Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

My only previous experience with Tintin was seeing a few episodes of the cartoon when I was a kid. They made enough of an impression though that I was interested in seeing the movie as soon as I heard about it, especially based on the amount of talent involved in its creation. Directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Peter Jackson, written by three talented British writers, and starring a pretty solid cast. It's actually a pretty darn small cast - if you don't count the bad guy's many henchmen, the film has only a handful of characters with real roles, and there are all of maybe two women who have any lines at all. But it's not really a film focused on dialogue, or subplots, or anything that doesn't relate directly to the central quest. If there's ever a movie that earned the term "breakneck pace", it's this one. It stomps on the gas pedal in the opening minutes, and never lets up until it's all over. Even the exposition scenes are packed with action and visual trickery. That and the fact that the script crams together elements of three different Tintin stories lends the movie a sort of rushed feeling, like there was just too much adventure to get through and not enough time. But while it can be tiring by the end, the movie is so packed with charm and fun that I couldn't help but enjoy it the entire time.

Jamie Bell stars as Tintin, a young European journalist (Bell is British, though in the original books he's Belgian) who frequently gets involved in larger-than-life adventures when following a story. He finds a scale model recreation of a famous lost ship, and when he refuses to sell it to a man played by Daniel Craig named Sakharine, he gets kidnapped and brought on board a boat. There he meets its captain, Haddock, played by a drunken and bumbling Andy Serkis, and the two (along with Tintin's dog Snowy) escape, attempting to find the treasure that Sakharine is really after. The treasure ties into Haddock's family history, and he and Tintin become unlikely friends on their quest to solve the mystery of his past. Serkis gives quite a fun performance, even if he resorts to rhyming exclamations a bit too often. Bell fits well as Tintin, it's fun to see Craig play a villain, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are once again a likable pair as Thompson and Thomson.

Of course I haven't really mentioned the fact that the film is animated, or any of the controversy around that. I've seen numerous people complain about the realistic look the movie goes for, rather than exactly mimicking the original art style. There have also been repeated references to the uncanny valley, though I've come to accept that people will now complain about it every time something animated even attempts to resemble reality. Maybe some people really are instinctively put off by any computer animation that isn't completely cartoony, but I was able to watch this entire film without noticing anything that really bothered me. The movie walks a very fine line by obviously being animated but still having extremely detailed nuances in the texture and animation of its characters, but I thought they pulled it off for the most part. I also think they really took advantage of the animated medium, especially in the crafting of the action scenes. There's a heck of a lot of them, and almost every one manages to do things that real life action wouldn't. The highlight of the whole film is a chase scene in a single take, through a Moroccan city and with numerous different characters involved at various points in both the chasing and being chased. Obviously being animated makes such a scene feasible, but even with that caveat, it's still a complete marvel of planning, design, and coordination to pull it off. That it isn't quite the film's climax is a symptom of the fact that the creators might not have known when enough is enough, but it's still a great scene. The last moments of the film are pretty explicitly setting up a sequel, and I hope the movie is successful enough for one to get made, because they did a great job of establishing a really fun and endearing setting, and I'd like to see Peter Jackson take his turn at the wheel.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Batman: Arkham City

Some people didn't seem to be into this game as much as they were into Batman: Arkham Asylum a couple years ago, but I think the only real difference is that this game wasn't a surprise. People were blown away to play a super hero game that actually captured the essence of being that hero and was a fun experience to boot, and despite doing it even better this time around, a lot of Arkham City is more of the same. The biggest change is obviously in the environment. Rather than exploring the grounds of a large prison complex, you're gliding and grappling your way through a larger city area. Most of the time you end up entering various buildings that end up feeling much like the different locations in Asylum, but there's enough to do outside that the game does end up feeling different.

The main gameplay remains essentially intact, though. You will alternate between investigating crime scenes, using your gadgets to traverse obstacles, and taking on groups of thugs. Those thugs will either be armed, which means you have to use the environment to sneak up on them or take them by surprise, or not, which means you can beat the crap out of them with the game's smooth and always-interesting melee combat system. You basically start the game with all of the gear you had last time and then add even more on top of that, so while it's easy to get overwhelmed and even totally ignore certain equipment, it all ends up being pretty useful if you try it out, and it really sells the idea that you are Batman, along with your ability to instill fear in and then cripple your opponents.

While Arkham Asylum featured a wide variety of familiar faces if you're at all a fan of Batman, Arkham City almost goes too far with bringing out all the villains and allies you can think of. Basically everyone is back fro the first game with a small exception or two, and there are plenty of new ones added in. It threatens to become too much and muddle the story, but luckily enough of the characters are limited to cameos or side content that the game never loses sight of its main plot. It's actually kind of a surprisingly short game considering the scope of its world and the number of characters, especially if you don't spend a lot of time fiddling with the endless supply of Riddler challenges. The critical path probably takes less than ten hours, though it's a lot of fun while it lasts, digging deeper into Batman's character, the history of Gotham, and how exactly the people in charge agreed to section off a part of town and hand it over to Hugo Strange in the first place. It's all kind of silly, but it fits in with the game's unique combination of the sillier and grittier sides of the Batman franchise.

Though the boss fights once again often revolve around either large groups of enemies, an unreasonably huge villain, or both, this time they bothered to make each one unique and actually have their own methods to take them out, which is a big improvement. By removing the one significant flaw the original game had, you could say it's a superior product, though I didn't really feel like it was better, just tweaked and a bit more refined. They did add a new annoyance too, with having to download the Catwoman content, and if you don't have a new copy, you'll have to pay for it. You can finish the game without playing as Catwoman, but it will create gaps in the story, and you won't be able to collect certain Riddler trophies or see a couple of the villains. Actually playing as Catwoman is fine, as she has some unique abilities that make up for the other things she can't do, though I can't say I was ever particularly thrilled when one of her missions came up. The game definitely goes a bit too far with making her a sex object, too. You can make a character alluring without having every line out of her mouth be a double entendre.

The world of Arkham City itself is a somewhat interesting one, and it changes over time as things get worse off for the people inside. I can't say I liked the design of the city itself, which due to its central area being locked off except for an underground path through, takes on a horseshoe shape which is a bit annoying to navigate when you just want to get somewhere quickly. I also thought it could have been easier to locate side missions - I only finished about half of them, with no indication anywhere on how to advance the others besides just scouring the whole place. Just flying around as Batman though is fun, and it's a very well polished game for the open world genre. It's maybe a bit limited compared to other games of the same type, but it's a fair enough trade off. It seems mostly like they just wanted to make another Batman game but thought they needed something to point to so they could advertise how much bigger and better it is, and luckily the increased scope doesn't damage the main game, besides maybe cutting it a bit short. The important thing is you get to be Batman again, and that's still a lot of fun.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Movie Update 33: Woody Allen

These movies are all from the mid seventies to early eighties, and show off Woody Allen's more serious and philosophical side. They're also funny though, with one big exception.


The only pure drama on this list, and the only pure drama by Allen that I've seen. It's the story of three (though really mostly two) sisters and what they experience after the separation of their parents. They frequently butt heads and have very different takes on their parents, especially how their delicate mother is handing being away from her husband. She dives even deeper into her interior decorating, but it might not be enough to keep her going anymore. The film is very obviously heavily influenced by the style of Ingmar Bergman, and it's mostly a well acted and filmed drama, but I mostly wasn't interested in the characters or their plights. It also seemed just a bit forced in the shots it creates - Bergman was able to create similarly striking images without them seeming so intentional. Still, it's not a bad departure for a guy previously mostly known for silly comedies.

Love and Death

Possibly the last purely goofy Allen movie, Love and Death still has hints of what he would try out later, both in its repeated Bergman references and the constant philosophical debate among its main characters, even if that debate is mostly played for laughs. It's about a Russian played by Allen who stumbles his way to being a war hero, marries his cousin played by Diane Keaton, and eventually they attempt to assassinate Napoleon together. It's a fun little spin on classic Russian literature that manages to be funny throughout without completely ignoring the subject matter it tackles.

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

Yet another Bergman-influenced film (boy, did Allen ever love that guy), and his first collaboration with Mia Farrow. It's about three couples that go on a weekend together to a cottage in the woods in the early 1900s, and end up struggling the whole time with conflicted feelings. Farrow is marrying an older professor, but she had a previous experience with Allen and is very attractive to his other friend. The professor is drawn to the friend's new companion, and Allen also has feelings for Farrow further risking his rocky marriage with Mary Steenburgen. There are some sillier elements like his flying machine and a strange device that can show the past, but it's mostly a very entertaining mix of comedy and romantic turmoil.

Stardust Memories

Allen claims this film is not autobiographical, those it's easy to see how it could be seen as such, with him starring as a film director who wants to be serious but is constantly told by fans that they prefer his earlier, funnier work. It's again a mix of humor and more serious elements, this time with an occasionally trippy feel. We frequently see snippets of the films his character has made, and they mix with real life and odd dream sequences which make it easy to get a bit lost as far as what the movie is trying to say. It's a pretty divisive film, and I myself was unable to decide whether I really liked it or thought it was too muddled.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

If you started looking closely at the structure of the story of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you could probably find a number of flaws and weird issues with it. It takes a long time for its two leads to meet and the plot to really get going, and there's a very long final section after the film climaxes before it actually sputters to an end, which might work in a book, but seems unnatural in a movie. But there are times when the effect that a film has goes beyond how well its story adheres to standard conventions of the medium and the odd little things stop bothering you. The script for this second film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's book is definitely flawed, and it's hard to say how much of that is the fault of the book itself. But everything else about the movie helps elevate the material and create a movie that's not quite my favorite this year but darn close. Everything from David Fincher's impeccable direction to the work by people like the cinematographer and editor to the outstanding performances from basically everyone in the cast to the once again pitch-perfect music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

There are some bells and whistles, but at its core Dragon Tattoo is a mystery story. I started trying to write a quick synopsis here, but it quickly got too long, so I'll try to make it more succinct. Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who agrees to look into the apparent murder of a girl forty years earlier, a member of a family that runs a large business in the country. Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth Salander, another journalist and an unfriendly, possibly psychotic girl who's been a ward of the state since childhood. Eventually they both end up working on the case together, though not before there's a lengthy sequence ending in a very satisfying revenge as a long way of establishing who Lisbeth is and what she's willing to do. The film is somewhat disjointed up to this point, but once the pair get really cracking on the mystery it picks up, with a suitably creepy series of twists and revelations leading to a tense and thrilling conclusion. That the film goes on for a while after that conclusion is mostly irrelevant.

As I mentioned, the cast is quite strong, with film veterans such as Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, and Stellan Skarsgård turning in solid supporting performances to help drive things forward. Craig is good in pretty much everything, and he is nicely out of his element as the middle-aged Blomkvist, who occasionally gets in too deep for his own good. The star of the show really is Mara though, having the tough job of portraying both an eminently skilled researcher and hacker and a highly vulnerable and damaged woman, and making them be the same person. There's a lot of tough material, and she nails all of it. It just wouldn't be the same movie without her succeeding as totally as she does. I questioned Fincher's decision to tackle material another filmmaker had already brought to the screen in apparently fine fashion, but while I still haven't seen Niels Arden Oplev's version I can't imagine it being this memorable. It's a Fincher movie through and through.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Monster is sort of interesting in how it sometimes combines both the best and worst aspects of what you can find in anime. It has a tone that isn't exactly typical to the medium, telling a tense and moody story about a larger-than-life serial killer, manipulating others to do his bidding and working towards some unknown, probably terrifying goal. It plays to the strengths of being an anime by being unafraid to go anywhere or do anything with its story, and by allowing certain moments to have huge impacts that can be difficult to pull off in text or live action. One common fault of anime though is that it takes a long time to get anything done, and the show does seem to suffer a bit from having filler. It frequently deviates from its main plot to tell another little isolated story, ignoring the main characters for a few episodes. These side stories usually end up tying back in to the main show, but it's a bit odd to see it seemingly meander so much. Monster is interesting, but it should have taken 74 episodes to reach its ending.

The show stars a Japanese doctor called Kenzo Tenma, living in West Germany before the fall of the wall. He's an extremely talented neurosurgeon, but his career takes a bad turn when he saves the life of a small boy over the town's mayor. But then some murders start happening that benefit him, and he becomes a target, both of a former patient and the authorities who believe he's responsible. He goes on the run, both to prove his innocence and stop the killer from making any more victims. It soon becomes clear though how futile that is, as the only thing that surpasses the monster's derangement is his ability to realize it. Kenzo meets a lot of people on the way, helping who he can and avoiding those who want only to stop him. I think I might have preferred something that was a little tighter, with fewer extraneous pit-stops and dramatic revelations, but the show itself usually worked and pretty creepy throughout and occasionally devastating. It's too flawed for me to consider it great, but it's worth watching if you'd like to avoid most of the medium's worst parts. Besides the whole taking-too-long thing.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mission: Impossible III

Obviously the fourth Mission: Impossible movie just came out, but I still haven't seen the third yet, so I decided to correct that last week. Each movie in the series has had a different director and subsequently a different tone, and the third installment was the first feature film made by J.J. Abrams. It sort of mixes and matches elements from the first two movies. The first was a paranoid spy thriller, and the second was pretty much a Hong Kong action movie. The third film has some of the same kind of bombastic action and huge scale of the second, but it's ultimately closer to the first film in terms of realism (which itself wasn't exactly totally authentic, just look at the climactic scene for proof). Some elements definitely seemed silly - there were several one-liners and over-the-top moments that probably didn't need there, and got in the way of the story a bit. But the setup was smarter and the payoff better than the mediocre second film, and the darker tone seemed to fit the series well. I don't think it was quite as good as the original, but it was close enough.

Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, though he is no longer a regular spy and instead trains recruits for the agency. He's even trying to settle down with a woman played by Michelle Monaghan, something his friends and colleagues are skeptical of. He gets pulled back into action when one of his trainees played by Keri Russell is kidnapped on a mission, a job that kicks off a plot involving someone bad inside the agency trying to stop him while a black market dealer played by Philip Seymour Hoffman tries to sell something that's potentially extremely dangerous. Backs get stabbed, explosions go off, and complicated heists get executed. The movie is completely packed with recognizable actors, and most of them do pretty well in their roles. It's fun to see Ving Rhames and Tom Cruise together again, and their team is rounded out competently by Johnathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q. Laurence Fishburne plays a fairly predictable but solidly slimy higher-up at the agency, and Simon Pegg only gets a couple scenes to do his wisecracking nerd routine but does it well anyway. Hoffman plays a totally creepy and intimidating villain despite his lack of physical prowess, and the mole subplot ended up being more interesting than I expected. Abrams makes a few unexpected decisions and shoots the action very well, and I thought the distinct color palette of the film worked as well. It's not a particularly special action movie in most ways, but it's done well enough to be pretty enjoyable throughout. It got me interested in hopefully seeing Brad Bird's take on the series before it leaves the theaters.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hung - Season 3

When I heard that Bored to Death and Hung got canceled at the same time, I felt slight disappointment at the former and a bit of remorse at the latter. Hung's second season didn't do much for me, but the show has some likable elements and I thought I ought to at least see how they ended things. I blasted through the third season in one sitting using HBO's on demand service, and I found it to be mostly enjoyable. It doesn't give itself a proper conclusion and there are a few annoying elements, but it was possibly the best year the show had. There was a definite arc, the story had definite stakes, and there was some really strong character work. Plus Tanya seemed less awful this time. Not a bad note to go out on.

After having a falling out with Lenore last year (right?), Ray and Tanya need a way to get their business going again. They manage to finagle a loan and start up a wellness center for women as a front for their prostitution business; Tanya runs classes and talks to the women, then setting them up for Ray's "private consultations". He then proceeds to have sex with lots of women for money. What a good show to be talking about on Christmas. Anyway, Lenore is still angry and has a number of attempts to get her cut of the profits, including finding a second guy to make money with and trying to stick Ray's ex-wife in the middle of things. There's a nice back and forth, and it actually felt like people had a purpose this season and had things to fight for. Also we get a lot more of Lennie James' pimp character, and any scene he's in is a good one. Anne Heche doesn't have much to do besides be put upon, and her kids are even less of a factor than before. But they don't really get in the way, and the show is pretty strong based on its decent humor, the competent plotting, and Thomas Jane's once again totally affable performance. There's no proper ending this time, but they did a good job with fixing the show in the time they had.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


I wasn't quite sure what to think about Warrior, which got good reviews but just sort of sounded like a rehash of The Fighter with a less respected sport. It was quite good though, and is honestly probably my favorite sports movie since Raging Bull. Like all great sports movies, Warrior is not about sports. It is about the trauma that can break a family apart, and the hope that someday it can be put back together again. It is a film that wears its emotions on its sleeve, and while a lot of the elements are familiar or obvious, they're executed so damn well that it's hard to care. It's a movie that is thrilling, cathartic, devastating, and uplifting in the best ways.

Nick Nolte is a broken old man, a former alcoholic who saw his wife leave him with their two sons many years ago. The family was splintered yet again when Joel Edgerton's character, the older son, left his mother and brother for a woman. Tom Hardy is the younger brother, tormented by abandonment issues, the death of his mother, and whatever happened to him while he was a soldier in the Middle East. One thing the two brothers share is a skill for mixed martial arts, though they have both been out of the game for a while. Hardy has been off being a solider, and Edgerton agreed to give it up and become a teacher to support his family. But circumstances bring them both back into the sport, specifically to enter a winner-takes-all tournament with a huge purse. Obviously it is their movie fate to both get into the tournament as underdogs and eventually fight each other in the final match. The only mystery is what will happen once they get there, and if it will have a payoff for all of the emotional turmoil they go through to reach that point.

I think it's a sign of a good sports movie when it can make you enjoy that sport, even if you're predisposed not to. I've never been very interested in UFC or MMA in general, because I don't really see the appeal of watching men hurt each other that badly. But I'll admit to being caught up in the bouts in this movie, which show a lot of different sides of it, from the brutality of the hits to the technique of pulling off a crippling submission to the perseverance it takes not to give in. The fights are very well shot, and also do a great job of giving insight into the two brothers who fight in very different ways. Despite being older, Edgerton is definitely the physically inferior one, looking quite cut for a normal guy but puny next to the other fighters. He has to rely on his toughness and his knowledge to survive the beatings he takes long enough to sneak by with a tricky sleeper hold. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy is a brick shit house and demolishes his opponents with scary efficiency. Eventually you realize that it's not exactly a double underdog story, but an underdog story with one of the best developed and most sympathetic antagonists ever.

The two don't get a lot of screen time together since they're estranged, but we do see effectively the pain that they share as well as the shreds of family that still remain. Nolte might actually give the best performance, incredibly remorseful over his complete failure as a father but unable to break through the walls his sons built up after they left him behind. They're three very damaged men, and their performances are good enough to make them seem real without any of them seeming like jerks despite their animosity. It builds to a conclusion that is pretty obvious but still feels totally earned. I thought there were some weird elements to the script - by having the tournament take place over a 24 hour period, there's a lot of time spent on training and not a lot of time left for character interactions once the fighting actually starts in earnest. It also kind of forces a lot of late-story revelations and developments to be explained through match commentary and news stories on TV, which works but isn't as natural as what came before. Still, the work done beforehand was strong enough to carry the film through to its end. I was surprised by how much I loved this movie, but there's not much you can do when it touches you in your manly emotional parts this well.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Somehow this is the only Woody Allen movie I've seen that's been released since 1989, though my Netflix queue tells me that will change soon. He doesn't appear to have changed that much as a writer or director since then, though I've gotten the impression that this is his best work in a while, and since it wasn't actually all that great, it makes me wonder how much he's slipped. Midnight in Paris isn't bad at all, and in truth I enjoyed most of it. But there are some things about it that bothered me too, and it really isn't anything new for him.

The most surprising thing about the film is its fantasy premise, which I didn't really know about. Owen Wilson is a stand-in for the definitely-too-old Allen, playing a pretty standard Allen character - a Hollywood writer who hates his job and would prefer to be a novelist. While on vacation with his fiancé and her parents in Paris, you see many cracks in their relationship. They don't fundamentally agree on most things, and you question how they got together in the first place. He's hopelessly romantic about the city and the past and being a real artist, and she wants nothing to do with it. But then while on a walk at night he gets into an old car with some people and taken to a party where he meets many famous artists from the period he's nostalgic for, from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso. At first I thought it was just a costume party or something, but before too long it's apparent that he's actually somehow visiting another time. By day he fakes being interested in what his future wife is doing, but by night he's showing his writing to Gertrude Stein and falling in love with a woman played by Marion Cotillard.

It's kind of an odd story, but it's an effective one about career and life in general, how we may not always be totally happy and satisfied, but maybe we're not supposed to be, and trying to hide in the past isn't a good way to deal with it. I liked how Wilson's relationship with Cotillard eventually allows him to learn what he needs to, and while it's not exactly the funniest comedy, there's some pretty enjoyable scenes. It's fun playing spot the famous person, both in the older artists being portrayed and the actors playing them. My favorite was Adrien Brody playing a Salvador Dali who's apparently become obsessed with rhinoceroses.

As I said though, there were flaws too, most notably perhaps being that the film is so yellow that I was often distracted by it. I understand wanting to create an aesthetic, but I'm pretty sure Paris isn't that damn yellow in any time period. The characters also often seem underwritten, or not fully thought through. Owen does a decent job with the character, and has a few genuinely very good acting moments, but it's sometimes hard to like him when he acts like one of the most deluded and unreasonable people ever. Actually experiencing time travel only gets you so far. And I think the story of his obsession and drifting away from real life would have been more effective if the people in it weren't so shitty. His fiancé and her parents and her know-it-all friend are completely unsympathetic. The actors are fine, they're just written to be villains, and I don't think it helped the story. If you were with someone who started talking about how they were going off at night and partying with Hemingway, you probably wouldn't react well either. Midnight in Paris is a fine movie, but it's far from Allen's best work.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Homeland - Season 1

Showtime is quickly becoming famous for green-lighting interesting television series with tricky premises, and then allowing those shows to continue airing long after those premises become strained and hard to take seriously. I can only hope that Homeland isn't destined for the same fate, because as of right now it stands as one of the most well-formed and intriguing first seasons of a new drama series in a long time. It's coming back for at least one year, and I think they could do a couple more after that. But I really hope in five years I'm not lamenting its continued existence right alongside everything else that the network has done. It's too good for that fate.

Homeland is produced by some of the same people who worked on 24, but while it's about similar themes of terrorism and how far people will go to protect their country, it is an altogether more intelligent and less sensationalistic series that manages to hit harder despite fewer fireworks due to its strong work making you actually care about its characters and what they do. Having half the number of episodes to tell their story in, there's less time wasted on plot tangents that become irrelevant and piling twists on top of each other, and we really get to the core of who the principal figures are and what they believe in. The overarching terrorist plot isn't without a couple holes, loose ends, or convenient leaps in logic, but it holds together well enough to support the story. And since the acting is so good, the flaws in the plot become unimportant in the face of what it means to the characters. The body count isn't very high, but every big moment in the show has enormous impact. It's not the best drama on television, but it's pretty special.

Claire Danes stars as a CIA operative, who like many such people, focuses almost entirely on her work, to the detriment of anything resembling a social life. When she hears that terrorists have flipped an American soldier who's coming home, she suspects it's Damian Lewis' character, a marine finally returning to his family after eight years of captivity. Her only real support is from her mentor played by Mandy Patinkin, another man who puts his job before anything else. At first it seems like the show will be about paranoia and surveillance, as Danes installs cameras in Lewis' house and watches his every movie. But it was fun to realize that was only the first part in the story, and the show was not afraid to blow through story developments quickly and move on to new ideas before the old ones even had a chance to turn stale. The three central performances truly are special, and they allow the show to get away with the slightly sillier parts in order to reach some great high points. By the season finale I was completely invested in the central conflict, and it was a wonderfully devastating episode, full of great little touches, memorable scenes, and more than enough justification for a second season. I didn't immediately latch onto the series as much as some others, but by the end I was a believer. Let's hope they really know what they're doing for next year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dexter - Season 6

You know a show has fallen on hard times when its new episodes are so bad that they make you question whether the earlier ones that you really enjoyed were actually good. I'm still pretty sure that it's not just a series wearing out its formula to the point of extreme degradation, that it's been getting progressively worse at coming up with competent stories and interesting supporting characters, but I'm at least wondering why I liked it quite as much as I did for the first couple seasons. It's kind of been a slow breakdown in every aspect of the series over time - it started as an adequate police drama with an utterly compelling protagonist portrayed very well by Michael C. Hall. As time has gone by, the police drama has become less adequate as the cases they tackle become less original or even coherently written, and the supporting cast has gotten more and more time to expose just how uninteresting their characters are and how little talent their actors have. Season four showed the show could still live with that, when it had John Lithgow doing a great job playing a horrific counterpoint to Dexter, but since then, they've failed to come up with interesting villains, and even Dexter himself has not been immune to simple bad writing, especially when it comes to his increasingly unnecessary and irritating narration. If I hear him mumble "dark passenger" one more time, I don't know what I'll do.

The show has had ups and downs, and season six was definitely the biggest down. I knew things were shaky when they introduced this year's big theme: faith, specifically in the form of religion. Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks play serial killers who are using the Bible to justify their crimes, and Mos Def (or Yasiin Bey, I suppose) plays a reformed criminal who now uses religion to keep him on the straight and narrow. Dexter tries to learn about how faith can be good from Bey's character, but he gets pushed aside and eventually it just devolves into a hacky doomsday psychopath plot without really saying anything interesting or new about the subject. Bey is easily the best thing about the first half of the season, but he doesn't stick around and unfortunately his exit isn't the most graceful. Olmos' character never does anything interesting, and Hanks is either ill-suited for his or just doesn't have the talent to pull it off. A lot of the season is the show just shuffling in place as Dexter goes on ill-considered detours and offs very boring random bad guys, and a lot of weight is again placed on the folks at the police station, who repeatedly prove to be some of the dumbest TV cops who ever lived. The show doesn't even pretend that law enforcement is a threat to Dexter this year, and their failure to notice all of the little things that don't add up about him is becoming farcical at this point. Deb is the only one who has anything remotely resembling a passable storyline, and even that can't avoid veering into some seriously ill-considered territory by the end. And yet... I might have to watch season seven, depending on how it looks once we get closer. Because those writers, incompetent as they might be, finally recognized the need to do something to actually move toward what could be considered an ending, and they did that in this season's finale scene. I still might not watch, since sitting through these twelve episodes was a pretty terrible experience, but at least it's better than what Weeds did.

Monday, December 19, 2011


I've probably said it before but it bears saying again. While Kurt Vonnegut is best known as an author of unusual, satirical science fiction, some of his best work takes place in the real world, or at least something very close to resembling it. Jailbird proves this once again, and after I found his previous book to be underwhelming, it was nice to read another great Vonnegut novel again. He was getting older at this point, which is reflected in the story's main character, a man in his sixties who's seen the world change a lot over time and has stopped taking it entirely seriously. Jailbird reads more like a fictional autobiography or memoir rather than a traditional novel, and has the protagonist telling the story of his first couple days of freedom after being jailed for two years for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, though it's fairly rambling, covering at different points many different periods in his earlier life and also obliquely referring to his state at the time of the writing a few years later. There's also a very long prologue (it is literally more than 10% of the book's text) written from Vonnegut's own perspective which mentions things that inspired pieces of the story and also expands on some fictional events that are referred to but left unexplained in the main text.

So there's the typical Vonnegut playfullness in the writing, and the topics he decided to brood on here are pretty expected as well. He talks pretty harshly about the history of the treatment of certain American citizens, from laborers who wanted to start unions to communists who were persecuted by the government after the war. He weaves the different characters into the fabric of America from the 30s to the 70s, as the protagonist goes from a reluctant Harvard man to a successful bureaucrat during World War II to an unemployed loser to a forgotten small part of the Nixon administration before his eventual incarceration. The RAMJAC corporation is a creation of Vonnegut that pops up repeatedly and proves essential to both the plot and his most biting condemnation in the book, giving not just corporations but our entire economic system a pretty thorough lashing. For all of it's preaching though it wouldn't be a very enjoyable book without his trademark oddness and sense of humor, and luckily both are also fully intact here. As he gets older he seems more willing to touch on taboo subjects, and some of the laughs in Jailbird are as strange and biting as they've ever been. It's not quite one of the best books he's written, but it's certainly right up there with other great things he's done.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Movie Update 32: Nolan and Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of the best directors who ever lived, and I think that Christopher Nolan is on his way to earning that distinction. In the last week I've watched the few remaining movies by both of them available for streaming on Netflix.

The Age of Innocence

Love stories are often passionate, but few let that passion boil just under the surface as much as it does in The Age of Innocence. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a lawyer from a wealthy family in 1870s New York City (only a few years after the chaos and violence depicted in Scorsese's other film Gangs of New York) who becomes engaged to a woman played by Winona Ryder, but when her cousin played by Michelle Pfeiffer returns from Europe, he realizes how much stronger his feelings are for her instead. Wealthy families always want to avoid scandal though, and Pfeiffer is already damaged goods since she's considering divorce from her powerful husband, and they struggle with whether to take a chance or avoid causing a stir. Innocence is a well made movie with really good lead performances, but because it's so wrapped up in that distant old wealthy people mode, I didn't really find it gripping for most of its duration. A good movie, but I didn't find myself very invested.

Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha was Scorsese's first film that wasn't connected to his student projects, and it took a while for me to figure out what was off about it. Eventually though, it hit me - it's an exploitation movie. Not a terrible one, and it's one based on unusual concepts for that sort of thing, but it's still an exploitation movie. It uses issues like labor unions and race relations to make a movie about a girl who gets naked sometimes and robs banks and shoots people with her partners. It's sort of a second-rate Bonnie and Clyde with worse acting. I don't want to be too harsh on the movie, because it does some interesting things that most B movies you'd compare it too wouldn't. But it still never reaches very high, so even its solid execution results in a movie that's decent at best.


Following is Nolan's first film, shot independently in black and white on a very small budget. It concerns an unemployed aspiring writer who decided to start following random people to learn about them and get inspired. Eventually he repeatedly follows the wrong guy, and gets pulled into a world of small-time burglary and betrayal. Much like his next film Memento, Following has a complex plot that is further complicated by the script's non-linear approach to structure. It jumps back and forth between time periods, always revealing things that end up clarifying or contradicting what came before. The actual truth behind what's going on when it's finally revealed can be looked at in two ways. On one hand, it's really kind of an absurdly complicated scheme to resolve what wasn't that difficult of an issue, and it's sort of unlikely that the whole thing would come together correctly. But on the other hand, it's still a really fun mystery to unravel, and the fun of noir movies is always that moment of realization when it all finally makes sense. It's a really good first effort.


Insomnia is the only film Nolan's directed that wasn't based on his own screenplay, and it shows a bit. He was proving to studios that he could handle a larger budget and more recognizable cast, and he does a good job of that, though the movie underneath is merely solid and definitely the least interesting thing that he's done. It's pretty much a boilerplate detective story with a plot that wouldn't be out of place in a random episode of most cop shows, but there are a few things that make it work. The first act twist that provides Al Pacino's Detective Dormer with an internal conflict does a good job of complicating an otherwise standard plot, and the ensuing insomnia that plagues him adds a lot of flavor to the whole movie. The acting by him and Robin Williams is good, and it's a really well-shot film, particularly in a few really tense sequences that are unlike what you'd usually see in this type of story. Hilary Swank's character seemed really badly written, and there are a few other hiccups, but mostly it's an above average Hollywood mystery/thriller. Nolan's best asset is probably his screenwriting, but I think with Insomnia he shows it's not the only thing he can do.

The Last Temptation of Christ

Based on a book besides The Bible, The Last Temptation of Christ tells the story of Jesus Christ in a very different way than we're used to. Willem Dafoe's Jesus is tormented by his knowledge and his communications with God, and he is a much weaker man than he is ever depicted as being in the New Testament. The movie hits a lot of the expected notes from the few years that he worked as a prophet, from his wandering in the desert to his sermon on the mount to turning water into wine to the healing of the sick and of course, his arrest and crucifixion. But it shows these moments in different ways than we're used to, and considering these stories in a different light, seeing them as the actions of a man with weaknesses and desires that he must sacrifice rather than an all-knowing and serene son of God is very interesting. The most memorable and controversial sequence comes near the end, when we see Jesus as a man who raised his own family rather than one who died for our sins, but the resolution of this sequence, when everything finally comes together, is extremely powerful, and strikes me as something that would restore faith rather than challenge it. Definitely one of the best religious movies I've ever seen.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Game Update 18: 3DS NES Ambassador Games

With the recent release of the Game Boy Advance "Ambassador" games for early adopters of the Nintendo 3DS (which seem pretty cool so far), I realized I never wrote anything about the NES games that were released in the same way a few months ago. There's a pretty good reason for this: four of the games are interesting and probably worth playing through, and the other six are basically garbage and I'll be glad to never look at them again. These are those six games.

Balloon Fight

Essentially a rip-off of Joust, Balloon Fight is a game where you try to pop the balloons tied to enemies on screen while protecting your own balloons from the same fate. Repeatedly tapping the button causes you to rise, and neglecting to do so causes you to fall. Don't ask me how these mechanics are actually supposed to translate to a real world situation involving a man fighting birds attached to balloons. If you are above an opponent when you collide with them, congratulations, you win that confrontation. There's also a mode where you try to float through an obstacle course for as long as you can. Not a bad idea, but the controls are terrible and it's no fun to play.

Donkey Kong Jr.

A sequel to the original Donkey Kong, and probably the only game where Mario is the antagonist. You have to get through a series of levels, trying to reach the top and rescue your father before moving to the next one. The gameplay is pretty familiar, although there's a lot of gripping onto and climbing of vines. Donkey Kong Jr climbs vines slower than any other ape who's ever lived. Not a bad idea, but the controls are terrible and it's no fun to play.

Ice Climber

Although you play as both climbers when they appear in the the Super Smash Bros. series, you only get one in this game's single player mode (none of the Ambassador games actually have multiplayer implemented yet despite the options appearing in the main menu, though Nintendo has said they'll add it in). Your goal is to climb a series of mountains, which are really just vertical platforming levels with bonus areas at the top of them. The way up is often blocked, but you can smash your way through with your hammer. Not a bad idea, but the controls are terrible and it's no fun to play.

NES Open Tournament Golf

A golf game with a few different courses, I'm not sure if it set the standard for pretty much all golf games that would follow but the archetype you're used to is here. You choose the direction to swing in, the speed of your swing, where you hit the ball, and what club to use. It has a swing meter where you press a button to start the swing, press it again to set the power, and press it again to set the accuracy. Unfortunately it's not a very easy to use swing meter. Not a bad idea, but the controls are terrible and it's no fun to play.

Wrecking Crew

A game where Mario is a demolition expert rather than a plumber. Your goal is to smash all of the walls in the level without getting killed by strange alien creatures you don't seem to be able to defend yourself against. There's also a few different types of objects that there's no clear way to interact with. You can't jump, but the levels do wrap around, giving me the impression that they all take place inside silos. Not a bad idea, but the controls are terrible and it's no fun to play.


Yoshi actually isn't that bad, it just doesn't have the addicting quality that all great classic puzzle games are supposed to have. It's a pretty simple set-up, though still maybe a bit more complex than it has to be. Much like Tetris, a variety of objects fall from the sky in pairs, and you have to rotate columns to try to stack like objects and make them disappear. Also two of the objects are the bottom and top halves of an egg shell, and if you manage to get the latter to appear above the former in a column, then they and any other objects between them also disappear. The speed increases over time, and eventually there's too much crap and there's no where to put it and you lose. I actually played quite a bit of a complete rip-off of this game on my scientific calculator in high school. It was just a way to pass the time in study hall though, and I can't say the real thing is any better.

Friday, December 16, 2011

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Season 7

The seventh season is around the point where most comedies on TV start to lose their ability to really surprise you or affect you in meaningful ways, or at least stop making you laugh quite as much as they used to. I will say that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia definitely feels like a show that's been around for that long, and it's reaching the point where they're running out of new gags and new ideas and has to rely on calling back to classic guest characters and running jokes in more extreme ways to stay exciting. Despite that, it still might actually be the funniest show I watch. Other comedies are newer and fresher and smarter and inspire greater passion and affection in me, but I just don't laugh as hard at them as I do at Sunny. A lot of this season's biggest laughs were based largely on shock value; creating situations so unexpected and unusual to see on TV that the novelty was a major part of their success. But who cares how carefully thought out or crafted a joke is when it makes you laugh until you start crying?

Despite having a lot of success recently in movies and other projects, at least compared to the rest of the cast, Charlie Day doesn't really dominate screen time like some people were maybe expecting. It was actually a pretty low-key year for his character, though he had a few inspired moments, including a scene that made me laugh as hard as anything I can think of in my entire life. Dennis continues to deliver great, increasingly disturbing performances, gradually continuing to develop into a fully deranged, secretive monster. Frank was the focus of a flashback episode that despite including a fun appearance by Lance Reddick stands as one of the series' only truly bad episodes, but Danny DeVito is so fully in control of the character at this point that it's always a joy just to watch him react or eat something. Sweet Dee got a lot of mileage out of her increasingly creative and filthy mouth, and while they didn't quite capitalize on the whole "fat Mac" arc, they did get some good jokes out of it and he's still a solid character. The show's been renewed for two more years, and I'd be feeling at least a little anxious about that with most sitcoms, but they only have to put out 13 or so episodes per year and they really haven't shown many signs of slowing down. I'll be glad to continue spending time with these freakish, vile lunatics for a while more.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Attack the Block

I usually like to avoid directly comparing things to other things for too long, but sometimes they're so similar that it's hard to avoid. That's the situation with Attack the Block, which has a lot of things that make it different from Super 8 but they share enough of a core that I can't really ignore it. They're both science-fiction movies that introduce a likable group of kids in their natural environment, and then turn that environment upside down with a violent event that brings hostile aliens into the mix. Their influences seem pretty different, as Super 8 is sort of an homage to older family-friendly genre movies that happens to be a lot louder, while Attack the Block is much more of a straight-up horror movie. I liked Super 8 more, but Block is a very good film in its own right.

It starts with a small-time gang of teenagers mugging a young woman on some holiday in England before getting distracted by something crashing into a nearby car from the sky. The woman escapes, and Moses, the leader of the little gang, investigates the car and gets scratched up by a strange alien creature. They corner it in a shed and kill it, and then take it to show some other people they know, including Nick Frost as a charmingly detached tenant in their building who maintains a weed farm for a local criminal. While there they see more things crashing in the neighborhood, and gather some equipment up to go defend their block. Soon though they realize these aliens are much bigger and more dangerous than the first one, and all hell breaks loose as they try desperately to survive.

Like Super 8, Attack the Block builds up a good rapport between the main characters before anything really bad happens, making the emotional core of the rest of the film much stronger. It's a much quicker process since the movie is only a scant 85 minutes or so, but despite their criminal leanings, the kids have an enjoyable interplay amongst themselves and the film has a surprising amount of social commentary on how crummy upbringings and flaws in the system of law help create young scoundrels like them better than they deter it. It was kind of surprising to see a horror movie where underage people are actually the main victims, and because of how deftly they were made sympathetic, it's genuinely distressing sometimes to see what happens to them. It's also just a really effectively creepy and unique creature design, with the aliens being large, hair black masses with their only distinguishable feature being their mouths full of glowing teeth.

Joe Cornish has never written or directed a movie before, but he shows skill at both, deftly weaving together strong comedic moments with an effectively tense and exciting sci-fi horror atmosphere, and managing to tell a simple but strong story very quickly and effectively. I can see why he's started writing together with Edgar Wright, as both have a lot of talent at bringing together humor with competently handled genre elements. There were a few bit of the story that seemed a bit rushed through or too convenient, but taken on its merits and its limited scope, it's a very successful film. The kid actors are really good, and I really think there should just be more small experiments like this one happening all the time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Boardwalk Empire - Season 2

When the first season of Boardwalk Empire aired last year, I was impressed by the quality of its production and enjoyed its variously interconnected characters and sense of humor. I was less enamored by the plot, which was mostly fine but a bit slow-going and nothing too new. That hasn't exactly changed too much this year, but the show definitely felt more confident and original in what it wanted to be, and that along with an extra year of time to deepen and explore the show's ideas and themes resulted in something ultimately more satisfying and exciting to watch. At the very least, my anticipation for what would happen next was more breathless, and the big moments packed a bigger punch.

Although the ending of season one wasn't exactly a complete upheaval in the show's world, it did provide a number of developments which played out over the course of season two. Nelson Van Alden's upright, do-gooder image was tarnished when he started committing crimes of his own and got someone besides his wife pregnant, and this year we spent a lot of time watching that veneer peel away in public, which made him more sympathetic despite him still being a self-righteous bastard. Jimmy and Eli joined forces with the Commodore and other influential men to challenge Nucky's supremacy in Atlantic City, and their back and forth along with the other organizations in other cities that get dragged into it makes up a lot of the season's most overt conflict. Margaret decided to stay with a man she knew was a criminal in order to provide for herself and her children, and this year she definitely struggled with her own feelings on the matter.

On top of these, the show piles on even more little struggles and battles. Chalky's operation is attacked by white supremacists, and he has to manage both his duties to the black community and his loyalty to Nucky. I thought Chalky had the weakest arc of any that really lasted a significant amount of time this season; Michael K. Williams' performance is strong but they just didn't put the time into making me buy how hamstrung he appeared to be. Perhaps most significantly, Nucky himself is charged with a number of crimes, and finds out who his real friends are as he struggles to keep himself out of jail. He was pretty put upon all season, with the law and a lot of his former friends working against him, and really only having the Irish and Arnold Rothstein (still a fun character even if he doesn't have much to do) on his side consistently. By the end of the season though, he's cemented his ability to fight his way out of jams and win some allies when he needs them.

They've done a good job of building him up from a shrewd manipulator of men and money into more of a complete criminal mastermind, not exactly invincible but smart enough to find a solution most of the time. We do see though that there are still chinks in the armor, and I look forward to the continued development of the character. As far as the content itself goes, it seems like they definitely cut back on unnecessary nudity this year, but they increased the violence to compensate. Boardwalk Empire's first season drew a little criticism for being mellow now and then, a complaint that seems weird to me since The Sopranos and The Wire are two of the best crime dramas ever, and aren't exactly dripping with blood from week to week. Boardwalk was definitely more brutal this year though, and I won't deny that the unflinching nature of the violence enhanced the intensity of the show's most shocking story moments. Maybe just a bit over-the-top though, I was watching the show at the same time as The Walking Dead and it was often the former than was the most disgusting. In any case, I still don't think Boardwalk is quite the classic drama it wants to be just yet, but it's still a very fun and often poignant one, using its period setting to highlight issues that cut across centuries, and always trying to get better. I'm easily on board for season three.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim came out exactly one month ago, so now seems like as good a time as any to write about it. I haven't been playing it constantly that entire time, but I have spent quite a few hours with it. I haven't finished it, of course. Not in the sense of seeing all the things there are to see, or even just completing the main story quest. I'm maybe about a third of the way through it. As far as the other quest lines, I've joined three of the five major factions, and I've only finished doing work for one of them. I've done some other side jobs, but I still have a dozen unrelated side quests sitting open in my journal, and a couple dozen other miscellaneous objectives on top of that. I've only visited seven of the nine cities, and I'm sure the other two will give me plenty of more stuff to do one I check them out. And of course I won't really ever run out of stuff to do, since the game can keep generating easy little tasks even after you get through the more detailed ones. Most games that had this much content would be maddening, but there's just something about The Elder Scrolls that makes me relish visiting its gigantic, endlessly explorable world rather than getting tired of doing the same thing over and over again.

I was about as big a fan of Oblivion as anyone, but I can't deny that that game had certain problems. Its main plot had problems; it got pretty repetitive after a point, it wasn't always the easiest thing to know why you were doing what you were doing, and there's a certain sense of letdown when you realize you aren't the chosen one, but just a guy helping the chosen one out. It also had serious gameplay balance problems - it used the same skill system as Morrowind, where you had certain skills designated as major ones, and using them caused them to improve, which is how you would level up. But it was easy to accidentally build a character that could level up frequently without actually improving your combat ability much, and since enemies always leveled up to match you, serious difficulty problems would pop up. You should feel stronger by leveling up in an RPG, but it was often the bad guys who were beefing up more than you. Skyrim fixes this mostly by removing the distinction between class skills and other skills, so working on anything will give you progress toward leveling up, and dungeons are scaled based on a range rather than an absolute value, making some places certainly tough enough to match you, but others easy enough that you can get through them with no problem. If you spend all day improving your non-combat skills without raising your combat to match, you could still run into issues, but the balance seems better.

That's not the only improvement either; almost everything about Skyrim seems like it can be described as "like Oblivion, but better". As I said I haven't finished the main quest yet, but so far it feels suitably epic enough to be the primary focus of a game this big, and I've already done some things that were more interesting than anything that really happened in Oblivion's quest. The other factions also seem to have really interesting central plots this time, and are better integrated with the setting of Skyrim itself. Rather than their being a generically named guild chapter in every city, they all have headquarters in one location, and histories and reputations within those places that make them feel like part of the world rather than a trigger to generate quests. The Daedric side quests are back and as subversive as ever, and have a lot more variety in how you come across them. In general, it's impressive how much effort the game put into making sure you always have plenty of choice in what to do next. It's hard to go pretty much anywhere without picking up a bounty on some bandit or a lead on where to find something interesting.

I also really like the place of Skyrim itself. Oblivion drew complaints for being a pretty generic fantasy setting, and I always defended it as being a nice looking and pretty interesting place. Besides, as the central political and economic hub of the whole continent, it was all-encompassing and non-specific by design. But I can't deny that Skyrim is a more intriguing place. It has a real sense of local identity that Cyrodiil mostly lacked, and thanks to the technological innovations of the last nine years, they are able to present that identity more effectively than Morrowind did. The Nordic culture is heavily influenced by, well, Nordic cultures from real life, and is a cool blend of Scandinavian and fantasy influences. And the game also represents a big shift in the culture of the continent itself, taking place some two hundred years after Oblivion, and shaking up the entire political landscape. The world just feels alive when you hear people talking about the great war between men and elves and how the citizens are no longer happy with the empire's control over them, and just adding the concept of real open conflict to the setting makes it feel more important and dangerous, even if only affects the world in a significant way when you decide it does. And oh yeah, dragons are a pretty cool enemy.

I haven't even touched on all of the things they've added for you to do if you're interested in making your own equipment. Alchemy is back, and lets you mix potions without actually knowing their properties before hand, which feels more natural. Enchanting makes more sense, as you learn effects by taking them from already existing items, and it's a more intuitive system than there was before. And crafting is really significant. There's a purpose to hunting, as you can use the hides you take from animals and tan them to make leather. You can mine ore and smelt it into workable material, and then combine the leather and the metal to make weapons, armor, and jewelry. Which you can then enchant, of course. You can also chop wood for money and cook food to give it different effects, both minor activities but ones that enhance the idea that this is a world people live in and not just a playground for you to kill monsters in. Jeez, I just realized I haven't actually talked about combat. Or the perk system, which is the main focus of leveling up. God, this game is huge.

Anyway, the game engine is definitely improved on what they had before, but it's still basically the same engine, which means it's not the most elegant experience at all times. The combat system has the same general clunkiness as before, though I won't say it isn't greatly improved. The main addition is the dual wielding system, which lets you use any combination of one-handed weapons, spells, and shields in your two different hands, allowing for a greater variety of play styles. There's still bows and two handed weapons as well, and they're also effective ways to take on monsters and bandits. My personal approach is to sneak as much as possible, and pick off enemies with my bow before they know I'm there. When I do get into a scrape, I usually pull out one of the swords or maces that I've enchanted myself, and try to keep enemies off balance while I keep myself alive with a healing spell in the other hand. But I could have a spell in both hands, or a sword in one and an axe in the other, or anything else really if I wanted to. Every time you level up you pick a stat to improve (health, stamina or magicka; they've totally gotten rid of the other stats that those three used to be derived from), and a perk, which is either a bonus to or an extra ability related to one of your skills. It could be a reduction on the magicka cost of casting spells from a certain school, or it could be the ability to zoom in when aiming with your bow. It's a system that encourages you to level up and experiment with different skills, and helps reduce the occasional monotony of taking on the hundredth dungeon full of undead or spiders or necromancers or whatever.

As I mentioned it's the same engine, which means the same occasional technical hiccup, which might cause an NPC to act strangely or an object to not appear properly or any number of small issues that can pop up. I don't fault Bethesda for having some glitches in a game this big, and I also have to note that in the time I've played I've experienced the fewest number of issues that actually break the game from any Elder Scrolls game I've tried. There's been one or two crashes, and a single objective that won't resolve itself properly, but that's about it. And there really have been improvements to the engine - more subtle animations can still be awkward, but people do interact better, and the game just looks really, really nice. It's both the graphics and just the visual design of the world. When you're on top of a mountain looking out over a grand vista, or walking through a valley and seeing the Northern Lights play off a sky full of stars and Tamriel's two moons, it can be as breathtaking as any image you've seen in a game. And then a wooly mammoth might accidentally spawn in midair and plummet to its death. And that's Skyrim.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Remember when I said watching Part 1 when it was on disc meant I could go see Part 2 in the theater and be really fresh on it? Heh. Anyway, the final film in the long-running Harry Potter series finally brings the story to a conclusion, answering a few questions and putting an end to the reign of the evil Lord Voldemort once and for all. I hope that isn't a spoiler. Having now seen both of the films that were made from the final book after it was chopped in half, I definitely think they should have been one movie. I understand why Warner Bros would want to increase their profits by splitting them up, and avoid a running time that was too long. But they could have easily cut the two films into a single three hour one, and I think it would have been a better movie.

Part of the fallout of splitting the story up is that Part 2 has a pretty odd structure. It has a low key little beginning sequence where Harry talks to a few people and establishes his goals for the rest of the film, then cuts to a partly comedic, partly exciting sequence where he and his friends break into a bank to retrieve one of the doodads they need to defeat Voldemort. It's a solid first act, but then the film skips the second one entirely and jumps straight to an extremely long and drawn out climax for the whole series, when the gang returns to Hogwarts to find the last pieces of the puzzle and fight off the evil army, with help from the other students and pretty much every friendly character from the series' history. There's an ebb and flow of excitement and drama during this part that prevents it from straining too hard or forcing its momentum to a grinding halt, but I can't say it entirely avoids feeling off from time to time. The larger cast outside of the main three kids gets more attention here than they did in Part 1, and it was nice to see a lot of these characters get a last moment or two even if they never got developed in the movies nearly as much as they did on the page.

Besides some of the night scenes being too dark to actually tell what was going on, I didn't have many problems with this long sequence until near the end, after all has been revealed and the game is finally on. A couple things just didn't quite work. The Deathly Hallows themselves were a last minute narrative device already in the books, and they come off even more so here. They were already explained in Part 1, but that needed to be reiterated here in Part 2 for those who might have forgotten, and the explanations are brief and incomplete. They seem less like well-considered keys to victory and more like cheap explanations for why the good guys are able to win without actually having to be smarter or stronger than their opponents. And the final battle itself is just a bit clumsy - it's bigger and more spread out than it appeared in the book, which doesn't really do it any favors and seems like a poor reaction to the less than perfect ending J.K. Rowling crafted in the first place. I don't know if I'm presenting my issues well, but the main thing is just that this series has great production values, but the final scenes presented in this film don't quite live up to the decade of preparation that led up to them. I think David Yates did a solid job bringing the second half of the series to life, but he rarely rose above that mark. It was ultimately an entertaining movie though, befitting a likable if imperfect franchise.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Assassin's Creed: Revelations

I honestly was less disappointed when I found out this game was going to star Ezio than I was when I learned the same about Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. After all, with that game they had already established a willingness to reuse the same protagonist, and it makes a certain amount of sense to have a trilogy within a larger trilogy, that being the one about the series' meta-protagonist Desmond. I don't know that the game released next year will actually be called Assassin's Creed III, and I wouldn't be surprised if it features another new or returning central character, but I am reasonably confident that it will resolve Desmond's story without killing off potential for future games in the series. Revelations does a lot of work toward setting up that sort-of conclusion, both in the resolutions it gives to Ezio and Altair and the small steps forward it takes in the larger narrative. Also, that narrative has hinged on the end of the world happening in 2012, and of course it would be silly to have a game about that come out in 2013 or later.

Revelations was advertised as being a game to finish the stories of Ezio and Altair, and I'd say it does so, though in a slightly odd way. Despite them both appearing on the cover, you will spend the vast majority of the game playing as Ezio again, with only five missions as Altair, all relived through keys Ezio finds (and relived also by Desmond too obviously, in a weird Inception-style layering of realities), all taking place in the Assassin stronghold at Masyaf, and mostly being pretty limited from a gameplay perspective. But Altair actually gets a more purposeful send-off as a character, as we see snippets of his entire lifespan, struggling to keep the Assassins on the right path and make the proper preparations for his descendents to follow their own paths. There are some really strong moments in these missions, that finally made me care about a character who was mostly just a jerk in his own game. Conversely, we do see Ezio accept what the true purpose of his life is and get closure on some things, but there's less of a finality to his arc. Still, he also had some good moments.

Looking at the game itself though, while Brotherhood won me over with what it brought to the table in terms of new concepts and systems for the series, Revelations seemed a bit light on actual new gameplay content that was enjoyable. While the first game obviously established the vital climbing and combat mechanics, and the concept of the series, and the subsequent games added fun features like core combat improvements and an economy that allowed you to purchase better equipment and renovate businesses in exchange for more influence over the world and the ability to recruit and level up new Assassins who could help you on missions, there's not much new about Revelations that I really liked. I will say the hookblade is a very good addition - it doesn't have much effect on combat, but it does make getting around easier by letting you climb a bit faster and use suspended wires all over the city of Constantinople like ziplines.

Otherwise though, the additions were either a wash or actively irritating. Bomb crafting is interesting in theory, but there's really not much that they allow you to do that you couldn't do before in another way. It's not like you need more ways to kill enemies, smoke bombs already existed to allow for obscuring your movements, and there are other methods of distraction like poison or hiring citizens to help. Adding a control component to the assassin training missions provides a new source of revenue but is also a money sink on its own, and the new stuff with notoriety and defending your territory is almost a total disaster. Now instead of permanently taking over Templar strongholds, they can be retaken if you're a wanted man, and the only way to defend them without taking them back again is to engage in an undercooked and uninteresting tower defense-style minigame. Luckily you can avoid that altogether by keeping yourself off the radar, but now renovating businesses increases your visibility, and the methods to reduce it are decreased in number and less effective. It's just more of a chore to build up your power over the city than it was before, and I really don't see the benefit.

On top of the questionable additions to the available distractions from the game itself, the game itself seems a bit slighter than it was on the past. I'm not sure if my perspective is skewed or what, but it definitely felt like a shorter game to me, especially in the second half when the plot kicks into high gear and every memory sequence seems like it's over in an hour or two. There's not exactly a shortage of side content, and I know for a fact there's a number of optional missions I can finish as soon as I get back to the game. But the critical path through the story definitely felt a bit rushed to me, especially in the end, when the game teases what could be a big confrontation but it never comes. It's just like there was supposed to be one last twist and one last big Templar you'd have to track down and assassinate, and that final act doesn't really come. Really, you don't do much actual assassinating in general. Those silly scenes where you stab a guy in the neck and the environment turns into white nothingness and the victim gives a final confession or Ezio just blesses them are a staple of the series, and they're unfortunately in short supply in this game.

It did have some strong spots - the game has the best development of a human relationship in the series, and the underground tomb missions which focus on more specific platforming are better than they've been before, and make a nice effort to remove some of the sterility from the series' level design. I even liked the first person platforming levels you unlock by finding small objects in the city, which aren't terribly fun but are a nice break from the game's regular hustle and bustle and do a good job of establishing an interesting past history for Desmond, though they're light on any real surprises. And of course the multiplayer is back, and it's still fun as long as the other players aren't idiots. Of all the main games in the franchise, Revelations feels the most like a stopgap. It felt less connected to history, and had the smallest cast of characters, and the least momentum in the overarching story. But it did hit a few important beats, and it's still fun just to run around the city and mess up fools, and I'm still looking forward to what's next. It's a bit unfortunate that Ubisoft has felt the need to push out a game every year to keep the series relevant, but I'm not going to pretend I haven't enjoyed playing them every time.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sons of Anarchy - Season 4

It's a shame last night's final episode of this season of Sons of Anarchy was so disappointing, because up until it aired, they were putting together a very successful and at times amazing season that could have ended up as something really special. Coming off a year when a lot of people were questioning the show, to come this close to bringing it all back in grand style and then failing at the last second is just kind of a tragedy. It's not even a bad episode of television in a vacuum - it's well acted and shot as Sons always is, with some powerful scenes and good humor sprinkled throughout. The problem is what the episode represents as far as the rest of the season is concerned - that is, it reveals that the dramatic moments they've been building toward have all been a lie, and the huge stakes they put up never really existed. This seemed like a season that could really be a game changer for the show, and while a few things happen that will definitely have consequences next year, perhaps significant ones, they really don't come close to matching what the show has been hinting at all along.

It sort of felt like this was a back to basics season, after the much delayed and drawn out visit to Ireland (which I enjoyed) last year caused some people to question the show. It's just the sons in Charming again, trying to stay afloat while making some deals, avoiding trouble with other gangs, and trying not to get caught by the cops. Over the course of fourteen episodes, more and more conflicts pile on, small and large, that threaten to cause the club to collapse under its own weight and take everyone connected down with it. They use the technique very effectively, to the point where you worry that there's actually too many conflicts and they won't be able to satisfyingly resolve them all. And that ends up being the case. In the end, I doubt in the long run this will ever end up being seen as much more than a filler season, and you never want an entire year of effort you put into something to end up feeling like that. I can sort of see what Kurt Sutter and his team were going for in doing this, but in the end they teased some inevitable story beats that they weren't quite prepared to deliver on yet, and the result was a letdown.

The main cast was great as always, and their supporting cast was perhaps better than ever, with lots of recognizable faces joining both sides of the law. The show definitely gets a bit over the top with the sex and violence now and again, with a couple issues this season being firefights that are just too big for me to believe the cops wouldn't get wind of them in time and the very casual way the club members seem to regard violence against women. But the show wouldn't be the same without its edge, and I'd rather they lean too far toward over the top than too far in the other direction, and you can't really say there's another show on TV that pulls off action scenes better. And while they shied away from some big moments, the ones that they did have were pretty darn special. I'm definitely watching next year, because the season was mostly very good and I'm really invested in most of the characters and I know they can do better than this and there are plenty of things I know the show will eventually do that I still want to see. But it's definitely hard to shake that feeling of disappointment.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Movie Update 31

Crank: High Voltage

Remember when I said that the original Crank was actually less over the top and insane than it advertised itself as? This sequel, which brings back most of the significant characters in some way and attempts to escalate on everything the first movie did, corrects that issue. Instead of having to keep his heart rate up by doing things like getting into fights and having sex with Amy Smart, Jason Statham's heart has been replaced with an artificial one and he must keep its battery charged by doing things like electrocuting himself and having sex with Amy Smart (because it generates static electricity through friction, obviously). There's a lot more violence and nudity and general zaniness in this movie, so it succeeds at surpassing the first movie in that way. It does have a different problem though, which again prevented me from really liking the movie - it just seemed too mean-spirited. People don't just get hit in the nuts, their genitals get destroyed. A man is forced to punish himself for messing up by graphically cutting off his own nipples. Just lots of messed up stuff like that, and I thought it was usually more gross than entertaining. Otherwise, it's as kinetic and crazy as advertised, with a few moments of inspired originality.


Hoosiers is as predictable an underdog sports story as you're ever likely to encounter. Gene Hackman comes to a small Indiana town to become the high school basketball coach, and he struggles to gain the acceptance of the locals before molding the team into an unlikely winner, more successful than they've ever been before. Dennis Hopper plays the father of one of the players, a drunk and embarrassment to the town who actually knows a lot about the sport. Barbara Hershey is a teacher at the school who questions Hackman's methods but eventually warms up to him. There's a kid who's supremely talented but unwilling to play, and a bunch of ignoramuses who have it out for the interloper. Though it's nothing you haven't seen a bunch of times, Hoosiers is still a charming and well-executed version of that formula. The acting is solid, and the basketball scenes are authentic and exciting. It was a bit weird for the only black people in the movie to appear at the end as players for the big bad final opponent (the movie takes place in the 50s), but otherwise there's not much to really hold against the movie. Pretty likable stuff.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

A weird mix of comedy and politics, The Russians Are Coming tells the story of a Soviet submarine crew that accidentally runs aground on an American island and attempts to get back in the water without causing an international incident. Unfortunately, they run into difficulties, and things are exacerbated by the locals who are alarmist about the threat and quick to gossip. Things almost totally boil over in a remarkably tension-filled stand-off before the film remembers it's a comedy and deflates it in a pretty cheesy, feel-good way. It's a likable movie, with some frustrating side characters and maybe too long a running time but not much else to complain about. The best part is probably Alan Arkin's lead performance as one of the Russian crew members, who doesn't actually get a ton of dialogue but when he does always manages to make a lot out of very little. I'm honestly not totally sure what it was trying to accomplish, but it's a pretty good movie.

Tom Jones

There's something about 18th century England that is just inherently interesting to me. The British accents, the horrible class inequality, the technology still stuck in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, it's just... I don't know. Interesting. Tom Jones is based on a serialized novel published during that period, and features Albert Finney playing a bastard who's been raised in kind society and grown up to be a womanizer, well-liked by many but hated by some. The movie actually won Best Picture, which seems kind of strange, but I guess movies could do that back then without being dramas about serious issues or mediocre. Wow that was pretty harsh, I've actually really liked most of the recent winners of that award. Oh well, whatever. Tom Jones is funny, has an intriguing little plot about the secrets people sometimes keep, and has some nice performances. It also frequently features characters talking to or just looking at the camera, which somehow never gets old. And now that the movie has expired from Netflix streaming, the site doesn't have it at all. What's up with that, Netflix?