Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Shield - Season 2

The second season of The Shield didn't have the impact for me that the first did, though it was still a well produced, interesting 585 minutes of television. It follows more or less the same formula. Vick and his strike team frequently break the law to make sure they get an arrest, or sometimes just for personal gain. Aceveda continues to disapprove of his methods, though this season he ends up helping him cover things up a bit to protect his run for city council. Claudette and Dutch continue to provide a lot of the B stories, investigating unusual cases each week, although this time Claudette is more of Vick's true foil, as his techniques begin to cause issues with her own work. And Danny and Julien have their own problems to carry around while they tend to facilitate the others' stories. It's not a terribly unique formula, but it's one that totally works to create a show that both serves as an entertaining weekly cop show and a much more compelling long term drama about corruption and the cost of justice.

I guess the problem this time around was the tension between Vick's methods and his results really wasn't there in the second half of the season. It was huge in the beginning, as he and his crew clash with a particularly brutal drug dealer from Mexico, and he has to interfere with ongoing investigations to save his own ass. But eventually that plot resolves itself, and while it's in a way that causes further issues for others, it doesn't really for Vick. The tension between him and Claudette dims only slightly, but there's not much really pressing it harder after that point. His problems become more domestic for the remainder of the season, and that stuff is handled pretty well, it's just not as compelling as the central question that got me really intrigued by the show in the first place. I always appreciated how The Sopranos (there's that comparison again) mixed crime and family problems for Tony, but The Shield just doesn't do it as well. It's been at its best when Vick is one slip up away from finally getting caught in the act, and I hope there's more of that in season 3.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Terminator Salvation

Why isn't "Terminator: Salvation" the accepted rendering of this film's title? I don't really get that. Anyway, despite a number of factors working against it, I found this movie to be reasonably watchable rather than completely terrible. I understand that that's not exactly high praise, though for something by McG it kind of is. Despite its plot making the absolute minimum of logical sense, and the fact that it completely ignores much of what we learned from the other movies, and that the very idea of a PG-13 Terminator movie seems abhorrent, I did manage to wring some enjoyment out of its one hundred and ten minutes. Yeah, the story has holes, but they're just more obvious when you compare them to some of the impossible scenarios in the other movies. Yeah, it conveniently forgets some things we knew about the machines and the war in the future, but the series stopped following its own rules long ago. I don't want to sound like I'm praising it too much, because it's not very good at all, but I didn't hate it.

I mean, let's be real. It's weird how these Terminators seem immune to molten steel yet vulnerable to bullets, but the series is so inconsistent about what can and can't kill these machines and what they're made out of that it hardly matters at this point. The fact that all those sweet laser weapons are missing is disconcerting, but it sort of wouldn't match the aesthetic they were going for if they were there, and it is after all ten years before the flashbacks from the first two movies. Maybe they just haven't been invented yet. I found it easiest to get some fun out of the movie when I was just watching it as an apocalyptic, very loud action film, and ignoring its blasphemies against the more beloved entries in the series. I actually thought McG did some good stuff here and there. Visually, it really captures the future war thing in places, with some extended takes that really pushed the desperate nature of the fighting. Of course, the performances he got from some of the cast are another story.

There's quite a few recognizable faces in this movie, and not many do much to distinguish themselves. Christian Bale, ostensibly but not really the main character, is decent as usual, though you can make a case he wasn't really trying terribly hard here. I appreciate that Sam Worthington has the look and physique of a more old school action hero, but in two big roles he hasn't really done that much. Someone should just give him a part he can freely use his Aussie accent in. Michael Ironside gets to push himself not very hard at all in a typical hardass authority role, which is always fun, and Helena Bonham Carter is creepy enough in a multifaceted part. I liked Anton Yelchin as Chekov in Star Trek (even more than Walter Koenig, honestly), but he can't save a poorly written, teenage version of Kyle Reese from damaging the character's legacy a bit. There's a few other notable people here and there, but not much to say about them.

And there's really not much to say about the rest of the film. There's some decent action and effects for the first two thirds, and then it sort of comes off the rails in the final act as the plot gets less and less believable. Really, the most offensive part of the whole project is how it plays around with what's already been established by superior works, but for whatever reason I found that relatively easy to ignore. Certainly watchable, but just as easily avoided.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hulk Vs

Do you see that on the cover? TWICE THE CARNAGE! Awesome. Hulk Vs is really two shorter films combined, "Hulk Vs Wolverine" and "Hulk Vs Thor", complete with their own titles and credits. Or as they might also be called, "Hulk and Wolverine Fight Some Random X Villains and Also Deadpool I Guess" and "Thor and Loki Save Asgard from Loki's Own Dick-Like Behavior Involving the Hulk" respectively. It was actually animated by Madhouse, a Japanese studio, and the result is a slightly different (and less messy, if also less smooth) look for the project.

Hulk Vs Wolverine is the shorter of the two features and begins with a pretty decent fight between the two characters. Much more blood than I expected from an animated Marvel movie, which definitely enhanced what they were going for. I understand the desire to keep things okay for the kiddies, but it really strains the disbelief when Wolverine plunges three blades directly into a person's chest and they all come out dry as a bone. The movie then jumps around a bit, briefly portraying another take on Logan's origin (oh boy) and then having him and Banner facing off against a group of mutants including Sabretooth and Deadpool. The latter is played by Nolan North, who does a decent job with a goofy script for the character, though it's not really an interpretation of the character I liked. Even when he's not getting wildly changed for no reason like in the Origins movie, he never seems to come off right when people give him a voice. He's basically a jerkier Spider-Man with guns. Yeah, Deadpool talks a lot, but he's also mentally and physically scarred as all hell. And why is he so skinny here? It's just not the Deadpool I remember reading. Oh well. There's a bit of plot and a lot of fighting, and the movie ends without actually resolving its central premise. Not bad, not great.

Hulk Vs Thor was a bit better. It begins with Loki summoning Bruce Banner from Midgard, using spells to separate him from the Hulk identity, and then merging with it to take on Thor. The two fight for a while (making the title even more of a lie, since it's really Loki in Hulk's body Vs Thor), but eventually Loki loses control of Hulk, who goes on a rampage all over Asgard. It's kind of a cool idea, and they do some decent stuff with it. Thor and Loki have to team up to somehow get Banner back into Hulk, and they actually interested me in Banner's struggles with the burden of his alter ego for what seems like the first time in a while. There's some pretty solid animation, and I had a better time watching it than the first one. Thor's pretty cool, man!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Music Update 3: GrassRoots 2010

I lucked into a free weekend pass to the GrassRoots Festival this year thanks to a friend, and spent a couple of days enjoying a pretty big variety of music and experiencing what was basically a five year high school reunion. Here's the more memorable acts I saw, not including ones I talked about last time.

Donna the Buffalo

These guys are pretty popular around here, and played multiple times during the festival. Pretty good folksy/country/whatever rock, although I can't say the sound stuck out terribly much from the default sound of the whole thing.

Merle Haggard

Here's a guy who took pretty much straight country and somehow made it tolerable. He seemed to be having fun with the crowd. His backup band seemed to be completely random and included what looked like either the most bored or hungriest drummer I've ever seen, but they did a good job of it. Enjoyable set.

Arrested Development

This was the show of the festival for me, easily. I guess this group used to be bigger, but they're still pretty awesome. Alternative hip hop mixing good rapping (especially by One Love) with strong rock instrumentation. They seemed to get the crowd involved with every song, doing a lot of call and return stuff and everyone was really into it. Just a really fun, feel-good show.

Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad

White guys doing reggae! But they actually handled it pretty well. This show was all about the bass, and the guy playing it knew what he was doing. The organist was also a huge part of it. I still think every reggae song is basically the same thing, but it can be a pretty enjoyable thing in the right hands, and they spent a lot of time developing the sound and building to some pretty great moments. Plus they showed appreciation for the acts that came before them (and would come after them at this very festival).


I thought this band was pretty decent, but their progressive rock sound didn't really fit the general mood of the festival that well. They were kind of weird too, wrapping up with a twenty minute opus that was about man's evolution from homo sapiens into "homo luminous". They seemed to be pretty good at what they were doing, I just wasn't really into it.

The Black Seeds

Another mostly white reggae group, although these guys were from New Zealand (and the lead singer definitely sounded like it when he talked between songs. I didn't enjoy it as much as Giant Panda, although I was sitting much farther from the stage so that probably played into it. Another group that seemed confident but didn't blow me away.

Sim Redmond Band

Another rock band that used a ton of different influences from around America, and does a decent job with all of them. It featured both male and female vocals heavily, and the interplay between them and all of the different instruments produced a varied yet consistent sound. Pretty fun show.

Rusted Root

This is a fan favorite at GrassRoots. They've been coming since before they made it big, and they still generate a crowd whenever they play. They're sort of bluegrass with a really strong rhythm element, with drumming evocative of many different cultures from around the world. Another show I was pretty far away from, but a good one.

John Brown's Body

And the final group I saw was another reggae act, although with a stronger funk element than the others. Honestly I don't remember much about this one at this point, other than the crowd was into it and everyone seemed to have a good time. Which characterizes GrassRoots in general, one of the more enjoyable ways I've found to see people I haven't in a while. I hope my next visit is a bit sooner than another three years later.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

There are aspects of this movie that make it seem like it might not be that bad. The director and at least one of the writers have both been involved with some good or at least interesting projects. The last X-Men film was pretty bad, but it could have been the influence of Brett Ratner rather than a trend for the franchise. Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber are both good actors, and do some solid work in this movie. And really, there are parts that aren't bad at all. Honestly. But then there's everything else. Basically, anything actually related to the fact that this is a comic book movie.

After the opening scene which recreates the most startling moment from Origin but robs it of any emotional weight, they ignore the rest of that story, put Logan and Sabretooth farther back in time so they can fight through a bunch of major wars in the opening credits, and then have them hop on a team of super powered special forces. The movie then embarrasses the shit out of itself with a sequence where several of them show off their powers in ludicrous ways that just look silly rather than the cool effect I'm sure they were going for. Agent Zero still uses guns but is apparently magic now, Wade Wilson is not only skilled with swords but capable of manipulating them faster than the speed of bullets (he's not a mutant yet what the fuuuuuuuck), and instead of a pilot they have Dominic Monaghan playing a dude who can control the plane with his mind because uh... they think it's cool I guess.

So anyway Logan leaves the group after some differences and meets a telepathic chick, but a while later someone starts going around and killing his teammates and blah blah it's Sabretooth obviously and Stryker recruits him for Weapon X. I don't really get it... this movie's supposed to be a prequel for the existing movie series, but they sort of change and ignore things for some reason, changing the cast, adding in the bone claws, mixing up the reasons for things to be happening, et cetera. So then some more stuff happens, a lot of it totally stupid looking, and Logan, now Wolverine, confronts Stryker in his secret lair. There's a pointless plot twist that just adds some artificial drama for a few minutes, a bunch of cameos by some other mutants, and Stryker reveals what he's done to Wade, now Deadpool, for Weapon XI.

Oh my god that is not Deadpool. Yeah they did use what they got from Wolverine to experiment on him, but that was it. What they make him into is completely ludicrous and not Deadpool and I just don't understand the point of changing what a character is THIS much. Who is it serving? It's an uninteresting villain, and one unfaithful to the memories of people who actually know and possibly care about who he is. What an amazing combination of wasting my time and spitting in my face. Also, in case you were wondering, even if you have an incredible accelerated healing power, if you fall from a high enough distance your head will pop off, and any skin grafted over your mouth will be removed. Good to know. So they take away Wolverine's memory as necessary and the movie ends without much of a resolution to anything. God, this could have been a pretty decent movie. Why did this come out of it?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Scott Pilgrim, Volume 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour

To be honest, reading the first five volumes of this book in about a month and then having to wait over a year to see the end is sort of an awkward way to take in the story. It might just be my own perception, but it felt like this final part flowed as its own story the worst of any of the chapters, and definitely seems like it would work best at the end of a long marathon read of the whole series. I'll probably do that at some point, but for now I'll just accept that it was a satisfactory ending to the story rather than an amazing one.

The problem I guess is that it feels really segmented and choppy, which was intentional due to the state Scott is in for most of the book. He's sort of a wreck, and the story portrays this as a series of moments rather than a more continuous narrative. It leaves any individual page in the volume seeming totally fine and up to the usual standards, the flow just seems a bit off compared to earlier parts. And so much time is dedicated to the final confrontation that there really isn't enough room left for the expected amount of character work. O'Malley does a good job of trying to at least give closure to as many relationship threads as possible, the effort just comes off a bit rushed.

The final battle itself was similar to the end as a whole, enjoyable if not spectacular. The action itself was pretty good, and the continued use of video game ideas as visualizations of character development continued to be clever. But it was a bit bogged down in its attempts to explain what was really going on with the different characters in the last year, and that bit doesn't work that well. People were explaining things, but a lot of the explanations didn't make sense or seemed to lack details that would really fit them in place. There were a couple interesting revelations, but I don't think I quite got out of it what I was supposed to. I thought the epilogue and ending themselves were pretty good, it sort of could have gone in a number of ways but I think the right one was picked. In the end, it wasn't the amazing finale I hoped for, but it did do what it had to finish one of the more original stories I've ever read.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Doctor Who - Season 5

So my favorite Who writer Steven Moffat taking over the show didn't result in a tidal wave of total amazingness, but it was still definitely my favorite run of the show to date. Obviously that praise is a bit limited since I never saw it before the reboot, but it was still pretty darn good. It's greatest strengths were definitely the main cast. Matt Smith is pretty brilliant as the Doctor, maybe not reaching the peak of David Tennant's best moments just yet, but I was sold on him from the opening scene of the season. He manages to pull off some of Tennant's wackier tendencies while also coming close to capturing the gravitas of Christopher Eccleston in his angrier moments, while Tennant had to settle for saying "I'm so sorry" in a monotone. And Karen Gillan (not to be confused with Kieron Gillen) as Amy Pond is my favorite companion of the series as well. She's not exactly the greatest actress, but none of the companions have been, and she combines Martha's easiness to look at with an actual interesting connection to the Doctor that makes her pretty likable. Also, Rorie kicks Mickey's ass as far as companions' boyfriends go.

Since the reboot Who has typically followed a pretty familiar formula, with about ten stories spread over thirteen episodes, mostly watchable on their own but teasing a connective storyline that finally reveals and resolves itself in the finale. Season five doesn't really change this, though it did feel more cohesive as the connections between episodes were more obvious and there was more opportunity for speculation as it was more like a mystery than some loose series of references. I did enjoy said climax as much as any the show has done, though the best stuff was again in some of the episodes preceding. One thing this season did lack was a truly stand-out, completely amazing episode that people will remember for years, but on the other hand there were no heinously terrible ones that people will remember for years for the wrong reason either. It's too bad there was no "Blink" this time, but I think I'd take that trade.

There was the predictable return of classic Who villains like the Daleks, Cybermen, and Moffat's own Weeping Angels, the latter of which I enjoyed quite a bit, though the best stuff tended to be more character focused. The typical meeting-a-long-dead-celebrity episode featured Vincent Van Gogh and was surprisingly good, the one where the gang is stuck between two realities and can't tell which is a dream was quite enjoyable, and the one that's basically a sitcom with the Doctor moving into a London flat was pretty funny even if he seemed just a bit overly oblivious to human behavior. A couple stories, like one in a London that's floating through space and another with vampire-like aliens terrorizing Venice, felt like throwbacks to the show at its most unremarkable, but they were at least competently done. I enjoyed the way they wrapped up the season's arc while leaving tons of possibilities for future adventures, and the set up for this year's Christmas special was pretty great. I figure more time at the helm can only improve Moffat's show running skills, and I'm really excited to see what's next.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Punisher: War Zone

I've noticed a slight trend on the Internet where occasionally, a shitty film will have a sequel that really isn't much better, but is at least more enjoyable because it wasn't trying too hard, yet the consensus will seem to be that it was actually worse. It happened with Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem, and it happened with Punisher: War Zone. War Zone is a very stupid movie. But unlike the Thomas Jane Punisher movie, it was stupid in a fun way. The 2004 version certainly aspired to be a bit better, but it failed pretty badly, while this 2008 film is just simply enjoyable over-the-top violence.

And man, there's a crap load of that. I loved Ray Stevenson as the jovial yet bloodthirsty Titus Pullo on Rome, and I have to say I liked his version of Frank Castle quite a bit. He's stoic and brutal, but has a heart under all that body armor and ammunition. He doesn't even have a line for like the first half hour of the film, letting his fists and guns do the talking for him. And any time he's on screen killing some dudes, it's probably going to be fun. He slits throats, shoots parkour douche bags out of the air with rockets (I don't understand the director's disdain for that particular action movie trend but still found the scene humorous), punches way harder than a human being should be able to, and fills dozens of guys with lead. If it wasn't so over the top it might be disturbing, but it actually comes off as carefree in comparison to the other movie's sadistic revenge plot.

The support structure around Stevenson isn't quite as strong. Like The Incredible Hulk, War Zone is a reboot that doesn't entirely ignore the contributions of the film it's overwriting. It changes the basic origin story to match the original comic (and actually make a bit of sense), but rather than tell that all over again it merely jumps forward and shows you what Castle's up to five years into his quest. Dominic West and his compatriots are almost too crazy as some New York gangsters who declare war on the Punisher, with the former star of The Wire hamming it up especially as Jigsaw. Julie Benz doesn't do a whole lot with the material as an obligatory female influence on the plot, playing the widow of an undercover FBI agent Frank killed unwittingly (is this a commentary on the last movie's idiotic premise? Probably not), and Wayne Knight of all people shows up as a gun supplier. The plot doesn't have much to it, and whenever violence is occurring without the Punisher around it tends to lack bite, but I definitely had a decent time watching it. If a movie's going to be kind of bad, it should at least be fun.

Friday, July 23, 2010

America: The Story of Us

I don't usually watch the History Channel regularly. I'll turn it on from time to time when I'm bored, and usually I'll catch something interesting. I did this around the Memorial Day weekend a couple months ago, and caught an opportunity to sit through this whole series. It's twelve hours about the history of America, and while it wasn't quite as comprehensive as I'd hoped, it was still a very well produced look at the last four hundred years in this country.

The general format is Liev Schreiber narrating over some actors in period dress pretending to do something sort of interesting, accompanied by flashy computer generated shots of some sort of technology spreading across the country as the music swells. A random collection of celebrities, some more suited for discussing history than others, will put their own two cents in on various topics, and every fifteen minutes Liev declares that some new idea or device would change the course of history forever, and then they'd cut to commercial. The writing was a bit overwrought like that, and it seemed to focus more on specific important events than giving a more complete overview of history, but while it wasn't really comprehensive it was still an interesting watch. It definitely brought up a lot of memories of US history class in high school, if nothing else.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Incredible Hulk

While 2003's Hulk had a lot of big ideas, it ultimately didn't pull most of them off, and it really wasn't a very good movie. Not a bad one in my opinion, but still a failure. For this half sequel/half reboot, they lowered the bar quite a few notches, and the film managed to clear it. It's a solid action movie, not successful at everything it attempts but its errors feel more like stumbles rather than a complete collapse.

Obviously, they recast all of the characters and reinterpreted the look of the Hulk, so they're kind of pushing the last movie aside. But on the other hand, if you ignore the opening montage and a couple other flashbacks, it serves almost perfectly as a direct follow-up to that film's events, with Bruce Banner hiding from the military and trying to figure out how to fix his condition in South America. I was a bit nonplussed by the whole sequence showing him working in a drink manufacturing plant and his blood contaminating the product which leads to the government discovering his location. It picks up a bit from there, as he realizes they're on his trail and goes on the run again. The scene where he's running from soldiers through crowded streets and across rooftops while trying to not get his pulse too high might actually be the most exciting in the movie, not that I really want to undersell the Hulk scenes which are generally decent.

Edward Norton doesn't really remind you of the Hulk when you see him, but he does a very good Bruce, coming off as more intelligent than Eric Bana's portrayal and also seeming to be weighed down by the stress of being the Hulk. They actually got Lou Ferrigno to do the voice of the Hulk, and pull that off well, with him coming off a bit closer to the comic book interpretation than the other movie's version which only roared outside dreams to my recollection. The Hulk model itself doesn't seem as real as the other one did in 2003, but the focus is less on that and more on him just destroying crap. I've never been very impressed by Liv Tyler, though I do think she has more chemistry with Banner than superior actress Jennifer Connolly ever did. William Hurt doesn't really make that much of an impression as Ross, but Sam Elliott didn't either, and Tim Roth did about as much as he could with kind of a dumb villain.

So the movie goes on this way as Banner tries to avoid the military while trying to find a way to fix himself, as Roth's character gets obsessed with becoming as strong as him. Louis Leterrier's direction is competent, and the script is decent, resulting in a very watchable if unexceptional film. There were a few bits I quite enjoyed, and others I didn't. This time they tied the transformation directly to Banner's pulse rate rather any heightened emotional state, which seemed dumb, but it doesn't really break anything. The special effects are pretty competent, resulting in some pretty good action even if the final match up is a bit of a boring one. The end is a bit muddled, but it's set up for further misadventures with one of Marvel's most vulnerable heroes. I was disappointed to find out Norton won't be returning as Banner in Joss Whedon's Avengers movie, and can only hope they find someone who can pull off the part.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Before I talk about the movie itself, I just want to say how glad I am that it exists. A summer action movie with a huge budget that's not only based on an original idea, but a complicated one, that isn't really explained in the trailers and actually asks the audience to think? It's a miracle that this was made. I have some amount of respect for Avatar for doing a similar thing, but the whole story was so broad that anyone from children to senior citizens could easily understand it, which was its intention. But Inception has the complexity of a low budget, mind-bending labor of love destined to release in a dozen theaters inside the shell of a blockbuster crowd pleaser. I guess it's too bad that Christopher Nolan had to make Warner Bros. six hundred million with The Dark Knight before he was allowed to do it, but I can live with that.

And the best part is that the film delivers. It's not perfect, but no movie really is. It is successful at doing pretty much everything I wanted from it, though. The extraction/inception concept in elegantly realized, giving you the basics in the twisty opening sequence (No punches are pulled; after a couple studio logos in the beginning, Nolan dives right into the story and demands you have your brain on immediately) explaining itself more as necessary, and playing out as expected, following its own rules all the way. Several critics of the film have complained about the film's interpretation of "dreams", saying everything is way too orderly and logical to accurately represent a true dream state. But the movie isn't about a true dream state - it's about something artificial, similar to dreaming but not actually the same, that allows for it to be designed and shared by multiple people. People criticizing the film for not being dream-like didn't understand what it was about. Not that everything is entirely orderly - there's obviously the scenes with the city folding over and exploding around the characters, but what's clever is that all these money shots for the trailer happen when the stakes aren't really that high - it's there to explain the potential of control within the dreams, but the real "heist" in the movie is generally more orderly beyond the different touches that show the way dreams can affect others.

I was actually surprised by how much action there was - I imagine if Nolan had complete creative control there might have been a bit fewer guys with guns running everywhere to focus a bit more on the story, but he made sure to fill it up with shooting and explosions to keep the studio happy. Not that it's ever too distracting, and it's generally pretty well filmed and exciting. I felt a bit of fatigue by the time they get to the snowy area from the trailer but I appreciated the attempt to mix it up a bit. Where the action really shines is one scene in particular, a sequence in a hotel hallway that's tumbling over, which completely captures the potential of the moment and to me was the most striking image in the whole film. Nolan has always been more of a craftsman than a stylist when it comes to his filming technique, and that holds true even in sequences like these, but somehow it makes the crazy story work. I imagine that someone more inclined to wow you with the crazy shit he can come up with might lose the thread, whereas Nolan keeps his insane ideas grounded enough with his studied film work that it all seems to make perfect sense.

Beyond the action and heist movie elements, there's also an emotional core to the story. The whole reason for Leonardo DiCaprio's character Cobb accepting the job is a personal one, and as we learn more about his dark past over the course of the film, it becomes clear how tragic the implications of all this escaping into dreams is. He's the only one who really gets this sort of development, as everyone else is mostly there to serve the story, but without that aspect the film would merely be a brilliant executed one and not so powerful. It's a really good if understated performance by DiCaprio, and it helps that pretty much everyone else is fantastic too. Ellen Page comes the closest to understanding his character, and she does a great job as the audience surrogate to whom everything is explained, something which isn't always the easiest to do, especially with a concept as heady as this one. Marion Cotillard gives another really damaged performance, and she's quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses in the game. Michael Caine shows up for his fourth Nolan film, although it's really a bit part that he doesn't have much time to do anything with, yet he's still his charming, wise self. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy are really great as members of Cobb's team, charming and badass as required, and I definitely need to see more work by both of them. Ken Watanabe plays a pretty critical role, and does a good job despite an accent that's a bit difficult at times. The rest of the cast is solid as well, though they didn't really jump out.

In the end, I wasn't sure how I really felt about the film. It impressed the heck out of me, but I wasn't sure if it hit me like the other truly great movies that I've seen. Then I spent the rest of the time from leaving the theater to sitting down for this review doing little other than thinking about what I had seen, and continuing to marvel at how well its best parts worked. Screw it, this was a fantastic movie, and it will likely end up in my top ten of this decade easily. It wasn't flawless, but I feel like many of the criticisms were from people who just weren't seeing what they expected to see, and the vision on display is astounding. It's clearly designed for repeat viewings, the ending was perfect, and it was probably the best combination of new ideas, visual ingenuity, and well executed action since The Matrix. If our summers were filled with things like this instead of remakes, sequels, and adaptations of every successful property under the sun, the world would be a better place.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme

This was a nice little rebound for the straight-to-video line. Not great, but decent, and quite a bit better than the last one. Doctor Strange is one of the lesser known Marvel heroes, but if you've seen Doctor Orpheus on The Venture Bros., you have an idea of what he's like. This is another origin story film, but since it was one I wasn't really familiar with, I didn't mind it so much. It's a pretty brief, quick film, without a ton of extraneous content beyond the central plot. Stephen Strange is a surgeon who loses the finer use of his hands, goes bankrupt trying to find someone who can fix him, and then gets adopted by a strange order of sorcerers who chill out in Tibet and train him to use magic. A lot of the story is pretty heavy on recognizable tropes, like the wizened old master and the headstrong guy who feels shunned, and the bad guys weren't developed enough for the final act to really resonate that much. It's really a pretty simple film. But it's inoffensive and mildly interesting and has some decent action. There's a lot of the sorcerers waving their hands around as brightly colored stuff flies out of their hands and does stuff to monsters, but it's fairly well animated and well paced and hits the right notes for this sort of thing. There's really not much else to say about the movie. It's moderately successful at a very modest goal. Pretty much the definition of a middle-of-the-road super hero story.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Squidbillies - Season 5

Squidbillies continues to be a funny show in its sixth year of existence. It also continues to be difficult to find images of online. These ten episodes continue to bring its combination of broad social satire, funny performances, some surprisingly clever touches and enjoyable animation, especially when something violent is happening. Some targets this season are polygamy, the holodeck from Star Trek, GPS units, and the Insane Clown Posse. Quite an eclectic group of subjects for humor. Early continues to be one of the biggest uninformed jerks on the planet, Granny is still addled but surprisingly horny for an ancient squid, and the Sheriff is still too easily bossed around. The final episode is half an hour again, and this time it's a musical extravaganza with a bunch of guest musicians. It honestly didn't start out that great, But the second half was stronger and I ended up enjoying it a lot despite the terrorism stuff being a bit too obvious. Squidbillies is the kind of show I wouldn't terribly miss if it ended, but it's definitely funny whenever it's on.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Invincible Iron Man

The Avengers movies did a good job of establishing this new line of animated Marvel features, but I gotta say, this one really didn't do anything for me at all. It came out about a year before Jon Favreau's version hit theaters, and just comes off as totally unnecessary and unlikable in comparison. For one thing, it's another take on the Iron Man origin. With his cartoon version already established enough in the Avengers movies and a big budget origin coming out a year later, was this anywhere close to necessary? You can understand why so many big budget, live action films based on comics dedicate time to explaining a hero's beginnings. You're introducing them to a new audience, and you'd like them to understand where they're coming from. But right now we're talking about a straight to video, animated movie. This is pretty much just for guys like me, and probably some kids, who already know what's up. Get to the good part.

Unfortunately, there really isn't a good part to get to. Unlike the live action series, they actually go into Mandarin's story instead of just teasing it with a few rings, but it's not nearly enough to save an uninteresting and dramatically dull film. There's very little to recommend about it. Tony Stark is simply not the Tony Stark we know and love. I've been spoiled by Robert Downey Jr.'s comic genius, and even the blowhard from the comics is written more interestingly than this. His voice actor is pretty awful, coming off as smug with every single thing he says, and all he really does is whine about stuff and spout a few extremely bland one liners. The action is pretty poor, slow and unexciting, and too heavily computer animated. A merging of the two forms can be effective, but done wrong and it's just as obvious and abrupt as computer effects mixed with live action.

There are several deviations from the standard Iron Man story that I didn't much care for. Howard Stark is alive for some reason, and isn't really given anything to do other than come off as a slightly bigger jerk than Tony. Way too much time is spent with Tony on the run, a plot which doesn't add much besides a bit of tedium whenever he has to return to the Stark Tower for some information or equipment. And it's revealed after his initial escape from the bad guys with the Iron Man prototype that it wasn't actually a prototype at all - he shows Rhodie his secret room filled with different suits equipped for different purposes. Uh, what? The closes we get to the classic suit is the one he brings to the volcano, which I think is just supposed to be able to withstand the heat. The rest of the time he's just stomping around in overly large, clunky suits that simply aren't exciting to watch take on some elemental monster guys.

And I mean... all this could have been saved if there was something good to the core story. And it definitely tries, really it does. There's a girl and some family tragedy and destiny and all that. But it's just not handled right. It comes off really dumb. Like... unbelievably stupid. It doesn't make any sense. At all. Any attempt at drama and sadness is thwarted by how easily any of the heartbreak could have been avoided if these characters had brains. It's really disappointing. To this point though it only looks like a temporary stumble for these animated movies though, so it's not a huge deal.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mother Night

While Mother Night is still distinctly and definitely written by Kurt Vonnegut, it is without a doubt the least Vonnegut-like of his novels that I've read. By that I mean it doesn't have a lot of the calling cards of his other books. There aren't any science fiction elements, it's not overtly satirical, and it's also not particularly funny. There are a few instances of brutally dark humor, but they're pretty sparse. He's obviously done other relatively serious stories, but even Slaughterhouse-Five was fairly odd in places. Mother Night is very grounded and serious as it tells a story with what he calls the one one of his with a moral, and it's one that shines through the entire time.

Mother Night is about an American-born member of the Nazi party facing trial in Israel. The first few chapters introducing his living space and the various men who keep him under guard, and the novel is written as though it is a work that doubles as both his autobiography and his defense. He was a minister of propaganda in English, and claims he was hired by the government to use his platform to deliver secret messages to the allies. He has no proof of this however, and the situation doesn't look good. While his broadcasts may have had an ulterior motive that helped the war effort, they were also filled with vitriolic hate speech as they were supposed to, speech which definitely pushed the Nazi agenda and assisted their goals. The question isn't even which side he helped more. If he spoke so well for the Nazis, does it really matter why he was saying it?

The story jumps around in time quite a bit, revealing details as necessary and giving a good overview of an interesting life in a way that makes it hard to put the book down. It's an extremely quick read, one I finished in two days, and a very fulfilling one too. Some of the material is a bit difficult content-wise, but it all plays into what may be my favorite work by Vonnegut so far. It's chilling, surprising, and thought provoking. And the ending is perfect in its harshness, unexpected at first but ultimately the only way that it could have ended appropriately. I enjoy Vonnegut when he's being silly, but this is altogether something else.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Much like the first Fantastic Four movie, Rise of the Silver Surfer isn't aggressively terrible. It's just dull and doesn't seem to have its priorities in order. For a brief, 90 minute movie, way too much time is spent just dealing with these characters that I don't think anyone is that attached to. I don't mean the four themselves, I mean these actors' renditions of them. Michael Chiklis is hammy enough as The Thing and Chris Evans has a bit of charisma as Johnny Storm, but Jessica Alba is just totally out of place as someone like Sue, I still can't even remember the guy who plays Reed, and none of them have any real chemistry together. The movie's supposed to be about the biggest threat the world has ever seen in the form of a powerful presence that is coming to literally eat the planet, but it seems like half the movie is about how hard they can try to make us laugh with and like these characters. Ben's still with his blind girlfriend! The Human Torch is often outrageous! Uh oh, Reed and Sue's wedding was interrupted at the last possible second by a world changing destructive phenomenon!

There's just too much time dedicated to humor that falls flat and character drama no one cares about for the real issues to get their due attention, which leaves them feeling weightless and unimportant. It doesn't matter how much money you pour into animating your scary cloud Galactus (I actually don't have too much of an issue with this design decision because if they did what he really looks like it would come off as ludicrous), it still hardly registers as a threat. Of course Victor Von Doom is back and causing trouble, which does little other than add twenty minutes to a film that seemed to desperately need it. Of course they thought the Silver Surfer was important enough to put in the title so he must be important... and he sort of is I guess. He's the thing they chase after for pretty much the whole movie, and really the only thing keeping it from being totally lifeless. Doug Jones provides his body (seemingly pointlessly) and Larry Fishburne provides his voice (less pointlessly I suppose), and the whole film sort of rests on his shoulders. He's a somewhat interesting presence, although it's one that's handcuffed by some of the lazy plotting in the script that doesn't let him do a whole lot. Just like the first movie, there's a strange lack of action, with only a couple scenes that even approach being describable as exciting, and maybe one actual fight. If there's one thing I don't understand about these two movies its their total failure to actually have action in them. Lots of super hero movies seem to have this problem actually, even the good ones, but when you don't really have anything else, it's pretty disappointing when you can hardly even deliver on that front. So like its predecessor, this film is a well-meaning but disappointingly boring and unremarkable failure.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

And Another Thing...

For some, the very idea of this book is a sacrilege. Somebody other than the late, great Douglas Adams writing a novel in his most loved series. And by someone who to this point is only known for his writing for younger readers. But I don't think Adams himself would really object. He reveled in the inconsistency among the many iterations and adaptations of his story, and was himself responsible for most of the new ideas that the same doubters probably thought ruined the long-delayed film version. Eoin Colfer turn at the helm isn't exactly great, but it doesn't ruin the series either. It just sort of exists there alongside the first five books, and at the least we should be grateful that it erases Adams' greatest mistake - killing off all the main characters at the end of Mostly Harmless.

There are a few weird decisions here and there. Colfer is more of a fantasy guy than a science fiction guy, and that's sort of reflected in the story. A lot, and I mean a lot, of time is spent dealing with gods, both smaller insignificant ones and the big guys like Thor. The story actually seems handcuffed a bit, only covering a few major events over its brief page count. Arthur and Ford hardly get to do anything, and Colfer makes a rather odd choice for Trillian's new love interest. Zaphod's definitely the star of the show, having the most to do and getting a lot of the best lines. I don't think it really stands up to the other books in the trilogy, especially the first three from what I remember. But it's a pleasant, inoffensive read, respectful enough to Adams' work while putting Colfer's own stamp on it. I don't know if he intends to continue with further books, and I think I'd be okay either way. There is a bit of a cliffhanger that leaves someone in a precarious position, but the important thing was fixing the universe, and he did that well enough. Not bad.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Prestige

Written in participation with Bryce Wilson's Chris Nolan Blogathon at Things That Don't Suck...

After I saw this film yesterday and loved it for the most part, I realized I had to finally decide where I stood on Christopher Nolan. It's a bit of an awkward position because on one hand, he has made two of my favorite rewatch films, i.e. movies that would probably be better or at least as interesting in a different way if you see them again knowing fully what's going to happen, and also two of the best super hero films from a decade full of them. That right there is enough to make him one of my favorite directors, given my limited experience with some of history's great auteurs. There are a couple other things I have to acknowledge, though. Despite saying Memento would be a great rewatch film and having it on top of my list for best movies of the 00s... I haven't actually seen it more than once. And while he's made several great movies, I feel like his strength is pulling good work out of big name actors and writing good scripts, not necessarily shooting a scene. His work is consistent and competent, I'm just not sure he has enough style or ability to make a scene that isn't inherently compelling into a marvel like Scorsese or the Coens or Tarantino. Not that there's anything wrong with making good use of your cast and director of photography to put a brilliant story on the screen, it's just something I've thought about.

But yeah, the movie... it's really good. Strong thematically, as it's about two magicians who become rivals over time, and the film itself is mostly a magic trick as much as anything that happens on the screen. It basically invites you to try to figure it out before the two hour running time is over, and while I managed to puzzle out at least one aspect of its mind bending conclusion, there were still major pieces that managed to surprise by the end. Movies with twists can end up disappointing when you watch them again, if the twist isn't woven into the fabric of the entire story. Twists should leave you kicking yourself every time the movie basically tells you the secret, and it should tell you about a hundred times before it actually tells you. The Prestige definitely works on that front, with the sort of details littered around that make you slap your forehead shouting "oh!" hours after you've seen it, lying in bed. One unexpected factor is that the movie mostly presents itself as a plausible if extraordinary story, but there is one key plot element, introduced by Nicola Tesla himself (played by David Bowie, who is so perfect in the role that I somehow missed that it was him), which is impossible and you're just going to have to accept to enjoy the movie. But if you can, it's worth it.

And while I do have questions about Nolan's ability to carry a film, The Prestige is definitely well shot and well acted. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are both good as the main magicians, neither quite filling the role of protagonist or antagonist. They are both driven and tormented, and neither comes out for the better as the result of their rivalry. Jackman's American accent is a bit better than Bale's English one, but there were only a few times that it stuck out to me as false. Otherwise, they both do strong, passionate work that sells the unreality of what they're doing. Michael Caine is great as always in the mentor role for both men, Scarlett Johansson is again competent as a stage assistant who gets caught between the two men, and Andy Serkis manages to sell another slightly unusual character as Tesla's right hand. One of the main strengths of the story is how it's told, with a non-linear style that gives you information when you need it, and helps with the whole image of the film as an elaborate illusion by the filmmakers. For a movie about a couple of guys who like to do magic tricks, it's a pretty amazingly dark story with some pretty brutal implications, definitely worth seeing for any fan of films that make you think.

Monday, July 12, 2010


It's pretty clear with this film that producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimród Antal set out to do two things. The first was to pay tribute to one of the best action movies of the 80s. The second was to be the only film since the original featuring the titular antagonists to actually be entertaining. It mostly succeeded on both fronts. It's not a great movie, and it honestly handcuffs itself quite a bit by adhering so steadfastly to the story beats set in place by Predator, but it does succeed by combining science fiction, action, and a bit of horror in a similar way. There's nothing terribly original or surprising about the movie, but it has a few likable characters, some brutal and exciting action scenes, and some solid fan service without overdoing it.

There have been comparisons made between Predators and Aliens, both sequels to classic monster movies that up the stakes, which is obviously something they were going for. That's pretty much where the similarities end for me, though. It points to the difference between truly great sequels and merely solidly entertaining ones like this. Anything Predators and Aliens have in common is something that the Predator already did, excepting multiple antagonists. Aliens changed the game by following up a tense, claustrophobic thriller with bombastic large scale action, while Predators just copies Predator with more blood and special effects. It's an approach that works well enough, but it makes any parallels with superior movies seem hollow.

Anyway, the movie itself. It kicks off with a bang as the heroes are forcefully introduced to the wilderness and continues in a fairly wonderful slow burn as they try to figure out where they are and why they were picked. The danger ratchets up slowly, before they eventually discover what they're really up against, and after a slight detour involving a pretty great scene of exposition where everything is laid out by a wonderfully unhinged Laurence Fishburne, it starts to get really violent. I don't think the balls-out violence of the second half is as effective as the slow burn of the first, but I guess I went to see the movie for some Predator violence after all, so I can't complain that much. The mix of characters adds some fun and humor to what could have been a pretty flat script, and Adrien Brody somehow pulls off the gruff loner act without looking like a fool. That was key, because while he's no Dutch, he does manage to keep the movie going as the tough hero, something I wasn't really expecting to see him do quite so well. A lot of the cast is recognizable, including Rodriguez' cousin Danny Trejo as an early victim, Topher Grace as a doctor who doesn't seem to belong, and Walton Goggins from The Shield as a version of his completely trashy persona that's on the wrong side of the law this time.

So anyway, the gang of survivors gets slowly whittled down over time by their hunters, before the telegraphed climactic conclusion where the shirts come off in favor of mud as the humans make their last stand. It's a pretty predictable movie, which is one of the reasons its reliance on reminding you of why Predator was awesome makes for a slightly less impressive final product. Maybe that was necessary though, because the other movies with predators in them tried to take them to difference places or situations and it just didn't work out. It's interesting how the film makes it clear that it's in the same universe as the original, yet completely ignores anything else that may or may not have happened. It seems like a genuine attempt to make the series relevant again after the pandering yet generally terrible crossovers with that other alien series, and I'd be interested in seeing more of what they can do even if the conclusion and ending weren't nearly as strong as the beginning. There were some issues with the foundation of the premise and a few odd directorial choices here and there, but it was mostly a fun time at the movies.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Liveblog 28: Right Before the Break

Here we are on the last game before the break. The Futures Game is tonight, Nick Swisher is going in the Home Run Derby tomorrow, and eight Yankees will be at the All-Star Game the day after. The team's been doing very well lately - despite losing out on the Cliff Lee sweepstakes (something I don't terribly mind since if there's one weakness on this team, it's not starting pitching), they have the best record in the majors and are on pace to do even better than last year's 103 wins. And that's despite an occasional inability to hit the broad side of the barn and the fact that Mariano Rivera is their only reliable reliever. Joba Chamberlain just blew his second 1-0 lead in as many opportunities, and they've got to stop putting him in those situations until he figures things out. I know the important things that are in his control have been pretty good, but he's simply not the pitcher he was two or three years ago. Anyway, CC Sabathia has been fantastic lately and is pitching this afternoon. He'll try to get the Yankees their third win in this four game series against Ryan Rowland-Smith. I'll probably start this a little late because of the World Cup final but I will try to go more than two innings this time.

Top 1 - As regulation time drew to a close in South Africa, the Yankees loaded the bases against Rowland-Smith and managed to score two runs. Marcus Thames is batting sixth, and strikes out looking.

Bottom 1 - Of course the World Cup Final is scoreless and going into extra time on the day I intended to blog the Yankee game. I'll be watching that, but also keeping this updated with Gameday until it's over. CC was voted onto the All-Star team by the players, but he won't participate because he's pitching today. He's actually not the best candidate, but he's been pitching very well lately, winning his last seven starts. Ichiro Suzuki grounds out to first. Chone Figgins strikes out swinging. Franklin Gutierrez grounds out to second. Pretty simple.

Top 2 - Curtis Granderson grounds out to first. He really hasn't done that much this year besides a few clutch hits. He's really got to figure out this left handed thing, or at least start against them less often. That would be easier if they could pick up a bat at the deadline since Nick Johnson seems to be in fine constantly-injured form. Brett Gardner gets a free pass in the form of a hit by pitch in what looks to be the upper arm area. Derek Jeter hits a deep fly ball, but Gutierrez catches it at the wall. Swisher grounds out to third and the inning's over.

Bottom 2 - Last night's hero at Joba's expense, Jose Lopez hits a line drive right at Mark Teixeira. Casey Kotchman hits what I assume is a solid single to left field. Newly acquired Justin Smoak does the same. Josh Bard flies out to the same general area and Jack Wilson grounds into a force though, so it's for naught.

Top 3 - Besides that kick to the chest that the referee missed, this has been kind of a boring World Cup Final. Here's a pretty amazing statistic: Brett Gardner has a higher slugging percentage than the entire Mariners lineup today. This is Brett Gardner we're talking about! Talk about a team that can't hit. Spain flops to get a red card called against the Dutch, but can't do anything with the free kick. Meanwhile Tex hits a double to left. A-Rod actually tries a bunt, but hits it foul and moves the runner to third on a foul fly out instead. Tex scores on a wild pitch over Robinson Cano's head. I don't understand why the team is letting Swisher hit in the derby but not Cano. They say he has a back issue, but if so it's so minor that he didn't even know it was a problem until they told him about it. Cano and Jorge Posada make fly outs to end the inning.

Bottom 3 - Late goal for Spain, looks like the Cup is theirs. Two cards on the play. Lots of cards in this game, man. Meanwhile CC has two quick outs. In case you were wondering, only one of the Yankees' three runs was earned, because in the first inning rally the Mariners actually made two errors. And the third run was scored on a wild pitch, so... that's not how you win games. When you can't hit, defense should be a priority. Figgins grounds out.

Top 4 - Game over, Spain wins its first World Cup, Netherlands fails yet again in their third final. I finished second in my pool to pick the winners. I've enjoyed the cup, but the combination of referee failure and lack of accountability makes it difficult to really care about soccer otherwise. Thames singles to start the inning. Granderson moves him to second with a ground ball. Gardner reaches base again with a walk. Passed ball moves up the runners. Really sloppy defense. Jeter doubles in both runs and things are looking nice on ice, all right. Swisher pops out, but Teixeira hits another double and the Yanks lead 6-0. Rodriguez flies out.

Bottom 4 - The Futures game starts at 6. I might watch that instead of finishing this if it's still so one-sided. Cano misses a ball but still manages to throw out the runner. CC knocks down a ball and throws to first for out number two. Full count against Kotchman, but he grounds out to second. CC's consistently cruising.

Top 5 - New pitcher for the Mariners, Brian Sweeney. Cano leads off with a double and Posada flies out. Thames smashes a home run just fair (off a right hander!), and this game is getting out of hand. Granderson singles to right. Gameday's lagging behind quite a bit for some reason. Gardner loops a fly ball to left for out number two. Jeter hits it far yet again, but it's caught by Ichiro.

Bottom 5 - Smoak and Bard make outs quickly. Wilson hangs in a while, but grounds out to third. Breezy game considering the eight runs.

Top 6 - Another deep fly by a Yankee as Swisher flies out to center. Tex flies out to right and A-Rod grounds out somewhere. On we go.

Bottom 6 - CC gives up consecutive singles again, and Figgins works a full count. Yet another single, and Michael Saunders breaks up the shutout. Gutierrez lines out to Jeter, who can't make the accurate throw to first to pick off Figgins. No worries though, as Lopez grounds in a double play on the next pitch. Game looks to be in hand, I'm going to flip over to the Futures game and wrap up later.

Wrap-Up - CC finished seven innings and with the Mariners only managing one run off the Yankees bullpen, they won 8-2, giving Sabathia his eighth straight win despite only one strikeout. They did great in the first half despite a few hiccups, and are maybe one trade away from a completely dominant second half of the season.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tales of Monkey Island: Rise of the Pirate God

The fifth and final chapter of the Tales of Monkey Island series ends it with a relative bang. The true plot finally takes shape as the actual villain is finally out in the open, and all sorts of plot threads that have been strewn about are tied together to bring the saga to fitting and relatively tidy close, while still leaving a hook for further adventures with Guybrush. It's pretty well done, and very fun considering you spend most of the game dead. Not only do you have to return to the land of the living, you have to reunite with your corpse as well, and the whole process is clever and a solid resolution to a lot of what they built up over the last few games. This is where the episodic stuff really comes into play - you can play them out of order if you really want, but to fully understand everything and have it make sense you have to start at the beginning and end up here. It is isn't perfect - I could swear the game ignored me when I found the correct solution to something the first time, and a few bits of the plot are tired, and the controls for moving around are still bad. But it's a good conclusion to another strong series by Telltale. I'll be starting the third season of Sam and Max soon, and I have high hopes for that.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

The original Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation was already perhaps my favorite anime series ever. So when you take that existing greatness, and then change the plot so it more closely matches the source material, improve the quality of the art and animation, and provide it with an ending that actually feels cohesive and fits the story... well, you have my new favorite anime series.

Not that the entire thing is amazing. There are a few issues tied into the whole deal of it redoing the story to fit more closely to the manga. So here's the deal: Hiromu Arakawa started the Fullmetal Alchemist manga in 2001. It was very popular, so they started up an animated series in 2003 After about half a year, they were already caught up with the events of the still-running manga, so they made up the rest of the story on their own, and the second half deviated greatly from the source material. Then last year, as the end of the manga finally came into view down the line, they made this series, which blasts through all of the content the original series got right in about half the time. It then strictly follows the real story through to the end, where it only finished about a month after the manga. It mostly worked out, but there are a couple hiccups. For one, that beginning section where they're basically speeding through the early plot simply isn't as good as the original series. It definitely feels rushed, and it was a necessary evil so they could establish the story without wasting too much time. Also, the series got in danger of overtaking the manga yet again maybe two thirds through, and there's a bit of a lull as they wait around not doing much so it doesn't happen. It's only a bit of filler, but it's a noticeable drag and kills the momentum a bit.

But it's okay, because everything else about the series is fantastic. The studio did a pretty good job of coming up with a story after Arakawa specifically told them not to do what she was planning, but the real plot here just works better. Lots of details and characters change, generally for the better, both in terms of what's interesting and what makes sense with the overall setting and mythology. One of the major changes is the real origin of the Homunculi, and while the original explanation might have actually been a bit cooler, the real one just fits the plot great. And that's what the new things tend to do. The real climax and resolution don't come out of nowhere, and all of the characters get more fitting and conclusive ends to their stories. And I mean... all of this would have been fine, and the series would have been very good, if the action was just decent. But it's... I mean... I'll put it like this: practically every fight scene from this series would have been one of the top five fights in the entirety of any other show that I've seen. Maybe top ten in a really good show. But every fight! It's absurd how creative and well-animated and unique and just cool every single action scene in this show is. And it's not like they find something that works and sticks with it, there are tons of characters that all get their moments to shine. With great characters, amazing action, an interesting plot, and a fair amount of humor thrown in, it's pretty much all you could ask for from an anime.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tales of Monkey Island: The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood

After a couple of decent but less than stellar episodes, this was a nice little turnaround. It does reuse a previously explored location, but presents it in a different way that makes it seem fresh, and there's enough stuff that wasn't there before that it doesn't quite feel like a retread. And more importantly, the puzzles are quite good. There are two main phases, the trial and completing a voodoo recipe, both of which go beyond the standard "do three things" formula and require you to actually think a bit instead of just clicking on objects haphazardly. They even give you a map that can be refolded to magically alter the jungle's layout. It's pretty fun. Plus the plot finally really gets into gear, and the climax is one of the better ones Telltale's done in a while. They tend to work out best when they just put you in a precarious position with everything you need and just have you work it out, and it's done to great effect here. It's really just more setup for the finale, but they did a good job of righting the ship beforehand. Also, it was fun to see Stan again, and at least his voice actor was better than the one from that special edition remake.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Ultimate Avengers

It's just an animated straight-to-video release, but it's a more competent film than most of the Marvel stuff I've been watching lately. I already saw this movie's sequel a few years ago, and all I knew about this one was the scene where Captain America tells a Nazi that Hitler's dead before bashing him with his shield. But that was misleading, because it's actually a super-advanced alien disguised as a Nazi. I uh... didn't really understand that part of the movie. Were all the Nazis supposed to be aliens? Or were they just disguising themselves like that? Anyway, they hate Earth and want to kill us I guess. Luckily they don't bother us again until the modern day, when the Captain is awoken from a frozen sleep and leads a team of super heroes called the Avengers, most of whom don't actually seem all that interested in it.

But, you know, they do some fighting and wisecracking like good super heroes do. They infiltrate a base the aliens took over, scuffle a bit, fight off a big invasion, and then have to take on the Hulk, who kind of acts like a moron and wastes time trying to make his ability manageable instead of doing the job he was actually assigned. There's not a whole lot of depth to the plot but what is there is generally workable and watchable. The animation comes off a bit clumsy in low-key moments, but it's actually pretty good when shit is hitting the fan. And as far as setting up the universe for the string of Marvel animated features that would follow, it does a pretty decent job. Also, Nolan North is in it so you know it has to be at least decent.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tales of Monkey Island: Lair of the Leviathan

I've briefly mentioned the badness of this series' control scheme before, but I feel like I should give some more explanation. In typical old adventure games, you walk somewhere by clicking on your destination. Sometimes you can double click to run there or something, but basically it's click and move. Not terribly elegant, and it can sometimes cause issues, but it works. This is what Telltale did with earlier episodic games, and it was fine. Then with Wallace and Gromit's Grand Adventures, they added arrow key movement, which worked out great. It was simple to go wherever you wanted, and basically played like a regular game. So did they keep this system for their Monkey Island series? No. Well, did they at least revert to a system that had been proven to work for decades? No. There's an all new system where you click anywhere on the screen, hold the button down, and then move the mouse in a direction to basically Guybrush there. I can't tell you how bad this is. It is basically playable, it just leads to more frustrations than a control scheme ever should. You can still click on objects to walk right up to them, but the standard movement is just painful for no reason.

Anyway, chapter three! It wasn't that great. It wasn't bad either, and I enjoyed it about as much as the second game. It's a game spent convincing people things that aren't actually true, and there's a bit of creativity in how you're supposed to go about it, it just results in puzzles that don't make as much sense as I'd like. The things it gives you to figure out what you should be saying don't seem quite as useful or easy to mess with as they should be, and it just made the whole game feel a bit laborious. It's the sort of thing where it works as the third part of a story, but it would be totally unsatisfying as a stand alone game, and since that's how I'm trying to experience these while remembering the context of the whole story, it does suffer a bit. Luckily it's just a bit of a lull in the saga and it never does anything that bad anyway. It just felt more like a chapter that I had to get through rather than one I wanted to experience in full.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Hung - Season 1

So the only reason I watched Hung was because the second season was going to air between two things I already intended to see, and I thought I might as well fill that gap. The first season ended up being a decent enough if unexceptional comedy, sort of like Entourage in that it never makes me laugh that much but it just has that element of being totally watchable enough that I don't feel like changing the channel. Unlike Entourage though, the lack of laughter is less because only one character is actually funny and more because it tries to be serious just as much as it doesn't. It's the story of a middle aged man trying to put his life back together, and it's more concerned with being true to that than shoving in a ton of jokes. In a way I respect that, even if a bit more focus on the comedy would have made it more enjoyable.

So Thomas Jane of the mostly garbage movie I reviewed a few days ago plays Ray Drecker, a history teacher and sports coach in a poor Detroit school who decides to try to make some money off his huge penis after his house burns down and his kids move back in with his ex-wife. He starts a "happiness consultant" business with a woman he's bumped into a few times which basically consists of Ray being a prostitute for lonely women, and they sort of bumble through it for a while until the season ends. Ray has this odd, old fashioned personality that I came to enjoy quite a bit, and provides the human center of a comedy that sounds like it could be over the top but in truth seems very grounded. He wrestles with success versus loyalty, wonders about his son's sexuality, and just comes off well as a sympathetic figure. It's not a great show, but I like it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Blade: Trinity

It's sort of hard to believe that the guy most responsible for this mess co-wrote two of the best comic book movies ever with Christopher Nolan. Then again, he co-created FlashForward, so maybe it isn't that surprising. David S. Goyer wrote the whole Blade trilogy, though this is the only time he directed his own work. To be clear, I think this movie is more of a failure on Goyer the writer's part than Goyer the director. If the story wasn't moronic, I would have been fine with the general film work at hand here. Then again though, was Ryan Reynolds such a failed character because he was written poorly or directed poorly? It's hard to tell. He's his general wisecracking self in this movie, and it's only the addition of a beard and muscles that makes him at all different from his usual comedy work. And I usually like that persona for the most part. But I don't here. Really, I didn't like almost anything.

The vampires' big plan in the beginning is to get Blade arrested... because of... something. It all amounts to a hill of beans because his new hip and sexy friends bust him out and introduce him to their merry band of vampire hunters. Jessica Biel obnoxiously listens to an iPod while fighting (good job inhibiting your senses in the middle of combat!) and lets vamps think they've got her for no other reason than to play to the camera when she takes them out. Patton Oswalt puts in the most disappointing cameo of his career, showing little gumption and then disappearing from the film without so much as a death scene. The previously mentioned Reynolds tells bad jokes and shows a bit of pube when he reveals to Blade that he was once a vampire, but had been cured. Wait, what? You can cure vampires? So why are you guys killing all of the ones you come across? Cure more! There are a couple other good guys but the movie didn't care about them so neither do I.

So anyway the vampires resurrect Dracula as a beefy, bald dude named Drake (no really, they do that) who's played by the meat head older brother from Prison Break (the one who can't act at all, not the one who can barely act) and kind of acts like a giant puss the whole time even though he's fucking Dracula. People get captured, stuff happens, and then there's a fight where all the bad guys die. The action isn't really incompetent, but it isn't exciting enough either to come close to saving the movie from its completely ineffectual and uninteresting story. I wasn't invested at all and the only time that changed is when it occasionally managed to downright piss me off. It's just one of those films that I can't imagine anyone caring about and don't really understand why they bothered to make it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Merlin - Season 2

While SyFy did lose Doctor Who to the American BBC this season, they did gain Merlin from NBC. Which is uh... something. Not to be mean though, the show has improved a bit from the shaky first year. It's still no great shakes, but it's certainly not bad and as far as being the only real fantasy show I know of right now, it's pretty watchable. There are a few issues still, but at least I can say I like the two main characters for the most part. I'd actually take Arthur over Merlin in most situations, because while he's a jerk to the real hero more often to not, it's a likable kind of jerk, and he has enough nobility to keep you rooting for him. Colin Morgan's Merlin is still a bit annoying here and there, but he actually did some decent acting this time and he wasn't responsible for all of the troubles during the season like he seemed to be before. The show continued to grow stronger as it went on, and by the end it had some genuinely powerful episodes as it allowed itself to break from the formula it had maintained for so long. It felt more alive, with characters actually making decisions that impacted their lives and things happening that will change the entire feel of the third season.

There were those issues though, and some good content here and there didn't make them less glaring, in fact they might have made them stick out more. The inconsistency of the romantic entanglements would almost be funny if they weren't so bad. Look, this show is about a teenage Merlin and Arthur fighting bad guys together, I get that it deviates from the original legends. So I accepted it in season one when Guinevere showed up as a servant and had some romantic tension with Merlin. But then this year it's like the writers remembered "Oh crap, Guinevere is Arthur's wife!" and totally shoehorn in a relationship between the two, completely ignoring everything that happened before (except her continued infatuation with Lancelot). It just breaks the suspension of disbelief when they seemingly forget their own established continuity. And that's far from the only thing. The show seems to revel in completely abandoning any sense of internal logic for the sake of a story, or even worse, a bit of comedy. The fact that it's a fantasy series about a wizard has nothing to do with it, a story in any genre is supposed to be intellectually coherent unless there's a specific reason it doesn't. When Merlin rescues a captured damsel and goes searching for some food for her, the first thing he does is steal food right off Arthur's plate. Prince Arthur. Future king of Camelot. Merlin figures it makes sense to do this rather than sneaking into the kitchen, or giving her his own food, or anything else that makes tons more sense than stealing from the heir of the kingdom. And they do this for a couple laughs. What the hell is this? And it's but one example of the show's occasional inanity, which is much more frequent than it should be. It's an enjoyable series, but also a frustrating one. I'm not fed up to the point of abandoning it, I just hope the stories in the third season try a bit harder than this.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Punisher

I watched The Punisher knowing it didn't have a good reputation, but still hoping it would be a decent revenge movie. Unfortunately, the decent revenge stuff was hampered by a hard-to-like protagonist and one of the worst initial premises I've ever seen in a film. The original Punisher comic started with a normal guy named Frank Castle's family getting killed after they witness a gang execution, and him taking the law into his own hands. Not terribly brilliant, but it works. What happens in the movie does not work. Castle is an ex-soldier and undercover FBI agent, and after a gun deal he oversees goes south and a dumb criminal gets killed, his dad played by John Travolta (who's completely unconvincing as a ruthless gangster) decides to take it out Frank and his entire family. This obviously makes no sense since he was hardly responsible for what happened and killing a lawman and his extended family would result in a huge crackdown from the government, though fortunately for him it never happens for no reason and Frank Castle has to... yep, take the law into his own hands.

I could go on about how terrible this opening is, but there are other things I have to cover like how Frank's neighbors in his new slum apartment are annoying and add little to the story, how Frank's kind of a giant dick who pathologically lies to his son (before he dies) and gets a bit too sadistic with his actions when he claims to be only punishing criminals rather than getting revenge, and how inept everyone Travolta sends after our less-than-intrepid hero is. Hired assassins announce their intentions and show up at his heavily fortified apartment completely unarmed, packs of goons fail to make sure he's dead (which guarantees he'll survive) and search for him effectively, if you don't pay attention it might be a pretty enjoyable action movie, but once you do it falls apart like it was held together with chewing gum.

I did enjoy the eventual punishment for the most part, although it was hard to stomach what happens to Travolta's wife with Castle not being aware that she probably deserves it and essentially doing to the bad guys exactly what they did to him. I've been watching Hung and like Thomas Jane quite a bit on that, but he can't do a whole lot with what he has here. He was given a tough road to hoe with the material, and try as he might he just can't make Frank likable. Really, the cast isn't terrible at all, but nobody in the film comes off very well. You have to lay the blame on the director and writers. They changed the details of the origin for no reason and definitely for the worse, and fail to make anybody sympathetic on top of that. It wasn't awful, but it really didn't do anything well enough to make it worth seeing.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Sirens of Titan

I went back in time a bit to Vonnegut's second book, and was impressed by how clear his vision was even then, still in the beginning of his career. Titan starts off fairly normally, but gets weird as its protagonist Malachi Constant travels all over the solar system against his will. The book covers a variety of ideas as he loses his memory, is programmed to be a soldier, is manipulated by forces he doesn't understand and finally is allowed to live his life. It's sort of a mix of whimsical adventure and some pretty harsh views of humanity. A scene later on where most of Earth has taken to a new religion is basically the genesis for the story "Harrison Bergeron" which we read in school a good ten years ago (Jesus, really?), and while less developed actually comes off a bit more dystopian.

There's no Kilgore Trout in this book, although Tralfamadore does return in another capacity. I wasn't really paying full attention to that aspect for a while because it only seemed tangentially related to what was going on, though it was later actually responsible for one of the best bits in the story, and a lot of what the whole thing was about. It really is classic Vonnegut, with a mixture of crackpot science fiction ideas that actually make a little sense if you let them; bizarre, often dark humor; and a few dark things to say about life. One of my favorites of the few novels of his I've read, though to be honest I think they're all pretty awesome. I might as well call him my favorite author at this point, at least within the realm of what's considered literature.