Monday, December 31, 2007

The Closing of the Year

Wow, what a year 2007 has been. This year started out full of hope and promise, and then turned into reality. It didn't turn into a bad year, just didn't live up to the potential I had hoped. I would be remiss if I didn't even mention the lofty goals I had intended to be for this year, but I stopped tracking them around June-ish. Part of that was developing a new goal process, and part of that was knowing they were too lofty to be worthwhile. In any case, I didn't finish them for many reasons.

My job for the vast majority of the year was a good job for my skillset, and developed me in a good path for my career, but it was also insanely busy with constant multitasking, and I think it trained me to be mildly ADD. It also wore me out mentally, and made it very difficult to work on anything after work or on weekends. Now that job has ended (ah, the joy of being a contractor), and I'm looking for more.

We moved into the city in August, and also got rid of a car around that time. The move was huge, and it took months to clean the place up for Thanksgiving and our subsequent Christmas party. But now we live in a home, and a lovely home it is. Our office (third bedroom) is full of boxes that we need to take care of, but we have some time to do so; we can take care of one a weekend for the next several months, while still enjoying the home that we have.

Being a one-car family has its challenges, but it's a good transition for being in the city. Both of our jobs were close to public transportation, so Heidi could take the car or take the bus/train, depending on her mood that morning. I really couldn't take the car, as there's no way to cheaply park downtown. Parking in this neighborhood can be a challenge sometimes, but it's better than other places I've lived, and it's a lot better than trying to find space for two cars.

Our marriage hit a pretty rough spot this year, and I didn't write about that (not publicly, anyway), but we came through it and we're much stronger than we were before. I've had one friend say, "Marriage is the most difficult thing but the best thing that you can have." Although I think I would phrase it differently, I agree with it conceptually. In any case, that's a good thing. I've written about how we have grown stronger, and we keep going in that direction (admittedly, we're still kind of newlyweds). That fills me with hope for the future.

I didn't get much of a chance to see movies in the theatre this year, having had a gap between Stardust and National Treasure 2 (yes, I know... my brother wanted to see it). This has led me to be more of a gamer, and I've had a lot of that to keep me occupied. I've written about The Orange Box, which took up a large portion of my time, and I have yet to write about Mass Effect, which took up just as much time.

I got two voiceover gigs this year: one non-union and one union. I can see that being an actor is going to take a lot more work, and I've been doing a lot of work already. Sometimes, it's difficult to not get frustrated, but then I kind of put things in perspective: I'm making an adequate wage (at least I was), I have a good marriage, I have a lovely home, and I get to do what I love on the side (gaming, acting, whatever). Although I'd like to do what I love for a living, I'm pretty cool doing what works for right now.

I only brewed once this year. I'm disappointed with myself for that, but the beer turned out pretty well, and I've had a busy schedule, so I'm not going to kick myself too hard. For my birthday, Heidi got me two, count 'em, two kits. So that will change for next year.

So that be me. That be 2007. Bring on the new year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Heavenly Sword

My father-in-law recenly got a Playstation 3, in order to entice me and his biological son to come and spend time with the folks. Well, it worked.

In any case, it's been a difficult Christmas, and for various and sundry reasons, we haven't been able to see Heidi's parents for a few weeks, which was to end today. We got there early in the morning and, due to some poor planning and miscommunication, ended up sitting alone at their home for a good four hours.

Since I try to take advantage of situations as they arise, I chose to play one of the two games they happened to have: Heavenly Sword.

The game focuses around Nariko, a sort of supernatural sword-weilding Lara Croft. She has been charged with the protection of the Heavenly Sword, a magical sword of tremendous power, but which comes with a curse to take the life force of the one who weilds it. As it happens, King Bohan (played by Andy Serkis) wants the sword for himself and, since he's subjugating the known world anyway, comes to claim it. Nariko figures the best way to protect the sword is to use it to destroy everyone in her general vicinity, and hilarity ensues.

This is, as can be expected, a hack and slash game. And as a hack and slash game, it's really fun. The amount of damage you can dish out to the various enemies nearby is a lot of fun, as is the figuring out of the fighting combos. But as far as gameplay, there are some notable differences; the swordplay is a heck of a lot of fun, but when you get into playing with projectiles is where it gets to be a real kick in the pants.

There are a few times when you get to shoot stuff, many of which are when you're playing as Nariko's kid "sister," Kai. The gameplay in shooting can be pretty straighforward: you point, you shoot. But that's not all that interesting. When you hold down the fire button, you jump to a Sam Raimi follow-the-projectile shot and, using the PS3's sixaxis control (the motion sensitive controller), you can guide the arrow/cannonball/whatever to your target. It makes for a heck of a lot of fun, guiding your ammo to its destination, not by guiding a stick, but by actually moving the controller itself. It's sort of like when you watch a bowler try to psychically guide his bowling ball down the lane, but actually effective. And crazy fun.

Another huge note about this game is that it features digital actors. Convincing digital actors. I've seen this before (I have yet to write about Mass Effect... expect that to come soon), but this game has cutscenes that, with limited exceptions, could come from a movie. The actors are expressive enough to be considered actors, pulling facial expressions so real that you have to step back for a second and think if it's a game or a movie, if it's digital or actual. The characters are incredibly over-the-top, but the acting within those characters is stunningly real, and sometime freakin' hilarious.

This game is exclusively for the PS3, and I can see how it uses the hardware's capability to its fullest. The environments are huge, and there's no real transition between what's right in front of you or what's over that hill. A lot of games will have "filler" in the background to make it easier on the hardware. With a PS3, not so necessary. The visuals are also stunning. Ina lot of games, they make the cutscenes outsie of the game's engine, and they're beautiful, only to go back to the semi-bland game. These cutscenes use the game engine (with maybe a bit of polish) and are freakin' gorgeous!

So yeah, fun game. For the first time in my life, I have gamer's thumb. And I gotta say, I'm glad to have earned it.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

DIY Messiah

OK, first off, I haven't posted in a while. Nothing I wanted to discuss, no time in which to discuss it. But anyway...

Last night we went to the Do It Yourself Messiah at the Lyric Opera. Holy wow. In this, there is an orchestra, conductor and four opera singers. The professionals cover the solos, but the chorus, that's all the audience. And what a kick in the pants it was.

There are four parts to sing: Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. You have a copy of the music (which you can buy there), and you read along, hoping you can read music and know what to sing. Here's the deal, though. I didn't know what to sing (I settled on Bass), and I can't read music. Completely. At first, I had to study the score to even figure out what was going on, but I found it quickly began to make sense. Reading the music felt a little like watching a subtitled movie. At first, you're reading, and not really being able to focus on the action so much, but after a few minutes, you're able to absorb both. Now, to be fair, I had a few years of piano when I was a wee lad, so I knew the basic premise of musical notation, but it has been nearly three decades since that. It helped that I was sitting near some other Bass folks, but I found myself able to adapt to the music before the intermission.

In any case, this was a wonderful experience, one that I can recommend to anyone that has even a passing interest in classical music. The conductor was witty and clever, the music was absolutely wonderful, and the sensation of singing this brilliant piece of music with hundreds of other people was powerful. That, and it was free.

Next year, go. I command thee.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Orange Box vs. Halo 3

So here's my deal. I was in a debate with myself, a veritable spiritual wrestling match, over my next game purchase. Whether or not I was going to get a game was not in question. I had warned Heidi well ahead of time, and had discussed this in depth with her. However, which game would it be? Halo 3 recently came out, and was the reigning champion of game purchases. The Orange Box has three games in it, as well as two expansions for one of the games, and therefore was one of the best deals for a new game in history.

Half a dozen of my friends had Halo 3, and there were literally more than a million more people out there who had the game. I knew that if I got that, there would never be any shortage of online multiplayer partners. I knew that I would have a constant supply of friends with which I could play, as I could easily do a split screen multiplayer, even if I had a friend who didn't have the game. I knew the graphics would be incredible from screenshots I had seen. The reviews of Halo 3 were freakin' stellar. I hadn't played Halo 2, but I had played Halo. I don't remember enjoying Halo's single player all that much, but it would be multiplayer which would be the selling point.

Nobody I knew had The Orange Box, but it was still mouthwatering. One of the games on it is Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2 is widely considered the greatest single-player shooter ever made. Some even call it the greatest game ever made. I played it briefly on my old computer, but it kept crashing my system (like I-have-to-uninstall-the-whole-thing-t0-get-the-system-working-right crashing), so I couldn't get past a certain point. Still, I loved what I had played. The Orange Box also includes the subsequent two episodes of Half-Life 2, which I'd also heard were very good. Team Fortress 2 is another game on it. I have fond memories of playing the original Team Fortress for hours on end, and learning tricks which would serve me for years to come in various other games (as well as a few which would assist me in real life). Portal is the third game on it, and I knew very little about it, except the reviews I had read, which were generally very positive.

So that was my quandry: get the great game that several of my friends have, but which I really didn't know how much I'd enjoy the single player experience, or get the incredible deal that not many other people were getting, but which I knew would be good from previous experience. I knew I was getting one of them, just didn't know which.

Gamerankings.com is sort of the rottentomatoes of games. It aggregates all the reviews of all major review outlets and gives you an average of their opinions. Halo 3 ranked incredibly high, at 94.1% (it's since slipped a fraction of a percent, as it had one review that was only very good). Orange Box was too new to really rank, but it still had about ten reviews. I believe at the time the rating was 95.6% (it's currently 97.5%). That tore it. If the reviews were marginally more positive for the one that I already knew was going to be good, then I'll be antisocial and take the one that nobody else has.

So, I would have blogged about this before, but I was a little preoccupied. And Portal, the one I didn't know anything about, is absolutely wonderful, in addition to being laugh-out-loud funny. I finished it over the weekend, and want to play it again, even though I already know how to solve all the puzzles. Also, I might add, my friend Zach broke down and bought The Orange Box over the weekend.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bioshock

I just finished Bioshock, a relatively new game for the Xbox 360. I guess the best word to describe this game would be "creepy." Here's the story: you are some guy in 1960 whose plane goes down in the ocean, and you happen upon a small island with a lighthouse, in which is a bathysphere which takes you down to the great underwater city of Rapture. Andrew Ryan, a Howard Hughes/Charles Foster Kane type of individual thought it would be neat to create a magnificent city of intellectuals. A city of unlimited potential. A city beyond the reach of any earthly government. A city in which people could play with their genetics at their leisure. Since the substance required to play with genetics (called Adam) is found only in these slug-like things found under the sea, that's where this city should be. In one of the quotes of the game, he says, "It wasn't impossible to build Rapture under the sea, it would be impossible to build it anywhere else." With him, he brings some of the greatest minds of the late 50's, and they build an empire that swiftly goes terribly terribly wrong.

The story plays out primarily in radio communications and audio diaries, so you're only picking up snippets of the story at a time. Still, those snippets are enough to fill you in on the citizens of Rapture flirting with godhood, the subsequent need to exploit one another, and Ryan's desperate attempts to restore order. It's pretty twisted. But that's not really where the creepiness lies.

The nameless you enters the scene, and immediately you inject yourself with a "gene tonic" with which you can ignite things by snapping your fingers. And yes, it's a little odd that you immediately choose to inject yourself with a foreign substance, but that gets explained sufficiently later. Rapture is a mess. The people are all insane, the lighting is dark and flickery, there are leaks everywhere, and the groaning of metal under the sea or the crazed ramblings of the inhabitants can really freak you out. This game is built to freak you out, and it does a good job with that.

In order to "purchase" more gene upgrades (which you realize quickly you need in this madhouse), you require Adam. Adam is in these undersea slugs, which are implantd in little 10-year-old girls, called "Little Sisters" (later on it is explained why it has to be little girls). You have the choice of saving the little girls from the influence of these slugs and getting your Adam, or you can pull the slug out of them, killing them, but getting you twice the Adam. I chose to play the way that would let me sleep at night, and I ended the story on a happy note, having saved all these little girls. Later on I may play through, killing them all and seeing how it changes the ending. Maybe not. I know it's just a game, but that's just wrong.

One of the more interesting facets of the game are how you can use the environment to your advantage. You can hack the security cameras and security turrets to do your bidding, which makes it a lot easier to get around (if a security camera spots you, it'll send little gunbots after you... if you hack it, it sends those same gunbots after the badguys who wander into its gaze). Hacking is a fun little minigame in which you try to connect tubes from one end to another, only given a few different pieces to work with. It's challenging, but fun and rewarding. And that does lead to a lot of options: In other reviews I've read, the reviewers discuss the different ways they killed the first boss (one of the genetic surgeons who has gone all kinds of crazy). Some led him into the water in a lower level of his area and electrocuted him. Some shot the canisters of gas near him and blew him up. Some set him on fire. I personally used a hacked turret and camera and had robots do all my dirty work.

Between the mad ramblings of the lunatics down in Rapture, the creepy lighting and sound, and harvesting the Little Sisters, this is a really creepy game. After a while you get kind of used to it, and then things are built to creep you out more (like when the lunatics figure out it'll be easier to kill you if they pretend to be one of the many corpses lying around, and then jump up right when you walk up to them). Y'know, if I'm playing a first person shooter, and I'm killing aliens or robots or criminals or enemy military, I'm OK with that. Going through this place that looks like a riot happened in an underwater asylum, not so much. I like the tenseness and excitement that comes from just making it through the enemy onslaught, but being creeped out and feeling like I'm putting these people down because they're just too sick to live.

So it's a good game, with a lot of potential. It allows for a lot of replayability, since you can try different tactics on your enemies. It's got a deep and engaging story, with some pretty significant and dynamic and surprising twists. But it's really freaky.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

So, this Halo 3 thing

No, I haven't bought it yet. Although it appears as though I'm the only person in the world who owns an Xbox 360 that hasn't. I even have one friend who specifically bought an Xbox 360 for Halo 3. Fortunately, he bought at a good time, as there are a lot of cool games coming out for it in the next few months.

For those who are reading this through an RSS feed, pehaps the first link above isn't working as well as perhaps it could. Read this:

Microsoft today announced that Halo 3 has officially become the biggest entertainment launch in history, garnering an estimated $170 million in sales in the United States alone in the first 24 hours. The Xbox 360 title beat previous records set by blockbuster theatrical releases like Spider-Man 3 and novels such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Stores across the country were packed with Halo fans.

Halo 3 is the conclusion to the epic trilogy and picks up where Halo 2 left off, answering questions around the fates of the beloved protagonist Master Chief and his
artificial intelligence sidekick Cortana as they struggle to save humankind from
destruction at the hands of the alien coalition known as the Covenant. In
addition to the rich storyline, Halo 3 continues the franchise's grand tradition
of delivering innovative online multiplayer experiences via Xbox LIVE, the
world's largest social network on TV.


"Halo 3 has become a pop-culture phenomenon," said Shane Kim, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios. "Not only is Halo 3 setting sales records, it's also redefining entertainment. Within the first 20 hours alone, we've seen more than
a million Xbox LIVE members come online to play Halo 3—that makes September 25
the most active Xbox LIVE gaming day in history."


Retailers have also expressed their excitement about the launch of Halo 3. Bob McKenzie, Senior Vice President of Merchandising for GameStop Corp commented that, "With consumer demand for Halo 3 and related products, we expect it to be the biggest video game title generator in GameStop's history."

"The initial demand we've seen for Halo 3 has been astounding, and the game is on track to become the number one gaming title of all time. Halo 3 is a genuine
entertainment phenomenon and our customers have responded very enthusiastically
to the release," said Jill Hamburger, vice president of movies and games at Best
Buy.
More than 10,000 retailers hosted Midnight Madness events to
celebrate the launch of this third installment in the billion-dollar franchise.


More than 1.7 million copies of Halo 3 were preordered in the United States before a single store opened its doors at midnight on September 25, making this the fasting pre-selling game in history, surpassing the previous record-setting pre-sales of Halo 2. Well beyond just a U.S. phenomenon, the launch of Halo 3 was a worldwide celebration that released in 37 countries and available in 17 languages.


Now, admittedly, Halo 3 costs six or seven times the cost of a movie ticket, and three times the cost of a book. But still, the biggest entertainment day in history for a single-platform game. I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around the magnitude of this.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Excitement and Turmoil

There was a fire next door tonight. Our building is fine, but one of the apartments next door is burned out.

We went to Evanston to enjoy the beautiful evening, and came home to get decent parking spot on a fairly unremarkable evening. As we were coming home, there were some people on the corner shouting. This really isn't anything unusual, so when the sirens came and stopped right near the intersection, I was thankful for Chicago Police coming to silence the loud people. We came in, and heard a three beep alarm out in the other building, and I was annoyed, thinking that it would stay that way all night. It wasn't long afterwards when the rest of the sirens started coming, and we realized that something was legitimately amiss.

After that, it was pretty much a brief and somewhat somber block party. The neighborhood was out, and we got to meet several of our neighbors while we watched the firefighters do their job. They blocked off our street and the cross street. There are still a lot of emergency vehicles outside, and the lights make me glad I don't have photosensitive seizures.

This was an interesting experience, but one that I'm very glad I'm seeing from this end. Several families have been displaced, and one guy (who wasn't home) completely lost his whole apartment. Fortunately no human died, but at least one dog did. This is a tragedy, plain and simple, but it doesn't stop me being fascinated about the process or about the reactions of the people dealing with it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

I don't have a lot to say today. I was going to put up a sign in my office stating,


"Avast me hearties! Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day! Today I be hard of hearing if ye be talkin' like a landlubber! Yarr!"


But it takes a lot of energy to maintain that, and I'm kind of low on that today. In it's place, since I'm working with computers all day, I give you this, a pirate's keyboard:

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On art and videogames

There has been some talk as of late about videogames and whether or not they are art. Roger Ebert said in one of his reviews that he did not think videogames were art. Clive Barker refuted that and said that they were art. This is where I came in on the issue; here is Roger Ebert's response to that. This was also brought up in episode 19 of Battleship Pretension (a very good movie podcast done by two guys who really know film, but have limited exposure to games). I emailed the Battleship Pretension folks, but I did a really good write-up, and I think it warrants a wider audience.

First thing, I will admit my bias toward videogames (I include computer games in this, although there is a bit of a difference between the two; for this argument it is irrelevant). I am a proud gamer, and pretty much anybody who knows me well knows that about me. As a result, however, my opinion is biased. Still, I think my arguments are valid.

So I put it to you: What is the purpose of art? From my understanding, art's purpose on the surface is to elicit an emotional reaction from its audience, through the work of one or more artists. Ebert's argument that a bowel movement also elicits an emotional reaction is ridiculous, unless you actually are capable of crapping movies, games, or literature. I know, it seems as though Brett Rattner and his like simply poops out his work, but he actually does put effort into the creation of it. On a deeper level, art is intended to guide its audience on their own journey of self-discovery. The latter is what I think Ebert would call "great art."

On the deeper level (great art), there are very few games that achieve that, but they do exist. On the surface level (art), there are a LOT. There are also some that elicit the reaction of rage, simply because it's so freakin' bad. Much like film. Or theatre. Or literature. Or visual art. Or music.

The concept that video games cannot be great art, simply based off of the fact that the audience is a participant, is ridiculous. Does that mean that art appreciation must, by definition, be passive? Are you unable to absorb information or appreciation, is it impossible to change the entire paradigm of your life, simply because you are more involved in its outcome? Are characters any less impactful because you are interacting with them? Ebert mentions that having multiple storylines devalues them all. That makes no sense to me at all. How can it possibly devalue the story if it is indeed a well-written, well-acted, well-designed ending? If it sticks with you and leaves you feeling as though you've said goodbye to a good friend? This is similar to arguing that if there are several different artforms, that they are each less valuable than if there is a single "art." In this argument he mentions that he could make Romeo and Juliet with them naked and standing on their hands. Yes, he could, and that might be art, but would a game designer choose to do that? Only if he was a moron.

Presumably the arguments for videogames being art were primarily focused around stories and characters, and it has been postulated that they were only art when they lined up with other, "actual" art forms. So does this mean that a films with a deep, engaging plot and stirring characters who are brilliantly acted cannot possibly be art because it lines up with similar qualities of live theatre? Does the fact that a game pulls facets from media which preceded it invalidate the art of the medium in which it was created? It has also been mentioned that one's style of gameplay invalidates the art ("I'll save my game, and go through that door"). So does that mean that the style in which someone absorbs art makes the creator less of an artist? Would that mean that if a person flips around a book to absorb it, or reads the last page first, that the person who wrote it was not an artist?

In this particular episode of the podcast, Tyler and David both mentioned Castle Wolfenstein as an example of videogames-as-not-art. I don't think this is a valid argument, as Wolfenstein was very early in game development, and could be easily compared with The Great Train Robbery of videogames. Was The Great Train Robbery good art in comparison to other media of the time? No, it was crap. Was it groundbreaking film? Hell yeah!

Ebert says that most games are either point & shoot (Doom-esque) or scavenger hunts (Myst-esque). And yes, that point is semi-valid; as it happens, the "scavenger hunt" game is out of vogue, although he could easily have put in some derogatory euphemism for Real-Time Strategy games and made a similar valid point. It is also valid to note that none of the games I consider to be great art are either of these styles, and it is pretty difficult to do an artistic game in these styles (although First Person Shooters these days often do have compelling stories behind them, and are frequently highly regarded in the gaming community).

In order to determine if a video game is great art, let's think about what makes a film great art. Beautiful writing, done on multiple levels, is arguably the strongest sign of a great film. Sometimes, if it is written so nothing significant happens on the surface level, but there's huge depth on other levels, that makes for a great script. Perfect cinematography, on its own, will not make a great film, but it can enhance an otherwise good film to greatness. Brilliant acting on its own will make for a good film, but in the presence of a good script the film can become a great one. There are other factors, but it seems to me that a great film is primarily about how it's written, with the rest of the film backing up the script.

That said, we can see a lot of games that likely can be considered great art. The Fallout games can be applied to this, as they are written with individual stories that all lead to one big story, which not only is exciting and dynamic, but is also a telling story about the nature of humanity. The same can be said of Planescape: Torment. Both of these games had strong gameplay for the time (not directly an artform, although that could be argued, but important to the immersion necessary to be appreciated), good artwork for the time, good voice acting, and exceptional stories. These are widely considered (among gamers) the classics of gaming, the Citizen Kane of the computer. I actualy cried at the end of Planescape: Torment, and left with a sense of wanting more, but knowing that they had done their story, and there wouldn't be a sequel.

And these are not to say that they are the best or most fun games out there (although they are wonderful and are the favorites of many gamers). Half Life and Half-Life 2 are phenomenal games. Are they great art? No. TIE Fighter is one of my favorites of all time. Is it great art? No, but it is a helluva lot of fun. World of Warcraft is one of the most addictive games out there. It also is not great art, but it is fun.

Anyway, this is a post that comes almost directly from an email that was sent to the Battleship Pretension folks, and requires that you have read the link above and listened to that particular episode. In this I primarily focus on film vs. games, as that was my audience; I don't think this lessens the argument, but it could be expanded to argue other art forms as well. Maybe I'll do that later. Also, this is NOT intended to lessen the impact or power of any other artform, but rather to argue the merits of games. However, I do hold to the opinion that (A) games can be art, even great art, and (B) Roger Ebert's arguments to the contrary are based off of ignorance of the medium.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Mr. Taft, Mr. Hartley, meet Mr. Fisher

So I have my first union gig tomorrow. Obviously a bit later in the year than I had hoped, but I'm not complaining. I didn't even audition for this one; I had sent out a ton of postcards to various ad agency folks, and one of them emailed me, asking who my agent was. Six days later, I'm on board for a commercial (a radio spot for a large hardware store chain in California).

So, this means I'm Taft-Hartleyed into AFTRA. What that means is that I'm eligible to join the union, but I'm not going to yet. In the next thirty days, I can do union, non-union, whatever work I can get. After those thirty days, I can still work non-union, but then I'm considered a "must-join." That means that if I get another AFTRA gig, I have to pay the initiation fee before I get the gig. Which means that a large portion of what I get from this gig goes straight to savings, pending the next AFTRA gig.

But yeah, I'm on my way.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

1 down, Quite a lot more to go

Happy Anniversary to my lovely wife! Of course, I get to celebrate too, for fairly obvious reasons.

This has been a good year for us, but a rough year. We've had a very close family member go through chemotherapy, we've moved (twice, if you're being a little lax about the timeframe), we both changed jobs, we got rid of one of our cars, and countless other little bits n pieces were harrowing us. All these externals could have shot our newlywededness in the foot, and yet it didn't. Our relationship is stronger than it was before, and we have vaulted over the hurdle of the first year of marriage. This gives me hope for the future.

This weekend we've been kind of kicking around, just relaxing and doing whatever comes to mind with no real schedule, other than that which we decide on the morning we're doing it. It's led to a lot of indecision this weekend, but it has been very relaxing, and we've been able to experience a lot that the city has to offer. I think the best thing though, is that we're understanding that our life together is and is going to be pretty good.

Go Team Fisher!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sharing Experiences from the Chicago Monsoon

Everybody will have their own stories about the storm we've been having. It's arguably the biggest rainstorm I've ever experienced, and it's really fun. Admittedly, I'm sure it would be less fun if I or someone I loved was involved in some property damage as a result of this, but right now, I'll accept that it's fun.

Some observations/experiences:

-The bus from the train station was leaking, as if it was a poorly constructed submarine. I kept feeling like I'd hear metal groaning under the weight of the depths.

-I've never been so happy to have Timberland work shoes. They're pretty much all waterproof, which makes for very pleasant walking experiences when walking through a park under an umbrella when the ground is flooded and thousands of gallons of water are coming down and there's lightning all around.

-Because of said lightning and walking though the park (from the bus stop to home) under an umbrella, I've never before thought I'd get hit by lightning. It was kinda scary, but I can't say that it wouldn't be interesting to experience.

-It's so freakin' cool to be standing at a bus depot and almost seeing where lightning struck (it was a few blocks away) when it struck. I felt the blast from the thunder.

-All we're hearing is sirens. They're not so common now, and the rain is dying down, but for a while there, if we heard a vehicle, it was an emergency vehicle.

-I'm happy that we had planned to be home anyway, and that we have leftovers in the fridge.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Excellence in Animation

I've been thinking about this since I saw Ratatouille, and I'm not much closer to a solid conclusion or even a solid direction. However, writing is all about structuring your thoughts, so here ya go.

Ratatouille is arguably one of the worst concepts I've heard of for an animated movie. Yay. A rat who cooks. I really wasn't all that interested in seeing it, but Pixar had wowed me on another bad-concept-good-execution movie, Cars (Yay. Talking cars. What will they think of next, a cooking rat?). The only reason I saw this movie was that it was Pixar, and I trusted their work. And I was right to trust their work, as only a group of people as skilled as the folks at Pixar could make that concept work. See the movie. It's freakin' amazing, and includes one of the funniest moments I've seen in any Pixar film.

Hayao Miyazaki has been my vote for the greatest animation director of all time (even surpassing Walt Disney) since I understood what animation directing was. I clearly remember seeing Princess Mononoke in the theatres, and leaving with an altered perspective on life. That movie is, for lack of a better term, transcendent. The man has an uncanny knack for creating some of the most amazing scenes and/or animations for whichever genre he happens to be doing.

Brad Bird, however, has made me challenge my beliefs. His first film, The Iron Giant, started as The Iron Man, a novel written in 1968 by Ted Hughes. In 1989, Pete Townshend (of The Who) released an album based off of The Iron Man, one that I remember had a frequent spot in my car's cassette player at the time. In 1993, a stage musical was created based off of this album. This musical was optioned by Warner Brothers for a film. The final story of The Iron Giant is dramatically different than that of The Iron Man, but I think the changes made it a better movie (and I think it's cool that Pete Townshend was named an Executive Producer on the movie). In any case, when I saw The Iron Giant, I was torn. Was this the best animated movie I'd ever seen? Or did Princess Mononoke still hold that spot? They're very different movies, and based off of that, I chose to not make a decision at the time.

Life moved on (as it often does) and I watched more movies, some of them animated, some of them not. I saw Spirited Away, another of Miyazaki's films. This one was more subtle and ethereal than Princess Mononoke. I didn't care for it as much as the previous film, but I did find it fascinating.

Time passed and I saw more movies. The Incredibles, written by Brad Bird and him alone (he also directed, but animation is much more collaborative than any other style of filmmaking; directing isn't as auteur as it sounds in this context) was next on the list, and also added to the debate of my favorite animated movie of all time. This was his first jaunt with Pixar, and at the time, I just wanted to see the next Pixar film. I also loved the concept, and was excited about this film since I saw the teaser trailer the year before (it's the one where Mr. Incredible is trying to put on the belt of his supersuit over his fat gut, and the belt buckle pops off and ricochets around the room). I didn't know it was Brad Bird doing it; it wasn't until I was watching the first several credits that I realized, hey, that's the guy that did Iron Giant! Hmmm, the man is talented.

Brad Bird had done two of the movies I thought could be the best animated films of all time. Hayao Miyazaki did one, but I hadn't seen all of Miyazaki's work, and I pretty much had seen all of Bird's. Still, he was rapidly gaining ground.

I saw a few other Miyazaki films since then. My Neighbor Totoro is notable not so much for the story (although it is really cute), but more for the characterization of the younger two girls. I have never in my life seen a characterization in a movie as convincing as the portrayal of the youngest girl (about four or five years old); not even when it was played by a live action four or five year old. I was floored by how "real" that show was, especially when it was very much a fantasy.

Rataouille is actually my least favorite Brad Bird film. Not because it's not a fantastic film, but rather because it doesn't make me question whether or not this is the best animated film I've ever seen. But it did hit another home run for Bird.

So I've been thinking about this for nearly a month; who is the better of the two. I have a problem picking favorites. There are so many variables that it's very difficult to point out this one thing is better on all levels (or even enough to count) than anything else. They're both amazing, but for different reasons. They both have a mastery of not only the medium, but of whichever genre they choose to animate. I still ahven't seen a lot of Miyazaki, due to the fact that most of his work hasn't been translated to English. And I think that right there is what tears it. Miyazaki is Japanese. There's a cultural difference. I don't always "get" Miyazaki, in part because I haven't lived in the Japanese culture for any length of time. I know they're much more interested in ephemeral narratives, that don't necessarily make a lot of sense to Western minds. The denoument doesn't necessarily leave an American audience satisfied, as if something "more" should have ended the story. This generally doesn't apply to Miyazaki's work, but its influence is still there.

I think, therefore, that because I am American and Brad Bird is American, I will call him my favorite. On the whole, I think Miyazaki is actually (marginally) the better of the two, but I have a deeper understanding of the cuture from which Bird creates. That's why I feel as though I'm missing something with Miyazaki sometimes.

So there ya have it. Thanks for sticking with me through my somewhat self-indulgent ramblings.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The move

So we moved. I'm right now sitting in my new living room, the only room that's in any sort of order right now. I didn't write about the move prior to today, as we were both zombies for quite some time, and I didn't have the internet hooked up. Lo and behold, my craving for living brains has subsided, and I hooked up the router, and here is a very post.

I've never moved with this much crap. I had some furniture last year, Heidi had her stuff, and we bought some more stuff together. Then the wedding presents came in. We have a lot of stuff.

After the move, we both slept like stone out of pure exhaustion. Then I thought, we really didn't move much. Sure we were coordinating, and I assisted with the destruction/construction of the bedframe, but we didn't do hardly any of the carrying. We hired movers to do the bulk of the dirty work, and I can't freakin' imagine doing that job on a regular basis. They spent nearly eight hours in 90+ degrees carrying our crap. They were hot, they were sweating like pigs, they were exhausted, and they were fine with it. They got compensated handsomely for it, but they earned every penny of it.

So anyway, the new place is currently a mess, and we need to get a lot of things organized, but it's our home for the next few years. And we're here. The worst part is over.

Stay tuned for the housewarming party.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Stardust

I heard nothing about the movie Stardust prior to it coming out. I saw the placard in the movie theatre, and thought it looked interesting, but nothing beyond that. When I mentioned it to Heidi as looking interesting, she was thinking the same thing. To take a break from the car panic and the packing frenzy, we chose to go see a fun little happy movie. Indeed, it was fun, happy and a movie. Not so much on the little.

This is one of the grander adventures I've seen in a while. I loved Lord of the Rings, but it was an epic quest, not really an adventure. It's a story of a young English man by the name of Tristran (Charlie Cox) living in the 19th century from the village of Wall. Aptly named, the town is near a very long wall with one gap in it. Not many people know of it, but the wall separates England from Stormhold, a magical, mythical fantasy realm, ruled by a monarchy based almost entirely on fratricide. The king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) lies dying, somewhat passive aggressively chastising his four remaining living sons that they haven't killed one another off yet. Meanwhile, the dead sons' ghosts are providing a hilarious commentary on various situations as they follow the action along, waiting for the next king to be crowned before they can pass on to their actual afterlife. The king decrees that the next king will not only be the last living male heir of the line, but the one who restores his diadem/amulet/necklace. As he dies, the ruby flies from his castle into the sky. Menawhile, Tristram is trying to win Victoria's (his female obsession) heart by spending his entire savings on a champagne picnic under the stars. She mentions that his rival will return in a week with a ring for her, they see a star falling from the sky and Tristram promises he will bring that star back for her before the week is out, in return for her hand in marriage (and yes, it's even more pathetic in the movie). The star is on the other side of the wall, and Tristram makes it across. As it happens, the star is a lovely young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes), who was knocked out of the sky by the king's diadem. Michelle Pfeiffer plays a hideous old witch who stays young and beautiful through easting the heart of a star. When she sees the falling star, she heads out to get her and her sisters Yvaine's heart. Sounds like a complex setup, doesn't it? It is, and it makes for a fantastic experience.

The princes are simultaneously trying to off their siblings while racing to find and restore the ruby. Lamia is desperately trying to find the star so she can cut out her heart. Tristram is, somewhat ineptly at first, trying to get Yvaine back across the wall to Victoria. Eventually the one remaining prince realizes that if he eats the star's heart, then he will live forever and establish a kingdom eternally under his rule. Through the various travels and misadventures, we meet fun and quirky characters (particularly Robert De Niro playing a sky pirate trying to hide his flamboyantly gay side from his rough-and-tumble priate crew) , see amazing sights, and are along for a great ride.

This is a wonderful movie. It's akin to The Princess Bride in that it's a fun and dynamic adventure, with a quirky sense of humor, but it's more complex and smarter than The Princess Bride. It inspires me to be a man, to be noble, to be an adventurer. It inspires me to love my wife and to be truthful to my heart. It makes me feel like a big kid again. It actually makes me beleive that a story can actually end "Happily Ever After." It's almost as if it's a two hour advertisement for an exciting life.

I'm not sure if this is going to be an all-time favorite (although it'll be in the short list for 2007), but it will be one of those films that I can see once a month for the rest of my life and have as much fun the 157th time as I did the first. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Reconcilosec

I saw this in church on Sunday. Frekin' beautiful (FYI, watch past the first minute or you'll miss a lot).

Did you see me waving?

Hey, you know that Metra train that derailed? I was on that.

It was just the back two cars. Nobody was hurt, just a few people were annoyed, and we all got to work an hour later than anticipated. Here's what I know happened: we stopped, we started again, and we stopped again. The conductor got on the PA and told us we'd derailed the back two cars. Here's what I think happened. We stopped with the front five cars on one end of a switch, and the back two on another end. Somebody turned the switch, and we started moving, pulling the two back cars off.

Yay for an adventure on a Monday morning commute!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Gotham Ongoing

The new Batman movie is using the Post Office Building for a lot of things. Set, staging area, all sorts of crap. For weeks, I've seen film trucks outside and signs pointing to the set. It's getting almost commonplace. I lived in LA, and worked in film (occasionally). This really isn't that big a deal, but (A) it's freakin' Batman and (B) it's freakin' Chicago!




Anyway, to share the love, here's a couple shots taken with my crappy camera phone. The Gotham Police department here was zoomed in about as far as my phone will go, and subsequently cropped, so it doesn't have much of the image, but doesn't really need much either.





The truck here is sort of a maybe. Don't know much about it, although I'm sure it'll all come together when I see the movie next summer. You can't quite tell, but it looks to me inside like there's a lot of pyrotechnic gear. And it's an upside down smashed truck on top of another truck that's supposed to cart it to its location.

That's all I got.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Through the wall

Roughly half of the people who read this blog already know this, but I'm going to mention it anyway: we're moving.

We're going to Rogers Park, the northmost neighborhood in the ciy limits of Chicago. It's also one of the most (if not THE most) ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country, which I think is cool. We're living just south of Devon street, frequently known as "Little India." It's a good neighborhood, and a lovely home. We're paying $40 less per month than we are in Schaumburg (in part because we're choosing to do some minor maintenance), and it's roughly 1.5 times the size. Admittedly, it's in a vintage building, and therefore doesn't have a lot of the amenities that a newer building has (like the one in which we currently live). But it will make a GREAT party place, even better than our current residence.

It'll be an adjustment, living in the city after a year in the suburbs. I'm not a big fan of Schaumburg, but parking is bountiful and traffic is not such an issue. There's a lot of space and it's quiet. You can see more than five stars at night. That said, it's kind of soulless and feels somewhat "corporate."

What I find interesting is the psychological barrier between the suburbs and the city. I've commented on this before, but a lot of people actually fear going through "the wall." It seems the transition from suburb to city is easier than the other direction, and few people will admit the fear, but it's evident. We actually had friends say, "but then we won't be able to see you anymore," when we mentioned we were moving back into the city. There was less commentary about moving into the suburbs when we did, simply because it was almost beyond a Chicagoan's comprehension. Heidi's father is particularly noteworthy (and kind of funny) in the fear of the "other side;" he actually told us "you don't want to live in a neighborhood where you hear gunshots at night." And whereas that is a true statement, the underlying assumption was that it's dramatically more common than it really is (no matter that in the one year I've lived in Schaumburg, I've heard more gunshots at night than I'd heard in two years in Chicago and seven years in LA).

I look forward to feasibly taking public transportation on an entire journey (as opposed to driving to a public transportation parking lot). I look forward to going to a show on a whim (or even auditioning for some). I'll miss Pita House and Asian Noodle House, but we'll be able to find ethic dining in neighborhoods where it's really not all that ethnic for the inhabitants. We'll be able to hit the Hopleaf or go to the lakefront at will.

I'll still go into the 'burbs, as now that I'm aware of the wall, I will intentionally defy it. Heidi's folks are out there, as are many of my Mensa friends, and I've started gaming with Heidi's brother's group (all of which are suburbanites), so I'll need to be out there on a regular basis anyway.

It's a good move. I look forward to seeing what it will bring us.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Doggy Poo

Netflix has a feature in which you can watch on demand programming, as many hours a month as you're paying in dollars. We're right now on the $4.99 plan, for other reasons which I'll get into later.

Anyway, it's Friday night after a long difficult week for both of us, and we wanted to do a whole lot of nothing tonight. My plan was to eat Chinese food and watch anime, a great thing to do on a whim. I was looking through the list for Akira (wonderful dinnertime viewing), and happened upon something very very different: Doggy Poo.

It's a story of a Doggy Poo trying to find its purpose in life. It is laid unceremoniously by the side of a road, and shunned for being the most worthless kind of poo. It discusses its lot in life with a clump of dirt and a leaf, until finally finding purpose in fertilizing a dandelion.

Sounds bizarre enough? But wait, there's more! It's very slow paced, as if it's aimed at kids in their very early years (like before five years old). Kids who like poo. Kids who might not understand the concepts that are being spouted, were it not for the fact that the characters are fun little pieces of the environment. Such is the parable nature of the show.

That's right, it just wasn't bizarre enough! It's a children's animation about poo that's actually a Christian parable. It reminds me a bit of Davey and Goliath in the animation style, the pace and the ultimate message (it's not so overt as Davey and Goliath were, but they also were never about excrement). The poo is born feeling worthless and dirty, abandoned by the dog who shat it. Nobody wants the poo, evidenced by the birds who refuse to eat it. The clump of dirt has sinned egregiously in his past, and all he wants to do is go back and make it right (which is called "works based salvation," and is not part of the evangelistic tradition). The leaf is blown wherever the wind sends her, and is not grounded like the poo (meaning in some metaphorical sense that she cannot be of one opinion about anything). The poo only finds its purpose in giving its entire self to the beautiful flower. I'm sure it makes a lot more sense in a Sunday School classroom, when the teacher (the teacher who shows her kids scatological movies) tells her kids what it all means.

So there ya have it: A children's Christian parable animation about a dog turd. Certainly wasn't planning on THAT for our dinner viewing.

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix

A lot of people have been reviewing this movie. The biggest Harry Potter fan I know didn't like it. Other people did. We saw it Monday, I haven't had a chance to say anything for a while, but I was one of the latter.

I didn't much care for this book. At the time I was working in a suicide-inducingly bad job, having just come back from LA after having failed miserably, and was now living with my mother. I read to get away from my life. In the fifth book, Harry was depressed and annoyed the bulk of the book, and it just didn't work for me. Perhaps if I read it today, it would be a better book. In any case, the movie made me want to read it again.

Whereas it's difficult to fit a huge book into a single movie without it being 3+ hours long, this one did a good job of it. I thought the Goblet of Fire a good movie, but too cramped and crowded, and could have used another 20-30 minutes (I have to say, though, that I am haunted to this day by the acting of Cedric's father when Cedric died). This movie brushed over a lot of elements that I did want to see, but it was for the sake of the larger narrative, and it worked really well.

In this one, the war is brewing between most of Wizarding society, and Lord Voldemort and his cronies. Both sides are recruiting, although the "good" side is hindered by the government's refusal to believe there's a problem. Enter the Order of the Phoenix. These are a handful of freedom fighters who had formed during Voldemort's first "reign of terror." As it happens, the vast majority of the adults Harry likes are part of the Order of the Phoenix.

The show introduces a couple new characters to the field: Luna Lovegood (played by Evanna Lynch) and Dolores Umbridge (played by Imelda Staunton). Both are freakin' amazing and steal the show. The story is more about Mrs. Umbridge than Dumbledore, more about Luna than Ron or Hermione. Umbridge is the Ministry of Magic's plant inside Hogwarts, and subsequently starts to take over the school with Ministry agenda. Among the Ministry rules is that there is to be no practical teaching of Defense against the Dark Arts, as that would indicate that there is a problem. Harry, being the proactive rebel he usually is, starts an illegal school club where the kids learn how to defend themselves. This makes for some of the most fun scenes in the show.

I won't mention how the show ends. You've probably read the books by now, and know it all, but I'm not going to spoil anything. I will mention that there is a wizard battle at the end, and it's arguably the best bettle between two great wizards that I've ever seen on film.

This film is vying for my favorite among the Harry Potter shows. It does lose a lot of elements the book had, but it's a magnificent addition to the franchise. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Good Marketing

I have a few blog topics upcoming. More to say than there is time/energy to say it. But this one requires a comment.

I received a package today (actually a couple days ago, but I found it out on the front porch today). What follows is the entirety of the letter included (emphasis is mine):
Dear John,

Well, it has taken two years and I'm happy to say the quest was well worth it.

After watching wine lovers drink from glasses specifically designed to enhance different varietals, I decided that I was going to find the perfect glass for Samuel Adams Boston
Lager, and as a member of the American Homebrewers Association, I wanted to
share the results with you. I hope you share my view that beer deserves to be
approached with the same respect that wine is accorded.

We are enclosing a document we wrote about the history of this quest... what we tested, who we worked with, etc., and I hope you enjoy the story [we did... Heidi remarked how it was really well put together] The proof, however, is in the tasting, so, I am sending along a pair of our new pint glasses for you to experience and test. As an AHA member you have showed the same commitment that we craft brewers have to the brewer's art.

I hope you will enjoy Samuel Adams in this glass. While we developed this glass specifically for Samuel Adams Boston Lager, we suspect it may enhance the taste of other beers with a high malt body and a high level of complex hop aroma as well. You can be the judge. I would certainly be honored if you enjoy one of your homebrews from this glass.

Thank you for your support over the years.

Cheers,

Jim Koch

That's right, they sent me two pint glasses for no reason other than that I'm in the AHA. Of course, they're advertising their beer, but they did a really bang-up job with that. They're really cool glasses as well, and since we both dig finding new pub glasses, this makes for a huge treat. I wish the camera was working, so I could post a picture of them.

So Sam Adams, I tip my glass to thee! My new one, at that.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Transformers

We just saw Transformers. I was really looking forward to this movie, even to the point of wanting to take off work early so I could go see it sooner. On Friday, I checked Rotten Tomatoes for early reviews. At the time, they were 100% positive. I had also read good reviews from a couple people whose opinions I trust. And yes, it was a hell of a lot of fun.

The plot is little more than giant robots that can transform into nearly anything they see come to Earth in search of "The Allspark." Some of the robots go about it for different motivations, and using different means. The bad robots are very good at destroying things. Humanity likes living. Hilarity ensues.

This is an action movie; there is no question that's what it's trying to do, and it does that quite well. It's a bit long on scenes of rather goofy dialogue, but when it comes into the action, it shines.

Transformers has some freakishly die-hard fans, and there was some significant backlash when this movie was announced. There were a lot of people that were appalled that Michael Bay was making it, and expected horrible things. However, this was built with thought. There were internet forums up, asking the fans to have input. There was semi-meaningful dialogue going on between the creators and the fans. I remember when the first shots of Optimus Prime (in truck mode) were shown, and there was backlash (that Prime's semi cab had a nose instead of a flat front). The moderator stepped in and rationally explained why. This film was built with fans in mind.

I'm a geek, and have been for the vast majority, if not all, of my life. I was a teenager when Transformers was in it's original TV iteration. I remember going to see Transformers: The Movie by myself, having driven myself there and paid for it with money I earned at my job. Yes, I'm that much of a geek. I loved it at the time, but I've seen the movie again recently, and it wasn't quite what I remembered (as in it was kind of bad). But here's the thing: they're really similar films.

They seem to be made for the same age bracket. The dialogue is campy and cheesy, and the events don't really move forward with a lot of sense, much like the 1986 version. In fact, there are moments of dialogue (specifically between robots) that are lifted verbatim from the 1986 movie. It seems to be built for kids, with a few double entendres thrown in so the adults can giggle during the slow stretches. And the screenwriter absolutely loved using the phrase, "No, no, no, No, NO, NO NO!"

It's a bit of a bugger for me; I like the Transformers. Optimus Prime kicks ass (and is voiced by Peter Cullen again... bout damn time), and when Starscream was introduced, I got a little shiver down my spine. But this show was a long and expensive toy advertisement. It was aimed at younger viewers, and not in a favorable way. It almost talked down to its viewers, making some characters more goofy than they needed to be simply for the goofy fun factor. Sometimes I was sitting in the theatre (particularly when the Autobots are being introduced) cringing in embarrassment for the writers and actors.

Let me state yet again, the action in this show is freakin' amazing. The effects are seamlessly beautiful. It's a hell of a lot of fun. If you can swallow some goofy stuff, and view parts of it as aimed towards children, you will love this movie. It practically makes you want to fly out of the theatre crying out for the inevitable sequel, but it's built to brainwash kids into getting some admittedly cool toys.

I still recommend it, but not as highly as I had hoped.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Watervale, Pt II

This weekend we went back to Watervale. As I mentioned previously, this is a lovely old resort in northern Michigan, started by the family of old college friends of my grandparents. My grandparents used to come here now and again in their youth, then again several times when my mom and uncle were children. Of course, this tradition continued when my siblings and cousins were children, and now it's continuing when the rest of us either already have children, or are thinking along those lines. It presumably will continue on through our children's and grandchildren's lives, adding generations and families to this mass escapade.

There are a handful of obligatory tasks that are required at Watervale. One is to head across Lower Herring Lake to the outlet into Lake Michigan. Typically you take a boat of some kind out there, and swim or build a sandcastle or just dink around. This is my brother and I starting out our voyage across the lake.
Another obligation is to climb this 1000' sand dune called "Old Baldy." It's a fun hike through the forest, then a slow and somewhat difficult climb up the back, and then a kickass run down the front. I don't actually have a picture of the front of Baldy, as my camera broke during the hike there. But these are various neices and nephews on the hike (the only ones who would take the course faster then myself).
The last obligation is to have a campfire out on the beach of Lake Michigan, having S'mores which are frequently built from marshmellow torches.
I have two sides of the family; my side (coming from my parents), and my cousins (coming, obviously, from my aunt and uncle). It's really surprising the difference between them. My brother in law was the only one of my side who would have one of my beers. My uncle's side couldn't get enough of them. Other than my brother, nobody dared have a whole bao (sort of a Chinese hotpocket), whereas my uncle's side couldn't get enough of them. There were other examples, but you get the picture. It was a bit offputting being with a family that lacks any desire for adventure (my side), when the promise of open minds (my uncle's side) is just a couple doors away. It's not as much of a complaint as it sounds; it's more of an observation.
In all, Watervale is absolutely wonderful. I never had my keys, never had my wallet, never needed to lock the door, my cell phone didn't work, and I barely saw a computer my whole time there. There was no schedule, except for dinner. Especially after the high stress couple months I've just had, it was bliss.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Back to the Bank

A couple months ago, the old Post Office building downtown was transformed into the Gotham National Bank temporarily for the new Batman movie. The filming stopped there due to some unfortunate circumstances: they set the Post Office on fire. This was unintentional, but I'm sure they were shooting the six fire trucks and the whole cacophany surrounding it and will try to find a way to work it into the movie. But that meant that they couldn't shoot there for a while.

Well, they're back, and I got a picture. Since it's my phone, and it's grey on grey, and it was kind of a cloudy day, you need to pop the picture a little bigger to really see the signage, but I can also give you a bit of a closeup.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

John's Advice: Never Get a VW Beetle (an unfortunately ongoing series)

A few months ago, I had a really bad oil leak, and went to Midas to see what was up. It was simply a poorly placed oil plug from Jiffy Lube. There was something else in there too, but I forget what it was. No matter, the point for this story is that Something Went Wrong. While Midas was working on it, they turned on the check engine light. During their digging around in the engine, the throttle sensor went all wonky. Of course, the Midas line was that this sort of thing happens all the time for no reason, but they'd be glad to give us a deal on labor and could get the part for $750. It was obvious to me that they had hosed something, and that they weren't going to do a damn thing about it. They also didn't fix the oil leak. Schmucks.

The car ran a little rough, but still ran. We went down to Chattanooga in it, and haven't had a bit of trouble with it, except that at low speeds it couldn't figure out what gear it should be in. And so we didn't spend any more money on it. Until the emissions test notice came.

Heres the thing. If the check engine light is on for any reason, you automatically fail the emissions test, and 2 1/2 months later, lose your driving privileges. So, obviously, it was time to get the thing fixed. We took it in to a great local shop, run by someone Heidi's mom helped in her job (she's a nurse in a NICU... that's about as much as I choose to say). We got a wonderful deal on labor, and the part costs significantly less than Midas said it was. We brought it in on Saturday, they needed to get the part, and told us to bring it back on Tuesday. This was Tuesday of LAST week. It wan't the throttle control, as it happens. The computer was buggy, so they had to get a new computer. However, VW, being the master engineers that they are, needed the shop to bring the car in once it was installed to program the computer. The VW people have been giving the shop a runaround for the past three days, and it looks like it's not getting fixed anytime soon. It also looks like it's more than one problem.

So yeah, wah, cars have their issues. That's not the main complaint. Even the Midas thing isn't the main complaint (although this and previous history makes me never want to trust them again). Here's my big beef: VW is riding on their 35-year-old reputation, while cranking out horrid crap that costs an obscene amount to fix. When you bring it in to a dealership to fix, they charge an arm and a leg (I don't think I ever mentioned the $400 headlight a year ago) and drag their feet on getting the damn thing fixed. Hm, substandard customer service, substandard parts, substandard construction. Woohoo! VW is da bomb (which I hope isn't literal... I'm hearing reports of these things catching fire).

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Two great tastes that taste great together

I can't say these are two of my favorite things put together, but these are two things that mesh really well together, and it makes for some incredibly entertaining watching. I haven't laughed this hard since Borat.

I tried to embed the video in here, but it's not working. Bugger.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The End of an Era

So I'm borrowing the title of this post from David, who wrote about the same thing. Comcast is gone. Their customer service stinks, their service is unreliable and too expensive. I wash my hands of them. Our internet and phone is now handled by AT&T. Faster, more reliable, cheaper. Their customer service also stinks, but at least there's less reason for me to call them.

Now, normally, the end of cable would require an immediate subscription to DirecTV or somesuch (an option that I heartily recommend, by the way). Now, however, time is an issue, and I like to watch DVD's, and I like to play games (and the TV is GREAT for both). Battlestar Galactica isn't coming back until September or so, same with Heroes. Lost isn't coming back until January. And we can see all those on their respective networks' websites. The only purpose to continuing the cable service is to veg for an hour or two. Sure, we'll miss Pucca and Adult Swim and Alton Brown, but losing cable saves us enough that if we wanted, we could get two seasons of our favorite TV show each month and never miss it.

So begone, wicked Comcast! Never again will I bow to the filth you spew!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At Franchise's End

We saw Pirates of the Caribbean a couple days ago. Now, I'm a big fan of pirates and pirate movies. I think it's a great thing to see a mess of people leaping from ship to ship, and being all swashbuckley. But this was a really bad movie.

It clearly tried hard to be a good movie. I liked the second one a lot, despite other people's abject hatred of it. But this just didn't really go anywhere fast, and it kind of stayed in that nothing place for the whole movie. Sure, it wrapped up some of the open plotlines from the previous movie, but it was just really unsatisfying.

I really can't get into a lot without adding spoilers, but the climaxes aren't all that climatic, the choices made were stupid ones, and the action scenes were too chaotic to be as fun or suspenseful as they should have been.

The performances of the best actors weren't as good as they had been, although the performances of the weak actors were better than usual. Therefore we have a lowball average; you don't really go to a show to see Orlando Bloom and Keria Knightly act, you go there to just look at them. Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, and Bill Nighy, you go to see act (alright, women can go to swoon over Johnny Depp, but not so much in that role). Their performances were little more than charicatures of their characters, taking out a lot of the spontenaity and fun that they developed in the earlier films, and replacing it with shallow hamming.

So anyway, I'm afraid the "season of the threes" (Shrek, Pirates, and Spiderman) is going to be a weak one. I've not seen the other two, but haven't heard particualrly good reviews of them. I'll still see them, doubting that they can be as much of a disappointment as this one was.

In-law Funeral

My sister's mother-in-law died Wednesday. It's actually a good thing; she had lung cancer, and had had several strokes in the hospital, and was suffering. She had been given only weeks to live, which was a huge stressor on her children. She's in heaven now. But still, she's gone.

Jean was a cool woman. She was strong, faithful, brutally honest and she had a really wry sense of humor. She was one of the most nonverbally expressive people I've known, as one look from her spoke volumes. A small roll of the eyes or a quirk of her mouth, and you knew exactly how she felt. I didn't spend a lot of time with her; I maybe saw her once or twice a year, but each time we did get a chance to talk, she was great. I will miss her to some degree, but I really think about my brother-in-law, and his family. I've never seen my brother-in-law close to tears before yesterday. It brings me back to my own father's death a little bit.

I started blogging in response to my dad dying. I knew I needed to get stuff out, and I was learning what this blog thing is all about. It's been really therapeutic to write down what I'm feeling, as it helps me identify and develop the emotional mess into something more concrete.

Ah well, in any case, I'll miss Jean. I know I'll see her again, and I'm cool with waiting, but she was a good person to have in this world.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

In-law Wedding

Darrick, Heidi's brother, got married yesterday. Freakin' awesome! Heidi's family has been pouring in from hither and yon over the past few days, people I never really got the opportunity to know the last time they were here.

Anyway, the cermony was a good ceremony. Not much different from our own, but with more of a wedding party. And what a wedding party! Darrick has this amazing ability to inspire loyalty in a large group of cool people, and him being the wild guy he is, he sucks others into his vortex of fun, dynamic geekiness. Therefore his cronies are a group of people more fun than I've run into in a long time, and instantly accepting of another geek such as myself.

The reception was a huge kick in the pants. Ours had better food, theirs was a heck of a lot more fun. Admittedly, in mine, I was more focused on running around and chatting with everyone, and last night I was able to sit and talk in greater depth with some of Heidi's cousins.

In any case, I'm incredibly happy for Darrick and his new bride. They had a kick-butt celebration, and they make a fantastic couple. Mazel Tov!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Blood Diamond

I just saw Blood Diamond last night. This came out in December, while we were still coping with the leftover schedule of the wedding, so I didn't get a chance to see it at the time. I see the value of not going to see it in the theatres: if I saw it in the theatres, Heidi would have seen it with me, and she has an issue with overly intense, overly violent movies. This was one of those.

It's set in Sierre Leone, during a civil war in which the government was bad, and the rebels were worse. The RUF (Rebel United Front) attacked and burned villages, killing everybody but the boys that they could brainwash and use as combatants, and the men who would make good slaves for the diamond mines. With these diamonds, they would buy weapons with which they would carry on the fight with the government. It was very similar to my concept of hell.

This show is primarily focused on the RUF, as Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) was one of the men taken for labor in the diamond pits, but not before he gets his family on their way to relative saftey (compared to the rebel extermination of the village). During his slavery, he does find a huge, nearly perfect pink diamond (astonishingly rare and expensive), and manages to hide it from the rebel leader, burying it near the camp. Meanwhile, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio, doing an exceptionally convincing South African accent) is a weapons dealer, being paid by the rebels in diamonds, and subsequently smuggling them across the border to sell them. Eventually the two come together, (more manipulated by Archer than by chance), and they subsequently set off in search of Solomon's family and the diamond.

It's an interesting and complex plot, but the biggest aspect of the film that stands out to me is the chaos the country is going through. I've seen a fair share of the chaos that happens with warlords throughout Africa on various TV shows and films, and by nature these are fictional accounts. But I know that horrible things are being done in Darfur, and I have doubts that it's much different than depicted. Certainly, Blood Diamond was only showing the horror of life plagued by these gangs of rebels, and not that African life is pretty similar to life everywhere else most of the time, but the horror is still pretty horrible.

I'm sure that was the point of the movie, and not so much the story (although the story was pretty good as well). It was a pretty heavy-handed call for people to do something about the hell in Africa. There's even a dialogue between Solomon and Jennifer Connelly's character (who is a journalist that ends up working with Danny and Solomon):
Solomon: Will [the American people] do anything?
JC: No. They might send a check, but that's about
it.

There are a few quips from Jennifer Connelly's character that talk about how the chaos and horror they're witnessing might be shown "between sports and the weather." Or that "the world is falling apart, and all they talk about is [the Clinton sex scandal]."

My own reaction to this was a sort of resigned acceptance. In America, we simply don't hear about what's going down in various other countries, simply because it's deemed unimportant or not ratings-friendly. It's also a little discouraging to be reminded just how messed up the world can be. I find myself overwhelmed to the point that I don't even know how to start, even in prayer.

So yeah, it's a good movie, and I'm glad I saw it, but I'm not sure I can recommend it. It's good, but be prepared to be really uncomfortable for a couple hours (or maybe an hour and a half... the last half hour is much more of a Hollywood movie).

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

2007 Goals, Update 4

So... it's been a slow month. I've been putting effort in some places, not so much in others. As it stands, I haven't progressed much, if at all, on any of my goals. It's frustrationg almost to the point of discouragement, but not quite there yet. Or rather, it was there, but I moved past the worst of the discouragement. It's partially lighting a fire under my butt, and partially just annoying the hell out of me.

1. Get at least 5 union voiceover gigs: I just finished up my first promotional mailing to ad agencies. Since I'm on a budget, I wasn't able to send out any CD's, but instead postcards that have my website on them. I have yet to get a single hit from an ad agency IP address. Hm.
2. Get one national gig: See #1.
3. Get at least three agents in the local market: I have one; no change from late last year. We'll start sending out mailings to talent agencies probably this weekend.
4. Get into both SAG and AFTRA: Heh.
5. Drop my bodyfat to 12%: After a lazy month (we did keep working out, just not as much), we've decided to hit the gym in the evenings when we can, and mornings when we can't. Still, I'm pretty much in the same shape I was at the beghinning of the year.
6. Travel at least four times: 1 down, 3 to go
7. Get my headshots done: I'm waiting to lose a bit of weight, as I tend to hold a lot of my weight in my face. Not entirely sure what good headshots will do me at present, as I need a flexible day job in order to do on-camera auditions. Perhaps that will be a next year goal.
8. Join the Fighting 501st: I'll start work on cleaning out the garage this weekend, or at least clean enough to set up a card table. I should start work on the suit this month.
9: Get out of debt: Slow going. We're trading out high interest for lower interest, and plugging along as best we can.
10. Brew at least four batches of beer: 1 down, 3 to go. I just got this month's Zymurgy (the magazine of the American Homebrewer's Association), and there's likely a recipe in there on which I can work. I haven't looked through it much, but will check it out. Otherwise, I'll just get another kit.
11. Read the Bible from beginning to end: I'm still a little behind, but moving along with this. So far, so good.

Plans for this month: Dunno. I'll keep reading and praying, probably work on the Stormtrooper outfit, send out some mailings to talent agents, but I'm frustrated right now. I kind of want to just spend my time playing whatever Gamefly sends me. I'll get over it, but it's a hassle.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Working Near Film

For the last month and a half, some workers have been building an extension onto the face of the old post office building north of the highway. I didn't think much of it, other than that it was kind of flimsy (wood framework with concrete facade). They brought in cranes yesterday (like enormous cherry pickers, not the monstrous, skyline-changing cranes). I figured they were going to work in earnest. I was partially right.

This morning, as I was walking from the train to work, I noticed a lot of what looked like HMI lights on the top of those cranes. I thought that odd, and then saw what the big deal was. They weren't shining on the old USPS building, they were shining on the Gotham National Bank. Yep, the letters over the entrance had been changed for the new Batman movie. I didn't get a picture of it, because the cranes obscured the view, but it's definitely there. I might be able to get a glimpse of it on my way back home, but I assume they'll be there for a couple days. If I get a picture I'll post it.

So, when you see the next Batman movie, and you see the Gotham National Bank, you can know where it is.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Oh come on, you knew it was coming!

Every year there's a big warmup, and we think spring is here. Every year there is the subsequent blizzard that makes people complain about it being winter again. Yes, it's later than usual, and it's kind of funny in light of the Easter post that I recently wrote, but really, is this blizzard a surprise to anyone who's lived in Chicagoland for any significant amount of time?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Easter in Chattanooga

If you're linking from a goal update, this is our second trip this year. Our first is here.

This weekend, we went down to Chattanooga, where my aunt, uncle, a cousin and my brother live. It was one of the more relaxing family vacations I've had in a while (I've had some fairly relaxing vacations so far, but this one was a relaxing family vacation; big difference).

My uncle is a great storyteller. My mother, not so much, and my dad was all but silent on his past. Since my uncle has a great knowledge of our family history, he's always able to tell me something new that I don't know about my grandparents and/or great-grandparents. It's wonderful, because my grandparents were real movers and shakers, and I like to know the legacy I have. A couple small things: my grandmother lived next door to Thomas Alva Edison when she was a little girl. Not so much her doing, or anything that would affect her or my life, but it sure is cool. What was her doing, though was her friendship with Groucho Marx. They were staying at the Waldorf Astoria and she was in an elevator when Groucho walked in. She, being the irrepressible socialite she was, started a conversation, and they hit it off immediately. Evidently my grandparents went out to Palm Springs to visit the Marx household later on. These were two of the more memorable stories, but others were shining examples of a legacy of great deeds that I have in my life. It's a darn sight better than what I thought was there.

Chattanooga is a lovely city. We were actually staying up on Signal Mountain, which is this quiet little mountain community, as beautiful as it is relaxing. Chattanooga itself is a model for downtown renovation in the south, as it came from being a stagnating semi-redneck town to becoming a thriving artistic and cultural center in just a little over a decade. Both Heidi and I were discussing our possibility of moving down there, in an it-will-never-happen-but-it-would-be-kinda-cool manner.

It was Easter weekend, and most of my relatives are very involved in their church, so we spent a decent amount of time at church. It was more ritualistic than I'm used to, but there's room for all different styles, and I found it to be very grounding.

The road trip down and back was even kind of cool. As we went farther south, it looked like we were going forward in time. Spring got later and later the farther south we got. We started with the budding trees here, to the fully blooming trees down in Chattanooga. It made for a lovely trip.

We're glad to be home, as even a fun 10-11 hour drive is a 10-11 hour drive, but it was a great diversion for a weekend.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

On Death and Ressurrection

It's green out. For the first time in six months, there are leaves on the trees (OK, leaf budling things, but work with me here). For the first time in maybe six or seven months, you look out and are overwhelmed by green. Life is returning to the land.

I kind of wonder if the whole Passover thing was intentionally done in springtime. Originally, the Hebrews were in a desert country. The vast majority of Egyptian civilization was along the Nile, but that didn't really have the same kind of seasonal shift; flood season was closer to summer, and it signified the end of the farming season (as the farms were mostly submerged at that time). The Hebrews wouldn't understand it yet, but when they got to their promised land, Passover would be around springtime. I don't know how much the seasons change in Israel, but I do know that it is comparatively green (as opposed to actual desert), and that there is sometimes snow, so I would assume that there is some form of seasonal shift.

Anyway, Jesus was crucified just before Passover. He was dead for a full day (which was the Sabbath, so technically he was supposed to rest anyway), then returned to life on "the third day." This is a brief overview of the seasonal change, and a really interesting point, that right during the ressurrection of the world, comes the ressurrection of the Lord.

This intrigues me about other things as well. In northern Illinois, we have a contant reminder of the principles of death and ressurrection. In fall, things are in their sunset, and then they die. The world lies dead for several months. Then, in early April, the world comes back, green and more beautiful than it has been in quite a while. People are happier, life feel like it has more hope, allergies start to hit, it's just a better time (OK, not the allergies so much).

In California, I noticed a dominance of the "Health, Wealth and Prosperity" teaching in churches. Now understand here, I do believe that elements of that teaching are valid, and some of them do have scriptural backing, but it has no place in a church. If God wants you to be the head and not the tail, and you're struggling financially or have a chronic illness, then the obvious corollary is that God must not love you as much as the rich, fit guy over there (and there are a lot of those in LA). I'm sure part of that comes from a greedy subculture that dominates Southern California, but I also noticed that there is no real seasonal change there.

Here, you predominantly see a theology wherin suffering is a part of life. Pain causes growth and strength. Nobody likes it, until they look back on how they have changed over the years for the better. Is that because Chicagoans are smarter and more balanced? Well, yes, in part. But I also think the instinctive understanding of death and ressurrection allows people to accept a more balanced theology. Life is a great training ground; it can be a kind of a difficult place to call home.

And yes, there are places in Chicagoland that teach the prosperity theology, and there are places in LA that teach the death-and-ressurrection theology; it's just that each place has its dominant focus.

Anyway, that's me being all thoughty-like. Happy Easter!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Spore

I originally heard of this from my friend Zach. He had mentioned something about Will Wright (creator of Sim City and The Sims and countless other Sim games) creating a new game which was effectively sim-everything. It sounded interesting to me, but I let it go. I didn't know much about it, and figured I'd know more when the time was right. And so it came to pass that I'd hear snippets of what was proposed for this game, and I grew covetous.

Here's the deal. You start the game as a microorganism, swimming around in a little puddle, potentially in the primordial ooze of your planet. As you eat and get bigger, you can reproduce and evolve. Soon, you develop complexity, becoming an animal of whatever design you choose. The program will determine how the beast should move, based off of the design (in the first video, Will Wright creates a three-legged thing with a hand on the tail arching over its back, and the program figures out how that thing will move). Anyway, after being a beast and attempting to make your way in the world, you reproduce and evolve, eventually developing the brain capacity to reach sentience. That starts the tribal phase. You're no longer evolving as a species, but instead you're evolving as a culture. Your tribe grows and develops, eventually becoming a city. As you develop your city and your culture, you develop technology, including space travel. You move out from your individual planet into the solar system, colonizing and terraforming other worlds, abducting things, making treaties, starting wars. It's life starting on a small scale, and developing into a huge scale.

One of the better things about this game is that it's largely about design. Sure, you're all about building a greater and better society, but its the design element that's so appealing.

When Matt was here a week ago, he showed a few videos that I had heard about, but had never seen. This first one is at the Game Developers Conference in 2005. It makes me drool, and it's nearly two years old.



This next one is at E3, 2006. It shows the game being more developed, which is cool, and ends with Robin Williams designing a creature.



Keep in mind, these videos are 40 minutes a pop, but they're so very yummy. It's making me quiver with anticipation. It's making Heidi say, "We need two computers, so we can both play." It's making Matt consider getting a Windows system.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

2007 Goals, Update 3

As usual, I'm seeing how my goals for this year have progressed. Not a great deal that has changed tangibly, but there's stuff in the works.

1. Get at least 5 union voiceover gigs: I just sent out my first promotional mailing to ad agencies. That will likely pay off in the future, but it hasn't just yet.
2. Get one national gig: See #1.
3. Get at least three agents in the local market: I have one; no change from late last year.
4. Get into both SAG and AFTRA: Bupkus
5. Drop my bodyfat to 12%: We've been going to the Y every weekday at 5AM. Lat week was a low-motivation week, but we're plugging away. Still no actual number to hang onto yet.
6. Travel at least four times: 1 down, 3 to go
7. Get my headshots done: I'm waiting to lose a bit of weight, as I tend to hold a lot of my weight in my face. Still, it's a bupkus right now.
8. Join the Fighting 501st: I'm waiting till it's warmer before I can set up a card table in the garage and get to work.
9: Get out of debt: We just paid off one moderately sizeable bill (literally a couple minutes before I started this post). There's quite a bit left, but we're on our way.
10. Brew at least four batches of beer: 1 down, 3 to go. I'm not sure if I'm going to kit it this next time or follow a recipe.
11. Read the Bible from beginning to end: I'm a little behind, but moving along with this. So far, so good.

So, the year is 25% over, and I'm not quite 25% done with all my goals. Some of them, moving along pretty well; some, not so much. Plans for this month: Pray. Read. Travel. Work out. Eat smart. Do some cleaning in the garage so I have some space. Get more cards so I can finish the mailings (a complete mailing to ad agencies is a five-week process). Plan for the next brew. I might do a talent agency mailing, but we'll see how everything works out.