Friday, October 30, 2009

Monsoon Multimedia's HAVA iPhone App may Make HAVA a Must-Have

Almost two years ago, I labeled Monsoon Multimedia's HAVA Titanium HD (a device similar to the more well-known Slingbox) "a nice idea, but not a must-have device."  Ever since that assessment, the folks at Monsoon have been doing everything in the power to prove me wrong, in part by fixing some of the problems I first noted (but never having released the promised USB TV Tuner which still seems like an important item).  And now, they've released what could prove one day to be the "killer app," the software application that will prove to be that elusive "must-have" and dynamically alter the field (and it works with more than just the Titanium HD model).

This new, potentially devastating to the competition application?  An iPhone application, HAVA Mobile Player, which allows Wi-Fi connected iPhone owners to send their HAVA's signal to the phone.  Forget having to lug a laptop to Hawaii so that one can watch New York television while on vacation – now, if one's iPhone is connected to the hotel's Wi-Fi, they can watch whatever they want (generally speaking)!

Starting with the answer to what is without a doubt the most important question first – good, the playback looks good.  Using a HAVA connected to a VCR and therefore running standard definition television, an iPhone on a wholly separate network from the HAVA is absolutely watchable.  It doesn't seem to run at 30 FPS, but it is certainly watchable.  Video does occasionally pause and hiccup (and more so when one changes the channel or sends any other signal from the iPhone to the device), but audio plays through perfectly.  Connected to a 802.11g  network, the iPhone app most often is receiving between 150-550Kbps of data, and seems to average in the 300Kbps range.

The menu is very simple to work with, a simple tap on the screen brings up large buttons on the left side of the screen — Favorites, Remote, Set-top, and DVR – all of which bring up various remotes to change channels and connect to whatever device the HAVA itself may using as a TV tuner.  The same single tap on the screen also brings up along the bottom of the screen a volume slider, a button to change the type of output to display (HD, SD, zoom, original), a settings button, and a connection one.

While all that is to the good, not everything about the application is as nice.  It doesn't remember output settings – change the display to "SD" in the program, exit the program, and one will have to change the display again next time the app is loaded.  When the menu is displayed, changing the volume using the iPhone's button affects volume in the app and not the ringer, however, once the menu disappears, pressing the same button only changes the ringer, not the app, volume.  It is also slightly awkward that as the iPhone has to be placed sideways to watch programming that the iPhone's button to increase the volume lies more towards the low volume end of the slider than the iPhone's volume decrease button – however, that issues seems more connected to the device than the app.

It can't quite be stated that this is a negative, and while it may be asking for a lot, it would be nice to see the ability to pause and rewind TV using the app's buffer, not by attempting to rewind whatever device the HAVA is connected to (remote signals, as with the desktop application still take several seconds to register).  That, however, may suck more memory than an iPhone has to offer.

My initial review of the HAVA also stated that it's "best days" were "still in the future," and with the release of this application, that future is drawing ever closer.  As HAVA tweaks the device's firmware and the iPhone app software, users can hopefully expect improvements in the quality of the video, which already seems better than what an over-the-air signal offered back in the days of analog TV and "rabbit ears."  That and the availability of Wi-Fi everywhere might just make a HAVA and this app, which is currently priced at $9.99 ($20 less than the equivalent program should one own a Slingbox instead of a HAVA), absolutely indispensable for TV lovers.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Bigger, Badder Monsoon Wedding Hits Blu-ray as Part of The Criterion Collection

To attempt to fully describe what director Mira Nair has created with Monsoon Wedding is not the easiest of tasks. The 2001 film, shot by Declan Quinn with a script from Sabrina Dhawan, is the tale of the wedding of the only daughter of a Punjabi family in Delhi. As with so much of Nair's work, the film neither lies wholly within the rubric of Western filmmaking, but nor can it be placed squarely into the category of Indian film either. Instead, Nair manages to take elements from both, creating a film which, though shot in a mere 30 days and very inexpensively, is brilliant, and which now has a Criterion Collection edition.

Monsoon Wedding centers itself on a father, Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), as he prepares for the wedding of his only daughter, Aditi (Vasundhara Das). Though Lalit has only a small immediate family, as one would expect, he has a massive extended family, all of whom descend upon his house for this occasion. Nair attempts, quite successfully, to tell a number of the different stories that take place within the family, and while she leaves a lot of loose threads hanging by the closing credits, one still walks away from the film with a great sense that the events (film and wedding) have worked out wonderfully.

The bride's story revolves around the fact that not only has Aditi never actually met her betrothed and not only does he live in Houston with the intent of taking her back there following the wedding, but also that she has been having an affair with her boss who just happens to be married. Although her specific issues are not at the heart of the film, Nair is able to use them to examine and discuss the norm/tradition in India and how it is changing, and perhaps not for the better.

In fact, watching the film, one gets the sense that every storyline that appears does so with the specific intent of raising a larger issue – perhaps not taking a stand on the issue, but at the very least raising it. One of the most compelling stories told is that of the burgeoning love between PK Dubey (Vijay Raaz), the wedding planner, and Alice (Tillotama Shome), the Vermas' housekeeper. Dubey initially seems to only appear for comic effect, but between quick glances, slightly longer looks, a few brief words, and facial expressions, Nair is able to build their love story through the course of the film, to the point where it becomes a far more engrossing love story than that of Aditi and her betrothed, Hemant Rai (Parvin Dabas).

Of course, one can't escape the clear fact that Nair is again raising a cultural issue by having the Dubey-Alice love story eclipse the Aditi-Hemant one. Dubey and Alice both belong to the working underclass, whereas Aditi and Hemant are both squarely middle class, and the couples' positions in society are repeatedly underscored throughout the film. Whether Nair is arguing for one type of love over the other or merely highlighting the class differences in approach to love and marriage I will leave up to the viewer. Arguments can be made on both sides, and one's feeling on Nair's position will almost undoubtedly be heavily colored by one's own life.

There are a number of other important stories which take place in Monsoon Wedding (including one that deals with sexual abuse) and while some of the storylines seem to be typical of Bollywood fare (which this is not) others certainly are not.

Nair does a wonderful job both borrowing from and subverting traditional Bollywood notions. While dancing does take place, the film doesn't have the same song-and-dance mentality and focus a Bollywood movie does. While the characters are Indian, the manner in which they discuss things is not the same as what one would see in a Bollywood movie. Where the film does follow Bollywood is with its combining of genres, utilizing both comedic and melodramatic moments to underscore its points.

As this is a Criterion release, one would expect to find – and does find here – several outstanding special features. A two-disc set on DVD (one on Blu-ray), the entire second disc is made up of six different Nair shorts, and a seventh short appears on the disc with the main film. Three of the shorts, "The Laughing Club of India," "So Far From India," and "India Cabaret," are documentary, while four — "The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat," "11'09"01 – September 11" (Segment "India"), "Migration," and "How Can it Be?" — are fictional. The shorts all have something to recommend them and give a greater insight into Nair's worldview and who she is as a filmmaker.

However, more interesting than the shorts are two supplemental discussions that were filmed specifically for the release. One of these contains Nair talking to Naseeruddin Shah about their recollections of how the film came together, while the other features cinematographer Declan Quinn talking with Stephanie Carroll, the production designer. Watching these two conversations, one gets a great idea of how the film actually came into being in a much more real-seeming way than one gets from a pre-packaged and produced behind-the-scenes making-of featurette. The release also contains an audio commentary track with Nair which was originally recorded in 2002 and the theatrical trailer. Lastly, there is a short booklet included with the set which contains an essay on the film by Pico Iyer.

On DVD, the picture, though it has been made from a brand new high definition transfer, looks distinctly older than it should. Several scenes contain what seems to be digital noise, and one can even see the occasion bits of dirt or other imperfections. The Blu-ray version is infinitely better on all counts, with a sharper picture, better color, and less digital noise. The 5.1 channel soundtrack on the Blu-ray (and DVD) is good, but not spectacular. Though a surround sound track, and though there are plenty of opportunities for the surrounds to come into play, they are most noticeable when the Universal logo plays at the start of the film. On the upside, the audio track is clean and the various elements of it balance well.

Monsoon Wedding is a brilliant film by a brilliant filmmaker. It is serious and funny, heartwarming and depressing, Western and Indian. It is a great movie and well worthy of being added to the vaunted Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"...and They Have a Plan." Battlestar Galactica: The Plan Hits Blu-ray

"The Cylons were created by man.  They rebelled.  They evolved.  They look and feel human.  Some are programmed to think they are human.  There are many copies.  And they have… a plan." 

So the audience of Battlestar Galactica was repeatedly told – they Cylons have, strike that, had, a plan.  That plan, that masterstroke of genius, was to destroy the 12 Colonies and all have humanity along with them .  As we all know however, Commander — later, Admiral — Adama (Edward James Olmos) and the fleet he managed to create and hold together working alongside President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) helped foil the Cylons' plan.  But, what exactly was the Cylons' plan, what were the specifics of it and how did they adapt once their instantaneous victory was not assured?  What did they hope to achieve from destroying humanity?  To answer those questions, fans have now been given a look at the Cylons' side of story with Battlestar Galactica: The Plan.

Directed by Olmos, The Plan centers itself on two Cavils, or Cylon One models  (Dean Stockwell).  The audience gets to watch them from a few days prior to the Cylon attack on the Colonies until, roughly, the settling of New Caprica.  It is through the eyes of the two Cavils, who both start with the same mindset and due to what happens after the attack and where they end up (one with the fleet and one on Caprica), grow to have very divergent opinions about the appropriateness of their actions.

The film expertly recounts several moments we've already seen in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, giving us other viewpoints, thereby broadening the picture that has already been established.  The Plan shows the destruction of the Colonies to a far greater extent than it has been seen before, the operations of the rebels on Caprica and the establishing of Sam Anders as their leader, and shows that attacks from Cylons hidden within the fleet were all orchestrated.

The Plan is a fascinating look at the other side and a great examination of what humanity's strongest enemy was after and why.  As with the series that The Plan is an outgrowth of, the film spends a lot of time in philosophical discussion, bringing up and examining issues from multiple points of view. 

Though the film is mostly new footage, Olmos does insert footage used during episodes of the series.  These moments do work well, even if some of the actors do look moderately different now than they did during the early seasons (most notably Aaron Douglas who plays Chief Tyrol). 

It is clear that very conscious and deliberate choices have been made about exactly what to show from the series and what to avoid showing.  And, though fans of the series may be upset that Katee Sackhoff and Jamie Bamber (to name two series cast members) only appears in old footage and Mary McDonnell not at all, as we have already seen their characters' actions at these moments, the characters can almost be sensed behind the scenes.  Their inclusion may have been nice (as it would have been for us to revisit all the old faces from the show), but would have required the establishment of greater story arcs for them and may have made The Plan unwieldy.

The Blu-ray release contains several bonus features, including a featurette on Olmos as director, a discussion of the Cylons who appear in the film, deleted scenes, a look at the special effects, and a poorly titled featurette called "The Cylon Attack."  While one might believe that this is a behind-the scenes look at the Cylon attack on the 12 Colonies, it is actually a look at an attack by the Caprica rebels on the Cylons.

The technical aspects of the release are decent, but certainly not spectacular.  The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is full of vim, vigor, and spectacular explosions, but the video quality is less good.  It is clear that the grainy look given to the film is purposeful, aiding to the almost documentary-esque look that the audience has come to expect from the series, but there are several scenes aboard Galactica where there is a vague flickering of light in the background, and that does seem wholly unintentional.  As for the CGI, while no one will mistake the shots of the Colonies or fleet for reality, they do look very good.

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is not a standalone project and it is hard to conceive that anyone who did not watch the series will be satisfied by it – but it is equally hard to conceive that they would be interested in it to begin with.  As a companion piece, The Plan works exceedingly well, containing enough overt and subtle references to the series to make one truly want to go back and rewatch the show (something Olmos suggests will occur in a featurette).  It also makes one wish that Ronald D. Moore, David Eick and the entire cast and crew of Battlestar Galactica  will come up with a few more angles for us all to see the series from.

Easy Rider - A Classic now in High Definition

If Turner Classic Movies is right, if there really is a list of "The Essentials" – the movies everyone ought to see – then somewhere on that list resides 1969's legendary Easy Rider.  Whether one likes the film or not, whether one believes that it speaks well or poorly of the counterculture, whether or not one condones or condemns the characters in the film, it is a movie which helped change the filmic landscape.

Directed by Dennis Hopper and produced by Peter Fonda (they also co-wrote the script along with Terry Southern), the film stars the two men as Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper).  After making a big drug deal at the start of the film, the two end up buying some motorcycles, they stash their extra cash in one of the fuel tanks, and decide to drive from the Southwest to the South and go to Mardi Gras.

By all definitions, the film is a classic road movie.  Virtually the entirety of the film takes place during this journey and is about the two men as they head off to find freedom.  Along their way, Wyatt and Billy do drugs, meet a rancher, do more drugs, visit a hippie commune, do drugs, get arrested and meet an ACLU lawyer (Jack Nicholson), do drugs, get run out a small Louisiana town, do drugs, etc. 

Made for a small budget and outside the unraveling Hollywood system, Easy Rider is the product of a very specific moment in American society.  It helped cement the movement Peter Biskind recounts in the seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

It is all-too-easy in a review of Easy Rider to veer off the film itself and end up writing a far more academic paper on the film's place in Hollywood cinema of the 1970s, how it affected the Hollywood system, and how it affected the culture at large.  It is because these areas are so ripe for discussion that the film makes the list of movies everyone who likes movies (and quite possibly everyone in general) ought to see.  And, one's opinions on the characters and plot of the film probably speak as much to that person's mindset as they do to the film itself, perhaps more.

There are however things which are not debatable about Easy Rider.  Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson give fantastic performances.  The soundtrack is a fantastic one.  The film asks some difficult questions about our society, where we are headed, and where we ought to be headed.  For better or worse, the film did help change the way Hollywood films were made to this very day.

It is for all these reasons that it is great to see Easy Rider get a Blu-ray release.  The 40th Anniversary edition contains a booklet on the film, the soundtrack, and the stars; as well as an audio commentary by Hopper (during which he is exceptionally quiet for long periods); Sony's movieIQ feature (this provides more info on the film for those with BD-Live enabled players); and a documentary, Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage, about the production.

On Blu-ray, Easy Rider both looks and sounds very good.  The print is beautifully clean and the colors of the American Southwest utterly fantastic.  The audio track is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 one, and pumps out the film's classic soundtrack in fine fashion.  The biggest problem with the entire affair on a technical side is that some of the night scenes are far too dark, but that issue can be placed squarely on Hopper's shoulders, and not on the shoulders of those who readied this release.

You can love it or you can hate it.  You can also love what it represents or hate what it represents.  What you'll have a far harder time with is calling yourself a "fan" or "student" of cinema without having seen it. Easy Rider is a true classic and a film not to be missed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

You Just Have to do Whatever Works

Larry David, the absurdly nitpicky Jewish curmudgeon who can be seen on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and co-creator of Seinfeld, has an attitude that could easily be mistaken for Woody Allen’s.  Though not the same man, and though they may always see alike, the way in which an audience perceives their worldviews certainly puts them in the same boat if not the same body.  Getting to see the results of the two men collaborating is an absolute comic feast for those who like their particular brand of humor and a famine for those who don’t.  Of course, that last group of people are missing out on the absurdly funny Whatever Works.

Woody Allen, as he has done every year for years on end, is the writer and director of Whatever Works.  Rather than taking a part in the film himself though, the Allen-esque character, Boris Yellnikoff is played by Larry David.  Playing Boris’ far younger love interest, Melodie St. Ann Celestine, is Evan Rachel Wood.  The two find themselves thrown together when Melodie, a runaway, cons the depressed divorcee, Boris, into letting her stay the night (which becomes two nights, then a week, then a few weeks…). 

David’s Boris is a man at the end of his rope, though he had a successful career as a professor studying quantum mechanics (he was nearly nominated for a Nobel Prize), as of late Boris’ life has been less than satisfactory.  The movie picks up with Boris having decided relatively recently that he not only wanted a divorce, but having made an unsuccessful suicide attempt (due to his marriage) as well.  Melodie finds him as is living in a large, though dilapidated, New York apartment and teaching chess to children.

The film both opens and closes with Boris addressing the viewer, and with those he’s with thinking him somewhat insane – though, as an off-kilter person to begin with, they accept this oddity even if they don’t understand it.  The majority of the film plays out directly from Boris’ opening monologue – we watch things unfold, but it is Boris telling the audience the story, and he is not the sort of narrator to gloss of his shortcomings. 

As with so many of Allen’s films, the character at the center, the Allen stand-in, has a way of highlighting all of their own defects and faults and yet being no less likable.  Boris calls his students unintelligent in numerous different ways, casts aspersions on their families, and generally has little nice to say to anyone whatsoever.  David, who has perfected a similar character himself through the years is able to deliver these crushing lines naturally and with great ease.  Watching the film one can’t quite understand why he doesn’t get physically harmed by others more than a few times, but is still entranced by the whole thing.

Unfortunately for Whatever Works, the plot does fall off in the second half, with Melodie’s parents, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (Ed Begley Jr.), coming to town and both altering their lives greatly in the big bad city.  Though their stories are funny, there being included to the extent they are changes the dynamic of the film greatly, and their characters are less compelling than Boris.

The Blu-ray release of Whatever Works contains a dearth of special features.  There is  a preview of an upcoming film and a trailer for this one.  It is something of a disappointment not because it is unexpected but because it would be wonderful to hear Allen talk more about the movie.

As for the technical aspects of the release, the video contains a significant amount of grain, but has good colors and sharp details.  The audio track is an English 51. DTS-HD Master Audio track and sounds quite good.  As a dialogue heavy film the surrounds rarely have to do much work.  There is also a tendency for any effect sound (most notably anything that crashes or bangs) to sound a little louder and perhaps slightly jarring for its loudness.

The essential message of Whatever Works is that people have to find just that.  They have to go through their lives trying to find joy and happiness wherever and however they can.  They force themselves into a niche because they feel they ought to be there – if it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t lead to happiness, they should try something else.  Anyone attempting to find happiness, even if it is for a mere 92 minutes, would do well to start with this film.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hulu Planning on Charging Subcription Fees?

Yesterday Chase Carey, News Corp.'s president and COO, stated that Hulu, the online video portal owned by News Corp., The Walt Disney Company, NBC Universe, and Providence Equity Partners, will start to charge users a subscription fee at some point down the line. Such fees apparently could start as soon as 2010.

Hulu is, almost without a doubt, the best online video destination. The site streams high quality video content from ABC, FOX, abd NBC, among others, and has rapidly grown in popularity since its inception in March of 2007.

Hulu has apparently not, despite its popularity, been able to make money via the commercials which air during programming (Hulu shows are not commercial free). However, the notion that they are going to start charging is something that many will undoubtedly find deplorable. It is not easy to attempt to go from a free model to a pay one, and Hulu may find it even more difficult as much of the TV programming that they stream is available via free over-the-air broadcasts. The pro argument for the subscription model is not only that iTunes, Hulu's main competitor, has made money charging for video but that without users paying to watch, the site will never earn enough money to make it a viable entity.

As for what a subscription model might look like, that is more up in the air. Daniel Fienberg, HitFix's executive editor and TV critic, suspects that any subscription model Hulu employs will be akin to one "wherein you can watch new shows the morning after for a small subscription fee and then the shows are available for free a week later. It's hard to imagine Hulu going to any model that's more restrictive than that." Though Fienberg was merely speculating on what the model may be, he truly seems to feel that Hulu will not charge a fee for everything and that the site does need to find a way to monetize itself if it is to survive.

Should Fienberg be right about the look of the model, Hulu fans may find themselves breathing a sigh of relief. Of course, without any set date and only the possibility that a charge will be implemented in the next 12 months, it is very difficult to judge exactly what Hulu's intent may be at this point in time. It is even possible that they are merely floating the idea at this moment to simply judge the reaction from the public at large. If Hulu does opt for a pay model and that model is successful, it could greatly redefine the public's interaction with the Internet in years to come.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Smash-up Arthritic at Best

Many a Saturday morning in my youth was spent watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I actually spent enough time watching those fearsome fighting teens to still, all these years later, be able to sing the theme song (turtle power!). Out of a sense of nostalgia for my youth, every time a new video-based TMNT product (film, games, video, etc.) appears, I feel compelled to check it out, if only momentarily. And, unfortunately, it is only momentarily that the latest TMNT release, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Smash-up, a 2D fighter, is exciting.

On the Nintendo Wii, the game can be played either with one's remote and nunchuk, remote alone, classic controller, or Gamecube controller, and no matter the control scheme chosen, players will be very underwhelmed. In a vein very similar to the most recent Smash Bros., there's nothing terribly complicated about the fighting moves (which is perfectly fine), but Smash-up also lacks other crucial elements to a fighter, things like good graphics and compelling gameplay. In the end, Smash-Up feels more like a stripped-down, minimalist version of a release, and rather inferior to Smash Bros., which admittedly set the bar pretty high for this style of game on the Wii.

Smash-up lacks the special moves contained in Smash Bros. and most other fighters. The different characters do perform slightly differently, but not to the point where one can't easily switch from Michelangelo to Leonardo to April and then to Splinter without ease. There are some special "ninja" power-ups which allow players to utilize some throwing stars or dynamite or bombs, all of which function the same way for every player in the game.

The truly surprising thing however about Smash-up is that it starts off so well. A quick look at the menu indicates that there are several different modes of play available including Tournament, Battle Royal, Survival, Arcade, and Mission. Selecting the Arcade mode – essentially the "story" mode – one is treated to a none too in-depth introduction in which Splinter explains to his students that he's decided to hold a fighting tournament in which they are all too participate (along with himself, Casey, and April). While it's not a terribly great story, fighters aren't really none for their genius attempts at intricate and clever storytelling. No, what's fun about it is the comic-book inspired look to it. The graphics aren't the sharpest, but the style certainly indicates some effort and thought went into creating the background to the game. Of course, the incredibly slow pace at which the story unfolds turns out to be a far better foreshadower of what is to come than the manner in which the story is told.

The single biggest problem with the game is that after one's player gets hit a couple of times or knocked down they have a horrible tendency to freeze, either on the ground or simply dead on their feet. What initially seems like a fast-paced, frenetic style of gameplay comes to a screeching halt at these moments, moments which are all the more frustrating because the computer player never seems to contend with them to the same extent.

The back of the box states that the game has "life-like stages, destructible environments, and surprises around every corner." The environments may have a few things here and there that can be destroyed, but they tend to be few and far between and the surprises touted on the box are really less than what one might expect. As for the life-like stage, this reviewer has never found himself on a capsizing ship which runs aground into an iceberg, or even the Turtles' secret lair in the sewers. With the distinctly subpar graphics, one can't imagine that the box is discussing the quality of what appears on screen either.

In any case, after the initial few stages of Splinter's tournament, the evil Shredder and his gang break up the proceedings and the player's chosen turtle must set off alone to stop his nefarious doing by… pretty much just fighting a few more levels.

The game is playable over Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection, either with friends (which you can add) or having the computer create match-ups. Playing with friends, one can set up many of the match types available in single player mode (Battle Royal, Survival, Swap Out, Tournament, and Trophy Tournament). The advantage to playing online is that those whom one plays against have the same unfortunate tendency to pause on their feet or while on the ground. However, the game also sometimes momentarily pauses during online play – something which truly hinders gameplay.

There are some unlockables present in the game – mainly more characters – but as with the fighting-style itself, there simply is not much depth to it. With more characters, more stages, a better story, and far better graphics, it's tough to imagine that anyone wouldn't rather play Super Smash Bros. Brawl over Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Smash-up. Or, at the very least, they would have to be far more nostalgic for those pizza-loving heroes in a half-shell than most people. But, this game does come with a TMNT mini-comic book.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Smash-up is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Cartoon Violence and Mild Suggestive Themes. This game can also be found on: PS2.

two stars out of five

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The 2009-2010 TV Season and Me (Because you want to know)

Have I shied away from talking about the television season as of late? I haven't meant to, but have the feeling that I may have and consequently have spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly why that may be the case.

The first question I asked myself — the most important question — is whether the issue lay with me or with television. Quite clearly, I'm not the problem, how could it possibly be me? No, the problem lies with television — as excited as I was for the new season to begin, as excited as I am about some of the shows that are currently airing, there feels like there is less there this year than in past years.

Some of that is easily explained away with the simple fact that there is less. Jay Leno takes up five hours of prime real estate in primetime, hours that I used to spend watching stuff like ER, My Own Worst Enemy, Southland, and Law & Order. I didn't always like those shows and what they delivered, but (save for the latter seasons of ER) I always watched.

I think, though, that fewer options actually feeds into the real problem — I just haven't found that new show to watch, that new show in which I get so heavily invested that I feel compelled to praise it to the heavens or trash it mightily week after week.

Don't mistake that, however, for my not really enjoying some of the new programs airing. I was highly anticipating ABC's Wednesday night lineup (everything but Hank anyway), and while I may have dropped Eastwick from my schedule, I really am enjoying The Middle, Modern Family, and Cougar Town (and dying to see tonight's episodes). I stated on Screen Time last night that while Cougar Town was initially my favorite, last week's Modern Family was absolutely brilliant — a great bit of television and I'm embedding the episode below so that you can marvel in its hilarity. I think ABC's risky proposition of an all-new Wednesday night lineup, one populated with a two-hour sitcom block, is working brilliantly, at least from 8:30 to 10:00. What they're going to do with the rest of the night I'm not quite sure.

Let me also say that I really am looking forward to some stuff this fall, things that I'm pretty sure that I'll rant and rave about. V is coming. Sure, it's only coming with four episodes before the new year, but that just may be enough to get me hooked, and I'm definitely a sucker for the premise (and the original).

So, in conclusion, don't worry. There's still a ton of television out there and as the season progresses I'll be there to point out all the good, the bad, and the ugly. Because, if there's no one around to tell you just how bad Brothers is (and it is bad), you may make the mistake of tuning in, and no matter how much you scrub (or watch Rocky), you'll never feel clean again. Seriously Carl Weathers, why... why are you doing this? If you're that desperate for cash surely we could start a collection for you.

And now, to try and wipe away that horrific memory, Modern Family.

A sNeak pEek oF iCarly

Everything these days seems to be heading towards being interactive… even television.  No longer do people just sit there and consume, they're sometimes able to actually influence what takes place on the screen (and in more ways than just pretending your child has taken off in a balloon when you've actually secreted them away in your garage in order to get on the news… allegedly). 

One of the exceedingly popular shows for tweens that contains that element of interactivity is Nickelodeon's Emmy-nominated iCarly (according to the website, the "i" stands for "internet" or perhaps "insanely awesome.").  While thiCarly DS screenshote show allows people to upload pictures and video and send e-mails to the stars, it isn't fully interactive… at least not as interactive as the new iCarly videogame which is being released for the Nintendo Wii and DS next week.  We were lucky enough to get some time with the DS version this week and are here to tell you all about it.

iCarly the TV show may be on Nickelodeon, but is about a web series hosted by Carly and her friends.  Thus the mini-games in the iCarly videogame are organized as webisodes, at least they are in the Story Mode.  The game also contains a Quick Play mode as well as a Record Challenge one and Multiplayer.

Before one gets to actually play in the Story Mode, Carly, Sam, Freddie, Spencer, Lewbert, Mandy, and Mrs. Briggs (or any combination thereof) give a brief introduction and then it's quickly off to the races as players have to do things like put noses on trees and help characters dance.  For folks who have a DSi, the game also includes an extra set of mini-games which utiliziCarly DS screenshote the DSi's camera and microphone.  One of these mini-games shows the player a random color and requires that they photograph something of that color around them (points are given for how accurate the player is and how many colors they can get through in the time allotted).  Another DSi mini-game has players emulate the sounds various items (i.e., a bell and a snake) make as pictures of the items pass through a specific portion of the screen.  As players progress through the game they earn points which can be used to buy items for the iCarly set and can also unlock more mini-games.

Fans of iCarly will almost certainly flock to this expansion of the franchise, but happily the mini-games require little to no knowledge of the series to be enjoyable (though non-fans  may be put off by the notion of buying something iCarly) – who doesn't want to stick noses on a tree as though they were Christmas ornaments.

iCarly will be released on the Nintendo Wii and DS on October 27 and is rated E (Everyone) for Comic Mischief.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Baseball Blast! Brings Bliss?

Baseball may be the national pastime, but anyone who is currently watching the MLB playoffs can tell you that it takes an awfully long time to play a game. There may have been a time when three hours was enough for nine innings, but those days seem gone. Perhaps then, 2K Sports' baseball themed collection of mini-games, Baseball Blast!, will help bring more fans to America's game, fans who can't spend four hours watching Andy Pettitte throw to first base.

Baseball Blast! features over 20 different mini-games which use baseball as a jumping off point. For instance, in some of the more sedate games, one may find themselves using the D-Pad on the Wii Remote to select whether a pitch will go high, low, left, or right in order to hit targets on the way from the mound to home plate.

Baseball Blast!In slightly more complicated games, Slide! Slide!, the player has to decide whether their base runner jumps or slides on a trip through a basepath jungle in order to best avoid tigers and baseballs while managing to get all the gold stars that appear. It's momentarily fun and vaguely baseball related, but even on the hardest difficult available doesn't offer much of a challenge.

Not to worry though, other mini-games are far, far more difficult, even on the easiest level. One of the harder games, Diamond Double, requires players to time their swing and its strength so as to hit a ball into one of a multitude of jewels hovering above the outfield. Some jewels are worth more than others, and if one doesn't hit the right ones, they'll never score enough points to advance.

Baseball Blast!While difficult, that game at least has its roots in baseball, not all really do. One of the more fun (but still frustratingly difficult) games is Bumper Base, which features the player as one of four bumper cars running about on an elevated base. The goal is to knock the other cars off, something accomplished by powering up and bumping them or jumping into the air as they try to bump you. It's certainly a cute little game, but as with too many of the mini-games herein, the controls leave a lot to be desired.

In the case of Bumper Base, the player has to hold the remote vertically and lean it left or right to turn left or right. The setup may be straightforward, but even using the Wii MotionPlus (supported, but not included), the sensitivity always seems too great or too little, making it incredibly hard to cause one's car to go in the intended direction.

The game does suffer from other control anomalies as well. In The Wave, players must keep a wave running through the stands. The remote has to be held horizontal, with the D-pad by the player's left hand. If the D-pad is placed by a player's right hand they'll completely misread the screen when it states which button needs to be pushed to continue the wave – this is because when the screen shows for the D-pad to be pushed up, it doesn't actually mean "up," it means "up if you have the controller horizontal with the D-pad by your left hand," or, if you prefer, it means "right." Even after figuring out this anomaly, many players will need to retrain their brain which very likely automatically knows, even when the controller is held sideways, which way "up" actually is.

Baseball Blast!Baseball Blast!'s graphics are fun and cartoony and Bob Uecker and Rob Dibble call the play-by-play. It seems an unnecessary addition to have real announcers in the game, but it is nice that there is someone calling the action. The game also features a trivia challenge which contains questions that range from easy to nigh-on-impossible, real teams, real players, and reasonable facsimiles of actual stadiums. And, as it's a bunch of mini-games, also supports up to four players.

Overall, the game is fun and lighthearted, with just enough happening to keep players of all levels interested. Beginners will have a tough time with some of the events while experienced gamers will find others too simple, but that may actually mean that the game is perfectly balanced. If not for the control scheme oddities and frustrations, this could have been a home run, instead, it's a ground-rule double.

Baseball Blast! is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief.

four stars out of five

Monday, October 19, 2009

When the TiVo Disappears, so does some Enthusiasm

Virtually everything I watch on television, I watch via my TiVo.  Network schedules these days seem to be full of time changes, date alterations, and all manner of oddities, TiVo makes it easier to navigate such issues.  However, TiVo also does another interesting thing – it demands that I watch the shows it tapes. 

I go in to my Season Pass Manager before the Fall season gets underway and add all the various shows I've decided to watch that year.  TiVo then grabs all the shows and I watch them as they come in – almost always that night, but never at the moment they start recording.  When I was younger, I used to be oh-so-proud of never having missed an episode of a given series, such a commitment took dedication – I was there every week at a specific time to watch a show.  With TiVo that dedication isn't required, the show just appears in the Now Playing list.

Thus, I found myself for the past two weeks in the midst of an experiment that I hadn't intended.  I was out of town, away from my TiVo, and therefore away from my Season Passes.  Anything I watched I saw only because I was in front of a TV at that time or remembered that it ought to be at CBS's website or on Hulu.  It made me reconsider my Fall shows in a way I had not intended.  When I had to actively search out content instead of having content delivered to me, I only searched out that I was most interested in, I didn't sit and watch the rest.

What did I actively consume?  The Office, 30 Rock, The Middle, Modern Family, and Cougar Town all ranked highly.  I made sure I saw House, Amazing Race, Stargate Universe, Dollhouse, and FlashForward too.  I even managed to sneak in a Simpsons, Glee, Desperate Housewives, and NCIS episode.  I was acutely aware of not watching Mad Men and looking forward to seeing it on my TiVo once I got home.

Perhaps more interesting though was the fact that I made a conscious choice not to watch Eastwick.  I could have sat and seen an episode of the show, I had the time, I had the TV, I simply didn't have the inclination.  Had I not gone away, I'm sure that I would have merrily puttered along, always remembering to watch Eastwick on Wednesday nights because my TiVo delivered it to me.  I would have sat there convinced that the show would, eventually, get better, and that I would, eventually, not so much mind all the bad bits.

Instead, when I returned home and saw all the other stuff sitting on my TiVo that I wanted to watch but hadn't been a top priority, drop everything to see it live or grab it on Hulu show, I deleted not only the two episodes of Eastwick I had missed, but my Season Pass for the show as well. 

I'd say that my action ought not reflect negatively on the show, but quite obviously it did.  When I first reviewed the show I decided that it absolutely had potential, that it could be interesting enough to watch in the long term.  After watching a few episodes and then having the opportunity to watch a few more I decided that while the series may still have potential, I no longer cared to what for the potential to become reality.

What might have dropped off my list if I had been away for another week?  I can't say, all I know is that I'm happy to not have to make that choice.  That's right, Eastwick may be off my TiVo, but I'm never happy about making that type of decision, they cause a little twinge of pain deep inside.  I'm convinced I made the right call, but don't confuse that with it being an easy call.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

White Collar Not Quite Criminally Good (But Close)

USA Network's ever-expanding lineup of original productions is getting ready to welcome a new set of characters.  Starting on October 23 at 10pm, the series will be airing White Collar, the story of a white collar criminal, Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) helping out the FBI agent who caught him, Peter Burke (Tim DeKay).

Caffrey is something of a jack-of-all-criminal-trades in the series, at least the white collar ones.  He can forge documents, can identify threads from Canada's secret new money on site, and can break out of maximum security prisons with ease.  He's a suave smooth talker and one would think his genius unequaled had he not been caught by Burke.

The FBI agent is the dedicated, hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone, type of genius.  He may know everything about the criminals he follows and their methods, but the poor guy is unable to work out exactly what his wife (Tiffani Thiessen) might like for their anniversary. 

In the pilot, Burke finds himself agreeing with Caffrey's offer of help with the capture of Burke's current prey.  Caffrey is allowed out of jail with a tracking device and put in Burke's charge as the two hunt down the criminal.  The temporary situation becomes less temporary by the end of the premiere and the series promises to feature the two going after new and different criminals on a weekly basis (except for when the story will focus on Caffrey's ex-girlfriend).

As with all of USA Network's recent series, the show is a blend of comedy and drama.  In the case of White Collar's pilot, the two mix wonderfully, creating the broad outlines of what could be some great characters.  Bomer and DeKay are both adept at delivering the funny lines and still manage to create well-rounded characters who very clearly display areas of strength and weakness.

For a network which prides itself on creating interesting characters for people to watch, USA Network seems to have again managed to land a show which has some great characters at its center.  While we don't get much of Thiessen's Elizabeth in the premiere, it will be interesting to see if the show can creatively expand on her character and manage to keep her germane to the stories or if her plotlines will remain wholly separate.  Also starring in the series is Willie Garson as a criminal friend of Caffrey who helps the criminal-turned-cop out from time-to-time. 

While the pilot is extremely amusing and certainly promises great fun down the line, there is some concern over the series' unnecessary and ill-conceived attempts at being clever.  In the pilot, much is made of Caffrey's tracking device and how he is only allowed to venture within a two-mile radius from the incredibly decrepit hotel Burke puts him in without Burke's presence.  Two miles may not sound like a lot, but the series does take place in New York City and Caffrey's hotel is on the island of Manhattan.  A two-mile radius in Manhattan is an exceedingly large territory, in fact, if the hotel is not located almost all the way to one side of the island at its widest point, a two-mile radius would allow Caffrey to swim both in the Hudson and the East River – assuredly something Burke and the FBI don't intend.

The two-mile radius is set up in order to make a joke later as Caffrey ends up finding a much nicer set of rooms one-point-six miles away.  The intent is to frustrate Burke endlessly (which it does) and to show to the audience that the series will be full of this humorous little asides.  The aside, however, only serves to pull anyone who has lived in or around Manhattan completely out of the series.  What was meant as a cute little joke – and it really only is a minor point in the pilot – instead leaves one to wonder what down the line will also not be fully researched or thought out; what other, perhaps larger, elements of a good, believable, story will be sacrificed on the alter of cleverness. 

With luck and a little effort, White Collar will be able to avoid such pitfalls, and this reviewer for one certainly hopes that it does.  What we are given in the pilot is the basic outline of a show which ranks right up there with the best of what USA Network has ever offered and is certainly their strongest new series since Burn Notice.

White Collar premieres October 23 at 10pm.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More than Delicious, it's Pinkalicious, The Musical!

Located at 45 Bleecker Street in New York City is the Bleecker Street Theatre.  This small, 240-seat theater, is home for the next couple of months to a musical production aimed squarely at pre-teen girls, Pinkalicious, The Musical.

Pinkalicious is based on the children's story of the same name by Elizabeth and Victoria Kann, who also did the book and lyrics — alongside John Gregor who did the music and orchestrations — for this production.  The story follows young Pinkalicious as she extols the virtues of the color pink.  She even goes so far as to add extra pink to her mother's cupcakes, a move she regrets when, after eating too many cupcakes, she wakes up to find herself pink from head to toe.

Sadly, Pinkalicious, we learn, has a horrible case of Pinkititis, the only cure for which is a large helping of green food.  It's a cute enough story about having too much of a good thing and eating one's vegetables, a move Pinkalicious resists initially. 

It is not a terribly deep storyline and one won't find huge emotional arcs in it, though there are certainly some present.  Mrs. Pinkerton is harried and overworked initially, Mr. Pinkerton has issues with pink in general, and little Peter – Pinkalicious' brother – is all too often ignored.  It's not a lot for the cast to do, but they do sing and dance and appear to have a great time at it.

Most of the songs are peppy and upbeat, whether it's Doctor Wink diagnosing the case of Pinkititis or the bees and birds attacking Pinkalicious because they think she's a pink peony.  Things do slow down a little at times, but only momentarily and never long enough to give the young audience time to lose their enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that is promoted by the cast as they do the standard querying of the audience as to where a character has gone or what they should do next.

The production contains minimal sets, all of which are changed by the actors as the scenes progress from one to the next, something which did not seem to distract from any of the enjoyment the youngsters in the crowd experienced.  The music that accompanies the singing appears to be from a pre-recorded track which does contain some static at times.  It is a problem which, again, does not detract from the enjoyment of those for whom the musical is geared nor for those who are there to enjoy their little ones' enjoyment.

The musical clocks in at just under an hour, a perfect length for introducing young children to the wonder of the theater and seeing a show performed live.  The people of the Vital Theatre Company, the group whose production this is, are all good-natured, cheery, and bright.  The show features five cast members in every performance – with a group of 10 actors and actresses comprising the complete production (there are two people for every role) – who all exit the theatre before the audience so that they can be ready to sign autographs and take pictures with the young theatre-goers (the back cover of the playbill is even designed to accommodate the autographs). 

It should be noted that the actress who portrays Dr. Wink also portrays Pinkalicious' best friend, Allison.  This is something that may not be apparent when one is watching the show, but certainly is when she signs "Dr. Wink/Allison" on the playbill.  Though presumably most parents have discussed the difference between real and pretend with their children before attending the musical, those who haven't may find themselves having an uncomfortable discussion if they choose to wait in the short line for pictures and autographs.

Pinkalicious, The Musical may be imperfect, but it unquestionably completely and totally delights the audience it is aimed at.  The Bleecker Street Theatre is a small, intimate venue; the characters bright and friendly; and the story is delightfully wacky, more than a little improbable, and wholly enjoyable.  With a short runtime and pink cupcakes for sale alongside fairy wands (just like Pinkalicious' fairy wand!) and books which many of the young theatregoers already own (plus t-shirts they probably don't), the show is a fantastic way to give children that first taste of a live show.

The show is currently running at the Bleecker Street Theatre through January 3rd, with performances at 1PM on Saturdays and Sundays.  Additionally, a new production of the musical has just opened at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Hi Ho! Snow White Hits Blu-ray

There is a statue in the Magic Kingdom at Walt DisneyWorld, just short of Cinderella's Castle, which features Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.  Accompanying that statue is a plaque that reads "Never forget that it all started with a mouse."  While that is unquestionably true, in terms of feature length animated fare – something that Disney may be best known for – it all started with a princess, Snow White.  Originally released in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is now making its way to Blu-ray in a spectacular three disc set.

The film is the Disney version of the classic Grimm Brothers' fairytale we all know.  Snow White's stepmother, the evil Queen, angry that her Magic Mirror finds Snow White more fair than she orders the Royal Huntsman to take Snow White to the woods and kill her.  Unable to, he sends her off to hide and there, deep in the forest, she comes upon the dwarfs and their home.  The Queen still hunts her but in the end, Snow White goes off with Prince Charming and lives happily ever after.

Watching the film today, the ending of the film seemSnow Whites awfully abrupt – Prince Charming kisses Snow White, she wakes up, says a quick goodbye to the dwarfs and heads off into the sunset.  These seven great friends of Snow White, men who not only shared their home with her but nearly lost their lives to save her are quickly dismissed by the princess as her prince has shown up.  Overly grateful of their efforts, she is not.

Of course, as issues with a film go, that is a small one.  The film is, even today, wondrous and wonderful.  It is certainly a version of the story that we all know, but it is no less magical now, watching as an adult, as it was when seen as a child.  The film inspires just as many laughs, smiles, and chills as it did back then (okay, perhaps not quite as many chills, but the younger set may definitely find moments frightening).

Following on the heels of Disney's spectacular Blu-ray releases of Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs features a brilliant restoration of the classic film.  The quality of the print is an excellent one and features bright, wonderful colors.  Imperfections do seem to exist in it, most noticeably some soft focus at points and some imprSnow Whiteecise drawing of characters in a few scenes, but those appear to have been issues with the original animation.  They do not, however, distract from one's viewing of the film.  Snow White does not look like it was made in the past 10 years, but nor does it look over 70 years old.  The audio on the Blu-ray can be played out as either a 7.1 channel DTS-HD one or a restored original version.  In the 7.1 channel track, the surrounds don't come into play excessively, but are still present to aid with music and some basic background effects.  The audio track, much like the picture itself is clear and while doesn't make the film feel new, certainly has breathed new life into it.

The film, as it is 70 years old, only comes in a 4:3 version.  However, viewers with widescreen televisions are given the option of watching the film with either black vertical bars on the side or with something called "DisneyView" which features still images drawn by artist Toby Bluth on the sides.  The images change with the scenes, and always compliment whatever is taking place in the story – the scary woods scene features evil looking trees, regular woods scenes feature happier looking trees, etc.  OfteSnow Whiten, the pictures perfectly blend into the film itself, never distracting the viewer when they do change.  One of the extras included with the set delves into how Bluth went about creating the various pictures he opted to make.

As this is a three-disc set, the amount of bonus material included is massive.  From the very first moment one arrives at the Blu-ray menu, it is clear that this is not your average release.  The menu is hosted by the Magic Mirror who not only knows the weather where you are and if you've watched the movie yet on that player, but seems to keep track of what bonus features you've looked at on the disc as well. 

Perhaps the most impressive of the special features is the look at the storyboards for a potential film or short called Snow White Returns.  As explained in the piece, until research was done for the Blu-ray release of the film, Disney was unaware that these storyboards even existed. The storyboards are put together along with some unfinished animation in order to create a basic story outline.

Other bonus features include a look at Hyperion Studios, which is where Snow White and other Disney classics were animated.  This feature is on the second Blu-ray disc and is actually set up as almost a virtual studio.  One can "travel" to several different rooms, select items in them, and hear accounts (first and second hand) of how the film was put together.  The disc also features a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie as a whole.

The new release also contains special features Snow Whitefrom the previous DVD release (including a commentary featuring archival clips of Walt Disney himself), a "sneak peek" at the upcoming The Princess and the Frog, and some pretty impressive interactive features.  One of these, Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, asks the user questions about how they would react in certain situations and based upon the answers decides which Princess the user is most like.  While that seems pretty standard, upon getting the result, one can give their phone number in order for the chosen princess to call them.  Yes, the call is recorded, but it is no less magical for younger viewers.  There is also a feature entitled Scene Stealer, which allows, via a website, the user to upload a photograph of themselves and put it onto one of the film's characters.  Unfortunately, as of the time of this review I have been unable to get the picture to upload correctly.

In the case of this release, not only is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a truly great movie with songs that still cause one to tap their toes, not only has it been beautifully updated for this high definition release, but it also features extras which don't feel as though they are included solely for there to be extras but because they are actually relevant and interesting.  There may have been doubts about the wisdom of Walt Disney making this film during its production, but upon seeing the finished product — even 70 years later — there can be no doubt about his genius and foresight.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Year One Something of a Zero

Harold Ramis is the director and/or writer behind some of the funniest films ever made.  His credits include Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, and Ghostbusters amongst others.  His latest movie, Year One, will do absolutely nothing to add to his reputation, rather, it very well may take away from it.

The film follows two would-be hunter-gatherers as they make their way through various moments in the book of Genesis.  Things in the film really get going when Zed (Jack Black) opts to take a bite of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  Rather than actually learning anything more about himself or gaining insight into his world, following his snack he gets booted from his village for being a troublemakers – something he was well before he ever took a bite of the apple.  His friend, Oh (Michael Cera), very reluctantly heads out of the village with Zed, and the two head off into the unknown.

On their journey, Zed and Oh meet Cain and Abel, witness Abraham's binding of Isaac, but end up spending the majority of their time in Sodom, a place they initially believe will be great fun.  Of course, things don't turn out to be greCera and Blackat in Sodom – people want them dead, they still get no respect, and find themselves in horrible situations, but somehow they manage to defeat the various villains they encounter and save the city (an alternate ending included with the Blu-ray features the destruction of the city). 

The film is full of extremely talented, funny, actors who are completely wasted in the roles given them.  Cera and Black both play the type of roles for which they have already been typecast.  Cera is the quiet, lovable loser, awkward and in love, but never quite sure how to go about pursuing his dreams.  Black is the loud, obnoxious, buffoon, never aware of how unintelligent he is and refusing to believe it when anyone explains it to him.

Cameos in the film include Paul Rudd (Abel), Hank Azaria (Abraham), and Ramis himself (Adam).  These three are unquestionably the funniest characters in the film, but that may be because they are never present long enough to make a serious impact.  Those who stick around longer, David Cross (Cain, Oliver Platt (the High Priest in Sodom), and others, wear out their welcome early on.

Year One is a film which, for its first half, is never quite sure what it wants to be.  Witnessing some of the moments in Genesis works well enough, and just as one gets the sense that the film is going to be a History of the World Part I-esque romp (though never as funny) everything gets bogged down with the trip to Sodom.  To that point the film had never been comedic genius, but Cera and Blackhad at the very least had moments of wittiness.  Once in Sodom, those moments of wittiness are all but gone.  It is as though someone working on the production decided that at some point the film should attempt to develop an actual plot rather than simply being a loosely strung together series of vignettes.  Ramis should not have listened to whomever said as much, even if it was in the screenplay he wrote along with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, because the resultant film is awkward, unfunny, and downright disappointing.

The Blu-ray release of Year One contains both a theatrical and unrated cut as well as a plethora of bonus material, all as haphazardly put together as the film itself.  There is behind-the-scenes featurette as well as an alternate ending, which is placed separately from the alternate/extended scenes, which is placed separately from the deleted scenes, which is separate from the "line-o-rama" feature, which shows various scenes from the movie done with different dialog, which is separate from the gag (or "blooper") reel, which is separate from the mock advertisement for Sodom.  The features are also vaguely disappointing because some of the gags and some of the extra lines are from scenes which only exist in the alternate or deleted scenes, not from the main feature itself. So, essentially some of the material included is stuff that didn't make the gradOliver Platte in a part of the film that didn't make the grade for a film that… well… didn't make the grade.

The best thing that can be said about the film is that on Blu-ray, even if the plot is ridiculous and the main actors sleepwalking through their parts, it does look and sound awfully good.  The details are sharp, black levels good, and there is nary a scratch or bit of noise to be found (as ought to be expected for a new release).  The sound levels are good, and the audio comes through cleanly, which means that every unfunny line of dialogue can be heard as clear as a bell.

Year One is the perfect example of a film which has almost everything required to make a successful comedy – a world-class director, top shelf actors, and great source material.  Why exactly they all ended up coming together for this bomb of a movie is both inexplicable and completely disappointing.  It would be wonderful to see these guys team up again with a funny script.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Trying to be one of the Heroes Over Europe

The first few moments after picking up a controller and starting the first mission in Heroes Over Europe, the WWII fighter sequel to Heroes of the Pacific, are heady times indeed. One gets to kick up the throttle and can almost feel the plane get pulled up into the air as the stick is pulled back. The first training exercise is to do a flyby of a village to see how low the player can get to the roofs without actual scraping them. It's as though one is Maverick's grandfather, pushing for the Lamarckian notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. It all sounds and feels so good, but much like Lamarck's ideas, the game is all too quickly debunked.

Heroes Over Europe is an arcade-style game, meaning that while one can crash into buildings and bridges and water, and that will end a mission, crashing into another plane head-on at maximum velocity only causes a momentarily loss of control and slight damage. The game does allow for two different flying styles, one "Arcade" and one "Professional," which may feature more realistic controls, like adding a yaw control, but doesn't seem to make the flying more realistic (one won't stall the engine when going straight up). The game also lacks an altimeter, though a handy red alert light does appear if one is flying awfully low.

To set the mood, the game features what appears to be old newsreel footage from the war as well as great WWII-style promotional posters and various drawings. The story, as such, is a minimalistic one, with the player taking on various characters, but the game does roughly progresses from the start of the war through the end of it. The interstitials, while not the best part of the game, are the only part that have no negatives whatsoever – they are fun, engrossing, and well-made, perfectly setting the time period and giving just enough information on the war, missions, and characters.

The game does come alive with its dofighting, which is incredibly intense. Dozens of planes can fill the sky, swooping, barrel-rolling, looping about, and generally trying to get a bead on the enemy while making sure the enemy doesn't get one on them. It is exhilarating… right up until the point when one realizes that the targeting system is less than adequate. The player's objectives get a handy-dandy hollow yellow-outlined triangle, the selected object (plane, boat, building, etc.) has their yellow-outlined triangle filled in with red. Easy enough, but one shouldn't even bother trying to target a plane firing upon them if said plane isn't one of the mission objectives – they can't be selected. Nothing is more frustrating than only being allowed to target a plane trying to escape a battle that is well outside of range while another squadron of plane's is following and blasting away at you.

The game features more than just aerial dogfights, over the course of the various campaigns, one will have to bomb targets on land as well as take out various forms of watercraft. To allow for all these different missions, various planes get unlocked over the course of the game as well (and more are unlocked for meeting bonus objectives, and competing on harder difficulty levels).

Heroes Over Europe has also included something called "Ace Kills." By targeting an enemy long enough at close enough range, players can press a button, zoom in on a target and highlight various sections of it to blast at. While it is an unnecessary and unwelcome complication on most levels – it takes far longer than simply blowing the enemy out of the sky and can be difficult to execute – there are missions where completing an Ace Kill is required. Ace Kills are clearly the game's attempt at differentiating its fighting style from that of other WWII aerial combat games, but it's an addition that the game would have been better off without.

Graphically, as pretty as and detailed as the individual planes are, backgrounds leave a lot to be desired. Where the effort has been made to create individual structures – particularly well-known landmarks – they look good, but cities in general look very non-descript, repetitive, and unimpressive. Water, sky, and land are all very minimalist, and the White Cliffs of Dover are particularly disappointing.

At its best, Heroes Over Europe contains great dogfighting sequences which test a player's mettle (are really daring enough to go under Tower Bridge's span to escape your foe?). Even without an altimeter and other cockpit doodads, the game is immersive and thrilling. At its worst, the game forces players into nonsensical Death Star runs through the maze-like streets of Berlin, in which one doubles back repeatedly in order to escape the city, when simply flying due West probably do the job a lot faster.

One can play the game via the PlayStation Network, with ranked and unranked matches in either dogfight or survivor modes (both available as team and non-team). These matches all play out very well, especially as all enemies are actually targetable and, unlike some of the AI bombers in regular missions, generally the human opponents care if you try to kill them.

While the game's barebones plot works without issue, it seems as though the developers have tried to make up for a perceived lack there by adding unnecessary elements like the "Ace Kill" and foolish mission assignments.

Heroes Over Europe is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for language, use of tobacco, and violence. This game can also be found on: PC, Xbox 360.

three stars out of five

Friday, October 02, 2009

Foyle's War: From Dunkirk to VE Day - Five Sets Made One

[Editor's note: Individual reviews of set four and set five can be found here and here, respectively.]

For Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle, the Second World War may now be over, but the reports of the show's demise have been greatly exaggerated. A new season is currently in production, which will follow the lives of the characters in the aftermath of the war. Of course, just because the series is continuing doesn't mean that the end of World War II on the show shouldn't be celebrated by releasing a massive boxed set of all the episodes that have thus far aired. And, said boxed set is currently being released as Foyle's War – From Dunkirk to VE Day (Sets 1-5).

The set features 19 episodes of the series (four in each of the first four seasons and three in the fifth) on 19 separate discs. The 19 discs represent approximately 32 hours of the show and, despite the title of the set, the story actually begins slightly before the Battle of Dunkirk. The boats do not begin returning with troops until the end of the second episode.

Title aside, what the 19 discs and 32 hours do contain are great performances, excellent single- and multi-episode story arcs, and an incredible attention to detail. Taking the last of these first, the series, from its first episode to its last, squarely places the viewer within wartime England – from the fear that accompanied the Nazi threat and the Blitz to the sense of hope that came with America's entrance to the war to the elation of VE Day, the viewer is given a ringside seat to the goings-on via the police force in Hastings, which lies on the southern coast of England. Costumes, characters, and background stories all feel perfectly thought out and considered. As period dramas go, Foyle's War does a well above average job of giving a sense of the time. Even when an individual episode's plot isn't directly connected with the war, the events taking place in the world are never far from the surface nor the minds of the characters.

Starring Michael Kitchen as Foyle, Anthony Howell as Paul Milner, and Honeysuckle Weeks as Sam Stewart, two people who work for Foyle in Hastings, the series finds its heart in these three characters and their relation to the cases and the war. Watching the first five sets from back-to-back allows viewers to watch them slowly change and grow in response to all that they see and learn. It's a wonderful way to really see and understand the way the war affected the characters and England. Not all series, even period ones, feature such a growth and progression, but watching that progression take place adds to the sense of authenticity the series conveys.

Lastly, it should be noted that even with its excellent costumes, sets, scripts, and performances, Foyle's War wouldn't be what it is without Jim Parker's music. His scores represent the perfect finishing touch on the series. They are simple, haunting, and beautiful, perfectly echoing the entire feel of the series, in which the serene English countryside hides crimes at home and terror from abroad.

The special features in the set are minimal. It doesn't appear as though any new special features exist over the previous individual releases – the case in which each individual set sits is smaller, but that appears to be the only change. There are production notes, interviews with Weeks, Howell, and series creator/writer Anthony Horowitz, as well as making-of pieces, notes on the historical truth behind some episodes, and filmographies. This last item is, upon viewing, perhaps a little odd. As the different previously released sets have all been compiled into a single release, and each set previously contained filmographies on the main actors, one can see the filmographies grow from the first set to the last.

Producing a mere 19 episodes from 2002 to 2008 hasn't been an exercise in laziness for Horowitz and everyone else behind Foyle's War. Rather, they have managed to craft 19 separate, intriguing mysteries which all connect together to tell a larger story about several characters fighting for their country as they were best able to when their country needed them most. Every detail feels perfectly thought out and well-executed and the show, while it deals with many sad moments, is a pleasure to watch. It will be exceedingly interesting to see what the future holds for Foyle and company now that the war has ended, and, as noted in the review of set five, perhaps ended in something of an overly tidy fashion.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

I'm a Go Play Lumberjacks and I'm Okay...

This may be hard to believe, but there's now another title for the Nintendo Wii which is a series of mini-games. This time out they are, oddly enough, lumberjack themed games and are part of the ever-growing Go Play line of games from Majesco Entertainment (the most recent of which is Go Play City Sports).

In Go Play Lumberjacks, players take control of any one of a number of lumberjacks – four are available at the start and many more can be unlocked down the line – and compete against up to three other people/computer characters. Only a small number of possible events are available at the beginning, with many more available down the line.

The events range from the average-seeming lumberjack duties to the downright dangerous sounding ones, but manage to be fun no matter the perceived danger or reality level involved. The most basic of the events, things like climbing poles and sawing wood, feature easy-to-master, for all age level basic Wii remote skills. In order to complete the activity all one has to do is wildly wave the Wii remote up and down or left to right (in the case of the climbing, water balloons also have to be dodged). "Axe Throwing" requires players to point the remote at the screen and use a crosshair to focus on targets, which axes can be tossed at with the "B" button. Harder tasks, like "Coin Grab" which requires coin collecting on logs on a river, require more traditional gameplay sorts of button pushing.

Go Play Lumberjacks also features Wii Balance Board support for some – but not all – of the events. At times the Balance Board makes the mini-games easier (as with the "Limb Cut"), and at times far, far more difficult (as with the water-based "Coin Grab"). The Balance Board support is a nice addition to the game, but it is somewhat disconcerting that the difficulty level in comparison with Wii remote use varies so wildly.

The game sports simple, bright, and cheery graphics, and each character most definitely has a distinct and different personality. Older players will quickly tire of the fact that characters appear to only have a single introduction, happy reaction, and sad one – they do become repetitive quite quickly. Parents may also be a little distressed that the girl character initially available, Jill, is described as a "chainsaw-toting beauty" and acts in a unquestionably sexualized manner. As the game is clearly geared towards younger players, the message getting sent with Jill is an odd one.

With a number of different events with varying difficulties, unlockable characters, and unlockable events, Go Play Lumberjacks does have enough going on it to make it an enjoyable time for mini-game fans. The characters tend to be creative and fun, and each handle themselves in a differing fashion which certainly makes one want to unlock them all. No, if you're a hardcore gamer you probably won't enjoy this title, but your child just might love it.

Go Play Lumberjacks is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for comic mischief.

four stars out of five