Friday, December 30, 2016

Top Secret! (1984)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I had seen Top Secret! many years ago. It was one of those movies that I’d catch halfway through five minutes before I had to go somewhere. Before I had to leave, I’d always get a few laughs. It’s one of those movies that, like Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies, tend to rely on visual gags and puns. For instance, one character builds an escape tunnel, equipped with a paved road, tiled ceiling and an exit sign that says, “New Jersey, 1 mile.” That’s why I finally decided to get the movie from Netflix and watch it all the way through.

The plot is really secondary and is used to tie the jokes together and give them context. Val Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, a rock musician known for songs such as “Skeet Shootin’.” He’s invited to East Germany for a ‘cultural fair’, which is really a cover so he can gather intel on this new super weapon that they're building. The person developing the weapon is an imprisoned scientist. Rivers gets involved when he meets the daughter, who’s working with an underground organization. The daughter doesn’t know where her father is being held. Fortunately, Rivers was arrested and imprisoned at the same prison that the scientist was being held at. He’s able to lead them back and free him.

There are all sorts of gags and jokes throughout the movie. Rivers is listening to a tape to learn German, but when an East German officer boards the train, Rivers is able to speak fluent German. After the officer leaves, Rivers goes back to listening to the tape. In another scene Rivers and some of the other ‘cultural fair’ attendees are presented with medals by one of the East German female Olympic teams. (The team members are all men in drag.) Also, despite it being East Germany, the East German officers seem to prefer speaking in English for the benefit of the audience. They even write notes in English. Then again, with a comedy, you can get away with more.

One of my favorite scenes is the backwards bookstore scene. This was done very well and was one of the few scenes to use subtitles. (Actually, I think it was the only scene to use subtitles.) In the scene, Rivers and the daughter enter a bookstore. (They appear to be speaking some foreign language, but that’s only because the scene is filmed backwards.) They speak to the owner, who is putting away some books. Rivers helps by ‘throwing’ some books to the upper shelves. The bookstore owner offers them a room, which they can get to by sliding up a fire pole.

The film quality isn’t that good, but I don’t think it takes too much away from the movie. The main benefit of getting the DVD is not having to watch coming attractions. You get the theatrical trailer to the movie, some deleted scenes and storyboards for some of the scenes in the movie. I’ve noticed that older movies don’t seem to be too big on commentary. Sometimes, as with Goonies, there are cast reunions, but movies made before the era of the DVD player weren’t made with DVDs in mind. I’m actually surprised that anyone thought to save the trailer and deleted scenes.

Rent this movie if you’re into comedies like Naked Gun and UHF. You’ll find much of the movie to be funny. I don’t know that everyone will like this movie. There are a few scenes that are meant for adult audiences, which I won’t even hint at here. (There’s no nudity, but I think a few parents will be covering their children’s eyes.)

If you’re in the mood for a movie you don’t have to think too much about, this is the one you want to rent. I’d even recommend it to a friend.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Jumper (2008)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

What would you do if you could go anywhere just by thinking about it? David Rice is faced with such a question. The first time we see him jump, it’s to save his own life. He’s trapped beneath some ice and is being pulled away. Suddenly, he’s in the Ann Arbor library, still soaking wet, but safe. Abandoned by his mother at the age of five and left with a drunk father, David instantly realizes that he has the power to run away very quickly.

At first, he checks in to some hotel. Rice is able to jump to any location he wants. Instead of using his power for good, or even maybe doing some honest work, David decides to rob a bank. (This point is reinforced when David is presented with an opportunity to save some people trapped in the middle of a raging river, but does nothing.) I remember thinking that robbing a bank seems very high profile. He seemed to miss all of the security cameras, but he did attract the attention of someone named Roland.

Roland likes to pass himself off as an agent of various government agencies. The truth is that he hunts Jumpers. He feels that only God should have the ability to be anywhere and everywhere at once. He also believes that the power that Jumpers have will corrupt them and David is proving to be no exception. Roland is part of a group called the Paladins. Paladins have the ability to keep Jumpers from jumping, which they use to allow them to kill Jumpers.

The entire movie basically ends up being a battle between Roland and David. There is one other Jumper featured in the movie, who’s name is Griffin. The only other Jumper seen in the movie is killed by Roland. Griffin has gotten pretty good at getting away from the Paladins. He likes to stay away from their attention most of the time. David seems to be pretty good at getting away, too. The trouble is that Paladins will also kill loved ones, including family and girlfriends. This really sets up the tension and gives David a reason to go after Roland and not just hide.

I could see the movie being a little better. From what I understand, it’s based on a book in a series, so it may have more movies to follow. However, when the first movie doesn’t do that much to draw you in, there’s no real motivation to see any sequels. There was very little back story in the movie. There are also some elements, like the science of it all missing. There was no sense of where the Jumpers or Paladins came from except that they had been fighting for a long time.

Don’t expect greatness from this movie. Mostly, it’s an action flick. This is why I’m giving it three stars. It definitely has potential, though. I could see the movie being developed into a TV series, much like Highlander. Granted, you wouldn’t have Jumpers fighting each other, but there’s a lot of room to write stuff. This can’t be a stand-alone movie. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I used to rent a lot of movies, TV series and other stuff through Netflix.  One of the miniseries that I got was one called The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells.  It didn’t look great, but I figured it was worth a shot.  It wasn’t so much that I ran out of things to rent.  I think it was more that I needed something different.

The miniseries starts with a woman claiming to be a reporter approaching an elderly H. G. Wells for information on a story she’s writing.  Soon, he realizes that she’s part of a government program that knows bits and pieces of his past.   Each of the three stories is based on two short stories that Wells wrote.  They’re presented as if the events of the story happened to Wells when he was much younger, who then later incorporated the events into a story.

In the first episode, Wells recalls how someone made a potion that would accelerate his biological functions, but the acceleration became permanent after a few uses.  This became the basis for The New Accelerator.    He also recalls the events of meeting a man who travels back in time one week, taking with him a newspaper.  When things go horribly wrong, he has to do what he can to fix things.  This became the basis for The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper.

The second episode tells of a mysterious rock that falls from the sky, allowing a person to be transported to Mars in the first half and a man who can see a shipwrecked naval officer in the second half.  These become The Crystal Egg and The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes.

The third episode shows two men who get exactly what they ask for in the first half.  One wants more hair and the other wants to lose weight.  They make the mistake of not stating exactly what they mean, leaving room for interpretation.   The second half is about a serum that goes missing.  At first, it’s assumed to be something dangerous in the sense of deadly, as most of the collection it came from is deadly diseases.  It turns out to be a truth serum, which can be just as dangerous.

When I first started watching the miniseries, I had thought it was just a movie.  It wasn’t until I looked it up until I realized what I had.  The running time says that it’s 4:00, but that’s not exactly true.  Each episode is 1:28, bringing the total running time closer to 4:30.  I was worried more about having to rent a second disc, but that wasn’t a problem; all three episodes are on one disc.  The picture quality was about on par with what you get for other TV programs.

I don’t get the impression that it’s meant to be historically accurate.  I was looking up some of the short stories and came across information on the miniseries as a result.  Aside from the fact that Wells didn’t necessarily live through most of the events, I don’t think he was in college when they portrayed him as being in college nor was he single at the time.

This is a Hallmark production.  As such, their priorities are going to be a little different.  It does have that kind of sappy ending that you might expect.  It’s also not too reliant on the sci-fi aspect of the stories.  You do have certain elements, but it’s more like Wells was inspired by certain events that were maybe more mundane.  In the case of the truth serum being delivered to an unsuspecting populace, it’s more about what people would do if they were compelled to tell no lies.

The only thing that may be a downside is that there are no bonus features, at least on the version that I got from Netflix.  I didn’t really expect any, though.  It looks like miniseries was made in 2001.  This would have been a few years after DVDs became available, so I don’t think a lot of production companies were thinking along those lines yet.

I can’t say that I loved it.  I am familiar with the work of H. G. Wells and was curious to see what this was about, but I can’t say that I would have rented it had it not been for Netflix.  I also don’t know that I would have finished it had it not been for Epinions.  I’ll admit that I was curious to see how it ended, but the last two stories sounded like the least interesting.

It’s generic enough that children could watch it.  Barring time considerations, it’s the kind of thing that a teacher could show a class when they don’t want to teach, such as the last day of school before Winter break.  While I might recommend it to a few people, I don’t know that I would give it as a gift.  It’s good, but it’s not great.  Basically, it’s a good way to waste a few 90-minute stretches of time here or there.

IMDb page

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sphere (1998)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

WARNING:  I’m going to give away major plot points including the ending.  If you don’t like spoilers, you might want to watch the movie before reading this review.

Let’s say that you cleared away 300 years of coral growth and found a spaceship.  What would you do?  Well, you’d probably send down a team of experts to investigate.  Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharon Stone play Doctors Norman Johnson, Harry Adams and Elizabeth Halperin, respectively.  They, along with a few other scientists, go down to said ship.  It’s so far beneath the water that it takes special equipment to get there.  Since it’s so deep, a quick rescue won’t be that easy.

What they find is a big, golden, metallic sphere.  (It’s said to be a perfect sphere despite having obvious ripples on the surface.)  Dr. Adams is the first to go in to the sphere and come back out.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t recall anything about it.  Also quite unfortunate is that strange things start happening and those strange things put the people at risk.

What’s even stranger is that the ship has signs in both English and Spanish.  Also, there are several log entries with dates like 06/21/43.  The team realizes that they’re on an American ship from the future.  Because the date is so vague, there’s no way to know if it’s from 2043 or 9943.  However, from what they can tell, someone in the future launches a ship from Earth to collect strange and unusual objects from across the galaxy.

On or around 6/21/43, it comes across a black hole and is sent back in time, where it crash lands on Earth around the year 1698, give or take a few decades.  The logs refer to it an unknown event, which leads Dr. Adams to conclude that no one makes it off the ship alive.  He reasons that if they did make it off the ship alive, they’d report it to someone.  That someone would then record that they found the ship and those in the future would know what happened to their ship.

When a storm hits the surface, the team has to spend a week on the ship or an adjacent habitat.  This gives the team a week to worry about something going drastically wrong.  Someone has to put a special code into their vehicle so that it knows someone is still down there.  If not, it goes back up to the surface with whatever data they’ve collected, presumably leaving them stranded.  At the very least, this means that someone has to leave the safety and comfort of the ship and expose themselves to whatever dangers lurk several thousand feet below.

There are also those strange things I mentioned, like a giant octopus attacking the habitat.  One of the scientists is also attacked by jellyfish.  Then there’s the alien consciousness that’s communicating through the habitat’s computers.  This whole death and destruction thing is starting to look more and more likely.  It’s definitely not a good day for any of them to be claustrophobic.

Now, you’re probably wondering if the team makes it back out alive.  Some of the people do die, leaving Adams, Halperin and Johnson to figure out what’s going on.  The thing I don’t like about Adams’s prediction is that it will likely go one of two ways.  Either he’s right or he’s wrong.  There’s no definitive proof what happens to them, which is ironically his only proof that they don’t make it out alive.  Even if they do make it out alive, there’s no reason to think that the reports won’t get buried under tons of paperwork or be forgotten about.  (The ship could have been launched 500 years from now.  How accurate are our records from 500 years ago?)

Here’s where I spoil the ending.  They do make it out alive.  They have to be put in a decompression chamber, leaving them plenty of time to ponder how lucky they were to make it out alive, which leads Adams to wonder how that happened.  He figures that they must have forgotten all about it.  Since this must have happened, they realize that they must have the powers to make themselves forget, so they make themselves forget before they can be debriefed.

I have several problems with this.  First, I can’t accept that they would be the only team to go down there.  No one in the movie explicitly states that it’s too dangerous to go back down.  Even still, you have a strange ship sitting at the bottom of the ocean with at least 40 years until the unknown event.  You can’t tell me that in all those years, not even an unmanned probe was sent down to investigate.

You’d think that they’d make up some story about how no one should go back down.  Maybe the writers figured that this was to cliché and wanted something different.  When they realized how much work this was, they went with the first thing that came to mind.

At the end of the movie, the golden sphere is seen leaving the ship and eventually the planet.  Yes, it’s possible that the sphere deleted the records, but this is something else that’s not explicitly stated.  I’d imagine that this is something that’s dealt with in Michael Crichton’s book, which served as the source material.  I would have liked some closure in that respect.  Either have someone say that no one else will be sent down or the ship was mysteriously destroyed or something.

The big oddity was that the golden sphere was the only odd thing down there.  Yes, it’s a big universe and most of it is a big void.  The future ship was a manned mission, meaning that there were people onboard.  This wasn’t some drone collecting rock samples.  We had people that could say, “Hey!  That looks interesting.  Let’s take that back with us.”

The movie was ultimately disappointing.  Yes, there was a lot of tension and suspense.  The ending was a big disappointment.  It seemed like an easy out, like they couldn’t figure out a better way to end it.  I don’t know how the movie differs from the book.  I’d imagine that there is a different ending or at least more explanation.  At least I got a review out of it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Void (2001)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I was looking around NetFlix one day and I came across The Void. I think I was looking for things with Amanda Tapping in it. (I happen to be a fan of the show, Stargate: SG-1, where she plays Lt. Col. Samantha Carter.) I noticed the movie also had Adrian Paul, of the Highlander TV series. I figured that it couldn’t hurt to rent something that they were both in. I may have to reconsider that assessment.

The movie is about Dr. Thomas Abernathy, played by Malcolm McDowell. He’s sort of the mad-scientist type. He wants to actually create a small black hole for the purposes of generating large amounts of clean energy. The trouble is that his math is bad. He’s tried once and failed, killing many people including Dr. Soderstrom. (Abernathy was watching from a remote site, and was thus spared a horrible death.)

Eight years later, Dr. Abernathy wants to try again. He thinks he has all of the problems worked out. Eva Soderstrom, played by Amanda Tapping, is trying to shut him down; she thinks that the math is still bad. (Eva is also the daughter of the Dr. Soderstrom that was killed in the accident eight years prior.)

She and Steven Price (played by Adrian Paul) are both professors at the same school. Price also has another job working for Abernathy. She uses him to access files and get proof of what’s going on. When confronted about it, Price doesn’t believe her and feels betrayed, but eventually comes around. The two of them realize that they have to save the world by stopping Abernathy.

The movie was hit and miss. It looks like the bulk of the money was spent on some good actors with the rest of the money going to special effects. I like Amanda Tapping, Adrian Paul and Malcolm McDowell. All three were great in this movie.

The special effects were only a little better than marginal. Most of it is pretty good, but there were some visual things that I picked up on that I felt took away from the movie. For instance, there’s a picture of Eva and her father that’s just of the two of them against a gray background. It looks like someone just edited two separate pictures together and put it in a frame.

The story was interesting, but could have used a little work. There were a few things that I saw coming. (Don’t worry; I won’t spoil it for you.) Also, why was Eva so certain of the Earth’s destruction? I find it odd that she saw only two possible outcomes, both of which were catastrophic. My biggest complaint was with the fact that several of the scenes looked like they were added in as an afterthought. This is most evident when Eva spends the night at Price’s place.

The movie was only 90 minutes. I felt that the movie could have done a little more, especially when it came to explaining the science that went into Abernathy’s project. Also, why is it that the heroes only have a few days to save the world? Couldn’t they at least be given a chance to work through official channels?

It’s a three-star movie. It’s entertaining, but only if you don’t ask too many questions. I’d recommend this movie on a night when there’s little else to watch. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Premonition/Yogen (2004)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I have this thing for picking out strange movies. I came across Premonition and I almost thought it was the one that's out in theaters now, but I took a closer look. This was another movie made and set in Japan. It's about a father that gets a warning via a newspaper that his daughter will die. Little does he know that he has only a minute or two to do anything about it.

The plot sounds a little like the American TV show Early Edition, but Hideki Satomi doesn't have all day to do anything about what he sees and the paper (or more appropriately, the article) doesn't come with a cute, furry cat every morning. Also, affecting the future has consequences. There's a reason that it's called the Newspaper of Terror.

Jump ahead three years and Hideki and his wife, Ayaka, are divorced. He's racked with guilt over not having done enough and she, a disbeliever at the time of the accident, is actually studying the phenomenon. It turns out that he's not the only one to have seen the Newspaper of Terror. Ayaka is studying a woman who can use a Polaroid camera to take pictures of the articles.

There are also three other people mentioned, but only to give contrast as to what fate awaits Hideki . One man had premonitions and did nothing. He aged rapidly. Another man successfully averted disaster on several occasions and eventually died a bizarre death. Soon after this, Hideki starts writing premonitions, like 18 people dying in a landslide. Some are vague, but some he can do something about. Thus, he has a choice. Does he do nothing and age rapidly or do something and die bizarrely?

You really have to feel for the parents. Ayaka has to come to terms with what her ex-husband saw while Hiroshi goes into denial, refusing to even look at a newspaper. He even goes after someone who's delivering a free subscription. He's living in his own little hell while Ayaka is able to come to terms with what happened to some extent.

Apparently, the Newspaper of Terror is an actual urban legend in Japan. The movie was a good length at just over an hour and a half. The writer made it into an interesting story. It's not really horror and not really mystery. It's more of a supernatural suspense movie. I don't think I'm giving anything away, but at the end of the movie, you're left to wonder what really happened.

I would definitely recommend this movie to people who are looking for a different movie. This wasn't like anything I had seen before. Even though I never experienced the loss of a child, I really found myself identifying with the parents. Definitely a five-star movie. After all, you don't screw with fate. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Idiocracy (2006)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

An IQ of 100 just doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to. I don’t know what it is, but I seem to live in a society dominated by idiots in a figurative sense. Private Joe Bauers finds himself surrounded by idiots in a literal sense. That’s the concept of Idiocracy. The Army wants to do an experiment where they freeze two average people for a year to see what happens.

They take Pvt. Bauers and a prostitute named Rita, both people who have no living family and not to many friends, and cryogenically freeze them. The intent is to wake them up in a year and see how it’s affected them. However, the person in charge of the project is arrested and the base is shut down. (For some reason, no one notices two cryogenics units while the base is being dismantled.)

Fast forward 500 years and we have a world covered in trash and populated by idiots. You see, humans have no competition and, as Darwin once said, evolution doesn’t mean progress. Without any real challenges, humanity has degraded into the dumbest of the dumb. Joe and Rita wake up finding a planet totally different from the one that they left.

It takes Joe a little while to figure out what happened. No one around knows about him or the project or where Rita is. When he sees a newspaper, he thinks it’s a mistake, but it eventually dawns on him that he’s been asleep longer than intended. To make matters worse, he’s arrested and subsequently identified as the smartest person on the planet. His one chance for a pardon is to help save the planet from its problems.

The humor in the movie seems to be targeted towards the high-school and college demographic. (The movie is made by Mike Judge of Beavis and Butt-head fame.) To give you an example, the big show of the far future is called, "Oww! My balls!" It involves a man taking a beating to the aforementioned part of his anatomy. There are also a lot of gags, such as police finding Joe and asking if he’s the unfit mother that a computer had just identified.

The people of Idocracy’s future are extremely dumb. A Gatorade-style sports drink has replaced water in every way except for use in toilets. This results in a famine. The company that makes the drink has taken over several aspects of the government, allowing them to claim whatever they want. They say that plants crave electrolytes, which a normal person of today would see as a lie. Joe has a hard time convincing people otherwise.

The setup is pretty funny. The movie starts to get a little repetitive once Joe and Rita find themselves in the future. Many parts of the movie are funny, but others aren’t. As I said, there are a lot of gags related to how society has gotten worse and that plays out rather quickly. Also, as with many comedies, certain things aren’t explained. For instance, how did the cryogenic units stay powered for 500 years? There are a lot of machines in use, but someone has to build and maintain them. How is this done in a society of idiots?

The movie gets three stars. It‘s worth watching once, but I don’t see a lot of replay value with this movie. The thing I’m left to wonder is how much of it has already come true.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fuck (2005)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

How do I write a review of a movie when I can’t even mention the title? I recall having a similar situation on a few occasions, such as with Princess Mononoke, where I couldn’t mention a character’s name due to a similarity to a banned word. Here, the word in question is the title and we’re talking about the king of all bad words.

Growing up, I simply didn’t use it. There was some great taboo, as if by saying it, I was committing some great crime. Now that I’m a little more accustomed to saying it, I’d love to be able to say it in this review. Not only is it the title, but it’s such a great word. (The irony is that the full word is listed in the database, but I can’t use it in the actual review.)

I rented F**k from NetFlix after seeing This Film is Not Yet Rated. (I have yet to review it, but I plan to soon.) Both focus on society’s standards. This Film is Not Yet Rated deals with motion pictures and language/imagery in general. Fuck deals with one particular word and a single-finger gesture that’s generally associated with it, albeit only briefly.

The movie goes into a lot of different areas, such as the origin of the word and the various usages. For instance, George Carlin and his Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television came up. That led to Lenny Bruce, Howard Stern and the FCC’s censorship of the word. Does the word fall under freedom of speech?

No one’s really sure where the word came from, but many people in the movie point out that pretty much all of the acronym theories are wrong. It probably comes from some word from before English even existed and probably always had to do with sexual intercourse.

The movie also touches on how fuck is seen as low class and vulgar. It’s definitely not appropriate for TV and radio. As Billy Connolly said, everyone knows what fuck off means, and it means more than just ‘get lost’. There is a strong emotional impact to the word. I suppose if we remove the meaning from the word, somehow, then some other word will take it’s place. We do need that outlet.

There are interviews with Ron Jeremy, Pat Boone, Ice-T and Drew Carey among others. Each person had something to say about the word. As you can imagine, the word was used a lot in the movie. (Some people used it more than others, but I’d imagine that the total count is through the roof.)

The only problem I had with the wide range of areas covered was that the movie didn’t cover any one area that well. The movie was only 93 minutes and could have gone in to a little more depth. Then again, I really don’t know what to expect. It was still a well-made movie.

I wouldn’t recommend buying it. The movie has very little replay value except maybe to watch with friends. I’d recommend renting it, instead. I might even recommend the movie to my mother if I can just bring myself to say the title in front of her. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sharp Sidekick II Smartphone

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Every so often, I think to myself that I need a cell phone. When my grandmother won a sidekick in a contest, she gave it to me figuring I’d have more patience that she would for it, mostly because so much comes with it. Aside from a cell phone, you get a Web browser, an e-mail account, AOL Instant Messenger, games, and several other features that I don’t use like a calendar and a section for notes. There’s also a camera attachment, but I wasn’t too impressed. (I’ll get to that later.) They also sent a USB port, but it seems that it’s only for fixing the device. It would be nice if I could synchronize my address books.

You get a keyboard for typing and a wheel to move up and down as well as an arrow pad for moving around within a text box. All of those are big plusses. The screen rotates to hide and reveal the keyboard, so you can get rid of it if you don’t need it. Speaking of the screen, it comes in grayscale. Don’t expect anything fancy when surfing the Web. The only real problem I’ve had is that the screen goes fuzzy every once in a while. If it persists, I’ll have to send it in.

Setup is easy, but takes a while. First, you have to charge the device, which will take about 4 hours. Next comes the SIM card, which carries the cell phone’s internal memory. A phone number is assigned to you, but you get to choose a screen name and a password for your e-mail. (I haven’t figured out how to turn the password on yet.) Some of it may take a while depending on service availability. (No cell phone has good coverage in my house, so I had to be sure to stay by a window.)

Once you get a phone number, which was the last thing that happened for me, it’s all very easy from there. I was lucky that the Sidekick had AOL IM. Already having an account with them, I didn’t have to worry about importing any contacts or setting up a new one. I also have ICQ and Yahoo accounts, so odds were good I’d be in luck, but AOL IM tends to be the easiest going from one device to another. Most of the features seemed to carry over, but I can’t save conversations. I was very annoyed by this since I like to keep them. I can’t even e-mail them to myself.

Speaking of the e-mail service, it’s easy to use. Since the device has a keyboard instead of a pen, I am able to create messages quickly. It doesn’t really matter, though, since the Sidekick account isn’t my primary account. If you, like me, already have e-mail, you can set your reply-to address as that account’s address so that you can use the Sidekick while your out and get the reply when you get home. You can have up to three external POP3 accounts delivered to your sidekick inbox, but I was never able to get it set up. Then again, it’s probably because the one account I tried to set up was my Yahoo! Mail account and they don’t allow for that kind of stuff unless you pay.

Web access is also easy, but far from perfect. The small screen isn’t a problem for text, but it can problematic for letters within images. Also, columns and series of images will probably get realigned and won’t show as intended. It can’t use Java and has to split up framed sites. I can’t access RewardTV, which uses JavaScript for logging in, or ShareBuilder, which uses frames. I can access Epinions, but I can’t rate. Also, I’ve tried looking up bus schedules using the sidekick. The schedules are in PDF format, which isn’t a problem for the sidekick, but something about selecting the schedules is a problem. Forget about long pages, too. Scrolling is fine if you do it in small amounts, but if you have to go to the bottom of an extremely long page, it will seem like a real pain. You could theoretically use the spacebar assuming you don’t hit any text fields, but it’s still a pain.

Now, I promised some commentary on the camera, so I might as well get to that. It’s not much. I’d be tempted to leave it at that, but I owe you more. My main complaint is that the resolution is low. You can make out objects if you were the one that took it or you know the subject. However, it might be a problem for others that are unfamiliar with it. I have no clue as to how I can resize them if I even can. The advantage is that you can email them to yourself easily. The camera can store 36 of these pictures at once, not that I’ve ever needed it. I guess that maybe you could do some of the things you see in the commercial, but I feel it’s better to do most of those things in person.

I guess you’re wondering how I can get this far into a review of a cell phone without actually reviewing the actual phone service and related features. I guess I should get to that. The best thing about it is that I have the second phone line I always wanted. (My computer’s near enough to a window that I get steady service.) It also has Caller ID, which would be a help if I knew more people. I guess I can now avoid telemarketers, not that any have the number yet. (Cross your fingers.) I’ve been able to store all of the names, numbers, addresses, Web sites and e-mail addresses I could ever hope for and I can use the list to dial a number. If you don’t have the number stored, you can either put it in, use the wheel pad, or use the keyboard.

Service outdoors is great, but it tends to be patchy indoors. I may go into a restaurant or 7-Eleven and see that it’s not getting reception. This has proven to be a problem on a few occasions. It has an answering service and you can forward calls when the line is busy or the device is off or out of range. The only major problem I’ve had is with the volume. I don’t receive many calls, but when I do, I can’t hear the phone ring. I have the volume on the maximum, but the case muffles the sound and if you have it in your pocket or backpack, it will be muffled even more. If you’re in a noisy area, forget about it. I’ve tried vibrate, but it was hard to tell if I was out of range or if the function didn’t actually work.

The sidekick also has a problem with overlays. For those of you in the less-populated parts of the country, area code overlays occur when an area gets so crowded with phone numbers that splitting it geographically won’t work. (I think the public service commission stops at the county level.) Thus, Miami-Dade County has two area codes: 305 and 786. To dial from one area code to the other, you don’t dial a one first. (In case you’re wondering, it’s not considered long distance.) My phone number has a 786 area code, but the majority of the county is 305. When the Sidekick receives a call from with an area code other than 786, it puts the one in front of it, which renders the redial option useless. I have to manually enter the phone number, which usually involves writing it down and putting it back in. I don’t need to often because I usually miss calls from people I know or from payphones. It would still be nice if someone did something about this, though.

This is one of those devices that I like mostly because I don’t have to rely on it. It’s especially good for those that don’t have a primary e-mail account or are constantly on the move. I’m going to keep it for the year that was included, but I’m not sure at this point if I’ll want to renew when it expires.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Motorola RAZR V3m

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I may be part of a minority.  While I have a cell phone, I use it primarily for making phone calls.  I’m letting you know this up front as it will affect my review.  I do occasionally use the other features, but there will be some things that I won’t talk about.

Since I use the phone mostly for calls, I’ll start with that.  Call quality is decent.  It’s not like the person is standing next to me, but I can generally make out most of the words when I’m talking to someone.  I do occasionally get momentary patches of silence, but no dropped calls.  (The service is through Sprint.)

Caller ID works, but will only show a name if you have it in your phonebook.  (This shouldn’t be a surprise.)  One nice thing is that you can take pictures with the camera phone and attach it to a number, so you get a call from a friend, you can have a really small picture of that person to look at.

Speaking of low-quality pictures, the camera is 1.3 megapixels.  Don’t expect artwork out of it.  It’s good if you need to take a quick picture and have nothing else available, but the few pictures I’ve transferred to my computer don’t look too good.  When I do transfer it, it has to be through text-to-email.  (This is useful also if I want to send stuff to Flickr.)  There is a microSD card, but it’s hidden behind the battery and I’m often not sure what’s on the card and what’s in internal memory.

It’s a clamshell design with a small display on the outside and a larger on the inside.  The buttons are big enough that I can enter numbers easily.  (I have big fingers, so this is an issue.)  Having backlit numbers is also a plus.  I find dialing and answering calls to be very easy on this phone.

I do access the Web through the phone, but very rarely.  It’s really only to enter bills on Where’s George when it’s not convenient to go to a computer.  Typing out the URL can be a chore and load time is often very slow even when I have five bars.  The Web pages also display funny since the display wasn’t meant for Web pages.  It’s actually my last resort for going online.

This is because there’s no full keyboard like some other phones.  You have to hit buttons several times to get to the right letter.  Entering a lot of information at once can be tiring.  Add to that the time from hitting send to the actual moment the message is sent can be long.  This is why I don’t text often.  It’s usually worth it to get to a computer and just use email.

I did download a few free songs, but the sound quality wasn’t that good.  I decided not to buy my music collection all over again for a drop in quality.  I’m also not going to try something new when I have a working iPod.  I also downloaded a few games with similar results.  Tetris works fine.  Pac-Man is a little harder to play.  I decided not to spend a lot of money on something that I really won’t be using all that much.

Battery life has taken a nose dive in the past few weeks, but I think it’s because of an old battery.  It used to be that the battery would last 2-3 days if I made a few phone calls every day.  Now, I find myself needing to recharge it after a few hours.  I think we may have an extra battery around, so I’ll have to see if that’s the issue.

I do also recommend getting a case for your phone.  Yes, it’s an extra step between you and your phone, but if you keep your phone in a purse or in your pocket with your keys, it’s worth the extra money.  It’s a pretty common size, so a case shouldn’t be that hard to find or cost that much.

I doubt that they still make this model, but if you can find it somewhere, I’d recommend buying it.  It’s worked fine for me for several years.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Logitech M110 Mouse. M110 PS2 USB CORDED Mouse MICE. Optical - PS/2, USB - 5 x Button - Black

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I’ve noticed that there are two extremes when buying gadgets.  Some need the biggest, most advanced, feature-laden item that money can buy, even if it sets them back a year’s pay.  They have to have it all.  Then, there are those that want something very basic.  This may be due to cost or a realization that they don’t need that much.  I’m part of the latter group for both reasons.  I just need something to move the little pointy thing around my screen.  I don’t want to spend a lot of money.

When my mouse was near quitting on me, I set out to find a replacement.  Not only did I not need anything fancy, I knew better than to get a mouse with too many buttons.  I had made that mistake once and I wasn’t going to make it again.  I decided to get the cheapest mouse that money could buy.  Due to my not making sure I was getting the cheapest mouse, I ended up with this mouse, the second-cheapest mouse that my local OfficeMax offered.  (The cheaper model was $2 or $3 cheaper, if I recall.)

When I got it home and out of the box, the first thing I did was wonder why they give you those little PS/2 adapters.  (Are people really that short on USB ports?  They have USB splitters, you know.)  After that, I plugged the mouse into one of my many available USB ports.  I would have returned it right then and there, but I didn’t want to pay the restocking fee.

The first thing I noticed was that mouse was a little jerky.  It seemed like it was sticking to the desk mat that I have.  That actually lasted a day or two, but eventually went away.  The other thing was that the buttons seemed a little sticky, but that also went away eventually.  It’s a good thing that I didn’t return it.  Even if I had gotten the cheaper mouse, it probably wouldn’t have been worth the time and effort.

It’s a good mouse if you stick with it.  Everything’s working normally now.  For the $15 (plus tax) that I spent on it, it does what I need well enough that I don’t even mind now.  This is one of those things that if you don’t play games or do anything that requires special buttons, don’t get the special buttons.  You’ll regret having the special buttons.  It works with my Dell desktop, which is all I need it to do.

I’d recommend getting it if you need to get something cheap and easy to use.  I don’t even need a mouse pad.  I know that this is a short review, especially compared to my last mouse review.  I wanted something basic, so having less to say is probably for the best.  Anything else I have to say would probably be a complaint.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Paul (2011)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Alien movies are nothing new.  You have E.T., Starman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and all sorts of other titles.  I had wanted to see this one in theaters, but not having much money kept me waiting until it came out on DVD.  Part of the appeal was that it had Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings.  They're friends that have come from Great Britain to the United States to attend Comic-Con.  Afterwards, they decide to take an RV to various paranormal/alien sites such as The Black Mailbox.

Their journey is cut short by Paul, an alien on the run from a secret government facility.  (Paul is voiced by Seth Rogen, in case you can’t quite place it.)  Paul has been giving the United States Government all sorts of information, contributing to everything from technology to movies.  Since Paul has given up every bit of useful information, the only thing left to do is harvest stem cells for biological research.

Shortly into their journey, they meet Ruth, a very religious woman that can’t accept the existence of aliens, even after meeting Paul.  Paul, Graeme and Clive are forced to take Ruth with them as they continue to run.  Because of this, they not only have federal agents, but Ruth’s fundamentalist father, Moses, after them.  Eventually, Paul, Graeme, Clive and Ruth make it to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a reference to the aforementioned Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  This is where Paul intends to meet his rescue ship.  I don’t want to give away the ending, as it’s probably best not to know.

If this isn’t your first alien movie, you should catch a few references like Devil’s Tower.  There are all sorts of in jokes and mentions.  I even missed one or two.  Because of this, the movie isn’t necessarily all that original.  I’m not say that this is wrong.  It’s probably one of the few cases where they can get away with it.  Even if you don’t get the references, you can still usually laugh at the jokes. Some of the humor is crude, high-school stuff.  Anal probes are mentioned a few times and Paul does like to use drugs.  There are maybe one or two scenes that wouldn’t be appropriate for small children, but nothing that would scar anyone for life.

This is the third movie I’ve seen staring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  You may remember them from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.  If you liked those movies, you’ll probably like this one, although I’d say that this one is the most different of the three.  I’m not saying that it’s better or worse.  It just has a slightly different feel, probably owing to the sci-fi theme.

I’d definitely recommend seeing it, even if you’re not a big sci-fi fan.  Like Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the dead, much of the movie works because it’s not being shoved down your throat.  It just works.  There were maybe one or two jokes that were seemed a little random.  (I spent the whole movie wondering what kind of last name Zoil was.)  Either way, it’s definitely worth watching. 

IMDb page

Friday, November 18, 2016

Nikon ML-L3 Remote Control

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

A wireless remote for a camera is a difficult thing to review, mostly because your experience is going to vary greatly depending on which camera you have.  You will have to set your camera up, but the exact menu path is going to vary slightly with each model and there are several models of Nikon that this remote works with.  I have only used this remote with the Nikon D50, so a lot of what I write in this review is going to be affected by that.

The other reason is that you don’t generally get much of a choice of remotes.  Each camera only takes one remote.  Which remote you buy will be determined by which camera you have, essentially making it Hobson’s choice.  Either you buy a remote or you don’t.

There are a few reasons why you would buy a remote.  If you want to take a picture of yourself, but don’t want to use the timer function, you have two options:  get a remote or bring a friend to take the picture.  You may also want to reduce shake if you’re taking a long exposure or using a telephoto lens.  If you decide that you want to get a remote, your instruction manual should say which model you’ll need.  If not, the manufacturer’s web site should have that information.

The remote itself is pretty simple.  It’s a button and a transmitter connected by a body with a battery.  They only thing that it does is trigger the shutter, much like the button on the camera.  You can’t change camera settings with the remote.  You can’t use it to compose or review pictures.  You can’t order takeout with it.  It acts just like the shutter release on your camera.  Setting up the camera to be triggered by the remote will depend on your camera; the instruction manual should have a section on it.  (This is one of those things that I just can’t help you with.)

The range is pretty decent.  I can stand back maybe 10 or 20 feet and still have the remote trigger the camera.  The angle will matter on the build of your camera.  Each camera has a remote sensor that receives the remote’s signal.  If something’s blocking it, the camera won’t take the picture.

Range has rarely been an issue for me since I usually use the remote for long exposures.  I’m generally standing behind the camera.  In fact, I’d actually recommend using the remote for long exposure.  Without the Nikon D50, I have to hold down the button on the camera if I’m not using the remote.  With the remote, I press the button to start the long exposure and again to end it, which really cuts down on blur as a result of shaking.

I have tried to take pictures of myself with the remote.  I know with the D50, I have three options.  I can either set the camera on a 10-second delay, use the remote with a 2-second delay or simply use the remote.  If I use the remote to take a picture of myself, I’ll probably either look funny or be shown pressing the button on the remote.  The advantage of using the remote with a 2-second delay is that I can take several pictures without running back and forth to the camera.  The only problem I’ve had is setting up the picture.  I’ve never been able to do a decent self-portrait.

The battery is an odd size, but you get one with the remote.  Before using the remote, you’ll have to take off a protective plastic strip.  (It took me a few minutes to figure out why it wasn’t working straight out of the box.)  This brings me to the only major drawback of the product.  Getting the battery door off of the remote is a real pain.  You have to pinch two things that go in so that you can take off the battery door.  It’s fairly difficult to do.

I bought the ML-L3 for $20, but the price has since dropped.  The last time I checked, it was going for $17.50.  The D50 has since been discontinued, but there are still camera models available that use this remote.  If you want a remote, it’s really not a big deal to get one.  The one thing I will warn you about is that since the remotes are small, they’re easy to lose.  Keep yours in a secure place or you will have to replace them often.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Monster Squad (1987) = Had Mentor's Quest

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

This is one of those movies that I remember from my childhood.  I’d catch it occasionally on one of the broadcast networks or something.  I decided to get it from Netflix just to see what it was like what I remember.

The movie starts with Abraham Van Helsing trying to put Dracula in limbo.  He has everything he needs:  the special amulet, the special chant and a virgin to recite the chant.  Dracula manages to avoid limbo with the help of Frankenstein’s Monster, a werewolf, a mummy and a fish monster.

Cut to the present day, where  Sean and Patrick are part of a monster club.  Actually, they are a monster club.  Sean’s little sister, Phoebe, keeps trying to horn in, as little sisters will tend to do in movies.  There’s also Rudy, an older boy that Sean and Patrick look up to.  They’d love him to join, which he does.  However, he has other motives.  (Read: attractive female next door.)

When Sean’s mother gets Van Helsing’s diary at a yard sale , it’s almost the best thing on Earth.  I say almost because it’s in German.  This forces him to seek the help of the Obligatory Nice Guy That Everyone is Scared of.    It turns out that the diary explains what the amulet is and how to use it.  It’s still possible to open the portal, so Dracula is kind of bent on getting it.  It’s up to the kids to get the amulet and dispatch with the monsters before the monsters get the amulet and have their way.

It’s kind of like a teen version of a horror film.  Dracula is kind of scary, but he’s the worst of the bunch.  Frankenstein’s monster is presented as being lovable and sympathetic, like in the book.  The werewolf is aware of what he can do.  While in human form, he wants to be locked up.  He’s even suicidal.  The mummy and fish monster are kind of generic.  I get the impression that they were thrown in to have a few more monsters.  (I would like to have seen more of Dracula’s brides, but I won’t get into that here.)

The movie is a little goofy.  I think it may bee a little too goofy for most adults.  I do remember liking it as a kid.  It wasn’t really too scary.  You knew everyone was going to be ok.  There are no complicated plots or things to incredible things that will blow your mind when you realize what they meant.  It’s a fun 80-minute movie. 


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Timequest (2000)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I had such high hopes for this movie. I like time-travel movies and I also have a passing interest in alternate history. I can’t say I mind the occasional gratuitous nudity. Timequest looked like a good idea at the time. I have to say that I was sorely disappointed.

The story goes that a man, presumably from a time close to our own, goes back to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy hours before his fateful trip in Dallas. While there, he also takes the liberty of warning Robert Kennedy about his assassination as well. The rest of the movie is about the history that results.

Time-travel movies fall into two categories. With some, the resulting history is very similar. With others, the resulting history is as close to the opposite as possible. This movie was basically a series of historical in-jokes. For instance, the Beatles never went anywhere after appearing on the Ed Sullivan show. Dan Rather is shown as being noting more than a local correspondent. Those that don’t know much about history will probably be lost throughout the movie.

Even at 92 minutes, these jokes were used as a lot of filler. What’s left is Robert Kennedy trying to figure out who the time traveler is. You see, he deliberately didn’t give his name because he knew that the person that his alternate self would grow up to be might also invent time travel. What you’re left with a corny, hokey movie. Instead of a movie with a powerful ending, I was left just wondering why I just wasted an hour and a half of my life.

The movie doesn’t hold up as a time-travel movie and it especially doesn’t hold up as a movie in general. I’d recommend it only if you’re interested in JFK’s assassination and other historical stuff. The entire movie had a very amateurish look to it. The movie jumped around a lot and the graphics were somewhat low budget. Also, the actors didn’t really look like the people they were supposed to be representing. I didn’t even realize that it was supposed to be Martin Luther King, Jr. that was Robert Kennedy’s Vice President until I read the credits.

Ultimately, I have to give the movie two stars. It was a decent movie, but it wasn’t really something I would find myself recommending. When it was over, I didn’t feel like it was anything momentous. At least it wasn’t a long movie.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nikon D50 6.1 MP Digital SLR Camera - Black (Body Only)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I can remember getting my fist point-and-shoot camera with my brother. It was the Fuji FinePix MX-1200. The thing was so old, it actually used Smart Media cards. I’ve come a long way since then. Last year, I decided to get a digital SLR. I knew I wanted Nikon, but was debating between several different models. Should I go with the D200 and spend a lot of money or should I go for a lower-priced model and spend the money on the lenses?

I had made the decision to get an SLR mostly because I wanted the better lenses, so I decided to buy a Nikon D50 used from my manager. I didn’t have any lenses prior to the purchase, so you may be wondering why I chose Nikon over another brand. Part of it was that I know a lot of people that shoot Nikon, which makes it easier if I need help.

You may also be asking why I chose the Nikon D50. Even when I bought it, the camera had been discontinued for a while. I was looking into the Nikon D40 which had a low price, but it couldn’t use film lenses on fully automatic. I was also looking at the D80, but the price was out of my range at the time. My manager was willing to sell the D50 at a low price and it would work with the film lens that he was selling with it. (More on that later.)

The D50 was meant to be an entry-level camera for those that had never really owned a digital SLR before. It has different scene modes, such as for portrait or for landscape, but also has automatic, Program, Aperture value, Shutter priority and Manual settings. (Very rarely do I do anything other than Program and Manual.) I have been trying to learn to use a few of the other modes, but it depends mostly on what you’re shooting.

For instance, I’ve been doing a lot of nighttime shooting, which requires a certain setting. I leave it on Manual adjust the settings as I see fit. In other cases, I leave it on Program so that I can make just a few choices, like whether or not to use the flash. It’s very easy to adjust; all you have to do is turn a wheel.

The resolution is also pretty good. I’m not making posters, so 6.1 megapixels is more than enough. It’s 2000 x 3006, which puts the aspect ratio very close to the aspect ratio for a 4x6 print, whereas point-and-shoot cameras tend to be closer to 4½x6.

The down side to the image sensor is that it’s the APS-C size. This means that it’s smaller than a regular 35mm frame. This means that if you’re using a film lens, there’s light falling outside where the sensor can detect it. You may have heard about the 1.5x conversion that film lenses have. This is where it conversion comes in. I have a 50mm f/1.4 lens. On a film camera, this would be considered normal human perspective. The angles will look the same, but it will effectively be a 75mm f/1.4 lens on the D50. The 35-135mm lens that I bought with the camera is now like a 52.5-202.5 lens. It’s great if you want telephoto, but not if you want wide angle. You can get nice wide-angle lenses, though. I bought a Sigma 10-20 which works great on it, but I’ll save that for another review.

Startup time on the camera is effectively instant. I turn it on and it’s ready to go. Lag time depends on certain things like flash usage, but you can usually get the 2.5 fps advertised. Focusing and the speed of the actual photograph will depend on the lens. Nikon lenses are going to be better, but you can get some great Tamron and Sigma lenses out there.

As for menu settings, I tell people it’s like driving a car. The buttons are usually the same, but you have to figure out where they are. For instance, the camera has white balance. This tells the camera to compensate based of the type of lighting. Grey cards were used to do this in the days of film. I’ve been able to leave the white balance on automatic and get great photos 95% of the time.

As for accessories, the camera uses an EN-EL3 battery and the corresponding charger. The battery will last for a long time. I’ve taken over 5000 shots with it and only had to charge it at most a half a dozen times. I’d only recommend a spare battery if you’ll be away from a power outlet for long periods of time.

You will need to get a memory card. The D50 uses the SD card, which is by far the most common in use among all cameras. You should be able to find one anywhere. If you’re looking to get something bigger than 2GB, you’ll need to get several cards, though, since the D50 can’t use the new SDHC cards. This was actually an issue when my brother wanted to borrow the D50 and all he had was a 4GB card. I had to lend him one of my memory cards.

You’re also committed to buying lenses, especially if you’re buying just the body only. When it was available, it was available with a basic lens. I would recommend using something like an 18-55 to start out with and seeing if you need anything more than that. I started out with the aforementioned 35-135 and a sigma 28-90. Between the two, I was able to get a lot of shots. However, I soon realized that I needed something wider, so I bought a Sigma 10-20 for $500. That lens will get you wider shots than any point-and-shoot…if you have the money.

As for other accessories, I would recommend getting an SB-600 flash. You’re going to notice a difference in photo quality indoors and with the ultrawide-angle lenses. When I used the Sigma 10-20 with the onboard flash, I could actually see lines that the flash made. Also, when taking pictures indoor, it removes any sort of yellowish tint at all. You can also use it as a bounce flash, creating much more even tones among other things. (But again, that’s for another review.)

You might also want to get the ML-L3 remote, but this is not a necessity. You could easily survive without, but you can pick one up for under $20. I’d say get one if they’re available in store. If not, you’ll be able to tell pretty easily if you need one.

I will say that the camera does have a small LCD. I don’t mind so much for several reasons. First, a bigger LCD is going to drain the battery more quickly. Second, you can’t always trust the LCD to tell you if you have a good picture. It’s usually a good idea to take two or three pictures if you can. And, no, there’s no live view. This is something that’s just now becoming popular and is not something I really like. It’s better to compose your picture through the viewfinder.

The only drawback is that you can’t get GPS coordinates automatically embedded in the pictures EXIF data. I do have the Eye-Fi Explore SD card, which uses waypoints, but it’s not as accurate. You need a D200 or better to do this using a GPS device and I’m not quite willing to drop $999 on a camera.

If you can get a good deal on it used from a friend or if your local store happens to have one in stock, I’d definitely recommend getting one. If you’re looking to see examples of what a D50 can do, go to Flickr. There are plenty of D50 photos there, a few of which I’ve taken. (You can see them at The D50 gets 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Nikon 50mm f/1.4D Lens

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

When I got a digital SLR, I knew that there were a few lenses that I wanted to get.  I got my Nikon D50 with 35-135 lens, which was good for longer shots.  I got a 28-90 lens, which was better for objects closer to me.  I decided that I wanted to get a 50mm lens, mostly because I wanted something with a good f-stop.

You may be asking what a 50mm f/1.4 is good for.  The 1.4 means that it’s good for lower light.  This is because the lens can open up, thus letting more light in.  You don’t need as long of an exposure, which is great with people.  On a film camera, 50mm is considered to be normal perspective.  (On a digital camera, like mine, it’s effectively 75mm.)

Since it’s a prime lens, it does one thing and it does it well for a low price.  (Last I checked, the lens retailed for about $280.)  It’s also a small lens.  Putting it on a camera leaves it very light and easy to hold.  This is the biggest advantage of getting a lens that has just one focal length.

It’s worked fine on my D50.  (If you have one of the newer cameras that don’t have a focusing motor, like a D40 or a D60, you won’t be able to use this lens on auto focus as it doesn’t have a focusing motor.)  Depth of field is great.  I’ve taken several pictures of my cats, all of which have come out great.  The subject has come out clear while the background has come out blurred, just as I wanted it.

If you’re taking a picture indoors and of a person or animal, you’ll want to use a flash.  Outdoors, I’ve never had to use a flash.  I’ve been able to get great shots of plants and trees.  I have a few pictures up on Flickr.  (My user name is seacow_99.  I’ve tagged the pictures with Nikkor 50mm f/1.4.)

To focus properly, you have to be a few feet away.  I’ve gotten a set of close-up filters which allows me to get within a few inches, but it gives the pictures a tilt-shift effect.  (You should be able to pick them out if you go to my Flickr account.)  This effect has made it a tradeoff.  Yes, I can get stuff close and I can minimize the effect, but it’s still there.

I’d recommend getting this lens.  You’re going to want a 50mm lens and you should definitely get a Nikkor lens if you do get one.  (I don’t think this particular lens is still in production; I bought it used from my brother.)  It’s a 52mm thread, which is fairly common for 50mm lenses.  I’d recommend getting a UV filter and a circular polarizer.  (I’d also recommend getting the close-up filters if you can get them for a good price.)

If you do find this lens, buy it.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Many years ago, a game called Grand Theft Auto came out. I didn’t remember hearing much about it, but it was successful enough to warrant a sequel, aptly called GTA 2. Then game GTA 3. GTA 3 was the one that got all of the attention. There was violence, sex, crime, prostitution, gang warfare and all sorts of stuff that conservatives didn’t like. The game got a lot of publicity, which generated more sales. Had it not been for this publicity, I probably never would even heard of the game; instead of never knowing about it, I got a copy.

You’d think that with all of the negative publicity, that would have been the end of it, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Rockstar games came out with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, set in a fictionalized version of Miami, Florida. Tommy Vercetti has been released from prison in Liberty City and is sent down to Vice City, Florida, to take part in a drug deal for the Forelli crime family. Things go horribly wrong and Vercetti loses both the money and the drugs. To boot, he has a paranoid lawyer named Ken Rosenberg as his contact in Vice City. Both of them go back to the lawyer’s place to sort things out. Vercetti is set up with a place to stay while in town. Vercetti calls back north to explain what happened. He swears vengeance on those that did this.

That’s where you come in; you are Vercetti. You start out helping the lawyer with various things. (You intimidate jurors, for instance.) Eventually, you star meeting other people, such as Avery Carrington, who’s in the construction business. You eventually meet Lance Vance, who also wants vengeance; his brother was killed in the deal that went bad. You’ll meet several major characters that will have missions for you. The characters are represented on the map by either a letter or an icon on a minimap located at the bottom of your screen. Usually, you’ll have more than one at a time, allowing you to alternate if you get bored easily.

As with GTA 3, you can’t save while on a mission. While on a mission, you’ll be given instructions as you go along. If you die or get caught by the police, you’ll fail and have to start over. (You can try as many times as you need to.) As with After you complete a mission, you’ll get a reward. (Remember that the game takes place in the 80’s. You’re being rewarded in 80’s money.) When a person has run out of things for you to do, that icon will disappear.

There are two main islands with three smaller islands. As with GTA 3, you have to unlock certain parts of the map, but this is done much more quickly. Also, the overall area is much bigger. You won’t find yourself running out of places to go any time soon. Also, the number of random people has increased. There are even several types of prostitutes. (Yes, they’re back, but they don’t seem to do much for your health this time.)

You can also buy properties. (Each of the available properties will have a circle with a house in it. You stand in this circle and press tab.) Some of them will have a set of missions similar to the ones that the major characters give you. (Kaufman Cab Company has several taxi-related missions. The Moneyworks location has you getting things like plates so that you can counterfeit money.) Those that have missions will usually generate money once you’ve completed all of your missions. You have to collect this money every day, or else it will max out. Eventually, this gets to be a nuisance. You’ll eventually have so much money that you’ll find that you won’t bother. It would be nice if you could collect all of the money at Vercetti Estates or something.

So far as I know, the Malibu Night Club and Moneyworks are the only ones that are necessary for you to buy. If there’s any mission location that still has necessary missions for you to do, the icon for that location will be present on your minimap at all times. Otherwise, it will only be visible when you approach it. All of the locations that you buy will also serve as a save point and some will even allow you to park cars there. (Once you purchase a property, it will be indicated by a cassette, just like your first property except for those that have missions, such as the Malibu Night Club.) Once you buy a property, it’s yours. I recommend buying as many as you can find. You’ll need as many save points you can get.

As in GTA 3, there are also side missions you can do, such as getting a police car and doing vigilante missions, getting an ambulance and bringing injured people to the hospital or getting a taxi and finding fares. There’s also delivering pizzas, which wasn’t available to you in GTA 3. If that wasn’t enough, there are still rampages hidden throughout the map. Look for the circle with a skull in it and you’re given a weapon (or told to find one) and kill a certain number of a certain type of person. For instance, you may be told to find a car and run over 25 gang members. You may be given a katana and told to kill 20 pedestrians. This point raised even more controversy than GTA 3 because you’re told which gang to kill. (The two main gangs are the Cubans and the Haitians.)

Most of the missions are more than just following the instructions. You’ll be told what you have to do, but you’ll find that the obvious strategy doesn’t always work. You may have to try two or three times to get it right.

To get around Vice City, you always have the option of walking. If you get tired of walking, as I often did, you have the option of stealing a car. There is a huge variety to choose from. (Everything about Vice City is much better than GTA 3.) You have full-sized cars, motorcycles, emergency vehicles and three types of cab to choose from. (Be careful using the motorcycles. If you run into something, you go flying off and get hurt.) Each car has its advantages and disadvantages. (Some are great at acceleration while others handle better.)

There are also helicopters and boats if you are so inclined. I have to warn you that helicopters are difficult to master. However, you will want to get used to flying the helicopter. (What they don’t tell you in the instructions is that you have to use the keypad to go forward. It took me a while to figure this out.) Although the skill isn’t necessary to beat the game, it does help. There are also several side missions that require the use of a helicopter.

While I’m on the subject of cars, you have a better radio selection, including two talk stations. Rockstar games was able to use a lot of 80’s music for the game, including “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and the German version of 㧏 Red Balloons”. Again, PC users have an advantage over the PS2 users in that we can have an MP3 station. I’d suggest listening to all of the radio stations. The credits listed a lot of people involved into putting the stations together and they did a great job. I hope that they’re reading this because I’d like to be able to tell them how many hours of enjoyment I got out of the stations. (Actually, everyone involved with this game did a great job. Players that pay attention to details will get a lot of enjoyment out of Vice City.)

Your selection of weapons has improved, also. You now have several blades to select from. The down side is that you can only have one of each type of weapon. For instance, the baseball bat, chain saw and blades are included in one type. If you want to change that type of weapon, you stand on the new weapon in that category and hit tab. (I liked it better the old way, too.) To scroll through your weapons, you can use the mouse wheel.

Speaking of weapons, Vice City, like Liberty City, has hidden packages. As the name would indicate, they’re hidden. For every ten packages that you get, a weapon will appear in one of three locations: Your original save point, one of the buildings that you buy and Vercetti Estates. (The property that you buy is the one with roof access. As for Vercetti Estates, you get that later in the game.) This is another area that the helicopter comes in useful. Some of the packages require a helicopter to access. I highly recommend getting at least 70 of the hidden packages. (The last 30 lead to vehicles.) The first ten, if I’m not mistake, leads to body armor. The next set of ten leads to a chainsaw. After that, you get other weapons like guns.

There are also weapons scattered throughout the map. You’ll come to learn where these are. In any mission that you do, you will be given access to weapons if you need them. There are also stores like Ammu-Nation, where you can buy weapons if you want. I absolutely loved the katana, which was only available in one location. Unfortunately, I had to give up access to it in one of the missions. (Oh, well. It’s just a game.)

As you play, you’ll learn different things that you need to play the game. The wanted level is one of the first things you learn about. You have anywhere from zero to six stars, indicating your wanted level. With one star, police will only chase you if you happen to come across them. With six, the army comes after you. There are three ways to get rid of stars. You’ll see circles with a police badge in side. This is referred to as a cop bribe and will reduce your wanted level by one. (Learn where these are.) If you have either one or two stars, you can get a change of clothes to get rid of your wanted level. These are indicated by circles with a blue shirt inside. Finally, any level can be made to go away by visiting a Pay-And-Spray, which gives you a new coat of paint and a new engine. The disadvantage is that you can’t use certain cars, such as police cars. The alternative is either getting busted or dying, either of which will cost some money and you’ll lose all of your weapons.

The graphics and interface are very similar to GTA 3. Those that have played it will take to this game very quickly. If not, you might want to mess around at first to get used to the controls. You don’t have to have played GTA 3 to play this one nor will playing this one ruin GTA 3 for you, should you decide to try it. (Actually, having played Vice City first, GTA 3 might look like a stripped-down version of Vice City.) My only major complaint is that there’s still no multiplayer. I’m hoping that San Andreas has this problem solved in the PC version. I really want a multiplayer version of GTA.

I would suggest watching “Scarface” before you play. You’ll be amazed at how many similarities there are. Everyone that I know of that’s played this game and watched “Scarface” agrees that the makers of this game must have been a fan. (Those that have played GTA 3 and seen “Scarface” will notice a marked similarity between the soundtracks.)

Now, you may be wondering exactly how similar Vice City is to Miami. After all, I’ve spent most of my life here. I have to say that I’m impressed. I even recognize a few of the landmarks. Washington Mall is similar to Bayside Marketplace. North Point Mall, with its cheesy muzak, reminds me of Aventura Mall. If you’re willing to take a boat out, you can find Stiltsville near the marina. (For those that don’t know, Stiltsville is the name given to a collection of houses that were built out in the water. They’re propped up by wooden stilts. They gained notoriety a few years ago because the city wanted to condemn them and tear them down. I highly recommend that you visit this area.)

Another point of interest is Sunshine Autos. If you go behind and below the showroom, you’ll find a place to bring stolen cars. You’ll be given a list of six cars at a time. There are four lists, which you can either get from friends or find online. If you find a car on a list you’re not on yet, you can use the garage to save them, assuming you’ve purchased the property. You’ll also find drag races that you can enter. This is great practice for one of the missions that I found extremely difficult. Towards the end, you have to race someone so that they’ll be your getaway driver during a bank robbery. Despite all of the advice and tips, they only way to win this race is to simply win it. No amount of trickery or cheating seems to help.

I hope that I covered enough. I couldn’t possibly do the game justice with words, even though this review contains over 2,000 of them. As I indicated before, it pays to pay attention to the details. There are a lot of jokes dealing with the 80’s and with Miami. There are all sorts of scooters, which are still popular on Miami Beach. In the intro, you’ll also see a screen that resembles the Commodore 64. Also look for stores like Gash. The real fun of the game is in such details. You can go through the missions and that may be enough for you, but you’re missing half of the fun. All I can say in closing is that you shouldn’t buy into the negative hype. After all, it’s just a game.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Maxell HP-550F Headband Headphones - Black/Gold

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

For a while, I had been using earbuds. Anyone that's used those knows how uncomfortable they can be at first and how poor the sound quality is. I wanted some earphones that would cover my ears. I had owned pairs like that and they not only produce better sound quality, but are also better at blocking outside sounds. I came across the Maxell HP-550 headphones at Best Buy. They were $20, which made them the cheapest of the kind that I was looking for. (I paid $15 for them using a $5 coupon.) I guess I got what I paid for.

They worked well at first, but I started to notice that the sound varied. I sometimes couldn't hear anything in the left ear, but I was getting sound in the right ear. This is especially confusing since the one wire from the portable CD player to the actual earphones goes into the left ear. I found out that the problem has to do with the volume control that the headphones have. I find these to be a total waste, but I wasn't willing to spend more on one that didn't have one. If the volume on the control is set to the maximum, there usually isn't a problem. However, if I turn it down even a little, the audio from the left ear starts to phase in and out. This is something I've noticed as happening regardless of which device I'm using the headphones on.

The built-in volume control also a switch for stereo and mono. I keep it on stereo since that produces better quality. Fortunately, this is the position it was in when the switch broke. It doesn't look like it will accidentally switch on me, but it doesn't look that difficult to switch back if I ever have to.

Assuming that I have everything working right, the sound quality is what I expected. I can't hear much sound from the outside and people that I'm around can't hear what I'm listening to. I've noticed that I get better sound quality than earbuds and I've even been able to pick up detail that I hadn't noticed before. Occasionally, it sounds like the headphones are muting the sound just a little. Normally, putting the headphones on max volume and putting my portable CD player on max volume produces a volume just above what I would consider normal. Occasionally, though, the volume is just below what I would consider normal.

The fact that it folds in is nice, but not a major consideration. Rarely do I ever have to carry the headphones in something like a backpack and when I do, there's usually enough room. It's almost more of an annoyance to have to unfold them occasionally. Sometimes, they even look funny when one side is collapsed and the other isn't. You end up with the earphones tilting at an odd angle.

I've had these for a few months now and I don't expect that I'll have to replace them any time soon. They're worthy of four out of five stars. They're not perfect, but they'll do for now.