Sunday, May 31, 2009

Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack was an interesting show, because it was made to be watchable by kids but still has a lot that someone older can enjoy, if they appreciate classic action cinema. I watched it again recently, and it still mostly holds up, especially later on. It's chock full of unique character designs, interesting landscapes, impressive fight animation, and homages to great moments that most kids probably wouldn't recognize. Like most Cartoon Network originals, it only lasted a few years, and never really built much on the story after the initial set up, but most episodes are enjoyable. There's a lot of variety, as they mix equal elements of science fiction, fantasy, and martial arts, with plenty of further tangents like a film noir episode starring a robot with feelings.

Genndy Tartakovsky has had his hands in lots of animation, and you can tell his involvement by a focus on visual humor and storytelling over a lot of dialogue, and Jack is sort of the epitome of that as any sort of verbal interaction often takes a backseat to constant action. It can get monotonous if you watch it in big chunks, but as a twenty minute diversion it can be fun to just turn your brain off and watch some bright colors flash around. The art has a unique style, with almost no outlines, and it has a very flat look, but still manages to have dynamic scenes with some creativity. They do a lot of screwing around with split screens and slow motion, with the balance of style and substance leaning heavily towards the former. The quality of the art also improves pretty drastically over the course of the series; it's hard to detect when you're just watching it through, but seeing some of the first episode again after getting through the third season was pretty jarring. Genndy hasn't really done anything since Star Wars: Clone Wars, the superior hand drawn predecessor to the current computer generated series, but I'm interested in whatever comes next.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Xtacles

Now that we know 70/30 Productions is dead and the creators are moving on to other networks, I can talk about this safely. The Xtacles was a very brief, two episode spin-off of Frisky Dingo about Xander's dimwitted, crime fighting armored companions. The show takes their helmets off and gives them some individual personalities, as they cause wanton destruction in incredibly misguided attempts to be good guys while pissing off the A.I. who appears to them as an attractive woman, who they all fruitlessly try to hit on. With only about twenty minutes total produced, the show didn't have a chance to really turn into anything, but what they made was a pretty funny continuation of the Dingo mythos. I'm a little disappointed that the series is shut down, but I look forward to whatever Duchess turns out to be when it airs on FX in the future.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

I didn't talk about this back when I first saw it because it was on the Internet. But screw it, Joss Whedon made it and it has multiple episodes, it qualifies for a TV post.

Written and filmed on a meager budget during the Writers' Strike by Joss and his brothers, Dr. Horrible is a quick, light, enjoyable bit of musical entertainment featuring Malcolm Reynolds, Doogie Howser, and that girl who's in commercials sometimes and other stuff I guess. It's Whedon's usual combination of comedy, action, and romantic tragedy, although a bit heavier on the first one and not really at all with the second. His inclination for unusually themed musicals began with a season six episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where all the characters suddenly start bursting into song and dancing as a part of the actual plot involving some demon who liked show tunes.

Dr. Horrible's similarly wacky, with the titular character video blogging about his attempts to become a serious villain and join an evil guild, while at the same time his super hero nemesis gets too close to the girl he has a crush on. It's pretty simple and cheaply filmed, but it's quite funny, thanks mostly to the leads, and the musical numbers are generally pretty darn catchy. I'm not really a musical fan, but its various songs tend to pop up and get stuck in my head more often than the average one I've seen. The whole thing's only three 15 minute segments, and it's totally worth finding it online somewhere.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Top Gear - Seasons 10-12

With the last year and a half of Top Gear apparently being available on iTunes, with the most recent two seasons even being the full versions and not the chopped ones shown on BBC America, and them deciding seemingly randomly to put the tenth out on DVD this year, I guess I should talk about this show. If you don't watch it, you should. It's the sort of program that's so entertaining, it transcends its subject matter. I don't know anything or care about cars in the slightest. I can change a tire and check the oil, but that's about it for mechanical knowledge, and I'm not particularly skilled at or interested in driving. I like a good car chase in the movies, but can't really tell any apart or know much about them. Still, Top Gear makes me care while I'm watching it. It's the only non-fictional show I watch regularly, and I anticipate its eminent return with great zeal.

The show works because its hosts are knowledgeable, entertaining, and get along well together. I don't know how much time they really spend together when they're not filming, but while the show's going, they just seem like a few guys having a ton of fun with something they love. Pretty much everything they do is enjoyable. The car reviews are well-written, stylishly shot, and usually feature good music. The news segments are always hilarious. The special races are unique and exciting. The challenges from the producers consistently make me laugh harder than anything else on television. The Stig and his various alter egos are badasses. And whenever they have specials in foreign countries, you know you're going to be thoroughly enjoying yourself for the next hour at least. I could take or leave the interviews, but at least they've introduced me to a few other interesting British people. I'm skeptical of the apparently still upcoming American version, but if the hosts can even come close to matching the chemistry between Jeremy, James, and Richard, it will be well worth checking out. In summary: Top Gear is fantastic.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Legend of the Seeker - Season 1

I didn't know this, but apparently cult favorite horror and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi has been involved with production of first-run syndicated fantasy series like Xena: Warrior Princess, and this is his latest project. I don't think it airs on any channels near me, but I found it on Hulu (where the entire first season can still be watched) when I was bored, and ended up enjoying it a reasonable amount. It's based on Terry Goodkind's The Sword of Truth book series, and while from what I've read that doesn't seem to be a particularly good property, it makes for entertaining escapism at the least.

The first season more or less covers the basic events of the first book, and has a fairly obvious story arc and conclusion to it despite the very episodic nature of it from week to week. It's a pretty basic fantasy tale, a young man turns out to be a chosen warrior who will wield the magic sword to defeat an evil king that has taken over a land beyond the humble home where he was raised in secret. I was glad to see them actually follow through on this instead of dragging it out as a main conflict behind the whole series, with no real resolution at any point. At least one more season is coming, so it will be interesting to see what direction they take it and what the new problem is. By the end of the season, they were reusing magical plot devices at an alarming rate, so I hope there's enough fresh ideas to mine from the books to keep it from total stagnation.

The show works week to week thanks to a pretty likable main cast of three and pretty darn good visuals for a syndicated show. It's filmed in New Zealand (just like The Lord of the Rings! (I love how this is mentioned every time the country is named on TV now, like it's a law or something)), and the nice looking vistas combine with decent computer work make it always pleasant to look at. The action scenes use a little too much Zack Snyder-esque speed ramping, but are pretty well done for TV, and most episodes have an enjoyable, unique hook. The two leads are adequate fantasy heroes, and have a nice chemistry together, although I hope they get over milking the "they love each other but can't be together" thing sometime soon. The crazy old wizard who accompanies them is pretty fun, played by that guy who kept popping up in the third installment of various major film series a few years ago, and keeps the other focused on the quest. Nothing in the show is particularly brilliant, just watchable enough to help me prevent any single moment in my life from feeling bereft of action. I like it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Far Cry 2

Crytek, the developer of the first game in the series, went on from that to make Crysis, while the rights to the series stayed with publisher Ubisoft, who gave the sequel to one of their internal teams. Thanks to this, Far Cry 2 doesn't have a lot in common with the original besides shooting people in a jungle environment. I only played a bit of the first game, but basically you were a guy named Jack shooting his way through a linear story, albeit with some freedom in how you went about doing that. On the other hand, Far Cry 2 is all about freedom and dynamic story and gameplay. At the beginning you're given a variety of simply defined characters to choose from to act as your avatar in the unnamed war-torn African country the action happens in, while the other ones are apparently chosen at random to help shape the specifics of your quest to hunt down the Jackal. What follows is a very open, very interesting shooter than seems to take inspiration from both S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Grand Theft Auto, as you take undercover jobs from the various warring factions, find and earn blood diamonds to pay for new equipment, and generally just try to survive in a very hostile environment.

I got the game on Steam because of an absurdly good deal, although unfortunately this meant I couldn't enjoy the full extent of its very impressive graphical accomplishments thanks to my rapidly aging system. I had most of the settings very low to keep it running smoothly, yet it still managed to impress me with the scope of its ability to render a huge, interesting environment. You battle through dense jungle, wide-ranging savanna plains and sparse deserts, and they all look nice and interact very nicely. I wish some of the smaller trees could be driven through by a sufficiently sized and quick-moving vehicle and there were times where the game would pause to load before something important like a bridge or even a full outpost of heavily armed enemies would pop into view, but the way the foliage reacts naturally and the way everything burns so perfectly when you hit it with a flamethrower or Molotov cocktail makes it a lot of fun to look at, not to mention the actual game implications of realistically spreading flames.

The basic structure of the game is accepting a mission from someone, driving (or walking for a very long time) to the location they indicate on the map, stopping along the way to fight against various clusters of enemies of the roads or just driving past and hoping you escape before they can get a bead on you, killing a bunch of guys at said location, and performing some task once finished such as assassinating an important target or retrieving a briefcase with an important something inside. Occasionally something of more plot significance will occur forcing you to go from place to place without choice, sometimes resulting in a particularly exciting or unique moment. Usually one of your buddies that you meet along the way will call you during the mission and give you an optional objective, which increases the number of locations you have to visit and carry out, and forces you to rescue them from some danger in the end, but results in some bonus to the various safe houses you can rest at scattered around the map. Unfortunately, at least when you bother to hear your buddy out, you get penalized for not doing their alternate mission, so it feels like the choice that should be there doesn't really exist. Usually it's to your benefit to do it, it just felt a bit limiting.

Besides the main missions, there are several other smaller kinds you can take on, which have various benefits that are generally not necessary to finishing the game. Really, there's not as much choice in what to do as they might have you believe, because you're still following the cycle of drive-kill-drive-kill-drive-kill a lot. The game works though, because the shooting is fun, and it's just set up to create a very interesting experience. Playing Far Cry 2 is about as desperate as I've felt playing a game. It's not particularly difficult, I just felt like I was really there in the bush, fending for my life as I just barely escaped death again and again. The enemies aren't particularly smart, but they're good enough that you never feel safe while taking a group of them on. There's always a chance they'll do something crazy and catch you unaware. Scrambling around wildly, chucking grenades willy-nilly, panicking when the weapon I've had a little too long jams in the middle of a skirmish, watching as accidentally exploding barrels destroy the ramshackle outposts in real time, as the bad guys scream in pain, it's all a ton of fun. Even the malaria which occasionally pops up that I thought would be annoying adds to the experience, giving you an "Oh crap, not now!" feeling if it strikes at the wrong moment, but in a good way.

Ultimately though, I thought the game went on a bit too long. By the last third, I was wondering when these various missions would end up leading somewhere. Eventually they did, and there was a satisfying enough conclusion, if it was a bit nihilistic. The problem was the dynamic story didn't do enough to keep me interested in what was happening. Yeah, I could see how these factions were reacting based on what I did, and I saw how my choice of who to kill and who to let alone affected who exactly gave me the next job, but I didn't see why any of this mattered or was I was supposedly motivated to respond to a certain character in a very singular, specific way. All the driving and meaningless small battles served to draw out the experience, and it kept me going for a while, just not the whole time. Still, the game was an interesting experiment and showed how a very fun and unique experience can come out of an environment that's designed to be flexible instead of programmed to do one specific, elaborate thing. Best pure single player shooter experience I've had in a while.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Angel - Season 3

You can really see Angel come into its own and out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's shadow in the third season. With a whopping six people working or staying at the hotel, they finally figured out that a strong supporting cast is the key to making Angel work as a protagonist. Really, it's a hard formula to get wrong - a variety of interesting people working together makes for a more compelling long-term viewing experience than just one or only a few. Joss Whedon obviously had this down to a science when Firefly premiered the next year with a main cast on the ship of nine. Dollhouse got better once the focus shifted from Echo to the workings of the whole facility, and Buffy was better once it expanded beyond the main four too. Everyone bouncing off each other plays particularly nicely with Whedon's style of snappy dialogue, so it's no wonder the shows improved as they went along and the cast grew.

Not standing idly by while Buffy's tone grew steadily darker as it entered the new millenium, Angel follows suit with a pretty somber plot for a lot of the way. Darla first appeared way back in the pilot episode of Buffy, and she'd been bouncing around on Angel for a while with no clear direction. Not that she wasn't an interesting character or played fairly well by Julie Benz, but I was waiting for it to go somewhere. It did that in season three, delivering something to the show that became the focus point for the last two thirds. Along with the arrival of a foe from deep in Angel's past and Cordelia's continued ascension from high school drama queen to something much more, it makes for a pretty engrossing story. And you don't have to look any further than Wesley's arc in the second half to see that this show doesn't play around. The return of a character at the very end carried with it some pretty lame and dated looking computer-aided action bits, but it was still a generally well-executed payoff to the whole thing. The ending was a pure cliff-hanger begging me to keep watching, and it won't be long before I pick it back up.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

24 - Season 7

After season six didn't so much dip its toe into the crazy pool as it did a cannonball off the high dive, day seven was thankfully more reigned in, although it still wasn't as good as the show was in its earlier years. When you have a show like this that feels the need to continually top itself in order to stay fresh, it can only last so long before it goes from genuinely thrilling to downright silly. It felt like they were keeping it pretty small at first which was nice, but it didn't take long to go a little insane and never got back to that slow burn feel that I was enjoying.

Really, things started with 24: Redemption, a movie that takes place in between this season and the last, and establishes things like the swearing of the new president (continuing in their tradition of shaking things up, it's a woman this time), Jon Voight as a shadowy political villain (and as it turns out only one of many), and Jack being forced to return to America to be tried. They've always filmed prequel thingies to prepare for new seasons, but this was the first time it was of any significance. Redemption was decent, with a couple pretty good action scenes, and I always like a good fascist African regime. Several bad guys are introduced here, and it wasn't a waste of a couple hours.

When the season really begins, Jack is quickly pulled out of his hearing with Senator Red Forman and brought to assist the FBI's cute redhead, Coach Ted Orion, and analysts Janeane Garofalo and Billy Walsh as they pursue an old ally of Jack's who, surprise, is not dead and now apparently evil. For a while I was genuinely entertained by their investigations, and even the first big twist was pretty entertaining as it got Jack back together with some old friends. Before long though, things spiral out of control as insidious villain after insidious villain steps out to take control of their stupid attacks on America as soon as the previous one gets taken down before they really develop. There's at least five of these guys, and there's no real sense of a good story arc as the same thing keeps having over and over again.

The only reason to watch the show anymore is to see Jack be a ridiculous killing machine, and even that is less that satisfying in the second half. The main political subplot is no good either, because family stuff just isn't interesting. There's also no tension to Jack's fate when you announce the show's renewal for an eighth year when the seventh isn't over yet. The ending is also the show's least resolved yet, because a couple big threads are left open with no chance at actually seeing the result thanks to the series' unique format. Ultimately I was disappointed again, but not enough to prevent me from watching it again next time. I am a silly person.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

American Dad! - Season 4

The fourth year of American Dad! didn't seem as cuttingly clever as the third, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's sort of like Family Guy for people who don't like Family Guy. It has a similar wacky sense of humor in the character interactions, but it doesn't use random cutaways for laughs and it usually takes the time to actually develop the different personalities as a thrust to the plot. They're all still pretty static. Stan is a bad father and husband, Steve is a ween, Hayley is a rebellious liberal, and Roger likes to dress up in elaborate costumes and pretend to be human. Francine is probably actually the most dynamic one, as a dutiful housewife who still manages to come off as a strong woman. Klaus is a German fish!

This is the part where I normally might point out some particularly strong episodes or moments, but this is the kind of show where totally great episodes are rare, but poor ones are too. It's a consistently pretty decent comedy. The second episodes where Roger has to figure out who used his credit card all mystery-movie style was good. The finale where things go horribly wrong when Stan decides to have a guy's night out with some CIA buddies was a lot of fun too, like an abbreviated Very Bad Things if it was funny. I really have no idea which show MacFarlane has more input on, but this one is a bit more respectable at this point. You know what looks terrible though? The Cleveland Show, if the previews so far have been accurate. Like, really bad. Does he really need an hour and a half every week? Not even Matt Groening got that in his prime.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Liveblog 18: The Yankees Are Soaring

Overall, this season is going fairly well. The Yankees have certainly had their struggles, and are only right at the top of the AL East standings thanks to their current nine game winning streak. Boston enjoyed one that lasted eleven games and vaulted them from the bottom to second place, and now New York's having a similar surge. They've lost to the Red Sox all five times they've played them so far, and at least two of those games should have been wins. Still, they're looking more like a winning ball club, and they're in a bit better of a position in mid-May than they have typically been this decade.

Plenty of players have had problems. CC Sabathia was not looking like the best paid pitcher of all time in April. After a hot start, A.J. Burnett has slowed down considerably. Mark Teixeira was in the doldrums for far too long to start off, Nick Swisher has fallen off since his amazing first couple weeks as a Yankee, and Brett Gardner quickly showed he wasn't ready for the everyday center fielder job. Chien-Ming Wang was putrid out of the gate, apparently not completely over his injuries from last year, and Phil Hughes has only had a few acceptable starts in his place while he figures it out.

Still, there are bright spots. Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera have both had a great couple months, fending off their naysayers. In the last few games, CC Sabathia has been an absolute monster. Joba Chamberlain and Andy Pettitte have both done pretty well in their turns through the rotation. Alex Rodriguez finally returned from his hip surgery in grand fashion, hitting the first pitch he saw for a three run homer. He hasn't gotten many hits since then, but he's continued to slug and draw his walks as he gets back into form, and whether it's a coincidence or not, Teixeira has looked like the outstanding player he was supposed to be and the team has only lost two of the thirteen games they've played since his return. Johnny Damon's also had a great year at the plate, and putting him second with Derek Jeter batting leadoff seems to have been a smart move. The bullpen is looking very weak right now, but that's the only issue the team seems to have, and that could end up working itself out.

Interleague play begins tonight as Burnett takes the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies, last year's World Series winner and the current leader of their division. The last time these teams played, the only thing I really remember is a game where Ryan Howard drove in something like seven runs against Mike Mussina but the Yankees won anyway. Let's hope they can do that again tonight without having to deal with such an outburst. Although if they do lose and break the winning streak, I'm going to have a hard time convincing myself to do a liveblog again for a while. I'll be back in a few hours.

Top 1 - Woo baseball. Let's go for ten. Burnett got off on the wrong foot, giving up a homer, hitting a batter, and allowing a single with his first four pitches. It seems like he's pitched better so far than his 5.02 ERA, but them's the numbers. Before I could eat my pizza and finish typing this paragraph, he came back strong with strikeouts of Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth, and got Shane Victorino to ground out on a nice diving play by Teixeira.

Bottom 1 - I'm not sure if Burnett hit Chase Utley on purpose, but Brett Myers seems to think he did as his second pitch to Jeter is behind his back. That prompts a warning for both clubs from the umpire, and Jeter hits the next pitch past Jimmy Rollins' glove for a single. Damon chops a ball that Myers knocks down and throws to second for the force out. Teixeira's up, and the protection discussion begins. Studies have shown that who's behind the current batter doesn't significantly affect pitch selection, but the theory still persists. Myers debunks it a little bit by getting him on a nice curve. A-Rod laces a double to left, but a nice relay results in Damon getting tagged out at the plate, inning over.

Top 2 - I think that was only A-Rod's third hit this season that wasn't a home run. Matt Stairs dunks the ball just out of reach to Burnett's left, resulting in an infield hit. Those are so much more irritating than clean singles to the outfield. Pedro Feliz flies out harmlessly to right. Burnett's consistently hitting 95 with the fastball tonight. Carlos Ruiz takes one to left for a home run that extends their lead to three. I'm already cursing myself for blogging this. They just showed that Damon lost his glove on the play and had to ask the fans for it back. Don't see that much. Rollins walks on five pitches. Utley strikes out on a curve that allows Rollins to steal second base. Raul Ibanez flies out to Cabrera for the final out.

Bottom 2 -Hideki Matsui grounds out weakly to second. I keep forgetting he's on the team lately. Swisher strikes out on the first pitch I actually watch of his at bat. Just waiting for something good to happen. Cano grounds one up the middle, but Rollins shows range Jeter could only dream of and just gets him at first.

Top 3 - Howard grounds out weakly to Cano, one down. Two pitches later, Werth flies out to second. I was just looking at my game reviews on Giant Bomb, and every single one is at least four stars out of five. Now, I only play games I'm pretty sure I'll like, I'm fairly generous with my ratings, and I round up all of my half points so a 7.5 out of 10 becomes a 4 out of 5, but that still seems ridiculous to me. Oh well. Victorino works the count full before lining out Teixeira to retire the side.

Bottom 3 - Cabrera grounds out to the pitcher on the first pitch. Great job. Cash flies out to the no man's land in short right field where three fielders converge, but it's high enough to be easily caught. Back to the top of the order as Jeter grounds out. Myers has thrown 33 pitches. Awesome job, guys.

Top 4 - Stairs strikes out swinging on another curve. Feliz grounds a ball that forces A-Rod to range a bit to his left for out number two. Ruiz takes a 1-2 pitch to right for a single which is just... just unfortunate. Come on, Burnett. No one named Ruiz has ever been good at baseball. The good thing about Michael Kay if you don't follow baseball much is that he often explains references or rules that you may not be familiar with. The bad thing about Kay if you do follow baseball is you hear him say the same shit constantly over and over. I could understand national broadcasters wanting to make sure viewers understand the game, but I'm watching a regional game on Friday fucking night. I probably understand what the Mendoza Line is. Burnett racks up yet another K with the curveball. He has five in four innings, but has thrown twice as many pitches as Myers.

Bottom 4 - Damon is yet another Yankee to ground out to Myers, but Teixeira slaps a single to left. Alex watches the third strike go by and walks back to the dugout. These guys are on fire tonight. Matsui dribbles one that Rollins can't field cleanly with his bare hand and gets an infield hit. With those knees, it could be his only one all season. Wait, that was his third? Jesus. Swisher ends the thread with a grounder to second. This is lame.

Top 5 - At least Myers threw some pitches that time. Utley becomes Burnett's sixth strikeout victim. Ibanez then walks on four pitches. Yo, that pitch to Howard was totally a strike. Yet another diving play by Teixeira, who manages to get the lead runner out. I bet he'd definitely have more gold gloves if he didn't keep switching leagues mid-season. Not that gold gloves are a good indicator of defense or anything. Werth crushes another home run to left, 5-0 Phillies. Great, I cursed the Yankees. Unless something good happens in the bottom of the frame, I'm out. And now Victorino gets an easy triple to right center. Yay baseball! I must be testy, because I just threatened to mutilate my dog's genitals for barking. Another strikeout (hooray!) limits the damage a bit.

Bottom 5 - Cano hits a ball that bounces off Utley and reaches first, and it's scored an error. Melky strikes out. Boo. I guess I forgot to mention earlier that the Yankees are playing their fourth catcher tonight. Both Jorge Posada and Jose Molina are out with hamstring issues, forcing the team to rely on garbage like Cash and the rookie Francisco Cervelli. The latter is doing pretty well actually, but it's still a pitiful situation. Cash struck out, by the way. Jeter grounds out, and I'm done. At least the Sox are losing to the Mets right now. I'll be back later to summarize how much I suck.

Wrap-Up - The Yankees proceeded to hit three solo home runs in the next three innings, but that was all they could do as Wang returned from the DL with three innings of two run ball and the Yankees lost 7-4, snapping their winning streak. It was a pretty snappy game considering ten runs scored. On the bright side, Toronto and Boston both lost too. The Yankees still have a good shot to win the series, with Pettitte pitching against someone who I've never heard of tomorrow and CC Sabathia going against a guy who's not CC Sabathia the day after. Time to start a new streak.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Family Guy - Season 7

Family Guy's seventh season was pretty wildly inconsistent, with some pretty terrific episodes but also some awful ones. "I Dream of Jesus" is probably the worst offender. I can understand appreciating the Andy Kaufman-esque nature of the "Surfin' Bird" stuff, but just because it's intentionally unfunny and irritating doesn't make it... not unfunny and irritating. But even ignoring that, the complete whiff on actually doing anything interesting with Jesus Christ as a character is inexcusable. I mean... this is Family Guy! Go wild! But they didn't. After it got better for a while, it stumbled again with stilted, untimely jabs at FOX News and O.J. Simpson, a completely terrible homosexuality episode (How can a show with such an extremely liberal agenda be this unfunny and crude with the subject?), and consecutive episodes featuring Brian flaunting his bleeding heart that pushed the message way too hard without an ounce of subtlety or, again, telling good jokes.

There were some really good episodes though, that make me continue to want to see what else they can do. It's getting to the point where the show is only funny if it's either just ignoring pop culture or diving head first into witty homages that last for the entire running time. When they just try to make a quick gag, they're getting increasingly blunt and decreasingly creative, but stuff like "Road to Germany"'s nod to every adventure movie ever and the pretty solid send up of Stephen King's work in "Three Kings" is entertaining and still true to the show. Also, I was amazed to see them actually let Bonnie have the baby. So many times the show just makes you wonder what the hell's going on in the world, like how she was apparently pregnant for years while her other son died in Iraq in a complete throwaway line (hilarious), and how Peter's gotten out of serious jail time repeatedly for no justifiable reason. They're really pushing the "It's just a cartoon!" button a lot these days, and it's something I've come to accept.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Star Trek

As someone who's never given the Star Trek franchise much of a chance, this movie made me want to. It was somehow a prequel, sequel, reboot, and homage all in one, and they all managed to work. It seemed like it did a lot to make both series fans and newbies happy, and I think it succeeded in most areas. Most of the science and some of the plot contrivances are a bit silly, but it captures the spirit that seems interesting to me, of an interesting jaunt through the galaxy with exciting adventures that don't get too bogged down in what would probably actually happen, tied together by a likable cast of spaceship crew. It does what the Star Wars sequels failed to do for most people - retain the classic feel while modernizing the style and not taking the risk of ruining the set rules.

Without getting too much into details, the movie manages to set itself up fresh as a new series, while still remaining within the overall continuity of the franchise without erasing anything. It's a pretty clever setup, and it's all quickly and deftly explained in one scene in particular that I quite enjoyed. I appreciate that all the characters are highly competent and intelligent, because it lets them figure it out without dumbing it down too much or losing the audience. The way that the classic crew comes together in the course of a single mission is a bit convenient, but I just have to be impressed by the way that they accomplished everything they had to with the reboot while still having time for a pretty solid actual conflict to the story.

The villain's background and evil plan are where the film is at its weakest, relying on some extremely sketchy scientific babbling and a rather poorly thought out concept of vengeance, but in the end it allows for an intimidating antagonist that's at least slightly sympathetic in a certain way. The special effects and action are pretty good, with a pretty brisk and exciting pace throughout as Kirk gets the crap kicked out of him while the good guys always just manage to scrape by without getting obliterated. The pacing dips slightly with some unnecessary CGI creatures somewhere before things really get going towards the conclusion, but overall it was a fun, light piece of cinema as I couldn't believe that two hours had passed by the end. The cast was pretty darn strong, with everyone seeming to do a good job. I liked Quinto's Spock despite being sick of his face on Heroes, Urban actually worked outside of a crazed badass role (not that Bones isn't kind of a badass), Pegg was great for the short time he was there, and Pine made me like Kirk a whole lot. The whole movie is filled with nods and references to moments and lines from the Star Trek canon, and it's well set up for further cinematic escapades. I definitely look forward to a sequel.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Prison Break - Season 4

Prison Break's fourth and final season continues the series' pattern of every odd year being a jailbreak with the following year being more of a conspiracy thriller. It would be funny to see if they kept with the same pattern if it continued, but it's probably for the best that it's over now, besides a remaining couple episodes that won't air (Attention FOX: stop doing this). It's not that the show is really bad yet, it's just clearly running on fumes by the end. It starts out fairly strong as Michael and his fellow crew get the opportunity for exoneration by perpetrating a series of high-risk robberies against the shadowy "Company". A well-done heist is always a lot of fun, so there's enjoyment to be had even if the plot twists and betrayals will cause a couple eye-rolls per episode.

But at some point they get close enough to the goal that things apparently have to get crazy, because what follows is a whole bunch of nonsense as the same people get captured and leveraged and rescued over and over and over again, and things get really monotonous before they're finally allowed to end. I wonder if FOX stuck the show's final six hours on the Friday night wasteland because they knew it wasn't really worth a decent time slot (How in the hell did Dollhouse survive that?). The show's end isn't as bile-enducing as say, Heroes, it just refuses to be at all clever in its death throes. That's not completely true, as Michael has a few more clever practical ruses to pull off as he cheats death and imprisonment before the end, I just stopped caring long before. And the whole subplot with his mother's reveal and turn as a villain was awful. None of it worked at all. Once all the character arcs are finished in the show's final musical montage though, I remembered how it was usually more enjoyable than not. It's a really ballsy ending too, letting the viewer know that yes, this is over, and it isn't coming back. It was never a great series in my mind, but never boring either.

Monday, May 18, 2009

30 Rock - Season 3

Lots of renewal news coming out. Castle, Chuck, and Dollhouse are all coming back, the latter two with slashed budgets. Less excitingly, Scrubs will also return, although with some or all of the main cast in reduced roles and possibly a different format. I sort of wish they just let that one end.

Anyway, 30 Rock is another show getting another year despite less than stellar ratings, although it's actually improving year to year, so maybe people are catching on. I didn't until this January either, but since I have it's become one of my favorite current comedies. It doesn't have the infectious characters or comedic peak of NBC's other Thursday night heavy hitter, but it's probably laugh out loud funny more often. It struck me a few weeks ago how much I appreciate Tracy Morgan's character. Early on he was more of a catalyst for a lot of the major conflicts as he disrupted the balance of a show that was struggling until he got there. He said a lot of outrageous and ridiculous things, and I liked him quite a bit. Lately, he causes problems occasionally, but he's less in the forefront. Still, he's always there with something amazingly dumb yet poignant to say that just makes me feel better.

I also really like how the protagonist role is sort of shared by both Fey and Baldwin. If you have to pick one person you're rooting for it's probably the head writer struggling to manage a ridiculous crew along with a pathetic love life over the successful CEO, but the combination of great writing and Alec's performance makes you love him just as much anyway. They're both very flawed people, but they're a lot of fun to watch. The rest of the cast rounds out everything really well, and you rarely go a few seconds without someone else getting a good line or moment. It's just a really tight, really funny show. I can't wait for more.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Office - Season 5

The Office's latest and longest season was pretty consistently good throughout, though it felt like it was funnier later on when less time was spent dwelling on relationship woes and more time just trying to be funny. Jim and Pam are more or less set by this point, so now a lot of the weight for that stuff is on Michael's shoulders as he continues to have crummy luck. There was a resolution to the Dwight-Andy-Angela arc that was both satisfying and pretty funny, finally putting that to bed too, and the continued rivalry yet growing respect between the two men is interesting. I don't know what the long term plan is for the show, but there is a sixth season coming and I'm looking forward to the continuing escapades of Dunder Mifflin's Scranton branch in this troubling economy.

There were are a couple really good guest stints by The Wire alums Amy Ryan and Idris Elba, the former of which exponentially increases the cringe-worthiness of Michael thinking he's funny and the latter providing an actual obstacle to Jim for the first time in his career. The storyline where tension with corporate causes Michael to start his own company was pretty fun, and provided one of the best episodes as he and Dwight engaged in some corporate cloak and dagger. Dwight really had some great moments this season, like the time he started a fire in an attempt to test his coworkers' survival skills and the rare moments where he and Jim have a common goal. The show's really too wacky to be believable at this point, but I've always watched it for its more outlandish moments, and it continues to be one of the better comedies on television.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Parks and Recreation - Season 1

To be honest, the thing I liked the most about this batch of six episodes was the opening theme. It's delightfully chipper. That doesn't mean I don't like the show itself though, which is a pretty good if not great mimic of the style from its sister series The Office. It's created by some of the same people, and that definitely shows. I've seen people call it a rip-off, which is weird because plenty of creators who keep the same feel among their separate projects don't get the same knock, but there is something unique enough about the mockumentary-about-mundane-setting-with-wacky-people to maybe raise an eyebrow or two. Still, I thought it did enough to create it's own identity.

One thing to remember is that The US Office was a bit shaky in its first brief run as well. It took some time to get out of the UK original's shadow, and we could be seeing the same thing here. The comedy here was sometimes restrained to brief flashes of brilliance and Amy Poehler's combination of likability, blockheadedness, and romantic ineptitude is a bit too reminiscent of Steve Carell's Michael Scott, but I still mostly enjoyed watching it. Aziz Ansari has emerged in the last couple years with small parts on shows like Flight of the Conchords and Scrubs, and he's probably the brightest spot in the first season. His way of getting in fairly vicious jabs at people without them even realizing what he's doing never gets old, and he and Poehler work well together.

Friday, May 15, 2009

My Name Is Earl - Season 4

After season three featured a lot of continuous plot lines, the fourth returned Earl to his natural environment as he got back to his list, with 27 episodes of wacky trailer park hijinks for us to enjoy. Earl has never gotten as much attention as the other shows on NBC's consistently solid Thursday evening lineup, but it's always there, providing solid laughs without asking you to care too deeply about anything in particular. It's sort of a nice appetizer before heavier hitters like The Office. I don't love Earl, but I appreciate it.

I liked some of the continuous stuff in the last season, though the show is probably best in this form, with Earl checking off past transgressions in fairly humorous and clever ways with plenty of opportunities for one-off guest appearances. They do dip into the serialized stuff here and there still, with cool things like a long-awaited reveal of the truth behind Crabman's past and a two-parter that tells the story of the Crab Shack's former owner, featuring Geraldo Rivera. The show's fun whenever it deviates from the formula by putting the cast on another show within the story, and they poke some fun at the odd decisions made by network executives as well. It seemed like Ethan Suplee showed off his range a lot more this time, emerging from his standard dopey-guy persona, and I'd like to see him be in that mode more often. Randy's funny, but maybe not the best outlet for a talented comedic actor. The finale ends on a cliffhanger, and the show's future has yet to be decided. I'd like to see it come back, not because I care too much about the unanswered question, just because I still enjoy it most weeks.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lost - Season 5

After a couple meandering years, Lost's plot kicked into high gear last year once the end date was in sight and the newest season follows suit, as they're finally starting to give some answers and fill in a lot of gaps instead of just throwing confounding twist after twist at the viewer, half of which will never be explained. There's clearly a conscious effort to explain as much as possible, but they aren't trying to get to everything, which is good because that could easily turn into a mess. As it is, it feels like they're striking the right balance of satisfying fans wanting validation for spending the last few years of their lives watching this show while still taking the time to finish a story they wanted to tell. Abrams (who really doesn't have nearly as much to do with the series as his two co-creators) himself has admitted that it wasn't all planned in the beginning with the medium of television being so fluid, but it's falling into place well enough that you probably could have fooled me for the most part.

While I enjoyed the overall progression of the story as much as in the fourth season, I don't think I enjoyed individual episodes quite as much. Because of some time travel (didn't they say they weren't going to go there?) tomfoolery, the whole gang isn't together on the island anymore, and instead of intercutting all the different settings together they keep it manageable by focusing on a handful at a time. It doesn't affect the quality of any single scene negatively, it's just less of a satisfying experience when you can go weeks without seeing what happens next to someone you're interested in at the moment. It would probably work better if you watched the whole show straight through on DVD at a later date, which I haven't ruled out, it just made the week to week watching a little too disconnected for me. Still, there were some genuinely great moments and episodes throughout, and the finale was probably my favorite of the five so far. There are arguments for others, and I agree that some of the love-triangle stuff going on is tired and annoying by this point, but besides that I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and while season three's ending was the best moment of the series, season five's has me the most frustrated that I have to wait nine months for the next part. Only about sixteen hours left before it ends, and I can't wait to see how it does.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fringe - Season 1

The premise of another crazy sci-fi show from the creator of Lost got me excited for Fringe, though it didn't turn out as good as I expected. Still, it was mostly enjoyable from week to week, and improved noticeably in multiple ways as it got closer to the conclusion of its first season. We already know a second is on the way so apparently it was successful enough, and I hope it continues to grow into something really interesting as it goes on. The main reason to watch it at first was just to hear the voices of John Noble from the third The Lord of the Rings movie and Lance Reddick from The Wire every week, who I could listen to talk for hours, but you can't blame the show for not having intriguing stories, just maybe not exploring those concepts to their full potential.

Most episodes follow the same basic formula. There's the cold open that shows the mystery of the week unfolding, which usually has an interesting hook and is often simply the best made scene in the show, then special agent Olivia Dunham and her ragtag team bounce back and forth between decent detective work and decent supernatural medical stuff for a while until they catch the bad guy in time for a few minutes of character development and hints at a continuous plot. Seemingly unrelated cases do sort of come together into one large conspiracy by the end, and there's a solid conclusion to some dangling plot threads along with a couple twists and revelations in the last episode.

I think the problem with the show is that it just doesn't go far enough with its big ideas. JJ Abrams gets credit for making his crazy nerdy ideas more mainstream-friendly than some other creators of televised speculative fiction, but they lose something in that translation. The show has a pretty bad habit of explaining anything close to a complex idea in an overly simple way that treats the audience like a bunch of morons, and if that's what it takes to keep most people watching, then that's a shame. I guess it's nice not having to worry about making it to another year, but the bigger fan base ends up also being less passionate. Anyway, Fringe is mostly worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Castle - Season 1

I only started watching Castle because of Nathan Fillion, the funniest actor I know who doesn't come off like he's really just a comedian saying lines. I became a fan of his through Joss Whedon stuff like Firefly, and thought the promos that played when I was watching Lost (Which he's also appeared in!) looked decent enough to check it out. It's a pretty standard procedural cop show with romantic tension between the two leads, though thanks to me being relatively fresh to the genre and some fairly witty banter, I ended up enoying it enough to hope for it's renewal.

Fillion plays a famous writer in New York who begins shadowing a detective who happens to be a fan for "research" on a new character, and each week they investigate and solve an unusual murder. I don't remember Stana Katic despite her apparently being in several things I've seen, though she has a decent enough rapport with Fillion to keep me from getting tired of that angle too quickly. Some of the cases are better than others, and apparently several of the plots aren't exactly new for the genre, although I didn't notice since I've never watched many shows like this, and the cast was likable enough to keep me entertained. There are some vague strains of continuity like Fillion's daughter's crush on a classmate and the death that caused Katic to become a police officer, but it's really mostly a self-contained mystery every week good for a couple twists and some chuckles. Definitely not breaking any new ground, but fun.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 5

To be honest, I wasn't sure about this season at first, and at times it got fairly cringe-worthy. It's not really as funny as it was before, and almost all of the real-life aspects were taken over by the almost pervasive sadness that bubbles out of the main plot. Still, the quality of that main plot and how it culminates makes this one of the strongest seasons in the show's run. If you only like the show for the cheesy action and laughs it might not be your bag, but it definitely shows a lot of growth in a few years of airing.

It starts out strangely, with Buffy taking on Dracula himself for an episode. That's just a diversion before the story thread that causes everything afterward is thrown to the viewer pretty exquisitely, the mysterious appearance of a character everyone seems to know but the audience is clueless about. They've pulled this sort of thing before when Johnathan went from forgotten recurring background character to adored center of the universe, but it wasn't quite like this. It's a strange tangent at first, but it evolves into the core of the season and becomes the source of a lot of drama and emotionally charged moments. Buffy's mom sees a resurgence in the size of her part after almost disappearing in the fourth season, providing another source of dreary storytelling. There's also some new directions for Spike's character that I didn't really care for too, and for a while I wasn't sold on much of what was happening. But it really came together in the last third or so in possibly the show's best buildup and conclusion. I know that some of the ramifications aren't lasting, but it was still very well-done serial storytelling that had the desired effect.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

So I'm going to try to watch all of the Oscar nominations for Best Picture. I don't know how far I'll get, and that's not why I watched this, but hey, I'm doing it. I don't think Slumdog was quite deserving of all the awards it ended up winning, but it was still a good movie, a nice mix of a love story, a look at the bad situation in some parts of India, and a pretty taut thriller all in one. I don't think I've seen any of Boyle's films before but he seems to work in a lot of different styles and genres, and seems quite competent and putting a movie together. I've heard a lot of controversy about its depiction of the Indian slums, and it not being a good representation of the country. I think it's a mistake to take the film completely seriously, because it's not supposed to be a realistic story. The whole thing is about how a kid knew the answers to game show questions because his own life experiences had them in chronological order, and how fate ties him to a girl he met when he was a child. It's very much a creation of fiction.

There's an interesting mix of tones throughout it. There are several moments of Hollywood fun and fantasy, although it's generally much bleaker than that. From the beginning when the protagonist and his brother are set on the run thanks to the Bombay Riots, to the underground, scummy world they get caught up in, to his treatment at the mere inkling he may have cheated, it doesn't paint a very pretty picture of the country. I felt like the movie probably deserved it's R rating, even though it earned it almost entirely on things that were implied rather than shown. Whether or not it's a fair view of life in India, it's an exciting, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes heartwarming movie. The use of music, including the original songs, was very good, and it was pretty technically sound throughout. It wasn't the deepest story ever, but it was improved by the skill of its construction and is definitely worth checking out.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dollhouse - Season 1

Thanks to a weird production quirk, there was another episode filmed that didn't relate directly to the season's plot and won't air on TV just yet, but will appear on DVD. That leaves this week's twelfth (that's a weird looking word, isn't it?) episode as the finale, although hopefully not for the whole series. The show's in big trouble thanks to poor ratings, though I'm not sure what FOX was expecting sticking it on Friday night. After hating the original pilot so much that they made Whedon do another one, causing the aforementioned confusion with the last episode, they seemingly made him do several episodes in a style he didn't want, causing the show to sputter out of the gate quality-wise, and then stuck it in a viewership black hole. It's like they were trying to kill it before it even started. I was definitely not sold on Dollhouse through the first five weeks. A couple episodes were pretty good, but there was no thrust to the overall plot when the series seemed to be crying for it, as we saw Eliza Dushku go through several disconnected assignments with only hints of what was to come.

Thankfully, by the sixth episode things get more or less on track as the central story develops into something worth following and the show simply becomes more enjoyable to watch. In many ways it's not very typical Whedon, as there's still some humor but it's not as prevalent in the tone, and they often seem more focused on delivering a message than just keeping the viewer entertained. The very idea of the Dollhouse is a scary one, as for various reasons, some more justified than others, these people are removed from their bodies for years as they are forced to do whatever their employers are paid to do. Even if they agree to it beforehand, there's something very wrong about what they're doing, despite the fact that they are very often used as forces for good, protecting helpless people and bringing criminals to justice. Still, just as often or even moreso, they're merely pimped out for some rich guy's personal amusement. But even with that it's hard to dislike any of the people responsible too much, because they seem to believe that they're not in the wrong and are very well-written as likable, complex characters. They really packed a lot of great revelations and twists in the second half of the season, culminating in a great climax to a lot of things I thought would have taken longer to cover. I hope it survives to see another season, because I really wonder what they could do with the continued opportunity.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures: The Last Resort

The Last Resort wasn't quite as fun as the first episode, but it was still a very enjoyable continuation of the series. It starts out with Wallace and Gromit turning their basement into a beach resort to help the people in town escape the poor English weather, but takes a turn for the more interesting when a newly introduced Scottish douche of a character gets knocked on the head and a whodunit begins. I probably would have preferred it if there was an actual mystery to the culprit and you had to figure out who with clues and such, but gathering the evidence needed to prove your suspect guilty is still a really cool way to use the adventure game system. A couple aspects were a bit unintuitive but for the most part I'm really enjoying the puzzles in this series, more than in Telltale's other episodic adventures by at least a little bit anyway. All the new human characters they created for the games can be a little long-winded from time to time, but I still like the expansion of the world. I still have to see the theatrical film, actually. I was such a fan of the earlier shorts that I feel a bit ashamed for having not seen it yet. I should get on that.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Scrubs - Season 8

It's still not clear whether this was an end to the series or just the series as we know it, with the possibility still existing for it to go on in another form without Zach Braff and some other big cast members. In any case, it was a nice send off for the show and Braff's character in particular, if it perhaps tried a bit too hard to tug on the heartstrings in the final sequence. Scrubs has been a great series, and while it's declined in the last few years, I'm going to miss it when it's gone. Even if it does continue, without JD it's hard to even call it the same show, and I'm not sure if I'll watch it if it sticks around.

Overall, like the last couple years on NBC, the season had plenty of moments, but it wasn't the consistently hilarious show it used to be. A big theme through the season was change, as most of the main characters got promotions, went to the next level in a relationship, or moved away. Even a whipping boy like Ted saw some emotional maturing. It seemed like they decided to spend the time they had setting things up to show how everything was changing, and how even if we won't be seeing these characters anymore, they'll continue to grow and live their lives like normal people. That all certainly took the forefront over silly jokes, in any case. I generally liked what they did with everyone, and it seemed like a natural way to wrap up a show that's always had a more serious, sentimental side beyond the humor. It was a little ham handed at times, but always fun to watch.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Angel - Season 2

Angel's second season expands naturally on the first, as his crew gets a little larger while he continues to kill a bunch of demons. There's much more of a real story arc through the whole thing, and an awful lot of the season is not spent following the status quo of the cast being paranormal investigators for hire. A character brought back at the end of the first run is the focus of most of Angel's attention for a long while, and a lot of time is spent with him estranged from everyone else and not really being himself. It was sort of interesting for them to go in that direction this relatively early in a series, although it's not too terribly long before he's back to where he was, just in time for another unusual storyline.

The last several episodes revolve around a plot involving portals to another dimension stuck in a medieval society where humans are slaves, and brings in two main characters, one of which who already appeared frequently since the season premiere. Lorne is a green-skinned, lounge singing demon with special mental abilities, and is a pretty likable character considering how cheesy that sounds. Wesley and Gunn both have bigger parts this time, though I can't really say I totally like either yet. Fred is the late addition, and so far she seems pretty entertaining. She's played by Amy Acker, who also has an increasingly interesting part on Dollhouse. Whedon's shows seem strongest when there is a sizable, fun cast, and Angel is definitely building towards something there. It's not great, but the first 44 episodes kept me reasonably entertained enough to keep watching.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Important Things with Demetri Martin - Season 1

For a while I wasn't sure if they were just taking a break from new episodes or if the first season was over. Apparently it's over. There's only seven episodes, but they show a lot of promise for a pretty enjoyable series with a nice mix of stand up and sketch comedy. Demetri Martin is one of my favorite current comedians, and he uses the show as a nice outlet for his material. I've definitely seen some of the jokes before, some of which are a bit of a stretch to fit the given theme, but it's not the sort of stand up that gets old quickly.

Each episode focuses on one important thing, like chairs or the concept of power. He bounces back and forth between telling jokes to a live audience, often accompanied by his trademark large notepad or a guitar, and pre-filmed segments featuring some funny cameos by guys like H. Jon Benjamin who's done a voice on practically every Adult Swim show and John Oliver from The Daily Show. The longer parts are often transitioned between with shorter bits, some of which are crudely animated. It's not really typical skit material, as Demetri spoofs on famous historical figures and philosophers as often as anything else. Not every sketch is a winner, but enough of them work that if you've ever enjoyed his comedy, the show is worth checking out.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jade Empire

Jade Empire is a fun, solid RPG by BioWare that's hampered slightly by a few small issues. The PC exclusive "Special Edition" comes with some new content, however in general it's not a very good port. Mouse support isn't great, there are some weird control screw ups, and a few dumb glitches here and there. Along with some weird presentation issues, the game feels outdated technically even for a game originally released four years ago. The story segments are a weird mishmash of nice-looking CGI, sloppy real-time stuff, and grainy video of scenes made in-engine that could easily just be real-time. The characters look decent, but it's compromised by them having to move around awkwardly to their designated positions before speaking and the very small number of exaggerated animations used when saying their lines. Some people use a made up language instead of English, but instead of saying actual translatable dialogue, each one has a few random samples that can be picked from, which leads to silly situations like someone going on for several seconds when the subtitle consists of a single word. The whole game feels like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic with all the alien architecture replaced by Asian-influenced stuff, and they didn't bother to bring the engine up to date.

This feeling that the game was just a filler project while they got working in full on Mass Effect is further supported by the game's brevity. It starts out seeming like another epic adventure, with the first three chapters taking their time exploring a grand story and providing the player with tons of side quests to tackle, but after that, the optional parts fall away and the last four chapters breeze by very quickly, as things quickly come to a head and the player is rocketed through the rest of the tale. You get the feeling that they had to finish it quicker than they wanted to, with things like the pointlessness of the world map when there's a grand total of two locations you can actually travel back and forth between. I took the time to do most of the unnecessary stuff I found, and the game only took me about fifteen hours to finish. That's not exactly short for an average game, but it is for this kind of one. The story is competent, at least in the main plot, though thanks to the abrupt shift in pace I felt like I didn't get to know the other characters as much as I'd like. A few of them were genuinely interesting or entertaining, but it seemed like I missed something.

The combat system is kind of fun, if not as deep as I hoped. You learn a ton of different fighting styles, some of which are normal hand to hand or weapon-based martial arts, others use elemental magic or transformations. However I found myself only using a select few to finish the game, because they were the most effective without draining my resources for healing too much. I did feel like kind of a badass flipping around and beating the crap out of a bunch of guys, but fights against tougher foes were more annoying as I had to deal with the different status effects they assaulted me with instead of just fighting me like men. The allies are kind of useless, because you can only take one at a time and they were pretty ineffectual at doing anything more than distracting enemies for a while. The open palm/closed fist karma system didn't seem as important as in other games, limiting the selection of magic equipment and access to some quests but not providing me with exclusive powers or anything like that. I had some fun with the side quests, although at times I felt more like I was doing chores than having fun. In the end, Jade Empire was not a great RPG like Knights of the Old Republic, but it was a pretty good one.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

This is the one that got all the awards and the highest praise and is my personal favorite, but I'm not sure if it's really deserving of all that. It certainly wasn't head and shoulders above the other two enough to win eleven Oscars when they averaged three. All those awards were probably appreciation for the feat of the trilogy as a whole, which I'm fine with, since the Academy so often seems to pick the better story over the truly deserving winner. I still really love the movie, and it's the biggest and grandest of the trilogy. It also happens to be the only film I saw for the first time after reading the book version first. There's fewer changes than the last time, though still some notable ones. Some bits are cut, like the Riders of Rohan being escorted around a blockade by strange men of the forest and most of the real dramatic thrust of Eowen and the development of her relationship with Faramir. There's one key detail that I feel they lost a lot from by having to cut, and it's removal was sort of necessary after cutting the Barrow-Downs from the first movie. Since the Hobbits just get their swords unceremoniously handed to them by Aragon instead of finding them in a tomb, they would be less justified in explaining why Eowyn was really able to kill the Witch King. It's not because "Hur hur no man can kill you but I can because I'm a woman", it's because Merry's sword had some magical essence and was able to break the spell that made the king invulnerable when he stabbed him with it.

I'm also not a huge fan of how Denethor and Gimli are handled. Throughout the movies Gimli is more of a comic relief than he ever was in the book, and it's brought to a head here when his presence in the Paths of the Dead turns them into a joke rather than a spooky setting. Look, he's trying to blow away the ghostly hands and wincing when he steps on any of the absolutely insane number of skulls that litter the place! Seriously, where are the rest of the skeletons? And Denethor is transformed from a depressed, grieving father who has seen doom coming for a long time into a crazy old man who is able to run about half a mile while completely immolated so he can jump off something and look all cool. Wow, I'm really complaining a lot here. I really do like a movie, and moments like Pippin's song as men of Gondor ride to their deaths and the riders charging into the Battle of Pelennor Fields are some of my favorites in any film. They really went all out with the effects for the battle to make up for the main characters not really being there, and it's still an exciting spectacle to watch. The only real change in Frodo and Sam's part of the story is Sam getting sent away for a while, which is another case of adding dramatic tension so there's more of it, but it doesn't have a major effect on the story. When the two stories finally converge at the end is suitably dramatic and epic, and you really feel the love the members of the fellowship have for each other. After the final conflict ends, the movie takes its time ending, and more or less culminated with the departure at the Grey Havens. I was surprised at how much that scene moved me this time, when it hadn't as much before. I can't think of why it would affect me differently now, all I know is that it did. Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's greatest work is far from perfect, and I can't say that most of its departures were that well considered. Still, it was an admirable effort, a labor of love, and definitely worth watching.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Just looking at Amazon, they're taking preorders for the Blu-ray version of the trilogy, which is cool I guess, but it also seems like they've discontinued manufacture of the DVD sets, which is... weird. Oh well. The Two Towers is a frequent pick for the worst of the three films, and mine as well, though I've seen some claim that the extended edition elevates it to the best, which I find a bit odd. It's certainly better, though that's true for all three films. In any case, it probably made the most severe alterations to the plot of any of the three, some aspects of which were justifiable, others less so. The whole structure is rejiggered to make the battle at Helm's Deep the focus, with a lot of time spent building to it when they just sort of went there and fought in the book, and the film ends shortly after, whereas the break was originally after a few other plot points that migrated to the third movie. Things like that are acceptable so the story has a normal dramatic arc to it. What's stranger is pretending to kill off Aragorn during an innocuous warm-up battle and having a legion of Elves show up in time to help instead of Éomer and the Riders of Rohan. It's not that having Elves and changing who Gandalf shows up with really hurts the story, you just wonder why they bothered when previously the only changes were trimming fat that affected the pacing. The battle itself was pretty well executed, and besides a couple dumb moments like Legolas skateboarding down a stairway on a shield, one of the best large scale clashes in recent cinema. I liked how they were able to add small things like the contest between Legolas and Gimli, even if the resolution of it was cut out of the theatrical version.

It was smart to edit that stuff together with Frodo and Sam's journey instead of keeping them separate, not only because it would have been strange that way, but it allowed them to make Helm's Deep the climax instead of the fight with Shelob, which in turn allowed them to shift that into the third movie as well, and keep the timeline straighter. Looking back, I'm not sure I support the decision to make Gollum a computer generated character. Serkis' performance is impressive and shows through the effects, and there are moments where the work they did is still extremely convincing, but for the most part whenever he's on screen I'm noticing that he's not really in the scene, and paying attention to the work that was done and not his presence as a character. It's still going to be a while before that stuff is totally convincing. I just got a feeling of déjà vu like I've written this before. Making Faramir more like his brother initially and unwilling to just let Frodo and Sam walk away with the ring is another choice that I mostly support, because after taking out Shelob there's really not a whole hell of a lot for them to do. I'm not sure they really captured his character as well as they could have, because there's more to him than just being the less favored son. Still, they did what they had to to make the story work, and sacrifices will sometimes have to be made to do that. Movies in the middle are usually a tough situation, and I thought they did well enough here when they were mostly putting things in place for part three.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

I rewatched the movies in unison with rereading the book. I read The Hobbit years earlier, but seeing The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters was my first experience with The Lord of the Rings, and it totally grabbed me. One of the main complaints I heard about it was the overly long and slow beginning, with the extended version lasting over an hour before they even leave The Shire. I enjoyed that, though. Part of what makes the books interesting is how much detail Tolkien put into the world, to a nearly ridiculous degree. They might not have needed to spend so much time establishing the setting in the movie, but since it was filmed as a trilogy from the beginning they were able to take their time and show whatever they wanted. I think the extended introduction before the adventure really begins helps make the film work as an introduction to the series for new fans while at the same time appeasing long-time devotees who fear any changes at all. Besides chopping out a couple sections and ignoring details that would affect casting (Frodo sets out at about age fifty to destroy the ring, some seventeen years after receiving it initially), it's probably the most faithful of the three films.

I think the book had a slightly different feel than the latter two, and the same is true of the movies. The last two thirds of the story are more intertwined and fuzzy about the break point, plus share a more epic war-movie feel to the battles. The Fellowship of the Ring is more of a smaller-scale cross country trip, almost like a chase movie. Nine dudes travel together and fight small skirmishes against manageable hordes. I actually kind of like the smallness of the fights, you really remember every cool thing that happens, giving them more of a memorable personality than thousands clashing against thousands. The fellowship itself is only whole for about a sixth of the series' running time, but I still mostly identify the story with the image of them all together. Boromir is one of the story's best characters, but he's not around for long, and his death more or less marks the point where the tone changes and things get dark and serious. I still think the third movie is my favorite with this second, but it still gets extra credit for getting me into it. Plus it's a good thing it performed so well at the box office, because if it set the tone by not doing so well, that could have been a ton of money wasted on three huge films, and we certainly wouldn't be getting an extremely exciting pair of Hobbit movies from Jackson and Guillermo del Toro. Also, can you believe this came out seven and a half years ago? Time is a bitch.