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.