Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Valkyrie



I'm feeling a bit mixed on Valkyrie. Overall, it does a lot of things right. Despite how insane he might seem in real life, I still think Tom Cruise is a solid actor, and he's as fine as always here leading an army of less famous but still very good performers, with lots of people you recognize and like even if you don't know their names. The movie looks really great, with some stunning cinematography in some scenes, good enough to help me almost completely ignore a scratch on the film running along the left side side of the screen the entire time. Bryan Singer's back to doing something a little smaller after the first two X-Men movies and the fairly mediocre Superman reboot, and I have few qualms with any of the decisions he made. Despite the overall fairly good production though, something about the film is still rubbing me the wrong way a little bit. I think it's an important story and they did a good job of keeping up the tension despite the outcome's inevitability, but I still feel that I didn't quite really enjoy it, that it ran a little too long and that it was just a bit boring.

It's possibly just a case of bad editing. There's not a scene that doesn't have some value to it, that's not well filmed or put together, but all of them combined don't have as much impact as they probably should. If twenty minutes combined were cut from the planning and after-effects of the attempt on Hitler's life, it might flow a lot better. As it is, there's just not as much excitement as I probably would like from a movie about people fighting back against Nazis. I still respect the movie for its emotional weight and showing how not every member of the Third Reich was a bastard. I also liked how they handled the language issue - it starts out in German with subtitles, and quickly transitions to English. Just a way of acknowledging that this is a movie and they're making a compromise to make the experience easier for its audience without resorting to phony German accents. Too many films just have the actors put on an accent, some more successfully than others, but even if it's completely accurate, it's still a very fake authenticity that really annoys me. If the characters aren't speaking the right language anyway, it's not going to help. Anyway, Valkyrie was all right.

Friday, December 26, 2008

30 Rock - Season 1



I was expecting 30 Rock to not blow me away but still be pretty funny, and it basically met those expectations. It's not the funniest show ever, but it's consistently good, and with The Office dedicated to awkwardness and other shows a little too crazy and shocking for its own shake, it's probably the best "normal" comedy on TV right now. It sort of feels like the heir apparent to Arrested Development; a bit wacky at times but generally very intelligent, with a great cast, the love of critics and award givers, and an unfortunately small viewership. I don't understand why most people seem so resistant to good comedy. Here's hoping NBC gives it more of a chance to grow into its own than FOX gave Development.

30 Rock is about the makers of a fictional live sketch comedy show like Saturday Night Live, and starts when Alec Baldwin comes in as the new VP of such and such and forces head writer Tina Fey, playing a younger version of herself, to hire Tracy Morgan, playing a crazier and more famous version of himself, to star in it. It goes from there as Fey and Baldwin alternately butt heads and help each other out, as she tries to manage all the strange personalities working on her show and her personal life at the same time. Fey rose to fame as head writer and fake news reader on SNL, but I didn't know if she could actually act and carry a whole sitcom, but it turns out she can, and pretty well too. All the supporting characters are funny in their own way, and I like the way the show handles continuity too - it's not chained down so there's always room for fresh situations but there's enough of a storyline to keep it satisfying. If you aren't watching you probably should be.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Braid



Braid is a time-bending puzzle game disguised as a simple platformer like Super Mario Bros., and has enough self awareness to make several references to that fact. Beneath the basic gameplay controls and pleasant, hand-drawn appearance though, there is an incredible amount of depth and inventiveness to every aspect of the game's design, from the time manipulation mechanics to the devious puzzles to the great story. Basically, there are five normal worlds you can run through. The goal is to get all the jigsaw puzzle pieces inside each one, and put them together to finish the ambiguous pictures and move forward towards the ending. The pieces become more and more difficult to get to, and finding them requires you to make use of that world's unique brain-twisting trick.

The first level just introduces rewinding time, which you can use through the whole game. The idea is nothing new to games, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Blinx: The Time Sweeper were doing it years ago. But no other game has taken it to such an extreme like Braid. You can rewind all the way to the beginning of the area, and as soon as they begin throwing in objects that are immune to the power, things start to become crazy. Further levels add things like the world's timeline being controlled by which direction you're moving and a shadow clone of you that repeats the actions you did in between the last two rewinds. Learning how all these different tricks work and ultimately using them successfully to do something that looked impossible is one of the most satisfying feelings I've had playing a game this year. Even when something's confounding you at the moment, you still feel like the solution's right there because it usually is. I'm not going to pretend I did every puzzle by myself, but even when getting help you can appreciate the genius behind some of the ideas. There are a couple little things that prevent the gameplay from being perfect though, like a single puzzle that you can't solve the first time you see it when this would have been easy to avoid, and a moment here or there where something you didn't expect undoes all the work you just did.

Besides all that though, a big part of Braid's appeal is the presentation. The music and graphics merge to create the perfect environment for the story, slightly whimsical but with a certain dark edge that doesn't become clear until later on. Everything in the game works for the story, in fact. A lot of it is revealed in vague bits of text before each level, but that's mostly flavor for the real plot, which can be interpreted in a number of ways. What's especially great is when the quirks of the time manipulation work in the story's favor. Little moments like the end of the world where time progresses with your movements are great touches, and the final level is one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen in a game. A scene plays out that you see from multiple perspectives, and the way it all fits together is remarkable. After that there's an epilogue that reveals a little more about what could possibly be happening, but that last level is amazing enough to end it right there. The combination of intelligent puzzles and storytelling make Braid the best download-only game I've experienced. I played it on a friend's 360, but when it gets released on PC in a few months I'll pay for it myself because it's totally worth it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Television Update 3: Fall Finales

As the year comes to an end, tons of shows I watch are going on hiatus until early next year. Here are some brief thoughts on how each of their current seasons are going so far.

American Dad! - It still doesn't have its sister show's popularity and most likely never will, but at the time I think it's the more consistently enjoyable program.

Battlestar Galactica - It's been a long time since they showed the first half, so I don't remember that much. I think I generally liked it, but watching a scene where two characters talked about "frakking" with my parents in the room was one of the most embarassing things ever. At first that stuff was a little clever but they overdid it.

Burn Notice - Fun spy show, not quite sure about its attempts at being more serious.

Chuck - I'm still conflicted on this show. It's often enjoyable, but often frustrating how much it loves dramatic cliches.

Family Guy - I'm not a big fan of the newest stuff at all. It's still usually funny, but the writing is gradually getting lazy and tired.

Fringe
- Not really what I was hoping for. It has some interesting ideas, but everything's dumbed down for the average viewer and I'm not a fan of the run time - it's closer to 50 minutes than 40, and instead of spacing out a couple commercial breaks, there's the same number as usual and most are too short to actually do anything in.

Heroes - Bleugh. I can't even go into it, let's just say it's not the Writers' Strike's fault that season two was crummy.

Legend of the Seeker - Terry Goodkind's books don't have the warmest spot in the hearts of most serious fantasy fans, but what can I say, I think this is a fairly entertaining series so far. There should be more shows in a setting besides the modern USA.

My Name Is Earl - Still the same decent comedy that thankfully doesn't try too hard to be anything more.

The Office - I think we're all in agreement that the peak was around season three-ish, but it's still a great show most of the time and I like how they're handing Jim and Pam. Really easy thing to get wrong.

Prison Break - Continues to be a solid if not great thriller. It does a few too many things to make you roll your eyes, but at least the plotting is better than some other shows that air at the exact same time.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Not as bad as the movie, but that's like favorably comparing someone's skin to sand or something weird like that. The action's decent at times.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Some of the episodes are pretty smart, but there's something about this show that makes me not want to like it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Portishead - Third



Third is the third (hey!) album by Portishead, one of the 90s' top trip hop bands, although from what I can tell it's not very close to what that sounds like. I don't have to be familiar with their earlier work though to know that this is one of the bleakest and most gripping albums I've heard in a while. It's one of those things you really have to listen to with headphones.

The overall sound is a sort of a downbeat industrial/electronic thing with a healthy mix of normal guitar and percussion added. Any remnants of hip hop scratching or whatever aren't there. The songs flow perfectly, with the instrumentation sparse when it needs to be and booming where required. It's another record that nails the balance of a cohesive tone while varying the sound enough to keep the songs unique and interesting. "Silence" has a quick drum beat and some dissonant feedback to play with the electronic sounds. In "Hunter", they go back and forth between the chirps and a more normal, slow guitar and drum thing. "The Rip" starts in with a plucking acoustic melody and eventually brings in quicker drums with an infectious electronic element. "Plastic" has the most obvious trip hop sound to it, I think. "We Carry On", as Pitchfork aptly mentioned, sounds a lot like a Clinic song, with its constant and off-putting beat. "Small"'s another track that bounces back and forth between styles. "Magic Doors" manages to work a piano in there along with some horns. The closer, "Threads", might be the most aggressive, with a nefarious twinge to it, and ends with a minute of a very angry sounding machine sound.

I've been ignoring one of the most important elements though, which is the vocal work by Beth Gibbons. Her voice is mournful and haunting, and fits perfectly with every track, and she sings the depressing lyrics in a very evocative, affecting way. Just look at two back to back songs, "Deep Water" and "Machine Gun", completely different musical styles, one a simple, acoustic, folksy number, the other pure minimalistic industrial with a few synth chords added in, both improved greatly by her singing. Third isn't exactly the most wonderful thing to listen to, but for what it's trying to do, it's one of the best constructed and executed works I've heard.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Entourage - Season 5



Is it just me, or is the season when I catch up on an HBO show always the worst? Season 5 of Entourage isn't bad, but it's still easily the weakest. There are still some standout moments, and the episode where the gang does mushrooms in the desert is probably the funniest in the series. The cast is solid as always, especially... wait for it... Ari! He's still loud and insensitive. I can't tell if Drama's continuous spiral downward after a breakup was good or bad for his character, but he always provides some entertainment. Turtle gets involved with the series' most ludicrous hookup, and that's just the start of the hard to believe parts of the season.

The problem is that they go too far showing Vince's career go down in flames after the disastrous failure of Medellin. A bomb can hurt your career, but it was only a $30 million project (I love how they don't even bother showing what happens to the financier by the way even though that was basically all his money), and he's starred in some very successful films previously, so it shouldn't have been enough to make him virtually unemployable even if he does have an uncooperative reputation. And if you're going to say his career's that far gone, at least don't let him bounce back with one of the most desirable projects possible based on some dailies from a $100 million canceled movie that he helped tank. It always seemed like the show was trying to show what the business was like, but this time I didn't buy it. Still, watching it from moment to moment was still fun and I'm ready for more.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Moral Orel



Adult Swim just finished "44 Nights of Orel" showing the entire series over the course of eleven weeks in a special order to compliment the new episodes of the third and final season. I'm still not fully clear on whether it was canceled because it was so depressing or it was so depressing because it was canceled, but based on the last episode I think it's the latter. When the show first aired a couple years ago, it was a unique but somewhat simplistic parody of old sitcoms and religion. Every episode featured Orel, an innocent and painfully devout Christian boy, grossly misinterpreting some sort of lesson from his father or pastor and doing something horrible like selling his urine or raising the dead. Afterward his dad lectured him on how he was wrong with the help of his belt and then reminded Orel of one of God's "missing commandments". It was often clever and funny enough, but pretty disposable too.

I didn't watch as much after that, but as I learned in the last couple months, they started going in a much different direction with the show starting in season two, and taking it even further with the last one. The focus is less on being funny and more on just developing the characters in the strange town of Moralton. There's still some darkly humorous stuff happening, but starting with the hunting trip that ends the second season, it can get downright disturbing. Orel's less pervasive of a protagonist, and it starts to be about his dad's dirty little secrets more than him. Just because it's not that funny doesn't mean it's without merit though, as some moments in the last season are as meaningful as any I've seen on Adult Swim. And it's not all bad though, with the final episode doing a nice job of showing that there's still hope in the world. It's probably not for everyone but I liked it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Entourage - Season 4



Entourage continued to slightly tweak the formula in its fourth season, although not everything changed, and not everything that changed was for the better. The first episode is a departure, showing the production of Medellin as a mockumentary like The Office instead of its normal form. Whereas earlier seasons always focused on securing a new project for Vince, this time Eric's career gets the spotlight as he attempts to expand his managing business beyond just his best friend. There's a lot of worry about Medellin, with Eric worried that it sucks despite it getting accepted into Cannes and having a good looking trailer get leaked on the Internet. For a while things are looking good, with a new film from the same team close to becoming a reality, but ultimately the season ends on a lower note than any of the first three.

It seemed like some characters stepped forward and others stepped back. Piven won his third Emmy and first Golden Globe for this season, and he was great as usual. It wasn't just the angry rants this time, he actually showed a little more emotional depth. Eric has an entertaining story arc with Anna Faris, although it ends the way things usually end for him. I was hoping the success of his new show would make Drama evolve a little as a character, but he and Turtle continue to be stuck in the mire of the typical sex and drug antics they're always involved in. It makes me wonder whether the show really wants to be an accurate portrayal of Hollywood life or just a silly, vulgar comedy. I didn't mind any of that too terribly though.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Sarah Silverman Program - Season 2



The first half aired over a year ago, but the show came back from hiatus at the same time as South Park this October, which would have been a nice tandem if they actually aired on the same night. If you haven't seen the Program, it's a pretty solid satire of normal sitcoms, frequently done in very broad strokes. When Brian and Steve spend entire episodes engaging in fart jokes, it's a little hard to tell whether it's a send up of banal humor in other comedies or just banal humor. I generally give them the benefit of the doubt though, because in general the show does a lot right.

The first season was really short, but it had a lot of great moments making fun of really sensitive issues like AIDS. The second doesn't have as many iconic episodes like that, but there's still plenty to make fun of and a lot of laughs. I have to appreciate a show where the main character sleeps with God and then gets annoyed when he's too clingy afterward. Laura and Jay are a nice parody of the irritatingly happy couple, and Brian and Steve fill in for the marriage with constant problems that always manage to get solved within 22 minutes. There's some fun cameos too, like Tim Heidecker in a small role and Adam Corolla as a man a little too passionate about beards. I'm not sure if a third season is going to come but I think it should.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Entourage - Season 3



The third season of Entourage is a bit weird in that it's the longest in the show's run by quite a bit and took a break halfway through that lasted for half a year. In fact, the second half aired much closer to season four that it did to its own first half. Still, you can tell that it's all part of the same story arc; the long arduous process of creating Medellin. It's the movie that Vince and Eric have wanted since the beginning of the series, and it's failed repeatedly as numerous things seem to be conspiring to stop it from happening. The length allows the season to be more tumultuous than the first two, as project after project falls apart before they get off the ground, and Vince and Ari even split for a while at one point.

It seems like they're trying to show a different side of Hollywood, a slightly uglier one. It's not all making money and partying, there's lots of backstabbing as people who don't really like each other have to come to delicate agreements. It doesn't lose its spirit though, as the gang still has time to have some fun, and Johnny Drama finally gets a break. It's not quite as carefree and fun as before, but Piven's great in his second straight Emmy-winning performance, and it's still a nice, fast watch.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dexter - Season 3



I found the third season of Dexter to be neither as enjoyable nor as believable as the first two, but it's still a solid show with an edge. It's hard to pinpoint the problem, because there's still a lot of good stuff going on. It just felt less like a show about a serial killer and more like a show about a guy who happens to kill people occasionally. When the show started, Dexter was a cold, mysterious person, with all of his outward niceness a facade to hide his terrible secret. He tracked down and killed criminals because he had an insatiable desire to. By now, he's basically transformed into the nice family guy he was pretending to be, it's just he still has to murder once in a while, but it's usually protecting himself anyway. This is all the result of developing the characters over a period of time and clearly intentional, it's just less of a compelling existence.

The main problem Dexter deals with this season is Miguel Prado, an Assistant DA played well by Jimmy Smits. He and Dexter become close friends, and eventually, he becomes the third person in as many seasons to learn Dexter's secret. And if you've seen the first two seasons, you know what's probably going to happen after that. The problem is that I just didn't buy his character arc as easily as the others. His transition from seemingly normal guy to a big problem to be dealt with is just too quick. He has strong convictions, but it's just not something you see happening that way. The supporting cast does a fair bit of growing and changing itself, and the major case the cops are working on is solid enough, if not as well connected to Dexter as it's been before. Another season's on the way, and I hope they can maintain the show's identity enough while still doing what they want to with the story.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Entourage - Season 2



The second season of Entourage picks up a few months after the first one ended, with Vince and the guys coming back from filming Queens Boulevard. Then unfolds the epic story of Aquaman, as every possible thing that could go wrong does as they try to put a movie together. Worries about whether Vince actually has the job or not, conflicts of interest with other projects and actors, trouble getting James Cameron on board when the director of Boulevard won't screen it for him, and so on. I don't know how accurate a picture of the Hollywood business it really is, but it's easily entertaining enough to keep watching.

The characters develop as much as the plot, too. Vince and Eric butt heads some more, but come out as friends in the end anyway. Johnny Drama continues to try to get his career back, although pretty often his storylines devolve into really awkward humor. Turtle's also a little more likable when things occasionally don't go his way and he actually works for a thing or two. Ari really comes into his own too, and I can totally see why Piven gets so much love for his work, he's completely the most consistently funny and interesting character in the series. His angry rants and the way he bounces off of everyone he works with and against are always fun. I still think he's the only truly humorous character on the show, but there's enough there to make it worth watching.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Y: The Last Man, Book 8: Kimono Dragons



In the second half of this series, Goran Sudzuka has done about as much pencil work as co-creator Pia Guerra, but it's hard to even notice, as his style meshes perfectly with hers. The art continues to look great, and remains a huge part of the comic's appeal. But I'm not reading for the pictures, the story's still the most important part. The eighth volume manages to develop the plot further while still featuring some entertaining action and humor, something that haven't quite happened perfectly earlier in the series. In addition to the main plot about recovering a monkey, there are a couple more issues with backstory on supporting characters. They've done a pretty good job of developing all the interesting people that pop up and keeping it relevant to the point of the story. It's a unique tale, with lots of strange elements, like ninjas, pleasure robots, and a mob run by a Canadian pop star, just in this book. But behind the outlandish cover, there's a lot going on. I might just be reiterating myself, but it's basically the perfect encapsulation of comic books as a medium. Only two more volumes left, and I can't wait to see how this ends.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Superjail! - Season 1



Superjail! is a bit divisive among some segments of the Internet. Some people understand that it being nothing but eleven straight minutes of over-the-top, ludicrous, well-animated, incredibly violent insanity is the entire point; that that's plenty to carry an enjoyable late night cartoon; and that there's tons of inventiveness behind the sloppy art style and constant, pointless death. And some people are stupid. No, not really. But they're wrong about Superjail!

It's really a simple show. It always opens with the same inmate who's escaped from the prison and is in the middle of some new crime. He gets painfully arrested by the same robot, and then gets brought back to jail by a new surreal route as the theme song plays. Then the normal episode starts, usually involving the warden coming up with a plan to woo the horrifyingly masculine female guard that ends up going horribly wrong, resulting in a huge brawl as dozens of inmates are brutally killed in creative and often morbidly funny ways. It's not Emmy writing here, it's just fun to watch. There's also some more interesting stories, like the two part season finale where the Warden is arrested by time police before he commits a horrible crime. In the right mindset, Superjail! is a lot of fun.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hot Rod



At first glance Hot Rod seems like a typical stupid sports comedy, and basically is. But it has enough originality and quirkiness to make it fairly enjoyable. I got a bit of a Napoleon Dynamite vibe from certain scenes that exist only for a single odd laugh, like finding firecrackers in the bathroom and setting them off, without much happening. It takes physical comedy to a new level, with the impacts as Andy Samberg crashes his bike and gets hit by cars and rolls down hills taken to an extreme, which sort of makes them funny again after we've gotten tired of it. It's not the greatest of comedies, but it kept my attention well enough with some atypical jokes and fun cameos that I didn't get bored. Danny McBride has come out of nowhere to make solid contributions to some recent comedies like Tropic Thunder, Bill Hader's a consistent handler of whatever minor roles he gets, and Will Arnett is in classic asshole form. Isla Fisher is the nice, pretty girl inexplicably attracted to the protagonist, best known for playing the crazy sister in Wedding Crashers and having Borat's baby. Ian McShane brings some actual skill to the role of Samberg's stepdad, and the reason for the movie's plot. Andy makes some silly videos and impressions on Saturday Night Live, but he shows here that he can carry a decent little movie, too. Most of what happens is pretty predictable, but it's cute enough to watch once.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Entourage - Season 1


Entourage is the kind of comedy that isn't terribly humorous, but still has likable enough characters and goes by fast enough to be an enjoyable use of time. I can't really think of anything else that fits that description, but that's basically what it is. Based on producer Mark Wahlberg's life as a young guy in Hollywood, Entourage is about the charmed life of Vince Chase, an up and coming actor. He lives with some people from back home; there's Johnny, his brother who's trying to get back into the acting game himself; best friend and manager Eric who's in just as much of a starring role; and Turtle, another friend who drives him around and contributes very little to the show. They get along pretty well, often playing tricks on or cracking jokes about each other, but still long-time companions who support each other. Ari Gold is Vince's Agent, played by Jeremy Piven, and judging by his four straight years of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and four statues, people really like him as this character.

And he's been the funniest part of the show so far, but it's only been eight episodes, so it's too early for a real judgment. In the first season, Vince's new movie with Jessica Alba comes out and does pretty well in the first weekend, and then he agrees to do an indie film back in New York with an eccentric director. And that's about it. Eric has some girl problems. Eight episodes breezed by pretty quick, and this is really the sort of show that you can just consume immediately without realizing it. It's like television junk food, not terrible fulfilling but easy to eat. There are a lot of cameos by famous actors playing themselves or weird characters, like Val Kilmer as a pot growing Sherpa. I feel like saying too much more about eight episodes would just be repeating myself so I'll stop.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wonder Showzen



Wonder Showzen was the first show by PFFR, the band that also makes Xavier: Renegade Angel on Adult Swim. Whereas Xavier's made with very ugly computer graphics, Showzen is a mix of traditional animation, puppets, and live action segments, including stock footage and interviews with people on the street. On the surface it resembles an educational show for children, but as it constantly reminds the viewer, it's nowhere near appropriate for kids. It's violent, has lots of disgusting shots of things from real life, and treats tons of sensitive topics like suicide, race, and abortion with a crude sense of humor. But there is a lot of intelligence behind it, intelligence that only pops up occasionally but still shows that satire runs the gamut from subtle to as subtle as hitting you in the head with a hammer.

Some of the best segments are the ones on the street, where a kid dressed as a reporter or a blue puppet named Clarence asks people questions, usually to hilarious effect. The kids usually just trick adults into agreeing to something stupid, but Clarence is an expert at pissing people off. It's funny how often people will start freaking out and cursing at a hand puppet, and the final episode consisting solely of Clarence asking people to make compelling television set to original music has some great moments. Like they do in Xavier, they often divert from the story to just screw around with brain twisting stuff like having the characters watch a bootleg knockoff of their show, on which the knockoff characters are watching the original show in return, and so on. It's a funny show that quite often becomes avant garde just to annoy the audience. But if you can tolerate being screwed with, it's pretty enjoyable.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Y: The Last Man, Book 7: Paper Dolls



Y has been enjoyable all the way through, but for a few volumes in the middle it seemed like I was only getting snippets of the real story in the background while the main characters were content to get kidnapped and fight people a lot. You could tell there was more there, Vaughan just hadn't shown it yet. But Paper Dolls is the first book in a while where we start to get a good look at the (wo)man behind the curtain and get a much better taste of why this is all happening. A lot of the details about why everything that's happened has happened the way it did, and it's made the story a lot more gripping. I've lost some sympathy for Yorick for various reasons, but I got some of it back seeing his renewed devotion to his personal mission and some more of his character. It's important in a story like this for him to be a really interesting character, and for better or worse, he is. 355 also gets her own flashback issue, and it's certainly worth reading. The most important issue is one about a monkey though, explaining how Ampersand came to be Yorick's monkey. Everything's starting to come to a head, and I hope to see how it ends as soon as reasonably possible.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Breaking Bad - Season 1



I'm not sure what drove AMC to get into the original programming market. They used to show older movies in widescreen, commercial free, and without edits, but they've shifted to a format much more typical of normal television. It's not too bad if it means they can create quality programs like this and Mad Men. Breaking Bad's definitely a different sort of show. It hinges on Bryan Cranston's performance, which is fortunately great, notable enough to get him an Emmy despite only having seven episodes so far. Cranston's been a likable actor for years, known for roles like the dentist that Jerry thinks converted to Judaism for the jokes on Seinfeld and the dad on Malcolm on the Middle. With Bad, he shows that not only can he be funny, he can legitimately carry a significant role. The show's premise is that a high school chemistry teacher decides to cook Crystal Meth to make money for his family after he finds out he has lung cancer. He's a normally timid man who starts changing as he sees the end in sight, and it's really interesting to watch how everything affects him.

He's the star of the show, but it's also about his family and the connections he makes with people in the business, such as an old student who's become a dealer. Things go really bad from time to time, and as much as the show is a subtle character study, it also has some shocking and even really cool moments. A fifty year old science teacher's not your typical criminal, and seeing how he uses his impressive base of knowledge to fight back intelligently against obstacles is really interesting. They still haven't done too much to put him in danger of being caught or hurt, but there's some really good places they could go with that. A second season is coming soon, and the show has plenty of ways it can expand and get better, although you have to wonder how long they can keep it going when the crux of everything is a character who could be dying. How he faces the cancer is a really important part of it, and there are a lot of ways that could go wrong as a story element. It hasn't yet though, and I'd really like to see more.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Happy Gilmore



Eh.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Matrix Revolutions



Structurally, the finale of the Matrix series seems very odd. The action sequences are bigger than they've ever been, but it seems like the main characters don't actually do a whole hell of a lot. It's not that easy to even come up with a point for the first half hour - they could have easily skipped the whole Trainman part and just had the stuff with the Oracle without much changing. It's like the Wachowski Brothers looked at the script and said, "This needs to be two hours. Let's add a few more scenes in the Matrix, even though this is supposed to be a dichotomy with the second movie or something." That whole part is basically a retread - one last gunfight, one last Trinity jump kick, one more scene with the Merovingian. And that's basically all the main supporting cast gets to do for the rest of the movie.

The main conflict takes place in the real world, as Keanu goes to confront the machines while their army launches an assault on the humans' last city. The big battle largely features people we don't care about - a bunch of nameless goons in poorly-thought-out walking tanks and mildly developed bit characters running around here and there, while Will Smith's wife and a snarky crew race there hoping to help. The whole thing goes on for about twenty minutes, after which this has happened: the robots are still coming. One of the most enjoyable sequences in the movie happens before all this though, on the other ship with Neo and Trinity; where Bane, a human whose mind has been taken over by Smith, attempts to kill his nemesis. It's the only fight in the series that doesn't feature stylish martial arts or science fiction vehicles, just a couple of guys knocking each other around and using anything in arm's reach to gain an advantage. The guy playing Bane has a spot on Smith impression, and while he could have taken business a little smarter than he did, it's an important sequence for showing how Neo's powers have extended beyond the computer simulation they started in.

Unfortunately, the other scenes with Smith aren't so great. He transforms from the cold, brutal, efficient machine he was before into a typical maniacal bad guy, complete with silly menacing laughter. He seems to become more human as he struggles harder to eradicate them as a species. That's probably intentional, but that doesn't make it enjoyable characterization. The final battle between him and Neo is pretty mixed. It has some good moments, and it's interesting to see an over the top anime-style fight put to actual film, but it gets silly pretty often and, again, ends up feeling a bit pointless. The story's resolution is satisfactory for what they built up, although I could have done without the very obvious Christian imagery. The series went a while with Neo being a non-specific savior, it seemed weird for them to suddenly tie him directly to one Religion. In the end, Revolutions wasn't the redemption most were hoping for after Reloaded. They're both pretty watchable sci-fi action, but they don't come close to the simple quality of the original.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Matrix Reloaded


I forgot to mention in the last post that the movie has good music too. Solid mix of original orchestral stuff and licensed techno and rock. Anyway, the first sequel had insane expectations that it failed to live up to. I still think it's an entertaining action movie, but it's sadly devoid of a lot of the elements that made the original good. A big problem is that most of the action seems pointless. The sense of fear and tension is missing. The first time around, Agents were scary and powerful, and the good guys were very vulnerable, just doing enough damage to give themselves time to escape. Now, Neo's practically omnipotent, and he treats them like playthings. It's not just him either; Morpheus holds his own against an upgraded model much better than he did against Smith. The danger's just gone. Neo can resurrect people and fly away from any fight, but he sticks around anyway to show off his moves. The ghost twin things chase after our heroes with an SUV and assault rifle; the gunner can fire a burst into any vehicle and cause it to flip over, but he empties hundreds of round at the good guys and nary a scratch. Every time a car crashes and spins through the air, we get treated to a slow motion glory shot from the best angle. The movie spends twelve minutes on the freeway chase, in which the following happens: they get away.

What's funny is that the advanced visual effects have aged worse than the first movie's tricks. The "burly brawl" starts out decently enough, with some interesting choreography as long as you ignore a few obvious stand-ins and the fact that the only thing they seem to be doing is grabbing Neo's shoulder, but as soon as the Smiths really start coming in the fight becomes a slow motion computer-fest as an extremely fake looking Keanu Reeves smacks around a bunch of extremely fake looking Hugo Weavings, accompanied by domino and bowling sound effects. Any time Reeves is replaced by a digital model to do something fantastic, it looks incredibly dated, and they bring the camera way too close to their sad creation. The movie is simply less believable than its predecessor. And outside the fighting, the movie's not that great either. Lots of people like to complain about the rave/sex scene, and for good reason. From when the drums begin to the final shot of Keanu's butt covered strategically by Trinity's leg, about five minutes pass. That's not a terrible amount of time to waste, but in those five minutes, we learn nothing, and the bits of dialogue only reinforces plot details we already knew.

When the movie came out, it was part of a multimedia attack featuring a video game and collection of anime short films. It was cool at the time, but now you see how it weakens The Matrix Reloaded as a film on its own. Why should we care about this dumb kid Neo rescued since the last time we saw him? Why are we just glazing over this apparently important stuff that Will Smith's wife is doing? All the other humans we meet don't really add much to the story. There's a whole fleet of hovercrafts with crews that jack into the Matrix, so how come we met none of them last time around? It kind of seems like the Wachowskis took their tight little science fiction story and wanted to make it more epic. The story works on some level, it just doesn't seem like the logical extension of the first film. I personally didn't mind the philosophizing and blunt exposition that cropped up, but it probably could have been presented more naturally. Also, the cliffhanger was fairly poorly executed. Bane is set up as a villain for the third movie, but at the time Reloaded ended he certainly wasn't memorable enough to get away with revealing him for a split second upside down. There are twists right before the break that really shake up what we believe in an interesting way, but it certainly wasn't a middle on par with some other famous trilogies.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Matrix



For a while I called The Matrix my favorite movie, and the only reason I don't anymore is that I have a difficult time declaring a favorite anything. It's legacy was marred by the sequels, but watching it again, it still holds up as a really good action movie with a story worth thinking about. The "bullet time" effect shots aren't as impressive as they used to be and the way that they're lingered on seems kind of silly and self-indulgent now, but they don't detract too much from some otherwise excellent fight scenes. Everybody and their dog is complaining about shaky cam filming now, and it's nice to see an American movie again that shows the action in a way that you can actually tell easily what's going on. People don't like stunt doubles anymore, so it seems the compromise is to move the camera around really fast and cut quickly so it's hard to tell if it's really the actor or if he's even doing anything. The Wachowski Brothers on the other hand, say what you will about them ripping off anime and Philosophy 101, decided to take the time to train the main actors enough so they could convincingly pull off some pretty nice martial arts choreography. Nobody's confusing Keanu Reeves with Jet Li or anything, but it works well enough, and they don't go overboard on the wires either, a technique that I've come to dislike.

The movie isn't only good at Kung Fu, either. It has a really good gunfight and a really good chase that's intertwined with a really good science fiction robot monsters thing. It's still tense after all these times I've seen it. The movie's almost ten years old, but it really has aged better than many expected it would. Just the central story, the revelation of what's really going on behind the scenes, the whole crew of the Nebuchadnezzar and their camaraderie, the solid betrayal and interrogation scenes... the movie is just good. I enjoyed the sequels enough, but they're not close to the original's incredible watchability. Neo is the role that Keanu Reeves was born to play, sort of like Arnold with The Terminator. They're not very good actors, but this is a role he just seems to fit perfectly. There's not many people you could buy as a disconnected hacker (there's his woodenness) and as badass savior of humanity (he's good at looking kinda stoic). And this is where Hugo Weaving declared himself as king of the movies for nerds genre, playing a great villain with moments of both unnerving coldness and immense rage. I have no qualms with saying I love this movie.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mad Men - Season 2



Mad Men's second season is a lot like the first. From a quality and style perspective, not plot. They do a lot of things that they didn't do before. I still don't think the show is outstanding, but it's certainly of a consistently high production quality. The period feel still seems authentic, the characters are still interesting if rarely good people, and things are rarely stagnant. There are some new elements that fill a lot of the story this time, like a new minister played by Colin Hanks who tries to reach out to Peggy and the culmination of Don's transgressions as they cause a big problem in his home life. The Two Towers is on in the background on TV right now and man, those movies have some long stretches without dialogue.

The dialogue in Mad Men is serviceable to the story more than it is entertaining. There's nothing wrong with writing everything to drive the narrative, but part of what's holding me back on really digging it is the lack of just enjoying listening to the actors talk. It's not bad, just not the greatest. I did feel like I liked the show more than I did it first, although I'm not really seeing a noticeable change in anything about it. I'm just more attached to the people in it the more I see. I kind of like how they portray that time as just as filled with imperfect people and moments as ours. Everything from the past is always idealized and the current generation is always seen as the worst yet, but in the end we're all just humans. With all of the typical story devices and character archetypes, the setting is probably Mad Men's greatest asset. It really ties you into it when things happen like the season's climax coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don't watch many serialized dramas that don't have an element of violence, so it's interesting to see how they can keep things compelling with more subtle means of conflict.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fallout 3



I haven't played any of the other Fallout games, but from what I can tell, Bethesda's first stab at the series takes the skill system and trademark sense of humor and transplants them effectively into Oblivion's engine. Coming out two and a half years later Fallout 3 isn't the big step forward I was hoping for, but it's still a great game when you play it. It still has some of Oblivion's glitches and awkward moments, but it does do a fair amount of things better. Characters look better, and there's way more variety in the voice actors. The speech and bartering system relies on numbers and chance instead of a conceptually moronic mini-game. There are little additions like an indicator if a container is empty so less time is spent searching for items. And they finally got the auto-leveling enemies thing right, in a best-of-both-worlds sort of scenario. The way it seems to work, wandering around outside will always produce enemies at a similar skill level to you, so it doesn't seem too easy. But once you've been to a specific location like an underground tunnel, the enemies will always stay at the level they were when you first went there, so going back for whatever reason lets you take care of them easily without having to worry about constantly getting beaten. It's a pretty good system, maybe the best that can be done with this sort of extremely non-linear game.

On that end, Fallout is in ways better and worse than the Elder Scrolls games. Doing only the side quests that naturally came my way while playing, I beat the main story in about 22 hours. I don't think that's much less than Oblivion, and Fallout's story is certainly more interesting. They really did a lot with the humor, making it a bit more enjoyable to just be in the world, and it has a number of quests that are more creative than anything else I've seen them do. Tranquility Lane springs instantly to mind. And there's a bit more freedom in proceeding through it, with multiple ways to complete certain objectives and a lot of options in the dialogue that make it replayable. But the whole world around the main quest is a bit more barren, and that's the part of Oblivion I liked the most. I know there's a number of significant things I haven't done yet, but it seemed like fun diversions just weren't as easy to stumble across. Only the Wasteland Survival Guide came close to having the depth of one of the Elder Scrolls' factions, and it's not even just the quests - wandering around a deserted wasteland and ramshackle towns built on destroyed pieces of the old civilization is a bit more depressing and purposefully empty than an intact fantasy empire. Fallout 3 is designed to be more focused and narrow than Oblivion, and I liked that game for its breadth.

Not that Fallout isn't very good at what it does. There was some concern about the combat system, but I think it works pretty well. The V.A.T.S. system to target specific weakpoints is useful, although I tended to go for the head pretty exclusively. The normal aiming isn't very good for a shooter, but it's functional enough that you don't feel helpless when you can't use V.A.T.S. and it can actually be satisfying to use it by itself. I didn't try too much melee combat, but it seemed to function a lot like Oblivion's without any blocking. The karma system seems a little deeper than the average good-or-evil gimmick more and more games seem to be having, and unlike most of the others, it actually gives a compelling reason to be neutral. The writing is better than some of their earlier work, and overall it's a bit more polished as a product. I've been comparing the game to Oblivion for the entire review, but in the end it's probably worth checking out if you're interested, even if you've never touched an Elder Scrolls game.

Monday, November 24, 2008

True Blood - Season 1



True Blood is far from the smartest thing HBO's ever aired, but it's still a pretty enjoyable take on vampires. The show's main gimmick is that vampires have recently come out as America's newest hot button demographic demanding equal rights, and the tension between them and regular humans is a paper-thin metaphor for both racism and homophobia, both of which are exemplified normally by Lafayette, a cook/drug dealer who's my favorite character. The story takes place in the deep south of Louisiana. It's not the normal setting for vampires, and they have some fun with it, although at times it seems like they're just replacing standard Anne Rice tropes with stereotypes of Southern people. The series is based on a book series, and I don't know how faithful it is, but I get the feeling Alan Ball is just using the bare bones of them to say what he wants to about social issues while at the same time filming a bunch of crazy adult stuff.

There's a murder mystery that weaves its way through the entire first season, and for what it is it's fairly intriguing, but the majority of most episodes seems to be showing people get angry at each other, having sex, and occasionally getting covered by the blood of an exploding undead creature. I'm a little conflicted on the show, because I usually enjoy it while watching, but the general content is dumber than what I'd expect from something on HBO. It has its good moments, but it also has bad ones. I'm a little tired of the weird vampire fetish our culture seems to have, and their portrayal here bugs me a bit. They do that thing where they just bare their fangs and look half-menacing-half-moronic for no reason a lot, it looks terrible whenever they move super quickly, and I don't like how their fangs are the lateral incisors instead of the cuspids. The cuspids are a much better choice! Anyway, True Blood is completely watchable but not great.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Left 4 Dead



A slight lack of content and a few connection issues are the only things holding back one of the most enjoyable shooting experiences I've had in years. The normal gameplay isn't particularly deep; there are only a few weapons and a few types of enemies. They're not particularly smart. There's only four "movies" to play, none lasting even two hours on normal difficulty. But none of that matters. Holding off a ravenous horde of zombies with a few friends, desperately huddled together and waiting for rescue, is an extraordinarily exciting and memorable experience. The key to the game is how well the cooperative aspect of it works. In most other games, you can split up and do okay. But in Left 4 Dead, sticking with your teammates is vital. The game rewards you for protecting your buddies as much as yourself, and if you get knocked down or attacked by certain foes, it's impossible to survive without a friend giving you a hand. It's best if you're playing with people you know and constantly communicating, but even with a group of strangers you can develop a camaraderie before the campaign is over. Tearing into a horde with a mounted gun, taking out a bunch with a homemade pipe bomb, working together to bring down a tank - everything is scientifically designed to be as satisfying as possible.

And when did Valve become so funny? Earlier games had occasional humor, but starting with The Orange Box they've had consistently great writing, and the graffiti on the walls and dynamic conversations between the survivors are always worth experiencing. That dialogue is part of the game's pretty impressive technology that keeps the experience fresh, with the locations of supplies and bad guys always changing so you don't know what to expect. It prevents the experience from being too sophisticated, but makes it extremely replayable, which is the real goal here. Normal is fun, but my group probably had a better time playing on Advanced, making the experience much more intense but still manageable. It can get a bit frustrating when the same place kills you over and over, but we got markedly better as a team just playing through all of the maps once, and I bet it won't be long before we try Expert. Versus mode is also a blast, where teams alternate between playing the survivors and the infected, seeing who can get farther before usually getting wiped out. Playing in the infected takes some getting used to, but is also a unique and extremely gratifying experience when you get it right. Setting up the perfect ambush to screw over the other team is pretty damn awesome.

Hopefully Valve works on some of the online stuff, though. The first time we played, it took at least half an hour before we could get a game going, and games will crash once in a while. Also, sometimes the achievements don't seem to unlock when they should, a couple friends didn't get the campaign completion ones when they should have. Overall, it wasn't that bad for a game that just got released, it was just frustrating to see happen when we just wanted to be. And I do wish there was a bit more to play with. We can count on Valve coming out with some new stuff, hopefully an entire new movie or two, but I'm certainly glad I got it for $45 on Steam instead of $60 for the Xbox. Still, that doesn't matter that much. A couple nights ago we were playing Versus on the last map of No Mercy, waiting for the helicopter to arrive. Louis just got knocked off the roof by a Tank, and after we remaining three killed it, rescue came. We raced towards the landing pad, but on the way I was grabbed by a Smoker and pulled off the ramp. My teammates freed me from its grip, and I ran back towards the ramp, desperately shoving the ravenous horde away from me, slowly carving a path towards the exit. I limped as fast as I could for the helicopter, bullets whizzing past my ears as my buds who were already on board picked off the creatures trying to stop me. Just as I reached the vehicle, a Hunter pounced and knocked me on the ground. Before it could incapacitate me my friends saved me once again, and with 3 health left, I got on the helicopter just in the nick of time, and we escaped. It was completely amazing, and this type of thing happens in Left 4 Dead all the time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-Chan



Dokuro-Chan is an insane, hilarious little series in the same vein as Excel Saga. I imagine that this style of cartoon is a little too esoteric for most people, but if you have any appreciation for complete absurdity it might be worth checking out. Ignore the cute character designs though, because the show's not for kids. The main characters are a normal kid and an angel who has been sent from the future to kill him before he can discover the key to immortality, but she comes to like him and ends up resurrecting him after every time she brutally clubs him to death. The romantic interest kicking the crap out of the protagonist is a very common device in some pretty boring anime, and Dokuro-Chan satirizes it by having the violence be completely over the top, with blood spraying everywhere and the victim writhing in pain, before she magically fixes it and they act like nothing happened. Another thing the show parodies is fan service, with the accidental encounters and titillating camera angles so unbelievable that it just becomes funny.

The show (at this point) is only six episodes, but they're packed enough with humor to be worth checking out. There's so many little touches of humor that you might have to see it twice just to take everything in. Characters talk insanely fast, with the subtitles only at a reasonable speed because Japanese words have so many syllables. The show has a breakneck pace and is enjoyable whether you're paying close attention or just catching whatever you do while relaxing. There's a lot of chaff in the anime industry and it could stand to just go nuts more often like Dokuro-Chan does.

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Season 4



Sunny's fourth season is just about as entertaining as any of the first three. Its unique sense of humor isn't as shocking and unpredictable as it used to be, but they still haven't run out of sensitive social issues to make fun of or meaningless things for the characters to go on ridiculous tirades about. I'm pretty convinced right now that Sunny is currently the funniest show on television. One element that I don't particularly remember from earlier episodes but showed up a lot this time was the petty shifting alliances, where a couple of the gang would exclude another for no real reason but it would get flipped around by the next week. We're guaranteed two more seasons at least, and I'm on board as long as they keep churning out solid comedy.

One thing that I'm glad didn't return from previous years is the McPoyles. They were funny once, but got old by a certain point during season 3, and I'm glad they were able to recognize things that weren't funny anymore and just stop using them. Charlie continues to be my favorite character, a common sentiment among fans, and has plenty of great moments, like his role as the wild card in "The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis", the conspiracy theorist mail room guy in "Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack" and mastermind of the most awkward play ever in the season finale "The Nightman Cometh". Everyone contributes though, and it's rare to go five minutes in an episode without every character saying something funny. It seems like the season went by so fast, and I await more eagerly.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

South Park - Season 12



It's hard to argue that South Park is as good as it's ever been, but it's still a good show. It's just that the great episodes are less frequent, and the average one has a higher tendency to not be as funny as it used to be pretty consistently. I still find something to enjoy every time it comes on Wednesday night, but you get the feeling that Trey and Matt are getting a little low on ideas, and it might be smart to call it quits after their contract runs out three years from now. They've even admitted to a little writer's block, as "Imaginationland" was originally the concept for a second movie but was turned into a few episodes because they couldn't think of anything else. They've said they'd like to finish the show with another real movie, and that sounds like a good idea to me.

Part of the problem is that the show's stances on things are becoming predictable, and they stick too closely with a single joke. "About Last Night..." was an entertaining take on the election and heist movies, but you could see the jabs at supporters of both candidates coming from a mile away. And episodes like "Breast Cancer Show Ever", while having some fun moments, are fairly one note and not up to the standard of insanity people expect. But there was some really good stuff this season too, like "Major Boobage" which experimented a lot with animation, "Canada on Strike" pitting online fads against each other, the dedicated reenactors of "Super Fun Time", and the Indiana Jones segments of "The China Probrem". Primetime animation in general hasn't been fantastic lately, and South Park is still worth watching.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tim and Eric - Awesome Record, Great Songs! Volume One


Awesome Record, Great Songs! is a fine collection of music from Tim and Eric's hilariously bizarre sketch show on Adult Swim. There's a ton of stuff here, almost any song you can think of from the first couple seasons, and there sure are a lot of them. Everything from the Kid Break songs the David Liebe Hart's duets with his dummies to jingles from the different commercials and shows is featured, with many of them extended beyond what you hear on the episodes. The full version of "Doo Dah Doo Doo" for example is even more disturbing, and truly worth a listen. Towards the end of the album they also get into some really cool things like remixes featuring bits that didn't make the cut and alternate versions of songs by bands like The Shins. Music is a much bigger part of the show than one might even realize at first, and any fan of Tim and Eric's antics should get this compilation. Every track is either funny, legitimately catchy, or both.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Quantum of Solace



On its own, Quantum of Solace is a solid action movie, but it works much better when viewed as the second part of the story started in Casino Royale. In a way, they're very different films, but their differences make the arc of Bond's character much stronger. Royale was fairly long, and not full of the goofy villains and over-the-top action scenes that characterized Bond movies for a long time. It had some pretty good action, but the focus was on the spy thriller stuff. By comparison, Solace is significantly shorter and pretty consistently violent, with a new chase or brawl seeming to occur every fifteen minutes or so. You see some of the shaky-camera treatment in these segments that has plagued Hollywood action for too long now, and it can hinder comprehension of some really complex and entertaining scenes, but Marc Forster didn't go overboard with it. Still, you get the feeling that if the old filmmakers from the medium's begining who were apprehensive to do any jump cutting at all saw one of these movies, their heads would probably explode.

Daniel Craig's Bond is the most interesting treatment of the character that I've seen, and he's a big part of why I've been enjoying this reboot so much. He still has moments of humor and suaveness, but he really hasn't reacted too well to the events of the last movie and the coldness he treats the world with fuels the shift towards more action than we saw before. There's a lot of running time spent showing Bond fight people, but everything that happens makes sense with the character and what he's trying to do, so it's better justified than a lot of the big budget summer movies that come and go every year. The movie starts to introduce a shady evil organization that has its fingers in everything, and you can see how it's all leading to something a bit closer to older Bond movies, but Forster and the producers still make a good effort to keep it more grounded in reality and a bit darker. There's nobody with iron teeth or a bullet lodged in their brain, and the bad guys are controlling the world more subtly than SPECTRE ever did. It's a new James Bond for a more modern age, and Craig is apparently closer to Ian Fleming's original character than guys like Roger Moore ever were. I look forward to where they take the series from here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mad Men - Season 1



Mad Men has been one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the last couple years, and seems to have stepped into The Wire's place as the show hip people call the best on television. Watching the first season, I didn't quite see it as that great, but it's certainly quality entertainment. It's about the guys who work at an ad agency in the early 1960's, as they try to please clients, get drunk, and cheat on their wives. A big part of the show is the flavor of the time period, which seems pretty authentic and makes some moments more interesting than they might normally be. It's somewhat funny to watch how often the characters light a new cigarette, and it's pretty easy to lose count. Jon Hamm is Don Draper, the main character with a shady past, and he really captures that old fashioned sort of man's man you don't really see anymore. He's surrounded by a bunch of people who usually play to those late 50's/early 60's stereotypes that are somewhat quaint now but contribute to that atmosphere pretty well.

The main thrusts of the first season's story arc are Draper going through a bit of an identity crisis as parts of his life catch up to him, and the new girl Peggy, who doesn't really fit in with the other secretaries content to giggle and take phone calls. Any bit of story involving Draper is usually good, but too much of the other stuff going on around him is just a little too weird. If every guy back then was really this creepy towards every woman he was attracted to, it's definitely a time I'm glad I didn't live in. The show just made me uncomfortable sometimes, and not in a funny way. Some of what happens is the same trite romantic stuff we've seen before, and you can just see it coming a little too easily. Mad Men is a very well put together program, but I sort of feel like it holds that "Best Show on TV" title by default.

Friday, November 14, 2008

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - Festival Thyme



Festival Thyme is a quick four-song EP, a sort of preview for Trail of Dead's new album that's coming in early 2009, including a different mix of one of the songs that will appear on it. It's hard to gleam that much from less than 20 minutes of music, but I can say with some confidence that they're the same band that they've been for a few years, although they seem to be branching a bit, sometimes sounding like they have before and sometimes completely new. You hear a lot of piano here and there, something that seemed to start with Worlds Apart and hasn't left. "Bells of Creation" varies quite a bit in intensity, playing both ends pretty well. "Inland Sea" is a bit more melodic, but with a similar feel. The title track sort of sounds like something off Sigur Rós' latest, with a shuffle of plinking instruments that come together into a mass of pleasant upbeatness. "The Betrayal of Roger Casement and the Irish Brigade" is a loud, chaotic instrumental with some weird electronic effects on the guitar in spots, definitely something new to the band. Overall, it's a nice little collection of songs, something that would definitely make the cut on a full album, although it works as a cohesive EP too. I'm looking forward to their next full release for sure.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Jackie Brown



Jackie Brown is a bit of an oddity. It's Quentin Tarantino's third and probably least remembered film. One of the only stories he's done that wasn't his own, he took the plot from an Elmore Leonard novel (Who wrote many things that were adapted to screen, like 3:10 to Yuma) and reworked it into a tribute to 70's blaxploitation films, even starring a veteran of the genre, Pam Grier. Another big character is played by Robert Forster, who was also a long-time actor without a ton of success, and whom I only recognize from recent episodes of the increasingly-shitty Heroes. I guess Tarantino likes reviving people's careers. Some really big names (at least for the time) like Robert De Niro and Michael Keaton play smaller parts, but the movie focuses on Grier, Forster, and the always cool Samuel L. Jackson, who by the way turns 60 next month, can you believe that?

Anyway, Jackie Brown is a pretty solid crime movie, if not up to the standards of Tarantino's other work. It does a lot of things well that you expect from him, like clever dialogue that's just fun to listen to and some interesting decisions made with the filming. For some reason, I always seem to like the way he handles important scenes, especially violent ones. You can just sort of tell when something bad will happen, but it's still surprising to see how it actually comes about. Jackson is about as entertaining here as he was in Pulp Fiction, and the cast in general does a good job with the script.

On the other hand, the movie has some of the problems he's known for, too. If there's one thing he needs to learn as a filmmaker, it's how to let a scene go. Maybe he just needs a more assertive editor. Jackie Brown is indisputably too long. This isn't an epic crime drama, it just wants to be. It has all the makings of a tightly woven, thrilling movie, it just has an extra half-hour stapled on. Too many scenes don't really serve the plot, just add character where it isn't needed or go on for too long. Showing the same important moment from three different perspectives is a somewhat interesting creative choice, but there's no reason it couldn't have worked with all three cut together and a lot of time saved. It just sort of feels like an unnecessary flourish. And I know he likes to follow characters around with really long tracking shots, but I'm not sure anyone else does. Tarantino took a long break from directing after this movie, and I've never really heard why, and Kill Bill's running length suggests it wasn't to rethink his style. Whatever the reason, it wasn't because he made a decent if unexceptional genre film.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Black Lagoon - Season 2



The American release of Black Lagoon's second season was delayed when Geneon USA went under, but the license was eventually picked up by Funimation, allowing us to see it. It feels more or less like the first season did, with a bit of a darker tone and less focus on characters. Considering how I said after the first season that I'd prefer more craziness and less developing personalities, that seems like a good thing, although I can't really say I liked this run a whole lot better. It's still entertaining, violent, and wacky, it just never reaches what I see as the potential for that sort of show, settling into a respectable "Hey, this is pretty good" vibe.

The first storyline of the season is the oddest, with two creepy, androgynous twins causing some trouble for some local gangsters. They seem like something out of another show, filling that insanity quotient well but not really gelling with the rest of the cast. There's another story about counterfeiting and being the target of every hit man in the city, and then the show's longest plot yet as the two leads go to Japan to help with a deal between the Russian mob and the Yakuza. It's likely the most serious the show has gotten, and might be the best subplot they've had, so I'm not sure what exactly it is I want from Black Lagoon after all. A third season is coming, and I'm casually looking forward to what happens next.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Deadwood - Season 3



How about that Barack Obama? It's weird, while the country was making its final decision and getting ready to vote, I was watching Deadwood's third and final season, which featured a running side plot about the camp's elections for sheriff and mayor. They both culminated yesterday, as America elected their first black President in history and the votes were cast in Deadwood's last episode. Unfortunately, there won't be as much closure on the latter. There were plans to finish the series properly with two special movies, but they have yet to come to fruition and at this point probably never will, leaving an actual conclusion to the great show out of reach. Things weren't looking too good either, with the series' meanest villain yet sitting pretty at the expense of the rest of the town.

Overall, the third season was up to par with the first two as far as quality of production and writing. It was more of a departure plotwise, with the newly introduced characters playing a larger role than the new ones from the second season did. I wasn't a big fan of the thread involving a troupe of actors, but they provided a flowery change of pace from the usual hard-drinking rough-talking inhabitants of the place, and George Hearst was a pretty great antagonist most of the way. Race also played a bigger role, as a big dispute erupted over control of the stables. It's just unfortunate that things worked out the way they did, because while it was still good television, it doesn't really feel like it probably would if the creators knew it would be the last of Deadwood that people got to see. It didn't have the chance some other HBO shows got, but it's still one of the better ones.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Futurama: Bender's Game



Bender's Game is the third of four new Futurama movies, and overall the weakest. It's still funny, but not as smart as the other movies and a bit strange structurally. In general, the movies haven't measured up to the quality of the series in its prime, but I saw a good point made recently, that mediocre Futurama is better than no Futurama at all, and I totally agree with that. I think it's a little late in the game for The Lord of the Rings references, but contrary to what they seemed to show in previews, that's only a portion of what goes on in this movie. The first couple movies seemed to do more new stuff with introducing characters and places, but this one mostly shows you stuff you've seen before, if tweaked a bit.

Honestly, the fantasy segment is probably the weakest part of Bender's Game. It starts out with two stories about Bender getting into Dungeons and Dragons with some kids and taking it too far and the crew trying to stop Mom's monopoly on dark matter fuel. There's some good stuff and a surprising amount of character development with Mom's sons, before the two plots converge as everyone gets sucked into an alternate fantasy-style dimension. It's at this point that the jokes get lazy and the story slows down for no particularly good reason at all. The specifics of the dimension shift don't really make sense either, as most people are completely integrated into the different setting and know what's going on but a couple of the main cast act like fish out of water and one even has the same clothes as before. Eventually they return to the original universe and things get resolved. Not a bad movie by any means, just a bit disappointing.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Young Person's Guide to History



The Young Person's Guide to History was made by the creators of the apparently canceled Saul of the Mole Men and features some familiar faces like Dana Snyder and Tim and Eric. It's a two part, goofy little special that takes some significant events from the early part of the United States' existence and makes some jokes about them. There was evidently an episode of Saul that had a similar idea, and this expands upon that. It's the sort of absurd buffoonery with intentionally-horrible special effects that you've come to expect from Adult Swim's live action output, and is enjoyable on a similar level. The central characters are Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and the story follows them as we see things like a supercomputer giving Paul Revere the message that the British are coming and Jefferson's period as an aquatic monster that can both talk to and blow up fish with his mind. The truth behind some of the famous moments in history are revealed. Did you know, for instance, that Hamilton and Burr didn't actually duel, but Jefferson shot them both for annoying him? I can see people finding this stuff infantile and moronic, because it is, but that doesn't make it not enjoyable.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Oldboy



Oldboy is one of the most disturbing films I've seen, but what's impressive is not the depth of its violence or perversions, but how they effectively convey the tone of the story. The tale begins with a man being imprisoned in a room for fifteen years for reasons unknown, and upon release he sets out to discover why. It's a story of revenge, and the impact of the truth just wouldn't be the same if the specifics of the reasoning and methods of retribution weren't as shocking as they are. Another fairly recent movie that affected me with similar high quality of storytelling and force of violence was Pan's Labyrinth, which also happened to be made outside of the United States, in this case by Mexicans instead of Koreans (based on a Japanese comic). I'm not saying Americans can't make movies like this, I just haven't seen it in a while.

The movie is overall just put together very impressively. There are so many moments that stand out as something you wouldn't see elsewhere. There's a pretty significant fight scene partway through that's pretty astounding, from many perspectives. It's entertaining to watch, incredibly complex technically, and enhances the plot in a number of ways. Some of the harsher segments are a bit difficult to watch, although it never becomes explicit for the sake of it like some of the more irritating entries in the horror genre. Every moment has a purpose, and nothing is there just because it's gross. Oh Dae-su is a pretty great main character, a drunk nobody in the beginning, transformed into a badass by his imprisonment, but still prone to breaking down into an emotional mess. It's a really good performance to hang a whole movie on. It wasn't necessary though, with Park's direction sculpting it into a perfect realization of the story's potential. The ending is ambiguous, which seems common in Asian cinema, but not in a way that damages what came before. Really worth checking out.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?



I can't tell how good of a place this is to start listening to Of Montreal. It was a very highly acclaimed album, but was written and recorded almost entirely by Kevin Barnes without the band's help, and is a bit of a departure thematically. In any case, it's a damn good album. It's a bit hard to describe the sound, sort of indie pop with a lot of electronic and psychedelic elements. Barnes' high voice and the catchy choruses belie the dark lyrics, written during a bad time in his life. He's better now, but you can see how it must have affected him. I appreciate that aspect of the album's creation, but the main reason I like it is the music is entertaining to listen to. Yet more proof that I'm turning into an indie dork that will like anything if it's unique.

Being a story of his separation from his wife and descent into depression, there's a clear arc to the album, as it builds towards something and gets more chaotic and surprising later on. Early tracks like "Suffer for Fashion", "Cato as a Pun", and "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger" feature poppy refrains, nice synth melodies, and some more traditional rock sensibilities. The album climaxes about halfway through with the nearly twelve minute long epic "The Past is a Grotesque Animal", driving constantly forward with a nice bassline and creepy vocal hook as Barnes examines what's happening to him. The song really hit me the first time I heard it on the way home; besides the quality of the song, you can really feel the despair. The rest of the album doesn't seem that different musically, but you get sort of a different vibe as it's more out in the open with the subject matter. There are more frequent moments of odd musical choices, but it seems natural and gives the whole a record a consistent artistic feel. Really something I wish I heard before I chose last year's best albums.

Friday, October 31, 2008

2008 Playoffs

This was the first postseason in a long time that my team didn't participate in, but that didn't stop me from watching it. Unfortunately, overall it was still a bit of a letdown. The ALCS was great, but it was the only exciting series of the seven that were played.

The divisional series were more balanced than last year, with only one sweep by the Dodgers of the hapless Cubs (are they EVER going to win?) instead of three, but still none went to game 5. I guessed wrong on both NL series, and really expected, or maybe just hoped, for more competition all around. I'm getting seriously annoyed with the Angels, always somehow beating the Yankees but playing like crap whenever they face the Red Sox in the postseason. They could have won the series if they fielded, hit, and managed like they weren't a AA team.

The Rays were really the stars of the playoffs, regardless of the final result. They pretty convincingly beat the White Sox, and finally bucked the highly irritating trend of the Red Sox coming back from a big series deficit to win it all. They came close, but Matt Garza pitched a great game and David price finished them off, getting to their first World Series. It really is a good story, a team with a history of failure finally puts it together with a young, exciting ballclub and makes it to the playoffs one year removed from being last in the league. So good that it swayed many of my fellow fans into rooting for them despite they're being a division rival, which is something you don't usually see.

But the Phillies swept the Dodgers aside pretty handily (again, I have nothing against Joe Torre, but I'm relieved that I don't have to hear as many stories about how great he is without the Yankees) and treated the Rays the same way. They really were pretty impressive, only losing three games in the entire playoffs and overcoming a bizarre delay in game 5 that lasted almost two days to finish the victory. Cole Hamels was dominant, and solidified himself as one of the game's best young aces.

A couple things became clear this October. One: Bud Selig is bad at his job. I've complained before about his moronic changes to the game, and he's the one ultimately to blame for the game 5 to fiasco. They knew weather was coming, but they tried to get the game in and it could have become a giant mess. Two: Instant Replay works and should be expanded. Multiple obvious errors were made that could have been game changers, and the quality of umpiring is clearly getting worse and not better. Allowing challenges on home run calls hasn't disrupted anything and works, so there's no reason it shouldn't be applicable on more sorts of plays. Unfortunately, number one might make this take a while. Three: Lazy sports "experts" can stop automatically predicting that the American League team will win the World Series. Including 2008, National League teams have won four titles just this decade, and despite the obvious disparity in talent between the two leagues, it shouldn't be surprising for the best of the NL to win four games against the best of the AL, especially with the crazy things that we know can happen in such a small sample. The quality of baseball discussion in major papers and websites is pretty dire, and it's time these guys learned how to actually analyze the game.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Y: The Last Man, Book 6: Girl on Girl



Girl on Girl is one of the shortest volumes so far and not much happens in it, but that doesn't make it not as entertaining as the rest of the book. The story jumps forward in time quite a bit, skipping periods of travel to show the important confrontations that happen in between. But the main story here happens while the characters are traveling across the ocean by freighter, and quite a few things occur on the way to keep it exciting.

I like how Y plays to a lot of the cliches of the action genre, either playing it straight or subverting them, like when a character shoots an explosive tank, causing it to blow up of course, and another asking her incredulously how she managed to hit such a small primer charge. Yorick's willingness to get physical with people he meets bothers me a bit, since his whole motivation for going on this journey is to find his girlfriend, but given the circumstances it's understandable and it's clear they're setting up something with some teases at what could happen. There's another bit of backstory to his relationship, and I often find the flashbacks to be the most interesting part of the story. The writing and great art continue to drive me towards the conclusion. Did you know Vaughan has been a writer on Lost since late in season 3? That's pretty cool.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Dark Crystal



The Dark Crystal is something you will never see these days; a fantasy film with all of the characters played by puppets. Every kid knows Jim Henson and Frank Oz from the Muppets, but they did some pretty radically different stuff like this. It's pretty strange, with an odd tone that lasts through the whole thing, but I came off enjoying it. It took me some time to really grasp what was happening, maybe because I might have missed part of the opening narration. There's a group of ten elders and another of ten evil looking things, and each elder is directly connected to one of the evil guys in some way. The evil guys want to use the dark crystal to gain immortality or something, but the hero, a small guy who's obviously body doubled by a real child whenever he needs to move rapidly, can stop this by returning a missing shard of the crystal to its source. Anyway, he goes on a journey to do just that and sees some strange things.

It's kind of hard to describe what makes the movie enjoyable. It's fairly slowly paced despite the short running time and it's a bit hard to care about what happens to puppets. But it was pretty funny at times, especially the bickering and infighting among the bad guys. The noises they make, the awkward feats of strength. There are some pretty visually interesting moments, lots of unique creatures and architecture. The two main characters are likable enough, and there's really nothing in the movie that would bother anyone too much. Definitely see it if you're in the mood for something a bit more genuine than the latest CGI-fest.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi



Return of the Jedi is what made me like Star Wars and will always be special to me, even if I can see how the predecessor was superior as a film. I like stories with good endings, and Jedi puts a nice bow on the series, with the destruction of the bad guys and redemption of the most important character. A lot of people hated the Ewoks, and I can see why, but at least they had the balls to show them getting killed. From the opening on Tatooine to the speeder bike chase to the final battle in three locations, Jedi is packed with some of the series' best action scenes, which are better than a lot of the vastly more technically complex and visually busy ones in the prequels. The emperor's also a much more effective villain when he's sitting in a chair and pressing every button the good guy has than when he's cackling and spinning around with a lightsaber. He really knows how to twist the knife.

To be honest, I'm about tapped out on things to say about the Star Wars movies. Marquand seems like an okay director, but he never really did much else. Seeing all the hanging threads get resolved was good. I really hope the children of the future don't watch all the movies in chronological order, because the prequels really just ruin all the great moments from the sequels, including one of the best twists ever. Will people even really want to show them to their kids, after so many claimed that the new ones raped their childhoods? Maybe not. That catfish guy who flies in the Millenium Falcon with Lando is pretty weird. I now find it weird that Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar just show up and act all important in this one. Why haven't we seen or heard of them before? Carrie Fisher used to look really good in a bikini. The redone musical number in Jabba's palace for the special edition is completely moronic. I checked out the original ending on Youtube, and I'm not bothered that they replaced the Yub Nub song. I think I did a pretty good job of padding this out. I'm done now.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back



Is it a coincidence that what is generally regarded as the best Star Wars film was not directed by George Lucas, and that he doesn't even have a screenplay credit? It does make you think a bit. I'm not a huge fan of cliffhangers myself, but Empire is a good film that improves on the first one in a lot of ways. Without an obvious goal to shoot for, the movie is more about developing the characters than moving them all towards a big climax, and it really succeeds at doing that. Han and Leia's love story is not only 100 times better executed than Anakin and Amidala's, it's one of the best I've seen on film, period. Their bickering is comedy gold, and things like "I know" cement Han as the series' greatest personality. Harrison Ford's the quintessential hero, the perfect balance of blazing his own path and always managing to do what's right, and the sense of humor just adds to his likability. Carrie Fisher brings a respectability to the role that you might not expect from a princess, and holds her own against him quite well. They really have a great chemistry.

Luke's journey gets more interesting too as he begins training as a Jedi. In the first movie he was an idealistic, somewhat naive kid going on an adventure in space. The whole movie is somewhat a coming of age tale, with a nice, happy ending. Empire really shows the darker side of the war, and Luke facing his demons with Yoda, abandoning his training, facing off with Vader and finally learning the horrible truth is the best example of this. Yoda seems like a silly joke of a character at first like Jar Jar or something, but before long he's telling Luke how afraid he's going to be. It's all good stuff. It's not as action-packed as the sequel, but as a piece of film making it really is superior.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope



I'm not sure I ever saw Han shoot Greedo first before I looked it up on Youtube today. The decision to reverse that might be when fans realized that something had gone wrong since 1983, causing George Lucas to forget what made his world interesting in the first place. I didn't know any better, since the last one is the only one I'm sure I saw in its entirety before the Special Editions were released in 1997. But the fact remains that it encapsulates Lucas' weakness, the inability to let the series go. He has to keep tweaking and updating, and constant technological improvements are making it worse. And the fans are the ones paying for it. First the movies were released on video, then the special editions were. Then the DVD boxset, then "limited" edition DVDs with both versions of the movie. The problem with this was the original version really was original, with all of the errors and degradation intact, not even anamorphic widescreen. The best thing would have been to keep the cleaned up versions and remove the silly content changes, but instead, they decided to release another boxset with the only new feature being a box to hold the "limited" DVDs, and in the future you know they're going to rerelease in every new format and never stop adding new scenes and computer effects.

Beyond that business though, the original film is still a good, but not great adventure. The core cast is pretty darn good, even though only one of the main three went on to a big career. They rush through their lines once in a while ("Faster and more intense!"), but generally make the world feel believable. And Harrison Ford illustrates one of the many things the prequel trilogy lacks: a counterbalance to all the force mumbo jumbo. Han Solo is the series' best character, and they could have used him in the past to slap Anakin in the face and tell him to stop being such a wanker. Not everything has aged that well, but the final space battle remains one of the most thrilling sequences in film and it just feels like a genuine, entertaining movie. Its legacy has slipped, but it still brought joy to millions of kids.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith



For some reason, when it came out, Sith got a decent amount of good press, and I'm not sure why. It's certainly darker and more violent, but that's not exactly what critics go for. It was critical for Anakin's inevitable turning to the dark side to work for the trilogy to be close to redeemable, and unlike a lot of people apparently, I don't think it did. It has to be believable that he'd turn, and making his motivation protecting his wife works. He should have been smart enough to see how he was manipulated, but it's understandable after seeing how emotional and selfish he can be, despite his characterization in Episode I as the nicest little boy in the galaxy.

But the scene of the actual transformation is awful. For one thing, it's somewhat laughable. Palpatine and Windu trying to convince him of the other's wrongness while moaning in their struggle, Palpatine's goofy-ass "No! No!", it's hard to take seriously. And it culminates with Anakin causing Windu's death because killing Palpatine would be wrong, even though he's the guy who made him kill Dooku. Tell me if that makes any sense. Yeah, he really helped Palpatine because he thought he needed him to save Amidala, but it was still a weak scene. Why's he sending the Jedi to arrest him anyway if he needs his help? Did he figure he'd visit him in his cell and learn the secrets of life there?

Besides the botching of the most important scene in the trilogy, Episode III is a combination of enjoyable violence, fan service, and too much post production. For some reason, the sound mix seems a bit off. Like, they rushed through adding the sound effects or something. And the over-reliance on visual effects is ludicrous. It's okay to declare that every clone trooper will be computer generated when they're all helmeted automatons, but when you're superimposing the actor's head onto a fake body, and it's obvious and looks terrible, what's the point? Make a costume, dude. It's fine. A lot of the movie just doesn't go right. Why is McGregor playing such an obnoxious cock now? How could anyone write romantic dialogue this lame? Why are all the robots starting to sound like idiotic children? It's really pretty sad. On one level it's satisfying to see how the world becomes what it was back in 1977, but I just wish it could have been better.