground Don conducted a Big Important Business Meeting. Don had to maintain his composure in the face of his clients, while he observed the chaotic handling of Miss Blankenship's body directly behind them. Again, the stuff of bad sitcoms. The only way to make this scenario more cliched would be to have Don on a date with two different women... in the same restaurant... at the same time!!

But even in this worn out madcap scenario, "Mad Men" elevates the material and makes it work. The comedy of Miss Blankenship's death is juxtaposed with a clearly saddened Bert Cooper, the eldest executive at the advertising firm. In a previous episode of "Mad Men," we discovered that Roger Sterling was working on his memoirs in which he alluded to Bert Cooper's sexual past. Given Cooper's reaction to Miss Blankenship's death, we're left to assume that the two had had a fling in their younger years, and that she had left a significant impression on him. Meanwhile, Joan and Roger relapsed into a fling that had been on ice for several years. Whether she knows it or not, Joan has seen her own future in Miss Blankenship's death - sitting behind the desk at a job that doesn't treat her nearly as well as she treats it, subservient to the men who pay lip service to her value but will never treat her as an equal.

The lesson here is that even the hackiest, most cliched storytelling and comedic devices can feel fresh and new if you know how to use them. Leave it to the experts over at "Mad Men" to show us the way.

And rest in peace, Ida Blankenship.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: The Paul Goebel Show

Genre: Pop culture

What It's About: Television and comedy. Paul Goebel, stand-up comedian and former TV Geek on "Beat the Geeks," brings his vast knowledge of television to the table as he and co-hosts Jim Bruce and Tom Griffin discuss current shows, controversies and other TV-related topics. Special guests, usually with comedy backgrounds, join the conversations.

Why You Should Care: There's a reason Goebel was the TV Geek on "Beat the Geeks." He's a nearly-unstumpable walking encyclopedia of TV trivia. More knowledgeable about TV history than the average critic, his podcast is an excellent filter for placing current shows in context. But most importantly, the show is a lot of fun to listen to. Hilarity and interesting conversations abound.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 1 hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: The Sound of Young America

Genre: Interview

What It's About: Stuff that's awesome! Though technically an interview show, The Sound of Young America is really more of a lifestyle show, committed to seeking, exploring, and sharing the very best of American culture.

Why You Should Care: Host Jesse Thorne is an admirable self-starter who began with a simple college radio show, turned it into an interview show worthy of NPR, and then actually got the show on NPR. His interviews are varied, ranging from the usual pop-culture mainstays -- actors, comedians, authors, musicians -- to the less common -- photographers, science writers, journalists, film festival programmers, painters. Not one to stick to the mainstream, Thorne's guests are frequently newly-emerging artists, so you walk away from the show with a new discovery to investigate and to share with your friends.

Frequency: Irregular (several per week)

Average Length: 40 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: Slate's Culture Gabfest

Genre: Cultural analysis and criticism

What It's About: Examining recent cultural events. In every edition, three writers from gather for a roundtable discussion of three topics. Topics range from the ubiquitous and obvious -- a discussion of Eat Pray Love on the week the movie debuted, for example -- to the more obscure but fascinating -- like the IBM supercomputer that can beat humans at Jeopardy. Then there are the topics that are just plain fun, like the Old Spice guy.

Why You Should Care: is one of my favorite websites. A news and left-leaning opinion magazine, they have a knack for finding interesting angles on current event stories. That carries over to their podcasts. The Gabfest is hosted by smart, informed writers whose wit and insight will motivate you to scrutinize your own thoughts and opinions on a topic. Sometimes a bit too snobby, the participants are self-conscious enough to realize it, and self-critical enough to balance it out.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 40 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: On the Media

Genre: News & Information

What It's About: On the Media covers current events in the news, but addresses them from a unique perspective - that being how and why the media covers events the way that it does. When Republican Scott Brown won a senate seat in Democratic Massachusetts, this show didn't cover how it happened but instead investigated how the media didn't know it was going to happen. While other news outlets pursue intriguing statistical data, this show looks into why news outlets are so obsessed with numbers. This isn't news; it's news about the news.

Why You Should Care: Because it's rare for the media to turn such a critical eye on itself. And in these days of rampant accusations about media biases and questions about where to draw the line between fact and opinion, it's more important than ever for the public to understand how the media operates.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 1 hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Notes on Comic Con 2010

2010 was my first year attending the San Diego Comic Con. I, of course, have been an ardent follower of Comic Con news for many years. In the last decade, it's become the mid-year source for news and trendsetting in all aspects of the entertainment industry.

Despite this, I'd been reluctant to go. I'm not much for crowds, and SDCC is nothing if not one giant crowd (with an estimated 140,000 attendees this year). Also, being on the ground level at the Con, you're not going to get the eagle-eye overview that, say, G4's coverage provides in the comfort of your own home. But during this past year I've been working a cool job that qualified me and a guest (that would be Helby) for free admission, which is a roughly $200 value. I couldn't pass it up. Plus, with fancy technology like "the internet" and a "digital video recorder," I could still get caught up on all the news I missed.

Here's what I learned from my first year at Comic Con...

1. Take the train!

I've made the drive from Los Angeles to San Diego many times since moving to California. It's about two hours. But apparently during the Con, the freeways between the two cities become one giant L.A. rush hour. Not fun, and it certainly ruins any plans you'd been making for your first day. If you're an L.A. resident (and, statistically, most SDCC attendees these days are from L.A.), I'm going to give you the advice that no one gave me: take the train. You'll arrive quicker, with less stress, and on a reliable schedule.

Despite giving ourselves nearly four hours, Helby and I didn't make it in time to check in and get our badges on our first night, which meant all we could do was go out to dinner and hang out in the Douche District (aka Gaslamp Quarter). Next year, I'm taking the train.

(We ate at Kansas City BBQ, where the piano scene in Top Gun was shot)

2. Call off from work and go on day one.

Comic Con traditionally opens on a Thursday, and has a "preview night" the day before. To get the most for your time and money, plan on attending those days. We didn't go until Friday and, having gotten shut out of Friday night's activities due to our late arrival, only had Saturday and Sunday to attend panels and other events. And really, Sunday's activities are few and low-key. The big thing to do on Sunday is explore the main floor and try to get discounts from merchants. The big press releases, the big preview clips, the big interviews, the big autograph signings... those are all happening before Sunday. Go early.

3. Get a full-access shuttle pass.

Honestly, I don't know what the alternatives are. All I know is, as part of our package deal with the hotel, we had full access to the shuttle system for the duration of the Con. We could go to and from the convention center as often as we wanted, as well as hopping buses to friends' hotels. We didn't have to worry about buying a new pass every day, or being restricted to only one shuttle line. That kind of freedom keeps stress to a minimum while you're there.

4. Nerd stereotypes are NOT exaggerated.

These guys both exist.

Comic Con is primarily for geeks. Geeks and nerds are not the same thing, but there's a lot of overlap. And when you happen upon that perfect nerd archetype, it's hilarious how accurate the stereotypical representations are.

5. There's not as much skin on display as you might be expecting.

...Or at least not as much as I was expecting. Which is pretty disappointing. Yes, there is some of this -

- but not as much as the media would have you believe. I should've known better. Of course they're going to zero in on the few dozen people dressed like that and put those front and center on highlight reels and photo spreads. But "a few dozen" is less than 1% of the total number of attendees.

That being said, the more modest costumes can still be plenty hot. And there are lots of those.

6. Geeks are not to be effed with.

Considering there are booths that sell swords and chain maces, you might want to think twice about fighting for a seat.

Fans react to Hall H Comic-Con stabbing w/ costumes the next ... on Twitpic
7. If you think you might like it, then just go.

As I said, I'm not a crowd person. I also hate hotels. And now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not really a fan of public transportation either. But if you're into comic books, movies, TV shows, video games, collectibles, art, toys, costumes, or culture in general, you're going to have a good time at the Con. I'm glad my reluctance didn't win out. San Diego Comic Con is an experience well worth having.

And now, the slide show...

Or click here for the album.