Wednesday, June 28, 2006

"Ninjas, Superman, all that stuff."

In the same vein as Strong Bad Emails, here's "Ask a Ninja":



It's also a nice demonstration of how expressive you can be with only half a face. Phooey on those who deride masked superhero, space alien, or other makeup-heavy performances-- they're totally effective if the actor knows what he's doing.

Conversely, there are times when less is more. I saw Superman Returns last night, and it's good. Very good. I'll have to see it again, quite possibly in IMAX 3-D, before deciding whether to upgrade it to great.

But it is completely and aggressively old school. This is a patient, thoughtful epic, not designed for the short-attention-span theatre-jumper or the adrenaline junkie. There is action, and it is breathtaking, but the point-- the purpose-- of this film is not spectacle. It was a much more personal story than I expected, which threw me for a loop initially, but it all works.

Ignore the critics. This movie is not for them. For example, Roger Ebert complains in his review that Superman Returns isn't enough fun, calling it "glum" and "lackluster." Before I say anything else, let me remind you that this is the man who gave "thumbs up" to both Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

I'm just saying.

Anyway, Ebert goes so far as to say:
Now about Lois' kid... he just stares with big, solemn eyes, like one of those self-sufficient little brats you can't get to talk. It would have been fun to [make him] a bright, sassy child, like one of the Spy Kids, and make him a part of the plot.

...totally missing the point of that character, and perhaps the point of the whole movie.

(Aside: I've noticed that Ebert has become very inconsistent in his reviews, sometimes dinging movies not on their actual merits, but because he wanted to see a different story built on the same premise, but at other times giving movies a pass because he thinks the intended audience would find them entertaining.)

Director Bryan Singer had a tough job. He had to answer the question: what is special about a Superman movie? With the character appearing in so many other fictions already-- especially comic books and television-- what story can you tell on the big screen that couldn't be as effective in any other medium?

His answer-- a good one, by the way-- was to use the minimal continuity of the Superman movies to his advantage. Unlike the comics, there isn't a sprawling, soap-opera-like history to keep track of. There aren't a hundred other superheroes and villians running around that he should interact with. It's all about getting back to basics, and Singer gets it right.

I'm now hoping for a Superman/Batman movie. Sure, it would cost half a billion dollars to make, but I guarantee it would earn back every penny. Go ahead, Warner Brothers, prove me wrong!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Re-Prioritizing

Question: What do Jane Espenson and I have in common?

Answer: We both forgot about the application deadline for the Disney Writing Fellowship.

Okay, so I didn't actually forget. My write-a-screenplay-over-Memorial-Day-weekend plan didn't quite work out, due in part to other fun things that came up during those three days, but due in larger part to my realization-- while breaking down my story that Saturday-- that I didn't quite have enough material for a 90-page script, and not all the pieces fit together very well. Basically, I need to do some more work on it, and I don't have time right now.

We're running a Game on September 9th, and between now and then, The Game takes precedence over everything else. It's like Leo McGarry said in "Five Votes Down":
This is the most important thing I'll ever do, Jenny. I have to do it well... It is more important than my marriage right now. These few years, while I'm doing this, yes, it's more important than my marriage.
Damn, I miss Aaron Sorkin. I'm really, really looking forward to his new show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. And I don't care if 30 Rock is supposed to be more "real" because of SNL alum Tina Fey's involvement. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I don't want my fiction to be real. That's what nonfiction is for. That's what the actual real world (not MTV's Real World) is for.

Anyway, back to The Game. Because we got a significantly bigger Game Control this time than for any of our previous events, we thought we'd have an easier time putting it all together. Not so. For one thing, we're trying a lot of new things that require more logistical coordination, and DeeAnn usually handles all that, but she's been much busier with work this year. And it turns out that it's not the number of people you have on GC that counts, it's how independently motivated those people are. Finally, having more people also increases the difficulty of coordinating effort when different moving parts need to fit together, figuratively speaking.

Have I mentioned that I hate wikis? The problem is, every other "groupware" option is worse. Sigh.

But we're going to get it done. (Ready for the flood of clichés?) Failure is not an option! If we don't have The Game we want, we're going to go with The Game we have! Come hell or high water! FOR SCOTLAND!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

An infinite number of monkeys?

I've read this twice-- no, three times now-- and I keep thinking it's got to be a joke. From Microsoft's job listings for MSN Search:

Hand crafted results
When all else fails, and the ranking algorithms do not pass the confidence threshold, we fall back to delivering handcrafted results. Working on a team of approximately 132 other handcrafters in 26 worldwide markets, you will receive a user query, use all the available search engines to quickly scour the web for results, pick the top 10 results for this query, and send it on to the user. Successful handcrafters can typically find top 10 results for a real-time user’s query in less than 3.8 seconds. This is an opportunity to truly connect with customers, because the queries that get routed to you are precisely the ones that the engine cannot answer well. We will have adequate staffing to allow generous coffee and bathroom breaks.
If you are an expert at using at least 3 different search engines, well versed with American English/colloquial usage, and can type at > 149 words/minute as measured by the Simia-Lico* method – come join us and delight users real-time!


No, really. See for yourself: http://search.msn.com/s/jobs/openings/search%20jobs.htm

And that's not a hidden link. Here's the trail:

Maybe someone forgot to take down an April Fool's prank? Or did some unusually subtle hackers get into the system? This can't be a serious job listing, can it?

Then again, this is the company that thought Bob was a good idea.



* From the Latin for "monkey-value?" -ed.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Movie Reviews: X3, Over the Hedge, Cars

It's been a while since I blathered on about movies. Here's a braindump:

Possibly the best thing about X-Men: The Last Stand was that D and I went with Loren and Suzie, good friends whom we hadn't seen in a while. Loren called us, out of the blue, on the Saturday before Memorial Day and asked if we wanted to go (he knows of my affinity for the comical books). We'd been planning to see it on Monday, but this was a much better offer.

The movie itself wasn't quite up to snuff. I can understand how it pleased those who were just looking for a big, loud spectacle, or drooling Marvel fanboys who get excited at the mere mention of the name of their favorite character, but it just wasn't enough for me. Too many ideas, not enough done with any of them.

And is it just me, or were the digitally de-aged Xavier and Magneto in the opening scene deeply creepy to look at? It looked like an intern had gone crazy with the "smudge" tool in Photoshop. Boy ain't right.

The other good thing was that we saw a better movie on Monday instead: Over the Hedge, very loosely based on the comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis. I wasn't sure what to expect going into it, but was pleasantly surprised by the screenplay-- the story, albeit predictable, has some nice satirical elements, and every character gets his or her moment.

I'd also wager that most of the computer animators were huge action movie fans. The third-act finale is action-packed and completely satisfying, more so because it pays off a number of gags established earlier in the film that seem to be throwaway at the time. It definitely shows when filmmakers care about their story and their characters.

But sometimes, even with a good story, things just don't click for other reasons. We saw Cars this past weekend, and our friend Carol was quite distressed at the meager Saturday night crowd. For me, it was surprising how poorly the movie connected with me-- I wouldn't say it was a flop, but it's probably Pixar's weakest product so far. And more than any of their previous films, this one is clearly a product.

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm is because I'm not a typical American consumer: I don't depend on my choice of automobile for some kind of personal identity or affirmation, and I don't feel that I need to go into debt for a new vehicle every few years. The movie seems to take that kind of emotional bond as a given-- of course you'll love a talking car!-- but the fact that the filmmakers didn't even try to earn that emotion put me off for most of the film.

Also, the premise is the polar opposite of every other Pixar movie to date. They've always done movies set in the real world, with a single make-believe premise: toys that have their own lives when people aren't playing with them, real monsters that scare children at night, etc. But Cars turns that structure on its head, by positing a world where there are no people, only sentient vehicles (V'ger's homeworld?), and slapping real-world elements on top of that-- a familiar skin on an alien body. It didn't work for me, because why would a world with no humans have vehicles and accessories that are clearly designed for human use?

Yes, maybe I am a nitpicker. But there were just too many places where a joke was stretched too thin, where they were clearly fishing for a laugh, where there was no justification in the world of the movie for certain things. If you keep breaking the fourth wall, you can't expect to keep me engaged in the story, with my disbelief suspended. (The Shrek movies are also guilty of this, but they usually don't overdo it.) Not to mention that car racing is apparently even more boring than baseball.

All that said, I would still recommend the movie. It's charming in its own right, and even though it doesn't have the soul of Toy Story or The Incredibles, its heart is still in the right place. It just wasn't for me.

But if you go, do stay through the end credits-- my favorite part was the sequence at the drive-in. Hey, if you're going to feature inside jokes, why not go for the whole nine yards?

And I can only hope that next year's Transformers movie (being produced by Disney rival DreamWorks) will make some sly reference to Cars in their marketing. "Sure, your cars can talk, but can they... transform?"

Meanwhile, this is what I'm really looking forward to this summer:

Monday, June 05, 2006

Palms Down

Rant of the day: In the context of The Game, PDAs are nothing but trouble.

I have never played a Game which used PDAs in which there wasn't some sort of technical failure which required Game Control to reset, reboot, or re-install software on the device. In addition to being a roadblock, this also takes us out of the game world-- breaking the fourth wall, if you will-- and reduces our confidence in the omnipotence of GC.

A secondary effect is that it's easier to "back-solve" clues (i.e., reverse engineer the solution message) if you can just keep entering random guesses into the PDA. Team Snout played Paparazzi over the weekend, and on several occasions we were able to guess the solution to a clue after having decoded less than half of the actual message data. But in the grand scheme of things, this isn't a huge issue-- if you've figured out the solving method and started decoding the final message, shaving a few seconds by guessing isn't going to make a huge difference to anyone.

On the bright side, the Paparazzi Game was very well put together overall; especially impressive, given that this was a first-time GC. They didn't attempt a story, but all the clues and most locations were well tied to the theme. Highlights in the latter category included a limo ride to Ruby Skye, dinner at a very familiar Chevys, and a beautiful sunset seen from Treasure Island.

Some of my favorite clues solved to longer, riddle-type messages, for which the answer word or phrase served as input to the PDA. I guess I respected the fact that it was harder to guess the solution if you didn't have the complete question as a prompt-- kind of like a game show contestant buzzing in before the host has finished reading the trivia question, and missing an important detail. ("Who is the President of the United States... married to?")

And here's their grand-finale video clue:



It's funny. I'm not really competitive as a Game player-- I'm in it to have fun. But as GC, I feel much more of a drive to compare favorably with other event-runners. Maybe it's because we have an audience; maybe it's because I have more of an affinity for creation than recreation; maybe I feel it's a better measure of my abilities. Failing to excel during a single weekend can be attributed to any number of incidental factors. Failing to produce a good outcome after six to nine months of planning is, to me, much worse.

Anyone can be a hero in the middle of a disaster. It takes a different set of skills and expertise to build something that will resist catastrophe in the first place.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Heal me, Zombie Jesus!

"Not every joke worth doing is worth driving into the ground. This is one of the hardest lessons I've had to learn."
- Jane Espenson

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You'll Go Blind

Hasbro is advertising a new Super Soaker toy called the "Oozinator," which, in addition to water, expels "globs of gooey bio-ooze." Their words.

If you can't figure out what's wrong with this picture, treasure your innocence.

Jeffrey Rowland politely labels it "insanely inappropriate", but petey doesn't mince words: "Child pornography addicts, it's your birthday."

I watched the video, not knowing what disturbing images lay therein, but I'm warning you to stay away. SAVE YOURSELF!

The horror... the horror...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Chain of Links

From my Google Personalized Home Page (get your own at http://www.google.com/ig)...

To Kung Fu Monkey: Electoral College 2...

To Maps and cartograms of the 2004 US presidential election results...

To Images of the social and economic world...

To Worldmapper.

And the word of the day is "cartogram," which means "a funny-looking map emphasizing statistical rather than geographical data."