Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Drinky Crow Show

The Drinky Crow Show is another reasonably funny, unfit-for-children cartoon on Adult Swim, based on Tony Millionaire's long-running comic strip named Maakies. Millionaire and Eric Kaplan, who's written for a number of humorous shows, seem to have just transplanted the characters pretty seamlessly into animated form. It's surprisingly good looking, with computer generated images made to look hand drawn, but with simple, recycled designs to keep it economical. It's all pretty surreal and hyper-violent, but in an endearing way. Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby, voiced by Stamatopoulos and Herman, spend all their time getting drunk, pursuing women (although in very different ways), and sailing around getting into trouble. A lot of the dialogue and delivery is the intentionally stilted sort of stuff that you might remember from older cartoons, and along with the period nautical theme it gives the show an odd atmosphere. There are some good guests too, like a couple appearances by Bret and Jemaine as aliens with designs for Earth. Not every episode is a big success, but it's definitely a funnier and more watchable show that I expected based on the early promos.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Ultimately, Spriggan disappointed me. I had heard it was kinda crazy, and that's what I was looking forward to. And for a while it looked like it was delivering. But then it changed gears and went towards a different kind of crazy than the one I wanted. Instead of over-the-top, silly violence, I got a strange looking kid with mind powers teleported in directly from Akira and a strange, not-well-explained machine of immense godly power. Things are pretty entertaining for a while, I was just not into the last half hour at all.

It starts off with something ancient being discovered, and then a teenage kid stalking through the jungle armed with some heavy weaponry. And then he wakes up in class. But oh wait, he really is some sort of super soldier. He runs away from some dudes and then fights some other weird looking dudes he used to know. It's all based on a manga, and probably makes more sense when you're not just grabbing part of the story. There's some scientists and snow and then the kid shows up and kills people with his brain. He's the bad guy. When people get shot, blood spurts out a lot. All of the animation budget went into the action scenes, which makes sense of course. They go into another dimension and there's some dinosaurs and stuff. Some stuff blows up. Um... it's not very good. My favorite scene was early on where the main character (He's a "spriggan", the name of the special fighters in his organization. Hey wait, that's the name of the movie!) is chased in a car and then on foot for a couple minutes. It was fun to watch. He threw a guy out of a jeep on the freeway. He has a tragic past, you know. Watch out for that.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team

I haven't seen the original Gundam series, but among the tons of spin-offs they've made a few were straight-to-video direct sequels made in the late 80s and 90s that slot in between the first series and a couple others that were made earlier. The 08th MS Team was the last one made but the first chronologically, and shares a bit in common with the other one I saw, 0080: War in the Pocket. It's actually more of a side story, taking place during the war and telling a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale about two mobile suit pilots on opposite sides of the conflict who fall in love. This sort of tale doesn't seem uncommon for the series, as I remember similar ideas in other stuff I've seen. In any case, it makes for an unremarkable but pretty watchable anime.

The 08th MS Team has the distinctive in its blandness, not very attractive look of most anime from the 90s. The designs for everything are mostly just functional, and the animation isn't going to bowl anyone over. The art doesn't hinder the story either though, and does what it has to. It's a pretty tightly-knit story, as the characters develop as far as they need to. The protagonist is the new team commander, and his crew and some of the rebels they meet all have enough personality to make them distinct enough to keep separate. They have some skirmishes against the enemy until he crosses paths with the girl again, and then the focus shifts a bit as both sides wonder if their representative can be trusted. The girl's brother is developing a new weapon that becomes the objective of the fighting, and things go on in a predictable but entertaining way. After the climax there's a final episode that's quite a departure, as a couple characters look for something, without any giant robots fighting at all. If you're a fan of Gundam or just the genre, it's worth checking out.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Season 3

Thanks to a few issues I thought Avatar's third and final season was probably the weakest, but still provided a satisfying conclusion to the story and was certainly worth watching. As Aang and his friends get closer to their goal of ending the war, things get more serious and start to weigh pretty heavily on them, as the overall tone shifts slightly. The main characters aren't as kind-hearted and fun-loving as they were when their journey started, which is an obvious thing to happen over time with the future constantly weighing on you, it just isn't used effectively to improve anything. There's still plenty of nice moments and cool action scenes, it just isn't as fun to watch overall. There's one scene in particular that illustrates how the characters could have been handled better, when several antagonists are at a campfire on the beach. They all have things from the past that affected them and drove them towards their current place in life, which is fine and all but the awkward way they all whine about what happened to them in turn just wasn't well written and is kind of hard to watch.

I also have an issue with the pacing for the whole season. There are two big events that occur, halfway through and at the end. That's fine, but because of how everything plays out in relation to these big events, it feels like the first half is filler and too much is forced to be crammed into the second half. Each season, or "book" is named after the element which Aang must master, but he really doesn't spend much time learning about fire like he did water and earth, we're just to take it as read that he did. Either his fire teacher should have been established before the first event, or if they wanted to have it happen like it did (which was pretty appropriate to the story), the first event should have happened sooner. Despite my problems with the season overall, the individual episodes still adhered to the series' high standard of quality, and after a fairly humorous (and really meta) recap, the finale really was everything it should have been. Really impressive action and exactly the ending the story and characters deserved. Besides a couple loose ends left hanging, it was pretty much perfect. And so ended the surprisingly good series, which taking into account the whole picture, is probably the best thing Nickelodeon ever produced.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Jin-Roh is one of the most mature anime I've seen. And I don't mean mature as in being really violent or anything, although there are some pretty dark scenes. I mean that the tone and nature of the story are a lot more serious than what you usually see. It starts pretty brilliantly with an escalating riot on city streets while they're held back by city police. A teenage girl delivers an explosive inside a handbag, which is used on the police, provoking them into assaulting and arresting members of the crowd. Underground, a special unit of military police eliminate a group of the terrorists, but a rookie is disturbed by what he sees down there, which goes on to affect his performance despite his great skill.

There's a slowly building political conflict between the special unit and the other police, and they both spy on and try to trap each other, as the rookie and a girl with a connection to the first one grow closer. The plot moves pretty slowly, although my attention was held the whole time thanks to the realistic animation and dark, ominous feel to everything. There's a running parallel to the Little Red Riding Hood story, which effectively foreshadows and enhances the film. The character designs are simple and a bit difficult to distinguish at times, which can hinder comprehension of the story a bit, but besides that it looks really great. From the highly violent "action" scenes (in quotes because they're not really normal action) to simple interactions, everything looks smooth and makes it more enjoyable to watch, even when what's on screen isn't something you want to see. Ultimately, it's a depressing and sad tale, worth watching for the skill with which it's told.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Season 2

Avatar's second season goes along much in the same way as the first, with a few little changes here and there. It didn't seem to have quite the same amount of embarrassing moments, but not quite the same amount of awesome moments either. It's still a good fantasy action show that succeeds based on its characters. There was always a good chemistry between the Avatar and the two siblings, and the addition of a fourth human party member is a nice one, even if they seem to dip into the well of blind jokes a little too often. They're all fairly funny and capable fighters, and although the constant teasing of their various crushes is a bit irritating as always, it doesn't really get in the way. The primary antagonist from the first season was a somewhat sympathetic character, at least more complex than you'd expect from a kid's cartoon, and his role changes even more as he wrestles over who he really wants to be in season two. At times he can be a prick, but his evolution is one of the series' more interesting aspects.

I'm not quite sure how I feel at the overall direction of the plot in comparison to the first season. There's a greater sense of continuity as the characters are clearly moving on a set path towards a goal, instead of hopping from place to place in various one-offs as the plot moves in jumps and starts, and usually I like that. It's just that some of plot points are more frustrating than I'd like and while the story is interesting, it's the unique and exciting action sequences that drew me into the series, and they're slightly stifled in this season. It's not a big problem though, as things keep moving forward at a generally quick pace and there are still some great scenes. They also do some things that are a little darker than I expected, showing the seedy underside of the earth benders and further driving the point home that things aren't purely good or evil. I'm in a hurry to watch season three and see how the tale ends.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Game Update 9: PSN Demos 4

Hey more demos.

Alone in the Dark - Really not good. There are some games that just seem like they're wrong somehow. Doesn't really get either perspective right.

Battlefield: Bad Company - Blowing up buildings is cool, although I don't think the Battlefield respawn thing really works in a campaign setting. I ended up just running into battle over and over without worrying about death.

Bioshock - The same cool demo that sold me on the game a year before. Anyone who hasn't played this yet should.

Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway - Didn't really feel this one either. I don't see why worrying about two other firing units is more interesting than a shooter that has good shooting.

Dead Space - Did the opposite of what a demo is supposed to do. I know almost every who played really liked it, but nothing I saw really impressed me.

Fracture - The terrain effects were cool while the demo lasted, but almost everything else screamed dumb.

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures - It was kinda cute, somewhat interesting cooperative puzzle solving and it's fun to beat on your partner without punishment.

Lego Batman: The Videogame - The second Lego demo wore out its welcome sooner, I can see why people who have played the actual games are tired of the series. Not bad though.

Mega Man 9 - I don't have the skills for this, man. Seems like classic Mega Man but that's really not for me.

Mirror's Edge - I could see how it can get frustrating, but I really enjoyed the style and I thought the first person stuff worked quite well.

Motorstorm: Pacific Rift - Fairly enjoyable arcade racing. If I actually played games like that, it would probably be second on my list after Burnout Paradise.

Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm - The game looks awesome, although all it really showed was it's fighting system, which I might be more interested in if I ever watched the show.

Skate 2 - Seemed to have a heavier emphasis on dumb characters, but the fun skating system is still there. Moving around objects to set up lines could be cool.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed - Really didn't seem to live up to the cool idea behind it. The different powers just didn't work as intuitively as they should have.

Valkyria Chronicles - Great visuals and deep strategic system behind it, although again, I'm not usually that into stuff like that.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Season 1

When I heard about Avatar, I was pretty skeptical. Another action show for kids that seems to completely bite anime's style doesn't sound like the best thing over. But after being surprised to hear from many people online that it was actually quite good, I decided to give it a try, and wasn't disappointed. For all intents and purposes, Avatar's first season basically IS a good anime series. It does a lot of things better than most actual anime, using what works and ignoring some of the more tired elements. The animation, especially during action scenes, is smoother than what you usually ever see in a weekly show like this, and the art design is reminiscent of some great things, like the works of Hayao Miyazaki - if you're going to borrow, borrow from the best.

My one problem with it is an unavoidable one - being a show made for kids, it does some things only kids would like. It's generally a serious fantasy story, but it has a strong emphasis on humor, humor that succeeds about as often as it doesn't. It has some witty lines, but a lot of stuff kids might find clever just falls flat at this point. It never becomes a big problem, although it makes some episodes harder to watch than others. Looking past that though, Avatar is a very well done series. After the opening episodes that establish the world and what's going on, there's a nice balance of interesting one-off episodes and plot progression to keep it enjoyable throughout, as it moves steadily towards the season one finale, which is suitably climactic. It's not quite the most original story ever, but there's enough to it to keep you moving forward. And the fights are really about as good as could be hoped for. They do some really creative stuff with the various elemental powers, and the mix of music and animation is always extremely satisfying. Even if you need a kid to justify watching it, it's a pretty cool series.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wrestler

I wasn't sure what to expect from The Wrestler. I've never seen an Aronofsky film before, although people seem to like his work. Almost all of the hype was over Rourke's performance instead of the story, and I was a bit concerned that that's all there would be. It's a really personal film, and so his acting's obviously at the center of it, but I liked the whole movie overall, all aspects considered. I don't usually watch character studies like this, but being forced into it by my brother, I think I ended up enjoying it more than him. The style is interesting. It sort of feels like a documentary, with long shots just following Mickey around and showing what he does with his life. It's not the most brilliant film making I've ever seen, but it seems to do what it wanted, stay out of the way and let Rourke shine. It's not the sort of bombastic tour de force that easily captures my attention, but there's a ton of heart behind it, and he really makes you care about everything that happens.

The film is authentic and unflinching, being (as far as I know) very close to the truth about wrestling, what these people do behind the scenes and how they live. It's not the most seriously taken profession, but they put a lot on the line for not a whole lot in return, hoping to make it big someday, or make it big again in some cases, like Rourke's. He plays a former professional champion who's gotten old and is stuck in a local amateur league, who goes through a bad experience and has to give it up. He still has some good times, but overall leads a pretty unfortunate life. He tries to make things better for himself without it, but can never completely put it all together and fully right the ship. He tries to get closer to his daughter and a stripper he's always liked, played well by Wood and Tomei, although he never quite gets that right either. Eventually, he realizes what he has to do, and the film ends showing exactly what it needs to. Some may be disappointed by it, but I thought it worked perfectly with the story up to that point. It's a simple story, made strong by the simple truth to all of it and the great acting throughout.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Best Shows of 2008

I'm now up to date with enough series that I feel comfortable making a list like this. I don't watch a lot of the most popular series because they don't interest me, but I do see quite a bit. Shows qualify by having a season that ended during the year of 2008. Also, before I forget, I've added a bunch of new archive posts with lists of my favorite things from various years and decades, which unlike these posts, will be kept up to date. Not featured on this list were two products by David Simon and Ed Burns, The Wire's final season and Generation Kill, and the hilarious second run of The Whitest Kids U' Know.

Best of 2008

7. Mad Men (AMC)

I'm not a huge fan of the OMFG MAD MEN bandwagon, but it's still a very good drama with a great cast and production values. I can't tell if they're really going anywhere with the story, but just as far as being a well put together program, it succeeds admirably.

6. The Office (NBC)

One of many shows (pretty much all of them, sadly) that wasn't at its best in 2008, The Office still managed to provide a bunch of laughs and some of the best moments in the whole series. I'm not sure I ever wanted to punch someone in the throat as much as I did Andy when he proposed to Angela, but I only felt worse and worse for him as that subplot progressed. Still a darn good show.

5. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)

Again, not quite the peak of demented genius we saw before, but still pretty damn funny every week. It might just be that they're running out of sensitive topics to make light of, and I wonder what's still left in the tank. Despite that though, I don't think another show this year made me laugh out loud more.

4. The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim)

Few things compare to season two of the best thing Adult Swim's ever done, but season three was close enough. It might not have the same consistent humor as the series did previously, but I find the depth they're adding to the history of pretty much every character to be about as entertaining, and season four's thankfully coming faster than this one did.

3. 30 Rock (NBC)

Still in its creative prime, as Fey and Baldwin both won their second Golden Globes and the show overall won its first. Recalling the best aspects of Arrested Development and The Office, it's a great series that more people really should be watching.

2. Lost (ABC)

While most things seem to be regressing, Lost had its best season since the first, as things finally seem to be on a track heading towards a conclusion, even if we still have no idea what the hell that might be. Flash forwards really reinvigorated it creatively, and it was relatively short, which made every episode sure to count and move things forward.

1. Breaking Bad (AMC)

Held aloft by Bryan Cranston's great performance, Breaking Bad's brief (haha, that wasn't on purpose) first season was one of the most emotionally affecting things I've seen on the small screen in a long time, and it had plenty of wit and cool moments as well. The main character's condition make how long it can last a very good question, but it will be back soon for hopefully more greatness.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Best Albums of 2008

Another year in which I didn't get a whole lot of new releases. I always feel like I listen to a decent amount of music each year, but it's as much catching up on older stuff as it is new stuff. Still, there were a few really good albums that I got a chance to enjoy. I didn't see room on the list for the enjoyable self-titled release by This Will Destroy You or MC Chris' MC Chris Is Dead.

Best of 2008

6. Nine Inch Nails - The Slip

A really solid industrial album made even better by being free to all. I've still yet to give Trent Reznor dime one for anything, but I respect him for giving back to the fans and continuing to make what he wants to. Better than I thought it would be.

5. Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple

Sounds different from their first album, although not really for better or worse. Really catchy and unique at the same time.

4. Fleet Foxes

One of the year's biggest critical darlings, and mostly deserving of its status. It's not as gripping throughout as I usually like, but there's a lot of beauty and artistry to be found if you're a close listener.

3. Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

A new direction for everyone's favorite Icelandic new age-y band, and a really interesting one. I really like what they did, and although there's a good argument that it's over the top for its own sake, but I still enjoy everything that's here.

2. TV on the Radio - Dear Science

To me it doesn't live up to their last album, but that doesn't prevent it from being great on its own. A bit of a different, more catchy feel, but there's still a lot of brilliant stuff here. Maybe not exactly what I loved about them before, but still quite good.

1. Portishead - Third

There are a bunch of sinister adjectives I could use to describe this album, like haunting, bleak, and sparse, but it still managed to be the most affecting thing I heard this year. Definitely worth checking out with an open mind.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Best Movies of 2008

Some people also said this wasn't a great year of movies either, but when I compiled a list of what I saw it easily featured the most solid titles of any of the three times I've done this. I feel comfortable going all the way to ten this time. Not making the cut included such films as Cloverfield, which I thought succeeded at doing exactly what it wanted, Tropic Thunder, a fun collaboration by a bunch of funny guys, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, another likable film in the Apatow repertoire.

Best of 2008

10. Hellboy II: The Golden Army

More here for being so amazing visually than a great film. I can't quite tell whether del Toro is a great filmmaker or just has an uncanny knack for neat effects, although I can't say I'm not terrible excited about what he could do with The Hobbit.

9. Valkyrie

I guess in the end I did quite like it. Wonderfully filmed, takes the subject matter very seriously, and it's a sad story that people should know about. A good tribute to the men who tried to stop the world's greatest evil.

8. Pineapple Express

Rogen and Franco are great together in the perfect fusion of buddy stoner comedies with an action film, albeit a mostly grounded one. Although I kind of wish the whole thing lived up to the opening scene with Bill Hader and Dexter's dad a bit better.

7. Burn After Reading

Far from the best Coen film, but far from the worst too. Not quite what I hoped for but a nice entry in their kookier milieu. Am I even using that word right? I can't believe I used that word. What the hell.

6. The Wrestler

I haven't blogged about it yet, but I watched it yesterday so give me a break. Mickey Rourke's performance, which won a Golden Globe (haha) on Sunday, is the most notable aspect, but I thought it was a very good film in general.

5. Quantum of Solace

A lot of people complained about the editing in the action scenes, but they're all a bunch of dopes. There, I said it. I'd be fine with it if every violent film for the next ten years was styled exactly like this one.

4. Iron Man

The runner-up for best comic book-based super hero movie about a man with a heritage to live up to who fights crime by using his vast wealth to create a special suit instead of an extraordinary power of his own. I love Robert Downey Jr.

3. In Bruges

I was a bit surprised to see Colin Farrell won a Golden Globe for this, not because he wasn't good, but because it wasn't really a "Comedic" performance. Really good movie, funny but still with a strong emotional depth.

2. The Dark Knight

The best comic book-based super hero movie about a man with a heritage to live up to who fights crime by using his vast wealth to create a special suit instead of an extraordinary power of his own. All three films featuring a Golden Globe-winning male performance appear on this list. What does that tell you? Nothing, really.

1. Wall-E

And the best movie of the year's only dialogue from the two leads consists basically of "Wally!" and "Eva!" over and over again. It really did touch me though, with a strong message, gorgeous visuals, and heartfelt story. One of the best family films ever.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Best Games of 2008

I guess I'm making it a tradition to start these lists on the second Monday of the new year. I thought it was a good year for games, a lot of people were disappointed by some of the bigger games but I didn't have much of a problem with any of them. A couple big ones I didn't get around to included Gears of War 2, Resistance 2 (still gotta play the first!), and Mirror's Edge. Sam and Max had the second straight year of funny, enjoyable episodic adventures, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames was fun but sadly unpolished, and Price of Persia was an interesting reboot that didn't quite live up to its heritage.

Best of 2008

7. Ratchet and Clank Future: Quest for Booty (PS3)

Many faulted it for its brevity, but that's really the point - I'd love to see more of my favorite series have more manageable and economic installments now and again, especially when they're so affordable and allow newcomers to get a taste without a huge investment. Not as good as a full, "real" Ratchet game, but not many things are.

6. Bionic Commando: Rearmed (Multi)

I don't even have nostalgia for the original NES game, but I didn't need it - the arm makes the combat and platforming some of the most fun I've ever had with a side-scrolling game, it looks and sounds awesome, and it's pretty funny too.

5. Fallout 3 (Multi)

Did we ever get official word from Fallout's insane fanbase on whether Bethesda's take on their favorite series really was the abomination they assumed it was from the beginning? Whatever the case, even though it may just have been The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion with a coat of post-apocalyptic paint, that's enough to keep me interested for a long time.

4. Braid (360)

Lots of download only games were great this year, but this one definitely takes the cake. The combination of wonderful production values, unique and mind-bending gameplay, and at times brilliant storytelling make it definitely worth playing however you find a way to.

3. Left 4 Dead (PC)

I haven't played it as much as I would have liked, although that always seems to happen with me and primarily multiplayer games. But when you are playing it, it can be one of the most thrilling shooter experiences imaginable, and the presence of your friends backing you up just makes it better.

2. Grand Theft Auto IV (Multi)

These last two games both got a lot of backlash, but screw that, they helped make for one of the best non-Fall gaming seasons ever. A lot of people prefer GTA's freedom and wackiness over their attempts at something more, and for them there are games like Saints Row 2 and Crackdown. But the direction they took with the first current gen entry in the popular series was probably the one they needed to take to keep it ahead of the curve. It's still a lot of fun to screw around, but it's nice to see someone trying to do more with the medium.

1. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3)

Yeah, Kojima went a little overboard trying to explain every loose end, turning nanomachines from an interesting plot device into a joke. But for the most part it's the most fun to play that MGS has ever been, it's nice to see a famous game character's story actually come to a real end, and it really doesn't hurt that the game looks amazing. I'd be lying to myself if I said it wasn't my favorite game of 2008.

Notable Exception


I was enjoying this game quite a lot and it most likely would have made the list, but under absurd circumstances I accidentally broke the disc and couldn't get a new one in time, and I don't like speaking definitively on a game when I haven't seen all it has to offer.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury

I've heard this album a couple times, although I haven't gotten around to writing about it until now. Clipse's strong suit would definitely have to be their inventive lyrics, although the beats aren't bad either. Obviously I'm no expert on rap, but I have a pretty good time listening to this and I trust those more informed who speak for its quality. There's a similar theme running through a lot of the songs, as the two members talk about their apparent past dealing drugs on the streets and how now they're big rappers making money. The latter isn't a terribly original topic, but the honesty of the former is pretty interesting. The two guys sound similar but are distinguishable, and they rhyme about everything from Scarface to Sesame Street. I get that pop culture references are nothing new to hip-hop, but Clipse makes them pretty natural and well-integrated without getting off topic. There are a few guests on various tracks, some doing some singing in the chorus and others doing their own verses, like one track featuring the whole crew of the Re-Up Gang which Clipse is part of (I'd like to thank The Wire for improving my street vocabulary so dramatically).

The album seems to get stronger as it goes on, at least musically. "Hello New World", "Keys Open Doors", and "Trill" seem to have the strongest beats backing them, at least to my ears that like original, bass-heavy sounds and odd vocal samples. And the closing song, "Nightmares", is easily the most distinct on the album, with an old R&B feel and nice groove. There's quality throughout the album though, starting with "We Got It for Cheap" as it introduces exactly what to expect and ends with a famous sound clip from Pulp Fiction. I've vaguely wanted to listen to a bit more rap than I have traditionally for some time now, because at least it's more interesting than some other popular genres, and Clipse seems like it was a good place to start.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Hobbit

I was born on the fiftieth anniversary of The Hobbit's original publication. That's kind of cool, right? Anyway, I got this seventieth anniversary edition last Christmas complete with the originally intended dust jacket and illustrations by Tokien himself, and getting a nice box set of The Lord of the Rings this Christmas prompted me to actually reread the damn thing. At least one of the previous times I read it a section in the middle was missing from the copy, so taking in the whole story and having it firmer in my mind while del Toro and Jackson prepare to put it on the big screen is nice.

The perspective that Tolkien chose to take with the narration is an interesting one. It's written from the point of view of someone who came along long well after the story happened, telling it as he heard it. There are references to how Hobbits are rarely found nowadays, when they used to be more in the open and friendlier with "big folk". Though in ways the narrator is also omniscient, mentioning frequently what Bilbo is thinking about at various times. Considering that the character later writes the story down himself as an autobiography, and that a discrepency in the first version of the chapter where Bilbo finds the Ring is explained in later works as a lie in his original account, it's not really clear whether we're supposed to be actually reading Bilbo's work or not. Why he would write as if he were a man talking about himself in the third person isn't really apparent, so you really just have to live with it.

Beyond those confusing aspects though, it's a very competent and obviously extremely influential work of fantasy fiction. Bilbo and the other characters move along from unlucky situation to unlucky situation, and as it goes on they gradually go from getting rescued by various helpful outsiders to Bilbo saving himself and the others on his own, and he develops from a timid, normal Hobbit to quite a brave, if slightly unusual hero. It's definitely quicker paced than The Lord of the Rings, and moves through the story swiftly, describing the setting adequately without getting too bogged down. All the different Dwarves seem sort of like a waste of character names, as only a few even seem to have actual distinct personalities and they're generally much more incompetent then we're lead to believe most members of such a proud and industrious race would be. And it could easily have benefited from more Gandalf, but I guess his mysteriousness is part of the fun. There's also quite a bit of singing, pretty much every time they find a place to sit for a few minutes there's a new song with a familiar rhyme scheme. They're not bad poems, but Tolkien probably could have found a better outlet for it. Anyway, The Hobbit is a nice little book but you probably knew that already.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia isn't as good as the better parts of the trilogy from the previous generation, but it's a solid beginning to another chapter in the franchise's history. The only thing I can really say it does definitively better is the visuals, and the game really does look amazing. It's not just the technical proficiency of the same engine that did Assassin's Creed, with a consistent frame rate despite massive draw distances. The art style, which the developers call "illustrative", is just gorgeous to look at. Just looking at the environment, especially once it's been healed and returned to its former glory, is always fun. It helps slightly obscure the fact that the gameplay is a bit more limited than I usually like. It might be a mental thing, but the acrobatic platforming seems more forced than it did before. In earlier games, you had to run along walls, swing on polls, climb up columns, and so on to find your way around the world, but you still felt like you were in a place that existed, whether it was a collapsing castle or a city overrun with monsters. Prince of Persia mostly feels like a video game environment with a pretty coat of paint. The platforming is more directly laid out, with specific paths to the next area obviously laid out, just waiting for you to press the right sequence of buttons. The fun of figuring out how you actually get somewhere before you do it is gone, and while running, jumping and grabbing is still enjoyable, and even more out there with new things like clambering across the ceiling, it's only a part of the puzzle.

I also feel like the combat is a big step backwards. People complained about the fighting in the earlier games, and for good reason. Battles went on for too long, and adding a complicated combo system didn't help much. The new game's combat seemed like a good approach at first, with an intuitive attack system and some interesting bosses, but it just got worse as it went on. Enemies start to change into forms that only allow for a specific sort of attack, limiting the freedom that made it interesting, and begin to use way too many scripted moves that require you to hit or mash a button to avoid it, turning it into a tiring affair. Fighting the same boss six times before it was finally finished didn't help keep things interesting, either.

In the same spirit as Farah, sort of, the game introduces Elika, your companion throughout the game. She ends up being important to the gameplay as well as the story, and luckily she's pretty likable. Instead of the ability to rewind time when you screw up and fall to your death, Elika uses her powers to save you and return you to the last place you were safe. While platforming, this means the last normal spot you could stand on, and in combat, it gives the enemy a chance to recover health. Some people think this makes the game too easy, but really it's just different. In some situations, it's actually less forgiving than rewinding time. If you were prone to running out of the sands in earlier games, then dying would send you back to the last checkpoint, and in that way, Elika was helpful. But generally, being returned to where a platforming segment began is harsher than just rewinding a bit to undo a tiny mistake partway through, and her magic actually promotes an awkward tactic in combat. Each subsequent time she saves you, the enemy recovers a smaller portion of their health, so if you have a tendency to screw up while fighting, it makes sense to fail on purpose in the beginning, so doing so later in the fight is less of a setback. Not that it's usually a problem, because it's not Elika that makes the game really easy so much as the overall design of the game, which tends to lead you by the nose to the next plot point.

Although thankfully the plot is decent enough. I'm not a huge fan of the voice actors, who work fine as normal people, but sound out of place in the game's outlandish fantasy setting. You can stop and talk to Elika throughout the game, and too often early on they just try to be clever and it can often fall flat. But as time goes on, they get more serious about their quest and start to know more about each other as people. Even the incidental dialogue while you're running around evolves to show a growing connection between them. The personal relationship makes the otherwise somewhat uninspired plot a bit more engrossing. I wonder how dynamic the story really is, considering the amount of choice you have with how you play through the game. I don't generally think that a world that can be seen in a variety of orders is necessarily more interesting than a carefully constructed single path, but it would be interesting if I ever played it again to see how it changes by going through it in a completely different way. Eventually you heal all the lands and defeat all the enemies and come to the final part of the game back where you started. The whole finale, with the unusual perspective while fighting the boss, and the interactive ending that forces you to do something you might not want to, is pretty compelling, and shows how game designers are continuing to evolve how their products present story. And while the inevitable cliffhanger is a bit disappointing, the actual emotional weight of the decisions made is more than I really expected from the game. In general I find fault with many of the things Prince of Persia does, but I think it's worth experiencing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Guillermo del Toro's second stab at the Hellboy series isn't exactly a great film, but it's mostly enjoyable throughout and filled with the same visual inventiveness that was hinted at in smaller doses in Pan's Labyrinth. Whereas the first film felt basically like another super hero movie, albeit a bit of a quirky one, this movie is much more of a straight fantasy. From the background that's explained with stop motion puppets to the incredible makeup (Hellboy himself being among the least impressive) to some larger CG creatures, the movie looks astounding. It's not as technically correct as some bigger films, but just in terms of visual imagination and pulling it off in an interesting way, it's extremely successful and just fun to watch. Besides the special effects, the action scenes are pretty good too. They seem a bit sped up in places, but the villain has a cool style and whenever he's wrecking peoples' shit it's entertaining.

Not everything else about the movie is as good, though. The story actually has quite a few niggling problems. The main cast is solid, especially Ron Perlman as the titular character. He and Selma Blair are okay together, and it's nice that their relationship has advanced in a human way, but the problems they face are a bit too sitcom-esque at first. And Abe's character arc also comes off a bit hokey. Near the beginning Hellboy's existence is revealed to the world, and the negative reaction from the public seems forced and unnecessary to the story. It's really not a very subtle script, but the end result is generally pretty watchable. Doug Jones' dedication to getting into tons of makeup to play multiple parts is admirable as always, though. Seth MacFarlane makes a surprising appearance voicing a new, slightly goofy German character, that ends up being pretty likable. Hellboy II's the kind of movie that's best enjoyed when not taken completely seriously.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Whitest Kids U' Know - Season 2

Here we are again talking about a season of a comedy shortly after talking about the previous one. The biggest thing that separates season two from the first is the switch in network. The move to IFC let them go uncensored, and they capitalized in the very first sketch of the first episode where a guy is disgusted by his friend's inability to keep his balls inside his pants while they're talking. It goes on from there, with lots of the same sort of irreverent humor that we saw before, just with some more swearing and some breasts thrown in here and there. The season finale is footage from behind the scenes and on stage at a live performance, and it actually had some of my favorite bits from their entire repertoire.

Why don't I tell you what I think of the whole gang? Darren must have a thing for cross-dressing, since he seems to do it significantly more often than anyone else. It also could just be he's the best looking chick, though. I feel like he should get more parts. Sam frequently plays smaller or less intelligent roles, but he can also do some really good stuff, such as elaborate speeches in a Shakespearean accent. Trevor's essentially the leader, being the head writer, frequently having the best part in a given sketch, and apparently being the only one with musical inclinations. I think Zach might be the best actual actor in the group, and he's basically #2 to Trevor's #1 in terms of creative control of the group and quality of parts. Timmy is pretty goofy looking and plays a lot of demeaning parts, but I guess it doesn't bother him, maybe because without this he'd not have a career at all. All of them are pretty funny, though. The third season starts up later this month.

Monday, January 5, 2009

In Bruges

If my memory of the trailer I saw months ago is accurate, then In Bruges wasn't advertised correctly. They made it seem like a violent European crime comedy thing along the lines of something Guy Ritchie would make, but it's really more serious than that. The film is quite funny in places, but the story at the heart of it is fairly tragic. After a job goes wrong in London, a couple of hit men are sent by their boss to wait in the little city of Bruges for further instruction; one of them a rookie, the other an old hand. At first the movie is pretty lighthearted, as Brendan Gleeson marvels at the old architecture and all the sightseeing to be had, while Colin Farrell complains about what a bore the place is, and jokes around a bit. But before long we see that his character was deeply affected by what he did back in London, and pretty distraught over what he should do next. For some reason it's popular to dump on Farrell, but I thought he did a very good job with a really good part here.

As time goes on, it gets to the point where he really has to leave Bruges, but circumstances prevent him from leaving, and the boss, played by Ralph Fiennes, shows up which further complicates things. Gleeson is sympathetic to his plight and tries to help, but Fiennes is pretty much a bastard and has no such feelings. It's really a great little cast, the three leads are never all together at once but all share scenes with the other two at some point, and the interactions are always unique and fun. Farrell and Gleeson act like underage brothers, Gleeson and Fiennes are old friends with a history that makes things difficult, and Fiennes and Farrell have a very funny back and forth despite the circumstances of their meeting. There's a cute Belgian girl (who also plays a Harry Potter character along with Fiennes and Gleeson) and a dwarf thrown in to mix things up, and the finale is pretty unfortunate but has a sliver of hope to it. Everything that happens, even apparently meaningless scenes, usually ties in to the main story in some usually comic way, but despite the movie being generally pretty funny throughout, it hit me harder than most comedies do. Definitely should be seen.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Clerks: The Animated Series

Adult Swim recently picked up this very short-lived series, giving me the chance to see it that I always vaguely wouldn't have minded. In general, it doesn't really live up to the film that preceded it. My memories of it aren't very clear, but I remember it being a simple, funny, vulgar movie that lived off Smith's interesting dialogue. The series has all the main actors from the movie voicing their characters and Alec Baldwin as an evil eccentric billionaire, which is fun, but it just isn't really Clerks. For one thing, why is there an evil eccentric billionaire? Clerks was very low key and realistic, just showing a (very strange) day in the life of a couple convenience store workers. The cartoon would be better if it wasn't trying to tie itself down to the movie and used some new ideas and real voice actors instead of the non-actors Smith could get with his $7000 budget.

The series isn't really bad, though. It has its moments. Remember when I said I respected the Sam and Max cartoon for having a clip show with fake clips? Clerks does the same thing, except it's in the second episode, and mostly features clips from the first two episodes over and over again. It has cute little ideas like that that sustain it like the Chupacabra with goat blood. Usually though, those few good ideas get hammered into the ground for too long and you just wait for them to move on. When your show constantly makes jokes about its writers being lazy and uncreative and you've done fewer than ten episodes, it doesn't really bode well for your future. It was an interesting experiment, but it's probably for the best that it didn't last very long.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Whitest Kids U' Know - Season 1

Starring mostly the same five guys and filmed on a shoestring budget, Whitest Kids is still some of the best sketch comedy I've seen in a while. A lot of the humor is pretty juvenile, but often enough they pull out something clever enough to make watching the whole episode worthwhile. Some sketches are more in the middle, like one of the first ones about how Lincoln was really killed, that aren't particularly smart but still completely hilarious if you can appreciate over-the-top swearing from one of our finest Presidents. Trevor and Zach are my two favorite cast members, and seem to get the lion's share of the best parts, but all of them contribute to every episode positively. Like other all-male comedy troupes that have come before them like The Kids in the Hall, they cross-dress fairly often and aren't afraid to make themselves look moronic for the sake of comedy. There's also the occasional music number, and while they aren't bad, usually I'm just waiting for them to get back to the normal stuff. Another couple great sketches are one where two Englishmen are at a stalemate when one finds he is peeing on the other's leg, and one where a guy who missed a party with his friends is painfully introduced to the new rules they came up with while he was absent. The first season aired on FUSE originally in a censored format, but for the second was moved to IFC, where the first was also reaired.

Friday, January 2, 2009

30 Rock - Season 2

Season two was shortened by the strike like everything else earlier this year, but still put together a solid story arc and some good comedy. There are a few little storylines that come and go, and provide for some decent laughs over multiple episodes. Jenna becoming more popular when she puts on weight during a hiatus, her feud with Tracy, his quest to make a porn video game, Jack's quest to get a promotion. You know, I always have trouble writing about a comedy show when I already wrote about it fairly recently, so I'm not going to try too hard. I like Scott Adsit. His character usually isn't very important to the story, but he's likable and funny whenever he's on screen. It's not the most glamorous role but it's the kind I appreciate. And I have to like anyone who can act on a sitcom AND do a lot of work on an Adult Swim show my friend hates. Anyway, 30 Rock is a funny show that perhaps goes to the "Hey, here's a big celebrity playing a character against their type" thing a bit too often.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Get Smart

Get Smart wasn't great, but it was enjoyable enough that I don't feel my New Years Eve was completely wasted. I like Steve Carell a lot, and he stars among a great cast of all kinds of people, from recognizable comedic faces to great classical actors. Unfortunately, most of them aren't used to their full potential. There are just too many jokes that fall flat for it to be a good comedy. At times, it really seems more like a spy movie with some goofy jokes than a comedy movie about spies, which I feel is more how it was advertised. I've never seen Mel Brooks' original series, so I have no idea how well it compares or how true it is to the show's spirit, so I'm not sure what exactly it was supposed to be, but judging by the reactions of others it's not really waht it should have been.

I actually sort of feel like it does the spy thing better than the humor thing, maybe understandable considering Peter Segal's record of directing mediocre comedies. But there are some fairly interesting missions and the climax is genuinely pretty exciting. Anne Hathaway is hot enough to be a real Bond girl, and matches up against Carell pretty well, although the romance seemed forced to me. Alan Arkin reunites with Carell after his questionable Oscar-winning performance in Little Miss Sunshine and plays an interesting take on the veteran chief character, and Dwayne Johnson should really be in more movies. There's really not much more to say about the movie - it was mostly okay with a few moments that were pretty great. Definitely less than I hoped for after the teaser trailer.