Monday, August 31, 2009

A Fistful of Dollars

Dollars is the first film in Sergio Leone's famous spaghetti western trilogy, and also the shortest. It begins with a stylized, rotoscoped opening credits sequence, which the third film imitated. As with nearly every western I've seen now, the opening and closing scenes are pretty darn cool, but the stuff in the middle drags. Thankfully it doesn't last too long. The whole story is more or less a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, a samurai film which itself borrowed from the same stories by Dashiell Hammett that led to the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing. So it's the familiar tale of a loner playing two factions against each other to his own benefit, and even rips ideas from Yojimbo wholesale like the hardened killer being unsure of how many coffins the undertaker should make as a result of his introductory exploits.

As a beginning to Leone's work in the genre, it's a nice debut. The fact that he actually lost a lawsuit with Kurosawa that claimed it was a rip-off makes it hard to credit the originality, but it did a nice job of turning it into a natural feeling western. The man with no name character is an intriguing one, because he's not really on the law's side in any real sense, but he still has enough good in him to take it upon himself to rescue an innocent family at the cost of his own capture. He's a nice mix of clever, human, and plain old bad ass that he's fun to watch no matter what he's doing. Gian Maria Volontè is a pretty capable villain, angry but still intelligent, and returns in the next movie as a different character. For being a cheap Italian production, it's a watchable enough representation of something very American.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Liveblog 22: The Yankees Are Still Winning

Why? Because I am. Since the last time I did this, the Yankees have padded their lead over the Red Sox, thanks in part to taking six out of seven games against them. They now have a six game lead in the division, one that the probability machines seem to think is enough to nearly guarantee them the playoffs, and one the Yankees as a franchise have never blown. So yeah, I'm feeling pretty good about the team.

They lead the majors in runs scored, and have some of the best road pitching in the league. They don't throw it quite as well at the stadium, but then again no one does, and they've made up for it with great offense and a lot of clutch, late inning wins. They've already clinched a .500 record, and today they attempt to complete their vengeance of losing three out of four in Chicago by completing a three game sweep of the White Sox at the Stadium. Joba Chamberlain's starting today, and I hope to see a better performance out of him today. Because of his innings limit as a young pitcher they've been starting him erratically, which doesn't seem to have worked out so well. Starting now they're going to keep him on regular rest and just limit his innings in each game. Having the rotation set and primed for October is more important than winning a couple extra games, and with rosters expanding soon it shouldn't be a problem to keep Joba on a short leash.

Top 1 - Scott Podsednik leads off the game with a triple on a ground ball past Mark Teixeira at first. Gordon Beckham drives him in with a ground ball to short. Quick deficit for the Yanks. A.J. Pierzynski and Carlos Quentin both fly out. Quick inning for Joba.

Bottom 1 - Freddy Garcia returns to the team he won a World Series with after being traded the the Phillies. Derek Jeter leads off with a double off the fence in right field. Johnny Damon grounds one weakly up the first base line that moves Jeter to third. Mark has a chance to extend his lead for RBI in the AL here. He does so with a deep sacrifice fly to right, tie game. Alex Rodriguez singles up the middle to keep the inning going. He fakes a stolen base though and ends up getting picked off by Pierzynski for the third out.

Top 2 - Jim Thome pops out to Jorge Posada, back at catcher after missing a few games with a finger injury. Jermaine Dye takes a strike before flying out on a running play to Eric Hinske spelling Nick Swisher in right. Mark Kotsay flies out to Cabrera, and it seems like the Sox have plans for a late lunch as Joba's only thrown 15 pitches. Michael Kay's talking about Joba being scheduled for three innings, and I'm hoping it's just him being insane again because that's ridiculous.

Bottom 2 - Hedeki Matsui starts a fresh at bat with a swing and a miss. Two more quick strikes and he's down quickly. Posada works a long walk while fans can be heard chanting "Hip hip! Jorge!" in the background the entire time. Robinson Cano grounds into a double play to end the inning.

Top 3 - Alexei Ramirez is yet another batter to put the first pitch in play as he lines a single to center and then steals second. Jayson Nix works a questionable 3-1 count before singling to right, but Ramirez only makes it to third. Podsednik back up again, and he singles up the middle, scoring Ramirez. The ball gets away from Cano at second after it gets thrown back in, which causes Nix to get thrown out trying to reach third. Hey guys - stop pitching out to try to nab Podsednik. Just get Beckham out. Third pitchout of the AB and Podsednik steals second anyway, while Beckham has a free three ball count. Awesome. He watches a called strike to make the count full. Ground ball to first moves Scott to third. Joba's already doubled his pitch count in this game. Pierzynski mercifully strikes out on three pitches to finish the inning.

Bottom 3 - Alfredo Aceves is, in fact, warming up in the bullpen. WTF is this. Bugh. Hinske pops out to short. Melky Cabrera, who's had a rough month, strikes out. Jeter smacks a single to left. Damon homers to right field to take the lead 3-2. Teixeira hits a fly to the same area, but it's caught for the third out.

Top 4 - Aceves is in to pitch, and he gets Quentin and Thome to ground out. Dye sees a 3-0 count become 3-2 before striking out to end the frame.

Bottom 4 - A-Rod works a full count and takes a close pitch for ball four. Matsui grounds into a slightly odd fielder's choice that only wasn't a double play because of Nix's poor thinking. Posada works another long at bat as the chanting continues, but this time he strikes out. Cano also strikes out, inning over.

Top 5 - Aceves is still in and gets Kotsay to pop out to short. Ramirez lines a bullet over Jeter's head that he just manages to snag for the second out. Nix pops out to A-Rod as this alarmingly rapid game continues.

Bottom 5 - Hinske hits one off the end of the bat to left field which Quentin tracks down. Cabrera grounds out. He always seems to lose his mojo as it gets later in the season. Jeter grounds out on the eighth pitch of the at bat, and we're going to the sixth. Inning.

Top 6 - Aceves knocks down a ball hit right at him by Podsednik, but doesn't make the play to first in time. The trainer checks out his arm, but Alfredo stays in the game. Like a true warrior. Beckham grounds it to A-Rod who turns a quick double play. Pierzynski hits an infield single to Jeter, who doesn't have quite the oomph on the throw to make his patented running-turning-jumping play. Quentin fists a fly ball to Damon for the third out.

Bottom 6 - Damon grounds out to second. Teixeira strikes out. Rodriguez walks. Matsui does what Damon did. Am I done? It seems like I'm done. I guess I'm done.

Wrap-Up - After three Yankees combined to pitch the seventh, they blew it open a little with a five run bottom of the frame, including a three run homer by Teixeira. The two Phils pitched the eighth and the ninth, with Coke giving up a solo shot in the ninth before closing it down. Another day, another win, and the Yankees have clinched their fourteenth straight winning record.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Ugly is the third film in a trilogy by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as the "man with no name", and is the biggest budgeted, most epic, and most successful of the bunch. I hadn't seen the first two yet, but I figured it would be okay since it's a prequel set during the Civil War. Quentin Tarantino has called this the best-directed film of all time, and I can see why he might say that. I don't agree, but the movie does a whole hell of a lot right.

The thing about the film is the first fifty minutes and the last twenty are absolutely outstanding; it's just that the hundred minutes in the middle are merely decent. Leone takes the first half hour just to introduce the three leads. Eastwood is "The Good", a protagonist who we root for but never mistake for a particularly good person beyond a few instances of acting nobly. Lee Van Cleef is "The Bad", a hardened killer who's trying to track down a confederate soldier. The sequence that establishes his character is unfortunately the best thing we'll see out of him, but at least it's excellent. And Eli Wallach is "The Ugly", a bandit with constantly fluctuating luck who actually sees the most screen time and character development of the three. He might be the most interesting of the bunch. The first ten minutes or so don't even have dialogue, as Leone shows he can film the hell out of any shootout of showdown you can throw at him. Things eventually bog down once they start marching through the desert, and it's never bad, just the standard western problem of spending too much time not playing to its strengths. There are plenty of good sequences, like when the good and the ugly team up against a group of the bad's thugs, it just drags as a whole. They get to an elaborate scene where union and confederate forces are facing off over a bridge, and it's an impressively large-scale setpiece that I would have liked more if I gave a crap about it.

Eventually though they make it to their intended destination, and we have one of the greatest face-offs in film history. The whole final sequence is a perfect case of the score making the movie better. It might even be better than the direction. Just look at the iconic main theme, using a different instrument for each lead, and which while repeated constantly throughout the film is never once not welcome. "The Ecstasy of Gold" at a moment of great emotional relief is brilliant, and then what plays during the duel is some of the best tension-building music I've ever heard in a film. Clint is almost too badass to live in the last scene and the climax is really just about perfect for the movie. Really, the only thing that dragged the movie down besides the length was the dubbing. The movie was shot silently with a multilingual cast and every line had to be dubbed over. Most of the supporting cast were speaking Spanish or Italian and when you watch them talk it's just hard to take the movie completely seriously. The three leads all spoke English but were still often hit-or-miss with their delivery. I mean, how hard is it to figure out that you might sound different if there's a cigar or wine cork in your mouth? Three hours was too long for this story, but I enjoyed it quite a bit for the most part.

Friday, August 28, 2009


So I knew Escaflowne was another older anime that featured giant robots fighting each other, but I didn't know how much of a fantasy bent it had. It's actually a much larger part of the show, and even the robots themselves are rooted in that sensibility. It starts with a girl from Earth being transported to another world called Gaea where her home planet is visible in the sky along with the moon, and the lands are roamed by dragons, several warring nations, and some weird animal hybrids. The robots are powered by extracted glowing dragon hearts for some reason, and they spend a lot of time wrecking each other's shit. The bad guys also have these invisibility cloaks like Harry Potter and it's all kind of bad ass for a while. Especially when this one dude holds them off all by himself with just his sword, letting the heroes escape.

The series also does a lot to appeal to girls though, as a lot of time is spent with the female characters unable to decide which attractive male character they "really" like. It's a bit tedious, but it generally doesn't put the brakes too hard on the main plot. Which is a bit weird, actually - it starts out with the normal mix of fighting and political upheavals, but as it gets into the secret of Atlantis and how the world was formed and such it gets a little odd, and then they get into crap like rewriting the good luck gene into DNA and it spirals a bit out of control. It all ends up resolving well enough though, although there wasn't quite the action climax I expected, and the ending left me just sort of wondering, "Really, that's it?" Escaflowne started off strong, and didn't totally capitalize on its interesting and unique premise, but I mostly enjoyed it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Let me just take a moment to acknowledge David Peoples, a screenwriter who without me realizing it until now has written screenplays for three movies I've liked and blogged about in the last year and a half; this, 12 Monkeys, and Blade Runner. That's a pretty diverse and impressive list. Good on you, Peoples.

Anyway, Unforgiven is probably the best western I've ever seen. It's not the normal easy moral tale where some kindhearted gunslinger saves the township from evil bandits. There's no good guys or bad guys in this movie, just people on opposite sides of things. Clint Eastwood directed and stars as a former tough son of a bitch who got domesticated by his now-dead wife, but has to return to killing for the money. Morgan Freeman is his old partner who agrees to come along. Gene Hackman won an Oscar for his performance as the sheriff of the town the story revolves around, and he's equal parts dedicated lawman and vicious bastard. Richard Harris shows up as a dishonest gunman known as English Bob, and he's mostly there to give Hackman something to do while Eastwood and his posse take their good damn time getting to the plot. The movie seemed a bit slow in places, but I find that to be a common malady of the western genre, and the movie is well-written and well-put together enough to keep it from ever getting too dull.

Basically, some whores put together some money for a bounty on a couple cowboys outside Hackman's law, and Eastwood makes the long journey to try and collect. Obviously they end up at odds, and despite it not being the reason for the journey, the resolution of their conflict is the story's climax. It's an interesting, dark movie, one that shows the supposed violence of the time without ever once glorifying it. It's heavy without being heavy handed, and both manages to convey a message and simply deliver a clever, violent western if that's all you're looking for. I found it to be well deserving of its many awards, and got me interested in some other work by Eastwood.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Merlin - Season 1

Merlin is a bastardization of Arthurian legend that shows the supposed early years of Merlin and Arthur before he became king. There are lots of recognizable characters but they're all different from how they were cast in the stories; Lancelot appears as a commoner with knightly aspirations, Guinevere is a handmaiden, and so on. Casting a mythic wizard as a bumbling teenager is certainly a unique take, and you can understand them changing things to fit their new story - but why does it have to be about Merlin in the first place? Is the only way to get the BBC to fund your fantasy show making it about characters British people already recognize? I guess in the end I wouldn't care about the weird characterizations if the show was better.

The main reason I became interested in watching Merlin is that Anthony Head (who starred in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Giles, one of the show's best characters) plays Uther Pendragon, Arthur's magic hating dad and king of Camelot. Shortly thereafter it started airing on NBC, so I sat down to watch it - and was mostly disappointed. Merlin is a young man who has a gift of deep magical talent in a land where such works are cause for capital punishment, and early on he takes up residence with the court physician of Camelot (because the way to avoid persecution is to move closer to the people who will arrest you?) and becomes Arthur's servant, since a dragon tells him it's his destiny to protect him.

The first half of the season then follows a basic formula where some problem, generally magical in origin, affects the people or rule of Camelot, Merlin makes it worse with his own magic, and then someone bails his ass out at the last second. He does get better over time, but then a new problem appears; Merlin transitions rather quickly from clumsy would-be-hero to cold-blooded murderer. One episode, out of the blue, he decides to kill the antagonists outright with his magic, vaporizing them from behind. Just like that. Yeah, they were sacrificing Arthur to do something or other and it's his sworn duty to protect him, but that situation might have been resolvable without death, and he didn't even try. That's not the last time either, and the character rapidly becomes surprisingly wrathful for someone who so far has not been developed with that sort of disposition. It's just weird. Beyond these problems, the show is not entirely without its entertaining aspects, from the genuine friendship that develops between the two male leads to the whole subplot concerning the non-evil Morgana's own magical ability. Another season is coming, and I suppose I'll watch it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's last couple films, the Kill Bill series and Death Proof, were a bit different than his first few. They feel similar in a lot of ways, but they're ultimately genre films whereas his others were not, although they did pay homage to certain periods and styles. Based on advertisements, I thought Basterds might follow suit, as a sort of road/war movie featuring a band of hardened killers. And parts of the movie are exactly that. But only parts - the basterds are but one aspect of the two and a half hour film, one that I enjoyed immensely and just might have taken Pulp Fiction's place as my favorite by the eccentric director.

Tarantino has previously called Basterds a spaghetti western in WWII, and "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" was once a considered title for the movie, and ended up as the name for the first chapter. Yeah, he's back to the chapters thing, and the film is a story in five parts. The first two are twenty minute vignettes that could work as shorts on their own, and basically establish the major players. There's Hans Landa, AKA "The Jew Hunter", the primary antagonist and quite possibly Tarantino's best character ever. Christoph Waltz turns in a completely stunning performance that got him an award at Cannes and should earn him some nominations next Spring. Shosanna Dreyfus is a French Jew who escaped death and runs a cinema. Lt. Aldo Raine is played to great humorous effect by Brad Pitt and leads the basterds, a unit of American Jews, to disrupt the Nazi war effort inside France. After these introductions, the next three chapters introduce, develop, and resolve the main plot - a new propaganda film (directed in real life by Eli Roth, creator of the Hostel series and starring as the enjoyably menacing and slightly crazy basterd known as "The Bear Jew" by the Germans) is being premiered in Paris, and a plan is concocted to burn it to the ground while a bunch of important Nazis are still inside. As you might guess with a Tarantino movie, there are multiple forces at work and things don't go quite as planned at any point.

As is his trademark, the movie features lots of long, leisurely conversations. The entire first chapter is a single scene where we learn to absolutely fear Landa, and all he does is drink some milk, smoke from an absurd pipe, and talk to a French farmer. There's a moment where they switch from French to English in a slightly clunky way, and you might think it's just the film excusing having foreign characters speak what the audience can understand. But it's just a clever subversion, as there's a specific reason the switch is made and the rest of the movie sees the majority of its dialogue be spoken by French people speaking French, German people speaking German, or whatever is appropriate. There's some humor in the subtitles too, as occasionally an obvious word will remain in its original language, such as "merci" appearing instead of "thank you". I was a bit surprised at the amount of foreign dialogue, but I appreciated it. The movie sure as hell ain't historically accurate, but it does feel fairly authentic, and the use of language goes a long way. Whereas Tarantino used dialogue in other films to mostly entertain the viewer and establish character, here it's all about building tension. A quite lengthy sequence in a German bar might have been interminable in less able hands, but I loved every minute as it slowly goes from funny, to uncomfortable, to downright dangerous. You can tell where it's going, but every step there can be excruciating.

I've seen a couple people praise the acting but dismiss Tarantino's direction, which seems foolish to me. You're not going to get a lot of good performances out of actors if you don't know how to direct them, unless they're seasoned thespians or something. When it's this universally good throughout the movie, maybe the guy behind it all deserves some credit. I mean, look at Diane Kruger. She's been in her share of movies, both in Hollywood and Germany, and she's never impressed anyone to my knowledge with anything but her looks. And here she is in Basterds, perfectly capturing the 40's movie star persona in one scene and completely desperate and disheveled in the next. She was seriously great, and she's just one of many, many actors you can say that about. The movie is shot pretty beautifully and traditionally by Tarantino, although it also has several touches of flair like the brief cutaway sequences narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and anachronistic music because while it doesn't make sense, damn it, this is his movie and he'll do what he wants. The soundtrack is mostly (entirely?) made up of songs taken from other movies, primarily those westerns, and it works pretty damn beautifully with the mood he creates. One scene in particular with Melanie Laurent, who's alternately charmingly sympathetic and frighteningly vengeful as Shosanna, as she prepares for something while a David Bowie song plays in the background is a great encapsulation of this. The brief gun fights are fairly normal if enjoyably chaotic and rapid, but it does tend to linger on some other violent moments, usually to brutal, darkly humorous effect. The climax is wonderfully explosive and hellish. The final scene, with Pitt in the same form he's been in the whole time and BJ Novak (most recognizable from The Office) as his calm companion, is a perfect ending to a film I seriously loved and can't wait to see again.

Monday, August 24, 2009


So like, .hack is this multimedia project, right? That means its one big story or group of stories that's designed to be told through a bunch of different methods, in this case books, television, comics, and video games. Sign was the first anime in the franchise, and it's also not very good. Basically the idea behind it all is there's this MMO called "The World" (or "Za Worldo" if you're Japanese and can't really speak English), and these games and shows all take place mostly inside it. That's right, there are single-player RPGs where you pretend you're playing an MMORPG. In Sign specifically, there's one player called Tsukasa who can't log out for some reason, and the mystery behind that plus the search for the "Key of the Twilight" make up most of the story.

And it really isn't very interesting. Most episodes consist nearly entirely of these people playing a video game, and just standing around talking about what's going on. Like... just talking. About the same stuff over and over. Interminably. There are about eight main characters, and in any given episode you can expect most or all of them to make an appearance and talk about stuff. Occasionally they will engage in some brief, inept action scenes where they swing a sword around against some monster or each other, before shortly returning to the talking. It's not poorly done or terribly animated, and there are occasional glimpses of the real world which are genuinely intriguing, and the actual plot behind it all isn't that bad. The normal course of events though is just so boring that it's hard to really like the series. After the conclusion which does a decent job of wrapping crap up, there are a couple special episodes, one with some back story for a certain supporting character and another that has them celebrating their victory with a bunch of random other characters, most of whom have the same design as someone else with a color swap (which makes sense given the setting, but come on). It's an odd finale the a series that's hard to hate but harder to really like.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Obscure: The Aftermath

So my friend likes horror games, and now instead of waiting for new ones he likes to dig through the bargain bins and buy any he can find. He got this one, and after playing through the first part alone he decided to get me and another friend to play it with him. Because while the game is awful, its one feature that makes it tolerable is the ability to go through it in co-op mode, the crutch of any developer who knows people will wade through crap if they can do it with a buddy. And the co-op is kind of fun, honestly. Mostly because you can beat your partner senseless with bats and hockey sticks with no repercussions. We spent so much time doing this that we figured out a retaliatory hit immediately after getting struck will always result in knocking the original aggressor to the ground, and probably added a decent half an hour to our total play time at least.

Anyway, the game's main failing as a horror game is that it's not scary at all. There's darkness (the game has no brightness control and forces you to adjust the television if you actually want to see shit, ever), and an evil plot, and monsters, and implied rape by mutated freaks, but none of it comes close to ever being frightening or even a little spooky. It really doesn't help that the dialogue is so bad that the only explanation we could come up with is it was written by aliens trying to approximate human speech without really understanding it (the developer turns out to be French, so maybe we weren't far off). The voice acting is awful too, helping make a game trying to be scary into something mostly just hilarious. The graphics are pretty pedestrian too, never enhancing the attempts at frightening the players.

So anyway, there are a bunch of playable characters and each has a unique skill (besides two males sharing one) that you will occasionally need to advance, from hacking electronic locks to picking regular ones to super monkey jumping/climbing ability. They tend to die off over time, and sometimes you're forced to use a specific pair, but you'll often have a choice of who to play as and it's trial and error to figure out what skill you need as you solve simple puzzles and fight off the various annoying enemies. There are of course boss fights along the way that all seem to follow the familiar pattern of fending them off until you stun them long enough to activate whatever environmental effect that actually damages them. It's all pretty rote and uninspired, which along with the laughable presentation makes for a passable experience if you're goofing around with friends but not much of one that's worth taking seriously. There is some merit in being so bad it's good, but the game is simply just regular bad often enough that it's hard to recommend. If you find it on the scrap heap you might enjoy it, but 60% of that will be bashing your partner over the head with chairs, which you can easily do in real life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

District 9

You may or may not know the back story; Neill Blomkamp grew up in South Africa before getting into film animation, and then started directing shorts, including one called about aliens in his home city called Alive in Joburg. This caught the eye of people who wanted to make a movie based on the Halo video game series, and he finished a short test film, however funding fell through and the project died. Producer Peter Jackson gave Blomkamp the opportunity to make his own film, and he decided to expand the Joburg idea into a feature. And with a budget of only about thirty million, he put together one of the most interesting science fiction movies in a while.

It seems like a lot of people didn't know what to expect with this movie. Some expected more action, some expected more focus on the political aspects of the plot. The movie follows a mild mannered bureaucrat named Wikus who's assigned to oversee the eviction of over a million aliens who landed in Johannesburg twenty years earlier and have been staying in a large slum called District 9. They don't get along well with humans, as the government keeps them from integrating and steals their technology while Nigerian gangsters sell them cat food and animal heads at absurd prices. I know all I'm really doing now is describing the movie, but it's a fun thing to talk about. The story has an obvious parallel to apartheid, though some see it as more of an immigration thing. I think there are elements of both, though with the setting and the basis for the plot, I think apartheid is the strongest connection.

The weakest thing about the movie is probably the premise. I think Blomkamp did a good job of justifying it and executing the idea, as the constant cuts to news feeds and interviews with people who talk in the past tense are an interesting hook, and really push the idea of this being a take on real issues. But the actual specifics with the concept I'm just not sure about. Is this really what would happen if a ton of aliens showed up on our doorstep, out of fuel and dying? We just throw them in a slum and steal all their technology? I really don't know how we could possibly handle it, it just sounds more like a movie plot than a realistic "what if?" scenario. When you see how easily an unarmed "prawn" can take down an unprepared human, you wonder why their hasn't been a revolt or war yet, and the outright evilness of the government's actions is a little tiring. Also, the science of the main plot with Wikus is a bit silly, but hey, whatever.

The long first act introducing all this is at times poignant and others quite funny, but what its doing is just setting up for what I really liked about the movie; the violent part. Stuff happens that causes Wikus to have to go on the run, and he ends up helping a prawn and his son who are trying to get off the planet. This kicks off a sequence of action set pieces where crazy alien weapons are discharged, lots of people die in horribly gruesome yet awesome ways, and some stuff blows up nice and good. It's a multi-pronged conflict, as everybody wants to get their hands on Wikus while he just wants to get back to his wife. I ended up really liking his character. The actor's performance is a bit shaky when he gets dramatic, but he's realistic in his foolishness at first and desperation later, a believable person likable in his selfish idiocy. Definitely not the hero you'd expect in a summer blockbuster. It's all supported by some very nice visual effects. The prawns aren't the most impressive thing ever but they integrate better with the scene than a lot of CGI creations, and the movie has possibly the best depiction of a mech I've seen in a live action production. The movie turns out to end somewhat ambiguously, allowing for a sequel without necessitating one. The movie isn't without its flaws, but I really liked it for the duration.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Last Exile

This is the best anime series I've seen in a little while. It started out extremely strong, and dipped a little bit after that for a while, but overall left a strong, nice impression. What's immediately eye-catching is the unique setting, in a world where the different nations are still under hereditary rule and military conflicts take place between giant airships that assault each other with bombardments of rockets and lines of riflemen on deck. Instead of normal jets or biplanes or whatever, fighter pilots and couriers fly in vehicles called vanships which look like they'd never get airborne in a million years, but have a lot of personality. There's also this crazy unknown technology called Exile which requires a small girl to activate, just so you know it's an anime.

What I liked most about the show was the charm and sense of wonder in the beginning, as the main characters Claus and Lavie take on simple delivery jobs and fly in races to scrape a living together, but things change once they land on a certain ship that has a certain connection to their past and stuff starts happening. Anime like this is so serialized that episodes are basically chapters in a novel. Most American shows with running plots still usually focus on one specific idea or story per episode, and Last Exile sort of does that too, it just feels like they took a long movie and broke it into 22 minute chunks. It gets bogged down in the central conflict for a while, but by the end the original feeling returns as it concludes very nicely before the feel-good coda. Like a lot of foreign television it only lasts for a short while, but it's fun for the duration.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Yakuza 2

Yakuza 2 is as direct a sequel you can make to a video game. There are a few alterations and additions, but you spend over half the game in the same area you spent the first, the combat system is roughly the same, the graphics are mildly improved at best, and the story spends a lot of time dealing with the consequences of the first game. It still shares a lot of the same flaws as before, like a failure to gracefully increase the difficulty as it goes on and several small, odd hiccups in the presentation. If I was a jackass, I might call it Yakuza 1.5.

Not that any of this makes it a bad game. Just like the first I liked it enough to mostly forgive its idiosyncrasies, and would rate it as pretty good, if not great. Despite the previously mentioned reliance on the first game for a lot of the plot hooks, I actually preferred this story to the first, as it feels more like an epic crime drama and some of the character relationships feel a bit stronger. The first game was mostly a revenge story, and that's here too, but things are more complicated as they involve several warring factions and a specific deadly incident a quarter century earlier in the timeline. By the end the constant twists on who's REALLY behind everything start to feel half baked and the last scene before the credits would have been a terrible way to go out, but the scene afterward wrapped it all up enough for me to come away satisfied. Instead of rerecording the dialogue in English this time they saved on the localization by subtitling it, which I mostly preferred even if it hurt the sales. Unlike in film, I tend not to mind when a video game from overseas is dubbed in my own language, but in this case the entire project is just so inherently Japanese that I appreciate the authenticity.

As with last time, the game is a mix of beat-em-up combat with an RPG's leveling, money and item system, and plethora of side activities. You move through the story chapter by chapter, in this case in sections of both Tokyo and Osaka, beating up random thugs who accost you on the street until you can beat up other thugs to advance the plot. Although I didn't spend a lot of time on this one intentionally seeking out other missions, they're still there, as you can do anything from playing traditional board games for money to helping random passersby to trying to win over the hostesses at various clubs. You can even become a host yourself, although I ended up ignoring that when the game threw it at me because I just wanted to finish. The combat gets annoying quickly when they try to make it difficult, because it always seems like they're breaking the established rules to do so and the controls just aren't good enough to compensate for some of the crap they throw at you. I never got into an unwinnable situation, and thankfully the game gives you the option to temporarily turn down the difficulty if you're getting your ass kicked, though I didn't have to do that until the very end when I just ran out of health items. Despite occasional frustration with certain enemy types, it's generally fun to just beat the crap out of people in this game, and there's enough opportunity to learn new techniques that it doesn't get boring over the 15 hours it takes to beat. There have already been two more games in the series released in Japan, both for the PS3, and there's a strong amount of doubt on whether they'll ever make it over here. I hope they do, because while the first two games weren't exceptional, I did have fun with them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth

This is one of the more interesting things I've seen a running series do. When Torchwood moved from BBC2 to the regular BBC, they only got an order for a five episode miniseries instead of a full season. So they turned it into a five day event, and it became the most interesting thing the show has done. Instead of several disconnected stories, they tell one with a lot of attention to detail. You'd think stretching a plot over five hours instead of fifty minutes might result in some boredom, but the events are heavy enough that I was attached to my seat the entire time, unlike my previous experience with the show.

The pace is generally slow, but the drip-feed of information and curiosities is enough to keep you interested before things really ratchet up. It's a couple episodes before the real villains actually show up but their presence is felt through the creepy manipulation of all the world's children. It sets the mood for what's to follow, where politicians have to face a terrible decision, and it gets treated with the proper weight that you generally don't see in fantastical stories like this. The normal activities of the Torchwood Institute are sort of placed on the back burner as the focus is more on their survival and personal relationships, and they spend a lot of time just trying to not die. The resolution was pretty rapid compared to the amount of buildup and drama before it, but it was a nice capper to a genuinely intriguing tale. I'm really not sure what's going to happen in season 4 with the current state of the cast, but it will probably be worth at least checking out.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Mighty Boosh - Seasons 1-3

The Mighty Boosh is not just a TV show. It's a comedy act, a radio show, and even a live tour. But I'm talking about the TV show. The Boosh has been a staple of wacky British comedy for a few years, and they recently aired the series on Adult Swim. They actually started with the third season, which is a bit odd, and then followed with the first two in order. They change the setting up with each new run, but the core is the same. It's a show about two unlikely friends, an off-putting jazz fanatic named Howard and a preening fashion freak named Vince. They try to make it as a successful musical act while they accidentally stumble into fantastical adventures and meet crazy characters.

The show is really interesting structurally because most episodes have the scope of plot of a fantasy or action movie yet they're crammed into the half hour time frame of a typical comedy. There's lots of musical interludes (including the duo's own unique style called crimping) and bizarre villains or mentors, often played by the main characters in heavy costume. The two main characters are a lot of fun. Howard starts the series quite cocky and sure of himself for no good reason, and by the end of the third season some of that confidence is still there but you can see how a lot of it has been beaten out of him due to his misfortune over time. Vince is a lot of fun, always outdoing Howard in everything but still sticking around like a good friend. There's also several entertaining guest actors recognizable from other British comedies like Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. The first season features the protagonists as zookeepers, the second has them camping and staying at an apartment with their friends Naboo (played by Vince's real life brother) and Bollo the gorilla, and in the third they're working in Naboo's shop. The fifth regular actor's most frequent character is their supervisor at the zoo, but he usually shows up in every episode as some other weird dude. A fourth season is possible next year or further in the future, and I enjoyed Howard and Vince's escapades enough to keep watching if it happens.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Five years after Braveheart, it was time for another vaguely historical violent epic to come in and win Best Picture. A comparison between the two is pretty valid, although the feel is somewhat different as Braveheart is more of a complete war film while Gladiator obviously is a bit smaller, with a focus on political backstabbing in the halls of Rome and literal backstabbing in the Colosseum. It's not the most substantial or my favorite of the movies of 2000, but the lead performances by Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix are quite good and the film is visually amazing. Director Ridley Scott rarely truly impresses me with his vision but if you give him a workable script he can shoot the hell out of it.

I actually saw the theatrical cut, not the extended one as pictured above. Don't ask me why I used that image. I just realized Scott's last three films have all also starred Crowe. Huh. Anyway, I quite enjoyed watching this movie. It didn't start how I expected, with a lengthy battle and series of discussions before Crowe's Maximus ever steps foot in the arena, and even longer before he actually gets to Rome. Still though, it's solidly entertaining and gorgeous to look at throughout. The fight scenes are far more brutal and generally awesome than I expected and Maximus is pretty bad ass throughout even while he's mourning and all that sensitive shit. I mean, dude kills tigers. It's great.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Doctor Who - Season 4

David Tennant's final regular season as the Doctor is a suitably epic one, and especially with the scope of the finale it seems sort of anti-climactic that they're stretching out his last days with a whole year of specials. They bring back practically every significant character from the reboot and the spin-offs, and it's a pretty awesome set up even if the bad guys are kind of tired. I also thought they telegraphed the final conflict better than they have before. Hiding clues in previous episodes is fine, but this felt the most like a true serial.

I'm a bit ahead of myself, though. This season brings the return of the Companion from the Christmas special after the second season. I'm pretty ambivalent on her, because she has some nice points but it's not hard at all for her to turn into an annoyance. Still, she did a decent job as the most important Companion of the series that I've seen, even if the Doctor seemingly couldn't go an hour without mentioning Rose. There was actually some pretty good multi-parters this season, from the Sontarans who I found to be the show's most interesting war-mongering alien race to a really good and fairly creepy story in a gigantic library. Russell T. Davies has done a lot for the series, but I'm excited to see Steven Moffat take over next season, as each season he's written one or two episodes that have been among the best that year, if not the best. I still don't think Doctor Who is that amazing of a series, but it's certainly quite a bit of fun.

Monday, August 10, 2009

12 Monkeys

Another time travel movie. I've never seen any of Terry Gilliam's non-Monty Python work before, but it's really not too different in feel. The plot is an interesting, violent science fiction story, but there's a fair amount of silliness in certain scenes. There's something odd about the way he films things. I don't know if it's a lens or what, but just like his short before Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, it feels flat and contained or something, not exactly low budget, just a little antiquated in the apparent scope of the image. It doesn't make the film worse, it just seems unusual. The performances are odd, too. Bruce Willis is totally not his in his standard mode for serious movies, and Brad Pitt's character is completely nuts. A couple of his quirks seemed forced to me, but otherwise it was an extremely entertaining job.

Basically Willis lives in a post-apocalyptic Earth ravaged by a deadly virus, and he's sent back in time to gather information about what happened. I like how the plan isn't to change the past, just to help make the future better. Of course, things in time can become distorted and everything's not quite what they assumed, as the plot gets more and more convoluted. What I found interesting was how the main characters became more mentally disturbed and confused as they went on. In movies like this the characters always take things more in stride than we might realistically expect, but here they begin to seriously question whether they're imagining everything or not. It all leads to the inevitable circular ending. Really enjoyable film.

Friday, August 7, 2009


Primer is an extremely low budget independent movie filmed by a skeleton crew and starring the director's friends and family. It is also one of the most intriguing looks at time travel I've ever seen on film. It's pretty much impossible to really understand the full extent of what's going on in just one viewing, and it was years before anyone actually found a complete solution that the filmmakers confirmed. The beauty of the film is that the important parts of the story are comprehensible without full knowledge of the time travel intricacies, which are mostly there just for the enjoyment of repeat viewers.

I thought I knew what was going on until the last 20 minutes (the movie only lasts about 75), at which point the complexity of the machinations ballooned and I lost the thread. It wasn't until reading about the movie later that I found out I never really had the thread to begin with. And now that I've seen so much more of the full scope but still don't really understand how it fits together, I have an inkling to watch the movie again today. Do you know how often that happens? I mean, how often does that happen to you? I think there's plenty of enjoyment to be taken from movies like Back to the Future that play fast and loose with the laws of time to create an exciting adventure, but I've never seen something like Primer, that takes the theoretical science behind it and really makes something deceptively simple but truly intricate and nearly endlessly rewatchable. Any fan of serious science fiction should see it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Torchwood - Season 2

Torchwood. We watch over a rift in time and space through the middle of Cardiff. We capture and study alien technologies. We also like having sex with people.

The second season of this wacky ass show doesn't do a lot that the first didn't. There's still people who have been sent through time and Weevils (Aliens who have come through the rift and live in the sewers) and not a whole lot of variety or ambition in the stories. It's kind of odd, because they have more freedom with adult content than parent series Doctor Who, but practically none of the freedom with actual story ideas. There are some interesting guests though, with a stint by Freema Agyeman reprising the Martha Jones role and James Marsters of Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame playing a fellow time agent every bit as pansexual and insane as Jack was before he spent a century and a half stuck on Earth. There's a somewhat interesting plot involving a cast member living in a state of death, although I'm not sure they really took it to its rightful conclusion. I thought the finale was weak, mostly because the villain was such a whiny turd who earned almost none of his constant hate for everything. The ending is surprisingly far-reaching in its effects on the show though, resulting in a seemingly very different third season. It's really not that good, but it's not a waste of time either.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures: The Bogey Man

The final chapter of Wallace and Gromit's newest adventures wraps up the series nicely, whether this was a one time thing or something they plan to do again. It was the most enjoyable of the games to me since the first, as the puzzle premises were as interesting as they've ever been. After the opening conundrum which I thought was actually the least intuitive of the episode, the meat of the story is Wallace as a detective, hunting down clues and solving riddles to save the local country club from being closed down. Getting the hints is the easy part, the fun is really figuring out what they mean and how to follow their directions. This is classic adventure gaming stuff, right here. I also just loved being in the setting of the club, it has all the friendly homeliness you love to see from this clay-animated little world. After the inventive next leg of the journey, the final portion is another success, making a standard sliding tile puzzle tolerable with inventive circumstances and has a climax that's just as frantic and exciting as you can do in the genre, although I could have done without all the sound clips of people screaming. The ending wraps up all the lingering subplots of the series, bringing the game to a satisfying conclusion. The whole thing was really a lot of fun.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

The Chronicles of Narnia is sort of the more child friendly, overbearingly Christian cousin of The Lord of the Rings, and after the success of the latter as a film franchise, there's little surprise that someone would follow suit with the former. The first movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was pretty decent to my memory. It's less of a war movie in places and more of a kid's fairy tale, but it had some interesting ideas.

I liked Prince Caspian more though, as it seems more focused on telling a complete story and is just more confident with everything. There's no Mr. Tumnus prancing around or Turkish Delight being eaten, just the story of a war for the future of the land. The action scenes are actually pretty darn good for a PG movie, from a clandestine assault on a castle by moonlight to a deadly show of single combat on the field of battle. They make a point of showing how hundreds of years have passed since the last time the kids appeared in Narnia, with most of the mystical creatures sequestered into the forest and the rest reverted into wild animals. A human empire has taken over the land, and the battle between them and the natives is a nice contrast with the first movie which had their loyalties divided between a magical lady and a magical Jesus cat.

Um... yeah. Movies. A lot of the humor is kind of obvious and cheesy, but there are a couple chuckles to be had. Eddie Izzard plays a talking mouse, and his lines all kind of suck but it's still cool because he's Eddie Izzard. The kids are uniformly less annoying than the first movie, which is good. If there's one thing sequels have over initial installments it's not having to waste time establishing familiarity with setting and characters and all that. The uh... the special effects are pretty good. The battles are nice but the ending was fairly Deus Ex Machina. I'm willing to watch more of these movies, especially since the next one has such a bad ass title. Go look it up. Seriously, bad ass.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Doctor Who - Season 3

This was my favorite season so far of the revived series. Martha Jones isn't too different a character from Rose besides being a little smarter and hotter, but that's enough to make her more likable to me. I mean, I understand Billie Piper is famous in Britain for things besides Who, but does she need to be brought up in every episode even though she's gone? She kind of looks like a monkey. Meanwhile, Freema Agyeman has one of the best asses to ever fill a pair of jeans. Anyway, it's pretty much the same show, the standard of the stories just seems a bit higher. From the Christmas special featuring an angry yet strangely tolerable bride to be and ancient giant arachnids to the finale that just might be the most epic yet, I enjoyed it nearly fairly a lot.

I have a theory why the show doesn't totally work for me. There's nothing wrong with the show in concept. I mean, a clever, somewhat nerdy guy accompanied by a hot girl travel all through time and space touching on every science fiction staple imaginable from alien invasions to dying space stations to alternate history to mad scientists and everything in between. There's just something wrong with the execution, and it feels like the pacing. The conflict of the show seems to be introduced too quickly, and they spend too much time fighting against whatever the villain is and it gets a bit boring before it finishes. There's no sense of rising action, climax, and falling action like a normal story, it's just the same baseline of excitement the entire time until the last five minutes when things finally resolve. If it spent a bit more time establishing things and just having the characters interact I'd probably like it more. Not that what it is is bad, it just isn't quite right. An example of an episode that I thought was perfectly paced is "Blink", which is one of the best quirky time travel stories I've ever seen or read. Doctor Who doesn't have to be perfect though, it's enjoyable enough to keep watching.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Yet another film I've seen a lot of before. For what it attempts to do, Ronin is pretty much a perfect action movie. Screw the gigantic CGI-fests of this decade, I'd rather watch this or a Bourne movie any day of the week. The plot is intelligent, the cast is strong, tension rises effectively before violent things start to go down, and the action itself is as exciting as anything. The shootouts aren't terribly elaborate, and despite Robert De Niro's endless talents as an actor he can't help but close his eyes with every shot he fires. But those gun fights are just a warm up for the real thrill of the movie - its car chases.

There are only two real chases in the film, but they're both excellent. Director John Frankenheimer had done them in the past, but I would bet this is the culmination of his talents in that area, if not any others. It's hard to say what makes a chase a success. There's some combination of speed, quick turns, danger, and the right editing that can make all the difference between a truly exciting scene and something that falls flat. Whatever the formula for a good chase, I could watch scenes that make the grade until the end of time. Not continually, though. I mean, a guy's gotta do stuff besides watch movies.

The rest of the movie besides just the chases is good, too. Everyone from the Irish gangsters behind the job to Sean Bean as the bumbling criminal who gets kicked out before he has a chance to really do anything manages to bring something to the table. De Niro and Jean Reno are the key protagonists through the whole thing, and they have a nice international friendship as they battle through betrayals from every direction and fight to get the case that everyone wants. Everything from the planning phase in the beginning through to the relatively downplayed but still interesting finale just works well. Good movie.