Friday, October 31, 2008

Taking Another Trip to Casino Royale

On November 14 the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, will make its way into theaters.  It features Daniel Craig as the licenced to kill double-O agent, Craig's second outing in the role.  Craig first slipped on the tuxedo in 2006 for Casino Royale, a reboot for a franchise which needed no reboot (the box office take from Die Another Day, the last Brosnan Bond film was huge).  Even so, despite being lambasted in the press, Craig's new Bond film received outstanding reviews.  I may have even called it the best film of 2006.

Casino Royale features Bond on his first assignment with a licence to kill (the pre-title sequence shows him receiving the licence), and is based on Ian Fleming's first Bond novel.  Craig's Bond is not yet the suave, smooth, unflappable character that he becomes down the line.  Craig's Bond is still rough around the edges and works more based off his heart than his head (closer to Timothy Dalton's representation than Roger Moore's). 

The basic plot features Bond out to stop Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who is masterminding a nefarious terrorist scheme involving banks.  On the way, Bond falls in love with the woman M (Judi Dench) sends to help him, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).  But, without ruining anything that happens, I think we all know that James Bond and love are two things that simply don't work together.

This outing has just been released to Blu-ray and regular DVD in a special "Collector's Edition."  As one has a right to expect from a Blu-ray release of a recent film, the picture and sound in this edition are truly outstanding, but, if you already own a prior release the question of whether this new one is worth it depends more on the new special features than the presentation itself. 

Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is "Know Your Double-O".  This is a trivia game with multiple skill levels and consists of, as one would assume from the name and the release it's a part of, quizzes people about their knowledge of Bond.  While the questions do seem to skew towards Casino Royale, they are not exclusively centered on the film.

Also exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is the ability to watch a picture-in-picture commentary track rather than simply hearing the commentary over the film.  Watching the director, Martin Campbell, and producer, Michael G. Wilson, talk about the film as the film is running actually works very well.  The picture-in-picture box of Wilson and Campbell is small enough so as to not detract from the film itself, and helps put a face to whom is speaking.  Unfortunately however, their commentary picture box is not present throughout the film, it disappears and returns despite the fact that the dialogue never stops (it is entirely possible that Wilson and Campbell did multiple takes or sessions and that the final audio is cut together from those to work as a single whole while a jump cut in the video would be obvious).

Both the DVD and Blu-Ray feature some never-before-seen deleted scenes and more behind-the-scenes documentaries than one can shake a stick at.  There are looks at the links between Bond and the Bahamas (a location used in this and other Bond films), an examination of Ian Fleming, and an extended version of the 2002 AMC documentary Bond Girls are Forever.  The DVD release contains all this material over the course of three discs, whereas the Blu-ray one manages to squeeze it onto two. 

It is a good release of one of the best Bond films to come our way in a long time, but it is hard to suggest to someone who might already have the film on Blu-ray (there was an earlier release) that they need to go out and purchase it due to some of the new bonus features.  However, anyone who has upgraded from DVD to Blu-ray and doesn't have this film in the new format would do well to upgrade.  Additionally, to try to entice people to buy the new set, both the DVD and Blu-ray releases come complete with "e-movie cash" in the amount of $10.50 which can be used to buy tickets to Quantum of Solace.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Male Bonding on My Own Worst Enemy and Boston Legal

I am, I fear, in for some disappointment again this television season.  I sat there last night watching My Own Worst Enemy and marveling at just how much fun the show is.  I woke up this morning to see the ratings and can't help but think that it's not going to last that long.  It's quite the shame, the show is funny, suspenseful, and truly engrossing.  Oh, it's not perfect, but it's plenty good.

The most interesting thing, I think, about the series thus far is the growing battle between Edward (the superspy) and Henry (the average family man).  Obviously, what with the title and all, it is this battle that will repeatedly be brought to the fore, but it really is developing wonderfully.  Even if the plot of Edward having a chip implanted in his head which created Henry is ridiculous, Christian Slater's portrayal of both men is down to Earth and wholly believable. 

Henry is this poor guy, thrust into a world he didn't choose and doesn't understand, while Edward loves trying to put order into the chaos of the world as a whole.  Edward is clearly excited by living on the edge, avoiding death at every turn.  Henry just wants a nice quiet life and a return to normalcy, even if that original state only came about because Edward got a chip put in his head.

On last night's episode we saw that the two men have figured out how to communicate with one another on a regular basis - just before the transformation they leave each other video messages on their cell phone.  It's not foolproof, but it's smart, and last night allowed for some really great back and forth between the two. 

The two (or is it one) men have, in a very short span of time, grown to hate each other.  The question I hope the show gets the time to answer is if that hatred can continue or if Henry and Edward have to find a way to work together.  Henry tried to throw out an olive branch last night, only to have Edward set fire to it, but I don't imagine that course can be followed indefinitely.  Eventually, I'd think, Henry and Edward have to find a way to work out their differences, as distasteful as that may be to each man. 

Two guys that have worked out the vast majority of their differences (and those differences are legion) were on ABC at the same time that Henry and Edward were doing their thing.  Denny Crane and Alan Shore have managed to become one of the greatest, most underrated, television couples in history.  They're able to jab at one another about relevant issues of the day, have semi-meaningful discussions on every topic under the sun, fight like cats and dogs, and still manage to be friends at the end of the night. 

As Boston Legal rides off into the sunset I find myself longing for seasons past when the show was somewhat better populated, but pleased that the this final season's pared-down cast has allowed the Denny-Alan relationship to be explored even more fully.  It's all too rare that television shows display such meaningful bonding.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Amazing Race Amazes Me to no End

I am, for some reason, simply baffled watching The Amazing Race this year.  I shouldn't be.  I know that I shouldn't be, but I am.  Last night's elimination was no big surprise, Ty and Aja were behind from the word "go" and never got to catch, but the way other things unfolded simply didn't make sense.

First, look at Starr and Nick.  There they were, in the lead, their driver insisted that he knew where he was going, and yet Starr made him pull over so she could ask directions of people who didn't speak any English.  Not really the brightest thing ever.  By the time they got going again, they had slipped to fourth place. 

Now really, that was just fine.  They may have been in fourth place, but they couldn't have been more than 90 seconds behind first.  But, when Nick and Starr got their lead back a little while later, everyone else was disheartened, particularly Tina (of Ken and Tina, the separated couple that might get back together).  The teams had still done very little during this leg of the race, there was no way they were going to be going to the pitstop anytime soon, and yet she seemed really disappointed.  Why?  While it is true that a lost driver can cause a team's elimination, falling 15 seconds behind while on a boat towards the beginning of a leg of the race wasn't going to make any difference. 

So, I was moderately perplexed.  Probably I should just chalk it up to human nature to be disappointed, but then I firmly believe that human nature has to be altered.  Okay, probably too tall an order, but not necessarily a misplaced one.

What well and truly perplexed me were the actions of Kelly and Christy (the divorcees, who you can tell exactly why they got divorced simply by watching on the show).  They were on their boat, on the way to the floating restaurant when they spied another team doing something else.  Did they proceed on their way to the restaurant, the destination specifically spelled out in their clue?  No, no they didn't.  Instead, they redirected their pilot to where the other team was, leaping ahead of where they were supposed to be. 

Why, I beg you, can teams not follow directions this season?  If someone tells you to go to a restaurant for your next clue, do you decide to head to a basketball court instead?  No, not if you have a half a brain and want to win.  If you have a half a brain and want to win, you go to the restaurant and count yourself lucky that you saw in advance a location that you might have to head to later.   Kelly and Christy just opted to hop out at the basketball court, start shooting some hoops, and only then decided that they actually ought to follow the instructions.  What was going through their mind? 

I know that I shouldn't get so vexed about these things, that I should just accept the world the way it is and right off the foolishness as reality show nonsense, but it's really hard to do that.  Plus, it truly distressed me that Kelly and Christy were able to be so dumb and still not get eliminated.  I have my fingers crossed though, and I'm hopeful they'll go down next week.

Friday, October 24, 2008

SNL Brings the Political Funny

The world is a truly fascinating place. We all come from different walks of life, have different points of view, see the world very differently, but we can all agree to sit down in front of the nice warm glow of the television and let it shower us with tokens of affection.

Okay, I call them "tokens of affection," you might call it "the same old pap that we've seen before hundreds of times." Well, maybe you're right. Maybe you have seen these shows hundreds of times. Maybe little that airs on television is genuinely new or different, but something doesn't always have to be wholly new to wonderfully good.

Take a gander at last night's Saturday Night Live primetime special. The night started off with Will Ferrell returning to do his George Bush. The plot of the sketch dealt with Bush wanting to endorse McCain and Palin (Tina Fey again). McCain, obviously, recognized how poisonous such an endorsement was, but Palin was all for it. Oh heck, why am I telling you all about it, just check it out for yourself.

See, did you watch that? That was funny. It wasn't new, it wasn't different, and Ferrell doesn't even do a particularly great Bush impersonation, but it was laugh out loud funny nonetheless.

I've always been a fan of SNL, ever since I first realized that the show existed (I think I was in 7th grade). I don't want to get into a new cast vs. old cast thing, that's not the point right now. The point is that SNL absolutely excels at political humor. They are there, they are on the spot, they are fast, and they are funny. Some of the impersonations are closer than others, but they almost always seem to capture the basic core of the persona. I can't imagine it's an easy task to find the right person to do the impersonation, especially with SNL's ever-changing cast, but somehow they make it work.

Am I a little biased about the show having worked in the building and having done menial tasks for the show? Maybe. But, my having been there also means that I've gotten a glimpse into what goes on to make it all work, and the amount of effort that people on the show put in is simply incredible, especially when you consider that with these primetime specials they're actually doing two hours of TV a week some weeks. That's a lot of comedy to write, a lot of sketches to rehearse, and a lot of impersonations to perfect.

I'm very excited for the upcoming election, I can't wait to see what happens. Yet, I'm going to be incredibly disappointed when it's finished, because it'll mean that SNL will be doing less political stuff for a while.

No matter the outcome of the election, that will truly be a disappointment.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Knight Rider's Half-Naked, Car Chase, Explosion Attitude

Okay, yes I watch it every week, and no I'm never going to like it, so you can look forward to more of these columns, but my goodness, did you watch Knight Rider last night? I just don't understand the show. Well, that's not entirely true, I do understand -- it's entirely about half-naked people, car chases, and explosions. Any and all plot is issued purely in support of the achievement one of the above three goals.

Now, half-naked people, car chases, and explosions are (when kept to the fictional world) all good things. I'm not complaining about that, to do so would be foolish. As a child I commented that all the Beach Boys sang about was cars, girls, and surfing only to be told, "Well, what else is there?" Much the same can be said here -- what else is there? What would you rather see on TV?

Yup, that's the problem, there is an answer to that -- compelling drama or funny comedy. Knight Rider's insistence that plot is merely a means to an end negates the very true idea that compelling drama or funny comedy can against alongside half-naked people, explosions, and car chases. Last night they actually made the foolish attempt to draw a parallel between themselves and one of the greatest cinematic heroes of all time, James Bond, in order to show that they were just doing what Bond movies have done for over forty years.

This notion was put forward when Michael met up with a female British secret agent from MI-6, Michael quipped that perchance he should refer to her as Jane Bond. Then, when KITT did something super-car like Michael again recalled Bond, suggesting that he'd like to see Bond's car perform a similar maneuver.

There is, of course, a comparison to be made between Knight Rider's half-naked people, car chases, and explosions and James Bond's half-naked people, car chases, and explosions. After all, they both have half-naked people, car chases, and explosions. However, the worst Bond film (say, Tomorrow Never Dies) is still head and shoulders better than the best Knight Rider episode (we're still waiting on that one's appearance).

Even in Tomorrow Never Dies, Brosnan's second outing which focused on a media mogul, Elliot Carver, trying to start a war between China and Britain so that he can sell more papers, the plot, no matter how foolish, is explored. A lot of time in the movie is spent on Carver's motives and the exact nature of his plans. Last night's Knight Rider, as with all previous episodes, dispenses with those sorts of mundane things in under ten seconds. In a very brief statement while on the way to stop the villain, KITT performed a background check and told Michael that the bad guy was a mercenary bank robber not a revolutionary.

The plots may be equally foolish, but even the least of the James Bond films makes an attempt to sell you on it, while Knight Rider dispenses with any such notion. The difference is not one of a television versus film format, but rather of producer intent. The producers of Knight Rider simply don't seem to care what the plot is as long as it leads to visual stimulation for the audience. The producers of the Bond films actually want to tell a good story in addition to having good visuals. And that, my friends, makes all the difference.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's Wacky. It's Racing. It's Crashing. It's Dashing. And Yet, Wacky Races: Crash & Dash Isn't Fun.

Nostalgia is a pretty powerful thing. Bad fashions disappear for a decade or two and then all of the sudden someone feels the least bit nostalgic for them and they're back bigger than ever. Television shows that were kitschy and silly die off only to be resurrected twenty years down the line with an even more kitschy and silly feature film. People like to remember the good old days and snap up things that make them nostalgic faster than they can be produced.

Enter the new Wii game Wacky Races: Crash & Dash. Based on the short-lived but much loved Wacky Races cartoon series, Wacky Races: Crash & Dash has cartoony graphics that are neither bright nor vivid, much like the show it's based on. And, again like the show it's based on, the game sports terribly little interactivity. Not being very interactive may seem like an odd choice for a video game, but it's one that Wacky Races: Crash & Dash seems to embrace wholeheartedly.

The game, nominally, is a racing one. It allows players (up to four) to choose between several different teams that were on the series, not that the choice makes a great difference as the game opts for sidelong view most of the time, switching as necessary to a top-down long distance one. Yes, the cars look different from one another, and they're all able to utilize different special abilities (which we'll get to later), but they don't seem to have different specs in terms of speed, handling, braking, acceleration or any other myriad of things that a typical racing game provides.

While that in and of itself is distressing, it is nothing compared to the incredibly overly rudimentary controls allocated to the player. Users can control whether the car goes left or right, and can perform a speed boost – referred to as a "Mad Dash" in the game – by shaking the remote or nunchuk, but the cars' basic speed is controlled completely by the game. No trying to slow down to make a corner or avoid a hazard here, but the game forgives that too, after all, the point of the entire game is right there in the title, it's to crash and dash.

In fact, the game forgives all crashing and negates all dashing, keeping all the cars incredibly close to one another at all times. No matter how much of a power boost players have available, computer racers keep up. If, somehow, a player falls too far behind they are instantly transported back into the thick of things and a nominal, unimportant penalty (the elimination of some stored speed boosts) occurs.

Placed throughout the 24 mundane courses are special cogs that allow players to either activate a speed boost, an attack, or some combination of the two. The various boosts and attacks do differ depending on the racer chosen, but in the end none of them eliminates other racers or gets a player far enough ahead for them to be bothered with.

Sadly, Wacky Races: Crash & Dash can't even set the pace of the game properly. Races are run quickly enough where there would be a modicum of enjoyment to be gained from playing, but the game then kills all the momentum by interrupting the race for inane mini-games. The mini-games are "created" by Dick Dastardly and Muttley and require players to do anything from swinging the remote to bat bombs away to grabbing nuts and bolts and placing them in appropriate spots.

Not only are all the mini-games either incredibly easy or completely impossible with no middle ground, but they don't really affect the race in a meaningful way. Winning a mini-game tends to earn the racer a reward (an extra temporary power) and losing one costs the racer some of their accumulated speed boosts. However, as the game keeps everyone in a position to win the race at all times, gaining rewards and losing a speed boost that can always be refilled (that happens automatically, and more quickly if a player is in first) doesn't make a big difference.

Though speed boosts can be used at any point in the race by shaking the Wii Remote, they are really only meaningful at the end of the race during the "Mad Dash" to the finish line, which is essentially a sprint to the finish. Simply not using speed boosts earlier in the race tends to mean that a player will have enough built up (even if one has lost all the mini-games) to score a victory in a race during the final dash. Shaking the remote at this point does become tiresome and a little painful, but it is the most interactive portion of the game.

Wacky Races: Crash & Dash sports some unlockable content, mainly in the form of extra courses (only four courses are available when someone starts playing) and added information about the characters. In addition to the regular game mode, there is a "Trap Challenge" mode that allows players to play one mini-game after the next and a customizable race mode. This latter mode allows players to edit race characteristics such as race difficulty and the ability to use special powers. Sadly, there is no toggle in this second race mode for making the game fun.

The one bright spot of Wacky Races: Crash & Dash is its cartoony nature. With its announcer and the weird power-ups given to racers it truly does adhere to the foolishness that made the series fun to watch. Unfortunately, that by itself does not make the game fun to play.

Wacky Races: Crash & Dash is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Cartoon Violence. This game can also be found on Nintendo DS.

One star out of five.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Heroes on the Right Track, Will the Audience Follow?

Yesterday I lamented the fact that people don't watch NBC, even when NBC airs something good.  I sat there last night watching Heroes and marveled at how a show that had fallen off a cliff so badly in its second season seemed to be doing everything right in season three.  Then, this morning, I looked at the ratings and realized that the show is still doing one thing wrong - losing viewers.  Maybe people are just still hugely disappointed with the wretchedly bad stories the show put forth in its abbreviated second season, or maybe… nope, I can't imagine what else the problem could be and it's a real shame, because people who liked it in season one and then stopped watching are missing out.

Gone this season are the ridiculous romantic plots from last year, the lack of a clear overarching narrative, and the snail's pace progression of what little plot there was.  This season has featured twists, turns, some great new villains and heroes, and what has to be one of the biggest character shifts in history - Sylar's apparent about face on evil.  I'm still a little up in the air on exactly where that is headed.

Sylar, the Big Bad from season one, and minor villain of season two, is apparently now trying to walk the straight and narrow.  He's had some slips (like killing folks at the bank heist a couple of episodes back), but he's trying to control his hunger.  Or, at least that's what he claims.

That, my friends, is really where the questions lie.  We got a glimpse into a possible future where Sylar apparently does learn to control his hunger for power, but he ended up going nuclear in that future and things have already changed in the present which might negate the possibility of the future.  Of course, it could just be that Sylar was just pretending both in the present and in that future.  It could be that Sylar was still evil and was merely hiding it in order to advance some greater evil agenda. 

Currently, I'm still on the fence about whether I'd rather have Sylar be good or evil.  Having him be good makes it far easier for the producers to keep him on the show (evil, being bad, must be destroyed and the show also likes to throw out new Big Bads on a regular basis).  However, I like his character the way he was, his being bad made him so good to watch.  If he's actually good now he may be far less fun to watch.  Sure, the show could always go down the Angel/Angelus path, having Sylar go bad for a couple of Sweeps episodes every now and then, but that tactic feels awfully overused by series. 

As for this new Big Bad, Papa Petrelli, I just can't wait to find out more of the history there.  He seems like he may be one of the best villains yet, and kudos to him for killing - permanently, I hope - Adam.  We certainly don't need that season two mistake darkening our doorstep ever again.

Well, there you have it, Heroes is back, as good as its ever been, and you should be watching it.  When you don't, NBC does stuff like put in a full season order for Knight Rider.  Do you really want that on your conscience? 

Monday, October 20, 2008

Searching out My Own Worst Enemy

So, we're now about a month into the "official" TV season. Two shows have been canceled (Do Not Disturb, which no one did, and Opportunity Knocks, which didn't). Some shows have gotten full season pick-ups (90210 and, most recently, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). But, there's really no massive breakout phenomenal success. Personally, I blame that on my being out of town for two weeks and not getting to preach the gospel of some brilliant new series.

Right, sure, that's the ticket, I wield that much power.

Seriously though, there is no massive, earth-shattering, new series. But, I have one or two new things that I'm really enjoying. Right now, and I know that it's only aired one episode, my top pick would be My Own Worst Enemy. I sat down to watch the premiere and was absolutely riveted by it. Maybe it's just the dearth of new goodness that led me to be so happy with the series, but maybe, just maybe, it's something more.

For those of you who are unaware about which series I'm discussing, it's the new Christian Slater one, the one where he's two guys in the same body, the one where he's working for some secret government organization and volunteered to have this other identity created so that he could have a great cover. Yeah, okay, it's a weird, way out there premise, but the first episode was tons of fun. This poor guy, Henry (Slater), learns that he's actually Edward (Slater). Henry was created several years back, but his entire birth, adolescence, and early adulthood is naught but a fiction. Then, he's made to forget the truth, then, he learns it again and beats the guys who were after Edward… or him… or both.

Weird. Just plain weird.

But, despite his not having had the most solid of careers, Slater is always a guy I've really liked. Heck, I was the guy who went to see Alone in the Dark in the theaters. That was me, I was the one person to plunk down cash for the ticket (to be fair though, I went on a Wednesday afternoon to an AMC theater, which meant I paid a matinee price and got a free popcorn). So, naturally, I was attracted to this new show, and I really thought it delivered in the opening episode. It had everything a solid spy story should have - explosions, double-crosses, twists, surprises, and there are several solid avenues of exploration for the future. The cast, led by Slater and Alfre Woodard, is a decent one, and I ended the hour wondering what was going to happen in the future. What more could you want than that?

In the end, the people I feel bad for with the show are NBC. They simply can't seem to attract a big audience. They have a really solid Monday night - Chuck, Heroes, and My Own Worst Enemy - but it gets buried amidst people's love of Dancing with the Stars, Charlie Sheen, CSI: Miami, and goodness knows what else. Monday night, as I've lamented already, is just chock-a-block with shows I want to watch. I thought My Own Worst Enemy was really fun, and yet I probably won't get the chance to watch tonight's this evening. I'll be TiVoing it, but there's just a ton of other stuff on my list.

Maybe once Boston Legal finishes its run My Own Worst Enemy can make my Monday night viewing instead of my later-in-the-week viewing. Hopefully NBC lets it last that long.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ray Harryhausen's Stop-Motion Propels Me Forward

Stop-motion animation is an incredibly difficult and time consuming process.  It involves taking a pose-able model, arranging it into a desired position, filming a few frames, reposing the model slightly, filming a frames, and so on and so forth until, once all the footage is put together, it appears as though the model is moving entirely of its own accord.  One of the best examples of stop-motion animation is the classic film King Kong, where Kong and the other creatures were made to move using the technique.

According to his website, it was actually watching King Kong that started Ray Harryhausen, one of the greatest practitioners of stop-animation. on his way.  During his long career, Harryhausen may not have worked on a huge number of films (they number closer to a dozen than a hundred), but his works still inspire wonder and amazement today.  CGI has taken over as the predominant form of special effects, but to this day watching the Kraken or Pegasus in Clash of the Titans or the Centaur in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is a sight to behold.

Certainly with an eye to towards the holiday season in mind, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has just released to DVD the Ray Harryhausen Collectible Gift Set, which highlights three of Harryahusen's films.  The set includes two-disc editions Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and It Came From Beneath the Sea as well as a collectible Ymir figurine (the creature from 20 Million Miles to Earth).  A Blu-ray version has also been released (all single disc though still with special features), which substitutes out the Ymir figure for a copy of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (available for purchase separately on DVD).

The plot of each of the three films included in the DVD release are rather stereotypical monster movie fare - strange, sometimes misunderstood, alien-type creatures appear and wreak havoc while members of the human race try to stop them.  As an example, looking at 20 Million Miles to Earth and Ymir, the film begins with a space shuttle returning to Earth from Venus, with its crew mostly decimated and some type of larva in a container.  The mission commander survives the shuttle's crash and warns of the danger of what they brought back, but the young boy who finds the larva sells it to a travelling scientist.  Ymir emerges from the larva and grows at a fantastic rate of speed, and when early attempts to contain him don't work, the military steps in to save the day.

While all the films follow such stereotypical formulas, they all still move at a fast enough pace (the longest is 83 minutes) and feature enough good old B-movie mayhem and destruction to be extremely enjoyable.  Additionally, as each film has a second disc, there are a plethora of special features which not only examine Harryhausen and his career, but histories of stop-motion and inside looks at the film.  Most notably, each film contains a commentary track with Harryhausen and other members of the visual effects crews as well as portions of a discussion between director Tim Burton and Harryhausen. 

As an additional feature, though each of the films was originally released in black and white, the DVD release contains both an original and a colorized version (Harryhausen states that it was always his desire for them to be in color).  One can even, while in the midst of watching any of the films, switch seamlessly back and forth between the color and black and white versions (the second disc of each title also features a look at the colorization process).  As each of the titles has been newly remastered for the release, they look and sound truly wonderful.

The most disappointing aspect of the collection is that while the films are all enjoyable, they are not Harryhausen's best known works.  Hopefully we can look to equally wonderful treatment of Jason and the Argonauts or a single release of his Sinbad trilogy at some point in the future.  It is also moderately perplexing that Sony opted to not include The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in the regular DVD set and that they chose not to release it as a two-disc edition as well.

Even so, any fan of creature features or bygone Hollywood production styles would do well to sit down with the Harryhausen set and examine the works of a true master of stop-motion animation. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Lovely Day at the Zoo

Growing up near New York City, school field trips to the Bronx Zoo were a regular thing; I don't think a year went by in elementary school when we didn't go to the zoo.  Additionally, with grandparents who were members, there were a lot of non-school trips there as well.

The Bronx Zoo is a place I remember fondly, and consequently, on a recent trip back to the area, I went with my wife (who also grew up going there on a regular basis) and my two-year-old daughter, who had never been.  The day started out well enough, with my daughter going through the Children's Zoo, examining all the various birds and ducks and wallabies.  Though she was a little young to read about all the animals, she had no trouble trying to perform the same six-foot standing jump a bullfrog can achieve (she was unsuccessful).  And, while they may have been a mite scary, feeding the goats and sheep proved just as fun to her as I remember it being.

Then, with newly arrived grandparents in tow, we marched off to the Bronx Zoo's brand-new (as of this past June) Madagascar! exhibit.  Housed in the zoo's famous Lion House which was constructed in 1903, the exhibit focuses on the animals, wildlife, and dangers facing the third largest island on the planet.  This last bit the exhibit manages to convey in a sensible way, explaining the issues and using some visuals, but without ever making the future seem unremittingly bleak.

Organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society which manages the Bronx Zoo, Madagascar! features, among other things, many varieties of lemur, some of which are easier to spot than others; some truly outstandingly colorful tomato frogs; 100,000 Madagascar hissing cockroaches; and a crocodile pool.  In this fantastic pool there are two massive crocodiles and a variety of fish.  Though the pool is large – it holds 17,000 gallons of water – the crocodiles seemed as though they were close enough to touch and, when they started moving, many of the kids in a passing school group were noticeably startled.  Looking at the crocs looking at us, one never felt unsafe (the glass is two inches thick), but still got the impression that they would snack on us if they could. 

With Madagascar! taken care of (and certainly worth seeing, even with the incredible number of school field trips that seemed to be there), it was off the sea lions, the Monkey House, polar bears, and lions before lunch.  All of the animal habitats seemed large without ever putting the animals too far away to be seen.  There was some hunting required to view the snow leopard, but that was more due to his being asleep than anything else. 

As the morning featured a lot of walking (and carrying) for my daughter, the afternoon was much more heavy on the riding.  A short trip by camel was followed by a long one on the Wild Asia Monorail (formerly known as the Bengali Express Monorail, which all the signs in the zoo still refer to it as).  Not only were the animals easy to spot from the monorail, but the tour guide was quite happy to slow it down so those with cameras could be sure to get the perfect shot of the red panda or any of the other dozen different animals.  Capping the day with a trip on the Skyfari (a gondola ride that takes up to four passengers from one part of the park to another) and an overhead look at the Baboon Reserve made for the perfect ending. 

The amazing thing about the nearly four hours we spent at the Bronx Zoo is that we probably only saw about half of what it has to offer.  We missed out on one of my true favorites – World of Darkness – which features all sorts of nocturnal creatures.  We also skipped the giraffes, World of Birds, the Butterfly Garden, and several other areas. 

The Bronx Zoo was exactly as I remembered it.  My daughter bounced from one exhibit to the next, often directing us, and was thrilled with everything she saw.  But, whatever you do, don't remind her that we missed the giraffes – an item on her list that we completely forgot about till we were back at the car.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Taking the Measure of Soulcalibur IV

It should be noted upfront that I am both a big fan of 3D fighting games and an unrepentant, inveterate button-masher.  When I come at an opponent in a fighting game I will hit the same button over and over and over again until the opponent shows me that they can block it, at which point I become a little flummoxed and need some time to regroup.  Usually I try to gain that time by pressing any and every possible combination of buttons until something cool happens.

That out of the way, let me tell you about Soulcalibur IV (the latest title in a franchise I haven't visited since the original Soulcalibur appeared on Dreamcast).  As a 3D fighter, the game operates in the best traditions of the genre, pitting one character against another at a time (though some matches do allow for tagging in teammates).  The graphics are beautifully smooth, and each character is given a distinctive fighting style.

Each and every level in the game is stunning, and the vast majority of them allow for opponents to be knocked out of the ring, but all are distinctive.  Some are larger and some smaller, but not feels overly cramped or expansive. 

In terms of gameplay itself, the game is a pretty standard 3D fighter, and anyone picking up the controls will be able to quickly learn how to perform high and low attacks, throws, and blocks.  The game also features the addition of a "Soul Gauge" which is designed to prevent players from simply blocking attacks repeatedly.  If a player performs too many blocks, the gauge will begin to flash and a player will go into "Soul Crush" mode which prevents further blocking and can lead to pretty spectacular finishing moves.

There are over 30 characters available in the game, though most of them need to be purchased with money earned during play or unlocked via gameplay.  There are very few truly "new" characters here, and many of them I distinctly remembered from their appearance on the Dreamcast. 

The most obvious addition in terms of characters on the Playstation 3 version of the game is Darth Vader and The Apprentice (from Star Wars:  The Force Unleashed).  In addition to regular skills, they also have some pretty good "Force" abilities, which tend to give them advantages in battle.  The Xbox 360 version of the came swaps out Vader for Yoda (and one can only hope that sometime down the line Vader will be downloadable for the360 and Yoda for the PS3).

For single players, Soulcalibur IV features an extremely abbreviated Story mode, the only real point of which seems to be that it allows users to unlock more characters and various extras.  There is a brief, written, introduction for each character in this mode and a different final scene after the last battle, but as there was never really any attachment to the character created via the story, while the end cut scene is nominally interesting it is not truly affecting. 

Though this extremely minimal Story mode is a disappointment, the game does have a number of other modes to make up for it.  There is a pretty standard, though fun, arcade mode and the "Tower of Lost Souls" mode which is, in effect two different modes.  There is an "Ascending" mode, in which a player has to battle through a few floors without a break (with a different number of fighters depending on the level).  Each level features some sort of unlockable element (weapons, clothing, armor, etc.) which is freed upon performing specific actions during the floor (x number of blocks in a row, KO'ing an opponent without taking any hits, etc.).  The "Descending" mode makes the player (with two fighters) go through floor after floor nonstop. 

One of the best elements of Soulcalibur IV is its Character Creation system.  All the standard characters can be customized with various choices of armor, weapons, and looks, and all new characters can be created as well.  The game does a wonderful job of balancing out the created characters so that even with unlocked equipment it is difficult (if not impossible) to create an unbeatable character.  By adding more powerful armor or weapons something else, like the ability to equip special powers (hit recovery, etc.) is diminished.  Consequently, one can spend hours tweaking little bits and pieces of their characters to work out the best combination for their style of play. 

There is also an online mode which performs exceedingly well.  Players can choose to be able to use characters with or without special abilities equipped.  Matches can be either ranked or unranked, but the game does not seem to try and pair low level players against one another.  The first few hours I spent playing online I fought opponents who were ranked at levels 40 and above as opposed to other newbies.  Though it is, of course, possible to beat more experienced players, it does give the impression of being thrown into the deep end before actually learning how to swim.

The game features a two player mode as well.  It is perfectly fun, but slightly disappointing in that team battles cannot be played.  In single player, there are several modes that put two-plus fighters on each side, so the game ought to be able to support it in two player mode, but for some reason does not.

Despite whatever shortcomings it may have (and there are some), Soulcalibur IV is a spectacularly fun game for both novice players and genre experts.  A more fully developed Story mode would have improved it significantly, but with the addition of the "Tower of Lost Souls" mode and online play there is still enough taking place to make up for that.  The graphics, both in terms of the characters and the levels are wonderful, and the gameplay is almost as smooth online as off.  The addition of the Star Wars characters may seem a little out of place and gimmicky, but they are easily avoided by those who wish not to see them (except in Arcade mode, where The Apprentice is a staple). 

Soulcalibur IV is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Partial Nudity, Violence, Sexual Themes and Mild Language. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Iron Man a Thing of Beauty in Blu-ray

The massive success of The Dark Knight during the latter half of this past summer caused some earlier releases to be quickly forgotten. Though it is possible that no other film in theaters equaled the brilliance of The Dark Knight, several were still very good, and one of those, Iron Man, has just made its way into a two-disc Blu-ray release.

The film, directed by Jon Favreau, follows the exploits of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the super-genius head of Stark Industries and a multi-millionaire playboy. Stark's company, founded by his father, has a number of areas, but none so important, or money-making, as its weapons division. Stark Industries makes the latest and greatest things in military technology, including their recently developed Jericho missile.

Following a demonstration of the Jericho in Afghanistan, Stark himself is taken hostage after an attack in which he is gravely injured. Though another captive manages to save Stark's life, the fix requires an electromagnet in Stark's chest that stops the shrapnel inside him from penetrating his heart. Even though he is lugging around a car battery to power the electromagnet, his captors force him to build a Jericho missile -- using Stark Industries weapons they have procured -- for themselves.

After the maverick industrialist double-crosses them, building himself a better device to keep the shrapnel out of his heart that also functions as a fantastic battery and a metal suit of armor with some weaponry and the ability to fly, things really get going. Stark escapes and returns to the States a changed man. No longer does he want to build weapons of war that can fall into the wrong hands; instead, he wants to build a new version of his destroyed metal suit and save the world.

Sure, it's all over the top and moderately foolish, but whatever else Iron Man may be, it is first and foremost a comic book movie. If it weren't, Tony Stark's logic in building the ultimate weapon in order to help save the world from weapons is laughable. Here it can simply be dismissed with the brush of a hand and the assumption that Tony will never, ever let his new suit fall into the wrong hands. Though, even that premise proves faulty when, in the climax of the movie, Tony has to face a different, upgraded version of his old suit.

In the end, what keeps the whole movie together is not its own logic or lack thereof, but the performances of the cast, which includes not only Robert Downey Jr., but Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow as well. Downey's performance is what the movie is built on, and his ability to portray the hard-working, hard-living, idealistic Stark in a manner that conveys not just the seriousness of the work but the humor of the film is amazing. One can easily imagine that without Downey in the lead role this otherwise wonderful film would have fizzled.

Howard is Colonel James Rhodes, Stark's military liaison, sometimes friend, and minder. It falls to Rhodes to try to keep Stark in line and where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there. Howard manages to walk the fine line between Rhodes being completely exasperated and angry with Stark and still not wanting to give up on the man as either a friend or colleague.

It is a line that Paltrow, as Pepper Potts, never quite has to walk. Potts is Stark's long-time assistant and, even if the two would never admit it, friend. Her blind devotion to her boss gets her in deep trouble, and while one would imagine that it might make Potts reconsider her life choices, Paltrow's portrayal brushes aside any such thoughts from the viewer's mind.

As one of the corporate leaders of Stark Industries, and friend to both Tony and his father, Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane marks another good performance in the actor's long list of good performances. Despite always taking a back seat to Stark publicly, Stane is, from the outset, clearly a megalomaniac, bent on money and power. However driven he may be though, as shown by Bridges, Stane is almost always in control of his temper and ready to stroke the egos of those around him if it serves his purpose. In a film which has corporate strife as a large component, Stane represents both the perfect steward of a company and a wonderful villain.

The two-disc Blu-ray release of Iron Man features a beautiful picture and sound design that truly makes the audience feel as though they are in the midst of a battle during any action sequence. The various behind-the-scenes featurettes included are in high definition, and the Blu-ray exclusives include several downloadable quizzes to test the viewer's knowledge of both the film and Iron Man comic book universe and a "Hall of Armor" which delves into the various features of the four different suits used in the film. The "Hall of Armor" allows users to select one of the four suits, then go to a single portion of the suit and learn about its features within the film. It's all rather slow-moving and nowhere near as much fun as the quizzes which allow the viewer to select different portions of the film to be quizzed on. The questions are varied, sometimes asking viewers to remember what is about to happen in the film and at other points asking them what they have just witnessed.

Iron Man is a comic book film that delivers not only great action sequences, but solid acting performances as well. It's funny and serious, without being too much of either. And while one may be amazed at what they witness on screen, it is Downey Jr.'s performance that is the most memorable aspect of the film. The sequel, hinted at following the end credits of the film, is already slated for a 2010 release and has a hard road ahead of it if it is to recreate the success of this film.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Debating My Name is Earl

So, I TiVoed the debate last night on CNN HD, and started watching about 30 minutes after the whole thing began. You know, life got in the way, necessitating the slightly delayed start. Well, after watching the first five minutes I cursed myself for not starting on time. If I had started on time I would have realized how horrific CNN HD's coverage was and I could have switched over to another network without missing anything.

I don't know if CNN HD did what they did last night with the first Presidential debate too (I watched that one on NBC), but it's something they should never do again. You see, to the left and right side of the screen they were showing this nonsensical scoring system giving plus and minus points to the candidates by CNN's pundits.

Now, I don't do politics (it makes me cry), so let's focus on the televisual aspects of why they shouldn't be showing those ridiculous scores. Mostly, the answer is that it was hugely distracting. The point of the debate was to listen to what the candidates have to say, not to pay attention to a purely arbitrary scoring system. Between that and CNN's nonsensical devices allowing a panel of undecided Ohioans to rate how much they liked or disliked what a candidate was saying, I thought I was watching someone else play a video game instead of watching a debate. What's next, rather than post-debate commentary, play-by-play where Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer informs us which candidate just lied about what?

Though there were some laugh out loud moments in the debate, it was the show I watched before it, My Name is Earl, that was far more funny. I guess that's a good thing for both the debate and Earl.

Last season the show was certainly lackluster, and while I enjoyed the premiere last week, I was a little concerned that this week it would go back to being less than amusing. In the end though, I think last night may have been more funny than last week.

The biggest surprise of the evening though was not the humor, but Joy showing some signs of growth. Earl discovered that her boys, Earl Jr. and Dodge, apparently had no friends. Upon looking into it, however, he learned that the problem wasn't their boys, but rather Joy -- no one wanted to invite the boys anywhere because no one wanted Joy to be there (Joy tends to say what's on her mind at all times and nothing on her mind tends to be G-rated). Joy learned about how everyone else felt about her and went to teach them a lesson, but she stopped herself. She got to the party that her boys were at and rather than unloading on the parents she sat in the car and let her boys have their fun. Unbelievable.

It was completely out of character for Joy and a great move for the show. Joy has some of the funniest, most outlandish lines on the show and by having her step back and do something normal (and sane) it brought her back down to earth. It humanized her.

If only either of the VP candidates last night actually did anything to humanize themselves, that part of my viewing might have been more engaging.


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Pushing Daisies Puts a Smile on My Face

Last season I really enjoyed Pushing Daisies. At first, I had worries about whether the show could maintain its cutesy tone and not lose me, but after a few episodes I was totally and completely hooked. I didn't realize until tonight, though, just how hooked I was.

Tonight was Pushing Daisies' first episode of its second season, and while I was excited for it, it wasn't until the episode began that it struck me just how much I liked the show. From the word "go" I was totally and completely enthralled. Though the overall narrative of the show is completely ridiculous – guy can bring anything back to life with his touch, but only once and if he leaves it alive for more than a minute something else dies – but the drama is somehow real, the romance genuine, and the humor spectacular.

Pushing Daisies isn't a laugh out loud program, but in last night's premiere no fewer than a half-dozen things struck me as funny and put a smile on my face. Usually they were due to the hysterical Kristin Chenoweth this week, but in other episodes it been Chi McBride, Lee Pace, or Anna Friel causing it.

There's just something about the show's world view that sucks you in. There's this guy in love with a girl he's brought back to life, and the girl loves him back, but she's kind of undead and they solve mysteries with a detective friend of theirs. There's an incredibly over-the-top narrator describing events and feelings, and the sets, clothes, and whole aesthetic of the show is brilliantly colorful and fully realized. You wouldn't think it could work, but it does and it’s a thing of beauty.

The other show I watched last night has many a thing of beauty in it, but is not a beautiful thing. I still can't quite wrap my brain around why anyone thought it was a good idea to put a new version of Knight Rider on the air. I'm going to give the team of people full credit for trying, but it doesn't work.

Someone, I assume, when imagining how to do the show realized that it had to be over-the-top, that it had to be completely outlandish and utterly ridiculous – after all, it pretty much follows the exploits of a talking car that can do anything. But Knight Rider's over-the-topness doesn't work for the show.

As an example, last night we saw that KITT has a 3D object generator built in. If you don't know what a 3D object generator is, perhaps I can explain it in Star Trek terms – it's a replicator (you know, from ST:TNG). It doesn't do food, but it can absolutely replicate a car key and I have to figure it can do a knife, a lead pipe, a wrench, a rope, and maybe even a revolver if it had to.

You’re probably sitting there and thinking that a show that features a car that can change into a truck and perform leaps and talk and is covered in "nanopaint" might as well come with a 3D object generator and you're right. I just hadn't quite fully accepted the whole "can change into a truck and perform leaps and talk and is covered in nanopaint" stuff yet. And don't even get me started on Michael racing for pink slips last night. I was waiting for him to bust out into a chorus of "Greased Lightning" when he was showing off KITT. Of course that didn't happen, but I don't think that the show would be more foolish if they turned it into a musical.

Hey, there's an idea, how about a primetime drama that's a musical and features the characters singing popular songs? That could totally work…

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Fringe - Good Last Night, But I can Make it Better

I've said enough bad things about the show in the first few weeks that I really need to tell you when I like it, and last night I liked it. Last night, I thought Fringe delivered a really solid episode. Plus, as an added bonus, I think I've identified the biggest weak points – Peter and Walter Bishop.

Last night, so many things about the show were right. There was a good story – it was nice and creepy. There was the addition of a new, weird, mysterious character – the bald, roast beef sandwich-eating guy (I don't care for his moniker on the show). Last night, even Olivia Dunham was compelling. It was all so right. I think that if they just get rid of Walter and Peter the show will be just fine.

Okay, maybe that's going too far, maybe they should just get rid of Walter. He is just plain annoying. I don't for a moment believe much of his weirdness. To me, it feels like he's playing at being foolish in order to be able to do things that he might not otherwise be allowed to do.

No, I'm not playing with you, and yes, I understand that a ton of the show is built around his character. I think John Noble is a perfectly fine actor. I think the trouble with the show has nothing to do with Noble. I think that the character, as written, is just plain annoying. Every time he does anything, whether it's milking a cow, going for a root beer float, or solving the mystery of the week, I want to climb into my TV and smack him around. It's his way of divulging (or not divulging) what he's doing. It's his incessant talking at night. It's his refusal to speak in a clear manner (and I'm convinced that's not due to his imprisonment). It's pretty much every little facet of his personality.

That's terrible isn't it? I don't want to feel that way about some old guy on my TV screen. That's not appropriate. He's intelligent, he's helping save the world, and... he's old. I shouldn't want to climb into my TV and hurt him. But, I do. I really, really do. It makes me feel bad, I don't want to be someone who hurts the elderly, but Walter Bishop inspires that sort of hatred in me. That's not good, is it?

It kind of makes me feel like House. I imagine that when House watches television (except for during his stories) he gets angry and contemplates the best ways to eliminate the characters he doesn't like. Okay, maybe he does that during his stories too, who am I to say?

All I know about last night's episode is that I'm so happy Taub was wrong about our sick painter having chemicals stored in his fat and it being his weight loss that was making him sick because it was causing his fat to decrease and the chemicals to be released. Oh sure, that sounds like a perfect House-type story. The reason it sounds like a perfect House-type story, though, is that they used it in season one (they may have used it in other seasons too, but my viewing of old episodes has only covered seasons one and four thus far). The only thing that disappointed me about Taub suggesting it is that House didn't say something snide about the fact that the painter couldn't have that as his problem as he, House, had already solved that case. See, that would have been funny.

Lastly, but not leastly, I know we didn't talk about it yesterday, but in case you're wondering, I'm giving two thumbs up to the season opener of Chuck. It was funny, full of action, and featured some Huey Lewis. Good stuff.