Thursday, July 30, 2009


This is another movie I've seen large sections of but never the whole thing. Mel Gibson directs leading man Mel Gibson through a vast (and in places vastly inaccurate) historical epic that manages a special combination of artful filming and awesomely brutal violence. We need more Best Picture winners that feature a bearded Brendan Gleeson bashing British troops' heads in with a giant hammer. The first 50 minutes of the movie were well put together, and in places it was fairly moving, but I was still waiting for anything to finally happen. Then it did, and it was pretty great. The brief scuffle where William Wallace and the townspeople wipe out the British occupying their village might actually have been my favorite scene in the movie. It's not as grand or vicious as some later battles, but it's just extremely entertaining and satisfying.

After the rebellion finally gets going, there's a couple hours that alternate between the military exploits of Wallace and his merry band of Scotsmen, whether brief glimpses or full blown battle scenes, and the state of things in England as Patrick McGoohan brilliantly portrays King Edward. I seriously loved his performance. When he's not menacingly threatening those who disappoint him and passing laws allowing nobles to rape newlyweds, he's throwing people out of windows for speaking to him out of turn. It's pretty great. Things slow down after a couple things don't turn out well for the Scots, and then we go through a pretty nonsensical subplot involving the future queen of England. Some stuff happens and there's the last dramatic few scenes depicting the inevitable conclusion. I was actually impressed by how tasteful and powerful some of that stuff was. I don't think it does everything right, but Braveheart was a pretty outstanding movie of its type.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Torchwood - Season 1

Torchwood is the more adult spin-off of Doctor Who, although the added bloody violence and swearing don't really make it a better show. Instead of traveling through time and space meeting aliens and solving their problems, Captain Jack Harkness and crew stick around the same basic location in Wales and deal with whatever wacky cases fall into their lap. There's a decent amount of variety and creativity in the stories, including multiple cases of people accidentally falling through time and the discovery of strange alien artifacts. It's not all sci-fi either, such as one episode that's pretty much just a straight up The Hills Have Eyes sort of horror story.

Besides the main action there's also an inordinate amount of sexual tension as everyone wants to bang or is banging everyone else. It actually gets in the way of what I want to watch the show for, because there's a lot more subtle and interesting ways to do that sort of thing on a lot of other series. And it kind of undermines the seriousness a bit, because you know, screwing your coworkers isn't very professional. Still though, Torchwood is a fairly entertaining detective/science fiction show that fans of stuff like Fringe might find they like. It ties in with its parent series in a vaguely interesting way, and is a bit of a nice thematic break from it. The finale was just about as absurd as anything in Who, though.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Spaced was the breakout hit for its creators, who went on to make popular movies like Shaun of the Dead and are now recognizable successes. It's a short and brilliant little series about a couple of new friends who pretend to be a couple to get an apartment. The focus of the show thankfully isn't their wacky hijinks as they try to keep up the ruse though, it's just a funny look at life through the eyes of its interesting cast of characters. A huge part of it is pop culture references, as Simon Pegg's character spends his time playing video games and trying to break into the comic book industry. There's a lot of references to Star Wars in particular, and an episode in the second season heavily satirizes The Matrix, the events of which the characters call "slightly unbelievable".

For the most part, the show is just pure fun to watch. Even when I wasn't laughing out loud, I usually at least had a smile on my face. There's only 14 episodes across two seasons, but each one is good and packed with references and inside jokes, making the show a little too esoteric for some members of the general populace but a big treat for anyone who gets it. Even when it's not trying to be funny it succeeds. It says some genuine things about friendship, and the relationship development between co-writers Pegg and Jessica Stevenson is extremely well done. It doesn't last very long, but Spaced is pretty close to the perfect sitcom.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Despite not liking the book so much (besides the ending it's not very eventful for the penultimate chapter of an epic story), David Yates was able to turn the Half-Blood Prince into a mostly successful movie, showing to me that the key to a good Potter adaptation is keeping the spirit of the story in a well-made film, not just being as faithful as possible to the book. I thought it was just a bit too long and leisurely paced, but the cinematography and editing in individual scenes was brilliant, it was probably the funniest Potter movie yet, and it pulled off the crucial moments as well as could be hoped. There's a lot of interesting use of color throughout as Yates clearly experiments with the look in his second turn at the helm, and even if what's happening seems as pointless as it did in the book, at least it's nice to look at. There's not a lot of digitally created terrors this time, but some of the visual effect stuff is more subtle and pretty impressive, and I was actually a bit surprised that it was only PG because while it may have been less explicitly violent than the other recent films, it wasn't less menacing in tone.

Ralph Fiennes' Voldemort is absent this time as the students spend most of the movie besides the surprisingly long opening scenes within the magically protected walls of Hogwarts, and the threat of evil is mostly in the background as roving bands of Death Eaters assault and terrify both the magical and mundane worlds. There's an added scene of violence in one of the movie series' few moments of pure fabrication, but it did help with the deliberate pace and also conveyed the sense of danger that just mentioning occasional attacks elsewhere wouldn't have. Despite the reincarnated villain being a no show, Tom Riddle's presence still exists in some background exploration that leads to the discovery of a way to potentially defeat him, and he is seen in flashbacks portrayed by a couple different actors. At his youngest he's played by Fiennes' nephew, and to be honest it's the scariest he's been in the whole series. Prancing around with a snake nose just doesn't compare to a child who seems evil way beyond his years. His teenage version is a ponce in comparison.

Anyway, a lot of the normal course of the movie is spent showing the increased romantic tension among the main cast of students as they seem to have the opposite sex on the mind more than the increasingly looming risk of violent death. There's a lot of humor too, as Draco Malfoy's subplot is almost the only time we see how serious things are. There's also Michael Gambon's finest turn yet as Dumbledore, with a mix of seriousness about Harry's task and fatherly concern for him that perfectly captured the character to me. Alan Rickman's also great as Snape, and I can't picture anyone doing the part better. Helena Bonham Carter hasn't had a ton to do in these movies, but she does embody the part of Bellatrix fairly excellently and she should be good in the last couple movies. The scene near the end where Harry and Dumbledore leave Hogwarts briefly was very effectively pulled off and tense, with some really nice effects work in one of the only true scenes of flash, but I was a bit disappointed in the climax. The crucial moment was fine, but the way the stuff around it was removed, not only was it not as exciting as it could be, but it effectively made a good deal of Malfoy's subplot irrelevant and unnecessary. I'm not sure the Deathly Hallows needs to be two parts after they did the first six books in one piece, but it should be fun, and I believe Yates can do it after his work on the last two movies.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Liveblog 21: The Yankees Are In First Place

The Yankees stormed out of the gate in the second half and won eight straight, which along with Boston uncharacteristically losing a bunch gave them a two and a half game lead in the AL East. Yesterday though they trotted out a AAA lineup against a crappy pitcher who ended up doing a good job, and after Andy Pettitte and Alfredo Aceves coughed up six runs they couldn't muster a big enough comeback to prevent their lead from slipping to 1 1/2. Still, this is the best position they've been in all year, and today Sergio Mitre gets his second start for the Yankees.

The key to this run early in the half has been pitching, and even the journeyman Mitre was adequate in his first game, though I'd much rather see Phil Hughes getting these starts. He's been awesome in the bullpen, but I'm hoping Brian Cashman can acquire a good reliever at the trade deadline so Phil can be stretched out again. Even if he doesn't replace Mitre, Joba Chamberlain's going to come up on his innings limit sooner rather than later and I'd rather not have to call up someone like Kei Igawa to replace him. Chien Ming Wang's career isn't looking too good right now, facing the possibility of surgery after coming back from a foot injury and pitching terribly this year. It was only a little over a year ago I thought he was becoming a really great pitcher, and for all we know he might not even start for the Yankees again. In any case, I hope his replacement can have another decent game today.

Top 1 - I'm watching the Hall of Fame inductions on the computer while the game is on TV - good baseball day. It's funny to see the MLB Network try to justify Jim Rice's selection to the Hall. Wow, he compares favorably to Eddie Murray and Mike Schmidt! All you have to do is cherry pick the best years of his career while ignoring his decline along with his poor defense and Fenway's effect on offense! The Athletics really haven't been that good for a few years, but have a chance today to split a four game series with the Yankees. Their team's made up of young guys who haven't done much and castoffs from other cities. I haven't even heard of their pitcher. Mitre's ready to go against Adam Kennedy. Ball in the dirt. He then flies out to Johnny Damon in left. Orlando Cabrera bounces a single over Mitre's head. Scott Hairston of the amazing Hairston family (more major league players than any other) doubles between Melky Cabrera and Damon, scoring Cabrera who stole second on the previous pitch. After an annoying first pitch ball that exhibits umpires' tendency to call based on what the catcher does rather than where the pitch is, Jack Cust belts a 3-0 fastball to left field, now runners are on the corners. Robinson Cano boots a potential double play ball by Kurt Suzuki into center, scoring Hairston. Ryan Sweeney grounds into a force on Suzuki at second. I was distracted by some interesting Hall factoids, but Daric Barton (who?) makes the last out of the inning, 2-0 A's.

Bottom 1 - Derek Jeter begins comeback attempt #1 with a single on the first pitch. This is the second time I've heard Michael Kay say Jorge Posada's double play in the ninth inning last night took the "starch" out of a potential rally. I'm not sure it was so much that the rally wasn't stiff and connected enough, it's just that he made two of their remaining three outs with one swing. Come on, man. Damon draws a five pitch walk. Dallas Braden strikes out Mark Teixeira, currently tied with Carlos Pena for the AL home run lead, on a 2-2 changeup. Posada pops out to second. Always miss Alex Rodriguez when he's not in that cleanup spot. Hideki Matsui lines a single to left which scores Jeter. I'm a fan. Stupid auto-refreshing MLB website cutting off my Hall of Fame video feed. Kay mentions that Matsui has a .303 average with two outs and runners in scoring position, a telling stat. Not so much when it's only 33 at bats, man. Nick Swisher walks on four pitches. Bases are loaded for Robinson Cano, who hasn't done well in this position this year. He smacks a ball just in front of the diving center fielder though which clears the bases, and he's only out at third because he over-slides the bag, which seems to be happening a lot this year. We go the second with the Yankees leading 4-2.

Top 2 - They're introducing all the old Hall of Famers present at the induction. Mark Ellis flies out to center. Eric Patterson takes a couple balls before grounding out to Teixeira. Sergio Mitre's bread and butter is inducing a ground ball with his sinker, so that's what we should be seeing more of. Back to the top as Kennedy singles to center. Cabrera hits into a force out and the inning's over, nice bounce back by Mitre.

Bottom 2 - Cabrera pops out to the catcher. Cody Ransom, who inexplicably still has a spot on this team, flies out to right. This guy just called Hank Aaron "everyone's home run champion". I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean. Jeter works a full count walk on what looked to me like an easy strike. Damon grounds out to Ellis for an easy third out.

Top 3 - Hairston is plunked by a pitch, by Cust grounds it back to Mitre for a double play to erase the runner. The next hitter grounds out to Jeter, and now Mitre seems to have settled down a bit.

Bottom 3 - YES just had a poll question about whether Mike Mussina belongs in the hall of fame, and two of the choices were yes, but one on the first ballot and the other on a later ballot. That's such goddamn stupid thinking I can't even stand it. A player is either good enough to be in the Hall or they're not, they shouldn't have to wait a few extra pointless years before being elected. It's why one of the all time great players like Ricky Henderson only gets 95% of the ballots. I can't wait until these backwards thinking morons in the BBWAA die, because that's the only way for them to lose the vote. Also, have you seen their website? And more importantly, have they? It's the most garishly disgusting looking thing ever. What the fuck. Teixeira grounds out to short and Posada singles. Matsui flies out to Sweeney in right. Swisher strikes out to end the frame.

Top 4 - Woah, I just noticed the BBWAA site now forwards to a new one, that while still poorly designed, at least doesn't slowly murder your eyeballs. But why did that take so long, and why the hell does the original site still exist? Redirects aren't that hard, guys. Sweeney singles to left. Mitre sure isn't throwing a lot of pitches that aren't balls or put into play. Barton lines a full count pitch in between the fielders into right, runners on the corners and no outs. Joe Gordon's daughter is accepting his selection to the Hall by the Veterans Committee. He was a Yankee, you know. Word. Ellis hits a sac fly to swisher, and the Yankees' lead is down to one run. Mitre gets another potential double play ball, but he botches the throw, letting runners get to the corners again with still one out. The next batter hits one to Jeter though, and they turn a much more difficult double play to end the inning. Runner might have been safe, but hey, baseball.

Bottom 4 - I missed the first batter, but Cano lined out I guess. Cabrera, now secure in his role as everyday center fielder with Brett Gardner out with a broken thumb, singles to left. Ransom doubles down the left field line, things all set up for Jeter. He flies to short right though, unable to get the easy RBI. Damon pops out to second, threat over.

Top 5 - Good news as Boston's John Smoltz is getting hit around a bit by the Orioles, although it's still way too early to know that they'll win the game. Cabrera hits another single off Mitre. Jim Rice is making his speech. I don't begrudge him for making it in, and he was clearly a pretty great player. I just don't like all the logical leaps and back flips his supporters had to do to make his case for the Hall. Yet another double play ball to Jeter. They're really saving Mitre's ass today. Jesus MLB website, how hard is it not to refresh when there's a streaming video open? Cust becomes Mitre's first strikeout victim of the day, and now he's qualified for his second win.

Bottom 5 - Teixeira pops out to begin things. Posada grounds to Cabrera and Barton does a split to catch the ball in time to be the middle of things. Matsui works the count full and draws a walk. Swisher grounds out to end things.

Top 6 - Rickey Henderson is giving his speech. Suzuki hits one right up the middle for yet another single in this game of singles. That's Mitre's last pitch, as Phil Coke is given the ball to protect the lead. Coke gets the first out on a fly. Not paying much attention to the game, Henderson's speech is pretty entertaining. Kay keeps referring to pitchers being "geeked up", or too excited and overthrowing the baseball. I don't think he knows the expression usually refers to drug use. A ground ball gets another out, and Barton just beats out getting doubled up. He gets to second on a wild pitch. Ellis belts a two run homer to left, retaking the lead, 5-4. Good job, Coke. After a long period dominance, some of the relievers are starting to slip up. Patterson singles. Kennedy grounds out to Coke.

Bottom 6 - Comeback attempt #2 commences with a ground out by Cano, not the best start. Melky walks, though. Ransom gets his second double. We have a complete reenactment of the 4th inning here. Jeter makes right on his first screw up, singling in both runners and getting the lead back. He gets picked off first, unfortunate as Damon doubles to right. Teixeira singles him in. I don't understand why Braden is still in this game. Posada walks, and now we finally see a replacement. Matsui pops out against new pitcher Craig Breslow to end the inning.

Top 7 - Hughes in to pitch, hopefully two innings. Cabrera works a full count but flies out to center. Hairston strikes out. Cust follows suit to end the inning, though it took Phil 20 pitches.

Bottom 7 - You know a Yankee fan actually had to sue to prevent stadium security from forcing people to stay in their seats during "God Bless America"? Give it up guys, you're patriotic, we get it. And YES, you don't have to show it every game either. Swisher doubles down the right field line. He's still not hitting great anymore, but he gets on base enough to be a valuable contributor to the team. Cano hits a deep fly that allows Swisher to get to third with one out. Cabrera draws another walk, runners on the corners for Ransom. New pitcher coming in to face him. That's respect for the man with the .203 average. He strikes out, though. Jeter grounds out and thus ends the threat. I think I'm done for now. Back in a bit.

Wrap-Up - Hughes had to be taken out in the eighth inning with runners on 2nd and 3rd and only one out, but Brian Bruney and Mariano Rivera held down the fort to complete the victory. Along with Boston and Tampa Bay losing, it was a pretty good day to be a Yankee fan, as they're back up to a 2 1/2 game lead in the East. Yeehaw.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Doctor Who - Season 2

I'm not quite sure what it is, but I enjoyed this season a bit more than the previous. David Tennant's Doctor is a bit sillier than Christopher Eccleston's, and while the latter might have had a bit more gravitas in the most important scenes, the former seemed to be written a bit better and fit the show's strengths better. Also since we've already gone through the reestablishment of the universe after the long break between regular installments, which is necessary and not too bad but still tiring when every show has to do it, there's more time to just do what makes the show fun. Billie Piper's Rose is gone for a while after this season which means more new companions, but their transitions into regular cast should go a bit quicker.

Doctor Who has two modes, and I like it more when it's lighthearted and fun as opposed to dark and epic. Most episodes feature both of these at least a little, but the pattern so far is to shift focus from the former to the latter over the course of the season as they start doing more multiple part stories that rarely have enough actual story content to require the extra time. These episodes aren't bad, I just prefer the show when it's less serious. I mean, if I want adult and menacing entertainment, I'll watch Torchwood. Which I am now, by the way. Just like Bad Wolf from the first season, all of the Doctor and Rose's adventures this time coincidentally are tangentially related to the Torchwood Institute, which ties everything together in a less than satisfying way since they never really explain why this convenient stuff keeps happening, but it does establish the spin-off which follows directly in continuity after this season. Also, the first Christmas special that was technically a part of this production I guess was all right.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

Lost Planet seemed to have a lot of potential when I first started. To begin, I got it in a five dollar deal on Steam, so it wasn't going to be a big waste of money no matter how the game was. The entire game taking place on a freezing, snow-covered planet was a unique and non-terrible idea. The grappling hook is a neat little device for getting around. The large insect-like Akrid make for a somewhat interesting foe. The "Vital Suit" mechs are a cool way to mix up the standard run and gun style of play. And every level ending with a giant boss fight is classic video gaming. Unfortunately, a lot of problems cause the game to run out of steam long before its story ends.

The basic idea with the health system is different from most other shooters. You have a supply of thermal energy to keep you warm, and you can pick up more from the corpses of enemies and destroyed machinery. This energy can boost your health if you're injured, acting as both a sort of armor and a regeneration system. However, this energy also ticks down over time as it's expended just protecting you from the harsh elements, and once it runs out you slowly begin to die. It's not a terrible system, but it often seemed like I spent more time looking for sources of energy than focusing on fighting the guys shooting at me. Also, there are no situations where the surrounding area is warm enough not to constantly drain you even though some look like they really probably should, and if you ever have a case where it actually makes sense to destroy the expensive equipment you're using to take the energy from it, that's not exactly the best design.

The shooting feels insubstantial, with the standard weapons and even most of the better ones lacking much of a punch. I often laugh when a certain game review site constantly refers to the "crunch" and "friction" of an experience when talking about a good game, but there is truth behind it; the best games usually have something that makes the core mechanic of play viscerally satisfying, whether it be through sound design or whatever, and Lost Planet seems to lack that. The standard weapon feels like a pop gun, and along with the lackluster aiming in this shoddy PC port (they didn't even bother to change the button icons from the 360 version in some cases), it makes just fighting most enemies a bit of a chore rather than a thrill. It's still kind of fun to blast a group of ravenous monsters, but the human enemies are much less enjoyable to fight, and unfortunately the focus is on them more and more as the game goes on. You can either stand just out of their site range and pick them off with ease or just run straight at them firing, it'll rarely feel exciting or challenging.

The boss fights are disappointing too. I said giant enemies are classic gaming stuff, but the other side of that is the boring classic gaming trope of destroying all of them by spotting the obvious glowing weak points and targeting them until something happens to expose a different weak point, and hammering it until they die. Why exactly does shooting the yellow pods on the side of this giant monster expose the secretly more important ones inside his head? I don't know, I'm just supposed to do it. These fights are only slightly better than the VS on VS fights, which basically consist of hammering them with missiles a little faster than they hammer you with missiles. It's all supported by a typical anime plot that has a couple briefly interesting plot twists but mostly relies on boring characters with crappy voice actors going around in circles before the confusing ending that thinks it's smarter than it is. The game has an interesting look to it and is actually pretty fun for a while, it's just that the cracks in the armor started showing before it ended and it kept going after it should have.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Six Feet Under - Season 5

The tagline on the DVD cover says "Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends." And that's about as accurate a statement you could make on the basic message and tone of this fantastic show's last season. Being a show so focused on death, it's never been particularly happy, but before it always had a more lighthearted undertone. That's not completely gone either, as there's still a few dream sequences that fit the show's unique sense of humor. Still, especially with the last third of the season, the finality and inevitability of death are really hammered home. The sense of loss isn't limited to mortality either, as things mostly don't go so well for some of the characters as they realize life might not bring exactly what they wanted.

Two scenes in particular really got to me, one of which had me crying more than any other show or movie that I can remember, and the final scene of the series, which does exactly what it should have done from the beginning in a very beautiful way. I know I've said it before, but the incongruity of this show's creator also running True Blood was as strong as it's ever been. Six Feet Under wasn't always perfect, but it's a supremely effective work that everyone should watch.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Squidbillies - Season 4

I'm pretty sure this season's over now? Yeah? Whatever.

You know, as time goes on the less sure I am that Matt Maiellaro really has anything to do with this show. I've seen him credited along with Aqua Teen Hunger Force co-creator Dave Willis and The Brak Show's Jim Fortier for something, but I'm not sure he's really involved. Anyway, at this point I think Squidbillies is more of a creative outlet for Dave at least, if not both of them, than Aqua Teen. The latter is still pretty enjoyable from time to time, but Squidbillies is just more consistently humorous week to week. The messy, simple art and abrasive characters make it seem like something that could be easily hated, but if you give it a chance it's actually secretly pretty clever and uniquely funny. It's not the kind of thing I'm always in the mood for, but it can be quite enjoyable when you are. There was some good stuff this season, including the first two part episode which I'm fairly certain was the finale. Squids. Hillbillies. Squidbillies.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hitman: Blood Money

I wasn't a big fan the last time I tried a Hitman game, and this one took me two attempts to get into it, but once I did I enjoyed it quite a bit. The game's not without any flaws, and its sense of design is aging rapidly. Still, the series has a unique style of play that's really interesting if you have the patience to get into it.

If you've never tried it before, it's a stealth action game, but instead of lurking in shadows and around corners to infiltrate secret bases, you're ambushing guards and stealing their clothes to hide in plain sight to get the drop on various assassination targets. There are several ways you can approach each mission, although usually only one perfect one that will get you the best rating. You can garrote or shoot enemies if you like, though there's often a more subtle way you can hit your objective without it being an obvious murder, like poisoning something they'll eat or rigging a chandelier to drop on them. It can be a little frustrating at first when you're just trying to get a feel for an area and don't know how to proceed, but it's usually not too long before you get an opportunity for a better outfit and an opportunity to figure out a game plan. And you can always just shoot up the whole joint if you want to, but that's never as satisfying as getting in and out without anyone noticing, especially since you're wasting money covering it up that could be better used upgrading your equipment.

For 2006 the game doesn't look or sound too bad, with adequate characters and environments and some decent music. The silenced pistols that I used for pretty much the entire game have a nice distinctive sound to them, and the rare explosions you'll set off are satisfying enough. The voice acting is mixed, with decent voices on the main characters but some utterly inexplicable ones from random people; and while the large crowd scenes are pretty impressive with the number of people on screen, however in those situations you'll quickly notice how small the number of unique models per area is. The game has some technical issues as well, besides a few odd physics problems I also ran into a couple crash issues, one that forced me to skip a cutscene and another that occurred during a mission, losing my progress.

The game's story isn't high art, but it has acceptable twists and turns for a decent action movie, and seems to tie in well with the previous games. It's set up with a couple of guys discussing some of Agent 47's previous jobs while implying that they've finally apprehended him, although when you look at it it's hard to believe they'd have to cover all of those situations sequentially in detail to get to the point, and I'm not sure the concept blends with some later reveals well. The credits sequence is another good example of what unique things can be done with the video game medium, and the ending sets up the now-confirmed sequel that I'm up to try out. When it comes out, I hope the design is a little more open, because we're in an age of player freedom in games and Hitman's reliance on one perfect path to complete the mission feels a little stifled by this point. Still, it was a fun if not amazing experience.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Six Feet Under - Season 4

It's still the same show it was three years earlier for the most part, but there's something different about it somehow. It just feels more bleak and depressing. More outlandish stuff is starting to happen to the characters, and one is even told that only bad things will happen to them from then on in a dream near the end of the season. Obviously a show that revolves this heavily around death as a matter of course in the characters' lives is going to be pretty dark, but it does seem different to me. It comes off less realistic and more like a television show. It's just not quite what I loved about the show when I first started watching it. It's not like I'm enjoying it significantly less, I just needed something to talk about twelve episodes later. Remember when I said I liked Claire? Yeah, well I definitely like her less after this season. I have high expectations for the fifth and final season because with its need to seemingly top itself each year and what happened in the crazy finale, it's probably going to be something else.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Doctor Who - Season 1

So after an absence of over fifteen years from regular episodes and a decade since the last incarnation, Russell T. Davies finally brought Doctor Who back to life in 2005. I've never seen it before, but it's always been a beloved and seemingly interesting series, and this seemed like a good point to jump on, so I decided to check it out. This is Christopher Eccleston's only season as the Doctor, with David Tennant already cast to take the part over before it aired, but he does a pretty entertaining job with the part in his one go at it. It's a more complicated character than I expected at first, normally pretty happy-go-lucky about his position as the final Time Lord who jumps around averting disasters, but he can get deadly serious if he has to. Billie Piper's his main companion and the most remarkable thing about her is the severity of her accent.

I wasn't totally sold on the show in the beginning, as it seems to be filmed on a much lower budget than the current standard for American science fiction television and was a little goofier than I thought. It did seem to get better as it went on, with more intriguing and intelligent conflicts and plot developments. The time travel mechanics often don't seem to make sense, as they ignore obvious solutions to their problems and the universe's solution for paradoxes is laughable. It's definitely very, very British. The whole genesis for this relaunch of the show seems to be Davies' idea for an episode where then-popular shows like Big Brother still exist in the future, though in a much deadlier form, and while it's a bit funny in places it just seems to date the show. Futurama did that too sometimes, and those are generally the weakest episodes in retrospect years later. If you accept Doctor Who as a comedy about as much as science fiction though, it's mostly enjoyable.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Liveblog 20: 2009 Home Run Derby

So the Yankees have played pretty well since that last travesty, and actually managed to completely catch up with the Red Sox before getting swept by the Angels and dropping back three games right before the All-Star break. It's not the end of the world, it's just frustrating to lose that progress. They really haven't played the best teams very well at all, but the sample isn't that big and they're still leading the Wild Card race, so I feel pretty good going into the second half.

This year I'll blog the annual overlong and often boring home run contest, seeing if it will be more fun without the rooting interest. No Yankees are playing again so I'll just be watching eight guys hit balls really hard. This is also won't be posted until a day later, so it's sort of an experiment, especially since I've never liveblogged something that wasn't a regulation baseball game before. Yup. Hittin' balls. With a bat. St. Louis.

Round 1

Introducing the players now. As always, the AL crop seems kinda weak. It's not quite the same without all the old steroid users. Frowny face. Quick question: what's the only way to make Joe Morgan look like a smart baseball analyst? Answer: stick him in a booth with Steve Phillips. Lord is that a dumb group of people sitting at that table. I like how they changed the rules so homers carry over from the first round to the second. The finals should be pure, but it's not fair when a guy who hit 20 in the beginning can't get to the last round because he wore himself out. Before the contest starts, Albert Pujols fails to hit a home run in two swings to win a car for some guy from Philadelphia. If I was him, I'd be pissed. If I was picked out of thousands of people for a contest, I should get a damn prize, regardless of whether some millionaire can hit the ball where I tell him to.

Nelson Cruz

Cruz has had a good year, and I think he was a late addition to the AL roster this year. He's got some power, some of his home runs look like pop ups that just keep going. Maybe it's the crappy camera angle. He's doing a good job. It's always fun when they get on a roll with one out left. He finishes with 11, which historically is unspectacular but should get him to the next round easily. And now they're taking a break from the action to educate us young people on Stan Musial. He was pretty damn great back then, but is going to be surpassed as the greatest Cardinal ever by Pujols as long as he stays on the team.

Prince Fielder

Prince has already started without them telling us. What a lack of respect. First homer is almost to dead center. I don't understand why the break isn't directly in the middle of the season. It skews first and second half numbers slightly. Oh well. Pujols is still talking about stuff while Prince has twice as many dingers as outs. I like Pujols' accent. He talks like a native speaker would, with a complete understanding of the syntax, he just says every word slightly incorrectly. Better than what a lot of latin players can do. Man, Fielder's hitting some monster shots. Another couple gold ball homers with no outs left and he matches Cruz' effort with 11.

Brandon Inge

Seriously, Inge? I realize he's having a really good year but this is a contest for the top sluggers in the game, not utility players. He's proving he doesn't belong with four swings and no home runs to show for it. He's doing so badly that he doesn't even get the full screen as Erin Andrews is interviewing Derek Jeter in the corner. Inge has eight outs and now I know he's just thinking, "Please let me get one before I lose." He almost gets it, but just yanks it foul and finishes with zero. It happens, and I can't imagine he's too disappointed participating in the All-Star festivities.

Adrian Gonzalez

The Padres hit decently on the road, but Gonzalez is the only thing that keeps them from being completely pathetic in their cavern of a home park. His first few swings don't generate anything. Oh, great. It's not enough that Joe Buck calls games all year long for FOX, now I have to hear him as a guest on ESPN. We get it! He was raised in St. Louis! Whoopie! Adrian gets his first dinger with six outs. A bit later and it's gold ball time. Unfortunately, he has to finish with two. After a good start with the first two guys, the last couple have been disappointing.

Carlos Pena

This guy shouldn't be an All-Star. He was a late replacement for Dustin Pedroia who stayed home with his pregnant wife, and like aways he was chosen by his manager over someone probably more deserving. Such as Ian Kinsler, who just barely lost the fan vote against Pedroia and is now sitting around while I think Aaron Hill is the only real second baseman on the whole roster. He gets his first homer on the fourth swing. A bit later and he's got five hits and five outs. Unfortunately that's all he gets as the next five swings don't quite connect, so all Pena does is officially eliminate Inge.

Ryan Howard

Hey guys! It's Ryan Howard! He's pretty darn good at hitting home runs. You know, it's sad that Chris Berman must think he's so damn clever. And we all have to sit here listening to State Farm "farmed out" puns. Howard's up to seven, having eliminated Gonzalez a while ago. And that's the number he finishes with. He'll probably make the cut, because both Mauer and Pujols would have to beat him. Cruz and Fielder are definitely in.

Joe Mauer

Here's another guy who doesn't quite belong. He's an absolutely great hitter, even not account for him being a catcher, but this is the first season he's shown real power and it's not a huge sample. He's not doing too bad, though. Apparently Morgan thinks that if Mauer somehow gets "really hot" he can manage to eliminate the current two best performers with only one other unresolved player to go. His ignorance went past depressing and is back to amusing now. Mauer finishes with five also, so Howard is in, and Pujols needs six to qualify without a three-man tiebreaker scenario. Morgan comments that Cruz and Fielder are definitely in the next round now. They were in before Mauer picked up the bat, moron.

Albert Pujols

The hometown guy's in. Ryan Franklin's goatee is quite freakish. Third swing and we see his first homer. Looked farther than it ended up being. A bit later and he's up to seven outs before getting his second. Please, get either at least four more or fewer than three. He just barely muscles out a third, maybe with some fan assistance. Still at three and down to his final out. Clutch performance to get two more, but that's all and we're headed for a three-man "swing off". They could use a catchier name than that.

Swing Off

Pena's up first. These runs don't count towards the total for the round, it's just an elimination thing. I didn't catch the rules because of the blender in the next room, I think they get five outs. Apparently it's five swings, not outs. Pena only gets one, so his night is probably over. Mauer next. Berman keeps calling it a bat off, which is even worse. Mauer gets none, so it's up to Pujols to hit two out of five or none, lest we repeat this again. He gets the second on his third swing, making it to the next round.

Round 2

Here we go. Pujols and Howard go first to see if Cruz and Fielder need to even bother batting this round.


He's clearly not in his best form after a double-header yesterday. He hits six more to bring his total even with the leaders before they even take a swing. Decent job, but he's most likely done.


He doesn't look that fresh either, although before the eighth out he manages to surpass Pujols' total. There must be something in the air slowing these guys down. He manages to finish the round with an impressive eight, and a two round total of 15. I bet he makes it, because the other two guys have been sitting for a while, and so far this has been a fairly tepid derby.


Cruz wastes no time eliminating the local boy. He actually seems surprisingly rust-free. He hits five, which isn't great, but still places him in the final round regardless of what Fielder does.


Prince is still putting his whole weight in every swing. I think he wants to win this. He's staying up there swinging even after he has six and not benefiting from standing there. And that's what he finishes, with him and Cruz in the final. I'll take Prince to win.

Final Round

To be fully honest, right now I'm more interested in this essay dissecting why Battlestar Galactica's ending blew than the derby.


He's really killing the ball, though. Well, he was. He gets five in his first five outs, but that's also what he finishes with. Prince has a chance to put it away.


It's funny to watch the length of these paragraphs peter out over time. There's only so much you can say about national broadcasters being idiots and guys hitting the ball into the seats. Fielder's still crushing the hell out of it though. He ties Cruz with six outs left. A bit later and he smacks one to deep center to clinch it. Nice job in a somewhat forgettable derby. It was actually pretty competitive, but unlike most recent years there was no amazing single-round performance to remember. Not than we're likely to see anyone top Josh Hamilton in Yankee Stadium last season for a while. Well, that wasn't a complete waste of three hours. See you later.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Six Feet Under - Season 3

I'm not sure I really have a ton to say at this point. Six Feet Under remains a great show in its third year, with each character continuing along their journey through life. Ruth's story is probably the oddest, as she has an usual romance with a character played by Rainn Wilson, in a role not completely unlike Dwight Schrute from The Office. Claire's is the most secretly tragic. I didn't think I was going to like her character going in, because she seemed like a typical anti-social teen, but she's really won me over. Dave's relationship with Keith is sort of in a holding pattern the entire time, and we're never sure which way it's really going to go. Nate's life with his new baby mama was uniquely interesting for a while before turning into one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen on television. I'm not trying to spoil anything too much but things don't tend to go overly well for people on this show. They continue to feature a death at the beginning of every episode, although they played around with it a lot more this time, with lots of fakeouts and twists on the formula that keeps that part from ever feeling like a routine. I continue to be astounded at how good seemingly every HBO show was during this time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

RAAtEtHoTDVG 3: Maniac Mansion

Ridiculously Ambitious Attempt to Experience the Heart of Two-Dimensional Video Gaming, Part 3

I hope to start getting these out quicker, although it's going to be a challenge considering how much stuff there is I can and should be doing these days.

Maniac Mansion (PC)

Maniac Mansion was the first game released using LucasArts' SCUMM engine, which actually stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion. It came out originally way back in 1987, and you can definitely tell. The graphics are extremely primitive and the sound is made from barbaric bleeps and bloops, with the game unable to play more than one at once. Whereas modern games have streamlined the interface down to a very simple point and click system, the lower half of the screen here is flooded with different commands you can use, and there are frequent situations where it's just too specific for its own good. An early example is the door to the basement that doesn't have a handle. Even if your magic deduction skills are good enough to realize you need the gargoyle on the nearby staircase to open the door, "using" it doesn't work. You have to "pull" the gargoyle for anything to happen. I'll make no secret of the fact that I used a FAQ pretty heavily to make it through to the end after getting stuck on my own multiple times, as I'm fairly certain I never would have otherwise. My simple modern brain is just too used to properly telegraphed and hinted puzzle solutions to go this far outside its own safety zone.

Besides the difficulty of the puzzles though, Maniac Mansion is a pretty interesting and actually fairly forward-thinking adventure game. Things like the use of multiple characters you can choose from and apparent flexibility in how you can go about finishing it are pretty impressive. Almost every game in this genre is stuck in the one problem, one solution system that being able to try different things that end up working is really nice. One thing that's unfortunately missing though is the wit and humor that the classic LucasArts adventures are generally known for as much as anything else. There are a few little skits with the various villains and protagonists here, and some moments that sort of skirt around the edge of being funny, but it's clear they were still figuring out what they were doing back then and by this point it looks like it was put together by ten year old kids. It's just quaint. Other SCUMM games I've seen have blown Maniac Mansion's writing out of the water in just their first few minutes. Still, you can see how important the game was to the legacy of LucasArts and the adventure genre in general.

Next: Samus' greatest adventure.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Die Hard

What? You've never seen Die Hard!? BLEUUUUUUUGHHHHH.

Die Hard was a pretty exciting and funny movie, although it was really more of a suspense/thriller sort of thing than a true action movie, considering Bruce Willis' John McClane spends most of his time creeping around an office building, hiding from thugs and trading barbs with Alan Rickman, as opposed to shooting dudes and blowing crap up. Although he does that too. I think it was lauded by action fans at the time for McClane not being some ridiculously amazing superhero guy, instead just being a good cop who has to fight his way tooth-and-nail through everything. Though really, with all the punishment his body takes in just a few hours, it ended up seeming just as unrealistic to me as the alternative. Still, I enjoyed it for the novel feel.

The movie holds up pretty well considering it's 21 years old. There's very few instances of anything being too 80s besides John's wife's hair and it's focused on an intricate robbery/hostage situation instead of something that would seem quaint now. I don't know if it's just me, but it felt like the actions taken by the police and FBI are completely fucking ridiculous and would never happen in a world that's supposed to be gritty and real, but it doesn't hamper the main tension too much. John McTiernan was a pretty consistent director in the beginning of his career, and it's too bad he's tapered off so much since then. I'm not hyped to immediately jump into the sequels or anything, but Die Hard didn't disappoint after the long wait.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Six Feet Under - Season 2

I didn't love this season as much as the first one, because it felt more like it fell into the pit of melodramatic relationship issues which the first deftly avoided. It was still very well done, alternately heartbreaking and hilarious. The frequent ruminations on death are still intelligent and thought-provoking, and the dream sequences still perfectly capture what's going on in these characters' heads in an entertaining way. There's a lot of arguing and hugging and screwing and crying, and by this point I'm fully wrapped up in the lives of these people who don't exist.

Most shows try to keep a consistent timeline with real life, but the first two seasons here combine to cover a little over one year. It's a little confusing and actually leads to some inconsistencies with date of birth and age which along with a couple other oddities make me think the writers didn't pay as much attention as they should have, but it doesn't hurt the general quality of the show and it gives the feeling that we really know everything that's going on. I'm pretty sure future seasons jump forward in time more, but it's an interesting way to do it. I really love the whole cast, and with Claire going off to college and a pretty amazingly gripping cliffhanger in the finale, I'm hyped to jump right into the third season. Good show.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Star Wars: Tales from the Empire

I got this short story collection as a gift way back around when it came out over a decade ago, but never got around to reading it until now. I probably wouldn't have been able to fully grasp it when I was ten, but reading it now was a pretty good experience. Not only were most of the stories very entertaining, it actually reminded me why I like Star Wars in the first place. The disappointment of the prequels and utter banality of the recent animated film and series left me nearly ready to give up on the franchise, but Tales from the Empire proved how interesting the setting and universe can be when the stories aren't aimed directly at children, and I'm now pretty strongly considering reading some of the more popular novels.

I actually have a bit of experience with Star Wars in the written form already, having read part of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire a while ago, and his stories in this anthology are among the best. Michael A. Stackpole's known for the X-Wing series, in the proud tradition of basing books on video games, and he also has some good work here. There are a bunch of stories from less famous authors too, of a pretty high standard of quality. Given that these were all culled as a sort of greatest hits from a quarterly publication and only writers who are at least competent in the genre are allowed to write Star Wars stories, it's not much of a surprise. I can only recall one appearance by a character from the films in any of the tales, and even characters from other novels are generally secondary ones getting expanded upon, but in a way that actually helped prevent any of them from relying on recognition and forced the stories to stand on their own. As a way of just checking out the expanded universe of Star Wars fiction, it probably wasn't a bad choice.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Public Enemies

Pacing and technology issues prevent Public Enemies from being a really great film, but as a depression-era version of Heat it's quite enjoyable and will probably hold up pretty well. I haven't seen a ton of Michael Mann's movies, but I'm always impressed by the quality of the acting and plotting in addition to the unique realism of the gun fights that still manage to be really exciting. This movie has a huge cast and pretty big scope, as it covers not just John Dillinger's life but everything that was going on around him, from the law enforcement ramifications of all the bank robberies to the rise of organized crime. Johnny Depp is good as always, showing he's not just limited to wacky roles these days, and besides the somewhat lame accent Christian Bale plays an interesting and nuanced antagonist. Oscar winner Marion Cotillard brought more to her part than I expected of it, and really helped to humanize Dillinger as more than just a jovial dangerous criminal.

The one thing that kept me from totally liking the movie the most was the slow pace. At about two hours and twenty minutes it wasn't terribly overlong, and very few scenes ever dipped below the pretty high standard of quality Mann set, but I couldn't help feeling it was stretched a little too thin here and there, and the final act just went on for entirely too long before the inevitable conclusion finally occurred. The other issue was the use of digital camera for the vast majority of the shooting. When the camera's standing still, the picture it takes is pretty damn stunning. But if the camera is moving rapidly, which is pretty necessarily the case in a movie full of violent bank robberies, it can get distractingly blurry and inhibit the film. Because of the way it was shot and edited together so well, it doesn't hurt comprehension like it might in the hands of a lesser production team, but it does show that the cameras we have aren't quite up to the task of this sort of movie just yet. All issues considered, I had little problem with what was ever actually happening on screen at any given moment, and mostly liked the film quite a bit.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Six Feet Under - Season 1

It's hard to imagine how two shows so diametrically opposed in terms of subject matter and balance between actual writing quality and shock value entertainment such as Six Feet Under and True Blood could be created by the same guy. About the only thing they have in common is a fixation on death and gay rights, although Blood mostly uses the latter as a metaphor with vampires. I enjoy Blood, but Six Feet Under is a far superior series; extremely well-written and acted, combining a good drama about a family and their relationships with a great, dark sense of humor and a clever use of dreams and conversations with dead people to explore what the characters are thinking.

Each episode starts with someone dying. Sometimes it's humorous in a sick kind of way thanks to clever misdirection or a completely ludicrous set-up, and sometimes it's just sad. That body ends up in the Fisher brothers' funeral home, and things continue from there as they live their lives and maybe learn something from the victim. Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall from Dexter are great as the two leads, and the rest of the cast does a stellar job too. When this show was actually airing I didn't think I'd like it for whatever reason, maybe because I didn't think there was enough gun fights and car chases. But watching it now, it's just another example of how HBO in the first half of this decade was a golden age of good television. Really enjoyable, smart show.