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Monday, Aug 13, 2007

After a three year wait, the next installment in the Halo franchise is coming closer to its release. Halo 2 earned $125 million its first day and received many ratings above a 9/10 from major video game publications. With this extreme success, Halo 3, the last game of the Halo trilogy, has a bar set very high for itself, and Bungie Studios is quite aware. Halo 3 will be released September 25, 2007.


Multiplayer footage of Halo 3:



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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007


The hot rumor this week, blazing across the Internet at a slightly ironic warp speed, is the talk that none other than Tom Cruise will make a cameo appearance in writer/director J.J. Abrams 2008 Star Trek overhaul. Buzz has it that Scientology’s slightly askew spokesmodel and former A-list superstar will play Christopher Pike from the classic series in this new tween generation take on the material. For those unfamiliar with the original, and therefore best Trek, Pike succeeded Robert April and preceded James T. Kirk as Captain of the Starship Enterprise. Without getting into the mandatory mythology, this troubled character was crucial to setting up the dynamic that would guide the entire Star Trek series, an aesthetic that would focus more on the human element of the narrative than the extraterrestrial spectacle.


Of course, the rumor mill ran into a wall by Friday, the sizzle slowing to a simmer as denials and refutations flew. Yet the excitement that said announcement generated, both pro and con, should be a good sign for the fledgling filmmaker. With positive vibes still surrounding his viral marketing campaign for the giant monster movie codenamed Cloverfield, and the remaining juice generated by Lost, he appears poised to finally fulfill all his geek promise. Taking on Trek is just his latest smooth move. Generating interest in this dying product seems next to impossible, given the last two decades of sub-space overkill. Yet, floating around names like Cruise and Matt Damon (who has consistently denied interest in playing the young Kirk) has spiked some curiosity. And one should never underestimate the power in Trekker nation. They are a defiantly devoted lot.


Yet the entire situation seems shaky at best. Though adding performance power in the name of known actors seems like a sensible way to approach any revamp, the notion that pure celebrity power alone will save Star Trek seems shortsighted at best. Besides, whenever a new person steps in to ‘blow up’ a stagnant situation - film series, TV show – the desire to insert some new life into a franchise fading and losing its life support has its own unique perils. Granted, doing things the old way has resulted in the current situational stasis. More people would rather see George Lucas continue his overwrought Star Wars than experience another go round with Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Carefully considered change is one thing, but transformation merely for transformation’s sake can be just as deadly. So Abrams is either jumpstarting Trek for the next few years, or killing it off in one fell swoop. 


For many, Star Trek remains the gold standard of serious science fiction. With its noble intentions and scholarly scripts (at least, initially) the original series stands as a benchmark of broadcast excellence. Though it died a death too soon for some, the ‘60s celebration of all things futuristic and fair marked a moment when television understood the intelligence of its audience. Cancellation confirmed everyone’s worst fears, and it took nearly a decade before Hollywood recognized the show’s big screen potential. For the uninitiated, Trek was not a confirmed classic from the get go. It received rotten ratings, wandered around syndication, and even tried to revive its fortunes via a beloved Saturday morning cartoon attempt. When Star Wars splashed onto the public consciousness, a young nation hungry for more extraterrestrial adventures leapt onto the Enterprise express. By the time The Motion Picture arrived in theaters, colleges had revived the fantasists’ fortunes, an afternoon with Kirk, Spock and the crew as much a part of the university experience as getting drunk and using your laundry money to buy pizza.


Yet the first film in the eventual franchise proved Trek’s tentative cinematic status. With a general consensus at the time that the film fulfilled the TV show’s financially flummoxed ambitions, current members of Roddenberry nation now feel this first voyage across the landscape was weak at best. Aside from the whole ‘bald headed alien’ element and metal machine mind meld facets, the cast seemed tentative about restarting their space cadet careers almost a decade after being dropped. It explains Leonard Nimoy’s desire to have his character killed off in the mandatory sequel, Wrath of Khan. Of course, the massive moneymaker inspired the actor to return for the rest of the run, getting extra perks like directing opportunities and creative choices.  It was something the other big star – William Shatner – would demand as well. By the time the Next Generation crew were ready to take over, the original series seemed spent.


But that was the great thing about Trek. It could reinvent itself, and did, three more times, hoping that each new version of the standard sci-fi formula would yield a wealth of box office possibilities. But a funny thing happened on the way to this bankable idea – the public started backtracking. As Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise failed to become full blown phenomenon (while, granted, maintaining and in many cases expanding the franchise’s name recognition and fanbase) Captain Picard and his merry menagerie of intriguing characters became the only viable option. As their efforts became more and more meaningless (there really hasn’t been a good Trek flick since First Contact, way back in ’96), the keepers of the glorious dweeb flame appeared lost for inspiration. In fact, as the Internet burbled with self-created content and far more fascinating fan fiction, whatever new course the creators set for the show, it was hard to match the continuous fascination of the devoted.


So will Abrams do any better? Initial portent suggest ‘No’. According to Trek lore, his will be the 11th film made from the same source material. That spells doom, at least if you believe in the odd/even theory of series’ aesthetic appeal. You see, the second (Khan), fourth (Voyage Home), sixth (Undiscovered Country), and eighth (First Contact) offerings in the series are considered classics. The tenth film (Nemesis) is also cited as special since it represents the end of Next Generation’s tour of cinematic duty. On the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, we have the first (Motion Picture), the third (Search for Spock) the fifth (Final Frontier), the seventh (Generations) and the ninth (Insurrection) installments. All but Shanter’s subpar effort (#5) are embraced as flawed yet fascinating, but aficionados tend to agree that this collection of films is lacking the true Trek greatness. By coming in on an odd number, grumbles can already be heard. Abrams may be brilliant, but destiny seems ready to undermine his success. 


The other major strike he has working against him, aside from the obvious numerology, is the prequel concept. It’s near impossible to point to an example of this motion picture subgenre that actually works. From pointless looks at how Leatherface became a monster (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) to the horrid hack jobs that illustrated how Darth Vader went from retard to robot, going back in an established storyline to explain its origins is asking for trouble. It’s not that the concept is impossible to achieve – The Godfather Part II proved that Vito Corleone’s early years as an immigrant could be as effect as the modern material – but the pitfalls one needs to overcome are quite monumental. First, there is audience expectation. Having grown up with Captain Kirk and his able bodied crew for almost 40 years, individuals familiar with the Star Trek myth will be expecting certain things from this start up. The list of possible character issues and factual stepping stones is far too lengthy to recall here, but let’s just say that if Abrams screws them up, the backlash will be ballistic.


Then there’s the still shimmering cloud of celebrity. Star Trek made its original cast into cultural icons, individuals whose star rose above mere fame into something similar to supernova. If they never worked another day after the cult of personality built around them, our team of terrific actors would remain symbols of a sensational series, and emblems of man’s higher goals when it comes to the cosmos. Naturally, none of this has anything to do with the actual stories told, but when you’re looking for someone to match the mannered machismo of William Shatner, the calm cool of Leonard Nimoy, the irascible cragginess of Bones McCoy, or the velvet foxiness of Nichelle Nichols, there’s a whole pile of perception to deal with. Even if the eventual Kirk is everything a fan could hope for, if he doesn’t match the original in some unexplainable, ephemeral way, the disguise will be destroyed. Fans will crucify the choice, and the ultimate repercussions and criticisms will sink any chance this project has of achieving its rejuvenating goals. 


And then there is a bigger question – where does Trek go from here? If Abrams is successful at overcoming all the obstacles and expectations, creating a substantial hit, what does the franchise do then? So they keep making more of these prequel projects, expanding the backstory of the original series in ways the first shows could never have imagined? Will the new movie’s mainstream acceptance jumpstart another TV try, preparing yet another group of actors for the eventual leap to big screen fortunes? Will Abrams walk away, leaving future projects in the hands of others who, like the films before them, end up creating a “love ‘em/loathe ‘em” dichotomy? And will the cast, flush from bringing Trek back from the dead, demand the kind of money that could kill any forward motion picture momentum before its even been built? When viewed in terms of all these tentative variables, it is obvious there’s a lot riding on this revamp.


Interestingly enough, the inclusive of Cruise (real or not) seems to indicate such awareness. The crowds at the recent Comic-Con convention in San Diego were wowed by the Abrams panel, especially when Leonard Nimoy himself appeared to welcome the production’s choice for his character, Spock (Heroes homeboy Zachary Quinto). As the preparations continue and the gossip mill churns out more possible scoops, there will be more debates, more cheers and jeers, second guessing, and slam dunking. The legacy of Star Trek may be built on the backs of its past, but by confronting this reality with a revisionist prequel, the true mantle of the material will be challenged. One hopes it can take the imaginative strain. If not, Abrams will be carrying a rather unfortunate label – the man who finally ended the seemingly infinite voyages of the Enterprise once and for all.


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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007

Oh that cheeky, out-spoken Brit… after bashing fellow pop stars, Sir Elton John is now turning his wrath on the Internet, claiming that it’s destroying the music business, which pretty much tows the line of the RIAA and the major labels.  You could easily write off his Luddite musings as bluster but maybe there IS something to it…


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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007

For somewhat apocryphal reasons, we decided to order yak meat and have a Tibetan-themed Yakfest, with yak burgers, yak steaks, and yak kabobs. And it seemed appropriate to try to procure some Tibetan liquor, which was no easy task. They are not particularly known for their drinking, nor for their export industry. Chinese liquor of some sort seemed the next best thing, so Carolyn and I stopped at a liquor store in Elmhurst, Queens, to buy a few bottles of booze. The selection was fairly extensive, which made it difficult to choose. The labels, almost entirely in Chinese, don’t give you much to go by. What English there is tends to be cryptic. One bottle, which came in sickly salmon-colored cardboard box, had a label that read “Flavor: Strong.” We ended up choosing at random—well, not exactly random: price was a factor, and bottles from Taiwan were ruled out. Carolyn was drawn to the illustration on this bottle,


whereas the font on it appealed to me.



Whenever you see this particular font on a Chinese product (and you see it nowhere else, though some hipster would be wise to work out a way to get it onto T-shirts), you know you have chosen quality, melamine be damned. My initial research into Tibetan liquors led me to believe that they are typically made from sorghum and barley, so the two bottles we procured were distilled from these ingredients in varying proportions, along with wheat and pea. We went to pay for the bottles and the old Chinese woman behind the counter seemed surprised at what we were buying. “Ah,” she said. “You like Chinese?” I told her we were sort of experimenting, and asked how the beverage was typically consumed. The woman, who may or may not have understood what I was trying to ask, made some unscrewing gestures with her hands and said, “Just open and drink.”


At home, I tried to find out more information on the liquor we bought, but typing in the English transliterations on the bottles yielded nothing. But the details on this Wikipedia page about Baijiu, the liquor that seemed most similar to what we bought, were not auspicious: “To the Western palate, sauce fragrance baijiu can be quite challenging. It has solvent and barnyard aromas, with the former, in combination with the ethanol in the liquor, imparting a sharp ammonia-like note. It has been described as stinky tofu crossed with grappa.” Perhaps I’m less adventurous than most, but “barnyard aromas” are generally not something I seek in beverages, nor did the promise of solvent- and ammonia-like notes have me eager to drink.


Nevertheless, after some yak burgers, we tried some. In the glass the liquid seemed to emanate a haze like you see coming off gasoline pumps on a hot day, the air seemed thick and wavy around it. It smelled less of the barnyard then of a janitorial closet. We all agreed that it smelled like a Jolly Rancher crossed with some kind of nail-polish remover. Nonetheless, these savory aromas did not deter us from trying it, and I’ll admit that it certainly was “challenging” to my Western palate. None of us could take more than a sip or two of this stuff, but despite how little we had, it lingered with us all day long. It had the sweetness that I presume draws dogs to lick antifreeze puddles, but it burned going down, with an aftertaste redolent of turpentine. As it scorched its way down to our stomachs, we concluded that there was no way it couldn’t be toxic. It seemed to activate taste buds on the back of my tongue that had rarely been used before, and these atrophied nerves were unhappy about being awakened from their dormancy. It seemed unfathomable that anyone could drink this fluid for pleasure, that the reaction would not be a physiologically conditioned grimace of revulsion, an instinctual rejection of insurmountable vehemence that would prevent having anymore—as when you have food poisoning and your digestive system goes into lockdown.


To a certain degree, we want liquor to taste bad (“Flavor: Strong”) because this allows it to fulfill the function of allowing us to prove our courage. There’s a masochistic Fight Club quality to drinking sot like this, and a camaraderie that comes from surviving it. It seems a tonic for dulled senses, jaded sensibilities. Plus, the utter unconsumability made it seem as though we were imbibing something that would fundamentally readjust our perceptions, take us beyond the ordinary. The burning awfulness of Jiang xiang seems like a ritual of purification, or a kind of blood oath being sworn that is irreversible. You’d drink this on the day you decided to cut off all your hair and run away to Alaska or Kamchatka or Guangdong. So like any consumer product, Chinese booze evokes fantasies about the kind of person you become by using it, and that trait is even more pronounced the more exotic the product seems. The imagination is engaged more deeply; there are no preconceptions, really, to draw from the way the product is advertised or regarded by the mainstream. It allows consumers to becomes explorers in virgin territory. To westerners, the taste of Baijiu is the taste of tourism cleverly disguised as the taste of adventure.


But clearly, if you drink this rotgut regularly, you’ll become one of those lost souls you see on Hester Street, with ragged clothes and makeshift sandals made out of cardboard, sleeping under unfolded newspapers in a greasy alleyway among empty tins of salad oil and reeking dumpsters that teem with the smell of rotting vegetables, sitting out in the pouring rain on a fire escape in gray fluorescent light, swilling.


This is not the destiny I choose. Still, I haven’t thrown out the bottles; I’ll keep them around for dares and in case a time comes when I’ll feel a perverse need for punishment.




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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007


It’s a hoary old cliché – the so-called somber suburbs are actually a hotbed of unfathomable evil. Along with the rampant adultery, everpresent pedophilia, tantamount teen criminality, and infinite unhappy marriages, the biggest stereotype remains the unknown killer next door. You know, the neighbor who’s too quite, keeping to himself and his locked up house in a way that suggests something must be up. Speculation turns to outright suspicion, and soon everyone within a two block radius is avoiding eye contact and wondering why he (or on rare occasions, she) is wearing such a subtle, sinister smirk. There have been lots of movies that have exploited this white flight fear mongering, from the appropriately named The ‘burbs to the terrific Tom Holland horror film Fright Night. Now comes the wonderful Disturbia, a movie that takes an old school Master of Suspense setting and tricks it out with all manner of high tech terrors.


Clearly coping the best bits from Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Rear Window, director DJ Caruso guides rising superstar Shia LaBeouf through the standard spook house situations. After the death of his dad, our sullen hero Kale gets three months house arrest for “an incident” at school. Hopelessly bored and restricted in his recreational options (Mom - Carrie-Ann Moss - has cut off the iTunes, and the Xbox 360 Live), he starts looking in at the houses on his street, including the one super hot chick Ashley just moved into. Their game of cutesy cat and mouse (and growing affection) is interrupted by the news that a slew of local girls have gone missing, and the suspect seems to be a middle aged man with a classic blue Ford Mustang sporting a dent in its fender – just like the car owned by Kale’s other neighbor, the menacing Mr. Turner. With the help of his best buddy Ronny, and the contributions of his new gal pal, our hero begins to suspect the worse.


Similar to the way Blade Runner effortlessly channels the archetypes of noir inside the wholly original world of a futuristic LA, Disturbia drops us smack dab in the middle of a quaint, Cornball, USA, cul-de-sac pulled directly out of a Spielberg spectacle and then paints in plenty of likeable logistical color to brighten the otherwise tired thriller genre. Caruso, who’s been connected to some interesting blips on the commercial cinema radar (The Salton Sea, Taking Lives) really had his work cut out for him here. The slightest misstep, a minor crossover into full blown formulaic territory, and the “been there, done that’ brigade would have made its meaningful presence more than known. But to his credit, this director does what moviemaking experts before excelled at – creating sympathetic and identifiable characters that we come to care about, and then sticking them directly in harm’s horrifying way. Though the eventual tension is tweaked well into the patently obvious (our killer is an evident outsider), because we like our teen heroes, we fear for their eventual fate.


Kudos should be given to star LaBeof who has to walk the fine line between troubled adolescent and too slick Tinsel Town type. The opening tragedy helps establish his angst-driven dynamic, and the situation that sends him into house arrest is handled in a similarly strategic style. So we are ready to support our locked-up lead through any and all manner of misadventure. Wisely, Caruso takes his time getting to the good stuff, building a rapport between Kale and his best friend Ronny, and the flirtatious fascination with new babe Ashley. The director also sets up other ancillary situations (bratty neighbor boys pulling pranks on our house-bound hero, other nearby mischief) that provide their own sense of impending comeuppance. The finishing touch, the one element that really helps Disturbia work, is in the sly insinuation of evil. During the opening hour, snippets from news reports establish the disappearance of local ladies, and our adolescent trio does a lot of ‘Net snooping revealing nasty details of unexplained crimes.


When added together, they create an aura of dread that drives the film toward its last act permutations. The novel use of new tech toys (camcorders, cellphones, laptops, and other electronic goodies) allows the movie to open up, to take the terror beyond LaBeof and his backyard. Ashley follows our inferred fiend to the local hardware store, where his every move is documented by wireless slight of hand. Similarly, Ronny raids the bad guy’s home, looking for clues with a computer connection camera. Kale can then sit back, spy style, and hack through the visuals for the evidence he needs. Still, any film like Disturbia can’t get away with merely suggesting the scares. It has to get our lead directly involved in the fear. This is the moment where the movie either lives or dies, where it overcomes the trappings typically associated with this standard of story, or it sinks back among the rest of the derivative efforts that currently define the cinematic category.


To say that Disturbia shines during its finale would be an understatement. There hasn’t been this kind of controlled, bravura filmmaking in quite a long time. Caruso begins with the basics – lost friend, imminent threat, the return of the everpresent police (Kale has a tendency to trigger his anklet, meaning the cops are constantly coming over to see what’s up), the well meaning mom looking to protect her troubled son. Once LaBeof is required to take on the role of champion and defend his turf, everything begins to fall into place. The investigation of Turner’s house, the eventual discoveries there, the showdown to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, the conclusion of that clash – everything Caruso does zips along like a well-oiled movie machine. Sure, we might wonder why no one saw this killer’s obvious signs before, and some of the logistical elements (the guys underground catacombs are a little out of place) do push the boundaries of believability. But since it established a solid foundation at the start, we buy directly into all of Disturbia’s daft adeptness.


Of course, there will be critics, people who purposefully play wet blanket because they obviously adore the feeling of damp wool. And in all fairness, this is about as far from Hitchcock as any modern movie can get, unable to match the Master’s glorious stylized vision while readily referencing his wealth of procedure tricks. Others can crow about the lack of scares – but that’s really a red herring. Fear is not the major sensory response created by this genre. Instead, the thriller is supposed to produce edge of your seat shivers, the constantly shifting “unknown” working overtime to disorient and disturb you. Under those perceptive parameters, Disturbia works effortlessly. You can complain that it takes too long to get to its denouement, or that LaBeof and the rest of his Gen Xbox cast mates are given too much pre-pulse pound playtime to show off their cultural cliquishness, but the only real measure for this kind of movie is the creation of dread. In that regard, Disturbia delivers.



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