December 2004 Archives

General Tso's Christmas

I'd like to take this opportunity to wish all of you Christian Static Zombie readers a merry Christmas. And to the rest of you, enjoy your Chinese food.

Comments (2) | last by Stephen Glenn, Dec 25, 9:57 AM

It's been about 15 years since I've read comic books. Back in the day, I used to read the various X-Men books faithfully. It was a little easier then-- there were only four: Uncanny X-Men, The New Mutants, Excalibur, and X-Factor. Since then mutants have become Marvel's own suburban sprawl. Apparently since I've been gone Jean Grey has died (again!), Colossus "died", Magneto took over Xavier's school, then went evil, then went undercover at the school, then attacked Manhattan, and now Emma Frost is not only running the school but is swapping bodily fluids with Cyclops.

15 years is apparently a very long time.

The only reason I know all this is because I heard that Buffy and Firefly creator Joss Whedon has the reins of a new X-Men series, and that it was getting incredible buzz. I just finished the first six issues of Astonishing X-Men, and all I can say is... wow. The man is good. He's really nailed it. The characterizations are all spot-on perfect. Particularly delightful is Kitty Pryde, who's apparently grown up now and on the senior staff of the school. Kitty is a character who's been grossly mishandled in the past (her ninjafication in the Kitty Pryde and Wolverine mini-series being the most striking example), but Whedon understands and respects the character's roots. The dialogue has the same great touches and pop awareness we've come to expect from Whedon-- when Kitty shows up late to an assembly on the first day of school, she asks if she's missed the sorting hat-- and the scripting devotes more time to character development than pyrotechnics. These X-Men are far more "real" than any incarnation I've seen before. The books read like one of Whedon's television shows, with characters exploring their relationships and wrestling with who they are and what they represent.

The artwork is also rich, vibrant, and appealing, making the product as a whole some of the best superhero work I can recall. If you're a comics reader, or if you used to be, Astonishing X-Men is well worth your time. Borrow the back issues from somewhere and check it out.

Comments (5) | last by Larry, Dec 24, 5:53 PM

The Phantom of the Opera

I imagine that the vast majority of the audience for the new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera has never seen the Broadway musical. That makes it extremely difficult for me to speak to whether or not this is a good film for them. I've listened to the soundtrack album more times than I can count, and have seen the show twice-- most recently just after Thanksgiving on Broadway. So the stage version was fresh in my mind when I entered the movie theater last night, and the film version is remarkably faithful. There are some changes, of course-- the framing sequence from the show's opening is extended and revisited; the destruction of the chandelier, the climax of Act I on stage, is delayed until the final act; rehearsals for Don Juan have been cut-- but the essence of the film remains true to its source material. In fact, the film improves upon the original in a number of significant ways. The pace of many musical numbers is reduced sufficiently to make virtually all the lyrics comprehensible, for one thing. For another, story details have been added to help make sense of things for viewers who haven't read the original Gaston Leroux novel (how exactly does the ballet instructor know so much about the Phantom, and why didn't she intervene sooner; why is Christine so susceptible to the Phantom's charm; when and how did Christine and Raoul know each other). The result is that the story hangs together much more tightly on film than on stage.

The film's biggest problems are with the pacing-- the slowest parts of the stage show are still slow-- even more painfully so-- on film, and with the casting. Emmy Rossum's Christine is perfect-- innocent, beautiful, and always teetering on the edge of bursting out of her bodice with barely-parted lips. The spitting image of a Victorian romance heroine. Patrick Wilson's Raoul also worked for me. But the most important leg of the triangle, the Phantom himself, was lacking.

The Phantom is a figure shrouded in mystery, but his vulnerability is his most important quality. When he's on stage/screen, the Phantom should radiate charisma. All eyes go to him, and nobody dares oppose him purely because of his presence. Christine loves Raoul, yet she's in the Phantom's thrall. His aura seduces and overwhelms her. When he sings, we need to hear the humanity in his voice as it caresses Christine, and the steel in it when he scolds everyone else. Above all, he is the Angel of Music-- his voice should surpass everyone else's. That's far from the case in this film. Perhaps I'm biased from listening to Michael Crawford's virtuoso performance, with transcendantly pure notes in the title song and soul-baring honesty in Music of the Night. But the movie's Phantom didn't sweep me away with his performance. His voice lacked artistry and his performance on-screen lacked presence. The success of the story hinges on believing that this man can hold sway over Christine despite the heinous acts he commits. I didn't believe.

The film is visually stunning-- baroque in the best sense of the word, bringing the Paris opera house to lush, sumptuous life. The overture sequence, where we journey back in time and witness the opera house returning to its prime in a wash of color, is strikingly effective. The staging of Masquerade is even more effective on film than on Broadway. The movie evokes a grandeur and scope that's simply impossible on stage. The descent into the Phantom's lair, on the other hand, loses its luster. The stage transformation is nothing short of magical, but on film it's merely a change of scenery.

For fans of the Broadway show, it's undoubtedly worth the $8-10 to revisit and rediscover the musical. For people who have never seen the show, this is an easy, inexpensive way to find out what all the hype is about. And for people who have never liked Phantom, this film will not change your mind.

Comment (1) | last by Clay, Dec 22, 8:04 PM

Veronica Mars

Suprnova.org went dark for good yesterday.

I mention this because it was the central clearinghouse for bit torrents, and one which I only fully appreciated once I got my laptop and upgraded my DSL to an always-on connection. The breadth and scope of movies, TV shows, books, music, and so forth available there was just astounding. Copyright is doomed.

For my part, suprnova was of interest purely for grabbing the odd television episode I missed due to TiVo scheduling conflicts (Wednesday nights are the new Thursdays) or, in one case, due to having no initial interest in the series until internet buzz caught my attention. That series is UPN's Veronica Mars.

The buzz compared Veronica to Buffy, and I can see where the comparison came from. Both feature high school blondes with sharp tongues who use their powers to fight for justice. In Veronica's case, her "powers" are street smarts and investigative know-how. Kristin Bell's Veronica comes off as a cross between Buffy and Smallville's Chloe-- smart, determined, and glossy. She's a little too savvy, actually-- it'd be nice to see her fall on her face once in a while, instead of always carrying the day-- but the snappy dialogue might certainly be described as Whedonesque.

The setting is yet another one of those California towns and schools populated by snobby rich kids who'll turn and devour their own at the drop of a Prada bag. Is that really what high school's like out there? Does that scenario really resonate with viewers, or is it just too familiar to Hollywood writers, living in their fishbowl, to pass up?

Three things won me over. The aforementioned snappy dialogue. The slowly-resolving mystery of the murder of Veronica's best friend Lilly and subsequent disappearance of Veronica's mother. And the terrific performances of Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni as Keith Bell, Veronica's father and the former sheriff who, having lost his job (for accusing Lilly's rich father of her murder) and his wife (who left him shortly thereafter), now works as a private investigator and raises Veronica alone. The relationship between Veronica and her father is one of the show's strengths, and Colantoni-- who never impressed me as Just Shoot Me's photographer Elliot-- is a revelation here.

In any case, Veronica Mars is a series I never would have discovered without suprnova and Bit Torrent, and now it's joined my season pass list. Perhaps it may appeal to you as well.

Comments (4) | last by Wes, Jan 26, 1:36 AM

There are any number of axioms in the culinary world. Brown meat on all sides to develop the best flavor. Let cooked meat rest for a few minutes before slicing to allow juices to redistribute. Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't. But perhaps the most fundamental axiom is that cooking with homemade stock is infinitely better than using canned broth or bouillon. I'm a busy guy-- I've got 100 hours of Tivo'd television to watch, after all-- so I've always made do with Better Than Bouillon brand concentrated chicken base. The same brand's beef base won Cook's Illustrated's commerical broth taste test, beating out canned broths, and come on-- it says it's better than bouillon right there on the label. And the results I've gotten have been completely satisfactory, and mighty convenient. Still, magazine after cookbook after television show kept touting the virtues of homemade stock. It's a floor wax and a dessert topping.

Then I stumbled onto EGullet-- and incidentally, you're all on my shit list for not bringing this site to my attention sooner-- and more specifically, their EGullet Culinary Institute. Which is really a fancy schmancy name of a series of online cooking lessons, all of which are archived for posterity. Which reminds me, henceforth Static Zombie shall be known as the Static Zombie Procrastination Institute. I'll post lesson one tomorrow.

The very first lesson on EGullet? Cooking your own stock. I read through it and was inspired by the apparent simplicity of it all. Photographs documented the process, and a Q&A session offered testimonials from many first-time stock-makers. My interest was piqued, but I always buy packages of chicken breasts instead of whole chickens, so I never have necks and backs and other meaty bones to use for making stock. What got me off the fence was the lesson's suggestion to just buy a couple of chickens, and when they're fully cooked about 40 minutes into the process you can fish out the birds, strip the perfectly poached breast meat right off the bones for consumption, and then return the carcass to the pot.

Sold.

Fast forward a couple of days, and I've got stock. About 1.5 quarts of the gelatinous stuff, frozen in 1 oz cubes and 1/3 cup muffins. And I've got a great curried chicken salad from the breast meat, and chicken quesadillas from the mostly-spent-but-still-good-for-quesadillas meat from the rest of the carcass. And it really wasn't that much work.

Is it better than Better Than Bouillon? I dunno-- I haven't made anything with it yet. But it feels like I've unlocked a secret cooking level. Now I just need to discover the finishing move.

Comments (7) | last by Peter, Dec 23, 2:02 PM

It's In the Past

If they put all of the costumes from The Lion King on pedestals on stage, lit by a single spotlight, I'd still have given a standing ovation. Nobody goes to The Lion King expecting high theater or musical greatness. No matter how innovative the staging and inspired the costumes, sooner or later you're still going to have to sit through I Just Can't Wait to Be King and Can You Feel the Love Tonight. But that's okay, because I got what I came for-- jaw-dropping costumes and puppets that make the animals of the jungle come alive. The giraffes, leopards, and elephant were astounding, and the hyneas were brilliantly executed. The staging of the wildebeest stampede was quite clever. The additional African music improved the soundtrack. In sum, a fun show. Zazu in particular was brilliant-- both in the costuming of the actor, and in the lifelike verisimilitude he invested in the hornbill puppet he carried. Timon, on the other hand, just didn't work for me.

I have to say, however, that $80 a ticket is just a weeeeeeeeeeee bit steep. The Lion King is a family-friendly show, but over $300 for a family of four strikes me as a tad extravagant.

Can You Feel the Love Tonight? Disney's accountants sure can.

Comments (2) | last by Clay, Dec 19, 10:19 AM

Hot Reality Rumor

From E! Online comes this hot little nugget:

And from the rumor mill, buzz is that Survivor: All Stars winner Amber Brkich and her fianc, All-Stars runner-up Rob Mariano, are among the couples in competition on the upcoming seventh installment of CBS' The Amazing Race, which is scheduled to air next spring.

And y'know, I think I might actually root for them.

Comments (3) | last by Rich, Dec 17, 5:48 PM

All the Right Answers

It's been a long time since Survivor had a winner as "deserving" as Chris, from a gameplay standpoint. I agree with Chad-- he played the game amazingly well, from the his great psychological insight into how to get the women to give him a chance to winning the final two immunity challenges. And his answers in the final tribal council were spot-on perfect, the best answers I've heard on any season. Good on him for winning. The first two thirds of the season were a grand snooze, but the end finally kicked into gear. I hope they don't go back to the battle of the sexes any time soon, though.

Oh-- and that vertical maze was pretty cool, although it wound up being less interesting to watch than I expected. But a neat idea nonetheless. Hooray for no "fallen comrades" trivia challenge, too.

Comments (4) | last by Scott Hardie, Dec 15, 4:10 PM

I picked up four new games this week, and when I cracked the shrinkwrap I found that three out of the four were missing pieces. Buyword was missing a Wild tile, Zendo was missing the entire bag of white stones, and Carcassonne: The City was missing two wall pieces. The latter problem is apparently widespread, as I've heard of at least three other copies that were missing the same pieces. I know that every now and then these things happen, but a more superstitious man would view this kind of shoddy convergence as a Sign of Ill Portent. Though it would probably get lost in the shadow of the whole Bush winning reelection thing.

Comments (3) | last by Russell, Dec 13, 8:33 PM

Tough Call

I have no idea what I would have done in Chris' shoes tonight on Survivor. He was in a very tough spot.

Option 1: Get rid of Twila. She and Scout will clearly never vote for each other, so splitting them up is a very good idea. It would also leave Eliza, Julie, and Chris as a voting bloc against Scout, practically guaranteeing Chris a spot in the final three. With both Eliza and Julie feeling strongly tied to him, as they seemed to be, he'd stand an extremely good chance of being one of the two finalists.

Option 2: Get rid of Julie. With Ami and LeAnn on the jury, that's two guaranteed votes for her should Julie make it to the final two. Getting rid of her is therefore a very smart move. On the downside, it leaves Chris and Eliza against Scout and Twila. Since Scout and Twila will never defect from each other, it means Chris and Eliza can choose to stay together and go to a tiebreaker against Scout and Twila, or one of them has to defect to the other side and vote their erstwhile partner out.

Chris chose option 2, and Eliza was NOT pleased. Even if she's sufficiently annoyed to seek an alliance with the other women, it's safe to say Twila will never agree to it. If Chris decides to vote against Eliza, the other two will do the same. But then Chris is in a pickle-- he'd HAVE to win the final immunity challenge. His choice is, I think, by far the riskier path in terms of making it to the finals. On the other hand, if he gets there, he wins a million dollars. Neither Scout nor Twila can possibly win the cash unless they're up against each other and everyone is forced to choose the lesser of two evils.

The odds at this point seem to favor Twila and Scout making it to the final two. I really hope Chris makes it-- he's the most "deserving" of the four, having miraculously avoided execution for his disastrous stint on the balance beam in the first immunity challenge and then surviving in the face of the female alliance. Twila's an acceptable second choice. Eliza and Scout have merely coasted under the radar-- Eliza barely so-- and it would be disappointing to see them collect a million bucks as a result.

Remember: the final episode is this Sunday, with the reunion immediately thereafter.

Comments (3) | last by Dave, Dec 11, 9:19 AM

Deathtraps

Speaking of tombs, were deathtraps actually built into real tombs? I find it hard to believe that automatic dart traps, falling spikes, or self-sealing chambers were authentic parts of ancient tombs. Can anyone point to actual instances of these things being discovered?

The deathtrap meme has certainly become pervasive in fiction and gaming-- offering up a tomb without one is almost unthinkable. Where did the meme originate? In the modern era there's obviously Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that was itself an homage to adventure dramas of the past. The concept is much older, but how old? From where did it originate? Discuss.

Comments (5) | last by None, Dec 13, 6:24 AM

Tomb

It has come to my attention that a new location-based entertainment venue called 5Wits has opened up in Boston. The venue aims to offer interactive, physically immersive, walk-through adventure experiences on an annual basis. Its first show, Tomb, challenges your team of explorers to overcome challenges as you work your way to the pharaoh's tomb.

I'd be there in a heartbeat, but regrettably I'm on the wrong coast-- and I'm not flying across the country for a 40 minute experience unless the words "hot seat" and "millionaire" are involved. I know a number of Zombie readers are in the Boston area, however-- you are hereby charged with visiting the attraction and returning with a report.

Comments (4) | last by Chris M. Dickson, Dec 7, 2:21 PM

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