Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Back on the Bullseye

Um, yeah, over a month since my last post. There's a good reason. And that reason is grumsshgwa....

Moving on, I saw Toy Story 3. I am now a broken weeping shell of a man for the remainder of my days. Thanks, Pixar!

In all seriousness, Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece in storytelling, art, and emotional manipulation. The evil men and women at Pixar know that we, the general populace, has had Woody, Buzz, and the whole toy gang in our lives for the better part of fifteen years.

Armed with this knowledge, the filmmakers run our beloved characters through such a gut-wrenching turn-of-events that even two weeks after seeing the movie, it is still hard for me to visualize certain scenes and not get a little choked up about it.

This time around, it's 11 years since we last saw Rex, Mr. Potato Head, and the rest of Andy's toys. They've spent the last few years being stored away in a trunk in Andy's room. They long to be played with but, overall, they are not too bad off.

However, Andy is now a grown young man and he's getting ready to leave for college. The best case scenario for the toys is that they get packed up nicely and stored in the attic. They don't even want to dare think that they might get tossed to the curb as common trash. Of course, Andy is not the type of person to toss beloved childhood heirlooms, but, in a crazy, mad cap twist of events, the toys find themselves packed up and donated to the local day care center.

They are welcomed with open arms by the day care center's toys, including their leader, a pink stuffed bear named Lotso. The day care center seems on the surface to be toy nirvana and Andy's toys go against Woody's better judgement and decide it's the best place for them.

Woody, however, feels Andy needs him and he makes a break for it. Little do the other toys realize that escaping the day care center would have been in their very best interest as not all is at it seems in Lotso's kingdom.

That is the general set-up, but I'm mainly going to focus on the end of the film. It's still too soon to get into specifics but those that have seen the movie know that the last half-hour of the film is one of most powerfully written pieces of cinema that has ever been crafted.

As an ending to a beloved trilogy of films, it works beautifully in signaling the end of one journey for Andy's loved toys while at the same time opening the door to new possibilities.

What really makes the ending so emotional though is that you can't but help relate it to your own personal experiences. It can be as simple as a memory being jogged of when you had to let go of a loved toy or profound as a personal realization of when you lost your childhood innocence.

You'll remember the day you first moved out of your childhood home and you'll vividly recall seeing your parents well up with tears. Although, now, you'll understand your parents tears a little better.

For parents, the movie will remind you that your little girl or boy has grown up and moved out, or, even if they are still babies, that your precious little ones will, sooner than you think, not be your little babies anymore but grown, strong men and women.

The movie has the action set pieces, the laugh-out-loud moments of humor, and the inventive new characters but, really, these things fall to the back of your memory after you experience the last third of the movie.

Toy Story 3 automatically vaults into my personal top ten movies of all times. It's a work-of-art. It's really a movie that you owe it yourself to see and I think I can honestly say it will be one of most poignant and important two hours you will ever spend in your life.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Heart-Shaped Box (Book Review)

I'm not a horror movie fan. In fact, I'm a wimp. I can't stand jump scares and over-the-top gore. I've never seen Nightmare on Elm Street or any of the Jason movies. In middle school, I watched The Exorcist at a sleep-over party and it haunted my nightmares for months.

So, no thank you to horror movies. On the other hand, with Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill, I'm becoming quite the fan of horror novels. I'm by no means well-versed in the horror novel genre but I've dabbled enough to found I enjoy a good scare and freak out if it is coming from the page of a book.

Heart-Shaped Box certainly has no lack of good freak outs and heebie jeebies. This is a good old-fashioned ghost story. The early twist in the novel is that the main character doesn't move into a haunted house or building but has the ghost delivered to him in the form of an old worn jacket in a heart-shaped box.

Joe Hill, the author, is the son of the famous horror writer, Stephen King. Hill has obviously learned from the best because he is a very fine writer with a knack for luring you into a sense of comfort and ever so nonchalantly revealing a OH MY GOD THE GHOST IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

I'm not going to go into too much detail because I think a lot of my readers will enjoy this book. It's a very easy read and the story flows nicely. I prefer when a novel doesn't jump from point-of-view to point-of-view and change perspectives with each chapter. In this book, when a chapter ends with a cliffhanger like my example in the paragraph above, the very next chapter begins with the main character running for his life.

Speaking of the main character, Judas Coyne is a mixture of Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Zombie. Judas is on the downside of fifty and he lives with his twenty-something goth girlfriend and his two german shepherds. He has a fascination with death and when the chance to own a ghost comes to his attention on an Ebay-like site, he jumps at the macabre opportunity.

Little does Judas know that there is tad bit more to whom put up the ghost up for auction and he'll quickly learn why he is the center of a vindictive revenge scheme determined to end his life in the most hauntingly way possible.

Heart-Shaped Box will creep you out. You'll want to read it with the lights on and if you have a dog, you'll want the dog by your side the whole time. Don't get the dog reference? Read the book, you will.

Lost (TV Review)

This isn't going to be an in-depth examination of the meaning and mythos of Lost. There are a great many places online with people way smarter than me examining Lost till they are blue in the face. I'll leave it to you to dig up some of their juicy assessments at your leisure.

I feel compelled to write a little about the show since it has been at the apex of pop culture media these last six years and, if nothing else, this blog is about cool pop culture media.

I think I can honestly say that Lost is my favorite television show of all time. No other show engaged me like Lost did or prompted me to venture outside of the series proper to find clues, stories, and theories.

With the show ending by focusing heavily on the characters versus the island mythology, a lot of commenters have said the show was about the people on the island and not the island itself. This is a sentiment shared by the producers as well. I think it's a nice sentiment but I think the makers of the show and it's fans are forgetting what made Lost so engaging in the first place.

I do feel we got a little short changed on some of the island questions. It's a shame because as great as love triangles, the lovable fat man, and the charismatic con man are, Lost became LOST because of the theories and the strangeness of the island. I'm not going to list every mystery that I personally felt wasn't answered to my satisfaction but the mere fact that almost every single viewer of Lost has one or more lingering questions points to the fact that the writers needed to do a bit more before the show was gone for good.

Going back to the characters, I may have just mentioned that the island and the mysteries were bigger than the people, but the stories and relationships of the characters were the glue that held it all together.

Has there ever been a more lovable character than Hurley? My favorite kind of writing is where the characters in a story are self-aware that what is happening to them is odd and they comment on it and try to figure out why it's happening. I just can't stand characters that are along for the ride and don't ask why. Hurley always asked questions that we the viewers were asking and I loved him for it.

I have to mention one other stand out from the show. Has there ever been a more obvious example that the the Star Wars prequels were missing the roguish charm of Han Solo then the character of Sawyer? The success of Sawyer as a character proved to me that these fish out of water, good versus evil stories need a little bit of ambivalence and blurring of the lines between what is right and what is wrong. The on again off again of Jack and Kate would have gotten old really fast if Sawyer wasn't in the mix too.

I could literally list every character and twenty great moments but there's no need. Everyone that watched the show has their favorite moments and we each cherish them differently. Now that the story is complete, it feels good to have some closure but it's sad at the same time. I've heard people mention that every great book has to have an ending. Yes, this is true. Every great book or movie wraps up nicely. However, the majority of books and movies don't live with you for six years. You don't wait week to week and then eight months for the next chapter. If I live to be in my 80s, the six years I spent with Lost will represent almost 15% of my time on this earth.  That's quite a good chunk of time and it explains why people were so emotional to see the show end. I loved every second of it and I thank all the writers and actors for taking me on such a tremendous ride.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

80s Toys: Part Deux

I had such a nice response from the two or three people that follow my blog when I did my top ten 80s toys that I thought I'd do a list of honorable mentions.

And, yes, I'm sorry to say to certain readers, the Thundercat's Lair will still not be on the list.

Honorable mentions in no particular order:

Zartan from G.I. Joe
Always one of my favorite characters from the G.I Joe cartoon, the Zartan action figure was pretty unique. In the cartoon, Zartan had an allergic reaction to sunlight. For the toy, Hasbro made the figure's skin sensitive to heat so if you took Zartan out into the sun, his skin turned an amazing sickly neon green. This was by far my favorite action figure to take outside.

Alpine from G.I. Joe
Sticking with G.I. Joe toys, I have to mention a personal favorite that may seem an odd choice. Alpine was by no means one of the major G.I. Joe figures but he came with possibly the coolest accessory of any action figure from the 80s. As you probably deduced from his name, Alpine was the Joe mountain infantry man. The action figure came with two plastic hooks connected by about a foot of thin nylon rope. Alpine's grip enabled him to hold the rope and zip back and forth or he could simply hang at the end of it. On a family road trip to Washington D.C., I entertained myself for hours by attaching Alpine to the clothes hanger above my door and watching him swing with the motion of the car. By the way, I was easily entertained.

Cobra Terrordrome
This behemoth showed up late in my G.I. Joe collecting days. Still, I got a few good years out of playing with it. It didn't really do anything spectacular besides be a neat staging ground for my action figure battles. The coolest object it came with was the tiny red ship you can see there in the middle. It was absolutely huge and took up quite a bit of space. An interesting toy that I felt needed to be put on the list just for the audacity of it's size.

Next to the Millennium Falcon, the AT-AT from Empire Strikes Back was probably my most cherished Star Wars toy. I actually didn't get this one right away. My parents used some fiscal restraint and held off a few years until the price on this (admittedly) overpriced toy came down to a reasonable area. But, when I did finally got it one Christmas, I was overjoyed. First of all, The AT-AT in concept is amazing. It's a huge troop transport that looks like an enormous walking animal from another planet. It was very posable and had lots of fun accessories and things that detached. And, in what is becoming a theme for this list, I could hang Luke Skywalker from underneath it and reenact the scene where he slices open an AT-AT with his lightsaber.

Dagobah play-set
Such a simple piece of molded plastic gave me untold hours of fun. This is a version of Yoda's house from Empire. Hasbro condensed the entire terrain of Dagobah seen in the film down to a few inches of plastic surrounding Yoda's hut. Whatever, it worked for me. It had little sponges that were supposed to be the swamp where R2-D2 sank. It had little action figure sliders where you could battle Darth Vader and Luke. It also had these horrible little plastic nubs that stuck out that you could put some boxes on. This was supposed to create the illusion of Luke using the force on the boxes. It was pretty funny in it's ineffectiveness but still pretty clever toy engineering.

Ewok Village
The Ewok Village is a good juxtaposition to the Dagobah play-set in that it shows the evolution of Star Wars toys from the second to third movie. The village was a pretty nice play-set. It had a cage that you could wench up and down. There was a net for capturing your figures. It even had a hanging plastic boulder for smashing stormtroopers. I didn't learn about the hatred for all things Ewok until I was much older. When I got the Ewok village, I was in the height of my Ewok mania and absolutely loved everything that had to do with Endor whether it be speeder bikes or Wicket.

Transformer's Omega Supreme
Looking at these two pictures, I can't help but think how very Japanese robot this looks. However, back in the day, Omega Supreme was the granddaddy of all huge Transformer Toys. When Omega Supreme showed up in the cartoon, you knew Autobots were about to seriously kick some Decepticon butt. The toy kicked major butt as well. As you can see, it was an enormous robot but then it transformed into an actual working train. It was quite the multifaceted toy and I really loved playing with it.

I got some flak from some of my female readers for not including any toys that girls liked to play with during the 80s. Of course, being the manly boy that I was, I didn't play with any girl toys but I was certainly aware of some of the major brands.

My Little Pony
My sister had a nice little collection of My Little Pony. She liked to display them on the shelves in her room. I appreciated the collecting aspect of getting all the different ponies and how each one was unique and came with a different little accessory.

The Care Bears
I actually really dug the Care Bears. I enjoyed the cartoon and really liked the two later animated movies. Once again, this tapped into the collecting gene that all little kids had by making each bear unique, with their own personality.

The Smurfs
The Smurfs cartoon was actually appealing to both boys and girls but in my circle of friends, I didn't know any boys that collected the toys. They weren't action figures at the height of the action figure craze so they had that going against them. They were actually really small collectibles and I think this appealed to girls more than boys. Still, I loved the Smurfs and I wouldn't mind having a complete collection of all these vinyl figures from the 80s.

Cabbage Patch Kids
This was the huge one for my sister and most American girls in the early 80s. Tickle-Me Elmos, Nintendo Wiis, Zhu Zhu Hamsters, etc.— all these can't even come close to the craze that these dolls inflicted upon the general parenting public in the early 80s. Every girl wanted one for Christmas and no store could keep them in stock. When my sister finally got hers, I remember her loving it to death and it was always by her side. I have a special place in my heart for the Cabbage Patch Kids. The preschool/summer school I went to for most of my early years put on really elaborate plays every summer and one year they decided to do a Cabbage Patch Kids play. I was really young at the time but the director of the play must have seen something in me and she cast me to play the narrator of the the play, Colonel Casey the stork. It was quite the part with lots of lines and from what I remember and what people told me, I pulled it off quite well on performance night.

There you have it. The honorable mentions for 80s toys according to me. Feel free to comment with some of your favorites.

Part 1

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2 (Movie Review)

What's this? An actual movie review of a movie that's still in the theaters? You don't believe it? Well, I'm here to tell you that it is indeed true. I saw Iron Man 2 and lived to tell the tale. Although, waiting through the end credits to see the little teaser piece nearly put me in a coma. Do we really need to list every single graphic artist that works at every one of the 50 digital effects companies you used in making the film?

But, I digress. The original Iron Man shouldn't have been a monster hit. In a world of Batmen, Spider-Men, and Supermen, Iron Man just isn't in the same league in the comic book world or in the viewpoint of regular Joe moviegoer. However, when something is cool, it's just cool and the original Iron Man was freaking cool and audiences ate it up.

Robert Downey, Jr. is the living embodiment of Tony Stark. He's got the swagger and the presence to play exactly what Tony Stark is supposed to be, an over-the-top, brilliant playboy. Mix in some superb directing by John Favreau, a very competent script, and really convincing special effects and the result was simply oozing with coolness.

Iron Man 2 picks right up where the first left off with Tony revealing to the world that he is Iron Man. This brings all sorts of trouble his way. The U.S. government wants the suit. A competing weapons manufacturer envies Tony's success and wants everything that Tony has.

These are major threats but they turn out to be side events compared to an unknown threat that Tony must face from the other side of the world. Stark enterprises certainly couldn't achieve it's lofty status without making a few enemies. Along these lines, a genius, ruthless Russian played by Mickey Rourke decides his mission in life is to destroy all that Tony Stark stands for because of perceived wrongs that Tony's father inflicted on his family.

All this and Tony is slowly dying because the element that powers his suit is contaminating his blood. It's quite the deck stacked against Iron Man and he doesn't exactly deal with it well. He alienates his friends and allies as he collapses in on himself in self pity.

That's the basic set up of the film. Now, what really works in the film is Mickey Rourke as the villain. We get a good glimpse into his agenda and he's a great mix of a terrifying brute and a super brain. Iron Man 2 also takes its time a little more than the first film and has more character moments that work pretty well.

The action, on the other hand, didn't quite do it for me. There are no moments in this film as cool as the flight with the fighter jets or blowing up the tank from the original Iron Man. The action can best be described this way.

Pretty amazing sequence against Whiplash at the car race. It's by far the most effective action set piece.

Man in suit vs. man in suit.

Man in suit vs. robots that look like men in suits. And, then there's more robots that look like men in suits.

Finally, there's two men in suits vs. angry guy in suit.

Universally, the one negative thing most fanboys agreed was disappointing in the first film was that the last action sequence revolved around Tony slugging it out with Warmonger in a battle of iron suits. It didn't live up to the rest of the film and felt very simplistic when the rest of the movie had been so masterfully put together.

In Iron Man 2, it seems that the producers of the first film absolutely loved the big machine vs. machine ending and decided to do that times ten in the sequel. All the fights take place at night and except for Iron Man, all the evil machines are gray or black and it's quite boring to look at.

Iron Man does not have the gallery of villains that Batman or Spider-Man has and, unfortunately, it really showed in this film. Iron Man is still cool but he needs his version of the Joker or this franchise will get stale really quick.

Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, have minor parts in the film but they are really just set up for the Avengers movie that is coming in a few years. I'm still really a fan of what Marvel is doing with their shared universe of movies and I really am looking forward to the Thor and Captain America movies.

However, for me, Iron Man 2 was a marginally sized bump in the road that didn't live up to my lofty expectations. I hope the future Marvel movies can  recapture the magic of the first film and just make everything cool again.

Sherlock Holmes (Movie Review)

Welcome to Robert Downey, Jr. corner. For my next two reviews, I'll be examining the most recent additions to Mr. Downey's oeuvre.

First up, is this past holiday's smash hit, Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey, Jr. plays the title role while Jude Law plays Dr. Watson. Both actors do a great job in this new, action hero-light version of a Sherlock Holmes story.

Holmes can be played many different ways. In this film, Downey portrays Holmes as an eccentric genius whose barely holding onto his sanity. Holmes needs a constant challenge to his intellect or he becomes dangerously depressed. If he lived in modern times, he'd either be working for the NSA or locked up in a mental institution as a danger to society.

Luckily for the detective's brain, he becomes engaged in a twisted mystery of demonic cults and witchcraft that tests his wits to the fullest. I came into this film knowing his stories were rooted in reality so it was a tad predictable that Holmes would eventually pick apart each seemingly supernatural event that happens in the film and explain them with simple, real world logic.

However predictable the plot of the movie, the ride the movie makers take the audience on isn't any less enjoyable. There are great gag sequences where Holmes and Watson bumble their way through insurmountable odds. I also enjoyed how Holmes broke down a fight in his brain and then executed every move to perfection. The physical special effects in these fighting spots were really tremendous. It really looked like Holmes was breaking jaws and delivering devastating blows to his enemies.

Rachael McAdams plays a quasi-romantic interest for Holmes. I'm not sure if her character has an established history in the universe created by Sir Author Conan Doyle or if she was created for the film. She just felt odd to me and her effect over Holmes seemed out of character for him. The detective's advanced intellect almost makes him incapable of real human emotion and his fumbling over her every step felt a little forced.

A few more quick points, both in the positive and negative categories.

I thought the score of the film was really unique and really stood out.

I had a lot of trouble understanding Robert Downey, Jr. throughout the whole film. He kind of mumbles in this gruff understated voice and I'm certain I missed half of what I'm sure were witty one liners.

Overall, the special effects worked perfectly in creating the world of historical London. In a movie like this, it is really the job of the effects to put you squarely in the world and they shouldn't pop out at you like they do in a sci-fi or superhero movie. The effects succeed quite well in this regard.

I can't wait for the sequel which will delve into Holmes's rivalry with Professor Moriarty. If it's anywhere as close in execution as this first film, is should be tremendously fun.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Monster of Florence (Book Review)

I've been a huge fan of the writing duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, for quite some time now. For over a decade, they have kept me entertained with their novels that are mixes between Michael Crichton thrillers and Michael Connelly mysteries.

Their books started off as one-off murder mysteries that usually involved a seemingly supernatural killer or beast. Slowly, they started to build a universe that all their books existed in and eventually, the star of the novels, the odd and enigmatic, Special F.B.I. Agent Pendergast, rose to take center stage.

I'm going to review the newest Pendergast novel in the near future but my current review deals with an extraordinary nonfiction book by just one of the writing duo, Douglas Preston.

The Monster of Florence not only recounts the tale of the most famous serial killer in modern Italian history, but, Preston also tells how his Italian journalist co-author and himself became embroiled in the shady police investigation and were themselves charged with serious crimes that could have seen them spend years in jail.

Whether it be Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Devil in the White City, or City of Falling Angels, the last few years has seen some pretty great literary accounts of little known or forgotten murderers and serial killers. The Monster of Florence takes its place amongst the best of these types of books.

Between 1974 and 1985,  a serial killer stalked the Tuscan countryside outside of Florence, Italy. Every few years during this time, he came out of hiding and brutally murdered young couples who had snuck off into the countryside to make love in their cars. He simply shot the couples at point blank range but it was what he did to the female corpses that made him a horror figure of epic proportions to the Italian people.

To make the tale of the monster even more tragic, the local police and government detective agencies bundled the investigation at every opportunity. They made up bizarre, satanic conspiracy theories. They ruined the lives of countless innocent people as they directed their misguided investigations at one person after another.

All along the way, journalist Mario Spezi, Preston's Italian co-author, was their to chronicle each horrific killing and each monumental investigational blunder. In 1998, Preston moved to Florence. Upon arrival, he learned that his little chateau was literally within sight of one of the infamous spots where the monster had struck.

Preston was told to look up Spezi. After a few meetings, it was obvious they would become fast friends and they both started digging further and further into the killings and what they believed to be the true avenue to find the killer.

One thing Preston quickly realized, though, was that in Italy, even more so than most countries, making the police look bad and lose face was going to cost him and his co-author deeply.

The last 100 pages of the book is a surreal account of how the vindictive government officials, judges, and local law enforcement closed in on Spezi and Preston with outrageously trumped up charges. They were bullied, interrogated, and one of them was even thrown in jail. Preston acknowledges that he wouldn't put half of what he experienced into one of his fiction novels. It was just too unreal to believe.

The Monster of Florence is a tremendous book. It reminded me why I love nonfiction. More often than not, real life makes fiction look like bad melodrama. The monster was an epic story in Italy and most of Europe and even today, most Americans don't know a thing about it. The monster was a killer more brutal than Jack the Ripper with more murders than the Zodiac, Son of Sam, and Boston Strangler combined.

Start this book to learn about one of the most notorious killers in history. Finish the book to find out how corrupt a judicial system can be and to learn the fate of Douglas Preston, one of the best authors out there at the moment.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Madagascar 2, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Hangover, Terminator: Salvation

Let's pump out some movie reviews that most of you probably saw a year ago but I'm just now getting to watch.

First up, Madagascar - Escape 2 Africa. It's OK. The penguins are funny. They are in Africa this time and the story is a poor man's Lion King-type tale. Did I mention the penguins are funny? Alright. Let's move on to the the next review.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is up next. Natasha and I enjoyed the movie. It's a little quirky and drags at times, but, overall, the story and characters kept us entertained. I really like the score to the film. It was a nice mix of folksy songs and funky beats. The most amusing part of the film was that the animals are completely humanized for 90% of the film and then out of the blue they'll just snap and become animalistic and devour the meals on their plate or growl at the weirdest times. Actually, this dichotomy is kind of the whole point of the film.

I was really expecting The Hangover to be over-the-top raunchy, but, unless you sit through the pictures that run through the end credits, the movie is refreshingly reserved in its raunch. Now, don't get me wrong, the movie goes places that are hilariously wrong and squeamishly awkward to watch. However, they don't quite cross the line into vulgarity and my wife and I finally found a movie that sat nicely on the border of being sick and twisted enough for me while not completely offending her.

Speaking of being offended, let's briefly touch on Terminator Salvation. What a wasted opportunity. Someone finally ponied up the money to let a director tell a story that takes place in the machine-ravaged future of the terminator universe. The movie makers then blow it by choosing to tell a tiny yarn to fill in a gap of information from the original movies that I could care less about. I wanted to see John Connor in full leadership mode and completely taking it to the machines. Instead I get the equivalent of the Star Wars prequels. I know you know that the audience knows that we know that Kyle Reese is going to go back in time and get it on with Sarah Connor while avoiding a terminator that has human skin. So, if I know all of this, what's the point of filling in the gap? Really, what's the point? Oh, I forgot to mention the acting is sub-par and the directing and production design just felt very weird and uninspired.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

iPad Review

My wife and I made the leap and bought an Apple iPad (16GB, Wifi). It's really Natasha's but I've stolen enough time on it to throw up this review.

In my opinion, the iPad has to be reviewed from two different perspectives, hardware and software.

As far as the device itself goes, it's quite a pretty piece of technological goodness. The screen is amazing. It's bright, crisp, and capable of high definition. Pictures and movies look great. For me, the big portable screen is probably the single biggest thing the iPad has going for it.

The device fits nicely in your hands and isn't as awkward to sit and use as I initially thought from looking at online videos. It is a little heavier than I expected. It weighs in at 1.5 lbs which is pretty hefty when compared to the Amazon Kindle.

I'm also very impressed by the speaker. It sounds really great and it certainly seems Apple put some thought into how the iPad sounds when you aren't using headphones.

The touch screen works as advertised as does the tilt sensitivity. The onscreen keypad is a little tight but I got used to it pretty fast and there are few tricks that help speed up the typing process.

Moving on to software, the iPad is out-of-the-box ready to surf the web. It uses the Safari browser which is perfectly suitable. I haven't run into a site that I can't access. It does have the drawback of not having Adobe Flash built in so you will encounter some media on the web that you can't access, such as embedded movies and games.

We were really excited about the email and calendar aspects and while they are pretty robust, both Natasha and I think there could be improvements. Our biggest problem is that the iPad is a slave to your computer or other email programs. It has to sync and update when it would have been nice to just have everything in the iPad.

The hardware is quite an achievement but the iPad is going to live or die by the applications that it runs. The big daddies at launch are iBooks, Netflix, ABC Media Player, and a couple of different newspapers.

iBooks is a graphical improvement over what the Kindle has to offer. After you download a book, it puts it into a nice bookshelf for you to look at and the cover is in full color. You can read books one page at a time or turn the iPad landscape and read two pages. There is also a nice swipe feature that mimics a page being turned. However, besides the prettiness factor that the iPad has over the Kindle, the iPad loses in about every category that matters to me in an e-reader.

It's back-lit which will put more strain on your eyes in long reading sessions. At the moment, the available library is miniscule compared to what the Kindle has built. Most disappointing, though, is the price difference between the two platforms. Kindle comes in around $9.99 for new books and iBooks is $13.99. I understand publishers are losing quite a bit at the $9.99 price point but this does suck for consumers who have become used to that price.

Let me leave the iBooks discussion with two positives which kind of make up for its negatives I pointed out above. It's run on ePub which opens up a huge library of books to download from the internet. That is the best way to circumvent the new $13.99 price. The second positive and the thing to take away is that the iPad is more than capable as an e-reader. If this is your tablet of choice and you haven't made the Kindle jump, I think you'll be perfectly happy with it as your e-reader as long as you don't read for multiple-hour stretches.

Anyone that has Netflix Watch Instantly on their computer or Xbox 360 knows that it is an amazing aspect of the Netflix service. It's just as smooth on the iPad and works flawlessly.

The ABC video player is a great way to catch up on shows you missed during the week with limited commercials.

I love the NPR app which has their news stories as well as the audio from their broadcasts. Natasha is getting a lot out of news applications. She's getting international news all in one spot instead of having to surf the web on her computer looking for stories.

This review has already gone beyond long so I'll just touch on a few more things. The iPad is amazing for kids and education. There are robust apps for drawing, playing music, learning animal sounds, interactive story books, and so much more. Our children's enjoyment with the iPad has been the nicest surprise about the purchase.

The iPad is the future of comic book and magazine reading. Comic books look amazing and I've downloaded a few comic reading apps that work great. I'm salivating for the day when new comics on the iPad are released day and date with their printed version. I will not hesitate to read all of my new comic books on the iPad and I'll never buy a printed single issue comic book again.

I haven't even touched on the iPad as a gaming device. I'm still waiting for a few killer games that are synonymous with the iPad like Mario is with Nintendo or Halo is with the Xbox. The best games utilize the touch screen and usually come in bite-sized portions of ten to fifteen minute playtimes but that doesn't mean that I will not love an epic game that I can pour hours and hours into.

The iPad is only going to get stronger as the apps get better. I'm sure I could re-review the iPad every six months and my reviews would become more and more enthusiastic. This was a huge purchase for us and a little scary to be dropping so much money on a brand new, unproven device. I'm happy to report that we think it was worth every cent and, if you'll now excuse me, I have to go lock Natasha in the bathroom so I can get in a little iPad time of my own.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves — Video Game Review

Finally, I finished a game and I'm able to get my first video game review up on the blog. There's not a lot of opportunity to sink into games these days but I'm hoping to bust through a few more before the holiday onslaught.

First up, is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves from the creators of Crash Bandicoot, Jax and Daxter, and the well received first Uncharted game. Anyone that follows anything about video games beyond Madden and the Wii knows that Uncharted 2 was the single most praised game released last year. It has won every major award that exists and the reviews for it are glowing.

With all that being said, I'm going to be really radical and say, yup, it's the best game of 2009 that I personally got my hands on and one of the best games I've ever played.

For those of you who only vaguely know about the game (and thank you for reading), here is a quick synopsis of game. It's Indiana Jones in the modern age with lots more shooting and Lara Croft-like tomb puzzles.

Without question, Uncharted 2 has the best voice acting in any video game up to this point. Nolan North who does the voice acting for the main character, Drake, becomes the character in every way. Their are tons of great one liners and little quips that ground the story in reality and you feel Drake is really experiencing these outlandish scenarios.

The story is on par with, if not surpasses, most theatrical summer blockbusters to come out recently. Seriously, Uncharted 2 makes Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull look like it was written by monkeys which anyone who's suffered through the Star Wars prequels will agree with.

Visually, the game is stunning. I found myself in the middle of firefights just staring out into the scenic vistas. The animations are great as people shrug their shoulders, limp after being wounded, and give off real acting performances with their body language.

If I could peg down one thing that makes Uncharted 2 a great, it was the game's ability to continually give the player these epic set pieces that they have to battle their way through.

Quickly, let me touch on a traditional video game convention before proceeding that will help me set up my next few paragraphs. Whenever a game takes control out of a player's hands and shows off a little mini-scene or movie, that's known as a cutscene. Cutscenes are generally very east to spot coming and the player can put the controller down and watch the characters act on screen.

Uncharted 2 technically has cut scenes and moments where the game takes the control away from the player but they are incredibly well integrated into the action. There's a scene about a quarter way through the game where you are battling enemies through a broken down apartment building. The whole time there's an enemy helicopter that keeps popping up periodically to try to shoot you through windows.

Numerous times during this action sequence, the game takes the controls from the player and has Drake do something spectacular to avoid falling debris or missiles. However, the action immediately snaps back into your hands and you are off and running again. It's seamless.

The highlight of the games evolves around Drake hopping on the back of a moving train and working his way up to the engine. This takes about half-an-hour of game time to get through and you experience so much in just this one part that it feels like a video game inside the video game. It's just like you are playing one of the great action sequences from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This game is an experience. I've read reviews about how people, who are not actually playing the game, sit down and watch the game from start to finish. It's that good and that engrossing. What an accomplishment this was for the makers of the game, Naughty Dog. If developers can even catch a whiff of what was done in this game, the future of video games looks tremendously fun and revolutionary.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

80s Top Ten Toys of the Decade

Here is my opinion on what were the top ten toys of the 1980s. I'm going to shoehorn this into my 80s connecting posts so please forgive the awkward logic jump.

Last time I talked about the amazing movie, Three Amigos. We all know Steve Martin was in that movie. And, of course, Steve Martin is a famous comedian who broke onto the scene in a sketch comedy show. Another wonderful actor who also has his roots in sketch comedy is Eric Idle of Monty Python fame.

Eric Idle voiced the crazy, fast talking robot in The Transformers - The Movie. Transformers is one of the famous toy lines to come out the 80s so this leads me to my top ten toys.

I could be lazy and list G. I. Joe, Transformers, Star Wars, etc. but I'm here to put in some effort. So, I'm going to get specific, very specific, to the point where particular action figures are going to make the list.

So, without further blah blah blah, here's my list.

10. Storm Shadow from G. I. Joe
For a kid who grew up with The Karate Kid and American Ninja this action figure was amazing. He came with two swords, a knife, a backpack with arrows (they didn't come out) and he's a ninja in a white outfit with a mask. Hasbro even came out with a cooler version a few years later with more accessories and an even cooler outfit.

9. He-Man Battle Ram
You see that neon orange thing on the top? It shot out like 3-4 feet. I was deadly accurate with it. The Battle Ram came with three plastic darts that shot out of the base unit with a spring loaded mechanism. I'd line Star Wars and He-Man figures on my window sill and spend hours shooting them down. If there were Battle Ram shooting contests back in the day, I would have won them all.

 8. Hovecraft from G. I. Joe
Seriously, look at that thing. Amazing. It had so many little pieces that never stayed attached like depth charges and cannons but that was half the fun. Ironically, the hovercraft neither hovered or floated all that well in the bathtub and seemed to sink within seconds. That never stopped me from bringing it in over and over again for hours of enjoyment.

7. He-Man Slime Pit
Another Masters of the Universe toy. I think we'll be seeing a few more later as well. Ah, the Slime Pit. The first real slime toy that I remember seeing on the market. The slime was gooey. The slime smelled like chemicals that weren't meant to be inhaled. I remember the slime always being cold too. It was good fun to pour that stuff on the action figures and when it came out of the skull head it looked the skeleton had snot bubbles. The Slime Pit was not always a joy, though. I hated picking dirt and hair out of the goo.

6. Grimlock the Dinobot from Transformers
Grimlock no like being number six. Grimlock best toy of all time. Well, Mr. Grimlock, there's still a few ahead of you but you definitely were a favorite of mine. All the Dinobots were pretty damned cool. Grimlock gets the spot here cause he's a T-Rex and he was the leader. I remember big drama with my parents about me taking him to school and getting into trouble. Also, at one point, a hoodlum I hung out with in the neighborhood stole him from me but he eventually found his way back into my arms. Oh, he came with a red sword too.

5. He-Man Snake Mountain
Capitalizing on the runaway success of the Castle Grayskull play-set, Snake Mountain stood on its own as one of the best toys of the decade. It had lots of interactive features like trap doors and collapsing bridges. However, it's #5 for one reason, the echoey microphone shaped like a wolf's head. It was tons of fun to talk spooky and scare your pet dog. That microphone was the single greatest toy idea of the 80s.

4. Voltron
Look at it. Worship it. There were many Transformeresque toys that built on the idea of single vehicles that you buy separately and then combine into one super big robot. Voltron was the best of bunch. I still remember getting home from school with my honor roll report card and sitting there on the table for me was the green lion. Voltron, after your parents dropped probably a hundred dollars to get the 5 different lions, was one hell of an achievement in toy making. It's just a fantastic looking toy that has been mimicked and copied to death but in it's day, Voltron was heads above anything else on the market.

3. Megatron from Transformers
Looking at Megatron from today's safety-first toy world, it's amazing this thing came to market. But, wow, was it spectacular. The picture to the left was exactly what made it amazing. As far as Transformers go, it was a pretty horrible engineering job. It was one of the most difficult Transformers to transform and Megatron in his robot form was hideous. Yet, Megatron in gun form was amazing and made up for all other shortcomings.

2. He-Man Castle Grayskull
I put more hours of playtime into Castle Grayskull than any other single toy I ever owned. I was big into setting up my figures into battle poses. I'd have about twenty figures just draped all over this thing and when I'd run out of room, I'd hang them from the ceiling. It had an elevator, a trap door, a cannon, pieces that broke off, and drawbridge that never stayed on. One of my most cherished pictures is a snapshot of me on Christmas morning and my mom and I sitting on the floor playing with it.

Castle Grayskull was a fantastic toy, but, to me, there was one other toy that symbolizes my entire childhood from movies to TV to toys. That toy is...

1. Star Wars Millennium Falcon
It's the only Star Wars toy I have on the list but don't let that fool you. Star Wars was my childhood. I had mostly every toy. The Millennium Falcon was the granddaddy of them all. There had never been another toy like it and as far as play-sets go, this thing was revolutionary. My parents still tell the tale of trying to track it down on Christmas Eve and lucking out at the last second. It was the only thing I wanted and for years after, it was the main thing I played with. For a child like me who lived and breathed the Star Wars movies, to see the false floors, the holo-chess game, and the other myriad of straight-from-the-movies accessories was like the movie coming to life right there in my bedroom. This was not only one the greatest toys of the 80s but one of the greatest toys of all time.

There you have it.

Check out Part 2

Monday, April 19, 2010

American Pickers (TV review)

History Channel has silently snuck to the top of the cable reality TV world with two quality shows. The first, Pawn Stars, I'm not going to review here but it's great fun. The show follows a huge pawn shop in Vegas and revolves around the wheeling and dealing of the brokers with the customers. The real highlight of the show are the items that get brought in to be pawned. The stories and the history behind the items is highly informative and often opens your eyes to parts of history you didn't even know you cared about.

The show I want to focus on is American Pickers. Two lifelong friends opened a resale antique business and they travel the U.S. looking through people's collections for antiques and novelty items that they can "pick", or buy on the cheap, clean them up, and resell at a profit to antique collectors.

These guys know their stuff. Both of them are an encyclopedia of antique information. It's like you took all of the experts from Antique Roadshow and combined them into one super brain.

Like Pawn Stars, the antiques really come to the forefront in the show. There are items featured on each show that most Americans have either never seen or haven't seen for 75 years. Whether it be turn-of-the-century bicycles or vintage gas pumps from the 50s, there is some pretty amazing stuff to be seen.

Now, unlike Pawn Stars, the antiques featured in American Pickers have to share the limelight with important co-stars: the outrageous, odd, and usually awkward owners of the antiques. Wow, these people could easily be featured on another popular reality show, Hoarders.

Some of the everyday folks that the pickers visit are mostly normal and just let their collecting get the better of them and are now ready to part with some items. On the other hand, there are people featured on the show that have obvious psychological issues. Most are basically just hoarders and the pickers have to use every trick in their negotiation book to pry the antiques away.

However, there have been a few featured owners that are pretty scary. They literally have an empire of junk and they know every detail about every item buried in the backyard or stashed up in the barn loft. I honestly feel afraid for the pickers when they start pressing these people to sell their items. I can see the eyes start to twitch and I'm just waiting for them to break out a shotgun and start yelling, "No! you can't have my vintage 1935 bottle of pen ink. It's my precious!"

As you can tell, I love this show. The two pickers are very personable and the antique hoarders are just getting nuttier episode by episode. If you get the History Channel, it's a must watch and if you don't get the channel, track down some episodes online.

Minute to Win It (TV review)

I know what you are thinking, this is just what we need, another prime time TV game show trying to capture the pop culture zeitgeist like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Hosted by Food Network's Guy Fieri, Minute to Win It is not going to take the nation by storm but it does an amazing number of things right and is one of the more enjoyable game shows I've seen.

Contestants have a minute to complete a quirky task and if they succeed, they move up the money ladder, a la, Millionaire. There are about forty random games that range from the pretty easy, stacking four apples, to the really tough, keeping two feathers aloft for 60 seconds by blowing them up into the air.

Some of the games are really fun and inventive and instead of me listing them all here, go check out http://www.nbc.com/minute-to-win-it/how-to/ for a list of them all.

Here's what the show has going for it that makes it work for me. First of all, Guy Fieri is a great host. He seems genuinely excited for the contestants and he's believable.

Secondly, this is the first show I've seen where they get to the point quickly. For example, after a contestant wins $1,000 dollars, they don't make him or her pretend to be terribly distraught about going to the next level. The contestant usually says, let's go, and believe or not, they go straight to the next game. There's no over-producing or fake drama like you get in shows like Deal or No Deal.

The contestants all have outgoing personalities but they don't seem like amateur drama students picked from the local community college which is refreshing and much easier to watch.

The games are the star of the show and the producers realize this and they strip everything back so the games can win the audience over.

There seems to be a ton of commercials run during the show which may or may not be my imagination. I might be making it up because I'm so engrossed in the games that when a commercial break happens, it seems like I've only been watching for a few minutes. If my major complaint is that the commercials are plentiful and I wish the show was longer, that's probably the biggest endorsement for the show that I can give and you should go check it out.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

I'm a history buff so I get a lot of fun from these Ben Stiller movies. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian does a lot of what the first movie did well while adding a little too much goofiness for my taste.

This time around, the Egyptian artifact and a majority of the historical figures from the first film get transported to the Smithsonian archives. Here they encounter an evil Egyptian lord who wants to take over the world and they do battle to prevent this from happening.

It feels like the producers of this movie lost a bet with Hank Azaria of The Simpsons fame and they were forced to give him a ridiculous amount of screen time and he was allowed to act as absurdly as he wanted to.

His portrayal of the Egyptian lord is simply jaw dropping in it's horribleness. Now, I know he's obviously not playing this anywhere close to straight but some of his choices are just bad. An over-the-top lisp in a character is kind of funny—if it's a small part—but, Azaria is in like 65% of this movie and the lisp takes the viewer right out of the little bit of plot there is to get invested in.

There are some exchanges between Azaria and Stiller that are painful to watch. They are trying their best to improv on the spot and score a little bit of movie magic but it doesn't work and the scenes just go on and on. You can literally see their brains working to come up with a funny quip, and, while they are both funny men, Robin Williams they are not.

There are a few decent performances in the film. Amy Adams has a good time portraying Amelia Earheart but her infatuation with Stiller's character is very forced. Owen Wilson's role as the miniature cowboy is expanded more and he has some fun lines and moments in the film.

I thought the classic paintings and photographs that come to life and interact with the characters was one of the more interesting additions to the film. Of course, it's a blatant rip-off of the Hogwarts paintings moving about in the Harry Potter franchise but it's cool nonetheless.

If you enjoyed the first film of the series or you want to see the train wreck that is Hank Azaria overacting, I think the film is enjoyable enough to sit through. Oh, and Darth Vader is in it, albeit, he doesn't talk and it's just for a small gag. But, it's Darth Vader. Bonus.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

Oh, Inglourious Basterds, you horribly violent and amazing film. Now, that was a dramatic experience. Never has people sitting at a table and talking for twenty minutes ever felt so tense and so action packed.

I almost wish the director, Quentin Tarantino, didn't have to yank us out of these magnificent scenes. Knowing that it's Tarantino behind the lens of these beautifully directed and acted conversations is what makes it even greater. At any moment, the S is going to hit the F and I could feel my pulse quickening as the stakes rise and the moment of truth inches closer.

There are probably five different scenes of dialogue in this film that if you pluck them out and set them in another movie would have been the climax of that film. The tension is literally exhausting and I found that when the violence finally comes, it's a welcome relief. It was like, phew, they mowed each other down with machine guns, I feel so much better now.

Yes, when the violence comes it is graphic. Tarantino pulls no punches on the visuals. More than the visuals, though, what really got me was who dies and how they die. Do not get attached to any character. One minute they are the focal point of the film and the next they are lying on the ground in a pool of their own blood and you are left thinking, what, huh, did that really just happen?

Christoph Waltz deserves another ten best supporting Oscars for his role as the "Jew Hunter". He's tremendous. The last major conversation between him and Brad Pitt where he is just giddy with excitement over the prospects of what he is proposing is one of the best acting jobs I've ever seen.

Being a Tarantino fan, I did see many of his storytelling techniques at work. There's the jumping view points to start the film that slowly coalesce into one big finale. Then there is the crazy shootout that seems to come out of nowhere although he's just spent the last twenty minutes of the film building to it. These signature stamps of his are amazing but I am starting to see them repeated a bit too often in his films.

Those little quibbles aside, Inglourious Basterds is a masterpiece of cinema. It's a workshop in screenplay writing and directing. There are scenes here that will be studied by film students for decades and even then they still may never know exactly how Tarantino pulled them off so brilliantly.

The Time Traveler's Wife

The Time Traveler's Wife confused the hell out of me for the first forty-five minutes. It wasn't so much that I couldn't follow the story it's just that time travel stories, unless they involve Marty McFly, tend to make my head hurt.

Before I get into the time travel aspects of the film, let's look at why the relationship didn't work. It's my understanding that the book the movie is based on is a tremendous read and really delivers on the emotional moments. In the movie, however, I think the writers/director did a very poor job of making me understand why these two people love each other enough to put up with the crap they have to go through to stay together.

For instance, Rachel McAdams's character shows up when the time traveler, played by Eric Bana, is a down on his luck twenty-something. All it takes is for McAdams's character to say that she loves him and knows everything about him and Bana kind of just shrugs his shoulders and thinks to himself, hey, she's kind of good looking, I guess I should love her now.

Then there is the whole fact that the girl's love for the time traveler is based off of her childhood infatuation with an older man. It just felt wrong to me. Her love is entirely plausible but just icky. It was like I was watching the time travel version of the Celine Dion story.

Thinking about my confusion with the time travel in the story, I believe a lot of my over thinking could have been solved with a better visualization of Eric Bana. He always looked the same to me. One second he has a beard and the next he doesn't. The make-up department's grand illusion to make him look older was to give him facial hair. Well, he has face scrubble when we first meet him in his twenties so the whole time I'm trying to figure out which version of him I'm looking at instead of getting emotionally invested in the story.

I've been picking apart the movie up to this point. I suppose it's my frustration with a film I generally liked and feel that if they had done better with the points I mention above I would have really liked the movie.

The actors do a good job with what they have to work with and if you buy the reasons for them being together you start to see the chemistry between the actors. I also thought the last one-third was quite poignant and really well done. I just wish the set-up was as strong as the finish.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I've sold out

Well, not really. I've, what blogger calls, monetized my blog. All this means for you my loyal reader is that now you will see some of the books, movies, games etc I review or talk about on the site being underlined. If you read the review for, say, The Blind Side, and you feel the urge to own the movie right this instant, well, I can help you with that and you will be helping me, and my wife, and my two daughters. Cough *guilt trip* cough.

Every time you click one of the links it sends you the Amazon page for that product. And, if by some miracle you actually buy the movie right there and then, I get a teeny tiny percentage of the sale and Amazon will love me and I it.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled bloggery.

80s Three Amigos

"Together we raped the horses and rode off on the women and pruned the hedges of many small villages."

My hope was to jump out of just looking back on 80s movies and start hitting some of my other favorite memories from my youth. However, I couldn't find a cool way to get from Some Kind of Wonderful to something like He-Man so I'm going to do another movie and hope for the best next time.

Here's how I came to Three Amigos. It's rather simple. John Hughes wrote and produced Some Kind of Wonderful. Hughes also directed the 80s classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Those aren't pillows! That was a joke for people that have seen the movie.

Of course, one of the major stars in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was Steve Martin and he starred with Chevy Chase and Martin Short in Three Amigos.

My opening quote is just one of several lines from Three Amigos that, no matter how many times I see the movie, make me die laughing. "Jefe, would you say you have a plethora?" Sorry, last random quote, I promise.

If you haven't seen the movie, first of all, shame on you. Secondly, the basic story is that three silent film actors who portray outrageous cowboys onscreen get caught up in a Mexican village's plight to free itself from its evil overlord, el guapo, and hilarity and invisible swordsmen ensue.

Having these three actors in this movie at the height of their popularity was just pure gold. They all deliver. Steve Martin plays the straight man, Martin Short is the innocent naive one, and Chevy Chase pretty much just plays a buffoon.

So many great memories. I will never forget my cousins doing the amigos salute. Three Amigos is a comedy classic and one of my favorite movies ever. "My little buttercup, with your eyes so blue. My little buttercup, your a dream come trueeeeee. Everybody!"

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Outliers and What the Dog Saw

I just finished What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventure by Malcolm Gladwell and since it's only been a year since I finished his previous book, Outliers: The Story of Success, I thought I'd just review them together.

Gladwell's first two books, The Tipping Point and Blink, were huge bestsellers. I've not read either but based on the strong word-of-mouth and the interesting conceit of Outliers, I decided to give Gladwell a try.

Gladwell was curious at how society has always viewed geniuses and the very few who become the elites in their field. Outliers digs deeper into what people like Einstein, Bill Gates, and elite athletes have in common.

Almost without exception, everyone who is considered a genius or superstar has not only put in the hard work and practice but has had innumerable things go their way.

Gladwell found that whether a mathematical genius or Wayne Gretzky, to become a master of a discipline requires around ten thousand hours of practice. Of course, it's not as simple as practice. For instance, it also helps to be born at the right time.

If you are a Canadian hockey player who wants to make it into the upper echelons of youth hockey, you better have been born between January and March. Otherwise, you don't make the age cut and you get put in with older kids who are ahead of you physically and have tons of more quality practice time. Coaches tend to give closer attention to the more mature players.

Why did Bill Gates become a computer whiz and one of the richest men in the world? He certainly put in the work but he was also born at the exact right time in this century. He fell into the exact right crowd and attended the one school in the country with a computer not only powerful, but accessible enough for him to spend every breathing second of his formative years programming.

The book is filled with amazing anecdotes ranging from explanations to why Asians are better at math to the very obvious reason why the Beatles became musical geniuses.

I have to say, I now feel much better about not being a genius.

What the Dog Saw is the most recent book by Malcolm Gladwell. It's a collection of his favorite work with The New Yorker magazine. The first section of essays could easily fit into the general theme of Outliers. Gladwell explores different aspects of culture and business to get down to the real reasons why some people have great success and some people fail.

For example, Why is there only one big brand of ketchup? Or, there's the fact that the dog whisperer, Cesar Millan, is more about nonverbal movements versus actual whispering.

In the second section, the author takes accepted notions like all Enron executives should go to jail, homelessness is unsolvable, and advances in mammography technology make diagnosing cancer easier and throws tough questions at them and finds what we think we know isn't necessarily true.

Finally, in the the third part, Gladwell explores personalities and how truly tough it is to know someone. How does a business know it's hired the right person? Is the FBI's revolutionary psychological profiling of criminals as fool-proof as movies like Silence of the Lambs make us think? Is throwing money at the best and brightest really the smartest thing to do?

Gladwell does his homework and interviews experts to come up with some very surprising answers. If nothing else, What the Dog Saw teaches you to question the status quo and to look deeper into things. There's usually an explanation for every success and there's almost always no magic potion to why something works and no single determining factor as to why something doesn't work.

I will be jumping right into the other two books as Malcolm Gladwell has quickly become one of my favorite writers. He can take a subject as complex as tax law or rocket science and make you understand it in a few paragraphs and then relate it to the most mundane of things. It all just works and flows with his easy-to-read writing style and knack for great storytelling.