Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Awesome In One Movie?

OMG! This movie is like every 80s action junkie's wet dream come true! If a more kick-ass ensemble ever existed on celluloid before, I'll eat my socks. Let's break it down by actor here:

Sylvester Stallone
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Jason Statham
Jet Li
Bruce Willis
Mickey Rourke
Eric Roberts


Dolph Lundgren!!!

And . . . AND . . . it's being directed by Stallone, too? I mean, what the hell? Did I just walk into some parallel dimension where movies are now made of pure epic WIN? When did this movie get greenlit?

Anyway, in case you need visual proof, here's the trailer for the upcoming summer action blockbuster, The Expendables:

I'm so there for this on DAY ONE! Who's with me?

Monday, March 29, 2010

My Self-Guided Highlander Tour Of Paris: Part Deux

Last year during our very first trip to Paris, I made it a point of identifying and locating as many filming locations for Highlander: The Series as possible. Believe it or not, there's actually woefully little info on the 'Net regarding the exact locations of many of the sites used over the course of the show's six-year run. So, for the most part I was left to figure it all out on my own.

I think I did a rather good job, as evidenced by the first part of this tour which I wrote almost exactly one year ago. Click on this link if you want to review the initial batch of sites I was able to find across Paris. If you are a fan of the show and/or planning a trip to the city yourself, I gather this entry will be rather helpful as well as entertaining to you.

Having just come back from our second trip to the "city of light," I am pleased to announced that I have found even more sites than last time. For some of you, this will answer the questions you've submitted regarding many other locations I was not able to find or had time to visit last year. Using my almost encylopedic knowledge of the episodes, as well as that ever trusty and ubiquitous search tool--Google maps!--I was able to prepare a list of several promising locations before even setting foot on European soil. And I'm pleased to announce that I was able to locate every one of these sites.

Still, this entry, in addition to the first, does not represent every filming location ever used in the history of the television show. There is still much to be explored and discovered in the grand ancient streets of Paris, so this list in no way represents the be-all and end-all of this endeavor. I'm sure I will be updating this in the years to come, and gladly so.

With that being said, let's get started with perhaps the most asked question by fans to drop into my inbox:

Where was the Highlander's barge briefly moved during the second season?

Now, before I answer this, let's back up a bit and recap the original location of the barge. For those who want a quick fix answer to this:

The primary spot where the barge was moored for almost the entire show is along "port de la Tournelle," which is the cobblestoned quai that lies just between the Pont Tournelle and Pont Archeveche bridges on the left bank of the river Seine. Basically, just find Notre Dame cathedral in the Latin Quarter and you're pretty much there!

Here's a recent pic of the quai that I took last week from atop Pont Tournelle, which offers the best view. This is also the spot from which a Watcher took various candid photos of Mac and company. As usual, click on all images to view larger versions:

Now, as many fans know, during Highlander's second season the river Seine flooded over its banks and the real-life barge used for filming had to be moved from port Tournelle to another, safer, spot in Paris. The producers of the show found a way to work this into the mid-season episode "Unholy Alliance, pt. II," in which Mac flies to Paris only to have Agent Delaney drive him to the quai and show him that the barge is no longer there.

This is the same ramp they drive down, located midway along port Tournelle. It should be recognizeable to most fans for sure, because it was used in many other episodes over the years.

As for just where the barge was moved, try a little reservoir near the northern outskirts of Paris called "Bassin de la Villette":

This is the mouth of the reservoir, which today hosts not one but TWO fairly large cineplex venues situated on either bank, along with a host of pretty decent outdoor cafes for the requisite people-watching beloved by Parisians young and old. You can get here by taking the 2, 5, or 7 lines to the Stalingrad metro stop and walking around 2 minutes east. Once here, walk along the left side a ways until you get nearly to the halfway mark where I'm standing in the pic below:

I reached the reservoir after a rather long day and when the sun was nearly setting, so the lighting quality is poor. But as you can see, this is the spot where the barge was moored for several episodes during the latter half of the 2nd season. Notice the green pedestrian bridge as well as the tall, white apartment complex in the background. If you watch "Unholy Alliance, pt. 2" during the scene when Mac walks up to the barge and reminisces about the happy moments he spent with Tessa, you'll be able to see that this is indeed the same location. Too cool!

Eventually, however, the barge was returned back to its rightful place behind Notre Dame for the rest of the season, but would alternate between the two locations off and on throughout the years.

This next site is actually not all that far from port Tournelle, just a stone throw's away (almost literally) on the way to Ile Saint-Louis -- an island just next door to the cathedral:

This bridge is the Pont St. Louis and, while it was used more than once on the show, is probably most recognizeable from the 6th season premiere episode, "Avatar." This is the bridge where Sophie Baines is tricked by Ahriman into commiting suicide, and Duncan dives off of the railing to plunge into the murky Seine and rescue her. He then drags her body to the quai along Port d'Orleans for a little mouth-to-mouth. It's fun to note that actor Adrian Paul actually performed the stunt himself (the dive, I mean) -- much to the worry of his fellow cast members and the show's producers. I don't know if you could have paid me enough to jump into the Seine.

While we're still in the same general area, I'd like to take the time to point out two other locations that unfortunately only put in brief apperances on the show, but which were both in notable scenes that have stayed with me long after the series has ended.

This first is directly across the street from Notre Dame in the garden behind St. Julien le Pavre, the church where Darius lived and worked. The little open space between these two unique-looking trees is where an "evil" Duncan Macleod passes through in the 4th season episode, "Deliverance," when he seeks redemption inside the church's hallowed walls. You can find this garden on rue de la Bucherie, just a few hundred feet or so from the Shakespeare & Co. English-language bookstore (another Highlander landmark).

This next spot might not be immediately recognized since it was never viewed from this vantage. This is the quite popular (but super expensive) chic Parisian restaurant known as La Tour d'Argent, located on Quai de la Tournelle at the foot of Pont Tournelle. You can't miss it!

The restaurant is notable for its expansive scenic view of the river and the "flying buttresses" of Notre Dame cathedral. It's significant to Highlander because the interior was used to stand-in as the immortal Kuyler's penthouse pad during a flashback scene in the 1st season episode, "For Evil's Sake." In this scene, Mac fights Kuyler in his studio apartment, only to have the fight spill out onto the streets below. This flashback is beloved by fans because it revealed to us just how Mac meets Tessa. But if you watch the scene, you'll definitely notice that rather distinctive tri-sectional bay window up there. The interior of the restaurant looks far different now, but alas I could not get myself on the reservation list to take photos from the inside. Boo!

REDACTION (updated 5/13/2012): I've recently been informed by Andy Sloane, an ardent Highlander fanatic like myself, that in fact La Tour d'Argent was not the filming location for Kuyler's loft as I had thought. Although not having been there in person, Andy did some amazing online research involving Google Earth to determine that the view of Notre Dame we see out the windows in this interior scene matches up with the line of sight accomplished from the Arab World Institute building (Institut du Monde Arabe) located approximately one city block southeast of La Tour d'Argent, at the intersection of Quai Saint Bernard and Pont de Sully bridge. So if you're ever in Paris, stop by the Institute and take some pics from the upper levels. The next time I'm there, I'll be sure to do just that and update this page with the correct pics. Thanks Andy!

In fact, "For Evil's Sake" is the perfect stepping off point to reveal the next batch of photos, all of which were used to various effect within the episode.

First off here we have the restaurant where one of Kuyler's lackeys, disguised as a mime, assassinates a lawyer at the opening of the episode. The resturant has a new name and new facade today, but I was able to use the address of the building in the background (18, rue St. Severin to be exact) to confirm that this is indeed the same corner bistro spot as that in the episode.

Next up you have the church of St. Severin itself, which back-alley entrance was used as a safe spot for Mac and Kuyler to chat in broad daylight without having to go at one another with swords. I'm standing in the second shot for scale, and not for added dramatic effect. Yeah.

Directly across from the church entrance is this shopfront which, at the time the episode was filmed, served as the Carlo Luchesi liquor store where Mac tracks down Kuyler's favorite brand of Absinthe. Today, as you can see, it is apparently an Italian cultural center. A fact which I think actor Adrian Paul would appreciate, being of half Italian ancestry himself.

St. Severin would also serve as a backdrop to yet another 1st season episode, this time being the one and only "Avenging Angel" -- one of my favorites! If you move to the right of the back entrance as seen in the above shots, you'll spy a quaint little secluded courtyard behind a barred fence.

This is the very same courtyard where Mac chases a soon to be newly annointed Immortal, Alfred Cahill, when the latter is stabbed in the chest by a pricey call-girl and left to die. Mac is standing next to his lifeless body there behind the arches when Cahill eventually revives and discovers that he cannot, in fact, die. Not while his head is still attached to his shoulders, at least. You can see the little entrance to one side of the statue (and behind the tree) where both men entered the courtyard. Unfortunately, it was gated and closed to visitors the entire time I was in Paris. And trust me, I checked almost daily! In order to get this shot, I had to stick my camera through the bars and hoped my zoom worked it's magic, which it did.

Staying with the same episode, I was able to finally discover the location of the spot where Mac tracks down Cahill again to have their contentious talk about immortality and god's so-called "plans" for Cahill. The wall is located along rue d'Alsace, made notable by the unmistakeable green-roofed "rows" of the Gare de l'Est railway terminal in the background:

Recognize it now? You can't imagine how happy I was to finally find this place. I tried looking for it during my first trip to Paris, but to no avail. All I can say is: thank you, Google maps "street view" function! I knew the spot had to be a railway terminal, and there are but a limited number of them in the city. Trial and error did the rest.

In the same scene, and if you notice in the background of the pics above, there are steps leading down to the station entrance where Mac and Cahill have to fight off some rather nasty mafia goons.

It's a very distinctive double-spiral staircase, and not too far from the previous spot. So, much like with the St. Severin location, I was able to kill two birds with one stone here. Always good in my book.

Now, last but not least is another 1st season filming spot, this time from the episode "The Beast Below." This is one of the few locations nobody should really have any problem locating, since it is in fact the very recognizeable Opera Garnier building smack dab in the heart of the glitzy Paris fashion district. In "The Beast Below," the Highlander eventually ends up fighting the Quasimodo-inspired Immortal, Ursa, atop the rooftops seen in the above pic.

Inside the opera house itself are several additional areas used in the episode as well. From the gorgeously appointed and curving grand staircase just within the main entrance to the famous Chagall ceiling above the seating area, the building is rich not just in Highlander lore, but in art history as well.

Just below is a quick pic I snapped of the stage which, while updated since the episode first aired in 1992, is still recognizaeble to fans. Well, to this fan at least.

This, of course, is the very same stage where the object of the immortal Ursa's affection, Carolyn, rehersed each day for her starring role.

And there you have it folks. Yes, that's a lot of pics, ain't it? What can I say, I'm very passionate about this tv show. My favorite of all time, bar none. If you are not a fan, don't even bother trying to understand.

But if you ARE indeed a true fan, then please feel free to use this humble series of blog entries to chart your very own Highlander tour the next time you're in Paris. Trust me, it's a thrill like no other!

And in case you missed the link at the beginning of this page, click on this link to get taken back to: Part 1 of my Highlander Tour of Paris.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Chocolate Tour of Paris

Now that we're back from our week-long stay in beautiful, lovely Paris, I'll be posting a series of entries detailing various aspects of our trip. This is because there's simply too much to cover in just one entry. So, if you've arrived via a direct link to this article, please check out my previous entries by either clicking on the blog's main heading banner at the top of this page and scrolling down, or by using one of the label tags at the end of this entry. "Paris Trip 2" is the one I'll be using for all my reports on this most recent trip.
The day before we left Paris, we went on a walking tour of some of the finest, non big-name retail chocolatier shops in the city courtesy of Paris Walks. The morning was a gloomy and rainy one, but luckily we were going to be spending most of the time indoors at various small shops tucked away on or around rue St. Honore in the 1st arrondissement.

The first stop was a small but rather famous boulangerie, which unfortunately I forget the name of at the moment. But it's located along rue Bailleul near the Louvre-Rivoli metro stop. This place has the best baguettes in all of Paris, but also some pretty damn good chocolates and pastries, too. Click on the pics for larger versions:

The shop was kind enough to make some special éclairs from gourmet chocolate and mint just for our tour group, which we all devoured like hungry savages in the bush:

Hmm, I'm not a big pastry person. I especially don't care for chocolate éclairs. But these . . . now these were good!

Our next stop on the tour was Cote de France, a premier chocolatier located in a ritzy part of Paris either along Avenue de l'Opera or rue des Pyramides. I forget the exact street name, but the shop is located very near to the Pyramides metro station. I think of all the shops we visited this morning, this had the best-tasting chocolate in my opinion. Check out their selection of both dark and milk varieties:

Cote de France, as many stores around the city were doing during our visit, also had an Easter theme going in the spirit of the season. The chocolate eggs in particular were quite appealing:

Our next stop was nearby back on rue St. Honore and just beyond the church known as Eglise St. Roch.

Michel Cluizel's is a veritable Disneyland of fine chocolates. Everything from chocolate bunnies and turtles (it's a French thang, trust me), to flowing fountains of liquid cocoa . . . this place was enough to give one diabetes just from stepping through the front door!

I bought a few chocolate bars to bring back home and give to family, but stayed away from the more elaborate items for fear of lack of luggage space. But, yeah, this place was also very good. A must see and taste for any chocolate lover out there venturing to Paris.

We went to one more location after this, but just to window shop as the store was too small to allow a tour group to enter. We did get some yummy complimentary chocolate squares to nibble on for our trouble, though, in the hopes that after the tour was over we might venture back and shop in earnest. Lisa and I did not, but others in the group did.

And, voilà! That was our Thursday morning. The rain cleared up shortly after, and the weather turned quite nice and sunny for the rest of the day. Which was too bad since we were heading to the Louvre next, which happened to be nearby. Spending a dreary afternoon in a huge museum is nice; doing so when there's bright sun and nary a cloud in the sky? Not so much. Especially considering that there were quite a few large windows in the connecting hallways of the Louvre.

But that might be a story for another entry. Or maybe not.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sci-fi Reading . . . It's EVERYWHERE!

Now that we're back from our week-long stay in beautiful, lovely Paris, I'll be posting a series of entries detailing various aspects of our trip. This is because there's simply too much to cover in just one entry. So, if you've arrived via a direct link to this article, please check out my previous entries by either clicking on the blog's main heading banner at the top of this page and scrolling down, or by using one of the label tags at the end of this entry. "Paris Trip 2" is the one I'll be using for all my reports on this most recent trip.

As soon as we arrived at our hotel on Day 1, I did what I usually do: I unpacked. Then I went for a walk, alone. I can cover a lot more ground on my own, you see? And, plus, Lisa usually needs a lot more time to adjust to jet lag and unpack her own clothes and relevant items.

So, since I'd been missing this one area of Paris the most--the Latin Quarter--that was naturally the first place I headed. Leaving Ile Saint-Louis, I crossed the Seine river onto the left bank via the St. Louis and Archeveche bridges. This led me straight past Notre Dame cathedral on the right . . . and what a sight it was!

I continued walking down quai de la Tournelle until I reached Place Saint-Michel and the throngs of tourists that perpetually seem to mob the square every time I'm there. On this particular afternoon, the crowds were especially thick as everyone stopped to watch a motley band of misfits perform before the famous fountain and statue of the Archangel Michel (aka, Michael):

I wasn't too interested, so I kept on moving down the boulevard. Shortly afterward, however, I came across a French-language used bookstore called Silly Melody. Needless to say, but this most certainly did grab my attention.

What piqued my interest the most, however, was a little sign amid the outdoor book displays proclaiming sci-fi goodness to be had:

Now, mind you, these books were all in French; so it's not like I was going to be purchasing any this day. But just take a look at the selection to be had. Not only are the book covers seriously retro and fascinating in an old-school 70s-motif sort of way . . . but some of the titles are downright legendary! I don't think I've seen such a fantastic collection of sci-fi classics all in one cart before, have you? The books are in fact used, but at 2,50 euros a pop (some cheaper), you can't go wrong! Check 'em out:

Click on the images to view larger versions, btw. Look real closely at this pic and, even if you don't read French, you'll probably be able to make out a certain seminal novel by recently appointed SF Grand Master, Joe Haldeman. Just look at that cover!

I pulled a few choice titles from the lot to focus on specific books, all of which I've had the pleasure of reading at some point in the past. See how well you do translating the titles of these well-known classics:

Simply amazing, isn't it? Gotta love Paris.

No, seriously, you do!

Paris, Redux

We returned home from our second trip to Paris last night. Of course, today we're feeling the "Paris blues" that comes from spending an entire week in such an awesome city only to leave it behind rather abruptly. To be true, New York City is every bit as amazing a metropolitan center as Paris, but in its own different way.

The unique thing about being in Paris, of course, is simply the grand scale of HISTORY that surrounds you everywhere you go. I had a Parisian this week tell me that this is because my wife and I chose to stay in the very quaint and historic island of Ile Saint Louis. Sure, the island *is* one of the few places in Paris that still has many of its pre-19th century buildings intact. I'm not talking the isolated centuries-old town house or church here--which you can stumble across anywhere in Paris--but entire streets and neighborhoods that have remained virtually untouched since the 1600s!

So, yes, this person had a point. Still, walking down any street in the city will be a history lesson that can stretch as far back as the Middle Ages, if not to actual Roman times. There's a certain thrill to this knowledge, walking around such an ancient city, that you simply cannot get in New York City. This is not to say NYC doesn't have it's own unique history. It certainly does, and I love it! But who are we kidding? I walked through back alleys in Paris that dated back to before the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. It's hard not to be impressed by that.

And this is what I love so much about the city. But it is not the only thing that makes it so special. The people, the language, the art, the restaurants . . . the impromptu street musicians who spring up out of the blue!

Honestly, I can go on and on. So I will, if only for a little while longer. Bear with me.

Lisa and I had an even more fantastic time this second trip around. We went the exact same time period as last year (second-to-last week of March), but the weather could not be any different. This time we had sunny skies and mid-60s temps for most of our visit. It was glorious! Truly the best weather for walking around a city.

We did notice, however, that we were more jaded this time. Riding the metro, for instance, was a barely remarked upon afterthought. We simply used it to get to where we were going. What I mean is: we took the trains as if we were in NYC. We didn't feel like we were in Paris, or that there was anything special about the experience. It was a tool to be used as a means to an end. And that end was to get to parts of the city we could not get to on foot. No different than how we ride the subway here.

Suffice to say we were only rarely seen as tourists during our stay. Except the one time when I stumbled into a souvenir shop lured by the sight of Japanese samurai swords (turned out to be cheap knock-offs -- BLEH!) and suddenly lost what few words of the local tongue I knew when the Chinese owner came up to me and started hawking her wares in rapid-fire French.

To be fair, I think what threw me off the most was that, prior to this, she had been speaking to her friend in Mandarin, and my brain had a momentary WTF? lapse as it tried to process the Chinese it was hearing into the English internal dialog of my thoughts, all the while preparing a French phrase of apology as I quickly retreated out of the kitschy store. What ended up happening was that I became tongue-tied. The owner laughed and made fun of me in Chinese to her friend, before switching to English (don't ask me how she knew this was my native tongue) and asking me if I needed help. To cover my embarrassment, I was forced to buy a ridiculously cheap miniature of Notre Dame cathedral for 3 euros. I have the thing sitting on my desk right now. It's a constant reminder of how my ego can still be knocked down to size whenever I get too comfortable with what I think I know.

But that's Paris for you. Always full of funny and, maybe, not-so-funny moments if you are not paying attention.

Lastly, I'll leave you with this self-taken photo of Lisa and I at the Royal Palace grounds at Versailles. I didn't do such a good job of centering the fountainhead in the background, but I was flustered by all the annoying Spanish tourists surrounding us (thankfully) off-camera:

Keep your eyes on this blog as I update with more reports on our trip. And, of course, this includes my now infamous "Highlander: The Series" filming locations tour, the first entry of which I wrote last year and can be viewed by clicking here. Suffice to say I have even more and exciting pics to offer in the followup entry, which I'll be posting shortly.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In Paris . . .

As I posted on Facebook, I'm still in Paris. I'm at the same internet cafe in the Latin Quarter that I used to frequent last year during our first trip to the city. Everything's great here! The weather has been absolutely beautiful -- clear skies, high sun, 65F/17C temps. I mean, can you ask for a better vacation forecast than that? I don't know what crack the long-range weather forecasters were smoking when they informed me that this week would be a cold, windy washout here in the city of lights. But I'm sure glad they were completely wrong.

Anyway, we just spent the entire day traipsing across the length and breadth of the royal palace at Versailles. If any of you have ever been there, you know the estate is HUGE!!! Right now my feet are sore, but I'm in great spirits. It was a really fun and educational experience.

Yesterday just before sunset I got to climb the 400+ steps or so to the bell tower atop Notre Dame cathedral. It was quite the adventure, believe it or not. One that will stay with me for years to come. I really enjoyed the views from the top, and got to chill out with some rather jaded gargoyles keeping watch over the city. Can't wait to post the pics of that!

We're staying at the same hotel we stayed at last year, and in fact were able to secure the same exact room again. It''s a great little hotel on rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile on the quaint historic island in the middle of the Seine, the Ile St. Louis. Love it, love it, love it there! Although, next time, we might just rent an apartment instead. The hotel is lovely, don't get me wrong. But Lisa and I feel comfortable enough with the area that we would prefer to be able to shop for our own food at the local markets and prepare our own meals at home rather than always having to secure reservations at various restaurants every evening.

Yes, that's right . . . we're starting to feel very acclimated here. We travel the metro each day without barely a second thought now. I'm completely fearless of this city . . . every street I walk down I feel fully confident on how to get back home. It's amazing how much I've learned already in just two trips. Paris really is feeling like our second home.

So, ain't that something?

Anyway, just wanted to check in and let you all know we're doing fine. Unfortunately we only have two more days left here. But, hey, we'll be back again soon!

(And, yes, I'm bringing back some great Bordeaux wine to help with the Paris blues when we return to NYC).

Friday, March 19, 2010

New Tech: Yes, Another Digital Camera

Well, as inevitably happens before I leave for a trip, I went out and purchased a camera upgrade to take with us to Paris. Introducing the Sony 10.1 megapixel Cyber-shot:

After years and years using not one but TWO separate Canon digital point-and-shoots, I've become frustrated with the brand's lack of functions and washed-out color balance. Sony is a name I do in fact trust, and this camera in particular is serious business. Not quite as serious as an SLR, but a marked improvement over what I had before. Just take a look at that lens!

This baby has a 10x optical zoom and a much higher digital zoom (I forget the exact number), which allows me to focus on objects much farther away and with better clarity than ever before. What I particularly like is its low-light sensitivity. In fact, I would say this was the single most important reason for getting this model. I take a lot of indoor pics with the flash off for warmer, more honest pictures in order to avoid the awful whiteout effect of most flashes. For me, this method is ideal for, say, museums. Which, if you don't already know, Paris has more than its fair share of.

This is the camera with the lens fully extended. Maybe it's the fact that it's dressed all in black . . . but isn't that just one SEXY beast?

Oh, and did I mention that it shoots both stills and movies at high-def resolutions? Oh yeah, silly me. Forgot to mention that. But, yes, now I can review my pics and trip movies on my new HD-TV in full glory. The menu on the cam also allows for a 16:9 ratio setting, so this means the images will fill up the entire viewing surface of any wide-screen television. Yet another thing this camera does better than my last.

Lastly, because this is a Sony device, the cam also uses Sony's proprietary "Memory Stick" for storage. This is significant because, in order to view HD photos and video from your camera on an HDTV, you first need to buy a separate Sony adapter.


Unless you own a PS3. If you do, then all you have to do is slide your Memory Stick Pro Duo out of the camera and into the corresponding slot on the front of the PS3 and -- VOILA! Instant HD viewing. This is made possible, of course, by the fact that your PS3 should already be connected to your tv using high-def connectors like Component or HDMI cables. In this sense, the game system becomes your HD conduit.

Gotta love convergent technology, eh?

Anyway, I can't wait to put this camera through its paces in what is perhaps the most photogenic city in the entire world. And if you'd like an early preview of the basic picture quality this model has to offer, look no further than the pics used in my recent God of War III Ultimate Edition blog entry yesterday. The pics of the packaging were an initial test run of the camera once I had the battery charged and the software loaded.

Not bad. Even better now that I've already gone and tweaked the settings to my liking. Sweet!

Panama Trip - Day 1: Here There Be Balboas!

In late May, 2017 I embarked on a trip of a lifetime. A trip to Panama's steamy tropical province, Bocas del Toro. Now, before 2017 ...