Monday, November 30, 2009

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek's first film incarnation is a bit interesting. Conceptually that is, not so much to watch. Being released ten years after the series ended, the whole main cast returns, though they've all aged visibly in the meantime. So their characters aged as well, showing Kirk as an admiral now, retaking command of an updated Enterprise on a dangerous mission. It's well over half an hour before the crew is back together, and I think about fifty minutes in when he finally reunites with Spock. Needless to say, the movie's pace is slow. There's really not that much going on as far as a conflict - an alien threat exists, but it doesn't put the main cast in a whole lot of apparent danger. I'll admit I didn't pay as much attention as I could have, but I didn't see a whole lot of the movie really striving for me to do so. It's interesting to see what was big in special effects at the end of the 70s, but that's really about it. The subplot involving the displaced captain and some bald woman proved to be fairly important, but still, it was struggling at the edge of doing something compelling. It's hard to really dislike anything about the series, but this movie bored me for most of its duration.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Walking Dead, Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars

The third volume continues the story in very much the same manner, as Rick and his band of weary survivors keep up the struggle to live in a world overrun by zombies. The cast continues to grow and shrink at the same time, with some getting killed as fast as others are discovered. This one takes place mostly in a nearly abandoned prison, which at first seems to be a safe haven but turns out to be more dangerous than they thought, and not only because of the undead. It continues to be an interesting, depressing story, not one that I'm in love with but one that I can't stop pursuing. It's kind of hard to write these, because without getting into story specifics there isn't that much different from book to book - zombies are everywhere, couples come together and fall apart, and people die. The winter is thawing, and the fact that the world is clearly continuing despite the relentless danger of living in the land of the dead is one of the comic's most successfully unsettling aspects. There's just no end to it. AMC is going to film a pilot for a series based on it, which I'm sort of ambivalent towards. A legitimate, long term series based on a zombie apocalypse is pretty cool, but I'm not sure if they can do it justice on that channel. It will be neat to see them try, though.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Feast for Crows

I'm not sure if splitting up this book and the next one by region instead of time was the right decision... but it's hard to say that the latter would actually be better. Getting interrupted in the middle of a story's flow is a drag, especially when the sequel goes from being hopefully released a year later to still not out after three more. But a lot of what happens in Crows just seems like filler. Really good filler - with the same quality of writing, a lot of great expansion on the story's incredibly deep world and cast of hundreds, and yeah, a few of those insane moments. But the driving force for a lot of the series' plot is being handled by the people who happen to be elsewhere, and it's hard not to miss what they brought to the books.

There are a few new areas of interest in Crows, mostly covered by several new POV characters who only get one or two chapters. They're interesting to read for the most part, giving a peek at how varied the cultures can be just within the borders of the setting's primary continent. But I had some trouble figuring out whether those chapters would actually be there if the two books were never split up. Significant things do occur, but not a whole lot of pages are dedicated to them and they're the sorts of events that the series usually manages to fill you in on anyway through messages and hearsay. The two most significant new POV characters are characters that have already been seen extensively previously, though they do a good job of shifting the focus a little bit to see what their sides of the story are.

Most of the returning narrators don't have a whole lot to do, really adding to the feeling of this book being a bit of a black sheep. I wouldn't go so far as to call it boring, it just seems like it's biding its time while something bigger prepares to happen in the last few volumes. Now that I have to wait with everyone else for A Dance of Dragons to come out I'm a little disappointed, especially since Crows ended well enough that waiting until two books from now to see what happens kind of blows. Hopefully the wait won't be much longer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 7

Curb Your Enthusiasm's sixth season had some good moments, many of them provided by Larry David's housemate Leon, but I was a bit disappointed by it. Two years later, Larry has finally redeemed the show. It's a return to form as Larry bumbles his way through socially awkward situations and one of the show's best long term stories. The premise this time is a reunion episode of Seinfeld, which Larry initially rejects but changes his mind about after scheming to get back with his ex-wife by writing her into the show. Before that can get off the ground though, he has to figure out how to break up with his current girlfriend who may or may not have cancer. Not exactly the best thing a person can do, but at least he's less despicable about things in general this time. He still gets himself into pretty bad spots, especially when he starts seeing a woman in a wheelchair, it's just things worked better this time.

There's plenty of good material in the first half, with a few moments among the series' best, and it only gets better once rehearsing and filming for the reunion gets underway. The whole main cast is back, along with some supporting characters like Newman and George's mother, and there are even a few finished scenes from what such a reunion could look like, which are pretty enjoyable. The real reunion though is just the one in the show, with the actors playing themselves and inadvertently foiling all of Larry's plans. The season ends the way it should have, with a nice moment and a payoff for one of the season's better gags of the sort that always come to fruition unexpectedly, and the finale could either serve to end the show or set the table for yet another season, whichever Larry decides to do. I'd be fine either way, great comedy is always nice but he's already given us more than anyone could possibly ask for.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Titan Maximum - Season 1

Sharing a lot of writers and voice actors with Robot Chicken, Maximum is those guys' attempt at a show with actual characters and continuity. It pokes fun at various old cartoons and anime, specifically things like Voltron where a team of soldiers pilots vehicles that can combine into a giant robot. Like Chicken, it's pretty easy to watch and often funny, though less intelligent seeming than a lot of other stuff on Adult Swim, which is hard considering its reputation as a channel for stoners. The team's boss is actually called Admiral Bitchface, haha! The leader likes punching things in the face, and the slutty girl likes kicking them in the groin! There's a goddamn monkey! Seth Green plays the series' main villain, who's mostly just a smarmy ass, and the rest of the cast is filled out by some other minor celebrities. I like that there's actually a plot, and it does a good job of parodying its own genre. I'm sure they're gonna keep it going, and the season ends with a cliffhanger that suggests as much. I really don't care about what happens, but it's a good enough way to waste 11 minutes at a time.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2

This is an unusual prospect for Valve - a full sequel, actually featuring more content than its predecessor did at release, being put out only a year later. Given that the Half-Life 2 episodes were supposed to be a quick way to continue the story yet we're still waiting for so much as a teaser trailer for the third one five years later, it definitely seems kind of weird. Still, the game is here, and improves on the first in a lot of ways. I wouldn't say it's better, because a lot of it comes down to personal preference. The new campaigns and characters are interesting, and the expansion of abilities to go along with the myriad new ways the ravenous zombie hordes and AI Director can screw you over are nice. It's the sort of sequel that sort of makes playing the original obsolete, though you can still make an argument for the things that make either unique creating a stronger experience.

The new survivors are a likable group, although maybe less even than the original group. Those guys all had some good lines and didn't stand out too much individually, whereas in the new game Ellis and Coach are clearly the "funny ones". Nick has an occasional good zinger but is generally just kind of a jerk, while Rochelle is hardly noticeable. There's an increased sense of story as more things like how they all meet and what connects each of the campaigns together are made obvious through dialogue, to go along with the background details that filled in so many gaps the first time. For some reason though it seemed like the grafitti was more functional instead of entertaining this time, painting a picture of the infection spreading rather than making you laugh. Speaking of the campaigns, they felt pretty good the first time or two through. They didn't have as much time to be refined as the first game's, but they still have a high standard of quality in terms of variability, memorable set pieces, and setting themselves apart.

The new special infected feel a bit less iconic and even a little like rehashes, filling similar gaps to the returning ones, although they are all designed to help split the players up more, which is the key the game uses to up the challenge for experienced players. New scenarios that force you to run somewhere to escape a never-ending onslaught of enemies do this too, and really shake up the feeling of going through. Besides the special enemies, there's a new kind of foe called uncommon infected that act more or less like the standard kind but look unique and have special properties based on which campaign you're playing that help give each one more of a unique feel. You just generally feel less safe, and the game honestly seems to be trying a bit harder to spook you once in a while. An unexpected charger appearance can be startling, especially the first couple times, and special events like the increasing thunderstorm in one area were a bit unsettling. There's tons of new ways to fight against the zombies too, with a bunch of new weapons including a whole class of melee tools that can replace sidearms and are a hell of a lot of fun to bash faces in with, new options for each equipment slot, and a bunch of little things like the pipe bomb now causing its victims to go flying through the air gloriously.

I haven't had enough time to really tell if this game will stand up to months of replaying like the first did, but I see no reason why it shouldn't. The co-op has more opportunities to change from game to game, versus is still a bunch of fun (though the new infected might take even experienced players a bit of getting used to again), and the new scavenger mode is a blast too. Obviously, the game doesn't match the original's impact after having played it off and on for a year. The new southern setting has a lot of personality (I love the way that comes across in the music especially), but personally I prefer the original game's cast and think its areas were maybe designed a bit better. Still, there's plenty of game here to dive into and it's totally worth it if you're a fan of taking on hundreds of the undead with a few of your friends.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Star Wars: Clone Wars

Clone Wars is good in all the ways that the current Star Wars: The Clone Wars is not. It doesn't aim so obviously at children. It's tightly focused, imaginative action and fun instead of generally boring and loaded down with a moral message they spell out for you at the beginning, and only actually get across half the time. It represents the excitement the franchise is capable of and actually seemed to serve a purpose instead of screaming "cash in". And it's honestly more enjoyable just to look at than the newer series or even the prequel movies themselves with their millions in computer effects. Honestly, the only thing the makers of the new show have done better than this is cast a less annoying actor for Anakin. Made by Genndy Tartakovsky and the Samurai Jack team, Clone Wars takes a similar art style and applies it to something the creators loved, a fictional universe that at the time was still in the process of being worn down the nub it stands as today. I don't want to overemphasize here, but it's simply the only good thing I've seen the franchise do on film since 1983.

Over two seasons, Clone Wars jumps from place to place and showcases various characters fighting against the switcheroo menace that now dominates the series. The first block is twenty bite-sized, three minute chapters that sort of tell a story but mostly just explore some cool things that could happen during such a war, with standouts like an utterly silent mission carried out by a special forces clone team and Mace Windu taking down a large group of droids by himself, mostly without even a lightsaber. The second season is about the same in running length but divided into fewer, larger chunks, and is more plot-based in nature. After depicting Anakin's knighting ceremony, it jumps forward to near the end of the war when his hair has become a full-blown mane and shows some events that lead directly to the third film, like Chancellor Palpatine's capture and the encounter that turns General Grievous from a menacing badass into a wheezing, moustache-twirling braggadocio. All in all, it's fairly remarkable looking for televised animation and generally pleasant to watch. The DVDs are stupidly out of print right now, but they can still be found and are worth tracking down if you want to rekindle your affection for some of these characters.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Star Trek - Season 3

And so the beginning of one of science fiction's longest tenured franchises comes to an end. Not with a bang, but a whimper. The final episode is a pretty standard one, no goodbyes or anything, just a lame body switch storyline to throw on the pile of overused ideas the writers liked to recycle every few episodes. There really weren't many standout episodes from this season, and no significant new characters either. Uhura got semi-replaced by some white lady near the end, but that was about it. I realize I'm asking too much from something that did so much for the genre and was made in the 60s, I just find it hard to get excited about such poor production values and lack of ambition with character or plot. I know I'm not the only one who thinks the show had fallen pretty far by this point though, so I don't feel too bad about ragging on it. I'm just glad that I became interested in the medium after The Sopranos left its mark, because without some sort of reward for sticking to it and making an effort to watch every week, there's no reason not to just cherry pick a few good episodes and stick with those. I can see myself leaving the TV on if I flip to some old Trek episode, but I can also easily see myself leaving five minutes later to do the laundry or something. There's something to be gained from checking this show out, but I was already aware of most of its contributions anyway through cultural osmosis. Oh well.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Or just Modern Warfare 2, as Infinity Ward clearly wanted to call it from the fact that the words "Call of Duty" don't appear anywhere in the game or on packaging for special editions. MW2 is the follow-up to the last game the series' actual creators made two years ago, and picks up five years later. The fate of a few characters is left up in there, but main protagonist Soap returns as a grizzled veteran with a voice (Kevin McKidd's) of his own, taking Price's place as ally in the field and friendly voice in your ear during the game's consistently better missions as a British special operative instead of a US soldier. While the first game's antagonist was defeated, the world is still unsafe as some Russian extremists still believe in his cause and conflict continues in the middle east. You still bounce between multiple characters, trotting across the globe to find and kill new people.

The first game seemed at the time to be somewhat plausible, presenting an interesting military plot punctuated by a couple shocking, unexpected moments. Modern Warfare 2 is much more over the top, constantly in your face with plot twists, betrayals, and every action movie gimmick you can think of. It sort of tosses the believability out the window in an early scene intended to disgust the player, and it mostly succeeds at this goal, but at the cost of your superiors looking like bone-headed morons and doing things that a reasonable government would never consider. Later events make you wonder if things were really as they seemed, but still, you can tell that their goal this time was to tell an exciting story, not represent modern conflict on a realistic, global scale. Bits intended to startle or shock the player are more frequent albeit less effective, because you can pull off the same trick so many times before it becomes old hat. There are a few occasions where they play with your expectations successfully and some true surprises, and in the end I accepted what they were doing and enjoyed the ride. It's just clear at this point that the developers' intentions with the franchise have changed.

Like pretty much any Call of Duty game, the missions are a grab back of solid shooting, truly excellent set pieces, and occasional total clunkers. They never seem to be able to stay away from a level or two where the enemies are just too frequent and too accurate and you just get pinned down from every direction, so your frustration just mounts as you continually restart and muscle your way through by memorizing where they come from. Luckily they get that out of the way early this time, and the latter part of the game is characterized by things that are constantly new and exciting. The single player campaign is fairly short, but these days that's a good thing - five to six hours of original, constantly changing, high quality gameplay are more than enough to satisfy anyone who isn't made of free time. Missions where you sneak through enemy territory with a buddy picking off stragglers are always fun, and even the more bombastic levels are enhanced by the somewhat unsettling locations they take place in this time.

The game looks and sounds great as expected. Solid sound with nice effects, good voice from a mix of recognizable names and industry veterans, and music that always manages to fit the appropriate mood. The textures of some unimportant details are surprisingly bland looking, but anything they wanted to look awesome usually does. And for people who don't play Call of Duty for the story mode, the multiplayer looks intact with some new features, and Spec Ops is an interesting way to extend the game's life without implementing actual co-op into their carefully planned single player. Infinity Ward is still setting the golden standard in competitive online shooting on consoles, and they just happened to put the best one player campaign this side of the Half-Life series in there too.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

South Park - Season 13

The now-venerable South Park's 13th season was a bit better than the last couple, at least in terms of producing episodes that were consistently funny throughout. The second half in particular provided some good laughs fairly often. No multi-part stories this time, but there was a nice mix of timely celebrity and news references, parodies (some for shows I've never heard of (what the hell is Whale Wars?)), and more timeless episodes about how insane these small-town residents can get. "The Coon" might seem like an attack on Obama, but I took it more as a jab at people who expected too much from him too quickly, and it was an adequate Watchmen rip as well. Kanye West (I'm sure they were kicking themselves for doing an episode before the VMAs), the Jonas Brothers, and the rash of high-profile deaths this year were all targets, and Avatar and 2012 also get poked at (Roland Emmerich makes it so easy). Things like Butters' foray into the prostitution business and Earth's first (not actually first) contact with aliens coming from Stan's dead coercing him into cheating in a pinewood derby were some of the nuttier non-topical stories. While I did enjoy this season, the fact that at least two more are coming does make me still wonder how much longer it will be until the show settles into The Simpsons' territory of complete creative undeath, but however it goes I'll probably watch until it ends.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Prisoner

AMC's remake of classic espionage/mind-screwing series The Prisoner doesn't live up to the original, though it does do some interesting things differently and at least has some sense of a cohesive story and an actual ending. It's a bit slow at times, and it's probably a good thing that Ian McKellen's name comes before Jim Caviezel's in the credits despite the latter being the protagonist because well... he's a lot better. Caviezel's 6 just isn't a very likable guy, and McKellen's 2 provides the vast majority of the miniseries' good lines and moments. Instead of a series of barely connected episodes where a sequence of people attempt to wrestle some secret from a captive 6, 2 tries to convince him that the Village he's been whisked away to is the only society that actually exists, and there's questions about the true nature of reality on everyone's minds.

When you think about the supposed premise, it doesn't really make sense. The original series was strange, but at least the citizens of the Village didn't seem completely deluded the whole time. But once the story actually unfolds, things come together and actually seem to work if you squint a bit and can actually follow out what's going on. The last episode can be easy to get lost in if you don't pay rapt attention, but even without entirely grasping it I got the gist and had a sort of "oh" moment. It makes me glad they decided to air it over three nights instead of six weeks, because more time to absorb, forget details, and form biases might have made it harder to figure out. The Prisoner isn't the sort of thing I'd want to watch very often, because it drags more often that it should and it's sort of tiring to follow. But I thought it mostly succeeded at retaining the spirit of the original without retreading the same ground, and had enough bits to keep fans of things that mess with your had happy for the most part. Sorry if this seems a bit scatter-shot, but my mind's kind of preoccupied.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cursive - Mama, I'm Swollen

It's looking more like The Ugly Organ was a one-time stroke of brilliance, but Cursive is still a talented and unique indie/emo band that can play a good song. I feel like Happy Hollow hit too heavily on the same message over and over again, and Swollen is more general angst and anger about someone who wonders what his life has become. "From the Hips" is fairly mainstream sounding for the band, but still feels like quintessential Cursive with some clever lyrics as Tim Kasher bounces between morose singing and strained shouting. The album in general is less manic and more downplayed, but there are still moments of intensity and enough interesting things going on in the mellow parts to keep it fairly interesting through out.

"In the Now" is a fairly disappointing opening track, repetitive and monotonous, but after "From the Hips" things are generally better. I like "I Couldn't Love You" even if something about it bothers me subconsciously, and "Donkeys" has similar merits going for it. "Mama, I'm Satan" is one of my favorite on the album lyrically along with having a strong loud part later on, and "Let Me Up" is also solid. "What Have I Done?" is very reminiscent of the powerful "Staying Alive" from the end of The Ugly Organ, which is fine by me because I generally think slow-building songs that explode at the end as the singer is worn out by the effort of his own passion are a good way to end an album. My copy came with a download code for some bonus tracks, two original songs and three demo versions of ones on the regular album. The new songs were cut for a reason and aren't mixed very well, and the demos are forgettable, but it's hard to be bothered by more music. I don't love Swollen but I do like it enough as a fan of the band.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bored to Death - Season 1

I didn't realize that last week's episode was actually the season finale, although in the context I probably should have. Bored to Death is HBO's newest comedy series (the only thing they're doing particularly well right now to my tastes, though there is hope on the horizon), about a struggling writer named Jonathan who decides to fill the hole left after his girlfriend leaves him by putting up an ad on Craig's List as an "unlicensed private detective". He ends up getting arrested in the first episode, but that doesn't deter him as he continues to take on cases. Like its protagonist, Bored is flawed, if ultimately likable. People who prefer a little more rambunctiousness out of their comedy could make a joke about the title of the show being accurate to the experience of watching it, because a lot of the humor is subtle and reserved. There's just little things like the way Jonathan explains his situation to other people that probably won't make you laugh out loud, but should cause a smirk or to. An early example is when his girlfriend justifies leaving him by saying he smokes and drinks too much, with him saying that he's slowed down to only drinking white wine. Later, he repeatedly tells people his girlfriend dumped him for drinking too much white wine. His character looks at the world in an unusual way, and it's interesting to watch someone so self-deluded in action.

It gets a little wackier at points later on, like when Jonathan's friend and boss end up getting high together in a car instead of providing adequate back up on a sting that goes wrong, or when they all end up in a boxing competition in the two part conclusion. There's also a subplot about his friend's donated sperm that both adds some humor and helps expand the show's scope beyond a weekly mystery to solve. Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis are an entertaining and hard to spell pair, and Ted Danson adds a certain something as the boss. Zach is pretty downplayed when I was hoping for something a bit more manic, but I actually came to like his character quite a lot. He's sort of a mirror to Jonathan's pathetic nature, in a similar yet different situation and just as miserable. It's not exactly a feel good show, but worth checking out if thinking doesn't hurt your brain.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone

I think some fans are split on these films, even more than they already are on the original series, Neon Genesis Evangelion. It's a newly animated and updated remake of the show, produced and written by the original creator Hideaki Anno and directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki, who previously worked under Anno and also directed things like FLCL, so it has the pedigree to work. And it's supposed to diverge significantly from the original story at some point, so it's not quite just a shameless rehash. The ending is some people's biggest problem with the series, so who knows by the end what people will decide is the definitive version. I really liked both the show and the film that retconned the ending (featuring the most disturbing scene I've ever witnessed in an anime!), and enjoyed this movie well enough too.

It covers roughly a quarter of the original story I guess, though some things are changed and accelerated to get into the meat of the story quicker. It's really nice looking, maintaining the feel of the characters and setting while still upping the production value, and is generally true to the series. There's some nice big action sequences and some new takes on certain events that certainly make it worth a look for people who already saw the series. It's a shame it took over two years for it to be released on video in the United States, since the sequel is already out in Japan and the property has certainly proven itself with American fans enough to where you wonder why it wasn't quicker. I couldn't totally shake the feeling that I was watching a long, pretty recap of the original show, and hopefully it's not too long before the whole thing's released and we can see where they're really going with it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time

I feel like I'm in a somewhat awkward position in regard to this game's place in the series. I think in some ways, it's an improvement on the last full release, Tools of Destruction. But that's true of almost every sequel they've done, and this is now the fourth console game to use pretty much the exact same formula, which was created in Going Commando six years ago. I still had a ton of fun with it, but it doesn't feel as fresh anymore. It's not exactly a knock on the game, because it's not that easy to make significant strides over some of my favorite games of all time. I can't really say what I'd want a sequel to do differently, either. They could keep churning out the same thing every couple years ad infinitum and I'd probably be satisfied, I just wouldn't consider it the peak of fun in gaming anymore.

A Crack in Time continues the story that began in Tools of Destruction and was touched on in Quest for Booty, about the origins of both the titular heroes. Ratchet and Clank are separated for most of the game, and each have their own type of thing to do. Ratchet does his typical thing of trotting from globe to globe, smashing every object in sight, fighting a bunch of increasingly difficult (and disappointingly repetitive) enemies with a multitude of bizarre weaponry, upgrading both his arsenal and his own abilities as he progresses. There's the return of space combat, using a more simplistic control scheme, and now instead of directly traveling to each planet they're grouped into small sectors that can be flown through. These sectors are also packed with the return of tiny, spherical worlds he can go to and explore, mostly to collect one of the game's many hidden items that unlock something or other. One thing these games do as well as anything on the market is incite the player to keep playing and searching for everything he can find. The carrot-on-a-stick of leveling up weapons and finding every last hidden crevice is pretty powerful, and encapsulated by the cathartic way nearby ammo and cash just magnetically flows into his body instead of having to be directly run over. There are some new elements to the always present yet mildly neglected platforming, and some light puzzle-solving, although that's more Clank's angle.

Clank has several levels of his own, which feature a bunch of time-based running, jumping and puzzling. He has a couple interesting bits of equipment at his disposal like a supply of bombs that slow down the flow of time in a small area and a sceptre that can undo damage to the environment and deflect projectiles. In one area there's a simple mini-game to heal temporal damage to various worlds that I didn't understand the point of, but the main draw of playing Clank are the rooms where he has to make use of various pads that can record and play back his actions to get to the other side, and eventually there are four copies of him running around at the same time, stepping on buttons and jumping over gaps. They escalate in difficulty naturally, and I was really having a lot of fun figuring them out. They're the right level of challenge to where they make you feel smart but aren't overly frustrating, and unfortunately they stop right as I thought they were really getting good. But all good things must come to an end, and they provided a good portion of the dozen hours of fun I had with the game.

I enjoyed the story pretty well for the most part. Some elements that the Future games have brought up are still unresolved like the ultimate fate of the Lombax race, though others like Clank's true origins are revealed. The emotional core of the plot was surprisingly strong in places, especially Ratchet's relationship with an old General from his people's military. There was a decent amount of humor, a lot of it coming as expected from Captain Qwark, and while it continued to be a tad childish for my tastes I did laugh in a couple places. The game looks pretty fantastic and has some good voice work, such as Nolan North showing with Sigmund that he has a lot more range than just sarcastic leading man (see: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune/Prince of Persia/Assassin's Creed/Shadow Complex). I'm not sure quite what's next for Ratchet and Clank, but I'll probably be interested. And maybe they'll bring back the online this time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ah My Buddha - Season 1

The only reason I can think of someone deciding to watch this is if they're like me; bored and have easy access to it. Either I can't or refuse to imagine someone who would be genuinely entertained by it. From the title, you'd think it's trying to crib off Ah! My Goddess' success with the title, but there really isn't much in common. The main character works at a Buddhist temple. So do a bunch of underage girls. Some wacky supernatural shit happens, and the main character has the power to stop it - but that power is only unlocked when he accidentally sees one of the girls naked. And that's about it! There's no actual nudity in the series, just teases and lots of semi-dirty jokes. It's simple trash television, the anime equivalent of most of CBS' lineup, I guess. It's not awful or soul crushing or anything, it just isn't worth your time. And now that I have a job, hopefully things like this won't be worth my time either.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mad Men - Season 3

I'm not sure what to think of this season overall. The scenes in the office continued to be consistently fascinating looks into the rapidly changing business world of the early 60s. But I don't feel like I got enough of that, especially in the second half. At times it felt more like The Don and Betty Show than anything else. Important, life-changing decisions are being made by some of the supporting characters, and it's being overshadowed by the family drama going on at home. It's not that that stuff isn't interesting, I'm just not sure it's the reason most of the audience watches.

I'm not sure I liked the way that certain storylines were handled, either. Sal is a gay man, though only the people watching ever knew until this season. It seemed like they were building it up to be a big game changer, but there's a pretty abrupt interruption of the arc, and they made it seem like the little they did with it is all they're going to do, which would be disappointing. And scenes like the lawnmower were great, but made me wonder why they're so rare on this show. I understand that it's trying to be realistic, and insane things like that can't happen with regularity. But the fact that they were willing to go there once made me wonder why it's not shocking more often.

The last three episodes though were outstanding, with the finale being my favorite of the series. Something momentous finally happens with Draper marriage, and Don shows some actual vulnerability for once. We see one of the most infamous events in American history through the eyes of these characters we've grown to understand. And the biggest business uprising in Sterling Cooper history occurs, setting in motion some events that I am completely excited to watch unfold. On one hand it was the perfect way to shake things up before they shut down, on the other I'm going to totally hate waiting another year to see what happens next. I think I'd still give AMC's other show the nod for best on television, but the last few weeks have closed the gap.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Star Trek - Season 2

New features for Star Trek's second season:

- The first use of the classic arena music is here I believe, when Spock and Kirk are forced to fight to the death. It then pops up again every couple episodes.
- Kirk has a new green v-neck command shirt with a sideways Starfleet emblem at his hip instead of on his chest. I don't really like it, but he only wears it half the time.
- Kirk gets busy with alien ladies a lot more often. Most of them just look like humans, but it happens all the time.
- McCoy gets his name in the main credits. He deserves it, he might actually be my favorite character.
- Chekov shows up. He's a really lame character. In a show where the Enterprise can travel back in time by going really fast, the episode where a gorgeous female member of the landing party is totally into him was the hardest to believe.
- It might just be me, but I feel like the idiosyncrasies of Kirk's speech patterns are much stronger now. This is where people got the justification to mock him until the end of time.
- They've done it before, but this was the season where they really went wild with extremely powerful computers and robots that are always defeated by using logic against them to either fry their circuits or cause them to shut themselves down. It's clever the first time guys, but it becomes a cliché when it happens every time.
- I'm pretty sure the return of Mudd is the first instance of a recurring character who's not an Enterprise crewman, and still the only one so far.
- Another new plot nugget they decided to use repeatedly is that of a planet that has molded its entire culture after a specific period and place in Earth history. You want Kirk and Spock to fight Nazis? You got it!
- Glowing, multi-colored brains in a glass dome.
- It took a while, but we finally have a scene with a bunch of exotic-looking aliens all meeting in a room on the Enterprise. This should have happened in the pilot.
- And lest I forget, we have the first recorded instance of a parallel universe in which the evil version of a character has a goatee. Good stuff.

The thing about Star Trek is I can't decide if I like it more when it's good or bad.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

MC Chris - Part Six Part Three

I pretty much knew what to expect at this point from Chris' third release this year. Funny skits that wrap up the story started four releases ago, a few catchy songs with clever, nerd-related lyrics, a more sentimental song for the ladies I guess, and a brief running time. I'd put it closer to Part Six Part Two in terms of quality, but the entire suite is pretty entertaining overall. The skits this time show an increase in the trend of allowing less than perfect takes to make it onto the final recording. When Chris and his friends start breaking out in laughter at the absurdity of what they're saying it can be as funny as if they played it straight, and they're giggling pretty often this time. Actual song-wise, "Hipster Hunter" and "Emo Party" go after a couple different groups in pop culture, and I'm not sure how tongue-in-cheek they really are. "Dengar's Dumptruck" might be my favorite of the new bounty hunter songs, and it might just be nostalgia that keeps "Fett's Vette" on top. "Distant Lands" has a chiptuned beat and is a cute little track to wrap up the new music here. I'm interested to see how MC Chris Goes to Hell shapes up, but until then this drip-feed of new music has been pretty enjoyable.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Storm of Swords

Man, I love this series. Swords is even longer than the first two volumes and continues to escalate the drama of the story. I'd need more than two hand to count the number of times the plot took a turn that completely blindsided me. Even in the last fifty pages, when the pace is supposed to be winding down, I was taken by surprise repeatedly. But it's not just crazy happenings that make these books awesome, as I've said before. Martin's prose is still excellent, completely readable while still being intelligent, and occasionally artistic when called for. His capacity for building an enormous cast filled with characters that are three dimensional and almost universally generate a strong emotional reaction, whether good or bad, is astounding. Even ones who only occasionally show up in the background are generally memorable, only a few of the various knights and lords in the capital city tend to blur together in my mind.

The thing you have to understand before starting the series is that reading it is not always the most joyful experience. When the author admits to having trouble bringing himself to write an important chapter, you know that your heart's probably going to be broken a few times. It's not exactly constantly depressing, and there are plenty of moments as triumphant as any others are bleak. Still, the world these characters live in is a brutal and unforgiving one, and readers are constantly being reminded that no one is untouchable. Well, maybe a couple people are, but they're few and far between. I forgot to mention this back when I was saying that the good in the series wasn't all spectacle, but the subtle backstabbing and political maneuvering, involving lots of forced marriages, is just as engrossing as anything else in the story. It's a constant mystery who's really the cause of anything, and it's safe to say that you can't really be sure about anything at this point. The next book, A Feast for Crows, is limited to the largest of the multiple regions the story covers, due to the stuff happening in the other places giving Martin so much trouble writing that he decided to split them apart, and release Feast earlier. I've heard that it is less eventful than the first three books, which I think I'll be fine with, because I could use a breather, and it might be a chance to really enjoy the quieter aspects of the story.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Winning the World Series

It might not seem like a long time to fans of other teams, but the nine year wait between championships for the New York Yankees sure seemed like forever. And since I was barely a teenager the last time they pulled it off, this is the first time I was actually old enough to stay up past midnight and see my favorite team win at all. It's extremely gratifying, and I feel lucky to be born into a family that loves a team that other fans hate for their payroll, but always does their best to give the faithful what they want - a shot at the best players and a constant hope for victory.

I've always liked Alex Rodriguez when almost nobody did, and this was the year he finally got rid of his demons. Spring training was a disaster, but he homered in his first and last at bats of the season, and became a hero in the playoffs, hitting three game tying home runs in the first five games and powering his team to the final round. He wasn't quite the same force in the World Series, but he did manage a couple more big hits including the go-ahead double off Brad Lidge in game 4. When he slowed down, Hideki Matsui picked up the slack and earned himself the MVP award for the series despite not starting a game in Philadelphia. He hit the game winning home run off old Yankee nemesis Pedro Martinez in game 2, and punctuated that last night with six RBI in his first three at bats. Matsui is a consummate professional who might have just played his last game as a Yankee, and if so it was nice to see him go out like that.

I don't have much else to say, other than I still feel good, and I hope this feeling carries through the off-season as the Yankees make their moves to prepare for a run at number 28. I feel like this was the best team they've had since that amazing one in 1998, and it was a pleasure to watch them play for the last seven months.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 2 is the kind of sequel that all game sequels should hope to be - it makes you never want to go back and play the previous one again. Which is a bit unfortunate in this case, because I still intend to replay the first game for the trophies they later patched in, but just looking at footage of it makes it clear how far Naughty Dog has come in two years. Uncharted 2 is stunning, and easily the best game they have ever made. It's possibly the prettiest game ever, both in terms of technical detail and enchanting art direction. Few games have ever impressed my programmer side (how did they do that?) and my gamer side (woah, that's awesome) at the same time, but Uncharted 2 does it constantly. This is a case where technology is used not just to make the game look nice, which most serious gamers will appreciate, but actually improve the depth and variety of interactions Nathan can perform, making it more fun, which most serious gamers will tell you is more important. There's just things it does that no other game has done, and it could end up being a real watershed moment to transform the action genre into something more dynamic and interesting than just a series of encounters with a bunch of dudes with guns.

The core of the game is still the cover-based shooting, and that's improved over the original. Most people seem to be comparing the aiming and shooting itself very favorably to the first game, saying how much better is. I'm not so sure it's the shooting itself, just that the design and pacing of the encounters is much more thought out and interesting that it often was before. I mean, there are definite improvements, especially where things like controlling the hand-to-hand and grenades are concerned, but what makes the game better is a better understanding of how to make a game like this that comes from doing it repeatedly. Still, if the game was all hiding behind walls and firing guns at people's heads, I'm not sure how much I would like it. The elements of traversing difficult terrain and solving some environmental puzzles are still there, and improved just as much if not more than the shooting.

Drake's notebook returns, but instead of just handing you the answer to a puzzle it often gives you clues to help you figure it out, and you can also flip through it to find some amusing notes Nathan made. Nate has more ways to get around at his disposal, and the climbing is integrated into real world situations more often, when he has to find his way through a war-torn city and fend off enemies at the same time. By the end of the game, I was kind of tired of the escalating difficulty of the shooting segments and their frequency, but for the most part it's an excellently paced, exciting game. The boss fight is better, and the option to improve your odds in some situations by sneaking up on the enemy is nice, although I question the decision to put a mandatory stealth section right up front before the action gets going.

While I did complain about the constant fighting by the end, one of the things that drove me to keep playing was the story. It's no match for great literature by and means, but as far as an adventure tale in the style of Indiana Jones or something, it's one of the better examples I've seen in any medium. Like the first game, the plot is based on a real-world historical mystery, and ties in likable characters and a touch of campy supernatural elements to keep you interested in the treasure they're seeking. The main cast from the first game all returns with the addition of a few new interesting characters, and the cut scenes feel like exchanges good enough for a real movie. The banter is often funny and witty, and Nate remains one of the more likable protagonists in games right now, even if his easy going personality doesn't quite mesh with him having to kill hundreds of dudes fairly often. I'd be interested to see this team do something a little less violent with the same setting, but in the meantime Uncharted 2 is possibly the best game I've played from this console generation.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

I don't remember a lot about the first movie, other than it being mostly crap, managing to screw with the established continuity for both franchises it involves, and ending with an alien fetus inside a predator. Oh my! That's pretty much where the sequel picks up - a hybrid between the two emerges, messes up the ship kills the other predators, and lands (in a very crashing sort of way) on Earth, where it and some face huggers (Which I guess were on the ship because the predators were studying them? I don't care enough to remember or look it up) proceed to wreak havoc on a small town in the United States. I won't say AVPR is anything close to a good movie, but I did enjoy it more than the first, which seems to be an uncommon sentiment. It's sort of the typical slasher set-up, unlike what we've really seen in either series previously, as it establishes a handful of interconnected and not terribly interesting characters, and then picks them off gradually in increasingly gruesome ways. Not usually my cup of tea, but it's a formula that I guess works and doesn't seem that out of place with the idea of putting either of these sci-fi killers in that setting.

Of course... those killers shouldn't be in that setting in the first place. The predator in the movie is a badass cleaner who comes in to cover up the chaos caused by the incident in the beginning. He doesn't do a very good job of it, as before long the entire town is overrun with aliens and the government has to call in the big guns. But why do they care about the cover up in the first place? They're hunters, not galactic police men. It just leads to another annoying predator who kills everyone he comes across, which is less compelling than the original characterization. Sorry to spoil this crappy movie that you don't care about the plot of, but there's a tie-in at the end to the Weyland-Yutani corporation of the Alien movies, supposing that predator technology helped humans eventually get out into space in a serious way in the first place. Um, okay... so why do they still use flamethrowers and bullets in the future if they have a predator's energy-whatever gun, and how come the company claims to have no recorded cases of the aliens previously in the future? The entire point of the Nostromo's diversion was to get a living sample of one of the creatures, but we're supposed to think it took them that long to get one when there was an outbreak of them ON EARTH during our time? They should have just made their movie with adequately gory deaths and fan-pleasing homages instead of trying to get cute and tying it all together. Also, the Predalien looks too much like the predator. Aliens from humans don't look nearly that human. Oh well.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Predator 2

I think the original film is one of the best action movies of the 80s, but I wasn't a big fan of the series' step into the 90s. It takes place in Los Angeles in the then-future of 1997, and replaces the terminator and the jungle environment with city streets and a guy who is perpetually too old for this shit. It's from that dated style of film where gratuitous blood and violence is obviously better than the alternative and a swear word that we haven't heard in four minutes is as clever as it needs to be. The first movie had some corny bits - "stick around!" comes to mind - but it somehow felt different. The predator itself was a deadly enemy to be feared, and the guys it was hunting down were serious, dedicated men. In Predator 2, Danny Glover sneaks up behind gang members in a shootout with the cops in the middle of the street during the day and shouts "Hey, assholes" anyway so he can see the looks on their faces when he mows them down. He's surrounded by as cliched a group of cops as you can find, and this is in the middle of the period where Bill Paxton had the market on over-loud obnoxious douches absolutely cornered. The police angle did absolutely nothing for me, and unfortunately a lot of the movie hinges on it.

The predator in the first film had a goal - he was on a hunt, collecting the trophies of one of the best fighting forces on Earth. In this movie any actual goal either doesn't exist or is so unapparent as to be trivial. It just goes around killing anyone it wants to - mostly those at least brandishing weapons, yes, but there's no rhyme or reason to it. It's just pointless, going around killing while the police futilely try to track it down. Later a special team investigating the creature and trying to acquire its technology - a team surprisingly willing to divulge its secrets to any cop tenacious enough to confront them say two or three times - tries to take it down in a warehouse, and from there is a prolonged, poorly paced sequence of events where Glover follows it around as the two play cat and also-cat. The film lurches to a conclusion promising a sequel that never really came, and ties up a truly disappointing successor to a pretty darn good movie. Just like with Alien, the first half of the series is all you need to see.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Alien Resurrection

Joss Whedon is one of my favorite writers of speculative fiction. I haven't seen much of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's work, but he did direct Amélie, one of my favorite films of the decade. So what went wrong here? I'm not quite sure. I feel like there's the core of a solid Alien movie in here - not as good as the first two, but still passable. Cloning Ripley, while resulting in a plot development that doesn't actually make sense to me, is a fine way to bring back the character back in a new way and actually advance the time period again, unlike Alien 3 which didn't feel new. The ship of smugglers were a nifty notion, and are pretty much a prototype version of the crew in Firefly. And there are some interesting situations and disturbing scenes that work better than anything in the last movie did. It just doesn't come together into something I'd want to watch again. It might just have been that it was before Whedon really discovered his chops as a screenwriter and Jeunet figured out what kind of movies he really wanted to make. Resurrection ends up being an interesting failure.

Man, I had some momentum until that paragraph break. It was getting kind of long though, it had to be done. Um... Whedon has talked about how it wasn't necessarily changes to the script that he thinks hurt the movie, just that the overall execution of what was written on the page was totally off. And I can sort of see that. There are a lot of lines or exchanges that could have been better with a different actor or just a different way of saying them, and the movie just feels clunky, like the people in charge of different areas just were never in sync. I'm not saying the story they had would have been a good film if these problems were corrected, it's just that it compounds the problem. An awkward and unwieldy film. Some moments totally work, but most of it just doesn't, and I'm confident that the latter half of the Alien quadrilogy can be, and probably should be safely ignored in the future.