May 2006 Archives

I'll say one thing for Apple-- their ad guys are good. Check out the new Apple ads with the kid from Ed and the nerdy guy from The Daily Show. Simple, effective, and-- if you're a geek-- hilarious. Genius.

There are still a lot of things that don't make sense yet. Why run a psych experiment on an observation post? Why have journals dump into the middle of nowhere? Why are the Others pretending to be yokels? What do they want with Jack, Kate, and Sawyer (and not, say, Sayid or Locke)? What the heck is that smoky monster thing, and why hasn't it appeared in a while? Why are so many of the castaways' lives intertwined (or conversely, why were so many people with connections to each other on the same plane)? Is there really a sickness on the island? What exactly is so special about Walt?

But on the question of the button-- and why the plane crashed-- they delivered.

I still don't buy Michael's actions. He could have gotten the same group to make the trip just by asking them. "They're in huts, they're holding my boy, and together we can rescue them." Done. That said, will he have a change of heart and return next season when we least expect it? I wouldn't bet against it.

Lost remains that rarest of beasts, appointment television. I can't wait to see what they pull out of their hats for next season.

Comments (5) | last by Dave Heberer, May 31, 3:11 PM

I hope J.J. Abrams and crew have learned a lesson from Alias, which wrapped its erratic 5-year run this week. Always have an escape route. Look before you leap. Know where you're going before you start the journey. Take your pick. Like The X-Files before it, Alias was a poster child for seat-of-the-pants plotting. And now that it's over, it still doesn't make any sense. First, at the end of season... four?... Rambaldi's endgame was revealed to be a massive zombification project to the resounding "Huh?" of the audience. It was a development that came out of nowhere, and why Sloane would doggedly pursue such an outcome remained unclear at best.

The second time around, the endgame made much more sense, and at the same time even less. From the very beginning, the show intimated that Rambaldi had found the key to extreme longevity if not immortality. So when the bread crumbs finally led to an elixir of life, that at least felt internally consistent. Obscenely baroque, with a gazillion steps to gather artifacts that seemed to play no part in the creation of the elixir, but thematically sound. But if Rambaldi discovered eternal life, why would he be entombed? For years I've been convinced that when it all finally came together, Rambaldi himself would reveal himself to be alive and kicking and the mastermind behind... something. That, at least, would have made a sort if internal sense.

But sense isn't exactly the hallmark of the series. It would be easy, if exceedingly geeky, to go back through all five seasons and list all the Rambaldi-related shenanigans that went nowhere or were never explained. We never learn why Rambaldi prophesized about Sydney in the first place. And what was all that mumbo-jumbo about Sydney bringing "the highest power unto utter desolation"? It's obvious the writers had no idea where they were going when they pulled ideas out of their asses-- they just hopped into the paper bag and hoped to write their way out of it later.

Which brings us to Lost.

They've gone a great job so far of delivering payoffs for their promises, and everything's pretty much holding together (Michael's complete loss of a moral compass notwithstanding). So I remain hopeful. But we've just seen what can happen when a show loses its way, and I'm hoping Lost's title isn't prophetic.

Postcard From Shaw

I spent last weekend with six other guys at a cozy cabin on Shaw Island in the San Juans, a 90-minute drive and one-hour ferry outside of Seattle. It was a terrific weekend. The cabin belongs to my friend Damon's family, and Damon gets to use the place every now and then. So he invited a bunch of guys up for an escape from the city.

Aside from the two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a loft used as a bedroom, the cabin was essentially one greatroom with a tiny kitchen on one side, a cast iron fireplace, and a solarium (an entire wall and sloped roof of windows and skylights). The solarium looked onto a rocky private beach and the placid water of a small cove, and the cabin was surrounded by evergreens. About the only amenity really missing was a hot tub.

We spent the weekend eating, reading, playing games, and relaxing. It was sublime. Michael and I were the newcomers to the group, many of whom Damon has known for years and taken to Shaw before, so they had things down to a routine. We all chipped in for supplies for the weekend-- food, drink, TP-- which we carted in and out with us, and meals were communal and simple (grilled sausages, Boboli pizza, bagel sandwiches, scrambled eggs) but remarkably tasty. Three of the guys were new to me, and I was delighted to get along well with all of them. The whole weekend just had a great vibe to it. No deer were shot and no fish were caught, but this experience helps me understand part of the allure of hunting. It's not the act itself (well, for some I'm sure it is), but the comraderie of hanging out with the fellas in a simple, natural environment with few distractions or responsibilities.

We played a bunch of games, but it was the overall coziness of the place and the easy familiarity of the people-- even the ones I'd just met-- that mattered, shrinking the world down to just that table in just that moment. There's something magical about sharing food, too-- prepping together, cooking together, eating together, pitching in to clean up. I wish I could put my finger on what it is, but it brings people closer than merely occupying the same space does.

If I ever run a gaming event, this is the vibe I'd want to create.

Comments (2) | last by Damon, May 26, 9:58 AM

Da Vinci Choke

It's a good thing I didn't want to pay taxes on the grand prize, because my final time of 64 minutes is definitely not good enough. The final challenge consists of hard versions of all the earlier puzzle types except for the observation challenge, without any trivia or research. This means you actually need to be able to solve a chess puzzle, for example. For fun I noted my times after each puzzle:

Symbols (9x9 Soduku): 19 minutes
Restoration: 27 minutes
Curator: 47 minutes
Chess: 59 minutes
Jigsaw: 64 minutes

The soduku was challenging just because they weren't numbers, which made it harder to scan for the missing elements and hold that information in my head. When I got down to most of the grid solved except for the lower-right corner, I converted to numbers so I could "see" things better and that let me finish.

Restoration was easier than I expected. It took me 4 or 5 attempts before getting to a point where my gut said I had a solvable configuration, and then I just stopped and thought it through before making any more moves.

Curator KILLED me. I kept getting everything arranged and needing one more nail. Finally I got systematic about it and figured out the only 2 or 3 places the 3x3 painting could go given the other nails and paintings, and it quickly fell apart after that.

Chess was the one I was most worried about. I know the rules of the game but I'm not a chess player and don't do chess puzzles, so I had to slowly and methodically reason through the options ("In order to get a mate, I need to attack these squares. How can I do that in just two moves?"). If I'd gotten desperate I could have just cycled through the 64 possibilities as quickly as possible. That might have actually been faster. But I was nevertheless pleased with my solve time here.

The jigsaw was a nifty variation where the picture kept changing, making it harder to match up the pieces. The traditional approach of assembling the outer edge first still worked.

I'm guessing the winning time will be posted by a team approach, with a group of people collaborating on the Soduku, Curator, and Chess puzzles (I don't think more brains will help with Restoration or Jigsaw). It'll be interesting to hear what that winning time is.

Comments (2) | last by Michael Kearney, May 22, 12:19 PM

So I'm a finalist in the Google Da Vinci Code contest, and all the other finalists in Seattle got their cryptex on Monday. But now the 18th-- the date by which all the cryptexes were supposed to arrive-- has come and gone, and my mailbox is still empty.

Boooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooogle.

I can't remember the last time The Amazing Race ended with some drama-- perhaps last season's family edition came closest-- but this season's finale was a real nail-biter. The final challenge, in which teams had to retrieve and arrange national flags in the order in which they visited the corresponding countries, was terrific. So much of the race is physical that it's always welcome to see more cerebral challenges. I don't understand why they don't do more of that type of thing.

As thrilled as I am that the Hippies won (despite being non-eliminated TWICE!), you've gotta feel bad for the frat boys. They got to the final roadblock first, and they were just a single exchange away from having everything right. One swap away from one million dollars. That's a lot of beer to cry over.

And would someone please explain to me how Ray and Yolanda found their way into the final three when they couldn't find anything else?

It should have been Terry.

Update: Because a couple of readers asked so nicely in the comments, some more thoughts. Of the final four contestants, the game could have gone to any of them but Danielle. The jury rightly snubbed her utter lack of game. Like Vescepia before her, Danielle survived to the end not because of her endearing personality, strong relationships, keen strategic thinking, or impressive performance in challenges, but because everyone else always had bigger fish to fry. That steady beeping you heard throughout the game was Danielle backing into the finals. As we saw in the reunion, the cash was Terry's had he just won the immunity challenge and gotten to the finals. And had Cirie won the fire-building challenge, she'd have won the game: Aras would have won the final immunity challenge and taken her with him to the finals, where the jury would have danced a merry jig as they unanimously bestowed the prize upon her.

The final immunity challenge was horrible. Burnett hit on right on the mark his very first at bat with the stand-on-the-stump challenge from season 1, and he continued to stay true to its essence with all of the "how badly do you want it?" physical exhaustion and willpower challenges that followed. I thought they stumbled last season with a challenge that so obviously favored taller players over shorter ones-- with her lanky frame wedged against the supports, Danielle never seemed to be struggling at all while Stephanie gave it everything she had-- but this time their pratfall channeled Chevy Chase. Endurance had nothing to do with this challenge, it was entirely about balance. It wasn't enough to "want it" this time. Cirie would have been gone on the first platform. This time the advantage was with the shorter players, not to mention the freaking yoga instructor-- Terry never had a chance. On any other season, Terry would have walked away a millionaire.

A note to sanctimonious flower-child Courtney: There is no high road. You wanted the money just as much as everyone else, and you lost. Where do you get off lecturing others about their life's journey? I doubt even Probst was fooled by your gibberish. Good riddance.

They're giving Exile Island another try next season-- perhaps the immunity idol will come into play this time. And was anyone else surprised they burned the torches, which they usually auction off for pediatric AIDS?

Comments (7) | last by Arnott, May 19, 1:02 AM

Exile Fizzle

So much for Mark Burnett's pact with the devil. This season's hidden immunity idol twist had the potential to completely shake up the game. Instead, it fell victim to a confluence of two unlikely circumstances: one player dominating all the immunity challenges, and that same player finding the idol. Terry never needed to use it, and it would have been silly for him to give it up. So the game proceeded pretty much as it usually does. The players talked and worried about the idol, but it never truly affected any gameplay-- what a disappointment! It's hardly Burnett's fault. They structured it right: the person who went to Exile Island was often the one most in danger of getting voted out. But once Terry found the idol, that no longer mattered.

I'm betting Cirie loses the fire-building challenge, and Danielle and Terry go to the finals. I'll be extremely disappointed with the jury if Terry doesn't win under that scenario. Say whatever you want about the guy, but he dominated the challenges and survived despite having a massive target on his forehead. To not give him props for that-- and to reward Danielle instead, who really did nothing but fly low-- smacks of sour grapes. Cirie at least played the game well. Danielle just went along for the ride.

Comments (3) | last by Arnott, May 13, 1:56 AM

Cryptext Me

In other Da Vinci Code news, the first phase of the Google contest ended today. Since only the first 10,000 people to solve today's puzzle would win cryptex replicas (please let their codes be settable!) and become finalists, I made sure I was refreshing the page at 10 AM sharp to get in on the action. Apparently, so were a lot of other people-- enough to cause the site to think incoming pings were part of a hacker attack. Fortunately they provided a captcha to enter to proceed. Still, I think it was extremely poor planning to make the last challenge involve downloading from Google Video, increasing the disadvantage faced by players with slower internet connections. I've heard that by 10:20, all 10,000 slots had been filled.

Comments (21) | last by Stephen Beeman, Jul 6, 9:28 AM

There can't be more than a half dozen people out there who haven't already read The Da Vinci Code. Until this week, I was one of them. It was a breezy and entertaining read, even if Dan Brown's infatuation with the phrase "sacred feminine" grew tiresome, and at least now I can feel a trifle more in sync with the zeitgeist (though my avoidance of all things American Idol keeps me permanently at a distance).

The plotline is, in essence, a Game-- puzzles are set before the protagonists, who must race to solve them before those with less pure motives catch up with them. Many of the puzzles are even solvable by the reader. The success of the novel has been attributed to many factors, including the intricate conspiracy and the controversial depiction of Opus Dei, but I was in it for the quest. Plotlines like this and National Treasure, in which well-established pieces of art, architecture, and history conceal hidden meanings, codes, and intrigue-- are like Dungeons and Dragons modules for adults.

Keeping the pages turning was easy, but in the end I had three problems (and here's the part where, if you haven't read the book, you'll probably want to stop reading to avoid spoilage). First, the ending completely bungles the payoff. Sophie seems appropriately overwhelmed by the discovery of family members she believed dead, but the fact that she's a direct descendant of Jesus Christ is virtually ignored. Perhaps the author felt Sophie's more immediately emotional reaction would be to her living relatives, but as a reader I wanted some acknowledgement from her about the significance of her bloodline, some consideration of the ramifications to her spiritual world-view, something. While we rightfully learn where the Grail is hidden, the human factor is largely ignored.

Second, Brown was unfairly misleading in the way he wrote Rémy's point of view. He not only speaks of Teabing with distaste, but his thoughts echo those feelings. When he first points the gun at Teabing, he says "Old man, I've been waiting a long time to do this." That's simply not something a character in Rémy's position would say, even to try to mislead Langdon and Sophie. It's unnecessary. In the heat of that moment-- when he panics and disobeys an order to remain hidden-- he wouldn't fabricate a lie of emotion. That line only makes sense if it's genuine. Yet Rémy knows Teabing is the Teacher, and he speaks of the Teacher with respect, not disdain. Rémy's lines are written specifically to deceive the reader, and that's dirty pool.

Third, Brown's characterization of Bezu Fache is equally misleading. At one point in the book Fache leaves his number for Bishop Aringarosa. When Aringarosa calls him, Fache says they have much to talk about. We never see that conversation, but the implication is that Fache fills the bishop in on what's happening. There seems to be no reason for him to contact Aringarosa at that point unless he's in on the bishop's plans. In a later phone conversation with the bishop, Fache tells him, "You would do well to remember that you are not the only man on the verge of losing everything." Fache may just be talking about his career, but his involvement with the bishop makes this unclear. In that same conversation they talk of Silas, a name Fache would not yet know from his investigation alone. At this point, all indications are that Fache is in league with Aringarosa. But near the end of the book, we're finally told that Fache contacted the bishop to question him about his connection to the nun Silas murdered earlier in the novel. Withholding that nugget from the reader left us wondering why Fache was so determined to capture our heroes, but it was deceitful. I have no problem with characters' motivations being withheld until later, or with the reader knowing only what the protagonist knows. But this story isn't told only from the protagonist's point of view-- Brown jumps among characters frequently. When Brown jumps to Fache after that first phone call, we should learn that he knows Langdon is innocent. Instead, Brown essentially lies to the reader by omission. In my mind, that violates the rules. It's manipulative, lazy, and completely unnecessary, and left an acrid taste in my mouth.

Fr'ak!

Memorial Day isn't for another few weeks, but summer's already here in the form of Mission: Impossible III, which is everything a summer movie should be. Fun, exciting, loud, and completely devoid of any semblance of realism. Sure, Tom Cruise is playing the same guy he plays in every movie. One of the movie's key action sequences is oddly reduced to an off-screen phone-call (I'd love to know if it was cut, or just intentionally left to our imagination). The agent in distress that brings Cruise's Ethan Hunt back into the field is-- surprise!-- a woman. And I'm quite done with spy stories in which there's a mole in the hero's agency (I'm looking at you, CTU), particularly one so obviously telegraphed. It takes hours of makeup each day to make an actor resemble the celebrity he's portraying, but IMF is able to throw a just-fabricated latex mask and a wig on him and fool his closest associates. And director JJ Abrams stole his own explosive-charge-in-the-head plot device just a couple of weeks ago on Alias, which seems like an extremely poor choice on his part.

But you know... so what? I didn't care because I was just along for the ride. There was no pretentious, faux-artsy crap, no slow-motion doves. The audience was there for an action caper, and if there's one thing 5 years on Alias taught Mr. Abrams, it's how to deliver those goods.

It's not giving anything away to say that the movie opens with a scene from much later in the story, and then jumps back to the beginning. Was that in the screenplay, or a directorial choice? Because it isn't trivial. That scene tells us right up front that certain things are going to happen, which of course completely changes how the viewer relates to the rest of the film. Within minutes we know Ethan Hunt will be captured. We know his romantic interest will be captured. We know there will be an explosive charge implanted in Hunt's brain. Knowing those things, bread crumbs that are dropped earlier resonate for us immediately, rather than paying off much later. I thought the device worked, paradoxically increasing the tension despite knowing where things were headed.

It also doesn't hurt that Mission: Impossible theme is one of the most brilliant pieces of theatrical music ever crafted, better even than the Bond riff. The theme alone creates suspense and sets a mood. Pure genius.

With this, X3, Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest, Superman Returns and, dare I say it, Snakes on a Plane, this is shaping up to be a decent escapist summer.

Comments (4) | last by Nathan Beeler, May 9, 8:36 AM

I've got a lot of respect for the writers of Lost. But no matter what they come up with for the rest of the season, I don't see how it can possibly make sense of the events of tonight's episode. Don't worry, I'm not going to spoil anything (we'll save that for the comments). But I will say that one character did something tonight that just doesn't make any sense to me. I don't understand the motivation for it, given what the other characters were already in the process of doing. I hope the writers are sitting on a bunny hutch, because they're going to need to pull a few rabbits out of their asses to make sense out of this.

Comments (13) | last by Steve, May 18, 1:24 PM

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