Friday, September 30, 2011

Resistance: Fall of Man

Despite being a huge fan of Insomniac's Ratchet and Clank series, I had for whatever reason to this point avoided trying their new franchise for this generation, Resistance. Now I wish I had tried it sooner, but not because it was really good and I was missing out. The first Resistance game was a launch title, and while it's probably above average by that standard, it definitely feels every bit like the five year old game that it is. Not only is it not up to the level of subsequent, groundbreaking games like Call of Duty 4, it doesn't even learn some of the lessons that earlier games like Half-Life 2 taught. There are just fundamental issues with the way it's designed that clash with the basic concepts that make today's shooters more fun than older ones. It's not a bad game, but I'd call it fairly mediocre. And while other games I'd say the same thing about perhaps had some interesting ideas and just couldn't pull them off successfully, Resistance is sort of the opposite; it's pretty competently put together for a game made in 2006, it just never gets very interesting.

I had always assumed that Resistance was about aliens invading the planet before World War II could break out, but that's not actually the case. The apparent alien antagonists of the series are actually people that have been infected by the Chimera virus and transformed into mutated, super-strong soldiers, and given access to powerful technology. They swept through Russia and then Europe, with the game beginning with you as Nathan Hale, an American dropped into England to try and help defend that country from being assimilated as well. Nathan quickly becomes infected with the virus along with the rest of the survivors from his unit, but for some unknown reason he manages to fight against it and stay conscious. It's also unknown what the source of the virus is, whether it's natural or created, though I'd suspect the latter considering all the technology that's been somehow created to develop the virus' victims into an army and equip them for battle. That raises another question about who exactly would be behind this, but the game isn't about answering all of these questions so much as just throwing you into a messed up, depressing situation and making you try to fix it, mostly by shooting a lot of guys.

And that's essentially what you do in the game. Levels usually revolve around putting you in some war-torn English village or city, and giving you a fairly linear path to run down while you shoot a ton of Chimera. They mix it up with the occasional vehicle sequence or a battle on a larger scale with some allies on your side. Much like Ratchet and Clank, the game tries to get a lot of mileage out of its unique weapons, although they aren't as successful as they were with their other franchise. There are basics like an assault rifle and a shotgun (the latter of which is useful only for mop-up duty, yet you inexplicably find ammo for it all the time in situations where its use isn't appropriate), but also a handful of more elaborate guns, some designed by the Chimera and some by your side. They all have a hook, like a machine gun that has tags that can cause rounds to home in on an enemy or another that you can eject the magazine from to turn it into a quickly expended, floating turret. Unfortunately, several of these only have very limited functionality, or are limited otherwise by a silly limitation. For example, the sniper rifle can be very effective due to its ability to slow down time (don't ask me), but you can only carry twelve rounds for it at once, despite being able to hold hundreds of bullets for the other weapons at the same time. I understand placing similar restrictions to try to keep things balanced, but that one just seemed particularly silly.

The game could be fine with a less-than-completely-satisfying arsenal of weapons, if the enemy and level design was good enough, but I think there are problems there too. The biggest issue is that the combat is set up a lot like the Ratchet and Clank games, where enemies will frequently come at you in swarms and fire slow-moving projectiles at you, which you have to avoid while returning fire. It works fine in Ratchet when you have a full view of the action and a very agile character. But Resistance is in first person, and Nathan isn't very fast, and you often just get pelted with tons of damage that you can't avoid effectively, instead of a more traditional shooter where you have a certain chance of getting shot that you can use cover and smart movement to avoid the risk of. The problem is increased by the game's strange hybrid health system. You can regenerate healthy by avoiding damage for a certain amount of time, but you can only heal up to the nearest 25% mark. So if you get hit for 20% damage, you can heal up to full, but if you get hit for 30%, you can only recover to the 3/4 level without finding a health item. It's a weird system that has no real benefit, and it makes you wish they had picked one type of health system and just gone with it. The encounters in the game rarely get more interesting than just a new swarm of bad guys, and while there's a decent variety to just what type of weird monster thing will be attacking you, few of them bring an interesting challenge. They either run at you and are pretty easily handled, or shoot at you from a distance and can be kind of a pain to deal with.

As I mentioned before, there's a technical competence to the game that makes it playable. There's a simple flatness to the graphics, as the environments and characters aren't as detailed as we've come to expect, and the sound design is fairly standard too, with functional sound, repetitive music, and voice acting that does little to spice up a pretty standard story. But it all fits together into a coherent setting, and a somewhat interesting universe, with possibilities that the two sequels may or may not have successfully explored at this point. I had enough fun early on when I was discovering new weapons and just getting used to the game, but that eventually turned to boredom and then frustration once the newness of everything worn off and I was left with an increasingly familiar and difficult challenge. At no point could I really point at the game and say that something was broken. All I could say was that I wasn't having fun, and there was no indication that the game was interested in changing that. They just stretched what they had for too long a period, perhaps believing that the game had to be a certain length to be acceptable, and perhaps not having enough development time to create more interesting and unique situations with the launch of the PlayStation 3 looming. This was before games like Call of Duty 4 made it okay to have a campaign that only lasted around six hours, after all. I wish I could have liked the game more, but the simple fact was I didn't. I got the dual pack which included the second game, so hopefully I'll have more fun with that one.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Movie Update 19

I feel like I should be building these posts around common themes, so I can give them more interesting titles than just a number, but right now the movies I watch are dictated by what's on my carefully curated list and what's about to expire from streaming. So... whatever.

Dead Alive

This was part of an impromptu horror marathon I had last Saturday when a bunch of crap was about to disappear. It's one of Peter Jackson's earliest movies, before he had started working in Hollywood, and it's also possibly the most disgusting movie I've ever seen. There's an obvious campiness and sense of humor to the extremely gory violence, so it isn't very difficult to watch, but it's still pretty darn gross. Leaking fluids, strange creatures, and dozens of people getting chopped and torn to bits. It's basically a really kooky zombie movie, except the plague is caused by a weird rat/monkey thing, and they're almost impossible to kill short of chopping them into tiny pieces. There's no real logic to it, they can pretty much do whatever the insane script calls for. Very fun, very gross movie.

Ed Wood

A sort of biopic about the career of one of Hollywood's most infamous directors, from around when he meets the great Bela Lugosi to the completion of Plan 9 from Outer Space, his most infamous film and maybe the worst ever made. Being a Tim Burton movie, it's not just a standard biopic, with a weird sense of humor reflective of the kind of mind that might produce crap like Plan 9. It's a very sympathetic story, showing Wood as a bright, friendly, enthusiastic man who just happens to make garbage. Johnny Depp is very good  as Wood, though Martin Landau sort of steals the show, winning an Oscar for playing the morphine-abusing, vulgar, theatrical Lugosi. The rest of the cast is solid too, and the black and white cinematography is generally excellent. And I loved how the film's moment of triumph is centered around the filming of one of the worst things to ever appear on a screen.

Kicking and Screaming

A funny but also thoughtful comedy by Noah Baumbach, who's known by many as a frequent collaborator with Wes Anderson, and watching it you can envision how that partnership might have started. I found it incredibly easy to relate to the movie's main characters, but I expect that's true of most people who ever graduated from college and weren't sure what to do next. The four friends all stay together in town, unable to move on from their experiences for whatever reason. We get a really good idea of why they're friends in the first place, but also what might cause that friendship to end. Really, they're all just scared to get started on that whole real life thing, which I'm not sure anyone was fully prepared for. Solid acting, really good story, and it's just a funny movie, too.


This is the kind of movie people talk about when they use words like "delightful". Moonstruck is kind of an oddball romantic comedy, starring Cher in a remarkably natural performance for someone I don't really think of as an actor as a widow who decides to settle for remarriage with someone she doesn't really love. Things change when she meets her future husband's brother, a one handed baker played by a charmingly unhinged Nicolas Cage. The two have nice chemistry, and things happen about the way you might expect. Also, Cher's dad is having an affair, and her mom suspects it but is too nice to make it into a tragedy. Olympia Dukakis does a really nice job with the part, and both women won Oscars for their work. The movie's sense of humor is definitely off-beat in an unexpected and likable way, and while nothing in the film is groundbreaking, it's pleasant to watch all the same.


A horror film for the whole family, directed by Tobe Hooper and written and possibly actually directed by Steven Spielberg. Ignoring the debate over who really had creative control of this movie (I'm guessing the true answer involves the word "both"), it's a pretty decent little paranormal movie. A family gets terrorized by ghosts that can move furniture and suck people into another dimension filled with goo. There's a bit of humor, but it's mostly the kind of horror movie intended to elicit a few jumps without being truly terrible or horrifying. Not that most kids probably wouldn't be freaked out by it. The eventual explanation for what's going on is pretty unsatisfactory, but the climax itself is exciting enough. There are a few ideas here worth checking out, especially if you like a little jolt but don't want to see anything truly traumatic.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Weeds - Season 7

I've managed to enjoy Weeds since it left suburban California a few years ago more than many people, but I could tell that my patience for it was running thin when I could barely even enjoy the episodes this season that other people said were actually pretty good. It's hard to say what it is that turned me against the show,  because it's pretty much what it was last year. The Botwins are more centrally confined to one location, as they all go to New York once Nancy is let out of prison and put in a halfway house there (a few years after last season ended). But it felt similar to me, like how the Agrestic seasons and then the Ren Mar seasons felt like discrete parts of a larger story. Still something was missing, or wrong. I didn't care about the plot anymore. When the show ignored its plot, I couldn't laugh at any of the jokes. None of the new characters were interesting, and none of the old characters were capable of surprising me anymore. The show was stuck in a rut, and the news that they weren't really planning on making it the final season, even though they had hinted at that previously, really drained a lot of the hope out of me.

There's a difference between a show that can last a long time and a show that can't, and unfortunately Showtime doesn't seem to realize this. Weeds was finishing its seventh season right as Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia was beginning its seventh, and though I'm bored to death of the former, I love the latter as much as ever. The difference is that Weeds is trying to tell a story, and Sunny just wants to be funny. Most stories don't stay interesting after seven years, especially when it's the kind of story with a plot that seems naturally inclined to end in half that time. A suburban mom turning to selling weed to make ends meet just doesn't sound like something that could end up taking nearly a decade to fully play out. Why does she continue to deal drugs, even though the authorities know about her now and it's clearly a practice that has not brought her sustained success in the past? Why do her sons and brother-in-law and Doug of all people stick around her when she's clearly a terrible influence in their lives? Because dealing drugs is what the show is about, and because these are the main characters, and it's easier to write a show when the cast stays together. Nothing about the show feels real anymore, especially when the attempts at broader comedy get more and more out of sync with the general mood. It's Always Sunny could probably get away with a scene where Muslims who are supposed to be shipping weed to America accidentally blow themselves up. A show about a woman who was recently released from jail after her husband was murdered trying to get custody of her son cannot.

And so the show isn't really funny when it tries to be, and the story doesn't work because I don't believe in these characters anymore. It doesn't help that all of the new subplots this year end up being basically meaningless. Nancy's supposed to have to worry about her parole and the conditions of her release, but that turns out to be a lot of nothing before it's swept aside. New dealers and suppliers pop up that the family has to deal with, but they're all pretty much gone by the end. A potentially devastating schism in the family is thrown out the window with a silly last-minute solution. And then the terrible cliffhanger, easily one of the laziest things I've seen a show do to try to keep its audience hooked. The craziest part is that I'm not even sure I won't watch season eight, if they end up making it. But that's mostly just because seven seems like a silly number to quit something on.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Top Gear - Season 17

I'm not really sure why I keep writing about this show. I guess it's just because I write about every show I watch regularly. But Top Gear is unusual, because it's the only non-fiction series on that list. Well, some of the situations and gags are definitely made up. But it's a talk show. It stars personalities rather than characters, and is based on repeatable segments rather than a narrative. This is all a long winded way of saying there's not much new to say about it after every mostly-biannual series of a half dozen or so new episodes. But I keep at it because that's what I do, I guess. I had fun with these six episodes, as could be predicted. The guests were mostly a wash besides Rowan Atkinson. There weren't really any extended sequences that I loved as much as some previous ones, but setups like the makeshift car-and-trailer trains and trying to demolish houses were entertaining. Richard got to drive a pretty cool tanky jeepy thing. He also did a really nice piece about amputee soldiers who formed a rally team. The guys had fun at each others' expense. It was Top Gear, really. Not much else to say, but I'll keep saying it until that changes.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Eyes Wide Shut

Although Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors, I wasn't especially looking forward to seeing his final film. An erotic thriller starring a real (at the time) couple just seemed a bit beneath him, I guess. Of course, it wasn't really that simple. It never is with Kubrick. Even if maybe he died of a heart attack before he was actually totally finished working on it, it's still a remarkable movie, one of his most artful, and easily one of my favorites of the ten I've seen. It's foreboding and exciting, and it does deal heavily in sexual themes, but it's definitely not your standard erotic thriller.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as Bill and Alice, a married couple with a daughter that begin the story by going to a Christmas party hosted by a patient of Cruise's played by Sydney Pollack. Alice becomes suspicious when she sees Bill with a couple models and then disappears for a while (he's actually treating a prostitute who overdosed when she was with Pollack). In a later argument, Alice reveals that she thought about an affair a year earlier, and Bill gets called away just in time to get sucked into a world of sexual desire and paranoia. He eventually ends up at a weird party that's equal parts orgy and cult ritual, in an infamous sequence that was initially censored in the United States to get an R rating and is one of the most compelling things I've ever watched.

After the party, the intensity doesn't really let up, as Bill continues to learn strange things about what went on that night, and becomes increasingly suspicious of what's really going on all around him. It's a pretty long movie, but I never felt its length pressing on me, due to the constantly interesting cinematography (the movie always looks great, even if the New York scenes were filmed on a London set) and score, which uses various orchestral pieces to great effect. The film eventually has a scene that finally explains what happened to Bill, and taken at face value it's a bit of a letdown compared to the unbearable tension of what came before. Of course, there's no guarantee that it's the whole truth, because we never really see one way or the other. Going along with the upbeat denouement, I can see why the movie might seem like much ado about nothing, but there's always more layers to a Kubrick movie than you might initially expect. He was a great filmmaker, and Eyes Wide Shut is a completely fitting final work for him.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Movie Update 18

Does this even need an introduction?


Terry Gilliam has a long history of misfortune trying to get his movies made, but if nothing else I think he can look back on this as one film that he got to do completely on his terms. Unless he actually didn't, but it sure seems that way. Brazil is a combination of satire, violence, slapstick, and oppression that I don't think I've ever seen in a story before. Maybe something Kurt Vonnegut would write, I guess. It's set in an odd dystopian future where a gigantic bureaucracy seems to control everything. Johnathan Pryce is part of the system, but he gets caught up in something bigger involving a terrorist played by Robert De Niro and a beautiful girl he's been seeing in his dreams. It's both very funny and extremely dark at points, featuring some really great imagery and a killer ending. Unique and worth checking out.


Despite really marking the beginning of the slasher movie craze, Halloween has a remarkably low death count and lack of a focus on gore. It's almost like a Hitchcock movie in its focus on suspense over shocking the audience. Like all older horror movies, it doesn't register quite as terrifyingly as it probably did in the past, but it's still a pretty effective little film. I definitely think I like John Carpenter's work in the horror genre a little more than action. Some teenagers do things Michael Myers doesn't like, he stalks them and kills them brutally, and he repeatedly fails to die. A lot of tropes, but it's a tight, tense movie.


As far as Hayao Miyazaki movies go, the plot in Ponyo is pretty slight. His films have always balanced family-friendly whimsy with deeper ideas, but I think this is easily his most child-focused movie, even more than My Neighbor Totoro. That doesn't make it bad though, of course. I still liked it a lot, from the undersea mythology it quickly builds to the gorgeous animation and painterly backgrounds. The environmental themes and dialogue (at least in the American dub) are a bit too obvious and expository, but they just flavor a fun little fairy tale. Not the best Miyazaki movie, but still a really good one.

Wings of Desire

This is a weird movie. I actually saw the American remake (and hated it) around when it came out in the 90s, without realizing it was based on this German film. The original is a lot better, but still really weird. It's based on the creepy idea that angels are always walking around outside our vision, watching over us and sometimes longing to be one of us. Bruno Ganz, also known as Hitler from Downfall and those funny youtube videos, plays an angel who falls in love with a human, and considers becoming a human to be with her. There's a lot of extended scenes with the angels just listening to the thoughts of humans, which can get repetitive, but they are really artfully shot, and the use of black and white and color is another effective touch. There's also a very strange subplot where Peter Falk plays Peter Falk. Yeah, it's a weird movie.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

What do you call a dark comedy that you really like, but isn't really that funny or that dark? I'm not sure, but that sort of describes Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Carmen Maura stars as an actress whose affair with a costar has recently ended, and now finds herself caught trying to figure out what happened. At the same time, her friend recently slept with someone who turned out to be a terrorist, and she's considering subletting her apartment to an awkward, nerdy looking Antonio Banderas, who happens to be the son of her lover. Also, his wife is crazy and wants to kill her, or really anyone. It's a twisty, entertaining little movie, though it never reaches the crazy sort of climax or fevered pitch that the best movies of its ilk tend to. Still, a fun, well made movie.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Just Cause 2

If the first Just Cause was a dry run for testing out ideas on what an open world game about causing a revolution in a small exotic country might be, its sequel is definitely the full realization of those concepts. It's also sort of the game Mercenaries 2: World in Flames should have been; it doesn't have some of that game's best assets, like its co-op, its arsenal of hugely explosive airstrikes, and its strong motivation for the lead character, but it does execute on its central premise a lot better. It's a huge game, one that will still have things you haven't done long after you've lost interesting in doing them, but well worth the many hours it will take to reach the point.

Just Cause 2 is all about destruction and creating chaos. In fact, the main currency in the game is actually called "chaos". Building up your chaos meter can be done in several ways, mostly involving making various objects in the world explore. The simplest way to increase chaos is to complete side missions for three different armed factions that inhabit the country of Panau, which range from fairly simple tasks like assassinating a certain official to more elaborate jobs involving a lot more firepower. The game missed an opportunity by never having the factions interact, despite a lot of your actions generally working to expand their various territories. Their beefs all seem to be with Panau's government though and not each other, so you can do whatever you like without worrying that it will bother them. Gaining chaos unlocks further missions for the factions, weapons and vehicles that you can buy and upgrade from the black market, and most importantly, gives you access to agency missions, which progress the story.

If course, that "importantly" is up for debate. The story itself is mostly inconsequential, consisting of a lot of national stereotypes yelling at each other and trying to take over the country. You're really only the good guys because the player is usually the good guy in games like this. I didn't even realize that you were playing the same character as in the first game until I met another character that I recognized, which shows of how little significance the plot is. I think you can ignore the story completely if you want, as the entire archipelago that the country consists of is unlocked from the start, and there's nothing really blocking you from doing what you want. Most things you do will earn you money as well as chaos, but it's kind of a laughable commodity, as there was almost never a situation where I felt the need to pay for a specific weapon or vehicle when so many are just there for the taking.

You can run, jump shoot, throw explosives, and control a huge variety of vehicles, all of which are pretty fun. The key to the gameplay is the grappling hook, though, which lets you winch two objects together for whatever reason you can dream up, as well as zip yourself quickly across the world, cling to walls and ceilings, and even fall from any distance without taking damage. Combine it with your backpack which has an infinite supply of parachutes, and the freedom of movement you have in the game is immense. It helps make up for the fact that your arsenal never gets much more impressive than it is in the beginning. It's fun just to use the two items to fling yourself around the country, stumble upon a military base you've never seen before, and just lay waste to the delicate equipment and soldiers inside with the agility of an Hispanic Batman. It does seem a bit limiting when you can only blow up things the game wants you to blow up, like tanks full of gas, water towers, oil pipelines, and construction cranes. But there's just so many of them that it's rare to go too long without seeing something you can destroy. The problem with the game's scope is that it might actually be too vast, as I found myself frequently skipping to new locations using the extraction feature rather than traveling myself, because unless you have a plane or a helicopter, the distance between significant locations can be prohibitive.

The game is very impressive technically, never stopping to load an area, and having a nice level of detail on all the objects despite their being hundreds of them in any direction you look. The geographical diversity of this small cluster of islands is pretty incredible, and all the different environments look really nice. I starting having some slowdown and hangups with the frame rate when I was getting closer to the end of my time with the game, but they never seriously affected gameplay. Reflecting on some aspects of the game, there were definitely issues. Voice acting was generally bad and repetitive, too much of the optional content like the race challenges and tracking down hundreds of meaningless collectibles just wasn't interesting, and fighting off enemy guards and soldiers never felt like more than a distraction from blowing up everything in sight. The game really took a dive in quality whenever you were tasked with fighting a particularly tough bad guy rather than something that played to its strengths. Still, it featured over fifty unique missions that ranged from decent to pretty damn fun, which is a lot more than the first game can say, and experimenting with the grappling hook and your other gear never stopped being enjoyable. The good parts are definitely worth the small design issues.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Movie Update 17

And here's the rest of the current crop. I think I'll be watching at least four movies a week for the next six weeks, so... yeah. Busy.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

This was the first movie Cameron Crowe wrote, although it was directed by Amy Heckerling. Kind of a standard high school sex comedy, but a well-written one, and I think it probably set a lot of standards for that particular genre. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the female lead and I thought her character was an interesting examination of a late bloomer type of girl, but I thought the standouts were Judge Reinhold as her older brother, who's just kind of a likable guy, and Sean Penn especially as the stoner Jeff Spicoli. It's not that it's a particularly difficult part to play, but I thought he actually brought a surprising amount of sadness to the role. Weird comment I guess, but hey, the movie has that scene where Phoebe Cates takes her red bikini top off.

The Lady Eve

Much like Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve is a good old comedy with some odd touches, like the opening credits featuring an animated snake. Henry Fonda is a rich heir to an ale fortune, and on a boat ride back to home a father and daughter pair of con artists attempt to take him in a high stakes card game. But the daughter, played by Barbara Stanwyck ends up falling for him after she sees how earnestly he feels towards her. Of course things get complicated once Fonda realizes who she really is. What follows is a mix of romantic comedy and some noir elements (mostly revolving around the femme fatale archetype) that generally works. Fonda's character is a bit too dumb to be believable and the plot sort of gives up on justifying the characters' actions at a certain point, but the dialogue and main performances are strong enough to pull it all together into a solid movie anyway. Flawed, but fun.

The Last Picture Show

I liked this one a hell of a lot, for reasons I'm not sure I can totally explain. It's another coming of age movie, although it treats the sexual subject matter with a lot more frankness that most movies, even ones made today, do. There's a certain melancholy about the whole thing, with characters passing and businesses closing, it sort of reflects the idea of small towns disappearing without getting too preachy about it. It's also notable for featuring a performance by an extremely young Jeff Daniels, before he had fully mastered the art of acting. The movie drifts a bit and is far from the most easily entertaining one on this list (in fact it's pretty easily the most humorless), but it just worked for me.

Roman Holiday

A nice movie about a gorgeous girl and a handsome man having fun in a beautiful city. Audrey Hepburn plays a princess of some country who's visiting in Rome, when she gets fed up with her controlled lifestyle and decides to run away for a night. She ends up spending time with a reporter played by Gregory Peck, who at first just wants a story, but changes his mind once he starts having feelings for her. He also has a photographer friend he abuses rampantly without repercussion. It's not the funniest comedy or the most emotional romance, but it's a good film all around, and it features one of the best endings I've ever seen in this type of movie. They often sacrifice realism for the sake of the story, but that's not the case here, and it works extremely well. It was definitely the part of the film that impressed me the most.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Saxondale only lasted for a couple brief seasons a few years ago, so I don't think many people have ever heard of it. My only exposure was in an interview with star Steve Coogan on Top Gear, which featured a clip from an episode featuring a character who was obviously based off Jeremy Clarkson. And the show is about to disappear from Netflix streaming (I don't even want to talk about today's Qwikster announcement), so even fewer people will have the opportunity to be exposed to it. Which is a shame, because while the show is a bit too slight to be truly great, it does feature one of the best characters I've ever seen in a comedy. Coogan plays Tom Saxondale, an aging pest controller who used to be a roadie for bands like The Who and Deep Purple (but not Led Zeppelin) and now bides his time as best he can. He has a pretty simple life, living with his heavyset girlfriend Magz and his teenage assistant Raymond, trading barbs with the agency rep who gets him extermination jobs, and going to anger management classes.

It's a pretty basic sitcom, with Tommy occasionally getting into trouble or delicate situations and having to work his way out of them. What's remarkable about it is just the character, who's a perfect storm of performance, writing, and makeup. The character is a complete transformation from Coogan's regular look, and it's well worth watching the show just to see what they do with it. Tommy is kind of a dick most of the time, often handling adversity poorly and feeling the need to control every conversation he's in. He's remarkably well-read and eloquent despite his appearance, but that just increases the know-it-all douchiness he frequently projects. At his core Tommy is still a good guy, though. He's faithful to Magz, he tries to use his authority properly when he has it, and he gets along well with people who don't annoy him, or who he doesn't annoy too much. It's the difficult balance between being a funny jerk and still being a likable person that the show usually nails, and makes the character so intriguing. There's only 13 episodes, but that just might be the right amount of exposure to the character. More shows should explore their concepts as well as Saxondale does without coming close to wearing out their welcome.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Movie Update 16

I've built up a huge backlog of movies I haven't talked about yet. This post doesn't even cover all of them.


Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni made his transition to English-language films with this, a combination of a look at the culture of "swinging London" in the 60s and a The Conversation-esque plot about a photographer who slowly realized that he accidentally shot evidence of a murder. That part of the movie takes a long time to really get going though, and a lot of the focus is definitely on just seeing what this guy's life of shooting models and buying strange antiques for his apartment is like. Much like the director's previous L'Avventura, I appreciated the visual style of the film more than I enjoyed watching it. It's also notable for being one of the movies involved in the industry's transition from a restrictive code to a rating system, which is something.

A Hard Day's Night

This is sort of an early prototype of a mockumentary. It stars the members of The Beatles as themselves, on the road during a tour. They crack jokes, use a variety of techniques to escape from their ravenous hordes of young female fans, and pretend they're playing a lot of the songs from the album of the same name. There's not much substance to the movie, it's just a fun little romp with some talented guys at the peak of their popularity. Of course, they're more talented musicians than they are actors, but none of them are bad enough to really make the movie hard to watch, and they're not exactly going for Shakespeare here.


F.W. Murneau cements his status as my favorite silent drama director with this, an unofficial adaptation of Dracula set in his native Germany that is easily the earliest example of actual horrific imagery in a film that I can think of. Max Schreck as Count Orlok in full vampire makeup is a truly creepy and interesting sight. The movie drags a bit in places, but mostly it's 80 minutes of remarkably watchable 1920s filmmaking. I don't know how much of the plot was taken directly from Dracula, but it's a cool little story.

Raise the Red Lantern

Zhang Yimou has been known recently for directing historical action movies like Hero, but before that he worked on period dramas. I disliked To Live when I saw it in school, but I wonder if I might appreciate it more now, because I really loved Raise the Red Lantern. Anytime a movie can get banned in its own country for how it depicts life, it will probably be interesting. It stars Gong Li as a young woman who is forced to leave school and become a wealthy man's fourth mistress when her father dies. It made me once again glad that I wasn't born as a woman more than forty years ago. The film's strongest asset is its cinematography, which makes brilliant use of color throughout, and helps make the interrelations of the several wives of one man fascinating. Just a gorgeous movie, and Li is fantastic in it.

Rebel Without a Cause

I didn't like this very much. I guess it does say something about teen angst, but that's just not a subject that really interests me, and the rest of the movie isn't entertaining enough to make up for it. James Dean did have a real screen presence, but he honestly wasn't the best actor in the world, either. I don't know. I found myself unaffected by the whole thing. Some good scenes, but it never came together in a way I appreciated. It's a real tragedy how none of the three leads lived to see 45, though.

Sophie's Choice

At times this movie felt too obsessed with being a tragedy, like it got in its own way somehow. I liked all three central performances a lot, especially Meryl Streep's, who had to do some of the most emotionally devastating scenes any actress would ever have to do, on top of having to do some of them in a language besides her own. Really amazing work. A lot of the horrible stuff in this movie is self-inflicted though, and I wasn't quite sure it justified itself in these instances. The only thing worse than an unearned happy ending is an unearned sad one. Again, I mostly thought it was good, I just had a few problems with it.

Swing Time

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made a bunch of musicals together, and this is the most famous. I felt like the industry still hadn't fully figured out how to do the genre yet though, less than a decade after the first talkie. There's some really good dancing and a couple of the songs are good, there's just something a little awkward about the whole production. It also has one of those really annoying romantic comedy plots that can only continue going forward because one or more characters refuses to actually discuss the situation honestly for no real reason. I find that stuff to be less realistic than movies about aliens or something, if they're written better.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

America: the Musical. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a combination biopic and musical that does both pretty well. Dandy was Michael Curtiz' film directly prior to Casablanca, and while it doesn't reach the heights of one of the best movies ever made, it's still worth watching. James Cagney was known for playing tough guys, but here he does brilliant work playing George M. Cohan, a man who made the theater his life and composed a number of famous patriotic songs like "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Over There". The movie was timed perfectly, coming out only a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and reminding people how cool America is I guess. Lots of solid song and dance numbers, and it's a nice little story about one of the country's musical heroes.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

FEAR 2 is an easier game than the original, and generally stuck out from the crowd less when it was released for the same reasons. FEAR was an early post-Half-Life 2 shooter that was notable for two reasons; its horror atmosphere, and the complex AI of the soldiers you fought, who seemed incredibly smart at the time, and worked together to flush you out and flank you. FEAR 2 maintains the creepy mood of its predecessor, but the combat seems much more straightforward, and designed to keep you constantly running and gunning rather than approaching every situation carefully. Weapons, ammo, health kits, and body armor are constantly being thrown at you, and the enemies seem less concerned with flanking you than they used to be. It's possible I'm just remembering them being a lot smarter than they really were, but I think it was a conscious choice to make the game a bit easier for casual players to handle. I'm no shooter expert but I almost never even had to use the ability to slow down time you gain that was so heavily featured in the first game, and I rarely died at all.

I've never thought extreme challenge was a particular asset in most games though, and I don't think I really liked or disliked the combat any more than I did in the first game. It's just a slightly different focus, and that's fine, especially when the game's setting is enough to keep you interested while the game lasts. The FEAR series isn't exactly what I'd call scary, because the plot is just sort of science fiction supernatural horror gibberish, and there's not much that's inherently terrifying about its premise. It's hard to be scared when you're constantly expecting weird, freaky stuff to happen, and the game has a couple effective jump scares, but they're few and far between. It's more what I'd call a spooky sort of atmosphere, one that's entertaining in the way it sets up horrific little scenarios for you to walk through. There's something killing people in this world besides just you, and it's almost amusing to come across the huge puddles and streaks of blood everywhere and try to imagine how it all got there.

The game bounces you back and forth between letting you explore these areas, uncovering packets of text that develop the back story and explain the characters a bit, and just throwing tons of enemies at you. There's a surprisingly good variety of enemies for a game known to be all about fighting endless hordes of clone soldiers. The different types of soldiers are immediately recognizable and have their own abilities to worry about, and the game will occasionally change up the pace by introducing heavy mechs or a couple kinds of more horror-themed enemies which require their own tactics. There's a pretty good variety of weapons as well, many of which are standard machine guns or shotguns, but the more exotic stuff is usually interesting. Once in a while you also get to pilot a mech yourself, which is pretty simple but fun for the few minutes where you're just blasting everything in sight with swarms of missiles.

It's something you miss when you don't play the previous game for a few years, but FEAR 2 is a nice step up in visual quality from its predecessor. That's sort of obvious when it came out so much later, but I still thought it was a nice looking game, both from a technical and design perspective. FEAR drew complaints for its environments being fairly dull, consisting mostly of similar warehouses and office buildings. Thanks in part to the story of the second game beginning with the nuke that goes off at the end of the first one, there's more of an opportunity for unique and memorable locations. You explore familiar areas like city streets and a hospital, but they've been turned upside down by the violence that's been happening, and there are a few other kinds of areas. I liked in the first game that the buildings you shot your way through seemed like real buildings, but FEAR 2 has a better balance between that and stuff that's still cool to look at. My favorite location was probably the elementary school, which definitely makes nice use of the juxtaposition between what it was before and what has happened to it. It also features heavily into the plot, which is generally standard horror fare, though it is pretty remarkable what pains the writers went through to make the corporation behind everything seem as evil as possible.

The game is fun while it lasts, which ends up being the length of a typical modern shooter. I was a bit confused at first about the difference between missions and "intervals", which are the only markings of story progress that you actually see while playing the game. The plot ends sort of abruptly, but it does so in a crazy enough way that it felt like a decent conclusion to a pretty wacky ride. When I bought the game on Steam the Reborn add-on was included, which I'm glad for, because I can't imagine it's length makes it worth whatever they were originally charging. It does give you another opportunity to check out all the enemies and weapons again, and tells a briefly interesting story involving an antagonist from the first game, but it's pretty spare otherwise and barely lasts an hour. It felt like a bonus mission more than a fully fleshed out add-on like other games have seen. Overall though, I had enough fun with the package for it to be worth it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Blue Velvet

Twin Peaks is still my favorite David Lynch project, but Blue Velvet is my new favorite film that he directed. Mulholland Drive is a popular choice, and I liked that movie a lot, but it veered a bit too far into purely strange-for-strangeness'-sake territory for me in places, and I thought Velvet had just the right balance between bizarreness and comprehensibility for me. It really clicked when I realized that the movie was basically Lynch's take on film noir, which is a great concept, and something I thought he really did well. Kyle MacLachlan stars as a plucky young man who stumbles his way into a criminal investigation when he discovers a human ear rotting in a field. Laura Dern plays the daughter of a cop, and he gets her help to get a lead in figuring things out on his own, and they do some amateur sleuthing.

Things take a hard turn though when he actually meets a woman involved in the case and finds out about the psychopath played by Dennis Hopper who's been abusing her. The film becomes a lot harsher and strange at this point, ramping up the sexuality and the violence (and the language, as Hopper's character is the only one who really swears) and making a clean break from the mostly acceptable material it was before. Lynch has a talent for making intensely memorable moments out of a small number of elements, and the entire sequence of MacLachlan interacting with Hopper and his gang is some of the best stuff by him that I've seen. It leads up to the climax, which has the film's most striking and brutal imagery of all. I love the movie plays with the nostalgic, all-American ideas of older movies while coating them in the twisted thoughts that seem to come out of Lynch's mind with regularity. Very much the work of a man with a clear vision and an ability to present it. I definitely need to see more.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Do the Right Thing

What was most interesting to me about this movie is that there were two sides to it, but they blended together extremely fluidly. It's sort of a comedy about every day life in the city, but it's also a searing, controversial drama about race. It seems like these aspects might not work well together, but they really do. This is only the second Spike Lee film I've seen so I can't really say a ton about him, but he does seem to have some interesting ideas.

The movie takes place mostly during a single, extremely hot day in Brooklyn. Lee plays Mookie, who has a sister he lives with, an extremely boisterous girlfriend played by Rosie Perez (and who dances in the opening credit sequence, which is so iconic that I recognized it instantly despite not having seen it before), and works at an Italian-owned pizza restaurant as a delivery boy. He goes about his day, delivering pizzas, avoiding the heat, and bumping into a number of the neighborhood eccentrics that surround him. A bit of tension, driven by the heat, slowly starts to boil as a couple people start to butt heads with Danny Aiello's Sal, the restaurant's owner. One is Buggin' Out, who takes issue with the fact that the place's "wall of fame" is populated exclusively by Italians, and who is played by Giancarlo Esposito, in a performance that is absolutely fascinating watching him play the endless calm and calculating Gus Fring on Breaking Bad. The other is Radio Raheem, who carries around a huge boom box blasting "Fight the Power", and who just seems to not like most people.

The movie goes along, introducing and spending time with its various characters, like John Turturro's Pino, the son of Sal, who's a racist but also hypocritical about it (he loves Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson but justifies it by saying they're "not really black"), and Love Daddy, a fast-talking radio DJ who sort of acts as a narrator and is played by Samuel L. Jackson. Eventually though, the simmering tension comes to a head, in a series of events that unfold surprisingly quickly change the entire mood of the film. Mookie does something that has been much debated over time, but only really by white people. It's an act of violence that causes a full-on riot, but it also probably saved some people's lives. The movie's called "Do the Right Thing", and I think that he does, but the movie's not about supplying simple answers to complicated questions about race. The types of events that caused Lee to write the movie in the first place don't happen as often as they used to, but as long as they continue to occur anywhere, it's the kind of movie that people should be watching, if only to make them think a little bit.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Entourage - Season 8

I'm not really sure who Entourage's final season was for. If you watch television critically and hope for consistent character development and well-considered, intelligent plotting, Entourage is too far-gone to provide that and too poorly written to attempt to salvage it in eight episodes. If you like shows that have funny lines and swearing and boobs, you won't find much of that at all here either. In fact, the whole season can be seen as a betrayal of what the show fundamentally is in an attempt to provide an emotional resolution and closure for these characters, which doesn't even succeed at doing so. It's not painful to watch, because as always, the show is slickly produced, features solid chemistry among the core characters, and is easy just to have on the TV. But I have to imagine they failed at whatever goal they were trying to reach by ending the show on their own terms.

The show has always been about poking fun at Hollywood while somewhat believably depicting the ups and downs of someone's career while living in that system. That's not really here though, Vince puts a little effort into helping Drama's acting and Turtle's business ventures, but for the most part the season is about him, E, and Ari trying to get the women of their dreams, or getting them back. And of the five central characters, only Ari comes close to having a satisfying arc in this final season. The rest of the subplots either have resolutions that are too easy and unearned, or merely stop once they reach high points rather than coming to a natural finish. It's obvious that they're leaving in the opportunity for a movie down the line, a movie that I will probably rent once it's on home video, if only because I felt slightly cheated out of seeing the parts of Entourage that are at least mildly enjoyable one last time. Entourage was never a great show, but it used to be a fun one, and that's been missing for a while. I would compare Entourage's final season to a quiet little fart right before you fall asleep.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 8

Although the eighth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm lacked a strong central storyline like the show had in previous years, it was still strong enough to be one of the show's best, just by pure funniness. Larry David still has story credit on every episode, but this is the first time he's shared it with anyone, and I think a bit of help coming up with ideas, plus having the character be completely free from marriage and thus able to be as big an asshole as possible, just made it the right situation for some of the best laugh-out-loud material in the series' run. The lack of a plot holding the show together made it more obvious when threads would come out of nowhere just for a gag, sort of like we were looking behind the scenes at an unfinished version where it hadn't all been properly tied together yet. The primary goal of the show though is to be funny, and in that, I think season eight did better than at least the couple that preceded it.

If you're just looking at Larry's performance, I think this was his best work. He managed to be as big a jerk as ever, but it was about things that didn't really matter, so it seemed harmless, in contrast to some of his other actions. He's just kind of mastered the angry indignation at meaningless minutiae that we've all come to love about him, and he's just fun to watch bumble through life. It was a great year for J.B. Smoove's Leon, too, getting more screen time than I think he did last season, and reestablishing himself as the king of foul-mouthed rants that almost, but don't quite make sense. The one real story thing that happened this year was Larry moving back to New York for a couple months just to get out of spending time with disabled children, and while leaving LA for half the season meant no Richard Lewis or Marty Funkhouser during that time (Ted Danson was unfortunately nowhere to be seen at all), it did provide opportunities for great appearances by people like Ricky Gervais, Michael J. Fox, and Mayor Bloomberg. Larry has always seemed pretty enigmatic about the show, never sure if he wants to keep making it or not. I suspect it will come back at least one more time, maybe in a couple years, and I expect it to be as enjoyable as ever.

Monday, September 12, 2011

True Blood - Season 4

True Blood is remarkably consistent in its inconsistency. The show has a wide, constantly changing cast of characters. Some are bad, some are pretty good. Each season has twelve episodes. Some are bad, some are pretty good. There's always a new batch of subplots each year. Some are bad, some are pretty good. It always seems to border right on the edge between enjoyably campy and too stupid to be worth my time, but never quite tips over on to the wrong side. If it maintains this level, I could easily stick with it until whenever it ends. I've long made peace with the fact that it will never actually be good show. Its sense of humor and let's-try-everything fantasy horror setting are enough. And at least this year they seemed to make an attempt to kill a couple terrible lingering storylines and trim down the cast just a bit, even if it took too long in some places.

So, let's see what happened this season. Vampires are still vampires, and they apparently fear necromancers because they have the ability to control the living dead, which is the basis for the main conflict. We learn a bit more about shifters and werewolves, and the relationship between the two groups. The werepanthers are still around, and luckily disappear after a little while, though unfortunately I'm not sure they're really gone. We also learn were-creatures are created by genetics, like shifters, and it's not something that can be passed like vampirism. We learn more about human magic, principally through the witch that becomes the season's villain, but also through a couple characters we already knew, and we also see the real nature of Lafayette's abilities (I still liked him more when he was normal). We also get some more of that fairy stuff, which is still weird and kind of disjointed from the rest of the show.

The feeling I got, based on the moments after the season's climax partway through the finale, was that season five will revolve around an internal conflict within the vampire power structure, and probably some stuff with the fairies so that whole thing doesn't feel like a waste of time. Which, okay. The show is actually really interesting when it explores the history and larger society of vampires, which makes it disappointing that that stuff is actually explored so rarely. I'm much more interested in the change in the interactions between Bill and Eric after the former becomes the king of Louisiana than I am in which one is currently banging Sookie, but the show's priorities and mine are different. The supernatural stuff in general is just more fun to watch, and it only seems to get crapped up when people are having sex or falling in love. I ended up liking Andy's storyline about his V addiction quite a bit, but it's one of the only cases where the show has been able to make a story that could happen on a show about real life (with a drug besides vampire blood, obviously) interesting. I dont' want to spend time complaining though. True Blood is what True Blood always has been. Very stupid, occasionally frustrating, usually an entertaining way to spend an hour on Sunday.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day

The two regular seasons of Torchwood were pretty weak. The shortened Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries was pretty good. The question was which direction Miracle Day would lean, as it has the former's longer length but the latter's singular focus on one idea. Unfortunately, it tended toward the weak side of the scale. Miracle Day either didn't take the right lessons from Children of Earth or just didn't apply them correctly, because while I thought it started off pretty strong, it couldn't sustain itself, and I had completely lost interest by the time it ended. It really should have been another five episode run. There just isn't enough story here to justify it being ten hours, and it's all the worse for being stretched out.

The concept is intriguing enough. One day, death basically turns off, and while people can still be crushed and maimed and weakened by disease, their bodies just won't die. Torchwood, or the two surviving members of it, get involved when they receive a message at the exact moment of the "miracle", a message that the CIA detects, causing two agents named Rex and Esther to pursue them. The four team up to figure out what caused the miracle and why, and there's also a completely terrible, nonsensical subplot that ultimately goes nowhere featuring a creepy pedophile murderer played by Bill Pullman whose execution is aborted by the miracle and somehow becomes a popular public speaker for a while.

The show works early because it looks at what would happen if death stopped happening. Hospitals fill up, disease begins to spread like wildfire, doomsday cults form, and quickly the global economy collapses. Procedures and policies that function because death exists break down and have to be rethought. It's interesting stuff, but it gets pushed aside once Torchwood gets a whiff of what's behind it. They quickly learn that a certain pharmaceutical company had stocked up medication for just such an emergency, and must be involved in whatever plot caused the change. They eventually figure out the real truth, which is pretty silly, doesn't capitalize on the concept of death disappearing, and revolves around Jack's two key characteristics - his immortality (which disappears after the miracle) and his willingness to have sex with anyone (which doesn't).

The final answers to the show's question are not satisfying, and the journey to get there is too padded and dull to make that an irrelevant complaint. The new characters don't contribute much either. Pullman's Oswald, as I said, makes no sense. Rex is too much of an asshole on the asshole-rogue scale, and Esther is cute but not much else. The show really doesn't do much with its transition to America, honestly. There's one pretty good for TV action scene in the premiere, and they make a few easy jokes about how the US and the UK are different, but that about covers it. The CIA is also amazingly inept and inconsequential to the plot, with its only success being the introduction of John de Lancie as one of Rex' higher-ups a little too late.

The plot is meandering, with most episodes struggling to stretch themselves to over fifty minutes and too much time wasted before any real information actually gets exposed. It's just a textbook example of how to sully a neat science fiction concept in a television show. I'm not sure if Starz plans to renew their collaboration with the BBC on this, and I'm not sure I care either way. And I definitely hope they don't follow through on their threat in the finale of returning to the same idea.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Louie - Season 2

Louie was a unique comedy among comedies last year, but with season two, C.K. stepped up his game, prompting many to call it the new best show on television. I wouldn't go that far, but there's no doubt he's creating something special and different, a show that could go down as one of the most inventive comedy shows ever, and one of the best shows that can really be attributed almost completely to a single person. If you only watch comedies to laugh and have a good time, Louie might not be for you. Really, it's one of the darkest and often one of the most depressing things you can watch. It really hits on the difficulty of being a single father, with Louie being past his physical prime and trying to balance the demands of furthering his comedy career and raising his two daughters right. Season two is even less of a standard comedy than the first, with many segments not even trying to tell a joke at all. It's interesting how well C.K. handles this stuff, given he's one of the most laugh-out-loud funny stand up comics alive, which we're reminded of whenever he throws another couple minutes of that into the show.

The number of iconic, utterly memorable moments this season was pretty incredible. The show makes great use of other comics, including really effective scenes carried by Joan Rivers and C.K.'s frequent collaborator Chris Rock. The best cameo though was easily the one by Dane Cook, where the two hash out their issues stemming from the real-life accusation by others that Cook had stolen some of C.K.'s material. It's a scene that blends fiction in reality so closely that I'm not sure anyone besides those two knows how much of it was authentic, and how much was for the camera. There were lots of other great episodes and scenes, like an hour long episode about him going on a USO tour with an unexpected stowaway, an episode that's basically all about masturbation, one where he weakly tries to convince an old friend not to commit suicide (Louie is great whenever he tries to give a dramatic speech and gets called out for his pompousness by the recipient), and one where he takes his daughters to visit their racist great aunt. The scene with her in it is good, but the preceding segment, all about the car trip leading to it, is probably my favorite in the whole series. A third season is in the works, and I have high hopes for it, including him capitalizing on the idea introduced a couple weeks ago involving his rebellious young niece.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Futurama - Season 6-B

Futurama continues to have the messiest mishmash of seasons and non-seasons I've ever seen. Although they aired in a chunk last year, culminating in what Comedy Central called a season finale and being released together on a DVD set, the 13 episodes from 2010 are apparently only the first half of what is officially "season 6". The second half just finished airing. They're doing thee same thing again, with the show getting renewed for 26 more episodes of a season which will air in two parts in 2012 and 2013. They can do whatever they want, I guess, it's just kind of weird.

Anyway, these episodes were about on the same level as the ones from last year, just a bit less up and down. Nothing ever got as bad as the eyephone episode, but nothing was as consistently funny as the robot evolution one either. The thing that bothered me the most was that they attempted several times, as in last year's "The Late Philip J. Fry", to capture the touching side of the show that used to come out of nowhere and really tug on the heartstrings. Episodes like "The Luck of the Fryish" and "Jurassic Bark" were easily among the show's best, both because they were really funny and because they came around to end up hitting on some really emotionally resonant moments. This year, episodes like "Cold Warriors" and "Overclockwise" attempted the same, but those moments felt less earned, less integral to the story, and more like the show was just trying to capture some magic they lost in the years the show was dead. I don't want to be overly dramatic, but in 26 episodes, I've enjoyed most of what they've done, but I've come to believe they will never quite find the same groove they had when the writers were all peaking together.

Not that there wasn't good stuff. I didn't think I needed to know how Dr. Farnsworth and Dr. Zoidberg met, but the episode that explored that was surprisingly one of the best. I miss the concept of the original anthology episodes, but this year's out-of-continuity three-parter, "Reincarnation", was possibly their best ever, changing up the show's visual style without compromising the fun of the comedy. I continue to be disappointed by the way they still haven't figured out where to go with Fry and Leela's relationship, but when they actually do get back to it, it tends to work well. I just remembered something else that bothered me - I always liked Hermes partly because he avoided a lot of really easy Jamaican jokes, but since they've moved to Comedy Central and gotten used to looser standards, he's turned into a regular old pothead. I'm trying to talk about why I still like the show and I keep remembering how it bothers me. It's just to be expected when one of your favorite shows ever goes away for a while and isn't quite the same when it returns. I still think it's worth watching though, the writing is just less consistently brilliant, and they might be running short on great ways to play with old sci-fi tropes. I'll definitely keep watching through the next production season, at least.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mighty Flip Champs!

When I bought Shantae: Risky's Revenge from the DSi store, I put twenty bucks in my account, because the game cost twelve and the next smaller payable increment was ten. That left my balance at eight, money I didn't spend until recently, when I decided to get Mighty Flip Champs, the first DSi release by the same team that made Shantae. I didn't like it quite as much, but it still provided several hours of entertaining, mind-bending puzzles.

The game doesn't really have a story, beyond the very basic premise of a girl and her animal companions traveling through dimensions or something. It's just there to set up the puzzles, which place you in a room, where you have to gather all of the other animals and then get to the frog to win, and get to the next stage. The twist is that each stage has multiple layers to flip through, all with small differences that you need to exploit to get to the end. So one layer might have a dead end, but flipping to the next one might open up a hole that lets you through. It starts pretty simply, but the game ramps up the difficulty quickly, tossing in new elements and increasing the complexity until you get to some really tricky situations. You are timed on every stage and challenged to get the best time possible, and if you touch any spikes or accidentally flip your way into a wall, you have to start over.

There's a really nice balance between challenge and player friendliness, as I only got really frustrated a couple times. Usually the game requires you to think without stumping you too badly. The slow drip of new toys like color coded blocks that can be altered by switches and portals from one place to another keep things constantly fresh. And if a puzzle does annoy you, there's a good chance the next one will be a bit easier on you, or at least switch to a kind of challenge you're better suited for. There's a total of 41 stages, including five that have the level do the flipping for you on a timer, which plays to a slightly different skill set, and a final monster of a level that tests everything you've learned. It's a nice package, with certainly enough content and incentive to replay levels to be worth the eight dollars. It's got a nice look and some surprisingly catchy music too, so it's hard to find much fault with the game in any area. Definitely a pleasant way to use up a leftover balance.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The West Wing

One way condensing my thoughts on a show into a single post after I've seen the whole thing is problematic is when that show lasted for 155 hour-long episodes over the course of seven years. There's just a lot to talk about. There's an easy way to sum it up, though. The West Wing is my favorite multi-season network drama of the last decade. Take away all the qualifiers, and it's still probably one of the twenty best shows ever made. It combines fantastic writing and direction with possibly the best ensemble cast ever assembled for a long period of time, and the balls to approach actual politics rather than creating false conflicts and ignoring party distinctions. Plenty of shows have revolved around political maneuvering to drive their plots, but they always have something else to entertain the audience. In The West Wing, the politics, and the characters who engage in them, are the fun part.

The show has two distinct eras; the four seasons where Aaron Sorkin produced it and essentially wrote it by himself, and the three seasons after he left. Before his departure, the show was wittier and more overtly liberal, often serving as a mouthpiece for his own ideas, but always being exciting. Also Rob Lowe was there, and his character was fun. After the two left, the show struggled a bit, having to deal with the leftovers of a silly plot thread (I wonder if Sorkin intentionally left a big mess to clean up knowing he was leaving) and not being sure what to do for an entire season. But its move to a more centrist perspective, allowing conservatives a voice and even a few likable characters, was a worthwhile change, and the plot determining who would replace Martin Sheen's President Bartlet after he left office breathed new life into the show before it could get stale.

The show is known for its rapid-fire dialogue and distinctive filming style, where rather than sit in a room discussing the matters of the day, the characters would trade barbs while making their points and walking somewhere through the labyrinth of the White House's many offices as the camera followed them. It a solid approach that wouldn't have worked without the great cast, which changed over time but retained a solid core for most of its run. Martin Sheen plays the President we all wish we could have, a man who's smart enough to run the country but likable enough to get elected to do so (please read nothing political into that statement). I still remember how in awe I was when he first entered the show near the end of the first episode, having been built up as a great titan of a man, and surpassing those expectations. He was somehow one of the only regular cast members not to win an Emmy, but it's certainly one of the best roles any actor could have, and he nailed it.

The rest of the main cast is mostly people helping decide policy and present it to America, from his chief and deputy chief of staff, to his press secretary, to his director and deputy director of communications (speech writers). Everyone is good, but a few who deserve pointing out are John Spencer, who plays Bartlet's right hand man and best friend, and unfortunately died before the show ended; Bradley Whitford, who somehow makes a whiny blowhard into a truly likable and sympathetic figure; and Allison Janney, who brought a much-needed strong feminine presence to the boy's club that is American politics. Janel Moloney's Donna is also a good character, though she mostly serves to get other characters to explain certain delicate political positions for the audience early on. The cast grows as the show goes on (and a couple characters leave), with two of the biggest additions being Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits as the two candidates to be the next President, a plot that comes on strong in season six and dominates season seven. I preferred Alda's performance, though both are good at getting across certain specific points the show wanted to make, and the live debate episode they carried together was one of those rare silly TV stunts that actually worked.

The show premiered before overarching serialized plots began really dominating critically acclaimed television (The Sopranos was just starting around the same time), so a lot of the time an episode would just introduce a few problems for a few different groups of characters, and they would all be resolved by the end. That approach is still fine when the writing and acting are as good as this show's, so it didn't really stick out, and they got better and better at introducing longer term story ideas as the show went on. An arc involving a medical condition that Bartlet hid from everyone is possibly the best achievement of the show's entire run. If there's one issue that crops up, it's the show's unfortunate tendency to make characters it no longer finds useful completely disappear without any mention, which seems lazy. It's especially noticeable when a regular character vanishes between seasons in the middle of a story, even though the cliffhanger finale and the continuing premiere take place on the same day. I imagine watching the show a second time would reveal a treasure trove of characters that I had forgotten even existed in the first place, that just left without a single line to explain it. The show is constantly pushing forward though, and if this was the price to pay for the consistency of its writing and the characterization of the people that do stick around, it was worth it.

I can't imagine a show this polarizing and intelligent premiering in the modern political climate, which is a shame, because even if you don't agree with a show's ideas, it can be worthwhile to see another side of a familiar debate. Lots of times the show would just experiment with fringe theories, throwing stuff at the wall and letting the viewer decide what stuck. If I had to pick one show to have an actual influence on the way world events were looked at in its wake, it would probably be The West Wing. And I guess that's a testament to how interesting it is. So many shows require sex or violence or something gimmicky to get people to watch, but The West Wing was a success just being itself, and that's commendable.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Fighter

I sort of have issues with both of this film's Oscar wins for supporting performances. In Christian Bale's case it's because I don't think he really has a supporting role, and in Melissa Leo's case it's because I don't think she's even the best supporting actress in the movie. Leo does a good job as Micky's controlling mother, but Treme shows she's capable of much more subtle and effective work, and the character is the kind of horrible woman that doesn't require a ton of talent to pull off. It's not really a character that's hard to pull off. I thought Amy Adams was better playing against type as Micky's bartending girlfriend, obviously caring for him but having enough rough edges to make her seem more real than his mom and especially his awful sisters, who felt like burdens on the movie.

Back to Bale, I think the film as written and shot is more of a story of two brothers, one who failed at boxing and one who still has a shot, rather than a typical biopic about a boxer. I'd consider him and Mark Wahlberg to be dual leads if anything, because while the main arc of the plot is the rise of Micky's career, a huge part of that is how Dicky's hometown hero status looms over him despite his subsequent career failures and crack addiction. It's really an amazing performance by Bale, too, the kind that at times takes over the movie. If he was nominated in the lead category I still would have given him the win even over Colin Firth in The King's Speech. They're actually kind of similar roles despite the vast gulf in the characters' statuses. They both play real people with distinctive speech patterns that are a huge aspect of the role. I thought Bale's work was more mesmerizing and interesting to watch, though of course he got to actually meet and interact with the person he was playing, so it's an interesting competition.

The movie in general hangs on the acting of the main characters. Even Wahlberg, who I'm not always the biggest fan of, is good, mostly because he concentrated on looking the part and let the more natural actors in the cast carry many of the scenes. The main thing I know about David O. Russell is that he frequently leaves projects and clashes with his actors, but he seems to be a perfectly fine if not terribly inventive director. I do think he did an especially good job with the fights, which had the right mix of believable grit and energizing climaxes. A lot of the best actual sports scenes in sports tend to be in boxing movies, because there's not too much to organize; you just have two actors, a ring, and a camera. Russell mostly went with emulating what actual televised fights would look like, and I like how they felt real while still having good impact. Beyond the acting and the fights, there's not a whole lot that distinguishes The Fighter. But those two things go a very long way.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Childrens Hospital - Season 3

I feel like this year, Childrens Hospital really cemented itself as the best show on Adult Swim that isn't The Venture Bros. Maybe not the highest praise with some of the channel's best stuff no longer airing,but that doesn't mean Hospital isn't itself great. Television comedy is doing extremely well in general right now, but Hospital definitely holds its own against some of the better known shows that have the privilege of airing before midnight. The entire cast is great, the writing is sharp and unafraid to go anywhere, and they seem to be able to draw from a bottomless well of ideas, sending up medical dramas, the business of television, and pop culture in general. There seems to be nothing they won't try.

Plenty of episodes that would be wacky digressions on almost any other show feel pretty standard on Childrens. Kids being trapped in quicksand, a doctor's former police partner being trapped in a blocked off ward with insane patients, an episode all about a creepy, possibly nuts ambulance driver, all just seem like another day at the office for the staff. I loved the return to the news show that went over the history of the show last year and explores all of the cast members' various spinoffs, and stuff like the Our Town parody and the brief Party Down reunion was great as well. The latter is a good example of the show's fantastic casting, which can get pretty much everybody you've seen in alt comedy, and even guys like Jon Hamm, to show up and do something silly for a few minutes. Every episode is unique, and though they're only about 11 minutes long, most of them have more fresh gags than most episodes of sitcoms that are double the length. Season four is coming, and the wait won't be that bad with the way the show has caused an influx of solid comedies parodying various genres of hacky television.