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.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Blackest Night part 2

With the color corps at war, the dead heroes and villains of the DC universe begin to rise from the grave. They are wearing Black Lantern rings and their main purpose seems to be to piss off or just plain emotionally wreck the living superheroes to the point where their hearts become tasty morsels.

After rereading that last sentence, the whole thing just sounds absurd. Let's put aside the dead, flesh-eating super people for the time being and focus in on the major ideas of Blackest Night.

There is a major baddy in Blackest Night. Revealing his identity is really that important and no need to spoil it here. He wants to wipe out life throughout the universe and he's using his emotionless army to extinguish all feeling and life.

Rather well known heroes and villains die and become part of his undead army. It's up to the different colored corps to stop fighting amongst themselves and band together to destroy the Black Lanterns.

Some of the major DC heroes, such as Wonder Woman, get directly involved in the color ring war and it's rather exciting to see such well-known characters reimagined as ring bearers.

With black light enveloping the universe it was only a matter of time before white light rode in like the cavalry to save the day. The last few chapters of Blackest Night are a fun ride with lots of incredible fight scenes and there are some great moments as long dead heroes and villains come back to the world of the living.

The two main artists for Blackest Night were Doug Mahnke in the Green Lantern book and Ivan Reis in the main Blackest Night title. Both did incredible work and some of two page spreads throughout the series are simply gorgeous.

I haven't done a tremendous job getting across how cool Blackest Night was to read but I think it was one of more successful "events" at either DC or marvel in the last ten years. Geoff Johns is just amazing to me as a writer. His go-to technique is to reimagine a character with a long and convoluted history and make it current and exciting for today's comic audience. He spent years setting up this event and it really paid off.

There was some fluff to Blackest Night. There were way too many tie-in books that had important story elements to completely ignore them and the dead, super-powered zombie of the week story got old.

Overall, it was a pretty great event. Next up for DC is Brightest Day. I can't wait to be wowed yet again.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Blackest Night (comic review)

Ninety percent of those reading my blog can now tune out for a bit. I'm going to review a comic book event.

The DC Comics epic mini-series, Blackest Night, wrapped up recently and since it seems I've been living in this world for a year now I thought it deserved a moment of my time.

I have a feeling this may run a bit long so I'm going to break it up into two parts.

First, a little history is needed. I assume most people have at least heard of the Green Lantern? He's the major focal point of the series. After the Green Lantern movie comes out in a year or so I'm hoping the public will get to know how cool of a character he can be when written correctly.

Green Lantern, real name Hal Jordan, is a member of a intergalactic space policing force known as the Green Lantern Corps.

They wear rings that channel their willpower to create constructs that they use to fight evil doers. For example, hey, bad guy over there, let me think of this giant, ridiculously sized sledgehammer and whack you on the head with it.

Over the course of fifty years of stories, everyone just took at face value that they were the Green Lanterns just because that's just the color they happened to be. In the 1980s — perhaps early 1990s — Alan Moore, he of the shaggy beard, magic, and comic book writing brilliance, — wrote a one-off Green Lantern story exploring how the Green Lantern Corps were but one part of the spectrum of colors on the ROYGBIV spectrum.

The current DC comic book writer, Geoff Johns, took this idea and ran with it. Johns tied an emotion and created a corps for every color on the ROYGBIV spectrum.

To quickly run them down:
• Red - anger
• Orange - avarice
• Yellow - fear
• Green - will
• Blue - hope
• Indigo - compassion
• Violet - love

For a year building up to the Blackest Night event, Geoff Johns and his fellow Green Lantern writers and artists explored each corps through compelling stories and histories. Eventually, an all out color war broke out that further shattered the emotional spectrum and made them all susceptible to an every growing force of death and destruction, the newly revealed Black Lantern Corps.

Obviously, for those of you who keep up on comics, you know I've skimmed over years of compelling stories that stand out on their own without even tying them into the set-up for the Blackest Night event.

The storyline that stands above all the others during the pre-Blackest Night era is the Sinestro Corp war. The mini-series was essentially a battle between the Green Lantern Corps, led by Hal Jordan, and the Sinestro Corps, aka, the Yellow Lanterns, led by Hal's former friend and teacher, Sinestro. It's a brilliant bit of comic book writing and I think, while not essential, it gives a further understanding of the characters and intrigue involved in Blackest Night.

The majority of the color war was contained within the DC family of Green Lantern books. However, with Blackest Night upon the DC universe, the threat is just too big for the space characters alone.

In the second part of my little black review we dive into the Blackest Night event. Every major character in DC Comics will be effected and characters will die, then live, then die, then, maybe, live again.

Everybody's Fine

I'm not too excited to relive this movie so this will be short. Everybody's Fine is a DRAMA. Capital letters intentional. Don't be fooled by the happy people in the poster. You will not smile much while watching this movie.

Is it Beaches depressing? No, it's not that bad. However, if you are reading this review before watching the film I feel I'm doing you a huge service.

I knew there was a chance of some downer moments. It is, after all, a movie about a dad trying to reconnect with his kids after years of not being able to communicate with them.

But, wow, not a hugely upbeat story. Robert Deniro delivers his usual—forgetting The Fan for a moment—amazing performance. He's not a badass mafia member here. He's very frail and it's quite amazing to see him pull off this role.

I'm not going to rehash the story but if you have recently lost a loved one or had a falling out with a parent or sibling, you may want to put this one on the back burner for a while. Everybody's Fine is well made and well directed but the next time I want to make myself this upset I'll just go bash my head into the wall a few times.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

80s Some Kind of Wonderful

The trip from Beetlejuice to Some Kind of Wonderful goes like this. The actor, Jeffrey Jones played the dad of the family that moved into the house. You may also know him as the principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He was also in another 80s classic, Howard the Duck. By classic I mean it was awfully awesome.

One of his co-stars in Howard the Duck was Lea Thompson and Lea Thompson played the object of Eric Stoltz affection in Some Kind of Wonderful. Now, tell me that circuitous route wasn't fun?

I really love Some Kind of Wonderful. I love that it not only has the time honored movie tradition of the dorky guy going for the most popular girl in school but it also has his best friend, played by Mary Stuart Masterson, secretly pining for him.

It's the classic case of desiring so badly of being somewhere you perceive to be better that you don't realize that what's happening right in front of you is what you really need the most.

I think the stand-out here is Lea Thompson's character, Amanda Jones. In these types of movies, the popular girl of desire is usually shallow and while nice to look at, there's nothing there of substance. The main character usually finds that his dream girl is mean, rude, or dumb and moves on by the end of the movie.

Here, Amanda Jones is a real thought out character and not just a cliché. She's confused. She's torn between the popular, shallow life and what she knows is truer to herself. In a twist of the traditional movie convention, Eric Stoltz's character actually becomes more superficial while Amanda becomes more grounded.

It's really great writing and it's the writer, John Hughes, at the height of his 80s greatness. Some Kind of Wonderful isn't seen as being up there in the pantheon of Sixteen Candles or the Breakfast Club but it should be remembered in that elite company.

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll give your stud earring to your best friend as a present. Check it out if you have never seen it or if you haven't seen it in a while go, revisit it. It's a forgotten classic.

American Idol Season 9

So, have I lost the few people that actually checked out this blog with my little hiatus? I hope not or you would be missing this riveting review of the worst season of American Idol.

Whoops, did I just spoil the review? Oh well, there's no beating around the bush and anyone that has seen any of the episodes since we got to the top 12 is probably just nodding his or her head in agreement.

The taped early episodes showed some promise. People who are now in the top 12, like Andrew Garcia, showed potential to be front runners but have been disappointing. Looking at the season realisticly, there is only one person that is going to have a career after this and that's Crystal Bowersox. And, even then, I think she's terribly boring. (See pictures of all the contestants at http://www.americanidol.com/contestants/season_9.)

Don't get me wrong. She's incredibly talented and may make a great album but she just never wows me with anything different or exciting. Some might say that Michael Lynche of the bulging muscles has star potential. For me, dawg, he's just too theatrical and, while nice to listen to at times, I can't stand to look at the TV when he's on.

Everyone else in the top 12, and, yes, I'm including the screeching fan-favorite Siobhan Magnus and the the guitar-playing golden locked, Casey James are 15% good, 45% mediocre, and like 115% cringe inducing. Yes, that's 175%. On my blog I make my own percentages.

The judges aren't helping matters. They really pushed for the contestants to be daring and change up songs. I can see that both the judges and the producers want the next Daughtry, David Cook, or Adam Lambert moment where a well known song is taken and just thrown on it's head in a brilliant way.

It's just not happening this year. All attempts to manipulate songs are making the original version of the songs sound that much better and make the contestants look foolish for altering a classic.

I think the contestant with the most potential at being unique and standing out was ironically voted off the first week. Lacey Brown had a voice different from what you normally hear on the radio and if she had just picked the right song she'd be a frontrunner. Here's hoping a record label snatches her up.

The best thing to come out of this season? You see it right at the top. It's the Pants on the Ground guy. I can't wait to see him awkwardly perform his song at the finale. It will be tremendous. I hope they give him an orchestra.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

80s. Pee-Wee leads to...

Last time I talked about how the robot in Flight of the Navigator talked like Pee-Wee Herman. Now, this could lead my thought process to a whole bunch of different places, not all of them pleasant.

The first thing that pops to mind is the obvious, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. I want to dig a little bit deeper than that and direct my attention to the director of that movie, Tim Burton. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was Burton's first major gig but what really put him on the map is our 80s subject for today, Beetlejuice.

Beetlejuice was one of the first movies I went to see with my friends without any parents. I remember sitting in the theater feeling all grown-up and just enjoying the hell out of the movie.

I think I was around eleven when I first saw it and even then I knew that the special effects were pretty amazing. The special effects and make-up units were pulling off stuff that had not been seen before.

There were people with shrunken heads, Alec Baldwin pulling his face in all directions and popping out his eyeballs, and Michael Keaton turning into a pretty terrifying snake.

How long did my friends and I sing lines like "come Mr. Tallyman tally me banana"? I'm not certain but I'm sure it was probably just long enough for family and teachers to want to kill us.

Of course, this movie also introduced us to Winona Ryder which would lead her to a glorious career in shoplifting.

Next, on the 80s road trip, Beetlejuice leads me directly to the movie, Some Kind of Wonderful? My logic will be revealed. Until next time, beware sand worms.