Monday, September 29, 2008

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! - Season 3

Tim and Eric keep pumping out their own brand of bizarre sketch comedy, with the third season in less than two years. It's a bit odd to put it this way, but it's easily their most experimental work yet. They've had hints of faux-seriousness before, and have taken it to the next level. Sketches frequently turn from hilarious to hilariously disturbing on a dime, and it's often the most entertaining part of the show. There's more continuity too, showing what happens after Tim got killed last season and bringing new depth to familiar characters.

It's still mostly absurdist comedy though, and some of these episodes are among their best ever. The tribute to "100 years" of Jackie Chan was one of the most amazing 11 minute segments in my life. There are some concept episodes too, like the Jim and Derrick show which completely nails the kind of television I hate, and a live benefit episode that had some nice moments but seemed a bit phoned in. That's okay though, because they have so many great ideas that a few can miss and you still love wondering what they'll do next. Lots of great guests this season, including both returning favorites and great new ones. If you've given it a few chances and just don't like it, then to each his own, but we need more shows this unique.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Record of Lodoss War

Record of Lodoss War is an older fantasy series that was released straight-to-video. Like most OVA's, the animation is better than a normal TV series but not as good as the standard theatrical film. As far as things made in the early 90's go, it's a pretty good looking show, with some well done fight scenes and only a few noticeable errors. It's fairly bloody, although relatively tame otherwise besides a single unnecessary nipple near the end. It borrows from some Western ideas but still has a visual style of its own.

Adapted from a series of novels, Lodoss War tells a story that sometimes feels like a retelling of someone's Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but is usually pretty interesting. After a first episode that jumps into the middle to show a fairly impressive part of the journey, it goes back to the beginning to show how the hero Parn meets his allies and begins his quest. There's a solid cast of characters, some die, and some get together. It all feels a bit compressed and sparse sometimes, but there's a nice, epic sort of plot that unfolds at a pretty good pace. Sometimes I got lost when the narrator kept talking about the different gods and kingdoms whose names I couldn't keep straight, but for the most part I enjoyed it. Some threads are left dangling, but the main things are taken care of. The relationship between Parn and Deed was handled about as well as I've seen an anime do something like that, and I'm interested in checking out the newer series, which is apparently a more accurate adaptation of the source.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Burn Notice - Season 1

Burn Notice is a pretty fun and educational show about a spy. I say educational slightly in jest, but the protagonist's narration is really one of the most enjoyable aspects. He's serious when he needs to be, but does his best to have fun on each job, and frequently gives the viewer tips on how he's succeeding. He doesn't say anything dangerous like how to make the homemade explosive he's using, but he'll give some basics on home defense and getting out of sticky situations that do seem pretty smart. He lucks out usually when most of the bad guys are unfamiliar with all the basic tactics he's using, but it's a unique twist that keeps the series fresh.

It works because the characters are likable, so even when the plot for the week is a bit rote, it's entertaining to see them work through it. He has a slightly insane ex-girlfriend who also happens to be a former IRA member and an old friend from the military played by Bruce Campbell, who's as great as always. I don't usually watch shows with a new conflict every week, but Burn Notice has enough plot and character development to keep me interested. The basic plot is that the main character got blacklisted from his Government job, and has to do whatever low-paying work he can find while stuck in Miami trying to get his old life back. They balance the weekly issue with the long term problem very well, and it makes for a pretty addicting show. I'm not even sure where season 2 takes place after the finale, but I'm looking forward to seeing more.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Deadwood - Season 1

Deadwood is similar to a few other great HBO shows. It has the deliberate pace and brilliant writing of The Wire, the period debauchery of Rome, and all of them owe something to The Sopranos' high watermark of quality and willingness to show anything. They're all the definition of entertainment for adults, and I wish other networks were able to match their high level of production. Deadwood is a somewhat historically based drama about a camp that springs up in the 1870's and eventually turns into a town in the Dakota Territory. It's pretty much the quintessential Western, with plenty of lawlessness and tough sons of bitches. The cast is great, especially with Ian McShane and Powers Boothe as two rival businessmen and Tim Olyphant, who looks kinda doofy as a bald guy but fits the role of a rough hardware man-turned sheriff quite well. McShane's really the star though. Everything bad in the town revolves around him, and he owns every scene he's in.

The show was created and a lot of it was written by David Milch, who's been in the game for a while. He knows what he's doing, and the dialogue is always entertaining and sometimes masterful. There was some stuff made of the anachronistic swearing, but I think it works as intended. We know they didn't use these words, but it achieves the effect of conveying the intended mood of a line and doesn't sound out of place, unless years of cowboys never cussing in movies has affected your thoughts on what they sound like. When doing something in the past, it's hard to keep it sounding authentic without it getting hokey and still managing to make it interesting to the modern ear, and the writers nail it. When you have a great cast and just seeing and hearing the characters speak is so intrinsically interesting, you don't have to do much more to have a good show. As I mentioned before, the show moves kind of slow, with episodes only covering about a day's worth of events. There's still enough backstabbing and shifting alliances to keep things moving, and you're always curious to see what's next. I know the series doesn't have a real ending, but unlike a lot of shows that rely on the carrot on a stick of seeing where it's all leading, the fun of Deadwood is just watching it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple

Gnarls Barkley's second album is a good step forward for the duo. It's not what I'd call better than their debut, but it's hard to say it's worse, and it's definitely more focused. It's not quite as fun, but it's still plenty entertaining. There aren't any crazy songs like "Transformer", but they still have some fun in between some more depressing and downbeat songs. Despite the shift in tone, it's identifiably the same band, with Danger Mouse coming up with some great beats and Cee-Lo providing nice R&B vocals. Nothing is as immediately grabbing and infectious as "Crazy", but few songs ever written are.

The album's without a single standout song, but almost all of them are good enough to keep the album enjoyable all the way through. Some enjoyable moments are the female vocals in "Charity Case", the chorus in "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)", and the hand claps and backing choir in "Surprise". "Who's Gonna Save My Soul" has a great music video, and is a very good song, with a morose but memorable beat and nice chorus. "Open Book" sounds almost tribal, but has a syncopated rhythm keeping it modern and some powerful singing. "Blind Mary" is the record's lightest-hearted song, and a pretty catchy one. "Neighbors" also has nice vocal work. It's a pretty consistent album, it just doesn't quite reach their previous effort's heights. They've stated they're only going to create one more album, so I hope it continues to evolve their sound as much as this did.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden

When You Ride Alone is a short and funny book with a lot of good points. It was published one year after 9/11, but I read the revised edition released last year, which as Maher says, isn't very revised at all. A lot of the problems he talks about are still problems today. Things like airport security aren't hot topics anymore, but that doesn't mean they're fixed. What I respect about Maher is that his views are really based on what he thinks, and not toeing some party line. He's seen as a complete bleeding heart liberal, but his preference for safety over political correctness and everything else shows he just says what he believes is right.

Despite the serious topics discussed, When You Ride Alone is a very quick read. It's structured around a bunch of posters styled like Government propoganda, with some of them directly based on real ones from the World War II era, like the one on the cover. They all make points that Bill expounds in the next few pages before moving on. A major theme is how society just doesn't sacrifice like it used to, and the Government hasn't done anything to really ask us to. Priorities are all screwed up. Not everything is bad - Maher makes the point that of all the superpowers that human civilization has seen, the United States is easily the least abusive of its status; but while not dominating others is good, declining to help them as much as we can isn't. Even if you don't agree with most of his views, anyone could probably take something from this book.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Liveblog 16: Goodbye, Yankee Stadium

The Yankees have actually been playing better of late, but they're still only a couple games from being eliminated, which would make tomorrow the last game ever at Yankee Stadium. I was only ever able to go once, but I'll still have some good memories of the place. I'm not too happy about them moving to a new stadium, since it's clear the only motivation is to increase profits. If the dimensions are exactly the same, you're not building a roof, the location's not even different, and the only real change is an increase in the number of private boxes, it's hard to pretend otherwise. We already don't go to many games because they're so expensive. The situation's about as disappointing as the Yankees season. They're missing the playoffs for the first time in years, while their old manager is riding in with the Dodgers. Some sports pundits are already getting obnoxious about it, and ignoring the fact that they play in the game's worst division while the Yankees play in the best, and still have a better record. To me, that's relevant information. Anyway, I'm liveblogging the penultimate game at the Cathedral, for two reasons. Alfredo Aceves has come and surprised me with his solid pitching, while Andy Pettitte is just irritating to watch these days, and I'm going to be busier tomorrow anyway. Be back in a few hours.

Top 1 - Last night was the first time a call was correctly overturned using the new limited replay system the league added. So hey... progress. Aceves is on the mound and gives up a lead off double to Brian Roberts of the Orioles. It's erased though as the next batter pops up a bunt to Aceves, who runs it over to second base for the double play. Having some fun with these games that don't matter, I guess. Aceves was found in an independent Mexican league when the Yankees found him, and he pitched very well in the minor leagues this year. He got called up in September, and has done very well. He could be a cheap option for next year's rotation. Markakis smacks a single. Huff grounds one to Cano, who throws it to Aceves as Giambi was pulled off the bag. I don't think I've ever seen the pitcher make all three putouts before.

Bottom 1 - Damon pops up for the first out. Jeter lines out to second. A few days ago he finally broke Gehrig's record for hits in Yankee Stadium, just before it closed. It's pretty amazing how one of the first great Yankees can set a benchmark that doesn't get passed until the final homestand at the Stadium. It's nearly poetic. Almost makes you forget how pathetic the season was overall. Adam Jones just misses catching a double off Abreu's bat as it pops out of his glove. The next pitch gets away from the catcher and Abreu moves to third. Brian Burres goes 3-0 to A-Rod but gets him to pop out a couple pitches later.

Top 2 - First batter of the inning slaps another single. Luke Scott pops out to Damon. Millar smacks a decent shot but Nady hauls it in. The runner tries to steal second but gets nailed by Moeller to end the inning.

Bottom 2 - Giambi flies to right. Nady might be the best thing to come from this season. He's one of those players who's not a superstar but puts up very good numbers. We'll see next year if this breakout season was real. He flies out to left. Cano's been playing well since getting benched for laziness, but it's too late at this point. He pops out in foul territory. Game's going quickly.

Top 3 - Nady makes a running catch to grab a bloop that nearly fell in. Next batter grounds out to Cody Ransom at short. Roberts works a walk to keep the inning alive. Jones works a full count but eventually becomes the day's first strikeout victim, and we're moving on.

Bottom 3 - Ransom flies to left. Moeller bloops one that Jones makes a great diving catch on. Back to the top of the order with Damon, who pops out to the catcher.

Top 4 - Markakis grounds out to Giambi. Michael Kay won't shut up about the facade, or as he calls it "the freeze". Apparently that's what it's really called, but since the Stadium's closing and no one knows that, who gives a shit? Huff pops out. The DH Salazar strikes out, and Moeller throws to Giambi to complete the play.

Bottom 4 - Jeter grounds out to Millar, who almost screws up the play. Roberts does screw up the next play, and Abreu reaches first, still the only Yankee to be on base. Rodriguez lines a single over the shortstop's head. Giambi strikes out. Nady ends the rally with a weak fly to short, ending the frame.

Top 5 - Another full count and Scott pops out. Lots of balls between the outfielders and infielders today. Millar watches the third strike go by for out number two. Alex Cintron draws a walk on yet another full count. Despite the deep counts, Aceves' pitch count isn't too high. His control seems to be leaving him, as he goes 3-0 on the next hitter. He walks him on the next pitch, and Moeller visits him on the mound. He gets out of it as Robers lines out to Abreu. Game's half over and still no runs.

Bottom 5 - Burres gets Cano to fly out to start the inning. Ransom grounds out. Like a lot of career minor leaguers, he came up and hit a couple home runs, but hasn't done much since. Moeller sees three balls to start his at bat but eventually flies out. This game is super exciting.

Top 6 - Jones singles, but Markakis fails to advance him by lining it right to Damon. Huff misses one as he flies out to Abreu. Salazar hits a weak ground ball and gets an infield single out of it. Scott grounds into a nicely turned force out, inning over.

Bottom 6 - Damon flies out. Cintron just gets Jeter on a close play at first. Abreu flies out. I've never seen a Yankee team go without scoring as much as this one, and that's why they're out of the postseason.

Top 7 - Millar doinks one past A-Rod to lead off against Bruney. He missed a lot of the season but has been great when he's played. I might have been wrong about him. Cintron lines out to left. Abreu, in his infinite mediocrity in the field, just barely catches a pop up in front of him. Roberts walks to keep the trail moving. Another line out to Abreu. I'm going to stop blogging now, because I'm bored and it's clear some sort of curse is in effect which disallows anyone from scoring while I'm typing, and if I don't stop the game will last forever. Be back later to wrap up the game post-seventh inning stretch.

Wrap-Up - Both teams continued to not score until the bottom of the ninth, when Cano singled with the bases loaded and two outs to win the game 1-0. It clinched their third series win in a row, the first time they've done that since right after the All-Star break.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Gungrave is based on an apparently mediocre Playstation 2 game, which should throw up some red flags pretty immediately. But the story's actually surprisingly decent. There's a dichotomy in the plot similar to Berserk, where the first episode shows the protagonist in his full badass form before going back in time to show how he got there. Unlike Berserk though, Gungrave actually goes back to the badass guy and finishes a story instead of just being a tease to get you to buy the source material. It's not a great show, but I enjoyed watching it.

It starts as a sort of coming of age mob tale with some pretty gay overtones, as a couple of young friends join a crime syndicate and begin to move up the ranks. Brandon is very quiet and an elite assassin, while his best friend forever Harry is an ambitious smooth talker. Brandon has a love interest, but he spends most of the show ignoring her and gazing lovingly at Harry, as the two constantly pledge their loyalty to each other and the organization. Slowly, science fiction elements get introduced as some people develop ways to turn the dead into soldiers. Harry starts to get mad with power, and some stuff goes down that eventually results in lots of dead characters and Brandon finally transformed into what he was in the beginning, a stylsh looking, unstoppable killer. He fights some outrageous looking enemies before the final confrontation, which doesn't occur how you'd expect. The show tries to be totally cool with the gun fights, and they succeed a few times. Tons of bullets getting fired don't really excite me like they used to, but the show has its share of moments. When it wants to, the animation can be pretty good, although I wasn't a fan of most of the outlandish character designs besides the protagonist's. Gungrave's one of many animes stuck in the realm between bland and remarkable. It's a pretty big realm.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Weeds - Season 4

Weeds is way different in its fourth season, almost to the point of feeling like a new show. And it pretty much is, if you consider the original premise of a soccer mom that sells weed. Now it's a show about a family living on the run and lots of wacky situations involving Mexicans. Immigration is really the focus of the season, as Nancy becomes involved with some drug runners, who also deal in some seedier crimes. At first she lives with it because the money is good, but she becomes more conflicted as it gets worse, despite getting closer to the man at the top. The finale has enough twists to be satisfying, although for some reason it didn't leave me that desperate for more. The ends of the first two seasons especially were great, this time not as much. The show's creative spark might have faded a bit, as some characters turn into jokes of themselves and it feels a bit more like they're continuing it just because. They said they will make two more seasons, which should be plenty to take care of everything.

The show's still funny though, make no mistake. The dark humor is as sharp as ever in some parts, and seems to branch into different topics more. The beginning of the season is dominated by Al Brooks as Nancy's father-in-law, and everything with him and his outlook on life is simultaneously comic gold and highly depressing. The two brothers sort of flip-flopped in my mind. Silas was much more tolerable, and even sympathetic at times, although he's occasionally still irritating. Shane, on the other hand, had some pretty creepy/terrible plot moments, and he's maturing into kind of a jerk. Andy and Doug are still great though, and their time as nice coyotes was pretty fun. I still like the show, just not as much as I used to. I wonder how the formula will continue to evolve as the story draws to a close in the next couple years.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Burn After Reading

As far as movies by the Coen brothers go, Burn After Reading is merely in the middle of the road. Fortunately, it's such a damn good road that saying it's in the middle is hardly a knock. I didn't love it as much as their best work, but I've only come to appreciate it more since I've watched it, and it's not nearly as close to bad as say, The Ladykillers. It's a unique addition to their body of work, mixing the humor of their sillier movies with the very frank violence of their serious films. It's sort of a satire of espionage thrillers, but also not really. It's pretty short, but also takes a while to really get going. The plot's a pretty tightly coiled knot by the end, although I kind of wished there was some more convolutions to really take it all the way. I feel like it could have been great with a tighter script, but as it is, it's still pretty good.

Production-wise, it's as good as the Coens have ever been. The score is bombastic and completely over the top for the content, adding to the satirical vibe. It's their first film without their usual cinematographer in a long time, but they don't miss a beat, with plenty of wonderfully shot moments, especially the ones at the CIA headquarters. There's some really cool zoom shots that show the location, and I love the way the camera follows people's feet as they walk from room to room. The CIA scenes in general are great, with JK Simmons hilarious as usual as the man in charge of the incident, and the coda where they talk about what happened sums up the movie perfectly. The cast is their biggest yet, with Oscar winners George Clooney, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton, and nominees Brad Pitt and John Malkovich. They all play their roles very well. Swinton's character seemed more pointless than the others, and Malkovich's dialogue wasn't as funny as it tried to be, but they still fit appropriately into the story. Pitt was great as a moronic gym instructor, and I ended up wishing the movie had more of him. McDormand and Clooney are in a lot of their movies, which makes sense for Frances since she's married to Joel, and they're great again in parts written for them.

After a good amount of time introducing the characters and how they know each other, the story begins when Pitt and McDormand find what they believe is Malkovich's "secret CIA shit" and try to ransom it back to him, and then a bunch of crazy things happen that result in some characters dead, some on the run, and some intact. The CIA is paying attention, but even they're not sure what's happening and don't seem to care too much. They're pretty much in the same position as the audience, wondering what the point is. It's kinda gutsy to make a movie with no point, but in a way that IS the point, and the way they go about showing it is pretty great. It's pretty funny too, and I'm looking forward to watching it again more than No Country for Old Men, so take that for it's worth. They're already filming their next movie, which has a cast of unknowns instead of one of stars, so we'll see what happens.

PS: I just noticed that this is the second review of a Coen movie in a row that I've derided The Ladykillers, which I didn't intend to do. It's really not a terrible movie, it's just definitely not what you should watch if you want to see what they're about.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Y: The Last Man, Book 5: Ring of Truth

The fifth volume begins with a couple shorter stories, including a nice, deeper look at Hero, Yorick's troubled sister, before jumping into the meat of perhaps my favorite little story arc so far. Ring of Truth combines all the best aspects of the comic, with great writing, nice action, some big plot revelations, and more good character stuff. I don't like going into much detail about any of the stories because Y is such a fast read that doing so would take away from part of the appeal. Everything is so concise and efficient that the only thing you'd get out of reading it if you knew the important plot points is the style. That could come off as a put down, but it isn't, the comic just simply gets things done without nonsense. This volume does explain more about Yorick's survival, and as could be expected, it's not without a sense of humor or irony with regard to the real reasons for things. If Y took itself completely seriously it would be utterly preposterous, but as it is, it's a sometimes poignant comic that's usually just a hell of a lot of fun. And I still really, really like Guerra's art. It's not flashy, but that's never what I liked about comics. I'm a little past the halfway point now, and there's no turning back.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tomb Raider: Anniversary

I might have appreciated it more if I had played the original, but Tomb Raider: Anniversary is a solid remake that updates the game to a more modern style with grace. It plays very similarly to Tomb Raider: Legend, the first game in the series by Crystal Dynamics after they took it over, with the same combat and platforming mechanics with a few updates, but the focus is much different. Legend felt a lot like an action movie, with car chases, large gun fights, with lots of characters and cinematic moments. Traversing around tombs and solving puzzles was part of it, but it didn't seem like the focus. Anniversary is very much about this, almost exclusively. There's not much opportunity for one liners or big explosions when most of the game is spent alone in remote locations. Combat is rare, and is almost always against wild animals that have somehow survived long enough in these deserted temples to attack you. They don't make for very interesting opponents, but the dodging and counter attack system makes it a little more fun. The very few times you're confronted with humans, Lara does everything she can to avoid murder, and is clearly against the idea of it, which is weird when she just mows 'em all down in Legend. I guess time changes everyone.

Anyway, the meat of the game is the environment, whether it's testing your wits or your reflexes, and for the most part, it really shines. It combines the best aspects of a lot of different action/adventure games, and has some of the most elaborate and interesting setups I've seen in a game like this. The problem is that the execution isn't always the greatest. There are two things that hurt it, the controls and the camera. The controls work for the most part, and are certainly better than what the series used to be, but they're not precise enough that every mistake seems like it's your fault, and that makes it a problem. Sometimes things work, and sometimes they don't, and when them not working forces you to start over, it can quickly get annoying. The camera seems worse than Legend, as it doesn't show you what you want to look at as much as you'd want, which compounds the control problem. Both problems get worse as the challenge ramps up, and every single mistake results in instant death, or at least having to do a long sequence of jumping and climbing over again. They could have gotten really creative later on and made you really think about what you had to do, but instead they elected to make you race through gauntlets and threw some lava on the floor. Legend had the same controls, but it wasn't as frustrating because it didn't demand as much from you. I still quite enjoyed the game, but not as much. It looks and sounds nice enough for a PS2 game in this age, and the story is a reasonably entertaining Indiana Jones-esque tale. I wonder how well they'll balance the puzzles in action in the new Tomb Raider coming out in November.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sam and Max: Freelance Police

Sam and Max had their own kid's show on FOX for a season, and while a lot of their edge is taken off to make it more family friendly, it was surprisingly decent. All of the mild swears and realistic firearms are gone, but the characters are essentially the same. Plenty of side characters appear, although some are watered down, like the Rubber Pants Commandos whose normal weapons are replaced by milk bottle guns. More characters are added too, like a young female inventor called The Geek, who's supposed to appeal to children I guess. Despite the changed tone, it sticks the closer to the comics than the games do as far as bringing back familiar elements, even recreating certain stories, although they suffer a bit in the translation.

My only problem with the show is really the voices. I'm not sure if the different actors they had for the games were genuinely better for the characters or I'm just used to them from hearing them first, but I just like them much more than the voices used in the show, especially for Sam. They speak the dialogue fine, they just don't sound like Sam and Max. And in general, the voice actors aren't of the quality you'd hope from from a wacky cartoon. Too many of them just say the lines without the appropriate attitude you'd expect. The show's not bad though, definitely worth watching if you like the characters. And I have to respect a show that's final episode is a clip show - with all the clips being fake. I wonder what could have been if more people watched it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season 1

I would have preferred to see the Terminator franchise end after the second movie, because it wrapped everything up perfectly, but if they insist on bringing me more entertainment featuring killer robots from the future, I don't have much of a problem watching it. The third movie's plot should be ignored, but it was still an entertaining action movie, and the new show, which just started its second season, is pretty much the same way. It takes place in an alternate reality from the third movie in the current day. For the most part, it sticks with and adds to the universe, but it doesn't obey all the rules as much as it should. The main reason the robots have human flesh, besides blending in, is that only organic matter can pass through the time travel thing, which is why everybody shows up naked (ha ha, naked). The show acknowledges this, but then allows the exploded exoskeleton of a Terminator that's been pursuing the protagonists pass through and then reform itself later. This simply shouldn't have happened, and it's not like there's a shortage of other machines trying to kill the good guys. I also don't like it when shows or movies that involve time travel both feature the characters trying to change the future and doing something to make sure the future goes the way they remember it. I'm sure the movies did it too, but it sticks out here. "Hey, there's no wall here in the future! Probably because we blow it up right now!" "But what about the fact that stopping Skynet from forming now would prevent us from going back to the past to do it?" "Shut up, I'm blowing the wall! Yeah!"

Logical conundrums aside, it's a pretty entertaining show. It stars the queen from 300 as Sarah, the healing girl's lame friend from Heroes as John, and that weird chick from Firefly as Cameron, the new friendly Terminator. Her characterization is a bit weird, because at first she seems very natural and friendly to John, but as soon as they reveal she's a robot, she starts acting like all the others. She has moments of more human-like mannerisms, but they haven't done a lot with that yet. I don't understand the logic behind making a Terminator that's small and flexible when all the others are big, burly men, but she can usually hold her own in a one on one fight. So far, it's pretty much what you'd expect from a Terminator show. Fairly interesting science fiction storylines, decent horror elements, good action. The series has to have a huge budget for blowing stuff up. It's not as big as the movies, but it's pretty destructive. The cast does a decent job too, although no one plays an emotionless killer robot like Arnold. Like most programs that attempt it, it frequently falls on its face when getting technical ("My chess robot has the guts of three X-Boxes and four Playstations daisy-chained together!"), but at least they're trying. The season definitely got better as it went on, and the new episode on Monday promised more cool things to come.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sam and Max: Surfin' the Highway

When I bought season two of the Sam and Max episodes, I splurged for the media pack that also contained the newly rereleased collection of all the original comics and the DVD of the animated series. It seems to have been worth it. The comic is a bit different from the games, the characters and sense of humor are the same, but it's just a little darker and more adult, making a slightly more enjoyable experience. There's not that much content, only five full issues produced over a period of several years, but most of it is humorous enough to make it thoroughly worth checking out.

Sam and Max's adventures are as varied here as they ever are in the games, as they go everywhere from an inaccurate representation of the Philippines to the moon to all around the country in a great road trip issue. There's a lot of imagination and fun in just a few short pages, and it's really just pleasant to read. The pair have some violent tendencies, but they're really just great friends that like seeing the world and eating junk food together. There are both black and white and color segments in the book, including original paintings from the covers of books and games without the labeling covering everything up. Steve Purcell's art is simple and cartoony, but it's always effective at expressing the personality of the characters and mood of the situation. Besides Sam and Max, Purcell's done lots of work for Lucasarts, which led to the creation of their first adventure game. He later moved to Pixar, and still does work on their films. He doesn't have a lot of original creations to his name, but he's created two of the more entertaining cult comic characters of our time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Y: The Last Man, Book 4: Safeword

Volume 4 contains two stories, the titular "Safeword", which reveals a lot more about Yorick than we ever knew before, and "Widow's Pass", penciled by Goran Parlov. You can always tell when a drawing wasn't done by regular artist Pia Guerra because Dr. Mann's features are way more obviously Asian. Anyway, the two stories are pretty different, focusing on two different aspects of the tale. The first is cerebral, and the second is action movie stuff. They're both really good, although the first was more interesting to me because it's not something you see a lot in comic books.

"Safeword" is as adult as the comic's gotten, at least in our culture's puritanical view of sex as more inappropriate for children than violence. It doesn't really get close to exploitative, but it's a little out there. I don't know why I keep bringing up the fact that Y is written for adults. It's kind of hard to make a full blog post about just six or so issues of a comic within a larger story. Anyway, the book's still on track. "Widow's Pass" is a pretty solid example of the comic's less subtle side, and it also has an important moment for Yorick. There's a pretty iconic image of him I've seen before, and seeing the scene that inspired it was pretty interesting. The book ends with another tease of what's to come, and I'm still on board.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames

If I had to use one word to describe why Mercenaries 2 isn't great, it would be "rough". The game is most definitely rough. You'd think it shouldn't be after the delays it experienced, but the game still feels like a PS2 port with prettier explosions and a bunch of glitches. None of the technical problems really hurt the game though, and the game itself is so cool that it's hard to dislike it. It certainly has issues, but they can all be overcome if you're looking for an enjoyable, less than fully serious experience.

I'm not sure how much of the basic structure is taken from the first game (which I now intend to check out some time) and how much is new ideas, but what's there is fundamentally pretty interesting. It's an open world like in Grand Theft Auto, but unlike most of games that rip off that series, Mercs has its own feel to it. It takes place in Venezuela, and is about whichever gun-for-hire you pick (I went with Swedish Mattias Nilsson from the cover) taking jobs from the various factions that have stakes there in order to get the supplies and info you need to take down the new president, Ramon Solano, who tried to kill you instead of paying you after a mission. You know the idea if you've seen the terrific commercial. You can get contracts, which are specific, often fairly involved jobs that usually involve blowing something up and advance the plot, or just go after smaller bounties to get rewards and unlock more types of vehicles or airstrikes in the store. The nonessential bounties sometimes have you working against a faction that's employed you before, and you have to make sure you don't get reported screwing them over or pay for it somehow later. Later on, even the contracts have you attacking people who consider you an ally, and you have to make a choice about whose side you're on. Balancing the ire of all these different interests sounds kind of interesting on paper, but in practice it's a little annoying to deal with. It's not hard to win a faction back over, but it still feels unnecessary.

Not every mission is cool either. Every group has at least one race and possibly more jobs that have multiple levels, and only by completing them a few times can you gain access to everything they offer. Besides the silliness of getting paid thousands of dollars to run an arbitrary lap somewhere, these missions are often annoying and show the overall lack of polish in the game. It's hard to fault the game for it too much when it's all optional, but I sometimes wondered what exactly all the development time went in to. Every building can be brought down, and the destructability of the environments is extremely impressive, and the explosions look quite nice, but they're probably the only visually impressive aspect of the game. It doesn't look bad, and the frame rate is almost always good, but it's nowhere near the cutting age of current generation graphics. The voices are a bit silly, but I like them. All of the enemies sound right out of a typical campy action flick, with hokey Latin, Jamaican or Chinese accents. Apparently the Korean enemies in the first game actually spoke Korean, so I could see how a fan might be disappointed by the dumbing down of the series, but I enjoyed it. Peter Stormare is always fun to watch, and he acts Mattias just fine too. I haven't really played with the other characters, but Phil LaMarr and Jennifer Hale are voice acting veterans who know what they're doing.

The game has a lot of niggling issues like repetitive voices, weird graphical glitches, and sometimes strange vehicle physics, but it's hard to be too annoyed by any of them when it's so satisfying to demolish a building with C4, or call in a carpet bomb, or hijack a tank and lay waste to infantry with their former support, or winch up a fuel tank with a helicopter and throw it into some Anti-Air equipment. I wish it was better than it is, but what it is is still a whole lot of fun if you're in the right mood. And with online co-op, you can blow everything up with a friend. Who doesn't enjoy that?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Metalocalypse - Season 2

Metalocalypse's second season features the same sort of humor as the first, but steps up the complexity of the plot and brutality of its frequent violence quite a bit. I guess you need to be in a certain mindset to enjoy the show, as some people certainly don't "get" it. There's a certain disconnect between the humor, which is subtle conversational stuff, frequently relying on just the goofy way all the band members talk, and the horribly graphic deaths that frequently happen, usually near the end of the episode to conveniently get rid of a threat to the band's success. It certainly makes for a different kind of series, but it's one I've grown to like quite a lot.

The team definitely did some experimenting in the second run, and it took them a while to wrap it up, as thanks to breaks in the airing schedule the finale was shown almost a year after the premiere. I usually prefer to just know the show's going to be on every week until the season's over, but with Adult Swim I usually watch every week anyway so it's not as much of a problem. It's just a bit harder to remember everything when it comes time to reflect on what happened. A lot of the episodes are still one-shots, but it's not uncommon to get a hint at what's coming up with the sinister characters plotting against Dethklok operating in the background. The third to last and last episodes were half an hour in length, and proved to me the show could survive in that format if they wanted to do it. They were among the better shows in the season, although the climax got a little boring around the umpteenth time a character was saved at the last minute by a friend hitting the bad guy from behind. Still, it was a solid conclusion, although it leaves you hanging about what really happened to certain people.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Sopranos - Season 6

This is the last season of The Sopranos, and also by far the longest. There was a long break after twelve episodes, and then they wrapped it up with another nine. To be honest, for a while, the show didn't feel like it was ending soon. It's hard to say a show so unafraid of killing characters off has a real formula, but as long as they kept pumping fresh blood in and keep the core cast together, the show could have gone on a lot longer. That was never the goal though. It's the story of Tony Soprano, and season six wraps it up while staying true to the original spirit. The beginning and end of the season are unique. In the first episode, Tony gets shot and spends a lot of the time in the hospital inside one of the show's famous dream sequences, although it's different than they usually are, and the last one in the series. Every "last" felt significant - the last psychiatrist visit, the last appearances by favorite characters. I still say The Wire is better, but there's no denying the brilliance or importance of The Sopranos. It's really amazing how these horrible criminals manage to become sympathetic. Not truly sympathetic, of course. They're despicable people I'd never want to meet. But I sure enjoy watching them live.

A few episodes from the finale, a particularly brutal beating by Tony defending his daughter's honor triggers the beginning of the end. You could say it started a bit earlier with the demise of a certain character, but the tone clearly shifts as the final conflict really falls into place and you just know that it's finally happening. The constant head-butting between Tony's crew and one of the New York families that has been going on for years turns into a war, and almost every moment is as intense as anything that's been on television. You can just tell in these shows when something bad is about to happen, and seeing it happen to some people is harder than it usually is. I was waiting to see how the ending fits into the rest of the show, and I have to admit I liked it quite a lot. Sure, I can see how doing what they did could be disappointing or even infuriating to people who have been watching for years, and maybe I would have reacted negatively if I didn't already know about it. But the final scene is just so perfectly constructed, and the ending just works with it so well, that I couldn't help but smile. It's not the most closure you'll ever get from a series finale, but it really is a great scene. I haven't really decided what I think happened, although I'm leaning one way. There are good, differing arguments about what could have happened. What did happen doesn't really bother me too much, though. It was a fitting conclusion to a great show.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

I usually don't buy tickets for movies I know will be bad, but I was bored, and I still kinda like Star Wars. Unfortunately, there just isn't much left here of the charm and wonder that makes Star Wars fun. I think the problem with all of the new movies is that George Lucas has too much control. Obviously he should have a lot of say; it's his series and his money that lets it continue. He's had a lot of good ideas in his life. He's also had a lot of fucking stupid ideas too. When they were making the original trilogy, he had friends like Stephen Spielberg helping him keep it on the right track, and the latter two movies weren't even directed by him. But now, he's more or less completely in charge, and nobody's telling him his ideas are fucking stupid anymore. He was still getting some help on the live-action prequels, but at this time all he has left are people that do whatever he says. Case in point: Ziro the Hutt, also known as the worst character ever created. A slimy Hutt cooperator isn't a terrible idea, but making him not only speak English, but sound like Truman Capote too is. If this had just stayed as a bad idea, it wouldn't be an issue. But no one slapped Lucas in the face and said "George, that's a fucking stupid idea. The fact that Hutts clearly understand English (Basic, whatever) since they don't need a translator but still don't speak it obviously suggests there's some reason for this, and you're just throwing that away. Also, Truman Capote? Are you fucking serious?" Instead, they just said "Whatever you say, George!" and went about hiring someone who could do a Capote impression to do the voice and animating Ziro to look like he was saying the lines. This breakdown in the proper course of events is the perfect example of why Star Wars sucks now.

But the movie wasn't just bad because of Ziro, it was generally boring and childish. I realize Star Wars is made with kids in mind, but with that being the case they should at least stop trying to pretend it's for adults too by throwing in all the conspiracy and war stuff. Not that the conspiracy makes any sense. As far as I could grasp from the prequel movies, Palpatine hired Dooku and the Trade Federation to start a separatist movement against the Republic, so the Senate would give him total power over the military, allowing him to use it to take it all over for himself. He and Dooku used another Jedi to commission the Clone Army and then killed him, although you wouldn't know this unless you were a huge Star Wars nerd or looked it up like I just did, because the Jedi in question only warrants a passing mention in the films despite this part being pretty important to the plot making sense. Still, it makes some sense. A convoluted plan, but it works. What doesn't make sense is why Palpatine and Dooku actually seem to care whether their fake droid army does well. Which they clearly do in this movie and probably will throughout the upcoming series that this movie kicks off. The whole plot of the movie is about the bad guys trying to trick the Hutts into thinking the Jedi are out to get them and win their allegiance, giving them a significant advantage in the war. But why are they trying to get an advantage at all? Why did they let this war go on for THREE FUCKING YEARS before calling in Order 66 and killing off the Jedi?

Ignoring the fact that the Clone Wars property is a huge collection of toys, comics, books and tv shows built on nonsense, the movie just isn't that well put together. It really does feel like an extremely long episode of a show instead of a movie, and the entire third act had me waiting for it to end. The action scenes weren't really exciting. We've seen a whole lot of clones and robots shooting at each other, and they haven't figured out how to make a lightsaber duel work yet with this animation style. The cheeky sniping between Anakin and his new, fairly irritating apprentice does nothing for me. Did they really think it would be clever for her to call him Skyguy or something? Also, the battle droid dialogue is getting out of control. They were kind of silly in Episode 1, but at this point you have to wonder why they programmed their soldiers to be retarded. They got a laugh out of me once, when one screamed a mournful "Why?" after an ally threw him off a cliff to his doom, but other than that they were painful to watch. The kids behind me in the theater were laughing it up, though. And I don't really feel the need to take that away from them. What was I expecting, when Lucas himself called putting this in the theaters "almost an afterthought"? He says he's going to produce 100 episodes of the series, regardless of ratings. It's that kind of insanity that makes me respect the guy for just doing what he wants, regardless of his success. I might check out the show when it airs, because there are worse things in the world than a half hour of cartoon violence.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Bionic Commando: Rearmed

Rearmed is a remake of a game for the original Nintendo, but if I didn't know that I couldn't have guessed. It's probably the most fun I've ever had with a game played in two dimensions, and the fact that something this forward thinking in its design and uniquely fun mechanically was made all those years ago makes me surprised it's not hailed as more of a classic. Admittedly I don't have much expertise on the time period, but Bionic Commando had an overworld map that gave you some choice about where to go next before Super Mario Bros. 3 did, and it helps sell the story a lot better. The levels aren't just random locations you have to run through to beat the game, they're specific, important buildings or areas strewn around a piece of land that's being contested by two opposing sides in a war. Your objective is to rescue another soldier that has been captured, and you always have a goal in each level, whether it's just gathering intelligence about his location or disrupting some operation the enemy has going. It's not much, but it seems advanced for the time.

But what I really like about the game is how fun it is to play. You play as a special soldier who can't jump like most video game heroes, but who has a special arm attachment that lets him deflect projectiles, pull things toward him or the other way around, or grapple the ceiling and swing to different platforms. Anyone who complains about the lack of jumping is clearly missing the point, because the swing mechanics suffice for every situation, and what's more, they're a lot more fun. It's the same reason why Spider-Man's web swinging is cooler than Superman's flying - it's more limited, but it's also more visually interesting, and in this case, more entertaining to screw around with. There's a nice progression to the game, both as you gather more weapons and equipment to make you capable of tackling tougher enemies, and you naturally get better with the arm, allowing you to traverse more difficult areas. There's some freedom in the levels, with secrets to find and optional paths to take, and the boss fights, while limited in number of actual unique encounters, are always fun tests of your skill as well. The game's definitely not easy, but succeeding is always rewarding.

The story is pretty simple, but it's enhanced by the sense of humor, which is usually pretty self-referential. The main character, Rad Spencer, is a take on the typical meathead protagonist, making cheesy threats against any foe he comes across. There's some Internet jokes and pokes at the original's poor English translation, and it's a bit hokey, but fun enough to like. The visuals and audio have been updated for today, and they're both really nice. The graphics maintain the spirit of the original (I've seen screenshots!) while still looking nice on modern displays, and the music is all remixed from the NES tunes. It's the best game music I've heard in a long time, and I don't even really like techno. Anyone with any interest at all in retro gaming should get their hands on Rearmed.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

RAAtEtHoTDVG 1: Sam and Max Hit the Road

Ridiculously Ambitious Attempt to Experience the Heart of Two-Dimensional Video Gaming, Part 1

So here's something I've been working on. I've been playing games for a long time, but I only really started playing significant ones during the PS1/N64 era. Before that, it was just what my relatives got me or just what I could get my hands on. I wanted to fill in the large gap in my knowledge and memories from back when games were made with sprites instead of polygons. I asked some people on the Internet to help, and they gave me a lot of great suggestions. These are almost all for the NES, SNES, Genesis, or original Game Boy, with some graphic adventures on the PC thrown in as well, mostly Lucasarts' SCUMM games. That's mostly what got recommended, and anything pre-Nintendo is too archaic to be worth anything besides historical significance at this point anyway. I will play as many of these games as possible, and while I can't guarantee I'll finish them all, I'll play long enough to give a valid opinion. So here's the first game, which segues nicely from what I've recently been playing.

Sam and Max Hit the Road (PC)

This is the comic book duo's first foray into video games until the much more recent episodic work by Telltale. I'm kind of working backwards through their history, as the Trade Paperback with all of their comics should be coming in the mail soon. The game obviously looks quite different, Sam and Max are the only characters that appear in the later games, and their voices are different. Still, they're the same people in the same world and it felt familiar. Their sense of humor might be a little more blunt in this, but it's just as funny. Their office and street are a bit different, but more or less comparable, and the game starts the same way, with the mysterious commissioner calling in about a new case that begins the adventure.

Being a full game and not just an episode, there's a bigger scope to the story, many more locations to visit, and more puzzles to solve, although it didn't really feel too much longer. When you know what to do, these old adventure games usually don't take too long, and since I don't have much patience for some of the logical leaps these games make you take, I wasn't afraid to look up and use hints. I don't feel bad about it, because the fun comes from the characters and dialogue, not being confounded by something and trying every item on every object. Most of what you have to do makes sense, but sometimes the solutions are highly specific without giving you much help about what's supposed to be happening. Also, I'm glad interfaces have been streamlined so much in modern adventures, because there's no reason that clicking on an elevator with the walk function selected should result in being told I have to "use" it, when it should be able to figure out what I'm trying to do. Hit the Road is actually one of the better SCUMM games about this it appears, and I slightly dread earlier ones that have a dozen different actions to sort through. It's better than having to type out what you want, but not by a lot. Besides this though, Hit the Road is a very funny and clever little game, and probably as good an example as any of this dying genre's good points.

Next: A young boy fights to save the kingdom from evil.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Y: The Last Man, Book 3: One Small Step

I just found out the co-creator and penciler of Y, Pia Guerra, is a woman. It kind of makes the whole book make a little more sense. The Last Man, written by Mary Shelley, author of the original Frankenstein novel, has basically the same premise as Y and clearly served as inspiration. It is referenced in the second, smaller storyline contained in this third volume, which is drawn by guest Paul Chadwick and features the first nudity in the series, and is about a troupe of actors that decided to make a play based on the same idea, again. Certain elements of the play they make caused me to wonder if a woman had any input on this story, which focuses so much on the differences between men and women in society. The fact that one did makes me feel a little better, I guess.

That storyline was mostly a small break from the heart of Yorick's strange and fun trip through a woman-filled apocalypse, though. The third book properly introduces another important, tough Government operative who happens to be beautiful, and she joins the first we met as they fight against the second over control of the last man in existence. He might not be though, as we learned in a teaser at the end of the last volume. It's more pulpy, clever entertainment, although it's not the comic book that's going to convince the world that comic books are high art. It's an extremely well done action movie that may or may not actually work as a film when they get around to making the adaptation soon. They're also doing a film of Shelley's Last Man, which could cause some confusion whenever these things come out. The social commentary is a little obvious, but at least it's branching out from just women's rights to things like the purpose and necessity of war. Firefox' spellchecker is now telling me that "women's" is not a word, which is fucking preposterous. In any case, Y: The Last Man is still a good comic and I will continue to read it.