Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas - 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

For your viewing pleasure, I present my rendition of "We Three Kings."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

This movie is better than I expected.  It's as good as a Pixar movie without the Pixar animation.  It's funny, appealing, exciting, well-animated, and a really good story.

Wreck-It Ralph is a bad guy who's tired of his job.  He just wants people to appreciate him.  He decides to go visit other games in search of a medal, but this causes all kinds of problems.

This movie is full of "cookies" or references to several different video games and that whole culture.  For example, in the trailer above, you'll recognize several of the villains.  So, if you keep your eyes open during the movie, be prepared to laugh.

The game "Fix-it Felix, Jr." itself is fictional.  Though, by the end of the movie, I was nearly convinced that it was a real game I had missed in my childhood.  But alas, it is only a spoof of Donkey Kong.  Even though it's not real, you can still play it here.  You can also play the fictional "Sugar Rush" and "Hero's Duty" here.

I watched this in 3-D, and it was pretty good.  There were no 3-D gimmicks, which is okay with me.  But there was plenty of good depth and variety of distances.  To compare, I didn't get much out of the 3-D in "Toy Story 3."  And the 3-D in "Avatar" was amazing.  "Wreck-It Ralph" was somewhere in between.

I highly recommend watching this movie while it's still in theaters.  It's been out a while, so catch it while you can.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Skyfall - Bond At His Best

Skyfall was a thrill ride from beginning to end.  If you're a Bond fan, don't miss this one.  If you're not a fan, this would be a good story to enter the franchise.

The last two movies featuring Daniel Craig as James Bond were both good movies, but a little slow on the action.  In fact I fell asleep during Quantum of Solace.  Those two movies spent more time exploring a different kind of Bond ... one who isn't perfect, but rather often makes mistakes.  He's more human.

Skyfall continues with the edgy not-quite-so-perfect Bond.  Since his character had been well fleshed out in the first two movies, the writers could spend more time immersing us in action.

I watched this in IMAX, something I haven't tried in years, and it was worth it.  The movie has several breathtaking cinematic shots, with wonderful color contrasts, and playing with light on glass and water.

What exactly is "Skyfall"?  You're going to have to go watch the movie and find out for yourself.  I was expecting some cool science-fictiony device that would destroy the world ... but ... well ... it's something a little more subtle.

You can expect the normal James Bond formula--start with an action sequence, then opening credits, then some kind of exposition followed by an explanation, then find a cute girl, then the introduction of the bad guy, ... and well, you know the rest of the formula.

Javier Bardem effectively pulls off a fun and creepy villain.  He's almost as good as Heath Ledger's Joker.

How does this rank with other Bond movies?  I've seen a little over half of them--every one since Pierce Brosnan, a couple of Moores, a couple of Connerys, and the Lazenby one.  My favorite still remains GoldenEye.  I'd put Skyfall second, followed by Lazenby's On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

If you haven't seen Skyfall, I highly recommend seeing it while it's still in theaters.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Fall of Hyperion - A Worthy Sequel

Dan Simmons' The Fall of Hyperion picks up right where the first book Hyperion leaves off.  Though, the storytelling is a little different. 

In the first book the Consul is the first person narrator, except for when the other characters tell their stories. 

In this second book, we meet a new character: Joseph Severn, an artist living in TC^2, who has the ability to view our Hyperion friends in his dreams.  During the first part of the book, we see things unfolding from Joseph's POV through a clouded lens.  At first this was annoying, but it turns out that Joseph is a very important person.  (If it's any hint, the "real" Joseph Severn was a good friend of the poet John Keats.)

But then starting with Part 2, everything becomes a little clearer with the author switching to normal third person limited.  Events unfold.  We get to see what happens to each of the pilgrims on Hyperion.

I can't say too much without giving away the plot of the first book, but I can say the following.

This second book is almost as good as the first book.  Where I would give the first book 10 stars.  The second gets 9.  There are some parts in the second where the writing seems a little sloppy, while the first is a masterpiece from page 1 till the end.

The second book ties up nearly all loose ends from the first book.  While book #1 ends in a cliffhanger, book #2 gives a satisfying end such that you don't feel like you need to read the last two books (though I probably will eventually).

Book #2 has a lot of "No way!" moments, and is a very exciting read once you get past Part 1.

Book #2 doesn't waste any time reminding you what you should remember on your own from Book #1.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Well--Simmons might do it a little, but it flows so naturally.

After reading Book #1, it's so easy to say, "I don't see how everything fits together."  But book #2 will hit you over the head with the explanation and when you're done reading you'll say, "Wow!  It makes sense.  Why didn't I see that earlier?"

There are still a few small things left unrevealed--gotta keep things open for books 3 and 4.

Dan Simmons really, really seems to like John Keats.  I don't share this great love, and I usually skimmed past all the verse in italics.  Though I gather that the whole Hyperion story seems to be heavily inspired by some specific Keats poems--as if Simmons read them and said, "Wow.  I could make a great story out of that."

And the Consul still never gets a name.  Aaaaagh!  I know ... major spoiler.

But notwithstanding, Simmons is an excellent storyteller and I thoroughly enjoyed reading these two books, and I highly recommend them both.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

National Novel Writing Month - 2012

I have begun the 30-day self-inflicted joyous torture that is NaNoWriMo.  That's short for "National Novel Writing Month."  The goal is to write 50,000 (unedited) words.  I've already accomplished this wonderful feat in 2007 and 2010.  Back in 2005 (I think) I tried for the first time and fell flat on my face having only written about 10,000 words.

Right now, I am only at a mere 3,000 words, which puts me behind schedule.  Each writer should average 1667 words a day.  So at the end of Day 4, I would need to be at 6,667 words.

But hey -- I just took an actuarial exam a few days ago, and I always need a while to chillax and play NotDoppler games and unwind.  It's amazing that I got out 3,000 words.  You can see the first 1,000 words (I did say it was unedited - just to warn you of its terribleness) and visit my profile.

This year I'm going to use the 50,000 words to spit out several short stories, which I will then crank out through the big edit/critique machine over the next few months.  My goal is to sell something in 2013.

But first to survive this month ... here is my schedule (2,200 a weekday, 4,250 over the weekend, and some time off for Thanksgiving).

Week #1 = 3,000 words.  --already past--
Week #2 = 15,250 words.
Week #3 = 15,250 words.
Week #4 = 5,500 words.
Week #5 = 11,000 words.

If you haven't done NaNoWriMo yet, I belatedly invite you to join.  We can be behind together!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

2012 TV Fall - The Final Wave

All my fall shows are now in full swing.

Last month I reported on the Pre-Wave shows, including Alphas, Warehouse 13, Doctor Who, and Grimm.

And then I gave my reports for the First Wave, which are the shows that mostly came out all at the same time, including Revolution, The Neighbors, Last Resort, Person of Interest, Haven, and The Office.

Here are my reports on the four shows that started relatively later ...

Fringe (2 episodes in): This last season is very interesting.  It appears that we'll be spending our last several episodes in the future, after the Observers have gone on the offensive and have taken over our planet.  The whole Fringe team had been ambered.  So, after having been revived some twenty or thirty years later, they are now trying to save our world from the Observers.

It's all interesting and all that, but some tidbits are bugging me.  The biggest being: how does this story fit into the grand scheme of things?  It was confusing enough in Season 4 to have some other set of parallel universes that was somehow orthogonal to the two existing universes in Seasons 1-3.  Why would we care about the one specific double-alternative universe?  (Much like in Star Trek where we keep seeing visits from that same one alternative Mirror universe out of an infinite number of possibilities.)

And now in Season 5, we have a time travel situation where we learn that the Observers are evolved humans from the future.  Since they messed up our world, they're going back in time to save themselves.  (This is much like one of the only two South Park episodes I've seen.)  It's an interest plot technique, but how does one beat someone who can time travel?  These Observers can go anywhere at any time.  They can stop you before you even start something.

Despite these annoying tidbits, it'll be fun to watch how our favorite protagonists fare.  Show those Observers who's boss!

Once Upon a Time (3 episodes in): It looks like the writers found a way to keep this show interesting.  Even though the curse is broken and everyone can remember who they really are, they are still stuck in Storybrooke.  Magic exists now, but no one can seem to figure out how to make it work consistently.  Plus, if anyone tries to leave Storybrooke, they'll lose their memory again.

This show remains a family favorite.

The Simpsons (1 episode in): Yes, I haven't seen the Halloween episode yet.  I'll probably watch it this week IN SEASON.  It looks like it'll be funny.

The opening episode, though, left much to be desired.  The whole family took a trip to New York so Bart could bring back the only girl who still halfway likes him.  Way too mushy for a season opener.  Plus, nothing great seemed to happy--no really funny moments beyond that racing scene at the very beginning.  I want my classic Simpsons back!
The Walking Dead (2 episodes in): Wow!  These first two episodes blow the entire 2nd season to the moon!  Our favorite protagonists have found themselves a prison and have decided to break in to get a really strong shelter around them.  Of course, this entailed some clearing out, and I swear they killed more zombies on screen in that first episode than they did in the first two seasons combined.

My friend jokes that it's as if AMC listened to complaints about there not being enough zombie kills.  If so, they certainly delivered.  But hopefully the kills will drop back down to normal levels so we can get back to the main reason why I'm watching ... the awesome story.

The first episode was awesome, and the second episode even more so--showing some scenes I'd never thought I'd see.  Keep up the good work, writers and actors!

PS. I still love how the opening credits music starts about 10 seconds before the credits actually appear on screen.  More shows need to do this.

Updates: Evidently, Touch has been pushed back to January, so it's coming off my Fall list.  Also, I'm still waiting to hear about Psych.  I'm guessing it will also start sometime around January.  This is all fine with me, as I have enough shows on my crappy Time Warner Cable DVR to last me a few weeks during reruns!

Also, since the 2nd episode of The Neighbors actually had some funny parts, I've decided to continue watching, though it's at the bottom of my view list.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Taking a Rest

I know the 20 or so of you will be disappointed, but I'm currently busy studying for an evil actuarial exam (#6 - the one about the financial annual statement and insurance regulation and every single boring actuarial topic you can imagine shoved into one test).

So this month, everything is put on hold.  No writing.  No submitting.  No nothing (except for maybe one or two blog posts).

But I'll be back in November to start things back up again.  First will be a NaNoWriMo Blitzkrieg devoted to writing 50,000 words of new short stories.  This will be followed by a few months of revising and submitting, and hopefully my first publication in 2013.

Happy writing to you!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

2012 TV Fall - The First Wave

Never before have I had so many shows premiere at the same time!  Well, I suppose in the not so distant past, TV networks did adhere to the "premiere week," but there were only three networks.  Now with the additional networks and other popular cable channels, TV execs have been a little more strategic in their releases of shows, even premiering as late as October.  They still do this (like Touch and The Walking Dead), but what happened this last week?  I swear it feels like 90% of my shows came back in a new virtual "premiere week."

Whatever happened, my DVR is very busy and it will take me a while to catch up with all the premieres.  My DVR even missed recording Grimm this past Friday and I'm not very happy with Time Warner's system right now.  If you don't see your favorite sci-fi show listed below, give me another week or so.

A couple of weeks ago, I gave my thoughts on the Pre-Wave (shows that came out a little early or in late summer).  That included Alphas, Warehouse 13, Doctor Who, and Grimm.

Now my newest reviews ...

Revolution (2 episodes in): This show reminds me of Jericho and this is a good thing.  The world has fallen apart and governments have ceased.  Militia groups have risen up and try to gain control.  This show has a lot of potential.

But will they grab this potential?  The two episodes that I've watched were exciting enough to hold my attention, but it seems to be lacking something, which I'm still trying to figure out.  For example, just as Charlie's father dies, he sends her on a quest through the dangerous roads and dangerous city of Chicago to find her uncle ... something I would have expected to take a few episodes.  But no, after a commercial break or two, they waltz into Chicago with minimal intervention (except for those bozos who tried to rape and kill them, but no meetups with militia or anything like that) and they find her uncle very quickly.

I'll keep watching, though.  It feels like it's leading into something cool.

The Neighbors (1 episode in): This show is really missing something.  It might be called something known as "humor."  For example, in one scene, the alien wife keeps throwing plates out her window as her new-found human friend helps wash the dishes.  The human gives a funny look, but no other funny reactions?

The pacing of the jokes are very slow, and I noticed a lot of awkward silences.  These are probably meant for the audience to absorb the jokes, but when the jokes fall flat, it comes across as terrible editing.  Some music or even a laugh track could have helped.  (And if this show needs the obsolete laugh track, perhaps the show itself is obsolete.)

I'll give it one more try, but if they don't deliver, I'll be dropping this show.

Last Resort (1 episode in): There were some really good moments.  This could be an exciting show.

However, it felt like they crammed so much stuff into this one hour opening.  The pacing was very fast, and some things weren't explained very well.  I think a more effective opening would have been to take two hours to present that same amount of material with more explanations, and to give the audience more time to digest what's happening.

Did anyone understand the whole thing of the hide-your-signature device?  Was it on the submarine?  Or was it not?  If so, it didn't seem to work.  And if not, why did they bring it up?

I know absolutely nothing about the captain himself.  I don't understand why he made his initial decision to disobey direct orders.  And I'm not talking about the "it came through secondary channels" argument.  Most captains in real life would have carried out the order without hesitation, so what makes this captain so special to do the "right" thing?

The Pakistan incident means almost nothing to me, because nothing was shown other than blips on a map.  Did it really happen?  I don't know, because I didn't see it happening.

Did they really have to shove a useless sex scene in there?  And on a show airing at 8PM?  Better put your kids to sleep early Thursday nights, I suppose.

And crammed in at the very end are hints of two types of conspiracies, which are usually revealed in later episodes.  If the writers really felt the need to reveal hints of everything in the first episode, then is this all we get for the season?  Are they going to be stuck on that LOST-looking island for the whole season and fight a war on several different fronts?

But I'm assuming a lot from just one fast-paced episode.  It could be that they meet all my concerns in the next couple of installments.  There's a lot of potential in this show, and we'll see if they can maintain the energy.

Person of Interest (1 episode in): This show still has it.  It's still fun to watch Reese fight through everything.  Well, almost everything. 

Finch is now held captive by Root, some new villain.  She wants to set the computer free?  How exactly does that work? 

Reese is trying to blackmail the computer to reveal where Finch is, but will it work?

And who are those new people who fear going to Guantanamo Bay?  What do they know and what is their plan?

I can't wait to see how this season unfolds.

As an offside, anyone notice how the writer Jonathan Nolan loves to stick it to the rich greedy dudes in his stories (Batman movies and earlier episodes of Person of Interest)?  Long live the 99%, I suppose.

Haven (1 episode in): I'm really hoping this is the last season.  It feels like they're starting to wrap things up.  I like that the show still has a hint of Stephen King, but I doubt this show can last more than one season, and I want to see how it ends.

The first episode was interesting, though I must admit, I forgot why Nathan has that tattoo on his arm.  And also how Duke discovered/revealed his powers.  And when did Audrey get captured?

Who wants to bet that mysterious guy is the Colorado Kid?  Too easy, isn't it!

I'll keep watching, but probably after getting some of these other shows out of the way.  Please end the story!

The Office (2 episodes in): I'm glad this one's coming to an end.  The success of the UK series stems a lot from the fact that they only made a few episodes, and they brought it to a satisfying close in the Christmas Special.  The US series went on for so long, that for a while it hasn't had much direction.  Perhaps they'll find the direction needed now that an ending date is in sight.

A lot of people stopped watching when Michael left, but in some ways this show has gotten even funnier, as now the other characters have their chance to shine.

The first episode was pretty funny with new guys resembling Dwight and Jim.  And Angela trying to find a good home for her cat.

The second episode was okay, but as I watched it immediately after watching The Neighbors, it felt pretty dang funny.  They still got some energy going.  We'll see how things end, and hopefully see Michael Scott one last time.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hyperion - A New Classic

Dan Simmons' Hyperion may be the best sci-fi book I've read in the last five years.  It tells the story of seven pilgrimages who desire to see the mysterious Shrike.  He (or it) is the spiky metallic personage on the book cover.  Nobody knows exactly what the Shrike does other than killing people.

When I first started reading the book, I was concerned that this was going to be a sci-fi book turned fantasy, because they start in space, and they head towards this planet, and the book cover looks like a typical fantasy cover.  The last thing I wanted was for the characters to get stuck on a boring planet.

Another concern arose when I got about twenty pages in and the seven pilgrimages made the decision to tell their life stories.  The priest got to go first.  I looked ahead and saw that his story went on and on and on for at least 80 pages, and then came the end of Chapter 1.  I groaned, not wanting to read a boring John-Galt-like treatise on religion in space.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover my concerns were unfounded.

The format of the entire book is isomorphic to the graphic novel Watchmen.  The story is told in the present as well as in the past.  A vast majority of the book consists of the recollections of each of the main characters.  The story that each character has to tell is amazing.  And with each story, the reader learns important information regarding the story of the present, and even information explaining what had occurred in other people's stories.

This technique is effective when done well.  As you not only get to really know each character individually, but you get an amazing and complex story as well.  The result is Hyperion, a very rich and compelling story.

This book counts as Hard SF, yet it is very light on the dry factor.  Fantasy SF fans may forget that they're reading Hard SF.

Simmons somehow puts everything you can imagine into this one book, and he makes it all work: space battles, action, horror, religion, philosophy, artificial intelligence, mystery, romance, the desire of getting published (yes Stephen King fans--that's in there, too), politics, and stuff that jerks tears.

It also contains some adult material, so I would classify it at a low-grade Rated R.  It contains a few F-bombs, but Simmons is one of the few authors who knows how to use them sparingly and correctly, and I did not find them to be distracting.

If I must complain about anything, it would have to be the little things.  The main character, the Consul, is never named.  There's a reason for that, but it really comes down to "because the author wants it to be that way."  There's also an epilogue that only exists "because the author wants it to be that way."  I can see why Simmons did that, but it didn't do anything for me.

But that's okay, as Simmons delivered a reading experience that I will remember forever.

Monday, September 10, 2012

2012 TV Fall - The Pre-Wave

In preparation of the upcoming Fall premieres, I'll report on how my shows are doing that started in late summer.  This is my Pre-wave review.

Alphas (SyFy - 2nd season): This show is still going strong, and I still love the chemistry between the different characters.  The "good guys" aren't all good, and the "bad guys" not all bad.  Nobody is perfect.  And what exactly is Stanton Parish trying to pull?  I'm trying to see how he could be good (and preparing the world to fight some greater evil), but how could anyone condone killing innocent people for the "greater good"?  I wish more shows would be written as intelligently as this one.

Warehouse 13 (SyFy - 4th season): I still enjoy watching this show, though I'm wondering how much longer they can keep it going.  How many different "artifacts" can one come up with?  This season feels a little stronger than the last one.  The whole astrolabe line is cool--where Artie had no choice but to rewind the clock 24 hours and release some unknown evil that has Data in a tizzy.

As a plus, one episode featured two Star Trek actors, and another episode featured two Psych actors.  It's not one of my favorite shows, but they haven't given me any reason to stop watching.

Doctor Who (BBC America - 7th series): Bow ties are still cool.  The first episode was enjoyable, though I'm noticing little tiny plot holes here and there.  I don't right much care, yet.  But I really hope Moffat isn't starting to get sloppy.  This is the year that Amy and Rory leave the show.  We know that much, but how is it going to happen?  And how long can the Doctor stay hidden?

Grimm (NBC - 2nd season): I'm really enjoying this show.  It's becoming less of a <blah>-bat of the week and more of a show with some real direction.  So far all four episodes aired this season have been excellent.  I also love the whole thing of everyone dealing with a Grimm who is somehow different from other Grimms.  I hope they keep up the good work.

My only fear: what the heck is NBC doing beginning this show so early?  A lot of people like this show, and when a network starts switching nights and pulling these shenanigans, it's usually a portent of cancellation.  ("Firefly," anyone?)  I highly recommend watching this show and keeping it on the air.

Also, one last item.  For some reason, Fox is airing a mysterious 13th episode of "Touch" this coming Friday.  I guess there was one episode they decided not to air previously.  Is there any show that FOX can show IN ORDER?  ("Firefly," anyone?)  So don't miss this episode coming on this week.  Your guess is as good as mine as to what they're going to touch on.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Rejection Letters Are Better Than Nothing

Since I'm new at this, I'd appreciate any advice in handling markets that just don't send rejection letters.  On my blog, you're certain to hear me complain about all the form-letter rejections I keep getting.  But you know what?  I actually cherish every single rejection I get.  It's only when I get no response that I truly get frustrated.  Yes, the form-letter rejection hurts, but each one confirms the following:
  • They received your manuscript.
  • They looked at your manuscript.
  • They don't want your manuscript.
  • You're free to submit your manuscript elsewhere (where simultaneous submissions are an issue).
When you don't receive notice, then any one of these simple facts is up in the air.  Did they receive the manuscript?  Did they lose it?  Are they still considering your manuscript?  Are you free to submit elsewhere?

Over the past few years, I have submitted to several magazines, publications, publishers, and entered a few contests.  And the vast majority of them have contacted me to let me know the results.  It's the professional thing to do.

But there are a few markets that I have yet to hear from.  After a few months and a non-response to follow up queries, I can only assume that either my manuscript was rejected or they never received it.  In either case, I assume it's safe to continue on and submit the story elsewhere (though I still have this fear that someone will ding me with a simultaneous submission demerit and blackball me).

And I have yet to return to ANY of these markets.  If I don't hear from them, they're leaving me hanging.  I don't know where I stand with them, and there really is no desire to give them a second chance with another manuscript.  In my humble opinion, these markets are shooting themselves in the foot by NOT sending out rejection letters.

Hopefully, some more experienced and published writers will view this post.  If so, I have a couple of questions.  Have you had any success with markets that don't usually respond back (that is, they didn't respond to your first manuscript, but they published a subsequent one)?  Or do you also avoid those markets in the future?  How long do you wait and how many follow up query letters does it take before you assume a rejection?  Have you ever been tempted to publish a list of markets that don't respond?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

W1S1: August 2012 Success

Lately I've been struggling with my writing, due to exam studying and overall rejection fatigue.  But I was able to squeak one out in August.  I wrote and submitted Stanley Saucer: Space Assassin.  I even already got my form-letter rejection.  So, this is the first time one of my stories went through the whole cycle in one month!  Awesome!

Click on the picture above to see other Write-1 Sub-1 winners for August.

Movie Rentals: In Time, TinTin

It's was movie night at the Windhams this past Labor Day weekend.  We watched two newish movies, one which I deem overrated and one underrated.

In Time sounds like such a great idea.  Instead of money, you pay with minutes of your own life.  The movie begins effectively with Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) waking up with just under 24 hours left on his clock.  When the clock runs out, that's it.  You die.  As Salas goes through the normal routine of the day, we learn that the poor all live like this, with so little time left.  Everyone has debt to pay, rent, food, transportation, etc.  Wages are slowly going down while charges and interest slowly rise.  Every day, random people die on the streets.

Everything changes when Salas meets a man with over a century left.  This man is bored with life, so he gives everything he has to Salas.  Then armed with so much time on his hand, Salas begins a journey to discover the truth behind the whole system.

The movie opens with so much promise and then it falls apart.  The action is fun to watch, but there are so many glaring errors that it's just so distracting.

For example, we watch a five minute clip of Salas traveling through several different time zones to go from the poor lands to the rich lands.  At every barrier, Salas has to pay a toll.  By the time he's finished his journey, the total cost is one whole year.  Then when something happens to leave Salas with only two hours left on his arm, he somehow makes the trip back to his hometown.  How did he get past those barriers?  Didn't it take more than two hours to get back?

Another problem is the silly battle they do similar to arm wrestling.  You try to suck the other person's time.  Salas explains to someone, "You let your own clock get close to zero, and while they're watching your clock, they don't see that their own clock is almost at zero."  But since the transfer between individuals is 1-to-1, this scenario is impossible!  If both clocks are almost at zero, where did all that excess time go?  Plus, watching these battles is amazingly non-exciting, and I don't care how much dramatic music you add.

And throughout the movie, the amount of time left on Salas's arm doesn't always make sense.  It's almost as if this movie just needed another round or two of editing ... as if this movie got rushed to be released.  I'm at a loss, as the editor, Zach Staenberg did The Matrix trilogy.  And the writer, Andrew Niccol did The Truman Show and Gattaca.  So, I'm not sure what went wrong with this movie.

Additionally, the movie builds up certain promises at the beginning that just aren't met.  There were so many devices that could have been used to make this a great movie.  Instead, it ends in a disappointing whimper.

My advice: the movie is still worth watching for the action.  If you can rent it for under $2 and have some extra time on your hand, go check it out.

The Adventures of TinTin was very enjoyable.  This is based on the TinTin cartoon series by European comic writer Herge', which began 1929.  This is one of the rare US-made movies that tanked in the US, but scored major dough in the foreign market.  It only made $77.6M in the US and $294.3M elsewhere.  It met its budget and enough to announce a sequel.

When it came out in the US last December, I avoided watching it, because when I saw the words "TinTin" and that cute little dog, my brain told me "Rin Tin Tin."  And I had no interest in watching another sappy doggy movie.  Even when I got the movie at the rental store with one of those "buy a new release and get this movie free" deals, I still thought I was getting a sappy doggy movie for the kids.

Turns out I was wrong.

It's not a sappy doggy movie, but an Indiana Jones like action flick starring a guy named Tintin.  The dog's name turns out to be Snowy.  Tintin is a reporter who helps to solve crimes and gets involved in crazy adventures.  And I'm not talking a Dora the Explorer type adventure, but rather the kind where guns are shot and people actually die.  Yes, I did say Indiana Jones.  The fact that Spielberg and Williams team up adds to this feel.

If you're not familiar with this European sensation that is Tintin, I recommend that you look into it.  There's a TV series on Netflix.  There's this movie you can rent.  Go check out what those across the pond enjoy.

Plus, this movie employs the best execution of capture-motion animation technology I've ever seen.  It all looks real, and it's not creepy (like in The Polar Express).  I was almost convinced that they had live actors playing with just a little digital touching-up, but was surprised to see that the actors look nothing like what's on the screen.  It's 100% animated.  Well done.

So, check it out.  It's possibly the most underrated film of 2011.

Total Views = 10,000

I hit another milestone with this blog.  10,000 total views!  A vast majority of these views appear to be coming from random people doing Google searches.

Thanks for reading and keep it up.  Tell all your friends!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Two Funny Political Games

As fitting for the season, here are two funny political games I've come across.  The first is an online game, and the second is a variation of a board game that I invented last weekend.


In this game, you are Obama trying to save the economy.  You must ride your pogo stick, capture boosts that will help you fly higher, and purchase upgrades.  You win when you help to bring down the national debt.

This game is hilarious and had me rolling on the ground.  You can play it here on NotDoppler.

Hint: It took me about twenty minutes to realize that if you lean forward, you go faster, and you score more points.  If you just bounce straight up and down, you get hardly anything, and the game's pretty boring.  Just lean forward and the game becomes worth it very quickly.

Sorry!: Democrat Edition

This variation that I created follows the same rules as regular Sorry! (click on picture above to remember these rules), except who moves and which pawns move are highly restricted based on Need.  Plus, extra attention is paid on slowing down the person in the Lead.

Since the moves are pretty much dictated by the following rules, you can either play this variation with your friends, OR you can even play this solitaire--that is, one person playing all four players.

#1) Need and Lead are determined by each person's Success Score.  The Success Score equals the sum of squares each pawn is away from "Start."  A pawn on the square directly next to "Start" has a score of zero.  The next square has a score of one.  On the modern board, the next player's Start square is 15 squares away, so a pawn on that square has a score of 15.  A pawn that has made it Home has the full score of 64.  Since you have four pawns, add up all four individual scores to get the total Success Score.  The max Success Score is 256, which means all four pawns have made it Home.

Need = the player with the lowest Success Score at the beginning of the turn.  In case of tie, Need = the player whose pawn has the lowest individual score (that is, closest to Start).  If that's still a tie, compare the second lowest individual scores, and so on.  If still a tie, you can either choose the player who's had the most rotten luck so far in the game, or randomly choose the person in Need.

Lead = the player with the highest Success Score at the beginning of the turn.  It's possible to have more than one player in the Lead (a tie).  If a tie breaker is needed, Lead = the player whose pawn has the highest individual score (closest to Home).  If that's still a tie, compare the second highest individual scores, and so on.

#2) At each turn, either the player in Need moves forward OR the player in Lead moves backward.  (Clarification: turns do not pass around the board like normal.  If a player is in a really bad way, they could move several times in a row until they are no longer in Need.)

#3a) On a forward-moving card, the player in Need first determines if it's possible to attack one of the Lead player's pawns and send them to Start.  If so, then that move must be made.  If there is more than one one choice of attack, then attack the pawn that is most in the lead.

#3b) Exception to an attack: At most one pawn of a person in Lead can be attacked.  If an attack harms more than one pawn (such as landing on a Slide), or someone who is not in the Lead, then that move cannot be made.

#3c) If no attack on the Lead can be made, then the person in Need must move the pawn closest to Start.  If that move is illegal (or an illegal attack), then the second closest pawn should be moved.

#3d) If there are no legal moves for the person in Need, then play reverts to the second person in lead, and so on to the fourth person (Lead).  If the fourth person can't move, then draw the next card.

#4) The rest of the rules are card specific.  Here's what you do with the "special" cards...

Card #1: The player that has the most number of pawns in Start will move his pawn to the square just outside of Start (remember that the score is still zero at this square).  If there is a tie, the person most in Need gets to move his pawn out.  If there's still a tie, consider if a Lead person can be attacked.  If still a tie (such as beginning of the game) then randomly pick a player to move his pawn out.  If no pawns can be moved out, then move a player forward one square (see rules 3a-3d).

Card #2: Same as Card #1.  This player does not get a second turn, because ... well ... that wouldn't be fair.  If no pawns can be moved out, then move a player forward two squares (see rules 3a-3d).

Card #4: The person in Lead will move his furthest out pawn back four spaces.  Exceptions: if that pawn is at the end of a slide, and going back four causes the pawn to slide back to where it began, that's not good enough.  The person in Lead needs to pay.  So move back his second furthest out pawn instead.  If moving backwards attacks another player, don't move that pawn.  Under no circumstances can you be allowed to move backwards past Start, as that gives way too much of an advantage.  No one should be allowed that big a break.  If the person in Lead can't move back any pawns, then the second person in Lead moves.

Card #7: This is the Community Card.  It must be split between all four players--one pawn each.  Start with the person most in Need.  If he catches up with the second person most in Need, then they share the balance of the 7 spaces, and so on until you run out of spaces.  Give any extra leftover spaces to the person who was originally in Need.

Card #10: The person in Need moves.  If he can attack one of the Lead person's pawns by moving backward one space (and there is no forward-ten-spaces capturing move), then that move must be made.  Otherwise, move forward ten spaces (rules #3a-#3d).

Card #11: The person in Need can switch a pawn's place with one of the Lead person's pawns, using the following algorithm: First look at the Lead person's most advanced pawn.  Go backwards around the board until you come across the first Need person's pawn.  If switching the two pawns puts the person in Need in a better position and the person in Lead in a worse position, then switch those pawns.  If not, then look at the next Need person's pawn (going backwards).  If no legal switches can be made, look at the Lead person's second most advanced pawn, and so.  If absolutely no legal switches exist, then the person in Need moves forward 11 spaces (rules #3a-#3d).

Sorry! Card: The person in Need will Sorry a Lead person's pawn using the following algorithm.  Start at the square next to Start and move forward until you get to the first Lead person's pawn.  Sorry that pawn.  If the person in Need has no pawns in Start, then the second person in Need gets to go.  In the rare occasion that the person in Lead is the only person who has a pawn in Start, he will forfeit his turn.  He can afford it.

#5) If a situation occurs that has not been covered in rules #1-#4, then the players should confer with each other and determine which move would be the most equitable for the good of all players.

#6) Winning the game: Play continues until every player wins, OR everyone decides unanimously that they are fed up with the whole system and refuse to play anymore.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

2012 TV Fall Preview

The Fall Season is upon us.  Schedules are set.  Are you ready to happily lose hours a week watching the return of your favorite shows as well as some upcoming new shows?  I'm a little excited.

However, it looks like I'll be watching less TV than I have in past years.  With the cancellation of a couple of my regular shows, and slim sci-fi pickings in the upcoming shows, there just won't be as much for me to watch.

The biggest disappointment is FOX who cancelled their profitable "Terra Nova" just when it was starting to get interesting.  And there's not even one good new show (that I'm interested in) to take its place.  This may be the first time in a long time that I've seen FOX not provide even one new sci-fi show.

New shows I will try out this season...

Revolution on NBC (premiere: Sept. 17): This show explores what happens after all the lights go out all over the world.  A mysterious EMP-like something knocks out everything, including batteries and engines, etc.  The world's current governments fall apart, and people try to survive in a new world, and possibly even try to figure out how to turn the lights back on.  This show looks interesting, especially with J. J. Abrams at the helm.

Last Resort on ABC (premiere: Sept. 27): A powerful nuclear submarine receives orders to annihilate Pakistan.  The commander refuses and flees from his own government.  Armed with nukes, this show looks like it could be a fun action/thriller ride.

The Neighbors on ABC (premiere: Sept. 26): A family moves in to a neighborhood filled with aliens.  Evidently, critics are already panning this show.  Yeah, it looks stupid, and it probably won't last more than five episodes, but it's sci-fi, and it does seem to have some funny bits.  I'll give it one or two episodes to catch my interest.

Shows I'm passing on include:

666 Park Avenue (ABC): it looks like it could have some cool religious sci-fi elements, but it seems too centered around sexual desires.  No thanks.

Arrow (CW): the telling of the Green Arrow might have caught my attention earlier, but after what Smallville became, I'm not interested.

Beauty and the Beast (CW): See my comment above concerning Smallville.  Plus, this show conflicts with Person of Interest and The Office.

Returning shows I'm looking forward to (or currently running):

Alphas (SyFy - on now for a few more weeks)
Warehouse 13 (SyFy - on now for a few more weeks)
Grimm (NBC - on now - they started super early)
Doctor Who (BBC America - Sept. 8 - it's about time!  Note that this is one week after the premiere in the UK - those buggers!)
The Office (NBC - Sept. 20 - this is their last season)
Haven (SyFy - Sept. 21 - if they don't delay it again)
Person of Interest (CBS - Sept. 27 - still a family favorite)
Fringe (FOX - Sept. 28 - their last season, and it looks like a doozy)
Once Upon a Time (ABC - Sept. 30 - now that everyone remembers who they are, will this show get dumb?)
The Simpsons (FOX - Sept. 30 - D'oh!)
The Walking Dead (AMC - Oct. 14 - Season 3 looks to be very good)
Touch (FOX - Oct. 26 - Hate the "science," but good stories)
Psych (USA - premiere sometime in the Fall)

Update (8/22/2012): Doctor Who has been moved up to Sept. 1 to be in synch with the UK.  Yeah!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Total Recall (2012)

I caught this movie yesterday--yes, a little late, but I've been busy vacationing it up the past few weeks.  I had to travel an extra 10 miles to the mall to find a theater showing it at the cheap 4:05 time slot.  And when I walked into the theater at 4:00, I was the only one in the room.  At first I was excited that I would be the only one watching a movie (never had that happen before), but in the last minute, a noisy family with kids came in, and then about two couples and one single.  Dang!

Plus, it was in the theater down at the end where the speakers make a loud buzz every time the air conditioner comes on.  And this movie is only at the beginning of its third week!

So, where are the fans?  It turns out that they practically reject this remake.  Since it's different, but not different enough, they hate it.  But the movie itself (if you never saw the original) was still pretty good.  It was, in my opinion, as good or better than I, Robot which has a similar feel and type of action.  It's much like several of the book-adaptations I saw with my kids.  With the exception of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, my kids rejected several of the recent adaptation movies, while my wife and I, who hadn't read the books, actually enjoyed them.  The most drastic example was The Last Airbender, an adaption of the TV cartoon Avatar, which we parents enjoyed until we actually watched the cartoon and came to hate the movie.

Funny how that works.

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed Total Recall (2012).  It captures well the mood of cyberpunk, though not as well as Blade Runner.  The movie's pace was excellent and left no room for any boring scenes.  It was nice to see Colin Farrell play a likeable character for a change.

Was this movie better than the original?  It's difficult to judge.  You can see my review of the first movie here.

The first movie was an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," which I have yet to read.  The second movie was an an adaptation of the first movie, which in and of itself gives the first movie a big advantage.

The second movie removes what I call the R-rated distractions, which I consider to be a good thing.  These are the trademark of Verhoeven.  Think Robocop and Starship Troopers.  Verhoeven has this knack of introducing funny lines and scenes, usually of a Rated R nature.  They usually are successful in going for the laugh, but it's also usually distracting and comes across as looking very cheezy.

Funny thing is, the lack of these Verhoeven touches in the 2012 version is most likely why the fans are rejecting it.  We are treated to one "tri-boobie" scene, which is an unfortunate bow to these touches.  It's unfortunate because it's the only bow, and it really sticks out in the flow of the movie.  In the original, we at least know she's a mutant.  In the new movie, we're scratching our head--"What just happened here?"

But other than that one scene, this remake is a more non-cheezy "mature" movie free of those distractions.  It has much more action.  Also, there is more interplay between the characters.  Plus, I think the movie does a slightly better job at creating the possibility of two different realities.  The first movie shows too many scenes away from Quaid, thus locking down the "Mars is real" reality.  The remake shows most everything from Quaid's point of view, so either reality could be true.

In the area of bad science, both movies have their fair share.  In the remake, the whole "Fall" business is practically impossible.  The shift in gravity would be gradual throughout the whole trip.  And if it's in free fall, as one imdb user comments, the riders would experience weightlessness the whole trip.  That same user comments that Great Britain and Australia aren't polar opposites.  But it's only off by a few degrees.  Eesh!  Some of these nitpickers need to get a life.  :)

If you're a Philip K. Dick fan, I recommend seeing this movie in the theater as soon as possible, because it doesn't look like it'll last much longer.  It's a shame, but this movie deserves more than the rap it's getting.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Amazing Spiderman - Ten Years Later

Okay, I have to admit why I waited so long to watch the reboot of The Amazing Spider-Man.  I had seen the 2002 release of Spider-Man.  And I watched and enjoyed the two sequels.  So I, like many others, decided it wasn't worth watching it again.  I mean, Columbia Pictures released this remake only TEN years after the previous one.

However, after reading Orson Scott Card's review of the newer movie, I decided to go ahead and watch, and I'm glad I did.  It was overall a very good movie and I enjoyed nearly every minute of it.  But the whole time, I couldn't help but compare with the 2002 version.

Was it a good idea to produce this movie so soon after the other?  The movie has actually done well so far, having already pulled in $256.7M in the USA, beating its $230M budget.  And foreign markets brings the total to $691.8M.  As far as I know, they are continuing with their plans to produce the sequel.  So, yes.  In hindsight, it was a good move to produce the movie.

How does this compare with the 2002 movie?  The earlier movie pulled in $403.7M USA and $821.7M Total.  Adjusting for inflation and adjusting for 3-D ticket sales, the older movie will probably have pulled in almost twice as much as the newer version.

Funny thing is, I actually liked the newer one better.  It was a more personal movie.  Andrew Garfield did a great job portraying the quirky teenager.  I don't know how times I had to remind myself that my own teenager wasn't up on the screen.  I had to keep looking at my son sitting next to me to make sure he was still there.

This Spider-Man movie also does a better job at addressing the pendulum physics as Peter swings in between buildings.  He doesn't just magically fly down the middle of the street like in most other renditions.  In fact, we're treated to a 30-second clip of two science geeks analyzing Spider-Man's swinging.  Awesome!  (We could always use more geeks in movies.)

The music was pretty good and appropriate to the setting.  At first it sounded too similar to the Elfman score, but it quickly deviated.  The only complaint I have is the usual one of the music being too loud in some parts.  The worst being a piano slam on the keys during a Halloween-like scene.  This technique would have been more effective if it weren't so loud.  As soon as a person's attention turns to the music instead of the action, the music has overstepped its bounds.  Though, I did like the piano being used, and more movies ought to incorporate this wonderful melodic and percussive instrument.  I noted in the credits that the composer himself, James Horner, performed the piano solos.

The 2002 movie provides more in-your-face action and possibly cooler effects.  The 2012 movie provides a more in-depth exploration into Peter Parker's mind.  The 2002 movie provides more memorable and cinematic scenes.  The 2012 movie provides the funniest Stan Lee cameo I've seen so far.

Is the new movie worth watching in 3D?  I don't know.  That option was no longer available in my city.  But I enjoyed the movie fine without it.  My advice: if it's still out, go see this movie.  Or catch it at the $2 theater.  It's worth watching on the big screen.

Finally, I couldn't help noticing that the director is named Webb.  That's funny.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Brush with Death on VA I-77S Mile Marker 26

The date: August 16, 2009 (or possibly August 15).
The location: I-77 South in Virginia, mile marker 26, bridge over the New River.
The event: My family and I almost lost our lives.

I was driving our family truckster, our Chrysler minivan, also known as "The Spaceship."  Going south on I-77, I got into the left lane to pass some slower drivers.  Then suddenly, the sky opened up and all this rain came gushing down.  I was already going under the speed limit, as the cruise control was trying to catch up from going slow.

I was going about 63 when I tapped on the brake to cancel the cruise control, and started slipping.  I made a correction, but the back of the van kept going and wouldn't respond.  It threw us into a full spin.

What happened next is what you usually experience when disaster strikes.  My brain went into super-hyper mode where you see and hear every last detail, and you react very quickly, but the memory is a little fuzzy.  I saw the cars slowing down and giving us room.  The spin was disorientating, but I did what they teach in all the movies: turn the wheel in the direction of the spin.  Well, actually, I don't remember which way I was turning the wheel, but I was turning it frantically.

When we came out of the spin, we were traveling backwards.  I saw that we were headed straight for the side of the bridge past the left lane.  There were two cars parked right there in that left shoulder.  I slammed on the brakes.  One of the cars saw us coming, and pulled up.  There was just enough room.

Our van stopped within an inch or two of the vertical concrete.  We missed both cars and parked in between them, nearly perpendicular to the concrete.  Absolutely nothing collided with us during that whole episode, and we didn't end up in the river below us.

I was shaking like everything, but when I eventually got out of the van to check on everyone, I took a good look at the scene around me.  Several cars were stopped in both shoulders.  The two cars I almost hit had earlier wrecked with each other.  One local person had stopped to help.  He reported that ever since VDOT had finished construction on the New River Bridge, they had seen accidents pick up at that spot.

Then we all said the usual stuff about miracles and God watching over us, and I left the scene--just to get away from the danger of another minivan spinning out of control.  We stopped at Exit 14 to get in a good breather.

So, you may now ask me, "Why are you burdening us with this random journal entry?"  Well, for almost two years, I thought nothing more about the incident.  That is, it was an excuse for me to live up life and get more out of it (as you never know when it'll all end).  But it turns out there's more to the story.

In May 2011, my father-in-law alerted us to this news item.

Here's the text of the article, just in case the link expires.
WYTHE CO., Va. — The weather is sometimes a factor when it comes to car crashes, particularly on one small stretch of Interstate 77.

Just before the New River Bridge in Wythe County, 35 car crashes piled up in the exact same spot, in three years.   More than 70% of those happened in wet conditions.

But rain isn't the only factor leading to these accidents.

V-Dot knows there is a problem in this one stretch of southbound I-77.

Last year, VDOT released a detailed study about what's leading to these accidents and what can be done to correct the problem.   But even with the study, the accidents are still piling up.

“Here's where we are getting to the spot, right here,” Mark Stanely pointed out as he drove along I-77 South.

Mark Stanley makes the drive from his home in Wythe County to his job in Galax, twice a day, five days a week.

“If you follow tractor trailers through here, it's hair raising!” he said. “They all hit the exact same 100 foot of guardrail- every single wreck.”

The danger spot is southbound on I-77, just before you cross the New River Bridge (mile marker 26).

“You see a very dangerous situation,” Stanley said of his daily commute.

The guard rail is still mangled now, from a tractor-trailer accident on Friday. It’s the second, in almost as many weeks.

“You can't replace guardrail forever,” said Stanley of the fix. “It’s a serious safety concern as well as a headache for a traveler.”

V-DOT studied that stretch of Interstate from 2005-2007 and last year implemented some short-term changes for that stretch of road. 

“We’ve added some reflectivity to make the curve more visible, added some chevrons (reflective arrows) and some extra signs in the area,” said VDOT spokeswoman Michelle Earl.

On average, 10 to 20 accidents pile up in this same spot in this one location every year, according to VDOT’s study.

The problem lies, in the slope of the lanes.  The left lane slopes at an angle toward the concrete barrier, which throws the trucks off balance.

“Suddenly you have to take a sharper turn, and the asphalt is actually learning to the outside of the turn, and then you transition into the bridge” explained Stanley as he drove by. “Tractor trailers come through here at 65-70 mph, and their tops are all leaning to the left, and you’re just waiting for one to jackknife in front of you.”

V-Dot says it’s waiting on funding for a long-term major construction fix in the area.

“We have applied for safety funds for a long term solution,” said Earl.  “We are waiting on those funds to be identified at this time.”

But as Stanley continues to make the commute every day, he’s worried about what will happen while V-DOT waits for the money to come through.

“It’s predictable. There will be another one and it will be in that exact same spot,” said Stanley.

VDOT recommends trucks drive through that stretch at 60 mph and stay in the right lane.

V-DOT is hoping to soon add grooved pavement in the area, which could give the trucks more traction.
After reading this article and seeing how strongly correlated my experience was with the described problem above, I came to realize that negligence could be at play on the part of VDOT.  It's not just a post-event coincidental find (that is, you search the internet and happen to find what you're looking for).  There are too many collaborating events that give strong evidence that the post-bridge-construction state of the road is a dangerous situation that needs to be corrected.

Yesterday, after coming back from a West Virginia trip, some three years after our Incident, I was able to get a good look at the left lane as we drove past in the right lane.  When you pass mile marker 27, that is the exact spot where I had started slipping.  Keep in mind that once you pass 27 going south you're technically in the mile marker 26 zone.

But right as you pass the 27 marker, you can see the road in the left lane slope off steeply toward the left.  Yesterday I saw no evidence of any construction to fix the road--no grooved pavement, nor any attempts to decrease the grade.  Either way I looked at it, I realized that THEY STILL HAVEN'T FIXED THE PROBLEM.

I don't know what they're waiting for.  A lawsuit?  Are they crossing their fingers hoping that no one else will die?  Keep in mind that I never reported my 2009 incident.  There was no reason for us to report it.  The main damage was two lost hubcaps and thinner tires.  So, for each reported accident, I suspect that there are several more unreported incidents that VDOT doesn't know about.

So, my plea: if you've had a similar incident at this spot or know someone else who has, let someone know about it.  (I'm hoping that a few of you will find this post through a Google search.)  Perhaps publicity is the key to getting VDOT to finally getting around to fixing this problem.

And if you happen to be driving down I-77, I strongly suggest driving in the right lane as you pass the 27 marker.  Once you get past the bridge, it'll be safe to get back into the left lane.

And the story doesn't end there.

On September 6, 2011, a few months after the article above was written, a truck suffered a fatal accident.  You can read the news item here, and view pictures here.  (The picture above is from that same accident.)

Another accident occurred on May 14, 2012, just a couple of months ago.  You can read minimal details here.  Note the comment from a local at the bottom.  It says, "One of these days VDOT is going to fix that bridge. It was banked wrong to start with and they have never even tried to correct that. One of these days someone will get killed and maybe a lawsuit will make them fix it."

There isn't enough information in those two articles to state if the vehicles were traveling in the left lane, but the Bayesian (backwards-looking) probability is pretty high that they were, given the location and nature of the accidents.

Now, when is VDOT going to fix this deathtrap?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Blind Story Chains

Here's a fun game my son taught us a couple of days ago.  I don't know what it's called, but I'll give it a name: Blind Story Chains.  It's a game perfect for any family of aspiring writers.

Person #1 begins by writing a title on a piece of paper.

Person #2 writes the first paragraph and then folds the paper so the next person can't see what Person #1 wrote.

Person #3 can only see what Person #2 wrote.  He writes the next paragraph and hides what Person #2 wrote.

Person #4 can only see what Person #3 wrote ... and so on.  The last person gets to finish the story.

What you get in the end is a story with strange continuity, yet hilarious turns of events.

Here's a sample ... a story we co-wrote:

Pinkie Pie
One day, a giant pie was about to be devoured by millions of civilians of Burma, but they accidentally spilled pink paint all over it.  A man said he could solve their problem.  His name was Jack.

Jack was a painter.  He took out his paintbrush and brushed it all over the pie.  Then he painted the entire city pink, even the ravenous civilians.  Then the pie exploded.

The pie exploded pink applesauce.  The entire city tasted like mint ice cream.  Jack then died from shock.

For Jack's funeral, they served pink applesauce, and all the moms thought that was insensitive.  Especially with all the mint ice cream melting everywhere.

So after the funeral, there was a celebration of Life.  Everyone partied hard and crashed into their beds dreaming of pink and mint colored fairies.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Rides at Universal's Islands of Adventure

Yeah!  I've finally gotten to my last Disney/Universal post!  Here's what I've written already:
Today I finish off with Universal's Islands of Adventures.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey: I'll start with the best one.  I have never seen a ride this good.  The waiting line first gathers outside the castle, and then when you get to the lockers, you put your stuff away and get back in line.  Once you get to the herbology green house, the line moves pretty fast.

In a way, the ride starts when you walk through the castle.  You see big statues.  Dumbledore greets you.  Harry Potter and friends try to get you out of a boring lecture.  There are moving pictures that look so real (like in the movies)--I still can't figure out how they got it to look so real.

And before you know it, you're getting on the ride, which uses the most advanced up-to-date robotics and projection systems.  It really feels like you're flying on a broomstick.  I can't say much without giving it all away, but I will say that once, I snuck a peek at the car next to me, and it looked like something out of a cartoon how it jerked up and down and around.  The funny thing is that it doesn't feel like that while you're riding.

I rode it twice.

Dragon Challenge: Here, after walking past Hagrid's house and through a long castle area, you get to the part where you have to choose: the blue Hungarian Horntail or the red Chinese Fireball.  I chose the Horntail track.  This "hanging" roller coaster goes fast and flings you every which way.

Chances are the lines are going to be short, because this is the same exact two roller coasters as the Dueling Dragons, which opened in 1999.  And the two roller coasters used to be launched at the same time, giving the illusion of almost running into each other.  But last year when people complained about getting hit with shoes and what-have-you, they now run the coasters separately--so not quite so exciting.

Flight of the Hippogriff: This is a cute roller coaster for kids.  But it's a really short ride, and the line moves very slowly.  There are only something like 16 seats, and there's only one car that goes around.  My wife and youngest kid rode this while the rest of us hit the Dragon Challenge.  We actually hit it twice, and could have gone a third or fourth time if we wanted to, but it was hot and we tried not to get too sick.

The Hippogriff ride line had lots of non-shady spots, so my wife and kid got pretty hot, too.  Once on the ride, Hagrid says something, and then you go off riding on the hippogriff.  My kid fake-screamed the whole way, as the ride will shake your voice with humorous results.

After the ride, a park worker followed my wife and had compassion on her.  He was able to get her three free butterbeers.  (I told you a couple of days ago that my wife has these magical powers.  Wait!  I don't remember when I decided to marry her.  Uh oh!)  So, worker picking up hot momma equals free butterbeer--and let me tell you, that stuff is great.  It tastes a lot like what I would expect it to taste like.  It didn't have much of a buzz, though.  (Unless you count the killer brain freezes.)

Note that the Hippogriff ride is the exact same ride as the Flying Unicorn, which opened in 2000, only redecorated.

While we're in Harry Potter land, I already said before that they did the most awesome job putting it all together.  I think it's supposed to be Hogsmead, but it has a few shops you would expect to see in Diagon Ally.  You can buy replica wands.  My youngest one wanted Luna Lovegood's wand.  Don't know why, but she got one.  You can also get robes, gadgets, and even that monster's book.  (I had a fun time freaking out one of the stranger kids in the store.  "Ow!  It bit my finger off!  Dag nab it!")

The candy store is in there, but we actually ran out of time to visit.  There's also the Three Broomsticks.  An outside stage showcases the Triwizard Spirit Rally and the Frog Choir.  The singing for the latter was pretty awesome with tight harmonies and frogs.  I tried to determine if they were really singing or lip syncing.  I was leaning toward "singing" until they got to the last song when I noticed the alto's mouth moving to the soprano part and vice versa.  I suppose it's possible that they switched parts, but can they also switch timbre?  It was still fun to watch and listen.

Jurassic Park River Adventure: this is another fun ride with a long line.  My biggest complaint is that the John Williams score to Jurassic Park is probably his most boring work.  In the octagonal room, they played over and over a three-minute loop of dee-da-dee da da dee-da-dee da da dee-da-ditty da da da da!  I realized that there's really only four notes that repeat themselves over and over.  Aaaaahhhhhh!!!!!

We got out of that room and about twenty minutes later, we got on the ride.  First you up and ride on a calm river.  You go through the big Jurassic Park gate, and as it opens, they play those same four notes!!  I screamed "Noooo!!!!!" (translates into "DO NOT WANT!") and my kids laughed at me.

I won't tell you what comes next, but I'll give you a hint.  You get wet!

Jurassic Park Discovery Center: This cute little pseudo-museum lets you explore dinosaurs.  You can control a big dinosaur, study a wall full of dino-bones, watch a baby dinosaur hatch, etc.  Plus they have air conditioning.  The back door has windows made out of amber.  Cute!

The only thing about the place is that there isn't one speck of anything accurate in there.  Who cares?

The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride: At first we thought this was a people-mover type ride like in Tomorrowland.  You walk into what looks like one of those Sneetches Star machines.  Then you stand in a slow moving line that goes up to where the train lives.  It's a cute setup.

The ride itself is short as it goes through the "Seuss alphabet."  It's fun and cute, but nearly falls into the category of "long wait for short ride."  If they were open to suggestions, I would suggest turning this ride into an actual people-mover ride, where instead of having a couple of detached trains, you have one continuous set of cabins that just go around and around without stopping.  This would allow more people to get on the ride quickly, and could even increase its popularity.

My wife and youngest kid tried out Caro-Seuss-el, Pteranodon Flyers, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.  They enjoyed each ride.  The first has almost immediate loading.  The second took forever to get on, and the last is just like the Dumbo ride at Disney, only with squirting water.

The Cat In the Hat: I said they couldn't do this ride without me.  It goes through the pages of the book by that name.  It's really cute, but I only have one complaint.  It spins around rather quickly a couple of times too many.  And I'm still not sure why.  I hate rides that just spin!  But the cuteness of the ride mostly overcame my one complaint.

Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls:  This is a really fun water ride.  I'll go ahead and tell you know that you will get wet.  If the water doesn't splash in your car, they'll deliberately splash it in your laps, and there is NO safe seat.  You will get SOAKED.  It is so funny how soaked you get!

The line was terrible, though.  It moves slow and one part on the inside gets a little claustrophobic.  And get this.  When we got up to the ride itself, the one worker screamed at everyone!  "Get in the logs!!  Hurry!!  Hurry!!  You!!  Bags go right there!!  Hurry!!  Hurry!!"  Wowsers!  I appreciate trying to move things along, but I don't know about yelling at my kids like that.

Wait, I think I remember that worker from A Christmas Story.  "Hurry kid!  Santa doesn't have all day!"

But once we got past her, the ride was a lot of fun.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster: My son rode this four times while we rode Dudley Do-Right.  I really wanted to ride with him, but I was too sick from the heat.  The ride shoots you out of this tunnel at high speeds (using that alternating magnet technology), and you fling everywhere.  Maybe next time...

The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man: The ride itself was great.  The line was terrible, as I explained in my earlier post.  After an hour standing in the hot sun, we finally got inside the building and things started getting interesting as you first walk through a newsroom (which has a lot of gray props--did they just not get around to painting them?).  You learn the story of the bad guys taking over the city and how Jameson wants to send you out to help get the scoop.

This is a 3D ride.  No, actually it's 4D (see yesterday's post to see what I mean).  It was hilarious and fun, but not as good as the Harry Potter ride.

Lastly, I wanted to say something about all the simulation rides at Universal (there were tons of these there) and Star Tours at Disney.  Did you ever notice what all these rides have in common?  They all involve YOU saving the day.  "You did it.  Hurray!"  But then you go back and say, "What exactly was it that I did?"  You save ET's planet, or the city of New York, or the Simpsons' something, or the Rebel Spy, or whatever it was you saved in the Harry Potter ride.  I guess we're all suckers for praise.

It was a fun trip.  We'll have to go back in another eight years and catch the other things that we missed.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Rides at Universal Studios - Orlando

Here I continue reviewing the rides of theme parks in Orlando.  Yesterday I did Disney's Hollywood Studios.  Today I'll review the rides at the original Universal Studios park, and tomorrow I'll do Universal's Islands of Adventure.

The Simpsons Ride: Can you hear me screaming with joy like a girl?  When I heard this ride existed, it was first on my list.  I wasn't disappointed.  While standing in line, you get to watch Simpsons clips.  Most of the clips come from the Krustyland episode(s).  The whole family laughed over the whole BORT license plate routine.  I actually didn't want to leave that room, but eventually, everyone who stands in line has to ride the ride sometime.

The only thing I didn't like was Itchy and Scratchy doing the safety video.  Okay, I guess the idea is hilarious, but I never liked senseless violence.  When the safety video was over, the door to our room opened and just about whacked one of our party in the face.  Now, that was funny.

The ride itself was hilarious.  It's one of those simulation things where you watch a movie screen while your car moves up and down and around (like Star Tours in yesterday's review).  It was a fun ride.

Men In Black Alien Attack: This is one of those shoot-at-things ride.  It's just like the Buzz Lightyear ride in Tomorrowland or the Toy Story Midway Mania I wrote about yesterday.  It's fun to shoot at all the aliens, but it was difficult to know which red dot was mine.  I figured that when I shot an alien a sufficient number of times, my gun would flash green and I'd get points.  But I swear that several times I shot at some specific alien at least twenty times, and got nothing!  Maybe if your friend beats you to it, you can't get any more points.

The funny part is when the car across from you flashes red, you can shoot it and make them spin uncontrollably.  We got them, but they didn't get us.  Heh heh heh.

It was a fun ride, but I liked the Toy Story ride better.

E.T. Adventure: A relaxing ride.  Before it begins, you get to watch a video where Steven Spielberg explains that he needs you to help save ET's planet.  Then you get to walk through a cold, humid forest.  Air conditioning!!!  The ride itself features a big bike that seats around 25.  For best effect, you'll want to try to sit toward the left side--the further the better.

It's another simulation ride, but unlike the Simpsons, there is no projection on a screen.  Here you get to see actual models.  And there are no scary roller coaster effects.  It's an entertaining ride for the whole family.

Revenge of the Mummy: I took the teenagers with me on this one.  The wait inside the building involves walking through some catacombs.  At one place, you can touch an artifact, as long as you don't mind getting cursed.  What you touch is actually a battery that reacts to the human hand and powers some of the lights in the cave.  Those lights brightening and dimming gave a fun effect.

At the beginning of the ride, the workers had their thumbs up to signal it was okay to start the ride, but then they all simultaneously went to thumbs down.  Uh oh!

The ride is part roller coaster and part simulation.  It goes pretty fast, and it was lots of fun.  I can't say anymore without spoilers.

Shrek 4D: Do you want to know what 4D really means?  Well, I'll tell you.  2D means you get up/down and left/right.  This is like watching a normal movie.  3D adds a dimension: in/out.  For this you need to wear glasses.  This is like watching Cameron's Avatar.  4D means you get water splashed in your face.  You don't believe me?  Think about all the "4D" rides you've ever been on.  Did you ever leave one of those with a dry face?

Before you view the movie, you walk into a dungeon, and you get initiated before your "torture."  The movie itself was hilarious.  The 3D, um ... I mean 4D effects were good and funny.  My only complaint was that some of the incidental sound effects were way too loud.

Evidently, you can obtain this movie on DVD, so I had the privilege of viewing it beforehand a couple of years ago.  The movie shown at Universal was exactly the same, but it is much funnier with the full 4D effects in full form--so even if you've seen the DVD, go ahead and watch it the way it was intended to be experienced.

Despicable Me Minion Mayhem: The ride was fun, but the line was a little tough.  You get to watch some cute Despicable Me clips and quizzes, but the clips loop around every 10-15 minutes.  So, once you've seen it through one cycle, it starts getting a little old.  Most of the line was outside, but mostly shaded.  It's another simulation ride, and really cute and fun.  It's in 3D, which you can see with your minion glasses.

I liked the Simpsons ride better, though.

Animal Actors on Location:  I didn't get to see this one, but I heard about it from my little daughter.  She loved it.  You get to see animals doing fun tricks.

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit: My teenager son rode this one in the dark, which he says was more fun than riding it in the daytime.  By the time we got to the ride, I was feeling too sick to get on.  Plus it looks a little intimidating.  I've seen higher roller coasters, but this one goes STRAIGHT UP at the very beginning.

You get to choose your own music.  It goes fast.  On the loop it forces you to go right-side up at the top, which I suspect provides some cool zero-g effects.

The rest of us watched the coaster while he rode.  The lights at night can be pretty.

We didn't get back to the park in time to watch much of the Universal Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories.  And when we got close, there was still a fence in the way.  They shine some movie clips on the buildings, shoot fireworks, and shine colorful lights on water spraying out of the lake.  Towards the end though, I was waiting for the big finish with a bunch of fireworks, but it ended with sappy music and not even one firework.  "Goodbye and thanks for watching."  Where was the big finish?  Maybe there was something else cool going on that you could see if you were actually up at the lake.

It was a fun day.  Though I didn't get to do everything I wanted to do with all the crowds and the hotness.  I would have liked to have seen the Terminator 2: 3-D show.  And the Twister... Ride It Out show.  We almost went in, but most of us were afraid it would be one of those spin-around rides, and I can't ride any more of those after Disney's Mission to Mars, which I rode eight years ago.  BARF!

I wish I could have seen the Disaster show.  We did catch a little of the Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue as we ate our Dippin Dots.  It looked funny.  And lastly, I wish I could have gone through the Lucy tribute.

What we did ride was lots of fun, though.

The Rides at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Last week I hit Disney with the family.  This year we decided to go with Hollywood Studios.  We had gone to this park about eight years ago when it was still "MGM Studios."  Now the park seems to have grown a little and didn't feel so empty.  We rode several rides and saw some shows.  This is the Disney Park to go to if you feel like watching shows, and also evidently if you like seeing fire in your face (which I do).

Star Tours: After taking a couple of pictures with Tigger and Eeyore, we made a beeline for Star Tours.  You see, unlike eight years ago, now the ride is in 3-D, and the sequences are randomized, so you shouldn't get the same show twice.  Also, I think they have more "shuttles" so the line moves faster.

And waiting in line is hilarious.  You get to see C3PO and R2D2 playing up their antics.  Some funny robot checks baggage, and there are other funny surprises.

The first show we watched actually made us sick, though it was pretty entertaining.  When we were done with the first go around, the fast passes we had gotten kicked in, so we went right back in for a second time.  That time was even funnier, and not so sickening.  Several hours later, we went for a third time.  And get this!  It was exactly the same as our second time through.  What are the chances of that happening?

We asked one of the workers about it.  The ride gives you some opening (there's only 3 or 4 of those).  Then you get some second piece (we got the Wookie planet each time).  Then the "transmission."  There are several of those, each one featuring a specific character.  They only do Jar Jar Binks once a day, so if you see his transmission, consider yourself lucky.  Then the ride chooses an ending.  So you get 4 random pieces that together give you from 50 to 72 different combinations.

Oh, and my son was the Rebel Spy in one of the shows.  Awesome!

While waiting in line, we also saw some of the Jedi Training with the kids.  That was cute.

Muppet Vision 3D: I just love the Muppets.  My wife still married me.  My kids wonder what's wrong with me.  But they all seemed to enjoy this 3D show.  Mee mee mee mee!

My only complaint is that the "Spirit of 3D" creature thing was very annoying, and didn't really fit the spirit and feel of the Muppets.  But everything else was pure Muppet mayhem, and I highly recommend it. 

If you saw the show eight years ago, though, I believe it's exactly the same as it was before.  That's not going to stop you from watching it again.  Is it!

Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!: I think this show is basically the same as it was eight years ago.  But still just as enjoyable.  They play out a few scenes similar to what happens in the movies.  And they explain how some of the stunts work.  The props are amazing, and that fire in the face gets pretty hot.  I can't say much else without spoilers.

Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show: You should have seen the look on my 7-year old girl's face.  I know what it's like to be in a out-of-control spinning car on wet pavement.  So when those cars came spinning out at the very beginning, I just about screamed.  They get so close to each other without wrecking.  The precision was amazing.  (I did see two cars touch one time, but not even a dent--not sure if it was intentional.)

Imagine car chases, cars jumping, motors revving up, motorcycles, jet skis, stunt explainings, and ... you know what I say next ... fire in your face.  Good testosterone fun for the whole family!

Studio Backlot Tour: That was fun.  I love how they pretend that they have a fully functioning movie studio there and how we get the privilege of going backstage to see some of the action.  Well, they do have some real stuff there, including some actual famous props used in real movies.  There's a particular scene in that tour that practically floored me.  It was one of those "How did they do that?" moments.  It was also fun listening to a couple of kids screaming.  Heh heh heh.  Oh, and did I mention? ... Fire in the face!

My only complaint: did they really have to play up Michael Bay as God's directing gift on earth?  Have they looked at Rotten Tomatoes to see what scores Pearl Harbor got?

Rock 'n' Roller Coaster: Awesome ride.  I'm not a big Aerosmith fan, but I liked the song they chose for me: "Walk This Way."  My sons says he had a friend who got "Dude Looks Like a Lady."  Funny.

When you stand in line, you can see the launch of the coaster.  They employ the alternating electromagnets that speeds you up from 0 to 60 in just a couple of seconds.  But what you don't see is that the coaster goes even faster through that first dark tunnel.  Just when I thought the ride couldn't possibly go faster, it KEPT ON GOING!  I really couldn't breath.  And then came the neon twists.


My only complaint: it needs to be longer.

The Great Movie Ride: My little kid went on that ride with her mom, so I missed that one.  I remember it from eight years ago.  It shows famous scenes from different movies, and kept my interest back then.  There was even some interplay with the guides.  My wife said they changed up the interplay a little this time.

Toy Story Midway Mania!: This is a new ride, so be prepared for very long lines.  But I'll tell you what we learned.  My wife got this secret information talking to one of the workers.  (I don't know how she does this.  She's one of those "pushing" Alphas, I guess.)  The best time to catch the ride is 9PM when half the park goes to see the first showing of Fantasmic.  The wait time at the front of the line may say 120 or 90 minutes, but the wait is actually much shorter during that hour.  If you do have to wait more than an hour, they will still let you ride the ride even though the park closes at 10PM.

Well, we got in line at 9PM.  The wait time said 90 minutes.  We only waited 30-40 minutes.  And we had plenty of time to go see Fantasmic.

The Toy Story ride itself was pretty fun.  You get to wear 3D glasses, and shoot things on a screen.  The precision is amazing that it seems like you're shooting real balls or hoops, or whatever it is.  Sometimes when you pop a bubble, real water splashes on you.  Funny!

Fantasmic!: I'm glad we went to the 10:30PM show.  That worker I mentioned earlier told us that the 10:30PM showing never fills up.  So if you do Toy Story first and then go to the show, you can relax, knowing that you won't be turned away.

We had to sit all the way near the side, but we got to sit near the front.  We all did the wave in the stands while we waited for the show to start.  And hardly anyone seemed to mind that dude with the butt crack up front.

The show was slightly different than what I remembered from eight years ago.  It's been upgraded with better special effects.  It has Mickey and every other Disney character you can think of.  It also has ... fire in your face.  It felt like a magical experience, and when it was over, we didn't want to leave.

Oh, my favorite part was when one of the witches quoted from Sleeping Beauty--almost.  "Now you shall deal with me and all the powers of ... my imagination."  Hah!  Copout!!  Not allowed to say that word?  Oh well.  Mickey's still cool and awesome!

I didn't get to ride The Twilight Zone Tower of Tower.  We just ran out of time.  My kid also didn't get to play in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure.  The first time we passed by there, they had it closed down because of rain, and the second time we went past, it was closed.  They close it down at 7PM.  Mee mee mee mee mee!  And somehow we missed the Disney Junior--Live on Stage.  It's in the back off to the right (looking from the front gate).