Wednesday, January 25, 2017

WarGames (1983)

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

WARNING:   I'm going to give away details about the movie, including the ending.

I’m a big fan of Beloit’s mindset list.  In it, the college has things that professors should keep in mind as to incoming students.  It seems like back in the 1980s, things were pretty basic.  Computers were text only.  Being able to draw a line was pretty neat.  I’m at an age now where incoming freshmen were born after I graduated from high school.  This means that incoming freshmen have never know a world with the USSR or a without a unified Germany.  A movie like WarGames would probably warrant visiting Wikipedia to find out what all of these things were.  (Back in my day, you had to go to the library.)

The movie is about a kid named David.  He has a computer and a phone line.  (I’m assuming it’s a dedicated line.  Those of us old enough to remember dial-up remember people yelling, “I’m on the phone!”)  He wants to find out about the latest video games that a company is releasing, so he finds out which telephone prefixes are near the company’s headquarters and sets his computer to dialing.  He eventually gets a few good candidates.  One computer, which goes by Joshua, has a list of games…including Thermonuclear War.  Sounds interesting.  The problem is that he needs a password, which he eventually deduces.

He sets out playing Thermonuclear War as the Soviet Union, targeting cities like Las Vegas.  Joshua plays as the United States.  NORAD -- the actual North American Aerospace Defense Command at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado, goes on alert when their new computerized system starts saying that the Soviets have launched their missiles.  You know it’s a simulation.  I know it’s a simulation.  David and the computer know it’s a simulation.  When David shows up at NORAD, he realizes that it might not be a simulation, after all.  The computer is putting up what appears to be actual real-time battle information.  Sure, the Soviet Union denies everything and there’s no actual visual confirmation of anything, but better safe than sorry.  DEFCON goes from 5 to 4, indicating that they’re a little worried.

Eventually, NORAD figures it out and brings David in for questioning.  Being the young genius he is, he escapes and finds the program’s creator, Stephen Falken.  Publicly, Falken is dead, but Joshua seems to think otherwise, even giving David an address where Falken receives checks.  It looks like Falken is the only one Joshua will respond to.  They get Falken to Joshua in time to have Falken stop everything, but a new problem arises: Joshua wants the actual launch code to the US missiles so that Joshua can launch the actual missiles.  Unfortunately, Joshua won’t listen to reason.  It takes a whole lot of tic tac toe to convince Joshua that war is futile.  When Joshua realizes that there can be no winner in war, he relents.

There is a very dated feel to the movie, and we’re not talking about just the computers.  As I mentioned, the map is a little different now than when I was in high school.  Those in high school now will probably need a history lesson to understand the dynamics.  The term “mutually assured destruction” comes up.  This was the understanding that both sides had the power to wipe the other side out, which is what leads to the inevitability of both sides losing.  Yes, America still has enemies, but this doesn’t really come up so much.  We’re not necessarily staring down an actual missile any more.

We also take computers for granted now.  Joshua was supposed to eliminate human error and delay when launching the missiles.  Joshua would follow the order to launch.  This was a much bigger deal back in the 80s when it was still possible to find a house without a desktop, three laptops, a tablet and a dozen or so cell phones in it.  On that note, I doubt it would have been that easy to hack into a military computer that easily.  For that matter, why bring David all the way to NORAD?  Wouldn’t it have been easier to question him where he was?

There is still a suspenseful feel to the movie.  No one knows whether or not to take the threat seriously.  If it were anything else, you could dismiss it, but no one wants to be the one to pass off an actual missile as fake.  Plus, just when you thought it was all over, Joshua makes other plans.  I’m curious to know how younger viewers will look at this movie, though.  I’m sure parents and grandparents will have a different take on it. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Wasabi (2001)

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

I’m not sure what turned me on to this movie.  Maybe it was that I was looking through movies starring Jean Reno.  Maybe someone recommended it to me.  Maybe I wanted to know why it was called Wasabi.  (Despite seeing the scene with wasabi, I still want to know why it’s called Wasabi.)

The movie is about Hubert Fiorentini, a French detective played by Jean Reno.  He has a very aggressive method to his work.  His boss doesn’t approve.  Those higher up take notice when Hubert punches the police chief’s son in a night club.  This earns Hubert a two-month ‘vacation’.  When Hubert receives a call from Japan that a former love of his has died, he is persuaded to leave immediately.

He hasn’t seen the woman, Miko, in 19 years when she mysteriously left him.  Now, she’s left him all of her possessions, but no explanation as to what happened nearly two decades ago.  Shortly after the lawyer executes the will, Hubert finds out that he has a daughter named Yumi.

Hubert doesn’t tell Yumi about their relationship at first.  She believes that her mother was raped all those years ago.  She also doesn’t like the police.  One of Miko’s wishes was that Hubert take care of Yumi until she reaches adulthood at 20 years of age.  (This ends up being two days.)  You’d think that this would be uneventful, but it turns out that Miko took a lot of money from the Yakuza and they want it back.

The movie is basically an action comedy.  I say comedy because it takes certain liberties.  The movie opens in a night club where Hubert is punching people.  Each punch sends the person flying.  He takes into custody a transvestite bank robber who tells Hubert where her “sisters” will strike next.  He then goes in and takes them down.  The whole thing serves no purpose other than to show how aggressive Hubert is.  (You’ll notice that bullets send people flying back pretty far, even by movie standards.)

There are also other oddities, such as bank account balances having nice, round numbers.  I don’t know of many statements that round like that.  Hubert also gives his former partner a book that never shows up again.  Usually, when this happens, I’m sure that it means that it’s important.  Maybe it means that the partner is in on whatever’s going on or that we will at least learn something important about it.

Some of the stuff probably would have been explained better if it was more of a drama.  Many of the Japanese people speak French.  Yumi is understandable; it was said that Miko and Hubert worked at the French embassy.  The lawyer is understandable as well.  It would make sense that if Miko was to leave everything to Hubert, she’d find a lawyer that speaks French.  I guess I can understand a lot of the other people that speak French.  I suppose it’s not impossible that someone working at a hotel would pick up a second language.

The big problem I had was that some of the numbers didn’t add up.  Yumi is two days away from her 20th birthday, but Hubert and Miko haven’t seen each other in 19 years.  Hubert is pretty strict about this.  He keeps correcting people that say 15 years or 20 years.  If it’s been 19 years, Yumi would have been born before Miko left Hubert.  Hubert should have had some indication that Miko was pregnant.

Also, I could be totally off on this, but I think Yumi said that she was in high school.  (Someone please correct me if I’m wrong on this.)  I asked my brother who’s working in Japan at various schools and he said that the normal graduation age is 18.  Also, if she’s in school, why isn’t she in class?  Maybe I misread the subtitles or misunderstood something.  Yumi was apparently brought up bilingual, which usually makes for a child that’s more intelligent.

The movie was filmed in French, as you might have picked up.  There were also some lines in Japanese.  All of the French lines were subtitled; I don’t think any of the Japanese was.  I would never consider dub on a live-action movie.  I’ve been watching too many poorly made foreign films to choose dub over sub on a live-action movie.

I’d recommend watching the movie if you’re just looking for a distraction.  This is one of those movies that’s not to be taken seriously.  If you pay too much attention, you’ll find yourself asking too many questions to really enjoy it.  For instance, the scene with the wasabi is funny.  I really wasn’t even paying much attention myself and I found several errors.  (You can find a few more if you go to IMDb.)

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Ladykillers (2004)

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

WARNING:  I will be giving away major plot points, including the ending.

Sometimes, I have to wonder if it could really be that easy. Tom Hanks plays Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. He's a man with a plan to rob a riverboat casino. He has a way with words, which one does not often encounter. He assembles a crew to help him with his robbery, but he first has to actually get to the money. That's where Marva Munson comes in. She's a 60-something widow with a room to let. She hates "hippity-hop" music and is always complaining to the sheriff about the neighbor playing it or some other nuisance.

She also has a basement that seems to be missing a wall, which presents Dorr with the access that he needs to get to the money. He rents the room and sets up the ruse. He calls in his team, telling Munson that they are a band of musicians. They 'practice' in the basement, so as not to 'disturb' Mrs. Munson.

Garth Pancake, played by J. K. Simmons, is a munitions expert and is responsible for digging the tunnel. (Fans of Law & Order will recognize Simmons as Dr. Emil Skoda.) Pancake seems to know his stuff. Sure, he blows off a finger, but he gets to the money. I should also mention that he has Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which causes him to have to use the men's room at an inopportune time. (This is a real condition, which is hyped up a little for the movie.)

There's also Gawain MacSam, played by Marlon Wayans. He's the inside guy. He's necessary not only for the layout and workings of the casino and office, but to help cover their tracks later on. MacSam seems to have a tendency to get smacked around.

Lump is a football player who's used for brute force. They have to get rid of the debris from the tunnel by carrying it out and throwing it onto a garbage scow. Lump is very helpful in that respect.

The General, a chain smoker, rounds out the group. I believe his area of contributions are planning and discipline. He's very stern when anyone wants to change the plan or back out of something. His smoking also gets him in trouble with Mrs. Munson, who has a strict no-smoking policy.

The plan to steal the money is to dig a tunnel to the office, which is underground, and steal the money from the safe. They'll then take the money back to the basement and collapse the tunnel. MacSam will seal up the wall in the office's safe room, so that the money looks like it simply vanished. The five members of the crew will split up the money and go their separate ways.

There are just a few small problems along the way. The only major problem is that Mrs. Munson figures out that something's up when she sees the money. Dorr says that it's Pancake's money from a mortgage, but Munson doesn't buy it. Dorr eventually tells her what's going on and tries to convince her not to say anything, but she decides against. She gives Dorr and his crew two options: Either return the money and then to go to church with her or go to jail. Dorr and crew agree that neither option is acceptable and decide to kill her. They try, but in the end, all five of them end up dead and, ironically, Mrs. Munson gets to keep the money, which she donates to her favorite university.

The acting was good. There were a few problems that I had with the plot. First off, I hate it when a plan like this goes off well enough that the criminals carry out the crime, but they don't get the money for reasons other than being caught. They almost got away; all they had to do was leave town. Killing Mrs. Munson was just a way to rid themselves of witnesses and shouldn't have been that difficult for five grown men to do. It was a great plot carried out by five people that will never get to enjoy their ill-gotten games.

Also, they blow up the tunnel they used to steal the money, but there's no indication of any after effects. From what I could tell, there were only three stories to the house: Upstairs, downstairs, and the basement. The downstairs level was at street level, which meant that the roof of the tunnel couldn't have been more than a few feet from the actual street. The crew should have had to worry about the tunnel caving in while they were working. They should have also had to worry about the finishing explosion collapsing the ground and houses above it.

One final point: The crew is talking in a restaurant; it's amazing that no one overhears them and decides to tip off the authorities. Dorr was worried about the sheriff finding him at several points in the movie. This isn't a major point; I'm sure it happens all the time. As I've said before, comedies can get away with a bit more. The movie is usually just a method of delivering jokes, of which there were plenty. (The Waffle Hut scene is great.)

The only problem with the acting was Tom Hanks, who I though put too much into the role. If you've seen the commercials, you've seen what I'm talking about. He comes across as very goofy and bizarre. It really stands out. I don't feel that it detracted from the movie that much, though.

I give the movie four stars. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant/Wizardry Gold (1992)

Way back when I was in high school, my cousin introduced me to a game.  He had played it and offered me a chance to play it myself.  The game was Wizardry’s Crusaders of the Dark Savant.  Back then, it was playable on DOS, meaning I had to exit Windows to play it.  I never quite beat the game.  I eventually upgraded Windows to a version where I couldn’t figure out how to get to DOS, so my crusading days were over  That is until I found the Windows version.  In 1996, the game was re-released as Wizardry Gold.  Here, it was on a single CD-ROM instead of two floppies.  I could play the game once again.

For purposes of this review, the actual game doesn’t vary much from the DOS version to the Windows version.  Almost all of it, from what I recall, is cosmetic.  The controls are different.  The graphics are better.  However, the storyline and whatnot are the same.  If you’re looking to buy the game, you’ll probably have to look for the Windows version anyway.

The game is actually the middle part of a trilogy.  It began with Wizardry VI, which I never had a chance to play.  Those that have can import their saved games.  If you haven’t, either, don’t worry.  You can start a new game as if you’re entering the game universe for the first time.  You’ll have to create a party of up to six characters, selecting race and class.

The object is to find something called the Astral Dominae.  It has the power to control the universe.  If it falls in to the wrong hands, it could be bad news.  There are several other parties, like the Umpani and the T’Rang, that are interested in it.  You can form alliances (or not) as the game progresses.  There are side missions you can go on (or not) to pass the time.

The game is similar to many of the RPGs of the time.  Movement is tile based, meaning you move from one square to the next.  If you explore the area you wake up in before entering the city, you’ll find a map kit.  In the Windows version, there’s a square that stays open showing your immediate area.  (If you don’t find it, you’ll be able to buy one much later in the game.)  Combat is turn based, meaning you’ll choose what you want to do, then everyone attacks in a random order.

I’ve almost always played with the sound off for several reasons.  First, the sound slows down the combat significantly.  Second, the sound isn’t that great.  (Think grunts and MIDI files.)  Third, I like to listen to music or watch TV while playing.  The only down side is that I have to turn off the sound each time I start the game.

Each character has three bars.  Each can be restored by fountains, potions, sleeping or magic.  Red indicates hit points. If the character runs out of hit points, they die.  (You can get around this by resurrecting the character or reloading the game.)  Yellow indicates stamina.  When the yellow bar runs out, they fall asleep.  If the character is swimming at the time, this also means death.  You can restore stamina easily by sleeping.  Blue indicates magic ability, which is divided into six categories for those who use it.  If you run out of points for a category, you can’t cast in that category any more.

Each class has a different set of spells.  Mages can get nuclear blast, which is good for attacking several groups of enemies at once.  They also get astral gate, which is good for demons and the like.  Priests, on the other hand, can heal wounds and identify items, both of which are useful.  Fighters and thieves can’t cast spells, but also have their uses.  You’ll want at least one thief in your party to disarm traps and pick locks.  You’ll also want at least one mage and one priest.  I’ve beaten the game with no fighters, but I had to pass on a lot of useful items.

Most magic users will start with two spells when you create the character.  You’ll be able to level up as you progress in the game.  When you do so, you’ll be able to spend points on various abilities.  For all characters, start with swimming until you get to 10, then add to climbing until you reach 10.  Every 10 points you assign to swimming allow you to swim one space at a time.  You earn points by swimming for each space you swim, so you can practice along a shoreline to build up to 100.  (Having 100 points allows you to get about 6-8 spaces, depending on various factors.)  You’ll also want to add points to mapping for whoever carries the map.  Getting to ten allows you to see walls.  I think when you get to about 20, you get to see doors.  After this, more points don’t really do much more.  Getting to around 70 lets you see stairs and stuff, which isn’t that important.  For magic users, you’ll need to add points to their magic stat.  This is what allows you to get better spells later on.

One thing to consider is that different classes can’t use certain items.  It seems that only fighters can use the good armor and weapons.  When in New City, which is the first town you’ll come across, you’ll find three places that sell stuff:  Paluke’s, Belcanzor’s Magic Emporium and Arms of Argus.  Paluke’s sold crappy clothing that may be cursed.  I’ve gotten a few good caps and hats in the beginning of the game, but that’s it.  Arms of Argus had proven useful.  Rossarian will occasionally have good stuff like bows and arrows, although not always.  (If you need arrows on a reliable basis, you’ll have to wait until you find the Rattkin Ruins.)  Everyone should be able to find something to fight with.  Belcanzor’s sold mostly magic stuff.  You may find some useful stuff there, but he’s only in New City at night.

The biggest drawback I found to having to buy stuff was that those NPCs that were in a fixed location would only sell you one item (or batch of items) at a time.   Willow arrows, for instance, come in packs of 100.  If Rossarian has one quiver available, you have to buy that one, then exit and come back in to buy another.  It tends to get a bit tedious if you’re trying to equip four of your characters with arrows.  If you want to buy a dozen of a potion, but the guy sells it one at a time, you have to go in a dozen times to get them all, then merge them all together.  It would have been much easier to be able to buy in multiples.

When you fight, you have to equip the stuff you’re using.  Some swords require one while others require two.  If you’re using a bow, both the bow and arrows have to be equipped.  There are other items, like whips, that can be used single handed.  Not everyone can use every weapon. Also, character position determines if they can fight.  Your party is arranged in two columns, three on each side of the main screen.   The top left is position 1, top right is position 2 and so on.  The first three positions can fight, if armed, regardless of what they’re using.  If your character is using certain weapons, like bows or whips, they can fight from any position.  Also, thieves can attack while hiding, potentially allowing them to attack every other turn.

You’re not going to see people attack you until they occupy the same square as you.  This is also true of NPCs.  You’ll be walking along and suddenly find yourself in battle.  Some squares will always have a battle the first time you enter that square.  A few squares will always have a battle for you.  Most of your battles, though, will be random.  If you don’t want to do battle at the moment, you can quit and reload the game at your last save point.

On that note, you can save at any point in the game.  This allows you to save right before a major required battle or trapped chest.  If someone dies, you can reload.  I do recommend keeping one means of resurrection, at least until two of your characters get the spell.  Some battles are tough.  You may have a character die at the very last round of a battle.  I’ve also had cases where a character was turned to stone or I saved before checking if everyone was alive.  It pays to have options.

Beating the game is somewhat difficult.  There are several parchments, called maps, which usually give vital clues to solving the puzzle.  One is meant to mislead you and one is part of a physical puzzle.  The game seems to start with the maps scattered around the game world.  You’ll be able to find some during the game while others will be taken by NPCs.  You’ll have to find them by talking to NPCs,  but luck will factor into it.

One interesting thing about the maps I should mention is that all but one can be bought and sold  for 10,000 GP.  There are a few characters that you have to kill during the game and one that can be killed without any apparent consequences.  This means that if you have any of these maps and find yourself in a position to kill one of those characters, your last interaction with them (before killing them) could be to sell them the maps for 10,000 GP each.  When you kill them, you can take the maps back and get a nice amount of money in the process.  (For some reason, NPCs have unlimited funds to buy stuff.)

Back when I was playing the DOS version, there was a toll number you could call for hints.  I never used this, as it cost more than I was willing to spend, but I was able to make good progress in the game regardless.  Upon finding the Windows version, I needed a little help recalling some of the solutions, so I referred to a walkthrough.  If you need help, they are available.  There’s even an interactive map.  For those that don’t want the walkthrough, someone managed to stitch together a map of the full world.  You can use it for reference with minimal spoilers.  (You’ll mostly be getting the location of treasure chests and whatnot.)  I am in awe of the effort that this must have taken.

I imagine that most of the people that would play the game would do so for the nostalgia.  (The same is probably true of anyone reading this review.)  People that grew up in the age of MMORPGs might find this game laughable, but it had a solid storyline and game play.  If you visit the aforementioned map, you’ll see that there’s a lot to explore.  It fascinated me that someone actually took the time to put a somewhat-circular path in the Myrmideon Forest.  From what I’ve read, there was actually supposed to be a Devil Falls, but time constraints forced it’s removal.  It would be interesting to see what the original programmers and writers would have come up with if they had the time and money to do everything they wanted.

Now that I’ve beaten the game, I’ll probably be revisiting it every few months.  It’s always fun to revisit an old game like this.  It’s a shame that the company that made it went out of business.  It does make finding new copies somewhat difficult.  I checked Amazon recently and there did appear to be a few copies.  You may be able to find a few copies on eBay.  I’d like to try Wizardry VIII, but I don’t know how easy that will be to find.

For those of you that are visiting this review for the nostalgia, please feel free to leave a comment and share it with your friends.  I’m always looking for other people who have played and enjoyed the game.  We can still remember all the good times.  Right?

Wikipedia page

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Once Bitten (1985)

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

Vampire movies are a mixed bag.  Some are comedies while others are dramas.  Some are even erotic or pornographic.  The vampires tend to be very similar, but will often have the same attributes, such as intolerance of sunlight, immortality, and dislike of crosses and/or garlic.

Mark, played by Jim Carrey, is an average teenager.  He has no concept of vampires.  He goes to school, has a girlfriend and sells ice cream out of an ice-cream truck to make money.  He’s a bit frustrated in that he can’t seem to get it on with said girlfriend.  (It doesn’t help that his primary mode of transportation is the ice-cream truck.)  His two friends decide to help him out with this.

They take Mark to a bar hoping that he’ll hook up with someone.  (It’s Mark’s hope that having sex will take some of the pressure off.)  The bar they choose operates on a fairly simple idea.  Each table has a phone and a very visible number.  If you see someone you like, you pick up your phone and dial the number of the table you want.  When Mark’s table gets a call, he jumps into action.

The woman interested in him is known simply as Countess.  (She’s played by Lauren Hutton.)  Unbeknownst to Mark, Countess has to drink the blood of a virgin three times by Halloween in order to stay young and beautiful.  Yes, there are places where virgins are plentiful, but she prefers to live in a big city.  She may not have a lot of virgins to choose from, but she at least has Mark.

They go back to her place while Mark’s friends get arrested.  He gets a little drunk and passes out while Countess does what she has to do.  When he wakes up the next morning, he goes home.  He doesn’t remember much, which sort of defeats the entire purpose of going to the bar in the first place.  It must have been pretty good, though, because Countess is following him around, hoping for her second “transfusion”.

Mark is really worried now.  Not only does his girlfriend find out, but he notices that he’s changing.  He has increased sensitivity to sunlight, starts sleeping in his footlocker and is developing one of those famous vampire tans.  He starts to become paranoid when he scares two small children.  (He also gets lots of attention at a school dance for his great vampire costume, despite insisting that he didn’t get dressed up at all.)

Since it’s a comedy, I think you can assume that everything works out for Mark.  (Don’t worry.  I won’t spoil the ending.)  The movie can also get away with a few things that I would complain about otherwise.  I’ve never understood why vampires don’t reflect in mirrors.  I realize that here, the movie needs a simple way for Mark and his girlfriend to realize that he’s turning.  But I’ve always wondered.  We can see vampires, which means that they project an image.  Why doesn’t that image reflect in a mirror?  (Most movies at least show the clothes while the person disappears.  Here, both Mark and his costume disappear in the mirror.)

The movie is fairly goofy.  There weren’t many scenes where I was laughing, but it was silly at points.  There’s very little nudity, so don’t rent thinking you’ll see something.  Yes, Lauren Hutton is seen wearing revealing clothing.  The only thing that the broadcast networks would potentially find objectionable is a seminude picture of her character hanging on the wall in her place.

There’s also very little violence or gore.  There are a few gross-out scenes.  In one, Mark drinks the runoff from some ground beef.  (I’d imagine that it’s fruit punch or something.)  In another, he asks for a raw hamburger patty for lunch when his normal preference is to have his burger make charcoal briquettes look rare.  Other scenes aren’t much worse than that.

The story isn’t anything new.  We’ve seen vampires preying on people to get a fix of fresh blood.  I’ve never understood, though, why midnight sometimes plays an important role.  Countess has been around for 400 years, long before accurate timekeeping was invented.  Why is it that she has to drink blood by the stroke of midnight?  What happens if her watch is a little off?  (Ever notice that everybody’s watch is always set to the correct time?)

It’s one of those average movies.  It’s not horrible, but I’m glad that I didn’t spend any money renting it.  Instead, I recorded it off of a movie channel.  That’s kind of a problem with vampire movies.  There really isn’t much that this movie adds to the mythology.  If the comes on, I guess there are worse ways you could spend the time.  There are also better ways.

IMDb page

Friday, January 20, 2017

SimTower: The Vertical Empire (1994)

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

Many, many years ago, this game called SimCity came out. It was this revolutionary game that allowed people to design and run a city. By todays standards, the graphics would be considered cheap, but it started a whole line of products, including SimTower. I first came across this game about ten years ago. (Yeah, it’s that old.) A friend had gotten permission to install it on a lab computer or two, so that everyone could play it. I eventually ended up getting it for myself so that I could play at home.

For those that aren’t familiar with the Sim concept, each of the Sim games basically simulates something. SimCity simulates a city. There’s SimFarm, which simulates a farm. I think you can see the pattern here. With SimTower, you’re given a tower to run. Unfortunately, it’s in only two dimensions, so it’s not that complicated. You start out with a one-star rating. This means that you can start out by building a lobby, a basic elevator and a few basic rooms like a condo or an office. You can also put in restaurants and movie theaters. Hotel rooms come in different sizes (single occupancy, double occupancy and suite) and require room service, which is a separate unit that cannot be removed once placed. (Room service also requires special elevators to get to other floors.)

As you accomplish different things, you get more stars. I believe that a population of 300 is all that is needed for a second star. (You can’t lose stars, so if you hit 300 and fall below it shortly thereafter, you won’t go back down to one.) With a second star comes more things you can build. Eventually, you get things like apartments, service elevators, recycling centers and even a subway. There’s a guide within the game that explains exactly what is necessary to progress to each level. In some cases, like with recycling centers, you simply need to have enough for the capacity of your building to progress. When you’ve met all of the criteria, you become a five-star establishment. (I’m told that there is a way to ‘win’ the game eventually, but I’ve never been able to do that.)

The first floor has to be only a lobby and the width of the tower is based on that. (Each floor can be no wider than the floor below it.) Above that, you get an additional 104 levels. Aside from the first floor lobbies can go on every fifteenth floor, starting with the fifteenth floor. You can also have ten basement levels, which is where parking has to go. Also, the subway has to go on the lowest of the basement floors. (You’ll find that there are certain units that can only go either above or below ground while others can go anywhere.) You’ll eventually get express elevators, which go to the first floor and all of the basement floors as well as every fifteenth floor. (I don’t know if you have to have a lobby there for it to be effective.) You can also use escalators and stairs to alleviate elevator traffic, but people are only willing to walk up or down a certain number of flights.

You need to pay attention to the budget. Condos tend to generate a lot of money, but hotel rooms may not all be used and may drain your budget. Room service and recycling also tend to be a drain, even though they are necessary. You have to find the appropriate balance. You also have to keep people happy. For instance, people living in condos and hotel rooms don’t like to be placed too close to an office unit. Office workers will eventually demand parking. No one likes to have to walk too far to the elevator or stairs, so you have to space them properly. (You can tell when someone’s mad by the color of their icon. To see a person’s icon, either see them while they’re waiting at the elevator or click on a unit.)

There’s not too much to the graphics; it looks like each type of unit has maybe six different panels that it rotates through to show motion. The building has phases such as night and day and the different seasons. It may seem simple, but it’s very easy to lose money in this game. If you’re balance goes too far into negative territory, you have to start over.

The interface is very simple. You have the window with the tower in it and two control bars. One control bar has the different units you can install and also has the pause button. The other shows your balance, the number of stars you have and the time that’s progressed, as expressed in number of years, seasons and days from the start. When I go to maximize the screen, it doesn’t take up the full screen. (I think it was designed for a smaller screen.) However, I can at least move the bars so that they don’t block my view of the tower.

The game has run on all of the computers that I’ve had over the years, regardless of the version of Windows that I’ve been using. That’s probably because there’s nothing fancy like multiplayer or anything. There really hasn’t been any updating as we’ve seen with the SimCity series. So far as I know, there’s just SimTower.

If you’re looking for a good way to kill a few hours, this is your game. It’s average in many respects. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Railroad Tycoon 3 (2003)

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

I don’t usually buy video games, and when I do, it’s usually one of the GTA games or something along those lines. I also have this interest in railroads and trains. I came across Railroad Tycoon, which is a railroad simulation. It looked interesting. You lay track, plan routes, buy farms and stuff. Being that it was something like $10, I decided to give it a try.

Ok, it’s not really that simple. There are all sorts of different scenarios you can play. Each scenario has three sets of stated goals. It might be to connect a certain number of cities or to connect two particular cities within a given time frame. You can get bronze, silver or gold, each representing one of the sets of goals. (As you might expect, bronze will be the easiest where gold will require the most skill and/or effort.)

Laying track is pretty easy. You select either single or double track and put it where you want it. Sometimes, you can’t always get it exactly where you want it to go. It may have to be done in several stretches or you simply can’t get it to go through a dip in the land. I’ve also noticed that if you’re in a scenario where you’re using electric track, it will randomly switch back to non-electric. I haven’t been able to figure this out, but it’s not that hard to make it electric later on.

You also have to connect cities, which is officially done with a train station. Stations come in three sizes, each being able to cover a different amount of surrounding area. When you have two connected cities on the same track, you can run a train between those two cities. You even get to choose between several different models that vary in cost. You do have to accommodate mountains, rivers and other land features, which isn’t that hard once you start playing.

Some scenarios have restrictions. It might be that you can only lay track that’s connected to existing track or maybe you can only lay a certain number of miles every year. (A year in game time can pass in a few minutes, depending on which speed you have it on.) In some cases, these restrictions make it kind of difficult. I generally avoid certain scenarios based on the restrictions.

You start with some money, which varies based on the scenario you’re playing, but you can add to that by selling stock in your company or floating a bond. (Some scenarios don’t allow for one or both features.) You’re probably going to fail altogether pretty quickly if you run out of money, since you do need money to maintain tracks and trains, so be sure not to spend everything. It’s also easy to spend a lot of money on tracks only to realize that you need to buy stations or put up maintenance depots.

If you don’t like the scenarios, there are also campaigns, which is nothing more than a different set of scenarios that can be strung together. I’ve never been able to get the campaigns to save properly, meaning that when I reload, the scenarios that I’ve beaten don’t seem to have been saved. I don’t know if I’m doing something wrong or if I’m just missing something. Again, there are campaign scenarios that I avoid based on the restrictions and I don’t usually play the campaign because I feel no need to.

If you can’t get used to game play during one of the campaigns or scenarios, there’s even a sandbox mode that just lets you lay track and build stuff without having to worry about money or any restrictions. I recommend playing this just to get used to the game.

The one big complaint that I have is that there are only a certain number of maps, which can get boring. There are user-generated maps, but I can’t seem to get those to work with my version. I used to have the retail version, but I lost the discs and I think that’s the version that I need. I’ve since replaced it with a different version, which doesn’t seem to support the user-generated maps. Again, maybe I’m missing something. You can make your own maps, but I don’t have the patience for that.

The physics can also seem a little unrealistic. I’ve laid track that’s had an unusual grade, almost going straight up at times, and the trains will still make it. I’ve never had a train not make it up any grade. It is sometimes hard to lay the track, though, and this doesn’t seem to be based on grade or anything else. Sometimes, it’s something obvious like a house. Other times, I just have to keep moving the mouse around to find a position that’s agreeable with the computer. It’s frustrating when you want to have a track go a certain way.

It is a somewhat addictive game. I’ll play for a while and love it, then get bored with it only to come back to it a few weeks later. One of my favorite things to do is to have computer players start companies and eventually acquire them. I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s having the computer do some of the work or maybe it’s the challenge of acquiring enough capital to actually acquire them. There are still a few aspects I haven’t tried, like the Internet and LAN play. (Being that I only have the one version currently, it doesn’t look like I’ll be doing LAN any time soon.)

I give the game four stars. The controls are easy to use, but like I said, it would probably be best to play the sandbox mode, even for a few minutes. You can change your view from close up to far away, and this might be distracting at first. The only thing I’d really add to the game is a random scenario generator. I know it may get a bit distracting to have Berlin, Tokyo and Houston close together, but it can get boring playing the same set of maps over and over again. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms (2015)

What do Donald Trump, Chicago Transit Authority and Buffalo Sabres all have in common?  They’re all at the top of the list on Google Trends right now.  I’ve always wondered if starting with popular search terms would improve my ranking on Google.  I came to realize that even if it did, the effect would be temporary, as interests change.  Hockey is seasonal.  Presidents have term limits.  In time, whatever the Chicago Transit Authority did to get in the news will be forgotten.  I’m not even sure these terms will be at the top when I actually post this review in the morning.

When I watched The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, any illusion of making keywords work was dispelled.  They go into how Google works early on and it has little to do with the search term, itself.  Instead, an algorithm looks at sites that link to a page and use their importance to determine how well a page ranks.  It’s probably more complicated that most people would understand.  (And I’m sure Google doesn’t want the BBC giving away all their secrets.)

Algorithms are much simpler than that.  An algorithm is simply a set of rules for accomplishing something.  Euclid devised one to find the largest square tile that you could fill an area without having to cut tiles.  (It does so by finding the largest common denominator.)  There are algorithms for sorting sets of data and for matching high-school graduates to colleges.

With computers, we can do more.  We can match people on dating sites.  We can even get movie recommendations from a computer if we’d simply rate enough movies.  Not all algorithms are meant to be perfect, though.  One is able to help Heathrow Airport send planes on their way.  It‘s not optimal, but it has help to save fuel costs.  Mathematicians are working on one to solve the traveling salesman problem, which could net someone a million dollars.

Not everyone is going to enjoy this documentary.  The mere mention of math can cause people to scream and/or run away.  This documentary does handle it in an entertaining and easily comprehensible manner.  If you’ve ever wondered how this sort of stuff works, this is a good place to start.  (I will say that math and science programs are a lot more enjoyable when you’re not forced to take notes.)

I don’t think I’d recommend buying this documentary unless you’re a teacher.  Replay value is going to be limited if you’re just a casual viewer.  I was able to find it streaming on Netflix.  I don’t know how easy it would be to find elsewhere.  (Although, I imagine Google’s algorithm would make it much easier.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

It seems like the movies and TV shows present us with two extremes when it comes to law enforcement.  There are the straight-laced, by-the-book officers that play within the rules.  They don’t get much grief from their superiors and occasionally get results.  Axel Foley isn’t that kind of police officer.  He’s the kind of guy that would take evidence and use it to catch some more bad guys.  In the first few minutes of the movie, his bust goes bad and he watches as his evidence (cigarettes) falls off the back of a truck while his suspect manages to use said truck to destroy half the cars in Detroit.  (I’ve always felt bad for anyone that had to find their car in ruins with no idea of what actually happened.)  This doesn’t go over well with his boss.

When Foley gets back to his apartment, he finds that Mikey Tandino has broken in and made himself at home.  Fortunately, Mikey is an old friend.  He’s just been released from prison and already has a job as a security guard out in Beverly Hills.  The thing is that he’s stolen some bearer bonds from his new boss.  Mikey gets himself killed right outside of Foley’s apartment.  This really doesn’t go over well with his boss.

Foley offers to take some time off, even if it means saying that he’ll in no way investigate his friend’s death.  So, of course Foley begins not investigating his friend’s death in Beverly Hills.  He even manages to shoehorn himself into a booked hotel.  Unfortunately, he’s not so lucky with Mikey’s boss, Victor Maitland.  Two minutes together and Maitland has Foley escorted out the lobby window.  This, in turn, attracts the local police, who arrest Foley.

Foley knows that Maitland is up to something.  Fortunately for Foley, a mutual friend of his and Mikey’s works for Maitland and can get him in to otherwise restricted areas.  Take, for instance, Maitland’s warehouse, where Foley finds ground coffee.  Normally, coffee wouldn’t be suspicious except this is a holding area for items that are supposed to be going through customs.  This probably means drugs.  The trick is proving it without getting thrown back in jail.

I remember someone talking about the TV show Frasier.  I think it David Hyde Pierce.  He was saying that if an actual psychiatrist did one tenth of the things that Frasier did, they’d lose their license and be thrown in jail.  Most of what happened was played for comedic effect.  Similarly, most of what Axel Foley does is to play off of the local detectives, Rosewood and Taggart.  Rosewood and Taggart are by the book and seem to only get in trouble because of Foley.

Speaking of which, I could never figure out why Alex Foley took Taggart and Rosewood to the strip club.  For those that haven’t seen the movie, I’m about to give away some minor spoilers, so you may want to skip this paragraph.  In one scene, Foley, Taggart and Rosewood are sitting in a strip club, which they went to at Foley’s insistence.  While there, two men rob the strip club.

I could never figure out if Foley somehow knew that this was going to happen or if it was dumb luck.  Why would Foley, who had never been to the area, chose a strip club that was out of the detective’s jurisdiction?  They still refuse drink, as they’re on duty.  Ok.  They probably don’t have many strip clubs in Beverly Hills, but if Foley wanted to make them uncomfortable, he probably could have found something closer.   Did Foley somehow get a tip that was later cut from the movie?  Was he giving Taggart and Rosewood two arrests to make them look good?  Was it just coincidence?

I also tend to find scenes like this movie’s opening scene to be excessive.  We have a truck crashing into pretty much every car it comes across, causing all sorts of damage.  There’s even an explosion.  I always imagine some poor guy coming out and finding his car smashed and he wouldn’t even know how it happened.  This is to say nothing of someone having something important, like their lunch, in the car.  Also, with all the cigarettes falling off the back of the truck, there’s a possibility that some kid will come across a pack or two and keep them for personal use.

It had been a while since I thought of the movie.  It started coming into rotation on Comedy Central, but would usually start just before I had to leave for work.  Because it’s available on Netflix, I was able to watch it when I wanted to and without commercials.  It’s a fun movie that was definitely a product of the 80s.  The only thing that I would say is dated would be the Michael Jackson references. A few times, we see people wearing the distinctive clothes that he made popular.  Other than that, it’s mainly the look of the movie and the appearance of Bronson Pinchot as Serge.  Most people today wouldn’t recognize him as Balki Bartokomous.  Overall, it’s a fun movie to watch.

IMDb page

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Terminal (2004)

Note  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski. Viktor Navorski is a man without a country. He’s en route to New York City when his country’s government is overthrown. With no officially recognized country, Viktor has no legitimate passport. That’s when Viktor meets Frank Dixon. Dixon is a bureaucrat who’s on the verge of being promoted. With this promotion comes a lot of power. Dixon doesn’t want this promotion to get screwed up. Thus, Dixon has to play by the rules. Dixon also realizes that he has a problem, and that problem is named Viktor Navorski.

According to the rules, Viktor is to stay in the airport. He can’t legally go into New York City. Dixon gives Viktor some food vouchers and tells Viktor to figure something out. Viktor soon realizes that he’s going to be in for a long stay. He loses his food vouchers, but finds possible salvation in those push carts that most airports have. He can return three carts and get three quarters, which is enough for a Burger King hamburger. (Anyone who’s ever had to buy food at an airport knows that this is a bargain.) Pretty soon, Viktor is racking up the quarters, which prompts Dixon to create a special position within the airport to stop Viktor from getting those precious quarters. So begins Dixon’s war.

Navorski’s English is very limited, but he’s a quick study. He tries to apply to several of the stores within the airport, but to no avail. On a whim, he fixes up a wall in a closed-off area of the airport. This catches the attention of the crew that’s repairing that section of the airport. Not only does Viktor get a job, he gets a job that pays more that Dixon earns.

There are several other side stories. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Amelia, a flight attendant who has a boyfriend who’s married to another woman. She knows it’s wrong (and even encourages him to stay with his wife) but just can’t tear herself away from him. She and Viktor manage to hit it off and Viktor tries to get a relationship going, but she has some very serious trust issues.

There’s also Gupta, a janitor who takes amusement in watching people slip on a wet floor. The reason it’s so amusing is that he has several of those big yellow signs very visibly positioned around the recently mopped area. People are usually too careless about their surroundings to take notice of something that obvious.

The most interesting story is the story of why Viktor is there. All anyone knows is that he carries this Planter’s Peanuts container. At first, no one asks what the container contains. Eventually, Amelia takes the initiative. Viktor reveals that his father was trying to gather signatures. I don’t recall the reason whole story behind it, but it has to do with a group of jazz musicians. It was very important to Viktor’s father. He managed to get all but one of the signatures.

Viktor is in New York City trying to get that one last signature. That’s why it’s so important that Viktor also play by the rules. Dixon wants Viktor to leave figuring that Viktor will become someone else’s problem. If Viktor is caught, he becomes the problem of the federal government. If Viktor is not caught, then he simply wanders NYC like any other undocumented immigrant. Little does Dixon know that Viktor wants to return home, even if it means waiting the nine months that Viktor eventually has to stay.

WARNING: Anyone who doesn’t want to know how the movie ends should stop here. If you continue, don’t blame me for ruining the movie for you. You were warned.

Amelia gets Viktor a one-day visa so that he can go to where the remaining musician is. Unfortunately, things don’t work out between them. She goes back to her married boyfriend. However, Viktor does get his autograph. Upon entering a cab, he tells the driver that he’s going home.


I didn’t feel like there was any sense of completion with the story. (At least not in the sense that I would have expected.) It seemed like a short story that was interrupted and put on hold for nine months. It was absolutely not what I expected, but that’s not to say that the movie was bad. Viktor was a man that had everything taken away from him and Tom Hanks was able to portray him in such a way that I could say that I would have done the same thing in his position. (Several other people also told me that I probably would have done the same thing.)

There’s a lot of product placement. Notice the prominent use of Burger King that I mentioned before. Those that are observant will also notice Starbucks and Baja Fresh. (For those that don’t know, Baja Fresh is a fast-food restaurant that sells tacos. I’ll be writing a review of it shortly. I’ll be placing links for Starbucks and Burger King below.) It wasn’t too distracting and in some cases, such as Viktor’s job search, can be excused.

The movie was definitely different. I wish that there were more movies like this one. There were no amazing action scenes. The movie didn’t try to awe people with its amazing special effects. So there was some slapstick here and there, but the bulk of the movie was driven by the story. Fortunately, it had a very good story.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

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

Normally, I’d put a spoiler warning here, but I doubt that there are many people that don’t know how the movie will end. Even those, like myself, that haven’t read the Bible know that Jesus was crucified. Everyone knows that this movie is about the last hours of the life of Jesus, so it should come as no surprise that he’s crucified at the end of the movie.

Before the movie came out, I had heard a lot about this movie. Mel Gibson really wanted to make a movie about the Jesus’ final hours. Gibson really wanted to make something that was inspirational and accurate. When it opened in theaters, those that had seen it fell into two groups. One group felt that the movie was inspirational and accurate and were moved by the movie. The second group felt that it was anti-Semitic and unfairly portrayed the Jews. This is why I decided to wait until the movie came out on DVD to see it. I couldn’t see myself sitting in a theater full of people that were driven either to tears or rage. I didn’t want to put myself in the middle of that.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t say that I really see what the big deal is. I’m not religious. I’d classify myself somewhere between atheist and agnostic. You might be asking why I saw the movie if I feel this way. Feeling as I do is no excuse not to see the movie. I figured that since I have Netflix, which is a video rental service paid for by the month, I might as well watch it and see for myself what the big deal was. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I can’t say that I fit into either of the two groups that I mentioned before.

The people most likely to be moved by the movie are those that identify with Christianity. This isn’t to say that a non-Christian can’t take something away from it. However, I don’t really understand much of the mythology. I did find certain aspects of the movie to be confusing. There were a lot of unnamed characters that would be recognizable to someone who’s read the bible. (The Devil is one example.)

However, there are many things that someone could take from this movie. There are several flashbacks in the movie, one of which involves Jesus telling his followers to love your enemies. I also feel that many of the scenes could deliver the same emotional impact regardless of religious beliefs or lack thereof. For instance, seeing Jesus accused, brought to Pilate and eventually tortured and crucified still had an impact on me, even if I didn’t interpret it the same way that a Christian might. Just because you’re not religious doesn’t mean that this movie holds no value for you.

I can understand not being interested in the movie, as well. This movie isn’t for everyone. There is a lot of violence and gore, which are both too much for children. The scenes where Jesus is being whipped leave nothing to the imagination. I also don’t think that children will be able to understand the movie, even if they are raised as Christians. This is a very complex and intense subject.

As for the anti-Semitic aspect, I didn’t get the impression that the claims had any merit. The major claim was that the Jews were shown as the ones wanting to crucify Jesus. Showing that in a major motion picture might incite or perpetuate hatred of Jews. I don’t think so. Instead of making Jews out to be villains, I felt that the villains happened to be Jewish.

Yes, I’m dealing with semantics, but bear with me. In the movie, the Jews want to crucify Jesus (who was a rabbi, mind you) for insisting that he’s the Son of God. According to Roman law, the Jews weren’t allowed to execute anyone, so they had to go to the local Roman official, Pontius Pilate, for permission. The official wanted no part of it and sent it to King Herod since it was really his jurisdiction. Herod wanted no part of it, either, so Jesus was set free. Jesus is sent back to Pilate, who is in a real bind. If he condemns Jesus to death, one part of the population will revolt. If he doesn’t, he’ll have another part of the population revolting and Caesar has made it clear that there are to be no uprisings. Pilate does the best thing he can, which is to punish Jesus, but not kill him.

It’s kind of like saying that when the guards beat Jesus, it’s an anti-police message because the guards beat him to within an inch of his life. It’s not only police brutality, but it’s also state-sanctioned police brutality. You could just as well say that it’s calling the government prejudiced because Pilate is willing to let the guards attack Jesus. You could also say that it’s calling the government apathetic because both Pilate and Herod want no part of it. Since this is taken from the Bible, you might as well call the New Testament anti-Semitic, as well. I just don’t see it.

Now I have to decide if I’d recommend the movie. This is one of the few movies that I can’t give a definite yes or no and is case in point for why I don’t like the fact that I’m required to give a yes or a no as to recommending the movie to a friend. Ultimately, I think faith is going to be the compelling factor for most people. I can’t say that all Christians will want to see it or that all non-Christians won’t.

However, if a friend of mine was having trouble making up their mind, I’d tell my friend to see it. The movie was done well, even though I probably missed a great deal of it and I wasn’t really impressed by the special effects. Subtitles were a big plus. I wouldn’t have been able to watch more than five minutes without subtitles. However, if I had a friend that didn’t want to watch it, I wouldn’t try to get them to watch it. I know plenty of people that definitely wouldn’t like it, either because of the religious basis of the movie or because of the gore.

I personally give the movie three stars out of five. It was a good movie, but I didn’t think it was great. I don’t regret having seen the movie. I was curious about it and I figured that if I’m going to like or not like a movie, I should at least see it. As for whether or not you should see it, I leave that decision to you. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Timestalkers (1987)

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

WARNING:  I’m going to be picking apart this movie.  This includes giving away major details, including the ending.  If you’re not into that sort of stuff, you may want to watch the movie before reading the review.

I tend to remember the movies of my childhood as being better.  I seem to recall the graphics and style as being somewhat decent compared to what I’ve seen as of late.  Yes, some movies do get remastered.  Yes, we do tend to be selective about things we like.  Yes, there were a lot of crappy movies made in any era.  When I saw Timestalkers, I knew it had a certain made-for-TV feel to it.  I later found out that it was actually a made-for-TV movie.  This explains why the film quality and script weren’t particularly that good.

Don’t get me wrong.  We do have some talent here.  The movie stars William Devane as Scott McKenzie.  He’s a father that loses his wife and children early in the movie.  This leads him to stay at home mostly when he’s not at work.  This leads his friend, General Joe Brodsky, to take him to an auction of Old West items.  (The General is played by John Ratzenberger.)  The two of them bid on a single lot, each taking a chest of items.  Joe finds some spurs he like, but Scott gets an interesting photo.  In it, a man is seen with a .357 Magnum, which hadn’t been introduced when the picture was taken.  (He has the picture tested, of course, and it really is that old.)

What does Scott do?  He writes a paper that looks like it came from the 80s, all right, asking his class how such a modern gun could have wound up in a photo that old.  The class is saved by the bell, which allows Georga Crawford to introduce herself.  (Georgia Crawford is played by Lauren Hutton.)  She’s very interested in the photo.  In fact, she’s the only person, other than Scott, to have more than a passing interest in it.

The two of them manage to find the spot where the picture was taken.  (Apparently, it’s not that far from where Scott lives.)  Well, as it happens, Georgia is from the future and she has a little diamond thingy that lets her go back to about when the picture was taken.  There, she finds out that this evil-looking guy is in town and he was asking questions.  Georgia is able to find him.  He sees her and chases her back to town, where she returns to the present.  He’s able to track her and follow her back to just after when she returns.  Georgia and Scott drive off just in time to not even notice that he’s shooting a gun at her.

To make a long story short, Georgia tells Scott that she’s from the future.  The evil-looking guy is Dr. Joseph Cole.  He worked with her father to create a time-travel device.  The two get into an argument.  Georgia and Scott figure out that Cole is in the past to kill Georgia’s great-great-(x23)-great-great-grandfather means no Georgia’s father to stand in his way.

Several things bother me about the ending, and yes, I am going to give away more details about the ending.  First, why go back so far to kill someone’s ancestor?  I suppose you might say that if you can travel in time effortlessly, going back a few generations is as easy as going back a few centuries, but it does present a few problems.  First, how do you know that this really is the right great-great-(x23)-great-great-grandfather?  For all you know, someone was adopted along the way.  Heck.  Several people could have been adopted along the way.

Also, how do you know that the ancestor in question isn’t also the ancestor or someone else?  You could share a common distant great-great-grandparent somewhere.  For all you know, you’d also be eliminating yourself.  Going that far back would probably influence a good deal of the population.  I’ve noticed that a lot of movies, non-sci-fi included, tend to have lineages that don’t branch.  Someone has one child, who goes on to have one child, who goes on to have one child and so on down the generations.  The truth is that someone along the line is bound to have several children and not necessarily boys.  Someone that far back in Georgia’s family tree is actually much more likely to have a different last name, which brings me back to my original point:  Going that far back in her family tree makes it harder to trace with any degree of certainty.

Another thing I noticed was that at the end, one of the time-travel diamonds was thrown to the ground.  Several horses walked over it until it was buried, which gave me the impression that it was supposed to be lost to the ages.  You’d think that Georgia would be certain to pick it up so as not to risk someone from the past altering history.  Scott seemed somewhat motivated to go to the future with her, so she knows that at least one person would want it and know where to look for it.  (It was never stated one way or the other, so it’s entirely possible that she did pick it up.)

This is what I had to put up with as a child.  Granted, it is on the low-budget end, but I do remember seeing things like this. I could see liking this when it first came out, but wondering why as I got older.  The graphics aren’t particularly good, which you might expect from a made-for-TV movie.  When someone is holding the diamond, you can tell that a static image was laid over the footage,  (There are one or two scenes where it’s obvious.  Also notice that you never see a close-up of someone operating the device.)

This is one of those movies that I’m glad I didn’t buy.  I was able to get it streaming on Netflix.  If you can get it streaming, I’d say give it a shot.  It’s only 100 minutes.  If you see it in the remainder bin at a Wal-Mart, you might want to think twice about buying it unless it’s part of some 50-movie set or something.  At the end of the movie, I was left wondering. Was it all a dream?  Will Scott ever see Georgia again?  Why did I sit through the entire thing, anyway? 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Stripped (2014)

I’ve always started my day with the comics.  I grew up with The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes.  I now my day with Zits and Fox Trot.  I never gave much thought to them.  They’ve always been there as long as I was old enough to read the newspaper.  The future may not be as certain.  Traditional comics are dependant on a syndicate and, by extension, newspapers.  News of newspapers folding worries comic artists.  Comics, at least the ones you read in the paper, may end up going down with a sinking ship.

The documentary starts with traditional comics, like the ones I mentioned above.   There are interviews with Jeff Keane and Jim Davis.  We even get to hear the voice of Bill Watterson, who drew Calvin and Hobbes.  (This was the first time he allowed his voice to be recorded for an interview.)  There’s an explanation of how someone has a career in comics.  It’s traditionally done through a syndicate.  (The artist does the artwork and the syndicate handles the business end of it, usually taking about half of the proceeds.)

There’s stuff on the history of comics, going back to how it started.  The film focuses more on the future, as many of the artists don’t know what will become of newspapers.  The film does go into Web comics, like Penny Arcade.   Making a Web comic not only requires the artistic skill, but needs the artist to promote and monetize their own work.  (Advertising and merchandizing are the two big options, but there are other ways.)

Will the Web kill comics?  I doubt it.  I may have mentioned in another review that a manager and I were talking about maps.  He said that GPS was killing off mapmakers.  I didn’t think that was necessarily true.  People still needed maps.  People that wanted maps now want them in a different form.  It’s simply a matter of learning how to deliver your content.

Those that do traditional comics don’t seem to want to do anything Web based, as many of them aren’t that business savvy.  Ironically, Web comics aren’t bound by the constraints that bothered Watterson.  I’ve been reading xkcd for a few years now and have seen some rather large ones.  Those artists that take their strips online could expand the look of their strips if they wanted to.  It’s difficult to say if the transition would be easy.  Many strips have a following, but that following would have to be maintained.

TV didn’t kill radio.  However, radio looks nothing like it did 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago.  Programs made the transition from radio to TV and the radio stations found a new way to get an audience.  Again, those that learn how to adapt will survive.

I still miss The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes.  I remember seeing an article on Facebook that said that Watterson was making a new strip every day and shredding it.  I was so saddened and shocked until I realized that it was an article on The Onion.   I hope I can look forward to Zits and Fox Trot for a long time to come.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Perfect Score (2004)

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

There’s something about being made by MTV that sets a movie apart. It’s sort of like having a G rating. I lower my expectations coming into it. I was still disappointed with this movie.

The basic premise is that a group of six students decide to break into the headquarters of the company that administers the SAT. (For those that don’t know, the SAT is a test used to judge students applying to college.) Kyle and Matty are two friends that both want a better score on the SAT. Kyle wants to go to Cornell to study architecture, but needs at least a 1430. Matty simply wants to get into the same school as his girlfriend. While debating the unfairness of one test deciding their fates, they hatch a plan to steal the answers to the SAT. (If only it were that simple.)

Along the way, they pick up four accomplices. Francesca is their first choice. She happens to be the daughter of one of the executives, thus giving Kyle and Matty easy access to the building. Then, there’s Anna, who’s brought into the fold by Matty. She has a 4.0 average, but is only second in her class. She also froze up her first time on the SAT. Having the answers would really help. Anna brings Desmond into the group. Desmond is a high-school basketball star who needs a 900 on the SAT to get into the college of his choice. Roy rounds out the group. He’s usually too stoned to go to class and has a 0.0 GPA. He finds out about the plan when Kyle and Matty are arguing about Matty telling Anna. Why Roy is interested in a 1600 is beyond me, but he does provide a few laughs.

Kyle and Matty make an initial attempt, but fail when they try to copy the test, but shred it by accident. Knowing that they won’t get another chance like that, the team of six has to try again, but use a style more in line with Mission Impossible. When they get in, they realize that the answers are on a computer. Instead of being able to simply copy a test, they have to write the answers down.

Here’s where I should stop so as not to ruin anything. You have to figure that everything works out for the best, but there’s really no point in revealing the end. It’s time for me to rip into the movie now.

The first major flaw that I noted was that whoever wrote this movie never actually took the SAT. Until recently, the SAT was divided into two parts: Math and Verbal. If you show up and manage to actually put your correct name on the test, you’re guaranteed a 200 on each section. The maximum you can get is 800. This means that you will get somewhere between 400 and 1600. The score is based on standard deviation, which I will explain shortly. What’s important now is that Desmond needs a 900 to get into Saint John’s. He can “ace” the math part of the test, as he puts it, which I assume means that he can get an 800. The 800 that he can get on the math section and the 200 that he’s guaranteed on the verbal section means that he has nothing to worry about. Granted, he probably doesn’t want to look like an idiot, but he has 100 points leeway. He can even miss a few questions on the math and get an 800.

The next flaw is that the six students try to make it seem like a victimless crime. Here’s where that standard deviation comes in. Each student is given a raw score. Those that took statistics may recall the bell curve and standard deviations. In a nutshell, if you plot the raw scores and the number of test-takers getting each different score, you should end up with a graph that looks like a bell. The most common score will be the one in the center. This is the median score. According to the theory, there should be as many students with a raw score above the median as there are below it. The median score becomes a 500 on the SAT. A standard deviation is determined by percentages. If I recall, something like 65% should score within one standard deviation, 96% within 2 and 99.7% within three. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) One standard deviation translates to 100 on the score, so that someone that is one standard deviation above median gets a 600. (This is why you can miss a few questions and still get an 800. In theory, there should be 1.5% of the test takers getting more questions correct than is necessary for an 800.) The reason that the crime isn’t victimless is that six students getting a perfect score will affect the scores of the other people taking the test, even if it is by ten points. Quite literally, given a fixed number of students, there are only so many 800s to go around on either section of the SAT.

Anyone who has taken the SAT within the past 20 years should have caught at least one of the two flaws I just mentioned. The next flaw has to do with GPA. Anna has a 4.0, but is second in her class, which means that there is one person with a higher GPA. Most schools will allow for a co-valedictorian if two students have the same GPA. Don’t tell me that it might not include honors or Advanced Placement classes. Again, for the benefit of those that don’t know, Advanced Placement, or AP, and honors classes allow for a higher weighted GPA. Honors classes add 1 point to your grade if you pass the class and AP adds 2 points, so that an A counts for 5 in an honors class and 6 in an AP class. This is how some students wind up with a GPA like 5.243. Why is Anna number 2? If they were using the weighted GPA, this means that there is only one student that made use of the extra points. (In other words, either Anna hasn’t taken any honors or AP classes or that she hasn’t gotten straight A’s.)

There’s only one final grievance that I have: It was way too easy for six high-school students to pull off. Yes, we’re dealing with six very smart students and they did have an inside angle to work, but to think that two of them could have infiltrated the building and be stopped by mistaking a shredder for a photocopier is a bit ridiculous. Also, if I’m not mistaken, the SAT actually makes use of several tests during the same testing session. I think that there are actually four or five different tests. This is to prevent someone from looking over and copying from a neighbor. It’s been over a decade since I took the SAT, so I could be wrong on this.

The whole plot was contrived. I had no real empathy for any of the students. The story, while interesting, wasn’t really enough to be memorable. We’re talking two stars at most. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

You Laugh But It's True (2011)

Most Americans would know Trevor Noah as the guy who took over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.  I had never heard of Noah before the official announcement.  Before hosting The Daily Show, Noah was a stand-up comedian in South Africa.  He was born to a Xhosa mother and Swiss father that couldn’t marry under South Africa’s apartheid laws.  Noah’s father couldn’t even acknowledge that he was the child was his.

This documentary was made before Noah had assumed his duties on The Daily Show.  The bulk of the film shows the months leading up to his solo show, Daywalker.  He talks about what it was like to grow up not able to acknowledge his racial heritage.  His mother posed as his father’s maid/housekeeper so that they could all live together.

Noah had only been a comedian for two years before doing the solo show.  To some, this seemed arrogant.  However, Noah had risen to fame in South Africa rapidly.  Being what we would call multiracial, it put him in a position to draw a wider crowd.  He even comments on how he’s referred to as colored in South Africa, yet is told not to use the term in other countries.

Colored is the official designation for anyone of mixed African and non-African ancestry.  Specifically, it dates back to when Cape Colony was settled by Europeans.  However, it seems to be applied to anyone of mixed heritage.  Noah, himself, identifies more as African than to any specific group.  Since it was an official racial designation of the apartheid government, not everyone is quick to use the term.  It’s also somewhat ambiguous, as lineage can be traced back to places like India and Germany.

The movie is about a comedian doing a comedy show, but isn’t necessarily a comedy, itself.  The documentary shows where Trevor Noah came from and how his career there was complicated.  South Africa didn’t have a big comedy scene at the time.  (It wasn’t uncommon for a comedian to perform at music venues.)  Noah talks of wanting to leave South Africa, which he’d get to do eventually.

He also talks about how race is complicated in South Africa and abroad.  Every time I see or read something on South Africa, I learn something.  My view is limited by what I learned in high school and college, which was more than 20 years ago.  It’s a complicated and difficult issue in any country.  However, in South Africa, laws had only been repealed 15 years prior.  (Apartheid ended in 1994.  I believe that the footage was filmed in 2009, even though the movie was first released in 2011.)

Laws are a tool.  You can pass and repeal all the laws you want, but the underlying sentiment will still be there.  Comedians can help us deal with these issues.  Trevor Noah found himself in a unique position to help South Africans acknowledge part of their history.  (He even has a bit on the progression of post-apartheid presidents.)  I’d definitely recommend watching this, even if you’re not a fan of Trevor Noah or The Daily Show. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Wiz (1978)

It’s easy to forget that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has over a dozen sequels penned by L. Frank Baum.  In fact, when he wrote the book, he intended it to be just the one book.  I don’t think he could have seen the countless radio, TV, film and stage adaptations that followed.  The 1939 film with Judy Garland is probably the most famous, but I do remember seeing other movies based on the works.  One such movie was Return to Oz, which was based on two of the sequels.

Another that I vaguely recall seeing was The Wiz.  The Wiz is based on a stage play of the same name.  (Well, the full title was:  The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical "Wonderful Wizard of Oz".)  The play opened in 1974 in Baltimore and made its way to Broadway in 1975.   The Wiz was released in 1978 with only Mabel King and Ted Ross making the transition.

I should warn you that I’m not going to worry about spoilers.  This movie follows the 1939 movie fairly closely.  (I was born in 1976, so I’m too young to have seen any of the early stage productions.)  In this case, Dorothy is an  African-American woman living with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Harlem.  Aunt Em wants her niece to get a better job teaching, but Dorothy (played by Diana Ross) is happy where she is.

After Thanksgiving dinner, her dog, Toto, runs outside into a snowstorm.  Dorothy goes after him only to be picked up by a tornado and taken to Oz, where she promptly kills the Wicked Witch of the East, freeing the Munchkins.  Dorothy is told by the Good Witch of the North to follow The Yellow Brick Road, which she has trouble finding at first.  With the help of the Scarecrow, played here by Michael Jackson, she’s able to find her way.

They make it to an abandoned amusement park, where they find Tin Man, played by Nipsey Russell.  This leaves only The Cowardly Lion, who is played by Ted Ross, to be found in front of the New York Public Library.  The four of them head towards The Emerald City, each wanting something different.  (Again, there are no surprises if you’ve seen the 1939 movie or read the book.  Dorothy, of course, is looking for a way home.  Scarecrow wants a brain, despite being quite intelligent.)

When they make it to The Emerald City, they’re sent to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, who is running a sweat shop.  Instead of using a bucket of water, Dorothy is able to pull a fire alarm, causing the Wicked Witch to melt and thus saving the day.  Upon returning, The Wiz, played by Richard Pryor, is revealed to be a fraud.  This isn’t to say that Dorothy doesn’t go home.  The slippers she had on all along could have brought her back at any time.

The Wiz didn’t do so well in the theaters.  This is despite the movie having a lot of talent.  (This may, however, explain why the movie did eventually gain a cult following.)  It is strange to see an older Dorothy, but it’s not completely out of line.  SyFy’s Tin Man also had an adult in the Dorothy role.

I would say that the movie is in line with the book; each of the characters wants something that they already have.  Ross did come across as meek and scared, which would be appropriate.  The story is partially about her finding herself.  The book had a lot more to it, but choices do have to be made.  The movie still comes in at over two hours.

I’m not a fan of musicals, per se.  However, I did like the songs.  The dancing was well choreographed and the songs were well written.  (One thing I remembered from watching the as a kid was one of the songs.)  One thing I noticed was that Toto had a very small part in the movie.  In many of the scenes, Toto is noticeably absent.  He only appears as the group is leaving.  Even then, it takes him a few seconds to follow.  Dorothy has an almost manic-depressive attitude towards her beloved dog.  One minute, she’s hysterical that something might happen to Toto.  Next, she pays no attention to him.  I had to wonder if maybe the dog playing Toto was difficult to deal with.

The costumes looked like what you’d expect of a Broadway musical.  Tin Man has some metallic components, but it appears that most of his costume is makeup and wardrobe.  The same goes for Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow.  The subway scene was a little surreal.  The group is attacked by trash cans and support columns.  I don’t know if these were actors wearing costumes or if they were mostly special effects.  There were a few parts that I’m sure were actors.  That could not have been easy for them.

I enjoyed watching the movie.  It’s almost as old as I am and Oz bears an intentional resemblance to New York, so some aspects are lost on me.  I’m also coming into the movie having seen other movies based on the book, which I’ve also read.  There was one big question I had, other than Toto’s recurring absence.  What was the deal with Scarecrow and his endless supply of strangely appropriate quotations?