Archive for category Reviews

First Impressions: Google Wave

Google Wave is an interesting animal. Similar to the much ballyhooed Google Chrome OS, Wave has been the “it” thing for a while among select geek circles. To date, Google knows almost no wrong and so announcements of new products from the company are all treated as the coming of The Next Big Thing™. Compound this impression with the fact that just about any product beta (the name for a software product’s final test phase—the very earliest test product is known as an “alpha”) is an invite-only affair, being able to get in and use something as highly publicized as Wave was sort of like being on the VIP guest list to the hottest club in town. It doesn’t matter how it looks on the inside, being invited is all that matters.

I finally got my invite into the Wave beta recently (first from my brother-in-law—Thanks, Todd—and a day later the official one direct from Google, coincidentally enough). The juxtaposition of paragraph one and this makes it seem as if I’m saying I’m the cool guy in the club, but really I’m coming in at the very tail end of the early adopter train here. Wave’s been in beta for a month or two already, so I’m not exactly bleeding edge. Besides, the point of the intro was more the hype over the app than how I awesome I am (which is not something science can currently quantify).

Google Wave is, in a nutshell, Google’s re-imagining of e-mail. Instead of keeping e-mail in the basic format we know and love—which is rooted in the days when computers couldn’t do anything but display text—Google is opting for a dynamic and powerful collaboration tool. The problem they’ve run in to with Wave might be that they’ve created a tool too niche to really draw in the masses, and without the masses the application has minimal usefulness.

What are the key features for Wave?

– The Wave Itself – The Wave is so-called presumably because of the way it flows and adapts to conversations and participants. Messages in Wave and displayed in the standard way.

Message

Reply

Message

Reply

But instead of being locked into this rigid structure, you can also at any point scroll back and add comments to earlier items. Things will then be indented thusly.

Message

Reply

—-Another Reply

Message

Reply

Inviting participants also isn’t a matter of CCing them on a message and then forcing them to hunt backwards through a message to see what’s happening. They are essentially just brought in to see the entire Wave show. They can scroll through the entire talk. The idea here is that you want them to see everything—and not just the talk starting from where you messaged them. To this end, our second feature.

– Playback – The Playback is a way to review the conversation in the proper order. Because Wave allows you to backtrack and add comments where you please, it could get tricky just reading things top to bottom. What if a comment at the top requires knowing of some details shared down at the end? Well, Playback is literally watching a text movie of what everyone in the Wave has been saying in the order they said it. It’s a neat feature to get newbies to a Wave up to speed, and probably my favorite aspect of Wave so far.

– Message Widgets – Gmail has already blazed a trail of add-ons and widgets. In fact, if Wave doesn’t support many of the features I’ve come to know and love from Gmail, it will likely be a deal-breaker for me (I mean, come on, Gmail actually has an add-on where, at certain times of day, you can require it to ask you a series of math questions before you send a message. It’s to prevent drunk, late night e-mails. You can’t beat that). What Wave offers, though, is more features embedded into the message itself. The intro messages you get when you sign into Wave for the first time have embedded YouTube videos, for example. I recently got a message from my brother-in-law showing an embedded Google Map of a place we were supposed to meet up, with an option below to register with a Yes/No/Maybe for our “event”. Who needs Evite anymore with slick built-in action like that?

– Live Typing – This is currently something that cannot be turned off, and very desperately needs to be something that users can toggle. Wave is really a hybrid of e-mail and instant message. If you are sending a Wave to a friend who is currently also using Wave, they will be able to see what you type to them in real time. This means that every single typo or slip will be something your Wave buddies will see. The idea from Google is that in conversations on-line, much of the time spent is just waiting to see your buddy’s message. But the ability to view their typing live will allow you to formulate and begin to respond while they’re still writing, making the conversation speed along better. But, along with the notion of giving new invitees to the Wave access to the entire message instead of just what has happened after they were invited in, Wave isn’t about privacy. The notion is that you want everyone involved to see everything at all times. So if you accidentally write “I go tit” or “I’ll look into the details of that user acocunt”, your friends will get to see that before you can correct it. A small thing? Yes—until you’re using Wave to communicate as a professional. And let’s not think about the nightmare scenario of not realizing you’re in the wrong window and copy/pasting your password into a Wave. You don’t have to have sent it to someone for them to be able to see it. Bad news.

The major killer for Wave right now is how limited it is. Right now you can only communicate with other Wave users. It stands alone. E-mails cannot be sent to other services or received from them. This seems like a major feature to be missing even if you consider this is a beta product. I’m a big fan of the Wave format, the playback and the features embedded directly into messages. I’m not a fan of the way Wave forces you to be into full disclosure at all times, mostly due to the embarrassment factors in play. However, if Google can integrate Wave smoothly into the rest of the world, it could be awesome.

Here’s a video explaining Wave with some nice, you know, video to it:

And an amusing screen for maintenance I got tonight:

maint

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Review: The San Diego Chargers

This will prove to be another of those reviews that might not be of much use to you if you’re not from San Diego, or don’t care about football. But, then again, any review is contingent upon your interest, so cease your whining. It’s also a bit poorly timed, since the Chargers just beat the hell out of Kansas City.

The Chargers have proven to be a real roller-coaster ride for San Diego. The team has a great roster, with a pretty broad pool of talent. Short of Phillip Rivers having a bit too much of a mouth on him, there aren’t many issues with volatile personalities. The fans are supportive. Things should be pretty rosy for the Chargers.

Year after year, though, the season ends in disappointment and the team doesn’t live up to its potential. If you want to be strict about it, this is true of all but one team: the Superbowl champ. What I mean to say is that the Chargers are better, year after year, than their record states, and I think this issue has to come down to coaching.

I am not a football guru, by a long shot. I don’t study the game or the teams or memorize stats and player positions. I do, however, understand how the game is played and the strategies involved in winning and game after game I come away frustrated with the way things are being done out on the field for the Chargers.

Much has been discussed regarding LaDanian Tomlinson. The man is already a legendary runningback, but he’s seen a real downturn in the last two seasons. He’s suffered some injuries and appears to have hit the Age 30 wall for runningbacks. He asserts, of course, that’s he’s still got it, but his stats just don’t support this claim. After 2006, all his numbers have been declining. Watching the games gives a better view of the situation, though. On any other team, a star runningback like Tomlinson would be getting frequent carries. On the Chargers, he gets fewer all the time, which of course reinforces the notion that he’s lost the magic.

In 2006, LT averaged nearly 22 carries a game. In 2007, that was down to 19.5. In 2008, down to 18. So far in 2009, he’s on track with about 12.5 carries a game. So, looking at his numbers, a decline in performance seems to match up cleanly with the decline in his usage. His yards-per-carry have dipped, but isn’t it to be expected that opposing teams will be gunning to lock down the LT run? And then of course is the Charger’s offensive line, which has been both plagued by injuries this season and woefully underperforming.

LT is never allowed to reach a rhythm in-game because Norv Turner can’t seem to find a tactic and stick to it. The team is coached in such a fashion that it seems his intent is to constantly rotate the weapons used on the field. Great for variety, bad for momentum. LT will get a play, maybe two, start to get warmed up and then not see action for another couple of drives. Same for Sproles. The only consistent go-to player for the team is Antonio Gates, for good reason. [As an update, in the last game LT was given 23 carries, more than 33% of this season’s total carries in a single game – so perhaps my complaints here will be no longer valid.]

I’d like to see the team show some focus on each of its drives. Concentrate on giving a player time to find their groove and get a feel for the defense. And consider rocking some no-huddle, 2-minute-drill style play in the middle of the game. Rivers is an excellent fast release QB. The Chargers are superb in the 2-minute-drill and march up a field with surprising speed and accuracy. Why not break this out to shake up the rhythm on the field? Keep a defense guessing. It’s a morale breaker for opponents and boost for your squad.

Which brings me to my last point. Norv needs to start showing some emotion on the field. He doesn’t need to be apoplectic with rage, but I need to see him look something other than bemused when something bad happens on the field. It’s not comforting to a fan, I doubt it says anything good to a player. The team just hasn’t seemed fired up enough this season—and neither has its coach.

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Review: Where the Wild Things Are and POV

Have I already talked about point of view in films? Maybe… but here we are again.

Where the Wild Things Are (WWTA) is a film based on the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak of the same name. The book has only 10 sentences of text total, so you know that the film is going to be a pretty different experience. Typically, this is the kind of scenario that I would say is practically guaranteed to reek of Hollywood in all the worst ways. WWTA dodges that bullet. The team behind the movie is Spike Jonze (writer/director) and Dave Eggers (writer). If you’re at all into edgy, indie, heartfelt work then this should be a very exciting combination for you, and they hit it out of the park with WWTA.

The plot of the original book features Max, a young boy in his wolf outfit rampaging around the house and getting in trouble. He is sent to bed without supper and in his room pretends he travels to an island populated by the Wild Things, who he conquers. After having imaginary adventures for a bit, he misses home and returns to the real world to discover dinner is still waiting for him. On the surface of the read, Max is a bit of a little butthead. It takes a generous reading to infers that Max regrets his behavior and is worthy of being forgiven by his mother.

The film addresses this ambiguity handily—and here be the spoilers.

In the film, Max is a young boy, as in the book. However, his angst is much more clearly expressed. We see that he’s lost touch with his mother and sister who have grown up and moved on a bit in life, leaving him feeling alone. He acts out to garner attention, is punished, and then runs off and enters into his dream realm. Once on the island, he meets the Wild Things, each of which have a distinct and somewhat difficult personality. Max becomes their king, tries to meet everyone’s wishes and realizes pretty quickly that it is not easy to just make everything better just by wanting it to be so. After a time, Max decides he must return home and is reunited with his mother and gets his hot meal and loving embrace. The film succeeds much more effectively than the book in communicating that Max has learned the impact of how he is reacting to his family and how difficult it must be for them to deal with him. When Max is back with his mother and enjoying his meal, there’s a very real sense that he has changed and his experience was a revelation for him.

It’s important to note, though, that the film doesn’t actually state any of this. No one asks Max if he’s learned his lesson. He never stands up and proclaims he’s changed. In fact, nothing really of substance about Max and his life is ever actually stated in the film. Everything we need to know is communicated through the point of view for the film. There’s a very distinct and narrow point of view: Max’s. We see things only as they impact him; there’s no aftermath or reactions to Max’s initial outburst. Our focus is his frustration and alienation. When he travels to the island of the Wild Things, our understanding of them and their relationships is defined only by Max. The entire content of the action with the Wild Things focuses around their emotional needs and interactions and there are absolutely no clear resolutions presented or reached. How could there be? Max is a child and we experience along with him his child’s frustration at the way of things. Why can’t his new friends get along? Why don’t his plans and reactions fix things for them? Why are things always so difficult? He doesn’t have the answers or words to fix things, but it’s apparent that what he sees in the Wild Things are the more difficult parts of himself.

A film that takes a clearer view of this storyline and looks from the outside in simply wouldn’t work. There would be overt explanations and too self-aware realizations and stiff movie moments. Being told how life can be for a child isn’t nearly as effective as being made to feel the way a child might.

To point to an example about as far across the spectrum as could be, think of Memento. Memento is a film that, without its incredibly focused point of view simply would not work. We need to experience Leonard’s confusion and live in his head for the narrative to work (to clarify: Leonard has no short term memory, and the film plays essentially in reverse. We start at the end of his journey and work back to the beginning to reveal what Leonard cannot himself recall. If we know anything outside of what he knows, the illusion is shattered).

Think about what your story is saying. Is it telling a story, showing some action, dealing with an idea or is it trying to communicate an emotion and state of being? If you want to really communicate a character’s life, make sure the film tells their story very specifically. Write things as only they would understand them. Only place the reader/viewer in scenes that the character would be in. Keep your focus tighter for a better story.

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Review: Glee and the Peril of Annoying Villains

Glee is a show I was very excited about. The past tense there is more ominous than it needs to be, but it does set a suitable tone for this review: enthusiasm and then slowly creeping suspicion.

Glee is a show that earned itself a rightfully massive amount of prep-premiere hype when the show’s pilot aired earlier this year. The pilot was a knockout, and the sneak preview I was able to see of the show’s premiere episode was as well. The show is essentially Election as an hour-long comedy series. And a musical. The show follows the lives of the members of the Glee Club at William McKinley High in Ohio (fictional, by the by, as that sentence made it sound awfully MTV True Life-ish). Because the show focuses on a music and performance club, they’re able to work in their musical numbers and have them be big choreographed productions without having them be the bizarre reality-breaking episodes that cause some people to shy away from musicals in general.

As I said, the pilot and premiere were just superb. Great musical numbers, sharp dialog, edgy jokes, likable cast, Jane Lynch. There was very little not to like. After the season started, the shows were not quite as luminous as the first two peeks we had been given, but were still fresh and lively and fun. However, as the show advances, I’m seeing a few chinks in the armor.

And lo, here be the spoilers, mild though they may be.

One of the good things about Election is that no matter how abhorrent you may find the characters to be, one way or another, they’ll be gone from your life in about two hours. Not so with a series. One of Glee’s strongest points are its characters (many of which are the typical larger-than-life versions of standard cliches, but all of which have just a little something extra to make them a bit more surprising). They’re all bold and big, as befits both a musical and a comedy. But since the show isn’t a drama, the villains/antagonists/least-likable-characters aren’t so much evil as they are annoying—and they don’t go away.

Jane Lynch as hardcore cheerleader coach and smalltown celeb Sue Sylvester is the show’s chief villain. But Lynch herself is hilarious and she’s a villain so to the extreme it’s clear you’re not meant to take her seriously. She’s a pure “mustache twirly” to use a phrase the mighty Oliver Grigsby taught me: she’s a modern version of a classic silent movie sort of villain who is just too broad and over the top to really be believed.

Jessalyn Gilsig, who I don’t want to dislike, plays Terri Schuester, wife of the show’s male lead. And we hates her. Part is that someone decided she needs to speak in this high-pitched, breathy, condescending and airheaded voice. She’s the true villain for the show’s first season (I’m not so sure she’ll be around for the second). She’s both too-stupid-to-function in a Drop Dead Gorgeous fashion and highly manipulative. It’s a great combo for villainy, less so for long-term watchability. Not helping this is the concept of her “plot” for this season. She has found out, after much hooplah, that her pregnancy is, in fact, a figment of her imagination. She’s triggered a hysterical pregnancy, which is a condition that causes her to manifest the signs of pregnancy without actually being pregnant. Now she’s trying to keep up the charade of her pregnancy, and she tends to cover her lies by being more aggressive and crafty. To top things off, she’s decided her fix for the dilemma is to adopt the baby of a pregnant girl at the high school—who has gotten pregnant about four months after her own pregnancy is supposed to have started. Really?

Many of the show’s sub-plots are interesting. The show’s main romances are compelling enough to keep me hoping. Feuds are entertaining and high school drama is a never-ending font of content. But to then have the key dilemma of the first season hinge on an idea that will in no possible way be something that satisfies me as a viewer, orchestrated by a villain I find irritating, is an almost fatal flaw. How will she explain that the baby she intends to produce will be 4-5 months overdue? Or if the girl she takes the baby from delivers a premature baby, how to explain that her baby was supposed to be take to full term? How will you hide the actual birth from the husband? Hospital bills? Birth records? Is the male lead not supposed to notice that one of his students is magically no longer pregnant, doesn’t seem to have a baby on her person, and the next day he has a happy newborn? The longer the plot goes on, the more dissatisfied I am with it.

Don’t discount your villains, even in something as light as a musical comedy. Villains will drive your show. They provide the conflict that makes your story interesting. Having a character be irritating isn’t enough to make them viable, but it feels like this is the choice the Glee staff have made. Rather than risk having Terri Schuester’s character be a little more realistic and therefore perhaps a little more serious, she’s been made into a totally out there villain. She can’t be identified with or liked on any possible level, and we’re stuck with her hour after hour.

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Review: District B13 and Delivering on Promise

District B13 is not a movie I expected to be good. Not by a longshot. What I expected was a B-grade film encapsulated in ridiculous martial arts and parkour action. This is not what I got.

Parkour, also know as free running, is a recent vogue pseudo-sport. Essentially it involves moving rapidly through urban landscapes and performing acrobatics to get from one place to another without stopping. It’s stunt-running, basically. Or, better still, it’s what you know Jackie Chan to have been doing for decades now. A clip from the film itself gives you a good idea here. This is another compilation of parkour stunts. Silly? Maybe. But you can see how it could make for some pretty slick film stunts.

District B13 (Banlieue 13 in the original French) is a film written by Luc Besson of The Fifth Element and The Transporter fame. Say what you will of the sequels (and you you should say they are awful), the original Transporter kicks a fairly major amount of ass and was the first film that sold Jason Statham as a hardcore action guy in my mind. Accordingly, I was hopeful that District B13 would have a similar sort of action-packed flavor.

Not so.

For a film whose only selling point was the parkour-action bent, District B13 is remarkably anemic on action. It’s about 80 minutes long, and there’s maybe 15 or 20 minutes of action in the whole affair. That might seem like a solid percentage (almost 25%), but it’s not as if the space in between the action sequences is pulse-pounding. The action sequences stand alone, and if excised the film would still track start to finish as a complete story. What you end up getting is action and then a hard drop-off in adrenaline into a lot of talking heads and preachy, yet non-specific dialog about how government treats its people from time to time. Instead of steadily rising tension, the film is filled with peaks and troughs and the net effect is that it barely feels like an action film by the time it ends. You get the impression that’s exactly what Besson wants, and the action is really the vehicle to deliver his message into the hearts and minds of the viewers, but the film is entirely B-Movie fodder outside of the action. Watching the American dub doesn’t help, but I know schlocky dialog and delivery in any language.

District B13 didn’t really need to do much to win me over. It just needed to deliver on its promise. I didn’t want or expect it to be good, I expected to see a dude run on walls and jump between buildings and kick people in the head. I just didn’t get much of that, and so I felt cheated.

Now, Onk Bak, that’s a movie that delivers. It’s probably a C-grade film in all regards except for the action, which is just astounding. Tony Jaa is superhuman and his stunts are amazing and his martial arts are brutally impressive. It’s a movie to gather your friends and cheer around because it’s just non-stop. Fight scene to chase scene to fight scene—anything in between is simply prelude to another action sequence. It’s a film that knows what it is.

So, when you’re writing something, realize what it is, and deliver on that. If you’re writing a comedy, it better be funny. There should be regular, constant jokes. If you want a sports story, well… there should be a lot of action on the field. This might sound like the most obvious advice in the world, but many writers lose their way in the process. Inspiration may change the direction partway through the project, but if the entire thing isn’t course-corrected, you’ll end up with a disjointed and unsatisfying affair.

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Review: Chuck vs. The Tease

Mild spoilers throughout here. Be warned.


Chuck (NBC, Mondays, 8PM) started out two seasons ago as one of my absolute favorite new shows. This was largely due to the show’s charming premise and lovable cast. Chuck Bartowski is a former Stanford student who, after being falsely accused of cheating, is expelled from the school. So, he returns home to live with his sister and her fiance and goes to work at the local Buy More (a thinly disguised Best Buy analog) as part of their computer tech Nerd Herd (again, the Geek Squad). Things seem to be going normally when his college roommate bursts back into his life… as a superspy on the run. He entrusts his old friend Chuck with the government technology he is trying to protect by anonymously sending his old friend an e-mail that, when opened, begins a visual download into Chuck’s brain of the Intersect computer, the United States government’s most powerful new intelligence tool. The Intersect has the ability to pull disparate information from all other available computers and piece items that might otherwise seem innocuous into groundbreaking intelligence findings. This means that Chuck is now a walking database of spy knowledge… and the only existing copy of the Intersect. Quickly, CIA handlers are assigned to his protection and Chuck finds himself trying to juggle his real life with this spy alter ego.

Zachary Levi as Chuck is 100% likable in this role. He’s Jim from The Office, but he works in a different office and he’s a spy. How can you not love him? Adam Baldwin’s Agent Casey plays the grizzled, patriotic, spy-for-life to the hilt—he’s basically Jayne from Firefly again, but instead of being a merc for hire, he’s a loyal government agent. Yvonne Strahovski plays Sarah, Chuck’s off and on love interest and the badass femme fatale to Baldwin’s meathead muscle.

In Chuck’s real life, Joshua Gomez as best friend Morgan is a perfect foil for Chuck. As Chuck is the bumbling heart and soul of his team of spies, Morgan is the bumbling heart and soul of the Buy More and Chuck’s chief anchor to the responsibilities of his life at home. Vik Sahay and Scott Krinsky (Jeff and Lester) are Chuck’s most notable co-workers outside of Morgan and their antics tend to be the highlight of many an episode.

Okay, a lengthy intro. Suffice it to say, the show has a fun and light concept, and it’s the cast that really sell the whole package. For a period, though, it was only the cast that was keeping me tuning in.

It was only 1.5 seasons in, and the show had already hit a rut. A prime focus in the first season was that Chuck had very real feelings for Sarah (whose cover was that she was, in fact, Chuck’s girlfriend), who had to deny her feelings for Chuck for the sake of her mission. This push and pull went back and forth and Chuck would relent and want to find a real girlfriend, and then would come back and want Sarah again—and for her part, Sarah would be devoted to the mission, and then want to confess her feelings, and then the mission, and then the feelings—both always in opposition of one another, so the two never connect. It’s a big tease for the audience. We know the game.

But this is the problem in and of itself. An audience will only play along for so long before they get frustrated. How many scenes do we need to watch where Chuck and Sarah almost kiss and get interrupted before that joke gets old? How many times can they each decide they want to make their feelings official just as the other decides now is not the best time for that? Apparently the answer is 1.5 seasons for me, because it was at this point that I decided I’d had quite enough of that tease and then I started to pay attention to the rest of the show, and that’s when the trouble really started.

Because the focus of the show is Chuck and Chuck is a regular guy, the show can’t really expand his world without making everyone in some way connected to the driving spy action of the show. So… every person Chuck has ever known in the past is a spy basically. His old roommate. His old girlfriend. His estranged father. His estranged father’s old roommate. It seems increasingly ridiculous the more you think about it, and the show is really designed to make you not think about that too hard as much as possible.

There’s also all the talk about making sure Chuck is not compromised and that his personal life be kept isolated from his spy life. And then there are episodes where someone decides that the ONLY way to get a keycard to a restricted area of a hospital (full of doctors and surgeons and techs and, by the way, not a frikkin’ spy-proof fortress) is to drug and steal it from Chuck’s soon-to-be brother-in-law. Really? I know you need to blend the two world’s somehow to heighten Chuck’s personal drama, but try and make things more plausible.

The show had lost me with a tease carried on too long. I was frustrated by the interaction of the two main characters, as they felt like they were growing increasingly distant in a fairly transparent plot to stretch out content for future episodes. This frustration with the main characters got me focusing very hard on the spy plots on the show, which are intended to be taken as light and fluffy vehicles for interaction for the main characters. But when that falls apart, the show’s conceits seem more and more ridiculous.

And then, like magic, the show broke the streak. The penultimate episode of season 2 I found myself enjoying immensely. Should I be surprised that this is the same episode that Chuck and Sarah finally express their feelings for one another mutually? The episode basically picked up the show and shook it like an Etch-A-Sketch. Chuck’s brother-in-law-to-be learns he’s a spy (and this kind of a simple plot adjustment could make for EPISODES of fun), he is purged of the Intersect (his pretty much constant wish on the show), and he gets the girl. Even if for no other reason than to learn how the show will get itself back on track, I am now totally hooked once again, and I can enjoy my main characters the way I like them: flirty, mismatched, always-in-distress spies.

So, my very short point in a very long review is to be careful of the tease. Don’t drag it out longer than is reasonable. The minute you start to question “Is this getting old?”, it’s probably been old for a week or two already and you need to course correct. Your trick shouldn’t be withholding from the audience what they want. The trick should be coming up with obstacles that it seems you are actively trying to overcome so that you can give them what they want. The audience is your friend, and you need to at least make it seem as if you’re on their side.

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Review: Muse

Muse is really the only band you need. If you’re not familiar with the band, I suggest that you acquaint yourself. I am suggesting you need no other band not just because Muse are clearly the kings of all rock, but also because you’ll be hard pressed to find a band that can deliver driving rock anthems, haunting lullabies, symphonic compositions and span the breadth of stylings that Muse can. I’d never been able to decide upon a favorite band until I heard Muse, and from that moment on, the decision was sealed.

I think what draws me most to Muse is the sensation that they are driven by the music. They have the feel of legends like Led Zeppelin, artists that were about expanding and blending genres and were fearless about the content they explored in their songs. In the most flattering phrasing, they are rock gods. Phrased the way I see it, they are giant rock nerds. Before you protest, remember that Led Zeppelin penned several songs based on Lord of the Rings. Rock Geeks. Muse, for their share, actually created a sci-fi space western in song with Knights of Cydonia.

Their inspirations are vast. Some highlights from their lastest album The Resistance: The band claims that Resistance (not the album itself, but the second track on it) is based on the romance between Winston and Julia in Orwell’s 1984. United States of Eurasia is a song they claim comes from an imaginary musical epic with the same name. The last three tracks on the album comprise Exogenesis: Symphony, another sci-fi epic tale in song about astronauts leaving Earth to attempt to populate other planets that the band says is influenced by Rachmaninov, Chopin and Pink Floyd. And then, smack dab in the middle of the album is Guiding Light which is better cheesy 80s arena slow-jam rock than ever actually came out of the era. How can you not love the amalgamation?

Matt Bellamy, the band’s lead singer and frontman, is a large part of their appeal. You will probably think that he sounds an awful lot like Thom Yorke from Radiohead, and he does. He’s able to get that same sort of plaintive wail and the two band’s share a similar kind of expressive, sci-fi, anti-establishment feel. However, where Radiohead and Yorke tend to feel esoteric and, dare I say, pretentious, Muse is a more accessible band. They’re not as experimental, but the experience is as varied.

Okay, enough doting. I don’t really have a bucket list, I have  “See Muse live before you die” list. This is the song I’ve decided I most want them to do during their set:

And here’s another that shows off a bit of their range, wait for the little piano sonata in the middle:

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Review: Spider-Woman, Agent of S.W.O.R.D.

This is not a review of a comic, at least not in the traditional sense. Spider-Woman, Agent of S.W.OR.D. —which I assure you is something I have no intention of typing over and over again, so we’ll call it SWAS—is a motion comic. What does that mean? Learning that was the primary reason I purchased the first two episodes of this series (available for $1.99 apiece on iTunes). A motion comic is a hybrid between cartoon and comic. The art is for the most part static, but the “camera” pans around to focus on different areas of the art. Typically the foreground and background will be different layers and there will be background motion during otherwise still scenes. There are moments of brief animation, such as a car chase, but otherwise the action is largely talking heads and shifting frames with voiceover acting.

The plot of SWAS follows the life of Jessica Drew after the Skrull invasion during the Secret Invasion story arc. Without giving too much away, Jessica’s Skrull replacement was a pretty major figure in Secret Invasion and her return to Earth and her former life is a trying experience for Jessica. We pick up the action as she is approached by S.W.O.R.D., a shadowy government agency that is seeking to hunt down and destroy the remaining Skrull on Earth.

I was primed to enjoy this, which might be part of why what I saw let me down so much. The art for the motion comics is done by Alex Maleev, who has a great moody and painterly style that looks fantastic on a page, but I feel is ill-suited to a motion comic where the progression of the pages is independent of the reader’s will. I can’t stop and look at the art and admire it, I just have to watch it stream along. It also necessitates a gritty and dark feel for the motion comic, one that almost becomes oppressive only after two episodes and 20 minutes of comic.

Part of the weight of the motion comic comes from the way the content is being delivered. The first episode has roughly 2 minutes and 45 seconds of a 9 and a half minute long motion comic consist of two women sitting on a bus and talking. It’s necessary exposition, but perhaps there was a better way to tackle the first ever motion comic than by having a full third of it consist of alternating shots of two people talking to one another on a bus. The second issue/episode at least has the good sense to include a chase scene.

The voice acting in the comic is decent, but feels a little stilted, which is likely just a side effect of the character art not having lips moving along with the audio at all. However, the second episode commits a cardinal sin for this media format, in that it features two female characters talking to one another and they have very similar voices. I very quickly lost track of who was talking and ended up pretty confused as to what was being discussed, not having read all of Secret Invasion and being able to use that to contextualize things.

I also understand why Spider-Woman was chosen for the comic, as she featured heavily in Secret Invasion, and isn’t a major comics draw like some of the other Marvel characters, so her arc can be followed through in this new format without upsetting too huge a portion of the fan base. But she’s not a terribly well known or dynamic character (as far as my exposure to her is concerned). I would much rather have seen a mini-arc for a more A-List comic like Spider-Man or Wolverine or Hulk (and perhaps Mr. Loeb would have some critical insights for how to bridge the gap between comics and motion more effectively, having been a TV heavyweight for some time now).

I’m likely going to download and watch the third episode, but I have a hunch that will be the last one. I’m not terribly engaged by the heroine, and her story so far is as dreary as her outlook. The voice acting is clearly professional, but has a bit of an emotionless tone to it. I’m also not enough of a fan of the franchise being presented for me to feel any real loyalty to see it through to the end. It’s probably worth snagging an episode to see what it’s like, if you’re a comics buff, but it’s not the kind of product that will win over any new followers.

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Wednesday Review: The Hangover and Movies in Reverse

The Hangover is funny. It’s pretty raunchy (and there is a pretty healthy dose of male nudity in the film, a healthy dose of female nudity in the credits), there is a lot of swearing, but there is also a pretty surprisingly strong storyline to the film.

I don’t think I’m going to be giving anything critical away regarding this one, but consider this your spoiler warning.

The film begins fairly close to the film’s end, with Bradley Cooper’s Phil Wenneck calling his best friend’s fiance to tell her that they will not be making their way back from Las Vegas for her wedding that afternoon. They have lost the groom in the course of a bachelor’s weekend and don’t think they’ll be finding him anytime soon. Immediately after, the film jumps back in time to show the setup for the wedding and the bachelor party weekend. We’re introduced to the characters and walked slowly into their weekend. Thanks to Zack Galifianakis’ truly odd Alan Garner, the evening begins to get progressively weirder and edgier… and then stops. The camera cuts and we get to see none of their adventures. It’s bummer for a moment… but just for a moment.

The next thing you see are Phil, Alan and Stu Price (the ever-increasingly more brilliant Ed Helms) waking up in the disaster zone that their incredibly lavish suite has become. The rest of the film chronicles the three men as they attempt to unravel just what the hell happened to them the night before which they, for various reasons, cannot  recall in the slightest.

The Hangover really worked for me. My wife liked it as well, but not quite as enthusiastically as I did. I think it’s the sort of film that really benefits from a crowded theater. The energy of the crowd would no doubt be really infectious. Similarly, rent this and watch with a crowd of buddies for maximum effect. But I liked it for more than the comedy, I liked it because it’s a movie in reverse.

The way the story in The Hangover is told is really conducive to ensuring a tightly structured and quick moving screenplay. Before the screenwriters could figure out how the three men unravel their adventures the night before, they had to figure out what those adventures were, and then going backwards figure out how the men sleuth out the solution and what new adventures they would get into along the way. There are essentially two stories here and both of them need to be fully realized for the film to work.

In the entirely opposite end of the film spectrum, we have Memento, which explores the same idea. Memento is a noir thriller that deals with a man who has no short term memory. He forgets what he was doing every few moments. This leads to some truly excellent moments such as forgetting, in the middle of a chase, if the main character is running after or away from another man. But in order for the film to make sense going “backwards”, the film had to be written so that it made just as much sense in reverse as well. Try watching another film in reverse… the cause and effect are out of wack. The linear nature of most scripts cannot support this. Memento shatters that convention and in the process presents us with an ironclad screenplay. The story had to be structured so carefully that the script is just flawless.

I’m not making the statement that The Hangover is the same caliber of film that Memento is, but the lesson that can be learned by both is the same. A story should have many angles. There should be action that is both seen and unseen. An excellent way to explore this concept is to mess with the time of your film. If you tried to tell it in reverse, could you? Could you start it near the end, jump to the start, and still make sense? Check out Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill or Reservoir Dogs to see this in action as well. Tarantino loves to play with the timeline in his films. By taking moments out of their normal flow and dropping them around, you’re forced to look hard at what makes sense and what stands alone in your screenplay. Your scenes will begin to support themselves and be strong independent of the rest of your script.

So start thinking of your screenplay from more than one angle. Think about what happens in between the scenes and before them. Think about how you can jumble your timeline, and see if you’ve got the chops to make it all work afterwards. And see The Hangover, because it was pretty awesome.

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Vacation Day: Mini-Reviews – Burger Joints

This is a post that’s really for the San Diego natives out there. I have a bunch of other mini-review posts planned out into the future which will be less location-centric, but this is not one of them.

These are my favorite burger joints in San Diego. Delicious, all of them. I’m sure I’m forgetting at least one place…

Tioli’s Crazy Burger – Any place where you can get a venison burger that is topped with a poached red wine pear, mushrooms, bacon, a dab of real whipped cream and plum jelly is going to be alright with me. Crazy Burger manages to combine solid burgers with fancy toppings and avoid being pretentious at the same time. It’s about as hole-in-the-wall burger place as you can get, and then you see a menu with ostrich, bison, venison, alligator, kangaroo (!) and good old fashioned beef burgers with some of the tastiest topping combos I’ve ever seen. I mean, come on. The Nacho Burger basically has a giant tater tot patty on it. Everyone knows the tots cannot be stopped.

Hodad’s – For a thorough review, check out my man Eric’s blog post on the restaurant. My quick review is just going to be that Hodad’s is another joint that just feels like the kind of place you go to hang out at. You feel like you could become a regular and be buddies with the staff. It is a problem that it’s so popular and so small all at once, but if you just want a burger that massive and messy and accompanied by a pretty killer shake, Hodad’s is the place. The bacon on the bacon burgers is pretty unique, too. They create some sort of crazy weave of bacon. I don’t know. You just need to try it.

Hash House A-Go-Go – Hash House is legendary. They dish out portions at a price point that is simply astounding to me. $15 at Hash House will get you, if you are not a big eater, a meal so large your leftovers will span two more meals. You think I’m exaggerating, but the benedict I got there the over day came out on a plate with about an 18′ diameter. The plate was full… and the food was stacked about six inches up in the center. Look at the scale onthese plates against the waiter. Hash House only has a couple burgers, but they make up for a small selection in sheer scope. The burgers are stuffed burgers… which in this case means you get a couple of patties with basically a small meal in between them. Like, a full serving of mashed potatoes.

Gordon Biersch Brewery – Biersch is the most standard on this list, I think. It’s a chain, but it’s still pretty delicious. Biersch burgers are just good, solid, juicy burgers. Their Märzen BBQ sauce is pretty excellent. And as Biersch is a brewery, you will be able to get some pretty solid beers to accompany your giant burger. The Märzen beer is good, but if you can make it out in the winter for their Winterbock, you are really in for a treat.

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