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Solid acting and lively action make Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is better than the previous two films in the franchise, but it’s to overdone to retain the series initial greatness.

On Stranger Tides has many things to recommend it: it’s a fun action-packed romp, has an talented cast that act to the hilt, a soundtrack that brings new life to familiar themes, and the grand visuals that the series is known for.  The biggest problem is that it is simply too much. Too many action sequences, too many grand visuals, too much plot stuffed into a lighthearted adventure film.

On Stranger tides has Captain Jack Sparrow(Johnny Depp) shanghaied by former flame Angelica(Penélope Cruz) and her boss Blackbeard (Ian McShane) into searching for Ponce de León and the fountain of youth. Chasing after are Captain Barbossa ((Geoffrey Rush)newly commissioned into the King’s Navy), Master Gibbs ((Kevin McNally) conscripted by Barbossa), and the Spanish fleet (who also want to find the fountain).

The entire cast works hard for this one. Even the young actors playing the lovers Syrena(Astrid Berges-Frisbey)and Philip(Sam Claflin) give their all.  Here though, we hit one of the snags in the piece, the aforementioned young love.  As hard as these actors are working the characters they are given are entirely two dimensional (Oh, by the way, I made the mistake of watching this one in 3D, but I’ll get back to that.) existing only to provide drama to a single element of the story. Which brings us around to the largest flaw of the film: too many plot-lines.  Blackbeard, Angelica, and the Spanish are after the fountain of youth, Barbosa is after Blackbeard, Jack just wants to take Angelica and get away from all of them. To avoid confusion: those are the SIMPLE goals. There’s also: special chalices,  mermaid hunting, young love, revenge, eternal salvation, different revenge, a magic sword, long lost family, pointless zombies, and prison escape.

Let’s talk about the prison escape. We open the movie on Jack rescuing Gibbs from prison, and being summarily captured himself; then escaping again. There are parts in this sequence that had the potential to be some of the best in the entire series. Rather than simply following Jacks “best worst pirate” shenanigans we are treated to a sequence where Jack carefully, and unnoticed by those watching him arranges a room to facilitate his escape. It’s a fantastic bit, and is more  reminiscent of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes than the Captain Jack we know. It’s just the sort of thing to push the series in a positive direction, more reminiscent of Holmes and Bond, but it’s thrown away with a bit of deus ex machina. Time and again through the story are these glimpses that perhaps Jack is more than just a fast talker and a practiced swordsman, but they are quickly discarded in favor of more grand setpieces.

Which is another problem with the film: there are actually too many action sequences. I imagine that every time someone told Jerry Bruckheimer about a scene he said, “That sounds great, what if it were also…” (on fire? racing down a busy street? exploding?) I’m not saying I’m in favor of an action adventure in the style of Sophia Coppola, but an insufficient balance can make the action feel repetitive.

Also on the subject of things being grand: wherever they are looking for the fountain of youth it’s not where de León went. I’m sure there are parts of Florida with mountainous terrain and stunning high vistas, oh wait, no there aren’t.

Now on to the subject of 3D. I chose to see the 3D version of the film because the showtime fit better with my schedule than the 2D time. This was a big mistake on my part. One of the flaws I find in 3D movies is that dark scenes tend to be murky and hard to see. It’s no good then that several of the major action sequences (out of the admittedly large number of action sequences) take place by torchlight. These night scenes develop a sort of Greengras-esque freneticism because half the time you can’t tell what’s going on. The action sequences in the light were largely well done and entertaining (aside from the fact that there were just too many), and I’d honestly be willing to give the movie another shot in 2D at some point, but even clear visuals and well done action don’t fix the larger flaws.

There are several other good things in the film. The Hans Zimmer score is as solid as ever, but with a twist of proverbial lime. For this one Zimmer added a Spanish guitar flare, with the help of guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, to his familiar PotC themes. The guitars give the score a different flavor, while maintaining the swashbuckling atmosphere. Also, despite my earlier complaint, the sweeping island vistas, crowded cities, and swaying ships all look great. There’s no lack of consideration for set design, or for costumes; which never lack for interesting detail. Perhaps what works in the design department is what overcomes the rest of the film there’s no sense of editing, no feeling that anyone ever said, “Do we really need that to tell the story?” Healthy editing could have put the series back on top; instead of allowing it to be solidly average.

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It’s important to remember that I don’t dislike these shows. I need to cut back, and these are the victims, but they are mostly worth a listen. A list in no particular order including reason for cutting.

SModcast, Plus One, Jay and Silent Bob Get Old, Hollywood Babylon, Et. Al.Sorry Kevin Smith, I’m burnt out. I was a big fan of SModcast, and when you started adding more and more (and more) shows I was excited, but six plus hours a week was just too much time spent listening to you talk, and I can’t imagine what it would be like adding your new daily shows to that list. At least I’ll always have Mallrats.

Savage LoveI just can’t handle shows where people call in anymore. I love listening to Dan Savage answer questions and tell stories, but I am sick to death of the rambling half-truths he has to respond to.

Operation BSU (& TMO) – (SquidLord – I have good news and bad news…)As with Savage Love the hosts are great, but The Talkshoe cast’s inconsistent audio quality, and hit or miss delivery from the random of individuals talking on the feed makes me nuts. I will keep checking out With Special Guest… from time to time if it’s a guest I’m interested in.

This Week in TechI like Leo Laporte, I really do, but I am so sick of John C. Dvorak showing up and “get of my lawn”-ing every episode that I am done. Just done.

Doug Loves MoviesI like it, but sometimes the show seems too focused on The Leonard Maltin Game (Where celebrity players try to guess the title of a movie based on the year it was released and the names of the actors in it: from last billed to staring role. )

This Week with Larry MillerI’m sorry Larry, sometimes I don’t understand what you mean, and I LIKE using body wash rather than soap. Still, I will always treasure your advice on special occasions (To paraphrase: If the people you’re with are the most important part of getting together; why do it in a loud bar or crowded restaurant?)

The Smartest Man in the World (with Greg Proops) – I am digging what Greg is laying down, but if it’s comedy why do I feel like I’ve been reading Sylvia Plath after every episode?

The Pod F. TompcastI may reconsider this one. Paul F. Tompkins is very funny, and the bits he puts are always great.

Radio Free Burrito, For Good ReasonIf you don’t show up to work for six months this is what happens.

Monster TalkTo be honest I’ve never given this show the chance it deserves. I’m just not a big fan of monster stories. I’ll check out the Ninja episode and think on it.

Engadget, This is My Next, Buzz Out Loud, Weekend Confirmed, Daily GizWizI only have so much time in my week to listen to technology and gaming news. Somehow I was listening to way more of these than I realistically had time for.

How Did This Get MadeA really funny show where comics make fun of bad movies. I love the concept, but I feel like they’re off their game at the moment. After making a plan to ridicule Fast Five, which they had to admit turned out to be pretty good, they over-corrected and went with Mac & Me for their next film. A movie so bad that I can’t even listen to a podcast making fun of it.

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In Part One of my Top 20 list I made a special mention of a show that I have special affection for that will not be making the cut for other reasons. When going over my list for Part Two I came across another show that is better enjoyed in a different environment, but deserves a special mention.

Special Mention: Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!Peter Sagal hosts NPR’s weekly quiz program where the news of the week is dissected by comedians, writers, reporters, and veteran news man Carl Cassel. This program has been a favorite of mine since long before podcasts existed, and I remember scheduling my trips home freshman year so that I could be in the car while it was on. I’m leaving it off of the list because my wife is also a fan of the show, and I enjoy listening with her. Rather than listen to every episode twice I’ll listen when she does and make room for a show on the bubble to pull itself back onto the list.

  1. Scott Sigler PodioBooks Full Disclosure: I know Scott Sigler. Putting his work in the Top 20 was a no-brainer though because Scott has been consistently producing the best free audio fiction for half a decade (even after becoming a NY Times bestselling author). His riveting brand of science heavy sci-fi suspense lends itself perfectly to the audio format, and in addition to being a great writer Scott is an excellent voice-over artist as well; bringing real personality to his characters.
  2. Skeptics Guide to the UniverseThe SGU is a weekly round-table covering the latest news in science and skepticism. I mentioned in my Skepticality review that a lot of other skeptical shows cover the same ground, but the SGU is the top of the heap. They do in-depth analysis of the latest scientific discoveries (both real and media hype) interviews with scientists, skeptics, artists, and even any supernaturalists who are willing to come on the show. A little bit serious; a little bit goofy; the show consistently delivers high quality information with a lighthearted attitude. Bonus: Every week the show’s host Dr. Steve Novella challenges his panel to separate two real science stories from one that is bull in Science or Fiction.
  3. The Judge John Hodgman PodcastIf you only recognize John Hodgman as “PC” from Macintosh ads then you are really missing out. America’s greatest authority on pretty much everything has turned his hand toward justice (of the People’s Court variety). Surely the most erudite, even handed, and civil magistrate in all of modern media Judge Hodgman hands down important verdicts such as: Taking strangers unclaimed leftovers from the Chinese restaurant you had dinner at is gross, asking your taxi diver to take you through a drive through is ok so long as you are willing to accept rejection gracefully and tip well, and potluck dinners are not a crime.
  4. The Geologic PodcastWith comedy, music, opinion, and advice; George Hrab delivers the best one man show on the internet. Each week Geo cobbles together personal anecdotes, wacky characters (usually played by himself), interesting science,  and stories of overt religious stupidity into an audio blog of epic proportions.
  5. This is Only a TestThe weekly technology podcast I have chosen over all other weekly technology podcasts. I didn’t choose it because Sam works for the parent site (tested.com). I didn’t choose it because I love the GiantBombcast (also produced by Whiskey Media). I choose This is Only a Test because Will, Norm, Gary, sometimes Ana, and occasionally other people provide a show that is both informative and quirky, and the “Fake Outtakes” segment is good enough to be a podcast all by itself.
  6. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore HistoryDan Carlin dives into the history of the world and gives an up-close view of the theories, societies, and events that changed it. Once every two months is kind of a long wait for a podcast, but Hardcore History is totally worth it. Good information and excellent story telling make for the only history class I’ve ever signed up for on my own.
  7. This American LifeThis one speaks for itself. NPR’s reality showcase has been a staple of my audio diet for over a decade. It’s iTunes Number 1 podcast of all time (It’s even in the top 10 for Australia.). If you haven’t heard of it every week host Ira Glass brings together an hour’s worth of stories (usually real; occasionally narrated fiction) covering a different related aspect of our world. The stories are a mix of information: with regular contributions from Planet Money and RadioLab: see 1-10), comedy: by great minds like David Sedaris and Mike Birbiglia, and humanity: both the good and the bad.
  8. Behind the Screened DoorFormer video game guys Alex Navarro and Matt Rorie bring their thoughts on movies and TV to the internet. Another brother of the GiantBombcast, BtSD makes it’s own name from the occasionally contentious interactions between Alex and Matt. Both hosts have deep knowledge of film and TV, but they are always willing to say when they just don’t know.
  9. Nerdist PodcastOnce a week Host Chris Hardwick (Web Soup), and sidekicks Jonah Ray (Web Soup) and Matt Mira (Apple Store Genius) post informal interviews with comics, actors, and musicians covering the gamut of geek culture and the creation of comedy. In a second show every week Chris, Jonah, and Matt get together to talk comedy and geekiness all on their own.
  10. Open – I looked at all the other podcasts on my list, and they all possessed some fatal flaw. So I’m leaving this spot open for something new to blow me away.
    In the next post I’ll discuss everything I’m ditching and why. This one took longer than intended as I hummed and hawed about spot 20 so I am going to try and get the next part out tonight.

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In cutting down the number of podcasts I was listening to some choices were easy. Particularly which shows I was going to keep no matter what. These are my Top 10 Audio Podcasts (It’s a top 20, but this one has run nearly 1200 words so I’m splitting it into two parts):

Super Special Mention – NSFW on TWiT – First thing to get out of the way: Don’t let the name fool you this show is entirely safe for work. There are no graphic images, bad language, or violence (sorry to disappoint). NSFW is my very favorite internet production. Every week Justin R. Young (iTricks.com,weirdthings.com) and Brian Brushwood (Scam School ) bring on a guest(s) to participate in random games, internet challenges, and radio morning show weirdness.  It’s like a Japanese talk-show for America. Brian and Justin have a great comic rapport, and with audience interaction (through IRC ’cause TWiT is Old School) NSFW isn’t just a radio show, it’s a hobby. I’m leaving it out of this list because 1. It’s better in video, and 2. I watch it live (Tuesday nights 9pm EST nsfwshow.com).

  1. The GiantBombcast – Every week Ryan, Jeff, Vinny, and Brad break down the video game news of the week with a heavy dose of randomness. If you are a fan of video games this is THE must listen show. Combining news, reviews, and a boatload of personality the Bombcast has become more of a weekly get together with friends than just something to listen to.
  2. Skeptoid – Another weekly show. In this one Brian Dunning and his team researche the historical mysteries, conspiracy theories, and sensational news that are all around us, and break down one topic a week with the best factual information available. Sometimes funny, always fascinating, Skeptoid isn’t just a show: with detailed transcripts and extensive bibliography, at the website, Skeptoid is a major resource for critical thinking.
  3. Onion Radio News – The ORN comes out daily Monday through Friday and does something with the podcast medium that is simply astonishing. Clocking in around one minute long they are by far the shortest podcast I listen to, but they catch the number three spot by creating perfect audio nuggets of the Onion’s decades of experience mining comedy gold. If my playlist is a hotel room the Onion Radio News is a mint on the pillow.
  4. Radiolab – At this point I am fairly certain that anyone reading this blog probably knows me (If you don’t: Welcome! I hope you’re enjoying reading this. If you want to follow me on Twitter that would be awesome. I’m @AgentOfAwful), and since you know me you’ve probably hear me ramble on about the awesome things I’ve learned from Radiolab. It’s an NPR production from WNYC where Jad Ablumrad and Robert Krulwich look at the bigger questions of science with a bent toward the fascinating and the human. Don’t listen in the car though because a good portion of the episodes have at least one story that will make you cry. Also, if you haven’t done it yet, bookmark the Krulwich Wonders… NPR blog. If you have even a little interest in science it will quite regularly make your day.
  5. Weird Things – Andrew Mayne (one of the country’s great magical minds) explores topics of the supernatural with the help of Brian Brushwood and Justin R. Young (see Special Mention above). Every two weeks the team works their way through another What if scenario: zombies, unicorns, the space elevator, one way trips to Mars, there is no concept too strange or nerdy that the Weird Things show won’t tear it open and rip the comedy out. I encourage every human being on the planet to listen to this one.  Also, every week the guys make time for their recommendations on movies, TV, and books.
  6. Planet Money – Another NPR show. This bi-weekly show covers modern economics from the most complex international finance to the simplest questions like, “How is a T-shirt made?”. The beauty of Planet Money is their ability to put the complex issues in understandable terms, and expose the underlying complexity in the simple questions. If you want to understand economics; if you want to understand how our modern world works. This is the show to listen to.
  7. Skepticality Full Disclosure: I have a bias here. Skepticality is hosted by Derek Colanduno and Swoopy (aka Robynn McCarthy), and Swoopy is a friend of mine. That, however, is not why Skepticality makes the top ten. The simple fact is that Skepticality has the best interviews of any critical thinking podcast. There is a tendency among skeptical shows to cover the same topics. While this overlap is good as a resource to insure people have the latest news it can become overwhelming to get a dozen slightly different perspectives on the same story. Skepticality breaks out by covering subjects that are perhaps only tangentially related to the skeptical news of the day, and focusing in-depth on a single topic.
  8. Tech News Today Tech News Today is, as the name suggests, a daily (M-F) tech podcast. Tom Merritt (formerly of CNET), Sara Lane (formerly of TechTV), Iyaz Akhtar (This Old Nerd), and Jason Howell (formerly of CNET) cover the important (and not so important) stories of the tech world. TNT has a great balance of news and commentary, and each of the panel brings a different perspective.
  9. Decoder Ring Theater – If you have any affection for classic radio serials then you’ll love DRT. Twice a month the Decoder Ring Theater cast brings out a new adventure story in the old time radio style. The mainstays of DRT The Red Panda Adventures and Black Jack Justice have both been running for years, and they have funny, suspenseful, action-packed, and complex stories to match. You’ll want to take some time and listen to these from the beginning. The troupe also produces a DRT: Showcase every summer with one shots and shorter serials that might make a good start if you don’t want to dive right in.
  10. The Thrilling Adventure Hour – This is my favorite new podcast this year. Another old time radio style program, the TAH produces several different shows all recorded live at Largo in L.A. Written by the team of Ben Acker and Ben Blacker the program walks a careful line: satirizing and embracing classic radio, and the era that created it. Each weekly episode brings a different segment to the fore. My personal favorite is Beyond Belief; wherein Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds) and Paul F. Tompkins (“America’s finest stand-up comedian”) play Frank and Sadie Doyle a married pair of supernatural detectives. The characters are an over the top parody of Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man series of films (which are wonderful), and it would be easy for them to go out of control. Brewster and Tompkins, however, bring a joy and charisma to the parts that makes them the most endearing caricatures you’re likely to hear.
That does it for the Top 10 keep your eyes peeled for 11 through 20 sometime tomorrow.

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As I mentioned on Thursday’s Post I have spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to podcasts.

Podcasts, for those who haven’t discovered them, are audio and video programs released for free on the internet. The easiest way to get them is to hit the Podcast link in the iTunes store. If you don’t have iTunes most podcasts are available for download directly from their creators just do a Google search for “[Topic You Are Interested In] Podcast”. 

Since starting my ADD program I’ve been listening less, and that means that my PodCatcher is getting backed up.

A PodCatcher is a program designed to take RSS Feeds with podcast information, and download the podcast episodes automatically. An RSS Feed is a messaging system that allows you to track when a website is updated. For Example: if you look at the top of this page in the right corner it says “Feeds:” next to it there is an orange icon called “Posts” and another called “Comments” if you click on the orange “Posts” icon your web browser should give you some options to subscribe to my Feed. Which means every time I update my blog the program you select (I recommended Google Reader) will track it for you. Then you can read my blog along with any others you enjoy in one convenient location. 

I do most of my listening on my smart phone, and the PodCatcher I use is DoggCatcher for Android. Google makes a PodCatcher for Android called Listen which is free and connects to Google Reader so you can listen to your podcasts on your phone or in your web browser. I chose to pay for DoggCatcher ($6.99) because it’s more configurable than Listen, and has a great database for finding podcasts built in.

In addition to cleaning out DoggCatcher’s history I’m going have to remove about half the shows from my list to prevent future backlog so the next two posts will be about what I’m keeping and what I’m getting rid of.  Watch this space (or your RSS reader) for Pod-Cut: Paring Down the Podcast Feed Pt. 2 – The Keepers

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I’m really enjoying The Book of Mormon cast recording. I don’t remember the last time I listened to an album in it’s entirety; possibly Matisyahu Live at Stubb’s (I acknowledge the possible irony in this.) It’s a really solid group of songs, and just like Avenue Q they are catchy as hell. Which is a problem when a Broadway track contains lyrics more appropriate to a Two Live Crew album. If you have a problem with bad language (and I mean REALLY bad language) don’t pick this one up. Also, if you’re a big fan of Christianity, well, I’d be interested to know how you feel about it. Trey Parker calls it “an atheist’s love letter to religion” and I think that covers it well. On one hand, it can be VERY sacrilegious; on the other hand, it’s a story of faith changing people for the better. Fans of Avenue Q will find a familiarity in tone that is comfortable rather than repetitive, and the cast has an enthusiasm for the material that comes through in every song.

Quick Plot Run-Down: The Book of Mormon tells the story of two Mormon missionaries: Elder Price and Elder Cunningham(Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad) are sent to Uganda on their mission. Price is brash and devout while Cunningham is sloppy, insecure, and lies when he’s nervous. When presented with tragedy in the Ugandan village where they are meant to serve they struggle to make the best of it with the support of the Cheif’s daughter Nabulungi who wants the boys to help her village get to “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (say it real fast).

I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story so if I haven’t scared you off check out the Whole Album at NPR.

PS- Even if you don’t think you might care for the rest give the song You And Me (But Mostly Me) a listen. It’s entirely inoffensive, and is probably my favorite song from the whole show.

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Thor – Movie Review

Thor is a tightly paced and well shot film that only falters when the its over the top attitude goes over the line.

Based on the Marvel comic book (based on the Norse Mythology), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the god of thunder and son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) the King of the Asgardians* (Norse gods). In an intriguing twist of post-modernism we are told that the people of Asgard are very advanced space aliens, Odin’s people protected Earth from another group of aliens (Frost Giants or Jotun), the ancient Swedes think the Asgardians are gods (as you would), and Odin takes the Jotun’s magic box. In modern times, of course, we have no need for gods or magic since we understand Einstein-Rosen bridges [/nerd]The Asgardians actually have a Morris-Thorne bridge, but people understand when you say Einstein that it means science that is almost magic[/n].

Walking us through our advanced physics for this trip is Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) a desert dwelling astrophysicist (good STEM role-modeling; comic book Jane started out as a nurse), with a quirky lab assistant (Kat Dennings), and a stoic Scandinavian mentor (Stellan Skarsgård). Jane is studying a series of auroras appearing over New Mexico, and after chasing a particularly spectacular aurora she hits Thor with her car. We are launched back in time to see how the son of a king ends up an automotive rodeo clown on Earth, and after a brisk and action filled chunk of exposition including: Thor’s Greek tragedy-esque hubris, Thor’s borther Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his questionable character, and Anthony Hopkins nibbling the scenery, but never full on chewing.  We are dropped with a slightly less godlike Thor, exiled and drained of power, back on Earth.

The film shifts gears a bit at this point jumping back and forth between a fish out of water comedy on Earth, and political suspense on Asgard. While Thor mugs good-naturedly and shows of his abs, the members of Thor’s raid group back home Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) attempt to maneuver for Thor’s return.

The cast is solid with Tom Hiddleston as the real stand-out. His Loki is complex and conflicted without the mustache twirling it would be easy to fall toward.  Idris Elba’s stoic Heimdall shows just the right amount of humanity (asgardinity?) to really come through in less emphasized role.

One of the best things about Thor is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. is used, but not abused the way it was in Iron Man 2. My guess would be that folks at Marvel saw the way the wind was blowing, and realized that if they didn’t keep the crossing-over under control it would hurt Avengers in the long run. They are a distinct presence, even acting as the antagonists for the first half, but they never take over the show.

The disparate plots come back together in the final act with shape-shifting, magic robots, Thor’s MacGuffin Hammer, and Heimdall laying down some serious smack. It all wraps up cleanly, but without being too perfect.

With the frequency of location cuts it would be easy for Kenneth Branagh’s direction to stumble; hold to long on one side or the other and things might start to drag. It’s here then that Branagh’s Shakespearean experience comes to the front. After having directed a handful of the Comedies Branagh juggles the two plot lines with the effortless quickness of a man used to five or six, and that is probably Thor’s greatest strength. There are times when Hemsworth’s goofy grin is too big, Portman’s obvious attraction is embarrassingly overt, and the fight scenes are too absurd, but the scenes transition so quickly and smoothly that the eye never settles on the flaws long enough for them to become cracks. Thor isn’t a perfect film, and it’s no match for Marvel’s best, but it’s a solid entry and hopefully representative of good things to come from the studio.

*Comic Geek note- Aesir is the correct technical term for the Norse gods as a group, but in the Marvel universe they are refered to as Asgardians.

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