Friday, April 30, 2010

Zeno Clash

Zeno Clash is a pretty one of a kind experience. The main game only lasts about five hours, and parts aren't that polished, and some aspects of its design are frustrating. But there's a sort of charm to its unrelenting weirdness, and it's pretty respectable for what is clearly a passion project for a pretty small development team.

The game throws right into the action from the beginning, with a few mystical tutorials thrown in to get you up to speed. The story is half told in flashback, as the protagonist Ghat explains to his friend Deadra how he came to kill Father-Mother, the very bizarre patriarch/matriarch of his unusual family, while on the run from siblings who would seek revenge. The voice acting isn't that good, but it fails to ruin the story, which is honestly a pretty interesting one, filled with mysticism and hard to explain things and, much like the rest of the game, enhanced by the unique, strange art design. I doubt anyone's ever seen something that really looks like this, and while I felt some things were weird just because the developers thought they should be, there's still a sense of place that's very strongly enhanced by the way all the odd characters and places knit together into something resembling a whole. The ending to this tale both wraps up the most important parts of the plot, and also leaves a lot of mysterious breadcrumbs for a sequel which is on the way.

The gameplay is a mix of not-that-great shooting and the well-formed but occasionally annoying fist fighting. The focus of development was clearly on the latter, as they tried their damnedest to make a system that would allow for capably fighting off multiple opponents from a first person perspective. It's not too hard to get mobbed and irritated with the combat, but if you know what you're doing it actually works pretty darn well. Not every encounter (complete with fighting game "versus" screens) seems as well designed as the others, but there's a lot of variety, and it's fun enough to usually get over most of the smaller issues. Some of the shooting areas are sort of interesting, especially a couple long range duels against a particular enemy (I have a theory that if a game has a sniper boss, it is automatically the best boss in the game), though they have their issues as well and just weren't the developers' primary concern. There's not very much to the game that isn't some form of violence, though it keeps things mixed up enough to prevent stagnation in the fairly short running time of the story. There's challenge modes to work on your technique if you're interested, although as usual I really wasn't.

It's hard to give Zeno Clash a full recommendation, though anyone looking for something new might like it. There are a lot of touches I like, such as how every enemy in the game is a character you're likely to see more than once instead of just a generic goon, and how all of the equipment ties very directly into the setting. There's also a lot about that just got on my nerves, so it's the sort of thing where your mileage may vary. Atlus is putting the game out on XBLA with new content, giving more people a chance to play it, which is pretty cool.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Twin Peaks - Season 1

For some reason, despite liking Mulholland Drive quite a bit, it's the only thing by David Lynch I've seen, though multiple factors have conspired to get me to see Twin Peaks in recent times. I blasted through the eight episode first season pretty quickly, and it might be the earliest example of good serialized television that I can point to. Lynch is known for doing supremely weird stuff, but he's not the only influence on the show's creative direction, and at least early on the weirdness is mostly limited to a disturbing dream sequence and a couple other brief bits, with the rest being relatively traditional, if slightly off-beat drama. It combines elements of mysteries and soap operas, as an unusual murder investigation is going on amid a collection of townspeople with a series of secret relationships so tangled they look like a spider web. It isn't long before the ring of crime surrounding the murder makes itself apparent and people start betraying each other, culminating in the extremely strong season finale which left me definitely wanting more.

One of the reasons the show works is that the cast is so good. There's something just a bit odd about all of the performances, and it's hard to say whether that's a deliberate a touch or at least partially an artifact of the early 90s way of doing things. Whatever the case, it helps the show. Kyle MacLachlan plays the sort of protagonist that could save almost any show, and the fact that he doesn't have to doesn't prevent him from still standing out. Dale Cooper is the FBI agent sent to investigate after a second incident after the initial murder makes the case a federal issue, and his unique personality makes every scene he's in a joy to watch. His genuine appreciation of good food and many characteristics of the small town atmosphere, his strange combination of standard procedure and spirituality in his work, every feature is unique and entertaining. And most of the people around him have similar things going for them. I've heard a lot about how things get weird in the second season, but even if the whole thing is garbage, the first is a shining example of good dramatic television.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City

I actually played these as downloaded content for Grand Theft Auto IV rather than on a separate disc, but there's not much of a difference besides an alternate selection of radio songs and it's a bit too substantial to shove onto a DLC post, so... I'm doing this.

What was most interesting about these two episodes was the way they tied into Niko's story from GTA IV and wrapped up loose ends from that story. Johnny Klebitz and Luis Lopez are both characters that appeared or were referenced multiple times in the game, and seeing how their journeys interwove with Niko's was pretty cool. The gameplay is starting to feel dated by this point, but purely from a storytelling perspective these episodes enhance each other through their interplay and show that Rockstar can do dramatic scenes as well as anyone in video games.

The Lost and Damned

Niko had a couple encounters with the Lost biker gang, but now we get to see how they actually operate as a group. This episode reintroduces a lot of the gang warfare bits from previous GTA games, and some of the best missions are ones where you and your buddies are chasing down rival bikers and taking them out of commission. Unlike the main game, where it seemed like I was just taking whatever car was nearby, your bike is actually important to you in The Lost and Damned, and while yeah, you can get replacements, for the most part you can just ride around on and take care of the same vehicle throughout the story. It's just a different feeling in the series actually giving a crap about what you're driving.

A lot of the missions didn't seem terribly inspired, a complaint I also had with vanilla GTA IV, but the story of brotherhood and betrayal is a good one, as I spent most of the time actually caring about what I was doing instead of just listening to whatever mobster currently had me by the short hairs. There were a few nice additions to the gameplay, like some new, extremely powerful weaponry, and an actual checkpoint system so a misstep during a job doesn't force you to do the whole thing over again. This might be the most cohesive and structurally sound story in the series, with little to no padding in its roughly eight hour completion time, and tonally similar to Niko's, generally heavy with only a couple moments of excess.

The Ballad of Gay Tony

As the name might suggest, this episode is a bit sillier than the other GTA IV games, and it does remind me of the PS2 ones a lot in some ways. A lot of the missions definitely feel ripped from a different era in the series' history, with such scenarios as a high speed pursuit with golf carts, BASE jumping out of buildings onto the backs of trucks, and interrupting a diamond exchange with a gold plated military prototype helicopter. It's really pretty ridiculous put next to the other GTA IV stuff, but in some ways that was a breath of fresh air. It doesn't add much that The Lost and Damned didn't already have besides a few more new weapons (although they're good ones) and a couple mini-games, but there's a certain energy to a lot of it that its counterpart lacks.

Where it does stumble a bit is the story. Luis is a decent, likable character in a vacuum, but it's not easy to be sympathetic to him when he seems to make nothing but bad decisions. He's sort of forced into a lot of his criminal activity by all the debts his business partner Gay Tony has taken on, but there are occasions where he bows to the whims of clearly insane bad guys for no reason other than the money, and his stated desire to just live his life comes off as false. There's a lot of exciting and funny moments sprinkled around the plot, but the general arc isn't really as satisfying as the other ones, and it's also a bit weird how Luis steals Niko's primary antagonist. Still a fun eight hours though, and it does tie the whole GTA IV saga into a neat bow.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

World War Hulk

Remember when I said I might read this three years ago? Good times. Anyway, I'm of two minds when it comes to World War Hulk. On one hand, it's pretty darn entertaining to read for the most part, with some cool situations and good action carried by John Romita Jr.'s pencil work and some great coloring. The art is definitely the book's strongest asset. On the other hand, the story's a bit too intellectually vacant to recommend it wholeheartedly. I know it's sort of the Hulk's thing that he's completely blinded by rage, but it's hard to take him seriously when there's holes in his motivations this gaping.

Anyway, before this book, and before Civil War, some heroes tricked Hulk and sent him into space, because he was causing too much trouble on Earth. In Planet Hulk, he lands on an alien world, is forced to become a gladiator, does pretty well for himself, beats the bad guys, and basically becomes the new ruler. But remnants of the old regime blow up the ship he came on, killing tons of people including his pregnant wife. Reasonably peeved, he... decides to blame it on the heroes who sent him there in the first place, and returns to Earth to make war. Come on, Hulk. For one thing, if you ended up happy with your new life on this other planet, why are you still angry at the heroes for sending you away in the first place? And how can you seriously blame the explosion on them? Do you think they programmed the ship to fly you far away, and then blow up quite a length of time later? Does that sound like something they would do, even if they wanted you dead? Could you at least try thinking for a minute? The comic tries to be ambiguous about who should be rooted for, but I found it impossible to be on Hulk's side with the idiocy of his whole quest. Still a fun book, but not a very good one.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Liveblog 25: Let's Watch Baseball

I'm not going to do as many of these as the last few years because I don't think anyone really cares, including me. The Yankees have been pretty great so far early in the season, although they just lost two in a row for the first time. That's okay when you still haven't lost a series, though they'll have to beat the Angels two times in a row on their own field to keep that from happening. Andy Pettitte will be facing Joel Pineiro, who I am still surprised has apparently turned into a decent starting pitcher. Hopefully the Yankees can get to him, unlike the last time when he got his team's only win in a series in New York.

Top 1 - According to FOX, the first pitch is NEEEXXXTTT. The offense hasn't been great in these last couple losses, let's see if they can get off to a good start. I'm especially glad that Tim McCarver's not doing this game, because I don't want him to talk more about this non-story with A-Rod stepping on Dallas Braden's mound. It will probably get brought up anyway. Wait a second... they just had a segment of the announcers talking and they went back to commercial before the first pitch. I feel lied to. Okay, game's started. Derek Jeter hits it right to Brandon Wood at third for the first out. Seems like he's grounding out a lot, but his overall numbers still look really nice. I'd complain about Brett Gardner batting second over Nick Johnson if he didn't have a freaking .420 OBP right now. And he lines a single into center. He might actually turn out to be a solid player. They're talking about Mark Teixeira's regular slow start to begin the season, and mention that he hit .200 in April last year, without Alex Rodriguez behind him in the lineup. But wouldn't the fact that he's doing even worse this year without that detriment be enough proof that that whole protection thing was bunk? Mark grounds into a double play to end the inning.

Bottom 1 - Pettitte's been fantastic to begin the season, but it always seems like he's never too far from a bad start at this age. Erick Aybar grounds out to Jeter to start the inning. Three members of the Angels lineup used to be Yankees, which is kind of high but not crazy. Former Yankee Bobby Abreu strikes out. Torii Hunter also grounds out to Jeter, and this game is going quick.

Top 2 - A-Rod grounds out to the pitcher. Come on, guys. At what point will people stop saying Robinson Cano is going to get a batting title "some day"? I really don't think he walks enough to pull it off, and it's not like he can't be a great second baseman without it. He singles to the right side. Nick Swisher works the count full before smacking a double to right which scores Cano. Oh yeah, Curtis Granderson is on this team. He was awesome to start the season but hasn't done much lately. Pops out to left. Ramiro Pena also pops out, and the inning's over. What happened to Pineiro being an extreme ground ball pitcher?

Bottom 2 - Pettitte faces off against last year's World Series hero, Hideki Matsui. He clubs a single to right. Kendry Morales, whom I am already tired of, takes a couple weak hacks before nearly grounding a ball through the hole in left, but Jeter gets to it and throws out the slow Matsui at second. Joe Buck, please look at Jeter's season in 1999 before you start calling any other year in his career possibly the best. It's just silly. Pena dives to snag a line drive off Juan Rivera's bat. Isn't it about time the Yankees started getting Howie Kendrick out? Pettitte obliges by having him hit the ball to Jeter, who steps on second before Morales can slide in.

Top 3 - Francisco Cervelli grounds out. I've come to like him quite a bit, he could be a backup catcher for this team for a while. Can we please stop making fun of these larger, more protective helmets that a few players like Cervelli are wearing? Yeah they look a bit funny but we don't need to encourage these players to value how cool they look over their own safety. Jeter hits a single up the middle. Gardner pops it up to short center, Aybar makes the catch. Hey other guy talking, if Teixeira wanted to avoid the collision last night all he had to do was not cause it. Sure it's a "clean play" but it wasn't a necessary one. He grounds into the shift for the third out of the inning.

Bottom 3 - Mike Napoli rips a single to left on a full count. Wood singles to left, but Gardner throws out Napoli at third to cancel it out. I just got to say, I hate the way Ken Rosenthal begins all of his paraphrased quotes by saying "Hey." It just sounds awful and he's bad at his job. Aybar rips one right at Cano who makes the catch, two outs. Abreu singles to the opposite field. Pettitte's pretty lucky he has any outs this inning and a lead to protect. Hunter watches a third strike that was probably actually a ball for the third out.

Top 4 - A-Rod and Cano single, but Swisher foolishly lays down a bunt to move the runners over and the Angels intentionally walk Granderson, loading the bases for Pena who has a surprisingly high batting average with a small number of at bats in that situation. He strikes out on three pitches, although I question two of the calls. Cervelli singles under Wood's glove to drive in two and bail out Swisher. Jeter hits another one up the middle, and Granderson scores before Cervelli is picked off trying to reach third. Yankees lead four to nothing.

Bottom 4 - While I was doing stuff Andy Pettitte got three outs. That's all you need to know, man.

Top 5 - Apparently Swisher told someone that if that bunt hadn't worked, he would never do it again. I kind of wish that happened, because this just encourages him to keep giving away outs. I kind of want to mention this Activision/Infinity Ward/Respawn Entertainment thing that's been happening even though it has nothing to do with baseball. Basically, Activision has easily held the crown as most evil game publisher for a few years now, and one of their most recent moves was to fire the two heads of Infinity Ward, the creators of their extremely profitable Call of Duty franchise and developers of some of my favorite shooters this generation. Gardner triples to right field, though Teixeira can't bring him home, grounding out to a drawn in infield. Anway, those firings have led to a mass exodus of employees at IW, many heading to Respawn Entertainment, which was formed by those studio heads and is currently partnered with EA, a company which has looked like a bunch of boy scouts in recent days compared to Activision. I'm both interested in seeing what Respawn does with their new creative freedom and wondering if I'll even end up playing Modern Warfare 3 after this fiasco, which is a bit disappointing because I was pretty curious where it was going despite the last game's failure to not be mostly totally ridiculous. A-Rod strikes out looking, but Cano prevents the team from achieving utter futility by singling yet again to score Gardner. He moves to second on a wild pitch, and third on a passed ball. Swisher drives him in with yet another single. Why do people think Jeff Mathis is really good and him going on the Disabled List is a big loss for the Angels now? A few hot weeks in October and to start the season don't make him better than Napoli somehow. Granderson grounds out. He can start hitting again any time now.

Bottom 5 - Kendrick strikes out on a ball in the dirt, Cervelli throws him out at first. Napoli also goes down swinging. There's a pizza place nearby called Napoli's that makes really awesome wings. Never had the pizza though. Takes away from the wing eating time. Wood hits a couple foul balls just out of the reach of fielders before striking out as well. Yankees look pretty good right now.

Top 6 - Pena grounds out harmlessly. The most interesting part of the Activision thing might actually be the lawsuits between them and the guys their fired. I could believe that they had meetings with other publishers and that breaches their contracts, but I don't blame them for doing things like that if they weren't paid owed royalties for several months. If they somehow win they could actually stop production on Modern Warfare all together, which would be pretty amazing, but somehow I doubt their chances. Cervelli grounded out too. The other guy talking answers an e-mail question about Cervelli having a better catcher ERA than Posada this year by accurately citing sample size issues with the comparison. Good on you, other guy. Jeter flies out for Pineiro's first perfect inning, though it's a bit late for that.

Bottom 6 - We're cool if this is my last inning, right? Hahaha who am I kidding no one is reading. Man, I am getting real low on hard drive space. Thank god for this 8 gig flash drive. Aybar doubles down the left field line. Swisher makes a running catch on a ball of Abreu's bat as Aybar tags up and gets to third easily. They just played audio of Hunter arguing that called third strike with the umpire, it was pretty funny. You had to be there, dude. He hits a sacrifice fly to right, and that breaks up the shutout. Full count to Matsui who then strikes out, and I am outta here.

Wrap-Up - The Yankees won.

Friday, April 23, 2010

House of M

I've heard some not-so-fantastic things about this story, but I ended up liking it a fair bit. Olivier Coipel's art is pretty darn good, and while I've definitely seen legitimate complaints about Brian Michael Bendis' writing, he keeps the cheeky dialogue to a minimum and weaves and interesting alternate reality story featuring a ton of Marvel characters in interesting ways. I also liked that it wasn't terribly action heavy, there's the requisite crossover giant clusterfuck battle at the end, but for the most part it's about the characters, not shoving them together into fights. Really, the central question is one I would generally expect super hero comics to try and answer - what's better, a perfect illusion or an imperfect truth? The decision the heroes make is an obvious one since it's hard to imagine a large comic book company completely flipping the status quo of its entire universe, but it's a neat experiment for a few months.

Basically, some time after Scarlet Witch went nuts and killed a few fellow Avengers, a bunch of heroes are having a debate over what to do with her when she uses Xavier to change the entire world so everyone gets what they want. Thanks to Wolverine's healing power I guess he's immune to the effects and along with a powerful little girl is able to slowly wake up a bunch of other heroes to the truth and they try to break the illusion. Not everybody's happy to realize the current reality is a false one, but their ultimate goal is never really in doubt. I didn't know a few of the featured characters, though Bendis did a decent job of keeping it understandable for someone like me who doesn't religiously read this stuff. Seemed like the right way to do a crossover. There are a couple threads that aren't resolved by the end, though I doubt any ended up being a huge deal.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


So here's the story I'm not sure anyone really needed to know - the truth of Wolverine's childhood and coming of age. I mean, most superheroes have an "origin" story of some kind, but Logan already had one, the Weapon X program that gave him his claws and turned him into what he is now. I guess there's not really harm in knowing more though. Origin is a nice change of pace from the typical Marvel story, and while I didn't love every page of it, it does some interesting things. There's a few twists here and there, and while not every one is palatable, the plot is generally solid and sustains itself despite not a whole lot really happening. I don't like when they changed it so he actually had bone claws all along, but that actually helps makes this story work the way it does, and without that it wouldn't have had the same chance to be effective. I'd rather not tackle the question of whether the antagonist of the story is supposed to be Sabretooth, because Marvel themselves seem incapable of agreeing on the truth behind that whole mess and frankly I've never found the character interesting. The art might be the book's strongest asset, with some nice pencil work and an impressive painted look to the colors that really sell the mood and setting, over a hundred years before the modern day. It's definitely a unique tale within the Marvel canon, and since I have plans to watch all the modern Marvel movies I've missed I can't wait to see how the latest X-Men movie messes it up.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 6

The Next Generation's penultimate season seemed a bit Riker-heavy to me in places. Almost like he was the main character instead of Picard. Which is absurd, because Stewart acts Frakes' face off. There were quite a few two-part stories in this run, of course the conclusion of last year's cliffhanger and the creation of another to be resolved in season seven, plus two more, yet another focusing on Worf and his family (can someone else on this show get a long-term arc? Too late I guess), and one that makes one of the best arguments against torture I've seen. And other stuff happens too I guess. Scotty is the third actor from the original series to make an appearance, after being stuck ageless in a transporter beam for years. I wonder how that's going to play into his appearance in the next movie, which I know wasn't originally written with him in mind. Luckily there's no Wesley at all, and making up for his absence last time Q actually shows up twice. I uh... what else do you want from me? I'm watching it all right? Why do I have to say anything? I don't owe anybody. Jeez, man! Star Trek. Stuff's going on with Data, man. That robot ain't right. The cowboy episode with him was good. Not as good as the one from the original, though.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage

So a lot of this is what I don't really like about comic books. Constant, aimless fighting, lots of pages but little actual story, clumsy writing, dreadful pre-00s art... it's not bad, it just seems like something of a relic. This is one of those big crossovers that covered all of Spider-Man's monthly books and was darn near impossible to read and understand if you were a little kid and your mom bought you one comic per month (this is why a few years later I completely missed most of the clone saga and Norman Osbourne's return, although that's not really a bad thing). In the story, Carnage escapes from the asylum thanks to a new way to manifest his power and goes on a killing spree with several other villainous figures, while Spider-Man teams up with a bunch of dudes I mostly didn't know about, including a couple he normally wouldn't were the situation not so bad like Venom. The two groups clash multiple times without a whole lot getting done, and things look as bleak as they can in a universe that never gets more adult than a light PG-13 and in which no one of significance is really allowed to die before good predictably overcomes evil.

While I don't really like the early 90s aesthetic, my biggest issue with the comic was probably actually the dialogue. The need to explain every single thing that's happening while it's happening and have the foes constantly hurl half-witted barbs at each other really takes its toll on your brain, as you'd just like the characters to shut up for a while if all they're really going to do is fight each other ineffectually. Carnage seems like an attempt to capture something similar to the Joker, a mad man with a gruesome sense of humor who cares nothing of spilling a bunch of blood, but he's really not half as clever as he thinks he is, sometimes saying things that are literally not jokes at all, and sadly no one else really bests him in that category. His main partner Shriek is pretty bad too, seemingly more like a gothy teenage girl than a true psychotic super villain. And Spider-Man's moral quandary of whether it's ever okay to kill someone if they're as bad as Carnage feels like it's going through the motions instead of really paying off well. The truth is it actually doesn't matter at all, because pretty much nobody in these stories ever stays gone, whether they're sent to jail or apparently dead. It's an endless cycle of immortal characters facing off, selling more issues every month the company stays afloat. Again, not really bad, but there's a reason I usually stay away from the mainstream comics.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

One of the biggest surprises this year was watching this show slow transform from a laughably trashy and shallow mess in the pilot into a genuinely likable and decent drama by the season finale. It's still a bit excessive in the more adult elements, and takes probably a bit too much inspiration from 300 and Rome, but in the end I couldn't help but enjoy it for the most part. These 13 episodes cover the period in Spartacus' life when he was captured and made into a skilled gladiator, right up until his escape and the beginning of the revolt. For the most part it focuses on the arena and the villa of his owner, as things waver between livable and untenable for Spartacus and his fellow slaves. There are triumphs and failures, although it becomes clear as it goes on that it's only a matter of time before things go really bad. This comes to a head in the last episode, which is one of the best payoffs for a season long story arc I've honestly ever seen in a show.

Some stylistic stuff still bothers me about it though. The violence is pretty absurd in places. Sometimes it's fine if a bit too heavily focused on showing the brutality of the events in loving, slowed down detail, but there are bits where the computer blood is just terrible looking and all over the place and breaks the scene's credibility. It makes it feel really cheap. The constant sex is also probably a bit over the top, it's not that I minded seeing naked women but it often veered into near-softcore porn territory. And the dialogue sometimes tried too hard to sound smart and fancy, with characters referring to themselves in the third person and really just talking unnaturally. Just because it's a show about the old days doesn't mean people can never talk like people. These are all quibbles though in a show that's part guilty pleasure and part actually quality drama when it tries to be. This is the part where I'd normally say I'm looking forward to the next season, although unfortunately the actor who plays Spartacus was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and production has been delayed. They seem to be developing a short prequel series to keep momentum going during his recovery, although I can't say how interesting that would be. It could be good if it means more time for John Hannah and Lucy Lawless, two actors who have never been that famous but have always done solid work and were pretty good in this show as the owners of Spartacus and his fellow slaves. They got a significant amount of focus considering their temporary position within the overall story of Spartacus' life, and that stuff tended to be more stimulating than a bunch of nearly naked men swinging swords at each other. We'll see, I guess.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Important Things with Demetri Martin - Season 2

And here's the other show that I fear has told its last joke. The second season was barely distinguishable from the first, featuring the same formula of stand up, brief and unique transitional material, and a smattering of inconsistent but occasionally brilliant sketches. Fewer recognizable celebrities than last time, although H. Jon Benjamin was again basically guaranteed to appear in every episode. It wasn't completely stagnant though, with a new way to introduce the week's topic reminiscent of an old kid's science show or something, and more repeated in-studio segments than reused characters in the sketches. It's really hard to say too much about ten half hours of comedy that definitely feels like mostly the work of a single pretty funny guy, humorous though it may be. Some of the better bits were an emergency on an airplane where people have to keep taking other people's places that comes full circle in an amazing way, a fake documentary about the other Civil War between East and West, and Bruce the Funny Dog, who just doesn't know when comedy is appropriate. I'd like for the show to continue, though I won't be heartbroken if it doesn't.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Sarah Silverman Program - Season 3

I've enjoyed both this show and Demetri Martin's the whole time they've been airing. They're the only worthwhile things Comedy Central has developed in years, which is why it was distressing to learn in the middle of the season without warning that they'd been pushed from their previous time slots to after midnight. Apparently they've been starved for ratings enough that the channel saw more profit in airing reruns of the previous night's animated series than new episodes of two really funny shows. It makes their bids for renewal look tough, so we're probably seeing the final episodes here.

It's a shame too, because while I thought the second season of Sarah Silverman was still funny but not as good, it was every bit as awesome this year as it's ever been. Again, nothing's untouchable, as Sarah learns that she was born a hermaphrodite, accidentally murders people and blames it on Home Alone, gives acid to senior citizens, and accidentally brings some Nazis to a Holocaust memorial. On occasion I laughed as hard as I ever have, and it was consistently enjoyable throughout. My favorite episode was probably "Just Breve", which actually has very little of Sarah at all, but the culmination of the robot story is one of the best things I've ever seen on cable. I won't give up on the show until it's officially dead, but unfortunately I don't think there's much hope.

Monday, April 12, 2010

I Love You, Man

You might guess this is another Apatow movie, but it's really just another of the several that have successfully modeled themselves after his revival of the R-rated comedy this past decade. It's actually not that similar stylistically in a lot of ways, although it's hard deny a bit of influence. The cast is pretty great, with all sorts of talent, both familiar and up and coming sprinkled throughout. The pedigree of the writer and director isn't fantastic, but they managed a solid hit with this. Paul Rudd is maybe a bit off-type, playing a guy who gets along with women and is a great boyfriend but never really connected deeply with another guy. After proposing to Rashida Jones, he realizes he doesn't even have a decent candidate for his best man, so he starts going on "man dates" looking for a friend. It's a cute idea, reversing the normal focus of a romantic comedy, and it sort of is the pinnacle of the bromance sub-genre. Eventually he meets Jason Segel, the two hit it off, and then there's the standard formula of growing friendship, troubles, and reconciliation right before the end (if you think that's a spoiler then you obviously have never seen a motion picture before).

So a lot of it is just Paul and Jason hanging out together, and Paul briefly seeing other guys played by a bunch of recognizable faces. Some of the better smaller parts are Andy Samberg and J.K. Simmons as his gay brother and dad respectively, and Jon Favreau as the dick husband of one of Jones' best friends, played by Jaime Pressly. A lot of the humor is fairly typical of modern comedy, although there were some unique bits that were pretty good. Throughout the movie Rudd can't help but try to come up with clever phrases in an attempt to sound cool and failing utterly, with each bomb funnier than the last. The best might have been "totes magotes" in place of totally, but it's hard to say. Certain things like Segel's "return the favor" engagement party toast were gold, and even something that could have seemed uninspired like the Lou Ferrigno part were saved by touches like the matter of fact the way others treat him with reverence. It's not a particularly groundbreaking movie and I'm not sure if I'll remember much of it a year from now, but as a simple funny movie it succeeds fairly well.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 5

Well, here we are again. It's a couple weeks later and I've seen 26 more episodes of this show. If I'm being honest, I'm watching it more to be able to say I did it than because I want to see it all. I'm still enjoying it, but it is a bit chore-like. I'm pretty sure I said this all last time. The funny thing is the original series was easier, because despite being less interesting, it was also less than half as long. I passed the original's episode count in The Next Generation almost two seasons ago, but I still have over 50 left to see. We're getting there, though. The final resolution of Worf's issues with the Klingons was nice. There's a good two-parter featuring Leonard Nimoy as Spock, although it sort of felt like one episode stretched to double length rather than a genuine two part thing. I'd have to say Geordi wasn't quite as lame this go around, and I didn't even despise seeing Wesley again, although seeing him mess up big time was funny. The episode where they get stuck in a loop is a good one, subverting the frustration of seeing the same things happen over again one too many times by throwing a kink into the works that makes a lot of sense. This season's finale cliffhanger was a clear influence on the Roswell episode of Futurama, a sure sign that it's a good one. And hey, no Q episode! I can't say I don't enjoy elements of his episodes, but a break from his antics was definitely welcome. How come I didn't realize until now that Majel Barrett, who was married to Gene Roddenberry and played Nurse Chapel in the original series, plays not only the voice of the ship computer in The Next Generation, but also Troi's annoying, wacky mother? Weird. Anyway. Star Trek is Star Trek.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Red Faction: Guerrilla

With the jump to current generation systems, Volition decided to take the Red Faction series in another direction. My only prior experience with the series was some of the second game's multiplayer due to some of my friends loving it for some reason, and maybe just a bit of the single player. When I heard they were making a new game, except it was open world instead of a first person shooter, I was skeptical, although the demo proved to be quite a bit of fun and word of mouth was pretty good. I didn't get around to playing it though until it was offered for only the cost of shipping to people who bought Darksiders, making my delay seem like a good move. The game was a lot of fun, but like many of its type, hurt by niggling issues.

Volition also does the Saint's Row games, and for some reason their thing with this type of game seems to be actually making you do a certain percentage of the "optional" content in order to advance through the story. This makes the side missions seem more like busy work than additional things you can mess around with, but I didn't mind it that much in practice because it was mostly fun and otherwise the regular story missions might have seemed a bit bare. There's a decent variety of side missions, although you end up repeating the same types a bunch anyway, and unfortunately a few types are fundamentally flawed conceptually, which doesn't make them less fun necessarily, it just seems like lazy design. I'll give two examples. One is the Jenkins missions, which I never actually bothered to finish any of after failing the first one I tried a couple times. A dude named Jenkins drives up to you and asks you to man a weapon on the vehicle he's driving, and cause a certain amount of monetary damage to the enemy before he returns to base. A couple problems though: Jenkins is not very helpful, often whizzing past good targets before you get a chance to get a shot at them. Also, why does the mission end after a certain point? Why aren't we just staying out there until I finish the job? Did he run out of gas? Get some more and let's get back out there, dude! You should only fail if you hit too many friendly targets or get blown up. There's also what's basically the race missions, pretending to be something else. You find a vehicle somewhere equipped with some sort of transmitter, and have to bring it back to one of your bases. So many things wrong with this one.

1) Why do I have a limited time to bring the vehicle to its destination? No reason is given.
2) Why is the location I have to bring the vehicle to so arbitrary? It's not the closest base, it's whatever one they decided to make you race to. Why do I have to bring it there specifically when the person who wants it magically appears in whatever base I'm in? It's the worst when the vehicle is already sitting in a different base than the destination. Why do I even have to move this?
3) What do we actually want to do with these transmitters? No explanation is given. And as soon as you finish the race, you can jump right back in the vehicle and drive it out of there, rendering the whole thing pointless. I would have preferred if they didn't try to justify why I'm doing time trials in a bunch of different vehicles while there's an interplanetary war on.

Ignoring these questions though, the basic structure is you're a member of the resistance group Red Faction, and you have to drive the evil Earth Defense Force out of several different areas on Mars. When you get to an area you have access to a few missions and a bunch of optional stuff. You have to do enough optional stuff like rescuing hostages and blowing up important buildings to reduce the enemy's "control" of the area to zero, and doing that along with the available missions will unlock the final mission to liberate the sector. Besides control, two other numbers you have to worry about are salvage and morale. Salvage is basically the currency, and you use it to unlock new weapons and upgrades, some of them required to advance the plot. Morale is area-specific like control, and seems pretty unimportant. It increases the amount of ammo you can find in crates scattered around Mars, but I rarely ran out of stuff in between visits to bases which have it in infinite supply, and the other thing it contributes is resistance members who will show up and join you if you're doing something violent outside the story missions. This is a complete waste of time though. The only thing they seem to be good at is getting killed, and when they get killed it lowers the area's morale, defeating the work you did to raise it in the first place. The penalty is even worse if you accidentally kill them, like if they're getting in the way and are blown up by an explosion you're trying to set off. So really, control and salvage are the only numbers you should actually be concerned with.

Like apparently a lot of people who played the game, after a certain point I decided to put the game on casual difficulty instead of normal. Usually I try to stick with the default, but what I was enjoying about the game was destroying everything in sight, not the mediocre third-person shooting, and that stuff was just getting in the way of the fun part on normal. I still died sometimes on casual, but it definitely seemed like the way to play the game. It lets you just have fun with it; driving around in various trucks and mining equipment, shooting any bad guy you see, using the amazing hammer to tear down almost anything you see, throwing heavy explosives at stuff. The game is at its best when it just lets you carve a swath of destruction, and casual difficulty helps. And it distracts from the asinine plot as well. Seriously, is there a more generically and comically evil entity than the EDF? How exactly is abusing and killing the workers on Mars going to help business? They deserve to all die in a ball of fire. Also, the Marauders seemed like a wasted opportunity to add an interesting dynamic with a third faction. For most of the game they just attack you when they see you and ignore the EDF, with the game rarely bothering to make them even notice each other. Hello, I'm the one trying to liberate the planet you live on, not them! Ah well. Red Faction is not to be enjoyed for the intricacies of its writing and political dynamics, it's cool because basically everything you see can be destroyed, and seriously, that hammer is awesome.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Dead Leaves

I'd definitely say Dead Leaves qualifies as one of the craziest things I've ever seen. It begins with two people waking up naked in the future, one with a television for a head, neither remembering who they are or knowing why the moon appears to have been blown to pieces. They naturally decide to go on a wild crime spree, but then get captured and brought to a prison on said destroyed moon, leading to an escape attempt and more and more insanity piling on top of itself until the end. It's 45 minutes of pure animated energy, as things pretty much go without stopping, only pausing briefly to dole out little bits of its equally nuts plot. The art and animation are very kinetic and stylized, focusing on unique memorable imagery over smoothness of motion. Things are constantly moving and exploding, or just being a little disgusting. Besides the constant violence there's some weird sexual stuff too, not exactly explicit but it still can be disturbing if you're not expecting it. Definitely not something for the kids. The short running time seems about right for the pace and out-there nature of the story, and it does have a natural arc to it despite it never seeming to take a breath. I wouldn't call it great but it's an interesting, very watchable experiment. It's funny how despite how out of its mind it is, it wasn't actually that much out of line with any of the other strange movies or anime I've seen... maybe a little crazier, but not too much. Still, it was pretty fun.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Room

For the second year in a row, Adult Swim celebrated April Fool's Day by playing The Room, a low budget film that has developed a cult following as one of the biggest pieces of shit ever filmed. I got to watch it this time, and it easily catapulted itself to the top of my favorite terrible movies list. It's not just bad, it's a masterpiece of garbage. It's like an alliance of the world's greatest filmmakers decided to forget everything they know and collaborate to make the worst possible movie imaginable. Writer, director, and star Tommy Wiseau has since tried to pass it off as some sort of black comedy, but he's not fooling anybody. And the main reason is because it's clear from the beginning that this is a labor of love. You get the definite sense that some woman ripped his heart out, and he poured out all his feelings into this movie. Despite how awful it is, there's a very genuine feeling about it, and it's actually kind of sad. It's not enough to prevent it from being one of the funniest things you might ever see, though.

I mean, I don't even know where to begin, really. Wiseau plays Johnny, a man with a decent job, a livable apartment, and a fiance he loves who is reasonably attractive when you consider the movie's budget. I mean, he couldn't hire anyone remotely resembling real actors. His friend Mark is sort of not terrible, but that's literally the best you can say about any of them. So anyway, the fiance Lisa secretly hates Johnny, and wants to be with Mark. And that's pretty much the driving force of what could be called the plot. It doesn't begin to describe the film's demented brilliance, though. Everything that could be messed up is. Subplots appear out of nowhere and then disappear after a single scene. I've never seen someone so nonchalantly tell their daughter that they "definitely have breast cancer", and the scene where Johnny's young college friend Denny ("Oh hi, Denny!") gets confronted by a drug dealer is particularly amazing. Apparently Denny got involved with drugs because he needed money for something, but it is never explained what for or why he didn't go to the guy who's been paying his fucking tuition first, and he refuses to answer any questions after they get rid of the dealer (what exactly are they gonna charge him with that he'll be going to jail and Denny won't?), and the whole thing is never mentioned again.

You sort of get the feeling that Tommy never revised the script after the first draft. Characters will start telling somebody something, and then when pressed for details, will say they don't want to talk about it. Then why the hell did you bring it up? Lisa is the worst offender. I couldn't help but laugh every time someone asked her what she was talking about. Does Wiseau not realize that the audience will be asking the same question, and that's a bad thing? Lisa is honestly one of the most poisonous, vile bitches I've ever seen in a movie. Everyone tells her she's beautiful and seems to want her, but she's not even the most attractive woman in the movie and has nothing resembling a nice personality to help her out. She claims to love Mark now, but won't be honest with Johnny, and when asked why, says she can't hurt his feelings like that. Then why are you constantly cheating on him? Just admit you want the house he promised! And what's your plan, keeping up a secret affair the entire time you're married? Why don't you just hope Mark will get you that house eventually, since there's no indication Johnny's really doing better financially? I mean, they live in the same building, and Johnny did just miss that promotion.

And there's just so many other things in this movie, it's hard to count them all. The first half hour or so plays like a softcore porn film, with sex scene after sex scene, including one with what at the time is just two random people who just show up in their apartment to mess around. A character disappears partway through the movie and is replaced by someone else, with absolutely no changes in his dialogue to try to explain why he's suddenly involved in the controversy. The constant football scenes where nobody actually plays football (apparently several meaningless scenes were added so Wiseau could hang out with the actor who plays Mark). Just the incidental dialogue everywhere is mystifying. "You're my favorite customer!" Why is he holding those flowers upside down? The strange, foreign way Wiseau imitates a chicken ("Cheeeep cheep cheep cheep cheeeep!") makes it seem like he's a long lost cousin of the Bluth family, and he even gets the rest of the cast to do it too. And just examining his performance, it's an endless goldmine of genius insanity. I'd love to see this in one of the frequent theatrical showings that happen in some cities, partly because groups always make shit like this funnier and also I've heard about some really fun rituals they do during certain parts of the film. It's sort of opened my eyes to what can actually be accomplished in the field of terrible cinema. In fact, I might just have to make it a real hobby.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Acme Novelty Library, Number 18

The only work by Chris Ware I've read before is a short illustrated story from an anthology I've only read parts of, but his work certainly leaves an impression. His art style is very clean and simple, looking sort of like diagrams from safety instructions or something, but it belies the powerful emotional depth of his writing. His most famous work is Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, which was first published in the Acme Novelty Library, a series he now publishes on his own. The 18th issue is the story of a lonely woman with a prosthetic leg, not too old but not that young either, and it just sort of follows her life and some of its more significant events. Judging by the art on the inner jacket I thought it would be fairly suicidal, but for the most part it was more just generally depressing and self reflective. The events it covers aren't really too dramatic or world changing, but they do seem pretty honest about how bleak life can seem sometimes. It's pretty impressive how well Ware writes a female protagonist, and if I didn't know who made it I would have guessed a woman. I guess as a guy myself I can't really know how true it is, but it's definitely easier to read about someone you don't totally relate to than write about them. Although I guess anyone who's just felt alone can relate to her on some level, as it can be a pretty powerful story. Definitely not something to read if you want to feel good inside, but it's completely unique and insightful.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Arcade Fire - Funeral

This is an album that definitely took me way too long to get. The first song I heard was watching the music video for "Rebellion (Lies)", which I liked but didn't flip out over. Later I heard "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" thanks to a friend, and thought it was pretty awesome. I knew how much people liked the album and was interested in buying it, but somehow it didn't end up happening for a long time. I didn't see it often in stores, and when I did the price wasn't right for some stupid reason. I almost forgot about it until they recorded a new version of "Wake Up" for the trailer to Where the Wild Things Are, but that was still about half a year before I finally bought the damn thing. And now I'm kicking myself for waiting so long. Funeral is one of my favorite albums of the last decade, ten tracks of incredibly consistent musical bliss without a single misstep to be heard.

The married couple of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne are the main songwriters and vocalists of the band, although there's currently five other permanent members. Win gets the lion's share of the lead vocals, although Régine's presence is pretty frequently evident and she does sing two of the last three tracks. There are lots of different instruments contributing to the sound, although the rock mainstay of the guitar is pretty frequently prevalent, and the percussion might be the single most important element in many of the songs. The whole Neighborhood suite that dominates the first half is pretty brilliant, with "Une Année sans Lumière" breaking it up a bit with a nice change of pace. The second half keeps up the pace, with two of the five singles, some of the more emotionally affecting songs, and a few of the more interesting cases where songs will completely change gears partway through and become something else. The background of the album is a bit sad, with it being written and recorded at a time when an unusually high number of band members' relatives dying, greatly influencing the songs (and the album's title, obviously), though it's hard to listen without coming out feeling good, thanks to the passionate, exuberant intensity with which they seem to tackle every single track. Just great from start to finish.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Nick Drake - Pink Moon

Nick Drake's is one of the many sad stories from the world of music. He was signed by a record company when he was just 20, released three albums, went into seclusion, and then died from overdosing on antidepressants, a death which was officially ruled a suicide. His music was well received by those who actually heard it, but partially due to his refusal to perform live or really do anything publicly, it never really sold well until many years later when the title track from this, his final album appeared in a car commercial. I instantly recognized it once the vocals started up, although I can't say whether it's the commercial or just hearing it on the radio. In any case, it's the beginning of one of the best folk albums I've heard in my limited experience, and certainly still worth listening today.

Except for a bit of piano on "Pink Moon", the entire recording is just a half hour of Nick with his voice and a guitar. It's apparently easily his sparsest release, but I found myself nevertheless enjoying what he was able to do with such a limited range of sounds. He plucks and strums his way through eleven similar but distinct enough songs, many of which portray all too vividly the personal issues and depression that likely led to his early death. There's "Place To Be" in which he already seems morose over his long gone youth at the ripe old age of 24. And then there's "Which Will", where he seems to ask a woman who she'll love if not him. And who can forget "Parasite", a title that conjures an image of a despicable, loathsome pest and is in reference to Nick himself. And despite all this self negativity, there's a simple beauty to the music itself that somehow makes the whole thing even more depressing. It's not the most interesting album I've ever heard, but it's one of the most emotionally affecting, and definitely worth a visit for anyone interested in the genre.

Friday, April 2, 2010

My Neighbor Totoro

Or as I like to call it, Children Running: The Movie. In the Miyazaki mold, this movie still counts as fantasy, but it's one of the more grounded ones he's made. It's about a man and his two daughters moving to a new house in the country while the mother is in the hospital. The main conflict in the movie is the kids worrying about their mom's condition, but it's not really the focus of the movie. The main appeal for a lot of it was the relationship between the two sisters. Originally they were written as a single character, but for dramatic purposes they were split into two, the younger of which follows the older everywhere and imitates a lot of her actions. It's good at reminding you of a time when you really looked up to someone.

It takes about half an hour, but eventually they do introduce Totoro, a giant furry creature that befriends the sisters. It does the whole "is this real?" thing for a bit, but it becomes clear that it's the sort of thing that only kids can see because they believe in it. Totoro helps them out with some things, eventually saving the day when a crisis arises. There's not really a huge driving force to the plot, but the movie works because of its very genuine nature and the simple truth with which it treats the subject matter. The animation's nice, the music is pleasant and it's a movie that's just hard to not like if you're not a teenager. Because of monetary concerns it was originally shown in theaters alongside Grave of the Fireflies, which is one of the most incongruous pairings I've ever heard of, but now it stands as one of the many beloved works in the Ghibli library.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

The Special Edition of the original Monkey Island isn't a perfect upgrade, but it's a very accessible one that adds full voice acting, redone music, revamped graphics that are mostly quite attractive, and a robust hint system that helpfully nudges you in the right direction before it hits you over the head with the solution. I've only ever played a few minutes of the original game, so this was a nice way to experience a classic adventure in a friendlier way.

The game itself holds up for the most part. A few puzzles are a bit obscure, but that's pretty much par for the course in this genre, and a lot of them make up for it with the humor behind their cartoon logic. The writing itself is funny too, not exactly laugh-out-loud stuff in a lot of cases but consistently clever and unique even today. Sometimes the voice acting adds to the humor, although at others it actually detracts, either because it's really not necessary for the joke or the actor isn't right for the part. Whoever did the casting for Stan clearly never saw a used car commercial in their life. The key to a game like this is its storyline, because it has to keep you moving forward and informing you on how you need to proceed, and they do a good job of giving you a suitably adventurous quest while allowing room for the comedy and other important things. I have a few little issues, like how the game's first and most significant goal is never officially finished, but for the most part it's a competent homage to and send up of classic pulp adventures at the same time.

Oddly enough the weakest part of the game is the new interface. At any time you can press a key to switch to the original version of the game, which is only an interesting addition until you realize it's practically required for certain time-sensitive puzzles. Since they devote the entire screen to the pretty new visuals, you only have two basic commands available to you at any time without arduously scrolling through available actions or pressing buttons to call up some menus. The original game has everything on a single screen, and when the 19 year old version of the game you're upgrading has a superior inventory system you might consider rethinking it a bit. When it becomes an issue, you can call up the old version temporarily to quickly solve a puzzle, so it doesn't end up being a big deal, it's just a really weird way around the issue.

It's mostly a small annoyance in a game that's more enjoyable for the experience than the gameplay. I would have liked some more insult sword fighting or a more involved climax, but overall it's a fun, very cute game. The sequel is already getting the Special Edition treatment, and I'll be keeping my eye open for it, whether they fix the interface or not.