Thursday, February 25, 2010

More on my Love Affair with Psych

No seriously, how can you not love Psych? I've already discussed the theme song which, by itself, may be enough of a reason to watch the show, but last night they referenced the Kevin Kline-Sigourney Weaver film, Dave. That's right, Dave, the film where the guy who looks like the President has to step in and pretend that he is the President. I still, on a fairly regularly basis, sing the shower version of "Hail to the Chief" that Dave sang in that film ("Hail to the chief / He's the one we all say 'Hail' to. / We all say 'Hail' / 'Cause he keeps himself so clean! / He's got the power, / That's why he's in the shower"). You should give it a try some time, it really is quite fun.

You may not like Dave – a foolish decision to be sure, but possible – but the referencing of it was great. Psych, as well as any show on television, comes up with potentially obscure but great semi-pop culture references. But, perhaps more importantly, the show doesn't do that at the sacrifice of story or plot. Psych isn't Hamlet, but it is intelligent and fun, and I think that's why it works so well.

The show was, as you may remember, initially paired with Monk, and the notion was that this series was the perfect complement to that one – that the feel and tone were similar enough to allow them to pitch Psych to audiences in the traditional "if you like 'x' you'll love 'y'" kind of way. It's perfectly true, the two series do have similar notions behind them – mysteries solved in a funny manner. However, I've always felt a little bad about the pairing as I think that it means that Psych has had an awfully big shadow that it has had trouble getting out from under.

Monk was always both critically well received, as well as an Awards favorite (at least for Tony Shalhoub). The show had a serious dramatic backbone to it – it was about this detective, the greatest detective ever, who lost his wife in a murder that he was never able to solve and that crushed him. That serious undercurrent is something that helped the series' reception on the critical/awards level, and is something that Psych lacks, which again places the series under Monk's long, dark shadow.

I hate to rail against something as being unfair — it is true that life is unfair — but to me this whole thing has always felt unfair. USA Network at this point has a pretty decent stable of original, hour-long scripted programming which fits under their "Characters Welcome" branding. I wouldn't say that Psych is the least respected of the those series, that's a game I'd rather not get involved in, but it certainly isn't the most, and that's a shame, because of the original programming that currently airs on USA, I think Psych is the best show they offer. Neither Shawn (James Roday) nor Gus (Dulé Hill) have that same scarred history that Adrian Monk had on that series, but they both, when the script requires (and it does require it from time to time), ably perform dramatic parts.

Psych is a smart show, one that weaves pop culture references into mysteries and almost without fail manages to create a compelling story complete with interesting questions and more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. It's got great characters both at its core and on the periphery, and everyone on it seems to be having a great time with it. Its season finale is coming up on March 10, and I promise that even if you haven't watched the show yet, if you sit down with the finale, you'll enjoy it (though I'm betting it'll be darker than usual). Of course, you could just watch a full episode right now on Hulu instead:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Last Restaurant Standing Leaves a Bad Aftertaste

When the third season of Last Restaurant Standing began, I noted how different the first episode was from previous seasons and suggested that only time would tell whether the changes were worth it or not.   Now that the winner of the third season has been declared I can quite clearly say they weren't.  In the end, the reasons the third season seemed to work nowhere near as well can be divided into two separate areas – the contestants and what seems to be a greatly diminished budget for the series.  

Taking a look at the former area first, there really was no single team that impressed at all at any point during the season.  There may have been teams with good chefs and teams with a member who could run a decent front of house, but never did it appear that there was a great front of house person and a great chef combined in a team that had any idea about what it might require to run a restaurant. 

Now, we're about to get into the results, which isn't really a spoiler because the season ended a while ago in England and last night here.  But, I tell you that we're going to discuss results just in case you haven't watched and my suggesting you shouldn't bother to waste your time isn't enough to convince you.

The team that won, admittedly, doesn't have a member of the team who can cook.  Any task where the contestants were required to cook wasn't one they excelled at.  JJ and James were marketers, packagers.  The two men couldn't make a good drink and smarmily smile at you and get you to buy whatever they might be selling.  You might feel kind of duped by it all later, but at the time you'd buy it.  You want a soufflé for dessert?  How about I make you a drink instead?  Risotto?  Nope, can't cook that.  In fact, I'm not so much comfortable with the idea of applying heat to food in order to cook it.

Watching those two clowns win made me feel embarrassed for Raymond Blanc and the other judges.  Blanc has positioned himself as a man who lives and dies based on fresh ingredients brilliantly used, attention to detail, and incredible cooking skills.  That's something JJ and James won't ever be able to put out in their restaurant… unless they hire someone else to do the cooking.  But, they may actually been the best choice.  They're the two guys who may actually put forward the most successful restaurant, at least in the short term as the idea is going to be oh-so-hip and now.  There was just no one else on the show that had anywhere near that good a concept.

Of course, if Blanc and company weren't going to base their decision on quality of food and merely on concept, why did they bother with the minimalist version of the show we got this season?  Couldn't they have saved a lot of time and money just handing JJ and James the prize in the premiere?

Then there was the other massive problem with the season – one which actually feels tied in to the selection of JJ and James as the winners and the overall low quality of the contestants – the series felt far too scaled down.  From the other judges, David Moore and Sarah Willingham, joining Raymond as a part-owner of the new venture, to the lack of a true main set for the series (they ended up doing eliminations at restaurants, not at a home base location), to the elimination of the challenge round that actually would determine who was going home, there was simply too much altered from previous incarnations and the changes felt as though they were born of someone trying to save money on the production.  I walked away from the season feeling as though the actual restaurants the contestants were supposed to have been running were barely ever open.  When the places did actually serve customers, they seemed to do so as a part of an pre-organized meal, not just trying to get reservations and get people off the street to come in.  The restaurants ran a special dinner for couples and for singles, one for larger groups who had booked in advance, that sort of thing.  Consequently, we never really got the opportunity to see how these folks would fare on a regular basis with a restaurant. 

Maybe that's why it felt like such a hollow victory for JJ and James – we never saw them shine in a restaurant setting because the restaurant settings were few and far between.  I'm convinced these guys could open a cocktail bar with some food and be hugely popular for 15 minutes, but they seemed to have the worst kitchen of any of the teams.  I needed to see more than we did in order to truly believe that these guys were remotely deserving of the victory.

The original format of Last Restaurant Standing wasn't without issues, but we at least really got a taste for who the couples were and their abilities vis-à-vis running a restaurant.  I know that JJ and James are great promoters of themselves, but I don't know, despite their having won, that they can run a restaurant.  Should there be a season four of the series, I hope the producers will consider a return loftier standards.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Finding the Glory of Heracles

Almost every game – even sandbox and sports games – has a beginning and an end.  There may be many ways to get to the ending; there may even be a multitude of endings, and there may even be the opportunity to go back into the game and get that ever-elusive 100% completion after the end arrives, but virtually every game has an ending.  Role-playing games (RPGs), perhaps more than other titles, have definite endings; after all, RPGs have you take on a character (or characters) and venture on a journey with them.  Eventually, that journey will end (at least until the sequel). 

Of course, despite the fact that a game has an end, we don't necessarily want to feel forced into it. Part of what makes a game enjoyable is feeling as though we can roam around in a make-believe world and play a vital role in the story.  One of the most annoying things any game can do is ask you a question — for example, should I head to location A or B? — and upon receiving your answer reply "Ah, ha, ha, ha, we're know you're kidding. You really want to go to the other place," and then force you to do just that.  There Glory of Heraclesare games that operate "on-rails," but those tend to not give you a choice and then disregard your answer.  An RPG that operates on those same rails, no matter how fun the other aspects of it are, has to be in some way disappointing.  And that is the basic problem with Glory of Heracles.

An extremely traditional RPG available exclusively on the Nintendo DS, Glory of Heracles finds you controlling a number of different characters who have either chosen to hide their pasts or conveniently have amnesia.  The game starts with you as the legendary Heracles – or at least you think you're Heracles – except you don't quite remember what's happened to you.  You head off on a journey through the Greek Isles with a new friend and are ever-so-slowly on your way.

Running around Ancient Greece on land and sea (okay, you have a boat at sea), the game herds you from town to dungeon to town to dungeon, forcing you to perform certain tasks in a certain order along the way.  None of the dungeons are terribly different from one another, and nor are the towns.  While other RPGs might make some of these tasks – rescue the little girl from the abandoned mine – side quests, in Glory of Heracles you can't move forward until she's rescued.  Worse than that, you can't even try to progress tGlory of Heracleso the next town or dungeon until you complete whatever the current assigned task is (and there is usually only one quest at a time that can be done).  If you do, you'll find that the road is blocked, the boat not ready to leave, or some other type of obstacle.

Though the setting of Ancient Greece may be one we don't often see used in this sort of game, there is little else to truly differentiate the title.  Towns allow you to buy and sell food, drink, items, weapons, and armor.  Incidentally, blacksmiths can polish and upgrade any new weapons and armor that you find, or craft new ones for you.

One can overlook all the game's issues were its story well-paced.  Unfortunately, it isn't.  For example, one of the most interesting aspects of how magic can be used – or actually not used as it deals with limitations on magic – isn't discussed until approximately five hours into the game.  Furthermore, after so much irrelevant dialogue has come and gone, it's all too easy for one to completely miss the discussion, making the next battle that much more difficult.

As for the battles themselves, Glory of Heracles runs a turn-based system with back and front rows for each side.  The vast majority of battles are exceptionally easy, and while things do become somewhat more difficult later in the game, except for the occasional boss battle there is little to an encounter that might potentially stop you from winning every one on either the first or at Glory of Heraclesworst, second, try.

If all of this sounds overly harsh it isn't actually meant to be.  The game is a mostly stress-free trip to Ancient Greece and one which incorporates numerable characters from Greek mythology in new and sometimes interesting ways.  The graphics are fun, there are lots of mini-games which can be used as power boosts for certain attacks, and stylus use is both well-integrated and wholly possible to ignore (save for the mini-games) if you don't particularly enjoy it. 

In the end, to some extent, you will get out of Glory of Heracles what you put into it.  The story may operate all-too-linearly, but there are decent amounts of customization available for weapons and armor, and consequently a myriad of ways to outfit your party and outwit your enemy. If you're looking for massive open-ended play Glory of Heracles won't fit the bill, but it has a certain charm that makes it enjoyable despite any other shortcomings.

Glory of Heracles is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference, Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, and Mild Suggestive Themes

Three stars out of five

Monday, February 22, 2010

Looking for Smarts on The Amazing Race 16

I often find myself sad early on during a season of The Amazing Race – with so many teams for me dislike, why do ones that I'm completely indifferent to have to be eliminated?  It's moderately distressing.  But, I don't want to give too much away but what went down this week in terms of the episode's conclusion.  No, I'd much rather discuss a big mistake I made last week in my review, which is going to involve a whole other set of spoilers about what happened this week.

See, I suggested that only about half the teams seemed to lack smarts.  This week, three teams who proved themselves moderately dim last week showed that they weren't necessarily the dimmest.  The minimal amount of travel this week required teams to jump on a couple of buses – one from Valparaiso to Santiago and then at least one more to Puerto Varas from Santiago.  I say "at least one more" because while the vast majority of teams opted to sit around for hours on end waiting for a direct bus to Puerto Varas, Jordan & Jeff, Brent & Caite, and Jet & Cord instead looked into connecting buses that might get them there a whole lot sooner.  Okay, Jet & Cord had the idea handed to them by someone else and Brent & Caite were merely riding Jordan & Jeff's coattails, but Jordan & Jeff had a great idea.

Have the rest of the teams never seen an episode of The Amazing Race?  Have they never booked travel themselves?  Why would they not ask about connecting buses?  Why did they blindly accept the routing given to them?  Did they really not even bother with a perfunctory "and that's really the fastest way, there's no other way for us to get there?"  Ridiculous.

And, let's not pretend like the three teams who did it right were geniuses either.  As noted, Brent & Caite were just following Jordan & Jeff and Jet & Cord had the idea handed to them by a passerby who was doing some translating.  Jordan & Jeff were the only ones who actively made the right decision there (it was all Jeff's idea), but then in trying to make their connection they completely blew any IQ points that they may have earned.  Their connecting bus was leaving at 6:30, and despite arriving early, they didn't bother to look for the bus until 6:29.  It was only at that point that they found out that their connecting bus left from a terminal a few blocks away and not the one they were at.  They missed the connection.

See?  Dumb.  Just dumb, and that makes it a clean sweep last night – the only team that acted intelligently in terms of their travel negated that intelligence at the very first opportunity that they had.

I hold out great hope that these teams are smarter than they initially appear to be.  At the beginning of every season there are so many teams that are out there racing that we really only get the briefest snippets about most of them.  I would be foolish to suggest that the information we have about the teams thus far allows for a complete representation of who these people really are, so maybe the truly brilliant ones just haven't been given a chance to shine in the final cut of the first two episodes.  I do have a suspicion however that had a team done something ingenious, even if they were in the middle of the pack during a leg, we would have seen it.

I'm looking for things to change in future weeks.  Jeff proved himself to have the potential this week, and had he not turned his brain off he and Jordan could have won the leg.  Maybe there are other teams out there who are about to wake up and make this truly exciting.  We'll have to see.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Having A Woolly Good Time with Shaun the Sheep

The folks at Aardman Animation have a unique talent for creating incredibly compelling characters and stories. From Wallace & Gromit to Chicken Run and at many points in between, Nick Park and company have a unique brand of humor, a quirky view of the world, and a way of making the audience smile at the very least and laugh uproariously at the most. This skill is most certainly evident in the latest set of Shaun the Sheep episodes being released to DVD in a set entitled Shaun the Sheep – A Woolly Good Time.

The disc contains six stories and very brief interstitials, all of which combined run for a total of approximately 40 minutes and which feature Shaun and his sheep cohorts, Bitzer the dog, and the Farmer. Oddly absent from this set of episodes are the Naughty Pigs. But, while the absence of the pigs may distress their particular fans, everyone else watching will still enjoy all the stories that the disc has to offer.

Each episode, as indicated above, is relatively short and all follow a very few basic patterns and tell a simple story. Most usually, this story has to do with pulling the wool over the eyes of the Farmer or Bitzer. Yet, within this same basic outline, the episodes always manage to impart a great deal of humor. Shaun, the wisest sheep of the bunch, routinely finds himself having to come up with a plan or save the day – as he does in his rescuing of Timmy the sheep in the episode "Big Top Timmy," where Timmy has run off to join the circus. This particular episode, which features some work on the tight rope and flying trapeze, may be the funniest of the bunch.

As with other Aardman works, Shaun the Sheep is done with stop-motion animation. Small, poseable figures are placed on a mini-set, shot, slightly repositioned, shot again, slightly repositioned, and shot again, etc., in order to create the appearance of movement when the stills are put together. Perhaps it is because so much effort goes into creating the pictures that the stories seem so simple and yet well-conceived – the amount of work that is required to film an episode causes more thought to be put into the production as a whole.

The disc comes with a minimal number of bonus features, there is a brief behind-the-scenes look at how episodes are created and a Shaun the Sheep sing-along. The former is all too brief and seems geared at a relatively young audience, but still gives a good idea of what it takes to make a Shaun the Sheep story. As for the sing-along, as with prior Shaun the Sheep DVDs, the opening theme song is played in an incredibly small picture as the words appear on the bottom of the screen. For a series where so much effort is put into creating every little movement and scene, to have such a haphazard, slapdash sing-along is incredibly disconcerting and relatively distressing.

Shaun the Sheep – A Woolly Good Time is, in short, another wonderful example of wit and wonder and a whole lot of fun. The episodes contained herein are enjoyable for young and old alike, and anyone looking for a new and different thing to watch with a mixed-age audience would do well to consider it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lost - A Look at the New Locke

Over the course of the few years it's been on television, Lost has, at least temporarily, put different characters in the fore.  Sure, Kate, Jack, and Sawyer have always been there, but over the past couple of seasons it's Locke who has stepped up to the plate.  I guess I like Kate, Jack, and Sawyer, but I definitely find Locke – or the man in black or the black smoke or just Jacob's enemy or whomever he is – the most compelling.

Certainly at least part of that is the fact that Terry O'Quinn does a fantastic job in the role.  There is an intensity to O'Quinn's face, something about his eyes, that makes his stare mesmerizing.  Is he evil?  Is he thinking evil thoughts?  Is he good?  Is he thinking good thoughts? He has always, even when he was definitely John Locke, been something of an enigma and that's helped by O'Quinn's semi-unreadable face.  Jack is a good guy, always has been, it's in his face.  Kate's a good girl with an edge, also in her face.  Sawyer wanPhoto Credit: ABC/Mario Perezts to be a hard-ass but when the chips are down he's the guy you want in your corner, again, it's in his face.  Locke has always been much more of a mystery, even way back in the first season when we he seemed happy that they crashed on the island.

Right now it definitely appears as though Locke (and that's what I'm going to call him for lack of a name other than "black smoke") is a bad guy, but frankly I'm not hugely sure that he is bad.  Are you?  Okay, he probably is, if I had to place a bet I'd most likely say that he is, but just because the show makes him seem that way doesn't mean it's the case.  Oh, Richard Alpert may have been absolutely right when he said that Locke wants everyone on the island dead, but not knowing what the island is and having all our Oceanic buds back in the real world in the alternate timeline may mean that they all ought to be dead, no?  We don't know the story of what's going on, so why insist that he has to be the bad guy? 

And then there's this fact that's been troubling me and may help argue for Locke being good – aren't The Others bad?  Haven't we believed that The Others are evil for years?  Didn't they lock Jack, Kate, and Sawyer up back in the day?  They may have given them fish biscuits to eat, but don't The Others – doesn't Ben Linus – stand in opposition to Locke?  Don't Ben and The Others revere Jacob?  Maybe both Jacob and Locke are bad, but we certainly know more about Ben than we do about whomever Locke is now and Ben definitely seems unabashedly evil.  That might just make Locke good.  I'd have to go with Locke being good before I went with The Others being good, and would even accept both sides as evil before taking a positive view of The Others.  Okay, so we don't know the motivation of The Others either, but why are we willing to toss out everything we've learned about them just because Locke seems evil now? 

Lastly, you're going to tell me that the black and white stones on the scale stood for Jacob and Locke and that they were in balance before Locke touched them – good was in balance with evil.  I won't quibble about them being in balance even though the black one definitely seemed minutely lower.  Locke tossed the white stone, the one you think is the good one, into the water signifying Jacob's death.  Locke called it a joke though, what if he wasn't lying?  What if that's all it was, not good versus evil?  And what if, as a joke, they had reversed good and evil?  What if Jacob's looking for a protector wasn't a good thing or what if Locke was right and there's nothing to protect the island from. 

I'm just saying and I can't wait to find out the truth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stargate Universe - Stargate, But Without Prerequisites

Though it is the third series in the franchise, Stargate Universe (SGU) requires no base knowledge of the series; it's Stargate for those who didn't watch the theatrical film, any of the 10 seasons of Stargate SG1 or any of the five seasons of Stargate Atlantis. Characters from the older series may appear on occasion, but they are not the focal point, and those unfamiliar with SGU's antecedents won't be worse off for not recognizing the characters as "the legendary so-and-so."

The basic premise of the series, despite the show being a science fiction endeavor, is really quite simple – through no fault of their own, a motley group of individuals finds themselves stranded and doing their best to get home. Their surroundings are odd and sometimes unintelligible, and as they attempt to get home they must also establish the basic workings of a society. That same summary could be used to discuss any number of books, films, and television shows and works well as a basis for SGU – the fears and concerns of the characters are ones we can all understand, ones that many of us have felt to a greater or lesser degree over the course of our own lives.

It is the facts of the situation, not the premise, where the science fiction lies (as with most good science fiction). The scientists, military men, politicians, and others end up so far away from home because they were on a different planet trying to use this thing called a "Stargate" and ended up getting attacked by other aliens. They stepped through the Stargate and found themselves on an alien ship, the Destiny, somewhere else in the universe. The ship was built by a race of folks known as the Ancients and has been wandering the galaxy following a pre-programmed route for an incredibly extended period of time. Oh yes, and the humans who find themselves on board Destiny can neither access the entirety of the ship nor really control it.

The first part of season one, the part now available on DVD, follows the now crew of Destiny as they learn about their surroundings, attempt to find a way back home, and provide for their basic needs (stuff like food, water, and air). It is a setup that works very well in the short term, but at the same time makes one wonder exactly where the series will head down the line. It is great to watch the crew find their footings and learn how to perform the basic things they need to do to survive, but the show can't stay at that point for long because while the life-sustaining basics are important, they tend to not be televisual drama-sustaining. Where exactly the show will go once they move on from the basics is somewhat more up in the air, but as of this moment it certainly feels very Star Trek: Voyager, a series which revolved around a ship making the long journey home. It will certainly be different having the idea played out in the Stargate universe instead of the Star Trek one, but it is still – on the face of it – an awfully similar notion.

Outside of the question of technology and background, one of the most obvious ways this series is different from Voyager is in its characters, and not just because no one here is wearing a Starfleet uniform. The most interesting of the characters at this point is Eli Wallace (David Blue). He is the fish-out-of-water at the center of the story and is said fish even before the folks find themselves on Destiny. He even gets to watch a little Stargate primer which will help those who do want some basic knowledge of the world the show takes place in. Wallace is a goofy, nerdy, young scientist, someone totally unprepared to have stepped out of his mother's basement much less be aboard a starship wandering about through the galaxy. Blue, who was great in a recurring role on Ugly Betty, again shows here just how compelling – how watchable – an actor he can be.

While Blue gets many of the lighter moments, there are certainly heavier moments that take place as well, and the rest of the cast, led by Robert Carlyle, is certainly up to it. Carlyle plays Nicholas Rush, the mad scientist with a past. Carlyle identifies himself on the DVDs as not having been a massive fan of science fiction prior to taking this role, but rather a fan of drama. Rush, with his secretive motivations, and the show with its unquestionably dark feel, is certainly dramatic.

The rest of the cast – which is somewhat large for a show that features people alone on a grossly undermanned ship – is full of recognizable names and faces including Lou Diamond Phillips, Ming-Na, and Louis Ferreira. For what is really a character-based drama, the cast all certainly make the most of every opportunity they get to play out emotions and scenarios.

The DVD release of Stargate Universe 1.0 contains both a regular and extended version of the pilot, commentary tracks for every episode, interviews with the cast, the aforementioned primer on the Stargate universe (for SG-1 fans, it is hosted by Dr. Daniel Jackson), and Kino (a little flying device with a camera and microphone that is used extensively in the series) video diaries which provide added insight into some of the characters.

The first 10 episodes of Stargate Universe, the episodes included in this set, give viewers the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what could be a very long and fruitful journey. While one can't guess where exactly the show will head from here and what sort of new dangers lurk around the corner, as currently established, Stargate Universe is exciting, emotional, and a journey the audience will greatly enjoy even if the crew of Destiny doesn't.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Amazing Race 16 - The Race is on!

This season of The Amazing Race isn't a "celebrity edition" but between a former Miss Teen USA contestant, two members of Big Brother, and a World Series-winning third base coach, it at least half feels like one.  The show seems to have an increasing reliance on casting individuals with a name and/or face recognition, which doe seem to hamper it somewhat, although not as much as the lack of ability illustrated by the contestants in the season premiere.

Although one might have expected Caite Upton, the former Miss Teen USA contestant who became an internet sensation with her all but incoherent speech during the contest, to be the dimmest bulb in the pack this season, there are certainly others accompanying her on the race who will give her a run forPhoto Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS her money.  For instance, there is the winner of the most recent Big Brother, Jordan, who is competing with her boyfriend whom she met on the show.  Although an adult, Jordan doesn't fully comprehend discussions about time, like when she should arrive somewhere if she is meeting a person at a quarter to two. 

And those are just the people who give the audience pause before the race even begins.  Once host Phil Keoghan sends the contestants on their way and before they reach the first Pit Stop at the end of the episode, no fewer than three other teams do things that are completely and totally perplexing to an outside viewer.  Without delving too greatly here into what takes place in the episode, it is more than fair to say that plenty of people watching at home will find themselves shaking their heads at the teams we have before us this cycle.

That is an incredibly disappointing statement, as The Amazing Race is one of the best – if not the best – conceived and put together reality show on television.  The amount of effort that clearly goes into working out the locations and challenges is immense, and even here, where the contestants are found wanting, the show is able to pull through due to the travelogue it puts together.  Watching the funiculars aPhoto Credit: Monty Brinton/CBSnd seeing the multi-colored houses in Valparaiso, Chile – the first stop this year – is fantastic.  Unfortunately, some in the audience may choose to mute their television as they see the sites so that they need not hear a discussion about why a contestant thinks it ought to be okay to use Brazilian money in Chile (it's a geographical thing).

Every season of The Amazing Race tends to feature at least one couple whom everyone else is sure simply shouldn't be there – people who don't know geography, people who are afraid of heights, people who need to spend four hours on their makeup prior to starting a leg, people who can't perform physical activities, etc.  There are certainly times when these teams astound the viewer, either winning the competition or lasting an incredibly long time in it.  Such teams make for a good underdog story and a great through line during the season.  However, when the majority of teams seems to have such an issue, it feels much more like the producers are stacking the deck so that they can force such a story upon the audience, not as though it's a natural outgrowth of the competition. 

Yes, reality shows are edited to enhance tension and create a more cohesive story than might otherwise exist, but they work best when the artifice is invisible, when one can't see the show forcing any number of underdog stories on the viewer.  And, if a large number of teams could be classified as underdogs, are any of them actually underdogs?  Following something of a generic cycle of the show in the fall, this new one is that much more disappointing. 

At this point, The Amazing Race is still a fun show to watch and still takes viewers to new, interesting, and wonderful places.  It would, however,  behoove the producers to find the best contestants they can – people who won't mind competing in physical & mental challenges and who can find at least a dozen different nations on a map.  There are certainly some teams who meet that description this year, but fewer than there should be.  With luck, all the teams who don't belong will be swiftly eliminated (a difficult task as there seem to be so many), thereby leaving the audience with compelling racers and a compelling race.

The Amazing Race 16 premieres Sunday, February 14 at 8pm on CBS.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII - Hands-on with the Demo

The term "paradigm shift" is one of those things you often hear politicians, CEOs, "analysts," pundits, and others who like to spin things and hear the sound of their own voice discuss.  We're going to experience a paradigm shift in the way we use energy.  We're going to experience a paradigm shift in the way microchips are engineered.  Paradigm shift this, paradigm shift that.  We respectfully submit that in the coming months you're going to heaFinal Fantasy XIIIr "paradigm shift" used in a different and completely more fun manner.  And that is because if you want to play Final Fantasy XIII, you're going to need to learn all about paradigm shifts.

Blogcritics Gaming recently got the opportunity to lay our grubby little mitts on a playable demo of the upcoming (in the West anyway) Final Fantasy title, and the first thing we had to learn all about was the paradigm shift.  Of course, as the demo we were playing was relatively late in the game, there was a whole base of knowledge we had to acquire instantly as well (kind of step zero, with step one being the paradigm shift).

The battle system in FFXIII is incredibly fast, something you've undoubtedly noticed if watched any of the trailers, and consequently in a battle you only control one character.  In a battle said party consists of up to three members with you controlling the leader.  While you don't choose whether the others in your party attack, defend, use magic, heal, etc. in individuals turns in the fight sort of – and it still is a turn-based system – you can, tell them what they're going to be doing – and that is because of the paradigm shift. 

Let's step back a minute, shall we?

Before battles begin – which is to say anytime as long as it's not the middle of the battle – you can setup several different paradigms for your battle team in the menu.  There are six different roles each player can take on:  Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Synergist, Saboteur, and Medic (kind of like the jobs systems that have appeared in the past), and different paradigms are created by mixing and matching different roles for the three members of the party.  In a battle one can switch between paradigms, that would be a paradigm shift, thereby changing what characters will be doing even if those characters aren't being controlled individually.What role should you be assigning characters?  Well, remember the sphere grid in FFX?  This game has something called the Crystarium System which is very similar.  Players have certain roles that they may be better at, but all six roles are available in theFinal Fantasy XIII Crystarium System and different attributes can be upgraded within it with the use of Crystarium Points (CP) which are earned after battles.

Let's leave all that aside though for now and discuss the actual demo that we got to participate in, shall we?  Picking up the controller we found ourselves on the planet Pulse, that would be the lower world of the two in the game, on an open plain with monsters both great and small roaming around.  FFXIII will feature, as has happened occasionally in the past, monsters that are readily visible – there is no being attacked by creatures you don't see until the battle has commenced.

The game – as is usually the case with a Final Fantasy title – looks absolutely outstanding, and besides the massive Adamanchelid hanging out in the distance on the plain, it was the detail that existed in the game that we first noted.  From the individual strands of hair to rocky outcroppings, to whatever was happening on the upper world of Cocoon which looked totally uncool, the amount of effort put into creating a great visual experience was immediately apparent.

Taking control of the main character, Lightning, we went running for the Adamanchelid as we firmly believe in biting off more than we can chew and the four-legged beast who was several times the size of Lightning seemed like more than we could chew.  Before we got to the beast, we were unceremoniously attacked by smaller baddies.  For the first battle we oFinal Fantasy XIIIpted to just madly attack, waiting for the ATB to fill and then getting to punch attack over and over again – moves are stackable within the game.  Though we were in a later portion of the game, we were able to make quick work of the baddies, with Lightning and her compatriots bouncing all over the place as they dispatched the enemy horde.

Despite not actually getting to swing a sword or more the characters forwards and backwards, the speed at which the battles in FFXIII really made it feel as though we were controlling Lightning's movements.  There is no way at the speed a battle plays out that we could possibly have attempted to control all three members of our party and the speed made us feel a whole lot better at the minor loss of control.

Upon completion of the battle we were awarded CP, TP (technical points, which are used for summons and special magic), and even got an initiative bonus (the exact way that's calculated was never quite clear.   The battle summary screen also provided a star rating based on our performance, the expected time such a battle should take for us, and the time it actually took.  That's right, we came in under the time and rocked a full five stars.  And, even though one of our party, Sazh Katzroy (the guy with the chocobo in his afro), almost met his maker in the battle, his health was fully restored upon its completion (as happens with all characters).

Eventually we did make it to the Adamanchelid in the distance, who, with little ceremony, completely humiliated us – if one were to score his performance it would have necessitated a minimum of six stars.  Rather than having to go back to save point though, FFXIII respawns players immediately prior to the battle, a very nice thing that allowed us to get whipped by the Adamanchelid immediately once more. 

Are we a glutton for punishment?  Unquestionably, by the nice folks from Square Enix suggested that the next time we attempted the battle we time our attacks for when the Adamanchelid stomps, as Lightning jumps to attack the beast and the stomps act as an earthquake, damaging all players.  So, even though you don't haveFinal Fantasy XIII hands on control over every single move the players in the game do, it is certainly more involved than setting paradigms, shifting paradigms, and entering commands. 

All too soon, our time with Final Fantasy XIII ended.  The distinct feeling we had after putting down the controller was that the series has, once again reinvented itself, and seems to have done so very successfully. 

Final Fantasy XIII launches in the United States on March 9 and you can be absolutely certain that not only will Blogcritics Gaming be covering the title (and then we'll even get into the summoning system which involves each character only getting one Eidolon that they can call), but that the next time we face the Adamanchelid he's ours.

I Know, You Know I Love Psych's Theme

I know, you know that I'm not telling the truth.  I know, you know, they just don't have any proof. 

Nonsensical lines or pure genius? 

A little bit less than two years ago I read a short piece in Newsweek which discussed the importance of opening credits.  Though perhaps a wise piece – and written by someone with a great first name – I think that he misses one of the most important aspects of any credit sequence, the music.  Though often referred to as a visual medium, it seems to me that television is very much an auditory one as well; people wouldn't watch nearly as much television if it was silent.

In between the lines there's a lot of obscurity.  I'm not inclined to resign to maturity.  If it's all right, then you're all wrong, but why bounce around to the same damn song?

Think back in television history.  If you can see the I Love Lucy opening in your head, you can probably hear the theme song.  There is no way that you can recall the credits to I Dream of Jeannie and not start singing the tune.  And then you have my personal favorites, stuff like Cheers.  That series had those great old-looking pictures which so clearly were asking you if you wanted to go where everybody knows your name.  How about Friends and those crazy kids playing in that fountain, perhaps trying to make the best of a bad day, finding merriment via their companions – it's like you're always stuck in second gear, and it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, but I'll be there for you.

Embrace the deception – learn how to bend.  Your worst inhibition's gonna psych you out in the end.

The music and the visuals for those television shows and for so many more are forever fused together; they can't be disentangled from one another.  There are shows where the visuals overpower the lyrics and ones where the lyrics overpower the visuals.  For my money, one of the best cases of the latter is the show Psych

The show's theme song, "I Know, You Know" by the Friendly Indians has the same sort of feel to it that the show itself espouses. They ought to be, one of the members of the Friendly Indians, Steve Franks, is one of the creators and executive producers of Psych.  Both the song and the show are loud, over the top, and show the same sort of reckless abandon.  There is a sense of fun that is imbued in both the series and the song itself that is incredibly infectious.

I tend to watch a lot of television – if alien Alec Baldwin were right, my brains would have turned into gelatinous goo a heck of a long time ago.  One of the ways that I get through as much television as I do is by, even if they do set the stage, bypassing the opening credits.  Seriously, with the amount of time opening credits take if I skip them, the "previously on," the "next time on," and the commercials I can fit in tons more content.  Psych, however, is a show that I not only watch the opening credits of every single time, I sometimes actually rewind them just so that I can hear the song again.

I know, you know.  I know, you know...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife - Nice Girl Maybe but a Bad Movie

Reading a synopsis of The Time Traveler's Wife, one would be greatly tempted to believe that it had a little something for everyone in the audience. The film, directed by Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) and based on a book by Audrey Niffenegger, is the tale of a man who travels in time and the woman who loves him. It has a little bit of science fiction, some drama, and a whole lot of romance. What this filmic adaptation lacks though, oddly, is a single cohesive story. Instead, The Time Traveler's Wife is instead far more like a series of scenes, of moments in the lives of the two characters at its center without ever really exploring anything.

Photo Credit:  Warner Home VideoThe time traveler at the story's center is Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana). Henry first time travels at age six and throughout the rest of his life has, at random points, jumped around in time. Rarely does he seem to go anywhere for an extended period, and often he visits the same moments in time over and over again. The movie gives a half-hearted, wholly unexplored reason for this time travel – a genetic abnormality.

Though the film could spend a significant amount of time in an attempt to explain or even simply examine Henry's time travel, the reasons for it and the ways in which he can try and stop it, it doesn't do this. The genetic abnormality explanation is all we get as to why, and while ways he can try to stop it are mentioned in passing, that is as much as the time travel facts are explored.

The film only provides the time travel story in order to give a spin to the tradition boy meets girl story; in fact, it is only Henry's genetic abnormality that causes any difficulties in his relationship with the love of his life, Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams). Though she is the titular wife, Clare feels like the most hastily sketched of characters. Her entire life as presented in the film – she met Henry when she was six – has solely been defined by her relationship with her eventual husband. Outside of the fact that she loves Henry, would like to have a family, and is an artist, the audience learns nothing about Clare.

I do not mean to suggest that the audience learns a great deal more about Henry than Clare, it most certainly does not. Henry is a librarian, a time traveler, perhaps an alcoholic, and in love with Clare, but when the final credits roll that is all one has really learned about him.

Photo Credit:  Warner Home VideoInstead of giving the audience fully fleshed out characters, instead of providing a compelling story, instead of ever actually exploring who these characters are and why they might love each other, Schwentke, via Bruce Joel Rubin's (Deep Impact) screenplay, opts to only show moments from the characters' lives. The movie shows small scenes from a larger life to which the viewer is never given access. To make it worse, there are a plethora of scenes in the film where all the characters discuss other moments in their lives – moments which all too often sound more interesting than what appears on screen. In short, the film all too often violates the popular axiom "show me, don't tell me." In the film, magically, Henry becomes great friends with Clare's good friend, Gomez (Ron Livingston). In fact, Gomez ends up as Henry's best man, but the audience really only knows the two are to become such good friends because future Henry tells Gomez as much – the relationship never develops, they simply go from acquaintances to best of friends.

One might assume that there are a slew of deleted scenes which, if added back into the film, might significantly balloon the running time but provide the viewer with a far more satisfying experience. If such scenes exist, they are not included on the new Blu-ray release. Instead, the package contains a digital copy and two making-of featurettes, which are, for no clear reason, made as said two featurettes instead of a single piece. The interviews with the cast and crew included in the pieces certainly make it appear as though they were filmed at the same time, and while one purports to give us McAdams and Bana's view of the relationships whereas the other is allegedly more focused on the actual making of the film, without reading the synopsis provided on the back of the box no one would guess that's what the difference is supposed to be.

Perhaps the best elements of the film are the technical features of the release. The video quality is quite good. Some may be bothered by the amount two different blacks in the same scene melt together, destroying any visible difference between something in the foreground and something in the background. However, one cannot help but be impressed by the rich and varied colors; no matter the color on screen, they are attractive and appealing, drawing in the viewer far more than the plot ever does. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track only truly gets the chance Photo Credit:  Warner Home Videoto shine twice, but performs solidly throughout. One won't have to sit with the remote altering the volume repeatedly, and the surrounds do a good job of placing the audience wherever the characters may be.

In the end, The Time Traveler's Wife, is a below average romantic drama. There are certainly enough people out there who enjoy watching Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana and who thirst for such films that it will find fans, but there are far better examples of the genre and performances by the stars. The only thing that at all differentiates this film from so many others is the sci-fi overlay, but that overlay, as with everything else in the film, is never developed, never explored. The Time Traveler's Wife does manage to put on screen several good scenes, but those scenes are not strung together into a single compelling piece. As the credits roll, one can't help but feel that the movie is full of promises left unfulfilled.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Letterman, Leno, Oprah, and a Great Super Bowl Spot

One of the commercials from the Super Bowl which has garnered the most attention – and certainly the one which interested me the most – was not as much a commercial as a promo spot. The promo, which was for Late Show with David Letterman, showed us Letterman sitting on a couch, complaining about how unfun the party was to his couchmate, Oprah. Why was the party less than amusing? Because Jay Leno was there as well.

The last time the Super Bowl aired on CBS there was also a spot with Letterman, it as well featured Oprah, and this year's promo was certainly building off any audience memory of that one as well as the famous "Uma, Oprah! Oprah, Uma!" introduction. While that certainly played into the joke itself, from an industry standpoint, the presence of Leno is what really made the entire experience somewhat odd.

For years, when Leno hosted The Tonight Show, something he'll be doing again in a few weeks, he routinely beat Letterman in the ratings. In fact, as has so frequently been reported with NBC's recent late night woes, it was only after Conan took over the host duties at The Tonight Show that Late Show began winning the ratings war on a regular basis. Thus, in a very real world sense, Letterman would most certainly be displeased with Leno's returning to the late night party.

Why then did Letterman do the ad? I'd like to think that the answer is because it was funny – making the joke was funny and Letterman is nothing if not a funny man. Additionally, Letterman, as we saw with his personal scandal last year, is able talk openly about, and therefore get out in front of, issues – be they personal or professional – that he may be facing. Leno's return to the late night scene is, potentially, definitely an issue for Letterman. Leno was the ratings king before his departure to primetime, and the current question among pundits and industry execs is whether or not he'll be able to regain that crown.

Why then did Leno do the ad? Through the current late night issues Leno has certainly been made the bad guy. When he's talked about it, Leno has painted a picture that has him as something of an innocent with NBC's plans, but that hasn't stopped others from knocking the once and future Tonight Show host. Perhaps Leno did the promo spot for Letterman in order to finally show that he has a sense of humor about himself and the situation. And, whether or not he was an active participant in a fight with Conan or not, Leno certainly came out as the victor in the battle – Leno remaining on the air at NBC despite the low ratings for his primetime show and Conan leaving the network. Leno doing the promo as a way to help rehab his image is incredibly smart, and NBC's allowing him to do it is equally bright.

Yes, the entire thing was apparently Letterman's idea and only required Leno, NBC, and Oprah to sign on, but NBC and Leno could easily have seen the spot only as one for Letterman and shot the whole thing down without anyone being the wiser. They didn't do that. Instead, Leno and NBC agreed to do it and what we, the audience got, was a spot for Late Show that ought to help rehab Leno's, NBC's, and The Tonight Show's images as well.

Plus, it was funny.

Examining the Fringe

There are a select group of individuals would refer to me as "nitpicky" or a "nitpicker." I wholly disagree with those people. I prefer to think of my looking at minutiae as the same sort of keen observation that made Sherlock Holmes so successful as a consulting detective. Of course, I may be somewhat biased in that opinion.

Last night, Fringe, opened the episode in New York City, the New York City from an alternate universe (this is Fringe, after all). In giving the location with those massive 3D letters the show is known for, they identified the location as "Manhatan." I will grant you that someone suggested – without telling me why – to pay close attention to the opening, but noticing that odd spelling completely disturbed my watching the rest of the episode.

At first I thought it was simply a mistake, an error that no one saw or fixed. However, as the show progressed and it became clear that we were in an alternate universe, I began to wonder, and it was that wondering that hindered my enjoyment. The question I couldn't answer – that I still can't answer – is whether or not the spelling was intended. After all, in an alternate universe, a New York City with an island of Manhattan may have chosen to spell it differently. And, even if that wasn't the original intent of the producers, even if the spelling was initially a typo, who is to say that at this point the show won't continue with it and pretend as though it were their intent the entire time? If Richard Nixon can be on the silver dollar in the alternate universe, Manhattan can certainly be spelled differently.

I actually think that last night's episode was a pretty good one. Much as with The X-Files, I enjoy the episodes of this series that deal with the overall mythology (and I won't be spoiling the excellent ending we got yesterday). They have managed to create a compelling storyline, one that is wholly different from that of Mulder and Scully's and yet feels as though it pays homage to the earlier show. It is, as pointed out above though, not a series without odd moments.

Another odd moment from tonight is when Walter mentioned the appearance of a car from the other universe several years earlier. The car's appearance and location on Harvard's campus was attributed to a prank by MIT students, we were told. Walter, however, knew differently. He stated that he knew the car was from the other world because it had a CD player, an option which was not available in our world at the time. Now, what sense does that make? How could Walter be the only person who recognized that there was a CD player in the vehicle and that it absolutely should not have been there? The event occurred in (or the car was from) 1986, the CD player having been invented a few years prior. Perhaps it was an after-market add-on to the vehicle, done by a home tinkerer with money and time. There are a myriad of ways the CD player could have been there, and if I'm wrong, if all those ways are completely impossible, if the CD player could never, ever have been in that car, a car which was noticed by a whole lot of people, the presence of the player should have been noticed by others besides Walter.

I am sucking the fun out of the whole thing though, aren't I? It was an enjoyable episode with one or two oddities and due to those oddities I'm destroying all that made the show fun.

Would it make it worse or better if I suggested that Walter's 5-20-10 lock combination is almost certainly a date, the date of a big event on the show, and the date of this year's finale?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Lost - Questions and Answers as the Final Season Begins

I, as much as anyone, have complained about television series finales. I seem to recall having written about the disappointment I've felt at the closure of television shows on more than one occasion. I wasn’t someone who disliked the last episode of Battlestar Galactica, but there have been more than one series which I've felt cheated by when they turned off the lights. While I wouldn’t suggest that some shows have an easier time in creating their finales, there are series that certainly have an incredibly difficult battle to do it correctly. One need look no farther than Lost to see how true that is.

Last night, as many are aware, Lost began its final season. While the series' numbers aren't what they were earlier in the show's run, Lost is still a cultural icon and has, as a bandleader said back in the day, got some 'splainin' to do.

At this point in the series, as was pointed out to me last night, there are a ton of questions. (and here we get into spoilers). There are people out there who seem happy that the show finally answered the question of the black smoke – it's actually Jacob's non-friend who has made himself look like Locke. That may sound like an answer initially, but that's not an answer, it's about a half-dozen more questions (as noted in the aforementioned article). Who is Jacob? Who is the other guy? How does he turn into the black smoke? Why does Jacob have guards? Why do the two guys hate each other? Who over the course of the series that we've thought was one person has actually been this other guy? The list goes on and on. How are they possibly going to clear this up by the end of May?

I'd like to suggest that they shouldn't – they shouldn't bother explaining everything.

Oh, I'm not saying that they shouldn't take some time to sketch a general picture, but they shouldn't go into everything. I have to figure the executive producers are smart enough to understand that. As much as some out there may want a great deal of hand-holding, it seems to me that it would be better if we didn't get that. If you've stuck with the show this long, surely you want don't want some dumbed-down explanation that makes you feel like a fool, right? A general picture would be far better — everyone then can have their little ah-ha moments when they work out for themselves what this, that, or the other meant. To take us down the path and show us each little flower along the way is to not treat the viewer with respect.

In the end, of course, whatever answers we may get on the series will not be universally pleasing. It really matters very little what Cuse and Lindelof come up with, someone will be angry – and they will be vocal about their anger. But, that potential anger must not influence what they're doing.

At this point, the important thing is not that the show tries to satisfy everyone – by doing that they will almost assuredly satisfy no one. The important thing is that when the overarching answer (whatever the question may be) is revealed, the audience honestly believes that it is something that the producers had in mind all along. The biggest way to cheat us is to present us with something that feels half-baked and like a very last minute idea.

I have no guesses – no good guesses – as to what the answer may be to what the island is, who Jacob is, and any other myriad of questions, but I'm still completely hooked on the show and can't wait to get more answers (even if they lead to bigger questions).

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Doctor Who: The Complete Specials Completely Wonderful on Blu-Ray

[Editor's note: individual reviews of "Planet of the Dead" and "The Waters of Mars" are available separately, as are opinion pieces on "The Next Doctor" and "The End of Time".]

British television operates on a fundamentally different level than American television. Imagine if a popular series – say House – announced that rather than doing a regular season of shows next year they were, instead, going to do a handful of really high budget episodes. It is unthinkable; it would never, ever, happen. On British television, however, such things can be done. Thus, rather than doing a traditional season of Doctor Who in 2009, the series produced two special episodes as well as a two-part Christmas special (Christmas specials have been an annual thing for the show ever since it was reborn). Photo Credit: BBCNow, those four hours of television, along with the 2008 Christmas Special (which didn't make it to the States until the summer) have been released in boxed set. The episodes included are, chronologically, "The Next Doctor," "Planet of the Dead," "The Waters of Mars," and "The End of Time, Parts One and Two."

All five of the episodes included in the set feature the tenth Doctor, David Tennant. They are, in fact, the final episodes featuring Tennant as the Doctor and with Russell T. Davies serving as the executive producer of the series. Davies has run the series since its return to television, with Tennant stepping into the role of the Doctor beginning in the second season.

The specials feature a Doctor who has taken quite an emotional battering over the past few years. Each of the past three seasons of the series saw the Doctor lose a companion – Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), whom he was deeply in love with; Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), who was in love with him; and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), who was the perfect best friend for him but whom he had to leave behind so that she could remain alive. Consequently, the Doctor has chosen to go companion-free, picking up and then leaving behind a new would-be companion each episode.

Although "The Next Doctor" doesn't fit quite as well as the others into the overarching storyline of the end of the tenth Doctor's life, it does still work in the set of specials as an opening "this is how it all begins" sense. That sense is made all the greater by the fact that the Doctor meets someone in the episode who too claims to be the Doctor. Though the Doctor's main enemy in the piece are the Cybermen, meeting a potential future version of himself forces the Doctor to question whether he is going to be forced to regenerate soon.

Photo Credit:  BBCAt the end of the second special, "Planet of the Dead," the Doctor is told explicitly that his time is nearly up and that "he will knock four times." It is by that knocking that the Doctor will know that his end is arrived. With that knowledge in hand, the Doctor goes on something of a power binge in "The Waters of Mars." By far the darkest of the specials, it is this one that is the best. It is an old school space-horror piece, one in which humans become monsters whose main desire is to return to Earth and take over the entire planet.

And then, of course, comes the "The End of Time," a massive two-part episode that features the return of another age-old enemy of the Doctor, the Master (John Simm). Last seen dead and burning on a funeral pyre at the end of the resurrected series' third season, the Master has a few new tricks up his sleeve when he returns. The two-parter also features the return of some old companions; a series of truly touching goodbyes; and a few secrets which, were they discussed herein, could truly ruin the story for anyone who has not yet seen them.

While not always better, it is clear from watching the episodes that the stories certainly are larger – or done in a larger fashion – than traditional episodes of the series. The perfect example of this is "Planet of the Dead," the production of which actually sent the cast to Dubai to film part of the episode. Doing that truly does create the desired effect – as stated in the episode of Doctor Who Confidential which accompanies it – of giving the feel of a true alien world, something the show doesn't always achieve.

Photo Credit: BBCThe specials are bigger too in terms of the guest stars they feature. In addition to bringing back past companions from the new series, the specials feature David Morrissey ("The Next Doctor"), Michelle Ryan ("Planet of the Dead"), Lindsay Duncan ("The Waters of Mars"), Bernard Cribbins ("The End of Time"), June Whitfield ("The End of Time"), and Timothy Dalton ("The End of Time").

Tennant is at the top of his game as the Doctor for these last few episodes, being at turns funny and serious and creating one of the most likable incarnations of the Doctor the series has ever known. Fans of Doctor Who, at least fans of the new Doctor Who, will be incredibly pleased with this set. "Planet of the Dead," with its tale of the Doctor ending up on an alien world with a double-decker bus and an odd assortment of passengers and a new form of aliens who are going to destroy Earth is the most disappointing story-wise, simply because it feels as though the thought behind it went into the actual filming of it rather than the story itself. It, as noted in the aforementioned standalone review, makes for a good episode of the series but not something (outside of its production values) which feels truly "special."

Even with the relative disappointment of this entry however, the set is still a must-own for fans of the Who-niverse. People who have no prior relationship with the characters or story may find bits and pieces of it interesting — "The Waters of Mars" works best in this regard — but will probably not find themselves completely entranced.

In terms of video quality, it must be instantly noted that the first special, "The Next Doctor," was not originally filmed in high definition and has been upconverted for this release. The video quality isn't bad per se, but it is certainly a whole lot less detailed and defined than the others. The other entries feature better video quality, substantially more detail and a greater richness of colors, though they are only 1080i and not 1080p. There is some noise present in the image in all the episodes, though seemingly less in "The End of Time" than the others. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is crisp and clear, and the surrounds are put to good use with both music and effects. For a television series – and one must remember that they are watching a series here and not a massively big-budget blockbuster movie – everything sounds and looks good.

Photo Credit: BBCThe set also includes several special features. There is an episode of Doctor Who Confidential which accompanies each of the specials (five in total as there is one for each part of "The End of Time"). Confidential is, essentially, an in-depth making-of series. Confidential episodes run nearly an hour and truly go into how an episode of Doctor Who comes into being. There are also deleted scenes for the specials as well as audio commentaries with Tennant and Euros Lyn (director) for both parts of "The End of Time." Catherine Tate is with Tennant and Lyn for part one of the special and John Simm for part two. There are video diaries kept by David Tennant, BBC Christmas Idents (promos for the BBC), moments from a trip Davies, Tennant, Euros Lyn, John Barrowman, and Julie Gardner (executive producer) made to Comic-Con in 2009, and "Doctor Who at the Proms." This last piece is a concert featuring Doctor Who music filmed at the Royal Albert Hall as a part of the long-running British concert series. The musical tribute features some favorite characters from the series, is hosted by Freema Agyeman, and is great fun to both listen to and watch.

This box set of Doctor Who serves as a very stark reminder of how much Russell T. Davies and David Tennant will be missed on the show. The two men helped define this new version of Doctor Who (even if Christopher Eccleston was the first Doctor in the reincarnation), and The Complete Specials show just how great an understanding both men have of who the Doctor is and can be. It is certainly not always a pretty picture, but it is a fascinating one.

What will happen to the show in the future? That, no one can definitively say. All we can do is yell out a good "allons y" and head off to find out together.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Taking a Trip on the Mystic River

Mystic River does not represent Clint Eastwood's first Academy Award nomination for Best Director and it wasn't his last. It also was not his first or last nomination for Best Picture. Although Mystic River didn't win either of those awards – it did capture an acting award for Sean Penn and a supporting actor award for Tim Robbins – some would argue it may be Eastwood's finest work.

The film, which is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, stars the aforementioned Robbins and Penn as well as Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden (who was also nominated for an Academy Award for her role), and Laura Linney. It is a great cast and all the members of it are well up to the task given them. Mystic River is an incredibly dark movie, one which starts with the abduction and sexual abuse of a young boy, Dave Boyle, and then picks up the story years later when the boy is grown (and now played by Tim Robbins) and has continued to suffer the after-effects of what happened to him.

Boyle still lives in the same neighborhood as does one of his childhood friends, Jimmy Markum (Penn), but the third member of their trio, Sean Devine (Bacon), has moved on to bigger and better things, joining the Massachusetts State Police. When Jimmy's oldest daughter is found murdered, it is Sean and his partner, Whitey Powers (Fishburne), who are called in to investigate.

Taking place in a strictly working class neighborhood, Mystic River is a noir film that pulls no punches. It focuses itself on its three main characters and the different paths their lives have taken from that first scene where Dave gets abducted. It is that moment that sets the tone for the movie and that moment which forever alters the lives of the characters. Jimmy, an ex-con, owns a convenience store; Dave is an undefined, but clearly low-level, blue collar worker; Sean, while he has managed to escape the neighborhood, has not grown past the events of the past as his being a police officer is a response to the fact that one of the men who abducted Dave did so while posing as a plainclothes officer. All of the characters in the story, not just the three men, have led difficult lives, not ones that they are necessarily unhappy with, but difficult nonetheless.

As the film progresses, Dave becomes the police's chief suspect in the murder and parallel investigations develop as Sean and Whitey pursue the truth within the law and Jimmy and some of his criminal associates pursue it on a more personal level. The film's murder mystery is a good one – there are enough red herrings, possible suspects, and moving parts to the investigation to keep the viewer interested.

It is however not the mystery but the characters and performances which make Mystic River a great movie. Almost every member of the ensemble cast has their own emotional turmoil that they are working through, and each cast member perfectly expresses their character's issue clearly and fully. Watching the movie, the audience almost truly begins to experience each pang of guilt, upset, dread, horror, and love that the characters feel.

Mystic River is a dark movie and the Blu-ray release features incredibly dark video as well. Characters are continually melting into the shadows, disappearing into the backgrounds. Eastwood's film features an extremely muted color palette; one won't find rich, bright colors in the release, but that is due to the chosen look of the film as opposed to any shortcoming in the video quality. There is still a great amount of detail present in the picture, at least there is in scenes which contain a decent amount of light (and not every scene does). While one may want to see more of some scenes than they can due to the darkness, the look of the film on Blu-ray feels to be exactly what the filmmakers intended, or at least it fits in perfectly with the overall aesthetic. The film is a dialogue-heavy one, and one that asks little of its 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound presentation. When the surrounds do come into play – mainly with some of the outdoor settings – they do help situate the audience perfectly. The audio track is clean, and while one might have some trouble hearing some of the more quiet scenes, there is nothing really present for one to be distressed about.

The special features include a commentary track with Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon and two behind-the-scenes making-of featurettes, one of which originally aired on Bravo. Both of these are very traditional making-of pieces, delving into how the film came to be, but never really going very far beyond a promotional look at it. The Blu-ray case's description of the non-Bravo piece is misleading as the case states it is Dennis Lehane touring the neighborhood setting of his novel. While Lehane is present, the tour is at best metaphorical as he is on a soundstage talking about the film and the featurette is equally focused on him, the actors, Eastwood, and Brian Helgeland who wrote the screenplay. Additionally, it should be noted that the two featurettes do contain some of the same content. There are three interviews from The Charlie Rose Show – one with Eastwood, one with Robbins, and one with Bacon.

Mystic River is a great story, masterfully told. It compels one to watch, it urges one to watch, it forces one to watch, but make no mistake, it is not easy to watch. Just like with the lives of its characters, there's nothing easy about Mystic River, but it is an outstanding film.