Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dollhouse - Season 2

When Dollhouse was facing possible cancellation after season one, I was hopeful it would continue, but the prospect of it ending wasn't a particularly depressing one. The show found its stride in the second half of the season (and the more disconnected first five episodes actually hold up better than expected when watched again), but an early death didn't seem like the tragedy that Firefly was. And the first two episodes of season two continued to underwhelm and shut down any possible chance of the show gaining an audience before Fox finally pulled the plug. But the last two episodes that aired before the cancellation was announced were pretty strong, more or less just stand alone stories, but they signaled that the writers still knew what they were doing and prepared fans for the sad truth. Once we knew Dollhouse was dead, it became the best show on television in what may be an unprecedented run of quality science fiction programming. The show didn't make us really miss it until we already knew it was gone.

The question of course, is whether the show would have still been as good if the writers thought they were safe, and the answer is probably not. At the very least, the plot would have developed much more slowly. They could see that the end was coming, and instead of just playing out the string, they dropped the normal formula of Echo going on various engagements that go wrong and decided to give us as much of the planned story as they could in the time they had. I thought after "Epitaph One", there was no way we could reach that point in the story naturally, but in season two they told us pretty much everything we needed to know. The last two episodes suffer the most for the rushed plotting, wrapping up everything that had to be a bit too quickly and conveniently for the series' normal reasonable intelligence, but they got the job done for the most part. "The Hollow Men" is the heroes' last ditch effort to prevent the Dollhouse technology from destroying the world, which is a bit too much standard action movie, and "Epitaph Two: Return", which makes resolving a horrible dystopia seem too easy. They didn't have to be perfect though, the first sort of working because we know their plan ultimately fails anyway, and wrapping up of all the character arcs being the second's more important goal. In between the first two and last two episodes, the show really was completely brilliant, with smart, believable character development, twists that hit the right balance of throwing you completely off while making sense in retrospect, brilliant uses and abuses of the central premise, and plenty of those tragic Whedon moments. Dollhouse wasn't perfect, but it succeeded in making me care that it's gone, which is an accomplishment for it lasting less than 30 episodes.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Walking Dead, Volume 5: The Best Defense

I know I said they were filming a pilot for a series already, but apparently that was just preliminary stuff, and now they're actually going to do it. Robert Kirkman likes Frank Darabont's script, and I'm intrigued to see if it gets picked up for a series. Still got a lot of catching up to do with the book though. This was possibly the best volume yet, and again, it had little to do with zombies. The whole crisis is definitely getting to some people, as what seemed to be solid friendships break down and a few seem close to really cracking. The biggest thing though was the introduction of what is really the story's first significant villain, and he sure is a bastard. Say what you will about the undead and their flesh-eating ways, they aren't sadistic and creepy like this guy is. It's almost too over the top even for a post zombie apocalypse tale, but in a way I do believe that that environment could create a person like that. It's pretty brutal stuff, and I'm definitely going to keep my reading spread out like I have, because it's a fascinating setting but not one that's easy to visit. I knew it was only a matter of time before the zombies became only part of the problem, but I've never seen man's own inhumanity just thrown at me so effectively.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Walking Dead, Volume 4: The Heart's Desire

I just realized that if you put the different volumes of the Walking Dead trade paperbacks side by side, the zombies along the bottom of the covers form a continuous mural, with small gaps. It sort of blew my mind. Eventually the story's going to be too long to see all of them together unless you have a big hallway somewhere, though. This volume turned out to be a pretty significant turn in the story, and the hordes of undead hardly even played into it. They were a a catalyst for some upheaval among the survivors, but the spark that lit the fire really had nothing to do with them. It's nice to see that not all of the conflict will come from the constant threat of being eaten by mindless corpses, and in fact it seems that they may not even be what the story is really about. It's about how people deal with having their world destroyed utterly, and how they come together or turn against each other under unending stress. The story's not as emotionally affecting as it could be, because it's not the easiest thing to keep every single character and their feelings straight, and the rate of attrition among them is so high that it's pretty easy to just not get attached. It's definitely an intriguing story, though.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hercules in New York

I had never heard of this movie before, but it ended up getting thrown in the DVD player during a party that involved alcoholic beverages. It was Arnold Schwarzenegger's first film, and his Austrian accent was so impenetrable that he had to be dubbed over by another actor for the theatrical release. We watched it with the original audio though of course, with subtitles on to make it a bit easier. I am not kidding when I say this is probably the worst film I have ever seen. The production values are non-existent, the direction is inept, the plot makes absolutely no sense, and with one special exception, the acting is universally terrible. But we sure had a great time watching it, as everything that went wrong almost seemed perfectly designed to illicit laughter.

Basically, the title is very accurate. Demigod Hercules decides he is bored of Olympus (which looks exactly like a city park) and descends to Earth, intending to see the world but mostly just staying in the city that never sleeps. For some reason this angers Zeus, who contrives with others in the pantheon to get Hercules to return. Zeus claims that he wants Hercules to come back because he isn't fit for that world, though since the character is half-human and spent most of his time in the old myths with humans, you'd think it would be fine. Zeus never mentions the real reason why Hercules should not be down there, which is that he's a fucking idiot. Apparently in the thousands of years he lived with the gods he never bothered to keep up with human culture besides learning a strange Austrian version of English, because he doesn't understand simple concepts like how vehicles can run without horses pulling them and that it's not okay to lift other people and then throw them.

Despite these flaws he still manages to make something of a life in the city, thanks to the intervention of down-on-his-luck Brooklynite Pretzie who shows him the ropes (so named because he sells pretzels, you see). Hercules quickly gets a girlfriend after impressing her by breaking a few of another suitor's ribs and a job as a heavyweight wrestler after he is seen assaulting an escaped zoo bear in Central Park. Things go great, with his girlfriend mistaking his honest statements about being of divine origin for a demented but harmless running joke, and much success in the ring that we never see once, even for a second. The conflict comes in when a few mobsters try to muscle Pretzie into... something. It's never adequately explained. They seem to want some sort of rights with regard to controlling betting on Hercules in fights and other contests, but Pretzie admits to having no such rights whatsoever even while they're bullying him, being only Hercules' friend. Although he is forced to sign the paper they put in front of him, I have no fucking idea in the world what it is he actually signed. Later some trickery causes Hercules to lose a weight-lifting match, and the goons chase him and Pretzie because... I don't know. As I've said, it makes no sense.

More than just being hilarious on a so-bad-it's-good level, we all truly came to love and appreciate Pretzie as the film went on. He was a bit annoying at first, but once you get past the grating accent, he's really a good guy. There's a really sweet scene near the middle where Pretzie drinks himself to sleep, distraught over the meaningless sheets of paper he signed, and Hercules not only lays him on the couch, he also gets him a blanket and turns out the lights. It's a true friendship that the movie should have spent more time exploring. And when he eventually returns to Olympus, the scenes of Pretzie lamenting the loss of his buddy and their final goodbyes are honestly heartbreaking. Pretzie was played by Arnold Stang, a long-time character actor who also did a fair amount of voice work in cartoons featuring classic figures such as Herman the Mouse. We were all shocked to learn that he passed away as recently as a few days before last Christmas, but were glad to know he had a long, full life with a good career and a loving family. You will be missed, Pretzie.

Arnold Stang: 1918-2009

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pixies - Bossanova

Popular music must have really changed in twenty years, because I've never found the Pixies to be as inaccessible as people seem to say they were. I know they were recording just before grunge and alternative rock in general really took off, but an album like Bossanova hardly seems out of the mainstream now to me. I mean, it's not exactly what you'd call standard rock, but I could easily see songs like "Velouria" or "Is She Weird" playing on the radio. The album definitely has less of a unique reputation than their earlier work, and while I don't like it as much as Doolittle there's definitely a lot to find. The funny thing is, while it may be more mainstream, it took me longer to get into. I like most of the songs now, but at first it only really seemed to get good somewhere in the second half.

The first two songs, one of which is a cover, feature very little vocals and mostly serve as an extended introduction to the band's general sound. Of the fourteen songs, some are pretty darn short, some are a bit longer, some more melodic and others a bit off-beat, most of them focusing on otherworldly themes and being driven by a nice mix of Black Francis' eccentric singing, Joey Santiago's guitar, and Kim Deal's bass and backing vocals. Really, the second track's title of "Rock Music" is pretty fitting. My favorite song is probably "The Happening", with a unique spacey chorus consisting of a single sound changing in pitch, and which overlays with a half-sung monologue in the last section, one of the band's best moments. To be honest I was more interested in getting Surfer Rosa but chose this instead so I'd finally have an album from the year 1990 since I'm kind of weird, but it ended up working out pretty well.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dinosaur Jr. - You're Living All Over Me

You don't often see a band gain success for a time, disappear for about a decade, and then come back to continue making music relevant to the scene. But that's what Dinosaur Jr. did in the last couple years, and this is their first big album from back in the 80s. I like it quite a lot, as it features some of the noise elements from that era but still manages to be interesting to listen to the entire time. There's not really a moment wasted, as it's pretty much forty minutes of great guitar, effective vocals, and strong rhythm. It rarely truly amazes, but there's something to be said for just being darn entertaining rock the whole time.

The ninth track, "Poledo", is really the only one that sticks out from the pack. It's not that the others run together, they just all have the same basic sound, while "Poledo" is definitely a departure, and a bit odd but for the most part it works. Of the other songs, "Little Fury Things" is a pretty fantastic opener, "Sludgefeast" rocks about as much as is likely possible, and "Raisans" is one of the more melodic on the album. "Tarpit" is also notable for its slower than normal tempo. My copy ends with "Just Like Heaven", a Peter Frampton cover that they make their own. Despite liking the album quite a bit, I don't really have a lot to say about it. I don't really have much expertise on this style of rock, I can just tell if I enjoy it or not, and this one totally worked for me.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


If you've heard anything at all about Darksiders, it probably involved its similarities to other video games. It's a bit lazy to rely on comparisons to other titles to describe a game, but in Darksiders' case it would be disingenuous not to mention it. So let's just throw it all out there. The overall game structure and use of puzzle-filled enclosed areas are reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda series and its temples. The platforming elements seem most directly taken from God of War, and there are some similarities with the combat but it feels closer to Devil May Cry in that area. There is a segment that more or less matches the standard gameplay of the Panzer Dragoon series, and there is an item later on that borrows heavily from the mechanics of Portal, although you can trip yourself up if you assume certain things about it. And that about covers it.

A game that takes this much from other titles could have easily ended up being derivative trash, but for whatever reason the crassness with which it borrows is almost charming. As shameless as it is, it's well executed for the most part, and in some ways I'm actually glad it does what it does. The God of War games will always have superior production values and a (slightly) deeper combat system, but the adventure elements are what I like most about that series anyway, and Darksiders is sort of the perfect balance. Well, not quite perfect. They still force you into fighting a bit too often, and the game's reliance on enemies doing tons of damage in lieu of adding more strategy to combat is a bit weak. But while I love Zelda, a lot of us have wanted a darker take on it, and this is basically our shot at getting it. Note I didn't say more serious, because this game is pretty far from that.

It was designed by a comic book artist, and there's an unflinching over the top style to everything. The game takes place mostly on a ravaged Earth after humanity was wiped out, and you play one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (War, naturally) as he defends himself against both the forces of heaven and hell. He has few allies, and the story is a quest of redemption as he tries to prove it wasn't his fault everything went bad. The designs of everything from the costumes to the monsters is like a little kid's idea of what's totally awesome, and the comic book comparison really is fitting. It's the sort of thing that I enjoy in a not really ironic but still not totally serious way, but really wouldn't show to anyone who doesn't like games.

But I really do like it, there's a nice thickness to everything that's part of the appeal along with the consistently solid level design and simple honesty of the whole thing. When I was maybe a third through the game my PS3 hard drive crashed and I lost most of my saves, so I had to sit down and marathon my way back to where I was for four hours, and I liked doing it. I don't think I could really say that about a lot of games, so take from that what you will. The game makes mistakes along the way, but it's sort of like an eager to please puppy or something that you can't possibly hate. I also have to mention the voice acting, which really fits the whole thick, over the top thing. Mark Hamill plays a character who accompanies you on your quest that I could take or leave, but pretty much everyone has this deep, guttural voice and is really way too into what they're saying to each other, and I enjoyed every second of it. It really completes the sale on this insane doomsday scenario they're throwing at you. The end promises a sequel, and I'm looking forward to the possibility.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Characters of the Decade: Part 5

And we reach the thrilling conclusion. If there's one thing that astounded me, it's how many of these actors had a "Mc" in their name. This sure was a lot of work, but pretty rewarding. I hope it's been as enjoyable to read as it was to put together.

Dr. Horrible
Neil Patrick Harris - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

"Oh, goodness, look at my wrist. I gotta go!"

Neil Patrick Harris is currently one of my favorite people in Hollywood, and this is the largest contributing factor. During the writers' strike Joss Whedon and a bunch of likable actors came together and made one of the most simply enjoyable things of the year a musical comedy about a sympathetic super villain. Neil makes you laugh, he sings, and in the end he's both a tragic figure and the true bad guy he always wanted to be. There's a bit of dissonance regarding how he intended to get the nice girl and take over the world at the same time, but watching him stumble through it was great.

The Joker
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

"How about a magic trick? I'm gonna make this pencil disappear."

The Joker has always been probably the most popular villain in comic books, appearing constantly in adaptations as well. But one thing Ledger did with the character before his unfortunate death was pretty unique: making him scary. There's always been something disturbing about him, because nobody has any idea what he really wants or how far he'll go for it. But with this movie, they took it farther than most people are used to and created possibly the most memorable villain ever in this sort of blockbuster. Unpredictable, darkly hilarious and sad that this is the last we'll see of that particular performance.

Kirk Lazarus
Robert Downey Jr. - Tropic Thunder

"Everybody knows you never go full retard."

I enjoyed Tropic Thunder quite a bit, but without Downey's performance it would have been pretty mediocre. The Lazarus personality itself is fine, but the character's unrelenting dedication to the role of Lincoln Osiris despite being stranded in the middle of the jungle is pretty amazing. Maybe a bit offensive, sure, but still comedy gold. And the jokes come not from him being a white guy pretending his black, but from just how great that black guy is at messing with people. Every moment he spends with Ben Stiller's character is worth watching more than once. Awesome stuff.

Lafayette Reynolds
Nelsan Ellis - True Blood

"Jesus and I agreed to see other people, but that don't mean we still don't talk time to time."

True Blood was much more enjoyable in its second season, but during the first it was pretty much Ellis' work that prevented it from being a complete train wreck. It can't be easy being a gay black man in the south, but Lafayette thrives there, not taking shit from anyone. He has a rougher go of it in the second season thanks to being kidnapped by vampires, and honestly putting him through it sapped him of a bit of his greatness, but he's still one of the few truly likable people on the show.

Walter Bishop
John Noble - Fringe

"If you were actually going insane, you'd likely have no idea what's happening. Take it from me."

Fringe has gotten better over time, but during its shaky beginning Walter was about the only thing going for it. He's fairly unrealistic, because I'm pretty sure there's never been an actual person with even close to the breadth of encyclopedic scientific knowledge he has, and you'd think some of that would go away after over a decade in an asylum. But he gets away with it because he's funny and weird and the plot needs him to know everything he does. John Noble is the kind of actor that's enjoyable to watch read a shopping list, so seeing him dissect mutated corpses and be kind of crazy is pretty fun every week. I'm not sure I actually care about the tragedies of his past, but it's okay with me that they're going with that.

Kenny Powers
Danny McBride - Eastbound & Down

"I've been blessed with many things in this life. An arm like a damn rocket, a cock like a Burmese python, and the mind of a fucking scientist."

Danny McBride's really come out of nowhere in the last couple years, and this is definitely his best character. I mean, anyone who can craft this big of an asshole and still make you want him to do well is doing something right. His unrelenting narcissism that masks his constant self-doubt is always classic, and watching him waver between stepping all over people and being stepped on himself provides laughter and sympathy at nigh equal levels. We haven't seen anything about the second season yet, but I'm looking forward to whatever new depths he can plumb.

Enver Gjokaj - Dollhouse

"Did I fall asleep?"

This is sort of a cheat, as Victor isn't so much of a character as a blank slate on top of which any number of real or fabricated personalities can be applied. But Enver Gjokaj is such a pleasure to watch chameleon himself into a role that I couldn't not put him here. Plenty of actors have range, but I'm not sure I've ever seen someone with quite his talents, as he jumps between dozens of unique characters over the course of the show and completely sells all of them. Characters being body switched and mimicking each others' mannerisms is a favorite gimmick of Whedon shows, but this is his bread and butter. In the span of maybe ten minutes he had to play both a serial killer and a slutty college girl, and did both with equal aplomb. Just a blast.

King Silas Benjamin
Ian McShane - Kings

"I will endure a party in the company of my choosing, but with none that sour the wine in my cup."

I've already pontificated on why Ian McShane is fantastic, but for all I knew Deadwood was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Then I watched Kings and he did nothing but continue to impress. He doesn't get to swear nearly as much, but he's still a lot of fun to watch, especially with the increase in power from influential bar and brothel owner to sovereign king of a whole country. He bounces between saintly benevolence and fittingly biblical wrath like he was changing hats, and totally carries a show that would have been interesting without it, but not nearly as great.

Sue Sylvester
Jane Lynch - Glee

"I got a satellite interview. That's lingo for an interview, via satellite."

Sort of like Chi McBride on Pushing Daisies, Jane Lynch is what takes the almost impossibly joyful Glee and keeps it grounded in depressing reality. If Glee Club is what makes everything good happen in the world, Sue Sylvester is the source of all rot and decay. And that's why I love her. It's the depression she sprinkles all over everyone she sees that makes sure the show is watchable. Every story needs a conflict, and she is it. It helps that she's constantly cuttingly hilarious. The kind of character you could watch yell at people for longer than is probably healthy.

Alan Garner
Zach Galifianakis - The Hangover

"Your language is offensive."

It's not that I don't like Zach as a figure of independent comedy, I just think that more prominent roles in film and television means more of him in general, and that's definitely a good thing. There are some stand up comedians that simply should not take up acting, but Zach isn't one. And if this bizarre character leads to more, then it's definitely a good thing. I'm sort of out of ammo for things to say about Alan Garner, but there's really just not much about him that isn't funny. And uniquely funny, in ways that we haven't been seeing for years.

Colonel Hans Landa
Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds

"I did have something else I wanted to ask you, but right now, for the life of me, I can't remember what it is. Oh, well, must not have been important."

Hey, at least the Golden Globes got one right. Basterds was amazing in ways I really wasn't expecting, and a lot of that was because of Waltz' magnificent, multilingual performance. I mean, how does he manage to be so menacing while being completely genial the entire time? It's unfathomable. There are a couple moments where the friendly smirk leaves his face, but they're very few and far between. And he ends up being surprisingly fallible for such an intimidating force. But that's sort of why he's great. He represents the Nazi party: nearly unspeakably evil, but in the end still just human.

Arthur Mitchell
John Lithgow - Dexter

"Hello, Dexter Morgan."

And here's our final character, who debuted a mere four months ago. I've always known Lithgow from comedic work like 3rd Rock from the Sun, but apparently he's done dark before, and his return is nothing if not a triumph. He managed to remain a captivating villain even after he was humanized over the course of the season, but I'll never forget what a terrifying presence he was when we still knew nothing about him. And that butt wasn't a very pretty sight either. Even after we knew more though, he still managed to provide buckets of tension for good old Dex, and has ended up getting him better than anyone else to date.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Characters of the Decade: Part 4

One more to go after this one. Man, this really is TV heavy, isn't it?

Haruhi Suzumiya
Aya Hirano - The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

"Feelings of love are just a temporary lapse in judgment. Like a mental illness."

I might actually like mild-mannered narrator Kyon more, but the show's about Haruhi, and unlike the vast majority of characters, the universe really does revolve around her. She has a unique, eccentric personality that can make almost anything fun to watch, and is the sort of leader whose followers always wonder why they do what she says but do anyway. And there are enough glimpses at her normal, affectionate side in between world threatening crises that she's inadvertently responsible for that she comes through as a person and not just a cipher for the writers' wacky ideas. I guess I like that kind of character a lot, don't I?

Dexter Morgan
Michael C. Hall - Dexter

"Harry and Dorris Morgan did a wonderful job raising me. But they're both dead now. I didn't kill them. Honest."

In a lot of ways, Dexter is a flawed show. It's frequently predictable and there's way too much time spent on supporting characters and subplots we never actually care about. It's easy to keep watching though, because Hall's work is so good. I admit to being a little tired of his dry narrating style at this point but he can still carry the series through any low points. Until very recently he's been one of the best actors I can think of who only works in television, but he's really damn good at it, finally getting recognized by the Golden globes recently (although that award's tainted because Bryan Cranston wasn't even nominated), and is why I gave Six Feet Under a shot, which turned out to be a good decision. He somehow finds a way to sell the sympathetic serial killer angle, and still be menacing when required. All you could ask for from a lead.

Dr. Steve Brule
John C. Reilly - Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!

"For your health!"

Reilly is supposedly a very good serious actor, although all I've ever seen from him is his brilliant comedy work. His best role is most pathetic, as the befuddled and under-qualified local news correspondent Dr. Steve Brule. He's good for a few appearances per season, and they're routinely pure gold. In addition to his terrible advice and wacky outtakes, there are a lot of things about the character that make him endearing in a sad way like his chronic loneliness and crush on married news anchor Jan Skylar. He's getting his own show soon, and I can't see how it won't be fantastic.

Juno MacGuff
Ellen Page - Juno

"Nah... I mean, I'm already pregnant, so what other kind of shenanigans could I get into?"

Juno's a really divisive movie. Some appreciate its uniquely goofy dialogue and moments of indie cuteness, while others can't stand it. I'm with the former, and a big part of why the movie works for me is Juno herself. She has a unique vocabulary for a teenager, but I'm not selective on what I allow films to be fanciful about, and she really sells the whole teenage girl with problems thing that I usually can't stomach for very long. In a movie I saw for Jason Bateman and Michael Cera, Ellen Page is the one who impressed me most.

Leon Black
J.B. Smoove - Curb Your Enthusiasm

"Barack Obama! I'm the President of hitting that ass!"

Probably the least scripted character on this list. In a show where everybody just says what comes to mind during the scene, Leon takes it to the extreme. He can make any topic funnier than should be possible, from the proper way to respond to an insult to the appropriate amount of discretion required when discussing a friend's wife whose ass you're hitting. I enjoyed seeing Smoove pop up in an episode of Castle and hope to see him get more opportunities, but to me he'll always be Leon.

Emerson Cod
Chi McBride - Pushing Daisies

"Bitch, I was in proximity!"

After watching the rather bad previews for Human Target, I almost decided to give it a shot. That's how much I like the whole cast of Pushing Daisies, and I liked Emerson most of all. While the show lived off its saccharine sweetness, Cod was the bitter one who kept it from floating off into space. He's a perfect foil for pretty much everyone else, and his combination of intuition, wit, and resourcefulness made each case into a classic film noir. The show made strides to humanize him during its short run with love interests and a missing daughter, but it probably didn't need to. He's the kind of guy who'd be a pleasure to watch visit the DMV.

Ellen McLain - Portal

"That thing you burned up isn't important to me. It's the fluid catalytic cracking unit. It made shoes for orphans. Nice job breaking it, hero."

Portal was already a unique and brilliant mind-bending puzzle game, but GLaDOS made it something that every gamer should try. Just one of the funniest and best executed character arcs in the medium. Encouraging at first, the artificial intelligence guiding you through a test facility you never quite understand slowly becomes more sinister over time, and downright hostile after a certain point. But she never loses her sense of humor, logging one of the best percentages of successful one liners in history (I just made that up, but it sounds right). Plus the song at the end is just icing on the cake. I just made myself groan.

Anton Chigurh
Javier Bardem - No Country for Old Men

"Would you hold still please, sir?"

It's rare to see such an intimidating force of nature in a film. Compared to the other people in the story, Chigurh is almost a caricature, a flesh and blood Terminator that will stop at nothing to accomplish his task. He also sort of rips off Two-Face's gimmick, although he pulls it off better. It's sort of his lack of humanity that makes him work though, taking the movie from being a solid, off-beat thriller and making it into a pretty impressive, unique work that stands alone. I'm not sure if it's exactly a brilliant performance, but it's certainly exactly what it needed to be.

Nathan Drake
Nolan North - Uncharted series

"I didn't think that far ahead!"

As video game protagonists were getting too grim and gritty, Nate came along and reminded people that heroes are allowed to be likable. Sure, his carefree attitude doesn't quite work with his near-genocidal kill count after only two games, but work with me here. It's shifted the tone of a lot of modern action games, and there's been so much demand for North's voice work that the Internet backlash is already well underway. It's clear from some of his roles that he has a good deal of range, but his classic sarcastic good guy voice is what people want, and I'll forever associate it with the first and still most interesting character I heard it from, Mr. Drake.

Daniel Plainview
Daniel Day-Lewis - There Will Be Blood

"One night I'm gonna come to you, inside of your house, wherever you're sleeping, and I'm gonna cut your throat."

I think my favorite single adjective I've heard used to describe Day-Lewis' work in this film was when Quentin Tarantino called it "volcanic". It just fits, doesn't it? There's really not much I can say about it that hasn't been said better by people who have a deeper understanding of acting. I just know that I've never been more impressed while watching somebody in a film. From his silent actions in the very beginning, to his dark charisma as his business gets going, to his increasing madness as the film continues and to the final scene which is both funny and startling, there's not a moment that could have been obviously improved. I won't forget it any time soon.

Walter White
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad

"We are going to make a good product that does what it is supposed to, as advertised. No emulsifiers, no baking powder, no bleach, no chili powder."

Despite the Golden Globes' continued negligence (Seriously, Avatar's the movie of the year? Why did I even look up the results?), even the slightly less maligned Emmys managed to see what everyone else has the last couple years with Cranston's great work on Breaking Bad the last two years. Watching a man learn that he was dying, turn desperately to crime to help his family, go back and forth hope and despair, and ultimately lose sight of what's important in his life has been a really eye opening experience. We always knew Cranston could be funny, but I've been a lot more impressed by this. I can only wonder what Walter will do next.

Bryan Mills
Liam Neeson - Taken

"That is what happens when you sit behind a desk. You forget things, like the weight in the hand of a gun that's loaded and one that's not."

What should have been a simple revenge-driven action movie ended up being pretty brilliant thanks to to lead's increasing willingness to abandon reason or sympathy in his quest to get his daughter back. More movies should just put guns in the hands of respected veteran actors and see what happens, because it totally worked out here with Neeson. In some ways it's a bog standard thriller, it's just that extra 10% of gravitas and brutality that makes it one of my favorite films ever of the type. Why exactly did they sit on this for a year before releasing it in America?

Concluded tomorrow.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Characters of the Decade: Part 3

Let's keep this crazy train a-rolling. A couple video game characters break through this time.

Scott Pilgrim
Scott Pilgrim

"The future? Like... with jetpacks?"

What's great about Scott is how awesome and totally not awesome he is at the same time. I mean, he's mostly an idiot. He's a bit inconsiderate sometimes about others' feelings and doesn't actually talk to girls that well. They like that though, so it works out for him. Just like most things seem to in the wacky version of Canada they all live in. Despite his faults, there's nothing malicious about him. He just wants to have a good time with his girl, and if that means battling seven evil exes to do it, he's up to the challenge. His combination of genuine skill and dimwitted resourcefulness is endearing, and he's well on his way to being the best 24-year-old ever.

John Locke
Terry O'Quinn - Lost

"Don't tell me what I can't do."

Locke is something of an enigma, but part of what makes the show consistently compelling. If there's anyone who likes the show and wasn't totally convinced by the pilot, then the reveal at the end of his first flashback episode is what hooked them for good. He's one of the more frustrating characters on this list, with his motivations and actions frequently in question. But that's par for the course with Lost characters, and Locke is still always among the most interesting. The last season finale really turned what we should be expecting from O'Quinn on its head, and seeing how the rest of his role plays out will be intriguing for sure.

Carl "CJ" Johnson
Young Maylay - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

"What can I say? I'm a bad man."

Ever since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City the GTA series has had good protagonists, but so far I've liked CJ the most. One of the good things about him is that your version of him might look nothing at all like the one pictured above. They took out a lot of the customization stuff when they jumped to current gen consoles, but making CJ whatever you wanted him to be was a lot of fun. And he's an interesting, sympathetic person as well, with a really good performance from Young Maylay. There's always a bit of a disconnect when you're doing these action games, with the player guilty of usually hundreds of homicides by the end of the story despite its attempts to make you like them. But if you can just accept it for what it is, they did a really nice job with it.

Alyx Vance
Merle Dandridge - Half-Life series

"Dr. Freeman, I presume?"

There's a difficult balance with Half-Life 2. In the first game, the only characters besides the voiceless protagonist were interchangeable, disposable scientists and security guards. It was very much a game. But with the sequel, they tried to sell you real people that you should be interested in and care about, despite Gordon Freeman's continuing non-functional vocal chords. Alyx was introduced as a frequent companion and possible love interest for Gordon, and despite the odds, it works. Part because of Dandridge's great voice work, and part because of the impressive skill with which the character is written and integrated into the world. There are moments where you wish Gordon wasn't so constricted, but for the most part you forget the limitations and just exist in the game's world with Alyx by your side. Maybe my favorite character in all of gaming.

Dwight Schrute
Rainn Wilson - The Office (US)

"If I were buying my coffin, I would get one with thicker walls so you couldn’t hear the other dead people."

Dwight works in two different ways. The first is bringing a character to the US version that's as suitably nuts as Gareth from the UK show without just copying him, and making him uniquely American. The other, as developing into an actual person over the course of the series' much longer run time. For the most part, Dwight is totally ridiculous. But he has enough scenes that could feature a real human that ingratiate you to him and prevent him from being too over the top. Yeah, right now he has a "diabolical plan" to get Jim fired, but it's all based in genuine desires someone might have. It's a fine line to walk, but I think Wilson and the writers do a good job.

The Doctor
Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant - Doctor Who

"People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect... but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff."

I generally preferred Tennant's portrayal of the venerable time lord, but Eccleston did a good job too. The Doctor is one of Great Britain's most beloved characters, and his revival a few years ago seemed to go off without a hitch. It's the mix of good humor and pathos that make him work, as he puts on a happy face when dealing with new situations and foes, but it's really just hiding more demons than any soul should bear. He's a bit of an enigma, because you wonder if the moments where the world is weighing on his shoulders are just moments here and there, or a constant hindrance that he only occasionally lets show. Either way, he's usually a lot of fun to watch, and I look forward to seeing what a new actor can do with the character.

Mickey Rourke - Sin City

"Would you hurry it up? I ain't got all night."

I don't think the movie really held up that well, but Marv is still pretty great. We know Rourke has a lot of range, but I think I like him most as this sort of cocky tough guy with a good heart. He's uncompromising in his ideals and prone to lapses in judgment, leading to his ultimate doom, but hey, that's what prequels are for. His only concerns are loyalty to people who give him a chance and destroying those who go after the ones he likes. And he's pretty damn funny in a morbid sort of way. I've read all of the comics, and his first story is still the best one.

Charlie Kelly
Charlie Day - It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

"Because I cut the brakes! Wild card, bitches!"

Dennis was definitely my favorite character from the most recent season, but Charlie has been a consistent fan favorite for the show's entire run, and for good reason. He's probably the only cast member you can like as a person, because while they're all idiots, the rest are still functioning idiots who do bad things, while Charlie really is too intellectually stunted to know better. He's sort of like a live action Phillip Fry, somehow able to cobble together a working consciousness despite lacking fundamental mental faculties. He provides most of the show's most over the top moments, and is almost never not up to something funny.

Titus Pullo
Ray Stevenson - Rome

"I was only following orders. Bloody good orders, too!"

In a show filled to the brim with larger than life personalities, Pullo stands the tallest. He's more or less a psychopath, but that's acceptable when you're part of the Roman legion. It's very enjoyable watching him eviscerate an enemy, but he's a lot of fun in a normal life context too, just passing time between battles. Stevenson seems to be building a career out of being violent, but he can do subtle when he needs to, demonstrated admirably in a number of scenes. In fact, my favorite moment with the character was hardly violent at all besides a single murder. Rome thrived off the decadence of its sex and violence, and Pullo was an eager participant in both.

Harry Lockhart
Robert Downey Jr. - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

"Doesn't that suck? I just hit you for no reason. I don't even know why."

A Scanner Darkly was the first movie I saw Downey in, and I was very impressed with his work there. But this is the film that convinced me I should watch anything he's in. I could almost give the nod to Val Kilmer here because he has so many damn great lines, but Downey's is the better performance and more interesting character. As far as stars of detective stories go, he's among the most flawed, not really knowing what the hell he's doing and ending the case much worse for the wear. His ineptitude is what makes it fun, and his occasional successes make it all worthwhile. He's also probably the worst narrator in film history, and that's another part of why he's great.

Kazuma Kiryu
Takaya Kuroda - Yakuza series

"When you don't pay your debts, I'm what you get."

Other video game characters have more developed personalities or more physical prowess on an objective scale, but none of them are bigger badasses than Kazuma. He's not confrontational by nature, protective of those he knows and willing to discuss things calmly before they get out of hand. But if you insist on violence, he will utterly destroy you with his bare hands. I mean, the guy fights two tigers at once in the second game. His only weakness is an extreme sense of loyalty, which will occasionally get him in situations he can't punch his way out of. But he embodies the sense of respect and honor that makes the Yakuza seem more interesting than the standard mob.

Benjamin Linus
Michael Emerson - Lost

"You guys got any milk?"

I've avoided multiple people from the same thing, but it was too hard here. Ben was only supposed to be around for a couple episodes but he stayed on because the producers liked Emerson so much, and the show hasn't been the same since. One of the most consistently beaten up characters in history (he has to have spent at least half his scenes in bruise makeup, right?), he's still a good villain because of the respect he commands among his allies. Also, because we're never quite sure how much of a villain he really is. He's always creepy and intimidating, but does he maybe have everyone's best interests at heart? We're still not sure yet, but either way he's among the show's most consistently fascinating people.

Continued tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Characters of the Decade: Part 2

The first list was pretty heavy on animation, but this one mixes up the media a bit more and also features humans who aren't white males.

J. Jonah Jameson
J.K. Simmons - Spider-Man series

"Meat! I'll send you a nice box of Christmas meat. It's the best I can do, get out of here."

Honestly, this was the most exciting thing to see be brought to life in the first Spider-Man movie. Has there been a better comic relief character in the last decade of action movies? I can't think of one. Simmons has a unique asshole charisma that he can make work for seemingly any character, and this was the first time a lot of the world got to see it. While I don't think they quite nailed Peter Parker's personality, the personification of his most consistent detractor went off without a hitch.

Omar Little
Michael K. Williams - The Wire

"I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all in the game though, right?"

I could name wonderful characters from this show all day if I wanted. Omar isn't necessarily my favorite, but he certainly tends to stick out more than the others. In the world where everyone seems to have an affiliation, he's pretty much out there on his own besides a revolving door of accomplices, playing the dangerous game of robbing criminals. A sort of perverse modern day Robin Hood who keeps it all for himself. While the majority of the show's cast is great because it seems so real, Marlo is great because he's a legend in his own time. Nothing quite clears the streets of Baltimore like hearing the call "Omar comin'!"

Yorick Brown
Y: The Last Man

"In the words of Thomas Jefferson... that's bullshit."

Being the last man on Earth is a large weight to carry, and luckily Yorick's up to the task. It's definitely an unusual situation for a person to be in, and he manages with the right combination of heroism and hopelessness to make him a definite protagonist but still very vulnerable and in need of the health. He makes his share of mistakes, but through the whole story he never loses his sense of humor or humanity. And while I wasn't a big fan of the epilogue, the conclusion of his personal journey was pretty perfect.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds
Nathan Fillion - Firefly franchise

"May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one."

Another case where I could almost name anyone in the cast and justify putting them here, but as the leader of the crew Mal always stuck out. A true outlaw smuggler with a heart of gold in the tradition of Han Solo, Mal is perhaps an even better version. He does what it takes to get by, with lethal force if necessary, but in the end has what's ultimately good always on his mind. He's a bit inconsistent, sticking with his principles in some cases but running if it makes sense in others. But that's part of what makes him likable. He's unpredictable, funny, and a pleasure to watch command a ship.

Brock Samson
Patrick Warburton - The Venture Bros.

"Hank, seriously. When I get my license back I'm allowed to kill you."

It speaks to the show's quality that the recent half season was still totally great even with Brock being elsewhere for most of the episodes, but he's definitely the most fun character to see do his thing. He's the ultimate death machine, a badass with an actual license to kill and unending willingness to use it. But even when he's not on a rampage he's a lot of fun. His familial relationship with his unorthodox family, unexpected extracurricular interests, and uncommon understanding of the insane cartoon world he lives in are all big parts to the character and how he stays interesting beyond going on murder sprees.

Nathan Fillion - Buffy the Vampire Slayer

"What can I say? I work in mysterious ways. Also some fairly straightforward ones."

And here's Fillion again already, fresh off Firefly's cancellation. I could watch him in almost anything, with his unending supply of sarcastic nice guy charisma. But this is the only time I've seen him play a true villain, and damn if he isn't good at that too. Caleb doesn't have a ton of screen time, but he's probably my favorite bad guy in a series that prided itself on strong antagonists. With a single push of a finger (well, thumb) he secured his place in infamy, and there's just something about his religious background, rampant misogyny and disarming accent that make him a lot more terrifying than any vampire or demon Joss Whedon could conjure.

George Oscar Bluth
Will Arnett - Arrested Development

"No, Michael, that's not my trick. It's my illusion!"

Arrested Development is basically the definition of a great ensemble comedy cast, but GOB was basically in a league of his own. I'm sort of getting the feeling at this point that this is the only character Arnett actually plays, but damn if it isn't an entertaining one, and it works all the better here with his unusual interests, perspective, and motives. The show was absolutely littered with transcendent moments, and GOB had more than his fair share.

Oh Dae-su
Choi Min-sik - Oldboy

"Anyone here with an AB blood type, raise your hand."

If you watch this movie again, Oh Dae-su isn't even recognizable in the first scene as some drunk at a police station. 15 years alone in a room will change anybody, but Min-sik totally sold hit in his complete transformation into who he'll be for the rest of the movie. The thing that drew me to finally seeing it was a particular action scene, but that's not really what the character's about. It's about what unbelievable circumstances can do to a man, but how at his core there's still the same guy who can still be hurt, no matter how hard his exterior's gotten. And while his final decision is somewhat mortifying, in a way I can't blame him.

Colonel Saul Tigh
Michael Hogan - Battlestar Galactica

"So take your piety and your moralizing and your high minded principles and stick them some place safe... I've got a war to fight."

Tigh is an interesting case, as a pretty good character who didn't become great until circumstances forced him to. He was always an entertaining cranky old guy with a strong sense of duty and a bit of a drinking problem, but when he's thrust into the position of leading a resistance movement by any means necessary, he really starts to shine. Ugliness is what makes pretty much any of the Battlestar characters interesting, and his decisions under stress are as hideous as they come. Of course he changes quite a bit in another way later, and it just adds to his depth as he just tries to come to grips with it all. Most of the show's cast is sort of hard to like, but Tigh was actually easy in a strange sort of way.

Amy Acker - Angel

"I wish to do more violence."

Illyria's here half because of the character, and half because it was so mind blowing to see cute, neurotic Acker transform into the embodiment of pure, sentient power. It's really a surprising amount of range, and she pulls it off without a hitch. It's definitely a good character too, one of the few in the whole setting to subvert the normal expectations for the appearance of what's basically a newly awakened, vengeful god. One of the greatest shames in the show's cancellation is not seeing more of her. I guess I could read the comics, but it won't be the same without Acker's performance.

Al Swearengen
Ian McShane - Deadwood

"I wouldn't trust a man who wouldn't try to steal a little."

If you look up "tour de force" in the dictionary, you'll see a definition that accurately describes what Ian McShane did for three years on Deadwood. The show was more theatrical than cinematic in the stateliness and brilliance of its dialogue, and nobody presented it as well as he did. I think I would watch a show that was just him giving speeches to an empty room. That wasn't all there was to the character either, as he was equal parts hilarious and terrifying as he fought for control of the town he helped build. Absolute dynamite the entire time.

Brick Tamland
Steve Carell - Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

"Yeah, there were horses, and a man on fire, and I killed a guy with a trident."

One of the few supporting appearances in a comedy that basically stole the whole film and launched a career. Carell was funny on The Daily Show and The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Office certainly helped, but I think Anchorman is when people everywhere thought to themselves, "Man, this guy's funny." Honestly, of all the movie's funny bits, Bricks are pretty base and low brow, but still humorous and important to the continuing development of what's considered funny in mass popular culture.

Continued tomorrow.