Monday, December 28, 2009

The Beatles - Abbey Road

I didn't know this until recently, but there was a weird situation with the making of this album. Let It Be is the band's final studio album to be released, but for the most part Abbey Road was the last to be written and recorded. There were issues with the former's production and the members knew the group was falling apart, so they decided to do one last project as a band before splitting. It was finished and put out while Let It Be was sitting on the shelf, and I have to say it's a pretty nice note to go out on.

While it would be hard to match the eclectic nature of the thirty songs on the White Album, they do a good job of coming close here. It has the best work of George or Ringo, with "Here Comes the Sun" about tied in my mind with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" as the former's best Beatles song and "Octopus's Garden" being the only really good song that I'm aware of the latter writing. "Something" is another good George song, showing that he really was getting good at this. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is one of Paul's odder ideas, an upbeat though ultimately not-that-catchy tune about a murderer, though it's followed by "Oh! Darling", which is a bit cheesy but also a hell of a lot better. John's contributions to the first side are really good as expected, with everyone knowing "Come Together" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" being one of the band's most interesting songs to me, and a long way to come from things like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand".

Of course the second side is most famous for the medley of unfinished songs turned into a long musical suite, though the couple tracks before it starts are nice too. I already mentioned "Here Comes the Sun", and "Because" has a nice eerie quality to it. The medley does a lot of recalling, bringing back sounds and lyrics from earlier tracks and creating something that feels unique for the band. It has some of their better pure experimental instrumentation and some standout moments, even if I'm not quite sure it reaches the pinnacle of what it could have been. It ends majestically in what is fittingly called "The End", and then the album closes with a snippet of a ditty called "Her Majesty". As a recording by a world famous band that was coming apart at the seams, it's a remarkable achievement and a darn good album.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Beatles - Rubber Soul

I've seen Rubber Soul marked as the time when the Beatles started really coming into their own as musicians, creating songs that went beyond simply ditties about love (although that's still a common theme), and beyond that, crafting cohesive albums and popularizing the idea that they could be more than a group of singles with some filler holding them together. It's only their second studio release featuring no cover songs, and for the most part the praise seems to hold true. While I don't think it's quite a great album, it's a very consistent song, it's just that the songs tend to be good to very good rather than outstanding. That's not to say that there aren't standouts, because there are, whether they be among the band's dozens of very famous radio hits or just damn good compositions that I'm hearing for the first time. It doesn't impress me quite like the other albums I've heard, but it's still darn good, especially when you remember this came out in 1965.

The song I'm most familiar with is "In My Life", which I remember best from being the theme song in covered form of Providence, a show my mom used to watch a lot. I didn't realize it was a Beatles song for a while, but that doesn't prevent it from holding up as a very nice, nostalgic little tune. "Drive My Car", with the most traditional rock sound on the album and some nice piano in the chorus, and "Nowhere Man" are the other ones I'm sure I've heard before. The other ones that stick out tend to be primarily Lennon's work, though McCartney's "Michelle" is very nice and the two Harrison songs make me continue to wonder why his presence was so limited on these albums. Not that much though, because he was working with, uh... Lennon and McCartney. "Norwegian Wood" has its own thing going for it, and I really like "Girl" a lot, and I especially think the way the backing vocals during the bridge are later mimicked by guitars is something of a stroke of genius. Rubber Soul is a really important release in the band's history, and a fairly enjoyable one as well.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Game Update 14: DLC Round-Up 2

So I've played some more downloadable content. It was mostly pretty fun I guess! This is the significant stuff.

Fallout 3: Broken Steel

I liked Fallout 3, but the ending was, well... irredeemably stupid. Without spoiling anything, finishing the main quest ends the game immediately with a cheap cutscene instead of wrapping up the story nicely and letting you keep playing as your character, and makes some giant logical leaps to pack it all into some sort of nice dramatic wrapping without earning it. Broken Steel fixes that by rewriting that portion slightly, still moralizing your actions pointlessly but at least keeping the plot going with a few more missions, raising the level cap to 30, giving you some new equipment, and disabling the switch that basically kills the game. The scope of the new quests feels more like an actual climax to the plot, though in a way it still feels like they're stretching something that's already resolved itself. Still, it's the most essential of the five add-ons Bethesda's released for the game, letting you do whatever you want without worrying about having to load old saves.

Fallout 3: Point Lookout

Broken Steel is the most important add-on, but Point Lookout might be the most interesting. It takes Fallout to a different setting, the mutated wastes of Maryland, infested by monsters, a dangerous cult, and irradiated versions of offensive Southern stereotypes. I haven't played the other DLC packs for the game, which apparently whisk you to other areas which are very linear and guided, leaving Point Lookout as the only one that resembles the actual Fallout 3 experience in smaller form. There's a fair amount of wandering you can do to see what's up, or you can just do the main quest line which features some glitchy action (I can't tell if the game is acting up because I've been playing this character for 30 hours or what), unique moments, and interesting if not overly difficult choices to make. It's not exactly classy, but still enjoyable.

Left 4 Dead: Crash Course

I'm glad I got this for free on the PC instead of paying for it on the Xbox 360, but it's still a neat addition to the original game that was made not too long before the sequel came out. It's a quick little campaign designed to be finished in half an hour in versus mode, so it's not the most substantial thing ever, but the two chapters here add some unique and entertaining twists on the formula. It fits in between two of the existing campaigns, explaining what transpired between them, which on one hand is interesting but on the other just makes me want them to do the same for the entire story, and I don't know if that's going to happen with them already announcing add-ons for the new one. Still, no new Left 4 Dead content is bad Left 4 Dead content, and it's worth a trip if you're not already spoiled by the sequel.

LittleBigPlanet: Metal Gear Solid Level Kit

I think this would have been a bit better for the value if it included the Metal Gear Solid-themed costumes as well, but it was still a good time with my brother for somewhere around an hour. Most of the DLC for LBP is packs of outfits and stickers to throw in your game, but once in a while they do a themed one that adds new gameplay elements and trophies (a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed one just came out this week, I think), and I like MGS a lot, so I finally decided to give it a whirl. We probably had the most fun with the paintball gun which you get to use pretty frequently, shooting each other as much as the enemies, and it definitely adds something new to the game. There's some pretty clever boss fights and special events they put together, and I'm always impressed how much people can do with the simple tools at hand, especially the developers. The LBP/MGS cross-over plot was a nice touch too. A bit short, but as cute as anything else in this game.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Modest Mouse - The Lonesome Crowded West

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from non-major label Modest Mouse. Obviously less polish, but I didn't know what else. What it ended up being was almost shockingly good, although it didn't quite click for me until somewhere during the fourth track, "Lounge (Closing Time)". It's basically making sure the "rock" in indie rock makes sense. The album is very long, almost 74 minutes, though it never seems like it drags or gets long-winded. Several songs last well past the six minute mark, and they all seem like they earn it. The end product is quite good, and possibly my favorite guitar album of the 90s. Very few songs don't have at least a couple great riffs that sound unique to the band, and occasionally they just get into a jam that could last forever. Isaac Brock obviously doesn't need Johnny Marr to rock the heck out, in any case. His vocals tend more towards shouting than on later releases, but there's still plenty of his regular unusual voice saying some odd, usually clever lyrics. Some songs are relatively serious, and others are in that darkly humorous mode.

Any of the five tracks that last at least six minutes are worth listening to. They all shift tempo repeatedly, and manage to stay interesting long enough to make you wish they lasted even longer. Maybe not the eleven minute "Truckers Atlas", but you get the point. "Heart Cooks Brain" is unique among the songs, featuring record scratching of all things and a nice mellow mix of bass and guitar that keeps it cool. "Jesus Christ Was an Only Child" is this album's "Wild Packs of Family Dogs", a hokey acoustic piece that's a lot more sinister than it appears in the first few seconds. "Doin' the Cockroach" gets pretty groovy about halfway through, and "Shit Luck" is a good example of the band's lighter side, as some heavy guitar accompanies Brock's shouts of things like "This boat is obviously sinking!" One of the things I like about Modest Mouse is how they manage to be playful with themes and vocals and serious with the music at the same time. They have their own thing going away from most of the rest of the scene, and I think it works pretty well. It makes me sort of depressed that I was listening to all the stuff on mainstream radio in the late 90s instead.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Halo 3: ODST

ODST has caught some flack from various sources for charging full price for less than a full product. I can't totally justify speaking either way because I paid twenty dollars less, but I don't see how the game is worth less than others in the series. It might just come from the fact that there's a 3 in the title and the words "expansion pack" were tossed around early on. The game does feel like a side story, developing events that take place at the same time as the second half of Halo 2, and the main multiplayer component is just carried over (along with all the paid downloadable extras) from the previous game. The campaign also is a tad short, but I rarely see that as a negative these days as long as it's a well developed, interesting experience. Plus, the new Firefight mode adds to the game's life quite a bit. I haven't played online because the system I'm using doesn't have a Gold account, but I've played Halo that way before, and I see no reason why one of the most consistently popular games would be any worse now.

So my focus as usual was on the single player. Master Chief isn't around this time, replaced by a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, elite soldiers on the same side who enter war zones through individual pods that precariously fall to the planet's surface. You spend the most time as the Rookie, a blank slate of a character who wakes up several hours after the mission begins and explores the city by night, either engaging or sneaking past enemy patrols. You can wander around if you like, but the goal is to track down pieces of equipment left behind by your other squad mates, which trigger more traditional Halo levels starring the other characters. I have to say, one of the biggest reasons why I liked the squad idea is that it made it basically a video game version of Firefly, if Mal and company were armored space marines instead of smugglers. The game doesn't even pretend otherwise; Nathan Fillion is the leader, Alan Tudyk is the pilot, and Adam Baldwin is the tough guy. They're joined by video gaming's ubiquitous Nolan North as the sniper and Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer as the erstwhile captain in charge of the mission. Early on they're all separated but they eventually meet up and work together, killings aliens and cracking wise at the same time. The camaraderie of the squad is an enjoyable element, and it make the Rookie's quietness all the more strange. It seems like the radio on his helmet has failed, but when he just ignores direct questions in person it doesn't fit with the game's tone at all.

Despite lacking the scope of other games in the series, taking place entirely within the confines of a single (admittedly huge) city, it doesn't feel lacking in variety. There's the usual mix of vehicle sections, sneaking through corridors, ambushing small groups, and taking on larger scale battles in open areas. Occasionally a section will kick your ass for a few tries, but it's pretty simple and fun to keep moving through the game, especially if you're familiar with the series. They made a big deal about the Troopers not being as tough or strong as Master Chief, but they seem to jump about as high and take the same punishment before dying, and have no trouble flipping over a crashed vehicle if needed. The health system is changed but essentially the same as the first game and for all intents and purposes, this is Halo through and through. The only thing missing is the Flood, which I'm totally fine with. I admire the attempt to mix up the game a bit, but they were never that fun to fight and the nighttime segments take their place rather neatly.

The game looks and sounds about how you'd expect. People complain that the Halo games don't look much better on the 360 than the original Xbox, but I wonder if they're looking at the same thing I am. It's pretty much the same aesthetic, but everything looks nicer, especially with the lighting. There's a new vision mode in the Troopers' helmets that indicate important features in the darkness. I think I ended up using it for about half the game, and it's usually pretty useful without being distracting. A few things in the game will interfere with the signal, and it adds a cool element of making sure you're using it in the right situation. The story is fairly standard for Halo, as in the world seems more interesting than the execution generally allows. There's not a ton going on in the plot, but it does tie the last two games together nicely in the end, and thanks partly to the cast has the most entertaining cut scenes in the series. If you like Halo, and especially if you haven't already played the online to death, it's definitely worth checking out.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Television Update 5: Fall Finales '09

Once again, just about every network show is taking a few weeks off right about now before coming back in 2010 for the back halves of their seasons. Here's what I think about all of them.

30 Rock - I still enjoy the show, but if it sweeps the Emmys again next year I'm going to start wondering if the voters aren't just watching the first two seasons over and over.

American Dad! - It's continuing along as a consistently solid animated sitcom. Not much to say.

Burn Notice - The first half aired back in the summer, and I've forgotten a lot of it by now besides remembering that a couple episodes felt a little too familiar. Still fun, though.

Castle - Coming into its own a bit. Still just a mystery of the week, but a fairly delightful one.

The Cleveland Show - While not as terrible as the early previews looked, it manages to not be very good and hurt the original show at the same time, because Cleveland works much better as a part of Peter's group than a protagonist in his own right.

Community - Pretty darn funny comedy right out of the gate, which is a bit rare for NBC. Definitely worth a shot.

Dollhouse - Only three more episodes left, but after again stumbling a bit in the first couple hours, this season has been astoundingly good science fiction and I'm sad to see it go.

Family Guy - Despite Cleveland being gone, I feel like this season has been better than the last couple, mostly because it's been totally insane for a lot of it.

FlashForward - I was really impressed with the premiere, but it hasn't lived up to it since. I don't like the characters enough and the plot isn't focused enough for either to carry the show.

Fringe - They're doing a better job of connecting the week's strange event to something relevant to the characters, and it's improving the series noticeably.

Glee - I did not expect to find myself watching this, but it's honestly pretty good. Somewhat a guilty pleasure, but it does some interesting, unexpected things.

Heroes - This show is too far gone. Even when an episode is actually okay, I can't bring myself to actually care at all.

How I Met Your Mother - Not as good as the show's been before, but still plenty watchable. I am getting a little tired of waiting for the mom to show up, though. I mean, she can appear without that ending the series right there and then, right?

Legend of the Seeker - Only six episodes deep, but it does seem better than the first season in a few aspects. And it's going to be a little while before we see Ned and Tyrion on TV anyway.

Metalocalypse - They could have flopped with the transition to half hour episodes, but I think it's worked out. Honestly seems funnier this year.

The Office - Still totally enjoyable, though I do find myself wondering lately what's the point of the show. Is it just going to last forever?

Parks and Recreation - Actually probably more consistently funny than its parent show so far this year. The cast is just clicking.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - It's still pretty meh. Why am I watching it again?

V - We only saw four episodes of this, but it showed some level of promise. I was never really on the edge of my seat, though.

The Venture Bros. - The show's longest season has been just as good as the first three halfway through. Could have used some more Brock, but each week is another hit of fantastic comedy and insane, great plotting.

Friday, December 18, 2009

PixelJunk Shooter

For the last couple years, Q-Games have been making the PixelJunk series of games, quick downloadable titles on the PlayStation Network that have apparently been improving over time, though this is the first one I've been interested in. The "Shooter" title was chosen in a contest, and I don't think it's quite an accurate name for what the game really is. Yeah, you and possibly a second player fly around in little space ships, shooting at enemies, but that's not the core of the experience. It's really more of a puzzle game, as you have to figure out how to get through the levels while interacting with the game's big technical gimmick, fluid dynamics. When you first start playing, there's both water and lava flowing around, one protecting you and the other putting you in danger. When they touch they form destructible rock, and subsequent areas start introducing different fluids and special suits for your ship that all have their own properties. It never gets too challenging, because the game gives you hints on what you need to do and new elements are introduced slowly enough that it never gets confusing.

The basic progression is you're traveling deeper and deeper under a planet's surface, rescuing miners who have been trapped and also collecting hidden diamonds. Once all the miners in an area are gone, either rescued or killed, the way to the next area is opened, although only so many can die before you have to start the whole level over. The diamonds feel like something that should be an extra for completionists, but you need to have a certain amount by the end of each episode to unlock the boss level. This was fine the first couple times, but in the final episode, I had to return to earlier areas to get enough diamonds for the final level, which seemed like a lame way to handle it. Although I did notice how much my ability to track down missing items improved when I managed to quickly destroy the game's first two levels and get enough diamonds.

I think I enjoyed the game's presentation more than anything. The graphics are really nice, with a cool, cartoon look and the physics on the fluid interaction aren't perfect but still a lot of fun to screw around with. The music was unique and interesting, and the sound effects were good, with a lot of very useful and memorable queues. The game ends before it can get really challenging, and teases an "encore" paid add-on like the last two PixelJunk games had to see the end of the adventure. It's not that the game was too short, because about four hours of solid fun are enough for about ten bucks, it just doesn't feel like you get the full arc of gameplay you'd expect from a finished product. The boss fights are generally highlights, and help the game earn at least part of that shooter name. It's not the best thing I've downloaded off the PlayStation Store, but should be good fun for people who like to think a bit while dodging enemy fire.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Honey and Clover - Season 1

Honey and Clover is an interesting case in the world of anime. On one hand, at first glance it's totally creepy and strange. The story is about a group of art students at a college who spend a lot of time together, and how things change when a few of them fall in love with a new girl at the same time. Which would be fine and pretty normal, if she didn't look and mostly act like she was about 12. Her character is actually an adult and she's never really viewed or portrayed in a sexual context, but it can still be very odd at first. If you're able to get past that though, you're left with one of the best and most touching animated comedies I've seen in a long time.

Even when the show's just being goofy, which is a fairly common mode early on, it usually succeeds at eliciting laughter, at least pretty well for anime, which I often enjoy for its insanity but don't usually find generally humorous. As the show continues, it gets a bit more serious, focusing on developing the characters and their relationships. It never totally loses the sense of fun, with frequent returns to humor or just touching moments between friends, though it does get pretty hard at times. Romance is the ultimate goal, though it's generally of the tragic variety, with unrequited feelings and disappointments abounding. It doesn't quite gel perfectly with the comedy aspect, but it does sort of create a combination of emotions you usually don't see in animation. It's very bittersweet, and there's some sort of nostalgic aspect to it also. As far as shows that are actually intelligent and artistic, I haven't seen a lot better than Honey and Clover.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tom Goes to the Mayor

I've seen a bunch of episodes of this show before, but never sat down and watched the whole series until now. It's not as brilliant as Tim and Eric's current live action show, Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!, but it's still pretty funny and occasionally subversively clever. The premise is fairly mundane, Tom Peters is new to the town of Jefferton, and brings some of his ideas on how to improve his new home to the mayor. Some of the ideas are moronic, and some are actually pretty decent, but it makes no difference because by the end they're always doing something different and insane based on the mayor's suggestions. It makes you wonder if he's actually totally aware of what he's doing and always screwing with Tom or simply an idiot, but in the end it doesn't matter.

The show isn't always firing on all cylinders, but when it is it's pretty terrific. It's fairly interesting how many bits and ideas in Awesome Show originated here, and so much fun is in the little details, like how the mayor always needs Tom to reintroduce himself before he remembers who he is. As with Awesome Show, there are lots of celebrity cameos, from Jeff Goldblum and Zach Galifianakis to Robert Loggia and John C. Reilly. Brian Posehn probably shows up the most often as Gibbons, Tom's small and generally crappy friend, who manages to be hilarious and maddening at the same time. I know some people completely hate this show, but they're honestly fools. Let it grow on you. You'll like it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dexter - Season 4

I see Dexter's fourth season the same way a woman might see her middle aged husband. He has his flaws. He's not as impressive as he was when you first got to know him. And he sags around the middle. But he does enough for you to remember why you loved him in the first place, and at least he doesn't disappoint you like he did when he started hanging out with Jimmy Smits last year.

I do think this was the show's best season since the first. One big factor in that is John Lithgow's role as the season-long antagonist and possible role model for Dexter, a seasoned serial killer who seems to have managed to figure out how to satiate his urges and keep a nice family at the same time. When you're first just seeing how he works, he's one of the creepiest villains I've seen in a TV show. I know Lithgow pretty much exclusively from his comedic work, so I was pretty blown away by how scary he can be when he wants. He gets a little dull once we see him in domestic mode, at least at first, though as Dexter sees more of the truth behind the lies, things start getting really creepy again. The other factor in the season's success was the ending, not just the mind-blowing last couple minutes (which in a way I kind of actually see as a cop out), but pretty much the last episode entirely, and the last scene of the previous episode - maybe the most tense I've ever been at something on television.

Besides that though, the season did have a few issues. There was some inconsistency with Dexter's character and his struggles at home - yeah, he has an infant son of his own now, but that didn't take center stage like I expected. I constantly found myself thinking "Oh yeah, he has a kid" - it just didn't have a lot of impact on him, not anymore than his existing worries about his family anyway. And there's just a fundamental shift in his MO - Dexter has always tried to channel his compulsion into something somewhat positive - killing criminals that the justice system misses. There are a couple moments where he deviates from this system, intentionally or otherwise, and both are acknowledged yet neither are dealt with satisfyingly. The stuff with Deb was pretty solid this year, and Masuka is really turning into a good character beyond comedic relief, but I found myself not caring a single bit about the thing between LaGuerta and Batista, and I'm basically just counting the days until Quinn's arc of mimicking Doakes comes to the same conclusion. Having a fifth season confirmed before the fourth even aired gave them the opportunity to set up what should be a highly intriguing next part of the story, and now I'm back to waiting again.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum

I normally steer clear of licensed video games because of their general crappiness, but there are three reasons why I gave Arkham Asylum a shot.

1) The demo was pretty promising.
2) It had near universal acclaim from critics and friends alike.
3) It's not a rushed product meant to cash in on some movie or something, but a game made as part of the excellent animated series' universe, even written by Paul Dini and starring the voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker, respectively.

So I played the game, and it did not disappoint. I think an open world game in the vein of Assassin's Creed would be an awesome setting for Batman, but this approach works too. There's sort of a Bioshock vibe to the design, which I'm sure was intentional. The gameplay is obviously different, but being placed in a tightly constructed yet still explorable world, being guided to your next objective but allowed to veer off the rails, frequent attempts to frighten you with scripted sequences and environment details, audio tapes scattered around that fill in the story, a madman pulling all the strings... yeah, this is a lot like Bioshock. And that's good, because Bioshock was a great game. Arkham Asylum still has its own identity of course, making good use of the license with a bunch of classic villains to defeat and one of the more interesting premises in a Batman story - the Joker takes over the entire island, and you have to figure out what he's really up to and thwart his plans, all within the span of a single crazy night.

The gameplay is a mix of stealth, brawling, and mild puzzles. Sometimes you'll enter a room and there will be a number of armed thugs scattered around looking for you. You make your way around the room quietly, hiding in nooks and crannies and swinging between gargoyles perched near the ceiling to give the bad guys the slip as you pick them off one by one. It's a bit easy at first, but by the end it gets genuinely tense as you have to use a lot of cunning to escape unharmed. The combat is very heavily combo based, with maintaining your current bonus as much of the goal as defeating all the enemies. Batman's repertoire of moves is nice, and it feels pretty great to take down a whole room of toughs without getting a scratch on you. Later on the goal is less domination and more just surviving, but that generally works too. The boss fights are generally pretty bad, which is a little disappointing. They rarely deviate from the formula of a big dude charging at you, and almost all of them resign themselves to also throwing a bunch of regular enemies at you to worry about too. Hey guys... that's not a boss. It's just another fight.

A big part of the game is being not just Batman: the super hero but also Batman: the detective. It's not quite as deep as I would have liked, but checking out crime scenes for evidence and following trails with your equipment's myriad applications is pretty cool. This is where the game's collection aspect comes in, as the Riddler has left a ton of things around the island for you to track down. It's all a bit more simplistic than it could have been, but still fun to track down, and the game lets you keep looking after you beat it. A lot of the riddles require more advanced equipment than you have when you first see them to get them, introducing a sort of Metroidvania element to the proceedings. The only real complaint I have about the exploring aspect is that the recordings of interviews with inmates you find attempt to be creepy, but rarely succeed, often coming off as silly. The Scarecrow sequences are more effective in this regard, although they tend towards interesting more often than actually scary.

It's a good looking game, and I like little details like Batman's cape and costume getting more and more tattered over the course of the game. There are a few issues, especially the higher resolution versions of some textures not popping in fast enough, causing some awkwardly ugly moments. I'm not a big fan of the faces, and after playing a lot of this year's games, I'm not sure why the Unreal engine is so popular when these other ones don't have a catchy name but have fewer problems. The sound is solid too, especially the classic voices by returning cast from the series. Hamill's Joker isn't as disturbing as Heath Ledger's, but it's quite entertaining in its own way, and he does a really good job here. I still have things to find in the game, and I haven't even touched the optional challenge modes, although they don't really interest me terribly. Still, it was a very good single player experience in a year full of them.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Porcupine Tree - The Incident

The Incident is a solid, very proggy and very long album. A little less metal than the band has been recently, and fairly ambitious, spanning two discs. The first disc lasts about an hour and is a single song cycle appropriately called "The Incident", broken into 14 tracks that do overlap quite a bit. There are only about six tracks that last long enough to develop their own identity, with the others bridging the gaps, developing some sounds and ideas, and providing breathers. Riffs and entire verses can pop up repeatedly in various places, and there's a real cohesive feel to the whole thing without it seeming like one long song usually.

The second disc is fairly divorced from the first, being about EP length and tacking on four more songs to the whole thing's running time. Honestly, I thought it would have been better served as its own separate release. The whole thing lasts roughly 80 minutes with both discs, and I kind of lose interest by the time the first part is over. I could just listen to them separately on my own, but I'm kind of a stickler about listening to entire albums when I play music, and the second disc just drags. It's not bad, it's just too much. Still, it's hard to dislike anything on this record. I won't bring up individual songs because there's not much point - if you've listened to them you know what to expect, and if you don't then I won't do a good job of explaining them anyway. I prefer this band when they make more traditional albums instead of this longer-winded, more conceptual stuff, but it's still all right.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Season 5

Looking back, Sunny wasn't quite as good last year as it had been previously. Still one of the funniest shows on TV, but not up to its own standards. I was glad to see that this year they made a nice recovery, bouncing back and being probably the best pure comedy to air. There are a couple troubling elements - there was a fair amount of overt product placement that did seem a little weird at times, and Charlie's illiteracy/general mental ineptitude is still funny, but starting to take over his whole character. In previous years I would hands down call him my favorite member of the gang, but this season definitely felt like it belonged to Dennis, especially the second half. Everything he did seemed to be pure gold, from explaining his system for winning over and then getting rid of girls to his concept for the ideal action movie to his foaming rage at and subsequent revenge against members of his former college fraternity.

It's hard to say what makes Sunny so good. There's something about just the way the characters talk with each other that's totally natural and off-the-wall hilarious at the same time. I still think episodes where the main characters all just let slip how much they really don't like each other are the best, with "Mac and Dennis Break Up" being a great example. In a lot of ways they hate each other, but they also desperately need each other just to survive. There's a collective dysfunction that makes them into a strange sort of family, and it's one of the best group dynamics in a TV comedy ever. And the Christmas special, while lame for being only viewable on its own DVD, is worth checking out to see what the show would be like if it were an R rated movie.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Radiohead - Hail to the Thief

And now my collection of full Radiohead studio albums that people actually like is complete. Unless they make another one, which they may or may not, depending on which member you listen to. Anyway, as expected, Hail to the Thief is quite good. Just to give you an idea of how much my taste in music has changed in just six years, I remember "There There" as the first Radiohead song I ever heard, or at least the first I knew was them, and being a bit bored by it. I started listening to the band a couple years later, and now I count that song among possibly their ten best, especially if you count radio playability as a factor. Maybe twenty best if you don't (they have a lot of really good songs).

Thief is an interesting transitional album. Their most recent work at the time was the game changing and unusual Kid A/Amnesiac project, which cemented them as a band that will do their own thing at any cost. Its traditional rock elements were few and far between, and Thief marks them easing into a return to that sound, although with heavy influence of their electronic sojourn still intact. It has the longest running length and most songs of any of their albums. Most have something pretty strong going for them, and unlike the vast majority of releases the record seems a bit back-loaded, with most of the less impressive ones packed toward the beginning.

Just a few tracks that stand out particularly even if it's just for an element that's gripping or interesting instead of a genuinely good song are "Backdrifts", "We Suck Your Blood" (best use of hand claps in a song ever?), "The Gloaming", "Myxomatosis", and "A Wolf at the Door". I know I mostly just picked the tracks that would fit in the most on Kid A, but that's not an indictment on what this album does differently - there are a lot of things about it I prefer. And honestly, for me, it might be the band's best release of this decade.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

A couple movies ago they showed how to make Star Trek funny and make it work, and this time they showed that it can totally succeed by taking itself seriously. There are of course a few moments of levity sprinkled throughout, but Undiscovered Country is generally a very somber, tense movie that succeeded beyond my expectations for the franchise. The conflict is yet again with the Klingons, though it's different this time - a lasting peace is in the cards, but a plot involving mistaken identity and sabotage puts that in jeopardy. The Klingons were always a sci-fi parallel to the USSR, and with the Cold War ending, the writer decided to absolve their differences with Starfleet in basically the same way. There's some really interesting scenes of diplomacy and non-violent conflict, like a dinner with some emissaries that doesn't go too well, and a surprisingly suspenseful trial. Kim Cattrall is another surprising actress to play a young Vulcan officer, but she does a decent job and helps provide the only time the mind meld has ever been scary. It's not a perfect film, but it's definitely a good one, and a nice send-off for the original crew. The end credits begin with the cast literally signing off in farewell, which makes it all the more pathetic that three of them came back yet again in the next movie. But I won't be seeing that for a while.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Taxi Driver

It's sort of hard to articulate my thoughts on Taxi Driver. It's a character study of a man who at first appears relatively normal except for perhaps too strong of a negative opinion regarding the other people in his environment, yet as it goes on he quickly becomes more and more psychotic. He talks about how the streets should be cleaned up, eventually deciding he should be the one to do it. I'm a little unclear on the amount of time the film covers. It doesn't feel too long, but the character undergoes a lot of change and some telling details are sort of skipped over. A lot of the film is just him watching the world around him, though it never gets boring and it's punctuated by moments of grave intensity, including the totally alarming climax which is only hampered slightly by the dated special effects. It's really a movie propelled by Robert De Niro's performance, at different times charming, pathetic, and harrowing, and without which I'm not sure the film succeeds.

His is not the only good performance, with Harvey Keitel making the despicable pimp of an underage girl somehow a bit likable, and Jodie Foster holding her own in an early role as said prostitute. There's some early stuff at a campaign center with Albert Brooks and Cybill Shepherd that doesn't really seem to fit with the rest of the movie but provides a bit of relief from De Niro's ever-deepening dementia, and also provides a glimpse at where his mind is truly headed. It's a good collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader, just one of many, as they somehow make the unusual story work. I'm not sure I agree with every decision Scorsese makes, but most of it succeeds and it seems pretty groundbreaking for 1976. The ending is definitely odd and can work with a couple different interpretations. At first it seemed to come out of nowhere and mesh poorly with what I had seen just before, but in hindsight I think it works better than something closer to what I was expecting. I still feel like there's something just a bit off with the whole thing, but it's certainly a staple of the decade and has me wanting to watch more by both the director and the lead.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

The previous Trek movie showed how to make the series funny and do it right. This one shows how to do it terribly, terribly wrong. The film is downright silly. It's not clever or intelligent, it's downright slapsticky. It gets more serious as it goes on, though it never really gets good. You know a plot is on weak footing when it has to go back and give the most developed character a secret half brother to get to the point. I guess William Shatner was trying when he came up with the story and directed this, but very little about it works, and this is when I started feeling kind of depressed about how old everyone looks. I mean, this movie was released twenty years after the TV series ended. And yet here they all are, dancing erotically, scooting around on rocket boots, and being written out of a scene by banging their head on the ship. There are a couple moments that almost work, but by and large it can only be considered poor. The ending is among the films' most bizarre and meaningless, as the conflict just sort of dies without much resolution. I can't even remember what happened to certain key players. Just not good.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Fox gets a lot of hate for canceling good shows without giving them a real chance to find an audience... but they're not the only ones. Kings is a unique show with a complicated premise, maybe too complicated for its own good. It's the sort of thing that needed explanation, and special attention with the advertising if it had a hope to survive. But it didn't get it. NBC completely ignored anything specific about it when showing previews, and it died a quick, ratings-starved death. This has been a year for sad early cancellations, none stronger than Kings'. Why would greenlight and produce a series that retells the story of David from the Bible, complete with messages from God and divine providence sprinkled throughout, and not even mention that aspect to potential viewers? It's like they were afraid of somehow angering what could have been a strong audience. I mean, how often do religious zealots get to watch a modern drama? You don't need to be a Christian to enjoy the hell out of Kings, but there's no reason they shouldn't have tried courting them. Oh well. Another intriguing, well made show bites the dust.

So yeah, Kings is the story of David, as in David and Goliath and King David of Israel. Or at least just the beginning of the story, ending upon his initial exile after falling out of favor with Saul. It seems like it could be gimmicky at first (He defeats a tank single-handed, and the tank's model is called Goliath, get it!?), but it quickly turns into a simple, good political drama. As he did throughout Deadwood, Ian McShane steals most scenes he's in, playing the king who can't decide if he wants to kill David or keep him by his side. He proves he can be compelling without every third word from his mouth being an expletive, and just watching him speak is captivating every time. The rest of the cast around him is solid if lacking in the same gravitas, including some really good guest spots by guys like Brian Cox and even Macaulay Culkin, still attempting to arise from the child actor's early grave.

It's a bit hard to describe why I liked Kings so much. The dialogue sometimes seems overly operatic and the more overt nods to the story's religious nature can seem a little heavy-handed, but both elements totally worked for me. A lot of the characters seem to completely change their minds about important constantly on a dime, but it seems like that's how it really could be in a monarchy, even a completely modern one. In a position of power, you have to make decisions cold, and circumstances can change quickly with messages delivered by radio instead of foot. Also, I can't not mention how damn beautiful the show is. It's hard to say how much of the sets are actually there and how much is digitally added (seems like it could be a lot), but the unique combination of current cities and regal opulence is usually stunning and never boring. I feel bad about not watching this when it aired, especially with how many places they could have gone with it, but I'm still glad I saw it anyway.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Leonard Nimoy's second turn as director might actually be my favorite of the original Star Trek movies that I've seen. The second one had some good stuff in it, but The Voyage Home is just consistently entertaining throughout. It starts as a relatively serious, normal Trek story. Kirk and the crew are returning to Earth to face trial for their insubordination in traveling to retrieve Spock, and there's a mysterious alien probe headed on the same course. It's all pretty normal, but once the words "humpback whale" are uttered, it basically turns into a comedy. They do their absurd slingshot-around-the-sun thing to go back in time, and embark on an unusual mission to save the Earth's future, and some animals as well. These guys have gone back in time before, but it's never been this consistently funny. Things like Spock's experimentation with profanity, Bones' distaste for modern medical practices, and Chekov asking people if they know where to find nuclear wessels are great, and it's funny how cavalier they are about changing the past and causing potential paradoxes. This year's Trek film was pretty humorous as well, and that's probably the best tone for the series, at least from what I've seen. It's a series about the fun and wonder of having adventures through space and time, not gritty galactic conflict. The film's not without flaws, but it's enjoyable throughout.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Game Update 13: DSiWare Round-Up

The last handheld system I owned was the Game Boy Color, but I recently reentered that arena when I bought a white DSi bundle (I wanted the blue one with a couple Mario games, but I couldn't find it). The "bundle" aspect meant it came with five DSiWare games and applications already installed in addition to the default ones, and here are some brief thoughts on them.

Brain Age Express: Arts & Letters

The Brain Age mini-games are neat little challenges, although I'm skeptical of their actual ability to measure how good your brain's feeling. The daily brain age check picks three of the games to test you on (including ones you haven't unlocked to play whenever you want), although it seems to hone in on ones you suck at. I'm pretty good at every game except for the one that asks you to memorize a list of 30 words, and the game seems to know this, throwing it at me every single day. Not being good at one thing shouldn't bring down my entire score as much as it does. Still, mostly brain exercises.

Brain Age Express: Math

I'm better at this one, mostly because the memorization one is easier to handle. I've always had a mathematical mind, though the game still thinks I could be doing a lot better.

Brain Age Express: Sudoku

I've never actually played Sudoku before, so this is a nice introduction. It's irritating that both of the times I've marked the wrong number, it's been because the controls failed me and not my thinking, especially when one mistake adds twenty minutes to your final time. Still, Sudoku is the kind of brain teaser I like, and they're pretty fun to solve.

Clubhouse Games Express: Card Classics

A few card games, one of which is kind of boring, another is a variety of poker that no one plays anymore, and the other three basically variants of games I've only played in drinking contexts. They work well enough, but I can't imagine many people who would want to play cards without the human element.

Photo Clock

There's a clock you can use your photos with, and an alarm function. That's about it. I guess they didn't want to put too much free stuff you'd actually consider buying in the bundle.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

The third Trek film opens with a recap of the second, including the funeral, which happens to be the best scene in this movie too. This film forms a trilogy of sorts with the previous and the next, and Search is actually fairly eventful for the middle of a story. There's not a whole lot of Nimoy on screen, though he was actually behind the camera as the director for this one, and does a decent job. There's some bizarre casting decisions and it's a bit anticlimactic, but definitely affected the least by the odd-numbered curse on the original cast Trek films. Klingons (led by an out-of-place Christopher Lloyd) are after the technology developed and activated in the last movie, and stumble upon Kirk's son, a reincarnated Spock (have I not mentioned he "died"? He "died"), and the recast Kirstie Alley character. Kirk and the rest of the crew enact a plan to commandeer the Enterprise and come to the rescue, and though parts of that story are entertaining, it never gets exciting like you'd hope from the films' first Klingon/Starfleet conflict. After that gets resolved, there's still the case of Spock and turning him truly back into the man he should be. There's some emotional moments and bits of humor sprinkled around, and it ends with things left to accomplish. Like most of the earlier Trek canon, I can say it's... not bad.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Assassin's Creed II

A lot of people had issues with the first game, though I liked it quite a lot. Still, it had its flaws. Running around, climbing up buildings, and sticking dudes with your hidden blade was a lot of fun. But the amount of variety in the missions was extremely limited - none of the tasks were by themselves terribly boring, but when there's only a handful that repeat constantly, it can become a drag. This is where the sequel sees its biggest improvement - the main progression through the game is much more involved and story-based, with the more mundane tasks set aside as option side missions. The limit to what you can do hasn't expanded greatly - you're still stealthily taking out Templars, visiting various hard to reach locations, trailing people and eavesdropping to gather information. Some annoyances are still there, like the beggars being replaced with minstrels. You're just more invested in what you're doing because you believe in Ezio's personal cause more than you did in Altair's sense of duty.

And there are improvements to be seen everywhere. Your arsenal of weapons and acrobatic moves is expanded. There's more visual variety as missions can take place at different times of the day and events like festivals can change the atmosphere. There's a whole economy added now to buy items and improved equipment, although it's a little broken. The reward for almost everything you do is money, though once you've fully upgraded your home you basically never run out of it, limiting how useful more of it becomes. I didn't notice a big difference in the quality of the weapons, even between the best and the worst, and regardless of how much health/armor you have it didn't seem to have a big influence on how long you can stay alive. But you can pay for transit quickly between distant places, and there's a bunch of optional content that's some of the most interesting I've seen in a game. Tracking down seals in hidden tombs is an actual test of your platforming skill that eventually rewards you with some nice gear, and finding hidden glyphs on buildings throughout Italy unlocks interesting little puzzles that expand on the game's ridiculous yet entertaining story.

Not everything's better though. People complained about the first game constantly kicking you back into the real world where the series' true protagonist Desmond is being experimented on, but I thought it was an intriguing element to the story and enjoyed the drip-feed of new information, while there's only a couple of those sort of segments in this game. They're fairly revealing, but it made it easier to forget what the game's really about. The aforementioned glyphs helped, but I still missed it. And I thought the first game's setting was more interesting than Renaissance Italy. The game does interesting stuff with art and history there, but I enjoyed the aesthetic less, and things like Venice's canals made it harder to get around. Also, one thing that's not much improved is the combat. The new variety of weapons is cool, but it's still a lot of waiting for the opportunity to counter your enemy's attacks, with some of the complexity and danger actually taken out - you never have to worry about getting grabbed, and it seems overall a lot easier to bolt and avoid danger altogether. And the facial animation actually seems way worse - especially on Kristen Bell's character. The game's environments look nice, but not so much the conversations.

The story is worth mentioning, mostly because it's totally insane. You get a taste of the vast, millennia-long secret war between Assassins and Templars in the first game, but the sequel really dives into the crazy conspiracy aspect of it, and it's almost too over-the-top. As you can tell from the hidden messages in the glyphs, there's hardly a significant event in the last two thousand years of history that these groups and the "pieces of Eden" they found haven't had a hand in, and the number of famous people involved is astounding. I totally enjoyed this aspect of the plot - if you're gonna imply something this big, go ahead and go crazy with it. It's all dwarfed by the ending though, which reveals more about the conflict's origins than anyone could possibly comprehend. It's - it's just nuts. And it's all wrapped in Ezio's story, which is pretty solid on its own in places. If I was looking forward to what happened next after the first game, I'm positively foaming over it now. Creed II is one of the most fun open-world games I've ever played, and I'm extremely curious when and where the next one will take place.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The consensus is that Wrath of Khan is not only better than the first Trek film, but probably the best out of the lot of them, at least before this year's remake thing. I can't speak for the second part yet, but they were right about the first. It's noticeably shorter than the first one yet seems to pack a lot more in, including some actual action sequences and a few of the franchise's most iconic moments. The space funeral at the end with Kirk's speech is particularly memorable, and no one can forget him shouting his foe's name at the top of his lungs. I've come to expect the unexpected with these things, and one surprise was seeing a young Kirstie Alley as an up-and-coming Vulcan officer. Ultimately though she didn't seem to do much, and gets replaced by a different actress in the next movie. There's also a subplot with an ex of Kirk's and the son they apparently had together, although I didn't pay attention to a lot of that. The focus is on Khan's elaborate revenge plot involving taking over ships and even people's minds, and using a special device to annihilate everything as a last resort. There's some sacrifice and sad goodbyes, although it's all temporary as the cast would stick together for another four films after this one. I wouldn't call it a great science fiction movie, but it was certainly fairly entertaining and a good step up from the first one.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Goats is one of those quirkier comedies that just lets you enjoy the slight air of absurdity around it for a while instead of hitting you over the head with wacky moments. It's mostly propelled by good, off-beat performances, especially from its two leads, Ewan McGregor and George Clooney. McGregor is a down-on-his-luck reporter who spends a lot of the film in awe of the strange stuff he keeps seeing, though he also has a strong humorous streak whenever it gets too crazy and he has to lash out. Clooney does one of the best jobs I've seen him do, as an army man on a mission obsessed with his special skills which may or may not be totally fictional. The movie's based on a book about an apparently very real government program to train psychic soldiers to do things like see into distant locations and even kill things with the power of their mind. The film itself can't seem to decide whether to make it real, because half the time they really do work and the other half it's just the hopelessly narrow way they look at it. Maybe that's what it's really about though, just your perspective at any moment.

Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey also turn in solid work as other members of the special unit, though they're mainly seen in flashbacks to when it was still in its prime. The whole movie's structured a bit oddly, bouncing back and forth between mostly the 80s before the program was shut down and earlier this decade, when the author/narrator was in Iraq finding all this stuff out. It really has the feel of one of the Coen Brothers' more light-hearted movies, which is totally cool by me. It's the kind of thing where I enjoyed watching it a lot more than you might guess from just monitoring my laughter, although there were definitely plenty of times I chuckled. The ending was a bit weird, and it's an unusual situation because it would have been pretty much perfect if they just cut it literally a few seconds earlier. It has the feel of being based on a somewhat troubling book to adapt, though for what it's worth the writer did a pretty good job at it. I can't remember many comedies from this year and there are definitely a couple I want to see, but this is one of the better to come out as this decade closes.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek's first film incarnation is a bit interesting. Conceptually that is, not so much to watch. Being released ten years after the series ended, the whole main cast returns, though they've all aged visibly in the meantime. So their characters aged as well, showing Kirk as an admiral now, retaking command of an updated Enterprise on a dangerous mission. It's well over half an hour before the crew is back together, and I think about fifty minutes in when he finally reunites with Spock. Needless to say, the movie's pace is slow. There's really not that much going on as far as a conflict - an alien threat exists, but it doesn't put the main cast in a whole lot of apparent danger. I'll admit I didn't pay as much attention as I could have, but I didn't see a whole lot of the movie really striving for me to do so. It's interesting to see what was big in special effects at the end of the 70s, but that's really about it. The subplot involving the displaced captain and some bald woman proved to be fairly important, but still, it was struggling at the edge of doing something compelling. It's hard to really dislike anything about the series, but this movie bored me for most of its duration.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Walking Dead, Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars

The third volume continues the story in very much the same manner, as Rick and his band of weary survivors keep up the struggle to live in a world overrun by zombies. The cast continues to grow and shrink at the same time, with some getting killed as fast as others are discovered. This one takes place mostly in a nearly abandoned prison, which at first seems to be a safe haven but turns out to be more dangerous than they thought, and not only because of the undead. It continues to be an interesting, depressing story, not one that I'm in love with but one that I can't stop pursuing. It's kind of hard to write these, because without getting into story specifics there isn't that much different from book to book - zombies are everywhere, couples come together and fall apart, and people die. The winter is thawing, and the fact that the world is clearly continuing despite the relentless danger of living in the land of the dead is one of the comic's most successfully unsettling aspects. There's just no end to it. AMC is going to film a pilot for a series based on it, which I'm sort of ambivalent towards. A legitimate, long term series based on a zombie apocalypse is pretty cool, but I'm not sure if they can do it justice on that channel. It will be neat to see them try, though.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Feast for Crows

I'm not sure if splitting up this book and the next one by region instead of time was the right decision... but it's hard to say that the latter would actually be better. Getting interrupted in the middle of a story's flow is a drag, especially when the sequel goes from being hopefully released a year later to still not out after three more. But a lot of what happens in Crows just seems like filler. Really good filler - with the same quality of writing, a lot of great expansion on the story's incredibly deep world and cast of hundreds, and yeah, a few of those insane moments. But the driving force for a lot of the series' plot is being handled by the people who happen to be elsewhere, and it's hard not to miss what they brought to the books.

There are a few new areas of interest in Crows, mostly covered by several new POV characters who only get one or two chapters. They're interesting to read for the most part, giving a peek at how varied the cultures can be just within the borders of the setting's primary continent. But I had some trouble figuring out whether those chapters would actually be there if the two books were never split up. Significant things do occur, but not a whole lot of pages are dedicated to them and they're the sorts of events that the series usually manages to fill you in on anyway through messages and hearsay. The two most significant new POV characters are characters that have already been seen extensively previously, though they do a good job of shifting the focus a little bit to see what their sides of the story are.

Most of the returning narrators don't have a whole lot to do, really adding to the feeling of this book being a bit of a black sheep. I wouldn't go so far as to call it boring, it just seems like it's biding its time while something bigger prepares to happen in the last few volumes. Now that I have to wait with everyone else for A Dance of Dragons to come out I'm a little disappointed, especially since Crows ended well enough that waiting until two books from now to see what happens kind of blows. Hopefully the wait won't be much longer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 7

Curb Your Enthusiasm's sixth season had some good moments, many of them provided by Larry David's housemate Leon, but I was a bit disappointed by it. Two years later, Larry has finally redeemed the show. It's a return to form as Larry bumbles his way through socially awkward situations and one of the show's best long term stories. The premise this time is a reunion episode of Seinfeld, which Larry initially rejects but changes his mind about after scheming to get back with his ex-wife by writing her into the show. Before that can get off the ground though, he has to figure out how to break up with his current girlfriend who may or may not have cancer. Not exactly the best thing a person can do, but at least he's less despicable about things in general this time. He still gets himself into pretty bad spots, especially when he starts seeing a woman in a wheelchair, it's just things worked better this time.

There's plenty of good material in the first half, with a few moments among the series' best, and it only gets better once rehearsing and filming for the reunion gets underway. The whole main cast is back, along with some supporting characters like Newman and George's mother, and there are even a few finished scenes from what such a reunion could look like, which are pretty enjoyable. The real reunion though is just the one in the show, with the actors playing themselves and inadvertently foiling all of Larry's plans. The season ends the way it should have, with a nice moment and a payoff for one of the season's better gags of the sort that always come to fruition unexpectedly, and the finale could either serve to end the show or set the table for yet another season, whichever Larry decides to do. I'd be fine either way, great comedy is always nice but he's already given us more than anyone could possibly ask for.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Titan Maximum - Season 1

Sharing a lot of writers and voice actors with Robot Chicken, Maximum is those guys' attempt at a show with actual characters and continuity. It pokes fun at various old cartoons and anime, specifically things like Voltron where a team of soldiers pilots vehicles that can combine into a giant robot. Like Chicken, it's pretty easy to watch and often funny, though less intelligent seeming than a lot of other stuff on Adult Swim, which is hard considering its reputation as a channel for stoners. The team's boss is actually called Admiral Bitchface, haha! The leader likes punching things in the face, and the slutty girl likes kicking them in the groin! There's a goddamn monkey! Seth Green plays the series' main villain, who's mostly just a smarmy ass, and the rest of the cast is filled out by some other minor celebrities. I like that there's actually a plot, and it does a good job of parodying its own genre. I'm sure they're gonna keep it going, and the season ends with a cliffhanger that suggests as much. I really don't care about what happens, but it's a good enough way to waste 11 minutes at a time.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2

This is an unusual prospect for Valve - a full sequel, actually featuring more content than its predecessor did at release, being put out only a year later. Given that the Half-Life 2 episodes were supposed to be a quick way to continue the story yet we're still waiting for so much as a teaser trailer for the third one five years later, it definitely seems kind of weird. Still, the game is here, and improves on the first in a lot of ways. I wouldn't say it's better, because a lot of it comes down to personal preference. The new campaigns and characters are interesting, and the expansion of abilities to go along with the myriad new ways the ravenous zombie hordes and AI Director can screw you over are nice. It's the sort of sequel that sort of makes playing the original obsolete, though you can still make an argument for the things that make either unique creating a stronger experience.

The new survivors are a likable group, although maybe less even than the original group. Those guys all had some good lines and didn't stand out too much individually, whereas in the new game Ellis and Coach are clearly the "funny ones". Nick has an occasional good zinger but is generally just kind of a jerk, while Rochelle is hardly noticeable. There's an increased sense of story as more things like how they all meet and what connects each of the campaigns together are made obvious through dialogue, to go along with the background details that filled in so many gaps the first time. For some reason though it seemed like the grafitti was more functional instead of entertaining this time, painting a picture of the infection spreading rather than making you laugh. Speaking of the campaigns, they felt pretty good the first time or two through. They didn't have as much time to be refined as the first game's, but they still have a high standard of quality in terms of variability, memorable set pieces, and setting themselves apart.

The new special infected feel a bit less iconic and even a little like rehashes, filling similar gaps to the returning ones, although they are all designed to help split the players up more, which is the key the game uses to up the challenge for experienced players. New scenarios that force you to run somewhere to escape a never-ending onslaught of enemies do this too, and really shake up the feeling of going through. Besides the special enemies, there's a new kind of foe called uncommon infected that act more or less like the standard kind but look unique and have special properties based on which campaign you're playing that help give each one more of a unique feel. You just generally feel less safe, and the game honestly seems to be trying a bit harder to spook you once in a while. An unexpected charger appearance can be startling, especially the first couple times, and special events like the increasing thunderstorm in one area were a bit unsettling. There's tons of new ways to fight against the zombies too, with a bunch of new weapons including a whole class of melee tools that can replace sidearms and are a hell of a lot of fun to bash faces in with, new options for each equipment slot, and a bunch of little things like the pipe bomb now causing its victims to go flying through the air gloriously.

I haven't had enough time to really tell if this game will stand up to months of replaying like the first did, but I see no reason why it shouldn't. The co-op has more opportunities to change from game to game, versus is still a bunch of fun (though the new infected might take even experienced players a bit of getting used to again), and the new scavenger mode is a blast too. Obviously, the game doesn't match the original's impact after having played it off and on for a year. The new southern setting has a lot of personality (I love the way that comes across in the music especially), but personally I prefer the original game's cast and think its areas were maybe designed a bit better. Still, there's plenty of game here to dive into and it's totally worth it if you're a fan of taking on hundreds of the undead with a few of your friends.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Star Wars: Clone Wars

Clone Wars is good in all the ways that the current Star Wars: The Clone Wars is not. It doesn't aim so obviously at children. It's tightly focused, imaginative action and fun instead of generally boring and loaded down with a moral message they spell out for you at the beginning, and only actually get across half the time. It represents the excitement the franchise is capable of and actually seemed to serve a purpose instead of screaming "cash in". And it's honestly more enjoyable just to look at than the newer series or even the prequel movies themselves with their millions in computer effects. Honestly, the only thing the makers of the new show have done better than this is cast a less annoying actor for Anakin. Made by Genndy Tartakovsky and the Samurai Jack team, Clone Wars takes a similar art style and applies it to something the creators loved, a fictional universe that at the time was still in the process of being worn down the nub it stands as today. I don't want to overemphasize here, but it's simply the only good thing I've seen the franchise do on film since 1983.

Over two seasons, Clone Wars jumps from place to place and showcases various characters fighting against the switcheroo menace that now dominates the series. The first block is twenty bite-sized, three minute chapters that sort of tell a story but mostly just explore some cool things that could happen during such a war, with standouts like an utterly silent mission carried out by a special forces clone team and Mace Windu taking down a large group of droids by himself, mostly without even a lightsaber. The second season is about the same in running length but divided into fewer, larger chunks, and is more plot-based in nature. After depicting Anakin's knighting ceremony, it jumps forward to near the end of the war when his hair has become a full-blown mane and shows some events that lead directly to the third film, like Chancellor Palpatine's capture and the encounter that turns General Grievous from a menacing badass into a wheezing, moustache-twirling braggadocio. All in all, it's fairly remarkable looking for televised animation and generally pleasant to watch. The DVDs are stupidly out of print right now, but they can still be found and are worth tracking down if you want to rekindle your affection for some of these characters.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Star Trek - Season 3

And so the beginning of one of science fiction's longest tenured franchises comes to an end. Not with a bang, but a whimper. The final episode is a pretty standard one, no goodbyes or anything, just a lame body switch storyline to throw on the pile of overused ideas the writers liked to recycle every few episodes. There really weren't many standout episodes from this season, and no significant new characters either. Uhura got semi-replaced by some white lady near the end, but that was about it. I realize I'm asking too much from something that did so much for the genre and was made in the 60s, I just find it hard to get excited about such poor production values and lack of ambition with character or plot. I know I'm not the only one who thinks the show had fallen pretty far by this point though, so I don't feel too bad about ragging on it. I'm just glad that I became interested in the medium after The Sopranos left its mark, because without some sort of reward for sticking to it and making an effort to watch every week, there's no reason not to just cherry pick a few good episodes and stick with those. I can see myself leaving the TV on if I flip to some old Trek episode, but I can also easily see myself leaving five minutes later to do the laundry or something. There's something to be gained from checking this show out, but I was already aware of most of its contributions anyway through cultural osmosis. Oh well.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Or just Modern Warfare 2, as Infinity Ward clearly wanted to call it from the fact that the words "Call of Duty" don't appear anywhere in the game or on packaging for special editions. MW2 is the follow-up to the last game the series' actual creators made two years ago, and picks up five years later. The fate of a few characters is left up in there, but main protagonist Soap returns as a grizzled veteran with a voice (Kevin McKidd's) of his own, taking Price's place as ally in the field and friendly voice in your ear during the game's consistently better missions as a British special operative instead of a US soldier. While the first game's antagonist was defeated, the world is still unsafe as some Russian extremists still believe in his cause and conflict continues in the middle east. You still bounce between multiple characters, trotting across the globe to find and kill new people.

The first game seemed at the time to be somewhat plausible, presenting an interesting military plot punctuated by a couple shocking, unexpected moments. Modern Warfare 2 is much more over the top, constantly in your face with plot twists, betrayals, and every action movie gimmick you can think of. It sort of tosses the believability out the window in an early scene intended to disgust the player, and it mostly succeeds at this goal, but at the cost of your superiors looking like bone-headed morons and doing things that a reasonable government would never consider. Later events make you wonder if things were really as they seemed, but still, you can tell that their goal this time was to tell an exciting story, not represent modern conflict on a realistic, global scale. Bits intended to startle or shock the player are more frequent albeit less effective, because you can pull off the same trick so many times before it becomes old hat. There are a few occasions where they play with your expectations successfully and some true surprises, and in the end I accepted what they were doing and enjoyed the ride. It's just clear at this point that the developers' intentions with the franchise have changed.

Like pretty much any Call of Duty game, the missions are a grab back of solid shooting, truly excellent set pieces, and occasional total clunkers. They never seem to be able to stay away from a level or two where the enemies are just too frequent and too accurate and you just get pinned down from every direction, so your frustration just mounts as you continually restart and muscle your way through by memorizing where they come from. Luckily they get that out of the way early this time, and the latter part of the game is characterized by things that are constantly new and exciting. The single player campaign is fairly short, but these days that's a good thing - five to six hours of original, constantly changing, high quality gameplay are more than enough to satisfy anyone who isn't made of free time. Missions where you sneak through enemy territory with a buddy picking off stragglers are always fun, and even the more bombastic levels are enhanced by the somewhat unsettling locations they take place in this time.

The game looks and sounds great as expected. Solid sound with nice effects, good voice from a mix of recognizable names and industry veterans, and music that always manages to fit the appropriate mood. The textures of some unimportant details are surprisingly bland looking, but anything they wanted to look awesome usually does. And for people who don't play Call of Duty for the story mode, the multiplayer looks intact with some new features, and Spec Ops is an interesting way to extend the game's life without implementing actual co-op into their carefully planned single player. Infinity Ward is still setting the golden standard in competitive online shooting on consoles, and they just happened to put the best one player campaign this side of the Half-Life series in there too.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

South Park - Season 13

The now-venerable South Park's 13th season was a bit better than the last couple, at least in terms of producing episodes that were consistently funny throughout. The second half in particular provided some good laughs fairly often. No multi-part stories this time, but there was a nice mix of timely celebrity and news references, parodies (some for shows I've never heard of (what the hell is Whale Wars?)), and more timeless episodes about how insane these small-town residents can get. "The Coon" might seem like an attack on Obama, but I took it more as a jab at people who expected too much from him too quickly, and it was an adequate Watchmen rip as well. Kanye West (I'm sure they were kicking themselves for doing an episode before the VMAs), the Jonas Brothers, and the rash of high-profile deaths this year were all targets, and Avatar and 2012 also get poked at (Roland Emmerich makes it so easy). Things like Butters' foray into the prostitution business and Earth's first (not actually first) contact with aliens coming from Stan's dead coercing him into cheating in a pinewood derby were some of the nuttier non-topical stories. While I did enjoy this season, the fact that at least two more are coming does make me still wonder how much longer it will be until the show settles into The Simpsons' territory of complete creative undeath, but however it goes I'll probably watch until it ends.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Prisoner

AMC's remake of classic espionage/mind-screwing series The Prisoner doesn't live up to the original, though it does do some interesting things differently and at least has some sense of a cohesive story and an actual ending. It's a bit slow at times, and it's probably a good thing that Ian McKellen's name comes before Jim Caviezel's in the credits despite the latter being the protagonist because well... he's a lot better. Caviezel's 6 just isn't a very likable guy, and McKellen's 2 provides the vast majority of the miniseries' good lines and moments. Instead of a series of barely connected episodes where a sequence of people attempt to wrestle some secret from a captive 6, 2 tries to convince him that the Village he's been whisked away to is the only society that actually exists, and there's questions about the true nature of reality on everyone's minds.

When you think about the supposed premise, it doesn't really make sense. The original series was strange, but at least the citizens of the Village didn't seem completely deluded the whole time. But once the story actually unfolds, things come together and actually seem to work if you squint a bit and can actually follow out what's going on. The last episode can be easy to get lost in if you don't pay rapt attention, but even without entirely grasping it I got the gist and had a sort of "oh" moment. It makes me glad they decided to air it over three nights instead of six weeks, because more time to absorb, forget details, and form biases might have made it harder to figure out. The Prisoner isn't the sort of thing I'd want to watch very often, because it drags more often that it should and it's sort of tiring to follow. But I thought it mostly succeeded at retaining the spirit of the original without retreading the same ground, and had enough bits to keep fans of things that mess with your had happy for the most part. Sorry if this seems a bit scatter-shot, but my mind's kind of preoccupied.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cursive - Mama, I'm Swollen

It's looking more like The Ugly Organ was a one-time stroke of brilliance, but Cursive is still a talented and unique indie/emo band that can play a good song. I feel like Happy Hollow hit too heavily on the same message over and over again, and Swollen is more general angst and anger about someone who wonders what his life has become. "From the Hips" is fairly mainstream sounding for the band, but still feels like quintessential Cursive with some clever lyrics as Tim Kasher bounces between morose singing and strained shouting. The album in general is less manic and more downplayed, but there are still moments of intensity and enough interesting things going on in the mellow parts to keep it fairly interesting through out.

"In the Now" is a fairly disappointing opening track, repetitive and monotonous, but after "From the Hips" things are generally better. I like "I Couldn't Love You" even if something about it bothers me subconsciously, and "Donkeys" has similar merits going for it. "Mama, I'm Satan" is one of my favorite on the album lyrically along with having a strong loud part later on, and "Let Me Up" is also solid. "What Have I Done?" is very reminiscent of the powerful "Staying Alive" from the end of The Ugly Organ, which is fine by me because I generally think slow-building songs that explode at the end as the singer is worn out by the effort of his own passion are a good way to end an album. My copy came with a download code for some bonus tracks, two original songs and three demo versions of ones on the regular album. The new songs were cut for a reason and aren't mixed very well, and the demos are forgettable, but it's hard to be bothered by more music. I don't love Swollen but I do like it enough as a fan of the band.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bored to Death - Season 1

I didn't realize that last week's episode was actually the season finale, although in the context I probably should have. Bored to Death is HBO's newest comedy series (the only thing they're doing particularly well right now to my tastes, though there is hope on the horizon), about a struggling writer named Jonathan who decides to fill the hole left after his girlfriend leaves him by putting up an ad on Craig's List as an "unlicensed private detective". He ends up getting arrested in the first episode, but that doesn't deter him as he continues to take on cases. Like its protagonist, Bored is flawed, if ultimately likable. People who prefer a little more rambunctiousness out of their comedy could make a joke about the title of the show being accurate to the experience of watching it, because a lot of the humor is subtle and reserved. There's just little things like the way Jonathan explains his situation to other people that probably won't make you laugh out loud, but should cause a smirk or to. An early example is when his girlfriend justifies leaving him by saying he smokes and drinks too much, with him saying that he's slowed down to only drinking white wine. Later, he repeatedly tells people his girlfriend dumped him for drinking too much white wine. His character looks at the world in an unusual way, and it's interesting to watch someone so self-deluded in action.

It gets a little wackier at points later on, like when Jonathan's friend and boss end up getting high together in a car instead of providing adequate back up on a sting that goes wrong, or when they all end up in a boxing competition in the two part conclusion. There's also a subplot about his friend's donated sperm that both adds some humor and helps expand the show's scope beyond a weekly mystery to solve. Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis are an entertaining and hard to spell pair, and Ted Danson adds a certain something as the boss. Zach is pretty downplayed when I was hoping for something a bit more manic, but I actually came to like his character quite a lot. He's sort of a mirror to Jonathan's pathetic nature, in a similar yet different situation and just as miserable. It's not exactly a feel good show, but worth checking out if thinking doesn't hurt your brain.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone

I think some fans are split on these films, even more than they already are on the original series, Neon Genesis Evangelion. It's a newly animated and updated remake of the show, produced and written by the original creator Hideaki Anno and directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki, who previously worked under Anno and also directed things like FLCL, so it has the pedigree to work. And it's supposed to diverge significantly from the original story at some point, so it's not quite just a shameless rehash. The ending is some people's biggest problem with the series, so who knows by the end what people will decide is the definitive version. I really liked both the show and the film that retconned the ending (featuring the most disturbing scene I've ever witnessed in an anime!), and enjoyed this movie well enough too.

It covers roughly a quarter of the original story I guess, though some things are changed and accelerated to get into the meat of the story quicker. It's really nice looking, maintaining the feel of the characters and setting while still upping the production value, and is generally true to the series. There's some nice big action sequences and some new takes on certain events that certainly make it worth a look for people who already saw the series. It's a shame it took over two years for it to be released on video in the United States, since the sequel is already out in Japan and the property has certainly proven itself with American fans enough to where you wonder why it wasn't quicker. I couldn't totally shake the feeling that I was watching a long, pretty recap of the original show, and hopefully it's not too long before the whole thing's released and we can see where they're really going with it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time

I feel like I'm in a somewhat awkward position in regard to this game's place in the series. I think in some ways, it's an improvement on the last full release, Tools of Destruction. But that's true of almost every sequel they've done, and this is now the fourth console game to use pretty much the exact same formula, which was created in Going Commando six years ago. I still had a ton of fun with it, but it doesn't feel as fresh anymore. It's not exactly a knock on the game, because it's not that easy to make significant strides over some of my favorite games of all time. I can't really say what I'd want a sequel to do differently, either. They could keep churning out the same thing every couple years ad infinitum and I'd probably be satisfied, I just wouldn't consider it the peak of fun in gaming anymore.

A Crack in Time continues the story that began in Tools of Destruction and was touched on in Quest for Booty, about the origins of both the titular heroes. Ratchet and Clank are separated for most of the game, and each have their own type of thing to do. Ratchet does his typical thing of trotting from globe to globe, smashing every object in sight, fighting a bunch of increasingly difficult (and disappointingly repetitive) enemies with a multitude of bizarre weaponry, upgrading both his arsenal and his own abilities as he progresses. There's the return of space combat, using a more simplistic control scheme, and now instead of directly traveling to each planet they're grouped into small sectors that can be flown through. These sectors are also packed with the return of tiny, spherical worlds he can go to and explore, mostly to collect one of the game's many hidden items that unlock something or other. One thing these games do as well as anything on the market is incite the player to keep playing and searching for everything he can find. The carrot-on-a-stick of leveling up weapons and finding every last hidden crevice is pretty powerful, and encapsulated by the cathartic way nearby ammo and cash just magnetically flows into his body instead of having to be directly run over. There are some new elements to the always present yet mildly neglected platforming, and some light puzzle-solving, although that's more Clank's angle.

Clank has several levels of his own, which feature a bunch of time-based running, jumping and puzzling. He has a couple interesting bits of equipment at his disposal like a supply of bombs that slow down the flow of time in a small area and a sceptre that can undo damage to the environment and deflect projectiles. In one area there's a simple mini-game to heal temporal damage to various worlds that I didn't understand the point of, but the main draw of playing Clank are the rooms where he has to make use of various pads that can record and play back his actions to get to the other side, and eventually there are four copies of him running around at the same time, stepping on buttons and jumping over gaps. They escalate in difficulty naturally, and I was really having a lot of fun figuring them out. They're the right level of challenge to where they make you feel smart but aren't overly frustrating, and unfortunately they stop right as I thought they were really getting good. But all good things must come to an end, and they provided a good portion of the dozen hours of fun I had with the game.

I enjoyed the story pretty well for the most part. Some elements that the Future games have brought up are still unresolved like the ultimate fate of the Lombax race, though others like Clank's true origins are revealed. The emotional core of the plot was surprisingly strong in places, especially Ratchet's relationship with an old General from his people's military. There was a decent amount of humor, a lot of it coming as expected from Captain Qwark, and while it continued to be a tad childish for my tastes I did laugh in a couple places. The game looks pretty fantastic and has some good voice work, such as Nolan North showing with Sigmund that he has a lot more range than just sarcastic leading man (see: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune/Prince of Persia/Assassin's Creed/Shadow Complex). I'm not sure quite what's next for Ratchet and Clank, but I'll probably be interested. And maybe they'll bring back the online this time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ah My Buddha - Season 1

The only reason I can think of someone deciding to watch this is if they're like me; bored and have easy access to it. Either I can't or refuse to imagine someone who would be genuinely entertained by it. From the title, you'd think it's trying to crib off Ah! My Goddess' success with the title, but there really isn't much in common. The main character works at a Buddhist temple. So do a bunch of underage girls. Some wacky supernatural shit happens, and the main character has the power to stop it - but that power is only unlocked when he accidentally sees one of the girls naked. And that's about it! There's no actual nudity in the series, just teases and lots of semi-dirty jokes. It's simple trash television, the anime equivalent of most of CBS' lineup, I guess. It's not awful or soul crushing or anything, it just isn't worth your time. And now that I have a job, hopefully things like this won't be worth my time either.