Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mass Effect

I've mentioned before that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is the game that got me into western RPGs. So I guess it's not a surprise that I quite enjoyed BioWare's return to the science fiction landscape. Mass Effect takes place within its own original universe, although the influences on both the design and the setting from that game and other classic science fiction are obvious. Without being a real expert on the history of the genre, I'd say the two most obvious influences on Mass Effect's world are Star Wars and Star Trek. You have the former's quasi-mystical powers and diverse alien species (Trek has aliens, but they all look like people with weird foreheads), and the latter's more adult focus on politics and how a gathering of races from across a galaxy would form a society and government together. The final result is a bit darker than both at their more adventurous, but the impact is there. There's literally an encyclopedia in the game's pause menu if you ever want to look up details on the history and specifics of pretty much any piece of back story it cares to bring up, and the amount of thought put into everything is one of the game's biggest assets.

You play as Shepard, a customizable protagonist and eventual commander of the most advanced ship in the alliance fleet. The alliance is sort of like a more militaristic Starfleet, except it only represents human interests in the galaxy. There's no real shared military, although the alliance have a working relationship with the council, a multiracial tribunal that operates out of an ancient space station called the Citadel and has influence over many things. I'm really explaining a lot of background here, aren't I? It's an interesting set up. Anyway at the beginning of the game you are given a mission that will require a ship and an elite team, and you report to both the council and the alliance. It's pretty easy to fill out your party, and from there you generally have a choice of planets with important objectives to complete. There are also dozens of optional worlds you can visit, but I'll get to those later. You fight evil robots, help or ignore troubled people you come across, talk a lot, and try to track down and stop the bad guy.

The game likes to pretend sometimes that it's a primarily a cover-based third person shooter, since those have been popular for a few years and were really blowing up when it came out, but it really isn't. Yes, you can hide behind objects and point a target at enemies and click to fire, but success is less determined by an ability to aim and shoot and more by good management of your allies, use of abilities, and having stats good enough for an invisible random variable to decide that your shots hit more than the other guy's. This didn't bother me as much as other people, I just don't see the point of the charade. Knights of the Old Republic's combat system was plenty of fun, and totally honest. You paused the game to assign actions, and chance and numbers determined whether your light saber swings and blaster shots hurt the enemy. Mass Effect playacting as a shooter just distracts from what could have been a more interesting system. I understand that the sequel actually performs like a true shooter, which is a fine direction to take, as it's at least a more genuine attempt to reach beyond the standard number-crunching RPG player.

So while I lived with the combat, what I really liked was simply learning about the different cities and outposts I was exploring, and developing my relationship with the various people in my crew. RPGs always seem to do better at creating a camaraderie amongst an interesting cast of characters than other games, if only because they actually take time to do so. And I liked my crew a lot. I talked to them after every job to see what they thought, and I did all the side quests that tied directly to their characters, not for the rewards, but because I wanted to help them out. They're a diverse group, and while the dialogue was often a bit straightforward, I still felt some level of connection to them that I just don't usually. I found myself choosing who to take on expeditions based on who it made sense to bring, not who would statistically help me in combat the most, and some of the things that happen to some of them later in the story actually made me feel a bit of emotion. It lent weight to the morality system, which is mildly interesting because it determines more what kind of leader you are rather than whether you're good or evil, but otherwise is still pretty standard.

I guess I should mention the game's biggest weaknesses, the silly mini-game that seems to determine a little too much of what happens, and the Mako, a vehicle which popped up way too much based on how much of a headache it was. Frequently when activating objects in the game, you have to solve a little game where you guide an arrow into the center of a circle while objects rotate around it nearby that you have to avoid. Fail to do so, and you either have to try again or pay a material cost to bypass it. It made some sense when trying to break electronic locks, but the game uses it for much more than that, including recovering objects from wreckage and even surveying rocks for minerals. It's a huge pain in the ass and never really makes sense in context. And man, the Mako. It's an armored jeep type thing that goes over a lot of terrain, but it's a gigantic annoyance whenever you have to use it, which is often on required story missions, and always when exploring optional planets for useful objects. It controls like crap, it's not as useful as it feels like it should be in combat, and none of the places you use it in are designed well enough to get past this. It's just a struggle every time you're behind the wheel. It would have been a bigger issue if it was at its worst when it's actually necessary, but thankfully that's not the case.

Beyond those small issues, I had a lot of fun in the twenty hours the game took me. The story was pretty good, conveyed by some decent writing and well acted by the cast, including a smattering of recognizable celebrity voices that fit their parts appropriately. The game's presentation helps immensely, although I was unable to get the full effect of the motion capture thanks to the constantly poor frame rate on my machine. I'll admit it's an old system, but it probably shouldn't have run a three year old game this choppily. BioWare's games have always had odd technical issues on the PC, and I have to imagine it's partly the game's fault as well as my computer's, because I began Dead Space recently, which came out a year later, and it can at least do static conversations smoothly. It was rare for the issues to actually impact gameplay negatively, but it was an unfortunate distraction a lot of the time. It sounded pretty good though, with the previously mentioned voice acting and strong score helping to sell the universe. Whatever problems I had, I wanted to play the sequel as soon as I finished, which is not something I've been able to say much recently. I guess the question is whether I'll play it on PC, or if the way they handle the PS3 version makes it seem worth the switch.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Who - Who's Next

This kind of rock never truly resonated with me for some reason. When I was younger I would have thought it was too old, and now I tend to go after stuff that's a bit less traditional in some way. Still, I can't deny that this is a good album. Everybody in the band knows what they're doing with their given instrument, it just sounds so big, the use of synthesizers is really groundbreaking, and of the half dozen Who songs I could name you before I listened to it, four of them are here. Just a really important, and more importantly enjoyable album. The CD comes with seven extra tracks, demos or alternate versions of songs that weren't released until later or ever, although I found that the album flowed better when I didn't listen to them. You never want a band to wear out its welcome before the disc stops spinning, but if you take the oddities on their own, they're mostly pretty good, if a bit jammier than the normal album songs.

The Who played a factor in the development of so-called "arena rock", and the first and last tracks on the album proper are pretty much built for that. "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" are just huge songs, with extended synth breakdowns, big choruses, and they just sound totally loud. "Bargain" is less anthemic, though just as solid a rock song. "Behind Blue Eyes" is another famous one, starting out kind of mopey, but it ends up kicking a lot of butt too. The five songs sandwiched in between those four are less well known, but also entertaining. They tend to at least have singable choruses, and "The Song Is Over" is one of the more complex and interesting on the whole record. The songs on this album came out of a wildly ambitious idea by guitarist Pete Townshend that ultimately was never realized in its original form, involving live music creation, crowd participation, and a film. Compared to the vision of Lifehouse, Who's Next seems almost tame in comparison. But that doesn't prevent it from still being a good rock album, and one that likely won't ever be forgotten.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Liveblog 29: The Yankees Are Not Winning Enough

This has turned out to be a pretty atypical Yankees season, at least compared to the way things seemed to usually go in the last decade. They actually got off to a great start despite usually struggling out of the gate, but after July being their best month all year, they've really struggled in August. It seems like around now is when the team always seems to turn it on, but they've only won half their games for the entire month, and seem to be stuck in a tie for first place with the Rays, as the Red Sox continue to struggle with injuries but still manage to be only about five games back in the hunt.

If I'm being honest, I see the Yankees getting to the playoffs but not winning the division. They only have one truly reliable starter in CC Sabathia, who just got his league-leading 18th win last night. But beyond him, Andy Pettitte is stuck on the disabled list, Phil Hughes seems to be struggling as he pitches deep into a big league season for the first time, and A.J. Burnett and Javy Vazquez have flat-out sucked. The bullpen finally turned into a strength, but the lineup seems streaky at best. I don't know how much of a real help Ivan Nova will be, but he's making his second start today after he pitched pretty well and really only made one mistake in a game the Yankees ended up losing. Well, two, if you think he intentionally threw that ball near Jose Bautista's head. Hopefully the Yankees pull out a series win against the White Sox today while the Red Sox and Rays play a 30 inning game that wears out all their players for the rest of the season.

Top 1 - Gavin Floyd pitching for the Sox. I get him and John Danks confused despite the different handedness. Brett Gardner strikes out looking to start the day. Derek Jeter flies out to right. Nick Swisher grounds a single up the middle to extend the inning a bit. I don't think I've seen him bat third before this year. Seems like Joe Girardi's trying everything with Alex Rodriguez on the DL. Mark Teixeira was supposed to be in the lineup today, but I guess his bruised thumb from yesterday kept him out after all. Robinson Cano works the count a bit, but he grounds out to second for the third out.

Bottom 1 - Nova kicks things off by inducing a ground out from Juan Pierre. Omar Vizquel, somehow still on a big league roster, swings through a curveball for strike three. Alex Rios strikes out on a low fastball, and Nova looked pretty good there.

Top 2 - Marcus Thames leads off the inning with a home run. He's really been very good all year. Came in to mash lefties, which he's done, but he's hit righties too. Curtis Granderson flies out to center. Austin Kearns bounces a ball towards Paul Konerko, but it deflects off his glove and Kearns reaches. Eduardo Nunez at the plate. I'm not sure how good his bat actually is, but compared to Ramiro Pena he looks like the Babe Ruth of utility infielders. He grounds one up the middle, but Alexei Ramirez makes a great diving grab and the Sox turn a double play to get out of the inning.

Bottom 2 - On the TV it looks like the home plate umpire is consistently giving pitchers an inch off the left side of the plate from his perspective, but Gameday says they're all pretty much on the edge of the zone. Michael Kay makes a pretty routine play on a ground ball by Jeter off Konerko's bat sound more exciting than it is for the first out. Andruw Jones, who's had a very confusing career (is he really overrated or really underrated?), grounds out to third. Nova's throwing an easy 95 and the curve is bending pretty well. Obviously I'm no expert but I'm surprised the traditional Yankee prospect hype machine hasn't built him up more. A.J. Pierzynski works a full count before getting a single up the middle. Maybe Nova's control has been abnormally good in these two starts? I've always heard good things about his stuff. Wow, they just showed a little of the new Resident Evil movie in a picture-in-picture thing, and it looked exactly like Milla Jovovich's other movie, Ultraviolet. Probably doesn't bode well. Ramirez fouls off a few pitches, but Nova gets him swinging on what must have been a change up.

Top 3 - Francisco Cervelli, who probably shouldn't be on a major league roster, especially for a contending team, and even more especially getting the majority of the playing time from the catcher position, makes me look silly for writing this sentence with a double down the right field line. Gardner squeaks a single past the second baseman, and Cervelli scores without a throw home. Gardner goes for second, but Jeter lines it right to second for a double play. Swisher pops out to third, and the inning's over.

Bottom 3 - Mark Teahen strikes out on a curveball in the dirt. Gordon Beckham slashes a single towards right field. Pierre strikes out on a pitch that looked a big high perhaps, but it was lower than the first called strike of the at bat, so he can suck it up. Right when Ken Singleton was about to make a Hall of Fame case for Vizquel, he lays down a bunt that Nova fields for the third out. That's a speech that will have to wait until the next half inning, at least.

Top 4 - Cano flies out on one pitch. Oppositely, Thames works a full count and draws a walk. Lots of scoreboard errors today for some reason. Multiple pitches have been marked as balls instead of strikes, and that whole last at bat there was a phantom runner on third base. Granderson gets a hit up the middle, runners on first and second for Kearns. He's fit in pretty well with the team since he came over, though he really doesn't have a regular position. Does the umpire's strike zone seem weird because he's actually calling the entire area, according to regulation? Maybe! Kearns grounds into a double play to cut the rally short.

Bottom 4 - I made a sandwich. Also, Rios grounded out, Konerko singled, and Jones and Pierzynski flied out.

Top 5 - Nunez flies out to right, and Cervelli gets down a bunt base hit. For today's text poll, 29% of voters don't think Frank Thomas is a first ballot Hall of Famer. In related news, 29% of the people watching this game are morons. Because he is inept, Cervelli attempts a steal before Danks starts his motion, allowing him to step off and throw him out at second. Gardner draws a walk, and moves to second on a wild pitch. Jeter strikes out though, and the inning ends.

Bottom 5 - Ramirez hits a lazy fly to left. Kay noting that every batter was taking the first pitch against Nova, but now the last three have swung (and still made outs). Teahen takes it for a ball, but eventually gets called out on strikes. Beckham hits a double off the wall in left. Pierre singles to right, driving in the Sox' first run. Cervelli once again utterly fails to throw out a runner, Pierre's on second for Vizquel. But he strikes out, Yankees still lead 2-1 after 5.

Top 6 - Swisher strikes out to begin the sixth. Cano follows suit. I think the Yankees should stop striking out and try hitting the ball more. But that's just me, I guess. Thames tries to follow my advice, but it only results in a ground out to third.

Bottom 6 -Still pitching well, Nova gets Rios to ground out again. Konerko draws a walk, though. CAN NOVA HANDLE THE PRESSURE OF PITCHING MORE THAN 5 1/3 INNINGS? Jones lines out to center for the second out. Girardi comes out for another early exit by Nova despite fewer than 90 pitches. You gotta earn the right to finish the sixth inning, kid. Boone Logan on to try to finish it. Pierzynski hits a weak ground ball to third, but Nunez can't make an accurate throw and the inning continues. Kerry Wood in to give the third out a shot. He's been pretty damn good for the Yankees so far, and is a big part of that bullpen resurgence. Unfortunately his first pitch is wild, and the runners move up. Full count to Ramirez. He draws a walk and the bases are loaded. Teahen saves the Yankees' asses by grounding out to first. With Nova out of the game, I'm about done doing this crap. See you guys later.

Wrap-Up - The Yankees couldn't score again, but the bullpen held the line and Mariano Rivera got the save for the Yankees 80th win of the season. Would have liked it being a bit less close, but still a win. Now to keep doing that through September.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

I think if I saw this nine years ago when it came out, I would have been more into it. But I want more out of anime these days than just some, blood, and the aesthetic is just sort of weird and off-putting. I did like it as a story more than the first D movie, although by the end it seemed to be a lot more muddled. I'm guessing it takes place after the first movie, though I'm not sure how many years because of D's whole immortality thing. The Western influences (Western as in cowboys, not western as in American movies. Although Westerns are generally American movies.) are a bit more obvious, especially in a couple scenes that tended to be the most interesting in the film. One of these is the opening, when D is hired to track down a rich man's daughter who's been kidnapped by a vampire and rescue her, or if it's too late, put her to death.

There really wouldn't be very much to the story if it weren't for the Marcus Brothers, a group of mercenaries who have been hired to the same job, with a variety of abilities. They cross paths and butt heads with D a bit, especially Leila, the adopted female of the group. They're not exactly good guys, but they're made to be relatively sympathetic, as they're slowly picked off by the various groups of monsters they encounter while pursuing the vampire. There's a twist eventually, that in most cases would sort of result in the end of the conflict, but not when there's money on the line. It's a pretty solid film until the end, when some pretty incomprehensible stuff starts happening. Like, I was eventually able to make some sort of sense of it after a certain point, but for a while I was totally lost, and I still don't understand a few bits of it. The plot goes in an unexpected direction, and it kind of ends up with no one being totally happy. Which is pretty appropriate for a dark, violent anime like this. Again - it was pretty good. Holds up better than the first film by a lot. But it doesn't exactly feel like 16 years of progress either.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Neil Young - After the Gold Rush

I guess I'm really making an effort to listen to old music at this point. I liked Neil Young as a kid when my parents listened to him, so I thought I'd pick up what seems to be his most acclaimed album. And it's really good!

It's a pretty good mix between his style of rock and roll, usually accompanied by Crazy Horse, and some more individual, folksy numbers. Although I've always identified Young by his frequent harmonica playing, it didn't really stick out here, only appearing in one song, with the focus more on occasional piano and much more frequently, his guitar. A few of the songs have messages, which I associate with him just as much as anything musical, although some seem to be simple songs with no purpose other than to sound good. I've grown accustomed to his high pitched voice by this point, but even if you have some trouble with it, I think it would be hard not to like at least something from this album.

To me, the highlight of the proceedings is "Southern Man", a pretty hard rocker that jams along for five and a half minutes, and has a pretty searing anti-racism message to it against the south. Along with a song from his next album, it inspired the recording of "Sweet Home Alabama", which is a connection I wouldn't have expected. "Oh, Lonesome Me" is the only song on the album not written by Young himself, and has a really nice melancholy to it. "When You Dance I Can Really Love" is another stand out rock track, while the first two songs are more subdued, and another two favorites. "Cripple Creek Ferry" is the kind of song that would never be a single because it's too brief and singular, but is always welcome as an interesting way to begin an album, or make a transition, or as in this case, close things out. It's a nice cap to a record that I couldn't find much I didn't like in.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Katsuhiro Otomo directed Akira, based on his own manga, and it's easily one of the most famous anime in existence. Which is part of why it's surprising that it's one of only two animated films he's done. Yeah, he's done segments for three different anthology movies, and dabbled in live action recently, but it's still weird that Steamboy is just his second real film. It also makes it a bit more disappointing that it isn't better. Steamboy starts out quite strong, and the animation throughout is pretty incredible, but the whole second half of the movie felt like kind of a mess to me. I enjoyed it overall, but it seems like it could have easily been much greater.

Anyway, the movie is the definition of steampunk. Ray is a genius young inventor in England, the man of the house while his father and grandfather are searching for a pure water for a more powerful steam in America. Quickly a package from his grandfather arrives at the same time as a couple representatives from the organization he was working for. Inside is a strange ball, a device key to their plans, and Ray has to escape from the organization in what I thought was easily the film's most thrilling sequence. Eventually though he finds out there's more to what's going on than expected, and what follows is an absolute ton of disagreement and argument about the purpose of science and technological advancement.

The second hour of the movie is basically a smattering of action scenes as two sides fight each other with elaborately built equipment and try to win over Ray with their arguments for what's right. And it's really not as exciting as that sounds. Eventually he gets fed up with the both of him and just focuses on saving the various people he cares about after a behemoth of steam-powered technology goes haywire. All that stuff is really cool, I just they weren't by far the most interesting thing in the story. And I also wish it didn't take so damn long for him to become the titular Steamboy. It's like a superhero origin story that goes overboard with the origin part and forgets the superhero part. The end is fairly thrilling though, and suggests further adventuring that I kind of wish the movie itself had been about. A decent work, but it seems muddled in its own philosophical ideas and doesn't have nearly the impact of Akira.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Kane & Lynch: Dead Men

Kane & Lynch is one of my more frustrating game experiences in recent memory, and a big part of that is I wanted to really like it. I know the game caused a fair amount of controversy around its release, but that didn't stop its premise from being interesting to me. Most modern, cover-based shooters either hinge on the same familiar military setting or put them inside varyingly likable open-world environments. To play through a Heat-style series of capers, with a couple of aging and mentally unstable main characters, and to be so totally thrown into the role of a bad guy - sympathetic yes, but still fighting cops as one of your primary foes - it seemed like a breath of fresh air.

And for a while, it was. There were a couple technical hiccups, and the basic shooting and cover mechanics could have used a bit more work, but I was mostly enjoying the scenarios they set up and finding the story and character fairly interesting. It even gets emotional better than most games seem to, if feeling a bit exploitative. The shooting really isn't very original. You find some familiar weapons, you crouch behind low walls and pillars, and you pop out to shoot whatever enemy has strayed too far from safety. You play as Kane and have some control over whatever buddies happen to be nearby, and even in single-player at least Lynch is there to help out, which adds something to the proceedings. I had a pretty bad issue with the audio for the music skipping incessantly at certain points, but this oddly played in the game's favor a lot of the time - an endless repeating, harsh but not too loud tone can often set the mood for some of the messed up stuff Kane and Lynch get themselves into. But really, it was interesting because of the window dressing and a few clever moments sprinkled here and there. If the game kept this up, I would have been pretty happy.

But it eventually goes bad in two ways - one of which not everyone will experience, and one which they will. It seemed like every time I launched the game again, it got less stable. It began crashing repeatedly during one mission, and I couldn't get the game playable again until I adjusted the graphical settings downward. I couldn't even tell what was different, but it was annoyance that the game couldn't decide if my system was up to snuff or not. After that it was mostly okay, until near the end. Without spoiling anything, there are two endings. You make a decision at the end of a mission - one choice ends the game with the first ending, the other sends you to an optional final mission that leads you to the second ending. I never got to see the second ending myself. After that penultimate level, I had to stop playing for a while, but when I tried to start the game up again I couldn't. Repeated attempts ended the same way, with a crash before I even got to the menu, with no chance to adjust anything. So I said screw it, deleted the install from my Steam library, and looked up a video of the last level on Youtube. Kind of a crummy way to end my experience.

Not that it was great at that point otherwise. About two thirds of the way through the game, the setting and tone shift drastically away from the urban crime vibe. The new location and focus simply aren't as interesting as the old ones, and nothing about the gameplay itself particularly redeems it. It wasn't bad, really, it just wasn't as fun as the game was before. It was especially annoying when it started forcing a more careful and stealthy approach on you. Believe me, the shooting works all right, but it doesn't especially support careful and stealthy.

So, a game I was liking at first ended disappointing me. And it looks the sequel might have the same issue. I'll probably check it out when it drops in price, when things like its apparently absurdly short length will be less of an issue, but it's sort of clear now that this will never be a great franchise, just successful enough to keep pushing out sequels. Which is actually worse than it totally bombing, because I'd like to see IO refocus on something they're better at, the Hitman franchise. A game is coming next year, but it would have been here sooner if they weren't dabbling in a genre they're simply not as good at.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Vampire Hunter D

I don't think I've seen a more thoroughly 80s anime than this. Two animated D films have been released, based on a series of books, sixteen years apart. They feel fairly different thanks to the immense gulf in visual quality that represents, but otherwise they share the common elements that makes the setting unique and kind of weird. It's a crazy mishmash of influences, both post apocalyptic science fiction and horror. It's like a futuristic Gothic action western or something. It takes place many of thousands of years in the future, when humanity is struggling to survive against demons and a society of vampires who all somehow happen to come from nobility. I don't know if the vampirism spread among an elite class that formed after our current civilization was destroyed, or if they made themselves elite because they were vampires. Either way they terrorize normal people, but there are hunters like D who try to stop them, for a price.

D is half vampire himself, and thus an outcast everywhere. He's the strong silent type, although he has a talking hand and rides a robot horse, so he's kind of weird too. He's hired by a young woman to protect him from a local count who's marked her as his next plaything, and so D spends a while fighting off his henchmen and resisting the temptation to get involved in her life anymore than he's being paid to. There's a bunch of other characters to worry about in the town she lives in, some who are all right but mostly they're unreliable. There's some unusual action peppered around along with some more exploitative stuff, before the inevitable final confrontation. It's a reasonably entertaining movie in some parts, but in others it really isn't. Some of the issues can be attributed to the movie's advanced age, but others are just some clumsy storytelling. Overall I'd call it decent, but I don't think they realized the world well enough for it to be better than that. The sequel addressed some of this while having other issues of its own.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mary Shelley's Frankenhole - Season 1

Nine of the ten episodes produced for this season has aired, and the tenth, about Mother Teresa, is nowhere on the schedule. So I'll go ahead and talk about this. It's the new show from the creator of Moral Orel, and is both weird and subversive in similar ways, although I think it's also more immediately humorous. It likes playing around with classic horror and time travel story tropes, and also being as offensive as possible with its frequent fake celebrity appearances. Everyone's a target, from Jesus to LBJ to Ron Howard. I almost felt like they were trying too hard with the pop culture stuff, but kept with it because the central premise is pretty interesting.

It begins with the classic (movie) Frankenstein story, and then deviates from it pretty wildly. Victor has taken an immortality potion and given it to his assistant Polidori (the show's best character) and his wife Elizabeth. So now they're living forever, and he has created a system of "Frankenholes" that allow important people from everywhere in history to visit him for help with problems no one else can fix. Plenty of other classic characters have parts, although they're a bit different. Igor is voiced by the creator's daughter, the monster himself is very insecure, and Dracula and Death are thorns in his side. It's a very cynical show, but there's so much creativity in the setting and the problems the celebrities come to him with are so bizarre that it can't help being a lot of fun. As always it's questionable whether it gets to continue, but I hope they go on to explore the concept a lot more in future seasons.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

It's going to stink waiting for new Arcade Fire material now. I burned through their three albums in less than a year, and now it's going to be a while until the next one. Oh well, guess I'll have to find another indie band to obsess over for a while.

If I had to rank them, I'd put The Suburbs behind Funeral and ahead of Neon Bible, although the important thing is that they haven't messed up yet, and their sound continues to grow and evolve as they figure out what kind of band they are. Bible had much more obvious musical influences than Funeral, while in The Suburbs you can still feel the effect of previous work on the songs, it's much less blatant and gives it a more timeless quality. It's sort of a compromise between their first two albums in a way, a bit more mature than Funeral but more down to earth and apolitical than Neon Bible. I'm very excited to see where they continue to go from here.

"The Suburbs" and "Ready to Start" are a perfect one-two punch to begin the proceedings, full of energy and the band's unique flair. "Modern Man" is a more mellow track, but it keeps it interesting enough. "Rococo" didn't amaze me at first beyond a couple elements, but it's actually turned out to be perhaps the most insidious earworm on the album. "Empty Room" is the first song on the album sung primarily by Regine, and a catchy one. I like Win just fine obviously, but I think they both have a lot to bring to the table, and it was a bit disappointing when she only really sang half of one song on Neon Bible. She shows up more here, and it's fun.

"Half Light", the first of two two-parters, is a pretty nice pair of songs, and they're followed by "Suburban War", a pleasant track in its own right that transforms itself with a minute and a half to go in a pretty awesome way. If the album has a weakness, it's the four tracks after that before the intoxicating "Sprawl" I and II. They're nice songs, doing their own unique thing on the album, it's just that they kind of make the whole thing seem a bit overstuffed, and if there were just two of them there instead of all four I think it would flow better. But anyway, "Sprawl" is awesome and the final track brings everything full circle. It's a great album that might have been better with a bit of trimming, but I can't really complain about having more Arcade Fire songs, can I?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sam and Max: Beyond the Alley of the Dolls

The introduction to Beyond the Alley of the Dolls is great, featuring an homage to zombie movies everywhere as Sam deals with the slight conundrum of his friends taking a strange amount of delight in dispatching cloned, half naked versions of himself. The rest of the episode doesn't quite live up to this beginning, mostly because the puzzles were the least interesting and unique of the season. You were mostly using psychic toys you'd already played with before, and there wasn't much new to the gameplay, not even on the gimmicky side. It was still well made, it's just all of the fun came from the story rather than the game itself.

Luckily that story is pretty great, with ghost summoning, gigantic underground cloning facilities, Lovecraftian horrors, forbidden interspecies love, and epic climaxes at famous historical landmarks. A surprising amount of the important parts for the entire season-long arc are explained, although of course things get turned on their heads at the end in the last cliffhanger before the final episode. It all remains manageable despite the scope, thanks to solid writing and good voice acting, and it's also probably the series' most visually ambitious episode yet. If only those puzzles were a bit better! Oh well. It's still yet another good entry in the series, and a nice warm-up for the finale.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Kiki's Delivery Service

It's always bittersweet when you get close to running out of unseen films by a favorite director. I don't know how many more stories Hayao Miyazaki has left in him, and now the only ones I haven't watched are his first, The Castle of Cagliostro, and his most recent, Ponyo. Luckily, Kiki's Delivery Service was one of the best, so the experience of seeing the work of possibly the best director of animation ever continued to be pleasant.

On the face of it, there's not much that sets Kiki and her story apart from most of Miyazaki's other work. The main character is a young girl on an exciting adventure. Unlike many fantasy heroes, she's allowed to have loving parents. The story is almost too warmhearted, but it never quite steps over that line. It's appropriately funny and charming in parts, but it gets serious when it needs to for the sake of a natural plot. In some ways it's basically boilerplate Miyazaki, not really separating itself from his other work, but the success is all in the execution. It's wonderfully animated, touching, gripping in its dramatic moments - there's really nothing it doesn't get right. Of all his work starring little girls, this one was my favorite.

This is one of the few Miyazaki films not based on his own idea, but it fits right into his style. The only difference might be that the main character herself is the source of the fantastic element in the plot, rather than a normal child wandering into a world of wonder. Kiki is a young witch, who at the age of 13 is ready to fly to a new town in order to hone her skills for a year. She runs into some trouble at first, but thanks to a kind baker, settles into a town by the sea. She doesn't really have any skills besides flying on her broom, so she quickly starts a business delivering things around the area while helping in the bakery. They find ways to make the deliveries difficult and perilous adventures despite some rather mundane circumstances, as simple things like an angry pack of crows or some rain can become major issues.

Kiki makes some friends in her new home, but before long some things start going poorly and she begins struggling with her identity, and the very nature of her being a witch. As can be expected though, she eventually perseveres and of course saves the day in the end, in one of the film's more thrilling flight sequences. In the end it's a pretty simple story, but again it succeeds because everything about it was just done with an exceptional amount of skill and grace. You don't need to get super fancy, the right amount of simple craftsmanship will take you a long way. I'm kind of glad it took so long to see this one, because it's one of the crown jewels in a brilliant man's body of work.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sam and Max: They Stole Max's Brain!

As I hinted previously, the third chapter of this season of Sam and Max's adventures doesn't quite crackle with the same energy of the first two, although it still has some good ideas of its own and some inspired moments. It continues like part two did, picking up exactly where the last part left things, with Max's brain stolen and Sam pretty angry about it. Like the clue scanning and reel jumping, this chapter introduces its own unique kind of gameplay, in this case, interrogation. The first act plays like a film noir story, Sam looking for suspects around town and leaning on them pretty hard. There's a variety of ways you can interrupt peoples' stories to try and get information, and it's a neat idea. The problem is that it's not really fully explored before the segment ends, although it does pop at least once more in the future chapters.

After that, it becomes more of a standard episode in the series, though not a bad one. There's pointing and clicking, messing with some more familiar psychic toys, and of course an alternate reality that only Max is aware of that you have to prevent from happening. Actually, that part was pretty cool. As is pretty much standard at this point, the game looks pleasant, has some nice music, enjoyable voice acting and humor. I didn't like the puzzles quite as much, again because of situations where the "logical" solution might not occur to someone as quickly as it should. It ends well though, and once again teases an intriguing scenario for the fourth chapter. They could still blow it I guess, but so far this is the best series Telltale has done.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya - Season 2

These episodes aired in a pretty unusual manner in Japan. There were shown alongside the original series, in chronological order, which is sort of a brand new way to look at the whole thing. I enjoyed the new content, although I can't say it was fun as the first season, mostly because there just isn't enough there. It's fourteen episodes again, but they only cover three stories, and rather infamously, eight of those episodes are basically all the same thing. If you haven't heard of Endless Eight, the main characters are stuck in a loop during the last weeks of summer vacation, and struggle to find a way out. The first episode just shows what the end of the vacation is like, but by the second, the characters start to realize that they've been doing this over and over for the equivalent of years, but unfortunately the loop restarts before they are able to stop it and they forget about it again. The plot slows to a crawl at this point, as the last six episodes are basically all the exact same thing, reanimated with new voice overs but with more or less the same script until they finally break out in the eighth episode. On one hand it's pretty ballsy to make the same episode eight times, but on the other it can get pretty irritating. A really good Star Trek: The Next Generation episode covered more or less the same plot and and wrapped it up in forty minutes. If the story only lasted like three episodes, it would have been a lot more acceptable.

The other two stories are a bit easier to like. The first is a stand alone episode involving time travel, and is pretty enjoyable. The other is a five episode arc showing the filming of the movie that the kids made for school in the first episode. I thought it would be dragging things out again, but it actually got pretty interesting, as Haruhi's powers again unwittingly causes a danger to the whole world that Kyon has to take care of. Not terribly unique, but still a fun, interesting story. It's pretty obvious that these episodes weren't meant to be the next big thing for the franchise, as a feature film was released in Japan only a few months after they aired. It's been licensed for home release here, and I'm looking forward to that happening.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sam and Max: The Tomb of Sammun-Mak

The second chapter of Sam and Max's third season is possibly the most inspired in the series. It all stems from the premise, which is rather brilliant. At the end of the first episode, Sam and Max discover what appears to be their own skeletons locked in a struggle, but they soon learn it's a couple of their ancestors, Sameth and Maximus, and find a series of films detailing their exploits along with a projector. Thus the game introduces its central conceit: you must play as Sameth and Maximus within these different film reels to discover the secret behind their deaths. But you can't just do it chronologically - you'll need information from one reel to get past an obstacle in another. What results is the largest causality loop I've ever seen. The characters will be unable to remember what they did earlier in the story until you experience it yourself, and get past tricky situations using knowledge they won't learn until later on. It makes no sense and it's a ton of fun.

Without the goofy central mechanic, it would still be a pretty good episode of Sam and Max. It's a classic adventure story, as you solve a riddle, ride a couple trains filled with people out to get you, and explore an ancient Egyptian tomb. There's a lot of messing with mole people and curses and accusations and fun stuff like that. It looks as nice as the first chapter, and the voice acting is still solid, helping the comedy along. The puzzles actually aren't that different from a normal episode if you just think of the different time periods as different locations, but they're still good for the series. Maximus has a totally different set of psychic toys to work with than Max did in the first episode, providing a different set of challenges. I've already played the next two chapters and didn't like them quite as much as the first two, but it's still been a stellar season for the crime fighting anthropomorphic duo.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Major Lazer & La Roux - Lazerproof

So let me tell you how I came to be listening to this. While Entourage hasn't been a very good show for a while, it's still mostly watchable, and it has a pretty good soundtrack. Last week's episode ended with a pretty awesome dubstep-sounding song with female vocals, so I did some digging and found out it was a remix by Skream of La Roux's song "In for the Kill". After a bit more browsing I found this, not exactly an album, but a free mixtape featuring a bunch more remixes, mostly of songs from La Roux's album. It's not the greatest, but it's pretty fun, and it's hard to complain about the price of free.

Luckily enough, "In for the Kill" is a big presence, with Skream's remix included in an altered form with a few extra bells and whistles (which ended up seeming unnecessary, the song works because it's simple and awesome), plus another song having the original backing track for it replaced with a rap by Candi Redd. "Bulletproof" is a pretty good opener for the project, with heavy use of piano and other unexpected elements. "Colourless Artibella" shows Major Lazer's diversity, being pretty much a reggae track. "Keep it Fascinating" is closer to what I expected, more of a simple drum and bass thing. "Tigerlily" is one of the cooler tracks, with a nice synth bit backing up Elly's vocals. "Hold Yah" is a long, multi-segmented closer, not actually based on a La Roux song but with some interesting singing by Gyptian. There's quite a lot of guests and different styles sprinkled through the mix, and it's fairly entertaining if you're at all into the scene.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

Makoto Shinkai's second film is quite a bit more ambitious than his first, Voices of a Distant Star. It would kind of have to be, being more than three times as long and a full studio production rather that being animated mostly by himself at his home. Like that first film, it combines elements of heady since fiction with the pain of growing up and being apart from the ones you love. I have to admit that people too young to vote having access to all this highly advanced technology is still a bit of a silly cliché with many anime, but if you can get past it it's a pretty interesting story.

The whole backstory of the situation is only really explained through snippets of news broadcasts, so you have to pay attention to really understand it. It takes place in an alternate history, where Japan split politically between north and south, with the south protected by the United States and the north by the "Union". The Union has built a giant tower in the northern island, and the two main characters begin the story as students who work as engineers in its shadow. One year they become friends with a girl, but during the summer she disappears and they go their separate ways.

It then jumps forward in time, and focuses less on character and more on some of its crazy ideas. There's war looming, and small steps into parallel universes, and somehow the girl is in a sleep state that's tied to the tower. It's seems alternately torn between ideas of science and mysticism, but it's all held together by the emotional connection between the three characters. They could have gone too far with it, but I thought the balance between melodrama and acceptable believability held pretty well, and it keeps the center of the movie strong.

I think probably its biggest asset is the look. The film is filled with beautiful scenery and animation, not overly flashy but just a pleasure to look at for the full ninety minutes, which certainly makes watching it easier. I also liked the soundtrack, which is very understated but effective when necessary. The story itself wasn't perfect, but it was fully satisfactory, and manages to combine the two separate elements of science fiction and drama very well. The ending was nice if bittersweet, and I'm definitely interested in checking out Shinkai's next movie, which seems to deal with the same subjects.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Whitest Kids U' Know - Season 4

The Whitest Kids' fourth season returned to the half hour format, one I think works a bit better for a sketch show because there's more of an opportunity to let a particularly good idea breathe without worrying about it taking over the whole episode. I have some concerns about the show's future since the broadcast of these episodes was delayed for a while, but it definitely wasn't because of a lack in quality. There were definitely some of their best sketches in a while. It's hard to say what makes it so watchable despite the limited cast and low production values, though part of it is how they're willing (and allowed) to do pretty much anything for a laugh. I think there were at least five episodes this year with a sketch that starts out with somebody sitting at their computer, masturbating with hand lotion. While a lot of the jokes are pretty broad, some of my favorite bits are just minor details. In the brilliant sketch where Zach sets up a .50 caliber machine gun in a bar, why is Timmy's character so obsessed with apple butter? Because it's kind of funny and weird, that's why. Zach and Trevor continue to get the best roles for the most part, and that's still because they're the best actors in the group, though everybody definitely gets moments to shine. With how bad Saturday Night Live seems to have been for years, I'm glad that somewhere there's a show that pushes the envelope like it used to.

Friday, August 13, 2010


It seems like if there's one way to get people to love your downloadable game this generation, it's to make it a side scrolling puzzle platformer. Trine combines that style of gameplay with a cute if typical fantasy setting and a heavily physics-based engine to create a game that's pretty fun, although not without its frustrations.

So to start things out, the game introduces you to its three characters, which fit so well into standard fantasy niches that that's how they're named. You get a taste of the abilities of the wizard, thief, and knight before they all place their hands on the Trine at the same time, which imprisons all of their souls and fuses them into one person. At the same time, the world around them pretty much goes to hell, and they have to combine forces to find other artifacts that will allow them to remove this evil curse from the world or whatever. You can switch between the three characters at will, and you must use all of their abilities to make it through fifteen levels of platforming and combat.

There's also a co-op mode where you can share the different forms, although I was never interested enough to try it. The game works because you only need the services of one character at a time to get past an obstacle, and having to maneuver multiple people through each situations sounds like it would just slow things down. The thief is the most maneuverable, the wizard can create objects to climb over or weigh things down, and the knight is the most useful in combat. It won't be long before you're constantly switching between them based on the situation; creating counterweights or bridges with the wizard, swinging between overhanging planks with the thief, and smashing large objects out of the way with the knight.

This sort of thing is what makes the game really fun, and honestly the constant fighting drags it down quite a bit. Besides the rare larger enemy you'll see once in a while, it's pretty much all skeletons all the time, and they get boring after a while. It's not a bad idea to mix it up sometimes, but too often you'll just find yourself sitting there, waiting for the game to move on while skeletons continually spawn in front of you. And even worse than the skeletons are the occasional bats and spiders, which are designed to do nothing but irritate the heck out of you and waste your time.

The fact that the combat is mostly a drag makes any issues with the platforming stand out more, since that becomes the part of the game you rely on to provide actual fun. There really aren't many issues, although sometimes the physics seem like they're working against you rather than for you, and by the end things seem maybe a bit too difficult just for the sake it. Especially areas like the final section of the last level. They're not exactly hard, because the game is pretty forgiving, they're just irritating. In the game's favor though, it looks and sounds nice, and the story is told in a charming fairy tale style that makes the rudimentary plot more interesting. A sequel is coming, and while I'm not exactly clamoring for more after seven solid hours of adventuring, it should be fun.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Of the seven novels by Kurt Vonnegut I've read, this was definitely the funniest. I've talked about how the two biggest recurring elements in his work are depressing uses of technology and dark humor, and the scale is pretty much fully tipped towards the latter here. Eliot Rosewater is one of Vonnegut's favorite characters, appearing in multiple books after this one, and I have to say I enjoyed his starring story a whole lot. It struck me at a certain point that it was sort of like one of the less serious Coen brothers movies in novel form, which was sort of an epiphany on my taste. Whether on film or in print, I sure like off beat and occasionally black as night humor.

As far as Vonnegut plots go, Mr. Rosewater's is fairly mundane. He was born into money, and is the president of a foundation that manages his family's fortune. An ambitious lawyer discovers that any president of the foundation that is found insane must relinquish control, and since Eliot has failed to have a child with his European wife, that means the power would transfer to his schlub of a cousin in Rhode Island. The lawyer believes he can get a huge chunk of that inheritance if such a transfer were to occur, and with only a minimum of digging finds that an insanity case might end up being pretty easy.

There's sort of three phases to the book. The first and second explore the lives of Eliot and his cousin respectively, less concerned with hurrying the plot along and just sort of exploring what their lives are like. The funniest bits tend to be whatever comes out of Eliot's mouth, though even when he's not around it's hard to read for any length of time without something humorous coming up. The last act is pretty brief and fairly climactic, a bit confusing on first read but explaining itself fairly well in the last chapter. If there was a Vonnegut book I wouldn't have minded being a bit longer, it was this one, but it was still an excellent, quick read and certainly in the top tier of his work.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Witcher

I bought The Witcher almost exactly one year ago, and played it off and on that whole time until I finally beat it a couple days ago. There's no particular reason why it took me so long, other than a general apathy towards gaming I generate every once in a while. But despite the protracted play through, I enjoyed the game for the most part. It's far from perfect, with a few things holding it back, mostly of a technical nature. While it was occasionally frustrating, it was still a very ambitious game that realized most of its big ideas and successfully told an interesting and dark fantasy story.

People always wonder about the title when they hear it. What is a Witcher? Well, Witchers are a creation of Andrzej Sapkowski, the Polish author whose books this game is based on. They're men who are turned into skilled monster hunters through years of intense training and having their bodies physically changed by various chemicals and mutagens. They're sterile, they're immune to disease, and most importantly, they're really good at killing things. They protect humans from the various dangers of the world they live in with brilliant swordplay, a strong knowledge of alchemy, and some basic magical abilities. Despite their important role, at the time of the game's story, the order has mostly died out, and Witchers are regarded as a nuisance at best and a menace at worst. You play a Witcher named Geralt of Rivia, and are mainly tasked with discovering and defeating an organization named Salamandra after they attack the Witcher stronghold shortly after he is discovered not far away, barely alive and suffering from amnesia.

Sure, the amnesia thing isn't exactly fresh ground at this point, but it's a way to portray both the immense ability and reputation of the character while still justifying the RPG progression of slowly increasing in power and learning all your skills again. The game never strays far from its formula of fighting off both monsters and humans, while investigating various mysteries in pursuit of your goal. The plot balloons in complexity from the initial problem with the Salamandra, though they remain a threat throughout the story and are a key to the whole thing. You can take on side contracts for various people if you want some more rewards, though you don't really need them to beat the game. The combat system is an interesting mix of number crunching and skill. You have two different swords and three stances with each, all appropriate for different types of enemies, and to stay alive you're going to have to master the timing system that lets you chain attacks together to maximize your effectiveness. Throw in some potions and other equipment along with five spells with various applications, and Geralt is a killing machine. You will occasionally have help, whether it's a small number of skilled allies or a large group of fodder to distract the small army your fighting, and I wish this was the case more often, because it makes for a more dynamic experience. Still, it's designed so Geralt can handle most things himself, and when you're switching between weapons and stances with ease you feel pretty powerful.

Probably the biggest thing that distinguishes The Witcher is its choice system. Ever since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, having the player make decisions based on what their character should do has been a popular thing in a lot of games, especially other RPGs. Unfortunately, rather than tough choices that make you really consider the consequences, they usually are merely binary good or evil things that will either make people love you or hate you, with each conferring its own rewards. The Witcher doesn't moralize, and the decisions aren't easy. A choice is almost never clearly better than its opposite, so you're not just going on whether you want light side or dark side points, you're considering the options and trying to pick what you think is the right thing to do. It's never easy, and the consequences often don't show up right away either, so you can't just pick one, see what happens, and reload a save if you don't like it. This is probably the game's biggest asset, and the story can go radically differently depending on what you decide. These choices are supposed to play into next year's sequel, and I'm interested to see how that is handled.

Presentation-wise, the game is sort of mixed. Beyond some impressive CG creations in the intro and right before the credits, all of the story is told in the engine, and it often comes off a bit awkwardly. There's lots of little things that are just odd, like when you walk near someone and it triggers a conversation automatically. It will pointlessly cut to a little thing showing you walk up to the character you're talking with, and then cut again to the actual discussion. I don't know, I probably could have assumed he would walk closer before they start talking. My computer's hardware is pretty old at this point, so I could see some weird issues with the way it handles different system specs. Rather than the whole game looking better or worse based on how much your computer can pump out, it's very uneven about what it prioritizes. Most character faces looked great, but random outfits and ground textures will look like they're N64 era. When things look nice they still look nice, although there are way too few faces to cover all the NPCs there are in the game, resulting in a bunch of clones running around all over the place. The music is a very nice orchestral score, and the voice acting is surprisingly decent for something that came from Poland. There are of course a few stinkers, though.

Anyway, the game was a lot of fun for about 30 hours, although there were a few issues. More glitches than I would have liked, and sometimes it was a bit obscure about what I was supposed to do for a quest. And this is yet another game in the last couple years that I can't say I enjoyed the ending of. To me, the story felt like it was pretty much over after the fifth chapter, and the fact that the next section was called the epilogue suggested as much. But they must have a different idea of what constitutes an epilogue in Poland, because it just kept going for another couple hours, giving you a new final antagonist and making you push through a ton of combat before you can finally finish it. It eventually got fairly ridiculous, and started to seem like the definition of stretching things out. It got to the point where it was pretty much impossible to fail thanks to all of the stuff the game was giving me to keep going, making the game feel like it was more concerned with showing me how great its epic story could be instead of considering whether I was still having fun. By the time it was the end, I was kind of sick of the experience. And that's a shame, because you never want a game you liked to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Still I'm looking forward to the sequel, because I'm curious to see what they could really wring out of the system with over three more years to work out the kinks.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Funny People

After creating two very good comedies with a bit of heart and building a movie empire as a producer, Judd Apatow returned last year with his third film, which has quite a bit more focus on sentiment rather than laughs. I saw a lot of people skeptical of his ability to pull this off, although I would guess most of them haven't seen Freaks and Geeks. I had no issue with the idea of Funny People, and it's successful in a lot of ways. The fact that it's not a great movie isn't because Apatow shouldn't try to be serious, it's just that a large chunk of the movie ends up being pretty unwatchable.

It's an odd thing, really. The movie's dangerously long for what could still be called a comedy, approaching two and a half hours. But Adam Sandler gives a surprisingly good performance as an actor and comedian who finds out that he has a very dangerous disease, and tries to get back to his stand up roots. Seth Rogen is his typical likable self, playing a much less confident version of himself who's struggling to make ends meet and gets hired by Sandler to be his assistant and help write jokes. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman are both very good as his roommates who he must occasionally butt heads with because this movie is more dramatic. For reasons I'll get into in a moment, the movie needs a love interest for Rogen, and Aubrey Plaza does her usual sarcastic thing pretty well in that position. It was funny seeing the origins of Aziz Ansari's Raaaaaaaandy character, and tons of people make cameos as themselves, either in casual interactions with Sandler's character or in brief snippets from his fake filmography.

For the most part, the movie manages a good balance between the humor and the drama, with its great cast doing the typical improv-heavy vulgar conversation thing in one scene and seriously considering mortality in the next. There might be a few too many sad musical montages, but it never really goes over the top trying to sell Sandler's plight, maybe because his slightly self-destructive tendencies make him feel like a real person rather than just a sad sack trying to manipulate your emotions. So it's really disappointing when the movie hits the breaks on what it's been doing to spend like forty minutes wasting our time with a romance subplot. Leslie Mann and Eric Bana are both pretty good, likable actors, and they do a fine job in this movie. It's just that the part that they're in really doesn't belong with the rest. Everything else pretty much grinds to a halt as Sandler reconnects with Mann as the one that got away, as Apatow proudly presents his wife and daughters again, and then her husband played by Bana shows up to create a whole lot of awkward and difficult to watch tension. These scenes just keep going and going until the breaking point, while I was desperately waiting for them to get back to the real movie.

Eventually they do, once the scripts reaches its Time to Wrap Things Up phase with some predictable character development and resolution, although even being a bit rote as it was it was still better than what just came before. People reconcile and part ways as necessary, and everything ends just about the way it should. It's really too bad the movie went on that whole tangent, because apart from that I really liked it for the most part. As it stands, it's the least of Apatow's three films, though still worth seeing if you like the cast enough. I don't mind if he still wants to be sentimental last time, as long as he makes sure the script is a lot tighter than this.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Childrens' Hospital - Season 1

This is a bit of a unique situation, as Childrens' Hospital was originally created as a short web series before Adult Swim picked it up as a show for their late night lineup. So "season one" is the ten original episodes packaged together in pairs, with a bit of new content, a "commercial" between the two parodying overly dramatic shows like NCIS and humorous wrap ups by creator and star Rob Corddry. They'll begin airing brand new episodes in two weeks, and based on just what I've already seen, they're probably gonna be pretty damn funny. Childrens' Hospital is a parody of overwrought medical shows like Grey's Anatomy, with all of the doctors constantly getting together, breaking up, and basically doing everything except pay attention to their patients. Unless they want to sleep with them. Even if they're six year olds in the bodies of adults thanks to advanced aging disease. Yeah, it's that kind of show. A few of the jokes don't hit, but enough do that it's a pretty enjoyable, wacky watch. There are bit parts by some pretty good comedy actors like Nick Offerman and Ed Helms, and while I don't really know any of the regulars besides Corddry and Megan Mullally, they all do a solid job. I'm not sure how much the switch to writing for television will change it, but I suspect not much.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Haibane Renmei

Part of why I watch anime is because of series like this, that tell stories you simply won't see in products from the Western world. Maybe a book might be similar, but never a movie or TV show. It introduces a unique fantasy setting and concept, tells a story within it, and then it's done. I could never imagine this happening here. It's about a group of youths that live together and resemble angels. They come from inside cocoons that grow from seed sized until they take up half a room, and once they escape, they are provided with a halo that sticks helpfully in place, and wings emerge painfully from their backs. They have a rigidly defined relationship with the other people in town, working for credit that they can use for supplies, and are watched over by an organization that prevents them from leaving the confines of a large wall around the town and surrounding environment. It's never very clear about the actual nature of their creation, although you can easily draw your own conclusions.

There's sort of two phases to the series, which lasts thirteen episodes. In the first, they gradually introduce its various unique ideas and develop the cast for a little more than the first third of the run time, and in the second things get a bit heavier and plot heavy. It's sort of paced like a movie that way. The first phase isn't exactly funny, but it's pleasant in that slice of life sort of way, beyond a couple disturbing scenes. It's much more dramatic after that, but never fully abandons that sense of wonder with the setting. The focus becomes more on two characters at that point rather than the whole group, almost to a fault, but at least their story is interesting. The ending is appropriately bittersweet, and allows for possible further exploration of the setting that won't happen. It's not necessary, although I can't say I didn't like it a bit more when they were just letting the original ideas on display breathe. Still, it was enjoyable the whole way through.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sam and Max: The Penal Zone

After two years off, Sam and Max finally return with their greatest caper yet. Telltale has done three other adventure series last we saw our anthropomorphic heroes, and they've clearly learned a lot in that time. They're finally nailing down the interface, bringing back arrow key movement, improving the inventory, and adding a notepad full of useful information. Add those changes with the improved graphics, and it's a pretty slick looking game. The characters are still cartoony, but there are fewer glitches, things are more detailed, and there's a grainy filter over the whole thing that somehow gels with the colorful palette to make a very interesting look. It works together with the renewed focus on the duo's actual supposed profession of freelance policemen to make the game seem more like an actual mystery they're solving rather than just something wacky they have to get out of. That was one of my favorite elements, and it's something I hope carries through the whole season.

The first two seasons both had subtitles applied to them after the fact, but The Devil's Playhouse is the first one to have it from the beginning and really try to establish a continuing storyline through the whole season, which will last for five games. The name plays into the big new gameplay feature that The Penal Zone introduces, Max's new ability to use various toys along with his psychic power to various useful ends. He can see the future, useful for getting hints at the solutions to puzzles, or teleport to wherever a phone is if he knows its number, and a few other things. You only really get to take advantage of a couple in this game, but the potential for the future is pretty tantalizing. You use these powers along with a pretty out of date crime analysis laboratory in the back of your car to track down the truth behind an alien visitor, and hopefully eventually send him back to the dimension where he belongs. The ending wraps up the individual story while teasing a greater plot behind it, and overall it was a very strong first chapter. Cool things were teased, the jokes were funny, and the puzzles were clever without being obtuse. I'm really looking forward to playing through the rest of the season.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Serial Experiments Lain

Serial Experiments Lain is a good series from the 90s if you can get past how totally strange the whole thing is. It's never very straightforward, and asks you to pay attention pretty much the whole time. It does recap most of its significant events at one point, but even that is obscure with it just seeming randomly edited to some freaky guitar playing. Very basically, it takes place in a world not quite like ours. It was a bit ahead of its time, predicting some aspects of Internet culture before it really took off. People use "Navis" to connect to the "Net", and eventually the main character Lain gets involved, but she starts to find ways that the Net world crosses over to the real one. Eventually there are major questions about the very nature of her existence. There are various factors tugging and pulling her like a mysterious god-like figure and a secret society that might be pursuing her. It successfully builds an atmosphere of paranoia and questions of what's really going on. If you pay attention it never gets too crazy, and after a while it actually makes sense, for the most part. It obviously gets more intense as it goes along and gets into a lot of really bizarre imagery, but they actually do a good job of resolving it in a way that keeps everything within the realm of understanding. It's not exactly a fun show, but it's a really intriguing one if you can deal with its oddness.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Player Piano

Kurt Vonnegut's first novel is sort of an interesting case. It's his wordiest work that I've read, and in some ways it's unique because it doesn't seem like only he could have written it. His style is visible but not fully formed yet, and it's like he wasn't sure who he was yet. A lot of his trademarks are there, like interesting applications of then-cutting edge but now old fashioned technology, a dystopian view of mankind's overall mentality, and some black humor. But it's just missing that economy of language and particular wry wit that would make it distinctly his. It was a pretty good book, but not one of his greats.

It's interesting trying to figure out when the book is supposed to take place, too. It was published in 1952, and is clearly set in a future where machines have too much control of society, but it's hard to say how far in the future. It takes place a generation or so after "the war", the United States' supposed final military conflict before they set up their new, more efficient society. But while it might have been World War II (albeit an alternate version of it), it seemed more like another one after it. The prominent use of now-dated technology like tape recorders to control various automated functions makes it unclear how far forward he intended it to take place, although I would guess sometime before now. It makes for an original setting that probably won't be replicated, and a curious backdrop for the story.

It's about Paul Proteus, an engineer and son of a legend of a man who was one of the most powerful in the country before he died. The world is placed before him in his career, but he grows increasingly displeased with the system and his life, while one of his old friends becomes involved with an organization that wishes to overthrow the machines' power in the society. It ended up taking on a more traditional story structure than I really expected, and some of its ideas seem kind of quaint now, but it had a surprising amount of things to say that would be relevant now. His ideas have always been a bit too nuts to take their warnings too seriously, but Kurt Vonnegut could probably make a compelling argument about anything he wanted. It was a bit preachy in places, but it was overall a pretty good first work by one of my favorite writers.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Honey and Clover - Season 2

Honey and Clover's second and final season continues and resolves the various plot lines entangling its various characters, with a focus less on cute comedy and more on trying to wreck you emotionally. It almost feels like a different show. The quality of the animation and writing and character performances is the same, it just simply is no longer concerned with making you laugh. If the humor was all I liked about the first season it would be disappointing, and honestly some of the charm is missing with it being so maudlin all the time, but it's still a high quality series for the most part. You sort of wonder why some characters make the decisions they do, but people carrying feelings that they know will never be returned is sort of what the whole thing is about. There's some pretty depressing moments throughout the 13 episodes, but it still manages to do that anime thing of finding a way to seem positive after the fact. Bittersweet, I guess. The ending definitely has that in spades, and might be one of the most touching conclusions to a story I've ever seen. It's a series that really captures the feeling of unrequited longing, and it's still worth seeing for anyone interested in intelligent entertainment.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

You've probably seen a movie like Hot Tub Time Machine before. A comedy that you like the actors in, and has a funny concept, and is actually pretty humorous, but you still feel a little let down by. It's not a bad movie at all - I'd call it pretty good. But I kind of wish it was more. This is a movie about a group of guys who find a hot tub that can travel back in time... and they spend the whole thing stuck in the 80s. A common complaint with comedies is that all the funny parts are in the trailer, and while that's not really true here, I'd like to make a variation on the idea. There are plenty of laughs that are not in the trailer, but all the laughs that are in the trailer are represented in full. What might have been teases for great scenes, like the one with Craig Robinson reluctantly having sex in the bath, are pretty much exactly as they appeared, with nothing extra you didn't know about. It leads to a movie that's funny but not really ever unexpected.

It's obvious after a point that it's really a send up of 80s movies rather than time travel. A few stars of those films appear, like Chevy Chase as the mysterious hot tub repairman and Crispin Glover as a bellhop who's always close to losing an arm. And it's really a typical 80s comedy in a lot of ways, with characters like Lizzy Caplan's Deschanel-esque quirky perfect girl and Sebastian Stan's douche bag alpha male. There's a lot of gross-out bodily function stuff that doesn't really play anymore and of course a Communist paranoia thread that helps lead to the main conflict keeping the good guys from getting back to the present. All of the main guys are pretty good, and the supporting cast is mostly decent even if some of them didn't really sell the 80s so much as someone's vague memories of the 80s. Rob Corddry is the main comedic catalyst, though honestly it seems like he's trying too hard in an attempt at a broader audience. I liked the movie, I just wish it was better. And after hearing about the whole color correction issue, it was impossible not to notice. If you don't know what I'm talking about, google "teal and orange". Lots of movies are limiting themselves to this palette, and it really doesn't work in a movie that's supposed to represent the 80s. It just looks really weird in spots. Even the DVD box art can't escape the madness.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory

Chronologically, this is the third OVA that takes place between the original Gundam series and Zeta, which continues the story with another new threat to uh... whoever the good guys are. I'm not going to pretend I know a ton about the Universal Century's backstory. The Zeon guys are colonists who rebel against the Earth government, with the latter portrayed as the protagonists, although they usually make efforts to have at least certain people with Zeon seem sympathetic. Other shows like Gundam Wing take place in very similar but definitely different universes. I haven't really been watching these OVAs because of interest in the overall story though, more of out some weird appreciation for what they do. I definitely prefer the look of modern anime to stuff from the 90s, although sometimes that stuff is fun to see again. What might be most interesting about the whole Gundam series is that despite being about giant robots, it's still relatively hard science fiction, and that stuff is interesting to see on the rare occasions where it's actually filmed or animated.

And it's a series that really doesn't hold your hand. You have to try to follow the various factions and characters to really know what's going on. Stardust Memory takes place a few years after the first big war from this timeline, and a few more years before the next big one, and serves as a bridge between the two conflicts. In addition to its heavy military plot, there's again a love story to humanize it and keep it from getting too sterile. I wasn't a huge fan of the way they handled this one, though. It seemed schizophrenic in its efforts to remain interesting. First they like each other. Then she's a bitch for no reason. Then she treats him like a kid. Then he goes AWOL. It's all just a bit forced. But it gets tied in somewhat interestingly with the main story, resulting in an emotional and seemingly significant ending. It's sort of a foreboding one, although the main characters themselves seem to come out okay. The 13 episodes are a pretty quick and entertaining watch whether you really care about the political and military jargon or just like seeing robots blow each other up. I'm almost interested at this point in checking out the full TV series from the same storyline.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Planet Hulk

This is the last step of my quest to see all of the recent Marvel movies I missed. Although Kick-Ass sort of counts since Icon is a Marvel imprint, and it's out on home video next week. So anyway I mostly enjoyed Planet Hulk. It's based on the storyline that led directly to the World War Hulk comic I read a while ago, although it ends before it gets to the part that triggers that story. Which might have been a good idea, since it would have made a total downer out of what is a pretty complete and interesting story, if you ignore the fact that they turned Hulk's blood green and he's somehow able to stay transformed the entire time without a single appearance by Bruce Banner. I still don't really get that.

But yeah, it's a pretty classic pulpy adventure story. Hulk is sent to outer space by some dudes, and ends up on a planet they didn't expect, one inhabited by several different intelligent species and where he is captured and forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena. They attach him with a device that acts as a universal translator, so he can actually be a character and not just a raging psychopath. He forms an uneasy alliance with some fellow captives (uneasy because Hulk is a dick, always), and eventually they escape in the midst of a rebellion. There's some pretty standard scenes of character development that also explain the backstory of how the planet came to be the way it is, with some pretty easily discoverable plot twists and other stuff to keep it from getting too dull. It's far from the most original story ever conceived, but it's told pretty well and it's pretty fun watching Hulk and his pals destroy the crap out of everything. All I've really asked of these animated movies is they don't be boring, and Planet Hulk managed that pretty well. It's an old school kind of plot, fairly well animated, and well voiced by some veteran actors. Completely serviceable film.