Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Grenadier: The Beautiful Warrior

Another pretty short-lived, ho-hum show. There are plenty of unremarkable anime like this that come around, last for a little bit, don't have much of a story, and then end and are mostly forgotten. Grenadier would be completely written off as a non-awful but still ignorable action show if it weren't for the protagonist's gender and dimensions.

Grenadier has some decent action scenes and a cool few gimmicks, although it never really excites or surprises. It tries to be funny but usually fails, and most of the more prominent characters are annoying. It's another show that revels in the sexual frustration of the male lead, as whenever he gets close to the girl, the annoying sidekick butts in and ruins the situation. Gee, I sure do enjoy that. The only reason I ever heard of the show is twofold.

1) The main character has ridiculously enormous breasts.
2) She hides her ammunition between them and can cause a full load of it to pop out and fly into her empty revolver at will.

Awesome. She's extremely adept at gunfighting, with lots of crazy techniques and superhuman reactions, but of course she's a nice person at heart and her true goal is to make her enemies lay down their arms with a smile. She's basically Vash from Trigun. Except with gigantic breasts. Also, she's 16. Isn't it great how Japan sexualizes young girls like that? There are a lot of jokes and exaggerated animation revolving around her proportions and those of similarly endowed allies and foes. I'm not sure why stuff like this, that relentlessly teases the male audience, is so popular. I just find it gets grating. Still, despite the generally annoying nature of the show, it's not a bad watch if you're bored. Just don't actually expect anything good.

This marks the 31st time I've posted in July. That's right, I updated every day for a whole month. I hope you're as impressed with how consistently I waste my time as I am.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Steel Angel Kurumi

In my continuing search for new crap to write about (I'm actually completely caught up right now), I decided to go back and cover the anime series I've been watching over the last several months. It is my eventual plan to just write about significant stuff from the past when I have nothing new, so I'll ease into that by going backwards in time discussing anime until it gets tiring.

The last full thing I saw was Steel Angel Kurumi along with the Encore OVA's and shorter sequel series. It's a pretty quick and forgettable watch. The episodes are all very short, only about 11 minutes as opposed to the normal 22 for animated stuff. It makes it really easy to breeze through without feeling bad you spent so much time on something you don't really care about. There's nothing terrible about the show, it's just not very interesting. It's extremely mildly humorous, there are some somewhat competent action scenes, the characters are fairly tolerable, and the story is a little intriguing and ends in an essentially satisfying way. Damning it with faint praise, eh? It's not a bad show at all, it's just the kind of thing you'd only want to watch if you literally had nothing else to do, or you're really in love with the Magical Girlfriend genre of anime.

Magical Girlfriend shows are similar to Harem shows, which are both pretty basic and usually not indicative of high quality. They appeal to the apparently common Japanese male fantasy of a dorky guy who manages to be in a relationship with a beautiful girl. In Harem shows, the guy is in some crazy situation surrounded by hot girls who all want him, and usually there's one obvious one he ends up with. Magical Girlfriend shows only have one real love interest, often with super powers (in Steel Angel Kurumi, she's a cyborg), and the conflict comes from interference by others characters, often related to the girl, maybe not necessarily because they're into the guy, although it's not uncommon that someone is. Nothing ever really happens, either because the guy is too shy or too perverted, and (not) hilarious hijinks ensue. Steel Angel Kurumi is a little different because the plot is based on a real conflict between forces, and it quite often feels like an action show with a significant romance subplot. It might be a step above the typical genre show, but again, faint praise.

The Encore OVA is a few filler episodes just giving a bit more interaction between the characters, and is even less interesting. The sequel's plot is completely unrelated to the original series, with the main character being a girl, adding a lot of lesbian undertones. It's much more of a romance show than its predecessor, with lots of love triangles and stuff like that, and is less watchable than the original. Again, it's not terrible, it just drags along to the finish. It's definitely not something I'd recommend to someone who's not already a big fan of anime.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories

This is the fifth GTA game I've played on the PS2 using the same engine, and I have to admit I'm pretty glad to admit it's the last. A new GTA game used to be an event, and the new games were always impressive in their scope and what they added to the series. But the gameplay has gotten tiring, and these ports of PSP titles don't do much to stay fresh. A lot of the allure of the "Stories" PSP games is that you get to play GTA on a portable system. When you put the same game on PS2, that allure is gone. Liberty City Stories had the same problem, but it wasn't as long, and so it didn't wear out its welcome as much as this does. There's nothing that really makes Vice City Stories inferior to LCS, it just feels even more played out. The city is familiar and Lance Vance is as irritating as ever. He's seriously one of the worst game characters in existence. He has no redeeming qualities. He's an idiot, not funny, and doesn't help. All he usually does to a mission is make it harder than it needs to be. His brother, the guy you play is, is better, but not by much. As a person he's not unlikable, but his motivations are a little messed up and it's hard to care knowing he's going to die in a couple years. That's a big problem with both Stories games - finding the will to try when half the characters you're protecting are going to get killed anyway. The biggest problem was right in the game - an extremely frustrating mission, the entire point of which is to save someone, which results in that character dying anyway. Gee, great.

VCS does offer some stuff the original game doesn't. Helpful additions like swimming, trip skip, being able to buy back confiscated weapons, et cetera make the experience less frustrating. Despite some shitty characters, the story is pretty decent and well-written, the radio stations are still hilarious, and they're filled with lots of great 80's songs. Visually, it's improved a bit, with nice draw distances and lighting, plus the blur effect they introduced in San Andreas that happens when you're going extremely fast. The load times are much better than the original games, but I wish they could have taken out the load between parts of the city. If they can stream all of San Andreas, they should be able to stream all of Vice City. There are some creative missions, but as usual, as it goes on it all devolves into a lot of shooting and exploding. The targeting continues to be terrible, and it's just disgusting to see the final battles always playing out with you sprinting away a little bit to protect yourself and just holding down target and fire. I can't wait for Grand Theft Auto IV, which looks to be more realistic, and hopefully will have a decent combat system. VCS is annoying sometimes, but it's definitely not a bad game for $20.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

My Name Is Earl - Seasons 1-2

If you just look at the commercials, My Name Is Earl can look really dumb. But that's just the intentionally trailer-trash characters. The supporting cast is really good at conveying stupidity in a really entertaining way. My favorite secondary character is Darnell, otherwise known as "Crab Man". He has a very friendly relationship with Earl, his wife Joy's ex-husband, and often seems simple, but he actually has a lot of knowledge in his head and a shady past that has yet to be explored. There's plenty of things like that in the show, it might seem outwardly like just a dumb comedy, but a lot of time is spent developing characters and relationships.

The main character is Earl, obviously, played by Jason Lee. At first, he's almost unrecognizable in the part. If you're familiar with him from his other movies, like the Kevin Smith stuff, he seems a lot different. The voice is the same, but the mannerisms and appearance is like night and day. It's really impressive how much he dives into the role. Does Earl look like a guy who used to be a pro skateboarder? Earl is one of the best main characters in years. He's funny and likable, and while he's obviously made a lot of bad decisions, you can see that he's become a new person and is really trying to make the world better. Once in a while he slips up again, but his passion for the list and making up for his mistakes are very believable and endearing.

The first season was mostly a bunch of interrelated one-shot episodes where Earl usually found someone he'd wronged before from his list, fixed a relatively simple problem, but then realized something else that was wrong or an unanticipated way his error had been worse than he expected, and figures out to make it right while learning some valuable lessons. Season two branched out a lot more. The list was less prominent than before. He still used it a lot, crossing off names and adding more, but there were a lot of side plots that weren't even related. He goes all over the place helping his friends, and the big story arc for the season is Joy's trouble with the law after an attempt to get a refund on her busted entertainment center. It resolves with Earl making a big sacrifice to help the people he loves, and I have to wonder how major the ramifications will be for the next season. Earl and his friends and family have really grown, and the show has a lot more emotional depth than you'd really expect from a cursory glance at it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lost - Seasons 1-3

This post will have spoilers, okay? It's hard to talk about Lost without talking about the story.

I wasn't watching much television when Lost burst onto the scene along with Desperate Housewives within a couple weeks of each other and catapulted ABC up in the ratings. The premise seemed cool, but I just wasn't interested much in the medium. In the last year I've gotten much more into some of the more prominent shows, and finally blazed through the first three seasons, catching up just as the last one ended. Lost was a huge hit during the first season, and it's still popular, although the ratings have dipped and some have stopped watching because they aren't answering any real questions or they just don't like where it's going. I haven't minded the constant mystery too much, although maybe the fact I watched it in about a month and not spread out over a few years helped me there. Regardless of the lack of answers, I think I'll see it through to the end, just to see where they're going. It's seemed like maybe they didn't know what they were doing for a while, but now that they know when it's ending, I think we'll see a more solid plan and some real truth at some point.

Lost is always interesting even when not a lot is happening on the island, because of the flashbacks. They're kind of a contrived way to develop your characters, but it's not a problem since they're just so intriguing. One of the strangest things about them is how often characters show up in the background of other characters' flashes. Sometimes they're hints of things that have already been revealed, and sometimes they're just seemingly crazy coincidences, although maybe they will be explained. My favorite example is Hurley being on someone else's TV, a clue before we find out he won the lottery using those mysterious numbers before crashing on the island. The most notorious coincidence in my mind is how often Jack's dad seems to appear in everyone's stories, sometimes prompting them to do things they shouldn't. All of these appearances are one of the more strange things of a show filled with them. They're rather mundane compared to the smoke monster, but there's just too many for it to be normal.

The writers claim that everything in the show can be explained with science, but I have some trouble believing that. They haven't really done anything yet to back that up, and some of the explanations would have to be pretty out there. The smoke monster, for one. And why Desmond is able to predict the future after the electromagnetic discharge. Can he still do it after Charlie's death, or was it just for him? Why does the island have seemingly magical healing powers, and allow some to age but not others? How is an uncharted island apparently so hard to find, yet so many things crash on it? Flight 815 going down seems to have been caused by another discharge, but that doesn't exactly explain it getting torn apart, and everyone inside surviving. Was the drug plane brought down for the same reason? How can they actually explain everything without it being science fiction, and will they even bother to actually explain it all? Some things just seemed random and thrown in because they're weird, like the statue of the four-toed foot. After the crazy finale, can they really add anymore questions before they start answering some? Are they going to bother explaining some things, like Libby's presence in Hurley's mental hospital, or are they just letting that go since she's dead?

Even when the plot is so convoluted, it's easy to keep watching because the characters are so good. In the beginning, Jack seemed like the typical reluctant leader-hero-guy, but over time he's been built up as more and more of a jerk. He's not always fair, and we see in flashbacks that he's a mean drunk and too often pushes people into doing what they don't want to. He is way too stubborn and often closed-minded. He's usually honest, but that's not all it takes to be a good person. Locke kind of pisses me off. His backstory is kind of awesome and at first he seemed like a unique old-guy badass, but he's gone off the deep end and done some truly ridiculous things. He's causing a lot of destruction and death out of his selfish desire to stay on the island. Sawyer's an interesting case. At first, he seemed like a bad guy with a criminal past, but as time's gone on he's become more sympathetic and done a lot more defensible things. Definitely a bit enigmatic. Kate's got a really cool history, although she makes a lot of decisions with really suspect reasoning. The rest of the cast is generally intriguing, sometimes funny, and well acted. The deaths have been around, and they keep things fresh and exciting. I think the number of characters is pretty good right now, and we'll see how the show goes from here. After the reveal at the end of season 3 that at least Jack and Kate made it off the island, I'm really curious about what happens.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

So, it's over. The end of an era. Millions of kids will probably never again read for pleasure. A part of me is sad the story is ended, but it's good to see it come to an exciting and fitting conclusion. JK Rowling isn't the best writer in the world, but her books are easily understandable and gripping. One doesn't read Harry Potter books, one inhales them. Besides a couple hours and about 80 pages on Monday, I read the whole thing in two days. While working eight hours both days. That's how quickly they go despite the thickness of the spine, and how much I wanted to know what happened.

Despite what you may think about her writing style, Rowling has created one of the most intriguing, entertaining, and fully developed fictional worlds in pop culture history. Tolkien comes to mind when you consider how much there is to know about the society and history and family trees and every detail she's come up with. It's really pretty staggering. The story has always been focused on Harry, his relationships with friends and allies, and his quest to defeat Voldemort. But all that other information is there, in the background, filling in the gaps. The main plot continues to twist and turn, with new developments and surprises popping up everywhere. It's the kind of thing you simply cannot just guess from speculating on clues. A lot of key details were guessed at correctly by astute fans based on hints she left everywhere, but there's still plenty that nobody had any idea about. She really does quite a job of tying together loose ends and bringing back old characters. Some criticize this, and it can be a bit contrived, but it works. The series deserves such a richly woven conclusion.

In the early going, the book can be a bit depressing. Before the story really kicks into high gear, things happen once in a while, but there's a lot of worrying and hopelessness. There's a pervasive sense of dread and unhappiness that can start to wear. There's the predictable arguing and separation for a while before they come to their senses and save each other. It's a little annoying and clichéd, but it doesn't bother too much. As it goes on, it builds and builds to the huge, epic climax. There are revelations, adequately-described battles and plenty of surprises, as well as deaths. At least one significant character has been killed in each book since the fourth, but the floodgates have been opened and plenty meet their untimely end here. Some of them are unexpected, and all are a little saddening. The series has really matured along with its original audience. While the plot is interesting, part of me misses Hogwarts. It's crucial to the story, but the main characters don't actually attend classes in the book. It wouldn't make sense for them to do so storywise, but it's still unfortunate.

It had to end some time, and luckily it does in very satisfying fashion. Little was left unresolved, and despite the darkness of the book, the end is definitely uplifting. A fitting conclusion to one of the best fantasy stories of our time.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Office Vs. The Office

The Office is currently a mockumentary comedy on NBC, but almost everyone knows it's based on a British show of the same title. They have the same premise, a small branch of a modestly sized paper company is run by an idiot who tries too hard to be friends with his employees. They have similar plotlines, including nearly identical pilot episodes and the constant threat of the branch being shut down, which doesn't matter much to the boss if it means a promotion. All of the main characters and some of the minor ones in the US version are basically the same as or variations of ones from the UK. That's about where they end. Their senses of humor are similar, but perceptibly different. The UK version ended quickly, after only two short seasons and a special. The US show is still chugging along, with over fifty episodes in the bank and a whopping order of thirty more for the fourth season, which will start filming next month. This huge disparity in length affords the US one more freedom for exploring different ideas, obviously, but that doesn't mean they still can't be compared. The hip, elitist viewpoint is that the UK version is superior, but I'm not so sure about that.

The UK show is drier than the US one, which tends to get goofier. Both are famous for their humor that can cause cringing as much as laughter. Not because it's bad, but just what's happening is so painfully embarrassing for these believable people that it can get hard to watch. The narcissistic boss is always trying to force all eyes upon him, as he tries to take authority where none belongs to him. Characters confess their love and get rejected. Well, that's not actually humor, it's just part of the show that adds to the realism. Not all romance works out as wonderfully as we'd hope, and there are obstacles to overcome. As said before, the shows pretend to be actual footage from a real company, and a lot of the jokes come from the interviews where characters' strange mannerisms and beliefs become exposed, and they're quite often the best parts of an episode.

Since the shows have recurring plot threads but focus mostly on character-based humor, the bulk of the comparison has to be made there. A lot of the comparisons will favor the US version, since it has had more time to develop characters and humor. It might not be quite fair, but really, which show has a better chance of satisfying you, a 12 episode one or one of at least 80?

The Regional Manager: David Brent Vs. Michael Scott

Ricky Gervais' Brent is hailed by many as one of the funniest sitcom characters ever, which I can buy if I don't totally agree with it. I would say he causes more laughs than Steve Carell, to be sure. Both of them tell a lot of jokes that are intentionally (by the makers, not the character) unfunny, and can be annoying at times. But Brent is more often (intentionally) unintentionally funny, just by his sometimes sickening bragging and arrogance that whizzes past the border of self-delusion. It is often, again, more painful than hilarious (The scene where he tries to upstage his rival boss' dancing with some moves of his own is a perfect example), though he still has plenty of great lines that make you kind of hate him and love his humor at the same time. But although he is funnier than Michael, I'd have to say I like David less. He's funny, but he's still an arrogant jerk. Scott is less arrogant and more of just an idiot. He is frequently in similar situations of being an attention freak, but it just seems more benevolent to me. He does unbelievably stupid things, but they're always out of a misguided attempt at doing the right thing. Also, the show bothers to give him some redeeming and sympathetic moments, and he's actually good at his job. He tries too hard with his employees and avoids paperwork, but he's a brilliant salesman. He's probably not right for upper management, but he has some good characteristics.

The Salesman/Good Guy: Tim Canterbury Vs. Jim Halpert

This one's kinda hard. Neither is too attractive or too ugly. They're likable, funny guys. They're probably a little too mean to their respective prank victims, but it's understandable. I think I'm gonna have to with Jim, because some of his actions are more defensible and he's done a lot of really funny things to mess with Dwight.

The Receptionist/Love Interest: Dawn Tinsley Vs. Pam Beesley

Both Dawn and Tim were actors I already recognized from some funny movies, so that was interesting. They're pretty similar (obviously), and have some personal problems, but I think Pam deals with them better. Do you see a pattern here? Dawn seems to constantly be crying, while Pam is a little reserved but still can have some great ideas and triumphant moments. This is shallow, but she's also more attractive. Things were finally starting to happen the way they should at the end of the third season, so I'm looking forward to what happens.

The Boss' Assistant: Gareth Keenan Vs. Dwight Schrute

Gareth was played by another actor I recognized. They're both pretty funny, with their backgrounds providing them with a unique perspective of their work. I like how they're both the only ones devoted to their boss, yet the boss does not return the affection, finding them annoying. Dwight has a lot of great moments, but I have to go with Gareth. His skewed view of women and incongruous military background provide many hilarious scenes that cannot be ignored. He's definitely my favorite character from the UK show. His spiel about poisonous frogs is one of the best television monologues ever.

Intern/Temp: Ricky Howard Vs. Ryan Howard

Ricky's part is pretty limited, but while he's around he manages to be a likable, funny guy. Ryan is never that funny, and he's always put off by what's happening around him. His reactions and a lot of what happens to him is humorous, but as a character he doesn't do much. Also, he comes off as a jerk a bit too often. Ricky doesn't do much but he's not bad.

Warehouse Worker/Receptionist's Fiancé: Lee Vs. Roy

Neither is developed that much or that interesting. Their purpose is to be an obstacle in the good guy's path. From the time that's spent on them, Lee comes off as more of a complete jerk, while Roy definitely has bad tendencies but also has visible good parts to him. I'll take Roy.

Boss' Old Work Buddy: Chris Finch Vs. Todd Packer

I like David Koechner, but he comes off as too much of an ass as Packer. Finch is an ass too, but he is still visibly annoyed by David's personality, so he wins major points for that. Chris.

Fat Accountant: Keith Vs. Kevin

Kevin has a lot of good scenes, but I just don't like the way his face moves. His character's a little too juvenile to really be that interesting, too. Keith's role is very limited, but he does a lot with what he has to work with. They both have the tendency to say and ask a lot of embarrassing things without any trepidation, but Keith's nonchalant attitude is just funnier.

Corporate Supervisor: Jennifer Taylor-Clarke Vs. Jan Levinson

This isn't really a contest. Jennifer just serves the plot, Jan is actually a character. Her relationship with Michael is a confused and interesting one, and her continual breakdown throughout the third season is noteworthy.

That's about it for notable equivalent characters. There are other similar events, but they aren't that important. The US version has several other characters added in to flesh out the cast, and it seems like a richer world. It might not be as clinically funny as the UK version, but I still like it more. It's a warmer, more likable show, and I look forward to it's return.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jak 3

It sure took me a while to get around to playing this one. I don't have anything against the series really, I think it's a solid platformer. I just can not understand, for the life of me, the numerous people who prefer it to Ratchet and Clank. It's literally incomprehensible to me. The only think Jak has over Ratchet is animation, and storyline I guess. His games are more frustrating, control worse, and just less... good.

Jak II was a radical departure from the first game, misguidedly turning Jak into a quasi-badass and making it a more open world with a Grand Theft Auto feel to a lot of the core design. The platforming sections were still there, but in their own sectioned-off areas, you spent a lot of time roaming the irritatingly designed streets of Haven City and racing and fighting stuff there. It got very punishing at times, and was just too aggravating to be a great game. They don't fix most of the issues with the sequel, which sticks close to the philosophy of it's predecessor. I really wish they spent more time making sure everything worked right. The double-jump is way too specific about the timing. There's a common glitch where the game will pause itself during the action. I'm pretty sure it's not my controller since it doesn't happen with other games. There's no targeting system, so you have to rely on the spotty auto-aim. Jak 3 definitely suffers from Donkey Kong 64 Syndrome, which has two key parts.

1) Weak enemies that serve no other purpose than to piss you off when you're trying to do other things.
2) A perceived variety of gameplay that isn't actually that creative, but usually the same basic types of activities repeated with more frustrating restrictions each time.

The trilogy's plot is wrapped up well. The Jak story is interesting, full of twists and it sometimes approaches actual humor. The problem is the characters aren't very good. There's not much to Jak besides his anger, and he isn't really developed that much. And Daxter is supposed to be the hilarious sidekick, but he's really just a pain in the ass. He's always taking credit and complaining, and sometimes when you get killed there's a little cutscene where he mocks you before you restart. Gee, thanks. You self-aggrandizing piece of shit. Oh, and I almost forgot how restarting is annoying. It remembers the ammo and power-ups you used up, but respawns all the enemies. Awesome.

I'm really dumping on the game here, but I honestly did like it. There are lots of cheap enemy placements and not enough checkpoints, so it's hard not to be at least mildly pissed-off while you're playing, but it's ultimately a pretty rewarding experience. Despite the frustrations, the game itself is pretty fun to run around in. The different vehicles and weapons are cool, the pure platforming can be fun, and it's a really great looking game. The wasteland is an interesting new area to explore, and the dune buggies are fun when they aren't spinning out of control. You can unlock commentary for a lot of the cutscenes, and it's pretty interesting and shows the developers' care for their series. It definitely could have been handled better, because I honestly feel like they forgot to playtest it and make sure it was fun in some places. But if you can handle some annoyances, it's still a pretty good platformer from the last generation.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Tea-Time is the sequel to Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and while funny, it doesn't quite live up to the standard set by that book. The only returning characters are Dirk, obviously, the still hilarious Sergeant Gilks, and a deceptively brief appearance by Janice, who has finally quit as Dirk's secretary and now works at the airport. The main new character is Kate Schecter, an American annoyed by the lack of delivery pizza in England. She's a well developed, strong character, and her growing annoyance at the strangeness happening around her is palpable. Dirk is still a great personality, although his tale is quite different from the first time around. His role is more central, and while he seemed mostly in control of things in the first novel, this time around he's constantly getting battered and toyed with, and he seems more and more helpless as things go on before he figures out what's happening.

The first book was about various sci-fi ideas like time travel and ghosts. This focuses on the idea of gods, specifically Norse ones, actually living on a slightly altered plane of existence and able to travel between there and our world. There is an interesting mystery involving them and a sequence of coincidences that actually aren't involving lots of rich people in entertainment industries. The characterization of Thor and Odin is definitely interesting, and Adams does some cool stuff exploring the idea. I wasn't in love with the overall writing though, as it went on it seemed to spend too much time with extraneous descriptions and events that weren't all too provocative or funny, and for all of the buildup to the final confrontation it's all ended quite abruptly and unsatisfactorily. About every strange occurrence that is hinted at is explained, and seemingly unimportant things from earlier are revealed to be more than they seem, and that's all interesting and works with the continuing theme of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. But the actual characters just sort of go on with their lives, Kate seemingly completely ignored. I think Adams might have rushed to finish it, which is a shame because I know he can write a bit better than this. It's still an entertaining book, though.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The seventh book came out yesterday, which will finally end the story that millions of people have been caring about for a decade. I've always liked them, and the movies were entertaining visions of the story, although as I've said previously, of the first four, I'd only consider the third to be a good film. You can add the fifth to that to make it two good ones.

Whereas the first two were too childish for my tastes, the fourth just seemed muddled in its execution. I understand that in converting a book that long into a movie less than three hours long, you're going to have to make cuts and slim things down a bit. I just think they handled it better this time around than they did before. Goblet of Fire seemed all over the place, while Order of the Phoenix distilled the plot down to the necessary elements. I don't think it's much of a coincidence that the third and fifth books are my favorites as well, and it's quite possible I'm just holding that against the fourth movie subconsciously. It just seemed like they were more concerned with the overall plot. Of course Voldemort returns in the fourth book, and it's extremely pivotal for the whole series. Still, a lot of the actual movie itself was more concerned with the tournament and dances and stuff like that than what was really going on.

Daniel Radcliffe has come into the role of Harry well. It's a bit difficult, since Harry's 'roid raging throughout the whole thing, and it would have been easy to come off a lot worse than he did. The other students are pushed back a bit to focus on the main character, but they're still pretty good. Gary Oldman is great as he always is in his reprisal of the role of Sirius Black. The casting is brilliant as ever, with new characters like Luna, Umbridge, and Bellatrix all picked perfectly. If there's one thing the whole movie series should be commended for, it's the casting. My only problem is that they should have just Ralph Fiennes do his part instead of covering him with that stupid snake makeup that makes him look idiotic. This was also the most exciting movie so far, and the visual effects in the climactic scenes were great. Goblet of Fire actually cut monsters out of the movie, which was the opposite of what you'd think they'd do with a movie. Order of the Phoenix has combat between wizards at a level we haven't seen before, and it's really pretty sweet. The Order coming to save the day might be the best scene in the series. The final showdown was done terrifically as well, and the whole final act is just good. The story has already ended for some readers, but I'll make sure to watch the last two movies to see how they handle it.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


We went to see Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer for a buck as part of the promotion I mentioned when talking about Knocked Up, but it was sold out. We decided to rent a movie instead of seeing Wild Hogs, and decided on this. It's unfortunate that test screenings didn't go well and FOX blackballed it, giving it an extremely limited release and quickly shoving it onto DVD. It might not be for everyone, but it's a silly, fun movie with a lot of pretty good laughs. The premise is actually a little more scarily realistic than the average science fiction movie. We can already see that intelligence correlates negatively with number of offspring, so it wouldn't be inconceivable that in time the entire planet will be technically retarded. It wouldn't actually get this bad or happen this quickly, but it's still something to wonder about.

It's pretty incredible how long Mike Judge was able to keep stupid funny. The movie could have easily run out of steam and been one-note, but it stayed pretty fresh the whole time. Luke Wilson isn't an especially talented or funny actor, but that actually works to his favor here, as he represents the completely average person who finds himself a genius among idiots. Maya Rudolph is fairly good as the other person from the past, although the whole romance subplot with her and Luke seemed tacked on and pointless. Although the jokes about her pimp "Upgrayedd" were worth it. A lot of the humor in the movie comes from new uses of words and the way businesses from today have drastically changed. Police constantly refer to their suspects as "particular individuals" and the greeter at Costco greets customers with "Welcome to Costco. I love you." Judge did a good job of mixing up all the ways they're stupid and it came out as a really funny movie that didn't get the chance it deserved.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Music Update 2: GrassRoots 2007

Every year at my town there's a four-day music festival called GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance featuring mostly local acts, though usually with at least one performer well-known elsewhere. They donate profits to fund AIDS research and other worthy causes, and it's a nice way to come together and hear some good music. I hadn't actually gone before, but I decided to check out a day of it this year. Here are the acts I saw.

Bubba George Stringband

If you've heard one stringband, you pretty much know what it's all about. They play various stringed instruments proficiently and entertainingly for a while, you enjoy it a bit, and then you move on. They were definitely good at their jobs and it was pretty entertaining for a while, though it wasn't really memorable. They're actually a pretty good act for a secondary stage at a music festival, they keep the audience necessary while leaving them free to see something they actually came for if they want to.

John & Mary

Or John & Mary & The Valkyries, as they were with the people they performed with. They were pretty good folksy-rock with nice female vocals. The drummer was pretty damn good, although he took forever to get everything set right. The lead guitar was also quite nice, and they were a nice warm-up for one of the acts I actually came to see.

The Sutras

They performed at a smaller stage at GrassRoots a couple years ago and a friend raved about it, giving them an A+. I was looking forward to seeing them, and they didn't disappoint. They're pretty awesome indie rock, with a variety of sounds. The rhythm section kicked ass, both bass and drums rocking it the whole time. Their two guitarists had their own styles, but both did well keeping the music going. The vocalist played a variety of instruments, trumpet, keyboard, trumpet and keys at the same time (awesome), guitar, and this weird thing that made differently pitched whistles the closer his hand got to it. I have no idea what it was, but it added a nice, strange sound to some songs, and he even played it with his face at one point. It didn't matter what he played, they always sounded unique and great while maintaining the cohesion a good band should. They did an encore with a David Bowie song (he does sound kind of like him), and it was a wrap on a really amazing show.


I only caught the end of their set, which featured a similar sound to Bubba George with some harmonized female singing. It was pretty well played and inoffensive for the about ten minutes I heard before they wrapped up.

Thousands of One

Another great show. They had about ten guys on stage who all worked together to create a nice dancing environment, perfect for the Dance Tent venue. I'm not sure how good the bassist actually was but I've never seen one more crucial to setting the tone for the rest of the act. He laid down great lines like it was nothing. They were kind of like funk hip-hop. The main vocalist was quite proficient at both rapping and singing, and he had good backup. The saxophonist was awesome, and the guitarists and percussionists helped fill out the sound. It was a lot of fun without getting too chaotic, and they got into really great jams that could last forever. The crowd really loved it, and it was a fun, energizing performance.

MC Lars

Along with MC Chris, Lars is one of the biggest names in the nerdcore rap scene, so it was really cool to see him come to my home town. The crowd was really into it and it was an entertaining show. Lars isn't the most amazing technical rapper, but he's definitely adequate and he's enjoyable more for his intelligent, comical lyrics and good beats. Between songs he regaled the audience with funny segways before getting back to the music. He had a drummer and guitarist with him, and they provided a nice real touch to accompany the sound coming from his famous laptop on stage. He did a good job getting the audience to particpate, and after the show he stayed around, selling shirts and CDs, and took the time to shake hands and talk with everyone who came up, even if they didn't buy anything. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy who really appreciates anyone who would bother to see him perform. A terrific finish to a really fun day with friends and music.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Reno 911!: Miami

I like Reno 911! well enough, though I never go out of my way to watch it. It's funny, but never that important to really follow it closely, so it's the kind of show you enjoy when it's on but maybe you don't care about it that much. I remember seeing a trailer for the movie, but it came and went without me even being aware it did. When I had the opportunity to check it out, I did.

The movie is chock full of entertaining cameos and funny guest stars. The Rock's one minute of screen time is classic, and Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt are great in their roles. Reno 911! is one of the better current examples of retroscripting, where the plot is known but almost all the dialogue is improvised by the actors. It makes for a slightly different style of humor that comes off as a bit more natural, while still being funny most of the time. They make good use of the movie format. There are a lot of over-the-top deaths in the movie with blood spraying everywhere, and it adds to the absurdity immensely. There's also liberal cursing and sexual humor, especially a great scene where Deputy Jones is running in horror from the sight of his coworkers doing some inappropriate things.

They do actually attempt to do a story with twists and a climax, and for the most part it works out all right. It's all done with a bit of a smirk, and it works out to a very funny movie that anyone who likes the show or characters, or even just the form of comedy, should probably enjoy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I haven't really seen a martial arts movie in a while, so this was an enjoyable use of my time. I can't say much for Tony Jaa's acting skills, but his fighting is very impressive. Using the Muay Thai fighting style instead of the more common Chinese stuff gives it a unique and refreshing feel, as does the complete absence of wires or computer effects. It's just Jaa doing his stuff, and some of it is downright amazing. His skill at jumping and flipping out of harm's way is displayed extensively and is a lot of fun. It's not uncommon to see a bit of humor in the action scenes, like in the chase sequence where they're all driving small, three-wheeled cabs. His actual fighting is also interesting, as instead of punches and kicks he makes constant use of elbows and knees. I don't know how many times he leapt in the air and drove an elbow into the top of his opponent's head, but he sure seemed to enjoy it. It's mostly unarmed but as it gets to the end, there's a nice scene with some weapons, and the climax contains a lot of really brutal, over-the-top moments.

The movie itself wasn't terrible but fairly unoriginal. Most of the characters and plot points are obvious. Jaa is the idealistic, innocent youth thrust into a new situation who can kick everyone's ass. His cousin is the bumbling sidekick who kind of sucks most of the time but redeems himself in the end with bravery over actual skill. The main villain doesn't actually fight but wields a lot of power despite his weakness. As a film it's not terribly interesting but gets the job done of setting up the action scenes. It's also oppressively orange. Nearly every scene is lit with an unhealthy orange tint with lots of yellows and reds, which speaks to barrenness in Jaa's native village and seediness in Bangkok's underground. It's not too bad on its own, but when nearly every single scene is lit in this unnatural way it gets irritating to look at and can decrease enjoyment. Despite the annoying lighting and uncreative premise, it's still a fun movie if you like watching guys hit each other.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Knocked Up

So our mall's opening a new Regal theater with stadium seating, and it's actually fairly nice. No more will the tops of the heads of strangers be an issue when I'm watching the latest blockbusters. Not that I get a chance to see many movies anyway. As a special promotion, they were showing slightly older movies for a dollar a ticket yesterday, and I wanted to see Knocked Up, so it worked out pretty nicely. I had to get up to pee a few times (Special $1 soda will do that) but otherwise it was a nice viewing experience.

The movie itself was good too. It's the same director as The 40 Year Old Virgin and a lot of the cast is the same as well. Even people who don't have real parts make some cameos, and you can tell they're a group that enjoys working together. The star, Seth Rogen, had his breakout role in Virgin as Carell's coworker Cal, and it's interesting to see him as the main character. He's funny, but in a much different way from famous comedy stars like Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller. He's not playing a crazy character, he's playing a normal, likable guy. He has problems doing the right thing sometimes but you can tell his heart's mostly in the right place and he just needs some help sometimes. Katherine Heigl is also very good as the female lead. She holds her own and is believable as the girl struggling to come to grips with a situation she didn't plan for and a guy she isn't sure about. The supporting cast is also great, with Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd as the slightly older couple that serves as an example of marriage's troubles, a decent group of funny guys as Seth's friends, and Craig Robinson in a small but memorable role as the reluctant doorman at a night club. Why he isn't in more movies is a mystery to me.

The movie starts off a bit iffy, with some hit-and-miss pop culture humor, but it comes into its own as it develops the plot and the different relationships that form. Like Virgin, there's lots of drug use and constant raunchy dialogue, but it still comes away feeling charming because of the human element that can be seen through all of the vulgarity. It's an adult movie, not just because of the mature humor, but because it honestly deals with real issues like unplanned pregnancy. It's not without some errors. It's probably a bit too long. It's also a little predictable with the whole plot conflict as it gets closer to the end, of course they have to have a big fight and split up for a while before realizing it's all gonna be fine in the end. Honestly, I'm a little tired of the same old romantic comedy storyline, and just once I'd like to see a film eschew it. Why couldn't it just be about two people coming to grips with having a baby, why introduce the whole say-hurtful-things-under-stress-and-feel-sorry-later thing when nobody really likes it? It also gets a little heavy-handed with the message about not blaming others and being responsible for your own actions, but it never gets too bad and it all evens out to a hysterical movie with a good heart.

Monday, July 16, 2007

God of War II

The first God of War was exciting and ambitious, but flawed. Its sequel doesn't fix all of its problems, but it is still an improvement on the formula and in most ways the better game. A lot of people will always like the original more because it was new, it was fresh, and all that. But I appreciate it when a sequel builds on the predecessor, refining what makes it great and dropping what didn't work, while making sure to keep it interesting and maybe taking it to the next level. They certainly do that with the scale and brutality in this game. At times it seems almost too epic, like when you leap from the back of a Pegasus onto a Griffin while flying thousands of feet in the air, slice off its wings and spike it to the earth below. The massive temple environments are extremely impressive, and the scale of your journey is just so much larger. A quest of vengeance against Ares seems pedestrian next to the goal of changing the course of time to defeat Zeus himself. The end sets up a third game to end the story arc brilliantly, and the sequel on PS3 has the potential to be amazing.

They added a lot more boss fights this time around, although a lot of them aren't as impressive as the ones in the first game. Fighting gigantic statues and sea creatures is awesome, but a lot are against people more your size and less interesting mechanically. None of them are bad though, and it's interesting how the game depicts you as killing off various famous Greek heroes and icons like the Colossus of Rhodes brought to life. Oh, so an angry dude took it down, not an earthquake. The combat was refined a little, and it was nice to see the inclusion of some new weapons, although none of them handled as well or as enjoyably as the classic chain blades. They added some new context sensitive maneuvers and platforming elements which mostly integrated well into the gameplay. I still think the inclusion of puzzle and adventure elements is what really makes God of War more enjoyable than the average button-mashing action game, and it's still a lot of fun. Unfortunately, they haven't run out of truly annoying ideas that make you want to grab the designer by the throat and ask him what the hell he was thinking. Combat is fun, but not when you have to do it to give yourself time to rotate a lever or something, and failing to do so quickly enough results in your death. It's not more exciting, it's just irritating, frustrating garbage. At least that stuff is limited to a much smaller role than in the first game. What they were able to still do with the PS2 hardware is incredible, and it's a terrific finale for the console.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Game Update 4: E3 Game Impressions

I watched a ton of Stage Demos on Gamespot, so here are some specific impressions.

Assassin's Creed - The free-running still looks really cool, but the game has some sticky points. The transitional animations look really janky, and the combat could be bad. The enemies don't seem too smart and the fighting looks a bit canned and less of an actual combat system. I still want to play it just for the chase and escape parts though.

BioShock - It's just awesome how many ways you can deal with your enemies in this game, mixing and matching your different weapons and special abilities, like using a little cyclone to throw them into proximity mines, hacking health stations to injure them, it just looks like a lot of fun and really replayable. I also like the idea of the Big Daddies, tough enemies who leave you alone unless you try to kill the Little Sisters for energy to upgrade your abilities.

Blacksite: Area 51 - I guess this is sort of a sequel to Area 51 from a couple years ago, although I didn't play it. Blacksite looks pretty cool actually, it seems like it might just capture the idea of an alien attack very well. The concept of an invasion from another planet was always interesting to me, and it looks like a solid shooter.

Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway - Ever since Halo, there's been a trend in shooters of using a regenerating health system instead of a health bar. There's nothing wrong with it gameplay wise, but it doesn't actually make sense. It's fine in Halo, because it's an energy shield that recharges. But usually, you're just some guy who can shot a dozen times and be fine just by hiding behind a wall for a while. The new Brothers In Arms fixes that with just the context of how it works. When you're out in the open, you're not getting shot, your risk is just increasing, and when it maxes out you get hit and killed. It's not a big change but it just works better to me. The game itself looks pretty good, although I don't know how much patience I have for tactics-heavy shooters.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - It's a bit weird to me that they'd just dump the real war thing in the middle of a series. I can see moving away from World War II, but why not explore other true conflicts before making something up? It still seems like Call of Duty though, and Battlefield 2 made the same jump successfully, so I guess it works. There's something awesome about turning on your night vision and seeing all the laser sights criss-crossing and tracking all over the environment, and the quieter, stealthy stuff they showed at Microsoft's conference looked great too.

Conan - It looks like a less polished God of War. Also, these quick-time button things to do stuff are getting out of hand. They showed him jamming on the B button to climb a wall. What's wrong with just pressing up on the analog stick?

Dark Sector - The game itself looked pretty unimpressive, although the blade weapon that can be used in melee and as a boomerang type thing, and can be imbued with properties like fire and electricity from the environment, looked pretty cool.

Dragon Blade: Wrath of Fire - Hey, a third-party Wii action game! And it doesn't look very good! The powers were kind of cool, but the Wii controls don't seem to work for a quickly-paced game like it should be, and I kind of wondered why they would say they're avoiding adventure and puzzle elements to focus on the combat. Does the Wii really need all these one-note games out there?

Fracture - The terrain deformation weaponry looks really cool, but otherwise it's a pretty standard looking shooter. That's the thing this generation, shooters are everywhere so they all have to have some sort of gimmick to get your attention. That's the problem with Haze by Free Radical - it's not bad looking, but it's a completely generic shooter from what I've seen. Not what I expect from the creative people behind Timesplitters.

Heavenly Sword - I'm not sure about it yet, the combat looks like it could be fun, but I don't know if there's enough to the game besides just fighting. The cutscenes look really great though, the facial animation is incredible and it could be acted well.

Kane & Lynch: Dead Men - Another third person shooter, it looks interesting more because of the premise (Crime action like Heat or something) than the gameplay too much. Although I like the idea of your squadmates helping you more or less depending on how much they like you.

Mass Effect - The conversation system looks incredible, and it's basically Knights of the Old Republic minus Star Wars and plus squad-based shooting. I'm worried too many of the planets you can explore won't be that interesting, but the main game could be pretty awesome.

Medal of Honor: Airborne - I think the gaming world has passed Medal of Honor by, although the idea of controlling your parachute and starting the level wherever you want sounds genuinely interesting. I'm not sure if I'll play it though, the shooting action itself isn't overly exciting.

Mercenaries 2: World In Flames - The demo was full of ridiculous destruction and looked awesome, although they were using health and ammo cheats so the real game won't be as crazy. Still, there's something just cool about picking up a tanker truck with a magnet on a helicopter, lifting it in the air, and throwing it to the ground as you launch rockets at it, causing a ridiculous firestorm explosion.

Orange Box - What I've seen of Half-Life 2: Episode Two has me a bit worried, because they've only really shown little abandoned villages out in the woods that you drive between and shoot robots. I'm not that concerned really though, I have too much faith in Valve's level design ability. The other games coming with it looks nice too.

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction - The second and third Ratchet games were the peak of the series, and honestly some of the most genuine fun I've ever had with the medium. This looks like a return to that same form, and I can't help but be extremely excited for what it turns out to be, especially since they're focusing on the single-player in lieu of the less-than-compelling multiplayer.

Stranglehold - Everyone says it looks like Max Payne, I say it looks like Max Payne on speed. It's a lot faster and crazier than that game, but still in the same vein with stylistic third-person shooting. Also, the PS3 special edition has Hard Boiled on the disc, which is awesome.

Timeshift - The old sequel from a year ago looked pretty lame, but this appears much different and much better. The shooting itself seems pretty good, and the use of time to keep going (rewinding to get past an area before rubble collapses the way, stopping time to walk across water) looks cool.

Turning Point: Fall of Liberty - Nazis invading an unprepared America is an interesting, although somewhat flimsy idea (Would we really have not built up and entered WWII if Churchill wasn't around?) and it could be executed well, although what I saw of the gameplay seemed unpolished and I'm not sure if they have enough time to really fix it.

Turok - It actually looks pretty cool, and it's interesting to see three factions interacting (you and your guys, an opposing group of humans, and the dinosaurs) and how you can work them against each other. Also, knifing velociraptors to death is neat.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune - It does the same fix of the recharging health system as Brothers In Arms, except it's your luck running out instead of your risk increasing. The game itself also looks like a really cool mix of Prince of Persia/new Tomb Raider style platforming and shooting, and it's nice to see Naughty Dog finally put targeting in one of their games.

A lot of cool looking stuff at E3 despite a lack of new announcements, and I'm genuinely excited about the future of gaming.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Game Update 3: E3 Conference Impressions

The Electronic Entertainment Expo has ended, and it was much different than it's been in previous years. It was much more low key and companies mostly played it safe. Very few new games were announced, especially on the exclusive side. Microsoft and Nintendo's press conferences seemed to focus more on patting themselves on the back than showing new stuff, and Sony also didn't reveal much, but seemed more humble after having troubles in the last year. They still managed to screw up the one big good thing they did, though.

Microsoft Press Conference - Peter Moore spent a long time going over the numbers and sales and talking about how the Xbox 360 was "driving the industry". Really? You've sold the most systems and games when you've been out for a year longer? Impressive. They showed some good looking games, but aside from a nice teaser for Resident Evil 5 they were all coming out this year and already announced. There were a couple new things, but they weren't anything interesting for real gamers; a party game based on Viva Pinata (the cartoon clips look like the most soulless, corporate attempts at grabbing children I've ever seen) and a version of Scene it? with special controllers. Also, Moore revealing the Halo 3 special edition of the 360 and giving a long pause waiting for applause that never came was the funniest moment at E3. Did they really expect a big reaction? It's just a green 360! It doesn't even come with the game! Who gives a shit? Gears of War for PC looked pretty cool though.

Nintendo Press Conference - It may be impossible to disappoint Nintendo fans if many of them were satisfied with this conference. They played at least five videos throughout the conference that were spliced together clips of internet videos and news stories talking about how great the Wii is and how much fun everyone has with it. We get it, Nintendo. People like the Wii. They must, if it's still sold out throughout the world. If Sony can make this many PS3s that no one is buying, a much more complicated machine, how is Nintendo still having trouble making lots of Wiis? It seems strange. The big announcements were a piece of plastic to hold the two controllers together for light gun games (the Wii Zapper!), Mario Kart coming to the Wii with online play (surprising!), and Wii Fit, a new game thing with a balance board controller you stand on that senses your weight shifting, with a bunch of random mini-games. Awesome. Iwata actually mentioned hardcore gamers being concerned Nintendo is ignoring them without actually saying how they aren't. The Metroid Prime 3 demo was all right, but it was seriously a bad conference.

Sony Press Conference - They also didn't show much new. There was some new stuff about added functionality to Home and a redesigned PSP. Few games were announced, but the new stuff was kind of exciting. Echochrome looked like a cool, crazy little download puzzle game, I'm not a fan of racing games but Gran Turismo 5 looked amazing, and Sucker Punch is making a potentially very cool sandbox superhero game called Infamous. Hideo Kojima came out to personally show a trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4 which looked incredible. He also reiterated that this is the end of the story and his last MGS game, but he's said that before so I'm not sure. Killzone 2 has a lot of potential, though I wasn't a huge fan of the first game (I'm still somewhere in the middle). They showed a bunch of trailers of games that are coming, a lot also for the 360. During the conference, the price drop for the 60GB model of the PS3 was already announced and it looked like Sony might be getting back in the fight and building momentum. But afterwards, there was a bunch of mixed messages coming from the company until it was revealed that they're actually ceasing production of that model, and focusing on the new 80GB SKU that's packaged with Motorstorm, so the cheaper system will only be available until they sell out (which could take a while). It's disappointing to see them self-destruct again, but we'll see how this all plays out.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Scrubs - Season 6

After I first saw it in the original season, I was hooked on Scrubs for a couple years. No live-action show on television had a goofy cartoon mindset like it, and it was really a blast. For a time it was the only funny show on NBC since Seinfeld ended, although that's changed now that the network has moved past crappy on-set schlock with a laugh track that finds everything hysterical and on to single-camera stuff that I think works much better. The fairly interesting storylines and respectable amount of genuine human emotion didn't hurt either. For whatever reason, I stopped paying attention later in high school, mostly because of disinterest in TV in general than disinterest in the show. When I got to college I picked it back up again, caught up, and watched season 6 as it happened.

Less and less is the show about isolated problems JD faces as a doctor and more is it about concerns in his private life. His best friend is married and has a child. His mentor has made up with his ex and has two kids of his own. The woman he still has feelings for is getting married and he's expecting a kid with a girl he's had problems with. He has to decide what he really wants to do and who he wants to be as a person. The show's still funny, several of the episodes were among the most consistent humor-wise in the whole series, and all the characters are still producing great moments. What you do see though is the relegation of minor characters like Todd further into the background and more attempts at random jokes that fail more often than they used to. It's not as funny as it used to be, but it's an enjoyable half hour anyway.

Luckily, Scrubs has been renewed for a seventh and final season. In the sixth's finale, JD and Elliot talk about their insecurities and worries that they're not with the right person. They're about to get physical before the scene cuts. It's clear that before the series ends, JD will decide who he ends up with, and the smart money's on Elliot. The problem is, I don't really care if he does end up with her or not. They do seem sort of made for each other, both being very strange people with problems committing. But the time they were together fell apart quickly, and they've both broken each other's hearts again since. It's hard to see it actually working. And the thing is, the relationships they're already in are fine. Keith is the best boyfriend Elliot's ever had, and he truly loves her. Kim is pregnant with JD's kid, and despite her horrible decision to try to run away, they still get along well and he seems to work together with her better than he ever did with Elliot. Keith would be okay if it ended, he'd be crushed at first but he'd get on with his life, and he's a devoted guy who probably deserves someone less psychotic. But Kim would be in a terrible situation as a single mother working a job that requires tons of her time. I doubt her life wouldn't be ruined for a long time if that happened. I just don't think I've been convinced JD and Elliot together would be worth the trouble it would cause to others, but maybe they can do that before the show ends.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Interpol - Turn On the Bright Lights

Interpol makes music with repetitious guitars and bass accompanied by slightly off-kilter vocals delivering nonsense lyrics. It's better than that sounds, but maybe not as great as some critics would think. Turn On the Bright Lights is a fun album to listen to. It's never boring, and they create some deeply affecting melodies that are really quite enjoyable. There's rarely a dull moment throughout. I just really don't see how it's much better than similarly catchy/non-varied music that is labeled as punk and generally ignored. Interpol is about as good as that general kind of music gets, but I think they get a ton of acclaim because they sound more mysterious, not because they're actually that superior musically.

The first track is my favorite. The piano blends with the guitar and works well with the rest of the sounds. "Obstacle 1" is a good single, since it encapsulates their sound quite well and is one of the better songs. "NYC" is a slower song and fairly enjoyable. "PDA" is another good single that represents the band well. The thing is, most of the songs do a good job here, because they all sound pretty similar. "Obstacle 2" has catchy vocals and nice interaction with the instruments. Towards the end there are a couple tracks over six minutes long that show a bit more range from the band as they experiment a little. "Roland" might be the hardest track, with a good riff in the chorus. All in all, not a whole lot about the album really stands out from the rest but it is a consistent, good album.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Book Update 1: Random Comics

So a couple days ago I found a few comic books in my house I'd never seen before. Apparently someone found them and just brought them home. I decided to read them, after all, why not? Especially since two of them were written by, surprise of surprises, Joss Whedon, he of Firefly! "Holy shit, since when does he write comics?" I asked myself. Since they brought back the Astonishing series a couple years ago, I guess.

Astonishing X-Men #10

So before this issue, the famous Danger Room apparently gained sentience and came to hate the X-Men. It was able to insert its existence or what have you into a robotic body that looks like a woman with large breasts for some reason, and attacked our heroes. At first I wasn't sure who one of the X-Men was, he looked like a lame cat-version rip-off of Beast. It turns out it actually was Beast, who sometime fairly recently underwent a secondary mutation and gained feline features and powers. It seems kind of silly to me, but what do I know?

This was actually a pretty good issue. The story was interesting, with the introspective narration coming from Danger - the obvious name for the Danger Room's new incarnation - and flash-forward scenes depicting "her" taunting Xavier after she's apparently defeated the X team. The action was also good for a comic, with the frames showing a lot of dynamic range and being easy to follow. Danger knew all their moves and tactics but they were able to fight back by acting erratically, like throwing each other at her. What was strange was that I only had this and issue 12, without 11. 12 has a synopsis explaining how the X-Men came to Xavier's aid, but not how they managed to survive long enough to do so. Emma Frost, Wolverine, and Beast were believably okay, but Cyclops was under a floor that collapsed and wasn't breathing, while Colossus and Shadowcat were freaking impaled on a gigantic spike. What the hell happened in between these two issues?

Astonishing X-Men #12

So anyway, Danger was defeated but activated this gigantic sentinel thing that Emma had previously come in contact with. It unleashes a huge wave of flaming destruction, but Shadowcat protects everyone with her incorporeality. While the sentinel is unleashing a horde of smaller robots to attack the good guys, Colossus throws Wolverine at them, who declares that he's "killed a city before." Um, what? Cyclops continues to suck like he always does and Beast protects Xavier from a new Danger with these weird wings. He kicks her ass, but not before she says she lives on in her new creation. Meanwhile, Emma pointlessly meets with her secret, shadow-covered allies, leading to suspicion about where she was during the battle. She arrives back on the scene to save her man Cyclops, while spouting a great variation on the "Sorry I'm late" line the cavalry always says: "Sorry, darling. Had to pee." This is a classic example of Whedon's unique, strange sense of humor that plays with typical action clichés.

Shadowcat pretty much saves the day, as her powers keep everyone from getting incinerated and she defeats the sentinel by reasoning with him. Why doesn't this happen more often in comic books? Anyway, after that's over, the crew gets pissed at Xavier for knowing of Danger's existence but keeping her suppressed. How dare he treat intelligent life like that? Anyway, they're all super angry as they leave, watched by Emma's evil cohorts, who turn out to be, shocking plot twist: Hellfire? I've never heard of them and I didn't recognize any of the drawn characters, so a lot of the dramatic impact was probably lost on me. Oh well, some weird stuff but definitely entertaining.

Ms. Marvel Special - One Shot #1

I'm not really familiar with Ms. Marvel besides the fact that Rogue had her powers in the X-Men cartoon, but luckily this was a standalone issue that didn't require any knowledge and was just interesting for the story. It's about a kid who can conjure anything he imagines into reality. At first it's just by reading something and picturing it in his head, and it affects everyone nearby except for the person who wrote it. Anyway, the kid starts reading this book Ms. Marvel wrote to his friend, and it gets out of hand and envelops the whole city.

There's some interesting stuff as Ms. Marvel tries to talk with the kid and get him to realize what's happening and how he can fix it. Eventually order is restored, but in the process the kid has discovered that he doesn't have to read to use his powers. He then gets accosted by some weirdly uniformed people who he gets rid of, and then acts all threatening before making Ms. Marvel forget what happened, and of course there's the lame ending where she wakes up and isn't sure whether it actually happened or was all just a dream. Similar story ideas have been explored before, particularly the concept of someone becoming involved in a story they or someone else is writing, but it's still pretty cool.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Rome - Season 1

I'm not sure how accurately Rome actually depicts what went on around the time of Julius Caesar, because a lot of the violence and debauchery seem over the top. It's still fairly historically accurate though, following what basically happened in the years it covers. Most of the characters are fictionalized versions of actual historical figures, with varying degrees of authenticity. A lot of what happened is dramatized and embellished to be more enjoyable, because the show's about that more than being educational.

It sounds kind of weird but I've never seen a show combine violence, sex, and politics so well. The whole cast is made up of stately British actors, and they deliver their dialogue marvelously. It's really fun just to listen to them say their lines even if nothing much is really happening. The storyline is filled with maneuvering and betrayals and posturing, and it's interesting to see how some of the same things still happen today. The show's a bit infamous for the rampant promiscuity of some of the female characters, but it's rarely that explicit and is more to set the tone for the strange time period than to be actually enticing. The violence is an interesting case in the show. There are very few large battles and the ones there are aren't shot in an epic way, but focus on a small group or are just random stuttering shots of a bit of chaos happening. Where the show shines in this area is the more intimate, brutal stuff that just happens in the city. There are many executions and squabbles that just offer a little bit of bloodshed, but are very effective in their briefness. There's also a scene near the end of the season that is hands down, the most amazing fight sequence filmed for television I've ever seen.

As touched on earlier, the show has a lot of good actors, and they play interesting characters. Lucius Vorenus is essentially the main character who finds much success but struggles with his angry streak and affection for Titus Pullo, who often finds himself in a lot of trouble. Titus, along with Ocatvian, is one of my two favorite characters. They're fairly opposite in their methods, but both very likable in their own ways. Pullo is a great soldier who often makes rash decisions in the heat of the moment that land him in jail quite often. Octavian isn't a normal boy, he's more interested in reading and intelligence than swords and girls. Despite his youth he's one of the smartest people in the city and has some ambition. Pompey Magnus is an interesting rival for Caesar for a while. Mark Antony is allied with Caesar, and is slightly off-kilter. He is alternately pleasant and threatening. he is similar to Marcus Brutus, they are both influential young men Caesar trusts, although Antony resists temptation to betray Caesar while Brutus does not, inflicting the final blow when Julius is murdered on the senate floor in one of the more disturbing scenes in the show. I hope it's not a spoiler than Caesar gets killed. The two main female counterpoints are Atia and Servilia, mothers of Octavian and Brutus respectively; who start as friends but come to hate each other during the show. They have very different styles but both exert their influence over others and are very key to the plot.

Rome is the perfect HBO show; decadent, vulgar, entertaining as hell, and with a story that definitely knows where it's going. It ends after the second season which I've already started, so I'll make sure to enjoy what's left of this great series.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Adams is much better known for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels, but to be honest I prefer this. Hitchhiker's Guide is a cornerstone of science-fiction humor, but Dirk Gently's a little less random and more interesting as a story.

The character of Dirk Gently is a detective who attempts to solve mysteries by looking at the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things", which he mostly uses an excuse to bill his clients for extravagant expenses, but it's really what the book is all about. At first, the different chapters jump wildly between seemingly disparate characters and events, but as the story goes on, things start falling into place as connections form where they didn't exist previously, and before it ends it all comes together in a single, cohesive, intelligent plot. What seemed strange and meaningless before is all explained or can be inferred, and it's so clever that it's hard not to smile while reading it. It really helps to know certain things about Samuel Coleridge's work to understand the resolution, but that information isn't hard to find.

It's really an interesting story that seems grounded despite dealing with time travel, aliens, ghosts, and alien ghosts. It's led along by a really good cast of characters. Dirk himself is a unique but strong semi-protagonist, as he does most of the mystery solving, but the narrative is from the perspective of his old classmate Richard the most often. Richard is intelligent but absent-minded, and a sympathetic guy. Susan and Janice are good female characters, especially Janice who's angry rapport with her employer, Gently, is quite funny. Sergeant Gilks, the only person who isn't befuddled by Dirk's wit, is also a standout. Gordon's struggle with his newfound form of existence is definitely quite compelling, and Reg, the old professor, is likable.

It took me some time to get into the book, since I was busy with school when I started, but before long it got rolling and I finished it up pretty quickly. It isn't the deepest of thought-provoking novels, but it's an enjoyable read throughout.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Liveblog 5: 2007 Futures Game

I'm not that interested in the All-Star Game this year, to be honest. As the season goes on and the Yankees continue to be inconsistent and mediocre, the playoffs continue to slip away, and I start thinking of the team's future. Not just the team, but the whole league. I'll watch the game and hopefully see some good baseball, but what I'm actually looking forward to is the Futures Game, where a lot of the top prospects in the minor leagues get a chance to pitch in front of a national audience, and we get a chance to see what they have. Isn't that a little more compelling than watching a bunch of guys who are already famous play in an exhibition that most of them probably don't care about?

Last year, Phil Hughes (Who'll hopefully be pitching in the bigs again by the end of the month) and Jose Tabata were selected to represent the Yankees. Phil actually got lit up a bit in the inning he pitched, which included Tabata smacking a single just past his head. How much would it have sucked to have our #2 prospect take out our #1 with a line drive to the face? Anyway, this year, only Joba Chamberlain will be representing the Yankees organization, but he could be worth it just by himself. Picked in the Supplementary Round of the draft last year, he has great talent and would have been picked earlier if there weren't concerns about his arm soreness and weight problem, but so far he's kept those at bay and been dominating hitters with a K/9 rate of over 13. I haven't been this excited about a Yankee pitching prospect since... Phil Hughes. Anyway, I'll be back to blog this game as it happens starting at 4.

Top 1 - The Yankees just beat the Angels 12-0 after losing 2-1 in 13 innings the day before, and winning 14-9 the day before that. What a weird sport. Michael Saunders reaches on an error off a pitch by Jeff Nieman and steals second. Chin-Lung Hu doubles down the line to score Saunders, then steals third and scores on a sac fly Wladimir "Misspelled Name" Balentin. Nieman has a really nice fastball and strikes out Joey Votto. Max Ramirez pops out on a ball that gets away from a fielder before being saved by another.

Bottom 1 - Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury leads off against Rick Vanden Hurk and grounds out. Justin Upton, brother of Tampa's BJ, is next. He strikes out looking. Evan Longoria, not to be confused with the Desperate Housewives star, doubles to center. He moves to third on a wild pitch. Ian Stewart squibs a grounder to the pitcher and the inning's over. Vanden Hurk had a good fastball too. I think we'll see that a lot today.

Top 2 - Chuck Lofgren of the Indians starts the inning, and I'm not sure why he's here, with an ugly ERA, and a good strikeout rate but a fair amount of walks too. German Duran launches a deep fly out to left. Robinzon Diaz (What the fuck is with these names?) bloops a single to center. Carlos Gonzalez pops out to third. Lofgren's fastball is surprisingly mediocre, but he has a good changeup. A wild pitch moves Diaz to second. Freddy Sandoval goes down on strikes and we're moving on.

Bottom 2 - Stephen Pearce pops out against Carlos Carrasco, but I wouldn't know that without the internet because Erin Andrews was interviewing World Team manager Juan Marichal. He was a great player, but this game is about the young, not the old, damn it. Brent Lillibridge fans on a breaking ball. Jay Bruce wallops a triple off the right field wall, the second Team USA hit that would have been a home run in most parks. Chris Coghlan (this is like an unusual name convention) draws a four pitch walk. Bryan Anderson opts for the completely generic name instead, and pays for it with a strikeout.

Top 3 - This is what I'm here to see, Joba the Hutt. He walks Saunders on 5 crisp fastballs, maybe a bit jumpy with the nerves. Saunders steals second. Hu singles to score the runner. Chamberlain gets ahead of the batter with a change and a curve before blowing a fastball by him, as Hu gets thrown out at second. The next hitter lines an out to first base and the inning's over. Disappointing - not the run, Hughes gave up three last year; rather, on the replay, Hu was safe at second, and I wanted to see some more of Joba.

Bottom 3 - Hey, Joba got an interview with Erin! I like the guy, what can I say. Fautino De Los Santos takes the mound and quickly strikes out Ellsbury. Of the saints indeed. Upton takes him deep on the very next pitch. Longoria gets hit by a pitch and takes his base. The next batter pops out. I've just been informed that he was the first positional player ever drafted in the first round by Colorado. Really? The team known for good hitting and terrible pitching? Okay. The next batter walks. Foul tip strikeout to end the inning, 3-1 World.

Top 4 - Kevin Mulvey is now pitching. This game will only be seven innings, which seems weird since they have ten pitchers, I think. Ramirez slugs a double to left. Duran whiffs. Diaz singles on a play that could have been made, and runners are on the corners. The US defense has been rough today. Replacement Colby Rasmus makes a nice running catch in center as Ramirez tags up easily, and the next batter grounds out. 4-1.

Bottom 4 - Funny thing about this All-Star Game commercial with the players riding trolly cars through downtown San Francisco - it was filmed initially with just a bunch of good players, but a large number of them didn't turn out to be voted into the game. So they reedited the commercial to take out all those players while adding a few other incongruous shots of unexpected guys who got in. New pitcher Henry Sosa induced a ground out to start the inning. He quickly gets another. Steve Phillips quips that Jose Reyes could throw 95 MPH if he pitched. I strenuously object. 95 MPH is an elite fastball, just because a guy's got a strong arm at shortstop doesn't mean he's got a better heater than most of the guys who are actually paid to pitch. A third grounder to end the inning.

Top 5 - Pitching is last year's top draft pick Luke Hochevar. Kenny Williams, GM of a terrible team, tells the broadcasters that Mark Buehrle has verbally agreed to an extension to pitch the next four years for the White Sox, without a blanket no-trade clause. I have no idea why Buerhle agreed to this, he could have gotten more money and it's well known that he wanted to play for St. Louis. Unless he really doesn't care about that anymore. Hochevar gets two grounders before a fly ball to wrap up the inning. He was the first US pitcher not to get exactly one strike out.

Bottom 5 - Deolis Guerra gets a ground ball and then a pop out. He throws a crazy wild pitch, but no one's on base, so no harm done, ha ha ha! I hate this laptop, I've somehow managed to accidently publish this post twice in the last two minutes. John Whittleman clubs a homer, two run game. Pitching change? You know it! Commercial for Pan's Labyrinth. I'm disgusted with myself for not having seen it yet. Franco Morales takes the mound. He looks dominating striking out Stewart.

Top 6 - I don't understand Sam Adams' marketing angle of suggesting that everyone who works at their company is a drunk. Liking beer is one thing, but pointing out someone happily accepting a brew at 5:30 AM... little weird. Votto homers off Boston's Clay Buchholz. Phillips mentions him outdueling Roger Clemens earlier this year. Good job giving up fewer runs than a 44 year old making his second start of the year, Clay. Strikes out the hitter. Brian Bocock makes a nice play to get the second out. Geovani Soto strikes out and the inning's over.

Bottom 6 - MLB's Gameday claims Morales' name is Franklin, ESPN says Franco. Franco seems more likely. Matt Tolbert fans. Quick cut to Joba pointing to the US flag on his uniform and giving a thumbs up. You're a Native American, Joba, this country has been screwing your people since they got here over two hundred years ago. Bocock walks. Steve Phillips, you don't have to tell us that Jose Reyes has "elite" speed. We know, okay? The fact that it's a minor league exhibition game suggests that the average viewer knows a few things about baseball, and the fact that Jose is fast is the first thing they teach you when you sign up to be a fan after they tell you what a base is. Stop patronizing us. Morales strikes out Bruce and he's removed for a reliever. Pedro Beato takes the mound and a pop up falls in between three fielders for a hit. Phillips explains that to be a regular catcher, you have to have a good throwing arm. 2007 all-star Victor Martinez says hi. Beato finishes the inning with a K.

Top 7 - Awesome-named Clayton Kershaw will probably be USA's last pitcher today. James Van Ostrand hits a home run. They're gonna have to pick an MVP for this game, which is usually completely meaningless. It's very unlikely a player even stays in the game long enough to be significantly more important to a victory than anyone else, so what's the point? Ground out. The batter is Gorkys Hernandez. Yes, Gorkys. He draws a walk. You know names are crazy when Elvis Andrus doesn't make me bat an eye. The King strikes out. Ah, manager Dave Winfield removes Kershaw when in all likelyhood, this will be the last out their pitchers have to get. Collin Balester in. Double to the left-center gap. Strikes out Votto, 7-2 World.

Bottom 7 - Rich Thompson will attempt to close out the game. He gets Ellsbury after a long battle with the big hook. A fly out, and Emiliano Fruto is brought in to wrap this bitch up. He allows a walk. Stewart flies out, and that's the game.

Wrap-up - Not a bad game. Some of the players looked pretty good. I was annoyed by how ESPN went out of their way to point out all the great players who played in past Futures Games. Really, have a lot of good players in the minors, selected to play in an exhibition, gone on to have success in the majors? How wild! I didn't pay as much attention as I might have if I didn't watch the Yankee game, because six hours of baseball can start to wear on you.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

24 - Season 1

I watched the first couple episodes of 24 back when it premiered over five and a half years ago, but I didn't stay with it. It's not that I didn't like it, but it was on pretty late and I might not have been old enough to actually follow it properly. Anyway, I always kind of wanted to watch it as it went on, but I never attempted to catch up at all until I started recently. 24 is a very interesting and enjoyable show, although its premise is slightly flawed just by its nature.

I prefer shows with continuous plots over procedural dramas like ER or CSI. That kind of show, if a good one, is always an entertaining way to spend an hour, but there's not much to compel you to keep tuning in every week to see what happens next. I know those shows have a lot of character development and continuing storylines, I'm just more interested in something that's main goal is to tell a story. 24's interesting because it's kind of like a procedural with each idea stretched over a whole season instead of just an episode. One season of the show is a ridiculously crazy day in the life of Jack Bauer as he attempts to save America and be a good dad at the same time.

The whole 24 hour thing is definitely a cool idea but you see some problems arise when it's implemented. I'm not going to use that stupid joke about when Jack goes to the bathroom, since even if he was on camera the entire time, an "hour" episode is still only about 40 minutes of content minus the commercials. But you do see some weird things happen with time. For one, it's amazingly convenient how often the most dramatic or surprising things always seem to happen at the very end of each hour in the day. I understand it's a show and there have to be some stretches of the imagination, but the show seems to strive towards believability and you notice these things. Some things seem to happen much quicker than you'd imagine they would, such as getting from one place to another in the middle of the day in Los Angeles, while other things seem to take too long, especially around commercial breaks, and it appears that nothing has actually transpired in the missing time. Something to the show's credit is they manage to go through the whole time without any real stretches of inactivity.

The plot can be over-the-top at times. You definitely get the feeling that the writers probably had some idea what they wanted to do but were mostly making it up as they went. There are betrayals, kidnappings, deception, pregnancy, drug raids, vengeful allies, shock-induced amnesia, just an absurd amount of craziness for one day. Some people will often make unbelievably stupid moves without strong motivation and you get the idea it was just the only thing the writers could come up with to get out of a situation without getting stuck in a corner. Again, I get that it's supposed to be entertainment, it just might work better without the whole one day thing.

A couple things really annoyed me. Senator Palmer (played charismatically by the "You're in good hands with Allstate" guy) and his whole subplot with the family scandal is interesting, but his wife becomes more and more unlikable as the day goes on. She starts out as the supportive companion in public who's maybe too business-only in private, but as it all unfolds she goes off the deep end and does progressively more insane things to "protect" him before he finally snaps (in what's actually a pretty awesome scene). I can't even remember why she thought it was a good idea to bully his secretary into trying to sleep with him, and that wasn't the worst thing she did. Also, toward the end, there's one last twist that results in a betrayal and a death that both seemed completely unnecessary. The betrayal is only there because it's the least plausible one possible and they wanted to surprise you, and it just does not seem to fit with prior events and how much they helped Jack beforehand. The death defeats all of the extra work and complications that made most of the plot even possible, and it's very frustrating after all the time I spent hoping it resolved well. The betrayer better have a damn good explanation in the second season for their actions, and so far "I was doing my job" isn't cutting it. I don't know why I'm so carefully avoiding spoiling who did what, this happened five years ago and no one reads this blog.

I was disappointed with the conclusion of the story, but not with the resolution with the primary bad guys (Though it was weird to see Dennis Hopper in the role and his accent was terrible). Despite some plot difficulties it was a very fun show, and I'm definitely going to keep watching. According to Bauer Count, Jack kills three times as many people in the second season as he does in the first, so it already looks more entertaining.