Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, May 6, 2004









Superman, Harry Potter Head Summer Films


LOS ANGELES - Hollywood studios hope to laugh all the way to the ticket counter on the strength of those characters, lead players in the summer movie season's big three: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Spider-Man 2" and "Shrek 2."

The computer-animated follow-up to 2001's blockbuster "Shrek" reunites the voice talents of Mike Myers as the lovable ogre, Cameron Diaz as his newly "ogrified" bride and Eddie Murphy as their motor-mouth donkey pal. The sequel debuts just before Memorial Day.

Arriving a couple of weeks later is the third "Harry Potter" flick, with Daniel Radcliffe returning as the young sorcerer, this time sought by a murderous wizard who escapes from a prison for conjurers.

And for Fourth of July weekend comes "Spider-Man 2," the film that has the best chance of catching "The Passion of the Christ" as 2004's biggest moneymaker. "Spider-Man" shattered box-office records with a $114.8 million opening weekend in 2002 and went to become the year's top movie with $404 million.

The sequel pits Spider-Man against villain Doc Ock (Alfred Molina). Complicating matters, while moonlighting as a superhero, Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker is coping with life as a frazzled college kid, working two jobs and pining over girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst).

"He's a relatable superhero. He's a normal kid or human being who happens to be bitten by a spider," said Maguire of the gawky teen whose encounter with an irradiated arachnid gives him awesome powers. "He's a kid who goes through the usual stuff. Girl problems. His own selfish desires versus a greater responsibility. Questions we might all ask ourselves if we were in his position."

The summer season gets rolling in early May with "Van Helsing," the latest from writer-director Stephen Sommers, who scored hits in the same release date with 1999's "The Mummy" and its 2001 sequel "The Mummy Returns."

Sommers again borrows from the classic Universal horror tales of the 1930s, this time setting Bram Stoker's vampire hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) and a beautiful ally (Kate Beckinsale) against Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster.

While sticking to movie-monster iconography (Frankenstein's creation still has a flat head and bolts in his neck, for example), Sommers sought to add human dimensions to each creature.

So Dracula's an immortal longing to father a true heir, Frankenstein's monster is a brutish outcast akin to Lenny from "Of Mice and Men," and the Wolf Man's "very much like an alcoholic or drug addict. He could be your best friend or neighbor, very noble and upright during the day, but at night ...," Sommers said.

"Anybody could make a movie about Van Helsing taking on the three monsters and killing them one at a time," Sommers said. "But I think we came up with a really fun story going beyond that and interweaving all the characters."

"Shrek 2" interweaves some new fairy-tale characters, including Puss-in-Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) and the ogre's disapproving in-laws (Julie Andrews and John Cleese) parents to Diaz's Princess Fiona.

"The parents' expectation is that Fiona would have met a handsome prince and stayed beautiful and lived happily ever after, so they are understandably a bit shocked when they meet Shrek," said Andrew Adamson, a director on both "Shrek" movies. "It's almost like a Shakespearean farce."

The third "Harry Potter" reunites key cast members, including Radcliffe as the title wizard and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as his chums at Hogwarts School. Michael Gambon signs on as school patriarch Dumbledore, inheriting the role from the late Richard Harris, while Gary Oldman plays the escaped wizard.

Alfonso Cuaron took over as director from Chris Columbus, who oversaw the first two movies and remained a producer on the third. At two hours and 15 minutes, "Prisoner of Azkaban" is by far the shortest yet in the series, troubling news to young fans who want every stitch of action from J.K. Rowling's books translated to the screen.

With the first two films setting the stage, though, Cuaron was able to leap right into the action for the third, Columbus said.

"It's always a double-edged sword. Every kid who saw the movies wanted them to be longer and almost every adult wanted them shorter," Columbus said. "But I think this movie is so good that I don't think you'll get a lot of gripes.

Other action adventures for summer include "Troy," a tale of the ancient siege starring Brad Pitt as Greek warrior Achilles; the global-disaster flick "The Day After Tomorrow," with Dennis Quaid ; Halle Berry's "Catwoman," featuring the DC Comics' character; an update of "The Manchurian Candidate," starring Denzel Washington ; "Collateral," with Tom Cruise in the story of a hit man on a killing spree; Jackie Chan's "Around the World in 80 Days," a reprise of the Jules Verne classic, featuring a bit part by Arnold Schwarzenegger ; and "I, Robot," with Will Smith in an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's tales.

Smith plays a detective in 2035, when robots have taken over trash-collecting, working mines and other grunt jobs to free humanity for higher pursuits. A man who mistrusts technology, Smith's character is on the trail of a robot he thinks committed a murder, an impossibility under Asimov's robot rules.

"We took the basic gist of the stories, that there are three laws of behavior that prevent robots from injuring human beings or allowing human beings to be injured," Smith said. "Because my character's had a bad experience with robots, he doesn't trust the three laws. Something intuitively in his mind tells him that the three laws don't work."

While "I, Robot" depicts a world moving toward technological perfection, "The Day After Tomorrow" presents a planet wracked by global warming, which causes cyclones, deep freezes, squalls and other catastrophes.

"This is the ultimate disaster movie," said Quaid, who plays a climatologist trying to save the world. "It's got everything. Tornadoes, floods, tidal waves, blizzards, hail storms with hail the size of bowling balls."

Also coming this summer: "King Arthur," starring Clive Owen as the legendary English ruler and Keira Knightley as Guinevere; "The Village," the latest creepfest from M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "Signs"), starring Joaquin Phoenix , Sigourney Weaver , Adrien Brody and William Hurt; the monster smackdown "Alien Vs. Predator," featuring the two extraterrestrial beasts; "The Chronicles of Riddick," with Vin Diesel back as the sci-fi anti-hero from "Pitch Black"; "Thunderbirds," starring Bill Paxton in a live-action update of the cult TV puppet series about future rescue pilots; and "The Bourne Supremacy," with Matt Damon returning as the amnesiac spy from "The Bourne Identity."

Damon's Jason Bourne this time is framed for murder and on the run, and though his memories remain cloudy, he continues to find he possesses just the right skills to get out of any scrape.

"One of the hurdles we had on the first one was just the way I look. I don't look like your classic action guy," Damon said. "What we decided is, the more things I could do, the more believable and credible the character would be and the better the ride would be for the audience. So we just wanted to put me in as many situations as possible."

Lighthearted summer films include: "Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement," starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews in a follow-up to their 2001 summer hit; "The Stepford Wives," with Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and Christopher Walken in a black-comedy remake of the 1970s hit; "Garfield," a live-action and computer-animated adaptation of the comic strip, with Bill Murray providing the fat cat's voice; "Shall We Dance?" starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon in a remake of the Japanese film about a businessman who falls in love with formal dancing; "A Cinderella Story," with Hilary Duff giving a contemporary spin to the fairy-tale romance; and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," featuring Will Ferrell as a '70s newsman facing off against a feminist colleague (Christina Applegate).

Still, summer is not all action and laughs.

A few classy films will be mixed in among the popcorn flicks.

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg reunite for "The Terminal," the story of an Eastern European visitor who becomes a man without a country, stuck in the arrivals area at Kennedy airport after a coup in his home land leaves him without a valid passport. Catherine Zeta-Jones co-stars.

Robert Redford plays a kidnapped tycoon engaged in a socio-economic debate with his abductor (Willem Dafoe) in "The Clearing," which co-stars Helen Mirren.

Why you shouldn't turn off your PC

Brian Cooley, Cnet

Off or on? Where else but CNET would a discussion of whether you should turn your PC off at night become the hottest thread in the history of our user forums?

My position in the debate: I say, forget the thing even has a power switch. Leave it on. That way your machine is instantly available, just like every other tech product you own. It also lets backup programs, antivirus apps, and spyware cleaners do their thing thoroughly every night without slowing you down--or vice versa. That's how the pros run machines after all.

The cost? The average PC draws something like 60 watts in normal operation. At the average national rate of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour (or Tk 2.5 per kilowatt-hour in Bangladesh), that's $6 a month (Tk 150 a month) running all the time. Add in a monitor, and you might round up to $10, much less for an LCD. So we're talking maybe $120 per year.

What about wear and tear? The only part of a PC you really worry about breaking is the hard drive. My Seagate Barracuda is a 600,000-hour part (as measured by its mean-time-between-failures rating). That's about 69 years, always on. I've also noticed that PCs are like jetliners--they almost never crap out when cruising, but you have to watch those takeoffs and landings. Cycling the power on a PC is when you should tighten your seat belt.

But if the benefits of instant-on and background housekeeping don't turn you on, here's a more human-based reason to never shut down your machine: It takes my computer 48 seconds to boot. During that time, if you're like me, you sit there, pretty much staring at the BIOS and Windows screens. Maybe you're even mouth-breathing. Done just once a day, that's 4.9 hours of looking stupid, every year. I'll gladly play $120 to take that off my resume.

A cure for cable clutter
Cables irritate me, cascading on and off your desk, connecting all your desktop gear in an inefficient, expensive, snarled mess. The cat always wants to climb them and, as Cooley's Rule predicts, always ascends the one connected to the most expensive piece of gear, which means the Nikon film scanner takes a header onto the floor--the hardwood floor.

Yes, I've been accused of being tidy, but even the slovenly among you will like this trick: Install a plastic rain gutter on the wall your computer desk sits against, just below table height. Then lay all your cables in it, drilling perhaps one large hole where they need to escape and find the AC outlet. This will keep most of your cables off the floor and out of the cat's grasp. I like RainGo's gutter line for this project.

Google not perfect
I have a bone to pick with Google. Go there and search doubletree club las vegas. You'd expect to get a result up high that links to that hotel's site. But no. In fact, nowhere on the first page of results is there a link to any site run by the Doubletree hotel chain--just a bunch of junky travel reservation aggregators you've never heard of, emanating from long, hyphenated domains.

You get the same thing with four seasons las vegas reservations (more my style, anyway). I expected at least one result on the first page to point to, say, a Four Seasons hotel page, any Four Seasons hotel page. No.

Cables irritate me, cascading on and off your desk, connecting all your desktop gear in an inefficient, expensive, snarled mess.


The Ultimate Racing Simulator

Gamespot rating: 7.7. Publisher/Developer: Codemasters. Genre: Driving. Release Date: April 15. Difficulty: Variable. Learning Curve: From 0 to 15
Minutes. Stability: Stable. Requirements: 256 MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM, 32 MB VRAM, 1.17 GB disk space

TOCA Race Driver 2: The Ultimate Racing Simulator, Codemasters' follow-up to its unique 2002 racer, is not quite the ultimate racing simulator that it claims to be, but it's absolutely a game worth playing for any serious racing fan. It provides an excellent variety of race types, backed up with some solid driving mechanics and a deep and engaging career mode. Unfortunately, the PC version also suffers from a few graphical polish issues as well as some extremely irritating sound bugs, which ultimately mar the game's otherwise solid performance.

TOCA Race Driver 2 is all about variety. Rarely has there been a game that brings as many types of races to the table as this one does. You can choose from a bevy of different race types and concordant cars, including stock cars, rallies, Super Trucks, street racing, Mustangs, Land Rovers, open-wheel racers, and so on. There are 15 different varieties of races in all, each of which is actually represented quite well, both visually and in gameplay. TOCA Race Driver 2 also features a huge roster of more than 50 different worldwide racetracks, ranging from the Texas Motor Speedway to Pikes Peak to Brands Hatch, and more. Every track is extremely well constructed, and serious race fans should find each track immediately recognizable.

The racing mechanics in TOCA Race Driver 2 are primarily geared toward the more realistic ilk of racers. Each type of car handles uniquely and quite accurately. Slideouts usually happen when they should, and wrecking your car adversely affects your ability to race in several different ways. Blowing a tire will obviously kill your ability to steer properly, and thrashing your gearbox affects your acceleration and speed quite a bit. Controlling slideouts seems much easier to control, and concordantly, braking and using your emergency brake to slide around corners seems almost a bit too effective for some reason. The game also features a driving mode that is even more simulation-based than the normal mode, and it is also significantly harder. This mode is especially geared toward players with driving wheel controllers, and for that expressed purpose, it works great, adding more challenge than you would get otherwise.

The only serious complaint about TOCA 2's gameplay stems from the game's physics model, which is a little unreliable in certain situations. Though wrecking into other cars is generally not advised, it's too easy to simply use other cars as padding when sliding around corners. Bumping into the side of an opposing car at the right angle simply prevents you from sliding out, and it usually lets you gain a number of spots in a race pretty cheaply. Furthermore, crashes don't always seem to look or feel as they ought to. This is mainly an issue with bigger crashes, specifically in situations where you should be rolling your car or otherwise sustaining or inflicting a huge amount of damage--and sometimes it doesn't actually happen that way. These physics issues aren't a huge problem by any means, but they're definitely an annoyance. For the most part, the game's racing artificial intelligence is quite well done, and drivers are usually smart enough to avoid wrecks whenever possible. Occasionally you'll encounter a random dolt driver who makes a boneheaded mistake on the track.

New device allows recording at concerts

AP, NEW YORK - Oh, how far we've come from the 78, the 45, even the CD. Now, minutes after your favorite band sounds its last note on stage, you can load a live recording of the concert onto a cigarette-lighter-sized hard drive hanging off your keychain.

Take it home, toss the digital files onto your computer and then e-mail it to all your friends with the message, "Dude! These guys are awesome!"

On May 21, new digital kiosks offering the tiny drives will be installed at Maxwell's, a small indie-rock club in Hoboken, N.J. At $10 a pop for the recording, and $20 for the reusable, keychain drive, let the downloading begin.

"This is a tool that allows fans to take home and share some of the best independent music from small live venues around the country," said Daniel Stein, CEO of Dimensional Associates, a private equity firm that owns eMusic Live, which created the machines.

For Scott Ambrose Reilly, president of eMusic Live, the idea is to let fans have a legal copy of a live show, which gives smaller artists creative control over the quality of the recording .

Fans can share the files with their friends, providing free word-of-mouth publicity for smaller bands.

A different perspective of the moon

This NASA image shows a crescent moon through the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere photographed by crew members on board the International Space Station from a vantage point about 360 km over the Earth. At the bottom of the image, a closed deck of clouds is probably at about 6 km. The scatter of light causes the shades of blue grading to black as it strikes gas molecules of the very low-density upper atmosphere. According to a study by the Naval Research Laboratory, the density of the thermosphere has decreased about 10 percent over the last 35 years. These findings are important both for space science and for Earth science. Spacecraft in orbit, such as the International Space Station, experience less drag and need fewer boosts to maintain their orbit. At the same time, space debris also remains in orbit longer, which increases hazards to spacecraft. Most importantly, the study validates models of the greenhouse effect of increased carbon dioxide release on the dynamics of the atmosphere.

Molecular rings could shelter Venus Bugs

Hazel Muir, New Scientist

The idea that microbes may be alive and well in Venus's clouds is controversial. But some scientists are becoming more convinced that microorganisms could survive, thanks to the shelter from ultraviolet radiation provided by molecular rings of sulphur.

Venus might once have been warm and wet, and a potential breeding ground for life, but at some point a runaway greenhouse effect dried the planet out and heated its surface to more than 480 °C.

A few scientists have argued that if Venus's climate change was slow enough for life to adapt, microbes could survive there today, living in acidic clouds at altitudes of about 50 kilometres. The temperature there is only about 50 to 70 °C - conditions some terrestrial microbes can endure.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch of the University of Texas at El Paso and his colleagues have argued that the chemistry of the atmosphere is hard to explain unless microbes are influencing its composition (New Scientist print edition, 28 September 2002).

But unlike Earth, Venus does not have a protective shield of ozone. How could bugs survive the intense UV light from the Sun, which should by rights fatally damage proteins and DNA? Now Schulze-Makuch and his team say they have found a solution.

Patterns of absorption in the UV spectra of the planet suggest that the atmosphere may contain lots of "cycloocta-sulphur", rings of eight sulphur atoms.

These have double bonds that readily absorb UV light, then re-radiate the energy at relatively harmless visible wavelengths. Schulze-Makuch says this could mean that the atmosphere provides a sunscreen for any Venusian bugs.

Critics of the idea say there is not enough free water on the planet for microbes to survive. But Schulze-Makuch says Venusian microbes could suck water from hydrated sulphur compounds in the clouds.

Many probes visited the planet in the 1960s and 1970s, but there was no search for life. "At that time, we didn't know about terrestrial life in extreme environments, in hot springs or deep beneath the crust of the Earth," says Schulze-Makuch. "Now that we do, it's time to design missions to look for life in the clouds of Venus.


home | Issues | The Daily Star Home

2003 The Daily Star