Friday, February 29, 2008

Tekkon Kinkreet

You'd think a day that only comes once every four years would feel a little more apocalyptic.

Anyway, Tekkon Kinkreet is an anime notable for its innovative camera techniques and Americans involved with the production. Michael Arias worked on The Animatrix, and directed this film. Sometimes you see cooperation between Japanese and American studios, but putting foreigners in charge of a film is rare. If Arias is responsible for some of Tekkon's more creative compositions, then maybe they should try it more often.

I don't personally find Tekkon's art very appealing, and the animation itself is less than smooth at times, but the film visually makes up for it with imaginative background designs, flashy style during action sequences, and liberal use of faked real-life camera techniques to make it feel more real than most animation ever does. Handheld shakiness, changing focus, and uncommon framing give it a special flare worth watching. Regardless of the content, it should be seen by anyone with an appreciation for animation techniques.

Speaking of content, I felt a little mixed on that front. Some of the characters are interesting, there are a few genuinely memorable scenes, and the action parts drip with coolness. It's visually unique and sometimes funny, but in general it seems just a little bit boring. It probably would have benefited greatly from 20 minutes or so getting cut. The pacing is just off; nothing in Tekkon feels particularly bad, it just takes too long getting places and it's a little unfocused. Maybe the subplot about the yakuza with a pregnant girlfriend getting dropped would have helped. It wasn't bad, it just stretched everything out. A little more focus on the relationship between Black and White and an actual confrontation with the villain would have made it stronger. I did enjoy it, but it was mostly because the style was so strong, not the substance.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Paranoia Agent

Satoshi Kon is known for his unique style and often bizarre storylines, and Paranoia Agent was an outlet for him to explore some of his ideas that didn't fit into his other films. Most episodes are capable of being viewed on their own, although things make more sense if the series is viewed in order, and more can be gotten out of it that way. The show is about several people, often seemingly unrelated, being injured in hit-and-run attacks by an unidentifed boy with a golden bat and rollerblades. These people are often in very stressful situations at the time, and sometimes seem even relieved to have been attacked. As the crimes continue, the gossip increases and the legend of Shounen Bat (or Lil' Slugger as he's called in the dub) grows.

I was honestly expecting something a little stranger than what it was. The show has its moments, plenty of disturbing or darkly funny ideas, but I expect a little more craziness from Kon by now. Several episodes are outstanding, my favorite being the one about three online friends who meet in real life to try to commit suicide, which happens to be the most tangentially related to the plot (although it is related). While it's not as great as it could have been, it's still an unusual, enjoyable show with pretty decent production values. They do a good job of paying attention to all the different characters while keeping the story going, and resolving it in the end. It's pretty short, but worth checking out.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks' first book was The Zombie Survival Guide, a clever take on all the self-help books out there with instructions on how to survive an attack by the undead. It's what got me to seriously think about zombies in the first place, and how I would deal with them. Obviously they're not real, but if they were, I have an idea of how to protect myself. That work can be found in the humor section of bookstores, but Brooks' next work is viewed as pretty much straight horror. It's a story of a zombie infestation that takes over the whole planet and lasts for years, told in an interesting way: all the little "chapters" are stories told by people who survived the war. It's set up like Brooks is interviewing the victims, and there are many different perspectives and personalities explored.

The book's not so much legitimately scary as it is just interesting. It's hard to worry about the characters when you know they survive by virtue of the fact they're talking about what happened. It doesn't really try to shock you, it's more of a cautionary tale trying to show what's wrong with the world. Most of the problems caused in the story are a result of improper and tardy response to a very real threat that was ignored, partly because of how silly it sounds. And zombies aren't the only thing to worry about, as the book often goes into how many other things can go wrong in a world turned upside down, like lack of resources, surviving in the wild during the harsh winter, and how people can just break down mentally in the face of such a bleak future. There are some legitimately creepy and entertaining anecdotes to be found, and the narration by several of the characters can be quite funny. There are some clever coincidences and inside jokes sprinkled throughout, and World War Z is generally a fun read. It's hard to go wrong with a planet full of zombies.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Apparat - Walls

And my journey away from normal rock music continues. Apparat is about as far away as possible, being a single German man with some keyboards and computers. The album is mostly instrumental, although he sings on a couple tracks, as does his countryman Raz Ohara. Apparat is generally electronic, although Walls features heavy use of (or at least digital recreations of) more classical instruments such as violins and pitched percussion like xylophones. The mix of all these different sounds and creativity evident within all the tracks make the whole experience a little better than the sum of its parts. I'm honestly not that huge a fan of the style, but most of the songs are just so entertaining that it's hard not to really like.

"Not a Number" isn't a standout like many opening tracks, but it's a solid warmup for what's to come. "Hailin' From the Edge" has a nice hip-hop vibe to it and catchy vocals from Ohara. "Limelight" has a unique feel to it. "Holdon" is another Ohara track and just as infectious as the first. "Arcadia" is one of only two to feature the man himself singing, and has a haunting beauty to it. "You Don't Know Me" is my favorite track, with its combination of all the best musical elements at his disposal. "Headup" is another good one with the different pace giving it something special. This soup broth is already cold.

Monday, February 25, 2008

This Will Destroy You - Young Mountain

This Will Destroy You's debut EP is pretty comparable to their subsequent self-titled full length, which I reviewed recently. It's shorter but still pretty long for an EP at about 40 minutes. They were doing the same thing then that they're still doing now, which means voiceless yet seemingly heartfelt post-rock building to distorted climaxes that often grab you much harder than most normal music does. The thing that jumps out the most about it are the weird song titles like "The World Is Our ___" and "Happiness: We're In This Together", but the tracks themselves do work their way into your good graces through the simple beauty of their musicianship. They continue to mix in piano and some electronic elements to good effect, adding layers of depth onto the production. It's another album that should be listened through, not skipped around in. I guess it's as good a starting point as any for the genre.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Prison Break - Season 2

Unlike the first run, season two of Prison Break doesn't feature much breaking out of prisons. What it does feature is lots of running, backstabbing, smarmy government agents, and a plot that's less a story and more an endless string of twists. It's still enjoyable, somewhat thrilling entertainment, although it's probably not healthy to watch 22 episodes in less than a week. You can start to lose touch with reality.

At the end of the first season, Michael, Lincoln, and some other inmates had broken out of jail, and were running for the hills. They pick up right where they left off, after introducing Mahone, an FBI agent who's pretty clever in his own right and played by Bill Fichtner, who you'll probably recognize from every movie ever made. Mahone works on tracking down all the escapees, but, huge shock, he's been ordered to kill them all instead of bringing them in. Seems he has a shady past of his own and is working to keep it under wraps. I'm all for Government conspiracies, but I don't really love how the show handles it. Instead of just covering their tracks, they seem to go out of their way to cause as much pain as possible. Last season, one of the threatening government guys had a pretty unique personality, and he was interesting. But pretty much everyone else in that position just has that annoying, untouchable smirk on his face that pisses me off when I see it.

The show also has some logic problems here and there. Almost all shows and movies exaggerate how quiet suppressed gunfire is; the sound is just limited in range, not completely silenced to a little burst of air. So when a character hears a shell casing landing on the ground instead of the gun itself firing, it really hurts the scene's believability. Some of the side characters are really tiring by this point, and someone has to tell the writers that seasons should end with either some sort of conclusion or a particularly shocking twist, not absolutely nothing happening. Despite the problems, I still like it and will keep watching.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mono - You Are There

Hey more instrumental post-rock. Mono is definitely comparable to This Will Destroy You, albeit with less experimentation and more hard moments. Mono focuses a little less on melody than similar acts and thrives on atmosphere and building up over long periods of time before unleashing with loud, cathartic climaxes. There's often not much complexity in the music itself, with repeated, simple instrumentation that is added to in intensity over time, and the actual composition becomes more intricate than the melody. It's an effective tactic if it doesn't end up boring you. The album has only six songs, four of which are over ten minutes, so it's not the place to look for catchy choruses. Without vocals or repeated hooks, it's hard to differentiate and recommend specific tracks, as everything blends together into one long experience lasting an hour. You pretty much know just from listening to something whether you'd be into the genre or not, and I find it a pleasant way to spend some time, especially when performing a task that would otherwise be boring. These guys certainly know how to create an interesting auditory experience. I just noticed the band is actually Japanese, which is interesting. Tastes really can transcend some boundaries.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Emery - I'm Only a Man

I'm Only a Man is a bit of a departure for Emery, as they continue to move away from their more hardcore roots and experiment with different styles. Upon first listen I didn't really like what I was hearing, but the album quickly grew on me after a couple more tries. It's not quite as far up my alley as their last record was when it came out, but almost every song had something positive going for it. The screaming is relegated to a much smaller role, but they're not exactly less passionate as a band, still bringing intensity to a lot of their songs. They no longer sound quite so unique, but I still see them as a cut above other bands of the same type.

"Rock-n-Rule" gets it started with a guitar line featuring an interesting twang to it, and has Emery's usual shifts between hard, soft, fast, slow, and every combination. "Party Song" is a single, and a decent one, although it's not as attention-grabbing as most of the other tracks. "After the Devil Beats His Wife" is one of the more ambitious songs on the album, featuring a bunch of great touches and ideas. "Can't Stop the Killer" is another good one, with an unforgettable bridge featuring a creepy, distorted speaking of the title. "Dont Bore Us, Get to the Chorus" is probably my favorite. It begins with an odd, repeating choir, and has plenty more gear changes, including a chorus with a heavy out-of-nowhere electronic component that still fits perfectly. It's followed immediately by "What Makes a Man a Man", slower but with a lot of passion and it's very simply quite enjoyable. "From Crib to Coffin" continues the tradition of excellent closing songs to Emery albums, and is over ten minutes of intriguing music if you include the lengthy computerized segment that it trails off with. Some fans didn't seem to receive the album well, and that makes me feel kind of sad.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Howl's Moving Castle

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

Howl's Moving Castle is another Miyazaki film and thus at least partially nostalgic and environmentally conscious in its nature. This film is actually less concerned with how we treat nature than how we treat ourselves. It's an antiwar film, showing the horrors that can happen when people fight senseless battles. The conflict with Sophie vacillating between youth and old age depending on her feelings toward Howl is a visual metaphor for one's state of mind. In the end, when she looks young but still has the silvered hair of old age, it represents a coming together of energy and wisdom.

Like most modern Ghibli output, it mixes hand drawn and computer animation in a very subtle way, and has that distinct look and feel of wonderment that makes them very naturally enjoyable. The environment is a little blander than some of Miyazaki's other work but the Castle itself and some of the characters are imaginative as ever. Sophie is another in a long line of young female protagonists in Miyazaki films and Howl is another in the line of supporting male counterparts. Their relationship doesn't have the normal twists and turns you might expect, but that's part of what makes it interesting. The supporting cast is a little more broadly drawn but does well to serve the needs of the story and some comic relief. It wasn't the best thing he's done but still quite above average.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I've seen this before, but had to write this for a class, which explains why it's a bit more analytical/spoiler-filled.

FLCL is a very strange straight-to-video series, though if you just ignore a lot of the more off the wall moments a more coherent narrative does emerge. The story is about Naota trying to grow up. He is in a shell at the beginning but gradually opens up through the influence of various females around him. Some boys try to teach him too, but usually fail. A lot of his trials involve various phallic symbols like bats, guitars, and guns. Sometimes they get pulled out of his head, and he has to use them to prove himself, usually impressing any girls who can see. Another motif is flavors. Naota's attitude changes over the course of the anime, and his choice in drink reflects his mood or who he's thinking about.

It's more or less sci-fi in the nostalgic mode, recalling a simpler time when we went to grade school and piloted robots that were transported from another dimension through our heads. There's a lot of dissonant animation and art styles, even a mimic of South Park, that add to the peculiar vibe of the story. Naota is a reluctant protagonist but becomes a hero in the end. The two most important secondary characters are Mamimi, who usually ends up causing trouble for him, Haruko, who is a little crazy but encourages him to be a better person. Most of the characters try to push him one way or another, but things usually turn out all right.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Battlestar Galactica - Season 3

I felt that the third season of one of the better shows on television was a bit of a step back, but it was still successful for the most part. The main problem was the descent of the mood. Battlestar has always been a bit heavier and more realistic than most science fiction, but it's always had a more playful side, with intriguing human interactions and big space battles. The large Cylon fleets are absent for most of this season, as a lot of the conflict comes from within; more supply problems, unhappy workers, and the trial of Gaius Baltar. The relationships shift from simply interesting to more depressingly melodramatic, and in general the mood of the show is just much bleaker.

Despite the stylistic shift, it's still a good show. While New Caprica was more of a small arc than a complete change in the way the series works, it was still very well done and had rippling effects throughout the season. A lot of characters faced major changes, and they definitely don't go without casualties. They really go deep with a few characters, and by this point they're some of the best there are. Starbuck's constant mind changes can get annoying, but her story is great and where it will go after that finale has me already waiting for the final season's premiere in a couple months.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Dune was written over forty years ago, but it still feels fairly relevant as far as science fiction goes. It's much more stately and intricately put together than most stuff that mimics it, and really is for its genre what The Lord of the Rings is for fantasy. It's an extraordinarily dense work, with tons of thought put into every detail and the plot sometimes moving at a glacial pace, but sticking with it results in a very rewarding, entertaining read. The attention to detail is obvious in the setting; when the novel you're reading has a glossary in the back, you know the author put a lot of time into crafting the world his characters inhabit.

The setting is interesting in its mix of old and new ideas. There's lots of forward thinking technology and sci-fi trappings to be found like interstellar travel, energy shields, and sophisticated equipment to make living on a desert planet possible. There's also combat mostly relying on blades and other old weaponry, and a ton of cultural influence taken from our Middle East. Arrakis is definitely not the average place for a story like this to take place; a desolate world of sand and caves instead of sterile space stations. One might have an idea where George Lucas got the idea for the jumping-off point of his famous trilogy. The story of Paul Atreides, his rise to power, and the people around him is an intriguing one, although the pacing seems like it could have used some work. It takes most of the story for him to finally come into his own and then the real conflict happens quite quickly. The ending also seemed to be one only in name, making the reader want to know what happened next, although it took Herbert four years to finish the next book. I'm not sure when I'll get around to tackling it, but I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Chevelle - Vena Sera

Although my tastes have generally moved past hard, angry rock, I still have a soft spot for Chevelle. They aren't that unique, but they've always come up with ear grabbing riffs and singing nicer than you usually find with that style. They peaked in the public eye a while ago but still managed to somewhat quietly release their fourth album last year, and it's a nice recovery after their last attempt seemed a little dry. Pretty much every song is enjoyable, and often features a nice mix of loud and soft. The lineup has changed a little, but they're still able to put out the same sort of music. None of their future work will ever affect me like Wonder What's Next did, but Vena Sera is still a solid listen.

Some of my favorite tracks are "Antisaint", "Sleep Walking Elite", and "Humanoid" for a mixture of melodic rocking and quality vocalizing. "Brainiac, "Saferwaters", and "I Get It" also have above-average rock chops worth listening to. As far as I know, "Well Enough Alone" is the single, and it does a pretty good job, competent musicianship and an anthemic chorus do a decent job of grabbing attention. Little about the album is truly outstanding, but it does exactly what it intends to do.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Grizzly Bear - Yellow House

Grizzly Bear might sound like the name of a metal band, but they're really folksy acoustic indie rock. If you ever watch Adult Swim, you'd probably recognize a few moments from some of their commercials, and that's sometimes a decent encapsulation of their sound - catchy songs that are friendly but often with a slightly strange atmosphere. They can sound very simple and at the same time have complex arrangements, with normal rock instruments, traditional sounds like flutes, and electronic additions. It's a little hard to describe what's appealing about Yellow House, but whatever it is, it's there.

"Easier" starts with some simple atmospherics, adds some piano, and then works its way into a plucked guitar melody and high pitched vocalization accompanying. Drums and other elements are thrown on top, and the sound rounds out into a fully developed, well-chosen first track. Subsequent songs develop in a similar fashion, all sounding cohesive and yet having enough of their own flavor to sustain themselves without ever dragging. There's often a lot of shifts in tempo and sound within single tracks, and the surplus of ideas is quite evident. The closer, "Colorado" lurches into the distance with a resonating, slow drum beat and piano part which segue into and a collection of different instruments and styles with a simple, repeated melancholy chorus of "What now?" Hopefully, the creation of another solid album.

Friday, February 15, 2008

This Will Destroy You

This is instrumental post-rock, which means long songs that take a while to develop and no attention-grabbing choruses. Some would probably find it boring, but I enjoy it quite a bit. I often like to read while listening to music, and some bands work better for this than others. This Will Destroy You's self-titled first full length album is great for it. Nearly every track is a slow burn, either building a melody to a chilling, hard crescendo or just letting it linger for several minutes. The band knows how to play their instruments, and there is great artistry and subtle beauty in the textures they weave. There has to be something that lets them hold a tune so simple for so long without boring me.

Besides the normal rock standards of guitar, drum, and bass, they also include some simple electronic elements in a few of the songs. Not much, maybe just a drum loop or something to add a little twist to the sound. I'm not too well versed in post-rock, but they've been compared favorably to elements of Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, two bands I know to be favorites of the genre. It's not exactly something to throw on at parties, but as a personal experience, it can be quite interesting. I won't point out favorite tracks, because they're all pretty consistent and entertaining. The real difference is whether they build to an epic climax or not, and I enjoy it when they do.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Battlestar Galactica - Season 2

The second season of Battlestar Galactica falls right into stride with the first season, providing entertaining and often exciting space-based drama and action. The show's greatest success might be how convincingly it pulls of the setting without it ever seeming cheesy. It's just a matter of fact. They strike a good balance between the battles against Cylon and the other troubles the fleet faces like resource troubles and political backstabbing, and romance is a much bigger part this season, and it's handled with a little less awkwardness than a lot of shows seem to end up with.

The special effects are always great, but the show's most interesting aspect is the plot, which always manages to add some new wrinkles when you don't expect it. I always seem to prefer shows that allow the status quo to change wildly without trying to keep everything the same all the time, and the show isn't afraid to skip forward in time or kill off some characters. The discovery of another Battlestar makes tides through the fleet, and the shift as we realize humans don't always see eye to eye is very nice. The political workings near the end lead to the show being turned on its ear unexpectedly in the finale, and I greatly look forward to jumping right into season three and seeing how this will turn out.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Spoon is a pretty stylish band that gets things done without that much effort. They're like a hipster easily coasting through life, knowing they don't have to try that hard to be good at what they do. The singer doesn't belt it out so much as he lets the words fall out of his mouth. Simple, catchy songs aren't exactly what I love, but it's an effective and enjoyable style. This isn't to say that it's lazy or anything, there's quite a bit of emotion and thought in some of these tracks, it just never sounds overproduced. While other bands like to add layers and layers of sound and texture, Spoon presents everything just about how they probably would at a live show.

I'm not sure it's my favorite, but definitely the most gripping song is "The Ghost of You Lingers." The music is just a simple jamming of piano keys, but there's a melody there, and the overlapping vocals create a mood unlike everything else on the record. It definitely sticks out. The first track, "Don't Make Me a Target" is the epitome of effortless cool, perfect for a movie that may or not be extremely pretentious. There's a bit fuller of a sound to "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and almost a retro feel with a nice beat. "Rhythm and Soul" has a good twinge to the guitar part and "The Underdog" has a good orchestration to it. The album's pretty consistent in sound, and fairly good casual listening.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


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

Like Perfect Blue, sometimes it's hard to tell what's real in Paprika and what isn't, although in this it's a part of the plot and not just a storytelling technique. The characters' abilities to enter each other's dreams makes for some entertaining scenes but also a chance to explore some deeper ideas. The surreal dreams are often a visual metaphor for what's happening to the characters. The detective sees himself blaming and killing himself, while he's been too hard on himself for not meeting his ambitions and some hard times at work. The chairman has the legs of a tree, wishing he was as strong as one while he's confined to a wheelchair in real life. When the dreams and reality merge, there's a clash as people face what they really want.

Chiba/Paprika is an interesting protagonist. The fact that she changes identities when in dreams, something unique to her, shows how she's hiding her true self, and her feelings for Tokita. Her affection for him, and not her handsome coworker, show were her priorities are, with the mind not the body, which may be why she's so skilled inside the minds of others. The rest of the Dramatis Personae is well defined by their actions and their dreams.

In addition to strong storytelling elements, Paprika is one of the best looking animated films I've seen. The animation is gorgeous and helps bring the interesting concept to life with amazing flair. It might be the masterpiece of a very talented director.

Monday, February 11, 2008

24 - Season 6

24's sixth and most recent season brings the same brand of entertainment, although there are some very noticeable chinks in the armor this time around. There are just some things characters do for the sake of drama that simply don't fit in a believable world, even one with someone as ridiculous as Jack Bauer running around. Semi-evil bureaucrats and politicians who mess things up for the reasonable people have always been a part of the show, but they're really getting over the top at this point. It's one thing when you kill an ex-President to cover up your conspiracy (although it's still horrifying), but killing the current President just to push through your racist anti-terror policy is insane. And the Vice-President, while played well by the always enjoyable Powers Boothe, is another nut, with his insistence on a nuclear retaliation with no real justification whatsoever other than adding conflict to the story. There is a newfound emphasis on romance subplots at CTU, which mostly come off more amateurish and high-school-level than they have before.

The people behind the scenes aren't the only ones to sigh about, as the people with guns make some strange choices as well. Jack has to turn against an ally, but the whole encounter seems contrived. A new arrival apparently has a shady past, but turns out to be a decent guy, and what actually happened is never even mentioned again, and with what happens it's unlikely he'll appear, so what the hell was the point of that angle in the first place? Why do the terrorists who infiltrate CTU kill the first person to identify themselves as Director, when they needed the real Director a few minutes later? And I'm sorry if it's a spoiler, but what the hell was Gredenko thinking? He had a signed immunity agreement, so why did he tell Fayed the truth, have him CUT HIS ARM OFF to disable the tracking device, and then betray him three minutes later anyway? Why did CTU give Fayed a gun with REAL BULLETS right after they tricked him using blanks? The show was still entertaining most of the way, but hopefully the change of scenery (Season 7 will be the first to mostly take place outside of LA) will do the writers some good. Too bad the strike delayed it by a year though.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

Darkplace is a brilliant, offbeat British comedy that couldn't make it past the initial run of six episodes due to low ratings, but since then gained a cult following and eventually made its way to Adult Swim's growing stable of live-action content. It's a show within a show, the premise being that fake schlock horror writer Marenghi and his publisher Dean Learner decided to make a show in the 80's on a shoestring budget. The action takes place in a hospital where many supernatural things happen, and all the mistakes and shortcuts are played up to great comedic effect. The special effects are obviously cheesy, the main character is always making typical hackneyed proclamations, and Learner is a horribly awkward supporting character.

Marenghi's a little full of himself, calling himself a visionary and a dreamweaver in the show's intro. They add little interview segments with the "actors" throughout the program, which add another dimension and plenty of opportunities for more jokes. A lot of the show is just laughing at intentional screw-ups, which can be a little obvious and cheap, but there's way more to it than that. There is plenty of genuinely good wordplay and subtle dialogue that show how smart the makers really are. I have a soft spot for English accents in comedy, and it can be a simple joy just to hear some Brits say funny things for a half hour. If you catch it on late at night, give it a watch.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Deus Ex

I got this and the sequel on Steam last summer, although it took me a while to really get into the game. It was difficult at first, because the game was released back in 2000 and now looks and plays pretty archaically. But if you can get past that, the design shows through as one of the most innovative and important first person shooters there are. Deus Ex was fusing action and role-play elements before it was cool. Choice is the essence of the game. There are so many ways you can go about each mission. You can run through the front door, guns blazing, or hack the security systems to fight on your side, or find a hidden entrance and sneak your way in. There are often situations that aren't that dangerous, where you can just explore and soak up the details of the interesting world, with NPC's who have things to say and useful information around every corner. You can shape the game to help out your style, as completing objectives and finding new things gives you skill points to improve your use of weapons and ability to interact, and you can find augmentation canisters that give you a choice of different abilities, like quick healing, super strength, or night vision. There's not enough in the world to have it all, so you have to decide. You can also find upgrades for augmentations or your weapons to beef them up.

It's not all perfect though. A downside of the skill system is that your accuracy is terrible in the beginning, forcing you to stand still for a few seconds if you want to have any chance to hit a distant enemy, which usually isn't that convenient. Putting too much into your weapon skills hamstrings your ability to do other things like pick locks, limiting where you can go. Luckily, you can get a weapon maybe halfway through that renders other weapons unnecessary, at least from a certain distance. It's a pretty long game, maybe a little too long. You can only infiltrate so many installations, killing the same enemies, before it gets a little tiring. This is exacerbated by the game, at least through Steam, not letting you continue at any point, so if you mess up, which is pretty easy to do, you have to load from your last manual save. It's still quite a good game though, with an interesting story about a government conspiracy, and continuing with the theme of choice, there are three different endings you can choose from. What it did paved the way for a lot of other games, and is appreciable for that if nothing else.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Burial - Untrue

I'm not a big listener of dubstep or anything close to it, and I only got this because of its wide critical acclaim. I wasn't disappointed, because as far as minimalist dance music you can't actually dance to goes, it's pretty enjoyable. The best thing about the album is the atmosphere. It's definitely meant to be listened to with headphones or in a car. Simple beats and well placed bass make up the backbone, while sparse but gripping, haunting ambient elements creep in and wrap the tunes into a sometimes off-putting, sometimes comforting cocoon. There are a lot of vocal elements, but they're all played with in some way, changed in pitch, interrupted, distorted, so that the normally beautiful singing turns into something different that only enhances the strangeness of the music.

There's a good flow to the album. Most tracks sound similar, but different enough to distinguish them while listening. It may be difficult to remember which one is which, but while it's playing through, every song has some unique element or hook that will make you think "Oh yeah, that's in this song. I like it." Variety isn't exactly the record's strength, although someone more into the style might see more to it, and it doesn't have to be. It's definitely not something I'd recommend individual songs from, it really should be listened to all the way through. Some of my favorite songs are "Archangel" for its vocal melody, "Etched Headplate" for the dissonance of the bass with the rest of the beat, "Shell of Light" for its relatively uplifting nature, "Homeless" for its awesomeness, but really every track has something making it worth listening too. Check it out if only for something different.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

24 - Season 5

Yay for the two hundredth post.

Season 5 embodies what 24 is as well as any other yet. Important characters start dropping like flies right from the outset, terrorists have captured special weapons to attack Los Angeles (again!), and some people in the government aren't as forthright as they should be. It starts with some missteps (again!) and just seems to be stretching itself out for the sake of its gimmick by the end (again!), but somewhere in the middle it hits that stride of highly entertaining action and political thrills.

There's not much new for me to say about 24. It's the same as it always was. Jack Bauer is a badass special agent who usually doesn't play by the rules. He tortures lots of people, and at some point, one is likely to be a supposed ally. He kills lots of bad guys, and at least a few per season are either too hilarious or too awesome to not rewind and watch again. By the end, the main bad guy, who has usually escaped four or five times by this point, is finally brought to justice, usually by Jack-related death. And something dramatic is likely to happen to him right before it ends. You either like the formula or you don't, and I happen to like it. There's always the chance it just gets too silly, and I've heard some bad things about the sixth season (although I like it so far), but what it is is a pretty enjoyable drama. What I like about it is how they have season-long story arcs (more rewarding than one-shot episodes) yet they're mostly self-contained (you can jump into the beginning of any season without problems, only missing why certain events with old characters are dramatic). It's a good time.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Prison Break - Season 1

Prison Break is a solid, entertaining thriller with a fairly good, complex story running through the whole way. I don't think it's saying too much that they break out at the end of the first season, considering they say as much with just a glance at the cover art of the second. After all, how long can you really stay in jail before the show gets boring? Michael is a genius engineer who gives up his normal life to save his falsely accused brother Lincoln from the electric chair, a job that is made easier by the fact that he happened to help design the place. He schemes and prepares before he purposefully gets caught attempting robbery to make his way in, and starts to working. That's not all it is though, as a big part of the show is the huge conspiracy that landed Lincoln on death row in the first place. While their friends on the outside try to prove his innocence, they get chased by government agents and men who work for the "Company" (real original there, guys), who will do anything to keep things quiet. Despite all the planning, pretty much everything that can go wrong does, and the brothers have to recruit several hardened criminals to their cause.

The show does a good job of ratcheting up the tension, carefully laying piece after piece of the puzzle into place as things go wrong and time starts running out. Despite the unsympathetic nature of many of the characters, they're all at least interesting in some way, even if it's just how really messed up they are. I honestly much prefer the prison break aspect to the conspiracy aspect, because they treat everything in the jail so deliberately and realistically while all the lies and backstabbing on the outside seem a little unbelievable in contrast. Also, Lincoln's son is a gigantic idiot. I don't understand half the things he does. I also don't like how they don't give the audience much credit for remembering plot details. I get the need to keep people who can't watch every week in the loop, but most of it can be followed without that much help, and when every somewhat-obscure scene is accompanied by a glaringly obvious flashback, it seems cheap and unrewarding for people who watch closely. Despite some minor issues, it's a very promising first run of an enjoyable show.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


As far as "true stories" go, Goodfellas' is a pretty entertaining one. A little too much of it is narrated, although I'm sure that was less of a complete cliché at the time. It's a winding tale of growing up as part of the mafia, and how instantly things can change or go wrong. Henry Hill grew up envying and eventually joining a family, although he was always on the outside because of his non-Italian blood. The biggest obstacle to his success is Tommy, a guy he came up with who's friendly with him but a little too insanely violent for his own good. Tommy's played expertly by Joe Pesci, who won an Oscar for his efforts. I've seen better acting, but his embodiment of the roll is complete and there are tons of legendary scenes showcasing the real-life personality. Ray Liotta and Bob De Niro are also very good with their parts, more level-headed counterparts to Pesci and apparently very true to the people they mimicked.

I recognized several actors from the little I've seen of The Sopranos, including the therapist, played by Lorraine Bracco, who is also very good as Hill's wife, innocent at first but drawn into the world of crime. The movie as as much about Hill's home life as his work, and the development of their relationship along with his advancement in the ranks make an interesting story. This is one of the multiple occasions where many believe Martin Scorsese was robbed of the Best Director Oscar, which he eventually won with my 2006 movie of the year The Departed, and I can definitely see their argument. The construction of each scene is excellent, with some really great extended shots fleshing out the realistic vibe. There's also artistic handling of key moments, like the subtle perspective shift in an important diner scene late in the film I might not have noticed were it not point out to me, and the whole cast does great work for him. I really should have seen it sooner, but it's never too late to watch a good film.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles

Last year I called Oblivion my favorite game of 2006, and that opinion sticks. Good points can be made about the generic fantasy setting, reduced depth compared to Morrowind, and some promises less than completely fulfilled, like the new AI which had some silly problems. But I still enjoyed the hell out of it for a long time, and continued to do so long after I wrote that. Pretty recently I added a whole bunch of content, including most of the add-ons, the enjoyable Knights of the Nine quest line, scads of user-created stuff, and the expansion released last year, Shivering Isles. It all adds to an already huge game, and Isles in particular revitalized my interest in the game and its history.

Shivering Isles doesn't do that much to improve gameplay, there is some interesting additional weapons and magic, but it plays largely the same. What's great about it is how it steps up the enjoyability of the atmosphere. If you get into it, the Elder Scrolls series has some interesting lore and really intricate detail to it, although that's somewhat obscured by the blandness of Cyrodill, the province of Tamriel Oblivion mostly takes place in. That's not a problem with the expansion, which ships you over to the realm of Sheogorath, one of the other Daedric princes, who happens to be completely insane. Instead of lush hills and deciduous forests, the landscape is peppered with gigantic plants and mushrooms and all sorts of winding paths. Every resident is almost as crazy as Sheogorath in their own, unique way, and in contrast to Oblivion's pervasive seriousness, Shivering Isles is genuinely funny. It's always fun to meet new people and discover exactly what psychosis is bothering them that day. Sheogorath is the star attraction, and as far as talking heads that serve only to give you your next quest go, he's one of the most entertaining to listen to.

There's improvement in the amount of choice you have, too. Many quests in Oblivion gave you some choice about which way to go with a certain dilemma and the consequences varied, but those were mostly isolated incidents. There are a few choices you have in Isles that have real resonance with how the rest of the entire game plays out. It's still mostly the same, but it's different enough that your decisions seem to have an actual impact. In addition to all these design improvements, it's still an entertaining, rewarding RPG, and my only real complaint is that too many of the side quests are really just fetch quests, even if what you're fetching is more interesting than it usually is. There's still plenty I haven't seen, but I'd recommend it to anyone who has any interest in the series.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Battlestar Galactica - Season 1

I never saw the original series, so I can't say how much the new version owes to it or even how much of the plot is the same. All I can say is that what Battlestar Galactica is is one of the most visually impressive and interesting shows on television. Briefly, 40 years earlier, robots called Cylons, created by the humans of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, rebel and start a war, eventually being pushed back. During the miniseries which kicks off the show, the Cylons use new models that look and act exactly like humans to infiltrate human society and create an opening, allowing them to land a devastating blow, wiping out the vast majority of civilization and the military. Only one battleship, the Galactica, and about 50,000 humans survive. The attack was so effective that the Secretary of Education, 43rd in line of succession, has to become president.

The first season of the show focuses on the large scale space battles, delicate subterfuge, and complicated personal relationships involving the remaining humans. Anyone could be a Cylon, and some don't even know it, leading to a great sense of mystery and suspense. Evil robots aren't the only problem either, the setting is taken seriously, and the crew has to worry about fuel, water, and ammunition in addition to the constant threat of discovery as they search for Earth, the fabled thirteenth colony. Not even all the humans can stick together, as they're suspicious of each others' true natures and an old terrorist (or freedom fighter as some would call him) has a distressing amount of loyalty among some of the survivors. The core cast of characters is quite strong, and it's interesting to note how important women are in a male dominated sort of entertainment. The president and best pilot in the fleet are women, and the two most prominent of human-looking Cylons are two. There are multiple copies of each model, each with their own consciousness, and of those is currently locked inside the mind of one of the humans, and it's very interesting to see how she helps him and wonder where her allegiances really are. The end of the season is quite the cliffhanger, and I'm ready to jump into the second.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


I wrote this for a class, which explains why it's a bit more analytical/spoiler-filled. Warning: do not watch this.

Midori is sort of a difficult film to make sense of, because so much of it is insane and disgusting for what appears to be the sake of it. There is little rhyme or reason to most of the events and decisions the characters make, and I couldn't tell if it was trying to be deeper than it appeared or just bad, although I'd lean towards the former. Most of the characters are just evil monsters who want to make Midori miserable, although she shows weakness in her inability to even attempt to leave the situation and willingness to jump into the arms of the first person to show her a little decency, even if he's not too good himself. The dwarf is like the serpent from the Garden of Eden, luring in the innocent with promises of good things before turning out to be as bad as everyone else.

Stylistically, I understand that its mean to shock, but I found it difficult to appreciate the bizarre violence and sexuality throughout. It wasn't really frightening, just distasteful. Animated by one man, it's pretty lacking in that department, with mediocre, inconsistent art and very little fluidity, although the music had some definite high points.

I wasn't sure what the story was trying to say. Until the dwarf appears, it's mostly a series of unprovoked, cruel happenings, as everything Midori cares for is abused, including herself. The dwarf helps her and seduces her, and after some troubles is about to leave with her with everybody more pleasant than before until he reveals it was all a sham and they all really still hate her for no reason. As a different sort of entertainment, it was interesting, but I have a hard time coming up with any real redeeming features of it.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Angel's Egg

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

I'm a bit divided on Angel's Egg stylistically. It has a unique look which serves its purpose, and the animation is fairly well done. But there are many lingering shots of either simple events or nothing at all, that seem to drag the film out without adding much substance. Did we really need to watch the two characters sit motionless in a dark room for what had to be literally at least three minutes to establish the scene? I say no.

The aforementioned characters are nameless, and it makes sense, as they have no personal details, not remembering who they are or why they're there. Like in most experimental film, they're not there to be people but to be tools for the story. She has an egg, and he wants to break it. Pretty straightforward and nonessential.

The whole work seems to be a comment on religion, particularly Christianity. Water is everywhere, and towards the end the world is flooding. The man tells the story of the ark, and at the end it appears that they're living on a giant beached ark. His weapon is in the shape of a cross, the symbol of Jesus' death, and he uses it to destroy the egg, the symbol of Jesus' birth. There is nothing in the egg, yet the girl held onto her belief in it for so long, perhaps a message that religion is meaningless. The girl seemed to age to maturity upon her death in the water, but around that time the movie ceased to make sense and I sort of lost focus against the onslaught of weird imagery. Message films are fine, but I prefer it when they don't obscure it with layers upon layers of abstraction.