Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sports: Golden Opportunity


Usually around this time in Paris, tennis fans watch Rafael Nadal steamrolling the opposition in the French Open.

Not so this year. Nadal, the four-time French Open champion and the current number one-ranked player, was defeated today by an unlikely opponent - Robin Soderling, a little-known player from outside the top 10. In the match, Soderling used ferocious serving and forehands to dictate play, whipping Nadal from side to side and hitting over sixty winners.

While most of the credit for the win should go to Soderling for his aggressive play, it must be mentioned that Nadal, for whatever reason, was clearly not his usual self. Rafa's first serve speed was regularly in the 90 mph range - slow enough to be a liability instead of a weapon. His lefty forehand, usually so potent a weapon, lacked depth and precision; he dumped several into the net, which explains his high unforced error count.

The upset was stunning, but it also provided a tantalizing opportunity for the rest of the men's field. Still left in the draw are dangerous Frenchmen like Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, as well as a number of talented veterans like Andy Roddick and Nikolay Davydenko. No. 3-ranked Andy Murray also lurks in the background, and he's had a good tournament so far.

The front runner, though, has to be Roger Federer, three-time French Open finalist and winner of 13 Grand Slam tournaments. The Swiss master still needs the French Open to complete the career Grand Slam, and it's hard to imagine a better opening for him than this unlikely scenario.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Movies: Never Surrender

Why do people make movies? The most obvious motivation is money, but not every movie is produced strictly with profit in mind. Just look at "Never Surrender," a low-budget martial arts flick written by, produced by, directed by, and starring Hector Echavarria:



As far as I can tell, the entire film is a vehicle for expressing Echavarria's innermost fantasies. He plays a world champion mixed-martial arts fighter, he beds copious amounts of attractive women, he's friends with the likes of B.J. Penn and Heath Herring. Talk about wish fulfillment!

When you consider that the whole thing is basically the work of one man, it's hard to describe how awful the movie is. Aside from the fun presence of some of the UFC's most popular fighters, every aspect of the movie plays out like a mid-life crisis. The plot (which sees Echavarria's character willingly go into an illegal underground cage-fighting ring in order to...err...) is flimsy and contrived, with notes taken from "Rocky" and '80s kickboxing movies.

There are wince-inducing sex scenes (read: softcore porn), but they're spliced in with wince-inducing fight scenes. Echavarria is noticeably out of shape, and watching him flail around in the cage isn't nearly as entertaining as watching a true action star/martial artist like Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Rating: 2/10

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Miscellany: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu of Gulf Brezee


The increasing popularity of mixed-martial arts competitions like the UFC has led to an upsurge in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training classes and students. BJJ is a martial art that emphasizes grappling and fighting on the ground instead of standing up and punching and kicking at an opponent. There are a wide variety of classes available, some better than others. If you live in or near Pensacola, you can find good training with Pat Vito at Gracie Jiu-Jitsu of Gulf Breeze.

Pat Vito's class may be run out of a health club, but it's in no way a fad or exercise class designed for housewives. This is solid, technical jiu-jitsu, taught in an atmosphere with minimum attitude (it's hard to get too macho when your classmates are so diverse - your training partner might be a middle-schooler or middle-aged). The class is offered four times a week in the evenings.

Vito, who is part of the Team Hopkins-Pedro Sauer line of instructors, has eight years of experience in BJJ. Class is conducted in a straightforward fashion - warm-up, instruction on a specific technique, practice with that technique, and then open mat ground fighting. I really appreciated the fact that a total newcomer (like myself) was allowed and encouraged to grapple on the ground with a live partner on the first day.

For more information, call Pat Vito at 484-464-3758 or "The Club," the gym where the class is offered at 850-916-7946.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Miscellany: Memorial Day at Fort Pickens



Memorial Day is supposedly dedicated to all the men and women who died in military service to the United States. In practice, though, we tend to focus on the major wars (WWII, Vietnam, the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan) and not the smaller ones (when was the last time you saw a ceremony for the Spanish-American war dead?). There are some places where you can remember a large swath of American military history, and Fort Pickens is one of them.

Fort Pickens is a fort in Pensacola, Florida that served the U.S. military for more than a century before being turned into a national park; it was occupied by Union soldiers and used as a coastal artillery battery in order to defend Pensacola and the bay. Geronimo was held prisoner there, too:



Much of the fort has been restored by the Park Service, and you can see firsthand the clash between a traditional Civil War fort (huge 300-pounders on top of 30 foot squat brick walls) and a more modern fort (smaller concrete structures housing WWI and WWII-era artillery). The various tunnels, arches, and crawlspaces are still in good shape, although one bastion was blown apart after the Civil War when a powder magazine exploded. All in all, it's an interesting place to visit if you're ever in Pensacola.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Food: Mochi Frozen Yogurt


Gainesville has a few alternatives to the maddeningly sweet frozen yogurt peddled by American chains like TCBY. The newest of these is Mochi, an upscale yogurt cafe along the same lines as Pinkberry and Red Mango.

It's a very simple product sold in a very simple way. There are dispensers at the back of the place that pump out various kinds of yogurt. These are sort of hit and miss, with the best being the original flavor (a tart, creamy confection that oozes out like warm Play-Doh) and the vanilla flavor.

So, you grab a bowl and fill it with as much or as little yogurt as you want. If that were the end of the story, Mochi wouldn't even rate a mention on the blog. After getting your yogurt, though, you can then choose from an assortment of toppings - fresh diced fruit like strawberries or mangos, or ice cream type toppings like candies, nuts, and crumbled cookies.

You can choose as many or as few as you want. Since Mochi charges by weight exclusively, you can literally get a spoonful of every single topping they have without paying through the nose. The price is reasonable, too, at about 45 cents per ounce. The only caveat here is that the yogurt quality isn't quite as good as the fancy California-based yogurt boutiques (no idea if they all use the same mix). Still, it's a fun treat.

Rating: 2/4 stars

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Miscellany: Floridays Resort

The condominium-hotel, or "condotel," is either an interesting attempt to get around the securities laws or a valid real estate arrangement, depending on how you look at things. It's essentially a hotel (complete with checkout desk, room service, pool, etc.) but with many of the rooms actually owned by disparate individuals who get rent money when people stay there.

I stayed in one of these condotels, a place called "Floridays Resort," and I have to admit, I was impressed. Here's a YouTube video shot by a random family in the resort - you can see how stocked the rooms are:



Yes, there's a full kitchen, a washer/dryer, a big bathtub, and a flat-panel TV. This kind of luxury would be almost unthinkable in most developing countries, but at Floridays, you'll pay a nominal room charge. Ours was around $140 - not bad for a three-bedroom suite that could comfortably sleep and house 8 people.

The location is good too - right down the street from Sea World, and fairly close to all the Orlando theme parks; there's free shuttle service to the parks if you need it. The hotel staff was courteous and professional, with many of them students or grads of UCF's prominent hospitality management program.

I'm not sure what kind of return on investment you'd get if you bought a unit at Floridays, but I can say it's a pretty decent hotel.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Guns: Hardcore Handloading

I'm not sure what the exact percentages are, but I don't think the number of people who reload ammunition is very high compared to the total number of gun owners. You can see it for yourself on store shelves - reloading equipment is sold in specialty stores or reserved for the largest of big-box retailers. The average gun shop doesn't stock the stuff.

Even within the rarefied world of handloading, though, there are more complicated tasks than simply assembling off-the-shelf components into a finished cartridge. Here are a couple that I need to learn one of these days:

Bullet Casting

The nationwide run on reloading components hit the bullet supply last, probably because bullets are much more expensive than primers or powder. People didn't start hoarding them until the ammo shortage was in full swing. Nowadays, though, bullets are getting harder to find, especially if you favor some popular bullet designs.

Enter bullet casting: melting down your own lead, pouring it into a mold, and turning out a finished bullet. This was once a fairly common practice, I assume (kids used to play with lead toy soldier kits, too), but now it's so rare that you'll probably have to buy your bullet casting tools online.

Here's an introduction to the process:



Wildcatting Cartridges

The biggest advantage of handloading is the ability to tailor a round to your firearm. It's fun to change bullets and powders in an all-out effort to improve accuracy and power. But some people go further - they modify the dimensions of the cartridge case itself. These are the wildcatters, and from their efforts (especially famous enthusiasts like Elmer Keith) the realms of cartridge performance are constantly being explored.

It's not for the beginner, since it requires both a method for substantially reshaping a cartridge case and a custom firearm to fire the cartridge. Additionally, the performance benefits of a necked-up case or shorter case length to a particular handload will probably be too subtle for anyone but a dedicated shooter to notice. Despite all that, I think it's the most control you can get over what you shoot sort of learning how to construct your own firearm from scratch.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tech: Raiden Fighters Aces



The Japanese-style scrolling shoot-em-up is a strange genre when you really start thinking about it. Japan was, after all, involved in some of the most harrowing real-life aerial combat ever seen; the consequences of those bloody dogfights over the Pacific must still linger in the country today. Now consider that Japanese shoot-em-ups are often set in WWII (like Capcom's famous "1942" series), with squads of enemy fighters that can be mowed down with a single burst from the protagonist's aircraft. As Penny Arcade once quipped:

I don't see what's so odd about it. The people of modern Japan are simply taking on the role of foreign soldiers, killing their fathers and grandfathers in a grisly pantomime of history's greatest tragedy.


The "Raiden Fighters" series by developer Seibu Kaihatsu is set in the modern era, so it neatly avoids disturbing those ghosts. The entire series (Raiden Fighters, Raiden Fighters 2, and Raiden Fighters Jet) was recently released in an Xbox 360 disc anthology called "Raiden Fighters Aces." How do these classic shooters fare in an age of high-definition graphics?

Pretty well, I'd say, if you like intense, balls-to-the-wall action. Like in most shooters, you have overwhelming firepower at your disposal but extremely limited stamina - one enemy shot can destroy your plane in an instant. The high-risk nature of this setup guarantees taut sequences of bullet-dodging, especially when enemy fire floods the screen in pixelated death.

Sometime it can get hard to see enemy bullets when the screen gets busy, but that's more a limitation of the aspect ratio of modern TVs than it is with the game emulator code. The Raiden series has always used a vertically oriented TV screen, so an HDTV playing the game has big borders on both sides of the playfield, shrinking the actual screen size considerably.

No, where I'd have to dock the game points is in its longevity. These were all arcade games, designed to be completed in around a half hour at the most. The scoring system isn't as elegant as Ikaruga, so repeating the same levels time after time to improve your collection of secret items is less engaging. If you're in the shoot-em-up mood and you have an extra 20 bucks to spare, though, "Raiden Fighters Aces" is the ticket.

Rating: 73/100

Monday, May 18, 2009

Food: Franchise Misfires

The decision to franchise your restaurant must be a momentous one. Essentially, you're farming out your name and your goodwill to someone else, a stranger in most cases. Here's a couple restaurants that opened up here in Gainesville that should provide a note to caution to anyone thinking of becoming a franchisor:

The Flying Biscuit Cafe



This chain started in Atlanta, and the Gainesville location is the first "Flying Biscuit Cafe" ever to be opened in the state of Florida. The story of the Flying Biscuit is almost archetypical: a small-time chef cooks some awesome biscuits in her cafe, the cafe thrives based on rave reviews and becomes a local favorite, and soon locations start spreading all over the country.

The Gainesville FBC illustrates the biggest problem with franchising - you lose control over your food. FBC Founder and chef Delia Champion attended the grand opening of the Gainesville FBC, but it's woefully clear that she isn't the one in the kitchen. Instead, others merely follow her recipes, with none of the pride and care an owner takes.

The result? Soulless soul food, stripped of the things that made the FBC such a fixture in Atlanta. The biscuits at the Gainesville location are hard, dense, and flavorless. Most of the entrees are edible, but uninspiring; you can see the influence of Champion in the fried green tomato BLT sandwich (the goat cheese and cashews are a good combination), but the end result is merely good instead of special.

The famous Flying Biscuit breakfast is reduced to goopy grits and cold bacon instead of something that delights the senses. Compared to a typical Denny's breakfast, it stands up well enough, I suppose, but it's blown out of the water by something like John G's. When you consider the prices you are paying, the mediocre food and pseudo-kitsch atmosphere become almost too much to bear...

1/4 stars

Woody's Bar-B-Q

The other restaurant in today's pair of cautionary tales is "Woody's Bar-B-Q", a barbecue chain spread across the southeast United States. A Gainesville iteration of this chain opened in a strip mall recently, and I decided to take a look.

I predict that "Woody's" won't be a big hit in Gainesville, but not strictly because of the execution of the franchisor's menu. Rather, "Woody's" shows how franchising a restaurant can expose it to more competition. There are at least three or four different places where you can get better barbecue. Heck, even the existing Gainesville-based chain, Sonny's, is at least as good.

The food at the Gainesville "Woody's" is competent but nothing special. When I ate ribs there, all I could think of was how everything - the meat, side dishes, and even banana pudding - compared negatively with other Gainesville barbecue joints. I suspect most Gainesville residents will do the same.

1/4 stars

Saturday, May 16, 2009

School: The Graduate

I started Shangrila Towers at about the time I started law school. It seems like just yesterday I was piling into a crowded classroom full of strangers and standing at a rainy bus stop. But over the years, many of those strangers have become my friends and that bus stop...is still a rainy bus stop.

Now I've graduated from law school, and find myself adrift in a sea of possibilities. Reminds me of a song...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Books: Road Work - Among Tyrants, Heroes, Rogues, and Beasts


Mark Bowden is best know for his longer nonfiction books ("Black Hawk Down," "Killing Pablo," "Guests of the Ayatollah"), but his article-length nonfiction is good, too. "Road Work" is an anthology of some of Bowden's articles, with topics ranging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to lighter fare like an examination of cattle husbandry (Note: You can find most of these articles online here, but I much prefer to have them in print - plus I managed to find the book in a bargain bin for four bucks).

My favorite articles are all in the front of the book. "Tales of the Tyrant" is a look inside the world of the late Saddam Hussein; it's a lavish prison of palaces and paranoia, where the might of the dictator can literally distort reality - at least for his subjects. "The Kabul-ki Dance" takes us into the early days of the air war over Afghanistan, where American fighter pilots battle fatigue and boredom as much as the enemy. Finally, "The Dark Art of Interrogation" details some of the "coercive" techniques that have gained so much notoriety in the press these days, and how they are both like and unlike "torture."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Guns: Top Five Impractical-But-Cool Firearms

Some ground rules first:

I'm only including firearms that the average Joe could go out and actually purchase here in the United States, without going through too many hoops. That means no NFA stuff, no exotic guns that never went into production (I'm looking at you, Jackhammer automatic shotgun), and no imports that never made their way to these shores.

CZ VZ 61 Skorpion semiautomatic pistol

I find it telling that the CZ USA website mentions that the Skorpion has been "featured in many of today's popular video games." How else would you market a 2-1/2 pound .32 ACP pistol with a 30 round magazine? It's an interesting design, sure (the blowback system fits around the barrel, helping to reduce the length of the gun), but what would you use it for? The cartridge is marginal for self-defense, and the gun is hard-to-conceal and ridiculously heavy for the caliber.

Well, I want one anyway, if only as a companion to my CZ-27. Plus, there's definitely a lot of "cool" involved with owning a version of the gun featured in "The Matrix" lobby shootout:



Wildey Magnum

Before the Desert Eagle started hogging the spotlight, there was another gas-operated magnum caliber semiautomatic that was the darling of the silver screen - the Wildey Magnum. Charles Bronson's character, the vigilante Paul Kersey, cut a deadly swath with it in "Death Wish 3":



It's expensive and totally impractical compared to a relatively staid magnum revolver like a Ruger Redhawk, but come on! If you're measuring silver screen cool, you can't get much better than Charles Bronson wasting some drug dealers with a Wildey.

AWP

Anyone who's ever played "Counter-Strike" will recognize this one. In that game, the AWP was able to kill anyone with one hit; it quickly became the most popular weapon. Naturally, the one-shot nature of the beast led to a fun, only-on-the-Internet term for AWP users - AWP whores:



In real life, the AWP is actually a darn good rifle, but the "impractical" part comes from the massive financial outlay you will need to put down to own one of these. The rifle, the glass, the ammo - it's all way out of the average person's price range. I'm pretty sure, once it's all said and done, that you'll spend enough on the AWP and its accessories to buy a decent used car.

Saiga .410

The Saiga line of AK-style shotguns are good buys if you're in the market for a semiautomatic shotgun, but I fail to see the point of a .410 version. For one thing, a .410 bore shotshell is anemic; the .410 is awful for defense, especially considering that 12 and 20 gauge Saigas are readily available. Still, this is the coolest of all the Saigas to use for shooting trap and skeet, and if you ever did encounter a poisonous snake on the trail with this sucker, the resulting fusillade from your gun would be hilarious.

Browning 1919 semiauto

The semiauto 1919 kits are at once cool and impractical. Getting the links to work in most versions is a major pain in the patoot, but once you get everything sorted out, you'll have one of the most efficient ways to waste rifle ammo that man has yet devised. Rather than the original .30-06 Springfield, many variants are chambered in .308 and 8mm (much cheaper to get surplus ammo), like this one:

Movies: Chinese School System Documentary Double Feature

Exams are over, and Shangrila Towers is back! First up in my backlog of posts is a double feature review of a couple of documentaries about the Chinese school system:

Please Vote For Me



If you wanted to pick an example of the pervasive control the PRC exercises over its citizens, the one-child policy would be a solid choice. The policy, in general terms, limits parents in China to having one child; there are exceptions and ways to circumvent the limit (special fines, permissions, etc.), but the fact that people in China even follow the policy at all shows a remarkable faith in (or fear of) the central government.

There are arguably some social benefits to a controlled birth rate, just as there are some unintended consequences of forcing parents to put all their eggs in one basket. You can see these consequences in "Please Vote For Me," a documentary about a grade-school election for class monitor in an urban middle-class area of Wuhan, China.

In the documentary, three candidates face off against each other, each one getting extensive support from their parents. From what we see of them on screen, they are all "little emperors," children who are constantly doted on because of their status as an only child. In an effort to garner votes, Luo Lei's father takes the entire class on a trip through the monorail system of Wuhan. Cheng Cheng's parents write a speech for him to recite during the election debates. It's way above the level of involvement that even an enthusiastic parent would have in the West, and the way it's captured is startling and effective.

The movie also serves as an interesting microcosm of the political system. The smooth talker, Cheng Cheng, seems to get most of the support early on. Xu Xaiofei, the only female candidate, has an early nervous breakdown that eventually gets the whole class crying. Luo Lei is the incumbent, with all the pressure and advantages that brings. The interplay between these three children during the election is priceless, if only because you see echoes of it in democratic elections the world over.

Rating: 8/10

China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province



It's been a year since a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan. The quake killed at least 70,000 people, many of them children who were trapped in collapsed schools throughout the region. The anniversary probably won't merit more than a passing mention on the national news here in the States, but for the parents of those children, bitter questions remain.

"China's Unnatural Disaster" is an HBO documentary that covers the reactions of the parents in one small town. The pain is raw, filmed in HD, with the camera so close it borders on voyeurism. You see hastily buried graves (the crematorium was so crowded after the quake that parents resorted to burying their children themselves), endless grief, and the rubble of schools. The grief quickly turns to anger when shoddy school construction is blamed, and when the residents of the town march on the provincial capital, the government's response is predictable.

The documentary as a whole offers few real solutions and only a tacit indictment of the Chinese government's role in the destruction of the schools. It would have been much more pointed if the filmmakers could have snuck an independent structural engineer on site to examine the collapsed school buildings. Instead, all the viewer is left with is sorrow, rage, and speculation.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, May 07, 2009

School: My eyes! The goggles do nothing!



Mental note: Never write a 30 page term paper on a 8.9" netbook screen. It sounds fun, but it ain't. I feel like poor Rainier Wolfcastle.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Links: All Linky, No Thinky

"All linky, no thinky" is a phrase bloggers use to describe posts that contain nothing but links to other content. Typically, these posts are stopgaps, hastily set down in order to keep the blog updated. I'm taking this route today because my seminar paper is due in three days, and I'll be working on it right down to the line. Heck, my links aren't even that good - you've probably visited all of these sites before. Meh.

Failblog: A very simple idea - post pictures of the dumb stuff that people do on a daily basis. It's like a nonstop "America's Funniest Home Videos" - goofy signs, people getting hurt, double entendres.

FML: It stands for "F*** My Life," and the idea is to write down whatever degrading, disgusting, or distressing experiences so that other people can either agree with you or roundly criticize you. Fun!

Eject! Eject! Eject!: Bill Whittle is a rare writer - his wit comes across in his videos just as well as it does in his writing. My favorite commentary of his is still the series of posts debunking the entire 9/11 conspiracy clique.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Music: Swoon

Ever hear a song on the radio that immediately jumped out at you? "Panic Switch" did that for me:



I had been familiar with the Silversun Pickups' first single, "Lazy Eye," but I didn't think enough of it to listen to more of the band. Their second full-length album, "Swoon," is both more aggressive and more focused. "Panic Switch" is typical of the album's fairly rock-oriented sound, although there are breaks in between the thumping:



As a whole, it's bound to evoke memories of '90s guitar-based alternative, and comparisons with The Smashing Pumpkins are almost inevitable at this point (right down to the female bassist, the animated drummer, and the high-pitched frontman). Unlike the Pumpkins, which was essentially all Billy Corgan, the Pickups feel more like a cohesive unit (all four of them were friends before they made it big). This quality is hard to describe musically, but it is noticeable when you listen to the album.

And an album it is, with the lead track "There's No Secrets This Year" segueing into one of the most bombastic songs the Pickups have ever put out, "The Royal We." It's here where the driving, layered musical writing starts to stand out from similar acts, even if the overall direction is "safe." Lead singer and guitarist Brian Aubert stretches his vocal range on "Swoon" more than he did in their debut album "Carnavas." Bassist Nikki Monninger, drummer Chris Guanlao, and keyboardist Joe Lester all have fairly substantial roles, too.

It's not all gravy: there are some clunkier tracks, and the lyrics are still a notch or two below the Pickups' precursors (say what you want about Corgan, he knew how to come up with memorable lines). The success of "Swoon" is deserved, though, and I'd much rather listen to this than "Bad Girlfriend" over and over and over again on FM radio.

Movies: Stoner Comedy Double Feature

Advocates for the legalization of marijuana usually get more airplay than advocates for general drug decriminalization. Maybe that's because everyone and their brother has admitted to smoking the stuff, especially when they start running for president:



Today's movies are comedies about cannabis. This is a long and storied genre; from Cheech and Chong to "Half Baked," stoner films have been around for decades. Here's two examples, one recent, one not-so-recent:

Pineapple Express

Despite the fact that politicians regularly admit to using marijuana, it is still very much restricted at the federal level. That means that the dealers, distributors, and producers operate outside the rule of law. "Pineapple Express" shows that the further you go up the supply chain, the more violent things get:



Seth Rogen plays Dale Denton, a process server who witnesses a brutal murder by a powerful cannabis kingpin. The kingpin, played by Gary Cole, humorously mistakes Denton for an assassin from an opposing drug syndicate. Along with his buddy/dealer (played by James Franco at his stoner-rific best), Denton must avoid the kingpin's henchmen and find out the secret of the "Pineapple Express."

It's silly, action-packed fun with a barrelfull of pot jokes, and the supporting cast really steals the show. Gary Cole's turn as a drug lord is epic; the man chews scenery like a melon farmer. In similar top form is Danny McBride, whose character Red gets all the best one-liners:



Rating: 7/10

Saving Grace

Stoner films aren't limited to this side of the pond:



Director Nigel Cole helms this lightweight comedy about a widow who finds herself in dire financial straits after the death of her husbamd. In order to support herself, she starts using her gardening skills to grow herb...really expensive "herb." As the cultivation efforts get more and more elaborate, the whole town gets in on the act.

"Saving Grace" is sort of a greener, more feminine version of "The Full Monty." The plot isn't quite on par with other mega-successful British comedies, but award-winning actress Brenda Blethyn injects a lot of humanity into the title role of Grace. Worth a look if you ever happen to catch it on TV.

Rating: 6/10

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Tech: X-Men Origins - Wolverine

One of the most consistently poor subcategories of video games is the movie tie-in game. The tie-in game's release must coincide with the release of the movie, leading to rushed and unfinished games. Similarly, development of the game itself might be handled by a less-capable developer, with the publishers hoping that the popularity of the license will make up for the lack of talent in the creation department. Finally, the plot or structure of the movie itself may put undue constraints on designers.

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" serves as both a counter-example and a confirmation of this general trend:



"Wolverine" is a "God of War" clone, containing all the violence and action you expect when a main character wields adamantium-laced claws. You guide Wolverine through a number of environments where he slashes enemies to bits, sometimes for fairly flimsy reasons. As you go, you gain experience and level up, enabling more and deadlier claw attacks. It's not as good as "God of War" (mainly because Wolverine's claws limit the variety of the attacks you can pull off), but overall it's fun.

In a break from the norm, the game was developed by Raven Software, which handled the 2006 hit "Marvel: Ultimate Alliance." They're an experienced, veteran development studio responsible for many good games, so it's odd they were chosen for this work. Additionally, it's pretty clear the game had a decent-sized budget - nice fully-rendered cutscenes, detailed environments, and a level of interface polish that most licensed don't even come close to.

The problems with "Wolverine" stem from (surprise, surprise) the movie itself, in particular the nonsensical ending sequence. The best part of the game (a fight with Gambit in and around a high-rise casino) is almost immediately followed by the worst part (a "climactic" battle with an uninteresting boss). Just further proof that game developers know more about story and pacing than most people give them credit for.

Rating: 80/100

TV: The Life and Death(?) of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"

It's been a stormy ride for "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," the FOX spinoff of the popular movie franchise. Oh, things started out well enough; the two-hour series premiere on January 13th, 2008 had fairly high ratings, and critical reception was good. It seemed like the show had the kind of creative mojo and acting talent to avoid the "Terminator of the Week" syndrome that many had feared.

Yet now the series is on the brink of death. Most of the trade magazines have concluded that chances for renewal are not good. The show's ratings have sank, consistently, ever since that first broadcast. What happened between then and now? What killed "Terminator"?

There are plenty of excuses unrelated to the show's content. The first season, originally planned for 13 episodes, was cut short at 9 because of the writer's strike (even back then, there was speculation that the show would not return for a second season). Cutting 1/3 of the first season of any show will bring problems, but it was especially damaging to the heavily-serialized plot of "Terminator." The strike-shortened season meant that there was never a critical mass of episodes to gather the fans that would help to ensure long-term survival.

When "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" finally returned in the fall of 2008, its viewing audience had been literally cut in half. The stalwart fans who stayed on were rewarded for their loyalty with a huge two-month winter hiatus that split apart the second season, plus a timeslot shift to Friday night, a sure sign things were heading south. And now FOX will decide the show's fate later this month.

But it's not all the big bad network's fault. Some of this season's episodes have been straight-up awful. The "Sarah in the Desert" subplot in the middle of the season was snooze-inducing, and the introduction of Riley, a romantic interest for John Connor, was met with mixed reviews (I hated the character, personally). Things picked up with the last few episodes of the season, including a cliffhanger finale that saw John stuck in an alternate post-apocalyptic future where he never existed. Still, it was arguably too little, too late.

In the end, whatever the outcome, I think the saga of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is a huge warning to every TV series creator who dares to serialize their story. The overarching plot you introduce may get chopped to pieces by circumstances beyond your control. Heck, people may not even like your overarching plot.

Here's an elegy for the show, taken from my favorite episode. In this sequence, Sarah Connor is being taken to jail, and a main character is being buried:

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