Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cat Soup

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

Cat Soup is a bizarre, funny movie, but still filled with cryptic symbols and meaning. The whole story is two siblings journeying to recover one of their souls, so there's obvious room for some hidden concepts. There's a lot of mechanical interpretations of real things throughout. Metallic butterflies leading them to their destination, robots disguised as villainous fetishists, and time running on clockwork that can be stopped by a planet dropped by a hungry god. The flower represents the sister's soul in some way, and there's a lot of things with water and magic that's hard to interpret. There's also a question of whether it all happened, with the brother possibly drowning in the beginning and the world being turned off like a television in the end.

It's an interesting style, with loosely connected scenes that show some meaning but can be easily ignored and just viewed as entertainment. The animation is simple but appealing, not very close to the typical anime look.

There isn't much to say about the characters, which are merely vessels for the odd story and happenings the makers cooked up. Without any real dialogue, they just push the imagery forward without much about them being important.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Normally I only write about stuff I haven't experienced before, and I've seen Akira multiple times in the past, but I wrote this for a class anyway (which explains why it's a bit more analytical/spoiler-filled), so I figured I might as well post it and introduce the "flashback" category, which allows me to talk about anything I've done before, if I feel like it. Which I probably won't often.

Visually, Akira is one of the most impressive animated features I've seen. You'd think it'd have aged after twenty years, but it still looks very good. So much today is done with computers, but everything here is drawn by hand and looks amazing. Just looking at it, I have to imaging someone working on it must have gone insane from painstakingly animating so many billowing clouds of smoke. It's one of the only anime to have its dialogue recorded before animation, so everything is synced to the voices and avoids the pitfall almost every American seems to complain about. The artwork serves to enhance the story as the radical ideas are fully explored in sometimes gruesome detail.

Akira is fully in the apocalyptic mode, with the world still feeling the effects of nuclear devastation and the main characters living dangerous lives in the streets of a Tokyo I'd never want to visit. It explores corruption in government and redemption through destruction, as the only way to stop Tetsuo and save him comes to be destroying him.

Tetsuo and Kaneda are friends, but sometimes seem more like younger and older brothers, respectively, as Kaneda's always looking out for Tetsuo, who resents the protection. He begins to lash out more and more as his power grows, and ultimately his surpressed anger feeds off the energy and turns him into a monster. The disfigured children (although if they were test subjects with Akira would be in their forties or so now) are an interesting force, very powerful yet subject to the fears and desires of any little kid. Kaori represents what's left of Tetsuo's humanity, and when she is killed by his transformation, it's pretty much the end of any chance for his redemption and he ultimately perishes, nearly taking everything with him.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Voices of a Distant Star

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

Voices is a brief but interesting take on the common story of star-crossed lovers. Not much time is spent on character development, but you still get a feel for the relationship between the two main characters and how strong that connection is despite the growing distance between them. The details of their personalities aren't that important, what is is that they care for each other.

It's in the elegiac mode, with a strongly melancholic feel as their messages take longer and longer to send. The world's changing as their position in the war shifts, and they become hopelessly estranged through leaps in time. Someone made an interesting note about the swapped gender roles, with the typically male idea of going to war assigned to the girl, although this seems generally more common in anime than Western entertainment.

The style's a bit odd, and I think it would have worked better if it was made just a couple years later. The hand drawn characters are a little crudely animated and often don't look right, while the computer generated mechs don't mesh right with the characters and backgrounds. It still has an interesting look with some beautiful scenes, though.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Simpsons Movie

It took a long time for The Simpsons to get their own movie, and it wasn't really worth the wait. The show is still sometimes funny nowadays, but it's nowhere close to where it used to be. You can't really blame anyone, it's hard to keep that spark going past the first decade. It's still watchable, with a few decent laughs per episode. But when you're watching a movie, you expect more than a few decent laughs, which the movie didn't provide. It wasn't bad, I just expected a little more effort for a feature length film. They do a decent job of creating an interesting storyline, although you have to wonder how many times Homer can just about completely ruin his marriage before saving it at the last second, and the villain is really not that great. You want someone crazy and hilarious, not a cut-out Government hack. And what's with Schwarzenegger being President? It doesn't make sense on several levels. One, they were obviously parodying the current administration with him being dumb and the corruption and everything, so why not parody Bush instead of substituting another real person? Two, Arnold can't actually be President because of the nationality thing, so why go with him in particular? Three, it makes even less sense going with him since they already have Rainier Wolfcastle, a popular, well-established parody of Arnold existing in their world already. What the hell was going on when they came up with that?

That was quite the tangent. Anyway, it was a decent movie, but not what it could have been. There are some good bits, like Ralph's line when Bart's skateboarding nude and some inside jokes about the show itself. There's a pretty enjoyable, silly action sequence near the end, and it's a pretty fine thing to watch for fans of the show. It was a little short, making me wonder how the end product could be less than amazing when they've been trying to put together a movie for so long. Oh well.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Halo 3

Halo: still pretty good. The third installment continues the series tradition of good shooting, incremental gameplay improvements, and an interesting story for a shooter. Unfortunately, it also keeps alive some of its faults, like some repetitive tasks and environments, minor steps backward in some areas and the continued inclusion of the highly uninteresting Flood. I get the desire to mix things up so you're not fighting Covenant the whole time, but seriously, the Flood is boring. I like the story aspect of the Elites changing sides, but unfortunately that takes away the most interesting opponent in the series. Brutes are tough but not as smart, making combat a little less strategic in some cases. Having the Arbiter around most of the time is cool though, it's nice to have an ally who's actually worth something. I didn't like how you're arbitrarily limited to two grenades of each type now. Yeah, now there are four types so you still have a max of eight, but when you don't find the last kind until late in the game, you're left holding six most of the time and wondering why you can't fit a couple more normal ones in the same suit.

In general though, Halo is still a really good time. They expanded the vehicle sections, adding multiple new types to play around with. Some of the best fun in the series comes from cruising around, pursuing enemies on large battlefields with explosions happening everywhere. There are new and returning weapons also, and I think they struck a pretty good balance. The game's a little short, but that's okay, I prefer that to pointlessly padding out levels with infinitely copy-pasted corridors. I mentioned repetition, but that's mostly held in check except for the aforementioned Flood and the gigantic walking fortresses known as Scarabs - you encounter them a little too often, although taking one down is pretty cool. Graphically, it's not as flashy as some other current generation games, but it looks nice. There are some really great looking lighting effects, at least. The music is as interesting as ever, and voice acting is decent, although I never like changing voice actors between sequels (is Julie Benz too famous now thanks to Dexter?) and some of the dialogue tries to be cool but is just a little silly. The story is suitably epic and really pretty detailed if you get down into it, and they do a nice job of concluding the trilogy, although I wish there was a real end instead of an obvious sequel hint. Guys, you can make a new story without leaving ends untied. Multiplayer is pretty cool, although I don't really care about online play that much. I don't love Halo, but it's a very solid, entertaining series.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Game Update 6: PSN Demos 2

Hey more demos. I like playing 'em. Something you notice over time: lots of shooters.

BlackSite: Area 51 - I like the concept, but the controls didn't handle that well, and the first time I died it sent me back to the title screen. I never tried it again.

Burnout Paradise - I hate the announcer, and I wish there were a couple more events available, but it looked great and was a lot of fun to barrel down the highway and knock other cars off the road.

The Club - I don't really like time pressure elements, but I still had a pretty good time racing around, finding enemies to kill to keep my multiplier up. Hard to tell if it could stay fun over a whole game, though.

Devil May Cry 4 - It's more Devil May Cry, which is cool. I like the Devil Bringer a lot, it adds a new dynamic that makes the combat a lot more fluid and constant.

Kane & Lynch: Dead Men - I have a hard time saying good things about it with the whole Gerstmann fiasco, but it's a pretty decent time. Aim's a little slow but the shooting is solid and I like the setting and style.

Timeshift - The time powers don't add enough to the rather generic shooting to make it seem worthwhile.

Turok - It looks kind of cool, and stabbing dinosaurs in the head is always fun, but I think the aiming is a little too terrible to warrant a real look.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune - I already reviewed the full game, but the demo sold me on it completely, interesting combat system, great style, good cutscenes.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Full Metal Panic! - Season 2

The Second Raid is a return to form for the series and an improvement on pretty much every aspect. Only 13 episodes, it feels tighter than the first season, rarely deviating from telling its story. The art and animation are markedly superior to that of the first run, much more fluid and stylistically pleasing. Part of this is thanks to the addition of two female antagonists, creepily emotionless and very adept at combat. The show is also more mature, more willing to show violence and sexuality than before. Sousuke and Kaname still aren't really together, but there's noticeable advancement in their relationship as they act closer to actual human beings around each other. His attitude gets a little annoying later on, but he comes back around eventually.

The story introduces a new, more-or-less insane villain and evil plot against Mithril, the military organization Sousuke works for. The new characters are interesting and they continue to keep the story exciting and tense. The stuff with Kaname is also handled very well, as her influence on him and vice versa becomes clear and she's the focus of one of the most tense anime episodes I've ever seen. The action scenes are cool and the climax is fitting, though I have to wonder if this is the end. There's multiple novels left to adapt and the whole story's still not really over, but it's been over two years since this was produced and there's still no word of them going back to work on it. I hope they aren't finish, because I think it's a tale that deserves to be completely animated.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Grave of the Fireflies

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

In some ways, Fireflies was similar to Barefoot Gen, but in other ways it was very different. The art style has a similar philosophy, it looks a little different but it's still pretty iconic and incongruous with the subject matter. There is some masking, as the backgrounds look more detailed than the characters. While Gen was uplifting in the end, Fireflies was pretty steadily downward the whole time. There are some cute scenes with Setsuko, but we know from the beginning they're doomed, so it's just waiting until it happens. I wasn't quite as saddened by it as I thought I would be, though.

Seita's an intriguing character. On the surface he seems more mature that Gen, but he's really a stubborn kid, and that ends up costing him and his sister. I'm not saying all kids his age should have been working, but if his aunt was that strongly opinionated about it, he should have done it. He put his family at unnecessary risk just because the head of the house he was in was a little unreasonable.

Theme-wise, we again see anti-war sentiments, although Fireflies does not seem to share Gen's opinion that things can still turn out all right. It takes a more depressing view of humanity in general, as problems with the system and unsympathetic people make life even harder for the two siblings. They can't get food rations living away from their Aunt, and people refuse to give them their own extra supplies. They don't blame the US either, showing war as a terrible consequence of the earth. Overall, I thought it was a better film than Gen.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Barefoot Gen

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

I'm a little torn on Gen. On one hand, parts of it are a very forthright and honest look at the tragedy of the Hiroshima bombing. But in other parts, the tone doesn't seem to match the subject matter and it can even seem a little tasteless. The symbol of regrowing hair and grass to signify rebirth is nice, but his replacement brother suggesting his sister died so he could have his hair back just struck me as wrong.

The style is interesting, art-wise it's simple and it starts off like a normal, happy family movie (besides the war narration), and then when the bomb hits there's a complete transformation as everything goes to hell. After some time, things start to pick up and it transitions back to something like normal life. Gen is a strong character, a little too childish at times but at heart he does everything he can to help his family and those around him.

Theme-wise, the film is obviously anti-war, although it doesn't really point fingers at the US for dropping the bomb, in fact one character is directly critical of the Japanese government for putting them in the situation in the first place. While it's clear they're demonstrating the horror of war, they also say that it's not the end of everything, and life can go on even after something that horrible happens.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Cloverfield isn't for everybody. If you get motion sickness easily, the intentionally rough camera work could easily get to you, and if you tend to overreact to stuff like 9/11 parallels or endings that don't say "And this is what happened to everybody!", you might not like it. I'll be honest, I didn't think about the 9/11 attacks once while watching it. The similarities are there; disaster hitting New York City, buildings crumbling, people running, and the film is shot as if it's a home video. But I was just thinking about how effective it was as a way to depict a horrific event, it never seemed like they were trying to milk the connection for a cheap thrill. Any complaints about things being unresolved are from people who missed the point; the entire movie never breaks "character", it's supposed to be a home video of the attack found by the government and used for analysis, with no additions or stupid epilogues to add closure. I found it to be tremendously well-done in this regard, and I was impressed by how well they added details naturally by methods such as intermittent clips of previously recorded footage that was supposedly overwritten during the filming.

The style itself isn't the whole movie, although it's a bigger part than it would be most of the time. I thought they did a good job in the beginning of setting the scene and introducing the important characters before the monster attacks, some would say that part was overlong but it made it more real and got the job done. It's a pretty short movie, so they had to establish the relationships quick enough that the emotional impact would be there when bad things happen. The acting wasn't great, a lot of the dialogue was very repetitive and simple, although again, it all made sense for what the movie was. If you were in the middle of a city being destroyed by a gigantic, rampaging monster, you might say "Oh my God!" over and over again too. There's some humor there in some of the interactions in less stressful situations, a lot of it provided by Hud, the guy who's holding the camera the whole time. The monster itself and other unfortunate things are impressively designed and animated, and I liked how there were very few clear shots of what they looked like, as the characters were more concerned with their own safety than perfect footage. The camera itself is a character, showing us only enough to arouse our curiosity and being useful in more than one way. I wouldn't say the movie ever scared me, but it was certainly a thrilling, exciting, fun story told in an incredible way.

By the way, there's something after the credits, I don't recommend waiting because you won't get much out of it, but after seeing it, you should definitely look up what was there.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Dexter - Season 2

The second season of Dexter can't reach the emotional depth of the first, with all of the family revelations, but they still weave quite a web of interesting characters and surprising twists. There's another huge serial killer in town, but this time it's Dexter himself. His graveyard of victims underwater gets discovered by accident, and he has to do everything he can to keep himself in the clear. There's plenty of other subplots, like Dexter faking a heroin addiction to cover up his true secret and Deb trying to come out of her shell after what happened last season, and most of the supporting cast's roles are expanded and developed a bit. Whereas I found Doakes and La Guerta to be pretty non-essential obstacles the first time, much more is shown about their true character, and they actually become somewhat sympathetic.

The show's still really about Dexter, and he's still a really great character, funny and resourceful as he has a major identity crisis and learns more about his past. I thought the background stuff revealed near the end of the first run came a little early in the series, saying too much too soon. But they proved that there's still plenty about the character we don't know. I wasn't a huge fan of his waffling with his woman of choice, but Lila was a unique, interesting character. The end of the story arc resulted more from him being lucky than good, but that's part of Dexter's charm, he's a serial killer, but he has a sense of morality and can make human mistakes. He's become less cold as the show's gone on, and I'm interested to see what happens in his crazy life next.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Full Metal Panic? - Fumoffu

Fumoffu is pretty entertaining but not as good as the series proper. The serious military elements are dropped and the focus is on comedy, although there's still a fair bit of action, it just all happens with a goofy backdrop. Taken by itself, it's a little weird as a comedy, with Sousuke being his usual ultra-serious self, when normally the protagonist would have some other giant flaw like being too shy or an idiot. It works though, as the dynamic between him and Kaname is still pretty strong, as they slowly get closer despite his constant violent hijinks and her also-violent reactions.

Whereas the normal show has a strong continuity and basically one long story arc, Fumoffu is just a series of random events, which makes sense since it was adapted from some short stories instead of novels. They are fairly hit and miss, but there are some really entertaining moments. Sometimes Souksuke's misunderstandings get tiring, and I'm really not a fan of the whole Bonta-kun thing, but there are some funny episodes and surprisingly well-animated, goofy action sequences, like a race to retrieve Kaname's notes before class starts. For what it is, a simple comedy, it works pretty well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Best Albums of 2007

I'm not really satisfied with this list. I listed to quite a bit of good music this year, but most if it was released previously. All told, I only picked up six albums from 2007, but at least they were all listenable. Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree was decent, but not nearly as good as their earlier work.

Best of 2007

5. Between the Buried and Me - Colors

A solid metal album that grabbed my attention by branching off into different genres at various points, it was a little long but still managed to hold my interest. They're pretty solid musically and know how to do a variety of things.

4. Coheed and Cambria - No World for Tomorrow

The finale of the concept storyline that has now spanned four albums, the lyrics are obtuse as ever but they still make an enjoyable hybrid of pop punk and harder elements. If you can get past the voice and maybe swallow your pride if you think you hate emo (which it isn't), there's a lot to like.

3. The Good, The Bad, & The Queen

I'm still unclear about whether this is the actual name of the band or not, but it's basically Gorillaz with acoustic instruments instead of electronic ones. Some of the songs are kind of similar but there's a lot of good stuff to be found.

2. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam

A unique and satisfying album even if it's a bit sparse in parts. The highs are pretty high, and the lows are never too low. They know exactly what they're doing, giving each song just enough to be whole while a feeling of emptiness still exists.

1. Radiohead - In Rainbows

A somewhat strange album, filled with clashing instrumentation, moods, and themes. It was nice to hear some new Radiohead music that didn't seem strange for its own sake. Some of their best work in a while, at least from my perspective.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Best Movies of 2007

It was a decent year for movies, with plenty of good ones, if maybe none that truly astounded me. In particular, it was a good year for Judd Apatow. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Hot Fuzz were both very humorous pokes at certain genres of film. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters and Futurama: Bender's Big Score were both enjoyable extensions of good cartoon series. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the second out of the five Potter films I actually considered good. Instead of mixing in normal images I'll add DVD covers as they come out.

Best of 2007

8. Grindhouse

Grindhouse turned out to be a flop, which is a shame, as it was a very entertaining diversion from the normal theater experience. Its two parts were different yet the same, capitalizing on the ridiculousness and sleaziness of a certain kind of movie that you don't see as much anymore. I liked Planet Terror a bit more, but had fun throughout.

7. 300

This is mostly a special achievement award for its awesome visual style, but 300 was a good time. As an actual film, it wasn't as great as most people seem to think, but it was still very entertaining, with tremendous action scenes (even if that was mostly just interesting use of slow motion) and a simple story that's still pretty effective. Best use of burly, bearded men in 2007.

6. I Am Legend

The way the ending was changed to better fit the Hollywood mold is a bit lame, but I still thought it was an underrated, unique sort of blockbuster, with a tremendous performance by Will Smith and and atmosphere that stuck with me longer than most movies of the sort. Still annoyed by the rampant CG and some plot holes, but I can't help liking it a lot.

4. Knocked Up/Superbad (tie)

In the end, I couldn't choose between Judd Apatow's two comedy giants. They're really two sides of the same coin, both vulgar and hilarious, both about different aspects of growing up. Gun to my head, I probably pick Knocked Up since it was a little more consistent, but there's too much good stuff in Superbad to go against it when I don't have to. It's my stupid blog that no one reads, I can do what I want.

3. The Bourne Ultimatum

Best action movie I've seen in a while. The fact they were able to keep the tension so absurdly high without resorting to the typical tropes of the genre is impressive, as Damon continues to solidify as one of the best actors of his generation. The climax of the movie wraps up the trilogy in a neat bow, but there's still an opportunity to keep it going, and I hope they do.

2. No Country for Old Men

Funny, exciting, but ultimately bleak and depressing, I appreciate it more than I actually like it. I love the Coen brothers, and this is perhaps their best made film, but I can't quite say I want to see it again anytime soon. It might just be a subconscious mental backlash, because I know I enjoyed it while I was watching it. It takes some strange turns at the end, which could have also had an effect. In any case, if you haven't seen it, you should, even if it's just because Javier Bardem is one of the best villains ever.

1. Juno

I'm glad I saw Juno, because as good as No Country was, I didn't really want to call it my movie of the year. Juno is about as funny as anything else this year, and has a huge heart as well. Sometimes, you can't quite describe why you thought a movie was great, you just get a nice feeling in your chest that doesn't go away until long after you've left the theater. Juno was like that. The music still annoys me, but everything else was pitch perfect.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Best Games of 2007

It was a banner year for video games, and I didn't even get to play some of the biggest ones, like Halo 3, Mass Effect, and Super Mario Galaxy. I liked The Darkness, but it doesn't quite stand up with the year's other great shooters, and had fun with Ninja Gaiden Sigma, but haven't got around to finishing it since I don't find challenge for its own sake particularly compelling. Sam and Max's first season of episodic adventures was also a pretty good time. I decided to only list a game as multi-platform if I played it on console and it's available on more than one. Don't ask me why. Luckily, that's consistent with last year's list.

Best of 2007

7. Assassin's Creed (Multi)

It got a lot of flack for not reaching its potential, but its potential was so absurdly high that I can't fault it that much for it. I expect a lot more from the obvious sequel, but I thought Assassin's Creed was a great start for a potentially tremendous series, with excellent core mechanics, a wonderful feel, and a very intriguing storyline, even if the normal missions were as repetitive as hell. It seems a little rushed and empty at times, but I still had quite a good time running through the cities and eviscerating unwitting guards like a parkour ninja.

6. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (PS3)

Another first installment of a series with a possibly great future. It dips its toe in the pool of frustration once in a while, but never dives in like the Jak franchise did. It doesn't particularly excel in any one area, but it's a good jack-of-all-trades kind of game; fun shooting, fun traversal (although it can't match Creed's smoothness), great graphics and sound, excellently presented and fairly interesting storyline. If they can just add some depth to the puzzle elements and keep the environments fresh, Uncharted 2 should be fantastic.

5. God of War II (PS2)

Perhaps the last great game of its generation, God of War II helped it go out with a bang. Based on the fact that the PS2 is still selling, we're going to be seeing things like Persona 3 and enjoyable ports once in a while, but I still see this as the last stand. It looks pretty terrific for a PS2 game, hitting you right in the beginning with the absurdly epic battle against the Colossus of Rhodes. It gets bigger from there, as they keep what was great about the first game, mixing easy-to-use but entertaining combat with functional puzzles and platforming, while evening out the pacing a bit to keep it fun throughout. Of course, they set up the sequel at the end, leaving fans to wonder how incredible the next game will be on PS3.

4. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Multi)

I don't have as much perspective on this as the other games since it was the last thing I finished, but I can still see it was a step forward for first-person shooters, maybe not reinventing the wheel but making it a damn smooth ride. I played the first couple games on PC, but as the series has transitioned to be more console focused, it's still just as gripping and entertaining. Probably the best pure shooting-things game of the year.

3. Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (PS3)

This is a pretty personal choice, as Tools of Destruction didn't do much to push gaming forward, it's merely another great entry in one of my favorite series. It had been some time since the last true game was released, but I settled right into the Ratchet groove as soon as the game started, running around, blowing up everything in sight, enjoying the various diversions, collecting experience, and just having a fun time. The ending left you hanging, but you don't mind too much when you can jump into challenge mode and keep going after all the hidden extras.

2. Bioshock (360)

The best game story of the year, and not just because of the content, but because of how well they use the medium itself to tell it, defying expectations and keeping you immersed in a pretty incredibly designed experience. Big Daddies are still awesome, mixing tonics and plasmids is still good experimental fun, and the encounter with Andrew Ryan is still one of gaming's best moments ever. The gameplay is still stuck somewhere between real shooting and a rich first person RPG experience, but gameplay was the least important aspect as far as I was concerned.

1. The Orange Box (PC)

I wasn't sure at first whether to count this, as it sort of seems like cheating. I didn't review it as a single package. After all, it's not one game, it's five, two of which I've already played before. But even without the old content, I still got more fun out of it than anything else this year. Episode Two is an excellent continuation of my favorite FPS series, Portal is a brilliant, hilarious, brain-twisting experience, and Team Fortress 2 is the most fun I've had playing online since Battlefield 2. It's kind of a cop out, but The Orange Box is the best gaming value you can get for normal retail price this year.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Infinity Ward returns to the franchise they created and brings it into the present with its best entry yet. The gameplay is a little tweaked and improved, but it isn't any leap forward there that makes it easily my favorite in the series, it's all about the presentation. Previous games were more or less historically based since they took place during World War II, so there was little room for them to surprise you in any meaningful way. But this one has its own storyline, one that manages to be more interesting and emotionally affecting than I've ever expected a war shooter to be. There are plot twists and tense cinematic moments, including a sequence at the end of the first act that left me feeling completely drained and in awe. They do a lot more to mix up your objectives, and while there's still plenty of the same sort of huge battles the series is known for, there are also some very fun quieter moments, like playing as a sniper on a covert mission in a flashback level.

Part of why it was so successful is it looks and sounds so good. I'm not obsessed with graphics, but I disagree with anyone who says they're not important. I can enjoy a game with bad graphics just fine if it's fun, but if it looks amazing, there's simply more they can do with it. The parts of Call of Duty 4 I love best simply couldn't be pulled off in the first game's engine. You still see some tired video game stuff like glowing outlines of where to place your explosives, but in general it's an extremely immersive and fun shooter. The gunplay isn't really much better than the field's, but it feels solid and works just fine. Your abilities are a little expanded, with a nice knife melee attack, quick access to multiple grenade types, and even the use of air support in some levels. I haven't played too much multiplayer, but it seems pretty cool, and I like the idea of leveling up as you keep playing. It's a little disappointing to learn that Treyarch is taking the fifth game back to World War II, but we'll see how that turns out.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Full Metal Panic! - Season 1

Full Metal Panic's first season is an unusual blending of two of anime's most common genres; romantic comedy and giant robots. I wouldn't call it the best of both worlds, since some of the pitfalls of both show up sometimes, but it's still an interesting mix and a very enjoyable show. The primary focus of the season is the action though, with the comedy aspect being mostly a subplot. Sousuke is a former child solider who's been recruited by a mercenary group to defend the world from terrorists. On a mission, he has to go undercover in a high school to protect Kaname, an apparently important girl. They quickly develop feelings for each other, but since this is an anime, their relationship is more of a series of blunders and misunderstandings than anything real. As the show goes on, they continue to butt heads as they encounter troubles that usually lead back to one man, Gauron, the season's villain. Their's a suitably dramatic and tense finale that wraps up the arc while leaving the door open for more adventures.

The show looks decent, not great, but not bad. Once in a while there will be a 3D-rendered vehicle, but most of the time everything is hand drawn and well designed. The animation is decent if rarely truly eye-catching. Despite a couple filler episodes that break the flow for a bit, the pacing is decent as the stakes are ratcheted up as it goes on. The comedy is pretty typical and not that unique, but it's never painful or boring. The characters are well developed and you get attached to the important ones, and you find yourself rooting for the guy and the girl to get together even though you know it's going to take forever if it even happens. The next season is more of a side-story that's purely comedic stylistically, so it will be interesting to see if they maintain the enjoyability without robots blowing each other up.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Only Yesterday

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

It seems like most Studio Ghibli films not directed by Miyazaki don't have much of a plot. Only Yesterday was quite slow, although not really boring. It had a good amount of humor, and it was done well enough as a movie that it remained at least tolerable throughout. There is a story in there, but it's not traditionally told, as it jumps back and forth between Taeko's youth and adulthood, using the flashbacks to fill in her character and show how she's changed since then. Most of the actual action in the story takes place during the credits, so it definitely took a while getting there.

Stylistically, it looks like most Ghibli output, simple, not flashy, but still attractive and fluidly animated. It's not overly exaggerated but the faces are simplified to convey emotion in a very obvious way. The scene where they're eating pineapple is a good example of this, Taeko's movements are subtle but you can clearly see her masked unhappiness that it didn't taste as good as she wanted.

It explores the themes of growing up and the connecting we always feel to our past self. Taeko was always a little odd as a character and needed some pushing to go after what she wanted, and in the end she uses the help of her memories to get herself to where she wants to be. I found the whole sequence to be very touching and handled perfectly, a good ending to a good movie, even if it was a little too long.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Uncharted is a great showcase of what the PS3 hardware can do and the beginning of a potentially great franchise. As is common with Naughty Dog's games, the difficulty can be a bit uneven, but it's still a really fun game. There are two main aspects to Uncharted's gameplay, the shooting and the platforming. The shooting plays a lot like Gears of War, with the perspective over the shoulder while aiming and a very similar cover system. You're a little more helpless though, being a basically normal guy instead of an armored space marine, and you can only carry a few clips worth of ammo for whatever weapons you happen to be carrying. Most fights are pretty manageable, but a few are a little too tough - enemies are pretty good about using cover and surrounding you, and sometimes things seem a little stacked in their favor. You're rarely at a loss though, because the controls are nice and fluid. The aiming works well, and you can usually maneuver pretty well, although once in a while you'll stick to a wall you didn't want to instead of rolling. The platforming is like the recent Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider games, and it's nicely responsive and fun, although Nate seems a little too nimble climbing walls and those sections rarely provide much challenge. The infrequent puzzles are the same way - the focus testers must have been pretty clueless if the developers thought they had to basically spell out all the solutions in Drake's diary.

While there are a few missteps in the game, it's biggest strong point is probably presentation, in all aspects. The graphics are pretty amazing. The environments range from dense jungle to dank caverns to ruins of man-made structures, and all are very impressively rendered and interesting to look at. The characters all look great and animate pretty well. Once in a while something Nate does will look pretty janky, but in general his smoothness between animations is commendable. The music is a great, unique orchestral score, everything sounds the way it should, and voice acting is consistently good. They're usually part of the expertly handled cut scenes that make the rather standard video game story play out in an entertaining way. It feels like an old pulp adventure, and it's as close as I've seen a game come to being as believably presented as a movie. Everything wraps up in a satisfying way while leaving enough of a hint to assure fans that a sequel is on the horizon.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Wire - Season 4

The fourth season continues the brilliant "visual novel" in fine fashion. A lot of people have called it the best yet, and I'm not sure I agree, although it certainly fits in fine with the rest of the series. The new topic of interest this time around is the education system, specifically the sorry state of the inner city public schools. There are many kids in bad situations, either raised in uncaring group homes or already forced to make a living selling drugs on the streets. You have to feel for them as they have no hope of ever really having a good life. Not that the good guys aren't trying, with former police characters now becoming teachers and working on a new program for the most disruptive kids. Carcetti continues his quest to be mayor, and we see more of the crap that happens when politicians take the gloves off.

The heart of the show is really still the conflict between dealers and cops, although for much of the season the unit that's been so good at catching the big names is hamstrung by a terrible lieutenant and the main characters are working other positions. Season four continues the tradition of great writing and acting the series is known for, and by this point there's really not much new I can say about the show, just that if interested, you should start at the beginning and work forward from there. The emotional investment you get is so much greater when you watch the characters develop and make decisions for such a long time, and deaths, even of somewhat ancillary characters, are truly powerful, tragic moments. The fifth and last season just started, and I expect great things of it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Halo 2

Halo 2 is basically a repeat of the first game; a fun, solid, but probably a little overrated shooter, which fixes some of the original's problems but has some of its own. It seems like there's a step backward for every step forward. You now have the ability to dual wield certain weapons, but doing so prevents you from using melee attacks without dropping the second gun or grenades or grenades at all, limiting your diversity in combat. Dual wielding allows for some interesting new strategies and combinations, but overall most of the weapons are less effective that they were before. I liked messing up dudes with the energy sword, but I'm a little annoyed by the Covenant's insistence on their own technological superiority when all of their gear manages to both have finite ammo AND overheat rather quickly. The only thing that seems advanced about it is its impressive curvy and purple design. You can also play around with more vehicles, which are usually pretty fun, although those sections tend to be a little easy.

My biggest complaint about the first game was the tedious, repetitive level design, and they made good strides forward correcting that, with some interesting structures and well-put together set pieces. It tended to limit the scope of some levels, and especially later on it feels a bit like a boring old corridor shooter instead of having the interesting depth of a large, wide-open war zone, and they couldn't seem to help repeating the same level pieces over and over once you get deeper into the new Halo installation, but I thought they did a decent job overall. They elaborate much more on the story, showing things from the Covenant's point of view, and you actually spend a significant amount of time playing as one of them instead of the Chief, though there isn't much difference in gameplay besides the interesting cloaking ability and increased difficulty in discerning friend from foe. Most people hated the cliffhanger ending, and I can definitely see why, as it seems like they're setting up the last mission instead of the sequel, but I knew that was coming so I wasn't bothered. A huge part of Halo's love comes from the multiplayer. I've spent some time with it in the past, and it's enjoyable, I just never like playing deathmatches as much as other people do. Halo's not as fresh as its prequel was for the genre but it's still a good entry in it.

Monday, January 7, 2008


Part clever indie teen comedy, part real drama about pregancy and love, Juno is a great movie. The script is really pretty terrific, and almost the whole cast carries it well. Some of the lines can seem a little strange or out of place, but it's not another Napoleon Dynamite, it's a smart, funny movie with a good heart. Ellen Page is very good as the titular Juno, a not-quite-so normal teenager who finds out she's been impregnated by awkward classmate Paulie Bleeker, played well by Michael Cera. I'm not sure if his character was actually supposed to be strange or not, but it seemed to work with the movie. Juno eventually decides to give the kid up for adoption and finds a nice couple, but things might not be quite what she thought.

Some people would get turned off by the whole quirky vibe, but it didn't bother me. The only aspect I didn't like was the soundtrack, full of poorly played music that wasn't that bad, it just didn't seem to add anything at all. It's very funny throughout, with good dialogue that never gets uncreative or resorts to childish jokes. As the plot actually develops, it gets pretty interesting, as you actually feel for the characters and when they mess up, you actually have feelings about it. The entire cast does a great job with it, and the conclusion comes a little fast but worked for me. I expected to probably like this movie, maybe not that much, but I came out really loving it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Flight of the Conchords - Season 1

Flight of the Conchords is a delightfully quirky little comedy about a two man band with the same title from New Zealand. In between guitarist Bret constantly quitting, bassist Jemaine's failures with women, and their meetings with fellow Kiwi and band manager Murray, the show is sprinkled with music videos made by the band that fit the story, many of the songs coming from their stand-up work in real life. They only have one slightly-crazed fan, and constantly have to deal with internal problems and outside interference as they try to hit it big in New York City.

It's a simple show, as the subject matter is usually pretty mundane. There's plenty of humor in the more outlandish musical segments, but a lot of laughs just come from the simple interactions of the two friends with each other and those around them. I have to admit a small part of it is just their odd accents. They perform in a variety of styles, and there are plenty of recognizable guests like Will Forte and Demetri Martin. Some highlights of the first season are the mock children's show, "Albi the Racist Dragon"; Bret's recurring dreams about David Bowie, who happens to look a lot like Jemaine; a Lord of the Rings tribute song (whenever they mention their nation of origin to someone they meet, no one can think of anything to comment on besides the fact that the movies were filmed there); and the whole episode where Murray and Jemaine think Bret's completely harmless girlfriend is trying to break up the band like Yoko Ono. While the plot is usually pretty bare, there's actually some interesting continuity and a perceivable arc to the season, and I'd like to see what they can come up with in a second go around.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


Yakuza isn't an amazing, huge game. It's a solid, somewhat quirky one. But we need those too. It's a strange mix of beat-em-up and RPGs. What I might like most about it is its charm, not from a content sense, since it's a crime story filled with violence and sometimes gratuitous swearing, but just a gameplay sense. The button-mashing combat, the leveling up, the text boxes, the loading between fighting and normal play, the little shops full of items; they're all almost nostalgic in this modern world of minimalist interfaces and streamlined menus. It's a throwback to the old days.

It's a pretty enjoyable throwback too, most of the time. Besides the storyline, there are dozens of sidequests and other activities everywhere in the little area of Tokyo they lit you run around in, and you can ignore the main game for long stretched if you don't feel like dealing with it. The combat has some interesting wrinkles to it, especially if you seek out training to learn some new moves. It's usually pretty straightforward, but there are lots of items sprinkled about and techniques that are useful in various situations. It starts getting pretty frustrating near the end, when you start getting attacked by a certain type of enemy that tends to dodge everything and hit you with ridiculous spinning kicks and you get ganged up on, all culminating with an annoying boss who actually has bodyguards that revive themselves shortly after being beaten. But as long as you don't do what I did once and accidentally get into an unwinnable (almost no health against 4 guys with knives, one of whom can't be forced to drop his) fight that forced me to quit and lose an hour's progress, it shouldn't be too bad.

The story itself is pretty interesting. I wish they included the original voice track, because as fun as it is to hear Michael Madsen and Mark Hamill try to play Japanese characters, I was annoyed by the common overacting and inconsistent pronunciation. But it's still a good mob story, with plenty of twists, mysteries, and likable characters. The gameplay throughout is a constant repeat of running to the next fight besides a diversion or too, but wanting to know what was up kept me going. It got a little silly at the end, with some clichés, pointless extending of the climax, and a nearly interminable ending, but overall it encapsulated a pretty fun game well.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Ween - Pure Guava

Ween's album preceding Chocolate and Cheese, and while that one was hard to pin down to a genre besides the general retro vibe, Pure Guava's a little more cohesive - at least in the sense that it's all drugged out, bizarre alternative pop. There is a lot of vocal distortion to both ends of the spectrum - deep and high. Plenty of the songs are simple, one trick throwaways, although they usually have something going for them that makes them a little more compelling than similar tracks on Chocolate and Cheese. There's really not that much separating them though, they all fit into Ween's unique sensibilities. They're so over-the-top non-serious that it actually becomes a kind of seriousness - the Ween brothers are dedicated to their craft of guitars, drum machines, and non-sequitur.

It's actually more difficult to find vocals that aren't played with in some way than ones that are - they don't seem to be content unless something's abnormal. An exception is "Don't Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy)", my favorite song thus far by the band. It's an almost standard rock song just from a musical standpoint, but the chorus is perfect; a little disturbing, yet also very catchy. When the instruments drop out in the climax and a wonderfully creepy-sounding group belts out the refrain, it's a transcendent moments. There's plenty of other good stuff to go around though, as every song seems likable in some way. One of the two parts of "I Play It Off Legit" is literally phoned-in the entire time. "Push th' Little Daisies" is one of the weirdest singles to ever get radio time. "Mourning Glory" is a great experimental track, with shouted, often nonsensical lyrics and music made entirely of distorted feedback. I wish it were a little more structured, because it could have been legitimately catchy, but the imperfection is part of its charm. It's definitely not a band I'd recommend to anyone, but if you have any taste at all for something enjoyable that doesn't take itself too seriously, Pure Guava's pretty good.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Between the Buried and Me - Colors

Colors is a pretty good metal album, although I like it much more for its non-metal aspects. I'm not sure if that's just me growing out of the genre a bit, but I definitely find more enjoyment in say, Opeth's music, and I think it's probably just Between the Buried and Me not being as good. This was a pretty well received album though, and there is a lot of good about it. All the way through, I find Colors ever so slightly boring, except for many moments throughout that are particularly grabbing and keep it enjoyable. Usually these moments are when they depart from growling and crunching noise. The problem is that it's just moments, rarely lasting longer than a nicely sung chorus (Why do so many of these hardcore throat-shredders have good singing voices, and why don't they use them more?) or good guitar solo, and it's hard to make a great album when none of your songs can be described as entirely awesome.

The album begins in epic fashion, with "Foam Born (A) The Backtrack". A piano and single voice play pleasantly, there is a pause, and then THE METAL comes in, with a choir of the same guy still vocalizing pleasantly accompanying the rapid drumming and wall of noise. It breaks down into some gravelly speak-singing and devious sounding guitars, segueing into part B of Foam Born, "The Decade of Statues" begins, and gets into what the band really sounds like. I kind of lose focus until "Informal Gluttony" begins with an interesting, slow-paced, extended intro, and also features a good refrain, my favorite bit of singing on the record. "Sun of Nothing" is the first of a few behemoths that clock in at over ten minutes, and has several interesting interludes, featuring various clashing musical styles. What's interesting is how the various tracks seamlessly flow into each other, and while that can make it seem at first like the songs sound too similar, it tends to work in the album's favor, as no one sound lasts too long. "Prequel to the Sequel" seems like a more traditional, aggressive metal tune, and after a nice but forgettable breather track, "White Walls" finishes the album up. The high pitched, squealing guitars at the end serve as a suitable climax for a good, but not great effort.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam

I'm not really happy with the way I've been reviewing music. In case you haven't noticed, I've been following a pretty stilted formula consisting of one paragraph of generalizations and then a second pointing out interesting aspects of a few different songs. The problem is I just don't really know how to talk about music like other forms of media. What I like about a song or album is just harder to put into words than the story of a movie or feel of a game. But I'll make it a belated New Year's Resolution to try to not be so lame when discussing music.

My enjoyment of Animal Collective is as good an example as any of my tastes shifting towards anything out of the ordinary. If your band is musically competent, has some catchy hooks, and sounds pretty different from everything else, I'll probably like it. Not much on Strawberry Jam sounds at all like traditional rock, the genre of music I associate myself with liking, but it still seems to fit well into the muddled pastiche my collection now is. From the moment the word "bonefish" is uttered and a cavalcade of electronic squeaking bursts forth and slowly evolves into a nice, repeating groove at the beginning of "Peacebone" till the syncopated drumming and formless singing at the end of "Derek", the albums has its ups and downs but still has tons of great moments and sounds that etch themselves totally in your memory. There's only nine songs and a few too many are a little boring, but several are really tremendous, and the freshest I've heard in a long time.

The aforementioned "Peacebone" is the perfect single, seeing as how it enticed me to buy the album without hearing anything else on it. After it settles, it's a nice, catchy song with good singing, especially the periodic falsetto in the chorus, and it has a great interlude as Avey Tare shrieks along. I wouldn't really know since I haven't heard what else they can sound like, but I read it's sort of Avey's album, and I can see it, as his voice is always the centerpiece of the song, accompanied by some unique music built around it. "For Reverend Green" is another great example of this, with the interrupted-distortion sound and vocalizing going on. "#1" is a pretty creepy song with the wavering vocals and keyboard bloops. You know, this is really the same kind of review anyway, despite my efforts. At least it seems less stupid while I'm writing it. "Cuckoo Cuckoo" is really good too. None of the other tracks are bad, they just didn't grab me in the same way as the ones I mentioned. As life goes on and I continue to move away from normal hard rock and towards this weird stuff, I hope there are more bands out there as willing to experiment as Animal Collective.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

Welcoming the new year with one of my favorite bands. Although they made this album before they became what I really like.

It's not as good as some of their later stuff, but Trail of Dead's self-titled debut is still a pretty solid album. An influence that I really didn't expect to see was Sonic Youth, but it seems like it's there. You could have told me portions of it were B-Sides from Daydream Nation and I'd probably believe you. But while I found problems with that album's sprawling nature, this was more compact as an experience. There is a song that's over eight minutes, but it never gets boring. This was back when they were most famous for their chaotic live shows, and obviously you don't really get that on a studio album. But it's still pretty solid hard rock. You can see some signs of the band they'll eventually turn into, and some legitimately entertaining moments.

"Richter Scale Madness" starts with some random noises before a catchy, Daydream-esque song begins. "Novena Without Faith" is the long one, mixing distant, whispered vocals with a good melody that rises and falls in intensity. "Half of What" has a nice, driving beat. The closing song, "When We Begin to Steal..." is another good mix of wandering softness and imprecise, passionate loudness, and brings it to a close. I really don't have much else to say about it, other than it's a nice album that shows the beginnings of a good band.