Mena Suvari, I’m Here For You

You made two trips to the matrimonial plate and struck out both times.  First, there was the much older cinematographer, Robert Brinkmann.  You ended that five-year marriage in the spring of 2005.  Then, you got hitched to Simone Sestito, a concert promoter you met at The Toronto International Film Festival.  Despite a reportedly lavish 2010 ceremony in Vatican City of all places, you recently decided this arrangement wasn’t working for you, either.

Mena Suvari, I’m here for you.  Why keep all that heartbreak to yourself when you can confide in a gentle Canadian who’ll hang on your every word?  Why wallow in sadness when we could share many laughs together?  Why be alone when you can ride the bony express?

If your self-esteem has taken a hit, let me build it back up for you.  I was mesmerized by your very sexy performance in American Beauty, the Academy Award-winning blockbuster from 1999.  You played Thora Birch’s seemingly free-spirited girlfriend who becomes a symbol of lost happiness for her troubled dad, Kevin Spacey.  When your secret is revealed very late in the picture, I was genuinely surprised.  You talked a good game as Angela.

I also enjoyed your work in the first two American Pies, two of the funnier movies I’ve seen in the last couple of decades.  Your portrayal of Heather, the glee club cutie who falls for sensitive jock Chris Klein, is sweet and charming, a complete 180 from American Beauty’s Angela.

Even though it was an inconsistent mess, the romance you inevitably have with Pie co-star Jason Biggs in Loser was the best thing about it (not to forget David Spade’s hilariously unbilled cameo as a video clerk).  It’s too bad your character wastes so much time with sleazy (and married) professor Greg Kinnear and there aren’t as many laughs as there should be.  Whenever you share screen time with that piefucker, you can feel the chemistry.

Speaking of that, good luck with the fourth Pie feature, American Reunion, which is scheduled for release this coming April.  Even though you’re not in American Wedding, I’ll need to see that one before moving on in the franchise.  I’ve had a copy for years and still have not screened it.  (I know.  I’m terrible.)

I’d love to hear you tell old war stories about your modelling days and early acting gigs like the Rice-A-Roni commercial you did as a teen, and the TV work you’ve done on shows like Six Feet Under, Chicago Hope, ER, Boy Meets World, Psych and the recently acclaimed American Horror Story.  I’m also interested in your charity work.  Why are Africa and feminism your primary causes?

Did you really think about becoming an archeologist when you were a kid?  Surely, Indiana Jones played a major role in that.  And how long have you been playing poker?  Texas Hold ‘Em’s my game, as well.  I’ll take you on any time, anywhere, young lady.  Playing heads-up against you would be a real treat.  Since I don’t have any money, we’ll play for clothing.

No matter what, I hope you’ll feel better soon.  Even though this is a difficult time for you personally, I’m sure you’ll pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to business.

And with that, I leave you with this:

Looking for the cure for your emotional flu?
Mena Suvari, I’m here for you.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, January 15, 2012
3:57 p.m.

Published in: on January 15, 2012 at 3:57 pm  Comments (1)  

Suggested Guests For The Howard Stern Show

If I was a talent booker for the most influential radio show of the last 40 years, who would I try to get?  Who would I most want to see do the program?

The Howard Stern Show has seen a wide variety of guests throughout the decades from the famous (Whoopi Goldberg, Paul McCartney, Joan Rivers) to the infamous (Joey Buttafuoco, O.J. Simpson, Eric The Midget).  Some do the show once while others either become frequent visitors to the studio or call in a lot.

Because Howard is particular about who he interviews, it’s not always easy to get booked.  Longtime producer Gary Dell’Abate has said that he has turned away a good number of potential guests simply because Howard wasn’t interested or didn’t think they’d be good on the show.

That being said, if I had Gary’s job here are some people I would pitch to the 57-year-old radio legend at the weekly creative meeting:

CM Punk

If you’ve been closely following what’s been happening in the WWE in recent months, it’s most likely because of this man.  Born Phil Brooks, this Chicago grappler is at the centre of a remarkably entertaining angle that brilliantly blurs the line between reality and storytelling.

It all started in June when he got on the microphone, declared himself the number one contender to the WWE title and refused to leave the ring until the anonymous Raw general manager acknowledged this fact.

The GM refused but did allow Punk to earn the right to become next in line for a title shot after winning his next match which he did.  (He defeated Alberto Del Rio and Rey Mysterio in a triple threat match.)  Near the end of the show, he cost John Cena a victory in his non-title Tables Match with the hilariously nutty R-Truth.

With the WWE Champion uncomfortably resting in front of the broken table Truth speared him into, Punk retrieved a microphone, walked all the way to the ramp, sat down cross-legged and delivered a promo for the ages.

He made fun of Triple H and his wife, Stephanie McMahon, and complained about the departures of his friend, Colt Cabana (who has since quietly returned), and current MMA superstar Brock Lesnar.

He railed against the fans (he was still a heel at that point) for supporting guys like Cena instead of guys like him.  He bemoaned the fact that he wasn’t being promoted properly through merchandising.  And he imagined that the death of Vince McMahon wouldn’t change anything.

His rant was so compelling that when his microphone suddenly stopped working (just as he was about to tell a story about McMahon), you believed it.  All of this was framed around Punk’s declaration that his contract was up the night of the Money In The Bank pay-per-view last month where he would ultimately beat John Cena for the championship and walk away.  (It has since been renewed and he’s still champion.)

Since then, he’s tangled with Triple H (the new on-camera authority figure after McMahon’s on-air firing) at Comic Con and on Raw, he’s traded barbs with his SummerSlam opponent John Cena (who won a tournament to become the new WWE Champion during Punk’s brief absence), he got a grovelling apology from McMahon and has truly become a “voice for the voiceless” advocating on behalf of wrestlers past and present who he feels have been screwed over by the company.  This past Monday, he certainly put executive of talent relations John Laryngitis in his place over the recent firings of Vladimir Koslov, Chris Masters and David Hart Smith, a moment so rarely seen during a wrestling show.

As a result, Punk has turned into a babyface a la Steve Austin (it was no coincidence he was wearing one of the Texas Rattlesnake’s T-shirts during that June promo on Raw) and there’s much anticipation about how this ongoing saga will unfold at tonight’s SummerSlam.  (Triple H officiates the Punk/Cena “undisputed” championship in the main event.)

Over the years, Howard Stern has interviewed numerous wrestlers like Mick Foley, Golddust, Hulk Hogan, The Iron Sheik and even Bret Hart.  The outspoken Punk recently gave a terrific interview with GQ Magazine.  He would give an even better one with Howard.  The question I most want answered:  why did Punk once tip a stripper with a filet-o-fish?

Baby Ruthie and Sasha Grey

One of Howard’s longest obsessions is with pornography.  He was talking about pleasuring himself to sex films and magazines long before it was ever considered socially acceptable to do so.  Various porn stars like Jenna Jameson (who owes her whole career to Howard), Ron Jeremy, Bree Olson and countless others have found themselves opening up to him in ways rarely seen and heard in other interview forums.

Not all on-camera sex workers work for Vivid and Wicked, though.  There’s a whole amateur scene filled with even more interesting characters.  One such amateur is Baby Ruthie, an ordinary married mother of three who Howard might need to do an intervention with.

Based in the Midwest, she might be the most reckless performer in the history of the business.  With the surprising encouragement of her photographer/videographer husband (who sounds like a cartoon character), she will pretty much do any guy without hesitation.  She’s so easy even JD has a shot with her.  (Well, he may have to lose some weight first.  Supposedly, she’s not into “overweight guys” which sounds like bull to me.  When did self-described “sluts” become picky?)

No condoms are used, no questions are asked and unless I’m mistaken, no testing for disease is ever done beforehand.  (Ruthie’s not into any kind of small talk.)  Needless to say, she is very open sexually.  (Members of her site actually can call her cell phone and personally arrange hook-ups.)

Howard would have a field day with this woman (she could easily win the upcoming I’m The Biggest Whore contest) and best of all, she would most definitely ride the Sybian.

Another porn star worth booking is Sasha Grey who once angered Howard two years ago over comments she made about him during an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine.  (Curiously, when her name was brought up recently, he didn’t even remember who she was.  I mean, come on, it wasn’t that long ago!)

One of the few performers to transition into mainstream films, Howard missed a glorious opportunity to confront her in the studio about her bogus, false claim that he’s a “closet racist”.  (He foolishly turned her down as a possible guest at the time.)

Grey bills herself as something of a porn feminist and an intellectual.  Whatever subject matter Howard would want to get into with her (and obviously, sex would be at the top of the list), it would be a compelling interview.  He should reconsider his earlier decision.  As he already knows, confrontation makes for great radio.

Phil Hellmuth

Every high profile profession has its share of egotistical assholes.  In tennis back in the day, there was John McEnroe.  But in today’s poker scene, there’s Phil Hellmuth.

Aptly nicknamed “The Poker Brat”, the 11-time World Series Of Poker bracelet winner is the sorest loser in the game.  One of the chattiest players at the table, when Hellmuth is losing, everybody has to hear about it.  (Ironically, when he’s winning, he’s not such a whiny jerk.  Go figure.)

After being busted early on by 2008 WSOP Main Event Champion Peter Eastgate during that year’s tournament, he called him an “idiot from Northern Europe”.  (He later privately apologized to the young Dane and offered advice before he played the final table.)

Because he is oh so sensitive, needling Hellmuth during taped games has become a guilty pleasure over the years for both his fellow players and the audience.  (Tony G did it artfully on The Big Game, to name just one example.)

When The Poker Brat is rattled, he makes bad decisions and starts cursing up a storm.  Just ask “The Magician” Antonio Esfandiari who always seems to have his number on Poker After Dark, the NBC late night show (also airing on Rogers Sportsnet) that Hellmuth has appeared on more often (more than 30 times, according to IMDB.com) than any other in its history.

Stern would get plenty of good quote from Hellmuth who is often the most entertaining player at a poker table.  Never at a loss for words, he would be an ideal guest on the show.  Hopefully, he’d bring his wife.  She’s a shrink.

Rihanna

Howard has often talked about the time he briefly met the sexy singer in person.  When Jay-Z introduced her to him, the rapper referred to her quite respectfully as “his artist”.  (He signed her to Def Jam half a decade ago.)  God knows Howard would have plenty to talk about with her.

Clearly, the Chris Brown assault would be at the top of the list with sex a close second.  Personally, I’d like to know why the Grammy winner prefers bad boys to nice guys (she finds the latter boring) when the former treat her so poorly. Also, why does she enjoy sexting so much and when did she start doing that?

Stern has expressed sympathy for what happened to her and if he ever had her on the show, as long as he could get her to open up, it would make for good radio.  You’re welcome.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 14, 2011
4:58 p.m.

CORRECTION:  It took me all this time to realize that I misspelled Rihanna’s name (it’s not Rhianna).  My apologies.  The correct spelling now appears in the piece.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 25, 2012
5:50 p.m.

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 4:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Winners & Losers Of 2009 (Part Four)

 
Winner:  U2
 
It was another productive year for the greatest rock band of all time.  No Line On The Horizon, U2’s follow-up to the Grammy-winning How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, was another solid effort earning a 5-star review from Rolling Stone Magazine.  (Along with The New York Times and The Chicago Sun-Times, Rolling Stone also named it one of the best albums of the year.)  It was their first album to feature no bad songs since Pop.  To promote the record, the band played killer live versions of the first single, Get On Your Boots, on at least two awards shows including The Grammys (which they opened).  When the album was issued in March, the band played five straight Late Shows With David Letterman, offering a preview of all the singles from the record plus Beautiful Day which ended with Bono paying tribute to the much-missed New York punk legend Joey Ramone.  (A sixth song, which never aired, was performed especially for the audience in The Ed Sullivan Theater.)  In September, during the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, the band delivered another typically strong 3-song set.
 
In the fall, The Unforgettable Fire was reissued with a bonus disc of complete B-Sides and rarities which earned the band more good critical notices.  Bono and The Edge appeared on the second season premiere of Elvis Costello’s Spectacle.  Despite the mutual asskissing and lack of revelation, it was an entertaining interview.  Plus, there was a rare live performance of Two Shots Of Happy, One Shot Of Sad, a moving track written for Frank Sinatra in the early 1990s who, sadly, never recorded it. (His daughter, Nancy, covered it on her self-titled 2004 album.  Canadian jazz artist Matt Dusk also did a rendition on his 2004 collection, Two Shots.)
 
Ending off another memorable year, the band contributed a new song called Winter to Jim Sheridan’s latest film, Brothers.  It was recently shortlisted for consideration in the Best Original Song category for the upcoming Academy Awards.  Plus, the band received three Grammy nominations.  No Line On The Horizon is up for Best Rock Album (it should’ve also received an Album Of The Year nomination but I digress) and I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight is competing in the Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals categories. 
 
Here’s hoping it won’t be another 5-year wait for the next studio record.
 
(January 2nd UPDATE:  There’s more good news.  Pollstar.com recently announced that the band were the top grossing concert act of 2009.)
 
Loser:  Jay Leno
 
After ending his 17-year stint hosting The Tonight Show on a weak note in May, the big-chinned comedian took a gamble on a new prime-time talk show in September.  Despite debuting with very strong ratings during his first week (roughly 18 million viewers caught the opener), reviews were less than stellar.  (Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly recently named The Jay Leno Show the worst TV program of the year.)  It also didn’t hurt that the show was initally competing against reruns. 
 
Once new episodes of other programs started airing, however, the ratings dropped significantly.  In the show’s second week, the average nightly viewership was between 6 and 7 million (slightly higher than his Tonight Show viewership).  Great numbers for a late night program but not for prime-time.  Unfortunately, local NBC affiliates noticed that the show was affecting the ratings of its 11 o’clock newscasts.  They’re down by between 20 and 30%.  Despite the hilarity of Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show, its ratings have been affected by Leno, as well.  (Late Show With David Letterman routinely beats it.)
 
If that weren’t bad enough, many in the entertainment industry are openly rooting for its cancellation.  Howard Stern, still steaming over how Leno lured Stuttering John over to The Tonight Show in 2003 as well as signature bits being stolen without credit (Jaywalking, for example, being a rip-off of The Homeless Game), has been revelling in its failure and ER producer John Wells (who’s also the President of The Writers Guild Of America, West) would rather see NBC go back to making episodic dramas at 10 p.m., a common refrain of creative colleagues.  Furthermore, a number of competing networks have banned many of their talent from doing the show.
 
With Comcast now a majority holder of NBC, how long will it stick with The Jay Leno Show?  If the ratings remain lousy for a prolonged period of time, don’t expect a renewal.  
 
Winner:  Lou Diamond Phillips
 
It takes a strong person to put up with Janice Dickinson, Heidi Montag, Spencer Pratt and two Baldwin brothers for any amount of time, but to do it on Television in a rainy and muggy Costa Rican jungle for many, many hours without completely losing your dignity, that’s impressive.  Although one could easily question his decision to appear on the show in the first place, this La Bamba actor (and Tony Award nominee) made the most of his 24-day stint on the second season of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!
 
A serious competitor from the start, the 16-day Camp Leader won 11 of the 24 “trials” and was declared the winner on the 24th and final broadcast, making his charity, Art Has Heart Foundation, very happy. 
 
But it was his remarkable run in The Main Event of The 2009 World Series Of Poker that garnered far more acclaim.  One of 19 celebrities in a field of nearly 3000 overall competitors, he outlasted every one of them finishing a respectable 186 with a cashout of $36,626.  (Not bad for a $10,000 investment, the event’s entry fee.)  To put this in perspective, he finished higher than long established poker greats like 1988 World Texas Hold ‘Em Champion Phil Hellmuth (436), 2000 Champ Chris Ferguson (561) and a whole slew of others with numerous WSOP bracelets to their names. 
 
Forget these silly reality shows, Lou.  Stick with poker.
  
Loser:  Robin Quivers and Gary Dell’Abate 
 
Howard Stern’s longtime sidekick/newswoman and producer have been embarrassed countless times on the long-running morning radio staple and 2009 was no exception. 
 
After beating Regis Philbin and Stephen King on a 1997 edition of Celebrity Jeopardy, the ageless Quivers was hoping for a repeat triumph twelve years later when she battled Julie Bowen and Jane Kaczmarek during an episode that aired in November.
 
No such luck.  Unlike her previous appearance, she had a hard time buzzing in first.  Although most of the few questions she did offer were correct, it was all for naught.  By the time the game got to Final Jeopardy, she lost all but one dollar on an answer related to Film Directors.  Instead of writing “Who is Frank Capra?” (which would’ve been right), she wrote “Who is Pon?”  That response was so out there Wikipedia has a brief entry for it.  (It’s under “Non-Fiction” in that link.)
 
The first half of 2009 was just as bad as the second.  In January, she claimed that Captain Sullenberger, the heroic pilot who safely landed a commercial airliner onto New York’s Hudson River without losing a single passenger, was just doing his job and didn’t deserve to be called a hero.  And in March, during a memorable appearance on The Howard Stern Show, Dr. Drew Pinsky revealed that Quivers scored so high on her narcissism test (which was part of a greater study of celebrity ego for his co-written book, The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America) that her results were higher than 99% of the population.  You can imagine how thrilled she was with that revelation. 
 
As for Baba Booey, he’d like to forget all about May 9th.  That was the day he threw out the ceremonial opening pitch at Citi Field before a game between The Mets and The Pittsburgh Pirates.  Worrying for weeks about how it was all going to turn out (he practiced relentlessly and consulted a sports psychologist), Dell’Abate’s nerves got the better of him as he threw the ball a little too far to the right.  The meaningless, bad pitch nonetheless ignited a comedic shitstorm.  Not only was he goofed on relentlessly by listeners and his work colleagues (especially Artie Lange), his infamous pitch was hammered repeatedly in numerous news and sports reports.  It is considered one of the worst opening pitches ever.
 
Par for the course when you’re Baba Booey.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, January 1, 2010
8:16 p.m.
Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Winners & Losers Of 2008 (Part One)

 
Winner:  Peter Eastgate
 
19 years ago, a self-described “Poker Brat” made history.  24-year-old Phil Hellmuth became the youngest Main Event winner in the history of The World Series Of Poker.  During the final table of the No Limit Texas Hold ’em World Championship in May 1989, he ousted Johnny Chan to win $755,000.  Including Hellmuth, there were 178 participants in the No Limit Hold ’em competition altogether that year.
 
Fast forward to 2008.  With 6844 players vying to divy up over 64 million in prize money, Hellmuth was eliminated by a 22-year-old Denmark native who he lovingly referred to as an “idiot from Northern Europe”.  He finished a respectable 45th earning a total of $154,400. 
 
So, how did the “idiot from Northern Europe” do?  He won the entire event.
 
Peter Eastgate became one of The November Nine, the collective nickname for the players who made it to the final table of The Main Event.  (According to Eastgate, before the historic match, Hellmuth rather graciously “wished me luck and gave me a handshake.”.)  In a gripping two-hour presentation that later aired on ESPN in America and TSN in Canada, the young Dane, who had never won a tournament before, had to fend off his last opponent, the intimidating Ivan Demidov, a 27-year-old Russian who played brilliantly aggressive poker that final night.  (Hellmuth and numerous other spectators witnessed it all live in person.)  But in the end, when Demidov pushed all-in with two pair (2s and 4s) on the last hand of the match, Eastgate could not be pushed off his 5-high straight.  Besides breaking Hellmuth’s record by 2 years, Eastgate took home an astounding $9,152,416.  Not bad for an “idiot from Northern Europe”, eh, Phil?  As for Demidov, don’t feel bad for him.  For finishing second, he earned $5,809,595.
 
Loser:  The New England Patriots
 
They were on an incredible streak.  They looked invincible.  They blew it.
 
After winning 15 straight regular season games the most dominant team in the National Football League faced The New York Giants in their final battle of the year.  In a tight contest, The Patriots prevailed by a score of 38-35.  That victory made history.  The 2007 Patriots became the second team to have an unblemished regular season.  The Miami Dolphins, who won 12 games in a row in 1972, were the first.  The Dolphins also won every game in the post-season that year, as well.  It was a record coach Bill Belichick and his roster were hoping to match.
 
After just two playoff wins against The Jacksonville Jaguars and The San Diego Chargers, The Patriots were one victory away from winning Super Bowl 42.  Their opponents?  The New York Giants.  In an event that was attended by over 70,000 fans and witnessed on Television by almost 100 million viewers, the final result was decided in the final minute of the fourth quarter.  In one of the most exciting finales in sports history, Giants quarterback Eli Manning fought off the strong possibility of being sacked on third down in the final minute to spiral the pigskin to a leaping David Tyree who made a memorable reception.  He caught the ball in his right hand and pressed it firmly against his helmet, landing on the 24-yard line.  The score at that point:  Patriots 14, Giants 10.
 
With less than 40 seconds remaining on the clock, Plaxico Burress (yes, the jackass who accidentally shot himself in a club this month) caught the winning touchdown pass.  When time ran out, The Giants had 17 points and The Patriots had 14.  Peyton Manning’s little brother had done it.  After a few seasons of frustrating unevenness, and with his big brother in attendance applauding him all the way, Eli had led The Giants to their first Super Bowl victory since 1991 when they beat The Buffalo Bills in another close match-up.  Tom Brady and company, 12-point favourites going into the big game, were stunned.
 
If that weren’t impressive enough The Giants have thus far had an incredible 2008 season, as well.  Already eligible for another post-season run, as of this writing, they are 11 and 1.  The Patriots?  Try 7 and 5.  Not so dominant this year, are ya, fellas?  I wonder why.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, December 6, 2008 
1:33 a.m.
Published in: on December 6, 2008 at 1:34 am  Leave a Comment  

From The Published Archives: Freebies At Your Fingertips

I love the headline.  Of the 9 submissions I wrote for The Hamilton Spectator – 4 YourPlace articles, 4 features in The Magazine and 1 Forum piece – this was the only one that didn’t require a title change.   (The Spec’s headline writers couldn’t come up with anything better.)  And it looked great in print. 
 
Freebies At Your Fingertips was my final published piece for the YourPlace page in the Spec’s entertainment section.  Sold as “entertainment news for teens”, YourPlace gave young, unprofessional writers a place to voice their passions and vitriol without being paid for their work.  It also featured articles from American journalists who weren’t working for free.  Right under my article, at the bottom half of page D7 of the entertainment section, was “Jennifer Lopez just can’t settle down”, by Charles Ealy of The Dallas Morning News.  (The piece also briefly covered the post-Friends film careers of Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer.)
 
Freebies was published on August 23, 2002 and it remains the only published article I’ve ever written about video games, which remain one of my passions.  Since I bought my computer in 2001, I’ve resumed playing online adventures at home.  (It had been almost a decade since I last played the old 8-bit Nintendo cartridges I owned.  I have long since given most of them away to charity.  The rest were sold to friends.)
 
I’ve decided to keep some of The Spectator’s edits while reinstating certain lines that had to be cut for spacing purposes.  Essentially, this is what ended up in the paper. 
 
The article was published with a large file photo of some chubby-fingered kid pretending to play a Playstation 2 game.  That was in the centre.  To the left was an open box of Dunkin’ Donuts (What?  No Tim Hortons?), an open bag of Oreos and an open can of Coke Classic.  (There’s something else in front of the Donut box but I have no clue what it is.) 
 
To the right was an open container of, presumably, peanut butter and an open bag of generic ruffles, some of which were on display on a plate (plus a couple that ended up on the table).  I thought it was a cool photo until it was recycled for another article later on.  (I don’t remember when this happened or what the article was, unfortunately.)    
 
A lot of the pieces I submitted to YourPlace were either about the movies or rock and roll, still my absolute favourite subjects.  Considering how much time I spent playing free online video games I thought it would be a good idea (and a nice change of pace) to write about the best sites that offered decent games that didn’t cost you a cent. 
 
All of the sites I mention in my article still exist today and, yes, the games remain free of charge.  (Although, some sites sell downloads at reasonable rates.)  I’ve decided to link to those sites so you can check those out and have some fun. 
 
Oh, and one more thing.  A year after I wrote the article, I finally solved Eight Legged Freaks after screening the movie.  Much to my surprise, there’s only two levels.
 
 
Freebies At Your Fingertips
Games don’t have to carry a big price tag
By DENNIS EARL
 

In 1972, the world’s premiere video game made its debut. Nothing more than a simple, electronic version of table tennis, the then-groundbreaking Pong started a revolution.

30 years later, video games are a multi-billion dollar industry thanks to decades of constantly evolving technology.

As any crumbling parent will tell you, with evolution comes big price tags. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, games made for X-Box and Playstation 2, not to mention CD-ROMs for your PC, are top of the line productions. But what about the more frugal gamers who just can’t afford them? Is there something out there for them at either reduced prices or for free?

The answer is yes.

All you need is an internet-accessible PC with sound and video cards, plenty of free time, some decent sites to investigate and you’re off to the races.

A good place to start is gamespotter.com where you can link to specific free games and home pages of game sites. But read carefully. They have a legend of symbols to help you determine which sites are free and which ones gouge you. (Don’t worry. Most of them are free.)

Organized nicely into categories like sports, shooters and board games, it’s easy to use and you’re sure to find something to wile away the time. Not every game works when you want it to and the quality varies. But there are several good ones so the site is worth exploring.

One of the best freebie game sites is 3dgroove.com. They’ve created some fabulous Shockwave games like Tank Wars (also on shockwave.com) and my personal favourite, Nothin’ But Net, a well put together basketball game in which you have to make 7 baskets in a row from specific spots on the court, in order, before moving on to the next round, whether it’s a jumper or a jam.

If you miss, you start over.

You have your choice of being a dude with a fly ‘fro or a blonde lady with nice legs. Both work for me. It’s endless amounts of fun and you don’t need a joystick or cash to play. Just a functioning keyboard. Don’t throw too many misses or you’ll get goofed on. (“Are you gonna build a house with all those bricks?”) Great graphics and I love the funky music, too. While it’s downloading (which doesn’t take too long), I make up my own dope rhymes. Word.

3dgroove also designs movie and advertising tie-in games. Check out Eight Legged Freaks. It’s so well designed and challenging I still can’t get past level one. Based on the recent film, you have your choice of being David Arquette or Kari Wuhrer and as a nice bonus, you’ll get to hear amusing quips from their characters, especially after they kill another giant spider.

There are plenty of decent sport games online for free as well. Super Web Soccer is a good example. (radicalplay.com/socca) Although it doesn’t have the most advanced graphics, it’s probably the best free soccer game I’ve played so far. You can be one of 32 nations vying for the 2002 World Cup (each team is ranked by 3 different skill areas) or you can go for the Champions Cup as Real Madrid, Manchester United or one of 14 other teams. It’s remarkably challenging with good sound and the always enjoyable instant replay. And during the tournament games (you can figure out how to play using the practice game mode as well), if the game is tied after regulation, you go for the golden goal in extra time. Pretty cool.

There are so many cool freebie game sites you can check out like candystand.com which has a great pool game and Wiffle ball, miniclip.com which has some nifty terrorist action games, (in one, you can actually beat the crap out of Bin Laden) and so many more.

So, what are you waiting for, cheapskate gamers? Are you bored at work and need a break? Check out any of these sites (or do a Google search) and kill some time having fun. Happy hunting.

 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, November 17, 2006
2:42 a.m.
Published in: on November 18, 2006 at 2:59 am  Leave a Comment  

Steel City Vs. Blockbuster: Who’s Best?

I recently got together with an old friend to belatedly celebrate his 31st birthday.  It was great fun, as always.  He wanted to rent a sports game for us to play which was a great idea.  We ended up settling on one of those 2007 NHL games (there were two to choose from and I can’t remember now which one we selected since they seemed so similiar) and it turned out to be the greatest hockey simulation I’ve ever played.

When he went to the counter to pay for it, I was astonished at the rental price.  12 bucks for 7 days!  Jesus.  I don’t think Nintendo rentals were even half that price back in the early 1990s.  What a relief that the game was so extraordinary.

Being in that store reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about on here for some time.  Since 2001, I’ve been renting mostly DVDs from two major video chains:  Steel City Video and Blockbuster Video.  Back then, both stores were very slowly starting to realize that VHS videotapes had no future.  As a result, they started stocking DVD titles.  But because VHS still controlled the market (remember, DVDs were only 5 years old at that point and needed more time to conquer video), the majority of titles available for rent were on tape.

I remember vividly the day I rented my first DVD at Steel City.  It was September 18, 2001 and because it had been so long since anybody in my family rented anything from there (roughly 3 years) I didn’t know if our old membership card was still valid or not.  It was, thankfully, and I selected Red Planet, the so-so 2000 sci-fi film with Val Kilmer and Carrie Anne-Moss which I screened the next day.  

Looking back, there were only 3 DVD sections at the store at the time.  The blue section which featured maybe 40-50 older titles, tops; the adult section which also had very few selections and the red section which was completely made up of new and recent releases.  (There was probably 2-3 times more titles here than the blue and adult sections.)  For a brief period in 2003, there was a green section.  These were films that had been available for at least 4 months.  I don’t remember when they discontinued them.

I remember the new titles were displayed on a dark brown, wooden, rectangular shelf case near the back of the store and you had to crouch down to examine the DVD cases more closely because it was only as high as my waist.

As the years went by, you would notice major changes in the store.  Before the Public Library started circulating DVDs, I would mostly rent them from Steel City and every few months or so, you would witness the inevitable transformation in progress.  As they would get more and more popular, more space had to be made available for more titles.  Gradually, there would be fewer new VHS releases but a lot more DVD titles.  Originally, when you walked to the far end of the store you would see two full walls of new tapes (the wall directly in front of you and the wall to your right).  When that shelf case couldn’t contain enough new titles, they got rid of it and started putting the DVD cases on the back wall.  If I remember correctly, at first, they crammed so many movies on either a third or half of the back wall they couldn’t be displayed without excessive overlapping.  Then, new VHS titles were relegated to the right-side wall after even more new release DVDs were displayed on the entire back wall.  Now, there are no new VHS titles on any of the walls.  (Hell, there aren’t any new VHS tapes being released, period.)  It’s all DVDs.  And as for that piddly little blue section, it’s been greatly expanded over the years as well. 

Initially, older videotapes were organized by genre.  Now, older DVDs are organized in that matter.  You can still rent VHS tapes there but the selection is much smaller than before and they’re not as prominently showcased as they were in the past.  It’s quite a change from 5 years ago.

Blockbuster went through the same transformation, although they don’t have any VHS tapes available for rent any more.  So, they’re a little ahead of the game.  It’s only a matter of time before Steel City catches up with them.

This leads me to my purpose here.  Which video store is better?  Let’s break it down category by category.

PRICE

I remember when I started renting from Blockbuster in 1993.  A Jumbo Video outlet had just closed, much to my shock (there was no warning) and I needed a new video store to rent from.  A new Blockbuster location popped up at the right time and I started renting tapes immediately and quite regularly.  Back then, their VHS rental prices were quite affordable.  New titles cost $2.50 for the night and older titles were a little over 3 bucks for 2 or 3 nights.  Then, after a while, they started jacking up the prices.  Soon, it was 3 bucks for new one-night rentals and about 4 for the older titles.  By either 1996 or 1997, I stopped renting there (I also was going through a mental crisis and stopped critiquing movies for the rest of the decade) and would return 5 years later to rent their DVDs.

Much to my disappointment, they weren’t cheap.  It cost you $4.99 for new titles (2-day or 7-day rentals) and $3.99 for older releases (also 7-days) or Favourites as they started calling them.  (Not a bad marketing ploy.  Beats “You’ve Already Seen These Crap”.)  If you rented a certain number of Favourites you saved a little money but, in my opinion, not very much.  I once rented 8 movies for a week in 2003 (I screened and graded ’em all despite suffering from occasional dental pain.  Long story.) and it cost me over 20 bucks.

If I had rented those same titles at Steel City, it would’ve cost me a lot less.  (More on that in a moment.)  Today, Blockbuster charges you $5.19 (!) for new titles but has kept the Favourites pricing policy the same as before.  I last rented there in late August where two Favourites cost me a grand total of 9 bucks.  Of course, if I rented a third title (as the sales clerk helpfully reminded me), I might’ve saved some money.  Yes, but as I said, not that much.

For my money, Steel City has always had the best prices and unlike Blockbuster, they’re not greedy and they don’t screw their customers.  Back in the tape era, if you rented three older titles, it would cost you almost 6 bucks.  A great deal.  Today, in the DVD era, they offer the exact same deal.  Sweet.  The only downside?  You only have them for 5 days.  It should be a week like Blockbuster.

As for their new releases, it used to be about 4 bucks per title and you would only have them out for 24 hours (they would be due the next day at around the same time you rented them).  But they would offer cool deals.  You could rent 2 new releases for 5 bucks (really, just under 6) on Wednesdays and later, Sundays, as well.  (I don’t know if they still offer that or not.)  Also, if you kept the bills of a certain number of new release rentals, you would get a freebie.  (I’m not sure if that’s still offered, as well.) Today, they’ve actually reduced the price for new releases.  It’s 3 bucks plus tax per title.  Very cool. 

If I had rented those 8 movies I mentioned at Steel City instead of Blockbuster, it would’ve cost me about 15 or 16 bucks instead of the 23 or 24 dollars it ended up costing me.

Advantage:  Steel City

SELECTION

So, why have I rented at Blockbuster when Steel City’s prices are so much more reasonable?  It’s because of selection.  For a while there, Blockbuster had more titles to choose from, particularly older ones.  However, Steel City has caught up.  Today, both stores are more than likely to have roughly the same kinds of movies available for rent. 

Then, there’s the matter of full screen and widescreen.  For movies made before the early 1950s (as well as some notable recent exceptions like Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster which I recommend) full screen is your only option.  Everything else should be in widescreen.  There was an annoying period in late 2002 when both Blockbuster and Steel City decided to just stock certain titles in full screen only.  There was such a public outcry, particularly in the United States, that Blockbuster reversed its policy and started stocking almost all titles in widescreen only (with the exception of those films only available in full screen as well as titles that have both full screen and widescreen versions on the same DVD). 

Steel City took a different approach.  It ordered full screen and widescreen copies of some films and full screen only for others.  Very annoying.  When titles are removed from the new release shelves and relocated to the blue section, depending on what movies we’re talking about, they’ll save the full screen and/or the widescreen copies for future rentals.  Unfortunately, they don’t always clearly mark which copy is the full screen copy and which is the widescreen copy.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that they only save one case for each movie.  Sometimes it’s the widescreen case, other times it’s the full screen case.  And they usually have 2 copies of each movie.  Some customers with smaller TVs will scoop up what they think is a full screen movie only to find out the hard way it’s in widescreen.  And, of course, someone who thinks they’ve rented a widescreen copy could end up accidentally taking home a full screen copy.  That’s why, if you’re not sure, ask.  And before you leave the store, make sure they gave you the right version.  I rented The Scorpion King in 2002 thinking it was the widescreen copy.  Instead of checking the label side of the disc before I left Steel City, I checked when I got home and was mighty pissed.  (The confusion resulted in a misplaced red tag (which represents an available copy) being placed on the wrong DVD case.)  My dad ended up watching half the movie before I went back and got the right copy which I’m glad I did. 

And yes, this has happened to me with Blockbuster as well.  2 years ago, I rented 6 titles, all of which were supposed to be in widescreen.  Again, forgetting the lesson of 2002, I didn’t know 2 of the movies I rented were in full screen until I got home.  Unlike Steel City which doesn’t always clearly mark which movies are in widescreen and full screen, Blockbuster has very clear labels on those cases you take home with the DVDs.  It very clearly said “widescreen” on both Unfaithful and Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone.  For some unknown reason, some dopey employee put full screen copies by mistake in both those cases.  (More on those shortly.)

Since the advent of Public Library DVDs, I don’t rent to the near extent I used to.  Right now, the Library has the best selection with over 9000 titles.  For a while there, of the two video stores I frequent, Blockbuster had a better and wider selection.  Steel City has since come back strong with a lot of movies you once could only rent at Blockbuster.  This is a hard one to call.  Some titles you can get in widescreen in only one store and sometimes there are films neither outlet stocks in widescreen.  Ultimately, I can’t decide.

Advantage: Neither

QUALITY

This is very easy to call.  Sometimes, you rent a title and it’s in bad shape.  I’m talking unplayable.  I’m talking stutters, freezes, shoddy playback quality, bad sound, you name it.  For some weird reason, I’ve had more playback problems with Blockbuster titles than Steel City ones.

I watch movies on my computer and it’s very sensitive to glitches.  There have been moments when I watched National Lampoon’s Animal House, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Thunderball, Sling Blade, Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad and recently, Two Brothers (all Blockbuster rentals) where the computer just froze.  Fortunately, we have a downstairs player and I’ve been able to watch those parts of the DVD that just wouldn’t playback properly on my computer.

As for Steel City, I’ve only had playback problems with a few titles.  I rented Bean several years ago and parts of it were so damaged it was a struggle to get through the whole movie (but, thankfully, I did).  It was a good thing it had full and widescreen versions on the same disc, let me tell ya.  There were a couple of problems with 15 Minutes as well.  (Recommended.)  Recently, I rescreened Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare which was so badly wrecked, no matter which player you played it on you ran into problems.  Some parts would play perfectly on my computer while others would not.  On the downstairs machine, the same scenes that played smoothly upstairs would look distorted and the sound quality was off, sometimes non-existent.  Very weird.  It got so frustrating I had to skip a couple of minutes to find the next  smooth scene to watch (something I never do under any circumstances).  Eventually, I saw the whole movie, if a little out of order.  (Despite the great difficulty in getting a complete, smooth screening of that movie, I felt the same way about Freddy’s Dead as I did 14 years ago.  It’s not a good movie.)

Certain Warner Bros. releases stutter on my computer for some reason.  I found this out in 2004 when I borrowed Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation from the library.  (They played perfectly without incident on a regular DVD machine.)  I ran into the exact same problem when I rented European Vacation from Steel City.  I have no idea how to fix this or why it happens.  I don’t remember any Blockbuster titles stuttering on my machine.

I’ve only had one real problem with a Public Library DVD other than the above-mentioned stutterings (which also includes the first 6 Police Academy movies).  I borrowed Calendar Girls one time and everything was going fine until this one scene where the computer froze.  I tried it a couple of times and it froze every time.  I tried the downstairs machine.  Same result.  So, I ended up renting the movie from Steel City the next day so I could continue where I left off and my mom could watch the whole thing.  Both screenings went perfectly.

Human beings are not perfect and as a result, neither is technology.  But, for my money, I believe the Public Library has the best quality DVDs.  As for the rental places, I’ve had fewer problems with Steel City’s copies.

Advantage: Steel City

CUSTOMER SERVICE

I’ve had both good and bad experiences with Steel City and Blockbuster employees.  Let’s start with Blockbuster.

Earlier on I mentioned that I rented 6 titles from them one time in 2004.  I thought I had rented nothing but widescreen copies.  When I got home, 2 of the movies were full screen.  Some boob put the wrong versions of Unfaithful and the first Harry Potter movie in these specifically marked “widescreen” cases.  I called the store to complain and they told me to come down and they’d sort it out.

This is late January.  Very cold and lots of snow on the ground.  I was not having a good day.  Before I went to the store the first time, I stopped at a variety store to look around.  I left without buying anything and about a block and a half past the store, I get a tap on my shoulder.  This guy was frisking me and checking the contents of my plastic bag (which had movies that I had already screened and graded and was about to return to Blockbuster).  It was the cashier from the store who quickly accused me of stealing a bottle of Pepsi.  I looked at him incredulously and immediately protested his outrageous accusation.  (Side note:  I never drink the stuff because I’m allergic to caramel colouring.)  He checked my bag, my pockets and after I unzipped it, the inside of my long, winter coat.  Disappointed, he told me off and went back to the store which he had left empty and open all this time.  So, if someone wanted to actually steal a bottle of Pepsi, that was their chance.  Man, I was pissed off.  

So, imagine how mortified I was that I had to go all the way back to Blockbuster after this to straighten out my rental difficulties.  Much to my eternal delight, the employees (all women, I believe) were excellent.  They apologized for their error (always a good start) and told me they found a widescreen copy of Unfaithful but couldn’t find one of that Harry Potter movie.  We found two more copies and thankfully, there was a widescreen DVD in one of the cases.  I was most relieved.  That was the best experience I ever had dealing with them directly.

On the flip side, they once called me up accusing me of not returning Thunderball.  I reminded them that I, in fact, did.  We went back and forth and finally, they realized their error and I was off the hook.  Totally unnecessary and unnerving.

I’ve had similiarly positive and negative experiences with Steel City.  One time in 2004, a clerk (who I didn’t remember initially as the brother of one of my old Delta classmates) overcharged me for a DVD.  I rented Treasure Planet (save your money) which is an older title found in the blue section.  It should’ve cost two bucks.  He charged me four.  When I complained, he told me the store would sort it out when I came back. 

4 or 5 days later, after I screened the movie, I returned to the store and inarticulately explained what happened.  I had rented a 5-day movie but that moronic clerk thought it was a new release and billed me as such.  I can’t remember now if I paid 2 dollars (the right price) or 4 dollars (the wrong one) but the movie showed up on my record as being overdue (because new releases are 1-day rentals).  The very nice female clerk (who I haven’t seen since) gave me two free new release rentals for my troubles (I must’ve paid 4 dollars, then, since she didn’t give me a refund) and I was most grateful.  I don’t know if they’re still available or not because I haven’t used them.  It’s been 2 and a half years since that happened.  One day, I’ll remember to bring it up.  I doubt I still have them.

I mentioned how I accidentally rented a full screen copy of The Scorpion King instead of a widescreen copy.  After I phoned the store to complain, they told me to come down and they’d make the switch for me.  Meanwhile, my father was about halfway through the movie.  (So impatient, that one.)  The screening was interrupted so I could take that copy back and get the right version from the store.

When I got there, the clerk was very nice but not very sophisticated.  She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t satisfied with the full screen version.  Even after explaining it to her, she still didn’t get it.  Thankfully, it didn’t matter.  I got the right copy, dad finished the movie and I watched the complete film upstairs with no problems whatsoever.

Without question, despite what I’ve said, I prefer dealing with Steel City employees.  They don’t say “Hi!!” like trained robots every time you enter the store and “Bye!!” every time you leave, especially when you don’t rent anything.  (So insincere and annoying.  I hate it.)  It also helps that a number of Delta grads have worked there over the years and so I end up in brief but pleasant conversations when I encounter them.  Actually, I don’t think I ever met a single clerk there who was in a bad mood and that goes for that dope who overcharged me and who I haven’t seen since.  (I wonder if they fired him.)  During my most recent rental trip, the nice lady behind the counter actually asked for my ID and when I told her I was 31 (which was uttered after a stunned moment of silence), she laughed, completely embarrassed by her action.  (For the record, when I’m completely shaved, I look very young.)  She immediately apologized and said jokingly, “You should be flattered.”  I was.  Too bad she wasn’t hot.

Advantage: Steel City

After breaking it all down, Steel City Video is my preferred video store, despite its flaws.  It’s closer than Blockbuster, the quality of the DVDs are better, the employees are personable, and there’s no beating their wonderfully affordable prices.  Now, if only they could stick with widescreen.

 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 16, 2006
12:24 a.m.
Published in: on September 17, 2006 at 12:48 am  Leave a Comment