Monday, December 28, 2009

The Beatles - Abbey Road

I didn't know this until recently, but there was a weird situation with the making of this album. Let It Be is the band's final studio album to be released, but for the most part Abbey Road was the last to be written and recorded. There were issues with the former's production and the members knew the group was falling apart, so they decided to do one last project as a band before splitting. It was finished and put out while Let It Be was sitting on the shelf, and I have to say it's a pretty nice note to go out on.

While it would be hard to match the eclectic nature of the thirty songs on the White Album, they do a good job of coming close here. It has the best work of George or Ringo, with "Here Comes the Sun" about tied in my mind with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" as the former's best Beatles song and "Octopus's Garden" being the only really good song that I'm aware of the latter writing. "Something" is another good George song, showing that he really was getting good at this. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is one of Paul's odder ideas, an upbeat though ultimately not-that-catchy tune about a murderer, though it's followed by "Oh! Darling", which is a bit cheesy but also a hell of a lot better. John's contributions to the first side are really good as expected, with everyone knowing "Come Together" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" being one of the band's most interesting songs to me, and a long way to come from things like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand".

Of course the second side is most famous for the medley of unfinished songs turned into a long musical suite, though the couple tracks before it starts are nice too. I already mentioned "Here Comes the Sun", and "Because" has a nice eerie quality to it. The medley does a lot of recalling, bringing back sounds and lyrics from earlier tracks and creating something that feels unique for the band. It has some of their better pure experimental instrumentation and some standout moments, even if I'm not quite sure it reaches the pinnacle of what it could have been. It ends majestically in what is fittingly called "The End", and then the album closes with a snippet of a ditty called "Her Majesty". As a recording by a world famous band that was coming apart at the seams, it's a remarkable achievement and a darn good album.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Beatles - Rubber Soul

I've seen Rubber Soul marked as the time when the Beatles started really coming into their own as musicians, creating songs that went beyond simply ditties about love (although that's still a common theme), and beyond that, crafting cohesive albums and popularizing the idea that they could be more than a group of singles with some filler holding them together. It's only their second studio release featuring no cover songs, and for the most part the praise seems to hold true. While I don't think it's quite a great album, it's a very consistent song, it's just that the songs tend to be good to very good rather than outstanding. That's not to say that there aren't standouts, because there are, whether they be among the band's dozens of very famous radio hits or just damn good compositions that I'm hearing for the first time. It doesn't impress me quite like the other albums I've heard, but it's still darn good, especially when you remember this came out in 1965.

The song I'm most familiar with is "In My Life", which I remember best from being the theme song in covered form of Providence, a show my mom used to watch a lot. I didn't realize it was a Beatles song for a while, but that doesn't prevent it from holding up as a very nice, nostalgic little tune. "Drive My Car", with the most traditional rock sound on the album and some nice piano in the chorus, and "Nowhere Man" are the other ones I'm sure I've heard before. The other ones that stick out tend to be primarily Lennon's work, though McCartney's "Michelle" is very nice and the two Harrison songs make me continue to wonder why his presence was so limited on these albums. Not that much though, because he was working with, uh... Lennon and McCartney. "Norwegian Wood" has its own thing going for it, and I really like "Girl" a lot, and I especially think the way the backing vocals during the bridge are later mimicked by guitars is something of a stroke of genius. Rubber Soul is a really important release in the band's history, and a fairly enjoyable one as well.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Game Update 14: DLC Round-Up 2

So I've played some more downloadable content. It was mostly pretty fun I guess! This is the significant stuff.

Fallout 3: Broken Steel

I liked Fallout 3, but the ending was, well... irredeemably stupid. Without spoiling anything, finishing the main quest ends the game immediately with a cheap cutscene instead of wrapping up the story nicely and letting you keep playing as your character, and makes some giant logical leaps to pack it all into some sort of nice dramatic wrapping without earning it. Broken Steel fixes that by rewriting that portion slightly, still moralizing your actions pointlessly but at least keeping the plot going with a few more missions, raising the level cap to 30, giving you some new equipment, and disabling the switch that basically kills the game. The scope of the new quests feels more like an actual climax to the plot, though in a way it still feels like they're stretching something that's already resolved itself. Still, it's the most essential of the five add-ons Bethesda's released for the game, letting you do whatever you want without worrying about having to load old saves.

Fallout 3: Point Lookout

Broken Steel is the most important add-on, but Point Lookout might be the most interesting. It takes Fallout to a different setting, the mutated wastes of Maryland, infested by monsters, a dangerous cult, and irradiated versions of offensive Southern stereotypes. I haven't played the other DLC packs for the game, which apparently whisk you to other areas which are very linear and guided, leaving Point Lookout as the only one that resembles the actual Fallout 3 experience in smaller form. There's a fair amount of wandering you can do to see what's up, or you can just do the main quest line which features some glitchy action (I can't tell if the game is acting up because I've been playing this character for 30 hours or what), unique moments, and interesting if not overly difficult choices to make. It's not exactly classy, but still enjoyable.

Left 4 Dead: Crash Course

I'm glad I got this for free on the PC instead of paying for it on the Xbox 360, but it's still a neat addition to the original game that was made not too long before the sequel came out. It's a quick little campaign designed to be finished in half an hour in versus mode, so it's not the most substantial thing ever, but the two chapters here add some unique and entertaining twists on the formula. It fits in between two of the existing campaigns, explaining what transpired between them, which on one hand is interesting but on the other just makes me want them to do the same for the entire story, and I don't know if that's going to happen with them already announcing add-ons for the new one. Still, no new Left 4 Dead content is bad Left 4 Dead content, and it's worth a trip if you're not already spoiled by the sequel.

LittleBigPlanet: Metal Gear Solid Level Kit

I think this would have been a bit better for the value if it included the Metal Gear Solid-themed costumes as well, but it was still a good time with my brother for somewhere around an hour. Most of the DLC for LBP is packs of outfits and stickers to throw in your game, but once in a while they do a themed one that adds new gameplay elements and trophies (a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed one just came out this week, I think), and I like MGS a lot, so I finally decided to give it a whirl. We probably had the most fun with the paintball gun which you get to use pretty frequently, shooting each other as much as the enemies, and it definitely adds something new to the game. There's some pretty clever boss fights and special events they put together, and I'm always impressed how much people can do with the simple tools at hand, especially the developers. The LBP/MGS cross-over plot was a nice touch too. A bit short, but as cute as anything else in this game.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Modest Mouse - The Lonesome Crowded West

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from non-major label Modest Mouse. Obviously less polish, but I didn't know what else. What it ended up being was almost shockingly good, although it didn't quite click for me until somewhere during the fourth track, "Lounge (Closing Time)". It's basically making sure the "rock" in indie rock makes sense. The album is very long, almost 74 minutes, though it never seems like it drags or gets long-winded. Several songs last well past the six minute mark, and they all seem like they earn it. The end product is quite good, and possibly my favorite guitar album of the 90s. Very few songs don't have at least a couple great riffs that sound unique to the band, and occasionally they just get into a jam that could last forever. Isaac Brock obviously doesn't need Johnny Marr to rock the heck out, in any case. His vocals tend more towards shouting than on later releases, but there's still plenty of his regular unusual voice saying some odd, usually clever lyrics. Some songs are relatively serious, and others are in that darkly humorous mode.

Any of the five tracks that last at least six minutes are worth listening to. They all shift tempo repeatedly, and manage to stay interesting long enough to make you wish they lasted even longer. Maybe not the eleven minute "Truckers Atlas", but you get the point. "Heart Cooks Brain" is unique among the songs, featuring record scratching of all things and a nice mellow mix of bass and guitar that keeps it cool. "Jesus Christ Was an Only Child" is this album's "Wild Packs of Family Dogs", a hokey acoustic piece that's a lot more sinister than it appears in the first few seconds. "Doin' the Cockroach" gets pretty groovy about halfway through, and "Shit Luck" is a good example of the band's lighter side, as some heavy guitar accompanies Brock's shouts of things like "This boat is obviously sinking!" One of the things I like about Modest Mouse is how they manage to be playful with themes and vocals and serious with the music at the same time. They have their own thing going away from most of the rest of the scene, and I think it works pretty well. It makes me sort of depressed that I was listening to all the stuff on mainstream radio in the late 90s instead.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Halo 3: ODST

ODST has caught some flack from various sources for charging full price for less than a full product. I can't totally justify speaking either way because I paid twenty dollars less, but I don't see how the game is worth less than others in the series. It might just come from the fact that there's a 3 in the title and the words "expansion pack" were tossed around early on. The game does feel like a side story, developing events that take place at the same time as the second half of Halo 2, and the main multiplayer component is just carried over (along with all the paid downloadable extras) from the previous game. The campaign also is a tad short, but I rarely see that as a negative these days as long as it's a well developed, interesting experience. Plus, the new Firefight mode adds to the game's life quite a bit. I haven't played online because the system I'm using doesn't have a Gold account, but I've played Halo that way before, and I see no reason why one of the most consistently popular games would be any worse now.

So my focus as usual was on the single player. Master Chief isn't around this time, replaced by a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, elite soldiers on the same side who enter war zones through individual pods that precariously fall to the planet's surface. You spend the most time as the Rookie, a blank slate of a character who wakes up several hours after the mission begins and explores the city by night, either engaging or sneaking past enemy patrols. You can wander around if you like, but the goal is to track down pieces of equipment left behind by your other squad mates, which trigger more traditional Halo levels starring the other characters. I have to say, one of the biggest reasons why I liked the squad idea is that it made it basically a video game version of Firefly, if Mal and company were armored space marines instead of smugglers. The game doesn't even pretend otherwise; Nathan Fillion is the leader, Alan Tudyk is the pilot, and Adam Baldwin is the tough guy. They're joined by video gaming's ubiquitous Nolan North as the sniper and Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer as the erstwhile captain in charge of the mission. Early on they're all separated but they eventually meet up and work together, killings aliens and cracking wise at the same time. The camaraderie of the squad is an enjoyable element, and it make the Rookie's quietness all the more strange. It seems like the radio on his helmet has failed, but when he just ignores direct questions in person it doesn't fit with the game's tone at all.

Despite lacking the scope of other games in the series, taking place entirely within the confines of a single (admittedly huge) city, it doesn't feel lacking in variety. There's the usual mix of vehicle sections, sneaking through corridors, ambushing small groups, and taking on larger scale battles in open areas. Occasionally a section will kick your ass for a few tries, but it's pretty simple and fun to keep moving through the game, especially if you're familiar with the series. They made a big deal about the Troopers not being as tough or strong as Master Chief, but they seem to jump about as high and take the same punishment before dying, and have no trouble flipping over a crashed vehicle if needed. The health system is changed but essentially the same as the first game and for all intents and purposes, this is Halo through and through. The only thing missing is the Flood, which I'm totally fine with. I admire the attempt to mix up the game a bit, but they were never that fun to fight and the nighttime segments take their place rather neatly.

The game looks and sounds about how you'd expect. People complain that the Halo games don't look much better on the 360 than the original Xbox, but I wonder if they're looking at the same thing I am. It's pretty much the same aesthetic, but everything looks nicer, especially with the lighting. There's a new vision mode in the Troopers' helmets that indicate important features in the darkness. I think I ended up using it for about half the game, and it's usually pretty useful without being distracting. A few things in the game will interfere with the signal, and it adds a cool element of making sure you're using it in the right situation. The story is fairly standard for Halo, as in the world seems more interesting than the execution generally allows. There's not a ton going on in the plot, but it does tie the last two games together nicely in the end, and thanks partly to the cast has the most entertaining cut scenes in the series. If you like Halo, and especially if you haven't already played the online to death, it's definitely worth checking out.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Television Update 5: Fall Finales '09

Once again, just about every network show is taking a few weeks off right about now before coming back in 2010 for the back halves of their seasons. Here's what I think about all of them.

30 Rock - I still enjoy the show, but if it sweeps the Emmys again next year I'm going to start wondering if the voters aren't just watching the first two seasons over and over.

American Dad! - It's continuing along as a consistently solid animated sitcom. Not much to say.

Burn Notice - The first half aired back in the summer, and I've forgotten a lot of it by now besides remembering that a couple episodes felt a little too familiar. Still fun, though.

Castle - Coming into its own a bit. Still just a mystery of the week, but a fairly delightful one.

The Cleveland Show - While not as terrible as the early previews looked, it manages to not be very good and hurt the original show at the same time, because Cleveland works much better as a part of Peter's group than a protagonist in his own right.

Community - Pretty darn funny comedy right out of the gate, which is a bit rare for NBC. Definitely worth a shot.

Dollhouse - Only three more episodes left, but after again stumbling a bit in the first couple hours, this season has been astoundingly good science fiction and I'm sad to see it go.

Family Guy - Despite Cleveland being gone, I feel like this season has been better than the last couple, mostly because it's been totally insane for a lot of it.

FlashForward - I was really impressed with the premiere, but it hasn't lived up to it since. I don't like the characters enough and the plot isn't focused enough for either to carry the show.

Fringe - They're doing a better job of connecting the week's strange event to something relevant to the characters, and it's improving the series noticeably.

Glee - I did not expect to find myself watching this, but it's honestly pretty good. Somewhat a guilty pleasure, but it does some interesting, unexpected things.

Heroes - This show is too far gone. Even when an episode is actually okay, I can't bring myself to actually care at all.

How I Met Your Mother - Not as good as the show's been before, but still plenty watchable. I am getting a little tired of waiting for the mom to show up, though. I mean, she can appear without that ending the series right there and then, right?

Legend of the Seeker - Only six episodes deep, but it does seem better than the first season in a few aspects. And it's going to be a little while before we see Ned and Tyrion on TV anyway.

Metalocalypse - They could have flopped with the transition to half hour episodes, but I think it's worked out. Honestly seems funnier this year.

The Office - Still totally enjoyable, though I do find myself wondering lately what's the point of the show. Is it just going to last forever?

Parks and Recreation - Actually probably more consistently funny than its parent show so far this year. The cast is just clicking.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - It's still pretty meh. Why am I watching it again?

V - We only saw four episodes of this, but it showed some level of promise. I was never really on the edge of my seat, though.

The Venture Bros. - The show's longest season has been just as good as the first three halfway through. Could have used some more Brock, but each week is another hit of fantastic comedy and insane, great plotting.

Friday, December 18, 2009

PixelJunk Shooter

For the last couple years, Q-Games have been making the PixelJunk series of games, quick downloadable titles on the PlayStation Network that have apparently been improving over time, though this is the first one I've been interested in. The "Shooter" title was chosen in a contest, and I don't think it's quite an accurate name for what the game really is. Yeah, you and possibly a second player fly around in little space ships, shooting at enemies, but that's not the core of the experience. It's really more of a puzzle game, as you have to figure out how to get through the levels while interacting with the game's big technical gimmick, fluid dynamics. When you first start playing, there's both water and lava flowing around, one protecting you and the other putting you in danger. When they touch they form destructible rock, and subsequent areas start introducing different fluids and special suits for your ship that all have their own properties. It never gets too challenging, because the game gives you hints on what you need to do and new elements are introduced slowly enough that it never gets confusing.

The basic progression is you're traveling deeper and deeper under a planet's surface, rescuing miners who have been trapped and also collecting hidden diamonds. Once all the miners in an area are gone, either rescued or killed, the way to the next area is opened, although only so many can die before you have to start the whole level over. The diamonds feel like something that should be an extra for completionists, but you need to have a certain amount by the end of each episode to unlock the boss level. This was fine the first couple times, but in the final episode, I had to return to earlier areas to get enough diamonds for the final level, which seemed like a lame way to handle it. Although I did notice how much my ability to track down missing items improved when I managed to quickly destroy the game's first two levels and get enough diamonds.

I think I enjoyed the game's presentation more than anything. The graphics are really nice, with a cool, cartoon look and the physics on the fluid interaction aren't perfect but still a lot of fun to screw around with. The music was unique and interesting, and the sound effects were good, with a lot of very useful and memorable queues. The game ends before it can get really challenging, and teases an "encore" paid add-on like the last two PixelJunk games had to see the end of the adventure. It's not that the game was too short, because about four hours of solid fun are enough for about ten bucks, it just doesn't feel like you get the full arc of gameplay you'd expect from a finished product. The boss fights are generally highlights, and help the game earn at least part of that shooter name. It's not the best thing I've downloaded off the PlayStation Store, but should be good fun for people who like to think a bit while dodging enemy fire.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Honey and Clover - Season 1

Honey and Clover is an interesting case in the world of anime. On one hand, at first glance it's totally creepy and strange. The story is about a group of art students at a college who spend a lot of time together, and how things change when a few of them fall in love with a new girl at the same time. Which would be fine and pretty normal, if she didn't look and mostly act like she was about 12. Her character is actually an adult and she's never really viewed or portrayed in a sexual context, but it can still be very odd at first. If you're able to get past that though, you're left with one of the best and most touching animated comedies I've seen in a long time.

Even when the show's just being goofy, which is a fairly common mode early on, it usually succeeds at eliciting laughter, at least pretty well for anime, which I often enjoy for its insanity but don't usually find generally humorous. As the show continues, it gets a bit more serious, focusing on developing the characters and their relationships. It never totally loses the sense of fun, with frequent returns to humor or just touching moments between friends, though it does get pretty hard at times. Romance is the ultimate goal, though it's generally of the tragic variety, with unrequited feelings and disappointments abounding. It doesn't quite gel perfectly with the comedy aspect, but it does sort of create a combination of emotions you usually don't see in animation. It's very bittersweet, and there's some sort of nostalgic aspect to it also. As far as shows that are actually intelligent and artistic, I haven't seen a lot better than Honey and Clover.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tom Goes to the Mayor

I've seen a bunch of episodes of this show before, but never sat down and watched the whole series until now. It's not as brilliant as Tim and Eric's current live action show, Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!, but it's still pretty funny and occasionally subversively clever. The premise is fairly mundane, Tom Peters is new to the town of Jefferton, and brings some of his ideas on how to improve his new home to the mayor. Some of the ideas are moronic, and some are actually pretty decent, but it makes no difference because by the end they're always doing something different and insane based on the mayor's suggestions. It makes you wonder if he's actually totally aware of what he's doing and always screwing with Tom or simply an idiot, but in the end it doesn't matter.

The show isn't always firing on all cylinders, but when it is it's pretty terrific. It's fairly interesting how many bits and ideas in Awesome Show originated here, and so much fun is in the little details, like how the mayor always needs Tom to reintroduce himself before he remembers who he is. As with Awesome Show, there are lots of celebrity cameos, from Jeff Goldblum and Zach Galifianakis to Robert Loggia and John C. Reilly. Brian Posehn probably shows up the most often as Gibbons, Tom's small and generally crappy friend, who manages to be hilarious and maddening at the same time. I know some people completely hate this show, but they're honestly fools. Let it grow on you. You'll like it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dexter - Season 4

I see Dexter's fourth season the same way a woman might see her middle aged husband. He has his flaws. He's not as impressive as he was when you first got to know him. And he sags around the middle. But he does enough for you to remember why you loved him in the first place, and at least he doesn't disappoint you like he did when he started hanging out with Jimmy Smits last year.

I do think this was the show's best season since the first. One big factor in that is John Lithgow's role as the season-long antagonist and possible role model for Dexter, a seasoned serial killer who seems to have managed to figure out how to satiate his urges and keep a nice family at the same time. When you're first just seeing how he works, he's one of the creepiest villains I've seen in a TV show. I know Lithgow pretty much exclusively from his comedic work, so I was pretty blown away by how scary he can be when he wants. He gets a little dull once we see him in domestic mode, at least at first, though as Dexter sees more of the truth behind the lies, things start getting really creepy again. The other factor in the season's success was the ending, not just the mind-blowing last couple minutes (which in a way I kind of actually see as a cop out), but pretty much the last episode entirely, and the last scene of the previous episode - maybe the most tense I've ever been at something on television.

Besides that though, the season did have a few issues. There was some inconsistency with Dexter's character and his struggles at home - yeah, he has an infant son of his own now, but that didn't take center stage like I expected. I constantly found myself thinking "Oh yeah, he has a kid" - it just didn't have a lot of impact on him, not anymore than his existing worries about his family anyway. And there's just a fundamental shift in his MO - Dexter has always tried to channel his compulsion into something somewhat positive - killing criminals that the justice system misses. There are a couple moments where he deviates from this system, intentionally or otherwise, and both are acknowledged yet neither are dealt with satisfyingly. The stuff with Deb was pretty solid this year, and Masuka is really turning into a good character beyond comedic relief, but I found myself not caring a single bit about the thing between LaGuerta and Batista, and I'm basically just counting the days until Quinn's arc of mimicking Doakes comes to the same conclusion. Having a fifth season confirmed before the fourth even aired gave them the opportunity to set up what should be a highly intriguing next part of the story, and now I'm back to waiting again.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum

I normally steer clear of licensed video games because of their general crappiness, but there are three reasons why I gave Arkham Asylum a shot.

1) The demo was pretty promising.
2) It had near universal acclaim from critics and friends alike.
3) It's not a rushed product meant to cash in on some movie or something, but a game made as part of the excellent animated series' universe, even written by Paul Dini and starring the voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker, respectively.

So I played the game, and it did not disappoint. I think an open world game in the vein of Assassin's Creed would be an awesome setting for Batman, but this approach works too. There's sort of a Bioshock vibe to the design, which I'm sure was intentional. The gameplay is obviously different, but being placed in a tightly constructed yet still explorable world, being guided to your next objective but allowed to veer off the rails, frequent attempts to frighten you with scripted sequences and environment details, audio tapes scattered around that fill in the story, a madman pulling all the strings... yeah, this is a lot like Bioshock. And that's good, because Bioshock was a great game. Arkham Asylum still has its own identity of course, making good use of the license with a bunch of classic villains to defeat and one of the more interesting premises in a Batman story - the Joker takes over the entire island, and you have to figure out what he's really up to and thwart his plans, all within the span of a single crazy night.

The gameplay is a mix of stealth, brawling, and mild puzzles. Sometimes you'll enter a room and there will be a number of armed thugs scattered around looking for you. You make your way around the room quietly, hiding in nooks and crannies and swinging between gargoyles perched near the ceiling to give the bad guys the slip as you pick them off one by one. It's a bit easy at first, but by the end it gets genuinely tense as you have to use a lot of cunning to escape unharmed. The combat is very heavily combo based, with maintaining your current bonus as much of the goal as defeating all the enemies. Batman's repertoire of moves is nice, and it feels pretty great to take down a whole room of toughs without getting a scratch on you. Later on the goal is less domination and more just surviving, but that generally works too. The boss fights are generally pretty bad, which is a little disappointing. They rarely deviate from the formula of a big dude charging at you, and almost all of them resign themselves to also throwing a bunch of regular enemies at you to worry about too. Hey guys... that's not a boss. It's just another fight.

A big part of the game is being not just Batman: the super hero but also Batman: the detective. It's not quite as deep as I would have liked, but checking out crime scenes for evidence and following trails with your equipment's myriad applications is pretty cool. This is where the game's collection aspect comes in, as the Riddler has left a ton of things around the island for you to track down. It's all a bit more simplistic than it could have been, but still fun to track down, and the game lets you keep looking after you beat it. A lot of the riddles require more advanced equipment than you have when you first see them to get them, introducing a sort of Metroidvania element to the proceedings. The only real complaint I have about the exploring aspect is that the recordings of interviews with inmates you find attempt to be creepy, but rarely succeed, often coming off as silly. The Scarecrow sequences are more effective in this regard, although they tend towards interesting more often than actually scary.

It's a good looking game, and I like little details like Batman's cape and costume getting more and more tattered over the course of the game. There are a few issues, especially the higher resolution versions of some textures not popping in fast enough, causing some awkwardly ugly moments. I'm not a big fan of the faces, and after playing a lot of this year's games, I'm not sure why the Unreal engine is so popular when these other ones don't have a catchy name but have fewer problems. The sound is solid too, especially the classic voices by returning cast from the series. Hamill's Joker isn't as disturbing as Heath Ledger's, but it's quite entertaining in its own way, and he does a really good job here. I still have things to find in the game, and I haven't even touched the optional challenge modes, although they don't really interest me terribly. Still, it was a very good single player experience in a year full of them.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Porcupine Tree - The Incident

The Incident is a solid, very proggy and very long album. A little less metal than the band has been recently, and fairly ambitious, spanning two discs. The first disc lasts about an hour and is a single song cycle appropriately called "The Incident", broken into 14 tracks that do overlap quite a bit. There are only about six tracks that last long enough to develop their own identity, with the others bridging the gaps, developing some sounds and ideas, and providing breathers. Riffs and entire verses can pop up repeatedly in various places, and there's a real cohesive feel to the whole thing without it seeming like one long song usually.

The second disc is fairly divorced from the first, being about EP length and tacking on four more songs to the whole thing's running time. Honestly, I thought it would have been better served as its own separate release. The whole thing lasts roughly 80 minutes with both discs, and I kind of lose interest by the time the first part is over. I could just listen to them separately on my own, but I'm kind of a stickler about listening to entire albums when I play music, and the second disc just drags. It's not bad, it's just too much. Still, it's hard to dislike anything on this record. I won't bring up individual songs because there's not much point - if you've listened to them you know what to expect, and if you don't then I won't do a good job of explaining them anyway. I prefer this band when they make more traditional albums instead of this longer-winded, more conceptual stuff, but it's still all right.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Season 5

Looking back, Sunny wasn't quite as good last year as it had been previously. Still one of the funniest shows on TV, but not up to its own standards. I was glad to see that this year they made a nice recovery, bouncing back and being probably the best pure comedy to air. There are a couple troubling elements - there was a fair amount of overt product placement that did seem a little weird at times, and Charlie's illiteracy/general mental ineptitude is still funny, but starting to take over his whole character. In previous years I would hands down call him my favorite member of the gang, but this season definitely felt like it belonged to Dennis, especially the second half. Everything he did seemed to be pure gold, from explaining his system for winning over and then getting rid of girls to his concept for the ideal action movie to his foaming rage at and subsequent revenge against members of his former college fraternity.

It's hard to say what makes Sunny so good. There's something about just the way the characters talk with each other that's totally natural and off-the-wall hilarious at the same time. I still think episodes where the main characters all just let slip how much they really don't like each other are the best, with "Mac and Dennis Break Up" being a great example. In a lot of ways they hate each other, but they also desperately need each other just to survive. There's a collective dysfunction that makes them into a strange sort of family, and it's one of the best group dynamics in a TV comedy ever. And the Christmas special, while lame for being only viewable on its own DVD, is worth checking out to see what the show would be like if it were an R rated movie.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Radiohead - Hail to the Thief

And now my collection of full Radiohead studio albums that people actually like is complete. Unless they make another one, which they may or may not, depending on which member you listen to. Anyway, as expected, Hail to the Thief is quite good. Just to give you an idea of how much my taste in music has changed in just six years, I remember "There There" as the first Radiohead song I ever heard, or at least the first I knew was them, and being a bit bored by it. I started listening to the band a couple years later, and now I count that song among possibly their ten best, especially if you count radio playability as a factor. Maybe twenty best if you don't (they have a lot of really good songs).

Thief is an interesting transitional album. Their most recent work at the time was the game changing and unusual Kid A/Amnesiac project, which cemented them as a band that will do their own thing at any cost. Its traditional rock elements were few and far between, and Thief marks them easing into a return to that sound, although with heavy influence of their electronic sojourn still intact. It has the longest running length and most songs of any of their albums. Most have something pretty strong going for them, and unlike the vast majority of releases the record seems a bit back-loaded, with most of the less impressive ones packed toward the beginning.

Just a few tracks that stand out particularly even if it's just for an element that's gripping or interesting instead of a genuinely good song are "Backdrifts", "We Suck Your Blood" (best use of hand claps in a song ever?), "The Gloaming", "Myxomatosis", and "A Wolf at the Door". I know I mostly just picked the tracks that would fit in the most on Kid A, but that's not an indictment on what this album does differently - there are a lot of things about it I prefer. And honestly, for me, it might be the band's best release of this decade.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

A couple movies ago they showed how to make Star Trek funny and make it work, and this time they showed that it can totally succeed by taking itself seriously. There are of course a few moments of levity sprinkled throughout, but Undiscovered Country is generally a very somber, tense movie that succeeded beyond my expectations for the franchise. The conflict is yet again with the Klingons, though it's different this time - a lasting peace is in the cards, but a plot involving mistaken identity and sabotage puts that in jeopardy. The Klingons were always a sci-fi parallel to the USSR, and with the Cold War ending, the writer decided to absolve their differences with Starfleet in basically the same way. There's some really interesting scenes of diplomacy and non-violent conflict, like a dinner with some emissaries that doesn't go too well, and a surprisingly suspenseful trial. Kim Cattrall is another surprising actress to play a young Vulcan officer, but she does a decent job and helps provide the only time the mind meld has ever been scary. It's not a perfect film, but it's definitely a good one, and a nice send-off for the original crew. The end credits begin with the cast literally signing off in farewell, which makes it all the more pathetic that three of them came back yet again in the next movie. But I won't be seeing that for a while.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Taxi Driver

It's sort of hard to articulate my thoughts on Taxi Driver. It's a character study of a man who at first appears relatively normal except for perhaps too strong of a negative opinion regarding the other people in his environment, yet as it goes on he quickly becomes more and more psychotic. He talks about how the streets should be cleaned up, eventually deciding he should be the one to do it. I'm a little unclear on the amount of time the film covers. It doesn't feel too long, but the character undergoes a lot of change and some telling details are sort of skipped over. A lot of the film is just him watching the world around him, though it never gets boring and it's punctuated by moments of grave intensity, including the totally alarming climax which is only hampered slightly by the dated special effects. It's really a movie propelled by Robert De Niro's performance, at different times charming, pathetic, and harrowing, and without which I'm not sure the film succeeds.

His is not the only good performance, with Harvey Keitel making the despicable pimp of an underage girl somehow a bit likable, and Jodie Foster holding her own in an early role as said prostitute. There's some early stuff at a campaign center with Albert Brooks and Cybill Shepherd that doesn't really seem to fit with the rest of the movie but provides a bit of relief from De Niro's ever-deepening dementia, and also provides a glimpse at where his mind is truly headed. It's a good collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader, just one of many, as they somehow make the unusual story work. I'm not sure I agree with every decision Scorsese makes, but most of it succeeds and it seems pretty groundbreaking for 1976. The ending is definitely odd and can work with a couple different interpretations. At first it seemed to come out of nowhere and mesh poorly with what I had seen just before, but in hindsight I think it works better than something closer to what I was expecting. I still feel like there's something just a bit off with the whole thing, but it's certainly a staple of the decade and has me wanting to watch more by both the director and the lead.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

The previous Trek movie showed how to make the series funny and do it right. This one shows how to do it terribly, terribly wrong. The film is downright silly. It's not clever or intelligent, it's downright slapsticky. It gets more serious as it goes on, though it never really gets good. You know a plot is on weak footing when it has to go back and give the most developed character a secret half brother to get to the point. I guess William Shatner was trying when he came up with the story and directed this, but very little about it works, and this is when I started feeling kind of depressed about how old everyone looks. I mean, this movie was released twenty years after the TV series ended. And yet here they all are, dancing erotically, scooting around on rocket boots, and being written out of a scene by banging their head on the ship. There are a couple moments that almost work, but by and large it can only be considered poor. The ending is among the films' most bizarre and meaningless, as the conflict just sort of dies without much resolution. I can't even remember what happened to certain key players. Just not good.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Fox gets a lot of hate for canceling good shows without giving them a real chance to find an audience... but they're not the only ones. Kings is a unique show with a complicated premise, maybe too complicated for its own good. It's the sort of thing that needed explanation, and special attention with the advertising if it had a hope to survive. But it didn't get it. NBC completely ignored anything specific about it when showing previews, and it died a quick, ratings-starved death. This has been a year for sad early cancellations, none stronger than Kings'. Why would greenlight and produce a series that retells the story of David from the Bible, complete with messages from God and divine providence sprinkled throughout, and not even mention that aspect to potential viewers? It's like they were afraid of somehow angering what could have been a strong audience. I mean, how often do religious zealots get to watch a modern drama? You don't need to be a Christian to enjoy the hell out of Kings, but there's no reason they shouldn't have tried courting them. Oh well. Another intriguing, well made show bites the dust.

So yeah, Kings is the story of David, as in David and Goliath and King David of Israel. Or at least just the beginning of the story, ending upon his initial exile after falling out of favor with Saul. It seems like it could be gimmicky at first (He defeats a tank single-handed, and the tank's model is called Goliath, get it!?), but it quickly turns into a simple, good political drama. As he did throughout Deadwood, Ian McShane steals most scenes he's in, playing the king who can't decide if he wants to kill David or keep him by his side. He proves he can be compelling without every third word from his mouth being an expletive, and just watching him speak is captivating every time. The rest of the cast around him is solid if lacking in the same gravitas, including some really good guest spots by guys like Brian Cox and even Macaulay Culkin, still attempting to arise from the child actor's early grave.

It's a bit hard to describe why I liked Kings so much. The dialogue sometimes seems overly operatic and the more overt nods to the story's religious nature can seem a little heavy-handed, but both elements totally worked for me. A lot of the characters seem to completely change their minds about important constantly on a dime, but it seems like that's how it really could be in a monarchy, even a completely modern one. In a position of power, you have to make decisions cold, and circumstances can change quickly with messages delivered by radio instead of foot. Also, I can't not mention how damn beautiful the show is. It's hard to say how much of the sets are actually there and how much is digitally added (seems like it could be a lot), but the unique combination of current cities and regal opulence is usually stunning and never boring. I feel bad about not watching this when it aired, especially with how many places they could have gone with it, but I'm still glad I saw it anyway.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Leonard Nimoy's second turn as director might actually be my favorite of the original Star Trek movies that I've seen. The second one had some good stuff in it, but The Voyage Home is just consistently entertaining throughout. It starts as a relatively serious, normal Trek story. Kirk and the crew are returning to Earth to face trial for their insubordination in traveling to retrieve Spock, and there's a mysterious alien probe headed on the same course. It's all pretty normal, but once the words "humpback whale" are uttered, it basically turns into a comedy. They do their absurd slingshot-around-the-sun thing to go back in time, and embark on an unusual mission to save the Earth's future, and some animals as well. These guys have gone back in time before, but it's never been this consistently funny. Things like Spock's experimentation with profanity, Bones' distaste for modern medical practices, and Chekov asking people if they know where to find nuclear wessels are great, and it's funny how cavalier they are about changing the past and causing potential paradoxes. This year's Trek film was pretty humorous as well, and that's probably the best tone for the series, at least from what I've seen. It's a series about the fun and wonder of having adventures through space and time, not gritty galactic conflict. The film's not without flaws, but it's enjoyable throughout.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Game Update 13: DSiWare Round-Up

The last handheld system I owned was the Game Boy Color, but I recently reentered that arena when I bought a white DSi bundle (I wanted the blue one with a couple Mario games, but I couldn't find it). The "bundle" aspect meant it came with five DSiWare games and applications already installed in addition to the default ones, and here are some brief thoughts on them.

Brain Age Express: Arts & Letters

The Brain Age mini-games are neat little challenges, although I'm skeptical of their actual ability to measure how good your brain's feeling. The daily brain age check picks three of the games to test you on (including ones you haven't unlocked to play whenever you want), although it seems to hone in on ones you suck at. I'm pretty good at every game except for the one that asks you to memorize a list of 30 words, and the game seems to know this, throwing it at me every single day. Not being good at one thing shouldn't bring down my entire score as much as it does. Still, mostly brain exercises.

Brain Age Express: Math

I'm better at this one, mostly because the memorization one is easier to handle. I've always had a mathematical mind, though the game still thinks I could be doing a lot better.

Brain Age Express: Sudoku

I've never actually played Sudoku before, so this is a nice introduction. It's irritating that both of the times I've marked the wrong number, it's been because the controls failed me and not my thinking, especially when one mistake adds twenty minutes to your final time. Still, Sudoku is the kind of brain teaser I like, and they're pretty fun to solve.

Clubhouse Games Express: Card Classics

A few card games, one of which is kind of boring, another is a variety of poker that no one plays anymore, and the other three basically variants of games I've only played in drinking contexts. They work well enough, but I can't imagine many people who would want to play cards without the human element.

Photo Clock

There's a clock you can use your photos with, and an alarm function. That's about it. I guess they didn't want to put too much free stuff you'd actually consider buying in the bundle.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

The third Trek film opens with a recap of the second, including the funeral, which happens to be the best scene in this movie too. This film forms a trilogy of sorts with the previous and the next, and Search is actually fairly eventful for the middle of a story. There's not a whole lot of Nimoy on screen, though he was actually behind the camera as the director for this one, and does a decent job. There's some bizarre casting decisions and it's a bit anticlimactic, but definitely affected the least by the odd-numbered curse on the original cast Trek films. Klingons (led by an out-of-place Christopher Lloyd) are after the technology developed and activated in the last movie, and stumble upon Kirk's son, a reincarnated Spock (have I not mentioned he "died"? He "died"), and the recast Kirstie Alley character. Kirk and the rest of the crew enact a plan to commandeer the Enterprise and come to the rescue, and though parts of that story are entertaining, it never gets exciting like you'd hope from the films' first Klingon/Starfleet conflict. After that gets resolved, there's still the case of Spock and turning him truly back into the man he should be. There's some emotional moments and bits of humor sprinkled around, and it ends with things left to accomplish. Like most of the earlier Trek canon, I can say it's... not bad.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Assassin's Creed II

A lot of people had issues with the first game, though I liked it quite a lot. Still, it had its flaws. Running around, climbing up buildings, and sticking dudes with your hidden blade was a lot of fun. But the amount of variety in the missions was extremely limited - none of the tasks were by themselves terribly boring, but when there's only a handful that repeat constantly, it can become a drag. This is where the sequel sees its biggest improvement - the main progression through the game is much more involved and story-based, with the more mundane tasks set aside as option side missions. The limit to what you can do hasn't expanded greatly - you're still stealthily taking out Templars, visiting various hard to reach locations, trailing people and eavesdropping to gather information. Some annoyances are still there, like the beggars being replaced with minstrels. You're just more invested in what you're doing because you believe in Ezio's personal cause more than you did in Altair's sense of duty.

And there are improvements to be seen everywhere. Your arsenal of weapons and acrobatic moves is expanded. There's more visual variety as missions can take place at different times of the day and events like festivals can change the atmosphere. There's a whole economy added now to buy items and improved equipment, although it's a little broken. The reward for almost everything you do is money, though once you've fully upgraded your home you basically never run out of it, limiting how useful more of it becomes. I didn't notice a big difference in the quality of the weapons, even between the best and the worst, and regardless of how much health/armor you have it didn't seem to have a big influence on how long you can stay alive. But you can pay for transit quickly between distant places, and there's a bunch of optional content that's some of the most interesting I've seen in a game. Tracking down seals in hidden tombs is an actual test of your platforming skill that eventually rewards you with some nice gear, and finding hidden glyphs on buildings throughout Italy unlocks interesting little puzzles that expand on the game's ridiculous yet entertaining story.

Not everything's better though. People complained about the first game constantly kicking you back into the real world where the series' true protagonist Desmond is being experimented on, but I thought it was an intriguing element to the story and enjoyed the drip-feed of new information, while there's only a couple of those sort of segments in this game. They're fairly revealing, but it made it easier to forget what the game's really about. The aforementioned glyphs helped, but I still missed it. And I thought the first game's setting was more interesting than Renaissance Italy. The game does interesting stuff with art and history there, but I enjoyed the aesthetic less, and things like Venice's canals made it harder to get around. Also, one thing that's not much improved is the combat. The new variety of weapons is cool, but it's still a lot of waiting for the opportunity to counter your enemy's attacks, with some of the complexity and danger actually taken out - you never have to worry about getting grabbed, and it seems overall a lot easier to bolt and avoid danger altogether. And the facial animation actually seems way worse - especially on Kristen Bell's character. The game's environments look nice, but not so much the conversations.

The story is worth mentioning, mostly because it's totally insane. You get a taste of the vast, millennia-long secret war between Assassins and Templars in the first game, but the sequel really dives into the crazy conspiracy aspect of it, and it's almost too over-the-top. As you can tell from the hidden messages in the glyphs, there's hardly a significant event in the last two thousand years of history that these groups and the "pieces of Eden" they found haven't had a hand in, and the number of famous people involved is astounding. I totally enjoyed this aspect of the plot - if you're gonna imply something this big, go ahead and go crazy with it. It's all dwarfed by the ending though, which reveals more about the conflict's origins than anyone could possibly comprehend. It's - it's just nuts. And it's all wrapped in Ezio's story, which is pretty solid on its own in places. If I was looking forward to what happened next after the first game, I'm positively foaming over it now. Creed II is one of the most fun open-world games I've ever played, and I'm extremely curious when and where the next one will take place.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The consensus is that Wrath of Khan is not only better than the first Trek film, but probably the best out of the lot of them, at least before this year's remake thing. I can't speak for the second part yet, but they were right about the first. It's noticeably shorter than the first one yet seems to pack a lot more in, including some actual action sequences and a few of the franchise's most iconic moments. The space funeral at the end with Kirk's speech is particularly memorable, and no one can forget him shouting his foe's name at the top of his lungs. I've come to expect the unexpected with these things, and one surprise was seeing a young Kirstie Alley as an up-and-coming Vulcan officer. Ultimately though she didn't seem to do much, and gets replaced by a different actress in the next movie. There's also a subplot with an ex of Kirk's and the son they apparently had together, although I didn't pay attention to a lot of that. The focus is on Khan's elaborate revenge plot involving taking over ships and even people's minds, and using a special device to annihilate everything as a last resort. There's some sacrifice and sad goodbyes, although it's all temporary as the cast would stick together for another four films after this one. I wouldn't call it a great science fiction movie, but it was certainly fairly entertaining and a good step up from the first one.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Goats is one of those quirkier comedies that just lets you enjoy the slight air of absurdity around it for a while instead of hitting you over the head with wacky moments. It's mostly propelled by good, off-beat performances, especially from its two leads, Ewan McGregor and George Clooney. McGregor is a down-on-his-luck reporter who spends a lot of the film in awe of the strange stuff he keeps seeing, though he also has a strong humorous streak whenever it gets too crazy and he has to lash out. Clooney does one of the best jobs I've seen him do, as an army man on a mission obsessed with his special skills which may or may not be totally fictional. The movie's based on a book about an apparently very real government program to train psychic soldiers to do things like see into distant locations and even kill things with the power of their mind. The film itself can't seem to decide whether to make it real, because half the time they really do work and the other half it's just the hopelessly narrow way they look at it. Maybe that's what it's really about though, just your perspective at any moment.

Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey also turn in solid work as other members of the special unit, though they're mainly seen in flashbacks to when it was still in its prime. The whole movie's structured a bit oddly, bouncing back and forth between mostly the 80s before the program was shut down and earlier this decade, when the author/narrator was in Iraq finding all this stuff out. It really has the feel of one of the Coen Brothers' more light-hearted movies, which is totally cool by me. It's the kind of thing where I enjoyed watching it a lot more than you might guess from just monitoring my laughter, although there were definitely plenty of times I chuckled. The ending was a bit weird, and it's an unusual situation because it would have been pretty much perfect if they just cut it literally a few seconds earlier. It has the feel of being based on a somewhat troubling book to adapt, though for what it's worth the writer did a pretty good job at it. I can't remember many comedies from this year and there are definitely a couple I want to see, but this is one of the better to come out as this decade closes.