Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Heroes - Season 3

Heroes' third season was two stories in one, the first of which was completely awful and the second of which was decent at times but still pretty bad. It's really sad how far the show has fallen. The first season was pretty darn good. The characters were interesting and sympathetic for the most part, and it felt like what might happen if a bunch of people suddenly had crazy powers. By now though, almost every single character is irritating. The two Asian dudes are still kinda funny, and the best moment of the season occurred when they encountered Seth Green and Breckin Meyer as a couple of comic geeks who recognized them from the Isaac's books. Even they are suffering under the weight of the show's increasingly terrible writing, though. No character can be rooted for when their motivations and ambitions are constantly changing for no reason to suit whatever lame purpose the plot currently requires, as the series slowly descends into the worst kind of crap that plagues the comic industry they were supposed to be avoiding.

I don't care if I spoil anything that happened months ago, so I'll just give an example of how stupid these characters are. Peter comes from a future where Nathan had revealed the existence of humans with powers to the world, and things weren't going so well. Instead of warning Nathan of the consequences at some point before he does so, he decided his best course of action is to SHOOT HIM IN THE CHEST DURING THE PRESS CONFERENCE. I don't even remember how Nathan managed to survive, but it's no surprise he did when nobody ever dies. This is a pretty egregious example, but pretty much every significant decision anyone makes during the third volume has some gigantic problem with it that anyone with a brain could have avoided. The fourth volume is a little better, with some of the more all-powerful characters' powers being limited a bit to reel it in and some decent revelatory episodes here and there. It's still brought down by almost everyone having a severe case of either mental retardation or schizophrenia, and the complete refusal by the writers to really kill or remove any characters unless they were introduced fairly recently. The only reason I still watch is some idiotic notion against not finishing something I've started, so I can only hope the next season is either magically good again or terrible enough to finally get this thing canceled, though with the way they set it up, only the latter seems plausible.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chuck - Season 2

Chuck really seemed to hit its stride this season, just in time for its continuation to come into serious jeopardy thanks to Jay Leno absorbing five hours of NBC's week in the near future. I still wouldn't say it's as great as some members of its apparently dedicated fan base, because the humor's still hit and miss and some of its more contrived setups cause nothing but groans. When Chuck adjusted his phone in a way that somehow accidentally activated the speaker and called his girlfriend while he just happened to be having a conversation that could be easily misconstrued as sexual in nature, it was hard not to just walk away from that. It managed to keep me coming back every week though, thanks heavily to some strong attempts to create an honest-to-god storyline.

The first season was more or less a string of disconnected spy plots that Chuck and his professional backup stumbled upon every week, but the second has more of a real plot as a shadowy Government splinter group called Fulcrum makes Chuck and the Intersect their new target, while he begins in earnest to try to get it out of his head and finally get his life together. It's still a bit episodic as he has the same not-really-a-relationship issues with Sarah and the conflict often seems like little more than various characters being captured and rescued over and over again. Still, I appreciate the effort to go a little deeper with the characters and the nature of the Intersect project. The end of the season finale was pretty effing ridiculous, and I'd really like to see where they go with the show from here, if they ever get a chance to.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Lord of the Rings

I'm going to discuss this as one work because that's how it was originally intended and I don't want to write three posts about it.

Anyway, The Lord of the Rings is very dense where The Hobbit was a bit more lean, and it can be taxing to read if you rush through it. It's best read at a leisurely pace over a long time if you're willing to spare it, otherwise it's easy to get lost in the endless descriptions of scenery and references to the kingdoms and people of times past. Even taking my time reading it, mostly with a baseball game on in the background, I occasionally found myself stuck on the same page for a while or realizing that I had gone for a while without actually absorbing what had happened. Still, if you're willing to put the time into it, there's a very interesting tale that's as much a history as a story (check out the hundred pages of appendices for proof). It's not the simpler child-friendly storytelling that The Hobbit was, but it still feels like a big expansion on the same world. In some ways the movies are an easier way to experience the plot, and some of the changes they made make more sense in the modern way stories are told, but everything in the books seems to work in the way Tolkien intended.

One example is the drawn out ending. People criticized the third movie for seeming to end multiple times, although I don't blame them for taking a few minutes to wrap up as much as possible for their twelve hour trilogy. However, that doesn't really compare to the book - there are over 80 pages in between the ring's destruction and the final line. The climax isn't even the last violent conflict in the story. The books really ignore good normal story structure a whole heck of a lot. There are multiple times where the power of the ring's seduction is compromised by people who aren't even affected by it. It's hard to say how much was really contrary to standard practice at the time because I'm not sure how long the standard way has been in place.

Another note of interest is that for a lot of the time, the focus doesn't even seem to be on Frodo and the quest. The first "book" is pretty much all hobbits all the time as they have some mysterious adventures that were actually pretty interesting yet mostly cut from the films, although starting with the second part, more pages are dedicated to Aragorn and humanity's last stand against the hordes of evil than the ring's secret journey towards destruction. It's where a lot of the "epic" feel comes from, and definitely had more influence on the future of fantasy literature than a desperate trek in foreign lands with a traitor for a guide. You get the feel that Tolkien really loved all his characters, and had a special affection for the plight of mortal men, cursed with weak wills and short lifespans. The Lord of the Rings is really about men and their kingdoms in the end, with his fascination with elves covered more in The Silmarillion, which I'm going to attempt to read soon. He's not an easy guy to read, but his dedication to his work is pretty admirable.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People: 8-Bit Is Enough

In 8-Bit Is Enough, video games collide with real life, and tons of meta humor and pop culture references ensue. Telltale has covered this ground before with Sam and Max: Reality 2.0, but they do enough differently this time that it doesn't feel like a retread and it still has the feel of the Homestar Runner universe going for it. I'm not sure if it's just me, but to me the game felt like it was easily the most elaborate and involved of the episodes design-wise, as tasks and goals were layered on each other and you always knew what you had to do next, even if you weren't sure how yet. They do seem to go a bit bigger with the last game in a series, and I definitely had a lot of fun with this episode and the games in general. I may actually have to watch more of the web cartoons now.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 4

The fourth season of Buffy had some stand-alone episodes among the very best the show's had so far, though it didn't feel quite as strong overall as it did previously. I'm still interested in the characters for the most part, though some of their problems weren't as good and the main story arc was... I don't want to say silly, because the show's always had a sense of humor about what it is. I guess it was just hokey in comparison to the last couple seasons. One character who did improve was Spike, who's always more entertaining when he's not antagonizing the heroes, and he couldn't for the bulk of the duration here. Someone who I definitely thought took a step back was Giles, who is still and will forever be awesome, but he's just slightly less awesome when the show goes out of it's way to let you know he's awesome.

Anyway, the main thing that's going on is Buffy and Willow arrive at their college, and before long realize that there's a secret government facility beneath it that's the base for a military project called The Initiative, and some people they've met and grown to like happen to be part of it. There's a bit of conflict as we're not sure what everyone's true motivations are and eventually the main villain presents itself, an interesting if goofy experiment gone wrong. It's hard to say what exactly made it weaker than earlier stories, other than it simply was. Still though, the season is worth watching for those standout episodes. Both of the early holiday-themed ones, the dream-sequence heavy finale and especially "Hush" are all fantastic hours of television. We're reaching the point where maybe Whedon's being stretched a little thin thanks to Angel and eventually Firefly, but Buffy's still a very watchable series.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People: Baddest of the Bands

Humor-wise, the third Strong Bad episode was about as strong as any other, but it felt like a small dip in the gameplay department. I found myself stuck more often than I thought I should have in a game that only takes a couple hours. Some adventure games thrive on keeping the player stuck for a long time, but Telltale's work seems best when stuff comes more or less naturally and you're keeping it moving to the next joke. Also, I like the extra games they insert here and there, and the only one in this episode lasts for a few seconds before something happens that prompts the main conflict. Maybe you can play it for longer in the extended play mode that unlocks when you finish the main game, but I have too many things to play these days to spend a lot of time with something I've beaten. I liked how extremely convoluted Strong Bad's scheme to fix his game system becomes though, and besides the hold ups it was a pretty enjoyable entry in the series.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Why is it that once overwhelming forces finally have the protagonist cornered, they always wait around before killing them long enough for reinforcements to arrive and save the day? Appleseed is a competent action movie, or at least it would be if it spent some more time blowing stuff up and less time with little old dudes floating around philosophizing and talking about Gaia or some shit. I'm not quite sure how I really feel about it overall, because I appreciate a lot of the design elements and some aspects of the story that pits some angry humans against the artificial "Bioroids" that now control most of society. It just doesn't come together like a good film should, possibly because it's trying something a little different but it still has the stink of Japanese animation all over it.

The art style is a bit peculiar. It's all done in computers, but with some effects put on it to make it look more like traditional cel animation, a technique used more often in video games. It's not particularly ugly to look at, but I can't tell who it's supposed to appeal to. It has neither the fine detail of 3D animation nor the appealing smoothness of 2D, so it's stuck in the middle without a real strength. It works in games because it has some style while still being doable in real-time on modern machines, but it doesn't really make sense here. Otherwise though, it's a fairly watchable hour and forty minutes if you like seeing some robots shoot at each other and don't mind some long and relatively pointless exposition. Whenever a story with some depth to it is adapted to a movie, especially in anime, there's a chance you're going to get too much detail and preaching when you don't really need it, and that's the case here. At the very least none of it is painfully bad. There's a sequel that John Woo apparently had some input in, although I'm not sure if that actually intrigues me because it's been a while since he's made anything good.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People: Strong Badia the Free

I enjoyed this episode more than the first, because like the still-superior fourth, it has a strong theme that ties the design in with the story. It's not that the first didn't work, but having an idea like each character declaring themselves ruler of their own little nation and making a world-conquering game out of it was enjoyable, and grabbed me more than my merely casual appreciation for the characters. I again ran into a problem where I was supposed to check something more than once to advance the game without any indication of it, but besides that the puzzles were a good combination of being solvable without getting too obvious. The climax takes place in a minigame outside the normal gameplay, but it was a fun departure from the normal experience rather than annoying. I also like how the earlier episodes tease features and new areas that will appear later, it's a cool way to keep people interested instead of just showing a trailer after the credits. I don't like Strong Bad as much as Sam and Max, but I appreciate the games.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Angel - Season 1

500 posts. Weird.

Angel isn't as funny or easily enjoyable as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it does enough to stand on its own in its first season while still feeling like part of the same universe. It's aided by a number of crossovers with its parent show, which makes for some interesting situations as a thread is opened in the original and tied up an hour later on Angel. Aside from a shorter-than-expected stint by an Irish half demon, the main cast in the first season is made up of Buffy castoffs, and while they were mostly tangential there, they manage to establish themselves as a decent foundation for a series on Angel. The titular character himself can handle the lead well enough, though I like him more when he's being dark and standoffish than when he's trying to make clever quips in battle. Cordelia's role in Buffy was mostly just being a huge bitch, but Los Angeles manages to calm her down a bit and make her more tolerable here. Even Wesley becomes likable once he finds his niche in Angel's crew.

Unlike Buffy, there isn't much of a story thread running through the whole season. Wolfram & Hart are an evil law firm that can be found hiding in the background behind a lot of the show's antagonists from episode to episode, and their presence increases as it goes on, but it seems like they're mostly just setting it up for something bigger later. The action and supernatural stuff is about as competent as Buffy, but where it's not as interesting is the other stuff - the lives of the characters. Buffy and her friends fight a lot of demons, but they also go to school and hang out, whereas Angel seems to be all business. It's still an interesting series, it's just not as fun to spend time in its world. Still, I'm curious to see where it goes.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People: Homestar Ruiner

What finally convinced me to buy the rest of the episodes were a couple of deals that together got me them for a mere $13, an offer I really couldn't refuse. The first episode isn't as clever as the fourth that I already played, but I enjoyed it for the couple hours it lasted. It's a bit strange to keep the differences between the two episodes in context, because this is the one that introduces the play style and all the environments, while the fourth puts a twist on the whole thing, dressing everything up like a homemade action movie. Homestar Ruiner follows what appears to be the standard formula for Telltale's adventures; a couple introductory puzzles, the main conflict which has three major parts to it, and then a couple more puzzles in the story's climax. After playing 14 of these it does seem kind of rote, but at the very least the solutions themselves haven't gotten repetitive. It's not as intuitive as some of their other work, with little stumbles like having to check your email again despite getting no indication of it, but it never falls on its face. A pretty funny, enjoyable bit of adventure gaming.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Walking Dead, Volume 2: Miles Behind Us

The second part picks up right after where the first left off, and continues the interesting, somber tale of a pack of humans trying to survive the winter in a world taken over by zombies. I've heard the story only really gets going a little later, but I still quite enjoyed this book. The main artist for the book is different starting with this volume, but I didn't really miss a beat because the overall look is still the same, thanks to the consistent gray tones. Adlard's style is a little messy where Moore's was a little cartoony, and some of the characters are a bit harder to distinguish until you get used to it, a problem that's increased by the pretty big cast.

Kirkman isn't afraid to kill off characters, but they meet new people at a high enough rate that it always feels like there's a surplus of pending zombie victims. I don't mind the amount of people, it's just that some aren't used to their full story potential. Though given enough time, which there will probably be since there's already nearly sixty issues with no signs of stopping, there's probably going to be plenty of character development to go around. I'm not totally sold on Kirkman's writing, because fairly often the dialogue is a bit obvious and rote ("Thanks for saving us!" "No problem, anything to help out a fellow man."), but I like the main characters enough and the story seems to be headed in a really interesting direction. Most zombie fiction doesn't cover the long term effects of a plague, but I appreciate when something does.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Xavier: Renegade Angel - Season 2

Xavier's second season takes the logical next step for the series, reaching new heights of insanity as the titular character experiences a lot of strangeness and seems to spend more time dealing with his mommy issues than trying miserably to help people like he did the first time. It also experiments more with the visual style, leaving the garish computer generated graphics for hand drawn segments and an entire episode made with clips submitted by fans. A few shows at the end of the first season dipped a toe into complete mind-bending recursive scenarios, and this time they just went nuts in that territory. My only problem is that it all just didn't make me laugh as much as the first time. I don't think it's the character or show growing stale, there just isn't as much humor as there was, with them going for what's crazy or disturbing over what's funny. I still liked seeing what madness would occur each week, I just didn't enjoy it quite as much. Definitely one of the more bizarre programs on a strange block of programming.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Silent Hill 2

I've seen a lot of this game in the past, though I've never really played it myself. This changed when a friend and I agreed to both play a game we had only watched before, Silent Hill 2 for me, and Shadow of the Colossus for him. If you're not a fan of survival horror, this game has some of the genre's typical problems in places, but overall it's a very strong, creepy experience, and ahead of its time in some ways. It definitely holds up better than I might have expected.

I'm not a huge fan of the way the game actually plays. It's somewhat like a traditional adventure game with some clumsy combat thrown in, though none of it is bad enough to hurt the game in the long run. It defaults to the tank-style movement controls that very few people are comfortable with, although there's a simple option in the menu to switch to the more intuitive way of just point where you want to go. The combat really isn't terrible as bashing monsters in the face is actually a viable option and you can move while attacking, it just isn't the game's strong point. Puzzles are a mix of some clever believable scenarios, some strange esoteric stuff, and a few groan inducing ones like using a can opener to open a can of light bulbs (what?) to light up a door so you can see the keyhole well enough (what?). The game emphasizes exploration, as you can wander around town or in the various important buildings and find a lot of extra supplies you may not necessarily need, with certain paths blocked off to keep you from getting too far off course. I like how the spaces feel like real buildings, and not just artificial environments a game was designed to take place in. Many doors are sealed off or have broken locks, which keeps you moving to the next important place without feeling fake.

What impressed me most is how the game is designed to facilitate the dark story, and that story itself. Pretty much every design decision has some thought behind it, and every aspect of the way the environment and strange monsters look has a reason for being the way it is. I'm not going to pretend I understand why everything is how it was made, but you can tell how well constructed it is. It's a psychological horror story, and the types of scares they go for in the game fit that. It's not about things jumping out at you, it's about keeping you unsettled the entire time you're playing, dreading to see what's in the next room. There are a few different characters all facing some sort of torment in the town, and the tale is an intriguing one, with a few twists along the way. Little details in the world can be easily missed but help contribute to the narrative, although you don't have to see everything to appreciate what it does.

Besides the voice acting, the presentation is really good too. The sound effects are effective whether they're just filling in the gaps or spooking the hell out of you, and the music is perfect. Akira Yamaoka has done the soundtrack for basically the whole series, and nearly every piece is great, and it's in a variety of styles. It's best when it's accompanying something strange going on and doing everything a few noises can to rattle your nerves. The amateur voices are pretty bad, but it's rare for them to actually hinder the storytelling, and a few people are decent. The graphics are quite good for the time also, and the camera can be frustrating in some situations, like when you're trying to not be killed, but in general it works for the presentation as a whole. Silent Hill 2 is more or less a classic in the horror game genre, and worth experiencing, even now.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Liveblog 17: Hello, New Yankee Stadium

I have to say I'm satisfied with the Yankees' performance so far. They're only 5-4, but playing all of the games on the road, missing their best hitter and after having stunk in April for years, you take what you can get. Chien-Ming Wang, a couple bullpen pitchers, and center field and third base production have stunk, but CC Sabathia looked great in his second start after really struggling in the first, and AJ Burnett and Nick Swisher have both performed awesomely with their new team, the latter quickly becoming my favorite player on the squad. He's hit unbelievably, and besides that he seems like a really fun guy, evidenced by his scoreless inning of relief in support of a depleted bullpen during a blowout against the Rays.

Today's the first game in the new Yankee Stadium, and it will be interesting to see if it continues to play like a hitter's park as it did in the two exhibitions they played right before the season started. The old stadium was a pitcher's park, but while the new one has the same dimensions in specific places, the outfield walls are a bit closer in between and there's less foul territory, which suggests it won't be as ERA-friendly even if the ball doesn't fly out like it did against the Cubs. Sabathia will make his third start after they take care of the opening ceremonies, and I'll liveblog some of it although I have to leave a bit later to do some stuff. I look forward to whatever happens.

Pre-Game - Not much happening yet, a marching band is playing. Ken Singleton's talking about the seating and says he doesn't think there's a bad one in the house. I guess he missed the controversy with the obstructed outfield seats blocked by the restaurant in center. Ceremonies should begin soon. John Fogerty's really the best musician they could get for this? Seems like he's not really playing his gimmick baseball bat guitar but actually singing. Song's kinda familiar, I'm sure I'd know the name if I was twenty years older. Hey, Bernie Williams with the guitar. He was my favorite player through my youth when the team was winning World Series. He's playing a nice little acoustic piece. And now they're trotting out former Yankees. Fame not a particular requirement. Does this mean they don't have to take an hour announcing them on Old Timers' Day? Are they still going to do that? They're the only team that does anymore. Might work better as an every-five-years thing. This is actually a better turnout of memorable names than there usually is.

Introducing the Indians as the crowd boos. I picked them for that muddled division but they're off to a terrible start. Even worse than the Red Sox! Big boos for Carl Pavano, but that's the only big reaction. Watch Cliff Lee shut down the Yanks today after sucking in his first two starts. I've never heard of the Yankees' first base coach before. Xavier Nady's still with the team, even though he's about to hit the DL, maybe for the rest of the season. Big cheers for Burnett already. As I thought, bigger cheers for Swisher than Mark Teixeira. Crowd overall seems somewhat subdued. Maybe it's the reduced number of seats. Kelly Clarkson sings the national anthem with flags and jets flying over and shit. Now let's play some baseball! I have a little over an hour before I have to leave.

Top 1 - CC starts Grady Sizemore off with a couple balls. A couple strikes later he gets him to ground out to first. Is Mark DeRosa supposed to be good? I don't know. He works a full count before grounding out to second. Victor Martinez is the first hitter to see a first pitch strike. A few more pitches and CC strikes him out with a high heater.

Bottom 1 - Little thing before Derek Jeter leads off, placing Babe Ruth's bat from the first home run at the old stadium on home plate. On the first pitch, Jeter pops it up to center. Johnny Damon gets the first hit in the stadium, a single off Lee, who has had a strange couple years. He was so bad in 2007 that he was sent back to the minors, but bounced back amazingly last year and won the Cy Young. We've yet to really see what he'll do this year. He dings Teixeira with a pitch, runners on first and second for Swisher. He works the count a while before lining out to Sizemore. Jorge Posada gets a chance to drive in the first run. Unfortunately he ends the threat by grounding to first.

Top 2 - Jhonny "my parents can't spell" Peralta lines out to left. The TV glitched out for a bit, but all I missed was two balls to Shin-Soo Choo. CC's command doesn't look great today. On the eighth pitch of the at bat Choo grounds out to second. Ben Francisco doubles to left field. Kelly Shoppach walks, and CC's definitely not looking like he did against Kansas City. I just remembered that the camera placements weren't ideal in the exhibition games, but they seem back to normal now. At least the standard view of pitches looks right. CC Ks Tony Graffanino to end the inning. He seems effective if not dominant.

Bottom 2 - Little tribute to Bobby Murcer as Robinson Cano leads off. Unlike previous years, he's looked pretty strong coming out of the gate. He smacks a single through the infielders to right. Hideki Matsui grounds out weakly to first, but moves Cano to second at least. Cody Ransom, who has filled in less than adequately for Alex Rodriguez at third base, draws a full count before fanning on a bad pitch. Brett "people think I'm gritty because I can't hit very well" Gardner pops out to short left for the third out.

Top 3 - I've never heard of Trevor Crowe, who hits yet another ground ball out to first. Sabathia facing his former team for the first time in the first game at his team's new ballpark is a mildly interesting storyline, don't you think? Sizemore takes a walk. CC's strike to ball ratio is dangerously close to even. Another walk to DeRosa. Jeez. Some of those calls looks pretty sketchy on Gameday, too. The runners are off with the pitch, but Martinez pops out into a double play. A bit lucky on that one.

Bottom 3 - Last inning before I have to leave. Let me see the first run at the Stadium please. Technical problems as Bob Lorenz' microphone isn't working and we actually lose stadium noise for a few seconds, which is kind of eerie. Jeter's first hit at the stadium is a swinging bunt to third. Damon grounds into a force out but there's no chance for a double play thanks to a bobble. Teixeira's swinging first pitch and flies out to center. Swisher doubles to left, runners on second and third with two outs for Posada. Unfortunately he shatters his bat on a weak grounder to second. Oh well. Back later to summarize the rest.

Wrap-Up - Kind of glad I stopped blogging when I did because after CC labored through another two and two thirds innings, the bullpen exploded with Damaso Marte in the center as they managed to give up nine runs in the seventh inning. Sabathia ended up only giving up one run, but it took him 122 pitches to record 17 outs, and the Yankees left runners on base all day long, losing 10-2. Kind of a really bad way to open the new park, but at least the first home run at the stadium was hit by Posada, who otherwise managed to strand six runners. Tomorrow's another day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ex Machina, Book 1: The First Hundred Days

Ex Machina is a current project of the writer of Y: The Last Man and writer/producer of Lost, Brian K. Vaughan. It's an interesting political drama with a superhero twist, although the first volume didn't grab me like some other things have. My main problem with it is the art style. Tony Harris can draw, but at first glance the art looked strange for some reason, and a feature at the back of the book explained why - every panel is drawn from reference of people posing in photographs. It's an interesting idea, but it doesn't really work. Things are detailed in unnatural ways, and it just looks wrong - more like people posing than a drawing of something happening, because that's what it is. It's just a little awkward and off-putting, though it didn't hurt the experience too much.

Briefly, it's about a man who gained a super power through strange circumstances, but after realizing his attempts at heroics weren't really helping he decided to run for mayor instead. He only got elected thanks to one final act of bravery, though now he's forced to keep his powers in check and act as a normal politician. In the first few issues a couple problems arise he has to deal with, and it feels more like a political story with a comic book twist instead of the other way around. Some obstacles are pretty mundane civil stuff, others are more sinister and tie in to his past, which is revealed in flashbacks. I got enough out of reading to want to continue, but it's not as immediately impressive as Vaughan's other work.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! - Season 4

Tim and Eric are just shoving out these quick ten episode seasons, at a rate of almost two a year, and I couldn't be happier. They continue to bring their amazing blend of wacky humor, insane tangents, disturbing digressions and unheralded celebrity guest appearances that a lot of people seem to hate but smart people can't help but love. The thing about the show is you have to appreciate guys like Richard Dunn and David Liebe Hart. Most people can find enjoyment in some of the normal sketches but are turned off by the off-putting strangeness that frequently occurs, usually involving those bit actors that keep popping up. But if you can appreciate them because of their oddness, the show's full potential unlocks.

There's maybe a bit less of the shift towards longer stories and continuity this time, but still plenty of great bits that go on for a bit longer than they could. The episode finally revealing the brothers behind the infamous Cinco company wasn't the show's best, but it was an admirable attempt at actually having a single plot through a whole episode, and it had its moments. There are some really good guest appearances too, such as Jonah Hill in one of the only sketches that made me like James Quall, Tommy Wiseau in a tribute to one of the most unintentionally funny movies ever, and a great season finale where Fred Armisen and The Lonely Island look on as Tim and Eric have a brutal tennis match for a million dollars, with the two replaced by Bret and Jemaine of Flight of the Conchords in a few quick shots. When you use people more famous than you this flippantly, it's hard not to appreciate. Tim and Eric could practically film a brick wall for eleven minutes at this point and I'd still think it was brilliant.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Street Fighter Alpha

Alpha is one of several animated films based on the popular fighting game series, and as you might expect based on that statement, not very good. I liked Street Fighter II well enough, but this one isn't quite as fun. It starts off promisingly, with some smoothly animated, enjoyable little fight scenes, but as soon as it starts trying to tell a story it slows way down. There's a lot of familiar faces, with Ryu, Ken, and Chun-Li predictable having the biggest roles, but some of the cameos don't make a whole lot of impact, and are just fan service. There's even a whole tangent with Akuma that's supposed to be dramatic or something but doesn't contribute to the plot or serve any purpose other than adding a few minutes to the runtime. If you're going to animate Akuma, at least have him beat the shit out of someone.

Anyway, it ends up being about some mad scientist guy having all the familiar guys fight so he can collect their data and eventually learn the "Dark Hadou" power from Ryu, so he can take over the world, I guess. There's a whole subplot with a little kid who claims to be Ryu's brother and also apparently has the power. But I kind of missed the explanation of what his actual deal was if it existed, because I was in and out for the last half. The problem is that once super powerful enemies get revealed, the action shifts from possibly well-choreographed martial arts to tired scenes of people powering up or writhing in crippling pain, taking a lot of potential excitement out of it. I would have enjoyed it more if it just stuck to what was working instead of going straight for the melodrama. It wasn't terrible, but I spent too long waiting until it was over.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season 2

As with the first, I had some ambivalent feelings about this show's second and likely final season. On one hand, too many of the episodes failed to really hold my interest for anywhere close to their entire running time, and it still stumbles a little too often with dumb logical leaps and story inconsistencies. On the other, it did some things that I really respect, and had at least a handful of really great moments and unique story structures that kept me from ever dropping it. It never reaches the level of greatness that other shows have, but I liked it enough that at least part of me is sorry they'll probably not get a chance to explore their newest time travel retcon loophole in the finale, even if it lessened the impact of other scenes. Plus it's hard to hate something that featured the most accurate representation of tabletop roleplaying I've seen on TV.

The second season introduces a lot of new elements to the series, changing it from a few characters just trying over and over to stop Skynet to more open cast with a variety of conflicting goals. The problem is that most of the people aren't terribly interesting, all of them talking more or less like the same person whether they be soulless machines, veterans of a taxing future war, or just FBI agents who have seen a lot of messed up crap. There's a sort of detachedness to all of the dialogue that makes listening to people argue over whatever less engaging than it should be, and overall stuff just doesn't blow up as often as it should. One particular episode at a funeral practically had me asleep waiting for something to happen. Not that it was always like that, some things like an episode about a terminator sent to the 1920s by accident ended up being pretty fun, and there were quite a few times where music was used very effectively to set a mood for a dramatic moment. I also liked how the deaths were sudden and unceremonious, with no teary farewell speeches. If the show really is over, then it gets the same sort of end, without a chance for true closure. I'm not too torn up about it, and I'm not sure if I'd recommend the series or not, but I don't feel like I wasted my time.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Serenity, Volume 2: Better Days

Better Days is the second and most recent comic series released in the Firefly universe, taking place before the first, and telling more of a stand-alone story. It feels more or less like a normal episode of the series, as it should being penned by two of its writers. It's a little bloodier than the show, but you can get away with that on paper. Conrad's art is on the same attractive level, and the story rushes by pretty quickly, again leaving it feeling a bit too short. It's a fun heist story with a few detours and connections to things like the war and a few more hints at an obscure subplot with Inara, making it feel a little meatier than it would have been. It's another situation where it's really just some more laughs and excitement for fans of the series, although it's probably friendlier to new people than the first volume. There's a third series supposedly coming soon that will finally reveal Book's backstory, and that's something I'm very interested in reading.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ender in Exile

Exile is a bit of an odd book, taking place between two existing ones in the series and actually retelling Ender's Game's final chapter, where he travels to one of the first colony planets and finds the last hive queen. Large sections of it are cobbled together from short stories that were previously published, and the purpose of it is mostly to tie up a few loose ends and inconsistencies from both the Ender and Shadow sagas. Still, I had about as good a time as ever reading it, it wasn't as inventive or surprising as the other novels since I basically knew what had to end up happening, but I did enjoy it.

It's hard to blame the story for not being as enthralling as the others, as it doesn't have the opportunity for the amazing scientific discoveries of the first quartet or interesting global military conflict of the second. Considering that Ender spends most of the story just traveling to his destination and doing things we were already aware of, it actually managed to grip me pretty well, as I blazed through the nearly 400 pages as quick as I ever do with Card's writing. I'm not sure what it is, but he seems to read almost as easily as if I was complacently watching it on television. The conflicts at hand weren't particularly incredible, but it all fit together well enough. I did like the final resolution of the Achilles arc, although it might be the first time I thought I was smarter than one of the series' many genius characters. There's another book coming at some point down the road that should wrap up the series once and for all, and I look forward to reading it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 3

The third season is an important one, as it's end marks the split where some of the cast continues on in Sunnydale, and some move to Los Angeles for the Angel spin-off. It's pivotal for most of the characters too, as it's the last year of high school before everyone can move on, and they have to make decisions about their future. Buffy's desires are at odds with her destiny and blah blah blah she keeps fighting monsters. Willow is transforming from genius bookworm into genius bookworm that can do some magic, Xander's still occassionally funny but irritating whenever stuff's actually happening, and Giles cements himself as possibly my favorite character, although I suspect his role will be diminishing soon if not immediately.

The story this time is about the town's mayor, who has been hinted in the past as being more aware of the town's supernatural troubles than he led on, but to this point has been unseen. He's fairly friendly and non-serious for a major villain, and although that isn't exactly a unique idea, it's executed well enough. There's also Faith, a new slayer in town who appeared after the death of the other slayer at the end of the second season, who was summoned because of a glitch in the logic at the end of the first season. She has some problems. Besides the main story, there are a few other pretty entertaining tangents like an alternate universe where the sidekicks are bad guys. There's also an especially good one surprisingly focusing on Xander, where a pretty dramatic event requiring all the other main characters' attentions happens mostly offscreen while he gets into some trouble before anonymously saving the day. I've decided to watch Angel's first season next, so I can alternate between the shows until I finally finish.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Serenity, Volume 1: Those Left Behind

Having recently watched Firefly again and finding it remains one of my favorite series ever despite its tragic brevity, I decided to read the comics based in the universe, the first volume of which ties directly into the Serenity film which ends the story. The trade paperbacks are a bit thin for my tastes, but they do provide some solid content at any rate. Brett Matthews has worked with Whedon on a bunch of his stuff, and wrote the script for this himself, although they both made the story. It should probably only be read by people already familiar with the characters and setting, and I could see it working as either a preview to the movie or a way to fill in some gaps after seeing it.

The comic itself basically plays like an episode of the series, with some decent action scenes and returning familiar faces to accompany the standard plot and uniquely flavored dialogue. The art by Will Conrad is pretty good too. He doesn't perfectly nail all the actors' faces, but they're fully recognizable, and he can handle the different demands of a unique western/sci-fi hybrid setting like Firefly's pretty well. The color work really helps everything pop, too. It's a little too short to be a really meaty story and would only be an average episode (although the standard for a Firefly episode is very high), but definitely worth checking out for fans.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Baseball's Back

After a fairly entertaining World Baseball Classic and a spring training that seemed to go on forever, baseball finally returned for real last night as the Braves beat the Phillies to start the regular season. Today's the first full day of games, with the Yankees starting the season against the Orioles in just a few minutes. It feels good to have the game back, I've had some fun watching things like the football playoffs and having those three hours every night, but I can't say any other sport makes me feel the way baseball does.

I don't have too much to say about this Yankee team. They should be a lot better than last year, with the additions of CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira especially, which they need to be competitive in the game's best division. I've seen too many people thinking that those two will only replace the production of Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi, but they're overlooking how much else went wrong last season that probably won't happen this time. Almost everybody who got hurt is looking healthy now, and it seems like they might be missing Alex Rodriguez for less time than initially expected. This spring was a complete mess of controversy for him, but even at less than full health he's a dominant offensive force for this team.

Sabathia's first start begins shortly, although I won't be liveblogging the game for reasons I won't get into. I do intend to blog his first home start though, which will happen to be the first official game played in the new Yankee Stadium. They played a couple exhibition games against the Cubs a couple days ago, and while some of the camera positions seemed less than ideal, they have time to fix that, and it's a really nice looking park. The ball seemed to really fly out when hitters got a hold of it, but it remains to be seen whether it will be more of a hitter's park than the old stadium or it was just a fluke. Either way, I'm excited to see what this team does this year in it's new home.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Delocated - Season 1

I'm pretty sure the first season is finished. It's always a little hard to tell with Adult Swim whether they're done or just taking a break. Anyway, the show is a mockumentary like The Office about a family in the Witness Protection Program that moves to New York City to star in a reality show. Not only do they wear masks to hide their faces, they undergo surgery to alter their voices. It's obviously a ridiculous premise, but the show in its normal course isn't usually quite as absurd. Since his wife leaves him pretty much immediately, it's about Jon and how he tries to keep his life together while cameras follow him around and a Russian assassin ruins his life, trying to kill him, accidentally taking out Paul Rudd, becoming more successful with his own reality show. Jon Glaser has always been funny on the other shows he's been on, and he really drives the comedy here. He's skilled at making a complete ass of himself in public without becoming unlikable, and he's put together a pretty entertaining show. I don't know if it's going to keep going or what, but I like it so far.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Scott Pilgrim, Volume 5: Scott Pilgrim Vs. the Universe

Just as the story seems to be reaching its emotional peak, I'm stuck waiting a year for the final volume with everyone else. The last book ended on a positive note, but that seems to be a temporary high as things continue to go downhill this time. It's not really out and out tragic, it's just realistic in its depiction of how things can get screwed up pretty easily. It's not even anything Scott's doing wrong at the time, just stuff coming up and the realization that maybe things aren't as perfect as they'd like. The humor and fights against crazy evil people, this time including their robotic creations, are still entertaining, but they take a backseat to the character stuff that is really driving the story now. Um... I don't have a ton more to say. I really like this comic. I was a nervous wreck most of the time I was reading it. There's really no reason not to check it out yourself unless you have a violent allergic reaction to unusual art styles. It's gonna be a while, but the last volume has all the ingredients to be great.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 2

It's hard to say how exactly it happened, but the second season ended up seeming noticeably better than the first. The characters just grow on you and you end up caring about what happens more than before. It helps that it was ten episodes longer than the first run, giving them more opportunity to set up a strong story arc and pull it off. My favorite episodes are still the ones where the whole status quo is flipped on its head for a while, because it's always fun to see how the cast changes for a bit, but the main story worked better this time and actually made the one-offs seem a bit more out of place. The show still has a strong emphasis on humor, but the plot is more dramatic instead of campy.

The focus is on the relationship between Buffy and Angel, and it what appears to be typical Whedon fashion things go less that favorably in that area leading to the true threat after the mildly interesting vampires Spike and Drusilla antagonize the good guys for the first half. Buffy's not the only one who gets close to somebody with pretty much every main cast member hooking up with someone. Some of it doesn't seem totally realistic, but the huge expansion of that aspect really pushes the characters forward and helps the series grow. Even Xander's more likable, even if his constant wisecracks still wear on you pretty often. I'm already almost halfway through the next season, and I'm sure I'll be watching pretty heavily until I'm done with the series. It's pretty good!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

RAAtEtHoTDVG 2: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Ridiculously Ambitious Attempt to Experience the Heart of Two-Dimensional Video Gaming, Part 2

The long-delayed second entry. This took me longer than I expected because I ended up having far less free time for this sort of thing than I expected and I might be less of a Zelda fan than I thought originally. I can't guarantee I'll post these any more regularly, but I'm not giving up.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

Before I go into why this game bugged me, I will mention that it's influence on and importance to one of my favorite game franchises is obvious. The classical heroic storyline, many of the items, a few introductory dungeons before the real adventure begins, so much of it is now the standard for at least all the "normal" sequels it's gotten since it's release. Obviously the first game started it all, but this is the template they use now. It bugs me when people say Twilight Princess is better than Ocarina of Time when I see it as the same thing with better graphics, but the same argument can be made for Ocarina with regards to this. It's really a milestone for action adventure game design.

The problem is that I just didn't enjoy playing it that much. I adore the modern console Zeldas, especially the N64-era ones, but I can't say the same for this particular precursor. It's not just the age, because I greatly prefer Link's Awakening, the handheld sequel I never actually finished. At least in that game you could block attacks up close. What's the point of carrying a shield everywhere if you can't deflect a sword or spear with it? This was one of many small frustrations that made it feel like the game was more concerned with pissing me off than really challenging me. All the enemies are perfectly designed to inhibit what actually makes exploring the dungeons and temples fun, exploring and figuring out how the mazes work and solving puzzles to get through them. When I'm constantly getting poked and prodded by irritating foes at every turn, it really saps my enjoyment.

The game also seemed less than forthcoming about what exactly what was required to get to certain areas, forcing me to turn to GameFAQs to realize things like "Oh, I need to go to this area I've never been to before to get flippers so I can swim in this dungeon". This sort of trial-by-error design might have worked back then but it doesn't fly now. It does cool things with the story and the various townsfolk you can help out as you go, but in general, I felt like I was just going trough the motions to get to the last boss. The very first dungeon was an interesting, plot-driven rescue mission, and after that I was essentially handed a list of pallete-swapped deathtraps to plunder before I could get to the finish. I probably could have gotten a lot more out of the game if I really tried, I just never felt like the game cared if I did or not. Interesting history lesson, but I didn't love it.

Next: SCUMM changes the adventure game landscape.