Thursday, February 26, 2009

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder

Into the Wild Green Yonder is possibly the last Futurama we'll ever see, and when you look at it that way, it's hard to be disappointed. Like all the movies, it doesn't reach the height of brilliance in the series' best episodes, although few things do. It does have the best story of the four though, and has an ending similar to that of "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings", able to serve as either a somewhat satisfying conclusion or a launching point for even more adventures, depending on what happens. It does recall previous happenings and jokes at a perhaps overly high rate, but it seemed like they were less of a crutch here, and it's at least nice to see the return, and perhaps conclusion of the Waterfall family.

There are some abandoned subplots and unexplained details that mar the beginning of the movie, but before long it settles into what is probably the most consistent story of the four movies. The first three were more obviously divided into four segments for easy splitting into individual televised episodes, and you can still sort of see that hear, just not as much. A frequent theme in the series is Fry's universal importance due to his strange brain wave patterns, and it's cool to finally see that idea come back, and this time without the Nibblonians, which are funny but we've seen before. It probably featured my favorite use of Bender in the movies, and it was nice that they finally did something else with Fry and Leela. Seeing Amy's dad turn from an insensitive rich guy into a Mr. Burns-esque super villain was a bit weird, although he served his purpose. Overall, if this is the last Futurama ever, I'll definitely be able to live with it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Persona 3 FES

I'm really not someone who plays a lot of Japanese RPGs, as I've written about in the past. But based on the constant praise and discussion of Persona 3 I saw on my favorite message board, I decided to give its special edition FES a try, and 82 hours later have finally finished what is easily my most enjoyable experience with the genre ever. It's an interesting take on some of the conventions. Instead of new areas and plot points becoming available as you go to different places, everything advances through the passage of time. The game takes place over the course of the school year, as the main characters have to balance studying for tests and making friends with their secret quest to prevent the city from strange monsters called shadows that appear during a part of the day only they are aware of. They fight by summoning Personas, special reflections of their inner selves with unique powers. Overwrought stories are a staple of these kinds of games, but although there are some moments of maybe too much talking made worse when you're seeing something for the second time and can't just completely skip it, the plot in Persona 3 is one of the most intriguing and fulfilling I've seen in a game, and because of the immense length is more like a good TV series than a movie. The most important scenes are fully animated anime-style, and while the character designs don't completely mesh with the normal portraits and models in the game it still helps convey things well. Everything up to the end works, and the end itself was pretty brilliant and brought all the big parts of the game together. FES includes a new chapter that more fully explains what happens afterwards, although it doesn't seem necessary to appreciating it.

Besides special events every full moon, most of the normal RPG gameplay occurs in a gigantic tower with hundreds of randomly generated floors, and to be honest, after a while going back there over and over becomes pretty tiring. Fortunately, a few things save it. As you play, you start to realize you don't really have to go there that often, and can spend almost your entire month outside before having to return, and at least the combat system itself is enjoyable and satisfying. Instead of revolving around building up your stats through fighting repeatedly, the key to success is exploiting each enemy's weakness and finding especially useful Personas through fusing ones you find. There were a few times where I felt I had no choice but to get a little more health before being able to really take on a tough boss, but finding a strategy that eliminates their strengths and defeats them without having to level up is a great feeling. The player's inability to directly control the actions of other party members can make things more frustrating, although it's rare for it to become a true problem. There are a few other small annoyances, including the frustration where one slip can get your party killed and waste all the time spent since the last save, but in the end I found the combat really fun and rewarding.

Even more than the fighting though, I liked the social interaction aspect of the game. The main thrust of that part are the Social Links, connections you make with various students and other people around town that improve your ability to create certain Personas. Each person with a link represents a certain Arcana, and as you get closer to them any Personas you fuse in that Arcana get stronger, eventually unlocking the ultimate one. The execution wasn't perfect, as I soon learned that telling someone what they wanted to hear was usually a better option than what I really wanted to say, but it's an interesting idea that merges the two halves of the game. The normal schedule in the game is going to school Monday through Saturday with the afternoons and evenings off to shop for equipment, improve social stats, work on links or whatever, although there are special events frequently throughout the year that change it up and allow for some interesting and often quite funny interactions among the cast members. The game spends a lot of time developing his characters, and it makes the rest of the game stronger when you just appreciate and like spending time with the different people you meet and often go into battle with. The voice acting and localization is fairly solid too, with only a few people totally failing. In general the audio is pretty decent. Although some of the music is kind of weird and you end up hearing it too much when the game takes so long to finish. In the end though, it is one of the better games I've played in a long time, and I already have the sequel waiting for me to dive into it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


RahXephon is another anime featuring giant robot things fighting each other, although it has a lot more in common with the trippy supernatural style of Neon Genesis Evangelion than the gritty realism of Mobile Suit Gundam. I almost feel like it's an improvement on Evangelion's formula, or at least its execution. It similarly likes to screw with your mind and slowly progress an overall plot while the main character finds a way to beat the monster of the week, but it also generally makes more sense. Until it comes to the end at least, because it's pretty easy to get lost at that point. It's the kind of show that rewards paying close attention and maybe even multiple watches, because there are lots of relatively important character details that are only vaguely hinted at.

A big part of the show is music, which is a weapon for the bad guys and a pretty constant theme. It plays into the story and develops the characters at all times, and the episodes are even called "movements". Recurring visual elements could even be considered leitmotifs. It's also pretty good looking, with nice designs on everything and pretty decent animation. The fighting is pretty good, although a little often there's just some gimmick that traps the protagonist for a while and everybody worries about him for a few minutes until he figures it out and wins instantly. As much as RahXephon's about magic robots fighting each other it's about the characters though, and that aspect is very well done. It tells a pretty good love story, and everything ties back nicely into the main plot. All the aspects come together for the finale, which is suitably confusing and insane enough for any good anime. I'm not sure why a lot of my favorite series tend to have similar subject matter, but I think it's just because they're genuinely good.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Lonely Island - Incredibad

The Lonely Island is the name of the three guys responsible for Hot Rod and the Digital Shorts on Saturday Night Live, and Incredibad is their first album which compiles the songs they've often used for those along with some good brand new ones. Most of the tracks are in a hip hop style, and while I would have appreciated some more musical diversity it's hard to mind too much when the results are as funny and catchy as they tend to be here. There are some genuinely nice beats backing up the goofy lyrics and appearances by lot of celebrities, both actors and legitimate musicians. If you've ever laughed at Andy, Jorma, and Akiva's work before it's worth checking out.

While the sound does veer towards rap, there's still some variance in the specific style emulated, it's mostly pretty standard but songs like "Punch You in the Jeans" have a more old school sound. "I'm on a Boat" was their most recent to be made into a video, and is a funny jab at the over-exuberance of the genre made complete with a nice performance by T-Pain. E-40 has a nice verse in a song about Carlos Santana's sparkling wine, the singer from The Strokes croons about the power of a boombox, and Norah Jones guests on a track about the group's strange idea of a girl of their dreams. The album even goes as far back as Natalie Portman's turn as a gangster rapper, and the song's even funnier uncensored. It really is an explicit album too, with plenty of curses thrown around liberally for comedic effect. It culminates with the final title track, which details the silly, very graphic way that the group became what they are today. It's not a musical masterpiece, but Incredibad is a funny and enjoyable way to spend about 40 minutes.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Flower is yet another download-only game that shows that some of the most innovative and unique work this generation isn't to be found in the latest big-budget blockbuster. It's the next project from the developer of flOw, and like that game, Flower is controlled mostly with the PS3 controller's motion sensor; is pretty relaxing to play, at least at first; and you can't lose, you just keep playing until it ends or you stop. Unlike it's predecessor, there's more to the game than meets the eye at first, as it takes a turn partway through, and becomes quite the emotionally affecting experience. It's so much different from the usual game design of killing everything you see until you reach the next part of the story.

Simply, each level begins with a single flower petal floating in the breeze. Pressing any button causes a gust of wind to push it forward and tilting the controller changes its direction. As you pass by other flowers, you slowly gather more petals until hundreds are traveling in your wake, and you become a force for good to heal whatever has gone wrong with the area you're in. You soar around gathering specific petals to trigger changes in the environment, and eventually you'll have fixed everything and can move on the next area. For whatever reason, the game generated some of the most visceral responses from me of any game in a long time, both in amazement at it's beauty and in shock at certain things later on. It's a pretty technically brilliant game, and both the fidelity of the visuals and quality of the music, including interactive elements when you pick up petals, add hugely to the experience.

The first playthrough including the credits shouldn't take an average gamer more than a couple hours, which might not sound like the best value for ten dollars until you realize that that's basically what you pay for a movie of the same length. It's fairly quick, but it manages to tell a full story and trigger a wide variety of feelings in that time, something very few games can pull off in the same period. And there is some replay value too, with trophies that aren't easy to get the first time when you're just in the middle of the moment the first time. Anyone who has a PS3 or access to one should definitely at least see this game for themselves.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Tokyo Godfathers

I've come to associate Kon's work with bizarre, supernatural plots and lots of mind trickery, and Tokyo Godfathers doesn't really feature either of those characteristics. Regardless, it's now my favorite thing he's done and one of the best anime films I've seen, period. I seem to usually enjoy the medium when it's blowing my mind with some crazy imaginative imagery, although that's not what you'll find here. It's a story of three immediately interesting and likable homeless people who find an abandoned infant on Christmas. What follows is a very enjoyable and heartwarming story filled with amazing coincidences (It wouldn't be a Kon film without at least a couple moments that prompt a "What the hell?") that propel it towards a very exciting and satisfying conclusion. It's often annoying when a plot needs someone to magically step in and help the heroes get to the next scene, but something about the way Godfathers is put together makes it totally work and ties in well with the overall tone of the film.

It's not too easy to explain why I loved the movie so much, I just felt like everything worked and I enjoyed every moment of watching it. The different characters were sympathetic and developed well in the quick running time, and seeing how their different stories would end up turning out was a big part of what propelled it forward. The animation is generally quite good as it usually is when Kon's involved, a good mix of realism and stylized goofiness when required. The movie is quite funny in places, and never takes itself too seriously, although important scenes are treated with the proper respect. The last part when everything finally comes to an end was a little more out there than I expected, but it worked and more genuinely thrilling than most more elaborate action scenes. Not much else to say other than I'd recommend it to just about anyone.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


LittleBigPlanet isn't quite the savior of the Playstation 3 that some hoped it would be, but it's still a fun and completely charming game that will theoretically never run out of new content. You know the game is going for a different audience than the Gears of War crowd when you first start it up and are greeted and told how to play with pleasant, humorous narration from Stephen Fry, who happily teaches you throughout the game. The graphics are very good technically as well as design-wise, and the fun of watching the characters and little creations interact is a lot of the appeal. It's best to think of the game as an ultra-cute playground, as the movement and interactions are all physics-based and are what make the level creation work. Every level in the story mode was apparently created using the tools that are available to every player, and the potential for what can come out of the community is amazing. There's already quite a lot of impressive toys and cool levels to be found, although really the best design I've seen is rightly the levels made by the guys who made the game.

The story mode serves as many things; an entertaining platforming game in its own right for any number of players, a way to collect tons of items to use when making your own stuff, and inspiration for all the different things that can be done. Some levels became more frustrating than enjoyable later on and that wasn't helped by the less than completely precise controls, but I was able to make it through out of affection for everything else about the game. There's not a lot they can't do with the creation tools, including some really cool bosses and unlockable challenge levels. There's a lot of reason to replay the levels too, tons of items to collect and use on your own stuff and special areas for multiple players. There's also a lot of great music from around the world to be heard as you play, scandal about lyrics from the Qur'an aside. The story isn't anything substantial, but sets up interesting scenarios to play through and fits the game's MO of being as cute as possible. I haven't spent as much time with the creation stuff as I'd like, but it's pretty simple and intuitive to do some complex things, and even if you don't have a grand plan for a great level it's still fun to just screw around with all the different pieces. And with things like the Metal Gear Solid level pack, I feel confident it's a game I'll be coming back to for a long time.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

MC Lars - The Laptop EP

Lars has a new album coming out soon, and he recently put all the MP3s from his first release under his current specific moniker up on his website for download. So uh, I downloaded them. It's a seven-song EP, although two also appear on The Graduate. They mark a big step in production value from Radio Pet Fencing, and the starting point for the repertoire he uses now when performing live. There's some solid beats and catchy choruses to be found, and some interesting sampling and experimenting with other genres. I have to appreciate a rapper who will do a track about Edgar Allen Poe in front of a guitar riff from a Brand New song. "Signing Emo" is probably one of his most popular songs, and has some clever lyrics along with a chorus from a fake punk band that managed to fool some people into trying to book them. "iGeneration" and "Hurricane Fresh" are also both songs sampling rock bands that are popular live. "Stat-60" is less commonly heard but gives Lars definite nerd cred for rhyming about math class, and "Straight Outta Stockholm" is a self-aggrandizing rap but with a nice sound to it, encapsulating well Lars' attitude and outlook. The Laptop EP is a really quick and enjoyable lesson, and there's no reason not to listen when he's giving it to you for free.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

I still haven't listened to any pre-Strawberry Jam Collective to know what they really sounded like, but they seem here to have fully committed to their transition from experimental rock to some sort of psychedelic electro-pop madness, without a single guitar to be heard. It can be a bit bizarre, but starting from the explosion of noise halfway through the opening track "In the Flowers", it's easy to see that music doesn't have to be familiar to be extremely infectious and fun to listen to. I'm still not very good at telling Avey Tare and Panda Bear apart, besides the fact that Avey is the one singing when the singing's crazy. The two seem to have a tighter interplay here than they did on the last album, and overall it's a more consistently enjoyable and focused effort. More of the songs feel like fully-formed pop with actual structures, even if the different elements seem unusual. The single "My Girls" is the perfect example of this, and pretty frighteningly catchy.

Not every song is like that, with some being more firmly in the band's esoteric oeuvre, although you can pretty much expect electronic twiddling and driving bass on most of them. "Also Frightened" is as close as the album gets to boring, although there are enough interesting touches to keep your attention. "Summertime Clothes" is poppy fun and a good distillation of the essence of what they seem to be going for. "Daily Routine" reminds me the most of their last album, with dissonant beeps providing the core instrumentation, echoing vocals, and the drawn out, starkly unique second half. "Bluish" might be the closest I've seen them come to a love song, although it kind of has their sort of twist on it. "Guys Eyes" does an interesting thing with the vocals that I'm not sure totally works, but it's worth hearing. "No More Runnin" is another slower track, and a solid lead in to "Brother Sport", the final song and of the catchier ones. It's not without some off-putting bits, but the vocals and frequent explosions of musical happiness cap off a very good album quite nicely. I'm sure it's not done growing on me yet, and is a great way to start off a new year musically.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Depreciation Guild - In Her Gentle Jaws

The Depreciation Guild is an interesting and unique project, with a few guys guys making music using their voices, a couple guitars, and an NES sound chip. It's basically a combination of shoegaze and chiptunes, and the two very different genres work surprisingly well together. The sound chip provides percussion, harmony, and interplays constantly with the guitars, and it's easy to forget you're listening to a video game system. I've heard some chiptunes before, and while it can be catchy, it often just sounds like slightly sparse techno. Hearing it used very naturally in the way it is here makes me wonder really how diverse it can be.

A lot of tracks sound very similar and aren't as distinctly memorable as they could be, but all of them are pretty enjoyable. "Butterfly Kisses" is a good opener, letting the listener know what to expect going forward, with a nice fast pace. "Heavy Eyes" is a good example of their slower, softer songs. The title track is an instrumental, and one of the most effective slow burns I've heard in a while, having a really good build up. "Nautilus" is the longest track, and gave me maybe the strongest post-rock vibe on the album. "A Room, A Canvas" gave me a sort of 80s vibe, with the chorus especially. Not in a bad way, though. In general it's not a very fast album, with the general pace and pleasant vocals creating a very soothing feel to everything. Considering the different styles used it's actually not a record that really takes a lot of risks, but it certainly should be enjoyable for most people. It's also for available for free download on the band's website, so you should definitely listen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I have to admit, my opinion of Besson's ability to make a script for and put together a kick ass movie was slipping a bit, but Taken showed me he still has some tricks up his sleeve. It's a bit light on plot and intelligence or subtlety to the dialogue, but it's the perfect vehicle for one of the most enjoyable straight-up revenge movies I've seen. You pretty much know everything you need to from the commercials that either focus on the pivotal scene where Liam Neeson's daughter get captured or show a montage of him beating the shit out of people. Put those together, and that's what the movie is. Morel's directorial debut was with District B13, another Besson script, and he really seems to know how to do action in the Bourne/new Bond style that I like so much, although the camera is thankfully a little less spastic when stuff's happening. The part is much more physically demanding than artistically challenging for Neeson, although he brings his usual great self to it and handles everything better than you'd expect from a 56 year old.

There's really not too much to say about Taken without just gushing about how cool Liam is. He's not just a good fighter, he has all sorts of skills that he uses creatively to look for his daughter. He gathers the clues he needs a bit conveniently and quickly, but it works to drive the very tight pacing forward as he tears a path of destruction to find what he came for. And when the action does get going, it's really quite good. To be honest, I wasn't completely feeling the movie for the first hour. There were some cool moments, but the biggest scene was a car chase through dirt that I didn't much care for, and it wasn't totally clicking. But as the film goes on and Neeson's daughter gets closer to being lost forever, he gets visibly more determined and starts going further to take care of things, and his desperation shows as the brutality of his actions builds. It's effective both from a story perspective and the fact that it makes the movie backloaded, with standout moments occuring more and more frequently as it approaches the end. There aren't any big surprises to watch out for or complicated repercussions, it's just an unrelenting, very direct film that puts everything on the table and says, "Here's what we did, enjoy it if you want to." And I did enjoy it quite a lot.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Afro Samurai: Resurrection

I really haven't been sure about how to categorize televised feature-length productions, especially when they're connected to existing series. The "television" label is really used for episodic products, even if they aren't actually broadcast originally. Other series like 24 and Battlestar Galactica have had TV movies recently that I decided to include as part of the season they were produced with, instead of reviewing them separately. Resurrection is a strange case, a televised movie sequel to a miniseries with no other episodes accompanying it. I'll just call it a movie and move along. If you saw the series, you pretty much know what to expect. Some stylish, bloody action scenes, silly titillation that goes nowhere, and a bleak tone of hopeless, constant violence. Several characters thought dead disappear, and in some ways it feels more like a remix of the series than a true sequel. Hey, there's a lot of remixes in rap, and the RZA did the music for this! There's rap in it! And it actually kind of works in the same way as Samurai Champloo.

They lean pretty heavily on the widespread weight of Afro's deeds in his previous quests, as the crux of the plot was caused and seemingly everyone he runs into was affected by all the people he hurt attempting to avenge his father. He goes on a fairly unoriginal journey filled with fighting and further annoying dialogue from his white-haired alter-ego, before the fairly brutal climax that redeems a number of characters. I'm going to reference Mark Hamill again here, who plays a couple characters, and wonder how long it will be before I just give him a label. He has the perfect gravelly voice and will do anything. It's pretty sweet. Jackson and Liu fulfill the required big name quota, and they're decent enough I guess. I didn't enjoy Resurrection as much as the original series, but it's worth checking out if you like any of the component elements enough.