Friday, October 26, 2007

June got us comps to "The Game Plan" at the very last minute today. There was this huge crowd strung out along a red carpet at GV, Vivocity; and surprise, surprise, Mr Johnson himself strode in to the music of Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock". Corny, but somehow appropriate.

The pix was a quick grab using June's cellphone cam. Mine tends to run out of juice when I need it most.

Honestly, Game Plan wasn't on my list of to-watch movies. I'm quite leery of movies pitting known tough guys against wise-ass pipsqueaks. Arnold's done it, Hulk Hogan's done it, Vin Diesel's done it, and now The Rock? Big guys being put in their place by a tiny costar is usually hilarious in a David and Goliath sense, but the gags come cheap.

But The Rock, to his credit, isn't playing for laughs. There are the expected laugh-out-loud moments, but never once do we feel he's just milking comedy by making a fool of himself. Though his character, Joe Kingman, fumbles around with a new wrinkle in his life -- a daughter he never knew he had -- at a most crucial stage in his pro-football career, and though this unexpected situation causes chaos in his well-ordered existence, he never loses control but instead visibly puts himself on a learning curve to cope with it.

When Kingman gets forced into performing ballet with daughter, Peyton, there's an opportunity for on-screen silliness, but, no. While not entirely balletic, The Rock's on the mark, moving with the ensemble rather than against it. Good choice. In this respect, The Rock makes a transition that few in his industry have been able to, that is to separate the wrestler from the actor, and that's professionalism at the highest level.

Although Game Plan still follows formula ultimately, there are a few twists and surprises to sustain our interest. Peyton arrives at Kingman's apartment under rather suspicious circumstances, and what exactly is her hidden agenda with him?

If there's a point to this movie, it's that despite Kingman's wildly successful celebrity status, with his opulence, fame and his victory trophies, he lives in an empty, lonely world full of nothing but himself. But with the arrival of Peyton, he has to take stock of his situation and ask, what's life without a little chaos? What's success with no one to share it with? Good questions.

Also, a winning team comprises more than just the star quarterback.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I'm enjoying Portal the most out of all the toys in the Orange Box. It's short -- roughly three hours of gameplay to complete -- it's episodic, so stopping the game to do inconvenient but necessary stuff like potty breaks and meals is relatively painless, and the satisfaction of solving each puzzle is pure instant gratification.

There are 19 puzzle solving levels set in someplace called "Aperture Labs", but it's all training for the last level by which time we discover that all is not as it seems. Apart from the clinically sterile environment in which most of the game takes place, there are occasional glimpses behind the facade that reveal that something sinister is happening in the background.

For one thing, all safety protocols are non-existent. Many puzzles include lethal elements like acid-flooded floors, kawai but trigger-happy little gun turrets, and bouncy energy pellets which need to be manipulated into powering certain devices but are instant death on contact. How suspicious is that?

Every puzzle solved brings us a step closer to the truth. Is the lab computer malfunctioning? Its sing-song voice seems a little off-kilter. It promises cake and a party after the lab testing is complete, but IS the cake a lie?

For supporting NPCs in a game, the lab computer has to be one of the most memorable. We only hear its disembodied voice which accompanies us as we progress. It's functional at first, but there's almost a relationship that builds up between us two. Since there doesn't seem to be any other intelligence to interact with in the game, this relationship is more Stockholm Syndrome, less companionship.

I'm not sure how it's possible, but despite the vocal intonations that sound like they're being rendered through an early-generation SoundBlaster card, there's a discernible personality behind the computer's voice that appears genuinely interested in our progress, though not necessarily in our well-being. The information it provides tends to be a lot of corporate nonsense, pointless advice, disclaimers; but it's also disturbing to be watched and monitored so closely without knowing why.

Puzzle games don't usually have this level of story-telling, much less such personality. The puzzles themselves are readily solvable once we get used to the game physics. Since we have no offensive capability ourselves, most of the game is slow and methodical while we trial-and-error our next move. But the last five minutes of the endgame is quite a change of pace -- our personal survival depends on putting what we've learned to use as quickly as possible or die trying.

And now that I have successfully completed Portal, there are more advanced maps to play with. No story, just pure problem-solving. For what I initially expected of it, Portal has delivered so much more in terms of gaming experience.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Test drove the NEW Mazda 2! I couldn't resist it. While M2 stood shivering with uncertainty over his fate in his parking lot at the showroom, June and I took out a new toxic green coloured 2 for a spin.

Unlike the boxy, functional old design, the new one is sleek and sporty on the outside. The sales reps emphasize how the new look is supposed to have been inspired by the Peugeot 207, but really it could stand by itself. M2 looks rather ungainly in comparison.

Because of the new look, the cockpit is more crammed than I'm used to. There isn't as much clearance between the head and the door frame, so there's a little more caution needed in entering and exiting. Much reduced trunk space from the old, and the seats don't fold up so don't expect to carry too much in the back.

The console is quite space-age, though the displays are still more analogue than digital. Controls give the impression that it's all fly-by-wire, especially with the tiny auto-shift lever mounted on the console panel rather than the floorboard. The stereo system looks like it's been moulded into a bubble; sound is adequate, though nothing to boast about. Standard, the upholstery comes in fabric, though there is an upgrade option to 1 or 2-tone (yuck) sports leather.

The ride is s-w-e-e-t. Quiet engine, highly responsive acceleration with a kick you can feel, and it corners well, without the sway that the old model with its higher CG can't help. If I ever get used to this kind of handling, it'll be a great temptation to just hit the highway to see what this baby can really do.

So am I getting a new car? The new M2 is a yummy treat to drive, but after doing the math (yes, we went that far), we decided we couldn't afford the switch. M2 is currently in excellent working condition, so there's no real reason to make the trade; and besides, there's big travel plans to be made next year which need some serious financing. I'm not about to give that up for a new car I don't need right now.

Pragmatism and a level-head won this day!

*video 'koped' from