Monday, December 31, 2007

Y: The Last Man, Book 1: Unmanned

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

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

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Wire - Season 3

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

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

Saturday, December 29, 2007


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

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

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

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

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Futurama: Bender's Big Score

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

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

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Master of the Flying Guillotine

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

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

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Tale of Genji

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 23, 2007

24 - Season 4

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

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

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Wire - Season 2

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

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

Friday, December 21, 2007

Lunar Legend Tsukihime

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Genshiken - Season 1

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

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ikki Tousen - Season 1

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2007

I Am Legend

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dexter - Season 1

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

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

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Neo Tokyo

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 14, 2007

Panda and the Magic Serpent

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Assassin's Creed

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

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Wire - Season 1

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

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2007


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

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

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Night on the Galactic Railroad

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Horus: Prince of the Sun

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead

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

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

Monday, December 3, 2007

My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade

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

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

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

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Killers - Hot Fuss

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

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

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Coldplay - Parachutes

So how about that hiatus? Yeah.

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

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