Monthly Archives: December 2011

Suggestions For Using Xbox Live Beacons

When it was announced this past year that the new Xbox Live dashboard was going to include a new feature called “beacons”, they were touted as something to make gaming sessions with friends much easier to organize.  In theory, it seems simple…just set your beacons to tell friends which game you’re wanting to play, and everyone would start joining your session (if you create one).  However, like so many things game-related, once in the hands of humans, they never seem to work the way they’re supposed to.

Take last night for instance, when I was playing a game of NHL 12 with a friend.  As soon as we put our game discs in the tray, a beacon popped up saying “So-and-So Wants Friends To Play NHL 12”.  So far, so good, right?  Except So-and-So wasn’t even playing NHL 12 at the time.  The problem with these beacons is that if they don’t get removed when you aren’t actually playing the game, your console will spam friends with messages saying you want to play, even when you’re busy doing something else.

For these beacons to actually work, and not end up being just some annoyance that everyone eventually ignores, they need to be used with discretion.  If you come online before your friends, and really want to get people organized for a game of, say, Modern Warfare 3, then set the beacon at that point and create a party for your game.  But at the end of the night, don’t forget to kill the beacon.  Otherwise, it’s like leaving a text message telling everyone to meet you at the rink for some pick-up hockey, then going out for a beer instead.

Don’t get me wrong, beacons are one of many reasons that Xbox is burying the PS3 when it comes to the online and social elements of gaming.  Microsoft knows what it’s doing.  They understand that the convergence of social media and gaming is the hottest area of growth in entertainment, and they’ve dedicated time and money to giving people features they want.  Not to say there aren’t problems with the Xbox format; they certainly have a few kinks to work out yet (account security is one).  But catering to social gamers is clearly a priority.  In the end, though, the success of these features will depend on the people using them.

Apollo 18: Blair Witch Project in Space

Hollywood has never had a shortage of films based on conspiracy theories.  Even ones about the space race.  Growing up in the 70’s, one of my favorite movies was Capricorn One, which posited that moon landings had been faked by NASA and the U.S. government.  Viewed today, the movie comes off as a bit forced and silly at times, but to my impressionable teenage mind, it was brilliant stuff.

Jump ahead a few decades, and Hollywood has churned out another space-themed conspiracy story involving a supposedly non-existent space mission, Apollo 18.  Three astronauts are sent to the moon on what is supposed to be a routine mission to collect more rocks.  With one astronaut remaining in orbit piloting the Apollo 18 craft, the other two land on the moon and begin the two day mission.  Naturally, things start to go awry.  Strange noises can be heard outside the ship and rock samples mysteriously find their way out of the sealed collection bags.  But things get really strange when they discover the body of a dead Russian cosmonaut in a shallow crater, not far from their LEM.  The fact that there is even a Russian craft not two kilometers from their landing zone makes the astronauts suspect that their government knew the Soviets had been there all along.

The rest of the film is a pastiche of suspense and horror movie cliches involving one of the astronauts getting “infected” by something they encounter in a crater, as well as a gradual descent into paranoia by both men.  All of this is caught on a series of cameras which are both on board the LEM and set up and outside for routine observations.  The director is clearly trying to piggyback the same style that has made the Blair Witch Project and, more recently, Paranormal Activity, so successful.  They even go as far as claiming that the film was created from real, on-board footage, and direct viewers to a website called http://www.lunartruth.com (which doesn’t seem to be an active site anymore, if it ever was).

While the film does generate a few legitimate scares, and benefits from some creative editing, too much of the story feels forced at times.  There is never much doubt about where it’s heading.  Even though it tries to retain a sense of vagueness with unexplained events, this also contributes to it not making a lot of sense.  The acting from the tiny cast of three is pretty average, and although a grainy style makes the film seem authentic, too many modern editing styles creep in, jarring audiences out of the sense of time and place they might otherwise have.

On the surface, the concept of this film is intriguing, but the end result falls a bit flat.  At least it clocks in at 86 minutes, including credits.  Brevity probably saves it from bring a complete train wreck.  In the end, it’s an average horror thriller that probably won’t have a long shelf life.

December 27th New Releases

“Another Earth” – Sci Fi Meets Philosophy

Sci-fi movies and books have generally always fallen into one of two categories – the kind where hostile creatures invade and mayhem ensues, and the kind which used alternate universes to explore deeper questions about the nature of humanity.  Another Earth falls into the latter.  It contains very little in the way of special effects, but poses some pretty deep questions about the threads which hold our life together, for better or worse.

Relative newcomer Brit Marling (who also co-wrote the script) plays Rhoda Williams, a brilliant young student on the verge of entering MIT, whose life comes apart after a night of drunken celebrating, when she gets into a car accident kills the wife and child of a music professor named John Burroughs (played by William Mapother).  All of this occurs on the night that astronomers discover a planet which is absolutely identical to Earth, right down to the people living on it.  In the moments leading up to her accident, Rhoda is listening to this news on her car radio and looking into the sky.  Later, scientists speculate that the moment these two “Earths” discover each other, is also the moment in which their identical histories diverge (a key element to the end of the film).

Flash forward a few years, following a prison sentence, and Rhoda is working as a janitor.  She’s plagued with guilt over killing Burroughs’ family, and wants desperately to tell him how sorry she is.  Burroughs, meanwhile, is living in squalor, unable to function as a human being any more, let alone continue his career as a professor.  Rhoda pretends to be from a company offering free house cleaning, and slowly involves herself in his life to try and save him from the despair that is drowning him.

During the years that Rhoda was in prison, wealthy individuals from the private sector develop a plan to visit the “other” Earth, and offer to give a seat to anyone who writes an essay telling why they would be a good candidate.  As you can probably guess, Rhoda enters this competition.  And while this sort of story could fall over itself trying to ape just about every cliche the genre has created, it doesn’t.  Instead it brings us into the story on a human level, asking audiences to imagine your own life in which everything possible has gone wrong.  How would you react if you met yourself in another, parallel universe?  What would you say?  Would it make anything better?  And in the greatest of sci-fi traditions, Another Earth makes no attempt to answer its own questions.

As the film began to wind down, I sat trying to speculate as to how they were going to pull off an ending to a story like this, without making it seem obvious and laughable.  All I will say is this, the writers deserve huge kudos for executing one of the most clever conclusions I could imagine.  It hearkens back to some of the brilliant Twilight Zone episodes of the golden age, and deftly uses an element of suggestion to leave the audience both satisfied, yet full of questions.

Warrior – Full Review

The premise of “Warrior”, which is the story of two brothers competing in the same UFC-style Mixed Martial Arts tournament, will probably scare off more discerning film fans who dismiss it as another throwaway kickboxing movie.  This is unfortunate, because at the heart of this film is one of the most powerful dramatic stories to hit screens in a while.  Joel Edgerton, who won raves for his role in the excellent Australian film “Animal Kingdom“, plays Brendan Conlon, a popular high school teacher forced to enter a brutal fighting tournament after hospital bills from his daughter’s illness devastate the family’s finances.  His brother Tommy (Tom Hardy), recently returned from a tour in Iraq, enters the same tournament, while being trained by their father Paddy, played by Nick Nolte in one of his best roles in decades.

The emotional key to the story is the complex relationship between the brothers, whose family was shattered by the abusive behavior of their alcoholic father.  Long estranged from Paddy, Brendan refuses to have anything to do with him despite the fact that he has obviously cleaned up his act and is nearly 1000 days sober.  Tommy, despite enlisting his father’s help in training for the MMA tournament, refuses to make any kind of emotional connection with him or attempt to resolve their past conflicts.  Nolte does a marvelous job in a role that tasks him with conveying a man who has lived a hard life and made tragic mistakes as a human being.  In a scene where he breaks down after being verbally destroyed by Tommy, Nolte delivers what may be his finest 90 seconds on screen.  It’s truly heartbreaking.

The back story surrounding Edgerton’s role as Brendan is a bit more formulaic, with some standard underdog tropes at work.  It fits nicely into the “struggling father trying to pay for his little girl’s doctor bills” tradition that Hollywood loves.  In fact, it’s Edgerton himself who rescues the story with a fine performance, making some of the cliches more believable.

I also had a hard time buying the coincidence that, in a tournament featuring the top 16 fighters in the WORLD, that two brothers would both make the cut.  But, I guess if you just go with it, the unlikely scenario doesn’t really take anything away from the core story.

Although the film is punctuated by some lengthy fight scenes, I hope this doesn’t deter film fans from giving it a chance.  Like many of the greatest “sports” movies of all time, the sport itself is not the most important element of the film – the characters are.  Films like “Rocky” and “The Natural”, as well as the recent television series “Friday Night Lights”, appeal to a large audience because they tell a story that audiences can connect with.  “Warrior” succeeds for the same reasons, and should garner a decent following based on word-of-mouth buzz.  It’s a great film.

Midnight In Paris – Full Review

Some of my favorite movie include The Terminator, Alien, and The Matrix.  Logic suggests that I shouldn’t even watch, let alone enjoy, a Woody Allen movie.  Yet I’ll confess, Midnight In Paris hooked me (and if I’m being honest, I’ll admit it isn’t the first Allen movie I’ve enjoyed – there, I said it).

It’s the kind of movie that works simply because it’s operating on a number of different layers.  On the surface, it’s a simple romantic comedy featuring the usual neurotic male lead that Woody Allen loves (and which he himself played in so many films).  But underneath is a film that celebrates art & literature, while parodying the self inflated sense of intellectualism that seems to blossom among dilettantes and academics who revere the great works.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, an American screenwriter who travels to Paris with his fiance and her family, and finds himself swept up in the romantic notion that the French capitol holds the key to his desire for success as a serious novel writer.  Allen uses a series of scenes where Gil finds himself transported back to parties during the 1920’s, during what he thinks of as the golden age of art and literature.  He meets a number of famous faces from this era, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein.  Gil’s conversations with Ernest Hemingway (played brilliantly by Corey Stoll, a relatively unknown bit actor) make some hilarious references to the larger-than-life persona surrounding the author.  This role should open a lot of doors for Stoll.

Whether you love or hate Allen’s movies, one thing that’s undeniable is that he represents a dying generation of filmmakers who are still able to present a signature style.  In an age where VOD and illegal downloading has reduced movies to disposable commodities made by interchangeable directors, you can still spot a Woody Allen movie miles away.  Like Steven Spielberg and David Fincher, Allen is one of a handful of working directors who still manages to inject his films with a unique voice and vision that fans come to expect, and adore.  Young hotshots who think that movies are all about jump-cuts and seamless CGI could take a few lessons from Allen.  Midnight In Paris is one of his best in years.

December 20th New Releases

Back Lot Holiday Hours

Please note, Back Lot Video will be open the following hours during the holiday season:

December 24th:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

December 25th & 26th:  CLOSED

December 31st:  11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

January 1st:  1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, EVERYONE!

December 13th New Releases

December 6th New Releases