Monday, December 31, 2007

Y: The Last Man, Book 1: Unmanned

I've pretty much grown out of super heroes, but I can still appreciate a comic with a good story. Vertigo, which is owned by DC, publishes more mature, unique books, including my favorite, Preacher. I heard about the unique Y: The Last Man, checked out the first issue online which immediately interested me, and got the first trade paperback. It's a bit skimpy for my tastes, including only the first five issues, but it's still the beginning of a truly interesting story.

One day, every male mammal on the planet drops dead, except for two: a guy named Yorick and his pet monkey. Much of the planet is devastated, as the women who are left to struggle to bring order to a world that's seen disaster and is now filled with a lot of crazy people. Just in the first book, Yorick has run-ins with militant Republican wives demanding their husbands' government seats and radical feminist extremists. There are multiple plotlines going on at once as he tries to help figure out what happened and how humanity can be saved while hoping to eventually reunite with his girlfriend who was in Australia at the time of the incident. The art's pretty attractive and it's definitely the beginning of a tale I'm probably going to want to see through to the end.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Wire - Season 3

The saga continues in the third season, which maintains well the tradition of quality serial television. Stringer Bell is even more prominent as he tries to do things his way and makes some uncharacteristic slip-ups while the police try to pin something on him and his crew. The relationship between him and old friend Avon Barksdale is fleshed out, and comes to a head eventually. There's plenty of new stuff happening too, though. Tommy Carcetti is a white councilman who sees the crime problems in the city and decides to run for mayor in a mostly black city with little chance of winning. While Bell has cut a deal to reduce violence among certain gangs as they share good territory and drugs, violence is still at a high, thanks in large part to the emergence of a new, young dealer who won't agree to play nice, Marlo Stanfield. And an old district chief decides to try a new way to fight violent crime in his streets - restricting dealers to abandoned areas and letting them peddle their drugs their instead of causing problems in more populated neighborhoods. It raises an interesting question - can we allow people to do what we know is wrong if it keeps people safer?

The Wire is still a show about how bad things can be for some people in certain situations. It's very unflinching when it comes to the troubles of ordinary citizens who can't afford to leave their dangerous neighborhoods. But despite being strong with its message, it's still great entertainment. It's really impressive how they manage to balance so many characters. Cutty, the old criminal released from jail who decides to start over and help kids by teaching them boxing. Bunk, the homicide detective who drinks a little too much but is still very good at his job. Omar and Mouzone, two very different kinds of men who still find a common cause. It's just enjoyable to watch, even if you don't care about some of today's real problems in the urban environment.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Yeah, the first game. In the past I've played and enjoyed bits of the campaign and some multi-player, but I'd never sat down and played it through. I worked through it on a friend's Xbox, and I'm glad I did. I think the series' fans are a little overboard, it's really not that much better than a lot of console shooters. But it's really quite revolutionary and commendable for what it does right. Before Halo, every FPS had a large, unruly inventory of weaponry and a health bar. After Halo, almost all of them limit you to a couple weapons at a time and feature a regenerating health system. Some games are better with the old ways, but it's definitely a good system that changes the way things are played. Instead of getting attached to the best weapon, good players will constantly switch out their armament for whatever's appropriate to the situation and make good use of cover and thinking tactically instead of just rushing into battle, knowing that's not how you're supposed to play. It's facilitated strategy in its players more than any other shooter. The Combat Evolved tagline isn't just a catchy phrase, it's really what the game's about. And you can tell, as the shooting itself is greatly balanced while a lot of the rest of the design is flawed.

I've heard stories before about Halo's level design being really repetitive and boring, and that's mostly true. It actually wasn't as bad as I expected it to be, even the infamous library didn't take too long to slog through. But if the best I can say about the environment is it's not as bad as I expected, that's still a problem. I realize that carbon-copy architecture and revisiting the same areas are well justified by the background and plot of the story, but that doesn't excuse those flaws. Maybe they should have written it a bit differently. The story itself is actually pretty good, at least for a shooter. The atmosphere doesn't approach Bioshock's or Half-Life's, but the actual machinations and characters are pretty interesting. Master Chief's a good protagonist (although I don't see why anyone cares what's under that helmet) and 343 Guilty Spark's a good take on the HAL 9000-type of villain. I always appreciate it when a game or something manages to have foes who aren't all allied with each other, and they actually manage to balance three different factions who fight each other and only have a hit out for the Chief in common. I'll be tackling Halo 2 next, and I look forward to seeing the next leg of the adventure.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Before I talk about the movie, I'll mention I'm a little surprised that this basically bombed after the huge success of every other Apatow flick in recent memory, including two (Superbad and Knocked Up) just this year. I guess the subject matter isn't quite as universal, but there's no reason my dad and I should have been the only people in the theater when we saw it. Granted, it was a 1:50 show on a Wednesday, but most people don't work the day after Christmas. Oh well. Walk Hard's a little sillier, but still quite funny throughout. It's as straight up a parody as we've seen from the The Judd Apatow Sex Comedy Train, but unlike the other truly awful parody movies we see (seriously, anyone who's seen the horrendous trailer for Meet the Spartans knows what I mean), it's a genuinely funny movie in its own right that happens to closely follow the structure of the biopics it mocks instead of lamely copying popular scenes with no production value, idiotic gags, and tons of shitty pop culture references that are devoid of content or point. Jake Kasdan directed and co-wrote, and like Mottola with Superbad, he doesn't seem especially good or bad, and fits right into the groove with everyone Apatow works with.

Walk Hard packs scads of cameos by some very funny people, often playing famous musicians, like Jack White as Elvis or Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long, and Jason Schwartzman as the Beatles in a truly hilarious scene. John C. Reilly is known as a character actor, but he steps up as the lead very well, carrying the movie with ease and performing ably in the musical segments. There's plenty of mature (or is it really immature?) humor involving sex and drugs, like a great running gag with Tim Meadows trying to keep Dewey away from whatever he's using while at the same time making it sound really enticing. A couple gags from trailers didn't make it to the final cut, leaving me positive the DVD will be packed with some great stuff. Besides just being funny, Walk Hard is a movie about the life of musician, and there's a lot of different kinds of music performed, most of which is actually pretty good and sometimes funny as well, like the Bob Dylan parody. I would have liked to have seen it with a bigger audience, but Walk Hard was still quite an enjoyable experience.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Futurama: Bender's Big Score

After a long absence that never really felt like it was because of DVD sets and reruns, Futurama finally returns with some new content. Bender's Big Score is the first of four full movies that will follow each other (At least the second appears to be a direct continuation of this one) and be shown on Comedy Central as a total of 16 episodes. Watching the movie, you can easily see where the breaks will be, as about every 22 minute block seems to have its own repeated ideas and climax. The movie is rarely as funny as the best episodes of the series, but it's still quite enjoyable throughout. Lots of old characters and gags return, and it's nice to see some of them, although I hope they got all of that out of their systems so the rest of the movies can be pure, original entertainment.

The plot of the movie is really quite intricate. They've generally avoided time travel in the past because of the problems it can cause, but they dive right into the topic this time around. It didn't take long to find some problems, because while they make it clear from certain things that Futurama allows travelers to the past to influence events, yet there are some inconsistencies with how Fry interacts with his family and what we've seen before. In general they handle it fairly well though, and it's quite a fun story. It's cool to just have the characters back and also see some new ones, like the first appearance of the Channukah Zombie, played by Mark Hamill. It was odd how the two musical numbers were crammed into the same quarter of the movie, but they were both pretty nice, and the animation and computer effects are as pretty as ever. The DVD also has some good special features, including the ever popular commentary by the creators and actors. If you're a fan, you have to get this, to ensure the show's continuation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Master of the Flying Guillotine

I hadn't heard of this movie before receiving the DVD as a gift, but I'll definitely be showing it to my friends. It's one of those absurdly over-the-top martial arts movies that's made all the more fun by watching it with a group. It's about thirty years old, and that shows in the production value, especially the audio. The sound effects are seriously the worst I've ever heard in an actual film. There are two basic sounds in a fight - either a thwack from a connected blow or a lo-fi whoosh that sounds like someone dropped the microphone when they miss. A lot of times the timing is off, and it can get distracting how bad the sounds are. But that's just part of Flying Guillotine's charm.

The premise is simple - a one armed man killed two fighters who happened to be a blind old man's disciples, and he's after revenge. It might seem like the old man's the good guy, but it's the reverse. He murders indiscriminately while the "One Armed Boxer" runs a dojo and preaches restraint. The title comes from the old man's weapon of choice: a device on the end of a long rope that's lined both inside and out with blades, and can be used to easily remove the heads of the user's foes. It's a silly, creative, entertaining weapon. There are plenty of other characters to, and there's a lot of opportunity for varying fighting styles when the first round of a martial arts tournament plays out to get the ball rolling plot-wise. The fight choreography is really pretty good for its time. It does get fairly repetitive once in a while, especially when both fighters have a standard style with no weapon, and I really thought the last fight dragged on too long, but in general they accomplished their goal of making an entertaining action movie. A lot of the humor is laughing at the movie instead of with it, but that's fine with me. What I found interesting though was that while the One Armed Boxer was supposed to be the stoic good guy, he really was quick to kill and use any cheap advantage he could get, especially against the barefoot guy. I mean, what kind of sissy way is that to fight? Isn't he good enough to win fairly? Oh well.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Tale of Genji

I wrote this for a class, which explains why it's a bit more analytical/spoiler-filled.

Someone from my age group discussing The Tale of Genji can't possibly do so without mentioning it's pace, so I'll get it out of the way: It's very slow. It goes on for a very long time without that much really happening. It wasn't too boring, honestly, I was usually at least somewhat interested in seeing what the playboy main character would do next. But it definitely could have said as much in a shorter time.

The art style wasn't too flashy but was still attractive, I found some of the character designs to be a little too similar facially but the animation was effective and right for the tone of the movie. When things get weird at the end there are some interesting visual touches, but I sort of stopped paying attention and the non-ending kind of ruined any poignancy that scene might have had.

It's a somewhat symbolic story. It doesn't really matter who he sleeps with, because he sleeps with everyone. The interesting part is that anyone who he beds seems to be doomed, or at least adversely affected in some way. The cherry blossoms represent his wounded past, and their appearance when he is bed are a harbinger of bad things for those with him. I would definitely never watch it again but it was a fairly well done film for its audience.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

24 - Season 4

The fourth season of 24 represents a big shift, as some characters are gone and lots of new ones take their place. It's almost a reboot. That feeling doesn't last too long though, as a lot of the missing faces resurface and by the end of the arc, it's like nothing's changed. The return of old friends sort of coincides with what seems to be a trend in 24; seasons stumbling out of the gate but ending up being as enjoyable as always. The troubles begin on bad footing, as writers try to use computers as a plot point and fail once again to not sound like retards. One doomed character's line will forever live in infamy in my mind: "Looks like someone's trying to corrupt the internet." What? About the first third of the season is infested with stupid, nonsense computer stuff, and it's not until that whole topic is left behind that the story picks up.

And pick up it does, as Jack does some good old fashioned hunting and shooting and the political intrigue continues in Washington. They upped the stakes as far as death count and danger to the US goes, and it's getting to the point where I wonder how much bigger it can get. This season also featured Jack's highest kill total to date, and some of them are among the best in the series. He's really transformed from a protagonist of a good show to a folk hero among his fans. They also expanded his emotional side this time, as a pretty contrived but still interesting moral dilemma is foisted upon him and his government girlfriend. The show always ends up feeling stretched by the end, because the central gimmick doesn't allow it to last fewer or more than twenty four episodes. I thought they had a pretty good villain this time, but he just keeps escaping and it gets a little tiring. The actual resolution of his character and plot is actually a bit anticlimactic, but the way the season ends is intriguing enough to keep me ready to jump into the next one.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Wire - Season 2

The saga of cops and gangs in Baltimore continues with the second season, every bit as brilliantly crafted as the first. At first, I wasn't a big fan of the new subplots, but they grew on me. The first season focused entirely on one case, McNulty and some other detectives trying to bring down Avon Barksdale's crew. They expanded it for the next part of the show, bringing in a union of port workers when a bunch of women are found dead of suffocation in one of the shipping containers. When it's discovered that their air was cut off intentionally, it opens a massive case involving corruption in some of the union members, a group lead by a man known only as "The Greek", and continued ties to the targets of the first season. With Barksdale in jail, his best friend Stringer Bell takes more of a spotlight, handling operations and making some decisions that change the complexion of the streets.

With The Wire, it's still all about the writing and the acting. It's a miracle they're able to balance so many great, enjoyable characters. The show is far from stagnant, as people get promoted, arrested, and sometimes killed. It's a testament to the quality when you feel something any time a character dies, even if they were criminal trash. Some of them may seem downright unlikable, but when things go wrong for them, you can't help but get sucked in. It's really a show you absolutely cannot jump into the middle of halfway through. You'll probably still appreciate it for the commendable direction, screenplay, and performances, but you need to follow it with rapt attention to get the most out of it. I've already finished the third season, and so far this one is the most plot driven while the others are a bit more about ideas. It's also the most diverse as far as the locations and kinds of people it covers. That doesn't really make it better or worse, it just means it might appeal to you more if that's what you favor.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Lunar Legend Tsukihime

Tsukihime is one of a growing number of anime based on an erotic computer game that remove the dirty bits and actually turn out to be pretty good. You wouldn't guess its origin from the content anyway. It's a slow paced, thoughtful story about a teenage boy who's blocked out his childhood and has memory lapses. He has the ability when not wearing glasses to see lines on everything, including people, and if he traces them, they break or die. He meets a vampire, and after accidentally killing her, he ends up helping her fight a powerful enemy. It's all a little strange and slightly off-putting. There's a noticeable romantic component to the show, and it's really way more about developing characters than bloody action scenes, so if that's what you're looking for, I'd recommend Hellsing or something.

When I say it's slow, know I really mean it, because the plot develops at a snail's pace. It's a little too easy to watch a whole episode and then just kind of realize you weren't paying attention the entire time. This happened once or twice, and I scanned back through looking for major events, and they really weren't to be found. They revealed a few details, but that was about it. That doesn't mean the whole thing's boring, when something's actually happening, you notice. Action's a little low-key but still well-executed and exciting. The two main characters make an interesting pair and the rest of the cast is serviceable filling their niches. The story has some interesting twists nestled into its stretched out running time and the conclusion is fittingly tragic and true to the spirit of the show. It's another anime that's good for people familiar with the medium.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Genshiken - Season 1

Genshiken is a slice-of-life comedy about the nerdy members of a college club centering around manga, anime, and video games. This despite the fact the most developed character is a normal girl who claims to only hang around because of her boyfriend, whose physical appearance doesn't fit the part of an otaku. The show, like a lot of anime, is completely character driven instead of plot driven, and if you don't like it when not much actually happens in most episodes, you'll probably get bored. Several characters have annoying voices too, and when so much of the content is their discussions, you have to have some patience. Not to say that the characters themselves aren't good. Some don't really stick out much but you can't really hate any of them. And it's always nice to find an anime that actually allows a romantic relationship to develop instead of having them hem and haw for ages.

What's really interesting about Genshiken is its frank look at the otaku subculture. One of their passions is doujinshi, which are usually pornographic amateur comics using well-known characters. But while their hobby might seem a little weird, you can see that they're not bad people, they just have different things they happen to care about. There are a few interesting and humorous situations that develop as the club makes trips to conventions and tries to keep themselves from being canned by the school. I generally don't find anime to be as funny as American or British comedy, and Genshiken is no exception, but it's a watchable show.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ikki Tousen - Season 1

Ikki Tousen is the epitome of ridiculously pandering anime. I've mentioned some shows with over-sexualized female protagonists, but Tousen takes the cake. It would honestly be tamer if they just had a naked girl once in a while instead of what there is. It They're constantly groping each other, getting their clothes torn off, and ending up in suggestive positions during fights. Oh yeah, this is another one of those shows about high powered battles between gangs in rival schools, this time with the twist that each of them is the reincarnation of a historical Japanese military figure. If they thought this would make the story more interesting, they were wrong.

This isn't to say the show is terrible, although I'm rarely that hateful of something. It's just not that interesting and uses cheap tricks to keep people watching. Without the history gimmick, the story isn't bad, although not great. Too many names are thrown around too fast that can make it a little confusing, but there are the requisite twists and developments that keep it from getting boring. Most of the main characters are pretty likable. Few are developed that much in the season's short timespan, but they fit well into the medium's stereotypes. The fights are, again, not great, although they have enough gimmicks to keep them a little entertaining. If you really like anime and don't have anything else to watch, Ikki Tousen won't completely ruin your life.

Monday, December 17, 2007

I Am Legend

Francis Lawrence follows up the underrated Constantine with the similar I Am Legend, not that they have too much in common but not that they're not quite like other big budget action movies. Instead of being loaded with testosterone, the film gets by with lots and lots of atmosphere. From the opening fake newscast to the eerily overrun New York landscape to the effective flashbacks, it creates a believable, depressing atmosphere that's much scarier than its CG monsters. Scientists re-engineered a virus to destroy cancer cells but it ended up killing most of the people on earth and turning the bulk of those who survived into ravenous beasts who burn when exposed to sunlight. Part of what's so creepy about it is that it seems possible, if not the quasi-vampire part then at least the pandemic caused by tampering with nature. Will Smith is all alone with his dog, trying to find a cure while desperately attempting to maintain some sort of human interaction. They don't really show it in the trailers, but he isn't quite all there anymore mentally, and Smith's handling of a character trying to cling to some hope in a hopeless world is really not something you usually see in this kind of movie.

There are some problems, my main one being the aforementioned computer generated vampires. It just wasn't necessary. I firmly believe CG should only be used when it has to be, when it's the only way to accomplish a shot. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Davy Jones was a mo-capped CG character, and I didn't notice. I thought it was a guy in an elaborate costume. This is the only time I have EVER been tricked by a CG character shown that close up. Andy Serkis' performance as Gollum was great, but I was still aware I was watching a 3D model the whole time. It doesn't matter how good your animators are, people can still tell when something, especially something that is supposed to be human, isn't actually there. This was definitely the case with I Am Legend. The vampires didn't even look close to real people. Sure, they can jump around and smash into glass walls and be vicious beasts, but they look like cartoons. I thought it would have been much more effective with real people, acting as insane as possible. Everything else feels so authentic, the bad guys just broke the illusion. The movie also broke down a little at the end, although I thought the resolution was really better than what I've heard of the book's. The dog is also one of the best animal characters I've seen in a movie. If you like this kind of movie and don't mind a little depression, check it out.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dexter - Season 1

Dexter sounds a bit more edgy than it really is, although it is pretty out there content-wise. It's about a blood spatter expert who works with the police, and at night ritualistically murders criminals who have thus far escaped justice within the system. Although this moral code makes him more likable than if he killed innocents, the show doesn't paint him as truly good either. It does a good job of making him sympathetic while making sure we know he's still a disturbed individual who should not be emulated. The show's not really about serial killing anyway, it's just an aspect of a really good character who helps solve crimes. Michael C. Hall does a great job depicting Dexter, both when in every day life pretending to be normal and letting his dark side loose. He's very funny, as his narration reveals character without being too obvious and adding some sly humor. His supporting cast is varying in quality, but his girlfriend Rita and coworker Angel are both very likable.

The first season's story arc is something I might expect later in a show's lifespan, revealing a lot about Dexter's character and how he became the twisted person he is now. He and the police are working to find a serial killer who cuts prostitutes into intricate pieces and leaves them at a scene with no blood. While the cops try to figure it out, they're missing pieces to the puzzle, as the killer leaves clues for Dexter himself, who at first welcomes the game. As far as shows with season-long storylines go, Dexter handles it as well as any, always introducing something else that leaves you craving to know what happens next. It gets a little wacky at the end, but the resolution does justice to everything they built. There's also some trouble with his girlfriend as their comfortable situation changes, and the season ends with a very interesting twist that should provide some entertainment in the next.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Neo Tokyo

I wrote this for a class, which explains why it's a bit more analytical/spoiler-filled.

Neo Tokyo contains three different stories, although to be honest I was only really entertained by the last one. The first vignette leads into the other ones, as a child chases her cat through a grandfather clock into a labyrinth where she sees some strange things, including the other stories. There is some humor, but not much to really read into. The animation is very fluid, like the world isn't completely defined and has some freedom to stretch.

The second was a boring story of a deadly race in which all of the participants die but one, who then continues to drive as he falls deeper into madness. The art style is pretty unattractive to me, and it didn't seem to have much to say either. Some of the designs on the machinery were nice, but I could barely stay awake through this.

The third piece was funny and more pleasing aesthetically, about a man sent to shut down a construction project run by robots. It warns against being overly reliant on technology, as the foreman is basically insane, going so far as to willingly destroy other robots to stay on schedule and killing humans who get in the way. The style isn't overly flashy but gives a lot of personality to the foreman, as its increasing mechanical failures parallel its madness. Neo Tokyo wraps up with a quick return to the first setting. I couldn't say I liked it that much as a whole, but it had moments.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Panda and the Magic Serpent

I wrote this for a class, which explains why it's a bit more analytical/spoiler-filled.

Panda is the first feature length anime in color, and it shows in the production value. All in all, it's not too bad, it just isn't that easy on the eyes. The character designs are very simple and the animation is exaggerated and cartoony. The tone is a mix of some humor with a serious plot, although the bad dubbing and unnecessary narration hurt the credibility and seemed to dumb the whole experience down.

The characters are pretty surface level, either being comic relief, a person in love, or a blustering villain. They often did some pretty foolish things, like the serpent's servant nearly drowning everyone while trying to save them or the villain's complete disregard of the possibility of a mistake until it smacked him in the face. It was a nice story of love, but a lot of the time it was frustrating.

The pacing seemed off, as it kept going after it felt like it should have ended. But it still explored, again, friendship and sacrifice, fairly well. Xu-Xian's animal friends are very dedicated to him, and take on tough odds to try and help him. And Bia-Niang is willing to give up her immortality to be with him. All of it makes Xu-Xian seem kind of lame honestly, since everybody does everything for him and he can't do much himself. The audio made the whole thing funnier than it should have been, but it was decent.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Assassin's Creed

A spiritual sequel to the Prince of Persia games of the last generation of consoles, Creed has a familiar feel but replaces the linearity with an open world, wall running and time control powers with an awesome free-running system, the fantasy setting with a science fiction one, and the mediocre combat with slightly different mediocre combat. Many have complained about the repetitive mission structure, and they're justified in doing so. There are only about half a dozen types of activities you can do than make up the bulk of the game, leaving the actual assassinating a little too infrequent. But it's not that big of a deal. I wish they could have fleshed out the whole investigating idea, and made it feel more like you were planning a highly delicate operation instead of just repeating some simple tasks before getting to go after your target, but I can't blame them too much when it's so fun just to play around in the world. If you don't like picking pockets and doing all the other assassin's chores, you only have to do some of it. If something's frustrating, you usually can ignore it and still move on with the game. Personally, I did every investigation, rescued every citizen, and climbed every vantage point. The game rewards you for doing so, giving you tips and maps that make the job a little easier and extra means to escape pursuers. I didn't collect all the flags though, because that would be tiresome and completely pointless, as all they unlock is achievements in the 360 version.

Other problems people have is with the AI and combat that's all too easy once you learn the counter-kill. I agree that it's pretty ridiculous that you can get away with killing guards right in front of each other if you just pose like a monk while doing it, but once they do start chasing you, I was pretty impressed with how they kept up. Getting away from guards is about as fun a chase as there is in video games. Altair can climb and jump and do anything a human could conceivably do, and it's a unique sort of fun to use your awesome yet believable abilities to evade soldiers who can chase you almost anywhere. It is pretty lame how enemies only attack one at a time, but while it's too easy, I did have fun toying with enemies before dispatching them in a number of satisfying ways. The open space between cities was also a bit of fun to ride around in on a horse, and definitely gave off a Shadow of the Colossus vibe with the look of the environment. It's not really a spoiler to say that this game doesn't take place during the crusades, since it's revealed you're in a simulation during the near future right at the beginning. There are two plot threads, the crusade one which wraps up by game's end, and the future one that does a good job of stringing you along with little bits of information before leaving you hanging for the obvious sequel. It will be interesting to see where they go with that, I imagine it will take place at a different point in history, with perhaps the third game finally being all in the modern day. The voice acting is a bit repetitive, but otherwise the game sounds good, and looks good too. The look is very nice, and technically the world is very impressive, except for some pop up when outdoors and an inconsistent frame rate. What's odd is that it doesn't slow down, but speed up in a couple unique situations. It's not a big deal, just strange. Assassin's Creed isn't the completely amazing game it looked like it could have been from the trailers, but they definitely built a very promising foundation for the future.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Wire - Season 1

The Wire is the best television drama I've ever seen. It doesn't feature crazy, over the top plots. Rather, it's completely grounded in reality and thrives on that fact. It's a graphic and uncompromising look at the crime scene in modern Baltimore. In season one, Jimmy McNulty, a homicide detective who drinks too much but is great at his job, sets in to motion the slow building of a case against Avon Barksdale, the biggest drug dealer in the west side of the city. The story follows people on both sides of the back and forth battle, and while the dealers are clearly in the wrong, it's not without some nuance. A lot of the focus is on Avon's nephew D'Angelo, who is one of the bad guys, but can seem like a good person who was just brought up in the wrong environment. I think that's what's so great about The Wire, it doesn't do the judging for you I try to frame anyone as perfectly good or evil. It's all shades of gray, and they let you make your own decisions.

The show works so well because its characters are all so good. I could rattle off names of likable characters for a long time, as there are a lot of people in the city and all of them are well-defined, portrayed finely by an actor who fits the part, and entertaining to some degree. Even the biggest jerks around are usually funny in the way they act like jerks. It's a very slowly paced show, time passes quickly but the case develops at a realistic speed. There's a lot of gritty, grinding police work, and if you don't have the patience for some dead ends and disappointments, you might not like it. But I honestly can't get enough. I want to know what's going to happen next with all of these people I've come to like. The first season's resolution isn't as perfect as the cops hoped for. Some arrests get done, but not on all the charges they wanted and people they were after. But that's real life for you. And just like real life, people hurt each other, swear and have sex. It is HBO, after all. If your sensibilities aren't too delicate and you're at all interested in crime stuff, you have to watch The Wire.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers are probably my favorite directors, although Ethan had only been getting producer credit until a couple years ago. He and Joel seem to be able to work successfully in any style. They traditionally write everything they do, although their last few screenplays have been based on other peoples' stories. The last couple weren't that great, but they were able to buck that trend with this adaptation of a novel of the same title by Cormac McCarthy. As a piece of normal entertainment, No Country doesn't work that well. It's not designed to be simple fun like a lot of their work. It's a return to a dark mood they last dabbled in with Fargo (unless The Man Who Wasn't There is like that) and only really explored in their very first film, Blood Simple. There is some black humor, and some of it's pretty funny. But at its core, No Country is a mean-spirited, depressing film, and a slow paced one at that, so it's definitely not for everyone.

A large part of my appreciation for the movie comes from the brilliance with which it's filmed, edited, and acted, and not from enjoying some parts of it. It's the kind of movie that puts off a lot of normal people while it gets nominated for critic awards. Not to say it's a boring or bad movie, though. Ignoring the deeper themes, as a thriller, it works quite well. Javier Bardem is one of the best movie villains in years, deeply psychotic in his calm determination to kill anyone who even gets a good look at him. There are some extremely tense scenes as he pursues Josh Brolin, who's also good as a likable, resourceful normal guy who ends up in an unlucky situation. Tommy Lee Jones plays an old sheriff getting ready to retire, and a lot of the story is really about him coming to terms with what his life's been. The movie takes a strange turn near the end, and I know some really hated the way it closed out. But it does all make sense if you view it in the context of what they're trying to say. I don't think it's the kind of movie I'd watch many more times, but real fans of cinema should see it.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Everyone knows Psycho for the shower scene, and I think it's a bit of a shame that nowadays it's mentioned more for its screeching violins than its quality as an actual film. Hitchcock knew how to spin a yarn, and he was in fine form here, crafting a horror masterpiece. Back when it was made, filmmakers couldn't (or wouldn't) show anything too graphic, so the more violent things always occurred off-screen or were obscured in some way. It's interesting to note that in that famous scene, the knife is never shown entering or leaving her body, it's all implied. The genre was about suspense, not shock value, and audiences were kept entertained by good acting and writing instead of buckets of fake gore. I've never been a fan of that kind of movie (although I do find myself very entertained by a good zombie flick), but Psycho was good.

It takes a while for Psycho to get going, and it's quite some time before anyone actually gets attacked. Hitchcock takes great time to define the first victim, and there's much more emotional impact to a character's death when you've been following them for over half an hour. It's pretty impossible to not know now who the villain is, so I was watching without the added enjoyment of the story twists that were probably pretty crazy back in the day. But I could still appreciate it for the skill with which it was put together. Everything in the movie's a little less scary and more awkward now, but it was still interesting throughout. Like Rear Window, voyeurism is a theme, and it always kind of seems like you're watching something you shouldn't be. If you can stomach old movies and haven't seen it for some reason, take a look.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Night on the Galactic Railroad

I wrote this for a class, which explains why it's a bit more analytical/spoiler-filled.

If I had to pick one thing about this film to praise, it's the original score. The music is haunting and fits the tone perfectly. It's also the only truly positive thing I can say about the movie. It's not poorly put together, and it does have some interesting things to say about life and friendship. It's just not very entertaining. The pacing is way too slow, and not that many things actually happen.

I'm not sure what the purpose was of dragging out some mundane actions for so long. It was a little painful to watch Giovanni slowly do busy work for several minutes. A lot of time is spent establishing setting, but there is little payoff. I think it would have worked much better if it was less than an hour instead of stretched out to feature length. The art style is simple, not ugly but not that interesting to look at either. Most of the characters had the same blank, wide-eyed expression on their face most of the time. None of the characters have that much personality and are just there to push the story like Campanella or fulfill stereotypes.

The railroad is a way to heaven for deceased innocents, but it isn't clear whether Giovanni actually was aboard such a thing or had a metaphorical, prophetic dream about his friend. Either way, it's a nice story about having to accept what's happened and sacrifice yourself to help others. Giovanni is saddened by his friend's passing, but he becomes a better person (or cat) for it.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Horus: Prince of the Sun

I wrote this for a class, which explains why it's a bit more analytical/spoiler-filled.

I was impressed by this film's animation quality, considering the time period it was made in. There are a few scenes where massive corners were cut, notably when the wolves attack the village and they show only still images with sound effects. But generally it was pretty smooth. The character designs are also a bit simple, but that was part of the era, and overall it was a nice movie to look at.

It started off very promisingly with the introduction of the rock giant, and had the potential to be a nice fantasy epic. Horus is a bit standard as a character, purely good and simple, but he wasn't unlikable. The plot was interesting, but it stagnated a bit after Hilda was introduced and spent a good deal of time waffling over whether to be good or succumb to her demonic heritage. Grunwald was an interesting villain if a bit hands-off most of the time. The other featured villagers served their purpose but weren't particularly likable.

The resolution played out well enough, as it faced the question of self-sacrifice. Hilda is reluctant to disobey her brother because he gave her the charm that supposedly keeps her alive, but when faced with the demise of her young friends she is willing to give it up to save them. The fact that she lives anyway gives people the happy ending they want and also shows that people who try to be good can get good things in return. The climax is suitably exciting and wraps up a reasonably good, family friendly movie.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Wilco is another highly-prized band that I like without fully understanding what all the talk is about, with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot being atop many critics' lists for 2002. They apparently started out as a more or less traditional country band, but their sound has warped and twisted into what it is now, something almost completely unidentifiable with that genre. Like a lot of well respected artists, their music isn't easily pigeon-holed, but it can be described as pop with a lot of experimentation with noises and distortion mixed in to keep it interesting. Jeff Tweedy has a nice voice that few could find a dispute with, and he has decent range to either accompany or contrast the music. They use a variety of instruments to add depth to the more standard rock elements, although they're more than competent at those aspects. It's not quite the stuff that tends to really grab me, but it's not because of a flaw in the music. The songs are expertly constructed and have a lot of heart and truth to them, it's just not what I tend to listen to.

"I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" isn't as personally gripping as some first tracks on my favorite albums, but it does show you what Wilco is about these days, with an eclectic mix of sounds that come together and form the backing for a nice song. "Kamera" is a more standard, pleasant song with a lot of strumming, and it's fine, just an example of what I don't like as much. "Radio Cure" is probably my favorite on the record, as it starts sounding one way but gradually incorporates differing elements to round out the sound and holds interest throughout. "Jesus, Etc." leans a bit more away from their roots, and is about as nice as anything else to be found here. "Heavy Metal Drummer" throws in some electronic bloops along with the standard radio pop. "I'm the Man Who Loves You" has some real electric guitar in there, picking away and adding further schizophrenic deviations from the formula. "Poor Places" breaks down in the end with distortion, it's a bit of a chaotic climax before the warm down of the last song. I may grow to like this more as time goes on, but right now I see it as an enjoyable album that I'll probably only listen to once in a while.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead

You don't hear too much about The Smiths these days. Everyone's heard of Morrissey and Johnny Marr. But I guess they were one of the most acclaimed groups when they were making music. Heck, Acclaimed Music has them as one of the top 30 artists ever. Listening to probably their best work, I'm not sure what all the fuss was about, but I still like it, and I guess I can see what was up even if it's not exactly my cup of tea. My ear is used to louder noises, and The Smiths rarely play louder than a whisper. The melodies are never flashy, they just create a nice background for Morrissey's crooning on various subjects. The lyrics are sometimes odd, but they interplay well with the music. The dude can sing, and a good portion of the enjoyment comes from just hearing him play with words. There are a few times where they pick up the pace and make something resembling rock, but usually it's calm, soothing music.

Most of the songs are brief and to the point, but the first track is six minutes, beginning with a strange clip that segues into rapid drums starting one of the "heavier" songs. "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" gives you a bit of an idea of what they're about just from the name, with a goofy rhyme matching the song's simple, friendly tone. "Never Had No One Ever" is one of the more interesting songs, with a stranger, somewhat creepy mood. "Bigmouth Strikes Again" might be my favorite on the record, with a quicker pace and catchy chorus. There are several other tracks, all pleasant to listen to. There usually isn't that much separating the various songs, making them particularly remarkable, but they all feature solid musicianship and nice vocals. If you're looking for something wholly unobtrusive and pretty likable, I'd give The Queen Is Dead a shot.

Monday, December 3, 2007

My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade

The Black Parade is an attempt at a grandiose, operatic concept album; an emo epic. Or is it?

The problem with emo is that everyone claims to hate it but no one seems to know what it actually is. Everyone can identify an "emo kid" by his dopey haircut and the extreme angle of his myspace photo, but the only characteristic of the subgenre they can think of is a predilection for suicidal lyrics. These ad hominem attacks rarely identify specific bands, instead relying on generic joke ones like Rip My Heart To Shreds or something. One of the more commonly cited actual bands is My Chemical Romance, although their singer Gerard Way himself declares that his band is not emo, and he hates the music himself. This begs the question: what are these bands creating all this music that everybody hates? In the end, it doesn't matter what you want to label the makers of The Black Parade. It is entertaining in parts and a little boring in others. There's a lot of simple chord progression. There are some ventures into older styles of rock, including noticeable influence from Queen. There's a story in there somewhere about someone dying of cancer and what he leaves behind. Most of the more interesting parts are a little over-the-top and perhaps beyond the honest reach of the band's abilities. But if you can stomach the eccentricities, it's not a bad modern rock album.

The first track is "The End." It mixes soft strumming with loud parts as Way sings or shrieks as appropriate. "Dead!" is a more normal song in line with what they've done before, although you see some of that influence from recent decades past. "The Sharpest Lives" has a sharp, repetitive baseline that adds a bit of a metal feel while Way growls a bit to fit the mood. Just a bit. "Welcome to the Black Parade" is pretty outlandish, a typical pop-punk song wrapped inside a minimalistic piano ballad. "I Don't Love You" delves more into their strength at writing simple but effective songs in their genre. "Cancer" is a softer song that hits you over the head a bit before "Mama", another song that's perhaps artificially odd, with a calculated strangeness and a guest appearance by Liza Minnelli. "Teenagers" is the purest retro track, and kind of doesn't fit in. "Famous Last Words" has one last sweeping chorus before the hidden track "Blood", which is, again, a bit silly. If you think you won't like this, you won't. But there are some fun songs.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Killers - Hot Fuss

Hot Fuss is a pretty good album, a nice merger of that modern style of critically acclaimed rock I honestly don't like that much with some synthetic touches. When vocalist Brandon Flowers actually sings, he has a pretty good voice, my only problem is that all too often he just sort of half-heartedly shouts the lyrics. The problem grows a bit when the songs seem as focused on the vocals as they often do. The rest of the band members, especially the guitarist, can be solid musicians, they just don't stand out that much. Most of the tracks do have something to like though, and it's enjoyable music as long as you don't try to read into it too much. The lyrics often don't make sense, but that's only ever a problem for me if they're painful to listen to, and these are just a bit odd. The Killers are probably their best when they aren't sounding like every other mainstream rock band.

"Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" contains one of the only instances of enjoyable bass-playing on the album, as it intermingles with high-pitched keys and crashing guitars. "Mr. Brightside" is my favorite of the two singles, with it being catchier than "Somebody Told Me" and a bit less repetitive, although that's not a bad song either. "Smile Like You Mean It" has a haunting and memorable synth part that drives the track, and helps make it one of the best. "All These Things That I've Done" is one of the more deliberate tracks, and isn't that entertaining besides an enjoyable detour with a choir repeating "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier". "On Top" is one of the more over-the-top techno sounding songs. As the album starts dragging, "Midnight Show" helps bring it back a bit, being pretty energetic and having a nice chorus. "Everything Will Be Alright" ends it in strange style, a slow-paced, odd song that is nonetheless compelling as Flowers repeatedly wails the title. If you enjoyed the singles at all I'd recommend giving it a shot.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Coldplay - Parachutes

So how about that hiatus? Yeah.

Coldplay gets some crap in more serious circles because of their sappiness and pandering to the mainstream, but at least on their debut album, they ain't bad. At times singer Chris Martin's falsetto can get annoying, but in general he fits the tone he's creating, and while the lyrics are never as deep or touching as he seems to want them to be, they get the job done without being too egregious. His piano playing can be a bit simple, but he can come up with simple tunes that are still effective and catchy. The instrumentation isn't particularly important to their style, but their guitarist is competent at his job of keeping things lively and nothing about the rhythm is bad either. Really, it's not bad music. Stop making fun of me for listening to girl stuff.

Like a lot of albums that aren't great but aren't bad either, Parachutes starts stronger than it ends. "Don't Panic" is short but lets you know what's up, with a nice, high pitched guitar line and pleasant vocals. "Shiver" is one of the harder songs because of its thicker, distorted guitar, but hard is a relative term with this band. "Spies" has an acoustic, slightly off-kilter sound, and it's pretty good at being something other than the love ballads they're known for. "Yellow" is the single that got them noticed, and it's a bit simple, but still well-executed and an enjoyable song. It's followed by "Trouble", with the nice piano and swelling chorus. Martin's probably the most obnoxious sounding on this one, but it doesn't ruin the rest of the song. There are some more songs afterward, they all follow the same pattern, neither painful to listen to nor really memorable. The only reason I ever get mainstream stuff like this is because I find it cheap, but I can still gleam some fun out of it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I Am America (And So Can You!)

If you've seen much of Colbert's nightly program, you might know what to expect from his book. He spends half an hour channeling Bill O'Reilly and other television blowhards as he educates his audience better than they do, giving his spin on what's happening while always finding clever ways to poke fun at their rhetoric. I Am America is pretty much the show in book form, except instead of talking about the day's topics he covers general talking points across a broad spectrum of American life. I thought the "And so can you!" part of title might mean there would be sections on how to be more like Stephen, but all that really is is several references to the fact that this book is entirely his opinion and you should believe every word of it. It got a little repetitive as it came to its close.

Part of the Colbert persona is his rampant narcissism, like when he walks across the stage over to the night's guest accompanied by cheers from his audience, instead of having them enter and get the fanfare. But on the show, even while he's making fun of the guest, he still gives them the opportunity to make their point and pitch whatever book they're selling, while this book is 100% Stephen. It's still funny, but would probably be served better by reading snippets here and there instead of straight through. In addition to the humorous main text, there's a lot of little extras, like stickers to use to voice your approval of other American books and diagrams showing how to properly "retire" your copy for the evening. It's enjoyable light reading for anyone who gets a kick out of his show.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Marine

Starring a professional wrestler and the T-1000, The Marine is a terrible movie. But it's one of those terrible movies that transcends its terribleness to become amazing in its own way. It's hard to tell how much of the movie is supposed to be serious and how much is supposed to be silly, because there's a lot of attempted humorous dialogue between the T-1000 and his villainous henchmen, especially Dozer from The Matrix, who has to turn everything into a race issue. He's really an idiotic, psychotic character, who causes 90% of the trouble for the T-1000 in this movie. If he wasn't such a retard, they wouldn't have had to capture John Cena's wife, who I recognize most from an internet picture of her sitting on a bathtub wearing only panties (She's the only witness in the entire film that they don't murder, because she could be useful as a hostage of course); the cops wouldn't be after them; and they wouldn't all end up killed in the end by a former marine.

Yeah, former marine, because after a stellar opening rescue sequence in Iraq full of yelling, bullets, and burning 2x4's, Cena is discharged for disobeying orders. My friend didn't understand why it was called The Marine, since his former career is irrelevant to most of the movie's plot (the word "plot" is used very generously here), but it ended up useful in justifying why he could make such graceful dives into swamp water while buildings he was just in explode for no reason. Seriously, I've never seen so many ridiculous, sometimes inexplicable explosions in one movie before, and most happen right next to characters who always emerge completely unscathed. After a hilarious opening half-hour and before a pretty good third act, they spend too much time wandering around in the wild of South Carolina, trying to be funny while nothing's really happening. Sure, Cena gets jumped by some giant hillbillies, but he kicks their asses in an impromptu wrestling match in short order. As humorous as the movie is, it isn't when it tries to be, and a sigh of relief was to be had when they finally got back to the fighting. Despite killing off the craziest character too soon and having too many stupid jokes, the film does act some smart questions. Since Cena can't take a guy out quickly and quietly for some reason despite being a trained marine, why don't henchman call for help during their bouts with him that always involve lots of splintering wood and loud punches? How many flimsily-constructed buildings can a man holding the side of an 18-wheeler cab be plowed through before he loses his grip? And how many explosive barrels can you really fit inside one shack? If you like movies that are terrible in a hilarious way, you should definitely check out The Marine.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Salmon of Doubt

I was surprised to realize I haven't talked about this book yet, having read it during the summer. Douglas Adams, sci-fi humorist extraordinaire, was writing a third Dirk Gently novel when he passed much too young of a heart attack. It wasn't working quite right, and he was thinking that the ideas would work better in the context of a sixth Hitchhiker's Guide book instead. He never got to finish the story, and we'll never know quite what was going on then. The Salmon of Doubt was the working title of the incomplete work, and it was used to name this, a collection of various writings of his, including the best possible version of the new story edited together using the various parts they found. There's a couple other short stories as well as essays he did for magazines or just letters he wrote of interest.

Everything in the book is an interesting read. Some of it is enlightening self-deprecation, some is humorous stories on stuff he doesn't usually discuss, and all of it is well-written. He's not an overly verbose man, but his descriptions are always perfect and it moves right along. Some highlights are a story based off a sketch he wrote with Graham Chapman about the odd private life of Genghis Kahn and the Salmon of Doubt itself. There was definitely something there, although there was obvious work to be done. All in all, it's a nice read punctuated by the bittersweet knowledge that this is the work of someone who wasn't even close to running out of ideas, but did make an impact while he was here.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Slaughterhouse-Five is another great book by Kurt Vonnegut. It's very much in his style of dark humor, science-fiction trappings, and self-referentiality. The book is relatively serious for him, while still being generally strange, the narrative is built around his real experience during the bombing of Dresden near the end of the second World War. As far as war novels go, Slaughterhouse really isn't one. It doesn't describe any battles in great deal, as the protagonist is never really in one. It doesn't have page after page of depressing text describing how horrible everything was. Vonnegut is very simple in his writing style, getting to the point early and letting the story move along. This is part of what makes reading his work so addicting, you never get bogged down in overbearing paragraphs. He manages to convey how terrible war can be without getting too preachy about it, which made it an easy book to stomach.

He begins and ends the story talking about his own experience getting around to writing it and how a lot of the things he talks about actually happened. Most of it is made up, although he makes a cameo or two in the story himself. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, has come unstuck in time, traveling willy-nilly to different points in his life. This gives him a unique perspective on life, and an odd tone to the book as he lives through his experience captured behind enemy lines. There are appearances by classic Vonnegut characters Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout, although thanks to the strange order I've been reading his books I'm not sure when they first appeared. Slaughterhouse, like his other work, is very funny, even if you're not supposed to laugh at a war novel. The time-travel gimmick makes for a good story told in an interesting way, and it's a very quick read. It might be his best work, certainly his most famous. It would be a good book whether you're interested in humanism or just some escapism.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Heroes - Season 1

It's really nice to see a comic book-style science-fiction show have some success on a major network. Heroes isn't perfect, but it's a very entertaining serial show that manages to build up storylines over time and still deliver closure once in a while. One of the main criticisms of Lost is that they present a lot of questions and don't give a lot of answers. I don't really mind, since it's always interesting despite this, although I may have been aided by watching the first three seasons over a couple months instead of an episode a week for three years. Heroes has a similar style, with a large, diverse, and interesting cast, extraordinary things that are supposed to be explainable scientifically (although I really don't buy the genetic justification for a lot of these powers), and lots of mysteries. There is a definite, discernable story arc though, and while it remains to be seen if all that they seemed to wrap up actually was, they do provide a bit more satisfaction in that regard. They're also not afraid to kill off minor characters, although there hasn't been that much death in the main cast. I understand the difference between film and television, where you need some consistency week to week, but it gets a little fishy when only guest stars seem to get bumped off.

The story, while intriguing, does have a few little problems with it. Whenever you introduce time travel to a story, you add a lot of potential for cool scenarios, but you also invite trouble. Heroes is always pretty vague about how changing destinies really affects the timeline, and some bits just don't match up. "Save the cheerleader, save the world" is a recurring idea, but when it's all resolved, it's hard to discern exactly why. They also introduce some causality loops just for fun, although some people wouldn't think about that as much. In the end, I wasn't fully happy with the way things resolved, but it's still pretty good, and better thanks to the cast. Everyone is right for their part, and mostly do their job well. There are occasional awkward line deliveries, but the work is pretty solid in general. The characters themselves are all developed well over the course of the show, and they go out of their way to add a human element to all the super powered craziness. It's always fun when a new power is introduced, and after that initial revelation, they usually do a good job of making that person more than a plot device, although a couple tend to stray into that territory. It's still early in the show, and there's plenty of time to mess things up, but right now they have a good thing going.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


As a pure first-person shooter, Bioshock isn't that great. The variety of weapons isn't bad, and the plasmid and tonic super-powers that give you an edge are fun to play with. There's a lot of enjoyment to be had from sending swarms of bees after your enemies or launching them into the air with a small whirlwind. But the shooting controls are a little off compared to more dedicated games, and it can get tiring fighting the same stupid enemies over and over again. Even Big Daddies, one of the most interesting foes to be introduced to games in a long time, lose their edge after you've spent enough time around them. But while other shooters are good because of the gunplay, Bioshock is good because of everything else.

Rapture, the underwater capitalistic utopia that has fallen into chaos, is one of the best realized and most intriguing game settings I've ever seen. Because of something about the design, the game can be a bit mentally taxing to play, but I kept coming back partly because the world is so interesting. It's a hip 1950's society gone wrong, and just surveying all the horrible things that have happened is quite an experience. Scattered everywhere are audio diaries that fill in the ample backstory, while at the same time revealing gameplay hints. A lot of them are cryptic, but if you pay attention you get plenty of information to make the experience more fulfilling. Part of me wishes it was a bit more like Half-Life, introducing you to the world in a normal, peaceful state, and then having it all hit the fan in front of you. But they chose to go a different way and it works well enough. There's a sort of horror vibe with the game, although not much of it is legitimately frightening. It's not like there are failed attempts at scares though, it's just a slightly different tone, being pervasively creepy without going for visceral shocks. There are a few gameplay climaxes with larger scale combat, but in general the pace is a bit stately, with a constant state of semi-tension instead of a repeated rise and fall. This is also reflected in general design, with lots of exploration and encouraged scouring of the environment, with some added RPG elements such as a commerce system and the ability to construct your own supplies. You can also hack the various security systems and supply machines using a minigame that isn't that interesting and doesn't make much sense, but it can provide some fun if you liked Pipe Dream.

You can't really talk about Bioshock without talking about the actual story that takes place while you're playing. There's a bit of mystery about who you really are and who's on whose side. There are some stunning twists and revelations that take a while to come about, but add a great deal of satisfaction to the experience. It's very rare for me to really be genuinely surprised by a game story, but they pulled it off. There's one line that will be forever engraved in my memory. The ending depends on a choice you make near the beginning of the game, and the two options are perhaps a bit too simply cut-and-dry for the otherwise very intelligent tale. Still, the plot, both in the content and presentation, is pretty terrific, and a huge reason why Bioshock is one of the best games of the year.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Coheed and Cambria - No World for Tomorrow

Or if you prefer, Good Apollo I'm Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow. Barring a possible prequel bearing the number one, Coheed and Cambria's fourth album wraps up the story they've been creating since the The Second Stage Turbine Blade, although it's not really clear to most people what that story is. Instead of saying anything understandable, the lyrics tend to just string together thoughts and oddly structured sentences in a way that hints at meaning but is generally pretty inscrutable. But we listen to music to enjoy the songs, not analyze the message, and No World for Tomorrow is still pretty good in that regard. Coheed's another one of those bands that just never quite reach what you think they might be capable of. There's a lot of nice touches and interesting musical moments, but a lot of the music is repetitive, not especially catchy pop punk. The better songs are all departures from that radio friendly style, with more of a progressive/operatic tone. The band is still full of great musicians, and there's some nice instrumentation here. They don't bring back the lullaby from the first three albums, but they still recall a few different themes and lines, adding a sense of coming full circle with the story and wrapping it up nicely.

"The Reaping" is an atmospheric, acoustic song that leads into the title track, a good song with a variety of catchy sections. "The Running Free" is the current single, and starts off very strong. It's a bit less entertaining after the vocals start, but it's decent. "Mother Superior" is a softer ballad in line with something like "The Light & the Glass", another standout among the more generic stuff around it. The End Complete is the coalition of the last five tracks much like The Willing Well from the last album, and is fairly epic in scope, representing the climax of the tale. "The Fall of House Atlantic" is an instrumental, and a fairly enjoyable one at that, in a slightly cheesy way. "Radio Bye Bye" is a conventional pop punk song that snuck in there somehow, and pretty forgettable. "The End Complete" is nearly eight minutes of pomp, with some good music and dramatic flair. "The Road and the Damned" is fairly solid, and transitions into the falling action of "On the Brink", which is also largely instrumental after a few minutes, with a clash of different styles ending in a slightly altered reprise of the solo from "The Final Cut", the last track of Volume One. It's not as grand as it could have been, but No World for Tomorrow is still a pretty decent album.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

At the Drive-In - Relationship of Command

Relationship of Command was the last album by At the Drive-In before they split up, the singer and a guitarist leaving to form The Mars Volta, the bassist, drummer, and other guitarist creating Sparta. You can definitely see elements of both bands in Drive-In, although they're closer to Sparta in general sound. Drive-In is like a combination of both bands that has the best parts of neither. They don't have the more accessible catchiness of Sparta or eccentric creativity of Volta. It doesn't mean they're worse than either though, just different. They have a similar punk rock vibe, with more chaos and creativity in place of choruses and standard progression. The singer is definitely better than Sparta's, although he's more prone to just shouting. They're a loud, aggressive band, with a penchant for lyrics that don't make a lot of sense. It can sound a little too much like the average modern punk band, but they have enough flourishes and good ideas to elevate them.

"Arcarsenal" gets things going with a flurry of drums and diddling guitar that explode into the song proper. "Pattern Against User" is a solid rock song with a pleasant interlude stuffed in the middle. "One Armed Scissor" is probably the most radio-friendly long song the album, which could explain why it was on the radio. "Invalid Litter Dept." is the longest track, and is pretty good, with spoken verses over nice guitars and a catchy chorus. "Enfilade" starts with a creepy phone call and is one of the more out-there songs, with warbled vocals and a unique sounding refrain. "Quarantined" is another good track with a stately pace and many enjoyable elements. "Non-Zero Possibility" is the mellowest song and does some nice things, and is followed by two bonus tracks that keep bringing the off-kilter, loud sound they've been making the whole way through. I'm not as into this kind of thing as I used to be, but it's still a very enjoyable album thanks to its less common elements.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction

The PS3 is in desperate need of good games, but help is coming, and has already arrived in the form of the next chapter in the Ratchet and Clank series. There have been two installments since 2004's Up Your Arsenal, but one focused on shooting and multiplayer and the other was on the PSP, so this feels like the first real game in a few years. I'd been looking forward to it, and while it doesn't really take the franchise to new and exciting places, it's still a very satisfying addition. Obviously, the change in system comes with a bump in graphics, and Tools of Destruction is one of the prettiest games there is. Not only is Insomniac incredibly technically efficient with making hardware do what they want, but the visual design is enjoyable and sucks you into the constantly-expanding universe. It can seem a bit too kid-friendly at times, but you can ignore that while you destroy aliens and robots with heavy explosives. There are a few more glitches than we're used to seeing in the series though, like Ratchet not properly staying on terrain that rises and falls, and controls locking up for a few seconds.

I was never a huge fan of the online play in the latter PS2 games, but the lack of it in Tools of Destruction could reduce the value if the single-player was too short. Luckily the length was pretty satisfying, as it extended a little past where I expected it to end, and in fact might have been stretching it a bit too much. Some have complained about the difficulty being too easy as well, although I didn't see much to that either. It wasn't frustrating, but it wasn't a cakewalk either, especially if you try to upgrade all the weapons instead of using the best ones over and over. The Ratchet gameplay isn't quite as magical as it used to be. It's still a ton of fun, but we've done this before, so it's really hard to say Tools is as outstanding as previous entries. And there's also the lame tilt controls that get shoe-horned into every PS3 game. You can turn them off, but it disables one of the better weapons against large groups. There's nothing terrible about the uses they've come up with, but they don't add anything to the experience besides occasional annoyance when the alignment messes up. Tools of Destruction has a few small problems that detract from the experience and it's not as original as it used to be, but it's still one of the most purely fun games of this generation.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya - Season 1

A second season is apparently in production or will be in production soon, which is cool because this was another great little show. It mixes genres a lot, with some typical, although relatively funny, high school comedy stuff, as well as heavy action and science fiction elements, and even a bit of mystery. The show revolves around Haruhi, although it's told from the perspective of her friend Kyon. She's a unique girl who only wants to hang out with things like aliens and psychics, although she seems to like normal, milquetoast Kyon for some reason. They form a club, and all of the members are outlandish things like time travelers sent to observe Haruhi, although they only reveal this to Kyon. He takes it in stride pretty well, as he keeps her in check while crazy stuff happens around them.

The show was purposefully broadcast out of chronological order, which is the order I watched it in. It can be confusing, but if you pay attention, there are plenty of hints that let you know what takes place when. I think it's the best order to watch it in, because the story climax happens halfway through chronologically, but if you want to make it simpler there's nothing wrong with that. It's a really creative, entertaining show, that moves through a lot of styles. An entire episode is pretty much filler with a lot of static camera shots and periods of inactivity, but it was still enjoyable from a comedy perspective. The characters are all likable and fleshed out a bit, revealing a lot more about them than some much longer shows do. The animation is pretty incredible for a TV series. Not only are the more exciting scenes done very well with just the right amount of anime style without going over the top, but the attention to detail in subtler moments puts it in league with the best-looking shows ever. A simple shot of two hands rearranging to grasp each other tighter conveys more feeling than any lengthy monologue can. They never spend too much time with one kind of thing, so you can end up burning through it really quickly and wishing there was more, which thankfully, there will be eventually. My finger's not exactly on the pulse of the anime community, but I can tell Haruhi's pretty much a sensation in the industry, which can turn some people off of anything. It's definitely worth seeing nonetheless.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Death Note

Death Note isn't quite as completely amazing as its hype might suggest, but it's still great. With so many shows being the same old romantic comedy or mindless action, it's awesome to see something that depends on being intelligent and thrives because of it. If you don't know, the idea is a guy named Light finds a notebook that allows him to kill people by writing their name in it. After he confirms that it works by testing it on a criminal, he goes on a quest to get rid of all the bad people in the world, and he gradually becomes more evil and insane as the show goes on. At first Light seems like a protagonist, but before long it's clear that he really isn't. L is a detective of equal wit who's trying to track him down, and a huge part of the show is the cat and mouse battle between them. There's a lot of genuinely good, smart interplay going on as they struggle to outsmart each other. I think a little too much is just posturing, but there's plenty of genius schemes to keep the viewer entertained.

There are other elements of the show that are less interesting, as the two characters interact with the rest of the world. Light has to protect his secret from his family and keep control over his overzealous girlfriend. As it goes on, the show does tend to lose some steam, as the games start failing to top the previous one and the same thing happens again. There's a twist that changes the whole complexion of the show, and it's really not the same afterward. There's still some interesting stuff, but the new elements just aren't as well developed. As the show ends, it becomes clear it was about time it did anyway. The conclusion is decent, but more satisfaction could have been had with some tweaking. It's still a good, sometimes funny show, and it features some of the most ridiculously dramatic animation for mundane tasks I've ever seen. You'd never think writing a name down or opening a bag of chips could be so exciting. Despite diminishing returns, Death Note has more great "Oh, snap!" moments than a lot of shows put together, and every anime fan should check it out.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

24 - Season 3

Jack Bauer's crazy life continues with yet another huge crisis in Los Angeles that will somehow be averted in exactly 24 hours. The stakes are higher than ever, as the entire country is in danger from a specially engineered virus that kills 90% of all exposed to it in less than a day. This season is a little trickier than the others, as all is not as it seems in the beginning, and it turns out the entire first half is a bit of a waste of time. There's a whole lot of trouble going on in Mexico, and some important stuff happens there, but the actual danger isn't coming from south of the border.

The third season is darker and more depressing than previous ones. Way more innocents meet an untimely end, and at times it can seem a bit cynical. They'll show images of people suffering, basically saying "Look at this, isn't this sad?" It does help raise the stakes though, as it has the best tension so far despite fewer shootouts in dark alleys. Near the end, a character gets captured and someone close to them is forced to act against their allies, and while that is playing out, I was on edge the entire time. Very few things have kept me worried for so long, so overall it was a very successful story despite continued permeation of people who just seem to ignore simple solutions to their problems.

Jack's having more problems, as he has to save America while dealing with heroin withdrawal after getting addicted to maintain his cover. He seems more human, while still being a very strong protagonist. Kim's back, but instead of being in peril the entire time, she's actually useful for helping the good eyes, and is only in peril a little while. The president we all know and love is having problems again, this time when he gets involved in a possible scandal that could cost him his reelection bid. I understand the desire to have more than one plot thread to keep it from getting too tedious, but it's honestly never as compelling as the simple counter-terrorism battle. Fortunately, it's satisfying in the end thanks to a character I'm pretty sick of finally getting what was coming. The fourth season is a bit of a reboot with a lot of different characters in the foreground, so the third was a nice wrap up of all the threads that were created over three years of good television.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Rage Against the Machine - Renegades

So Rage Against the Machine was a pretty popular rap/rock group for most of the 90's with a strong political message, and then they broke up. The singer did his own thing while the rest of the band played with Chris Cornell as Audioslave, although recently that act broke up too, and now Rage is playing shows again and people wonder if they're going to do some recording. Renegades was their last studio album, but it wasn't a normal one, as it's a collection of covers. Some are song by contemporaries like Cypress Hill, others are of more classic bands. Some of them are interesting, although most just transform it into a typical Rage song. That's fine, as a normal Rage song can be pretty awesome. But too much of the same thing can get pretty tiresome, and since they didn't really write these songs, they don't get much credit for crunching, angry guitars and rapping lyrics someone else wrote.

"Microphone Fiend" gets it started just the way you'd expect, a lot of attitude and a lot of bass. "Pistol Grip Pump" is one of the standouts. It's actually quite repetitive, but there's just something enticing about the riff and the beat. "Renegades of Funk" has a catchy sample and is a pretty good single. "Beautiful World" is about the only song on the album that doesn't sound like Rage Against the Machine, very mellow and respectful of the original version. "How I Could Just Kill a Man" is another enjoyable, hard rocking track. "Maggie's Farm" rounds out the album with a loud, angry, typical finish that you expect from a band that rages so much, especially against the machine. My copy is actually a special edition with two live bonus tracks, although neither is especially compelling and just stretch out the experience. They really just lessen the impact of ending on "Maggie's Farm" which was actually fairly good. It's a pretty decent album, although I think huge fans might have wanted a bigger last hurrah.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Radiohead - In Rainbows

Personally, I like having a physical copy of an album when I pay for it. It might just be a stupid collector thing, but I like having the case to put with my others and reading the jacket and tangible proof that I supported the artist. I think the way Radiohead is giving the finger to record labels and releasing this album on their own is cool, but I'd like to have a real disc that's cheaper than the super-duper $80 box on their website. Until that happens though, anyone can download the record for any price they choose, even free if they're cheap, so you should if only to see if you like it.

I'd like to have heard Hail to the Thief before this to have the full context of the style arc they've followed from The Bends to where they are now, but it's still nice to hear them sound more natural and rock-like than the still-good but less endearing electronic stuff they got into. In Rainbows is sort of a mix of the two styles. Ok Computer was already leaning in that direction, so In Rainbows is a sort of bridge that makes the whole band a bit more seamless in terms of style. "Creep" still sounds way different from "Pyramid Song", but you can see where they came from. In Rainbows can be characterized by a rise and fall of tension without too many complete releases happening. There are some moments, but most of the enjoyment comes from the routine building blocks of the songs, which are just stronger overall than most bands'. They still know how to write songs that are wholly unique while still being immensely enjoyable.

"15 Step" begins with manufactured drums and characteristic falsetto, mumbling vocals, and develops into a nice opening track. "Bodysnatchers" is very much a normal rock song, and is a bit surprising in that regard. "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" has a good, simple guitar part that puts your mind at ease and lets the ambiance wash over you. "All I Need" might be my favorite song on the album, with a nice, mellow sound that builds into the biggest climax on the record, which can give you chills with headphones on. "House of Cards" is another more mainstream sounding song, although it doesn't skimp on haunting, distant vocals, and uses it's status as longest track on the album to explore the possible avenues. "Videotape" wraps things up with minimal piano and percussion, and leads you along without giving you too much. Despite the typical stranger elements, In Rainbows still sounds like a relatively happy album compared to Radiohead's other works, and that's part of the reason I liked it so much. I don't think I'll ever totally love them as much as other people do, but I still acknowledge their ability to make consistently good, unique music.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Dandy Warhols - Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia

I only previously knew The Dandy Warhols through "Bohemian Like You", a fairly catchy single that got a lot of play in commercials. If the name isn't familiar to you, then if you watched a fair amount of TV a few years ago then a snippet of the song probably would be. I wasn't sure what to expect, but Thirteen Tales is a surprisingly good rock album. They like to create interesting melodies or just sounds and let them ride out for a while, making the thing nearly an hour in length without too many songs or really being too complex in their structures. There are plenty of average length songs, but several are over five minutes and are generally my favorites, with some really enjoyable textures and mellow vocals. The singer's voice isn't very distinctive but uses it to his advantage, as it would be hard for anyone to find it annoying, unlike many vocalists. There are different instruments and styles sprinkled in here and there, not much of it really transcends but it's all a really solidly put-together set of songs.

"Godless" begins with the feedback from a guitar that builds into a continuous note leading to acoustic strumming and then drums and some nice horns. It segues into "Mohammed", which is more foreign musically, with a wailing guitar and minimal vocals. "Nietzche" is one of the most serenely enjoyable songs I've heard, with pleasant singing and a main hard guitar part I could listen to for much longer than the 5:40 runtime. "Country Leaver" shows some diversity, as the singer takes on a southern twang along with the whole feel of the song. "Get Off" is a more upbeat sounding song, one of many with uniquely infectious vocals. "Cool Scene" has a nice groove, and goes right into the aforementioned "Bohemian Like You", which is fine, and does stick out a bit as far as general appeal, but it's not one of the better songs on the album. There are a couple more nice songs before "The Gospel" wraps things up in the traditional, softer way. There's a whole lot to like about this band, even if they'll never be as widely known as a clip from one of their songs.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Cat's Cradle

One of Vonnegut's earlier novels, Cat's Cradle's narrative is pretty straightforward but told in an interesting way. The plot is really science-fiction, although this really wasn't obvious for a while. Vonnegut's known for his social satire, and a lot of the book is humorous takes on people and ideas from the time period. The nameless narrator is telling the story of how he got to where he is, and starts with him doing research for a book about the day the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He goes to the hometown of one of the fictional creators of the device, but doesn't realize until later he came up with something much more deadly before he died. Vonnegut jokes about the arms race, McCarthyism, and religion as the setting shifts and the narrative takes a darker turn.

What's interesting is how he uses the narrator plot device as a way to increase tension and danger without actually having anything happen in the story. The main conflict occurs very quickly near the end of the book, but the writer is always dropping hints of how things will go wrong. It's very oddly structured, with over a hundred chapters despite being fewer than three hundred pages in length. There are frequent interruptions as the narrator explains concepts and teachings of Bokononism, the fake religion he practices. Besides the interesting story, Cat's Cradle is really funny. There's a lot of humor in the dialogue, even when it's expository, and funny characters, even if they only have a short amount of time to make an impact. Vonnegut has a style of writing that's all his own, which makes reading his books a unique experience, unlike very few other ways to entertain yourself. I think everybody should read at least a little of his stuff, and Cat's Cradle is a good choice.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Take the Money and Run

One of Allen's first movies, back when he was one of the prime innovators of comedy in film. He's known for creating a lot of jokes and gags that have been recycled endlessly by less creative writers, and Take the Money and Run is the first real Mockumentary. A lot of the movie plays pretty much like a normal movie, but the narration and interviews with people who knew the main character are what make it different. Allen wrote and directed, but Ralph Rosenblum's editing appears to have been very vital to the movie's success. He changed the editing and tightened up the whole thing, making it into a lean comedy gem.

Virgil is a man who appears kind-hearted but is really a career criminal, although he's not great at what he does. There's a lot of great humor about botched heists, failed escape attempts and how a relationship holds up under the strain of breaking the law for a living. The central conceit that it's supposed to be a documentary doesn't really make sense, because most of this stuff would never be filmed in real life, unlike the more mundane subject matter of This is Spinal Tap or The Office. If you just ignore this problem though, you can find a very smart and funny movie. It rewards viewers who remember details and can spot some cultural references (there was an entire bit about an old Game Show I wouldn't have gotten as well without some help). The runtime is pretty quick, and they never spend too much time on one subject. This is where Woody Allen got his start as a "triple-threat", and it's a good movie indeed.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Blades of Glory

Yes, Blades of Glory is a stupid movie. A very stupid one. But the cast is very talented at making people laugh, and the result is an enjoyable comedy. Will Ferrell is the obvious star, and he's in fine form. After showing he can act in real movies, he still hasn't lost the ability to create a character with his own quirks that is still part of his persona. He has plenty of great one-liners, although many were blown in the trailers. Some of the best stuff in the movie is his character, Chazz' sex addiction and his many tattoos representing trysts with famous skaters. Jon Heder, who shall forever be saddled with the memory of playing the titular protagonist of Napoleon Dynamite, didn't get much screen time in commercials, but he was actually pretty entertaining as the more grounded half of the main duo.

The movie has a lot of great people in smaller parts, all famous for their television work. SNL's Amy Poehler and Arrested Development's Will Arnett as the evil/creepy sibling skate team, The Office's Jenna Fischer as their docile sister, The Daily Show's Rob Corddry as the manager of a children's ice show. There's also a lot of cameos from famous skaters that help create a fun atmosphere. There's obviously nothing that special about the plot, there are lots of traditional plot devices and crap thrown in to justify it as a movie and not just a string of figure skating jokes. It's not great, but it works, and it all flies by pretty quickly. It seems like Ferrell's trying to make a character/movie for every celebrity profession, from news anchoring to NASCAR driving and now to pro skating. It usually works, and I don't mind having simple, fun movies like this.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

24 - Season 2

The second season of 24 is definitely crazier than the first, with nuclear weapons, political backstabbing, and conspiracies. It's also more action packed, as Jack has to battle against more heavily armed thugs than he did previously. There are new characters and subplots that develop alongside the main story, some more interesting than others. Jack's daughter Kim is still around and getting into trouble, and while Elisha Cuthbert is still nice to look at, I was already bored of seeing her in distress all the time. How many psychopaths can you really bump into in one day? They definitely stretch reality to make the plot crazier. Unlikely terrorists and strict timetables (You have less than 12 hours after an attack to launch a surprise retaliation?) can come close to breaking the suspension of disbelief.

The show's still fun, though. It's not really supposed to be a realistic drama, so the more outlandish stuff is easier to digest. It's a twisty, exciting series, and I think they pull it off pretty well. I think the real-time gimmick which defines the show is still flawed in its implementation, but you learn to live with these things. All the actors, but returning, new, and the ones just with small parts do their roles well, and the production quality is good. Too many characters seem overly stupid in their actions, and it can seem artificial when they keep extending the resolution to stretch the story out for twenty four hours. It's still a good show though, and Jack is still one bad mother, even as he has to deal with so much crap in one day.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Deeper Meaning of Liff

This is the second edition of a book by the premiere British Science Fiction Humorist and the producer of Blackadder. It's basically a dictionary that takes a bunch of names of places in England and around the world and reuses them as definitions for things that don't have words yet. Some of them are just silly, others are references to things that might be familiar to you and funny for that reason. Oftentimes several words, because of similar roots or just because, will all have interrelated meanings that build on each other. The best words are ones that actually sound like the kind of thing they're describing.

There's also a bunch of maps showing where all the names came from and a funny, extremely thorough index. There's even a funny little appendix. The Deeper Meaning of Liff is pretty short and doesn't have much important to say, but it is a funny little book to thumb through when you're bored.