Friday, January 29, 2010

[Review] Nerf N-Force Swords

Bring the glory and majesty of foam gladiatorial combat into YOUR home

Kids love to sword-fight. If they can get swords, so much the better. If not, sticks will do, or pretty much anything that even vaguely resembles a stiff, straight, 2’ to 3’ long object. And by kids, in this case, I really mean boys. My daughter couldn’t care less, despite having two perfectly good targets running around. Joan d’Arc was the exception and Xena, Warrior Princess is fictional. The way of the blade definitely appeals more to the Y chromosome.

Now, my sons already have an arsenal of swords that would make a feudal lord envious. They have pirate swords and broadswords and a really long foam claymore and several lightsabers. But for whatever reason, my wife picked up a Nerf N-Force sword for one of the boys as a Christmas gift. This was followed almost immediately by having to buy a second sword for the intensely envious other son.

To digress for a moment, these Nerf swords remind me of my second job ever – as a clerk in the toy department of the (now-extinct) Hill’s department store. Most nights of the week it was pretty slow and dull, with not much to do. One spring, we got in a shipment of heaven. They were baseball bats made of soft, dense foam wrapped around a core of hollow plastic tubing. And they slipped very easily in and out of their plastic packaging. There were two different lengths, which soon came to be known as “longswords” and “shortswords” to me and some of the other employees. There was one guy down in housewares, my friend Bill who worked security, and a couple of other security guards. Each night, when we were sure there was nobody from management around, we would use these “swords” to beat the crap out of each other there in the hallowed halls of Hills. It was awesome!

Most of the guys went for the pure power of a two-handed longsword grip. Personally, I preferred the speed and elegance of twin shortswords. I almost never lost, but valiantly drove my nefarious enemies from my domain (again, the toy department).

Now, one major disadvantage of the two-handed longsword approach was that these bats were meant to be used by kids to hit soft foam balls. They were not meant to be used by adults trying to cleave each other in half. I have to confess, quite a few of these bats went back to the manufacturer as “damaged” because we got a little too carried away. I probably broke a couple myself, though it usually seemed to be somebody else breaking theirs over my blade as I parried.

Still, it was amazingly good fun and I’m a little surprised that it took somebody this long to recreate the magic of that experience with toys that are expressly designed for mock swordfighting.

These swords also appear to have hollow plastic cores that are then wrapped in just enough smooth foam to pad them. They’re wonderfully decorated, reasonably well-balanced, and light. The lightness actually helps a lot, because you just can’t swing them all that hard, even if you try to. They even have foam hilts. On my sons’ swords, I found that one hilt, which swept up toward the “blade,” was actually useful in combat for catching or deflecting your opponent’s blade. The other sword has a hilt that sweeps back toward the hilt and I found it to be basically useless.

I had an all-out swordfight with my boys the other day and I was pretty impressed with these swords. They’re sturdy enough that we didn’t break them, even with a considerable amount of blocking, parrying and striking. At the same time, they didn’t leave any welts or bruises on anybody. They had a good feel to them – not so heavy that my kids’ arms got tired, but not so light that I felt like I was swinging a balloon around. All in all, I found them to be just about the perfect combat experience when playing around with my sons.

Technically, it seemed to me that the swords would have to be swung really and deliberately hard in order to leave a welt. If that were to happen, I suspect that the sword would break. This is good (if true – I didn’t test it) for several reasons. First, the breaking of the sword should release some of the kinetic energy and reduce the harm to the victim (in theory, anyway). Second, the broken sword ensures that Dad’s going to find out about the attack and investigate. And third, the broken sword ensures that the attacker must cease their attack (hopefully) before serious damage is done. All of these are good things.

Now a couple of caveats. I visited the local Society for Creative Anachronism group a bunch of times back around 1989 when I was in college. At one meeting, I got an introduction to the armored combat they did in which they used rattan shinai, a bamboo practice sword most notably used in Japanese Kendo martial arts. I remember clearly that the swordsmaster there gave a lecture about the force of the blow you could strike if you used one hand on the hilt as a fulcrum, and used the other to lever the sword blade rapidly down on your opponent’s head or shoulder. It was a significant impact, though I forget exactly how many foot-pounds of force it generated. But it was easily enough to smash a clavicle and he strongly warned never to let such a thing happen.

So the caveat is that while I haven’t tested that same move with an N-force sword, I can envision a scenario where it could leave quite a mark on the victim, though, as above, I suspect it would destroy the sword in the process. My other caveat has to do with thrusting or jabbing. The tubing in the middle of the sword is much more likely, I suspect, to shatter if struck along its length, rather than from the end. Therefore, a thrust with one of these toys could conceivably cause quite a bit of damage to soft tissue, say the groin, abdomen, throat, eyes or nose. I suspect that any of these tissues would give long before a plastic tube would.

Luckily, the likelihood of that being an issue is somewhat mitigated. For one thing, the swords are quite long, and whomever you’re fighting with is likely to be standing too close to you for an effective thrust. Again, this assumes you’re a little kid with minimal combat training. The other factor that mitigates this danger is just the nature of boys who sword-fight. Unless it’s really convenient to do so, they just don’t usually jab all that much in my experience. Swinging is so much more dramatic and satisfying. So, again, leaving aside any junior Spartacuses, this probably won’t be an issue for most kids. Still, it’s something to be aware of – the tips of the swords are padded, too, but I think a good solid thrust in the wrong place would probably cause some harm.

Bottom line: if used with appropriate caution, I think these are great toys. My sons are loving them and I had a lot of fun with them as well. As with any contact combat-like play, there’s an element of risk, but I think the manufacturer did a pretty good job of balancing risk factors against making the toy fun to use. If one of my kids manages to cripple the other one in some way I didn’t fully predict, I reserve the right to come back and lower the final grade, but in the meantime I’m giving the Nerf N-Force Sword an A.

Note: as always, until somebody offers, my reviews are uncompensated. Yeah, it sucks. What can you do?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Our Fish Have Fishsploded!

A fishaclysm? A fishpocalypse? A fishamageddon?

My daughter had requested gerbils for her birthday. So, naturally, one of my sons just had to have fish for Christmas. It was supposed to have been one little fishbowl (which we already owned) at first, with some little guppies and maybe a snail or something. Total cost – around $10 or less. Of course, my wife and kids couldn’t JUST buy a couple of guppies and a snail, so by the time the bowl was fully stocked, the water was so cloudy you couldn’t really see through it.

Fifty bucks later, we own a 10-gallon tank with a filter, heater, bubbler, and, heck, since we’ve got a bigger tank we should throw in some more fish and a few crabs. Right? Of course!

Oh yeah, and we can’t tell the genders of our various fish and snails. Turns out, there’s some boys and some girls in there. And you know what girl fish and boy fish do when they’re hanging out in the hot tub all day with nothing much else going on. Something fishtastic! Or fishawful.

Our tank is now bursting with fish, and the fishbowl has had to be pressed back into service as the “girls dorm.”

We currently have:
7 adult “feeder” guppies
2 adult “fancy” guppies (they’re fancy cuz they’re bigger)
1 adult apple snail
1 adult ghost shrimp
12-14 baby guppies
10-15 baby snails

That's a buttload of fish!! Way more than ought to be in a 10-gallon tank plus an auxilliary bowl that probably holds about two gallons. And the big tank? Yeah, it's cloudy, too. And that was BEFORE all the babies hit.

Sure, we mourn the passing of the legendary snail Mr. Sinister. He was the male snail who keeled over dead one day recently, but he’d already done his randy business on the girl. Evidently it took all he had to fill her full of a bazillion eggs. Or maybe he couldn’t handle the prospect of so many children asking him for money or to borrow the car keys. But mostly we’re just trying to figure out what to do with his progeny.

The guppies give live birth, so we didn’t have much warning there except for a few possibly “fat fish.” With the snails, though, we probably should have removed all of the egg clutches from the tank. I did scoop out the second one, but we kind of took a “wait and see” approach with the first clutch. Would they even hatch? What would they look like? How many would there be? After the first bunch actually did hatch, I scooped out the first clutch (which had plenty more eggs in it – no idea whether or not they were viable) and all of the others. Now, I have no idea what we’ll do if all of these snails make it to adulthood. Ugh. This whole fishtank thing is out of control. It’s a fishtastrophe!

Update: (1/28/10, Noon) My wife has provided the following clarification in the interests of journalistic accuracy:
Oh come on! You're exaggerating! We don't have a bubbler - just a filter and heater. Our daughter wants a bubbler, but we don't have one (yet). And they aren't crabs - they're ghost shrimp. And the guppies are fancy because they are more colorful (yellow and blue rather than just grayish with light spots) and they have fancytastic fins. And I have the cloudiness under control (or at least I know why it's happening and am pretty sure it will clear up fairly soon.)

For goodness sakes! ;-)
I stand corrected. And I still think our fishtank project has suffered outrageous scope creep and is dramatically over-budget.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

[Viral] Jeff & Erin's Epic Wedding

It's not often that Good Morning America gets in on the ground floor of a viral video - it usually seems like the news organizations pick up on this stuff after everybody else on the web has already seen it. This one appears to be an exception. A guy named Jeff Wong is engaged to a woman named Erin Martin. Instead of sending out the usual "save the date" cards to their friends and family to announce their wedding, Jeff (who apparently works in film production) decided to create a film "trailer." It's four minutes of familiar themes from hit movies like Kill Bill, The Terminator, The Matrix, Indiana Jones and I even think I heard the Judge Dredd music in there at one point. All of that's mixed in with footage of Jeff and Erin looking romantic or looking tough or playing the piano or doing martial arts. It's remarkably well-done and worth checking out. Here's the trick, though - at some point after posting it online, they marked it "private" on YouTube, which means most people can't see it there. There's a heavily-edited version up on an NBC website, but the Huffington Post has it in its full, explosive, geek-tastic glory.

Check it out here.

So, good luck Jeff & Erin. You've set a high bar (which, given Jeff's height could be a real problem) - may your next ten years and beyond be as rich and exciting and adventurous as that video implied your last ten have been. Or something. Neat video, anyway.

Oh yeah, so what's this got to do with GMA? Nothing, except that I saw the video on the show this morning. They didn't have it up on their website, though, more's the pity, so I had to hunt it down elsewhere. Kudos to the Huffington Post for grabbing this.

Update: upon further research, I discovered that they originally put up the video back in November. So much for GMA getting in on the ground floor. Still, it looks like it only really went viral recently.

Blurgh

My wife's had a cold in her throat for the last week or so. One of my sons has had an intestinal thing going on over the last few days. Yay for me - I caught both at the same time.

Unless I experience a miraculous recovery, this is probably it for today. Any energy I can muster for writing really ought to go into my novel.

In the meantime, here's a lolcat for you. This one looks a lot like the cat I had when I was little.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Like Earth, but Fluffier and Turn-Based

Erfworld

Since December of 2006, the creators of the webcomic Erfworld have been asking the question: what if a guy
who’s a bit of a loser, a definite nerd, and really does nothing with his life except play wargames were suddenly pulled into another world? A world that’s continuously at war, inhabited by all manner of wondrous creatures, and where everything significant happens in turns. In fact, the whole world operates according to a set of rules exactly like you’d find in a turn-based fantasy wargame, where players control their armies, make or break alliances, and execute complex battle strategies to conquer their opponents and win.

I’ve been following this comic for a year or so and have enjoyed it to the point where it’s the only webcomic that I keep open in its own Firefox tab. Sometimes I wish I weren’t so addicted so I could wait a couple of weeks and get larger chunks of storyline to chew on all at once, but I just can’t do it.

Part of what makes the comic interesting is its better-than-usual artwork (for a webcomic, anyway). The other
thing is that it reads like a giant dream-sequence, making you (and the protagonist) wonder whether or not it’s all real. You see, everything in the comic draws its name from real-world terms, jargon, brand names and celebrities. For instance, one of the major armies of the series is the Royal Crown Coalition, which takes its name from RC Cola. Some of the members of the coalition include Unaroyal (like the tires) and Transylvito (a kingdom of vampires with South Jersey-guido names. I haven’t seen a Father Guido Sarducci yet, but I bet he’s in there somewhere). The main character, a guy named Parson, even finds himself commanding the armies that are defending a massive stronghold built around a dormant volcano – precisely the wargame scenario he was playing when he was sucked into Erfworld to find himself among big plush dragons who attack with sticky bubblegum bubbles and an enemy leader who rides a rolled-up flying carpet with a saddle on it. Parson even comments – frequently – during the first book of the series on how some of the terms he learns might be overheard if he were in a hospital Intensive-Care Unit suffering from a stroke or aneurism or somesuch. For example, the kingdom he fights for was previously led by King Saline IV, and a saline-drip I.V. would be a pretty obvious thing to have in a hospital.

Three years into the series, neither we nor the protagonist really know whether this whole thing is real or not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s okay to just sit back and watch the antics of King Slately of Jetstone (named for George’s boss in the old kids cartoon The Jetsons) as he frets over the possibility that Prince Sammy of Haggar might betray him. And all of that’s pretty recent. The older stuff is, in many ways, even better. The powerful flying units “gwiffons” look like marshmallow peeps (and even get bitten in half in combat sometimes – almost always with the head bitten off first), and there’s a “Dirtamancer” who magically makes golem armies out of the city’s sewage. And the whole time that Parson’s taking in the nonsensical wonder of his new home, we’re standing there beside him shaking our heads as well.

I admit that I didn’t “get” Erfworld back when it was first introduced. I think I misread the title as “Elfworld,” which didn’t help. And the first few pages, trying to establish the setting and premise, are a bit out there. But I was sent back again later by some web-buddies and saw its brilliance at last. The real-world pop-culture references are nonstop and the plot is remarkably complex. The artist changed between volume 1 and 2, but the artwork is still quite good. Rob Balder, the writer, is really good at weaving mystery through his story as he builds dramatic tension and it pulls you back time and again to see what’s going to happen next. I’m a big fan of Erfworld and recommend it strongly. This link will take you back to the beginning of Book 1. I recommend you don’t dive in when you’ve got anything important to do in the next 6-8 hours.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Spare Parts

At what point do you stop being you?

There’s an old joke that goes “I’ve had this axe for fifty years. Of course, the handle’s been replaced three times and the head twice.” It’s humorous because obviously that’s not the same axe anymore in terms of having any of the original components that it was built with. But it’s not entirely a joke, in that you can easily picture somebody feeling that they’d always had “that axe” even though they’d had to replace parts of it over a long period of ownership. And at what point did it stop being the same axe? When you replaced the first part? When you replaced the second part? Would it matter if Head 2 and Handle 1 had been together longer than Head 1 and Handle 1?

These questions become pertinent as we approach an era of replaceable human parts. We can now transplant hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, eyes (or parts thereof), bone marrow and, of course, blood. In the near future, it’s becoming clear that stem cells will be key to growing all manner of replacement parts, from teeth to brain and nervous system cells.

I’m all in favor of this technology, but I do think it raises some questions about the human condition. It forces us to think about the nature of humanity in ways we’ve never really had to before. What is it that makes us human, and how much of our body can I replace and still be me?

The first question might be, what makes me me in the first place? From the inside, it’s indefinable, I’m just me. I’m a conscious, sentient person and as long as I remain self-aware, I’m me. But as a society, we find it necessary to be able to tell one person from another reliably. People aren’t inherently interchangeable with each other, so from a socio-economic and legal standpoint, it’s vital to be able to distinguish one from another. But how do we really do that?

By facial appearance? Heck, a little acid can fix that, and face transplants are now a reality (though both leave the individual badly disfigured at this point).

By fingerprints? Oops, were those your hands in that wood chipper? Sorry!

By retinas? We know that it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. Or two. Besides, I think it’s still up in the air as to whether a stem-cell-grown eyeball will manifest the same retinal pattern or not.

By dental records? If we can grow new teeth from a stem cell bud in just a few months, how reliable are those going to be?

By DNA? This one’s actually pretty good, but if you’re monozygotic twins (something like .2% of the human population), it can’t identify which twin you are, just that you’re one of them. “You’re one of the Jackson twins.” Oh yeah? Well am I the rich-CEO-twin or the alcoholic-bum-living-on-the-street twin?

By knowledge? Each of us typically knows stuff that nobody else could possibly know. But if nobody else knows it, how easy will this be to use to conclusively identify somebody?

At this point, we’re still far short of consciousness transference – moving one mind into a different body – but nearly every other marker can be destroyed or invalidated in some fashion already. Passing yourself off as somebody else is still a challenge, particularly a particular person, but becoming “not me” is manageable. And once we can grow spare parts, it becomes far less debilitating. And make no mistake, there will be a black or grey market for these sorts of parts and services (as there already is in certain transplantable body parts today) once the technology makes them available – regardless of the laws and ethical dilemmas in place. If you can grow me a new me, and I can afford it, hell yes I’ll take that 6-month-old part to replace my decrepit 70-year-old original. But if replacing my hands or my face or my eyes makes it impossible to validate that I’m still me, or makes it easier for criminals to escape justice, then society will need to come up with a new definition of what makes a person a person. Or an axe an axe.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Productivity – Blocked!

It doesn’t really take much to kill a morning

Thursday morning, like most mornings, was supposed to be split between getting the kids off to school and then writing until lunch. Followed by more writing after lunch until the kids get home. That plan, yesterday, was utterly clobbered by the red-eyed Verizon monster.

You may recall that I signed up for FIOS back in November, because the savings as compared to splitting my phone, internet, TV and Long-Distance services over multiple providers was really significant. Like, $1000 per year or thereabouts. Well, that all sounds good on paper, but then you get your first bill and you go WHOA! Where’d my savings go?

I don’t really want to be too hard on Verizon for this, specifically. Trying to bundle multiple services together along with promotions, discounts, and whatever the sales guys offer to waive is really complex and I would expect Time Warner, AT&T, Comcast or any other big service company to have similar problems. It’s not right – and it’s bullshit that we expect things like this to get screwed up – but it would be unfair for me to imply that this was an issue that’s unique to Verizon.

And my billing representative, Britt, was extremely knowledgeable, pleasant, and seemed genuinely interested in fixing my issues, even when I had to be somewhat adversarial to make it clear that I didn’t feel a given issue could be resolved if it was going to cause actual money to leave my pockets.

However, the call went on for more than TWO HOURS. I had to switch cordless phones partway through. I made bread in my bread machine. I checked my email. I straightened up my kitchen. I even used canned air to blow old burned flour out of my bread machine’s guts before putting the cauldron full of fresh ingredients inside. And I had plenty of time to kill. It was a lot of careful dialogue and note-taking, interspersed with hold time while Britt looked stuff up or (probably) got permission to fix the mistakes they'd made that didn't really look like mistakes on their end.

I mean, it was worth it. I’m going to save $15 per month for the next year that I never should have been charged, and so far I’ve been able to get back about $75 for things like installation charges that were supposed to have been waived. The only outstanding issue is that my salesman clearly stated that there was no additional monthly charge for the HD set-top boxes, when, in fact, there is a charge for them. To the tune of $18 per month. I have it clearly marked on the sales order where the salesman waived that fee before I signed on the line, so I’m expecting that that will be resolved as well, but they need to get some physical paperwork out of the archives or something, and need to call me back in a week. So, technically, this call isn’t over yet.

But none of that helped me to finally put chapter 8 to bed, much less to jump on chapter 9 with both feet. And Friday mornings are more of the same – I head over to my younger son’s school to help with their weekly “Cooking in the Classroom” activity. And, yeah, I leave before the food’s done so I never get to try it. It’s just bonding time. My sincere hope for this week is to have chapter 9 finished or mostly-finished by the end of the day on Friday, with wrap-up as applicable on Saturday while my kids are at a birthday party. I need to pick up the pace somehow, though. This book is likely to end up around 25-30 chapters, and finishing one a week isn’t really acceptable. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I don’t have a publisher hovering over me with a deadline, I just know I’d like to get ‘er done.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Control the Exploding Pet Population

Have your fish and snails spayed or neutered

We own a fish tank. And a large fish bowl. And they're out of control. One of my sons asked for "fish" for Christmas. This followed in the tradition of my daughter's asking for gerbils for her birthday. Yes, we have a house full of fish and vermin.

The gerbils, to digress for a moment, are also out of control. My wife bought a very nice cage for our first two - light brown brothers from the same litter. One of them had a crooked tail, which my daughter thought was adorable. Well, it may have been cute, but it was also evidently a sign of severe genetic malfunctions, because within a month or so this particular gerbil was looking scruffy, wasn't eating, and began to stumble all around the cage. I checked for a hidden stash of booze, but I guess that wasn't the problem. He died within a couple of weeks.

My daughter insisted on getting a new gerbil to keep the first "company." This despite warnings everywhere that gerbils from different litters didn't tend to get along. She found a soft, sweet-looking little white gerbil whom she named Frosty and they brought it home to meet Sandy, the surviving brother gerbil. You've seen Gladiator, right? Putting these two in the same box was a bit like that, except with less swordplay and more teeth and fur. So now we own two of those really nice cages I mentioned, and the gerbils probably sit around stewing about how much each of them hates their asshole neighbor. That was money well-spent - the white one turned out to be so skittish that you can't even pick him up without getting bit. There's a gerbil cold war going on in my house.

But our fish get along quite well. Too well, in fact.

It's our first tank, and the fish started out in the aforementioned fish bowl. But apparently the sheer volume of aquatic life my wife bought overwhelmed the natural ecosystem of the bowl. It was so cloudy you couldn't see through it. So the seven little guppies, two big guppies, three one transparent shrimp and two apple snails were relocated to a nice, new, fancy tank that my wife bought, complete with light and filter and little bubble-making doohickey. This tank, I should mention, is also extremely cloudy, but not quite to the same extent as the fish bowl.

So for almost a month we enjoy (I suppose) our lovely little fish tank, watching the fish flit about and wondering whether the shrimp and the snails are friends or enemies when they get close to each other and spar with their wriggly little antennae. Then my wife notices that "I think one of the guppies is getting fat."A week or two later, we have twice as many itty-bitty little guppies swimming around there.

Remember how we ended up with two cages for the gerbils? Well, our original fishbowl has been pressed back into service as the "ladies' dorm," so now we have two of those, also. And the big one's still cloudy. And, lest we forget, some of those new baby guppies are likely to be female, so if we don't find and segregate them, this issue will recur.

I never realized I'd be so happy that the guinea pigs are both girls and are capable of sharing a cage without turning it into a scene from Bloodsport.

Oh yes, and to add to the joy, one of the snails keeps laying clutches of eggs all over the place, so get ready for some added snail fun in coming days.

Anybody wanna buy a fish?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Greatest Magic Item Ever Crafted

The Warband

I was a hard-core Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master for around six years or so, beginning in the late 1980s. The DM is sort of like a combination of story narrator and referee – he determines the setting in which the players have their characters play, adding friends, enemies, events, and new locations based on what the players decide to do. He also adjudicates whether or not they can succeed at what they attempt, and he divvies out the rewards for their victories – usually in the form of experience points, precious metals, and items of magical power. For me, magical items were sometimes a challenge, and I finally decided to do something about it.

There are various types of magical items. Some are very simple and not terribly exciting, such as magical potions that, when drunk, impart temporary abilities on the drinker. Other items may be more potent and longer-lasting, but still not terribly exciting. For instance, you might have a weapon or armor that’s magically enchanted to be slightly more effective in combat – increasing your chance to hit an enemy or avoid a blow by anywhere from 5% to 25% depending on the potency of the magic.

As my players advanced through their fictional world, they acquired more treasure and their characters became more powerful. As such, they tended to come into possession of newer and far stronger magical items. But these items were supposed to be rare, very difficult to create, and nearly indestructible. So they would often seek to discover the history of these potent magical artifacts. That’s great, of course – it shows that they’re engaged and interested in the story. But it’s also a bit of a challenge for the DM to have to determine, often on the spot, the often lengthy history of these items.

Furthermore, some of the most amazing and impressive magical relics were semi-conscious, and able to communicate with their owners. Again, this made them fascinating plot devices, but it also meant that a player was likely to want to interrogate their new sword or ring to determine what eldritch wisdom might be contained within. Which, again, meant a LOT more work on my part as the DM. These were especially challenging. After all, if you were the owner of a magical item and its objectives (if any) aligned with yours, why wouldn’t it divulge whatever it knew that might help you? And it turns out that coming up with reasons why the item won’t talk to its owner is just as much work as just figuring out the answer to the player’s questions.

And so was born the greatest magical item I ever created – and the last sentient item I have ever made to this day.

The Warband is a 4,000 year old religious relic. It was created by the god of war as a gift for one of his greatest disciples in an era when warfare was an emerging concept and the new technology of iron was changing the battlefield forever.  After that holy warrior followed a succession of bloodthirsty but noble knights in service to the war god. They were known as The Reapers, and they were blessed with great skill at arms, powerful magics to defeat their enemies, and the wisdom to lead their armies to triumph. And each of them passed down to their successor the magic ring called the Warband. This ring not only symbolized that they were the one ordained Reaper, but endowed them with arcane energies to gain strength from their defeated enemies, to endure more harm than any normal man, to call upon the strength of the greatest giants, and to destroy creatures of darkness with a touch.

But its greatest power was to act as a spiritual home for each Reaper as he passed into the great beyond. The collected knowledge and wisdom and memories of hundreds of paladins were housed within the ring. True, some of the oldest were faint and hard to reach, and certain of the paladins had been mad at the time of their demise, but most were available to speak to the current bearer of the ring and had reasonably lucid recollections of their lives. And by “reasonably lucid,” I mean “fully documented.”

My old friend Bill Mehlem was playing a holy warrior dubbed “The Reaper” in my campaign at the time that I created The Warband. Bill was one of the players who was most inclined to consider every possible effect or issue with a magic item and then dig into it, learn all about it, and then use it to his advantage. It was an admirable quality in a player and certainly far preferable to a player who didn’t care to think about their character in any depth, but it could also be a lot of work as the DM to have ready answers to all of the likely and unlikely questions Bill would come up with. For this reason, I decided that Bill’s character would receive this item – the most detailed item that I (or, as far as I know, anyone else) ever created.

I scheduled what’s called a “solo adventure” for Bill. It’s a session where the DM and one or two players play the game alone, without the full group. It’s a good time to do really interesting or useful character development for one character without boring all of the unaffected characters to tears. In this adventure, The Reaper and his small squad of follower-knights were beset by a horde of orcs and ogres who charged down upon them and threatened to crush them or drive them into a river to be drowned. Of course, the noble soldier of the war god gathered his men and incited them to be courageous and to meet death with honor, but it was sure to be a massacre. But, just as the battle was joined, another figure in black-and-red armor and riding an impossibly huge black warhorse rode into the battle and cut a swath through the ogres like a farmer cutting down wheat. For, of course, this was the senior Reaper, who had come in the nick of time to pass the Warband – his legacy – on to the junior paladin. The old man tossed the sacred relic to his young counterpart, then waded back into battle, feeling the power of his deity coursing through him as he faced his final battle. He was, of course, slain in the end, but he slew such a vast number of enemies that the rest were easily routed by the younger Reaper and his minions.

And with the conclusion of the battle, I handed Bill an inch-thick, black 3-ring binder. On the cover was a hand-drawn picture of the ring, a piece of original artwork by my then-fiancĂ© who has since been my lovely wife for almost fifteen years. Inside it were more than 70 pages of typed text – more than 50,000 words in all – detailing the lives of scores of ring paladins throughout the ages. More, I had done my best to craft their lives into an interesting story – a diary, if you will - of the intertwined lives of these dedicated men who had pledged themselves to the service of their god and given their entire lives to carrying out his will. Virtually all of them were good and noble, and most of them achieved great things in their lives. A few failed to measure up, and several of them met especially grizzly ends. But woven through the text were places and people, objects and events that touched upon the lives and histories of all of the characters in my game at that time. Their surnames were seen again and again over the centuries, sometimes as peasants or noble lords, other times as evil tyrants or heartless villains. The same applied to known enemies and friends of the characters and famous figures they had already encountered.

I don’t remember how many weeks or months it took me to create this item, but it was quite an effort. I remember that I did it at the small desk in my bedroom in my parents’ house on a PC that was probably a 486 or a very low-end Pentium at best. It was created in Microsoft Word 5.x or 6.0 - I’ve had difficulty opening the docs a few times over the years when I’ve waited too long between versions. It appears that I originally printed it on a dot-matrix printer. That’s 70+ pages times two – as I needed a reference copy for Bill and a second one for myself, to use when he asked questions or drew on the knowledge in the tome (and because I wasn’t giving my girlfriend’s artwork away – Bill got a color photocopy).

I forget how long we used the item before the campaign ended, but I think it was a year or so. Several months at least. By the time I created this item, I was already starting to spend more time at school and with my wife than working on D&D stuff, and it only declined further over time. But it was glorious while it lasted. Got a question? It’s either in the book or the “ring-paladins” don’t remember. Don’t ask me, for crying out loud – that’s the point of this thing. The book provided some “hooks” for the players to follow into new adventures, and a careful read (which I knew it would receive) answered some questions for several of the characters, naturally raising new ones in the process.

The Candlemir campaign is long since over. The players have grown apart and even moved across the country. But I still have The Warband’s electronic file, as well as the original hardcopy in its black binder. I’ve thought about trying to do something with it, but what? I could try to find a publisher for it, but as it stands much of the significance of the characters and places mentioned in the tome is lost if you’re not familiar with my campaign world. I’ve considered trying to make it more generic, but it’s friggin huge and I could never quite figure out how to make it sufficiently generic without wrecking what made it really interesting and worthwhile. Perhaps someday I’ll run a campaign with my kids playing descendants of the characters in the book, and let them read what their dad (and mom) made all those years ago. But in the meantime, until I see a better one, I’ll continue to claim the title of creator of the most detailed magic item ever.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Snack Attack! (and a Short Novel Update)

My book is making me fat(ter)

That’s right, I’m blaming the novel. It’s not that I insist on cramming junk food into my mouth, it’s the fact that I do it while I’m writing that’s at fault. Right?


And yes, I'm writing this in spite of the fact that I know my mother will bust my chops about it after she reads it. But I needed a topic to write about and this was all that came to mind. I'll regret it later.

The good news is that I haven’t really gained a lot of weight or anything. But I have what you might call consistent corpulence – I’m pretty much always right at 225, rarely gaining or losing any weight at all. So when I noticed that I’d popped up a couple of pounds, I knew that my mid-day snacking had caught up to me.

The difference is that I’m now snacking by routine. My daily process is to finish watching the morning news, then to grab a can of diet soda and a snack and head downstairs to write. That snack is almost always some sort of potato chip, corn chip, or perhaps some cheesy poofs.

When I first realized that it had become chronic, I tried to substitute fruit or yogurt instead, but it never seemed to dull my hunger. Some of which, I realize, isn’t hunger, but a need for comfort as I tackle my creative writing. Sadly, the result of my attempted substitutions was that I’d eat the fruit or the yogurt, THEN I’d eat the same snack I’d have eaten before. I was just adding healthy food on top of the other stuff.

So this week I’m making my first attempt at a change. I had my wife buy me some peanuts, some sunflower seeds, and some dried fruit. I’m going to try rotating those with popcorn and baked chips to see if I can find a happy medium between the urge to snack and the fact that I’m not really burning too many calories when I write.

I may also have to have a go at sugarless gum. That might keep my body busy while my mind is racing away.

 Meanwhile, the book is coming along reasonably well after a couple of frustrating weeks. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 are finally finished, along with chapters 1-4. Of course, “finished” is a relative term. Each time I re-read a chapter, I make changes, but usually once I get a chapter “finished” the changes tend to be fairly minor. I’ve rarely had to scrap a while paragraph at this point, but usually change a word here or a phrase there. Of course, that may change once I let OTHER people read it and give me feedback.

Which is also underway, as it turns out. I had set February as my target for getting early chapters out into the hands of some of my readers, but then I went to my local writer’s roundtable last week and caught some flack for not bringing new material with me. I decided that since I didn’t plan to make any major changes to the first few chapters, I might as well bring them in and get some feedback. If there are major issues with the early chapters, there’s a decent chance that I’ve got the same issues later on and I may as well find that out now.

So I printed out Chapter 1 on Sunday night and have my wife read through it. She found quite a few little issues, such as words that I inadvertently repeated (usually because I went back after and changed the word, failing to realize that I’d used it already in a nearby part of the chapter). She also made some broader suggestions, but generally felt that the chapter was in good shape. My wife’s pretty smart, and a writer, too, so if she says it’s good that gives me some confidence. I made most of her recommended changes, then put it together for Monday night’s group. I’ll have to report back on how that went later in the week (since I wrote this Monday afternoon and the chapter hasn’t been read yet).

So there we are – chapter 1 is getting some initial feedback, and chapters 1-7 are complete in a first- or second-draft state. Chapter 8 should get underway today (Tuesday), and I’ve already bullet-pointed some of the key concepts in the chapter that I want to be sure to hit. I hope to bang the whole thing out in one day if all goes well. And if the new snacks work out, maybe I can even do that without exploding.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Modern Research

A nod to writers of the past and the tools of the present

I find it hard to really imagine what it must have been like just ten or fifteen years ago, or at any point prior to that, to write a book that involved any sort of research. The Internet has made a lot of the research I need to do an almost trivial endeavor. In the past, it would have taken me many hours at a library to gather anything close to the same information I’ve been able to collect in a fraction of the time – and at will. I don’t need to gather my research questions and then drive off to the library to get my answers. I simply punch up Google or Wikipedia and the answers are at my fingertips.

One of the fellows at the writer’s roundtable I sometimes attend, Jeff, used these tools to produce a description of a character driving the streets of Edinburgh. When I read the description, I was blown away at the level of detail and the historical and even geological facts that he’d used to transport the reader there. I was convinced that Jeff had actually been there and would have easily believed him if he’d told me he’d worked there as a tour guide. I was astounded when he told me he’d done it all through online research.

I do wonder if this approach might make me sloppy – less thoughtful about the data I’m gathering. But I don’t think so. I think that if the research were more onerous, I’d simply write around it and my stories would lose some of the realism I’m able to inject into them by careful use of Internet tools. Below are a few of my favorites.

Google Maps and Google Earth - these applications allow me to get a satellite-eye view of the world. Using them, I have been able to find appropriate places to set different locations in my stories. I’ve been able to find everything from lowlands to mountains, from forests to waterways. I’ve been able to identify large cities and tiny villages, and get a sense of their distances from each other, their major thoroughfares, and the configuration of their buildings. Using tools like Street View, I can actually take a virtual walk down Main Street that gives me at least a vague sense of what it’s like to be there. More, Google Earth has a tool that incorporates multiple photographs into a panoramic view of the area that’s extremely detailed.

Distances and travel times are almost trivial. Google Maps has even added a “walking time” feature recently. And with OneNote’s screen-clip function, I have been able to grab maps of my locations and store them in my notes, even marking them up with lines, circles and text.

Another indispensible research tool is Wikipedia. I’m honestly not sure I could tell a story that even touched on our physical and historical world without Wikipedia to help me out. I’m certainly aware that not every fact in the Wiki is guaranteed to be accurate, but all too often I don’t need thesis-quality reliability. I just need some quick info to point me in the right direction or tell me what something’s called or how something works. In those occasions where I want ensure that I’ve gotten my facts straight, it’s easy enough to start at Wikipedia and then either follow the references cited in a given article there, or just punch a query into Google and see if I can find independent corroboration.

Google itself is, of course, a vital tool. It opens up a vast array of informational sites from official organizations to dictionaries. For instance, on Saturday I decided that I needed to brush up on my military terminology. “The Military” is an awesome tool for telling stories – they can be saviors or they can be tools of the political-industrial machine. They can be heroic warriors or they can be brutal destroyers. They can be central characters or they can be a plot device to help drive the story. As such, a lot of my work involves “the military” to a greater or lesser degree. As a civilian, military terminology and jargon is foreign to me. I’m something of an enthusiast about it, but it’s hard to replicate real experience and be able to write military characters who sound authentic. So I spent a day assembling a dictionary of jargon and terminology that, when I quit, was around a hundred words or phrases in length. And I assembled that (and fact-checked the ones I thought might be bogus) just using Google, Urban Dictionary, and a handful of sites dedicated to military jargon. And I did it from the comfort of my own home. On a Saturday afternoon, that alone has some real value.

I’m sure that writing a novel by hand, with a ball-point pen or a fountain pen or a feather quill is a very personal, visceral experience. I know that there are writers still today who prefer to draft their stories on manual or electric typewriters. I’m going to continue to believe that my PC and my word processing software make me a better writer, if only by enabling me to focus on the story and not the mechanics of putting the words on the page.

And I like libraries – there’s something majestic about the rows of books on every subject slicing straight and true through the length of the building. They have their own smell and they have their own rules, and the idea of a building dedicated to study and the preservation of knowledge is a wonderful concept. But I don’t want to have to go there all the time just to tell my stories. And I certainly don’t want to drive to Indiana just because I want to write a story that’s set in a small town there. It would be nice, some day, if I have the financial wherewithal to go to Rome to research a book, but for now being able to zoom in to St. Peter’s Square and then pop over to Wikipedia for details on its history and architecture is more than good enough. It’s invaluable.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Our Daily Bread

Lead us on into temptation

I have a bread machine. It’s my second. The first one always put these giant holes in the middle of the bread where the little metal stirrer would spin. Nobody wants a big hole in the middle of their bread, so I got rid of it. That was ages ago – maybe ten years or more. Now I have a new one and so far I’m quite happy with it.

I’ve only used it to make three types of bread, and one of them was a failure. I tried to make dinner rolls when I first got the machine, and they came out all brittle and baked into hard little rocks. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I’ve never worked up the courage to try them again. I really need to sometime.

But the other two recipes are AWESOME! I make each of them about once a week. The recipes came in the booklet that was included with the bread machine, which is nice because they tell me exactly what settings to use. More on that later.

The first recipe is for French bread. It’s a very simple recipe – dump in some bread flour, water, salt, butter and yeast, and bam! You’ve got bread. (Disclaimer: the “Bam!” part actually takes 6 hours. It’s more of a Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam!)

I can imagine that it was always pretty easy to make French bread, I just never bothered. But now, as long as I remember to make it by around 11 AM, we can have bread with dinner any old time. And it’s really excellent-tasting bread, which sure helps. It comes out with a nice crisp crust and a firm but soft center. I love to have it with spaghetti, and it’s delicious with a thick slice of warm meatloaf on it. I only had a problem with it once. I think I did something different, like I let the ingredients sit for a bit before I turned on the machine. The bread came out underdone and gluey at the very center. Sadly, this was for Christmas Eve when we had a whole bunch of people over to the house, so I was fairly annoyed. But every single other time I’ve made it, it’s come out precisely the same perfect way.

The other recipe I use all the time is for pizza dough. It has some more ingredients, like sugar and milk powder, but as a trade-off it only takes 45 minutes to cycle through the bread machine. Then you let it rise for another 20 minutes or so. For some reason, the pizza dough never comes out the same twice. I’ve made it dozens of times now and I’d swear that every single time has been a little different than every other time. It’s the damndest thing – I measure pretty carefully and the ingredients are always the same (literally from the same cartons in most cases), but sometimes it’s dry, while other times it’s sticky. Sometimes it stretches easily, other times I immediately get big gaping rips in it or it refuses to form into anything other than a long oval.

I like to hand-toss my pizza, and I’m pretty good at it. I learned how to do it when I worked at Wegmans, way back in the old days when they actually used to hand-toss it. They’ve had presses for about twenty years, now, but when I worked there they made it the old-fashioned way, just like a real pizzeria. I was there when the presses were installed – it was a sad day for pizza.

I should qualify that I’m good at hand-tossing when I’ve got decent dough. There are probably lots of authentic pizza chefs who can hand-toss a wad of old bubblegum wrappers and make it come out looking great, but I’m not that good. If I’ve got good, pliable dough that doesn’t rip and tear all over, though, I can make a heck of a pizza. My dough comes out like that about 25% of the time. I don’t get it – I swear that I make it exactly the same way every time. It doesn’t matter, though. The only difference between my pizzas when the dough cooperates and when it doesn’t is how much swearing goes on when I’m trying to toss them. Everybody seems to love the way they taste no matter what I do.

For my daughter’s birthday, she had a sleep-over and I even made four pizzas, by hand, for them to customize with their favorite toppings. Yeah, I’m a cool dad! For my household, we usually stick with one cheese and one pepperoni, though occasionally I get crazy and make a ham & mushroom or even a garlic. Not counting last week (when I cranked the oven up to BROIL by accident and burned them a little on the bottom), they always come out perfect on the bottom rack of a well-pre-heated 500-degree oven for 5-6 minutes. I also swear by actual whole-milk mozzarella, not that crappy part-skim junk.

My conundrum, though, is that there are lots more bread recipes – even bread machine recipes – in the world that I might like the try. Sadly, I only really know how to do exactly what the booklet tells me to. It’s got all sorts of settings, but I’m not a sufficiently inspired baker to be able to intuitively grasp how to use all of the complicated settings to match up with a recipe that’s not in the official book. That’ll have to be the next challenge, I suppose. Maybe I can get my wife to help figure it out – she’s way better at this stuff than I am.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep whipping up these existing recipes and maybe take a stab at the dinner rolls one more time. There’s just nothing quite like the smell of baking bread to really stir up the appetite and the taste of a fresh loaf, its warm, moist heat melting the butter into every pore, to satisfy it. And finally having the right tool to make it myself is pretty darn cool.

If you’re thinking about a bread machine, I’m very happy with my Panasonic SD-YD250 Automatic Bread Maker and would recommend it highly. It’s got more settings than I know what to do with, it’s reasonably compact, and the removable cauldron inside it the absolutely slipperiest thing I’ve ever seen. It takes non-stick to new levels, and the bread really slips right out (the pizza dough tends to stick a bit, but it also comes out pretty easily with a little coaxing). It also has a great feature where you put the yeast in a well in the lid and it automatically adds it to the dough at the proper time.

This endorsement is, sadly, uncompensated (I’m looking at YOU Panasonic!).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Other Guitar Teacher

(Shh, don’t tell Jim)

I have a great guitar teacher named Jim Giannetto. He’s very patient, very clear, and is good at understanding what I’m not understanding and then explaining it in a different way that makes sense to me. He’s good with my son, who’s the actual student (I’m technically along for the ride), challenging him to improve without pushing too hard. Also, his instruction is a combination of practical technique (such as how to form a progressive chord or bar chord, how to strum or finger-pick, and even skills like vibratos and hammer-ons) plus abstract music theory to explain why the instrument works the way it does. After more than seven months of playing, for instance, I’m finally beginning to understand how a given major chord is comprised of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the octave for that key. It’s taken the full seven months for that to sink in, but like I said, Jim’s patient. Jim's background in classical guitar is a big help in teaching my son (and me) to be a musician, not just a guitar player. I think that's important.

The one thing it’s hard to do with Jim, though, is pause him, rewind a few seconds, hit play, and then repeat that process 25 or 30 times. Usually that’s not necessary, but this week he hit us with a new song and so far, the song’s pounding me into the ground. The song is Carol King’s 70s hit You’ve Got a Friend, made famous by James Taylor. The reason we’re learning the song is to focus on two new concepts – Major 7th chords (which, it turns out, are very different from 7th chords, even though they’re also built off the Major chord. Whoever named these things needs a punch in the nose.) and finger-picking. It’s a beautiful song, but its complexity level is off the charts as compared to the songs we’ve been playing. For instance, it has 17 different chords, 11 of which we’ve never played before. By way of comparison, Take it Easy and Peaceful Easy Feeling by the Eagles each use 5 chords (G, C, D and then a couple of others). After that we learned Twelve-Bar Blues, which is pretty basic and only uses 3 chords (though it’s arguably not a complete song on its own). Our Christmas song, No Place Like Home for the Holidays, used around 10 chords.

Plus, the intro to You’ve Got a Friend is complex as hell, requiring a combination of finger picking plus chords we’ve never used before plus quick-changes between some of those chords. It’s kicking my ass. Though, granted, I’ve only been working on it for a few days. Still, aaargh! The ass-kicking, it hurts!

Jim’s always telling us to listen to and play along with the song. Usually I’m bad and I don’t do this. I remember we did try it once waaaay back when we first started to play, and Glenn Fry just left us in the dust on Peaceful Easy Feeling. We were still trying to remember how to play the chords and he was wailing away on the second page already. We kind of gave up on the idea after that and didn’t really get back to it.

This time, though, we’re playing a song that I’m not intimately familiar with. I mean, sure, I’ve heard You’ve Got a Friend probably hundreds of times in my life, on the radio or as Muzak in some department store, but I never really listened to it and sang along with it the way I’d do with the Eagles. So I pulled up YouTube and played an old 1971 BBC recording of Taylor and King performing the tune. It skips the intro, but when the video started out, I could see Taylor’s hands on his guitar for a few seconds, just long enough to see that I didn’t quite recognize what he was doing either on the frets or down where he was strumming the strings.

So since I was on YouTube anyway, I checked out a couple other videos (one of which shows him as a much older man in 1998 – I’d never have realized it was the same guy if it hadn’t said so) and they didn’t really clarify anything. The music Jim gave us has tablature, but I suck at reading tabs, so that wasn’t really helping me much either. I know, tabs are supposed to be the easy way to play, but I’m just not used to them.

But as I poked around YouTube, I found a guy showing how to play the intro. Now, a lot of times, the YouTube “how to play song XYZ” videos aren’t that good. They either don’t point the camera at the right part of the guitar at the right times, or they go too fast, or they basically assume you already know how to play what they’re showing you how to play and they talk over your head. This guy, though, was slow, thorough, clear, and really seemed to understand how to use video to teach this song. So I watched it a couple of times, rewinding and replaying key parts, then yesterday my son and I sat down in front of the PC with our guitars and started to learn it.

It’s not a panacea. In part, my son doesn’t really like doing new stuff at first, and it takes him usually about a week to warm up to anything that’s radically different than what we’ve done before. He also isn’t a big fan of proper form, even if it would make it easier. So as we were working on the first four notes of the intro, he’s plucking the strings with these great big strumming motions instead of just moving his fingertips. We’ll get there, but it’s going to take a while. Also, hitting the controls on the keyboard when you’re sitting a few feet away and have your guitar in your hands isn’t real easy. But it’s easier than making Jim repeat the same thing 35 times until it gets through my thick head and down into my even thicker, lazy, stupid, incompetent fingers.

It turns out that this fellow, Josh Cho, is a professional musician in New York City. He performs at events in a Hawaiian Ukulele band, he gives private lessons, and he operates a boatload of websites including Cheap Guitar Zine. It’s obviously an online business for him – it’s covered in ads and not all of the video lessons are free, but quite a few are. And why not? Brother’s got to make a living. What sets it apart from a lot of other video guitar demonstrations I’ve seen is that he breaks it down into very small, almost idiot-proof chunks that are enormously helpful when you’re, well… guitar challenged.

It’s going to take some time to get the basics of this song down (and honestly I haven’t even watched all three parts of Cho’s video lesson for this song, which weighs in at over 16 minutes total), probably months. But rather than focusing on how much there is to it that we don’t know how to play, I’m trying hard to look at how much we’ll have learned once we’re finally able to play it proficiently. That’s 11 new chords, plus some very cool finger-picking, and the theory behind the (very 70s-sounding) Major 7th chords. I know Jim will get us there eventually, and I’m glad to have a little help from Josh when we really need to zoom in on something and learn it at our own pace.

A quick note on the Cheap Guitar Zine links above – that site has Google ads splattered all over it in different places – top, sides, middle, bottom, everywhere. Don’t assume that everything you click on is going to take you to more of Josh Cho’s work. Look for the words “ads by Google” as a clue that it’s a link to somewhere else. Know of more solid guitar how-to sites? Post them in the comments!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chuck vs. Prime Time

My favorite TV show comes back with a bang

NBC is making big news lately – almost all of it having to do with Jay Leno’s show (which everybody pretty much predicted was going to fail) and their generally lousy prime time ratings. And they’re expected to lose something like $200 million on the Winter Olympics, which apparently nobody in the U.S. has any interest in watching. You may recall that the US Olympic Team was actually dropped by their main sponsor and had to be rescued by Stephen Colbert. Also, their upcoming show Day One, about life after a nuclear war, has been further demoted from a full series to a 4-hour miniseries to a 2-hour miniseries. Oh yes, and Heroes continues to bleed viewers with each passing week. NBC needs a hero.

Enter Chuck Bartowski – an MIT drop-out who lives with his sister and works at a retail electronics store. He’s also a reluctant secret agent because his old room-mate, an actual spy for the US government, sent him an email secretly encoded with a massive database that uploaded itself directly into Chuck’s brain. Now, whenever he sees certain individuals or hears codenames out of that unique database, his brain is able to call up detailed information about them. Hilarity ensues when Chuck’s government handlers have to sneak him – a socially inept civilian – into all sorts of high-risk situations in order to get him close enough to people and items for his ability to work. I’ve written about the show quite a bit before, so I won’t spend a lot of time on the premise.

But Chuck should be a hero at NBC right now, both in his show and in reality. You see, last May Chuck was very nearly canceled. The ratings weren’t terrible, but they were borderline and NBC had just cut 5 hours of programming out of their prime-time schedule in order to air the Jay Leno show. Look how that turned out, right? Nobody saw that coming. Anyway, Chuck was saved by an intensive fan-support campaign that included a tie-in with one of the show’s sponsors, Subway. During one of the show’s final episodes of the season, fans went to Subway in droves and bought a particular sandwich that had been featured on a previous episode. NBC apparently got the message that fans, critics and sponsors alike wanted the show to come back, so it did (albeit reduced to a 13-episode order, or approximately a half-season).

Then things started to get bleak for NBC. Southland tanked, and some of their other shows weren’t doing so hot either. Even Heroes is starting to face cancellation rumors (though what NBC has cooking that could be better than even a crummy season of Heroes I can’t imagine at this point. They seem to be out of ammo, as it were). Suddenly Chuck’s debut is being moved up from March (after the Winter Olympics) to January. THAT’s a good sign for a show that was nearly canceled.

NBC did right by the show, too – they promoted it fairly aggressively over the last few weeks, then gave it a 2-hour season premiere on Sunday night, followed by its first regular-season episode on Monday. And Chuck came through, getting outstanding ratings (outstanding for Chuck, anyway) on both nights. I mean, it didn’t pull in NFL-type ratings or anything, but it had over 7 million viewers which is pretty respectable and, I believe, makes it one of NBC’s highest scripted prime-time shows (behind Law & Order: SVU and I’m not sure what else). Again, these aren’t numbers that single-handedly rocket NBC to the top of the charts or anything. I’m not sure a number’s been invented that’s high enough to do that. But they show that Chuck has broad appeal and has more than held onto its audience despite a 7-month hiatus since the season finale. It actually gained viewers.

I liked the Sunday double-feature quite a bit, but I might have enjoyed Monday’s episode even more. For one thing, it maintained the show’s history of featuring well-known guest stars, this time Armand Assante playing a military dictator for a fictional South American country. It also involved a lot of Chuck’s brother-in-law, the guy who’s so wonderful at everything that he’s dubbed “Captain Awesome” and with good reason. Still likeable despite his charm, good looks and infinite skill, Dr. Awesome got a little taste of the secret agent life on Monday which was fun and exciting right up until the cliff-hanger ending. Guest stars for upcoming episodes include Stone Cold Steve Austin, Kristin Kreuk, plus the return of Scott Bakula as Chuck’s father.

This season brings a new edge to the show, as Chuck’s mental enhancements in the season finale means that in addition to raw data, Chuck can now retrieve actual physical abilities from his top-secret onboard database, which so far this season have included ballroom dancing, acrobatics, kung fu and, my personal favorite, mariachi guitar. But far from making him a superman, these new abilities usually cause him nothing but trouble and are unreliable at best.

But the show’s not really about these abilities, anyway. It’s about lovable Chuck and his star-crossed love affair with Sarah, the super-hot secret agent whose cover story is to be Chuck’s girlfriend, but whose professional code of conduct keeps her from ever showing her true feelings for him. It’s about John Casey, Chuck’s other handler, and his love of duty, honor, and really big high-powered weaponry (like the excellent mini-gun he got to use on Sunday’s episode to shoot up a Mexican prison). And it’s about terrific pop-culture references that you’ll miss if you don’t watch carefully. For instance, in one upcoming episode, Chuck has a big kung-fu fight in the middle of a room filled with exotic weapons including, hanging on one wall, a Klingon Bat’leth sword from Star Trek (which, obviously, is a fictional prop weapon that you wouldn’t actually find in a room full of samurai swords). Or like in one of Sunday’s episodes, where Chuck tries out his ability to call on the skills of a heavyweight boxer, which lead to him and John Casey perfectly re-creating the final moments of the movie Rocky III. The references are never distracting, but always tasteful homages to the movies and shows that nerds like me remember and appreciate. Last season, Chuck kept a secret scrapbook of clues which he taped to the back of a TRON poster hanging on his bedroom wall. That’s the way to win my loyalty!

If you’ve missed the first few episodes and are now convinced that Chuck is a now not to be missed, you can catch up online at www.nbc.com/chuck. And if you’re already a Chuck disciple, join me in celebrating the triumphant return of this excellent series and in hoping that the 2010 season will be filled with the magic, mystery and pure Awesomeness (pun intended) that the show is known for and which should ensure continued success for Chuck and hours of spy action, comic hijinks and nerd love for us.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

[Book Update] My Novel

The story of the story so far

I haven’t written one of these since I finished the storyline back before Christmas. There’s a reason for that – I basically got nothing much done on it over the holidays. I knew this was going to happen. In part it was deliberate – it was the holidays and I was relaxing and spending time doing stuff with the family. In part it was unavoidable – the kids were home from school with me all day, which absolutely precludes me getting any writing done. Maybe some people could write while the kids run around and raise hell, but not me.

So between December 24th and January 3rd, the novel-writing machine was asleep, snoring softly and occasionally muttering something that almost sounded useful, but then rolling over and dozing on. I was getting pretty antsy to get back to work by the time the Christmas break was over, as I’d made such good progress before the holidays and I wanted to see it continue.

It didn’t. I was in a real groove before Christmas, churning out some good prose and also mastering important stuff like the storyline. It felt good to look back on what I’d done at the end of each day and be impressed with myself. It’s still not the 5,000 words a day I had hoped I’d be able to crank out, but it was good, solid, useful writing.

But I’d gotten to a point where chapters 1-4 were pretty much how I wanted them, chapter 5 was 90% done, and chapters 6 & 7 were each somewhere around 30% complete, give-or-take. Chapter 6 was actually more like 50% and chapter 7 was probably like 20% done back on January 4th. But throughout that week, I didn’t really make a ton of progress on either of them.

I spent Monday trying to get back into that groove, but I ended up reviewing the chapters I’d written so far, instead. This is a useful habit I’ve gotten into, where I periodically re-read what I’ve written and edit it for word choice, clarity, consistency, or anything else I find that’s wrong. The other useful thing I did on Monday was to begin (but in true Mike-fashion not actually complete) a bulleted list breaking down the major plot points of each chapter. This is helpful for two reasons –

1. I can refer to it when I can’t remember the timeframe when something was covered, or whether X happened before or after Y.

2. It lets me hunt down a passage more quickly when I need to know how I handled something before. If I’m writing about a character, I may need to go back, for example, and review how I wrote their accent or how they were dressed.

Ideally a lot of this information should be getting added to each character’s own page in my notes, but I quickly discovered that I could either write my book or I could keep copious and detailed notes about my book for easy reference, but I can’t really do both. Every time I write more of the book, or change something I wrote before, the notes immediately become out of date. Aaargh. So, my book is incomplete, my chapter-by-chapter summary list is incomplete and my notes are incomplete. But at least I’m working on completing the book – the other two are optional.

Tuesday and Wednesday actually were spent working on chapters 5, 6 and 7, which are very related and which I decided all needed hefty revision in parts. So while I added some new prose mid-week, I also cut out some stuff that I’d written previously. However by Thursday I think I had chapter 5 pretty well locked down (with a possible exception that I’ll get to below). Thursday I had a nasty headache that just wouldn’t go away. I still got some work done, but not as much as I’d hoped I would.

Then you can scratch Friday off the list, because I volunteered at my son’s school in the morning and then went to see Daybreakers – my work-day was pretty well shot. I did manage to write some good stuff on Saturday. Again, nothing that will immediately find a home in the book, but it’s backstory written in prose (which is how I write a lot of my backstory – it’s just how I think when I’m in storyteller mode) that will at minimum inform the story and at best may actually be usable somewhere later in the novel. Or perhaps in the "Encyclopedia of Mike's Novel" to be published later and then snapped up by my legions of adoring fans after the book's an international phenomenon. Or something.

By the time this week rolled around, there were some ups and downs. On the down side, I was disappointed at my progress last week. On the plus side, I felt like I kind of had my groove back, or at least could feel it coming back, which boded well for the week ahead.

Then I spent Monday morning furiously writing, producing a neat little chunk of around 1500 (update: I ended up going back later and it topped out above 3,000) words or so. This would be great, except that it was all backstory that may or may not ever make it into the novel. When I sat down on Monday to write, I considered for a moment that there was a particular group in my book who were to be major adversaries, and there was a particular item that was important to both them and to the novel’s protagonists. However the whys and wherefores of this group and this item “predate” the novel – that is to say that things are already in motion when the novel begins. I knew where this group and this item needed to end up, but without knowing their history – their origin – I wasn’t sure how to introduce them and get them moving on their way. So I wrote an origin. Say goodbye to Monday morning – origin story: written. Actual text added to novel: none.

And that brings me to Monday afternoon. Time to write new text for chapters 6 & 7, you say? Whoa there, not so fast! You see, at the end of chapter 5 I introduced one of the major locations in the book. My original intent was that this location and its people were dirty, downtrodden, pathetic, disorganized, and generally in disheveled, piteous condition. Whoops! That’s not how I actually wrote it, though. I was so busy moving the story along, having the characters interact, and narrating a history of both the location and the world around it that I forgot to make it all crappy. It’s literally too nice a place and needs to be wrecked. So Monday afternoon, meet Mike the Wrecking Ball. I’d even made myself a nice list of adjectives over the weekend that I could use to de-spruce the place and its people:

scruffy, dingy, dust-covered, rusty, dirt-encrusted, stained, dented, scuffed, slovenly, warped, beaten, stripped, rotted, cracked, crumbled, uneven, crooked, rat-infested, filthy, tarnished, crusty, dirty, ripped, torn, rent, soiled, dusty, fusty, musty, putrid, rotten, decayed, deteriorated, creaking, sooty, acrid, grimy, foul, sullied, polluted, grubby, muddy, defiled, unclean, dull, cloudy, listless, soggy, broken, split, splintered, spoiled, smashed, crumpled, messy, unkempt, shabby, untidy, disheveled, fetid, damp, stale, stuffy, rancid, pungent, foul, sorry, weary, dilapidated, sad, run-down, used-up, wrecked,  condemned, unsound, leaning, slanting, beshitted (I like that one!), clogged, grungy, gunked up, dismantled.

Hah! I thought up a few more while I was writing this. Blogging suddenly becomes vaguely useful!

So the tally for the week thus far – origin story completed. De-sprucification of the town underway. Sorry, townspeople, your home just became a much shittier place to live. But the place that the protagonist goes later on will look MUCH better by comparison, so take solace in that, if you can. The groove? It’s back! Time to get writing. I need to figure out whether chapter 6 is going to go or stay or change completely, but I don’t know if I’ll do that just now. I want to find out what happens next!

Monday, January 11, 2010

[Movie Review] Daybreakers

Vampires that both bite and suck

I found the premise of this movie to be fascinating: the human population has been subjected to a plague that causes vampirism, and 95% of the world’s people have been infected in the last ten years. Society has changed dramatically – people still go about their business, but they do it at night, or by using underground tunnels and cars that are modified with sun-shields and cameras for daytime driving. There are even cameras built into the back of the sun-visors for primping, since obviously a vampire can’t just look at themselves in the mirror.

Also, humans are hunted prey. You see, vampires can sort of survive on animal blood, but they really need at least some human blood or they risk turning into monstrous “subsiders” – feral bat-like creatures with no rational minds, just a thirst for blood. And this relates directly to the main problem of the movie – there aren’t many humans left, and within a month the vampires will completely run out of human blood.

The story revolves around Ethan Hawke’s character Edward Dalton, a scientists searching for an artificial blood-substitute. He works for the gigantic Bromley-Marks Pharmaceuticals, a corporation that researches synthetic blood and also helps to harvest real blood from captured humans (who are stored, unconscious, in a “blood bank”). Sam Neill plays Charles Bromley, the head of Bromley-Marks.

I haven’t been as excited to see a movie in a long time as I was to see Daybreakers. That may have been a problem, because I found that I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, and I can’t be sure if it was entirely because of weaknesses in the film or because my expectations were just too high.

Still, Daybreakers did a LOT of stuff right. The writer/director team of the Spierig Brothers was very detailed in creating a believable vampire world of 2019. They got the atmosphere dead-on, from the advertisements on the walls of the subway to the visual effects of vampires exploding in a burst of flame when killed. They even had little touches, such as showing the scars on many of the vampires from where they’d originally been bitten to be turned into vampires.

My problems with the movie were several. First off, Neill’s character was a mess, vacillating around about what he wanted and what was important to his character and often coming off as just evil for the sake of being the story’s villain. Ultimately, every major plot thread that directly involved Bromley was weakened by making him a cardboard-cutout villain with no consistency and little rationality. If he’d had a mustache, he’d have twirled it, and it turned me off.

Also, there were a few overly-convenient plot devices, particularly one near the end when not one but two heroic main characters (who should have been together, by the way) come bursting onto the scene in the nick of time to save the day. It’s weak writing and I hate it. We should be better than that in our filmmaking by now. Lastly, in terms of nitpicking, I though the ending was generally weak and could have been made stronger with probably 20-30 seconds of additional footage clarifying the situation as it stood at the film’s conclusion. I don’t want to spoil anything, but as it stands it didn’t work well for me.

Overall, it wasn’t really a bad sci-fi vampire movie. In terms of production quality it was certainly higher than a lot of the B-grade monster movies that have come out. And it’s not a teen-angst bodice-ripper like Twilight. These vampires don’t sparkle, and the first five minutes of the film lets you know that it’s not screwing around. The gore was a bit over the top, which didn’t bother me because it was gore, it just bothered me because it was so prevalent that it distracted me. I’ll say this, though – I felt so down about not enjoying the movie as much as I’d wanted to that the next day I put in John Carpenter’s Vampires and then I felt MUCH better. THAT’s a kick-ass vampire movie right there, and as stylish, futuristic and thoughtful as Daybreakers was in places (it certainly tried to make a much deeper point about the human condition and environmental issues than Vampires did), it didn’t entertain me half as much as Carpenter’s movie.

I spent a fair bit of time over the weekend thinking about Daybreakers, reading other reviews, and even seeking out the opinion of my fellow geeks at a discussion forum to make sure I hadn’t overlooked something about Daybreakers that was truly brilliant or which had caused me to like the movie less than I should have. If you look around, you’ll find that a LOT of other reviewers and film critics seem to like Daybreakers much more than I did, but their reviews generally seem to agree with most of my criticisms. The difference is that they weakened the movie for me, whereas the other critics just seemed to shrug them off and dismiss them as irrelevant or charming or whatever. So don’t take my review as gospel – I seem to like this movie less than many people. But to me it was weaker than it should have been, weaker than it needed to be, and not as good as it deserved to be. It’s a shame that after a lot of masterful creativity in how they told the story, the Spierig Brothers fell down on the story itself. I rate it a B- at best, and I don’t have it on my “buy” list of future DVDs.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Daybreakers!

I saw it, so you don't have to

Full review to come. Between now and then maybe somebody can convince me I should have enjoyed this movie more than I did. I'd say it's a good bet for DVD if you like vampire movies, but I can't recommend running right out to see it in the theatre.

My only hope for January is now "The Book of Eli."

Movies of 2010 – Part 2

Not necessarily the bottom of the barrel, but maybe

Last year I was really excited to see such movies as Surrogates and Terminator: Salvation. This serves to prove that my ability to predict what movies will really rock your socks is weak at best. So just because I had four movies in my “Oh My GOD!!” category, and another nine movies in my “Oooh, these look good!” category doesn’t mean that the remaining eighteen may not be wonderful movies. Or, I could well be missing an awesome movie off my lists completely because it flew under my radar. With that said, here’s the remainder of my list of notable movies for 2010. As before, I’ve tried to place a link to the trailer or official website in the title if I could find one.

o    Legion (Jan 22nd) – never heard of it, but the premise sounds neat. God is pissed. Apparently the flood thing didn’t really get the job done last time, so this time he’s sending his angels to wipe out mankind once and for all. The story takes place entirely at a roadside diner where a small band of humans is defended by none other than the Archangel Michael. The trailer doesn’t paint a clear enough picture to be confident that this movie’s more than just another monsters and guns-type B-movie, but I guess I’d say that I hope it’s decent.
o    Shutter Island (Feb 19th) - this Leonardo DiCaprio/Martin Scorsese movie appears to be some sort of psychological thriller, but after seeing the trailer I wasn’t entirely clear what it’s about, other than a detective investigating an escaped mental patient.
o    The Crazies (Feb 26th) – never heard of it, but the description sounds cool. A few people in a small Midwest town discover that everybody else in town has turned into a murderous zombie along the lines of 28 Days Later. Again, I dunno – could be good, but it could suck. I can’t tell, so it’s on this list.
o    Season of the Witch (Mar 19th) – Nick Cage? Yeah, it’s going to suck. It’s a shame, though, because this looks to be a classic “swords and sorcery” flick of the sort that hasn’t really been made in ages. It even co-stars Ron (Hellboy) Perlman, among others. The premise is that two knights of the crusades are tasked with escorting a witch to a distant monastery where she can be properly tended to. Fixing the witch will also end the plague that’s ravaging the land. Cage has just made so many stinkers lately that it’s hard to get excited about this movie, and the trailer didn’t really stoke the fires for me too much.
o    How to Train your Dragon (Mar 26th) – we saw the trailer for this at the theatre and it looked really cute, for the kids at the least. A young boy from a culture of Vikings decides to tame a dragon instead of fighting them as his people have always done. Soon he and his friends are riding them and everything. It’s yet another in the wave of 3D films that seem to be all the rage, lately.
o    Repo Men (Apr 2nd) – this sci-fi flick is about two partners whose job is to remove implanted organs from patients who are unable to pay for them. But when one of them gets a new heart and then has trouble making the payments, he finds himself on the run from his own partner. It’s got a pretty solid cast of Jude Law, Forest Whitaker and Liev Schreiber, so this could be a real hit.
o    Kick Ass (Apr 16th) Cage again? Yes! This movie appears to be an action comedy about real people who decide to become costumed super-heroes. Yeah, I can’t tell, either. Cage’s presence isn’t a good sign, and the trailers haven’t exactly filled me with enthusiasm (the lead ass-kicker appears to be an 11-year-old girl), but I might change my mind when I see more about it.
o    A Nightmare on Elm Street (Apr 30th) – this one barely makes my list, as I’m just not convinced that the world needs this movie, but who knows, right? I’ve never heard of any of the stars, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not useful or even popular actors.
o    The A-Team (Jun 11th) – I don’t know where to begin with this film. I really enjoyed the old version with George Pappard and Mr. T in the 1980s, but did it really need a modern movie remake? Apparently Liam Neeson thought so, and he usually makes pretty good movies. The premise of this one is that a team of Iraq-war special forces soldiers is accused of a crime they didn’t commit, so they go underground in the U.S. and solve crimes
o    The Karate Kid (Jun 11th) – Yes, that makes three re-makes in a row. This one’s wholly unnecessary in my opinion – I showed the original to my kids a few months ago and they loved it from start to finish. Sure, it’s got Jackie Chan as the teacher, and this time it’s actually kung-fu instead of Karate (which makes you wonder, shouldn’t they have changed the name?), and it’s in China instead of Los Angeles, but otherwise it appears to be exactly the same movie, so what’s the point? Like the A-Team and Nightmare on Elm Street, this film almost got left off this list entirely, but it’s always possible that it will somehow be a great movie worth seeing.
o    Toy Story 3 (Jun 18th) – Buzz and Woody are back! Their young owner is all grown up and heading off to college, so his toys get to go to a daycare center. The first two were pretty great – hopefully this one will be, also.
o    Predators (Jul 9th) – the ultimate hunters in the universe are back, and just like the first time they’re hunting a team of mercenaries. But instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jessie Ventura, this time he’s hunting a bunch of guys you’ve probably mostly never heard of. I have, though, and some of them are actually decent. In addition to Adrian Brody, you’ve got Walton Goggins from The Shield, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali from The 4400, and Danny Trejo as “the big Mexican” from pretty much any movie where you’ve ever seen a “big Mexican.” I don’t really know much more than that, but it’s a franchise with pretty good potential so there’s at least an even chance that it won’t suck. Fingers crossed!
o    Inception (Jul 16th) – Yep, another Leo DiCaprio for those who are keeping count. Yeah, go watch the trailer and tell me if you can figure out what the heck’s going on there. I can’t and from what I’m reading online nobody else can, either. It looks pretty, though, so maybe it’ll be entertaining.
o    Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Jul 16th) Cage yet again? No shit? Yep! And Alfred Molina and Monica Bellucci. This Disney film (I mean, no kidding, right?) follows a wizard searching for (wait for it) an apprentice in modern New York City.
o    Priest (Aug 10th) – this film stars mostly nobody I’ve ever heard of, but it’s evidently a comic-book adaptation about a warrior priest who’s searching for the vampire(s) who killed his niece. That certainly sounds like it’s got potential, even if I don’t know squat-all else about it.
o    Red (Oct 22nd) – this comic adaptation stars Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman, which is a pretty good sign. I couldn’t find much about it, but evidently Willis will play a secret agent who has to come out of retirement when he and his girlfriend are threatened by a killer. This is also Willis’s third film of the year.
o    The Chronicles of Narnia: the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Dec 10th) – the third installment of the Narnia series. If it doesn’t make big money, it will likely be the last.
o    The Green Hornet (Dec 22nd) – Well, they replaced Nick Cage, so that’s a plus. But starring Seth Rogen? Really? I’m not optimistic.

So that’s my year in pictures for 2010. Some of these will undoubtedly be crap. Possibly a lot of them. I’ve also left off a bunch that just didn’t appeal to me, as well as quite a few that are only expected to come out in limited release or which haven’t yet been slated for a firm release date. I found a really good list of the full year’s movies at Film Releases.com [http://www.film-releases.com/film-release-schedule-2010.php] so check them out if you think it’s likely that I left off some romantic comedy or drama or (gah) black comedy that might be right up your alley.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Movies of 2010 – Part 1

Not all of them, just the ones that caught my eye so far

I’ve ended up breaking this list into two parts – one for today and one for tomorrow. The first part includes movies I’m pretty sure I want to see based on various factors. These factors usually include things like the description of the movie, but may also include factors like a trailer, promotional stills and photos, the cast, the director, or the franchise. The second part features movies that I’m on the fence about – they caught my eye in some fashion, but I either have some reason to doubt them or I just don’t know enough about them to be sure. Still, even the maybes rank above the final list, which I’m not posting, wherein are enumerated the movies that I already know I have no interest in. If I were so inclined, I might have broken the lists down as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Cue Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold.”

One final note – there are four movies that I’m extremely excited about. They’re marked with an asterisk (*), and have already been covered in my 2010 look-ahead column from January 4th. Wherever possible, I’ve put a link to the film’s trailer or official website in the title of the movie.

This year’s movies I want to see:
o    *Daybreakers (Jan 8th)
o    The Book of Eli (Jan 15th) – this film very nearly made my 2010 “top picks.” In fact, based on some behind-the-scenes footage I saw yesterday, it most probably would be if I were to write that article now. In this post-apocalyptic film, Denzel Washington is a wandering warrior who carries with him, and protects, a mysterious book. He runs afoul of a small-town despot who wants the book for himself. Every preview I’ve seen looks totally fantastic. Also stars Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis and Jennifer Beals.
o    Percy Jackson & the Olympians: the Lightning Thief (Feb 12th) – hailed as “the next Harry Potter,” this movie is likewise based on the first in a series of young-adult novels. The premise is that the star is the son of Poseidon, Greek god of the seas. His friends are likewise demigods – mortal children of the Olympians. When the lightning is stolen from Zeus, king of the Greek gods, the young heroes must retrieve it before war is declared on all of mankind. Stars Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Sean Bean, and Rosario Dawson.
o    The Wolfman (Feb 12th) – werewolves! Woo hoo! And it stars Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving, so I repeat, Woo Hoo! Maybe. The trailer I saw a few months ago made me wonder if the movie had enough wolfman in it or if it was all just talk, but the one currently on the film’s official site suggests there may be more action.
o    Clash of the Titans (Mar 26th) – a  remake of the 80s classic of Greek mythology starring Sam Worthington (Avatar) as Perseus, Liam Neeson as Zeus, and Ralph Fiennes as Hades. The trailer on the official site is absolutely amazing and again this one is high on my list to the point that it’s very nearly a top pick. It looks like they’ve messed with the story a bit, I suspect replacing Thetis with Hades for a bit of a bigger bang (I mean, who the hell is Thetis, anyway?), but all of the key scenes from the original are clearly there in the trailer. This movie promises to make March a winning month for 2010.
o    *Iron Man 2 (May 7th)
o    Robin Hood (May 14th) – if you thought Kevin Costner’s lack of a British accent, Morgan Freeman’s misplaced Moor or Alan Rickman’s bad puns detracted from the 1991 version, perhaps a more militant-looking version would suit you. The Gladiator team is back – this time pitting Director Ridley Scott and lead actor Russell Crowe against the forces of medieval England’s vilest despots. It doesn’t have a cool song by Bryan Adams, but it looks like a worthy addition to a film legacy that stretches back to the days of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone.
o    Shrek Forever After (May 21st) – I admit that I’m not as enthusiastic about this series as I originally was. The first was absolutely classic, the second was pretty good, but I thought the third was just OK. As such, I’m not sure about the fourth, but I’m willing to give it a shot based on the track record of the first two. The full original cast returns for what’s being billed as the absolutely final installment of the Shrek series.
o    Jonah Hex (Jun 18th) [Sorry, no trailer yet] - Josh Brolin plays a bounty hunter who defeats death itself to return as an ultimate Old West badass. It’s based on a comic book and what I’ve seen of it so far looks interesting at least. If nothing else, it’s got Meghan Fox in it, so it’s got a fighting chance to do as well as the ridiculously successful Transformers 2.
o    Salt (Jul 23rd) – Holy crap, it’s Angelina Jolie, action hero. The preview for this film looks awesome. Jolie plays a government agent who, at the start of the film, is interrogating a Russian defector. He tells her that a Russian agent is going to kill the US President, then advises Jolie that the name of the agent is… her! Jolie insists that she’s not a double-agent, but is she running so she can clear her name or is it just a ploy to stay free and complete her traitorous mission? We’ll have to wait until July to find out.
o    The Expendables (Aug 13th) – Oh please, please, please don’t suck. That’s what I think when I look at the cast of this movie, then watch the initial trailer. Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables tells the story of a grizzled team of mercenaries hired to take down a dictator. Check out the stars: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lungdren, Forest Whitaker, Ben Kingsley, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger! As I said above, pleasepleaseplease don’t let this suck. It really ought to be one of the most incredible action films ever, but if so why does the trailer look so bland? I’m worried, but hopeful that somehow this movie will live up to its potential.
o    *Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Nov 19th)
o    *Tron Legacy (Dec 17th)

So those are my "must see" movies for the year. Most of them will be on DVD, but I definitely plan to see them all. Check back tomorrow for the one's I'm not quite as sure about, featuring no fewer than three (three! three??) new movies staring Nicholas Cage, Hollywood's latest guarantee of spectacular failure.