Tuesday, March 25, 2008

LG BH200 Super Blu Blu-Ray HD DVD Combo Player

I've just bought the above and have been very pleased. Not only does it play DVD's, Blu-Ray discs, and HD DVD's beautifully, it also plays jpeg discs with stunning clarity.

I almost went with just a Blu-Ray player, but saw this one at Best Buy for a couple hundred more and made the plunge. It's suited for 1080 screens and uses HDMI 1.3 cables. I have a tube-projection HDTV (both the cheapest and best type on the market) and am stunned at the picture quality.

Now that the format war is over, this opens up two avenues of opportunity. The first is that we can securely buy Blu-Ray discs without any fear of them becoming obsolete any time soon. Secondly, people will start getting rid of perfectly good HD-DVD software like the discs are on fire. Both Amazon and Best Buy have slashed prices by 30% and I predict this will go down even more. Also, my neighborhood used book/media store is getting flooded with cheap HD-DVD's. I'm not *replacing* any of my DVD's with HD-DVD's, and I'll always choose Blu-Ray over HD-DVD. But a player like this opens up a ton of options in the wake of Blu-Ray's format victory.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I should have posted this last week--the wife's made some fine corned beef and cabbage for tonight, which reminded me of one of my favorite traditions started by comics: corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. Like much about St. Patrick's Day, there's nothing particularly Irish about the standard fare for the occasion. The tradition of scarfing CB&C with your Guinness began with George McManus's comic strip Bringing Up Father. It was the preferred food of the Irish-American noveau riche Jiggs, who didn't realize that it was 'poor' food, a meal born in the ghettos where Irish immigrants and Jews had to share tenements.

Stuff like this makes me wonder what else got started because of comics. Did chocolates on Valentine's Day originate in Blondie? Was driving on the right inspired by Flash Gordon? Were there no white weddings before Little Nemo in Slumberland?

Thursday, March 20, 2008


I haven't seen the art films you mention, but I have seen SAW's 1 and 2 and both of the HOSTEL films. For me, HOSTEL's 1 and 2 were two of my top five films of their respective years -- and while I wouldn't really put Zombie's DEVIL'S REJECTS into the category, since you mention him, I'll say that it was my favorite film of that year, along with MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS.

Anyway, I feel like an article such as the one below practically jams its hand down my pocket searching for my two cents.

These are all random notes.

AUDITION is a stupendously dull movie. I unfriended the moronic redneck who suggested that I see it. He also thought 300 and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT were the best films of 2007, which shows you the mentality of the idiot I was dealing with. This is a man who claims Jesus and Darth Vader as his personal heroes and sees no inherent contradiction.

I have very little interest in watching unpleasantness. But all of horror deals with a certain degree of unpleasantness. I think what's lurking under the surface of the unpleasantness is what matters. I remember being just as mortified -- if not more so -- by ELECTION and AMERICAN PIE, both of which signaled turning points in American film. Each used intense public humiliation as tools for laughter. I cringed as the audience laughed. So, take that for what it's worth.

Let me limit my discussion to the SAW and HOSTEL franchises. I enjoy any film that gives me an extreme experience. Ebert tags film as an emotional medium. One of the powers of film is to take us to the brink of extreme experiences without pushing us over the edge. (I enjoy films about romance and marriage, but I by no means want to have either experience in my life.) By encountering torture, we explore it without experiencing it. In a world filled with religious nuts decapitating people and showing it over the internet, clearly we're doing something as a culture by using this as a bathosphere.

The SAW films are ones I can pretty quickly discredit because they have such huge logic flaws that make them unwatchable. Every film has the central logic flaw of "this isn't happening," but the SAW movies violate their own logic. Still, the central conceit is an interesting one, and if they would do one more script polish, they'd have good movies. In the SAW films, a dying cancer patient is incensed at how casually his life is treated by his doctors, so he uses his last days and willpower to seek out people who are throwing their lives away. Life that they take for granted. Life that the killer cannot take for granted. He constructs puzzles where they have to mutilate themselves to escape, but they will at least have to value their lives to do so. This is a classic morality tale about taking seriously the most precious of things. Pretty good premise for a movie. Too bad it gets wasted with plot holes.

HOSTEL is an whole other animal. I love these movies. They are true Grand Guignol, and I appreciate them on that level. When *I* have to avert my eyes from the screen, a movie has my respect. When my friend and I saw people walk out, he murmured to me, "Casualties."

The first HOSTEL film is a taut thriller that deals not so much with torture (as with the original TEXAS CHAINSAW, you see less gore than you think you see, due to good editing and sound effects) as with our cultural fears over the fallen remnants of the Soviet Union (the backdrop), the fascination with "extreme" sports (a JACKASS critique, perhaps), and warnings about valuing drugs and sex as an end in themselves. The characters in the first film start off in Amsterdam for the obvious attractions. The need for more-of-the-same-but-better leads them to the town where the Factory is. When humans are used as commodities (such as in prostitution), little does it occur to the buyer that they, too, may be a commodity. Thus, the film's moral compass. It is a cautionary tale reminiscent of the horrible town of temptations in PINOCCHIO. It does this with a fair amount of wit and suspense and is definitely "more than meets the eye." A classic morality tale with the same blood and guts we associate with the Brothers Grimm. Well, a bit more than that. But only a bit.

HOSTEL 2 begins in such a manner that we think it'll be a remake, only with girls. But these girls are looking for peace and serenity... an escape from the type of boys who lead the cast of the first film. Again, Roth tells us to be careful what we wish for. Quickly, though, it turns into a film about the type of men who bid on these victims and then go to be the victimizers. It's a fascinating, witty twist. The path of those men -- and the women they hound -- becomes totally unpredictable. And very, very sly. Frankly, it turned into an out-and-out comedy. Not slapstick with people doing pratfalls in entrails, but genuine character comedy, where the laughs are the logical result of the ironies of who these sadists are and what they're doing. People so immature that they would pay to do this are worthy both of hatred and ridicule. Their cruel myopia undoes them in the end... as does their conviction that their patriarchal power of money cannot be topped. It also becomes an examination of how the business of the Factory operates. In essence, it wisely does everything a sequel can do. It answers the questions raised by the first film instead of giving us more of the same. I felt as if I were watching a logical enhancement of this universe. It was rare for a sequel. A bold move.

When Kubrick set about to make DR. STRANGELOVE, it began as a serious film. But he found that he could only really truly address the insanity of M.A.D. by portraying those who saw the policy it as a good idea in a comical manner. Ditto for HOSTEL 2.

This was a very smart movie. You have to know where to look.

Are they critiques of violence? Sometimes. But more than that, they are cathartic. It's more a question of whether or not that's a fulfilling catharsis or an empty one. I still can't watch DEAD RINGERS because it's too depressing. Go figure.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Every so often a new director known for cerebral films comes along with a picture that is or at least features an extended torture scene; then the director claims that, unlike typical torture porn, his film is actually a critique of violence, brutality, etc. He is not entertaining the masses, he is implicating them--his movie doesn't thrill, it educates. The latest polyp in this intestinal condition is Funny Games, by Michael Haneke. As I understand it, the plot is this: two young men torture a family. Thus controversy is born.

This category of cinema probably originated around the time of Straw Dogs, which at least had a story to string together its scenes of carnage and degradation. And it all reached its zenith, still unsurpassed, in Passolini's Salo. Of late, we've seen a bumper crop: Audition, Baise Moi, Irreversible, Captivity, and others. Of course these films make you uncomfortable, the directors say. They're giving you wisdom.

But I ain't buyin'. The defenders can say there's a thin line separating the art-house splatter flick from Hostel and Saw, but I say there's no line at all. At least Eli Roth and Rob Zombie are honest enough to admit that the gore they orchestrate is strictly for thrills. Because, really, there's not a whole lot to be learned from watching someone get their skin peeled off or their fingers pureed into jelly, or their lips sliced apart or their knees pierced with railroad spikes. In the case of the Pettit family, the women of whom actually were tortured to death, what's the lesson to the observer who peers deeply into the killings? What does Seung-Hui Choi's rampage illuminate, aside from the sad (and small) nature of desperate social misfits?

If Haneke and his ilk really wanted to educate their audiences, they would take their camera crews to Darfur, or make a documentary interviewing the survivors of Srebenica. They won't, of course--that would bring them way too close to the reality of inhumanity: a colossal, historical force tearing apart all the art that fails to comprehend it. Even worse, such films would never make money. No one who picks up a camera escapes being a con man and a huckster.

One example of the way such movies are presented and the way they are accurately perceived; I know A Clockwork Orange has been touted as a thesis on violence and audience voyeurism, but do you know anyone who really felt educated by the film? I don't but I know plenty of people who thought it was cool as hell. That scene with the cat lady, that was awesome! You see what I'm getting at.

Big, big disclaimer:
I haven't seen a single one of the movies mentioned above.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I read Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson in time for the book group, then had to skip the meeting where we discussed it. Long story. A shame, because I really wanted to find out what others thought of this little book. I thought it was astounding, and I'm not sure why, because it has all the ingredients of a lousy book, the kind cranked out by self-absorbed amateurs: it's episodic, its passive hero bounces from drug-fueled escapade to bleary-eyed hangover and back again with little understanding of what's going on around him, the stories' settings aren't especially memorable, and the stories frequently stop to make a 'deep' point that seems dangerously tacked on. Yet the stories are near perfect gems, surprising and natural. Maybe it's Johnson's skill with language that holds everything together. Maybe its his general refusal, at times suspended, to judge himself or anything else, and thus make a refreshing departure from apologetic junkie memoirs.

Johnson, you may have heard, recently won the National Book Award for Tree of Smoke, a work which some people feel doesn't deserve the honor, or anything close to it; even the critics who praised the book have hinted that it's going to be one of those masterpieces that no one finishes, like Rushdie's Satanic Verses. But Jesus' Son is not even 200 pages, and for people with really short attention spans, there's always the movie.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

You botched, Gary. Hand in your character sheet.

Gary Gygax is dead. And I have to say that I have mixed feelings.

Thank you, Gary, for inventing the RPG.

That’s about all of the good stuff I can say.

I’d have more good stuff to say, but you have left me bereft.

When an RPG is really good, there are few things as engaging and fun. That almost never happens. Because it attracts a number of people dissatisfied with their lives, their illnesses and neuroses get projected to giant size in a bad gaming group, which is to say MOST gaming groups. There was a time when I lauded RPG’s as like “theatre without the theatre people.” Now I can safely say that I’d enjoy an RPG experience without typical gamers, as well.

The list of things wrong with gamers is wild and diverse. None of them always apply to the same person. But get a gaming group together and, in my experience, you’ll inevitably run into many mental and emotional problems.

Now, get a group of ten people together for any reason and you’ll find any number of emotional ills. But there is something about gaming that really puts it all on glorious parade.

At its best, gaming isn’t about dice. It isn’t about statistics. It isn’t about charts. Or maps. Or little lead dolls. Or bean counting.

Dice and stats are necessary evils, I suppose. But what do they ultimately protect under the sheep’s clothing of fairness?

They protect the unimaginative from the imaginative.

Because, at its best, gaming is about collaborative storytelling. And dice/stats should be sprinkled in as little as humanly possible to accommodate that “fairness” fad I keep reading about. And to keep things a little unpredictable. The unexpected is part of good storytelling.

In your heart, you know I’m right.

(In my time, I’ve only known four GM’s who really got that.)

So, what does Gary Gygax have to do with all of this?

Back in 2005, I was playing RPG’s a lot. Close to twice a week.

Anyway, as a storyteller and people manager by profession, I kept seeing many GM’s make weird decisions. At best, their decisions were uninspired and paint-by-numbers, out-of-the-module. At worst, they magically managed to squeeze out all of the fun from what should have been the ultimate version of grownup Cowboys & Indians. Almost, it would seem, on purpose.

The experiences I had were so reliably tepid-to-bad that it almost seemed counterintuitive. How were people involved in make-believe so bad at it? It was like dealing with passionate cinematographers who were totally blind. How was this happening?

And then I read a book about being a dungeon master or gamer or something. It was a book about gaming. Written by Gary Gygax. What a humorless, pompous dolt. This book explained it all. THIS is where all the limited thinking was coming from. I’m not saying that everyone read that book. But I blame Gygax on creating a culture that really encouraged this.

Imagine Disneyland managed by Frank Burns. That’s what we’re talking about.

Gygax. Gygax.

Long ago, separated from D&D. It was a system needlessly complicated yet strangely bland. It was like a wild, sensual Latin dance as interpreted by Lawrence Welk.

Finally, two versions and over twenty years later, we get D&D 4.0. I’ve been reading the reviews on AICN and it seems like the game finally encourages good storytelling and rewards imaginative playing. Finally. I feel vaguely sorry for my old gaming associates, because they – and their style of gaming – are in for a world of hurt. It is D&D for the iPod generation. I say that as a compliment. The iPod is an elegant machine, artfully designed, intuitively controlled, of infinite utility, that makes technology serve even the most technologically uninitiated.

Part of me imagines that Gary Gygax read the reviews and died on the spot.

No, I’m actually not glad he’s dead. That would be cruel.

But it strikes me as ironic that he should die just as D&D evolves past the limitations he seemed to impose upon its creation.

Monday, March 03, 2008

It's been a while; here are some recent photos of the H-bomb of cute himself, taken using my laptop.
I didn't realize it until I saw these photos, but the pictures my computer takes are mirror images--look at the writing on my shirt. Do all cell phones and such do this?

Sunday, March 02, 2008


And there's this: Marvel Comics has posted in it's entirety the first issue of Jonathan Lethem's Omega the Unknown relaunch. The Web reader actually lets you turn the pages.

In related news, Omega's creator Steve Gerber is no longer with us.


Here are the books that the reading group selected at our meeting last month. I challenge anyone to find a theme uniting this collection.

Jesus' Son: Stories by Denis Johnson
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
[Complete text here]
Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin
The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq and Gavin Bowd
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg

Other books we discussed but were not selected:
The Girls of Ryadh by R. A.
In The Wake Of The Plague: The Black Death And The World It Made by Norman F. Cantor
King of the World by David Remnick
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
Run by Ann Patchett
Birth of the Chess Queen: A History by Marilyn Yalom

Members of the Toner Nation are required to read these books on their own and rate them in the comments to this post. Note that lengthy titles are no longer appreciated: I wanted to read A Savage War of Peace, until I found out it topped 700 pages. Now I'll never know how the French colonization of Algeria turned out.


Many thanks to everyone who suggested worthwhile tv shows. A mixed marriage such as mine (geek/non-geek) can present conflicts, but almost all of them are confined to who's holding the remote; and as long as the subject of Kirk and Spock don't come up, the household remains and peaceful one. We just had some friends over last night who face the same challenges--he a loyal member of the Federation, she with no patience for even a single Vulcan proverb or line of Klingon.
It occurred to me that Madame Toner and I might agree on this show, which I've been wanting to re-watch for years. I remember seeing daytime re-runs in the early 80s and thinking it was hilarious; I might not have the same feelings for it now, but it's worth checking out. A similar show was Carol Burnett, a series that I remember as being brilliant, though I don't know if I'd hold the same opinion today. But I can say with assurance that, while many comedians have parodied soap operas and will continue to do so in the future, no one nailed the genre to perfection like Burnett.
I haven't even read this blog of mine in a month, and it's nice to see that others posted in my absence. Keep up the good work, Team Toner!

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