Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sigur Rós - Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

Endalaust is an interesting album to me. If my impression of the band's general sound from listening to ( ) is accurate, which I'm pretty sure it is, then Endalaust is a significant departure from that. It's less post rock and more hippie indie wanky stuff, in a very entertaining way. But plenty of bands have changed their sound, what's interesting to me is how they don't abandon their old ways. Their earlier sound slowly creeps back into the album while it's playing, eventually completely taking over again. It tells a story just with the evolution of its sound more than any album I can remember. It seems to me like a youth growing older, or maybe an adult reverting to childhood, I can't tell which. But it's really beautiful anyway.

"Gobbledigook" is the single with the music video featuring happy, dancing, naked people; imagery that really fits the song pretty well. The pounding drums make the song for me, and the off-beat guitar and high pitched voices accompany it well. The next few songs continue with the same feel, using strong beats, plinking keys, and catchy vocals to catch the attention. "Festival" is a more traditional long, slowly building track that reaches a soaring climax, although it has a quality that differentiates it from similar songs they've done before. It's just the choice of instrumentation, but it captures all the power of that technique while still sounding new. "Ára Bátur" reminds me the most of their old sound, but as it goes on an orchestra builds up and reaches a swelling crescendo so powerful that while listening to it in the car, I forgot to make my turn. The next few songs are lower key, softer tracks, none of which astound, but they're nice enough to listen to. The last song, "All Alright", is the band's first sung in English, although it doesn't make a difference when I can barely understand him anyway. It's a nice enough way to close out the record, though.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Sopranos - Season 5

Multiple people told me I don't really have to watch past season 4, but I enjoyed the fifth as much as any other. The beginning seemed a tad stale, but the second half really picked it up with the increasing importance of the power struggle in New York after a boss dies without naming a successor. The show started out kind of small, focusing on a few high members of a Jersey family, but it's widened the scope as it's gone on. Despite the larger nature of the mob part of the show, it's really still about Tony Soprano. There's a lot on his plate again, with his cousin Tony B. (played by Steve Buscemi) getting out of his jail, trying to reconcile with Carmella, and Chris' problems with drugs and his place in the family continue. Some of Chris' actions seemed just a little too out there to me, like loaning his friend from rehab some money and then beating him when he can't pay as appears to be the typical mafia thing to do, and seeming completely oblivious when it drives the friend back to heroin. But there's a big payoff at the end involving his long-time relationship that to me was one of the series' best moments.

Buscemi is one of my favorite character actors, partly because he's just so weird looking, but also because he can play a lot of parts well. Every season of the show seems to introduce a new family member to be a thorn in Tony's side, but Tony B. is probably the most nuanced and interesting. He has more personal conflict about what he wants to be before he falls back to his old ways, and the familial connection with Tony makes dealing with him more difficult. The impact of the violence this season was felt the least, because it seemed superfluous and almost comedic too often, and some revelations about certain supporting characters just seemed shocking for the sake of it. It's still entertaining, just not up to the same standard of excellence as it was previously. With the end of the series now in sight, I'm coming to appreciate what it did for the medium. It really is great, and I think it helped bring about this renaissance where dramas and even comedies are able to have continuity and long-term, satisfying storylines instead of just keeping the status quo at the end of every week. The advent of TiVo and DVR letting people catch every episode probably played a big part, but I like it a lot more than sitcoms and procedural cop and doctor stuff.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Generation Kill

Generation Kill is, like Band of Brothers before it, an HBO miniseries about a war based on a book. It was produced and written by Ed Burns and David Simon, who created The Wire. So it has a strong pedigree. It doesn't quite live up to either aspect of its background, but it is still an interesting look at a war we're still fighting, sorta. Kill is about the first two months of our invasion of Iraq, as a Rolling Stone writer (based on the book's author) joins a recon division of the Marines and documents what he sees and hears. Like Brothers, it's more about the men doing the fighting than the act of fighting itself, although the tone is quite different, as can be expected. Brothers looks up at the heroes of the 101st Airborne with great reverence, fawning over their dignity, bravery, and youthful camaraderie. Kill makes a point of showing what horrifying freaks all of our boys overseas are. There are good men to be found, but most are either goof-offs, incompetent morons, or violent psychopaths. What's interesting to me is that they're all based on real people, although the ones portrayed negatively often claim that what they're shown doing wrong is fictional.

There's a large cast of characters, but the focus is on the guys in the same jeep as the reporter. The two guys in the front seat probably get the most screen time of anyone, one being the cool and experienced career soldier, the other the comic relief driver played by Ziggy from The Wire. I didn't buy the latter as a marine at first, but in time I accepted them as an entertaining duo that the rest of the series balanced on. The platoon spends a lot of time driving to the next location and generally just killing time, waiting for their gravel-voiced commander to get them a mission somewhere. They do a lot of singing of popular songs and spreading rumors about things back home. You get a feel for their frustration as circumstances cause them to become secondary to the invasion effort, and they get antsy for any action at all. There's also strife as several of the squad leaders prove to be bad at their job, and some soldiers become too trigger-happy with the innocent locals. It's a show about a war, but like many war stories, the battles aren't their biggest worry. Not that the battles aren't well done, when they happen. Their suitably visceral, although they're not as exciting when there are so few casualties suffered by the good guys. It's only seven episodes long, and is very narrow in its focus. But what it does decide to say, it says fairly well.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Liveblog 15: The Yankees Are Boring

I'm only doing this because it's been over two months since I liveblogged a Yankee game. The season is slipping through their fingers, and it's just not that enjoyable to watch them these days. I had high hopes when they stormed out of the All-Star break winning the first eight games they played, but that was only a blip, as they spent the rest of July and most of August playing pathetic baseball. Now they're seven games behind the Red Sox in the Wild Card chase, and hopes for the division have all but vanished. I hate that this had to happen this year, the first in a long time that the team has not been managed by Joe Torre, because it just adds to the argument that he's some mythically great coach that wills his teams to win, although his Dodgers aren't exactly setting the world on fire either. I don't dislike Torre, but he gets canonized for capably running a team with more resources than any other, when I really haven't seen much to say that any manager makes a large impact on his team's success.

The team's makeup has changed quite a bit. Xavier Nady has been a good addition to the outfield, but this team still can't seem to hit enough to get anywhere. Jorge Posada's season ended early, and the team traded for future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez to replace him, but he's just not the player he used to be and hasn't done squat for the team. Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina are the only remaining members of the original plan for this year's rotation, with the others all being plagued by injury, and in Ian Kennedy's case, suckiness. Carl Pavano returned from one of his eternal DL stints to pitch a decent game, but it's just not the same. While Pettitte has been showing his age this season, Mussina has been great, and is four wins away from his first ever 20-win season, which would be awesome to see, and he has enough chances left to pull it off, which is the only existing storyline at this point that makes the team interesting. This afternoon (Thursday game at 1:00? Weird.) he goes for number 17 against those dastardly Sox, and I'll be chronicling it here.

Top 1 - This is, barring a large comeback, the last Yankee-Red Sox game at the old Yankee Stadium. Let's hope it's a good one. Tacoby Bellsbury steps in to face Mussina, and takes a strike. On the next pitch, he lines out to Damon in center. Five pitches later, Pedroia is called out looking at a fastball on the outside corner. Another six pitches later, Ortiz draws a walk. If there's one player umpires don't like calling close pitches against, it's him. Next up is Kevin Youkilis, an overall irritating human being. He flies out to Abreu, and we're moving to the bottom of the inning.

Bottom 1 - Clay Buchholz had all the hype for the Sox' young pitchers this year, but he's had a bad year bouncing between the bigs and the minors, while Lester's broken out and become the team's best starter. I can't remember if he's faced them since then, but he pitched a complete game shutout against the Yanks earlier in the season. He throws three straight balls to start off Damon, but eventually gets him to fly out to right. Jeter singles up the middle. He'll have to play well to pass Lou Gehrig for most hits at Yankee Stadium before the season ends, but he's certainly capable. Abreu follows Jeter's lead, and A-Rod's up with two runners on. I just checked, and Lester did pitch against the Yankees between now and the shutout, and it was another great start, two runs in seven innings. After getting 1-2 on him, Lester throws his first non-fastball of the inning low, but Alex doesn't bite. Two pitches later though, he swings through another, and is down on strikes. Nady grounds out, and the team blows a solid opportunity against a pitcher that has dominated them recently. Not so good.

Top 2 - Jason Bay grounds out. Both teams in this game acquired solid hitting outfielders from Pittsburgh and both have been happy with the results. Mark Kotsay, recently grabbed from the Braves, doubles in his return to the AL. It's not a problem though, as the next two batters strike out and ground out respectively.

Bottom 2 - Cano pops out to center, and Matsui recently back from another knee problem, strikes out. Cody Ransom, who has had two homers in two big league at-bats this year, takes a ball off the foot, maintaining his perfect On Base Percentage, but Molina pops to left.

Top 3 - I kinda missed this inning. Moose got three straight outs.

Bottom 3 - Damon takes six fastballs, the first three for balls and the last three for strikes. Good job, Johnny. Jeter smacks a single in front of Kotsay, trying to get things going. Unfortunately, he gets caught stealing on a failed hit and run. Abreu flies out, and it's time for the fourth inning.

Top 4 - Ortiz draws another walk. Youkilis just misses a line drive home run, but pops out later in the at bat. Mussina gets Bay to ground into a double play turned nicely by Cano to end the minor threat. Moose is dealing, it's time to score for him.

Bottom 4 - A-Rod strikes out looking at a close pitch, and the crowd boos him. Why? Because they're morons, of course. Nady also strikes out. Wait, why aren't the fans booing him too? Oh yeah. They're morons. Cano grounds out. That's not scoring.

Top 5 - Kotsay flies out to Abreu. Lowrie hits a solid single for the Sox' fourth baserunner. They're showing the rules for the newly implemented Instant Replay in MLB. It's only allowed for home run calls and gives sole authority to the umpiring crew chief over its use and making the final decision. It's a small step forward, but at least it's something. Alex Cora takes a ball off the leg. The corpse of Jason Varitek manages a single to score the game's first run. Damn it. Ellsbury grounds into a potential double play, but he's fast enough to beat the return throw and a run scores. There are way too many people cheering. This team is so bad that I'm already considering ending the blog early. Ellsbury gets caught stealing and the inning's over. If he gets the Rookie of the Year award because of the time missed by clearly superior Evan Longoria, I will not be pleased.

Bottom 5 - Matsui weakly grounds out to short. Ransom strikes out weakly on a fastball. So does Molina. Weak. Useless.

Top 6 - Pedroia sneaks a single past Jeter to lead off the sixth. David Ortiz strikes out looking, and argues with the umpire, because he has never taken a legitimate third strike in his life. He knows this and is confident about it. Mussina hits Youkilis. Bay grounds out to A-Rod. Replay shows Pedroia clearly out of the baseline, but the umpires aren't budging. They get worse every year. Screw Instant Replay, just get robots to do it. It's not a problem, as Kotsay swings through a curve for the third strike.

Bottom 6 - A predictive haiku:

Jon Lester pitches
Damon, Jeter, Abreu
They cannot hit him

Damon gets hit by a pitch on the arm. Jeter bloops another single for his third of the game. Abreu flies out to center, and Damon tags and makes it to third. Rodriguez pops out behind the plate. Hey, more boos! Nady pops out too. Again, no boos. Remember kids, if you make more money than someone else, people will like you less than him.

Top 7 - Lowrie pops up for the first out. Cora lines a ball off Mussina's glove for a single. He steals second when Molina bobbles the ball trying to throw him out. Varitek strikes out looking at a perfect pitch. Ellsbury lines it right into Moose's glove, ending the seventh. This is the Yankees' last chance to get him a win today.

Bottom 7 - Lester's still pitching, and gets Cano 0-2. He bloops it to shallow center, but Cora makes a solid running catch to nab it. Matsui is K'd looking. Ransom doubles into the left field corner. Lester's being taken out, and Hideki Okajima is coming in to preserve the lead. Jason Giambi is in to pinch hit for Molina. He hits a bomb of a home run to near-dead center to tie the game. Great job guys, but you still need to score one more this inning for me to give a shit about this game. The dream ends as Damon strikes out. I no longer have reason to continue this post, so I will be back later to wrap up. Mussina likely still has six starts left to get four wins, so that hope lives on.

Wrap-Up - Giambi came through again with a game winning single in the bottom of the ninth off Papelbon to avoid the sweep. Beating the Sox is cool, I guess. You have to take what you can, sometimes.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Y: The Last Man, Book 2: Cycles

It's been a while since I read the first volume, but the summary in the beginning brought me back up to speed, and I quickly ran through the five issues of Cycles in less than an hour. Vaughan's writing is so good and Pia Guerra's artwork so clean that it's hard not to just burn through the pages. I got two volumes at once this time to hold me for a little longer, but I'm already about to grab a couple more to satiate me. I may already be addicted after less than a year's worth of stuff. I like experiencing things as they're released, but there are advantages to waiting until they're finished and going at your own pace.

To be honest, I found the actual content of the main plot in this book to be a bit silly, and I was disappointed to see Yorick stray from the right path so early in his journey, but I still found it entertaining and smartly done. The quality of the dialogue and pacing just make the slightly kitschy plot work very well. There's an edge to the one-liners and repartee that's just unlike any thing else I've read. They reference a lot of pop culture, and it's not cheap jokes about things everyone knows, they're often obscure lyrics or quotes that just add a lot of enjoyment for people who catch them. There's a lot of cursing, but it never seems gratuitous, and neither do the other adult elements. Cycles hints at future developments and has some good twists here and there, including one that appears to be the subject of the next book, which I'll be reading shortly.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ratchet and Clank Future: Quest for Booty

I was a bit disappointed to see several reviewers of Booty complain that it was too short, and not a real Ratchet game. To me, this is like complaining that a nice hamburger wasn't made out of chicken. Quest for Booty wasn't made to be the next big installment in the series that would take the evolution a step further; it was designed, and priced, to be a quick and enjoyable few hours of fun to whet the appetites of old fans and introduce new ones before the next big game. And it does a very good job of this.

Unlike all the recent games, the experience is much more narrow and guided. They use the classic trope of letting you try most of your weapons for a bit in the beginning, before taking them away and slowly making you earn them back. You don't get to buy the ones you want, you just get a select few in bunches through the story, and they start partially upgraded so there's not as much progression going through. There are a few mods scattered around, but those are the extend of the hidden secrets, and there's not as much enjoyment to be had from customizing your arsenal and exploring the world. The game is a bit disappointing in this aspect, but the design is strong enough to overcome the limitations they placed on the usually deeper gameplay.

Quest for Booty is paced more like a movie than maybe any game I've played before, as you're ushered around from interesting set piece to set piece, with bits of humor and plot reveals along the way. There are cut scenes with exposition throughout that are spiced up by entertaining hand-drawn images and silly narration, that really turn the charm meter up to 11. The Ratchet and Clank series isn't the best written thing ever, but it's always fun to be in the world they create because it has some imagination and doesn't mind not being dark and gritty. The game is more focused on platforming over action than it has been in a while, and it fits the mood. The story doesn't advance too much, but there's a new cliffhanger to keep fans wondering what's going on. The graphics are just as great as the disc-based PS3 game, and no punches were pulled making the production as solid as a full release. It's not as satisfying as a full length game, but it's plenty for now.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sam and Max: What's New, Beelzebub?

Beelzebub wraps up season two in a thoroughly satisfying way, connecting all the dots in the story and going so far as to bring back many familiar faces, loved or hated, especially in the credits sequence. It has some of the better self-referential humor in the series, and definitely feels like how a finale should, at least better than the first one did. The puzzles weren't as clever as last time, but they made good enough sense to be enjoyable anyway. I thought the reveal of the real villain was lame, because I'm getting sick of that group, but the conclusion was satisfying enough. I know their budget is limited which is why they reuse characters and locations so much, but I think they've proven their ability to really explore the universe and hope the third season branches out even more. Maybe even make a new hub where each episode begins.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream

It's good to hear some more music from the early 90's that was able to escape grunge's tentacles. There are a few elements in there that make it comparable to that genre, but it's really closer to alternative rock that got more popular later on. I feel like the album might be a little longer than it needs to, and some of the songs are a little similar, but nothing in particular felt like it needed to be changed or cut. A lot of the songs sounded similar to stuff that came out later, which points to it being pretty influential to modern rock. A song like "Today" for example, sounds like something I've heard fifty times before, but might be the first time it was made. Sort of like Nevermind, I respect it more than I liked it, but I did like it it more than that.

I knew "Cherub Rock" already from a couple music games last year, and it's more enjoyable when you're not playing a plastic instrument and screwing up more than you think you should be. "Disarm" is another single I've heard before, and sets itself apart from the other tracks with lots of strings and bells creating the atmosphere instead of guitar. It's followed and complemented well by "Soma", which is a soft, acoustic song that slowly builds to a nice release. "Silverfuck" isn't a bad song, but I feel like it hurts the flow of the rest of the record. It's quite long and sort of progressive, and while no element is bad, it just bores me a bit before the last couple tracks pull it back in another stylistic switch. Few moments on the album truly grabbed me, but it was solidly written and performed rock throughout.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Sam and Max: Chariots of the Dogs

Chariots of the Dogs may be the best episode of Sam and Max yet. The adventure elements were clever and more intuitive, and the story was solidly good. Introducing time travel always runs the risk of making a plot fall apart or just become too confusing, but they handled it pretty darn well. One moment raises huge causality questions that weren't resolved for me in a satisfying way, but it doesn't have an effect on the story they're currently telling and is more of a joke than anything else. I like it in a story when characters go to the past and create situations that they've already dealt with, accidentally or otherwise, and to actually be in control of it makes it more fun. The game also changes the structure more than any other game in the series, and for the first time ends on a true cliff hanger. All of the disparate and sometimes random-seeming plot elements for the season start to come together, and I'm kinda glad I didn't get it until they were already released so I don't have to wait to see the conclusion.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Venture Bros. - Season 3

Another season later, and The Venture Bros. is still the best show on Adult Swim and one of the best on TV. It continues to grow in a new direction, focusing more and more on the rapidly expanding cast and history of the world and less on humor. It's still funny, with every bit of dialogue's potential maximized and lots of clever references to itself and nerd culture, but it's not just a show to make stoners giggle. Some fans don't like the new direction, and a few episodes do seem a bit too indulgent in convoluting the story for the sake of it, but I think it's the perfect evolution of what they've created.

The biggest legitimate complaint I see with season three is that there just isn't enough of the main characters, especially the titular ones. Hank and Dean have always sort of been in the background of what was really going on, but they were still around and being lovably out of touch. A lot of episodes this time focus on developing characters, which means a lot less time spent at the Venture Compound. Brock and Dr. Venture get more chances to be around, but Brock really isn't the same - he just doesn't go on murderous rampages or bag amazing women often enough. He gets a chance to shine at the end of the season, but it wasn't quite enough. The root of the issue is probably that while I really enjoyed everything that happened, it probably could have been spread out over double the episodes, with more standard adventures in between to stick to the roots a little better. Whatever they do with the show though, I'm sure I'll like it, and await the next season which will hopefully come much sooner.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sam and Max: Night of the Raving Dead

Night of the Raving Dead tells another successful, funny part of the season two story, although the puzzles took a step backwards for me. It's unclear to me whether that's just my continued failure to grasp certain things, or if they were just more poorly designed. While I did need more help than I would have liked to get through it, it was still solidly fun. I wasn't a big fan of the villain, whose personality comes from being obnoxious instead interesting, but there's plenty going on around him that's entertaining. Flint Paper is another detective that didn't appear in the first season, but he's been around in the second year and this is the first episode where he really gets to do something. These games are what introduced me to the franchise, so it's cool to see them bring back what apparently has been missing. I'm just knocking down these episodes like they're dominoes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Preacher is what got me back into comics. When I was younger, I read some random things and followed The Spectacular Spider-Man, but it got into a strange storyline which you could only follow if you read all of the different books (which I didn't) and then was canceled because Marvel was bleeding money. Both of those things turned me off the medium for a few years. But then, for some reason, I heard about Preacher, and it sounded interesting enough to pick up the first volume, so I did. I learned two things: trade paperbacks are a cheap and good way to read a comic, and stuff written for adults can be awesome. It took me a couple years, but I slowly gathered the whole series and enjoyed nearly every moment of it. It's extremely vulgar, violent, and blasphemous, and I think a completely faithful film adaptation would have to make some cuts just to get an R rating. But that stuff is just flavor for what I really like, the brilliantly written characters and unique storyline.

To quickly summarize the beginning, Jesse Custer is a washed up, drunk priest who becomes possessed by Genesis, the unholy offspring of an angel and demon that was able to escape Heaven after God abandoned it. Given the ability to command others to do his bidding, Jesse goes on a mission to confront God, accompanied by an Irish vampire and his ex-girlfriend. If that doesn't sound a little interesting, then I don't know what to say. A whole lot more happens from there, and it's always funny, interesting, and shocking while the twisted plot unfolds. There are also several specials sprinkled around that reveal more about secondary characters, often satirizing or paying homage to various genres of entertainment, including the excellent Western origin story of the Saint of Killers. The characterization might be the most impressive part; especially how Ennis can take a character you love, make them do a single thing, and make you strongly despise them instantly, without it seeming unnatural. Steve Dillon's art isn't the most immediately pleasing to the eye, but he still draws everything so it's easily understood and fits the tone. Some sillier aspects like Arseface are overplayed in the public, but it's really a great book that any fan of comics should read.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sam and Max: Moai Better Blues

The second episode of the season continues to tweak the formula slightly, and you really start seeing the seeds of Telltale building a story that connects it all together. Season one was built around a mind control plot, but the episodes generally stood on their own without much reference to the others. Season two shows more continuity and teases what's coming next after the credits. The second episodes features some Bermuda Triangle teleporters, an island to explore, and baby versions of various missing famous people. The humor wasn't as spot on as it's been, but it was still mostly enjoyable. The puzzles still don't always click right away, and it's frustrating when a solution is difficult due to just missing a small item somewhere, but I appreciate them even when I need help to figure it out. More soon!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fat Guy Stuck In Internet

I know John from his frequent work on skits for MC Chris albums, and he got his own show on Adult Swim playing a bunch of different characters, including the star and villain. He's not as funny as he is in the skits, partially because he's not cussing so much, but the show is still an entertaining farce of epic action shows. Like Saul of the Mole Men, it lampoons those old series with deliberately horrible special effects, bad acting, and cheap props (the hero's weapon is pretty much a broom handle). It's not the kind of show that sets the world on fire, but I wonder how much of its lame dialogue and trite plots are intentional and how much is just lazy.

The premise is a computer programmer gets sucked into the web and has to save it to get out, and a large part of the humor I enjoy is how hackneyed the references are to the fact that they're online. They'll just randomly insert words like "digital" or "silicone" into object references to remind you of the setting, but really it's mostly irrelevant except to explain the obviously green-screened backgrounds and silver jumpsuits. It's far from the funniest show on Adult Swim, but it's usually solid enough, and there's a cute little storyline that runs through these ten episodes, leading to a teaser for a second season (which will not occur). Gemberling's friend and fellow Chris-contributor Curtis Gwinn plays Chains, the bounty hunter-turned-ally who follows him around everywhere, and the two have a fun chemistry that keeps it watchable even when the episode's subject matter might be getting boring. You probably know whether you'd like this kind of show already.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is another solid action-comedy hybrid for this summer. The concept is fun, it's about the actors in a big-budget Vietnam movie getting stuck behind actual enemy lines in the jungle. Ben Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed, is the action hero, and the last one to figure out that it's all real. Jack Black is the low-brow comedian (quite a stretch) who has a drug problem. Robert Downey Jr. is terrific as the foreign thespian who never breaks his character as a black soldier. He's quickly become one of my favorite actors in the last couple years, and he's the best reason to see this. Tom Cruise appears as a vicious studio mogul, and he's mildly entertaining, but I thought his performance was over-hyped just because he's Tom Cruise. Other big names play small parts, and a huge portion of the movie's humor is the jokes about the movie industry, especially the politics with the Academy Awards. Downey's speech about Best Actor nominations is one of the funniest things I've ever heard about Hollywood. The film also begins with fake ads and trailers featuring the characters, and it sets the tone quite well.

Besides all the meta-jokes though, it's still a fun movie. The movie has the most fun with gore that I can remember seeing since the Monty Python movies, and it's a sort of gross-out humor I like more than just bathroom stuff. Not everything in the movie succeeds, but it's crass and silly enough to be fun without thinking too much. The movie does a lot to offend different groups like the mentally challenged, and just doesn't care about it. It's all just comedy, and doesn't step lightly. There's some good silly action-dialogue and pointless explosions going around everywhere, and the pacing of the comedy and violence are pretty good. Stiller's act is a little tired at this point, but I thought this was a pretty decent return to form.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sam and Max: Ice Station Santa

Telltale went forward with the second season of their successful take on the Sam and Max characters earlier this year, although I didn't buy it until recently. The first episode picks up quickly on the same foot as last time, now featuring an introductory puzzle before the stylish opening credits. The new location is the North Pole, where Santa seems to have been possessed and done some destructive things, like sending a giant robot equipped with high school level philosophy and 80's pop music quotes to the titular heroes. As a way of getting back into the swing of things, Ice Station Santa does a solid job with consistently clever humor and some enjoyable puzzles. I still haven't mastered the logic of adventure games, as I will occasionally read a clue the wrong way or ignore what seems like an innocuous detail, but I'm getting a better hang of it. I liked how they mixed up the street where all of the games start too, adding a new location and character to help prevent staleness. Good for anyone who likes to laugh and think in a new way.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express is yet another success for Apatow Productions. He and his crew rose to fame by bringing back the fun of sex comedies, but they've branched out, and Express' humor is all about pot, with Seth Rogen and James Franco's characters being high for most of the picture. Whereas they usually do straight comedy, this is sort of an action hybrid as the two friends get in trouble with crooked cops and drug lords and end up experiencing quite a few thrills. In some ways, it's more like a lower-intensity action film than a comedy, with most of the humor arising just from the way the characters talked instead of more discrete jokes. The pacing is a little strange, as several scenes, usually involving baked characters, go on for quite a bit longer than you'd expect, as they just keep riffing off each other. I wasn't bothered by it at all though, it fit the characters and gave it a unique feel that I enjoyed a lot.

The cast is full of the usual suspects, with funny, small parts played by Gary Cole, Craig Robinson, Bill Hader, and others. Like with Superbad, Rogen co-wrote with friend Evan Goldberg and does a solid job, but he gave the best part to Franco. I saw one reviewer say he was the funniest stoner character since Brad Pitt in True Romance, and it's not a thought I'd disagree with, although Pitt didn't have nearly as much time to be hilarious. Franco sometimes seems off-putting to me, but he really is great in this movie. He's never without something strange yet poignant to say, and has a great chemistry with Rogen. The movie is full of "bromance", possibly too-friendly, ambiguously gay camaraderie between two guys. There are tons of tropes from normal, heterosexual relationship development in other movies, and once in a while they get downright obvious with it to comedic effect. I haven't seen any of Green's other work as a director, but he does a fine job balancing the action and comedy. The climactic encounter is probably too over the top, although I strongly suspect it was intentional. I liked it quite a lot, and you should see it if you can see the humor in stoned idiots just acting like stoned idiots.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pan's Labyrinth

I finally watched it, much later than I originally intended. I knew going in that it wasn't a pure fantasy film, with Ofelia's psychotic stepfather chasing down rebels after the Spanish Civil War playing a large part, but I didn't expect the balance to be tipped quite so far towards the period stuff. It wasn't a detriment to the film, with that aspect being as intriguing as the fantasy parts, it's just not what I thought I'd see. del Toro's done some big (if quirky) Hollywood action movies like Hellboy and the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit, but he does a lot of work in his native Spanish like this, and the film is clearly a labor of love. It's completely unflinching, and no corners were cut to make it more accessible. Besides being filmed in Spanish with an unknown cast (outside of Mexico), the supernatural elements aren't played to be kid-friendly at all and the violence is starkly brutal.

You see it mostly in the "real" world, and mostly caused by Captain Vidal. There are some strange things to be seen, but he stands out as the most distinctive part. Watching him after a point is like watching a train wreck. I've heard people say the movie doesn't glorify violence, but it sure doesn't mind lingering on it, sometimes showing more than they probably have to. He doesn't cross the line of showing too much though, it's not what I'd call horror or anything. I did flinch quite a bit though. The violence does a tremendous job of characterizing the captain and showing why Ofelia needs her imagination just to get away.

Besides the mesmerizing visuals, which really are truly fantastic besides one weak CG-created creature, the story of the movie is quite good. Ofelia has some traits of an annoyingly dumb protagonist, messing things up which could have easily been avoided, but she's still sympathetic because of the gravity of the situation and how she ultimately deals with it. The plot isn't exactly complicated, but there's enough to it to stay interesting, and the script and direction are very good about letting you figure out what's happening instead of beating you over the head with it, and cluing you in on certain details with smart camera work instead of exposition. The ending is ambiguous, but in a way that I found interesting to think about. My biggest complaint is really that I just wanted to see more of the world, both inside the labyrinth and out. Along with Children of Men, it's a great film from 2006 by a Mexican director that I waited too long to see.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

I named Oblivion my favorite game of 2006 over a year ago, but I never got around to writing a full review, as that's something I didn't start doing until after I had been into it for a while and I wasn't sure at what point I should do so. Now's as good a time as any, as I've probably come as close as I ever will to seeing all there is to see, and I'm about to start playing the prequel, which I'm going to make a new blog for.

Oblivion really isn't like other games for me. I usually play focused single-player games until I complete the story, and then I move on. I might unlock some bonus stuff or eventually replay the game if I like it a lot, but I don't have enough time to give everything the attention it deserves. This is definitely not how I play Oblivion. All told, I've spent nearly two hundred hours exploring Cyrodiil, the Shivering Isles, and Mehrunes Dagon's Deadlands. Even after I get sick of it, it's only a matter of time before I come back, although the chances of that happening again diminish as I complete more quests, reducing the ones I haven't tackled to a very small number. I've split time between four different characters, and really immersed myself in the world.

The closer game designers get to creating a believable place, the easier it is for little things to break the suspension of disbelief, and that happens quite a bit, with the new AI system failing to prevent many awkward situations, although it's still cool how people can move from place to place, attack you if you've wronged them, and even get killed. The fact that all of their dialogue is voiced is also impressive, since there's so much of it, although it gets annoying when you hear the same voice over and over or the actor changes for a character based on the line they're saying. The music and sound effects are also quite good, with a score that's more atmospheric than memorable and appropriate magic and battle sounds. The graphics are pretty good, although it's hard to find a face using the character creation system that isn't pretty ugly and I wish the outdoor areas ran a little better on my system. The game crashes far too often, although the nice Autosave prevents it from being too much of a hassle.

Gameplay wise, the strength of the series has always been the variety. You can focus on pure combat, stealth, magic, or a combination. The ability to customize your own class instead of picking one from a list and improve any skill just by using it gives you a ton of flexibility in creating a fun, unique, and powerful character. The melee fighting isn't great if you're looking for a normal action experience, but it's pretty robust and strategic. Sneaking around, avoiding enemies and picking locks is way more fun than I expected it to be, and my favorite character ended up basically being a ninja master almost able to walk right by someone's face without them noticing, as long as there wasn't a light source in my face. I didn't explore the different schools of magic as much as I could have, but the different spells were also fun to play with, and I ended up collecting a lot of ingredients and making potions, useful when adventuring or just to sell for profit. A couple complains I can see are the simplification of the skill system, which didn't really bother me, and the level system, which does have some flaws. You improve your abilities through repeated use, but to improve your fundamental characteristics, you have to rest and level up. This would be fine, but every enemy in the game, except for a couple quest-specific ones, levels up with you, so you're never too over or under-powered. I'm mixed on this. On the one hand, the ability to go anywhere and do anything, knowing that you will be fairly challenged, is nice. On the other, it takes away the fun of becoming a very powerful character and being able to stomp certain enemies when you think you should be able. It doesn't make sense that goblins living in the sewers under the capital city become badasses just because I'm around. Taking away that progression is disappointing, although it ultimately doesn't hurt the game that much.

What's great about the game is that you can just wander around, and something interesting will always pop up, whether it's a clever side quest or just an enemy encounter you didn't expect. And when you're bored of that, there's the main quest and different factions to play through if you want some structure. The storylines that weave their way through the various paths you can take range from mildly interesting to brilliant, and they're all worth playing through. Not every line of dialogue is a winner, but it's an entertaining game with a really deep background, full of lore and history. I haven't been engrossed more by another RPG.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Strange Wilderness

This movie was highly idiotic, and I kind of feel like an idiot myself for liking it as much as I did. But I couldn't help it, and I ended up laughing as much as I have in a long time. The cast isn't huge, but practically everybody you see is recognizable from some other dumb comedy, and they all come together to create a perfect storm of idiotic, humorous personalities. Most of them are veterans of Happy Madison productions (which is Adam Sandler's company, so you kind of get where the attitude comes from), which also includes the director, Fred Wolf. He kind of takes the casual, sit-back-and-watch approach, as the movie is dominated more by over-the-top, silly performances than anything that seems planned or rehearsed. Steve Zahn is the main character, and as always, he makes the most of the material. This is probably the best I've ever seen him, he manages to be both the collected leader of the group while still having a bunch of great character moments. Jonah Hill plays a bizarre character that never really says anything of value, and other people like Justin Long do a good job with little substance to work with.

The plot of the movie is actually a bit more complicated than it has to be. It's about the crew of a nature show trying to save it from cancellation by tracking down Bigfoot and doing an episode about him. Their quest takes them all over the place, as they have to get money and find different people. It doesn't seem to matter much, as they just end up doing the same dumb things over and over while making strange comments. There are a few bits of unnecessarily grotesque genital-related physical comedy, but it doesn't end up hurting the movie. My favorite parts are when Zahn narrates nature footage, which are always filled with inaccuracies and plenty of good laughs. The ending is also pretty abrupt and unusual. In no way am I recommending this to anyone who wants to watch something of value, but as far as moronic comedies go, it's one of the best I've seen in a while.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Prey did portals before Portal. It didn't do them as well, but it's still a very creative, enjoyable shooter. Earlier this year, it was offered on Steam for the cheap price of five bucks, and I couldn't pass that up. It's not a great game, but it's fun, and easily worth that price at least. There aren't that many weapons in the game, but all the firearms are pretty interesting visually, being made of either advanced technology or small aliens, and have multiple uses. Most enemies are pretty dumb and don't make for particularly entertaining confrontations, but Human Head Studios throws in enough gimmicks, from ghost children to gravity-defying walkways, to keep it fresh. You can also use your spirit powers (Native Americans are magic!) to fight in other ways and solve some environmental puzzles. Trudging around and shooting up aliens could have gotten boring, but all the disorientating, unique environments prevent repetition from getting too grating. The puzzles get too simple once you figure out the different tricks they have, but that only really manifested as a flaw near the end, when what should have been a set-up for a gigantic, brain-bending final challenge ended up being tragically easy.

Visually, the game is pretty impressive even though it came out a couple years ago. This comes mostly from the effects and architecture of the giant ship you spend most of the game in, which is really inventive and varied, and best when it opens up to reveal grand, far-off vistas conveying the scale of it all. The character models are less impressive. I'm not sure if it's something with the perspective, but their heads seem too big and they animate a little awkwardly. The sounds of the alien setting are good and some of the music choices are really nice, especially the best use of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" I've seen, but the voice acting is uneven. Some are fine, including Art Bell playing himself as people call in to describe the alien invasion going on, but others, including the main character unfortunately, are just clumsy. The story is decent, and does an adequate job of unfolding naturally as most modern shooters try. It ends on a cliffhanger, which I'm semi-interested in seeing the supposed sequel resolve.