Wednesday, March 31, 2010

iPhoning up the Return of The Red Star

Everything old is new again.  Call it nostalgia, call it not having learned history and therefore being doomed to repeat it, call it retro – that which has occurred will occur once more.  In today's world of videogames and growing quantities of downloadable content, you can see the return of plenty of old titles, some have been gussied up and others have stayed true to what they were upon initial release, warts and all.

Lying somewhere between the original version and a gussied up one lies The Red Star.  Originally released on PS2 in 2007, The Red Star has, as of this month, been ported to the PSP and now is due to be released on the iPhone at some point this spring.  It is this last version, the iPhone one, that we got the chance to sit down and check out this past week.

First the old – the game itself is the exact same one that made its way to the PS2, no changes to the graphics, enemies, levels, etc.  On the iPhone it all looked good enough – there was nothing there to blow us away, but nothing that left something to be desired either. 

It is an action shooter, one based on the graphic novel of the same name, and where you get to control one of three characters (only two of which are available at the outset).  The story takes place in a futuristic world, Russia and its satellite nations still exists as a Communist superpower, one known as the URRS (United Republics of the Red Star).  Your job in the game is simple – destroy anyone and everything in your path.  Sometimes those things are people and sometimes they are massive machines (bosses, if you will).  Your main attacks here come from a gun and fists, though you do have a shield, and a couple of other tricks up your sleeve as well.

Now, where the game is different than its PS2 and PSP predecessors are in the control scheme – as you would pretty much expect from a touch-screen based iPhone instead of a controller-based system.  Movement is handled easily enough, with you touching the screen and then sliding your finger in the direction you want to go.  Combat is a little more difficult.  The game does have a lock-on feature, but it requires that you tap the screen (anywhere) and then tap the guy you want to attack, press the fire button on the right side of the screen and lay waste to your enemy.  It takes some getting used to, but by the end of our time with the game we were certainly starting to get the hang of it.  It did still seem a little difficult to hit the exact right spot in order to lock on, especially when the targets are moving and the screen is small – we can't wait to see what the title will look like on the iPod Touch XL… errr… iPad.  It should be easier to lock on, but will the time it takes to move your finger to the fire button allow your enemies to gain the upper hand?

We're told that the current plan is to give purchasers of The Red Star the option of buying the full title at once or as three separate episodes (pricing TBD).  As a shooter, it certainly has that pick-up-and-play feel to it that could make it a big success on the iPhone, if people find the control scheme acceptable. 

The Lord of the Rings Goes Blu (Theatrically Speaking)

There are two basic schools of thought regarding Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and by about the midway point in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, most people know where they stand. The first camp people can fall into is the group who believe that what Jackson created is nothing short of a masterwork — a brilliantly conceived and fully realized version of Tolkien's story; an emotional, dramatic, suspenseful epic. By the time the credits rolled on Fellowship people in this camp were already drawing up plans as to exactly when they would see The Two Towers and, quite possibly, where the best seats to watch the Battle of Helm's Deep were located.

The other camp is the group who decided the film was awfully long and simply couldn't wait for the credits to roll so they could go out for Chinese food. Though this may sound harsh, the latter group is wrong. The Lord of the Rings trilogy shows exactly what great filmmaking can and should be; it shows that action need not take a back seat to story and emotion in order to create an outstanding piece and what greatness can be wrought on screen by those who care deeply for the work.

The trilogy has now come to Blu-ray… mostly. While it's the sort of thing that fans and Blu-ray aficionados have been waiting for, they will not be impressed with this release, which has the feeling — despite the massive amount of lead time that had to go into it — of being a haphazard, slapdash effort. More on that later though; first let's look at the films themselves.

Many people are already exceedingly familiar with the story here, J.R.R. Tolkien's tale of the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth. The films, while they do work separately, are far more satisfyingly looked at as a single piece, one that is broken into three parts to be sure, but a single story nonetheless. The three films were conceived of and produced at the same time, and consequently truly need to be looked at together rather than separately.

The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, puts the pieces in play, following the story of how a Hobbit, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), came to possess the One Ring, to know its evil, and to set off to destroy it, thereby destroying the ultimate evil in the land, Sauron. Frodo is initially only accompanied by three other hobbits, Samwise "Sam" Gamgee (Sean Astin), Peregrin "Pippin" Took (Billy Boyd), and Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan). At that point their quest is a small one – take a short journey a couple of towns over and meet up with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Sadly for them, Gandalf isn't present at that meeting and they are forced to continue on with the stranger Ranger from the north, Strider (Viggo Mortensen).

Though all of that prelude is crucially important (and terribly interesting to see put on screen), the story really gets going in the second half of the first movie, when the Hobbits and Strider reach Rivendell. It is there where the full scope of their quest becomes apparent and where the Fellowship is formed. The Hobbits and Strider (whose real name is Aragorn and who is of royal blood) join forces with Gandalf; an Elf, Legolas (Orlando Bloom); Gimli (John Rhys-Davies); and a human, Boromir (Sean Bean). The nine individuals are tasked with heading to Mordor, the home of Sauron, to throw the One Ring into the fire within Mount Doom, the place where the ring was forged and the one place it can be broken.

Fellowship, as do the other two films, takes some liberties with the story as Tolkien wrote it. Those liberties tend to be relatively small and at times include the incorporation of other material written by Tolkien that relates to the characters and time period but wasn't included within the three stories proper. Some of the other changes include the slight rearrangement of what the audience – or reader – learns about the characters, and the exact moment in the tale at which the film ends and the next begins. There are, assuredly, Tolkien purists out there who will be upset with these changes (and really one can't completely fault them — seeing Tom Bombadil would have been great), but by and large the films, though epic and expansive (and all with a runtime in the neighborhood of three hours) are beautifully crafted, with little extraneous material.

By The Two Towers, the story of the characters is split in several directions, with the Fellowship no longer in existence. Frodo and Sam find themselves led ever closer to Mordor by Gollum (Andy Serkis), whereas Merry and Pippin have been abducted by the once good but now evil wizard, Saruman (Christopher Lee). Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are hot on the tale of those two Hobbits.

Finally, in The Return of the King, not only do we get to see the culmination of Frodo's quest, but Aragorn's return to his ancestral homeland, and the true closing of the Age. This third film, though some may quibble with the large number of endings it contains, may very well be the best of the three. And while the extended closing might be inappropriate for a single film, one must remember that it isn't the close of a single film, but rather the close of a three-film, nine-hour epic.

As most people are aware, Tolkien wrote far more books about Middle Earth than just this trilogy and The Hobbit. Consequently, there is a ton of backstory, side story, and all manner of other bits and pieces of information that this trilogy is informed by. Jackson and company manage to brilliantly sift through all of that information, giving compelling bits of backstory to nearly all of the characters, thereby managing to create complete pictures of who these people are and why they act in the manner they do.

That is all to do the good – the theatrical versions of the films, which is what this set includes, are wonderful examples of epic filmmaking and how to perfectly incorporate CGI in employment of plot and story not as a substitute for either or both. What is not good, where this set fails, is in its presentation, which, as stated above, feels incredibly slipshod.

In terms of video, despite the fact that all three films were shot at the same time and were all released within two years of one another, they look and sound different here in this release. There is no other way to express the feelings one will have looking at the visuals of Fellowship than by saying that disappointment will abound. The textures and look vary greatly from scene to scene, at times being relatively sharp and at other times appearing quite muddled. In several outdoor scenes there is a distinct flicker as well. Two Towers looks better than Fellowship, with far greater amounts of detail apparent in clothes, mountains, and Treebeards (well, trees in general as Treebeard doesn't appear until the second film). Two Towers though, in general, is a darker film than the first and as the visuals are most disappointing in bright light in Fellowship, it is possible that one of the reasons Towers looks better is that far more of it is in the dark. Return of the King is, unquestionably, the best of three and looks as good as one would have hoped the entire trilogy to be. Additionally – and perhaps oddly – while the CGI in the first two films looks good, it is far more readily apparent that things are computer generated there than in Return of the King.

The sound, a DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 track on all three films, is quite good all around. It too does improve from one film to the next, but one won't have any sense of disappointment from the sound in the first two films as they will with the visuals. The surrounds are well utilized and if you happen to look down at the wrong time in any film you might swear that a horse just galloped directly in front of you or an arrow whizzed by your ear. Return of the King just takes that very good audio and raises it a notch. This, in part, may be due to the fact that this film has the greatest chance to utilize the audio track with it featuring the climax of the trilogy, but the battle of Helm's Deep in Towers is pretty climactic but not quite as immersive as the battle in King.

As for the rest of the set, which oddly is described on the packaging as containing six discs instead of the nine that are actually present, the discs are all standard DVDs instead of Blu-ray discs (it is made clear on the packaging that's the case), and all of the bonus features contained on those discs consist of previously released material. In fact, the only new special features on the set are the BD-Live access, the digital copies, and a trailer on the feature film discs for an upcoming LOTR game, War in the North (there are also other HD trailers included, which are new to HD, but not new). It is unquestionably true that the earlier releases of the trilogy (both the extended and regular editions) were truly impressive in the amount of bonus material they contained, but it still seems rather improbable that nothing else could be unearthed, or created, for this new release.

As for that previously released material, it includes a plethora of featurettes, and a whole lot of other documentaries (many of which have more of a promotional than behind-the-scenes, warts and all feel) including specials that aired on FOX, Sci-Fi, and Starz Encore. One of the oddest inclusions is a short film made by Sean Astin with some of the LOTR cast and crew during the filming of the actual movie. This short, "The Long and the Short of It," is the tale of a painter who gets some help putting up a sign. While it is merely an oddity, the "making of" featurette for "The Long and the Short of It" is also included – and is in fact longer than the short itself. It is also funnier and perhaps better made. However, the point of both is less the quality and more the camaraderie – the cast and crew of the trilogy were clearly people who liked each other and the project, and that not only comes across in the main features, but in this bonus one as well.

While there are, as noted, a lot of special features, three DVDs worth (the last three discs of the set contain the digital copies), but with only the single trailer for the game being new, one can't help but feel a sense of disappointment, almost as much disappointment as one will garner from seeing the boring, static menus that accompany the main features. Those who purchased the extended edition DVDs are well aware of how great a look and feel the menus for the trilogy can be given, but the ones included here have a bargain basement feel, the same bargain basement feel the use of recycled materials and subpar visuals give the entire set.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be released as an extended edition in the future (rumor has it the release will coincide with The Hobbit hitting theaters), and though the extended editions require more time to get through, they take the already excellent films and elevate them further. True fans of the series are undoubtedly waiting for the extended editions to be made available, and due to the distinctly distressing quality of the Blu-ray editions in this set, this reviewer has to recommend that anyone who wants their fantasy fix in Blu-ray wait to see what that set looks like (literally). For the love and care that clearly went into making the best trilogy of fantasy films in recent memory (and perhaps of all time) to be released in such a sub-par, nearly cash-in quality set is more than just a letdown, it is truly flabbergasting.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Amazing Race and Celebrity Apprentice - Sometimes I Wonder why I Bother

What in god's name am I watching so much reality TV for? No, really, I'm begging for an answer here – I simply don't understand sometimes why I bother spending my time, my precious time, watching the stuff. It's almost as bad as paying attention to politics – spend too much time in either arena and you're going to find yourself completely apoplectic about people acting in ways you simply can't understand no matter how much you try. And now, I'm not just going to waste my time talking about reality TV, I'm going to waste yours too.

Let's start with last night's Amazing Race. I've argued elsewhere that this is the saddest bunch of teams the show has put forward, and yet there I am watching it every week and being shocked every week that they continually do foolish things (clearly the shame is now on me). Last night, not one, not two, but three different teams all made an error on the exact same part of what was really quite an easy task. They were throwing coconuts into an ox cart, and the directions were pretty simple – throw all the coconuts that were in a pile on the ground into an ox cart and then, with all the coconuts, drive an ox to a fruit stand.

Now, if I were told to do that I'd make pretty sure that all the coconuts ended up in the ox cart — after all, the task said to put all the coconuts in the ox cart to take them to the fruit stand. Brent & Caite, our first team, arrived at the task and managed to bounce one coconut heading into the cart off of one already there. The first coconut ended up on the ground. It shouldn't have been that hard an issue to correct. After all, if your task is to throw all the coconuts into the ox cart you make sure at all times that all the coconuts have gone into the cart – you watch them go into the cart and stay there. Caite, however, wasn't watching. The team set off, didn't look back, and consequently couldn't proceed on the race until they went back to retrieve the missing coconut.

Jet & Cord and Brandy & Carol managed to do the exact same thing (even after they knew that Brent & Caite had done it). The first team to make the mistake was just dumb because they weren't paying attention, the second two teams acted that much worse because they saw one team make an error and then made the same error themselves. Some out there will say that Brandy & Carol's error is forgivable as they actually looked for stray coconuts and simply didn't see the one under the tire. I see it completely differently. I don't think it's forgivable at all. Think about it. As you're leaving the area and on the ox cart wouldn't you – especially after you saw one team leave a coconut behind – turn around while you're driving away to make sure you had them all? It is ridiculous that neither Jet & Cord nor Carol & Brandy did.

Make no mistake, while Brent & Caite get off a little easier on their foolishness in executing the task because others made the same mistake, those other teams didn't whine, complain, and cry when they found out they blew it. Brent & Caite did. Brent stormed all around talking about how he was going to quit, Caite deemed the whole thing unfair and started to cry. Even after they found the dropped coconut Caite still believed it to be unfair that they were sent back to retrieve it. I'm not entirely sure why she didn't believe the rules of the task and of the show didn't apply to her, but she didn't.

Now, I'm not saying I get off easily in this entire thing either. I went from watching The Amazing Race to watching The Celebrity Apprentice – a true bastion of foolishness. This all happened yesterday so I'm not sure it's a spoiler, but if you haven't watched the episode it will ruin things for you, so spoiler alert, what was Darryl Strawberry thinking quitting the show? It's not like he had really done all that much this season, why wouldn't he want to continue coasting for a little while longer, keep his face on the air, and maybe, just maybe, win some money for the charity he was representing? Strawberry wasn't going to be fired last night, Trump was about to have to fire Michael Johnson (or Blagojevich if Trump wanted a scapegoat). No one was even looking at Darryl until he piped up and said he wanted to leave. Much like the teams on The Amazing Race, Strawberry ought to be embarrassed.

And, I'll say it one last time – I ought to be embarrassed too. I spent several hours watching all this foolishness take place last night (thank goodness that TiVo made it fewer hours than it might have been), and I'm going to do the same next Sunday. Hopefully the remaining contestants on both shows will prove to me that I haven't made a mistake. I don't think they will, but I remain hopeful.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nintendo DSi XL - The "XL" Stands for "Awesome"

When I first held a Nintendo DSi in my hands, I was impressed – it's a cute little system, a cute little system with two cameras and a microphone.  Oh sure, the battery life wasn't fantastic and the speakers not terribly loud, but it was undeniably fun and clever.  After extended play however there were some things that definitely bothered me, the chief of which was the fact that to hold the unit comfortably I repeatedly hit the volume button.  Sometimes I would increase the volume, which wasn't horrible except if I had headphones on in which case I was rendered momentarily deaf, and sometimes I would decrease the volume, which, while it didn't physically harm me, was annoying to say the least.  With the latest iteration of the DS, the Nintendo DSi XL, I no longer have that problem.

Nintendo's newest handheld console, which is being released March 28 in North America, is 16.5 mm longer front to back than the DSi, and for me, that's the difference between hitting the volume toggle and not hitting it.  It is also 24 mm wider, which, again, for my hands is far more comfortable.  No longer when I'm playing a DSi game do I feel as though I'm using a child's handheld console, and while it's true that ththe outside of the burgundy DSi XLe DSi XL weighs more – 100 grams more – than a DSi, that really doesn't make a massive difference.

The difference, of course, that Nintendo is touting, is that the screen is a larger one.  The DSi boasts two 4.2 inch diagonal screens whereas the DSi only has 3.25 inch screens and the DS Lite even more puny 3 inch screens.  The larger screens do, sort of, make for easier viewing.  The issue is this – the DSi XL only boasts the same screen resolution as the DSi, which means that, essentially, though the screen is larger it has the same number of pixels, and that could lead to a blockier, less smooth, image. 

In a completely unscientific test, Blogcritics Gaming had more than one person compare the same title on DSi and DSi XL, and we didn't limit ourselves to geeks and those in the know either.  Some of the people preferred the look of the game on the XL, noting that it was easier to see everyone's favorite plumber and read text that accompanied him.  Others definitely argued that the smaller screen featured a sharper, more clear, more defined image (still others just cared about hunting Bowser irregardless of the screen, but we discounted those responses). 

No one in our sample however accepted one of the reasons that Nintendo has put forth for a larger screen – it makes it fun for more than just the player to look at the game taking place as those sitting next to the player will be able to see better (wider viewing angle).  Those we talked to agreed that it was easier to see what was taking place while sitting next to someone playing an XL rather than a DSi, but no one seemed to think that it was a fun thing to do (arguments were made about just playing on a home console).

Available at launch in Burgundy and Bronze, both colors of the DSi XL feature a glossy top that can contain an impressive number of fingerprints.  The XL also features both a normal (though longer) stylus and more of a pen-style one, which is really nice to hold but doesn't actually fit within the DSi XL's body for storage as the normal stylus does.

There are, simply put, a number of things which simply don't make a lot of sense about the DSi XL – the screen resolution, both styli types not fitting into the body for storage, Nintendo's quiet announcement this past week – the week before the DSi XL launched in North America –  that they'll bThe inside of the bronze DSi XLe releasing a 3D version of the DS (one that doesn't require glasses) in the near future.  Yes, that's right, there's going to be a 3D version, which is scheduled to "succeed" the current generation next year. 

And yet, despite any of the oddities of the DSi XL and whatever system Nintendo may or may not be releasing next year, the DSi XL works, and, despite the larger screen boasts better battery life than its predecessor.  It has the feel of a system designed to suit adults more than children, and it's based on an already successful device, running what appears to be the exact same system software that the DSi sports.  The XL also comes with the same software the DSi has as well as two Brain Age Express titles and Photo Clock.  The buttons and D-pad have a good, neither too mushy nor too stiff, feel, and it uses the same charger as the DSi.  Plus, it even fit in my jeans' back pocket.

Though we see no reason to upgrade from a DSi to a DSi XL, were we in the market for a new handheld console from Nintendo we would opt for the XL (and we certainly would not hold out for the 3D console).  We might even opt for the XL were we buying for a younger child as, should they require help in a game, the wider viewer angle would then come into play. 

The XL is a solid new entry into the DS lineup and absolutely worth considering despite any of the oddities that come along with it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Middle, Modern Family, and Cougar Town - Good Times!

Do you believe in self-fulfilling prophecies? I'm not sure if I do or not. I certainly don't believe that wishing for something makes it so, but I do tend to believe that if you're certain that something you're doing is going to fail it's more likely to fail – "I'll never pass that test," "I'll never get that job," "I'll never laugh again. Never, ever, ever, I simply won't and there's nothing anyone can do to make me laugh. I'll never laugh. The laughs will never, ever come," that kind of thing. But can a self-fulfilling prophecy happen on the good side too?

At the start of the television season – and rabid readers of this column may remember this – I said I was quite excited for ABC's Wednesday night comedies. Now, most of the way through the television season, when ABC Wednesdays are new, I’m as excited as I am for any other night on television (stop me if I've told you this before). Have I made this night one of my favorites because of how much I was looking forward to it before it started or is this night one of my favorites because the folks over at ABC are just doing things right?

Maybe it's me; after all, I do have a lot of Phil Dunphy in me, and I think Courtney Cox is terribly funny, as is Neil Flynn. It was Flynn's character on Scrubs that kept me coming back to that series year after here and it may be Flynn's single scene appearance this season that generated the only laugh that show had this year. And, those are just three people in three different comedies, two of which are ensemble comedies and the other of which isn't the lead character (even if he's the lead male).

Sitting down to watch The Middle, Modern Family, and Cougar Town just plain works. All three of the comedies have been picked up for next season already and if ABC can find a fourth funny show to air alongside those three they'll have the strongest two-hour comedy block that television has seen for many years (sorry NBC, it's more than kinda true).

At the start of the television season I thought that Cougar Town was the funniest of the three – I balked at the notion that Modern Family was yet another fake documentary show. Actually, that still distresses me – it would be clever and unique if only it were remotely unique. Prior to Modern Family premiering, NBC was already airing two comedies that used the format, and it felt old when Parks and Recreation premiered. I think Modern Family succeeds despite using the style and clearly that show has become the standout of the three (and I won't even get into here how 30 Rock became a success stealing bits of my life for the character of Kenneth and Modern Family has only slightly distorted me for Phil, but you should feel free to draw your own conclusions).

The 8:30 to 10 lineup on ABC Wednesday nights is just another example of how taking risks in developing a television schedule pays off. The network went out and spent a lot of money on talent to create a lineup stocked with the sitcom – something so many people out there said was dead. Taking risks – calculated risks, not crazy ones – can pay big dividends. If ABC had followed conventional wisdom and simply put on a couple of dramas or some forgettable reality show or another hour of a newsmagazine it is certainly possible that they could have succeeded. They also simply could have been airing just another drama or just another reality show, nothing new, nothing special, and nothing that made the network different, a stand-out.

Dramas, reality, and newsmagazines may be interesting, but – with rare exception – you don't tend to walk away from them smiling, and it's even rarer that you laugh out loud throughout and it's probable that your laughing wasn't the intended response. What ABC is airing makes you laugh, makes you feel good, and is just the sort of risk that networks ought to be taking.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Parenthood It's on TV, but it's Like Life

Have you been watching Parenthood?  Well, maybe you should.  Oh, I'm not one to say that you definitely should, you know me, I try to not be pushy or overly vehement in the stating of my ideas at all, I'm just throwing it out there as a choice.

Right now, the world seems terribly uninterested in watching the series, last night it got a 4.5/8 in the ratings (but won the demo with a 2.7).  Those numbers aren't particularly impressive especially when you consider its competition – a repeat of The Good Wife, which beat Parenthood, and a V clip show on ABC.  Put another way, Parenthood was the only thing new on in the 10pm hour last night and it still didn't win.  We're not counting the 6 minute overrun of Lost as new, thoNBC Photo: Chris Hastonugh hypothetically it could be argued that the overrun hurt Parenthood, especially as the series did better than it did last week… but last week it faced a new episode of The Good Wife.

The thing about the show's not being successful is that it  makes me sad.  Fine, call me foolish, call me ridiculous about being sad at the poor performance of a TV show.  The thing is that I think the show is actually a good one, and not the first good show that NBC has aired over the past few years that hasn't garnered an audience.  I'm not saying that you'll like the show, but perhaps, just perhaps, you ought to tune in and give it a shot.

Look, let's start at the top – it has a great cast, and all of whom give good performances.  It has Peter Krause, Monica Potter, Erika Christensen, Dax Shepard, Lauren Graham, Craig T. Nelson, and Bonnie Bedelia.  That's really a pretty solid ensemble cast – it has funny people, it has serious people, it has people who do both funny and serious, and it also has John McClane's wife (we don't accept Live Free or Die Hard as a part of the canon).

Then, it has these funny and serious actors doing what they do best – being both funny and serious.  The show manages a really good balance between more dramatic, distressing, elements and funnier lighter fare.  But, I think it does better than just manage a good overall balance as some shows do, it manages a good balance for each character.  There are series out there who do funny and serious but almost always hand the serious plots to one or two characters and the funny to one or two others (I'm looking at you Desperate Housewives), Parenthood manages to do it for each character.  That really, I believe, goes back to the cast – they have a cast that can handle those changes and make them all believable, and I think it's believability that's the key.

Parenthood isn't easy – ask anyone who is a parent, even if you're blessed with the easiest, happiest, smartest, cutest, etc., etc., child ever, parenthood isn't easy.  It's filled with moments of great triumph and moments of great tragedy, and those moments can easily occur in the same day.  As a seriNBC Photo: Chris Hastones, Parenthood captures that, and they do so not in just one storyline, but almost entirely across the board. 

I'd like to see Lauren Graham do a little more of the serious side (the Gilmore Girls vet is clearly capable of it), but she's gotten some moments in these first few episodes and has turned a role that wasn't hers originally into something very definitely Lauren Graham.  Though it was Maura Tierney's part when the pilot was first filmed (and I have no desire to enter into a discussion of who may have been better in the role), Graham has made it hers and I can't imagine anyone else in it.  Some of the credit there assuredly goes to the producers for – presumably – reworking bits and pieces to fit Graham, but it's a great role and all Graham's.

As a parent there are definitely moments of the series that aren't easy to watch – particularly Graham's troubles with her daughter and Adam (Krause) and Kristina (Potter) troubles coming to terms with – their child's Asperger's Syndrome.  Yet, as a difficult as it may be to watch, they manage to deal with the diagnosis and its ramifications in a way that is true-to-life and compelling on television.  That's a tough thing to accomplish, and if Parenthood can manage that with the one storyline they can manage so much  more and I'm rooting for them to get the chance to do just that.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

God of War III - That Kratos Dude is Still Kinda Angry

When is more of the same not a bad thing?  When the predecessor was outstanding.  God of War III offers very little new to gamers, it is a title which, almost entirely, takes that which came before it – both good and bad – and wraps it up in a new, or more accurately continued, story. 

God of War III opens with our anti-hero, Kratos, climbing up to Mount Olympus with the Titan Gaia, which is pretty much where we left him at the end of God of War II.  Things for Kratos never progress simply however, and soon enough, the Ghost of Sparta finds himself on the outs with the Olympians and the Titans.  And what does that mean for you, the gamer?  Blood, lots and lots of blood. 

The game may in fact be more bloody than its predecessors, and Kratos is certainly an angrier man (or is it dethroned god?) than he has been previously.  Whereas in earlier titles he was content with only eliminating one or two deGod of War IIIities, this time out is goal is clear – not just to dethrone and eliminate Zeus, but to destroy every Olympian he possibly can… and any Titan that dares oppose him as well.

Anyone who has played either God of War or God of War II will instantly be able to pick up the title and whiz through it in its entirety.  Whereas those two games both had puzzles that may have left one briefly perplexed, no such problem occurs here.  There are certainly several push the block and then turn the lever moments, but what has to be done to progress to the next area is almost entirely clear from the outset.  Though there are a significant number of boss battles, and they are certainly enjoyable, they also feel easier than those from the earlier games.

In point of fact, the hardest thing about the game isn't the content, but the setup.  Though better than in the earlier games, the camera still has a tendency to sit, annoyingly, in just the wrong place, not allowing you to see quite what you want to.  Of course, when the camera hides a corner of a room there's a pretty good chance that there will be a hidden chest with some sort of bonus in it. 

More difficult and annoying than the camera, as was the case in the earlier games (or, at the very least, in the recently released God of War Collection) is the fact that Kratos doesn't always do what you've asked him to.  Most often this occurs with his needing to double jump and stretch out his wings in order to cross a wide divide.  All too regularly, Kratos will either not stretch his wings at all or stretch them only to retract them moments later, leaving you to crash to your death.  Moments like this would prove only marginally frustrating except for when these types of jumps are placed back-to-back-to-back, dying on the seventh out of eight jumps due to a failure to take flight is slightly annoying, dying right after that on the fourth jump for the same reason is more frustrating, and then dying on the fifth jump right after that becomes infuriating.  At that point it doesn't matter that save spots and check points are ample and that you can start up again right before the jumps begin, the fun of the game is momentarily lost.God of War III

Fortunately for God of War III, the incredible pace at which it proceeds, quickly zooming from one mammoth battle to the next makes you forget your frustrations.  Kratos isn't the smartest character you've ever gotten to take control of. In fact, as the Olympians repeatedly, and correctly, point out to him, he causes more trouble for himself than he would by leaving well enough alone. But he is one of the best fighters and those skills are on display full force here.  Whether it's battling the mammoth Kronos, chasing after Hermes, or eliminating Poseidon and his water horses, Kratos is an unstoppable machine of death.  If you like your heroes not just violent, but completely drenched in blood, Kratos is your man (or dethroned god).

The graphics in God of War III are, for the most part, truly outstanding, and certainly better than the updated Collection.  The levels of detail, even in the spurting blood, are great, and the lighting truly impressive.  There are however, disconcertingly, more than one moment where liquid – be it water or wine – inexplicably disappears. 

The soundtrack, too, is everything you've come to expect from God of War.  The music drives Kratos forward; the pounding bass urging him on in his struggles, the sickening thwack of his weapons into flesh failing to satiate his bloodlust, and the coos of the women he leaves behind providing little more than momentary joy.

God of War III is a relatively short title to complete, butGod of War III during your first time through the story you will repeatedly pick up items that cannot be used until you beat the game.  It moderately adds to the replay value of a game that might otherwise have none (except, that is, if you failed to satisfy your personal bloodlust the first time out).

Full of great boss battles that are less marred by annoying "push this button, now that button, now the other button" minigames than God of War II, and with a character at its center that is over the top and yet completely understandable, God of War III is a worthy entry into the series. It is certainly not a title for those faint of heart or who dislike sex and violence in their videogames, but if you're someone who likes to run through Ancient Greece eliminating hordes of enemies with one blow and then taking a moment to stop and smell the roses with Aphrodite, God of War III is a must own.

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

five stars out of five

Toy Story 2 - More Fun than a Barrel of Monkeys

One would think that this should have been a very easy review to write.  After all, Toy Story 2 is a fantastic film; it is a triumph in every way, a sequel that is, arguably, better than the original. And yet, for some reason, this was not an easy review.

One could quite easily begin this way:  once upon a time, in the faraway land of filmmaking, there was an animation studio that put out a full-length CGI feature, Toy Story, and it was good.  Four years and one other feature length project later, Pixar released Toy Story 2, and it was great.  As with the first film, Toy Story 2 follows the adventures of Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) as they negotiate the dangerous and often unse© WDSHE. All Rights Reserved.en (by humans) world of being a toy.  The film is not just a triumph of technical wizardry – although it is that – it is a triumph of the art of storytelling and makes something wondrous and magical for adults and children.

While all of the above is true, somehow it fails to capture why the film is as great as it is.  Directed by John Lasseter and co-directed by Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 2 finds Woody stolen from his home due to his being the last member of a collection of toys from a classic television puppet show, Woody's Roundup.  It falls to Buzz and a team of toys from Andy's room to rescue their friend from the evil Al of Al's Toy Barn before he can be shipped off to Japan. 

The film, as with the original, depicts a camaraderie among Andy's toys. Despite being "just toys" they are loving, caring, thinking creatures who want to do nothing more than have fun and be played with, and when something obstructs their goal they will do anything to get back on course.  In the case of the story here, what starts out as a small problem – Andy mistakenly ending up in a pile of toys to be sold at a garage sale – ends up escalating to the point where the toys (voiced by an all-star cast) have to head© WDSHE. All Rights Reserved. to the airport and brave not just the baggage system but the runway as well in order to keep their family intact.  Logically, it is utterly ludicrous from start to finish, but it is a joy to watch.

Really, the overall premise is a simple one, and with a running time of just over 90 minutes the story is quickly told.  However, within those 90-plus minutes, the film manages to capture the imagination of young and old.  It reminds the adults in the audience of the wondrousness of the toys of their youth (several classic toys do make an appearance), it shows kids how much fun they can have with the odd assortment of toys they may have lying about their room, and it does it all with a great sense of humor.  Many of the toys depicted in the film – Barbie and Mr. Potato Head to name just two – find themselves the butt of several jokes revolving around their very essence, and yet the jokes, while directed at the toys are told with love.  Barbie may be a ditz in Toy Story 2, but she is a classic ditz, a ditz whom everyone loves and no one would ever want to see differently.

Toy Story 2 worked incredibly well on the big screen and now, with its Blu-ray release, it works incredibly well in people's living room as well.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is completely immersive, making the small sounds in Andy's room come alive and still growing as the film progresses to its airport climax, where the sounds are, quite naturally, bigger.  The bass sounds are impressive, and the surrounds really help locate noises.  It is a big audio track, and yet somehow it is not big enough to frighten away the younger set.  Despite the film having initially been in released more than 10 years ago, and Pixar's technology having come a long way since then, one doesn't get the sense watching the film © WDSHE. All Rights Reserved.that they are seeing anything less than the latest and greatest CGI technology.  The diverse locations are all beautifully realized with rich colors and excellent levels of detail right down to the belt on the new Buzz dolls… excuse me, action figures. 

This new release also helpfully divides the new Blu-ray bonus features from the previously released DVD ones.  In addition to what has appeared before, the Blu-ray 2-disc combo pack contains an audio commentary track with the director, co-directors, and co-writer Andrew Stanton; a "Buzz Lightyear Mission Log" which features Buzz telling people how NASA astronauts function in space; three short animated "studio stories" which discuss humorous (and scary) moments from the making of the film; a piece on Pixar studios creating a Zoetrope; various Pixar artists talking about how they got started; a tribute to Joe Ranft (animator and filmmaker), and a sneak peak at the character in the upcoming Toy Story 3.  As for those previously released DVD bonus features, they include the usual making-of and behind the scenes moments as well as deleted scenes.

And yet, that entire description of the Blu-ray release fails to do the film justice, it fails to capture how adults watching the film will become kids and how kids will have their eyes opened to a whole new world.  Toy Story 2 may not be the most well-regarded film to have come out of Pixar, it may not have made the most money nor won the most awards, but it is filmmaking and animation at its best, it tells a story that everyone can relate to and will love and does so in a way that will not only leave a smile on your face, but, as it did with me, may just leave you at a loss for words.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII - Some New, Some Old, Mostly Great

Perhaps better than any other game franchise, the Final Fantasy franchise excels at world-making.  Each edition of the main series (save X-2) has created a whole new universe with a new set of rules and a new set of problems.  Though each entry into the series is massively different than the one that came before, there is something in the way each of them plays, in the way each of them feels, that tie them together and make each, very definitely, a Final Fantasy title.  With the newest entry into the series, Final Fantasy XIII, that pattern holds.

The story here is relatively typical of the Final Fantasy games – there is a gross evil out there that wants to rule all of humanity and attempts to do so through the use of fear and brutality.  The group of playable characters in the game, led by Lightning and Snow, realize that they are the only ones who can possibly stand up against this brutality, and even though they may not aFinal Fantasy XIIIlways wish to step into the role of savior, eventually they do.  This review could go into greatly more depth at this point about he l'Cie being created by the fal'Cie and the Sanctum's Purge and the creation of the world of Cocoon and the theories Cocoon's inhabitants have about the lower world, Pulse.  However, we will not do that here.

Examining the story in great depth would not only mean little until you actually play the game, it may just ruin some of the story for you.  As has become tradition in Final Fantasy titles, there are an incredible number of cutscenes and flashbacks, and bits of the story only come out in dribs and drabs.  To try and recreate the narrative in linear fashion in a review destroys reveals and might lead to you getting bored and tuning out from the game, which is something you don't want to do as that will inevitably mean that you'll miss some bit of information you'll actually want.

The biggest problem with FFXIII though is that if you do miss some piece of information, while you may be slightly lost for a little while, it won't change the way you progress through the game.  While all Final Fantasy games have a beginning, middle, and end, this one feels much more linear than most, providing you with very little opportunity to stray from the path of the story the game has laid out.  In fact, early on in the gFinal Fantasy XIIIame you'll note as you travel that there is, literally, a very definite path for you to traverse and that even if you want to peak around a corner to see what's there, an invisible wall will stop you.

What the game does offer, perhaps, instead of choice in path, is a whole new perspective on battles.  In our hands-on preview piece, we noted that the game offered a new battle system which focused heavily on the notion of the "Paradigm Shift."  In battles, you only directly control the leader of the three member party, but you do indirectly control everyone else via the Paradigm Shift.  Each party member takes one of a number of different roles  – Commando (warrior), Ravager (magic to help Commandos deal damage), Sentinel (defender), Medic (healer), Saboteur (inflict status effect on enemies), Synergist (magic support against status effects on team).  It is the combination of these roles creates different Paradigms.  As with many latter day Final Fantasy battle systems, it is incredibly in-depth, but the game does start you off very slowly, adding to the battle system bit by bit with plenty of helpful tutorial battles to get you into the swing of things.  Although as a player you won't be pushing a button to swing a sword, you can still time an attack to deal the most damage (and save yourself from getting hurt), and you will constantly be shifting Paradigms throughout a battle – you can set custom ones before battles begin – so as to utilize your team to the best of their ability.  Eidolons are back in FFXIII as well, with each character getting one Eidolon that can be summoned and used in battle until they run out of Summons Points (similar to HP). 

It maybe slightly disconcerting that you're timed in each battle and once you've won you'll get to see how quickly you made it through in comparison to how quickly the game thinks you Final Fantasy XIIIought to have; you'll even get a star rating based on your performance.  However, it works, and even though you'll only be directly controlling one of your players, but the time you have the full battle system in front of you, that'll be as much as you can possibly handle. 

Winning battles earns you Crystarium Points which are used to help the characters learn new skills and magic, and increase strength, hit points, attack points, magic points, etc.  All of those increases are done in a fashion similar to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, and are really quite easy to figure out.

In fact, the tutorial system here for everything works excellently.  It can awfully tough to figure out the exact balance in a huge game like this of letting the player figure things out on their own which can lead to stumbling and frustration and holding their hand too much which can lead to boredom and monotony.  While other iterations of the franchise may have veered too far off in one direction or the other, the balance struck here is excellent.

With typically incredible for the series graphics, a fantastic score, and nothing less than the fate of two worlds at stake, Final Fantasy XIII is a memorable entry into the series. 

The biggest negative to the game isn't its linearity, that almost feels made up for by the hugely compelling battle system, no, the biggest problem with the game is the character named Vanille. Final Fantasy XIII She flits about the screen, opening her mouth and talking her head off despite the fact that has exceptionally little to say, and all the nonsense that she spews comes out in a voice and cadence that only makes it worse.  Frankly, even the way she runs is annoying.  She is the sort of character that you do your best to never use, hoping against hope that she will quickly meet her maker.

There will certainly be a group of traditionalists out there who wish the battle system was a far more simple, far more traditional, setup, but anyone who gives this one a fair shake will find themselves enjoying it immensely.  And, even if things are different than previous iterations, there are Chocobos, a character named Cid, and something definitely Final Fantasy about it all.

Final Fantasy XIII is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence. This game can also be found on Xbox 360.
five stars out of five

Friday, March 19, 2010

FlashForward Returns, Unfortunately so Does Mark Benford

ABC's FlashForward came back last night with an all-new episode.  You thought the show was cancelled, didn't you?  It's an understandable mistake, after all, the show was so heavily promoted in the fall and before last night hadn't aired a new episode in more than three months.  Oh sure, they've been promoting the return of the series, but come on, you kind of thought you were watching a repeat when those commercials came on, didn't you?

People will tell you that perhaps the show isn't going to do well as the recap episode they aired on Tuesday wasn't heavily watched.  Of course, that was a recap episode, so you can't really go by that – if you're invested in the show there's an outside chance that you forgot everything and needed to recall what was happening, but not a great one.  Plus, ABC has filled countless hours in the last five years airing pointless recap episodes of Lost, if there ever was a recap episode goose that laid golden eggs, the network killed it about 12 hours ago.  So, the real question is how did last night's episode do?  Not spectacularly well, truth be told.

Frankly, I don't think the programming strategy works – I think that when you have a show completely disappear for months on end, particularly a show in its first season without a long-term fanbase – but that's neither here nor there.  No, what's germane is that it was actually a pretty good episode, and, as you may have guessed, I have a theory as to why that is.

The reason last night worked is that it was very light on Mark Benford.  I have absolutely nothing against Joseph Fiennes, but the character, as written, is just incredibly unintelligent.  Watching the show I can't fathom why this guy is an FBI agent, how the FBI possibly accepted him. 

Taking a quick look at last night's episode, we saw a more complete version of Mark's flash.  In it, he tells Lloyd Simcoe that if they don't work it out there's going to be another flash, that the whole world will black out again if these two men don't figure it out.  Then, back in the real world, he told Wedeck, his boss, that there's going to be another flash, he left out the whole if we don't prevent it bit.  I don't think he was saying that to get back onto active duty, I think he was saying it because he has absolutely no clue that there's a difference between "x will occur if y happens" and "x will occur." 

The whole season with Mark has been littered with similarly poor use of logic.  He has investigated leads on his mosaic board because they were on the board in his flash and then because he has investigated them he puts them on the board… whether or not they really seemed to prove relevant.  Simply put, it's annoying to watch.

I don't think that the producers are blind to his stupidity either, I think that they're well aware of his character. After all, last night they had the CIA guy, Vogel, join the team to help keep them all in check, and Vogel was not shy about pointing out all the stupid stuff the FBI team and Mark have done.  But, he was in the background last night and it worked for the show.  Simon and Lloyd are far more interesting characters.  Demetri is a far more interesting character.  Janis is a far more interesting character.

I'm really curious to see where the show heads in the second half of the season and I'm hoping that ABC doesn’t pull the plug before the season comes to a close.  My bigger hope though is that Mark becomes less of a major part of the show.  I don't see that happening, but I'm going to keep hoping for it. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Princess and the Frog Makes a Royal Arrival on Blu-ray

Be wary of anyone who tells you that such-and-such an art form (or anything else) is dead.  People like to make pronouncements about the changing of the guard and the story is a better one when the old guard isn't just going off-duty but is actually dead.  The new may push out the old, but that's not the same as pushing it over a cliff.  People are very happy to tell you that traditional animation is dead and gone, that the style of computer animation brought to us by Pixar and others has all but eliminated the original sort.  Though it is certainly more in vogue than traditional animation, CG has not replaced it entirely, and who better to show us that – and the power traditional animation still wields – than the company who brought us the first animated feature, Disney.

Hitting store shelves this week on DVD and Blu-ray is Disney's return to traditional animatioPhoto Credit: Disneyn, The Princess and the Frog.  Their latest tale which, hopefully, will help usher in a third golden age for the studio. 

The Princess and the Frog, as Disney was oh-so-happy to point out in the myriad of promos that arrived in the months leading up to the film's theatrical release, takes the traditional story of the prince being turned into a frog only to become a prince again via the kiss of a princess on its head.  In this film, the lead character, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), is not a princess, but rather a strictly working class woman who holds down two waitress jobs in order to try and save enough money so that she can open a restaurant of her own.  Tiana, an African-American woman, lives in Jazz Age New Orleans and has the deck heavily stacked against her, not that she's willing to let a little thing like adversity get in the way of her – and her now deceased father's – dream.

What does get into her way though is Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) of Maldonia, a carefree ladies' man with a love of jazz and a severe dislike of hard work.  Naveen, newly arrived in New Orleans, ends up getting taken in by the evil Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David), who ends up turning him into a frog and his valet into Naveen.  Mistaking Tiana, who was at a costume party, for a princess, Naveen gets a kiss from her hoping that it will turn him back into a prince only to have her end up a frog as well.

It is an incredibly likable tale, full of good voice performances, including ones by Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, and Jim Cummings; great songs by Randy Newman; and more than a few laughs.  Directed and co-written by Ron Clements and John Musker (Hercules, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid), the film may never quite hit the highs of the second golden age of Disney animation of which both men were a parPhoto Credit: Disneyt, but it is both an engrossing and an endearing tale, one which shows that the ability to tale a good story – even if it isn't the most original – will triumph over all the bells and whistles. 

Though not as adult oriented as something like Up, The Princess and the Frog doesn't shy away from focusing on darker aspects of life and death.  As a film about hard work, love, and finding a balance in life it doesn't dwell on the negative, but Dr. Facilier may certainly make for a sleepless night or two among the younger set.  The voodoo master is one of the best – and darkest – animated villains we've seen in a while as he uses his evil spirits to work his magic and chase down Tiana and Naveen while they are in frog form. 

The Blu-ray release of the film looks and sounds utterly fantastic.  As a film with an incredibly rich look and sound, the Blu-ray release only enhances it.  Colors are vibrant, blacks and shadows (of which there are a significant number) are dark without being overpowering, and one will truly be amazed at the look of some of the musical numbers.  The sound, a DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track, is also fantastic, with Randy Newman's music completely surrounding the audience.  The dialogue is clear and although the music is incredibly important, it never overpowers the voices.  The various effects, of which there are many, are also stellar, utilizing surrounds and the bass and truly bringing the viewer into the story.

In terms of special features, the three-disc Blu-ray release not only comes with a digital copy and a DVD one as well, but also an audio commentary by the co-writers/directors and producer Peter Del Vecho, the ability to watch the film with aPhoto Credit: Disney picture-in-picture track that shows the viewer various work-in-progress levels of animation, deleted scenes, a music video, an art gallery, and several different behind the scenes features.  This last group ranges in everything from a look at Dr. Facilier to the studio returning to hand-drawn animation and musicals to ones on Tiana.  Though these are all vaguely interesting, they do tend to have a little too much of an overly short, pre-packaged promo-type feel.  Lastly, the disc comes with a brief game which has fireflies put together pictures of princesses for the viewer to identify.  It is certainly a better game than what one will often find included on video releases.

The Princess and the Frog may not be as great as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King or Aladdin, but it is an incredibly enjoyable romp and a wonderful return to Disney's roots.  It shows the whole world that there is a place for hand-drawn animation, that not only is the studio not done operating in that world, but that the opportunities they give us to glimpse into it are well worth taking.  We can only hope that they continue to provide such exhilarating, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable fare in the future.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Apocalypse is Coming, Just ask Battle of the Giants: Mutant Insects

At this point in our society it is a readily accepted fact that the apocalypse is coming.  It seems as though, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt, our world will – in the not too distant future – cease to exist in the form we currently understand it.  We have all seen this future history played out on television, in films and books, and various other forms of media.  The only real questions that exist on the subject are exactly when and in what form the holocaust will take place.  Will the world be flooded out?  Will there be a nuclear disaster?  Fire?  Ice?  Earthquake?  Alien invasion?  A combination of the above?

Because this coming event is so well accepted already, the concept of one of Ubisoft's latest titles, Battle of Giants: Mutant Insects, is an easy one to accept.  The third in the Battle of Giants franchise, the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, one in which an asteroid seemingly has landed on Earth, bringing with it the aforementioned giant mutant insects. 

Over the course of the next 300 years, the mutant insects have devastated the planet and now rule the world.  That's where you come in, you get to take on the role of one of four different varieties (though only three are available at the outset) - scorpion, mantis, spider, or a flying ant – and trudge through various landscapes, battling similar giant insects.  Though this reviewer most appreciates the post-apocalyptic future in which apes can talk and humans are mute, the one which Mutant Insects postulates seems just as likely. 

In the main, Adventure, mode, you travel as your chosen insect through the different landscapes, crushing that which is crushable in your path – which sadly is not all that much – slowly travelling through the various maps, and eliminating the rest of insect-kind (and the occasional living bus, flyswatter, plant, can of bug spray, etc.).  Fog occasionally blocks the way, but tapping on your mutant insect can eliminate it, though only does so at the cost of some life.  There are also switches which have to be hit to unlock areas, but the map, located on the upper screen, is very happy to inform you in advance as to exactly where all the switches are and where your final destination is.  Thus, what you end up with are not very large maps where the end point is clear and the various paths one can travel on are few. 

Where the game does offer customization is in the upgrades available for your insect.  By crushing things on your path and defeating enemies, you can purchase larger, stronger, body parts; special abilities; and custom colors that you can use to create the baddest looking giant mutant insect ever.  The customization is definitely the highlight of the game, but unfortunately there is little use to any of it, except in that it makes your character look pretty cool – the combat system is all too weak to make one want to spend time upgrading their insect.

In terms of combat, when an enemy is approached (or approaches you), the screens switch over to the battle mode.  Then, by tapping different parts of your insect's body and dragging them towards your opponent you strike.  There are also dodges and blocks available, but by simply selecting a quick attack, dodges and blocks never need to be utilized.  Though not a bad basic idea for combat, the scheme does have a few flaws, most notably the fact that the game can be awfully picky about whether or not you actually selected the right body part (or any body part) with which to strike.  On more than one occasion you will swear that you tapped the correct place on your insect only to either initiate the wrong attack or no attack at all. 

Opponents will repeatedly block and dodge, but by attacking over and over again without interruption enough hits will get through so as to allow you to go into a "bonus attack" mode which is where the real damage gets done.  This special bonus attack – which is rendered none-too-special by the fact that it's entered into multiple times in a single battle – deals massive quantities of damage to your opponent and is certainly the easiest way to quickly win a battle.  Utilizing this method of attack, one will rarely encounter an opponent which cannot be vanquished with great ease, and that, more than the boring maps and general slow pace of play, is what hurts the game the most. 

The graphics in the game are neither mind-blowing nor dull.  Actually, they may be far better than you might think upon finishing the game as, despite the various lands you travel through, all too often enemies look the same, different levels of the same land blur, and the same bonus attack scene is featured over, and over, and over again in every battle.  Even if the graphics were great, they cannot withstand the repeated use.

Much like other post-apocalyptic visions of our world, the one depicted in Battle of Giants: Mutant Insects is  a sad, and depressing one.  The game does have some good points – it is absolutely a lot of fun to tweak your insect's look, and while one can overlook the small maps, it is a combat system that is not quite ready for primetime.  Plus, it is unclear why, with such a dissatisfying combat system one would want to battle against others in either a duel or a tournament mode (both of which are available).

The apocalypse is, without question, coming, but it would be a wonder if giant mutant insects are what bring it on, particularly if the giant mutant insects are easily destroyed as the ones in this title. 

Battle of Giants: Mutant Insects is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Mild Fantasy Violence.

three stars out of five

Monday, March 15, 2010

Capitalism: A Love Story - Has Michael Moore Gotten Greedy?

There is a certain joy in watching a Michael Moore movie. Moore, with his definitive point of view, lives in a simple world — a world of great evil, but it is still a simple world, a world with no gray, only easy to understand black and white. It is a point of view which provides a definite amount of comfort, even if the world is an evil one.

Moore, the writer and director of a multitude of well-known and well-regarded documentaries, constructs clear, concise stories in which he places himself in the center as the white knight, the good guy who is there to remove all evil – which tends to consist of the rich and powerful cheating "regular folks" – from the world. His latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, keeps the theme going perfectly.

The basic story that Capitalism tells is that of evil corporations who have managed to wrest control of our government from the people by purchasing elected officials. Moore explains how this process was grossly accelerated during Ronald Reagan's time and brought our country to the massive financial issues it faced in 2008, which were then "solved" by the country wrongly bailing out the corporations that had started the mess in the first place.

Moore goes beyond this, delving not only into the evil that corporations do, but giving examples of how they don't have to be quite so evil. He shows how some companies are run by the workers and successful, conjuring up that much maligned word, socialism. Though it won't actually placate any capitalist devotees in the audience, he does manage to include a bit about how our Constitution doesn't actually mention capitalism as our economic system anywhere, no matter what we have been taught.

Interestingly, and as is the case with so many of Moore's films, the film boils down a very complicated story, one with multiple sides, into not just a black and white story, but a black and white story which features the American public being treated as stupid. Moore, of course, with his overly-simplified account, is also treating the public as stupid. It is not the place of this review to argue whether Moore and his point of view are right or wrong – that is most definitely a discussion for economists, politicians, and eventually historians – but unquestionably the argument Moore constructs is a simplified one.

The issue to be dealt with here is less the factuality of his claims and more as to whether or not he has created a compelling narrative that intrigues viewers, and there he has succeeded. The gross simplicity of his argument does hurt the viewing of the piece as it is all too easy to say "Hey, wait a minute, what about…" and thereby be taken out of what Moore is discussing. However, the documentarian is a master of quickly flipping from moment to moment, idea to idea, story to story, and outlandish stunt to outlandish stunt, thereby keeping the audience from having too much time to hover over any of his ideas.

Perhaps though the biggest problem with the film is that, having made so many pieces which criticized the government and/or corporations in the past, much of Capitalism has a "been there, done that" feel. In this piece, not only does Moore show clips from earlier films, but when he goes by GM Headquarters to try and talk to the Chairman, the security guard seems less angry and more weary as he states, "It's Michael Moore here to see the Chairman." Even he is all too used to Moore's well worn tactics.

That is not to say that film is not without its good stunts, the highlight of which may be Moore driving around an armored Brinks truck, taking it to the headquarters of various financial institutions, and demanding that they return the bailout money as they have, essentially, stolen it. It is a ridiculous tactic, one which no one could ever take seriously, but it is great theater.

The Blu-ray release of Capitalism: A Love Story is a mixed bag. As with all of Moore's pieces, this film features not only footage shot specifically for the film but many things that were filmed (or videotaped) earlier by other people for other purposes and which have been repurposed here. Consequently, the quality of the video and audio varies wildly. Moments shot specifically for Capitalism look clear and have great levels of detail; scenes taken from elsewhere sometimes look good and sometimes don't. The same is true for the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track. Although the film doesn't boast tons of explosions and special effects, scenes shot specifically for this film are dialogue-heavy, but the dialogue is crisp and even. Music and the occasional effect plays out in the surrounds, but don't look for a Bruckheimer-style piece. Perhaps surprisingly, the bass is actually well-used for the music and effects, which does make it feel like more than a simple documentary.

Bonus features included on the Blu-ray release seem to be limited to extended and deleted scenes from the film itself. They are not billed as such, which is certainly odd, but watching them, one will recognize longer versions of interviews and segments that appear in the film as well as a few moments which one could imagine having fit into the main piece at one point.

Capitalism: A Love Story may be more evenhanded in the way it deals with politicians than other Moore films — it hits Democrats almost as hard as it does Republicans — but its basic big guy vs. little guy story is very familiar. The end may already seem dated as it implies that an Obama administration might actually be able to greatly change our society and the way politics work, but even if it didn't seem dated at the time the film hit theaters it must have sounded naïve. For an otherwise fun trip through one man's view on capitalism, it is a finale which never quite worked.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

An Early Look at Bakugan Battle Trainer

With apologies to the exceedingly devoted legion of fans of both franchises, the best way to explain Bakugan Battle Brawlers to the uninitiated is by saying "it's pretty much like Pokemon."  Now, before someone unleashes their well-trained Pikachu or Hammer Gorem on me, let me explain – I'm not suggesting that the worlds the franchises take place in are the same, nor am I suggesting that that the characters are interchangeable, just that gameplay unfolds in similar fashion, the trainer trains his fighter and then unleashes them in battles.

The latest title in the Bakugan world is Bakugan: Battle Trainer.  It is scheduled to be released on March 21st, but when has that ever stopped us from getting our hands on it to bring you the inside scoop?  Okay, fine, it's stopped us regularly, but not this time!  Oh yes, we sat down with our DS, we trained Bakugans, we souped up their powers, ran them in ball form through mazes, bounced them, rolled them, and unleashed them at max power.

The game starts out simply enough, you, Bakugan trainer extraordinaire, have lost your memory about recent events due to some transportation issues.  Not to worry, that doesn't really affect anything, it just allows your friends to tell you what's been going on and draw you into the current tale.  Said tale revolves around the capturing of Bakguans that has taken place.  They're being held on a nearby space station and you have to train your single Bakugan so that the two of you can warp in, take out an enemy or three, save a Bakugan and warp back home.

Bakugans get trained via a series of minigames, like the aforementioned maze as well as a Tetris-like game, and more.  Successfully complete the minigames and you max out your Bakugan's G-power.  You can also earn bonuses that get your more power for the battles. 

As for the battles, they unfold in simple fashion – whomever begins the battle with the most power wins, it's straight up math.  Battles can have up to three Bakugans on each side, with only one Bakugan fighting on each side at a time.  Once your character has entered a battle, they can't be substituted out until their power hits zero, but the goal is simply to eliminate all the enemy fighters, no matter how many of your guys it takes.  Win battles and you free Bakugans for your use down the line.  There are 30 total Bakugans available, so maxing their power and bonuses out can take some time. 

With no-stress battles, lots to unlock, cute anime-like depictions of characters, and two-and-a-half dozen different Bakugans to take control of, fans of the series will no doubt enjoy the latest iteration.  We were certainly amused during our hands-on session.  The real question for non-fans of the series will be about the accessibility of the tale, and the length, replayability, and interest in a title which essentially asks you to do the same thing over and over again. 

Some Old Dogs Don't Even Have Old Tricks

It is the exceptionally rare comedy that offers not merely humor to its audience, but the opportunity for them to feel several other emotions as well. One of Disney's latest films, and one releasing to home video this week, Old Dogs, manages to make its audience feel any number of emotions. Sadly, rarely is humor one of them.

Starring John Travolta and Robin Williams; co-starring Kelly Preston, Lori Laughlin, Conner Rayburn, Ella Bleu Travolta, and Seth Green; and with appearances by Bernie Mac, Matt Dillon, Ann Margret, Amy Sedaris, and Rita Wilson, Old Dogs, from the moment the credits roll, has the feel to it of one of those films that put together a great cast to overcompensate for its poorly conceived and executed script. And the aforementioned stars try – they really try – to make the best of the plodding, nonsensical lines and situations handed them, but still don't succeed.

Old Dogs, directed by Walt Becker (Wild Hogs), finds Travolta and Williams as lifelong best friends who, years ago, went into sports marketing together. Travolta's Charlie has stayed the single playboy whereas Williams' Dan got married but ended up divorced years prior to the film's opening. In true best bud fashion, when that momentous e© Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All rights reserved.vent occurred in Dan's life, Charlie took him to Miami so they could get drunk, party, and get over it. That, event however not only left Dan with another marriage (it was annulled), but, as he finds out towards the opening of this film, twins (now nearly seven) as well. When the kids' mom (Kelly Preston) has to go to jail for two weeks, it falls to Dan to watch the kids he's never wanted but now has.

As you may have already surmised, that is where the majority of the film tries to find the funny – in Dan (and Charlie, who gets roped into helping) learning how to be a father and manage his business which is in the midst of a big deal at the same time. Not only is the eventual success of Dan and Charlie's parenting endeavors clear from the opening of the film, but far too many of the jokes are as well. There are repeated references to both men's age in terms of their being more suitable to be grandparents than parents and the quantity of medicine they take and even a few perfunctory hits to the groin (without which, it seems this film believes, no comedy can ever be successful).

None of the jokes really cause more than a slight smile, and that is where the other emotions the film does inspire come into play. Travolta and Williams, despite being hampered by the script, are both incredibly likable and charismatic. Sitting there, one will want them to be funny; seeing that funny is right around the corner, one will urge them on in their quest for funny; and watching them never quite arrive at funny one will walk away hugely disappointed. Old Dogs is a film that could have been good; one can sense the good inside of it trying to break free. It just never quite makes it. After viewing the film one can't help but have a sense of frustration about it. These are funny people in the film, they just never do anything funny.

© Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All rights reserved.Beyond that, it is utterly impossible to watch the film knowing anything about the actors and not get the sense that for Williams' character to have been married to Kelly Preston's character when Travolta is, in real life, married to her is odd. The film makes the family problems go one step further however with the casting of Ella Bleu Travolta as Preston and Williams' daughter in the film when she is really Preston and Travolta's daughter. Top that off with the repeated jokes about how Travolta and Williams are old enough to be the kids' grandfathers, not fathers, despite Travolta actually being Ella's father, and the entire thing is just plain unfunny and uncomfortable. Was the only way Travolta agreed to do the movie if both his wife and daughter were given parts with these the only ones available? Someone should certainly have thought better about proceeding down this casting path.

The best thing that can be said about the Blu-ray release of Old Dogs is that it both looks and sounds quite good. The colors are sharp and bright, and even if skin tones are, perhaps, slightly odd (they tend to give everyone a tanned look), they seem intended, and the rest of the colors are sharp, bright, and fit perfectly in this family-oriented (both in terms of material and audience) comedy. The DTS-HD 5.1 MA track is strong, with good use of the surrounds for music, crowds, and various effects. The dialogue all comes through quite clearly, allowing every failed joke to crisply and cleanly hang in the air before disappearing forever.

The special features on the release include a DVD and digital copy, deleted scenes, bloopers, a very brief discussion with the four main actors (the two kids, Travolta, and Williams) two music videos, and a commentary track with Becker, producer Andrew Panay, and writers David Diamond and David Weissman. In short, the special features are all as paint-by-numbers as the film itself.

Old Dogs is certainly a family-oriented film. It is PG rated and while there are some aspects of it that might cause parents to have a discussion or two with their child about appropriate and inappropriate behavior (plus the general birds and bees outline), it seems calculated to do little to offend any age group so that all might watch it and, if not laugh at it, at least not tense up uncomfortably. However, there are far better movies that fit that bill, and it might be best to just let Old Dogs slink off unnoticed.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Doctor Who Gets Himself Into a Dalek War

A famous British man once penned the phrase "what's in a name," and while it may be entirely true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, the readers of television recaps would be among the first to tell you that titling something poorly can create a stinker of an article. People do not like to have tales ruined for them before they even begin, and though perhaps it is odd to quibble about things being revealed in a recap (by very definition a recap should reveal what took place), in other cases the point is a good one. For instance, would The Empire Strikes Back have worked as well if it were titled Star Wars: Where Vader Reveals He's Luke's Dad?

As a part of the latest wave of Doctor Who DVD releases, it has been decided to put stories 67 ("Frontier in Space") and 68 ("Planet of the Daleks") together in a single boxed set entitled Doctor Who: Dalek War. Though the two stories are very loosely related, and certainly are sequential, to put them in a single, four-disc boxed set called Dalek War will ruin a reveal that takes place within the last 10 minutes of the two hour and 23-minute runtime of "Frontier in Space." From roughly the halfway point of the six-episode serial it is the Doctor's Time Lord enemy, the Master (Roger Delgado in his last appearance on the series), whom our hero is facing. There are a couple of oblique references to the fact that the Master is working for someone, and those unfamiliar with the complete story will not be able to guess who exactly that might be except for the fact that the title of the boxed set makes it clear. It is a good reveal rendered entirely inert by the title of the set.

It is entirely possible – perhaps likely – that the vast majority of those people who will be purchasing the set are not only Doctor Who fans but already familiar with both tales and therefore will not have anything ruined for them. However, it does seem as though ruining the reveal for those interested in the Doctor but unfamiliar with the tale is somewhat needless. It makes the idea of the Daleks hang over the entirety of "Frontier in Space," causing the audience to wait for their appearance and not pay attention to what is quite a good Doctor Who tale.

The episodes star Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor and Katy Manning as Jo Frost, the Doctor's current companion. It all starts off innocently enough with the Doctor and Jo appearing they know not where and quickly finding themselves in the midst of a growing feud between the Humans and the Draconians in the 26th century. Only the Doctor and Jo know that the two groups are not fighting each other but rather are being convinced that they are via mind control and a third species known as the Ogrons… a group controlled by the Master. The tale finds the Doctor and Jo constantly thwarted in their efforts to make the Draconians and Humans believe that there is a third group and plays quite clearly into Cold War fears.

The tale actually leads directly into "Planet of the Daleks," which features the return of the man credited with creating the Daleks, Terry Nation, to the series. A very similar tale to the first Dalek story, "The Daleks" (also written by Nation), "Planet of the Daleks" finds a small group of Thal – the other species that exist on Skaro alongside the Daleks – on the planet Spiridon in order to prevent the Daleks from getting the power of invisibility. The invisibility aspect of the story quickly disappears however as the Thal, the Doctor, and Jo must infiltrate the Daleks' underground city, sort out the Dalek plan, escape, and then put an end to the Daleks' scheme – just as William Hartnell's Doctor did with his companions and the Thal in the first Dalek tale.

It might, for the most part, be a rehash of that original tale, but it still works. The Doctor here is, of course, different, the series had come a long way since the original season and "The Daleks," and it is told on a larger scale here. Additionally, there is some amount of believability in the idea that a group would try to succeed a second time where they once had failed. Rather than viewing "Planet of the Daleks" as a rip-off, this reviewer prefers to see it as a loving homage.

Amongst the extras included in this DVD set is a two part sci-fi piece (one for each of the Who stories) called "The Perfect Scenario," which is an odd but fun fictional creation itself. In the two 30-minute segments a storyteller in the future is learning about how to tell tales via Doctor Who and how these Who stories reflect back on the times in which they were told (they discuss the Cold War, examine women's liberation, and have a very '70s feel). They also discuss here Nation's borrowing of Nation for "The Planet of the Daleks." "The Perfect Scenario" is distinctly odd, creating false future history and weaving in actual cast and crew interviews. The four disc set also includes behind-the-scenes featurettes for each of the stories, a biography of Roger Delgado, two looks at Doctor Who comics (one about the Third Doctor and one on the Daleks), photo galleries, printable materials including TV listings if one puts the DVD into a computer, a few clips from Blue Peter in which they help find missing Daleks, and most interestingly, a short piece on how the third episode of "Planet of the Daleks" was colorized.

In 1973, Doctor Who was shot in color, but copies of episodes weren't always kept. Eventually, the BBC decided that they did want complete copies of old Doctor Who stories, but couldn't find one for the third part of "Planet of the Daleks." They did, however, have a black and white one. This incredibly interesting supplemental piece on the set goes into how two different techniques were used to colorize the third episode. Rather than the colorization being old school, wholly apparent, and completely disappointing, with this episode, if one didn't know that it had been colorized they wouldn't be able to identify it as in any way different from the rest. And, even if one does know they still may not be able to tell. It is truly an incredible process and a testament to the work that was done to get these stories from the Pertwee years ready for DVD. Though not always perfect, all the episodes look and sound extremely good.

It may have been a mistake for these two stories from Doctor Who to be titled Dalek War, but it certainly will not be a mistake for fans of the show, those interested in old science fiction, or just good television to purchase them.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Animal Beat Drums! And Now You Can Too - Muppets Animal Drummer

If you're anything like me you've often thought to yourself, "man, I do like a good rhythm game, if only there was one that revolved around Jim Henson's classic creation, The Muppets, or, at the very least, a single Muppet."  Well, my prayers – and quite potentially yours – have been answered.  Released back in December and currently available for the iPhone is the rhythm game, Muppets Animal Drummer.

Animal is, of course, the well-known drummer of the famed band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, a band whose members also include Floyd Pepper, ZoMuppets Animal Drummerot, Janice, and Dr. Teeth himself.  A rock band at their core, The Electric Mayhem has Animal in charge of keeping the all-important beat.  To be sure, it is a difficult task for the wild thing, and one which, in Muppets Animal Drummer, he is going to help you learn all about.

Essentially, the game can be thought of as a somewhat goosed up version of Simon (the buttons you push are even brightly colored much like the ones on that classic game).  Animal sits at the center of the screen surrounded by his drum kit of which he uses five different elements – bass drum, toms, crash cymbal, snare, and hi-hat.  Animal sits there for four beats playing a combination of elements from his kit and then, using five different buttons – each of which corresponds to a single piece of Animal's kit – you have to play the same combination of items back at the same tempo.

The game comes with a half-dozen different songs, though oddly none of them are classic Muppet tunes.  You go through a song four beats at a time following Animal's lead and if you score well enough you unlock the next tune.  Unlock enough of the regular difficulty tunes and you open up "Animal" level Muppets Animal Drummerdifficulty on the same set of songs. 

It all sounds pretty simple, and yet it isn't.  There is a little set of lights in the upper right hand corner to help you time the beat, but as the moves get more complicated it definitely becomes significantly more difficult to follow Animal correctly.  It can also be a little tough to work out – despite the countdown to your turn – exactly when the first downbeat is coming, miss that and you can kiss the those four beats goodbye.  However, once you get the hang of it and start putting together combos you fill up a bonus meter on the left side of the screen which allows for you to go crazy Animal-style on the drums, racking up big points without having to worry about following the manic redhead.

The game also includes a free play mode in which you can rock out on the drums to any unlocked song or import ones from your iTunes library.  Sound levels for the music, drums, and button volume can all be adjusted independently which can help you create that perfect mix.

For $1.99, the title is quite impressive, featuring good sound (headphones are recommended but not essential), good graphics, and a whole lot of fun.  It even comes equipped with the ability to link to your Facebook account so that you can impress everyone with your score.  At this moment the biggest drawbacks are the lack of songs through which you can follow Animal's lead and the fact that, inexplicably, while for three of the buttonMuppets Animal Drummers (crash cymbal, hi-hat, and bass drum) you mirror animals movements by pressing with your left hand when Animal uses his right and vice versa, for the snare and toms this isn't true.  Both of these problems are small and easily correctable with future releases however – and we certainly hope that future releases will be forthcoming.

As Animal himself has often said – "BEAT DRUMS!  BEAT DRUMS!"

Though not ESRB rated, the game seems safe for all ages.


four stars out of five