Friday, October 31, 2008

2008 Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 30, 2008

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Dark Crystal

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

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

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

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

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

Friday, October 24, 2008

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

When it came out, I thought Attack of the Clones was better than the first prequel, because I was 15 and it had MORE ACTION. But it's really not true. Is there some rule that people named Hayden have to be bad actors? Panettiere is pretty crappy on Heroes and Christensen is the same here. I hesitate to blame the prequels' badness on him because I honestly don't dislike that guy, but what else can you say when he's the star? I lay most of the blame at Lucas' feet, but a great Anakin could have done a lot of salvaging of the emotional core that makes these movies even close to relevant to the other ones. Without them being the story of Anakin's downfall, they're really just typical brainless science fiction. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say here, really. I've heard that Christensen has been pretty good in other movies, and no one really seems to do their best on a green screen sound stage with Lucas' ability to direct actors being unknown beyond saying "faster and more intense!", so I'll go with my nerd instincts and blame it all on George.

I really don't hate any of these movies that much. Besides The Clone Wars, I mean. I can enjoy a silly movie with entertaining action scenes. And that describes Attack of the Clones pretty well. It's just disappointing to see the heart get slowly sucked out of a beloved series. Making Yoda digital is probably what really got the ball rolling. Yeah, seeing him flip around with a lightsaber like a mad man is hilariously entertaining, but at what cost? Why is doing so many extraneous tumbles through the air anyway. I prefer the old days when the fights weren't quite so elegant but every move had a purpose besides looking neat. Luke was trying to beat Darth Vader, not do the better triple salchow. The overreliance on computer effects is really what gets me more than the silly things that change the series' tone. Besides some background elements, they're rarely convincing, and it just pulls you out of the experience. And as the movies go on, they're pretty much all that's left.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Episode I confirmed for long-time Star Wars fans what they feared after seeing the Special Editions of their beloved series: George Lucas doesn't know what a good movie is any more. I didn't really notice this when it came out, because I was 12, and I could relate to annoying little kids, and I liked sword fights, especially ones with glowing magic swords. And watching it again now, I don't see it so much as the beginning of the end for Lucas, but a funeral for his good sensibilities. In retrospect, it's the best of the trilogy, and not just because it contains the two best action scenes: the pod race and the fight with Darth Maul. Sure, it introduced many of the things that made the prequels shit on the old movies. Turning Jedi from people naturally attuned to the universe's mysticism into people with a larger infestation of parasites than others was a tragedy. Making everybody know everybody for the sake of cute winks to the audience (Haha, Darth Vader built C-3PO!) is stupid, and just hard to believe when your setting is a galaxy filled with turmoil and not a small town. But it did some things right, before the sequels continued the vicious cycle of more and more visual effects and absurd characterization until we ended up with The Clone Wars, also known as when Star Wars died.

Hell, Yoda's still a puppet in this one. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are two completely likable actors from the British Isles, Natalie Portman is somewhere between cute and gorgeous (Did you know she was born in Israel? Just found this out.), and the three form the nucleus of a decent adventure movie. Yeah, Jar Jar Binks sucks and is mildly racist. Yeah, Jake Lloyd is one of all too many kid actors who piss off grown ups in one or two movies and are never seen again. But the Battle Droids are just soldiers with digitized voices, not an army of fucking clowns. A lot of the sets actually existed in real life. "Duel of the Fates" is probably my favorite piece of Star Wars music. There's still a soul in the production somewhere, and as long as the main characters are good, you have a watchable film. I would not call it a good movie, because as I said earlier, George Lucas forgot what that is. But it's not that bad.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Batman Begins

I haven't been posting lately, mostly because I've been rewatching some old movies. No reason I can't talk about them, though.

Somewhere in between its release in 2005 and seeing The Dark Knight, I forgot that the first Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movie was as good as it was. I still think Knight's better, but Begins is damn solid in its own right. What's impressive is how he manages to make films that capture the coolness of Batman and comic books in general without having particularly good action scenes. They're a big part of what makes the Spider-Man movies (at least the first two) great, which is the only super hero movie franchise I've enjoyed on the same level as the revived Batman, and usually what carries action movies in general, but they really aren't what makes Batman good. Sure, the fights are there, but they're pretty poorly filmed; lit too dimly, shot too close, and cut too fast. This is partly a stylistic choice to make Batman more secretive and menacing, but it doesn't make for particularly entertaining sequences. Both movies have had decent car chases, but it's really the characters that drive the show, and that's what makes them so much better than the other riffraff.

When Begins came out, origin stories were all the rage, and they still are to some extent, it's just that more properties are already established. A good origin story can be very compelling, the problem is they end up being similar and you can only see a guy accidentally gain powers and adapt to it over the course of an hour so many times before it gets boring. But that's what makes Begins interesting; not only is it a story we haven't heard before, it's one about a character's motives, not the magic MacGuffin that turns him into a freak. (Note: I intentionally misused the movie term "MacGuffin" here, because the next several films I'll be talking about are directed by a man who has no idea what it actually means. Guess who it is!) Showing Bruce Wayne's slow transition into Batman, one he makes because he comes to feel a true need to help people and not because he's strong enough to throw trucks now, is a truly interesting one, and then we get to the second half, which is a pretty darn good crime story besides the somewhat ludicrous doomsday device. The cast is obscenely good, with nearly every significant part played by a well-known talent, and despite the hate she got I think even Katie Holms was competent. Liam Neeson plays a good mentor, but he shows here that he can do other things as well. Besides the fights, the film's only failing in my eyes are the attempts at humor later on, which seem somehow more frequent as the drama builds and usually fall flat. Gordon's racing to get into place with the new Batmobile and stop the bad guys from destroying the whole city, do we really need a cutaway to a random bum telling him he likes his car? In any case, it's not perfect, but it's exactly the reboot Batman needed to fit into this era of a more serious super hero.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Deadwood - Season 2

The second season of Deadwood continues the show admirably, keeping what makes it interesting while expanding the cast and preventing the story from getting stagnant. It begins a little crazier than the show ever was in its first run, with the arrival of Olyphant's family coinciding with a fight that turns into an all-out brawl leading to several characters in various states of recovery for quite a while. McShane in particular has a tough time, especially after another ailment hits even worse, which produced scenes with the most painful thing I've ever had to watch that didn't actually appear on screen. It's not that long though before he's back and as mean as ever.

There's plenty of drama to go around, with the arrival of new people whose business interests conflict with established personalities. Plenty of blood ends up getting spilt, but as it was before, those are momentary diversions from the show's real meat, the backroom deals and conversations laced with venom. It's impressive how they can make characters as slimy as EB Farnum likable just by making their choice of words so uniquely entertaining. The women get into it too, not as gruffly as or as vulgarly as the men, but in their own fun way. Deadwood doesn't have the family or social aspects that make it as relatable as HBO's other top shows, but it's still a good intellectual watch.

Friday, October 10, 2008

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

STALKER is an interesting if flawed first person shooter that's greatest strength is its atmosphere. It spent a long time to development, leading some to think it would never be released, and it definitely shows its age in some areas. The shooting gameplay itself doesn't really handle the way you'd hope it would in a modern game, leading some combat encounters to be more frustrating than they probably should be. Especially early on, the handguns and hunting shotguns you find simply aren't very effective, and you have to be careful whenever you're around enemies. Once you start finding some automatic weapons though, it becomes a little easier to defend yourself. Although it's a shooter, due to the lackluster combat and interesting setting, I would have preferred a bit more exploration and survival horror and a bit fewer shootouts with the various bandits and soldiers who always seem to show up wherever you are.

Made by a Ukrainian developer, the game's plot is based on the story of the Russian novel Roadside Picnic with the Chernobyl incident as the basis for it. You play as one of the stalkers, who live in the area around the power plant, searching the irradiated wastelands for artifacts that started appearing after a second explosion. The game's main story is fairly linear, but you have the freedom to ignore it when you want and just explore the various ghost towns and abandoned laboratories, taking jobs for various people. It's interesting to just wander around, avoiding the mutant animals, scavenging bodies for food and ammunition. If you do follow the story though, you'll encounter a fairly intriguing although not really surprising science fiction tale, both fighting large groups of enemies in abandoned bases and city blocks and strange monsters inhabiting the dark underground facilities that hold the clues to what's really going on.

Playing STALKER was a unique experience, one unfortunately marred by a final area that, compared to the rest of the game, was pretty much completely terrible. You have the ability to survive against soldiers because you can fight them from a distance, but taking them on up close runs the risk of bringing death pretty quickly. Which is why it sucks when you're stuck in cramped corridors fighting guys with extremely good armor, while you're constantly being bombarded with radiation, which unfortunately doesn't have the same damaging effect on the guys you're fighting. If it wasn't irritatingly unfair already, the game actually seemed less stable in that area, crashing on me multiple times. There are multiple endings, although to get the best one you have to keep playing farther, and the final final area is almost as bad, because it just feels completely tacked on and unnecessary, with nothing interesting really being added. The whole last section of the game left a horrible taste in my mouth. If you can forgive bad difficulty swings and weird inconsistencies like the translated dialogue being different from the subtitles, STALKER's still worth experiencing.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Robot Chicken - Season 3

Not many shows have a season DVD come out two days after the finale first airs, but I guess that's what happens when you don't show any episodes for eight months for no apparent reason. If you haven't seen it before, Robot Chicken is the logical extension of Family Guy's plot-irrelevant pop culture cutaways, in that it is nothing but strung together stop-motion vignettes that rely on either parody, violence, or farting to get their laughs. You get the feeling that creator Seth Green was inspired heavily by that other show he works on, and it's reinforced by its stars doing voices for him too. Lots of people do voices for the show, which is surely one of the benefits of being a recognizable actor. This aspect reached its zenith when the finale had a rap song about King Arthur's round table to the tune of "Baby Got Back", and I realized during the credits that it was actually performed by Sir Mix-a-Lot. There will never be a better celebrity appearance on anything else, ever.

Robot Chicken is generally a pretty low-brow show, but it occasionally shows some real wit and is almost always worth a chuckle. It only fails when it's just referencing things for the sake of it, but usually there's at least a bit of creativity behind whatever mash-up of 80's cartoons and art house films they're currently throwing on screen. They also do a fair amount of meta-humor too, which is always cute in small doses. It's one of only two Adult Swim shows animated with stop-motion, and as is usually the case when it's done well, it's enjoyable to look at even if you don't like the comedy. They did win an Emmy for the animation, after all. I think it's a little overrated by a certain crowd, but I do like Robot Chicken quite a bit.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes' debut full length album is a pleasant, folksy good time. It doesn't really reach the heights that some more intense bands do, but the combination of good acoustic guitar work, alternately catchy and haunting vocal harmonies, and unique song structures make for a record really worth listening too. The hippie-looking Robin Pecknold is probably the band's driving force, writing all the lyrics and taking charge with the vocals, but you get the feeling they just like playing together as a group and working together to create one memorable sound. I had heard that this album was one of the year's best indie releases, and decided to check the video for "White Winter Hymnal" on Youtube. I was a bit surprised by what I was hearing, because it doesn't sound like something from this year at all, but still captivated by it, and I shortly found out that this same thought carried throughout each of the tracks.

From the near prog-like constant shift in pace of "Sun it Rises" to the solitary howling at the end of "Oliver James", every song does something unique while still fitting the band's central feeling. I almost feel like I've heard some of these before, and I'm sure that's partly because it's hard to come up with unique music these days, but that quality of familiarity is part of its appeal to me. It's hard to really describe what makes each song good, because it's never a single hook or element, it's always the sum of the parts. Some favorites are "Ragged Wood", "Quite Houses", "Your Protector", and "Blue Ridge Mountains". It's really one of those albums that has to be listened to as one experience and not a bunch of disparate tracks to throw on your iPod's shuffle. Although "White Winter Hymnal" is still pretty awesome by itself.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

TV on the Radio - Dear Science

I don't love Dear Science as much as Return to Cookie Mountain, but it's still a very good album with plenty of great moments. It seems a bit catchier and more accessible, with more songs obviously designed to be singles. They still sound like TV on the Radio songs, just not the sort of ones I pick as my favorites. "Dancing Choose" is as catchy as I've ever heard them. There's still trademark elements like the horns and buzzing bass, but it's definitely branching a bit. It might just be me, but it also seems like Kyp Malone takes on a greater role, at least vocally. His single "Golden Age" is almost as fun, and he's written some of their better songs, I just usually enjoy Tunde Adebimpe's unique voice more. It's hard to say what exactly makes Dear Science sound different, and it just might be that the songs aren't quite as good, but there's plenty to enjoy.

"Halfway Home" is a fantastic way to start the record, and one of the best tracks to be found. The vocals, drums, and distorted background noise are really them at their best. "Crying" is pure funk, and another solid song. "Stork & Owl" and "Family Tree" are two good slower songs, the former with its chanted backing vocals and the latter with a minimalist sensibility and affecting chorus. "Shout Me Out" starts with a nice beat and picks up the pace partway through. "DLZ" is another favorite. Everything, from Katrina Ford's la la la's to the intensely cool breakdown at the end is terrific. "Lover's Day" is a nice way to end the normal album, although I got the deluxe version with a few bonus tracks, including some fun remixes. Neither of the original songs stick out that much, but more music is always good. While it wasn't as amazing as their other work, Dear Science still helped cement TV on the Radio as one of my favorite modern bands.