Tuesday, December 29, 2009

God of War Collection - Kratos in HD

What better time is there to revisit two earlier episodes from a franchise than in the months leading up to the next entrant in the series? Sony believes – and they're probably right – that there is no better time, hence their release of the God of War Collection, a single release containing the first two God of War games. God of War III is due out in March, but right now, the Collection is your only chance to live out an adventure as Kratos if you don't have a backwards compatible PlayStation. And, if you do have a backwards compatible PlayStation you still won't be able to play as Kratos in high definition without this compilation.

Though this game contains no changes to the actual content of God of War and God of War II (including the bonus videos, which for God of War II can be accessed from the video section of the XMB), the games have been remastered in high definition (720p)… mostly. In-game cutscenes have not been altered and unquestionably are jarring when they begin and look pretty poor throughout. When playing the game one won't confuse the title for a game originally made for the PlayStation 3, but the titles do look better than when the were released for the PS2 in 2005 and 2007 respectively.

The title contains two other things folks won't have gotten if they purchased the original two God of War titles – a code to download the God of War III demo, and trophies. It is difficult to conceive anyone would be willing to purchase a game they were not truly in love with the first time out in order to have these three additions, but anyone who has not already ventured into the world of Ancient Greece as Kratos would do well to consider purchasing the Collection.

Without spoiling much of what takes place – and to delve too deeply into the plot of either could definitely ruin some of the twists and turns occur in the first game – in both games you are Kratos, a ludicrously angry individual. He mainly goes around with his Blades of Chaos and later his Blades of Athena (other weapons do appear as well and Kratos does gain the use of some magic spells), destroying anything and everything in his path – or, at least the stuff that is destroyable, the environments in both games are filled with things you'll think you can destroy but which are wholly untouchable. His enemies are, not surprisingly of the mythic Greek variety. Kratos faces minotaurs, gorgons, various types of undead, and the occasional Greek God amongst other enemies.

Kratos attacks in hack-and-slash fashion, with different button combos performing different moves. As you advance through the game you can level-up your blades (and magic) and unlock different attacks. No matter what you learn though, you will probably die and die repeatedly. The game does contain a plethora of save spots and checkpoints so that when you die you won't lose too much progress.

One major word of warning, both games here are full of hit-the-right-button-in-order-to-kill-your-opponent minigames. If you aren't someone who appreciates it when a big picture of a button on your controller appears on screen demanding that you push it, and then another, and then another, and then another, all as they pop up in turn you will find yourself mightily perturbed at times. In fact, you'll probably be almost as perturbed as everyone who plays the games is with camera, which has pre-set points of view, many of which don't actually allow you to look in quite the right direction at the right time.

Quibbles aside, there is a ton of enjoyment to be had in the God of War Collection. The story told is an epic one, and full of wanton blood and destruction. There is something inherently thrilling about running around Greece smiting gods. Call it hubris if you wish, but taking a massive, hulking god, and throwing he or she to the earth is great fun.

There is certainly an argument to be made about this release potentially creating a slippery slope for rereleases and the end of backwards compatibility in future consoles, but that is a discussion for another time and place and not one whose validity we will test here. The God of War Collection is retailing for $40, which is less than the price of a typical PS3 game and is a whole lot of fun, excitement and utterly brutal, bloody, combat (with the occasional bit of sex thrown in for good measure). If you're a huge fan of the original PS2 releases or simply looking to catch up prior to God of War III, the God of War Collection is a great value and a good time.

God of War Collection is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Themes, and Strong Language.

four stars out of five.

Monday, December 28, 2009

9 (2009) Closer to a Five (Out of Ten)

Occasionally, and just occasionally, one will come across a movie where the visuals are so appealing, so astounding, so utterly fantastic that they are able to carry a film where the plot is at best half-conveyed, and more likely not fully conceived. 9 (2009), being released to Blu-ray this week, is just such a film, and is worth checking out in high definition for its wondrous look if for nothing else.

Directed and with a story by Shane Acker – who initially made a short of the same name for his UCLA thesis project – 9 is 3D computer-generated animation at its finest. The film, which was produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov amongst others, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, one that saw its apocalypse in, as is stated in some of the extras included with the Blu-ray, something of a 1920s or 1930s vision of the future. A mechanical age future, if you will. The evil machines – and there are evil machines – are steel-looking with exposed rivets and rather angular.

The basic story – and it really only is ever a basic story – revolves around a little rag doll (voiced by Elijah Wood) with the number "9" on his back coming to life and trying to figure out what exactly this world he's in is all about. He quickly meets others like him, including the officious 1 (Christopher Plummer); wise, if perhaps a little off-kilter, 2 (Martin Landau); and rather simple 5 (John C. Reilly). 9 quickly learns that his world has suffered a massive amount of death and destruction and that outside of a mechanical beast that has kidnapped 2, the rag dolls may all be alone.

Over the course of the film, 9 opts to try to rescue 2 and only makes things a whole lot worse before they wondrously get better by the end of the film (though not without some of his compatriots meeting their end). 9 also manages to find an answer to the only question that really holds the viewers' interest in any way – what exactly happened to the world in which they live.

Watching 9 one gets the sense that Acker knows everything about this world he's created, but has trouble – or maybe it's Pamela Pettler's screenplay that has the trouble – conveying what he knows. The world itself is a fascinating place – as are the dolls – but the audience is never let in on it. Instead, we are always forced to watch the goings-on from a distance and are not accepted into the fold.

The visuals are almost enough to have that make no difference. There is not a single piece of a single frame of the film where Acker's vision isn't coming through perfectly. Certainly on Blu-ray – not having seen the film in the theater I cannot attest to how it looked there – every crosshatched piece of 9's burlap comes through in exquisite detail. The colors are rich, the backgrounds beautifully drawn and rendered, and everything down to the smallest speck of dirt looks perfect. The sound is less good. While everything is crisp and the bass is full, one will have to sit with their remote in hand as dialogue plays out far more quietly than effects.

The Blu-ray does come with several special features. Chief among these is the original 9 short that the feature film is based on. The piece definitely provides the audience a sense of exactly where Acker started out and how his ideas (and the animation) grew (Acker and animation director Joe Ksander provide an optional commentary track for this as well). Two of the other special features, "9 – The Long and the Short of It" and "The Look of 9," help provide additional details about how the short became a feature, the first as a more traditional behind-the-scenes piece of how the film came together and the second more of a look at how the visual effects were achieved. There is also a piece included in which Acker gives a tour of the animation studio, explaining which areas did what work for the film. There is also a piece entitled "Acting Out" which shows how animators film themselves modeling character actions in order to better create a lifelike piece. Combined, all of these pieces are interesting, but also a little disheartening — they leave the viewer with the definite sense that there was more to the story and to the idea than what they were able to capture in the final print. The Blu-ray also includes a feature commentary with Acker, Ksander, Ryan O'Loughlin (head of story), and Nick Kenway (editor), as well as deleted scenes.

9 is an incredibly appealing film, one that explores a new, different, and strange version of our own world. What 9 fails to do, however, is tell a compelling story. Perhaps that was sacrificed in an effort to spend more time on the look and feel of the piece. While that trade-off may have resulted in a film which is awe-inspiring in its look, it is yawn-inspiring in its story.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Better Off Ted Makes Tuesdays... Better

Last week I argued that Scrubs had not so much hit a speed bump as gone completely off the rails. Not only is that wholly unfortunate for Scrubs and our memories of that great series, it is also hurting the show that comes after it, Better Off Ted. Most people don't watch Better Off Ted, but more people should, and with Scrubs as a lead-in they probably won't.

I'm not going to go and call Better Off Ted pure genius, but I will make some sort of overly cute statement about us all being better off for it — it's funny, and funny is good. It's not your sort of typical 'Mike messes up and Jason and Maggie create a punishment that Mike creatively gets around' funny, it's more funny in fits and spurts and much of the funny comes from the dialogue. Consequently, it's not really one of those shows you can watch while doing 12 or 13 other things (but then, if you watch, you probably already know you don't want to watch while doing 12 or 13 other things).

Shall I provide a couple of examples? Excellent.

How about Veronica (Portia de Rossi) to Ted (Jay Harrington) last night: "You should jump on that Ted, before the crazy outweighs the hot." Veronica was, in her no-nonsense and utterly weird fashion discussing Linda (Andrea Anders), who is, in fact, a crazy but attractive underling of Ted's. A lot of the reason the line works (or worked last night) is not just the truth in the statement, but the fact that Portia de Rossi is able to say such things in an incredibly deadpan, totally serious fashion. Plus, the statement is the exact sort of thing you're not supposed to say – at least in that way – even if it is true.

Veronica would actually go on last night to tell a story to Linda about how, as a child, Veronica was worried that her younger sister would overtake her so she gave her sister some injections which not only caused the poor girl to get awfully hairy but also get kicked off the gymnastics team for doping. Where Scrubs would have given us a look at hairy sister getting booted from the gymnastics team for doping (and Scrubs could have absolutely made that work), Better Off Ted just had the story recited and then moved on. The show doesn't highlight or draw attention to such things, they just deliver the joke and keep going.

The show doesn't only work verbally either, they do actually work in sight gags as well. Last night one of the scientists, Lem (Malcolm Barrrett), was showing his mother about a new tPhoto Credit: ABC/Karen Nealype of popcorn he was developing – one which pops due to the heat from your mouth. Lem tossed a bunch of kernels in his mouth and then (in another shot) began to spew a whole lot of popped popcorn out of his mouth. It kept going longer than one would have thought possible, and they somehow made it almost believable that the kernels he had eaten did in fact pop.

Every week that I sit and watch Better Off Ted, I do so knowing full well that when I see the ratings the next day I'm going to be depressed. And yes, it does appear as though the comedy is soon to see its last days, but I watch and laugh anyway. Why? Because it's funny, and that's really enough.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top Gear Ventures to the North Pole

Towards the end of July of 2007, the folks in England got a real treat – the Top Gear Polar Special.  That's right, for those who don't know, someone thought it was okay to send Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond to the North Pole.  Actually, that's not accurate, no one sent them there; it was worse than that. Someone made the three men get to the Pole on their own (but with a little help).  Here in the States we finally got to see this bit of brilliance last night.

It was, in short, the best of times and the worst of times.  What the guys were doing was obviously terribly dangerous – as they pointed out several times, there was the real possibility of death.  Sure, they were going in the summer, but it's still awfully cold in the Arctic during the summer.  However, if something truly terrible had happened to anyone one of them we would have known about it long before. Top Gear episodes filmed well after this one have already aired here, and not only have all three men been in those episodes, but they'vPhoto Credit: BBCe been in them with all their appendages intact.  On the other hand, watching the men struggle to reach the Pole was absolutely brilliant.

Two thoughts really struck me going into the episode – first, it's something of a miracle that these guys don't kill themselves  on a regular basis going around the track in England; sending them to the North Pole where things are even more dangerous was almost asking for trouble.  Second, some of the series' best episodes are those in which the guys get travel – anywhere. They just have to go somewhere (the Botswana trip instantly comes to mind as being the best of these).

The episode certainly did not disappoint.  It was utterly fantastic.  I'm not sure  I really buy the excuse they gave for the show doing the trip: a race between dogsled and a car — a car that would be the first to ever make it to the Pole – but what ended up on tape was enough to make any excuse enough.  Clarkson and May went by a modified Toyota Hilux and Hammond went by dogsled (with an experienced person along to help).  I won't ruin the ending of the race (even if it has aired Photo Credit: BBCalready in much of the world), but that's not really where the fun was.  No, the fun was in watching these men battle the elements and each other.

I'm not at all sure that the episode would wholly work if one wasn't already invested in Clarkson, Hammond, and May or the series in general.  For those who are invested though, watching the men give it their all to actually do something wondrous (and going to the Pole is wondrous no matter how you travel) was an exceedingly fun time.  The journey, even in a car, wasn't an easy one.  There was much chopping away at snow and ice in what had to be insanely cold temperatures.  The guys did get some cold weather training in advance, but they didn't take it all too seriously (as one would expect). 

And that, their not taking it seriously, does bring up an issue or two I had with the episode – issues that take all the fun and excitement out of the whole thing (for which I'm sorry).  I just feel as though there should have been a behind-the-scenes reality to what was happening that we didn't entirely get last night.  For instance, although the men goofed around repeatedly during the cold weather training, I have to believe that if they hadn't met certain requirements the producers (or the insurance companies) never would have allowed the guys to go on the actual trip.  Then, Clarkson and May commented that they were running on "fumes" as they were approaching the Pole. If they were nearly out of gas upon their arrival at the Pole, how did they get home?  Yes, there were two other cars travelling with them, but if those cars had tons of extra gas (as I assume they did), Clarkson and May were never in dire straights.  They may have lost some time due to the need to fill up, but there was never really a worry about them getting stranded.

Okay, complaining finished.  Those quibbles do hurt the reality behind the show, behind the reality of the show itself was that these guys – even if there was behind the scenes help did do something impressive, and they did it in Top Gear-style.

I just can't wait to see what they do next.

Monday, December 21, 2009

There is a (Karaoke) Revolution Coming

With some games, as soon as you turn them on you just know they're going to be awesome.  There's something about the splash screen or the music or the introduction that just hits you and makes you aware that you're about to be in for a whole lot of fun.  When I first loaded Karaoke Revolution, my Nintendo Wii crashed.  It sat there, pretended as though it were loading something (but with no progress bar), and after 10 minutes of watching the same hints/tricks/info about the game pop up over and over again I shut the Wii off.  Upon rebooting, I was in fact, finally, able to access the game… and with virtually no load time.

The first stop in Karaoke Revolution is creating one's own personal character (because what fun would the game be if you didn't create a chaKaraoke Revolutionracter to pretend was you), and things didn't get any better there.  The menus in the game are a mess.  It is difficult to find the options you're looking for and things don't act as you think they should – as a normal person would suggest they ought to be.  In starting to create my avatar I opted to do the face and body before the clothes – that way I'd get a better idea of what I would look like in the outfits. 

Accessing the menu to alter one's face and body, I opted to start with my hair as the short yellow hair completely threw me off, but oddly their was no way to change either hair length or color (eyebrows were changeable there however).  Weird, but I pressed on, creating a very cartoony version of myself – with short yellow hair.  Next up was the outfit menu, and there I found the option to change hair.  Very weird.  I then opted to change the hair color to a more appropriate brown, and with that done went to change the hairstyle, and doing that reset the hair color – style has to be chosen before color can be (something to do with rockers wanting funky hair cuts and odd colors, I gather).  However, with facial hair, color can be chosen wholly independently of style. 

In short, after first causing my Wii to crash, once I was able to access the game itself I was in no way more impressed.  Karaoke Revolution just doesn't have the feel of a well-organized, well-structured, well-presented game.

While playing the game didn't change the above opinion, Karaoke Revolution – and the 50 songs it contains – did prove to be incredibly fun and almost entirely made up for the early deficits of the game.  It plays out much like one would expect – plug in the Karaoke Revolutionincluded microphone (which one certainly wishes was wireless, but wireless is only available on the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions); choose a mode, Career and Party being the ones you'll most frequently choose from; if playing in Party mode select the various options you want to employ (if you can find them in the menus); and sing until your throat gets sore.

As with singing/rhythm games, the closer you perform a song to the way it ought to be performed, the more points you score and, in career mode, the more stuff you unlock.  There is no maximum score multiplier, so if you hit the right notes throughout in a long song, scores can go exceedingly high.

The graphics, as stated above, remain cartoony throughout – cartoony being the default Wii graphical choice as it allows for an overly broad, none-too-detailed approach.  Additionally, you'll find that your avatar doesn't always mimic your singing (or the song as it should be sung) quite as well as it should.  The lips often seem slightly out of time, and the dancing is stiff.  The audio is good, and background and lead singer volumes can be adjusted independently and in the middle of a song.

Karaoke Revolution has a lot of good things going for it – there are tons of venues (which are Karaoke Revolutioncustomizable) to choose from, lots of ways to alter matches between two people, acceptably customizable avatars, and 50 songs (and on the PS3 and Xbox 360 version one can download 200 songs from earlier installments in the franchise).   It is, however, badly laid out with none-too-pretty menus.  Additionally, it should be noted that it is almost essential to go out and purchase a second microphone so that two players can perform at once.

The long-running franchise has probably done the right thing by dropping the American Idol theme from the game, but still seems to have some kinks to work out before it's really ready for the spotlight.

Karaoke Revolution is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Crude Humor, Lyrics, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol. This game can also be found on: PS3 and Xbox 360.

three stars out of five

Friday, December 18, 2009

Doctor Who Deftly Avoids "The Waters of Mars"

When the previous Doctor Who special, "Planet of the Dead," aired, this reviewer suggested that it was a perfectly fine episode of Doctor Who, but that it wasn't particularly special, and that with so much build-up for so long heading into these specials, we really needed something more from them. I am pleased to say that the latest Who entry, "The Waters of Mars," which airs this weekend on BBC America more than delivers — it goes somewhere beyond special and into the realm of utterly fantastic.

One of the great things about Doctor Who is the series' ability to be anything on any given week – it all depends on where and when the Doctor (David Tennant) finds himself. The show can go from being light comedy to philosophical to Courtesy: BBCpure science fiction to horror from one week to the next. "The Waters of Mars" starts out in the well worn space horror genre (remember, in space, no one can hear you scream). The Doctor finds himself on Mars in the mid-21st century just as Earth's first permanent colony there, Bowie Base One, is about to suffer a catastrophic issue. An alien entity living in the water (hence the title) takes over one scientist early on in the episode and, as evil alien entities do, slowly tries to pick off the crew one by one.

This time out, the Doctor actually knows exactly what is going to happen. The events at Bowie Base One, he tells us and the Captain, Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan), are famous in the future and that the events on Mars are wholly unchangeable. And at that point the episode turns into more than sci-fi horror. It becomes a fascinating look at moral and philosophical issues, a pondering of greater questions.

For those not versed in current Doctor Who lore, this question of a changeable versus an unchangeable event is an important one. Some events are "time locked" (though it is not clear if all unchangeable events are time locked or if time locked is a Courtesy: BBCspecial designation for certain unchangeable events). The Doctor is the last of the Time Lords (sort of, but that's neither here nor there for this special, but it will be for the next one). The rest of his race was wiped out in a massive battle with the Daleks, a battle that occurred sometime between the end of the original Doctor Who series and the start of this new one. It is a lonely place for the Doctor to be and when he has been asked why, if he can travel in time, hasn't he gone back to those events and saved his people, he has explained that the Time War (as it is known) is time locked – the events are unalterable. Except, of course, that they're not because they have on occasion been altered, but not by the Doctor. The Doctor has steadfastly insisted that some events happen, that no matter what, they happen. To try to stop them is either wholly impossible in general or will cause a paradox and quite possibly the destruction of the universe – that's not a good thing.

Stepping back from Whoniverse lore, and back to this episode, here the audience gets to see what Courtesy: BBChappens when the Doctor comes face to face with an unchangeable event. It is an interesting question and explored here in great fashion (though telling you how would significantly hurt your enjoyment of the episode).

"The Waters of Mars" features a good performance by Lindsay Duncan as the gruff Brooke, as well as solid outings by the actors whose characters comprise the Bowie Base One crew. Tennant delivers another outstanding performance which makes one both incredibly excited at the prospect of the next two Doctor Who specials ("The End of Time" parts one and two) airing, and incredibly sad as they will be Tennant's last trips in the TARDIS.

For now though, with "The Waters of Mars," we have been given exactly what a Doctor Who special should be. It functions beautifully as a sci-fi horror genre piece and manages to expand beyond those confines into loftier issues without ever losing the core thread.

Doctor Who – "The Waters of Mars" airs at 9:00pm on BBC America, December 19.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's Good to be the King (and Great to Watch him on Blu-ray)

It's good to be the king, and for years, Mel Brooks has been one of the kings of the moving picture.  Though he hasn't directed that many films, 11 in total, his influence on the field of comedy has been immense.  Just in time for Christmas, but oddly halfway through Hannukah, eight Brooks-directed films and one Brooks-starrer are hitting Blu-ray in a single set. 

The Mel Brooks Collection features The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Silent Movie, Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, History of the World: Part One, and To Be or Not To Be (1983, this last is the non-Brooks directed movie).  It also, as one might surmise, features some of the funniest filmic moments of the past 40 years.  Though he has perhaps not won as many awards as others, via his films Mel Brooks has created some of the most memorable characters to grace the silver screen as well as innumerable classic film moments.  Two of the best known films in this set, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both appear in the top 15 of AFI's list of the 100 funniest movies (and 1968's The Producers, not included in this set, is also in the top 15).

With a set like this, however, everyone will have their own personal favorite film.  Some will say that Blazing Saddles, and its lampooning of racism and Westerns is the funniest of the pieces.  The film stars Cleavon Little as the new – and black – sheriff as well as Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, and Brooks himself.  The film is full of incredibly memorable scenes like Mongo's punching a horse.  There is, perhaps, a minimal amount of plot to the film, but it still manages to be an almost continuous series of laughs.

Others will prefer the other Wilder film in the set, Young Frankenstein.  Filmed in black and white, it manages to lampoon more than one Frankenstein film and the Universal monster movies in general.  From beginning to end, the film is a perfect send-up, and completely hysterical.

When Brooks' films are at their best, as one may have already surmised, they do more than just make cheap jokes, they make cheap jokes and beautifully mimic – or perhaps mock – both history and styles of filmmaking.  A film like Silent Movie, with the exception of one word of a dialogue is, actually, a silent movie.  And, the one word in Silent Movie is uttered by Marcel Marceau.  The idea of making a big budget silent film in the last quarter of the 20th Century (or the beginning of the 21st) may seem like the sort of thing that Hollywood would never accept, and yet not only did Brooks make an hysterical film, he got Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft, and James Caan to do cameos.

This reviewer's personal favorite of the included films is High Anxiety in which Brooks plays off of one famous Hitchcock moment after another.  The film also manages to create a plausible Hitchock MacGuffin of a story on which to hang the jokes.  History of the World – Part One, with its Spanish Inquisition song ranks a close second.

Certainly less good – but far from bad – are Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  The films both feature big stars in the cast and several laugh-out-loud moments, but still feel more one-note than the other films. 

Outside of Brooks and some of the other stars he used over and over again (Harvey Korman & Dom DeLuise to name two) appearing in more than one film, another commonality is the inclusion of a musical number.  Even when the screenplays are not the greatest, like in Robin Hood, the musical numbers and through them Brooks' talent shines through.  It is impossible to watch the Spanish Inquisition song in History of the World and not laugh.

The technical aspects of the release are a mixed bag.  Some of the films have been previously available on Blu-ray, and these films tend to look far less good than the others.  Particularly disappointing is what many will consider the funniest of the films, Blazing Saddles.  Within certain scenes in the film the coloring and clarity of the differing shots don't match, and the differing looks within a single scene is hugely disconcerting.  None of the films look great, dirt and scratches appear in the majority of the older films, but it is only Blazing Saddles which one will feel should have gotten better treatment.  In terms of audio, each films contains a DTS-HD Master Audio track.  These tracks are free from defect and sound particularly good when music plays.  , but older comedies are not the best place to show off your entertainment system to begin with.

The on-disc extras that accompany the set are not terribly special.  There are commentary tracks on Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, & Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  The majority of the films – though not Twelve Chairs – contain some sort of behind-the-scenes documentary/discussion.  Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein both contain deleted scenes, and Saddles also has the TV pilot for Black Bart, a spin-off of the film.  Trivia tracks can also be found on Silent Movie, High Anxiety, History of the Word – Part One, and To Be or Not to Be.

The highlight of the set in terms of extras is the nearly 120-page hardcover book that accompanies it.  Part biography, part filmography, the book is wholly engrossing  It is not all-encompassing book, but the tour it gives of Mel's life and work and the stills that accompany it is something no fan of Brooks or comedy will be able to put down.

If you happen to still be looking for that perfect holiday gift for someone who loves comedy, look no further than the Mel Brooks Collection.  It is a little disappointing that The Producers is not included, but even without that film, the set is a great one.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Poor, Poor Scrubs, and Poor us for Watching

Let it be said up front that it hurts me to write this piece. I remember very distinctly the first time I saw Scrubs. I know exactly where I was, I know exactly whom I was sitting with. I can almost remember what I was wearing. Through the years, even if it was never a massive ratings success, it's a show that I've cared for, that has always been there. It wasn't always treated well by NBC. It now hasn't always been treated well by ABC. All of that is true. All of that hurts me as the show has a special place in my heart. What hurts me more though is the fact that the show is now not treating us well.

Or, to put it more succinctly, what exactly are they thinking doing this season at all? What are they thinking doing this season like this? Why couldn't they have left great alone? Why couldn't they have left well enough alone? Why couldn't they have left my good feelings and memories intact? Why did they have to come back with this new, still-called-Scrubs-but-isn't-really-Scrubs season?

I'm going to keep watching the show—it would seem a complete betrayal of the other seasons if I didn't—but it hurts me a little. I imagine that years down the line perhaps I'll purchase the complete series on DVD (or Blu-ray), and that I'll quickly pull this season and any which may follow out of the set and pretend as though they never existed. The show has simply stayed too long at the party.

In case you're not watching, JD left Sacred Heart Hospital at the end of last year. Magically though he's back at Sacred Heart this year, except that it's not the Sacred Heart we've come to know and love.  No, this year Sacred Heart has been rebuilt and JD has returned to be a professor – except, of course, if you've been paying attention to the press releases (and if you haven't… SPOILER), Zach Braff isn't going to be on all season. In fact, in next week's episode he gets ready to say goodbye… again.

The entire show has shifted focus from doctors to medical students. They've changed the way they title episodes  (they used to almost always start with "My" and now start with "Our") and lost a lot of the original cast members. It is, in short, a different show. Watch the opening credits, after the Scrubs title flashes off of the x-ray it even say "Med School" down at the bottom. Let me say it again: it is a wholly different show. 

The basic problem with these massive changes is that even if the new show was funny—and I'm not at all sure that it is—it seems so much less funny because it's trading on Scrubs' former glory. It is currently taking all those great memories I have of the series and wiping them from my brain (I hope only temporarily).

This new series really only seems funny when it focuses on the old characters, every new character they've come up with is incredibly grating. The show has always been built on odd characters, but not annoying ones. With the med students that has all changed; they are all pure caricatures without depth and they are not fun to watch.

What this all amounts to isn't hate, it's love. I love Scrubs. I have loved Scrubs for years. I will always continue to love Scrubs. The show ABC currently has on the air at 9pm on Tuesday night may call itself Scrubs, my TiVo may think it's Scrubs, but make no mistake, it is not Scrubs.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Christmas - A True Holiday Classic

This year, as with every year, I find myself watching many a Christmas special.  I tell you, I could watch Scrooge McDuck get the bejesus scared out of him by Pete as the Ghost of Christmas Future three or four times a year, but sadly these specials only come around once a year.  Or, at the very least, one season a year – because goodness knows that they're now shown over and over again every year.

The one that still delights me more than any other though is one I always feel like gets short shrift – 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.  I know that I've talked in the past about my great affection for this piece of Bass/Rankin genius, but I don't feel as though I've ever truly given the show its due.

As with many a Christmas special what the producers have done is taken a tale that probably takes around five minutes to tell, or, in this case read, and expanded it to roughly 24 minutes.  In the case of something like How the Grinch Stole Christmas it was done by taking the basic premise and more fully exploring each situation.  For 'Twas the Night Before Christmas such an approach couldn't really work.  Clement C. Moore's poem is absolutely brilliant, but it doesn't necessarily lend itself to an expansion of what is contained within.  Consequently, this special is more of a wholly separate story being dropped onto the poem. 

The basic story of the animated show is pretty simple – Santa is angry at a town because one mouse, Albert, dared write that Santa was a "fraudulent myth."  Santa has decided that the town in question – Junctionville – will not be getting a visit this year.  A human clockmaker, Joshua Trundle (voiced by Joel Grey!), figures out how to get Santa to forgive the town – he creates a clock which will sing a song to Santa as he passes overhead on Christmas Eve. 

Trundle's plan ought to work, except that Albert breaks the clock.  That doesn't happen out of malice, just because Albert is curious.  The entire question then in the show – which is told as a flashback – is whether or not the clock has been fixed and if Santa will come to Junctionville.

The special contains a few great songs, including one of my personal favorite Christmas songs ever – "Even a Miracle Needs a Hand."  The song that Trundle puts into the clock, "Calling Santa," gets a better position in the story, but "Even a Miracle Needs a Hand" puts forth a set of ideas I like better.  Sung by Trundle, the song comes forth at a moment when his children are terribly upset by the notion that Santa won't be coming and he tells them as he does what he can to fix the situation, "You hope and I'll hurry/You pray and I'll plan/We'll do what's necessary/Cause even a miracle needs a hand."  It's a powerful idea and I think that's why it resonates so well.  Trundle is telling his kids that there are two different aspects to making what you want come true – hoping as hard as you can hope and taking constructive action towards accomplishing the goal.  For me, it's that song that make the entire special work.

Stylistically, rather than being claymation, Rankin/Bass produced this as more of a traditional animated piece.  Stylistically the choice works – while focused on the same holiday, it doesn't feel like part of the same line of stories as Rudolph, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  The entire story here may revolve around whether or not Santa is going to come, but Kringle himself is, until the very last moments, an idea who casts a shadow over the proceedings, not a full character.  Those other tales have Santa in a much more central location, so the difference doesn't make it feel as though they've changed their intrinsic notion of the holiday.

That being said, the one issue I have with the show itself is the actual depiction of Santa himself.  It may be true to the notion as put forth by Moore – that of a "right jolly old elf," but he's not Santa as I choose to see him (or, if you prefer, as the media has decided we should see him).  It may sound like a small quibble, but for a show which works so perfectly to that point, the depiction of Santa is something of a letdown.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas doesn't get the same sort of respect as Rudolph or Frosty or The Year Without a Santa Claus, but it's going to be on ABC Family for their "25 Days of Christmas" at least twice on the 24th, so find it and watch.  You won't regret it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

What a Bunch of Inglourious Basterds

If ever anyone needed proof in this day and age that the auteur theory still holds some merit, they need only look at the films of Quentin Tarantino.  His films seem to have a certain style and logic all their own, and his use of dialogue is always something to behold.  Arriving on store shelves just in time for the Christmas holiday is Tarantino's latest work – and a perfect example of his style – Inglourious Basterds.  The film has cast with international stars and a sprawling, multi-faceted plot which revolves around two attempts to kill Hitler in France during the Second World War.  As with many Tarantino films, Basterds is divided into chapters and features several different story threads which come together as the film progresses.

Without spoiling the plot, the threads are most easily divided into three main stories, that of a Jewish woman, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who has taken on a false identity in France; a Nazi soldier who hunts Jews, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz); and a team of American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who are in France to kill Nazis with something of a "take no prisoners" attitude.  These three stories all come together as the movie theater Shosanna runs is going to end up hosting the premiere of a new Nazi-made film, Landa is running security for the event, and Raine and his group are tasked with gaining access and killing premiere attendee Adolf Hitler. 

It may sound like an entirely improbable set of events, and certainly over the course of the two-and-a-half hour runtime it goes far more in depth than described here, but save for the climactic scenes it feels completely believable.  This is true for two very good reasons – not only is the cast a top-notch one, but as with all of Tarantino's films, the dialogue is absolutely superb.  When these two things – the acting and the dialogue – are combined, what one is left with is an incredibly engrossing affair.

Tarantino, as has been well documented, has an encyclopedic knowledge of films and filmmaking, and this knowledge comes across in every movie he makes.  Even the name of this film is a reference to an earlier movie, The Inglorious Bastards, about World War II.  Of course, the negative side of this encyclopedic knowledge and his brilliant writing is that at times the film gets bogged down.  There are several scenes in Basterds, most notably one in a bar, which run excessively long.  As pieces of acting they're good, their well-written and  well-directed, and if viewed by themselves might prove completely mesmerizing.  However, when viewed as part of the whole film, one gets the sense that Tarantino may be his own worst enemy – these scenes significantly hurt the pacing of the film and if Tarantino wasn't as good a writer of scenes as he is, no one would ever have thought these should be included in their current state.  To be fair to Tarantino and those involved in the movie, a longer version of the bar scene does exist in the special features, so some cutting was done, but it was not enough.

The acting, as stated above, is good all-around, even if Brad Pitt does seem to be hamming it up a little much.  The stand out actor here is Christoph Waltz, whose Hans Landa is the epitome of Nazi evil.  He is an intelligent, good-looking, well-educated man who positively exudes evil.  To make it worse, it is an evil that Landa is both aware of and revels in – he knows just how bad a guy he is and he loves it.  Waltz gives a performance which is both humorous and chilling at the same time.

The Blu-ray release of the film comes loaded with special features, even if they sometimes are moderately confusing ones.  It comes with extended and alternate scenes; a digital copy; the full-version (which is still brief) of the film within the film, Nation's Pride; a piece on the making of Nation's Pride (which is a joke); a chat Tarantino and Pitt have with Elvis Mitchell; a piece in which Mitchell discussing the posters used in the film; some of the "Hi Sallys" (shout-outs to Tarantino's editor); and a interview with actor Rod Taylor, who appears in the film.  Those all make sense, even if the roundtable with Tarantino, Pitt, and Mitchell is little more than a fluff piece.  What makes little sense is a piece called "Quentin Tarantino's Camera Angel," which is a series of clips of the woman who worked the clapboard for the film; a short piece in which Rod Taylor discusses drinking Victoria Bitter with Tarantino; and the grossly disappointing – or at least poorly named – "The Original Inglorious Bastards."  The first of these are, perhaps, a little odd, but in good fun, and certainly not the oddest special features ever included in a film.  The last piece however, is at best exceedingly badly titled, and at worst purposely misleading.  It is even touted on the box as being included and certainly makes it sound as though the original Inglorious Bastards is included as a bonus feature.  It isn't.  This extra has a brief interview with Enzo G. Castellari, the director of the original film; some behind the scenes moments from his scene in the new movie; and a trailer for the original film.

The technical aspects of the release are truly outstanding.  The colors are bright, the amount of detail excellent, and the amount of dirt or other imperfection negligible.  The audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack and it too is free of blemishes or other imperfections, the sound is crisp and clear and beautifully balanced.  The film's look and sound is up to Tarantino's wordplay and Waltz's acting. 

Told in Tarantino's classic wordy, bloody, and well-polished style, Inglourious Basterds is a very good film which one can't help but leave feeling as though it should have been great.  To use a sports' metaphor, this is a hit off the top of the wall triple, one which scores all the runners but leaves everyone with the sense that it really could have – and should have – gone out.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Following the Assassin's Creed II

Anyone who has been following the release and reviews of Assassin's Creed II will note that this review is slightly behind those on other sites.  The reason for that is distressingly simple – once the game was inserted into the PlayStation 3, this reviewer found it absolutely impossible to tear himself away long enough to put fingers to keyboard.  Assassin's Creed II is not a perfect game – and we'll certainly discuss some of its faults here – but it is absolutely bloody brilliant, a must-have for anyone who likes history-based games, platformers, sandbox games, action adventures, and people who just want to have a whole lot of fun while videogaming.

Though this game is a sequel, it is unnecessary to play the original Assassin's Creed in order to be up to speed with the new one.  The majority of game takes place during the Italian Renaissance, though that all occurs via the "genetic memory" the main character, Desmond Miles, unlocks while sitting in something called the Animus 2.0. (the original Animus being used in the original).  And that little bit of insanity is just about the worst part of the game.  Very happily, the game doesn't spend a lot of time in the near-future (when Desmond lives).  While the not-travelling-back-in-time-but-playing-in-the-past is, perhaps a necessary evil, in order for some of the high-tech things that occur to take place without destroying the illusion of the game, it is one of those weird, over-the-top moments that instantly turns off all non-gamers.  Seriously, try to explain the Animus and that storyline to anyone who doesn't play games, you'll lose them immediately, but if you solely focus on the Italian Renaissance stuff they'll be enthralled.

In ACII, while Desmond Miles may be the main character, that's only because it's his genetic memory – the memory of his ancestors which lie in his DNA – that is being accessed.  The player actually spend much of their time as Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a poor lad coming of age during the Italian Renaissance who witnesses the brutal murder of much of his family at the start of the game.  Ezio's mission is to uncover the plot that led to his family's demise, part of which has to be accomplished by finding Codex pages strewn over the country.  Desmond's mission as Ezio is to uncover the evil secrets of the Knights Templar and locate the various "Pieces of Eden" which the Knights desperately want their hands own for their own nefarious purposes.

While that is the linear plot, the gameplay itself is much more open.  Certain areas only become unlocked through playing the linear plot, but there are almost always other side quests.  In fact, one of the greatest joys in the game is picking up various short assignments around one of the numerous locations in Italy Ezio visits (Tuscany, Rome, Venice, and Florence among them).  Side quests include delivering letters, carrying out assassinations, and beating up people who completely deserve it (adulterers, bullies, those sorts of characters).  One can even just travel around the city stealing from anyone – thieves make particularly good targets – or killing guards (because the establishment is evil).

Doing these sorts of things however will, unless their done very stealthily, raise Ezio's notoriety.  Once Ezio has done enough to raise his profile in less than stellar ways he becomes "notorious," and he'll no longer be able to follow that bit of the assassin's creed that deals with stealth, the guards will spot him instantly and attack.  This can be fixed with a few well placed bribes, the elimination of wanted posters, or the killing of certain characters, but can cause momentary headaches.

Cash in the game isn't only earned by thievery and the accomplishment of various tasks, Ezio is placed in charge of his uncle's villa and the surrounding city, and can earn money by purchasing various improvements for the area and finding different items across Italy.  Investing in various shops – tailor, doctor, blacksmith, etc. – not only earns Ezio cash, but discounts as well, and there is much to purchase in the way of armor, weaponry, and ancillary items.

Ezio moves around in kind of a Parkour Prince of Persia style – jumping from one ledge to the next, climbing walls, and swinging on anything that will allow it.  The fact that the game looks outstanding makes Ezio's rooftop running and jumping and swan dives into stacks of straw a beautiful thing to watch.   The camera is at times problematic, but can generally be made to do what one wants by adjusting it with the right analog stick.

Though the look of the cities are the highlight, the rest of the game's graphics are outstanding as well.  Characters and clothing are beautifully detailed and differentiated.  The areas outside the cities are, perhaps, a bit sparse, but still look good.  It is a bit odd that Ezio is allowed to run through small shrubs without seeming to actually touch them outside the cities, but perhaps that's because Ezio's memories have been corrupted within Desmond.  The sound, too, is good, with appropriate sound effects for running, jumping, and fighting.  And, if Ezio turns around as someone is speaking to him, the voice will move from speaker to speaker in fluid fashion.

The AI present in the game is good, but not outstanding.  It is relatively easy to take on a large group of enemies at a single time – most of them will stand around and watch as only two or three actively attack Ezio.  Different enemies are better and worse at pursuing and following Ezio across rooftops and spotting him in his hiding places.  While the best of the enemies are quite intelligent and function realistically, the lowest level of pursuer are, perhaps, slightly less mentally swift than seems plausible.

Despite the fact that Ezio and his actions may be fictional, the game is built around actual historical facts and figures – Leonardo da Vinci appears as does the Medici family and others.  Additionally, beyond real names of cities being used, some Italian landmarks are included as well.  This historical backbone to the story – and not Desmond's reality – are what help drawer one into the game and make it sure an incredibly worthwhile experience.

With the promise of a minimum of two different DLC packs coming in the new year, hours upon hours of open-world fun in the main game, beautiful graphics, and a mostly compelling story, Assassin's Creed II represents the best videogaming has to offer.

Assassin's Creed II is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360 and PC.

five stars out of five

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Shortcut Happy? How About a Gboard?

The ability to do more in less time drives many an innovation.  One of the latest technological shortcuts to come about – and just in time for Christmas too – is called the Gboard and the basic idea behind is quite simple.  The Gboard is a small numberpad sized keyboard which attaches to a computer via a USB port and requires no special software.  It contains 19 different color-coded buttons which function as Gmail shortcuts, thereby saving one's time by alleviating the need for a mouse in Gmail.

The color-coding certainly makes the Gboard buttons easy to locate, and the entire device a good-looking one.  Additionally, a small blue light sits at the top of the Gboard, allowing one to know when it is plugged in, and that is a crucial bit of information.

As the keys on the Gboard are hardcoded to the keyboard shortcuts within Gmail, they are actually simply duplicating various letters on one's true keyboard.  Consequently, the Gboard doesn't only allow things to happen in Gmail, it works in any program – though one will have a devil of a time trying to figure out in advance (unless one has all the Gmail shortcutsGboard memorized) what pressing each button will do.  While pressing the "next thread" key in Gmail will flip to the next e-mail thread, in Word, it will display the letter "k" (because that's what the keyboard shortcut for "next thread" is).

Ultimately, the question that has to be answered is whether or not the Gboard will save one's time, because, after all, that is the point to – to save one's time.  In the short run, it isn't.  The keys on the Gboard are certainly laid out logically and the color-coding does differentiate the various categories, but they are not laid out in the same relationship as the Gmail shortcuts themselves.  As stated above, "next thread" is a "k," while "previous thread," which sits just below it on the Gboard is a "j," which does not sit below "k" on a Qwerty keyboard.  While those two are at least close together on a traditional keyboard, other keys Gboard have far less – or no – relation to a traditional key layout.

In the long term however, should one choose to put in the time to learn where the keys are on the Gboard, one might forget their Qwerty relatives' locations.  But, is that worth it?  Is the time one would have to put in so to learn the keys worth it – will they get that time back in their not having to move the mouse later?

Fans of keyboard shortcuts certainly might. In fact, for those who regularly use keyboard shortcuts or who tend to have issues with mice, the Gboard could work very well.  Currently available only through Gboard's website, the pad sells for $19.99 and has a wonderful feel to it.  It neither feels cheap nor shabbily made, and as with many regular keyboards, it can be made to sit at an angle.

For those who do not like keyboard shortcuts or who have no issues with mice will be far more hard-pressed to want to spend their time learning where the various keys are.  Beyond that, no matter how one feels about shortcuts, one's hand will have to be moved away from the standard home keys on a keyboard to operate the Gboard – a move which may take less time than using a mouse, but certainly more than using one's actual keyboard to utilize the shortcuts.

It may be unlikely to win many converts to the use of shortcutting, but it looks great, feels great to use, and just seems cool.  It is, at the very least, something for those who use Gmail on the web browser to seriously consider.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Come on Everybody and Ride... The Choo-Choo Express

Every year on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Mickey and the gang get the opportunity to see Santa Claus.  This year, Mickey gets to meet the big guy as a part of a double-episode, "full-length adventure," Choo-Choo Express.

It doesn't start off with Santa though, it starts off with the ever-wacky Professor Von Drake heading off to Mistletoe Mountain to make snow that doesn't melt. Oddly enough, the Professor is successful, but he does need help getting the new "easy-freezy" snow back to the Clubhouse.  And that is where the aforementioned Choo-Choo Express comes in – Mickey and the gang have to take the train up to the mountain to get the Professor and his snow back.

It all starts off as a classic episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse – an off-beat problem is presented at the opening, Mickey and friends grab Toodles and some Mouskatools, and they proceed step-by-step until their goal is accomplished.  At that point, normally, they sing the "Hot Dog," do the "Hot Dog Dance" and go on their merry way. 

Instead of that happening here, once the snow is back at the clubhouse, the gang heads out again on the Choo-Choo Express to pick up some friends for a snow party.  Again, Toodles shows up, more Mouskatools are received, and the gang goes about accomplishing their goal, and only then do they do the "Hot Dog."

Though Mickey and his friends aren't universally liked, they do seem to find their way awfully quickly into the hearts of children.  Geared for preschoolers – Mickey Mouse Clubhouse airs as a part of Disney Channel's Playhouse Disney lineup – the show is full of bright colors, great animation, and characters children either know and love or will soon know and with this as an introduction, love.  Adults will notice quite easily that Choo-Choo Express is simply two episodes put together, but the intended audience will remain blissfully unaware.  Instead, at least with the preschooler I watched, it was just special that they used a second set of Mouskatools.  The show does make some attempts to be educational, in this case teaching about things like telling time on analog clocks and different shapes.  The show doesn't linger on these moments, but they are present.

The DVD release of Choo-Choo Express contains an extra episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (only available in 1.33 format, not optimized for widescreen televisions as the main feature is) as well.  Entitled "Mickey's Big Job," it features Mickey and company helping out Willy the Giant when Willy goes off to see his mother for the day.  The bonus episode can be watched either regularly or in "Interactive Adventure Mode" which stops the episode occasionally to ask questions of the viewer.

There is something wonderfully special about Christmas, and something equally fantastic about Mickey Mouse.  When the two get put together, even if Santa and Mrs. Claus only make a brief appearance, it ends up thrilling many a youngster.  This DVD, which also features a new song by They Might Be Giants (they wrote the theme song and the "Hot Dog" as well),  is sure to delight the Mouse's youngest fans.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Concerning Men of a Certain Age

Created by Ray Romano and Mike Royce, and starring Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher, TNT's Men of a Certain Age examines exactly what it title suggests – men of a certain age. In this case, the age happens to be their late 40s, or if you prefer, "middle-aged." While it may be wishful thinking on the part of these three men to think that they are only entering middle-age in their late 40s (and of the three leads, only Braugher is actually still in his 40s), if you can suspend disbelief long enough to get past that, you will actually get to experience an enjoyable show.

The three actors star as Joe (Romano), Owen (Braugher), and Terry (Bakula), three friends from college who have managed to stay close for the decades that have elapsed since their graduation. Joe is the about-to-be-divorced father of two and owns a party supply store; Owen is the happily married father of three who works as a car salesman at his father's dealership; and Terry is the single, virtually washed-up actor who works as a temp in order to make Photo Credit: Danny Feldends meet. It is a simple enough setup, and even if the characters initially appear somewhat stereotypical (and they do), the show quickly dives beyond those broad generalizations to create interesting and believable storylines for the characters.

The best of those stories over the course of the first three episodes belong to Braugher's Owen. Owen's father, Owen Sr. (Richard Gant), is an overbearing man who is disappointed in his son's apparent lack of work ethic. Senior treats his son more harshly than everyone else on the lot which, rather than inspiring his son, tends to depress him. The two have an incredibly uneasy professional relationship and consequently seem to have virtually no personal one. Braugher handles the upset about his character's job and father beautifully. Owen is upset and angry and resentful and yet still desperately wants his father's approval.

Romano's Joe, at least in the first few episodes, is a far more stereotypical character as he copes with his impending divorce and tries to find his footing in the world again. He is unsure about how to relate to his kids but does his best to be an everyday – or almost everyday – part of their lives. Joe is a good father, but as any father can tell you, being a good father isn't always the same as feeling as though one has done a good job. Even so, Joe does in fact perform admirably as a parent. From the audience's perspective, the far larger issue with Joe's character is his multi-episode, ever-building gambling problem. Perhaps the worst of the storylines in the show, Joe has had gambling issues in the past and as he is trying to rebuild his life, those issues are starting to reemerge. While being a divorcing middle-aged father has, of course, been done before, the gambling issue feels like one television cliché too many.

Photo Credit: Danny FeldAs with so many drama series these days, Men of a Certain Age isn't strictly a drama. Though more serious than funny, the show does manage a couple of good laughs in its first few episodes. Many of those are provided by Bakula's Terry. Terry's acting career may not have turned out quite as well as he would have liked and it is something that definitely irks him, but he still manages to coast through life without seeming to get overly concerned about it. He dates younger women, slacks off at his temp job, and still has many admirers even if he doesn't have a job in the entertainment industry.

Despite any issues the show may have with its establishing of the main characters as individuals and not stereotypes, it is the friendship between the men that makes it all work. Whatever their issues may be, the three men are always there for each other, even if it is only to make a joke at their friend's expense. Joe, Owen, and Terry all do care for each other, and are always willing to give advice to each other (though they often seem unwilling to listen when they receive advice). It is the friendship that sees these men through and it is their interactions with one another that make Men of a Certain Age worth watching. Some of their personal storylines work and some don't, but when the men come together to discuss their lives the show excels.

Men of a Certain Age premieres December 7 at 10pm on TNT.

Friday, December 04, 2009

An All-New Alice (2009)

The channel formerly known as SciFi and now known as Syfy is delivering their latest miniseries this week. Entitled Alice, the four-hour adventure is something of a re-imagining of Lewis Carroll's classic Wonderland tales. Both fun and distinctly odd at times, the Halmi-produced event is a reminder of just how much the television landscape has changed over the course of the past decade. Ten years ago this sort of big budget, beautifully produced, all-star event would have aired on a major network during a ratings sweep. Now, it will air on the NBC-Universal owned and ever more and more popular Syfy.

Written and directed by Nick Willing (he also directed SciFi's Tin Man in 2007), this version of Alice stars Caterina Scorsone in the lead role. Alice is no longer a young girl in England, but rather a 20-something karate instructor in the States. Photo Credit: James DittingerFollowing her kidnapped boyfriend, Jack Chase (Philip Winchester), the story rapidly finds Alice herself falling through a mirror (or, looking-glass, if you will) and into Wonderland.

Still ruled by the evil Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates), Alice finds herself learning all about this odd land which the Queen rules by bottling the emotions of "Oysters," which is their term for people from our world. The Queen's evil Suits led by the White Rabbit (Allan Gray) have been kidnapping humans for years and Alice rapidly finds herself on the wrong side of the law.

Through the course of her misadventures, our Alice meets up with the Hatter (Andrew-Lee Potts), White Knight (Matt Frewer), a resistance leader named Dodo (Tim Curry), Doctors Dee and Dum (Eugene Lipinski), Caterpillar (Harry Dean Stanton), Carpenter (Timothy Webber), and the King of Hearts (Colm Meaney) among others. Or, in other words, people at least similarly named to those who figure in Lewis Carroll's tales.

The story Willing has constructed here is an interesting one, and it is certainly well conceived, but its relationship to the Carroll stories is not always an easy one. In this Wonderland there is certainly the story of another Alice, a legendary Alice, but what exactly this Alice did is unclear. It would seem impossible – or highly improbable – that the Alice of legend had the sort of interactions in Wonderland that Carroll wrote of, particularly as a version of all those characters is present here.

Scorsone is good as Alice, making the famous role (or a version of it) hers. She makes the absurd seem believable and serves as the perfect fish-out-of-water to function as a proxy for the equally confused and unaware audience. The true standouts here are Potts and Frewer, both of whom are exceptionally funny and charismatic. The rest of the cast, while obviously quite capable, are never really given as much of a chance to shine as they deserve. There are so many characters presented, and they are all somewhat different than our previous understanding of them that it may have behooved Syfy to give the miniseries a third installment just so that we could get the opportunity to get a better feel for the characters and this new Wonderland.

Photo Credit: James DittingerThat is not to say that Alice's tale is not completed by the end of the miniseries, it most certainly is, but there are so many other tales present here, so many other things that Willing has conceived of, that it seems a shame that the audience doesn't get more.

Perhaps though the most unfortunate part of the tale is that of Alice's father. As this story goes, Alice's father disappeared many years before. Once the audience is made aware that the inhabitants of Wonderland kidnap humans, it becomes all too obvious that Alice's dad is among the kidnapped. Oddly, it takes Alice significantly longer than the audience to work out that her father is in Wonderland. In a story which otherwise works, and with a character who otherwise seems intelligent, the tale of the father seems unnecessarily tacked on and it feels as though Alice has a rather large blind spot.

Pitfalls aside, there is certainly more good than bad to this Alice. Willing has conceived of and constructed a new and interesting take on a beloved classic. He is blessed with a strong cast and if one of the biggest complaints of the miniseries is that one is left wanting more tales about the characters who inhabit this version of the story then he has clearly been very successful. Maybe one day he will even get the opportunity to revisit his Wonderland and provide us more tales from within his looking-glass.

Alice airs December 6 and 7 at 9pm on Syfy.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Handy Manny Braves the Open Road in Manny's Motorcycle Adventure

In recent years, the Disney Channel has managed to score with not just tweens, but with an even younger crowd as well, preschoolers. Their "Playhouse Disney" time block has managed to pump out some substantial hits for the channel, including Handy Manny. And, as with other Disney Channel fare, Handy Manny's adventures aren't only available on television, they can be purchased on DVD as well.

The latest Handy Manny adventure to make its way to store shelves is Handy Manny: Manny's Motorcycle Adventure. Touted as a "full-length adventure," the story runs about 46 minutes and features, as the title indicates, Manny going for a ride on his motorbike. The choice of vehicles seems an odd one for the series – bikes being far less safe than cars and therefore perhaps a bad message to deliver to preschoolers – but Manny does at least wear a helmet and certainly doesn't drive recklessly.

In fact, though Manny is taking a motorcycle for his trip, the trip is certainly not about the motorcycle. The story here revolves around family, and all the different types of family that one can have. Manny is driving off to a family reunion with his talking tools, who are curious about just what family means. In a semi-desperate search to find a family of his own, one of Manny's tools, Pat the hammer, goes off searching for a hammer just like himself. For a time, Pat believes he's on the right track – a company's logo has a hammer with a face just like Pat's – but instead of finding genetic brethren, Pat and a couple of other tools get separated from Manny and everyone else.

It is left up to Manny to travel out of his way on his motorbike with his less-than-full complement of tools in order to rescue Pat and the other absconders. Though he ends up missing much of his family reunion to do it, Manny doesn't mind. After all, as everyone parent knows is coming, at the end of the episode Manny explains to the tools that there are all different types of families, and that he and the tools are one.

It's a simple message and one filled with bright colors, lots of songs, and a bunch of Spanish words thrown in to, hopefully, expand a child's learning experience. As with other Handy Manny DVD releases, though there is nothing here to particularly impress or thrill parents, there is little here to annoy or bother them (save, perhaps, for Manny's riding a motorcycle). Perhaps more importantly though, preschoolers seem to absolutely love it.

The DVD comes with an extra episode of Handy Manny, "A Very Handy Holiday," which can be watched either normally or in "Interactive Adventure Mode" which pauses the episode occasionally to pose simple questions that viewers can answer using their remote. The questions are perfectly suited to be answered by the younger set, with answers that will be obvious to adults but which might cause a preschooler to pause and think. Oddly, though currently par for the course for Playhouse Disney releases, though the main feature will default to fill the screen on widescreen televisions, the bonus episodes only appear as 1.33.

Though calling it a "full-length adventure" may be overreaching, Manny's Motorcycle Adventure has everything necessary to excite and impress preschoolers. Plus, there's a holiday Handy Manny episode included and DVDs make great stocking stuffers. If you're looking for a good gift for a younger child, Manny's Motorcycle Adventure just may fit the bill.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Dragon Ball: Raging Blast Lacks Rage and Blast

One of the best things about 3D (or 2D) fighters is the fighting. Nice environments, good graphics, great sound, and a decent story are all nice, but the actual fight mechanics are the most important thing. Thus, when one plays Dragon Ball: Raging Blast, the latest Dragon Ball fighter, one might find themselves momentarily impressed by the look and quantity of content included (as with some of the other DB games, there are over 70 characters), the game is ultimately a massive letdown. The fight mechanics are distinctly subpar and the entire experience suffers greatly for that.

As with previous entries into the fighting franchise, this game allows for several different kinds of attacks to be performed – smashes, melees, Ki blasts, and signature moves – but the melees, which should be a fighter's bread and butter, are woefully inadequate. The game responds sluggishly if at all – playing the game one will definitely experience several times in each battle where theyDragon Ball: Raging Blast swear that they pressed for a punch and nothing occurs. The emphasis within the game doesn't lie in any sort of basic attacks, it lies in the special moves, Ki blasts, and signature attacks, and even those don't always seem to work when one presses the right combination of buttons. This issue is all the more frustrating when the game actually suggests a move to perform and following the on-screen instructions nothing – or the wrong thing – happens. The instruction to perform the special move then stays on the screen, still encouraging the player to perform the action and, unintentionally, mocking them.

The game itself is divided into several different sections including Dragon Battle Collection (story mode), Super Battle Trial, Versus, World Tournament, and Online Battle. Then, in keeping with Raging Blast's desire to put quantity over quality, Dragon Battle contains several different sagas (storylines from the Dragon Ball cartoon) and "what-if" scenarios one can play through, and Super Battle Trial and Versus has several different types of battles one can engage in. Perhaps the oddest of these is Time Attack in Battle Trial. One would assume that in a battle that revolves around a time limit, that has "Time" in its very title, would show a timer. It doesn't, not until time has nearly run out at which point a timer will appear to let the player know that it's just about too late to win unless they're but a few blows from Dragon Ball: Raging Blastvictory.

There are several different stories one can play through in the game's Dragon Battle Collection mode. While those who know the various storylines may find themselves right at home, those who don't will have to read the optional introductions to the battles to be able to figure out what exactly is taking place (except for there being good guys and bad guys and a whole lot of fighting).

The game does feature a lot of wide-ranging environments, all of which contain a large number of destructible objects, and it certainly is fun tossing an opponent into a mountainside and either seeing the mountain crumble to dust or the nefarious evildoer get momentarily dazed and stuck in the middle of the mountain as cracks form emanating out from the bad guy.

Raging Blast, though, never seems to have a pro without having a con. The massive environments are fun, but the camera and camera control is less than optimal. It is incredibly hard to figure out where one's foe might be if they're not in sight. There is a way to have one's player head Dragon Ball: Raging Blastdirectly towards their opponent, wherever they may be, but approaching an opponent and knowing where they are is not the same thing. One might definitely want the latter but not have the former forced upon them.

It is possible that Namco Bandai has realized that the game is less than stellar as they recently announced that there will be a series of over a dozen free DLC packs made available for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game. The packs are set to include customized versions of characters which different powered-up abilities for use in Versus battles.

Make no mistake, the game looks utterly fantastic, beautifully replicating the cartoon series. The game also contains a ton of content, but there is little depth to any of that content – the emphasis here is clearly on quantity with little thought having been given to quality.

Fans of Dragon Ball will almost certainly embrace Raging Blast, but those who have not already invested a serious amount of time in the franchise in any form would do better to start off (or stick with) any number of other DB games that have been released through the years.

Dragon Ball: Raging Blast is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Cartoon Violence and Mild Language. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360.

three stars out of five

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Who Dr. Seuss' Horton Heard Heads to Blu-ray with the Elephant Riding Shotgun

The genius of Dr. Seuss lies not just within his words, within his pictures, or within the sentiments those words and pictures contain. Rather, it lies within his amazing ability to combine the words, pictures, and sentiments into something both grand wholly relatable to people of all ages.  As the perfect example of this, Warner Bros. has released the 1970 animated classic Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! to Blu-ray.

The animated tale, clocking in at approximately 25 minutes, follows, as does the book, Horton the Elephant and he does his best to provide protection to an entire society of people who live on a speck of dust.  No one in Horton's jungle believes the elephant, but he is utterly insistent that there is life on the speck and that, as he puts it, "a person's a person, no matter how small."

Horton's belief, as true as it may be – a person is in fact a person, no matter their size – isn't something that the other animals in his jungle appreciate.  Instead, led by Jane Kangaroo, the jungle animals taunt and mock Horton, stealing the flower upon which his Who-filled speck of dust sits and later threatening to boil the flower in bezelnut oil.   Quite logically, it is the smallest of the small in Whoville who eventually makes the Whos' presence known, thereby saving them all and Horton to boot. 

The special features offer some great Seuss songs and a teleplay written by Seuss himself.  It holds true to all that makes the book a classic and Horton (who first appeared in Horton Hatches the Egg) a great character.  Horton is the type of person we'd all like to be, and the enemies he faces are those we all would face if we ever had the opportunity to follow in the elephant's footsteps.  Though he may be a pachyderm, Horton is who we all would ideally be, and has strength of character that many of us would not.

Originally a television special, the show looks and sounds better than one might expect on Blu-ray.  The print is relatively clean, but certainly not perfect.  There is a noticeable flicker to the background and the occasional bit of dirt or scratches on the frame.  The sound comes through loud and clear, even that oh-so-important "Yopp!" which eventually saves all concerned.

There is certainly nothing outstanding or over-the-top wonderful about the look and sound, but the main feature certainly looks substantially better than the two bonus Dr. Seuss tales included, Daisy-Head Mayzie and The Butter Battle Book.  The latter, which deals with the Yooks fighting the Zooks over the correct way of eating buttered bread (butter side up or down) was created while Dr. Seuss was still alive, but the former, which follows a girl with a daisy growing from her head, was produced based on a screenplay found by his wife, Audrey. 

While both of these tales are certainly Seussian in their absurdity, Mayzie holds together far less well than The Butter Battle BookMayzie contains Seuss' whimsy and charm, but the basic plot seems a little more scattered than other Seuss tales and certainly gives the impression that he wasn't quite finished with it. 

As stated previously, neither of these two special features look remotely as good as Horton in this release.  The animation in both features terribly jagged lines that clearly are meant to be straight.  It is as though the disc attempts to output far more detail than actually exists within the frame. 

The Blu-ray also contains the full-length "In Search of Dr. Seuss."  Not quite a movie and not quite a documentary, the piece stars Kathy Najimy along with other terribly famous faces as she explores but Seuss' work and life.  It is the exact sort of hybrid piece of truth and fiction one imagines Seuss himself would be quite appreciative of.  Lastly, the disc contains a music video sing-along from Horton, and a digital copy which, in a fit of Seussian absurdity, is only Windows Media compatible and therefore can neither be played in iTunes or on an any Apple product.

Shortcomings in the bonus features aside, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who is a true classic, both in terms of its televisual age and its being the work of a master artist at the top of his game.  Seuss may have seen the world differently from the rest of us, but one would be hard-pressed to argue that his version is not far superior to ours and that his ideals should not be the ones to which we all aspire.