Saturday, December 31, 2005

Eight things I loved in 2005

8 Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson Craig Kilborn left late night at the top of his game and with a killer arsenal of bits like Asexual Icon and To Blank with Love. I was cool on Ferguson at first, but his single-topic, stream-of-consciousness monologue is now the best in late night, and it kills me every time during the e-mail segment when he says, "Remember, if you want to e-mail me, it's Craig at the Internet slash Google dot Earthlink slash com."

7 Invasion ABC scored the only new show out of the glut of creepy-drama upstarts that kept me coming back this season (goodbye, Threshold and Surface – nice try, though). That scene in which Muriel peers into the water and comes face to face with her dead body was the scariest thing on TV all year.

6 iTunes Me in front of my iMac with 1,641 of my songs (and counting) playing through a great pair of headphones on shuffle. Thank you, Apple.

5 Confessions on a Dance Floor • Madonna Easily her best since Ray of Light, this seamless electronica platter is a welcome return to form.

4 Jeopardy! Like Law & Order, Jeopardy! is one of those shows I always respected but rarely watched. Then I tuned in for the Ken Jennings run (the return-until-you-get-beat rule was a brilliant move) and became permanently hooked on this unabashed celebration of knowledge.

3 Blogging It really is a whole new world, and I had largely ignored it until jumping on the bandwagon about six months ago. Now it's my hobby and a whole new realm of websites that entertain me.

2 TV on DVD I'm currently watching Battlestar Galactica Season 1, The Twilight Zone Season 1 ('80s version), The X-Files Season 4, NewsRadio Season 2, Seinfeld Season 3, Reno 911 Season 2, V: The Complete Series, and Once and Again Season 2. 'Nuff said. Which brings us to …

1 Battlestar Galactica Season 1 DVD Maybe it’s the cylons, not just sleek machines now but human in form, as well, and especially devious. Maybe it's the silent drama of an incoming missile. Maybe it's the steely resolve of Commander Adama (brilliantly pegged by Edward James Olmos). These things and so much more make this the best show on television and, perhaps, the best television sci-fi drama ever.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

TV: Deal or No Deal

Genre: Game show
Logistics: NBC, due to return
Verdict: &&&

"No trivia questions, no crazy stunts," Howie Mandel says during the opening of Deal or No Deal, the latest network stab at a big-money primetime game show and, like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, a show that is already a foreign success. While half of that statement sounds like a potshot at Fear Factor, one of the most heinous crimes ever foisted on the American viewing public, the other half , "no trivia questions," only calls attention to how thin a concept Deal or No Deal really is: A contestant chooses one of 26 suitcases containing dollar amounts ranging from 1 cent to $1 million. Suitcases are opened in chunks of six, then five, etcetera, with the bank making an offer to buy back the contestant's suitcase after each round of selections. If the revealed suitcases contain a lot of low values, the bank's offer goes up. It's all a matter of chance and determining when is the right moment to stop – and that's just about it, with big money and glitzy production to prop it up. The stage full of suitcases is a nice touch, reminiscent of the '70s and '80s Treasure Hunt (a Chuck Barris production, no less), with its stage full of prize packages, one of which contained a check for a large sum. I like that there's a model on Deal to hold each and every suitcase and a constant barrage of statistics thrown up onscreen, such as, "Marla has a 60 percent chance of having $100,000 or more in her suitcase." The show's weakness is its one-dimensionality – introducing some family members on the sidelines does not qualify as mixing things up. Even Press Your Luck, the king of luck-based games, varied the pace with two question rounds. Nevertheless, Deal can be entertaining, especially when only a few cases remain and big money is still on the board. Its Dec. 19-23 run performed well enough that NBC has reportedly green-lighted further production. Since most of the few new game shows we get these days are formats that have proved to be international successes, here's hoping some American producer takes note of Australia's long-running success with $ale of the Century (it's the kind of juggernaut there that Wheel of Fortune is here), a game that's nonstop fun and, unlike Deal, weaves together a number of compelling elements.

// Fun fact // NBC's last game show attempt was the unspectacular revival of Let's Make a Deal.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

DVD: Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

Genre: Sci-fi
Director: George Lucas
Released: Nov. 1, 2005
Verdict: &&&1/2

It's supposed to be about Anakin Skywalker succumbing to the dark side of the Force, but Ian McDiarmid's scene-stealing makes Revenge of the Sith more about Chancellor Palpatine as evil seducer. McDiarmid owns this movie: His delivery of lines like "Not … from a Jedi" and "Master Jedi, are you threatening me?" is simply chilling. His grand presence underscores the thinness of other performances – Hayden Christensen gets the youthful petulance of his role right, but he is hopelessly out of his league when bouncing lines off McDiarmid. And, if Samuel L. Jackson and Natalie Portman have ever come across more wooden than they do here, someone tell me where (Phantom Menace doesn't count). I think some critics gave George Lucas a bit of a free ride on Sith because it's the last movie and we all really wanted to love it. I do like it, but I prefer Attack of the Clones, with its thrilling assassination attempt/chase opening and water planet scenes. One of the best things about Sith is its visual bridging to Star Wars in the final scenes, creating a sense that the story truly has come full circle. Sith's second half succeeds in creating a sustained tension as Anakin moves further down the path to transformation and the Jedi come under attack, but this is also where the movie makes its biggest plot fumble – the failure to provide a single, believable event that pushes him over the edge. That event came in the wrong movie – Attack of the Clones – when Anakin finds what the sand people have done to his mother and gets in touch with his inner dark side. // DVD notes // For a six-channel soundtrack to a Star Wars movie, there's very little happening in the surrounds. The deleted scenes, including an action sequence chopped from the opening and some political maneuvering, are worth watching but not revealing.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Music: Last five iTunes downloads

A quick stroll through the latest additions to my playlist …

5 Black Mercedes • One Block Radius One Block Radius unabashedly taps the Outkast "Hey Ya" vibe, but it's too catchy to call it a rip-off. We'll call it an homage instead.

4 Cool • Gwen Stefani Had this come on the radio in 1986, no one would have batted an eye, so well does the new queen of pop channel that perfect '80s pop sound. Play it between "Voices Carry" and "Always Something There to Remind Me" and tell me it isn't true. A brilliant single in the spirit of No Doubt's wonderful cover of Talk Talk's "It's My Life."

3 Crazy (James Michael Mix) • Alanis Morissette A natural choice for Alanis, given its wordiness. The electronic mix is nice, if perhaps a little too faithful to the original. This single, an offering from her new hits disc, might have benefited from a little more space between it and Seal's 1991 original. It's mildly interesting and not surprising that radio has completely ignored it thus far.

2 King of Pain • Alanis Morissette From her MTV Unplugged album, this Police cover is again a natural, wordy choice for the Queen of Pain. Her delicate delivery of that deeply hooky line, "I have stood here before inside the pouring rain …" is so good it hurts.

1 Keeping the Faith (Dance Remix) • Billy Joel In this age of remixes that bear little if any resemblance to the original song, it's easy to forget how much fun they used to be. From his new "My Lives" collection, this treatment of one of the many singles from his 1983 "An Innocent Man" album is a pleasant reminder. This twist on a great pop song makes you a believer by goosing the groove just a bit and adding some new percussive flourishes and choir-like background vocals.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Music: Enya • Amarantine

Genre: New age
Released: Nov. 22, 2005


Let's review an important lesson of the 2000s that Enya's handlers apparently didn't pick up on: The new age diva can be a successful singles artist, not just a reliable (but slow to produce) album artist. Three years ago, A Day Without Rain's lead single, "Only Time," ascended to number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, very belatedly giving Enya her first top 10 single. The song had several things going for it, including soundtrack placement and post-Sept. 11 emotions, but the key to its success was a pop radio mix that got her spins at top 40. More recently, Mario Winans scored a massive number two hit with "I Don't Wanna Know," which relies heavily on a sample of "Boadicea" from her first album, The Celts. Not only was the song quite good, it gave us the amusing credit: Mario Winans feat. Enya and P. Diddy. Who knew Celtic divas were so fly? She should be poised for another hit, but I've not heard a trace of the new single on the radio nor seen any press on the new album other than a couple of tepid reviews. The EP of "Amarantine" offers a standard single mix that sounds just like the album version. Where's "Amarantine (So Def Mix)" feat. Slim Thug and Chingy? Barring that, at least a pop mix would seem a wise move, given her recent exposure to younger record buyers/downloaders.

Despite the absence of savvy marketing, the new album is good, even if it treads water artistically and follows a number of well-established patterns. For example, the gently waltzing first single is the second track (hello, "Only Time," "Anywhere Is," and "Caribbean Blue"), and there is exactly one track, "The River Sings," about midway through that pulsates with an electronic groove (hello, "Ebudae"). There's singing in English, and there's
heartfelt emoting in other languages, now including some gibberish called Loxian (hello, every Enya album). Nevertheless, Enya's soothing concoctions are almost always effective, tapping something that can only be called spiritual (and not in a strict religious sense, unless that's what you get from it). Highlights include opener "Less Than a Pearl," which features a signature soaring Enya melody and musically sounds almost like a leftover from The Celts, and "Drifting," a piano-driven instrumental that invites you to do just that. In a world too often lacking kindness, Enya is the most reassuring and comforting of artists, so there will be no complaints from me if she chooses to merely rewrite past successes.

// Other music reviews // Madonna • Confessions on a Dance Floor

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Music: Madonna • Confessions on a Dance Floor

Genre: Dance/electronica
Released: Nov. 15, 2005
Verdict: &&&&1/2

After the commercial failure of American Life, it's no surprise that Madonna takes a radically different approach on Confessions on a Dance Floor, a shimmery, ballad-free dance album that is arguably her most compulsively listenable since Ray of Light. While American Life is underrated – "Love Profusion" ranks among her best songs ever, and the singles were well crafted, even if they failed to connect – I'll agree that the fun had gone out of it. The attempt at rapping was weak, and the jagged production style of Mirwais Ahmadzai, which worked better on Music, became taxing. (On Confessions, Ahmadzai is held over for one track, "Future Lovers," which turns out to be one of the stronger songs here.) Teaming with producer Stuart Price (of the little-known group Zoot Woman), Madonna gets her glitter ball groove back, creating a seamless electronica dish that pulsates with energy and vibrant melodies from start to finish. Lead single "Hung Up," which wraps a great pop hook around ABBA's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!," rightfully soared into the Billboard top 10 this week thanks to strong iTunes sales. "Jump" and "Sorry" seem likely singles, but a daring choice would be the chant- and string-filled "Isaac," six minutes of hypnotic bliss in the style of Ray of Light's "Shanti/Ashtangi" and the Music-era B-side "Cyberraga." It's reassuring, on Confessions, to see Madonna let go and have fun – something it seemed she had forgotten how to do. After the creative peak of Ray of Light, some disappointments were inevitable, but this return to form isn't one of them.

// Other music reviews // Enya • Amarantine
// Linkage // Official site -

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

PS2 • Taito Legends

Genre: Retro compilation
Released: Oct. 25, 2005


Presentation & extras:

Loaded with 29 games, this collection throws in some that have no business appearing under the "legends" banner, but there are enough true classics here to make this an essential purchase for any member of the Atari generation. I felt like a lottery winner when I saw it would include Elevator Action, in which you make your way down an elevator- and escalator-filled office tower while shooting spies in the kneecaps and ducking in the red doors to steal documents. It's one of those games whose simplicity only enhances its appeal, and I can play it for ages without growing bored. I'd forgotten how much I love to see the spies tumble down the elevator shaft or get squashed underneath the elevator. I immediately noticed that the audio in Elevator Action seems less polished than that of the NES version, but maybe it's just me.

There are bigger names here, like Space Invaders, Jungle Hunt, Phoenix, Bubble Bobble and its sequel, Rainbow Islands. I actually never played Space Invaders in the arcade and am surprised at how difficult it is compared to the Atari 2600 version. Both its sequels are included, and, while Space Invaders Part 2 arguably doesn't tweak the game play enough, Return of the Invaders strays pretty far from the primitive original and appears to have been influenced by Galaga, even down to including a challenging stage. The most pleasant surprise is Tube It, a puzzler variation with dropping pieces for the Tetris crowd in which sections of pipe must be shifted to make connections from side to side before the screen fills to the top. It's about as compulsively playable as a puzzler gets. Speaking of puzzles, it seems odd to give us Super Qix here rather than its predecessor, Qix, the box-drawing game that may be the only title to make percentages fun. The sequel, Super Qix, relies on the gimmick of uncovering a picture as the player chips away at the game board.

Unfortunately, the game list is peppered with some pretty awful stuff amongst the winners. Some of the worst are Space Gun, a first-person alien shooter aboard a space vessel; Electric Yo-Yo, which amounts to gobbling up dots; and Plotting, a block-busting game that just doesn't pop. There is one uninspired racing game and several ordinary fighting titles. Colony 7, in which the player defends buildings from incoming missiles, is a difficult Missile Command clone, and Plump Pop, a cute game in which the player bounces an animal off a trampoline to pop bubbles in the sky, is impossible to execute with the PS2 controller.

I've found instances where the difficulty settings are a bit confounding. In Elevator Action, for example, the easy setting starts with six men and offers a free man at 10,000. The medium setting starts with three men and makes you crawl to 15,000 – too much – to earn the freebie. Neither setting seems logical. Thankfully, you can rectify this with a custom setting, but this nice feature is hampered by the fact that the game won't save high scores for games played with customized difficulty. For gamers who enjoy cheat codes, some are included in the game descriptions.

Despite some filler, Taito Legends is neck-and-neck with Midway Arcade Treasures for best retro-gaming compilation. While the few interviews with game designers aren't as fun or interesting as those of the first Midway collection, the developers deserve praise for the presentation. The interface is sleek and functional, and I'm in love with the techno menu music that's based on the steady march of the Space Invaders. It's nearly as addictive as clocking those Elevator Action baddies in the kneecaps.

// The games //
Battle Shark, Bubble Bobble, Colony 7, Continental Circus, Electric Yo-Yo, Elevator Action, Exzisus, Gladiator, Great Swordsman, Jungle Hunt, Ninja Kids, The New Zealand Story, Operation Thunderbolt, Operation Wolf, Phoenix, Plotting, Plump Pop, Rainbow Islands, Rastan, Return of the Invaders, Space Gun, Space Invaders, Space Invaders Part 2, Super Qix, Thunderfox, Tokio, Tube It, Volfied, Zoo Keeper

// Linkage //
The impressive official site, with game information and screen captures, downloads, a forum and more.

// Related post //
NAMCO Museum 50th Anniversary Arcade Collection

Saturday, November 05, 2005

DVD: The Exorcist III: Legion

Genre: Horror sequels
Released: Aug. 17, 1990
Director: William Peter Blatty
Verdict: &&&1/2

The Halloween binge continued with The Exorcist III: Legion, a title that musters all the dread you'd feel before watching a movie like, say, Halloween: Resurrection. Good news, though: This sequel is a pleasant surprise, free of the demons of cheap scares and special effects. There's no trace of Linda Blair vomiting pea soup; this movie takes a quieter, thoughtful approach -- something nearly lost altogether in nail-biters of the 2000s. The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, in his sole directorial turn, constructs more of a mystery here as George C. Scott, in a warm and engaging performance as Lt. Kinderman, investigates what appear to be serial killings in the style of the long-dead Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif, devouring scenery as an eloquent mental patient). Long story short, the soul of Father Karras (Jason Miller), who took that unfortunate tumble out the window in the first movie, is being held hostage by sinister forces within the Dourif character. Early on, there's a surprising amount of humor in the dialogue between Kinderman and Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), and it serves as an effective counterpoint as the stage is set with gruesome killings by means of decapitation and exsanguination. Dialogue positively sings; Kinderman's confrontations with the killer are symphonies of verbal sparring. When pressed by the killer to say that he believes, I particularly like skeptical Kinderman's reply: "I believe in disease, suffering, every single ugly thing …" That's not verbatim, but you get the idea. There is an exorcism scene near the end, but Blatty wisely doesn't try to make it rival that of the first movie. Rarely mentioned or even seen on cable these days, Exorcist III is a classy, stylish horror film that casts out the loud, garish scares of so many inferior films and blesses the viewer with mystery and high tension. // DVD notes // Picture quality is superb, but the lone extra is a brief theatrical trailer.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

DVD: Near Dark

Genre: Vampires
Released: 1987
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Verdict: &&&1/2

Of the vampire movies that eschew capes, coffins and crosses, the nearly forgotten Near Dark is one of the more admirable efforts. In a last-minute shuffling of our pre-Halloween gathering movie choice, this 1987 gem supplanted The Ring Two (which I've been looking forward to seeing again for months, but whatever. Got to keep the peace.). I had thought this movie was from the '90s, and you'd be hard pressed to date it by the costuming and general look. The atmospheric Tangerine Dream music, however, does have a synthy '80s sensibility. Director/screenwriter Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, Point Break, Wild Palms) does nothing especially revolutionary with her modern bloodsuckers tale, but it is a gripping and, at times, quite funny take on the postmodern vampire. It was an inspired move to set the action in the rural American Southwest, allowing beautiful landscapes to complement the tale of young Caleb (Adrian Pasdar, star of the 1996 TV series Profit), who picks up the wrong girl – turns out she has an affinity for intense neck kisses. He is unwittingly drawn into the fold of a roving band of vampires portrayed by notable names such as Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton. It's both humorous and sort of Mad Max to see them cruising about the dry landscape in a motor home. A quick vignette of scenes shows us the vampires on the prowl: One, a child (a nod to Anne Rice?), pretends to have a bike crash on a dark street so he can attack his rescuer. A great scene in a bar mixes the vampires with the colorful locals with humorous and gruesome results. Plot developments center on Caleb's family tracking him down, his attraction to the vampire who turned him and his struggle to overcome his resistance to kill, which he must do in order to survive. A blood transfusion figures into the resolution, which is a little too easy, but the movie never descends into silliness or gratuitous gore. For anyone interested in portrayals of vampires in the modern world, Near Dark has a surprising and mostly satisfying bite. // DVD notes // The special edition boasts a dts soundtrack and a second disc of extras.

TV: Surface vs. Threshold vs. Invasion

The newness is beginning to wear off the TV season, and I'm still tuning in for three of the six creepfests/mysteries I've given a shot this year (so long, Supernatural, Reunion and Night Stalker. I didn't even try The Ghost Whisperer. I mean, c'mon. It's Jennifer Love Hewitt.). I've been surprised to get drawn into NBC's sea creature series, Surface (Monday, 7 p.m. Central), which is the only one of these shows (not counting The Ghost Whisperer) that isn't aiming for full-on darkness and paranoia, although it has elements of both, such as the shadowy government figures attempting to discredit our oceanographer heroine, Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell, formerly of Boston Legal). In teenager Miles (Carter Jenkins) adopting one of the baby creatures as a pet, the series has found a lighthearted angle that isn't too goofy or insulting. Who didn't get a little misty eyed when, after Nim (that's what he named the lizard-like pet) takes a ride to the grocery store in back of Mom's SUV, gets lost, and Miles gets in a heap of trouble, the cute little lizard monster shows up at Miles' window that night and crawls into bed next to his buddy? And for humor, nothing in the other shows rivals the moment in Surface when Nim, temporarily housed in an above-ground swimming pool, snacks on a mean girl's poodle just after she has come on to Miles as a cruel joke. Verdict: &&&

Threshold (CBS, Friday, 8 p.m.), on the other hand, mines a few laughs from the idiosyncrasies of its cast -- the sensitive tech geek, for example, who doesn't want to carry a gun and needs help choosing wedding invitations -- but it's mostly doom and gloom, a never-ending apocalyptic crisis. This series needs to find a way to do something other than chasing down the zombie infectee of the week. And what happened to that piece of alien object they made such a big deal of digging up? Is it simply forgotten? Threshold has a strong cast, and it would do well to delve more into how being cooped up at the Threshold complex is wrecking their bowling nights and love lives while throwing in more cool alien stuff. Verdict: &&&

Invasion (ABC, Wednesday, 9 p.m.), meanwhile, seems the most likely of these three to see a sophomore season and possibly beyond, although it isn't holding on to the big numbers of its cushy lead-in, Lost. The leisurely pace of this drama made for a tepid premiere but has proved to be an asset, creating a compelling slow burn as new layers of weirdness are unveiled each week. The creepiness of Mariel's (Kari Matchett) water fixation is trumped only by the mysterious behavior of her husband, Sheriff Tom Underlay (William Fichtner), whose allegiances appear shifty at best. This show has the strongest characters and cast of the new TV creepfests, and the creature aspect of the show at times has taken a back seat to its unfolding human dramas, which are complicated by divorce. But that's alright: It's a long TV season with plenty of time left to reveal the face of the alien and, perhaps, a glimpse at the true face of Sheriff Underlay. Verdict: &&&1/2

Sunday, October 23, 2005

DVD: The Amityville Horror (2005)

Genre: Incompetent horror remakes
Released: April 15, 2005
Director: Andrew Douglas
Verdict: &1/2

Ah, October. The time of year when pumpkins are splattered, long sleeves have their coming out and bad horror films get a couple of weeks of reverence. Anyone looking to pluck one of these nuggets from the video store shelves for Halloween viewing would do well to skip the 2005 retread of The Amityville Horror, a remake that's all gussied up for 15-year-olds with younger lead actors (Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George as George and Kathy Lutz), unnecessary gore and equally unnecessary noise. Enough rumbling bass accompanies each predictable gotcha sequence to make you uncomfortable, even if what's happening onscreen doesn't. But it probably will unsettle in unintended ways: For instance, there's no descent into madness for George Lutz; we see Reynolds staring into the furnace and fiercely chopping wood, and suddenly he's hearing voices that tell him to kill them all, just like his predecessor in this New York home with the menacing bedroom windows. Furthermore, who, at this point, is still chilled by a young child speaking of an unseen friend that the adults dismiss as imaginary? There is no subtlety here and no foreshadowing in this film's meager 80 minutes beyond the realtor declining to descend into the basement and George Lutz observing in an early scene that the room is cold. In a big, old house like this, shouldn't we at least have some creaking floorboards or noises in the attic before ghastly figures appear in mirrors and Mr. Lutz chops up the dog? These opportunities are missed, yet the film takes the time to add a completely unnecessary back-story for the source of the haunting. The original's portal to hell in the basement managed to be much scarier without showing people hanging by hooks in their skin. I will, however, concede a couple of inspired moves here, including the introduction of a slutty babysitter who has a history in the home and the use of Philip Baker Hall (Seinfeld's library cop) as Father Callaway. The sizzling of the holy water as it hits surfaces is a nice touch, and the Father Callaway sequence should have been longer. By the time Mrs. Lutz and the children stumble upon the newly made pine boxes with their names on them in the basement, this is more comedy than horror; the only mystery is how much noise and gore first-time director Andrew Douglas will thrust upon us in the conclusion to remind us that this is a horror movie. // DVD extras // C'mon, do you really care? There's quite a selection of deleted scenes.

// Next weekend's DVD review //
The Ring Two

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Books: The Ignored • Bentley Little

Genre: Thriller, but he's generally considered horror.
Published: 1997


Browsing Amazon for an interesting read, I noticed the books of Bentley Little and, in particular, his novel The Ignored. Had someone written a book about me, I wondered, without my knowledge? With titles like The Mailman and The Store, the books appeared to be very idea-driven in a Twilight Zone kind of way. In The Ignored, for instance, the protagonist, Bob Jones, feels ordinary and unnoticed, as if people tend to look right through him, and this starts to become literally true. Coworkers stop speaking; he can take a three-hour lunch, and no one's the wiser. Sweet deal, eh? But it's not a ticket to an easy life: Jones' parents die and no one bothers to tell him, and his sweetheart moves out in the middle of his freak-out over what he is. Jones eventually learns he is not alone and becomes involved in a group performing terrorist acts for "The Ignored," as they call themselves. The invisible-man concept leads to some funny moments, such as when Jones reports to work with a Mohawk and wearing outrageous clothes but goes completely unnoticed, and when he and his friends go to a court session and shout obscenities at the judge. Though I wouldn't call this a horror novel, Little does have a tendency to go for the occasional visceral shock, and there's a significant body count. It takes a little too long to really get rolling, and, in the latter half of the book, Little introduces several twists that are surprising but not necessarily satisfying. At its best, The Ignored is a sort of metaphysical meditation on the nature of existence – how thoroughly empty and hopeless life can be and anyone who ever felt like an outsider is apt to cheer on the ignored as they try to find their place in the world.

// Next books //
13 Steps Down • Ruth Rendell

Darkly Dreaming Dexter • Jeff Lindsay

Friday, September 30, 2005

TV: Night Stalker

Genre: Creepy
Logistics: ABC, 8 p.m. CDT Thursday
Premiere verdict: &&1/2

If nothing else, the new TV season has confounded my expectations, with shows I anticipated becoming fast favorites, such as Night Stalker and Invasion, falling a little flat. Night Stalker, my most anticipated show this season – in years, actually – failed to live up to the promise of its legacy in Thursday's premiere. The source material – a 1972 TV movie, The Night Stalker, and a 1974 series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker – inspired my all-time favorite series, The X-Files. I really wanted to enjoy the premiere, in which newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Stuart Townsend) begins a new job at an L.A. newspaper as he tracks mysterious killings in which something wolf-like is preying upon women. The same creature apparently killed his wife, sending him on a journey into the unexplained. Kolchak initially butts heads with senior crime reporter Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union), but they will become – dare I say it – a new Mulder and Scully of sorts as Kolchak investigates dark mysteries each week. In the premiere, though, the action sequences delivered predictable jolts; the creature aspect of the show just wasn't very compelling; and the scenes in the cave verged on lame. The elements of a good show are there, however. With former X-files executive producer Frank Spotnitz among the key players at the helm here, those elements may eventually gel. But, saddled with a timeslot opposite CSI, will it have time? For now, a bigger mystery than what really happened to Kolchak's wife is how many weeks this show will escape cancellation.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Games: NAMCO Museum 50th Anniversary

Genre: Arcade classics
Curious fact: Rather than video games, the 50th anniversary stems from NAMCO's rides for small children commonly found outside department stores.
Verdict: Games &&&1/2, Presentation & extras &&

It's a little sad, maybe, that probably 50 percent of my gaming time on a modern console like the Sony Playstation 2 is devoted to compilations of classic arcade games like Pole Position, Tapper and Galaga, but that's fine with me. With each passing year, it is abundantly clear that I will remain hopelessly nostalgic for the decade of Atari and Miami Vice. My weakness for these simple yet insanely addictive games is such that I'll snap up a compilation like NAMCO Museum 50th Anniversary Arcade Collection just to gain a few titles I didn't already have, like Pole Position II, Bosconian and Galaga 88. This is really just a retread of the previous PS2 NAMCO Museum release – there's even a "greatest hits" label on it – but there are a few more games (16), and it thankfully corrects the audio problem from the Nintendo 64 NAMCO Museum version of Galaga, wherein the audio cues of the challenging stages were mixed up. On the other hand, Ms. Pac-Man seems twice as difficult here; the ghosts are ruthless, and I'm struggling even to make it to the third maze configuration where the banana appears. My strategy there: Snag a power pellet and go straight for the fruit. Similarly, differences in the controller response between the N64 and PS2 versions of Pole Position are giving me fits. Other disappointments include a curiously low audio level and a complete lack of extras. Bonus-laden compilations like Midway Arcade Treasures make this one seem particularly threadbare. Of the remaining games, the unlockable Galaga 88 is perhaps one of the best sequels ever, adding snappy new visuals, aliens and sound effects while retaining the essence of the game. The other unlockable, Pac-Mania, is a sort of 3-D Pac-Man with a fifth ghost and the ability for Pac-Man to jump, and it just goes to show that Ms. Pac-Man was as far as that one needed to evolve. Best of the games I'd never played is Mappy, which, with its levels, doors and trampolines, brings to mind Elevator Action, and I can't stop playing it. Bosconian, which feels like a cross between Galaga and Sinistar, grows old quickly, and Rally-X has the sophistication of a weak Atari 2600 title. Nevertheless, for anyone bred on the classics, this will do nicely until Taito Legends arrives on Oct. 25.

// Included games //
Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Galaxian, Dig Dug, Rally-X, Pole Position, Pole Position II, Xevious, Dragon Spirit, Bosconian, Rolling Thunder, Mappy, Sky Kid, Galaga 88 (unlockable), Pac-Mania (unlockable)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Books: Make Death Love Me // Ruth Rendell

Genre: Psychological suspense
Published: 1979
Verdict: &&&

If anyone can make death love her, it's Ruth Rendell. In novel after novel, she creates characters flawed in the most fascinating ways and makes the reader root for them even as they kill someone or do some other despicable deed. In Make Death Love Me, a bored small-town bank manager is in the back of his branch when a couple of thugs who think he is out to lunch come in to rob and kidnap the solitary teller. In that horrified moment when most people would hit the panic button to summon help, he instead takes from the vault 3,000 pounds and flees out the back. He had, on many occasions, taken out the money in private and handled it "with the kind of breathless excitement many people feel about sex – or so he supposed, he never had himself …" In the diverging threads that follow, our runaway banker explores the vicarious life, falling in love while building lie upon lie, and the author has fun making the captive bank teller a tormentor of her captors until all comes full circle in a classic Rendellian calamity. Even if it doesn't have the rich complexity of a later masterpiece like Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, this 19th Rendell novel – she's now up to 59 books, counting her short story collections and pseudonymous Barbara Vine novels – is a satisfying yarn with flawed people making flawed decisions in a most entertaining fashion.

// Next books //
The Ignored • Bentley Little (1997)
13 Steps Down • Ruth Rendell (2005)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

TV: Lost, Head Cases, Supernatural

// Premiere episodes round-up //

Lost (ABC, 8 p.m. CDT Wednesday) • I'll concede this is the most interesting, stylish and smart drama currently on network television. The character back-stories have proved to be one of the most captivating aspects of the show, which is filled with burning questions: What is that creature? Who are these mysterious other people on the island? What's at the bottom of that hatch? The possibilities for the latter seemed more interesting until the season premiere took us there. My problem with this show is commitment. While I was willing to let The X-Files tease me for nine seasons, I'm simply unwilling to watch the creators of this show make it up as they go year after year, while never offering real resolution. Premiere verdict: &&&

Head Cases (FOX, 8 p.m. Wednesday) I stumbled upon this legal comedy-drama and found myself enjoying every last stitch of it. Jason Payne (Chris O'Donnell), young lawyer at a powerhouse firm, has a nervous breakdown, losing his job and marriage in the process. Through his psychiatrist, he is assigned a support partner who has explosive disorder; Adam Goldberg, as Shultz, takes on this role with manic gusto. The premiere deftly balanced the drama of Payne's breakdown with Shultz's over-the-top antics. Maybe I just identify with loons, but this is the most pleasant surprise of the new shows I've seen. Premiere verdict: &&&

Supernatural (The WB, 8 p.m. Tuesday) • If this is Buffy with boys, as I've seen it described, I'm glad I never watched Buffy. Two brothers (Jensen Ackles, Jared Padelecki) whose mother was killed in a supernatural event become monster-of-the-week hunters when their father, who devoted his life thereafter to finding whatever killed his wife, goes missing while on the trail. The premiere relied on two fright sequences: The opening, with the demise of the boys' mother, was almost creepy until she ended up engulfed in flames on the ceiling, and then it was just silly. Next, the bulk of the episode is devoted to the boys investigating a ripped-from-the-urban-legends spook, an alluring young woman who stands at the roadside preying on young men as she tries to "go home again." The use of jerky video distortion in her image is so The Ring that the producers should be sued. The frights are bland at best, and the brothers are no Mulder and Scully. Premiere verdict: &&

Friday, September 23, 2005

TV: The aliens are coming

Shows: Threshold (CBS, 8 p.m. CDT Friday), Invasion (ABC, 9 p.m. Wednesday)
Genre: Alien invasion. Or is it?
Premiere episodes verdict: Threshold &&&, Invasion &&1/2

Neither of these alien shows delivered the rip-snorting thrill ride I'd hoped for, but I'll be checking out at least a few more episodes of each. Threshold titillated with its talk of chaos theory and that fractal pattern that looks like a crop circle. You know it's time to freak when you bleed crop circle patterns. The premise: Something crashes in the ocean with dire consequences for the occupants of a nearby ship, and a team of prodigies in various fields is brought in to size up the threat to mankind. The best bits revolve around the what-the-hell-is-it awe of the multi-dimensional thingy, captured on video, "folding in on itself." The sharp cast includes Star Trek's Data, Brent Spiner, as an eccentric doctor. With its isolated ship setting and shadowy government entity controlling national events, it's hard not to see a debt to The X-Files here. But this is a welcome effort from a network that, apart from CSI, seems to have an aversion to darker fare. Based on the premieres, Threshold gets a slight edge over Invasion, which finds a hurricane (!) with a little something extra blowing into Homestead, Fla. Like its hit lead-in, Lost, Invasion has a sweeping and stylish look that says quality, but, apart from the sequence in which the mysterious lights appear overhead, there wasn't much going on to build suspense. It did score chills with that image of a skeleton within a skeleton and the creepy moment when seven-year-old Rose Varon (charming Ariel Gade, who was the reason to see Dark Water) tells her mother, who washed up onshore during the storm, that she smells different. By half way through, I caught a strong whiff of boredom, but I'll hold my nose and give this one another look.

// Linkage //
Invasion blog

Thursday, September 15, 2005

TV: Survivor: Guatemala

Genre: Mother of all reality TV
Logistics: CBS, 7 p.m. CDT Thursday

Premiere episode verdict: &&&

No offense to Mexico, but Guatemala strikes me as the first Survivor setting that truly sounds like a place you don't want to be stranded without real food or shelter for a month. I have a feeling the cramping, puking contestants heartily agreed during those first hot, squeamish days. It was curious, I thought, to drop the dramatic and elaborate arrival sequence in which we typically see over-eager contestants breezing in by boat, looking fit and healthy in a way we wouldn't see again until the reunion show, and even more curious to bring back two of last year's contestants as full participants this season. And the inclusion of a quasi-celebrity, former NFL quarterback Gary Hogeboom, is sure to create some sort of tropical storm, if not a hurricane, when the other castaways find him out. Survivor has remained a top 10 ratings staple while so many wannabes have come and gone, but this obsession with dramatic twists and tweaks in each new season evokes an air of jumping the shark. On the other hand, the contestants, on first impression, seem far more likable than the dips who have dragged down the last several seasons: There were no overbearing macho types or preening, condescending divas immediately exposed. That's a welcome step toward immunity for a show that needs to focus on the solid game that made it a success rather than gimmicks designed to delay getting voted off the air.

// Linkage //
CBS' Survivor 11 round-up

Thursday, September 08, 2005

TV: Reunion

Genre: Soapy mystery
Logistics: FOX, 8 p.m. (Central) Thursday
Premiere episode verdict: &&

This one already has the stench of death. I'm not talking about the funeral that opened the series or the gun glimpsed in the here's-what-happens-the-rest-
of-the-season promos. For one thing, it's scheduled against CSI, The Apprentice and Night Stalker. Then there's the problem that the premiere wasn't really all that, although the general premise is not a bad one: Take a half dozen young friends, have one of them croak, and make one of the buddies the traitor. Then, flash back 20 years to 1986 and move forward one year each episode, allegedly creating a captivating mystery, until the climax. (More stench of death here: What if the planets mysteriously align in such a way that this defies the odds to become a hit, and another season is needed? Anyone think of that?) There's supposed to be a mystery, and I know it'll take a few episodes to gel, but the premiere managed all the intrigue of an episode of Hee-Haw. With its abortion and privileged-rich-boy high school drama, it evoked an after-school special by way of The OC casting and direction. Burning questions: Will they continue to compensate for not looking like the '80s by cramming in songs by Simple Minds, Madonna and A-Ha every other scene? By the time the series gets around to revealing who was killed and how, will anyone care?

// Linkage //
Synopsis, cast info, photo

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Coming up

// Future blogfodder //

Not since back in the '90s, when shows like Seinfeld, The X-Files and Star Trek: Voyager thrived, have I been this intrigued by the possibilities of a new TV season. The demise of those three shows, combined with increasing Internet time, nearly peeled me permanently away from primetime TV for a few years. This season, thanks to the success of Lost last year, creepiness and dark themes in general are hot, and reality gets a needed cool-down. I'm especially salivating over Night Stalker (ABC, premieres Sept. 29), a new version of the '70s series that Chris Carter often cites as the primary inspiration for The X-Files. Fortunately, one of The X-Files' great talents, Frank Spotnitz, is behind the wheel on this one. I also have high hopes for Invasion (ABC, Sept. 21) and the whodunit Reunion (Fox, Sept. 8). I'll also have a look at Supernatural (The WB, Sept. 13) if I can figure out where on the dial and when to watch a WB show. My nods for most likely to be forgotten by December go to Ghost Whisperer (CBS, Sept. 23) and Surface (NBC, Sept. 19).

The next book on deck is Ruth Rendell's Make Death Love Me (1979), followed by Bentley Little's The Ignored and Rednell's new release, 13 Steps Down (out Sept. 27). DVDs to be spun soon are The Ring Two (out now) and The Amityville Horror (Oct. 4). Games coming up include the classics compilations NAMCO Museum 50th Anniversary Collection (out now), Capcom Classics Collection (Sept. 27) and Taito Legends (Oct. 25).

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Books: The Dwelling // Susie Moloney

Genre: Haunted house
Published: Feb. 18, 2003
By the same author: Bastion Falls, A Dry Spell
Verdict: &&&&

From above, there's the thud of something falling over in the attic. Then, the sound of something being dragged across the floor. Everyone in Susie Moloney's The Dwelling hears this eventually, takes note of it and goes about his or her business. That's one thing I really like about this haunted house tale – the idea that people have the ability to ignore just about anything, no matter how horrible, in order to carry on with life. Even if Moloney's framing of the novel – three families move in and out while the life of realtor Glenn Darnley disintegrates in interludes between them – is an idea that has been done before (see Anne Rivers Siddons' brilliant The House Next Door), it serves her well. Her greatest strength is arguably characterization, and here she has a field day with a large cast of troubled souls: first, a young couple whose marriage is strained by ambition and intimacy issues; then, a recent divorcee and her awkward child, both struggling just to get through any given day; finally, a novelist with writer's block and a growing problem with alcohol; and the realtor, Glenn, whose husband died suddenly, leaving her to face a personal crisis alone. The haunting manifestations, such as the sound of the bathtub filling upstairs or faint music coming from the small room with the Murphy bed under the stairwell, mostly tend toward light chills, and that works just fine, even if it leaves this more a character study than a frightfest. Some have been critical of the two-page laundry list at the end explaining the source of the various manifestations, and I'll agree to that. The hints dropped along the way really are enough, and the list dulls the impact of a well-executed climax that happens just before. Nevertheless, Moloney is a talent who deserves a broader audience, and this Dwelling is a fine place to pay her a visit.

// Linkage //
Moloney's website

Saturday, August 20, 2005

DVD: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Genre: Paranoia thriller
Director: Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs)
Roots: Remake of a 1962 film adapted from a 1959 novel
Verdict: &&&1/2

Mind control, implants, conspiracy, paranoia, and Denzel Washington biting a chunk out of someone's back – it's a shame I didn't see this in the theater. I'll admit up front that I never saw the original, and I never got a real feel for what this movie was about before seeing it. As Bennett Marco, Washington is a Persian Gulf War veteran who has memories of a heroic act by another soldier in his unit, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who becomes a suprise candidate for vice president. Trouble is, the memories feel somehow wrong, as if, perhaps, he didn't really experience those things. The paranoia escalates as Marco finds a mysterious object underneath his skin and confronts Shaw about their shared memories. Already feeling empty as a pawn of his power-hungry, corrupt politician mother, portrayed by a scenery-devouring Meryl Streep, who maneuvered her reluctant son onto the ticket's number two spot, Shaw becomes mired in self-doubt as he mugs for the cameras and spouts rhetoric. Add to the mix a diabolical corporation aspiring to control the presidency, and you have the fixings for a frighteningly believable cautionary tale. Bonus points for the jolting human experimentation scenes and the dead-on skewering of today's empty-headed politics. // DVD Extras // Best are the extended interviews, one by Al Franken, of Streep as Congresswoman Eleanor Shaw.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Movies: The Skeleton Key

Genre: Haunted house horror
Director: Iain Softley (K-PAX, The Wings of the Dove, Hackers)
Verdict: &&1/2

The Skeleton Key has much in common with horror movies of the last few years – mysterious noises in the attic, dark secrets from the past, a female protagonist (Caroline, played by Kate Hudson) and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring, The Ring Two, Scream 3). With so many horror remakes coming along of late, it's clear the genre is lacking original ideas. Although it's basically a haunted house tale, The Skeleton Key finds a compelling hook by setting the story in a spooky old New Orleans plantation mansion and channeling the local belief in hoodoo – healing, curses, spells and the like. Caroline takes up residence in the imposing old house with Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands) and her husband, Ben (John Hurt), who has suffered a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and mute. Caroline is told only that Ben had his stroke while in the attic, and, after hearing rattling noises, she's soon poking around up there. Caroline begins to believe Ben is trying to tell her something, and Hurt admirably does all he can to convey fright through silent straining. Caroline becomes determined to get Ben out of the house and becomes involved in something of a hoodoo chess match. The movie works best when tapping the fervent regional belief in hoodoo, its ties to the Old South and the idea that it works if you believe. That alone makes this movie worth at least a rental when the DVD arrives. But, despite an interesting twist at the end, the climactic scene lacks the nail-biting heft of what came before, leaving the movie's spell a few rabbit's feet short of big-screen magic.

// Linkage //
Official movie site

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Music: Hopes and Fears // Keane

•• Updated 4.16.06 ••
Genre: Melodic Britpop
Verdict: &&&&

This album is a real grower, with latter-half songs like "Sunshine" and "Untitled 1" emerging as favorites over time. The band's keen sense of melody is readily apparent, but there are many layers of songcraft in cuts like "Untitled 1" that burrow into your head only with repeated listenings. On the surface, comparisons can be drawn to Coldplay and even the Beatles, but the sound is wholly Keane's own. "Somewhere Only We Know" was the most heart-tugging ballad of 2005, and subsequent single "Everybody's Changing" is one of the more immediately hummable songs. Hopes and Fears is a soothing chill-out soundtrack for a lazy weekend, and, on second thought, I've just bumped it up to four medals.

// Linkage //
Band website

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Movies: The Island

Genre: Popcorn sci-fi
Director: Michael Bay (Armageddon, The Rock)
Verdict: &&&&

The less I knew about The Island, the more pumped I was about visiting its shores. When I knew only that it stars Ewan McGregor and involves clones bred to keep humans healthy, I was ready to be first in line. When I learned it was directed by Michael Bay (Armageddon, Bad Boys) and peppered with chase scenes, I began to rethink my decision to skip War of the Worlds. But darn if the chase scenes aren't over-the-top fun: Bay has pulled off a surprisingly successful fusion of summer action blockbuster and thinking person's plot, much in the way I, Robot did. Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor, excellent, as always) is a clone in a sterile community optimized to keep the identical copies of paying clients in tiptop health and happiness; although fully grown, Lincoln and the others are actually only a couple of years old and kept in the dark about their purpose. The clones are led to believe the rest of the world is uninhabitable except for a small area called the island, and a few win passage to this paradise through a lottery. Although they are bred to be docile, unquestioning creatures, Lincoln is increasingly curious about his environment, wondering who washes the clothes that appear in his living quarters and why the cafeteria always serves tofu on a particular night. And for that matter, he wonders, what is tofu? Lincoln's inquisitiveness leads him outside the confines of his usual routine and ultimately to escape with his friend, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson). The outside world thinks the clones are nothing more than vegetables, and the diabolical leader of the cloning enterprise will go to any lengths to keep it that way. Lincoln and Jordan manage to elude professional assassins in a spectacular highway chase and try to get to their human counterparts to expose the truth. Along the way, Bay deftly weaves in humor – some of the funniest scenes take place when the clones enter a bar shortly after escaping – and there are some surprisingly clever touches. For instance, the first time Jordan sees her human counterpart is when she's passing a storefront display with a television showing an actual commercial in which the actress appeared. While many viewers will predict elements of the ending before the film is half finished, the many inspired moments, such as the one in which Jordan stares at her own face in that TV screen, help make this island a worthy destination.

// Linkage //
Official movie website

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Books: Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Genre: Koontzian good vs. evil thriller
Published: 2003
Verdict: &&&1/2

If The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan were dead, his ghost would be haunting Haley Joel Osment, urging him to help exact revenge on thriller writer Dean Koontz. Not only does Odd Thomas, protagonist of the novel of the same name, see dead people, there's a twist – far less jolting than Shyamalan's – lurking at the end. It took, um, guts on the part of Koontz to shamelessly revisit such unoriginal territory. Nevertheless, nine years after reading my last Koontz, I decided this was the one that would bring me back to the fold. From the moment I read in a review that Elvis is one of the lingering ghosts, I wanted to read this novel. What turned me off Koontz around the Dragon Tears and Hideaway era was the numbing predictability; every novel had become the same basic tale of good versus evil with tedious chase scenes. The exciting spark of a Lighting or Strangers had gone cold. Here, Odd Thomas is a young fry cook whose "gift" attracts lost souls; like Sixth Sense's ghosts, they often want his help. He also sees entities called bodachs – slithery wisps that gather where death occurs or is imminent. The police chief knows about Odd's gift, which he uses to help subvert crimes. When a stranger in Odd's beloved desert town of Pico Mundo bellies up to the bar in his restaurant with an entourage of bodachs, Odd's sixth sense goes ballistic; he foresees impending doom. Much of the novel centers on Odd's sleuthing to learn the man's identity and what horrible crimes he plans to commit, and Koontz effectively layers on the tension and dread. There's also a sweet love story, but some of the writer's most moving prose emerges when he details the cruelty humans can inflict upon one another; the most brilliant scene of the novel may be Odd's encounter with his cold and troubled mother near the end. When the climactic confrontation between Odd and the villians finally arrives, it may not be altogether unpredictable. And this, too, is a basic tale of good versus evil, with a chase of sorts, to boot. But this is Koontz with spark.

// Linkage //
Official Koontz page

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Movies: Dark Water

Genre: Japanese-inspired horror
Verdict: &&&

Who'd get excited over another waterlogged, post-The Ring J-horror flick? Me, of course. After all, the original Japanese movie was director Hideo Nakata's next movie after Ringu, and the remake cast (Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth, Camryn Manheim, Pete Postlethwaite) is as much as one can hope for in this genre. The setting is certainly creepy -- a monolithic, cold, almost industrial-looking apartment building on New York's Roosevelt Island. Newly separated and desperate for affordable housing, Dahlia Williams (Connelly) moves here with her adorable daughter, Ceci (brilliantly played by young Ariel Gade), and things predictably begin to unravel. A leak causes a nasty stain on the ceiling of Ceci's bedroom, and she hears voices at night. What Dahlia believes to be her daughter's imaginary friend is, of course, something more. Water is inescapable, whether from the unending rain storm, gushing faucets or tears. As the leaking ceiling worsens, it becomes apparent that the apartment immediately above is the source of the water and Ceci's visitor. In a classic "don't go in there" moment, Dahlia knocks on the 10F door, which pops open. The terrors cause Dahlia to confront memories of her cruel mother, and the conflict with her husband, Ceci's erratic behavior and unresponsive landlord push her to the breaking point. The family relationships add a human dimension that is sorely lacking in many creepfests, but the tension never approaches Ring-like levels, and many will find the conclusion sorely indebted to the Ring movies. Its scares may be more of a semicircle than a full Ring, but it's an admirable attempt at smart horror.