Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Book Report: The Lost Symbol

Dan Brown is really good at researching obscure and fascinating historical facts. I would love his books just as much if they were bullet points describing the Founding Fathers' Masonic and Bible code obsessions and symbology buried in D.C. architecture and road layouts.

The plethora of fun facts he spray-guns his novels with makes his pretentious and silly storytelling manageable.  I groaned all through this thing, but I also had a million lightbulbs flash above my head because the history he finds is so illuminating. The brilliance of his work overshadows the amateurish aspects. If he wrote 30 books, I would devour every one.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Book Report: Anna Karenina

It was utter misery to get through this thing, yet I appreciate its role as a driver of feminist thought and the way it challenged social structures of the time.

It's interesting from a historical perspective, and as a sort of time machine, but has no narrative thrust or momentum. Its characters are rich but have to little to do. This story could have been told in 200 pages, and that still might have been too long.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Review: Gone Girl

Of all David Fincher's accomplishments as a director, he may pull off his most impressive feat of all in Gone Girl -- getting Tyler Perry nominated for an Oscar.

Yes, the man who has played Madea more times than Robert De Niro has played mafiosos looks not only like a legit performer in Gone Girl, but one of the elite. Perry plays a cackling scumbag lawyer who takes it upon himself to get a smug sociopath Nick (Ben Affleck) off of charges of falsely impersonating Batman.

That's no easy task, because the internet has already tried and convicted him. That difficulty level is why the movie takes two and a half hours rather than your standard two. In addition to the Bat-crime, Nick has also been fingered for murdering Gone Girl herself -- his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike).

Nick does himself no favors in the court of public opinion. There's blood all over his house, and he's
hiding dark secrets like he once starred in Gigli. He's also unable to keep dopey smiles off his face whenever the media pokes around.

Fincher plays off the did-he-or-didn't-he suspense for more than half the running time, Nick scrambles to prove his innocence to detectives, shouting cable news magazine hosts and the shouting mobs that surround his home. An underrated actor who had previously only gotten to show what he do when under the direction of Kevin Smith or Affleck himself, Affleck handles the one-man-show assignment with such vicious determination that it's feasible to imagine him being OK taking a super-serious and demanding role such as the Caped Crusader.

Pike is equally searing in flashbacks and cutaways, smoldering with Affleck in their shared scenes. Also winning the day, as always, is Neil Patrick Harris, playing against type in the first serious role I can remember seeing him in. All the acting in this movie is so incredibly good that even as bladder-bustingly long as the movie is, you're left wanting more.

That's Fincher's style. This is the man who delivered Fight Club, The Social Network, Zodiac and Seven. The man is so good at using his cinematic skills to manipulate emotions and minds that he could make a Mentos commercial that would make you cry and give you nightmares. In fact, maybe Gone Girl is really just that -- a Mentos commercial disguised as a crazy-long, crazy-awesome whodunnit. If so, I'm sold.

Gone Girl has me willing to give Perry an Oscar, Affleck Batmobile keys and my mouth some Mentos. As filmmakers go, Fincher is one hell of a freshmaker.

Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coone and Kim Dickens. Written by Gillian Flynn. Directed by David Fincher. 148 minutes. Rated R. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Me and Psychic Medium James Van Praagh

I went on The Morning Blend today for a reading from psychic medium James Van Praagh. Here is how it turned out.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Book Report: Of Mice and Men" style="float: left; padding-right: 20px">Of Mice and Men
" />Of">">Of Mice and Men by John">">John Steinbeck

My rating: 4">">4 of 5 stars

It's just a little pamphlet/napkin scribble compared to East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath, but Steinbeck always brings it. Without condescension, he warps you into the mind of people who are mentally limited, devastatingly alone, desperate and self-deceiving.

It's raw and painful, with economical storytelling that cuts away extraneous scene-building and gets right to the meat. It feels a lot like reading a screenplay.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book Report: The Good Earth

Spare, detached and efficient, this is a powerful and painful story of the meaninglessness of fleeting fancies that life hurls in front of you. You feel Wang Lung's greed, avarice, lust and sloth as he rationalizes them all into neat little boxes that justify one poor, self-destructive decision after another.

This book stings, and does an excellent job of setting you within its place, time and culture without judgment or awkwardness. It deeply attaches you to its characters and applies the hurt when it rips them away. The way the ending floasts off from first-person perspective to a knowing hint of third-person is executed incredibly well. The book is so good at what it does that I don't know if I want to continue on with the trilogy, for fear that the series won't hold up.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Report: For Whom The Bell Tolls

This is all description and almost no story and suspense. The writing is urgent, penetrating and beautiful, but it goes around in circles, chasing its tail as you hope it starts to approach some sort of greater truth. Maybe that moment comes for some people, but it didn't for me. I saw it as all buildup with no payoff, and it seemed to me that Hemingway wanted the reader to feel just that, given the way he finishes.

I didn't love the book but never resented it and am thoroughly glad I absorbed it. It's a rich exploration of crushed idealism and everpresent despair. The love story stings badly, and that's a credit to the authenticity with which he built it. This is a dense but rich affair that would probably get better on a second go-round. Having the patience for that is another matter.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Book Report: Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis is an excellent natural storyteller. This book is even more accessible than his children's literature because it's so conversational. That's because it was adapted from radio talks he gave World War II troops to bolster their faith as they struggled through combat. You'd expect an evangelical homily to be condescending or preachy, but his self-deprecation goes miles toward keeping pompousness out of it.

When he veers out of his depth he admits as much, but still has compelling things to say. He vigorously avoids cliches and non-thinking crutches that so often go hand in hand with proselytizing. He writes with both common sense and passionate intellectualism. That helps some of Lewis's bigotry and nonsense easier to swallow than they would be if it all came from someone less skilled.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Book Report: To Kill A Mockingbird

I've never read a book that was as effective a time machine back into childhood. Harper Lee's ear for the way children think and talk is spellbinding. She respects Scout, Jim and Dill and gives each of them distinct and intelligent voices. She kills it with those characters so well that Atticus comes off as stiff and underdeveloped in comparison. Part of that is because she casts him in the simplified, idealized way Scout views the adult world.

The reason the book is a treasure is the way it addresses heavy social issues with such a light, matter-of-fact touch. Lee provides a master's course in the "show don't tell" school of rhetoric, never going the easy route to spout off convenient essays as monologues to make her points. I'm disappointed in myself that it took me so long to get to one of the greatest of novels.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Report: The Idiot

The IdiotThe Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After The Brothers Karamazov and now this, I am done with Dostoyevsky and convinced he blew his load on Crime and Punishment and had coasted on the reputation of that masterpiece, garnering the accolades because people were so enamored with his accomplishment of shining perfection that they were satisfied with flickering glimpses of it in his later stuff.

This one is more comedic and accessible than the block of granite that is Karamazov. The book is at its best when its characters monologue, giving the author a chance to spout his pithy observations before lumbering back to the convoluted story he's spat out. The real idiot here is not Myshkin, but me for continuing to suffer through the book when it was obvious that it sucked and would keep on sucking.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

$5 Foot Long Gone

Subway broke my heart by rendering its $5 Footlong promotion moot. Since July 1, it has existed as a shadow of its former self, dropping its roster to just three of its most ghetto sandwiches and doing away with the rotating $5 selection of one of its premium subs.

The only $5 footlongs remaining are the sandwiches with no ingredients in them. There's the illiterate Veggie Delite, which is what happens when the Sandwich Artists forget the meat; the Egg and Cheese, a breakfast sandwich for those who disagree with the argument that breakfast is the most important meal of the day; and the BLT, which your mom used to make you as a kid when dad's child support didn't come in time and the grocery store rejected her credit cards.

Stricken from the list are my beloved Cold Cut Combo and Spicy Italian, as well as the shockingly-suddenly-too-good-for-the-Abe-Lincoln-menu Black Forest ham and Meatball Marinara.

Now Jared will be thin as the result of poverty as well as malnutrition.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

What I Won't Miss About The World Cup

Is this commercial, which played repeatedly on the Watch ESPN app. It's the saddest thing ever, featuring a mom with a bunch of kids who talks about how she likes dancing.

The insinuation is that she hates her life now because dancing is no longer a part of it. Her youth has been squandered and her dreams are crushed, as she has become a slave to a house of ungrateful brats and a husband who looks at porn all day and ignores her sexual and emotional needs.

So the family goes out camping, and she brings a disco ball along. It's her desperate howl for self-actualization amid the wreckage that has become of her life. Determined to indulge her whim despite the soul-crushing abyss that surrounds her, she puts up the disco ball at the campground and begins dancing by herself.

And then her oppressors join in, forming a grotesque spectacle that existentially mocks her plight. She pretends to be OK with this result as a replacement for that which her life lacks.

I think it's an ad for toothpaste. Or suicide.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Today was National Cow Appreciation Day -- the sacred occasion on which Chick-fil-A, defender of 'traditional marriage' and 'inventor of the chicken sandwich' -- hands out free food for those willing to demean themselves by dressing as cows.

Naturally, I partake in the festivities with religious zeal. Being that two of my finest and most practiced qualities are thrift and sloth, I put as little effort as possible into cow-ifying myself. While others take to face paint, iron-ons, laminated signs and felt ears, I simply tape pieces of paper to my shirt, pants and ears. The papers serve as my spots, and although my ghetto costume tends to solicit eye rolls from checkout counter clerks, they always give me my free spicy chicken sandwich, waffle fries and lemonade.

Today, however, I met my match in chicanery. I sauntered up to the counter in my usual getup, placed my order, then was told I would need to pay $3 for my fries and drink, because only my sandwich was free.

Me: I thought you gave out combo meals for people who dressed like cows?

Liar (My name for this checkout clerk): No, just an entree.

Me: Really? This must be the first year you've done that.

Liar: Yeah, I guess they changed it.

Me: OK. (swipes credit card and loses what is left of dignity).

As it turns out, Chick-fil-A has not changed anything, and in fact still does hand out free combos to those dressed head-to-toe in bovine garb. It turns out, I assume, that Liar deigned my costume unworthy of a free combo, and came up with the ruse just to lose me, knowing full well that by the time I figured out the truth I would be unwilling to wait in that long line of free food-seeking people to get my $3 back. Again, sloth.

I use this situation as a learning experience. Not to put more effort into my costume, but to be able to confront lying clerks on their nonsense and no longer be forced to pay $3. Next year, I vow, it will be the cows who appreciate me.

Movie Review: Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Something happened that I never thought possible as I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I caught myself wishing I was watching Tim Burton's stupid, boneheaded 2001 Planet of the Apes with Marky Mark. And that was the movie that was so awful that it killed off the franchise for a decade, causing it to be rebooted by Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).

The Burton Planet of the Apes was so devastating that it managed to scare people away from seeing the remake of the remake a decade later. Which was a shame, because Rise was one of the best sci-fi movies ever created, with a heartbreaking father-son, scientist-monkey relationship.

There was so much promise to this movie. So much hope dashed. I tried to ignore the colossal red flag it waved in the first 10 minutes, as mediocrely-animated primates engaged in family drama by exchanging adorable, Monkey's Uncle-style sign language, helpfully subtitled so non ASL (Ape Sign Language)-speaking human viewers could follow along. The verbiage-free opening is so patently ridiculous that if the Scary Movie people were to, well, ape it, they wouldn't need to change a thing. Just cut, paste, and wham, you have the funniest sequence in franchise history.

Things go from bizarrely humorous to boring when the scene shifts to the human camp of this post-apocalyptic earth, a stage for a tournament of global domination between man and monkey. There's a timid leader, a regular joe, his compassionate, monkey-paw-stroking wife and their teenage son played by a guy who looks like he's 30. They want to preserve the human way of life, which according to them is to sit around and whine about having no electricity.

I give the movie credit for not only not encouraging the audience to root for the humans, but to make a compelling case to wholeheartedly cheer for the apes to overthrow these idiots and run the planet correctly. That even goes for when Scar Ape (his name is Koba, but he is really Scar from The Lion King, so I have renamed him Scar Ape) overthrows simian leader with a heart of gold Caesar and runs things like Pacino in Scarface.

The crux of the conflict is a dam that the humans need to get working so they can use their iPads and such. The apes, meanwhile, have set up camp nearby, and would rather the humans not send in their Geek Squad to fix it because of their penchant for busting caps in angry apes. Caesar, who in the first movie fell in love with humans because he was buddies with James Franco, thinks there can be a peaceful resolution, but Scar Ape is like "ARGHH OOOPP IPPPA EEA!" which roughly translates to "'Ell, nah, gov'na. Kill 'em all."

Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, who deserved credit in his calling card for going easy on the CGI, forgets that tack and allows his animators to spray the screen with dubious monkey cartoons and 'splosions. The movie turns into a long, dull slog of slow-witted humans tangling with their furry rivals in zero-sum contest of sadness. There are a few winning moments of intraspecies bonding that echo the 2011 movie, but those seem glib and forced rather than earned. Also, I hate how the apes all start off relying on sign language, only to suddenly all gain the ability so speak English like they are the Asian characters from Lost. As if it wasn't bad enough that we had to listen to the dull, hackneyed dialogue spat out by the human characters, it gets much worse when we have to listen to it spout from the mouths of apes as well.

A movie of half measures, spoiled potential, little suspense and tired writing, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has me Done with the Planet of the Apes. At least until the 2001 version pops up again on SyFy channel or whatever it's called these days.

Starring Ande Serkis, Jason Clarke, Kerri Russell and Toby Kebbell. Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback. Directed by Matt Reeves. Rated PG-13. 120 minutes.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Marketing Lessons

Marketing lesson no. 1: Name your movie 'Boredom.' Lesson No. 2: Give it a boring cover. Lesson No. 3: Deploy limited resources wisely by sending two unsolicited copies to the same critic. Class dismissed.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Getting Rid Of Junk

Decluttering is a form of therapy. It's freeing to tackle boxes of junk you haven't bothered to unbox in years, go through it all, keep 5 percent of it and get rid of all the rest. It's as though you are not only purging physical objects from your possession, but purging needless clutter from your mind as well.

The same goes for organizing the stuff you do keep. As you set your stuff in order, you do the same for your thoughts.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Goodbye, Old Friend: A Rhapsody For a Retired Wallet

My dad gave me the above wallet, my first, on my 11th birthday. It has served me well for nearly a quarter century, and I always figured I would keep it around for my entire life. It has died many deaths, and each time I have resurrected it with a fresh coat of duct tape. Now what was once entirely leather is now 95 percent shiny tape.

That wallet was always a point of pride for me. Many were disgusted or impressed by it. Some tried to pretend they were ignoring it, but their feigned politeness couldn't disguise their awe or befuddlement. Most pitied me for using such a homeless-looking billfold, while the select few admired my dedication to it and no doubt wistfully thought back to their favorite wallet from childhood, wondering what might have been had they taken the time and care to tape it together rather than toss it in the garbage.

While cleaning out a box of old stuff, my eyes caught this seductive minx:

My first instinct was to pack it away back where I found it, reconfining it to a cardboard prison indefinitely. But I couldn't manage the task. Before I could muster any doubt, I stripped the old warhorse of all its credit, debit, gift and rewards cards, as well as its childishly tiny amount of cash within, and stuffed it into its successor.

I considered keeping the old wallet around, but decided to dignify it by tossing it into the garbage. Someday, I gotta believe, it will make an excellent nest for a landfill rat or pack of baby scorpions.

The smug "new" Nintendo wallet, which I no doubt acquired more than a decade ago by some means now forgotten -- most likely it was one of the many given to me over the years by those hoping I would get rid of my ugly duct-taped one -- will be discarded once it shows significant signs of wear. There is no sentimental attachment to this one, so I will have no reason to keep its corpse glued together like the previous one. I will now get new wallets every couple years rather than cling to my old one. Now I am just like everyone else. Except for the fact that my wallet, still, is more awesome than everyone else's.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Return To Sender

After being told the stuff at my desk of my former employer would be boxed up by security and shipped to me, I was asked to come pick it up personally at the front desk. The caller, who was not present at the time I was terminated, insisted I was told I would need to come pick it up at that meeting. I agreed, then laughed when I saw my work junk was boxed up in USPS boxes.

Glad I could save the organization postage.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Book Report: War and Peace

Reading this was utter misery from end to end. This is in a class with Moby-Dick and A tale of Two Cities, among the least readable, universally lauded classics that normal people read only out of sheer hatred and determination.

Tolstoy is like a kindergartener talking about his day. He has a keen eye and feel for detail, but no ability to distinguish between what is relevant and compelling and what isn't. He puts you there, alright, in the grim bleakness of standoffs with Napoleon on Russian battlefields. He conveys the feeling of bitter regret and despair, when you realize that you have been plugging away through his dense, punishing prose for weeks and look ahead to see there is no end in sight.

The value of the book, and the only reason other than bragging rights to say you've conquered it to keep reading, is to be transported to the ugly, despair-plagued times in which the book is set. War is hell, peace is boring, and this book is the worst of both worlds.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

My Life As A Cereal Killer

Just like a 5-year-old, I need to start my day with a bowl of cereal. It's not that I'm hungry, nor that I get a burst of energy from the meal, but it just feels right. I keep a plethora of cereals at my disposal, with each suiting the particular mood or need of the day ahead. The cereal sets the tone for what I anticipate is to come.

I don't employ my cereals on a schedule, but earmark each for a specific specialization. Think of it like a bullpen in baseball. I trot out my cereals the way managers decide to bring out relief pitchers in various situations. 

Serious days where I need to behave like an adult are Crunchy Nut days. There's something mature about that one, at least compared to the others I indulge in.

Frivolous days, where I don't need my A game and am free to relax and do as I please can begin with ones Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Reese's Puffs or Peanut Butter Crunch. Honey Grahams are just for when all the good cereals are gone. That's a sign that I need to head to the store.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Why It Makes Sense To Cheat At Words With Friends

Cheating may be awful, but there are worse things. Like whining.

We've all heard from the sanctimonious angels that whisper into the ears of Words With Friends players that they should play it straight, drawing only on their limited vocabularies to execute their plays in the popular Scrabble clone.

I'm here to clip off those twerps' wings and shove them down their coarse-from-crying throats. The only way to play fair in Words With Friends is to cheat like John Travolta at a massage parlor. By telling your opponent at the outset that you'll be a scamtastic punk and look up possible word combinations online, you level the playing field, eliminating all the distrust and animosity that the game tends to inspire. If the words you use are pronounceable, score fewer than 30 points and can be used in a sentence by anyone other than the owner of an advanced English degree, you're not trying.

The problem with playing Words With Friends in a friendly way is that it often turns games into Silence Between Bitter Enemies. There's too much temptation to boost your odds by playing dirty, and thus impossible not to blame a loss  due to an obscure word on your soon-to-be-ex pal's malfeasance.

Cheating runs deep to the rotten core of Zynga's all-powerful workplace distraction. Even the game's abbreviation, WWF, dares you to cheat. Did Junkyard Dog, Andre the Giant and the Ultimate Warrior accomplish what they did by obeying the rules of the ring to the letter. No sir. These great men weren't afraid to find an edge with the odd folding chair bash, illegal choke hold or smuggled tire iron.

Commenters, I know you're already dreaming up ways to trash this argument, comparing my line of thought to those scalawags in Call of Duty games who float through walls and rain death with one-button insta-kills. Stop right there. Exploits that sully the game with code-altering hacks ruin things for everyone, and aren't in the same classification as WWF cheating. I'd argue, in fact, that refusing to cheat at WWF breaks the game in the same way that hacking in first-person shooters does.

Refusing to cheat in Words With Friends is refusing to look up the answers in an open-book test.

Once you make peace with the fact that you're an unprincipled goon, you BASE jump into the rabbit hole that game offers, discovering just how deep the game gets. Tossing the vocabulary penis-measuring contest aside, you discover that WWF is about tactical tile placement. The winner isn't the luckier one, but he who is able to psych the enemy out, thinking several moves ahead, taking manageable risks and weighing the occasional rope-a-dope sacrifice to set up a giant score.

The act of cheating is a compelling metagame filled with pitfalls, risks and tests of hubris. Although armed with all possible plays, you still need to decide where to place the tiles, whether -- and when -- to stack words next to one another for a low-scoring slugfest or open up the playing field for a shootout. The better thinker wins out, while the losers complain they got bad tiles. 

That said, there are certain rules for cheaters to follow. One, tell your opponent what you're up to, and insist they do the same, otherwise things won't work out. Two, no abandoning one-sided games in the middle to set up new challenges without first resigning and cleaning the slate. And three, the loser of the last game is always responsible for requesting a rematch.

Some get annoyed with those who escalate their cheating ways to attack drone levels by using a program that lets you lay out all the letters on the grid and suggests the best play.

While I don't use grid cheats because they sap the fun out of the event, I don't begrudge those sorry losers who have to resort to such methods to put up a good fight against me. I'm pompous enough to be certain that using a grid's suggested play would somehow warp or scuttle the genius tile placement that I come up with. I relish victories over them and feel like Garry Kasparov that time he beat Deep Blue.

Other opponents insist on playing by the rules, and in these matches I smell blood. I respect the scruples of those who refuse to cheat, and I love handing them 300-point beatdowns that make them pause to reconsider their ways.

Sometimes, usually out of laziness or haste, I'll bypass a pilgrimage to the cheating sites. But I often pull back out of indifference or pity. it's like a football coach who pulls his starters not so much out of good faith, but to see if his backups can humiliate the opposition the way his first team could.

If you're ever playing against me and I'm using words that appear to have been generated by a human rather than a computer, rest assured that I'm mocking you, handing you a three-stroke handicap on the golf course, suggesting use a tennis racket in the batting cage or bowl with bumpers in the gutters.

The endgame in WWF is to frustrate the opponent to the point where he no longer sees purpose in challenging you. When a longtime rival begs off, ending our series, I feign sadness that covers up satisfaction. I consider refusing to rematch to be total submission. A miniboss defeated and disposed of, allowing me, the end boss who proudly spouts horns, spikes on his back and breathes fire, to tend to my evil empire and crush all comers with a titanium fist.

Unless, of course, I get bad tiles. In which case I rematch that grid-using shyster.

Monday, June 30, 2014

What Valiant Hearts Is Like

Over the past few days I've become obsessed with the game Valiant Hearts, which is set in World War I, a time of colossal human tragedy, devastating horrors and rampant fetch quests. The era was apparently filled with needy people who needed things, and you and the other characters you control (including an adorable pup I named Barky) are the only ones who can get stuff for anyone.

It's an amazing game -- my favorite of the year so far outside of Mario Kart 8 -- but it also has the tendency to stress me out. Nothing in the game comes easy. If you want to do something as simple as get a bottle of medicine to help a dying soldier, you will have to pay for that medicine, possible with an apple. Do you just find an apple on the ground? No. You will also have to pay for that apple, which will have to be looted from a corpse trapped inside a cave blocked off with steel you have to dynamite by throwing a stick through fire you create by patching up pipework via pulling a string.

So, tough times. But you feel triumphant, if exhausted, whenever you manage to solve its crazy labyrinth of fetch quests. If only the game had started in time to tell Archduke Franz Ferdinand not to get assassinated and set off a senseless conflict.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The 10 Worst NES Games

Although the NES had its highs, giving me some of my favorite gaming memories, it definitely wasn't shy about drilling us all with stinkers at regular intervals. Here are the NES games that made me cry:

10. Wrecking Crew (Nintendo, 1985) — At least one of the crappy single-screen Mario games deserved a spot on this list, and I went back and forth between this and Mario Bros. for a while. This one won out because Mario doesn't even have the ability to jump. That's right. The character originally conceived as "Jumpman" in Donkey Kong is wearing lead shoes. And unlike Bionic Commando, he doesn't even have an arm that lets him swing across platforms. Instead, your job is to whack things with a hammer, stand around because you screwed up and now must wait for your impending death, then die.

9. Anticipation (Nintendo, 1988) — "Ya know what's wrong with connect the dots?" one producer must have said to another. "There's not enough Ouija Board in it." And hence, Anticipation was born. Billing itself as Nintendo's first board game, it asked you to pass the controller around as you took turns guessing the name of the connect-the-dots object onscreen through the tedious process of scrolling through the alphabet and e v e r  s o  s l o w l y punching in usually-misspelled guess.

8. Deadly Towers (Broderbund, 1987) — NES games were notoriously tough, but this one took things overboard. You play as a dagger-tossing prince who tries to kill impossible-to-kill creatures and find hidden shops to upgrade his equipment in order to make the creatures only slightly impossible to kill. In the ages before online walkthroughs, the only way to progress was to fail miserably for hours on end, then bang your head against the wall until you hallucinated success.

7. The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants (Acclaim, 1991) — Back when The Simpsons was new, I begged my parents for anything with Bart's face on it, and convinced myself that the crappy t-shirts, this game and The Simpsons Sing the Blues cassette tape were all amazing. Hindsight shows us the error of my ways. The brawler-style side-scroller has almost none of the charm as the far better arcade game. Awful controls ensure constant death, not only of your character but your patience.

6. Track & Field II (Konami, 1988) — If there's one way to simulate the abilities of Olympic athletes, the developers figured, it was the pounding of the A button until your skin starts to peel off. No matter whether you choe triple jump, canoeing, pole vault or any other of the events, your job was to pound that A button to build up your power level. If you had the NES Max or Advantage controllers, the game was way too easy. If you used a regular controller, it was impossible.

5. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1988) — Throwing away most everything that made the original Zelda great, the slapped-together follow-up finds a tiny Link doll waddling through a needlessly huge overworld, only to transform into a spindly doofus who hops through side-scrolling levels when he's confronted with a monster or enters a town or dungeon. One of the few likenesses to the original this bastard child keeps is its insistence on stopping you from progressing unless you dig up items cruelly hidden from you in places you'd never think to look.

4. Urban Champion (Nintendo, 1986) — The one-on-one fighter is all about punching, blocking and avoiding falling down a sewer while dodging flower pots dropped by people who must be annoyed you couldn't find anything better to play. Your opponent never changes, you can never move on to a more interesting background and there are no special moves or even much strategy to put into play. I'm pretty sure this game was made in 10 minutes on a dare.

3. Bill and Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure (LJN, 1991) — One way to make your game last longer is to make item you need to advance impossible to find. Bill and Ted's goes a step farther by filling each level with crazed enemies you have to avoid, giving you no time to look for stuff. Each level has a historical figure you need to find and draw into your time machine with you with one of these un-findable items by switching between two heroes stuck in parallel timelines. The game confused me on so many levels.

2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Konami, 1989) — No game inspired as much controller-slamming rage as this brutal side-scroller. Memories of the water-set disable-the-bomb level still creep into our nightmares, and thoughts of tangling with the ridiculous bosses still makes us shudder. This brutal dream crusher was available on the Wii's Virtual Console but was yanked a few years ago. The official reason for the disappearance was "licensing issues," but I'd like to think Konami was just trying to act in the best interests of gamers everywhere by refusing to let this beast torture them any longer.

1. 10-Yard Fight (Nintendo, 1985) — I'd forgive an ancient football game for the inability to include the proper number of players on the field, but it's tougher to overlook forgetting to include things like correct scoring and plays. This rugby-like abomination avoids a soundtrack in favor of the repetitive sounds of players' footsteps and dives. Kickoffs bizarrely pit a 5-player defense against an all-but unstoppable 9-player return team. Things get easier for the defense should it be lucky enough to somehow tackle a ball carrier, because the offense is limited to a triple-option attack that gets fewer points depending on how long it takes to score. I remember being all giddy about getting to play football on my NES, only to be crushed that there was nothing close to football in the game.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

If I Were A Dancing With The Stars Judge

I would be an overpraising judge -- filling contestants with false hopes that they were really talented, only to have them kicked off the show soon and be scrubbing toilets again in three weeks -- but would just select a performance at random to give a zero. I would always select an overconfident dude for the distinction.

My only explanation to my chosen mark would be "You should be ashamed of yourself for disgracing the show."

Hopefully the contestant would approach me in anger, and then I would pull off one of the 19th century gentleman gloves I was wearing and slap him across the face with it.

I should be a TV executive.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What It's Like To Get Laid (Off)

I lost my job of 17 years today. I must have left it under my bed, or maybe it fell out of my pants pocket when I was using the bathroom.

The Arizona Daily Star, which plucked me out of the crib (or out of college as an 18-year-old freshman sportswriter -- can't quite recall) and later gave me the greatest job I ever had -- 8 glorious years as a movie critic -- eliminated my regional reporter position.

This wasn't the way I'd pictured leaving. I fantasized that one day I'd be scooped up by a giant magazine or newspaper, back when such things existed, and give a tearful farewell speech that everyone in the newsroom hoped ended soon so they could cut up my goodbye cake and get back to work.

Instead, there were no tears or cake. Just as I was about to head off to lunch, I got a single-ring call on my desk phone. That's usually a sign of trouble. An editor was maybe calling me from across the room about a problem in one of my stories, or possibly an angry caller had been transferred over. I expected urgency on the other end of the line, but instead was greeted by a calm, soothing voice of an HR director, asking if I could stop by her office.

I instinctively grabbed my phone, fearing the worst. As I lumbered downstairs, I sorted through my mental files, wondering if I had done anything controversial that would merit a verbal rap on the fist. Coming up empty, I shoved the fears out of the way, hoping that HR was calling everyone down one by one to give them a rundown about some new policy change or handbook adjustment. I had worried about layoffs for many of the past several years, but strangely had slipped into a comfort zone, assuming that my job was as safe as any, and that the herd had been thinned out as much as possible for the time being.

As soon as I stepped into the office and saw a higher-up waiting for me, I knew what was going on. Like my cancer-stricken dog, Goose, when he felt the piercing of the vet's life-ending syringe in his neck, I accepted my fate with solemn dignity. Or apathy? I was told I'd be paid for the remainder of the day, receive a last paycheck and lose my benefits at midnight. They asked me to hand over my badge and lanyard and told me they'd box up all the junk in my desk for me and ship it home. The upshot, encased in kindness, was that I'd never be allowed to go anywhere near my desk again. Just like that, it was no longer my desk, but just a desk.

I was handed a two-page contract that offered me a severance check in return for my signature. To get my hands on that money I would have signed a sworn affidavit accepting responsibility for the Kennedy assassination, the Hindenburg disaster and New Coke, so I didn't much care about the specifics. Still, I read every word, signed two copies and was escorted to the parking lot by a tiny little security guard who surprised me by not selling me Girl Scout cookies afterward.

So off I drove, jobless for the first time in forever. I'd need to sort through my career prospects and contacts, see about rolling over my 401(k) (into my wallet!), check if I could somehow get Obamacare before my insurance card turned into a pumpkin at midnight, change all my social media passwords that my old computer remembered and, most urgently, finally get that lunch.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Book Report: Gone with the Wind

Gone with the WindGone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maybe not quite the best writing I've ever read — although there are flashes of jaw-dropping brilliance — but it's definitely one of the most enthralling sagas I've ever encountered. Mitchell sings an ode to a crumbling society, embracing it for allits beauty, strength, hypocrisy and ugliness. Scarlett, Rhett and Ashley are some of the most full-bodied, complicated and maddeningly infuriating/endearing characters I have ever come across, and their interplay over decades of upheaval, successes, failures, heartbreaks and tragedies will stay with me the rest of my life.

The book is also extremely funny because of how racist it is. Maybe some of it is intentional, maybe some is satirical, but I am guessing it is largely an on-the-nose replication of the way people behaved, spoke and thought back then. It's an exquisite time capsule and a breathless narrative. Add this to the Better Than the Movie list, although the movie's use of "tomorrow is another day" and improved signature line of "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn" (the movie invented the key first three words of that quote) are both staggering wins.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

What It's Like When Your PS4 Turns On But Has No Sound

You: Is there something wrong?

PS4: ...

You: Talk to me. Please.

PS4: ...

You: What are you trying to prove with this silent treatment?

PS4: ...

You: I want to help but I can't be there for you if you shut me out.

PS4: ...

You: I hate you. And I never want to hear your stupid voice again. 

PS4: ...

You: I can be silent too, you know. You are so immature.

PS4: ...

You: ...

PS4: ...

You: ...

PS4: ...

You: Ugh. Fine. (restarts PS4) 

PS4: Brlleriging!

You: Ah, so nice to have you back! I didn't mean anything I said, baby. Let's never argue again!

PS4: ...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bates Motel Is A Terrible Show

I liked the first two episodes of the first season. And then it gradually started to be less and less good, and then extremely awful.

I forced myself to get to the end of the first season, then vengefully deleted it off the list of series I set my DVR to record as soon as it ended.

Then for some reason -- I guess because I screwed up -- it still recorded the first episode of season 2, which started last week. So I watched it.And it was worse than all of the previous crappy episodes combined.

So now I am watching season 2 episode 2. Why? Who knows.

I still like it more than The Walking Dead, though. Which I still watch despite hating and will never stop hate-watching.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Book Report: The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite books, and the only one of Dostoyevsky's that I'd read before this. Karamazov is beautifully and elegantly written but its story is disjointed and aimless. It reminds me of an USA network drama that runs its course after five years and has no place to go. The shift to a tragic courtroom parody toward the end is the strongest section, but it seems like a side story or sequel rather than something that's part of a ohesive whole.

The author establishes tragic, troubled characters then can't much figure out what to do with them other than using them as mouthpieces to wax philosophically. The monologues are brilliant, but largely unchallenged by conversation partners and left to stand alone as awkwardly placed essays.

The ending tries hard to be beautiful and touching, but is forced and 1950s Disney live action movie-level stupid. The last words are forehead-slappingly ridiculous.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Foods I Cannot Allow Myself To Be Around

There are certain things I can't allow myself to have, lest I resemble the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man:



Ben & Jerry's.


Wienerschnitzel chili cheese dogs chili cheese burger and chili cheese fries for $5.

Red Lobster biscuits.

Reese's peanut butter cups.

I love them too much and cannot be trusted around them. So I must gaze upon them from afar, shielding my stomach from their siren summoning. 

That said, if the streets of New York ever rumble as the gargantuan creature pictured above roars through Times Square, you'll know I had a change of heart.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Report: The Art of War

The Art of WarThe Art of War by Sun Tzu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a dry, straightforward manual on war general tactics of the era. It has some unique and counterintuitive wisdom that can be applied to other areas of management. Sun Tzu's heartless, analytic thinking was the Moneyball of its day.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Report: The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales

The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library)The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pure insanity from cover to cover, almost all of them crammed with gruesome morbidity and plot twists that seem as though they came from either the minds of 10-year-olds or were influenced by absinthe. Disney has plundered the stories for many of their classic animated movies, cleaning them up by removing the most sadistic parts. There is a lot of stuff here, though, that could never be adapted, especially the most demented story of all, Clever Elsie. This is one of the funniest and craziest books in existence.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Book Report: The Prince

The PrinceThe Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's more of an opinionated history than it is a treasure trove of devious advice. It's still a fascinating and illuminating look into the politics of the period. It pairs nicely with The Borgias and the first three Assassin's Creed games.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Report: Lolita

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I hated this book throughout, and I would hope it's not just because I have a daughter. I suffered through the entire thing only to gain the right to smack down anyone who would apologize for this as something other than a child pornography/sex slave fantasy.

The elegant writing and incredible skill involved only make me despise the book more. I don't think there's artistic validity here, and I would discourage anyone who feels as though they have to read it to be well-read from doing so. The book is full of agony and depravity, and it's sickening to attempt to put a human and relatable face to such a monster. I believe the literary world would be better off if Lolita did not exist.

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Thursday, January 02, 2014

A Look Back at True Romance, One Of The Greatest Movies Ever Made

In his commentary track on the "True Romance" DVD, Quentin Tarantino reveals how much of himself he poured into the schlubbish Clarence character played by Christian Slater.

The Elvis-idolizing Clarence, an unkempt loner who works at a comic-book shop, is poor and unloved. He's also given to explosions of nutty diatribes on music, television, movies or comic books - which tends to drive girls away. His plight is much the same as Tarantino's own, the filmmaker explains, back when he was writing the screenplay that would one day be filmed by Tony Scott as "True Romance," one of the most dynamic action films of the 1990s.

After hearing his commentary, it's not tough to squint your eyes and see Tarantino in the place of Clarence. After all, Tarantino reveals he spent most of his 20s in poverty, sometimes working at a video store, never having had a girlfriend. He sold the "True Romance" script for a rock-bottom $50,000, to help fund his dream project, "Reservoir Dogs."

The film is essentially a glorious fulfillment fantasy, in which Clarence finds himself suddenly in love and empowered, a daring rogue rampaging through a criminal underworld he'd only experienced onscreen, on the cusp of changing a suitcase full of stolen cocaine into hundreds of thousands of dollars and the easy life.

To start such an adventure, Clarence first must meet the perfect woman, the one who will giddily throw herself into kung-fu flicks, chomp fast food straight out of the bag, maintain a voracious sexual appetite and help him take out the bad guys. As fate has it, the luscious Alabama (Patricia Arquette) stumbles into a late-night Sonny Chiba triple feature and spills popcorn all over Clarence. They strike up a conversation, and he lets her take him out for pie after the show.

The date leads to an all-night sex romp, then a whirlwind marriage, which isn't at all tripped up by Alabama's revelation that she's a call girl, and the only reason she came into that movie theater was because Clarence's boss paid her to do so as a birthday present. Unblinking, Clarence cares nothing about Alabama's past. All that matters is he's finally met his soulmate.

The improbable yet strangely disarming love story quickly melts away into a full-throttle, bullets-blazing blowout, kickstarted by Clarence's insistence that he must confront Alabama's pimp and get her clothes. Muddling over the matter of whether to take the risk, Clarence is fired up from a bathroom pep talk from Elvis (Val Kilmer), who pops up every now and then to advise and compliment the hero.

Bounding through its two-hour running time with unlimited reserves of energy, Tarantino's script twists and turns over on itself, rushing like whitewater. His dialogue is vintage crime-novel pulp, smooth and self-aware:

"If there's one thing this last week has taught me," Clarence says after getting entangled with the police, the mob and movie producers in the drug deal of a lifetime, "it's better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it."

That's one of the film's few printable quotes. The script is jammed with enough swear words to get someone tossed out of a longshoreman's pub.

The Internet Movie Database reports that a certain four-letter swear word is used 225 times. Then there are the 21 deaths, all from gunfire.

No, this isn't a movie to show the kiddies, but it has a unique way of bringing out childlike tendencies in adults, causing them to see the film over and over for their favorite parts.

The highlights are too numerous to mention. Christopher Walken tears things up as a sadistic gangster, attempting to beat information out of Clarence's recovered alcoholic policeman father, Clifford (Dennis Hopper), followed by Clifford's button-pushing historical diatribe on why Sicilians have black hair and dark skin. Brad Pitt and Tom Sizemore pop up in small but memorable roles, and Arquette's breathy performance is drop-dead sexy. Alabama, nothing close to a helpless innocent, can turn from caring nurturer to red-eyed killer on a dime.

Alabama is nothing it all like a real woman. She's a female version of Clarence - in turn the female version of Tarantino - and it makes for some amusing armchair psychology to suspect that she represents Tarantino's overwhelming narcissism.

The adoration he has for his dialogue and characters is contagious. The movie doesn't just play. It reaches through the screen and romances you. Truly.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Book Report: Paradise Lost

Paradise LostParadise Lost by John Milton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Extremely dense, and the sing-song iambic pentameter screwed with my head. There are fascinating insights and exploration of biblical principles, and Milton is incredibly skilled. But the focus is extremely narrow and the lyrical prose is a staccato assault.

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