Thursday, April 29, 2010

Looking for Perfection on ABC Wednesdays with Happy Town

Every couple of weeks my wife and I have the same conversation – I get upset about something and she explains to me that I have to take it a little easier, that I have to choose my battles. I respond by explaining that I do choose my battles, that I consciously decide to enter into every single one, that I know what I'm doing before I do it and decide to go ahead and do it anyway. Using this strategy I have succeeded more than I have failed, which is, I think, why I have continued pursuing it.

Of course, what goes hand in hand with my pursuing every battle is that I all too often don't leave well enough alone. I don't like "pretty good," I like "great." I don't like "that'll work," I like "holy cow, I've never seen anything quite so splendiferous." It is there that I get into trouble.

ABC launched their Wednesday comedy lineup in the fall and I was excited. I was correct – they took a big risk, it paid off (for three of the four comPhoto Credit: ABC/Bob D'Amicoedies), and the night on ABC was off and running. I've always enjoyed Ugly Betty, but far more as a watch-on-DVD-when-the-full-season-comes-out show instead of on a weekly basis, and so didn't follow the show when it was airing after Cougar Town on Wednesday nights. I wanted ABC to have a show that was fully compatible with my viewing habits; I was hoping that they would, but thus far this season they hadn't. Still though, with my always wanting more, with my constantly pursuing (whether or not it is achievable) perfection, I greatly wished for them to come up with something that would keep me tuned in for that last hour of primetime.

My wishes, sort of, were answered. Last night, ABC launched a new series, Happy Town, which is being billed as a Twin Peaks-esque mystery. Now, to remain true to Twin Peaks, the show would have to be pretty good but ratings-challenged and canceled without an extended run. I like good television though, so I decided once again to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and to embark on watching another show even if the show had little chance of success (which, let's face it, a quirky little mystery show airing as a late mid-season replacement right after two hours of lighthearted comedy is).

What did I find? Exactly what I thought I would. First, while I'm not wholly convinced that the show can gain enough momentum or propel the mystery far enough down the line for it to remain interesting in the long term, I did quite enjoy last night's setup. Outside of the show having a very good cast (Sam Neill, Amy Acker, and Steven Weber to name but three members of the ensemble), I thought that the story the series put forward – a series of strange disappearances in a small town went on for years before magically stopping but now trouble lurks again – was certainly compelling enough to make me add a Season Pass to my TiVo. We really don't know what is happening yet on the show, last night was really just introducing us to the characters, but there are enough of them and they are diverse enough that they only added to my wanting to know where things are going to be headed.

What else did I find? Well, again, just like I thought, upon looking at the ratings for last night I found that they weren't good.

Where, then, does that leave me? Should I continue watching the show? The ratings weren't abysmal, enough answers might be provided by the end of this spate of episodes that even if the show doesn't return I'll feel as though I've gotten enough of an answer. Or, perhaps the show will leave me with more questions than answers and a general feeling of distress at seeing another show that I've gotten attached to disappearing before I've decided that the series' time is up (I should, by the way, absolutely be making those decisions).

Frequent readers of this column will know that I often find myself in this predicament and, more often than not, I think my answer is the same one that I'll be giving now – I choose to pick every battle, to fight every fight. I let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Happy Town, I'm happy to have you on my TiVo for as long as you're around.



Article first published as Searching for Televisual Perfection: Happy Town on Blogcritics.org.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

GTI Club - Supermini Festa! no Fiesta

Ever since first getting to play a port of the original Pole Position on a PC back in the day, racing games have held a special place in my heart. The graphics were pretty basic (but not bad for the time), the physics not realistic and the course rather boring but it still managed to be awesomely fun – if only because it was the first thing I'd played like it. Time though has passed and so now when I play a racing game where the graphics are pretty basic, the physics not realistic, and the courses unexciting I am left disappointed. Consequently, GTI Club – Supermini Festa!, despite its exclamation point promise of excitement leaves this reviewer downright disappointed.

GTI Club – Supermini Festa!, as with many racing games, has a pretty simple setup. The game lets you play in five different countries – France, the UK, Italy, Japan, and the USA. All that means though is that the background and course is different, and sort of, kind of, almost, in some way based on the perceived look of the country you're in.

No matter the mode you play in, you start off getting to buy one car. In Quest Mode you can only race on one track. Beat your opponent and you get a medal (bronze, silver, or gold depending on performance). You also unlock the next course and can earn bonuses for your car. Keep playing and you get to buy more cars, earn more bonuses, and unlock more courses. There are several different contest types available, although certainly not enough for the number of courses or to make the experience enjoyable. The two more traditional races are one-on-one on a closed course and one-on-one with innocent bystander cars. There are then more mini-game-esque contests like coin collecting, tomato throwing, and bomb passing. One of the better mini-games included is car soccer, in which you go up against another car (or two if you're playing two against two) and try to hit a massive ball into an oversized goal. It is very clever and would be hugely original if the guys on Top Gear hadn't already actually played real car football (they're British, so it's "football") … twice.

One of the largest problems with the Quest Mode – an essential part of the game if you want to get better cars and upgrade the ones you have – is that you only ever unlock one course at a time and have to earn a medal on each of the beginner missions before you can move on to the first intermediate difficulty level course, where you again have to go one-by-one to get to the next difficulty level. It is not that it's hard to earn a medal on any of the courses; quite the opposite, it is incredibly easy and the fact that you can't simply move to a more worthy difficulty level without spending hours on the easier difficulty levels is frustrating.

In addition to also having an Arcade Mode which allows you to do all manner of races (though it seems as though more difficult courses there are only unlocked after unlocking them in Quest) and still earn points to buy new stuff, the game does offer an online mode, but you can't cheat the system and get more worthy opponents by going online. You can set the online mode to only go up against friends, but if you venture into the larger online section, it's neither ranked nor does it allow you opt to only allow the usage of cars without mods that have been earned in Quest Mode. Thus, when you go online, you have to do so with relatively suped-up cars because the people you're going up against will have them. That means you need to go through Quest Mode; don't and the game goes from being not competitive due to its ease to not competitive due to its impossibility.

The issues with Supermini Festa! don't end there however. Oh no, the cars have horrifically jagged edges, and despite their being 16 customizable rides, due to the poor graphics a whole bunch of them look pretty similar during races. Cars jump in ways that can't possibly happen (they almost feel like RC vehicles when they do) and, more disturbingly, have the ability to go through many a tree as though they weren't there because apparently many of them are nothing more than mirages. Other trees do actually exist, but only in order to push your car to one side or another, they never actually cause you to crash. That's okay though, because even when you crash in a race it costs you very little – just a few seconds and sometimes your opponent won't catch up to you even when they weren't all that far behind prior to the crash. Go ahead, hit walls, cones, trees, rocks, other vehicles, whatever you want – if the crash doesn't completely reset you with minimal penalty, it causes no damage whatsoever.

The menu system is not without issues either. After you earn an upgrade in a race you have to back out of a myriad of submenus until you get the option to enter the garage and adjust your vehicle. Then, upon completing the installation of your car's upgrade, you need to go back through a bunch of menus to get to the next race – you spend more time going through the menus than you do upgrading the car.

There are some fun aspects to the game, mainly finding various shortcuts and trying to determine which shortcuts are shortcuts and which are longer paths as well as the game's Wii wheel compatibility (for the extra challenge of trying to use the device). The fun though is almost completely lost when having to deal dealing with the game's shortcomings. For the game to not be realistic would be fine, but the game isn't particularly over the top or exciting in its lack of realism either. There are, in short, better racing choices out there.

GTI Club - Supermini Festa! is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Mild Violence. This game can also be found on: PSP


Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: GTI Club - Supermini Festa! on Blogcritics.org

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tombstone Lives on Blu-ray

The number of times the gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been depicted in various forms of media is certainly not a small one.  The fight may be the best known showdown in the Old West, and, like so much of history, has entirely different meanings depending on who you are and how you see the world.  Hitting store shelves on Blu-ray this week is one of the more recent filmic depictions of the battle, the 1993 film, Tombstone.

Directed by George P. Cosmatos (after screenwriter Kevin Jarre was removed from the director's chair), Tombstone features a large ensemble cast led by Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.  The other two Earp brothers, Virgil and Morgan, are played by Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton respectively, while the Cowboys (the bad guys) are led by Powers Boothe's Curly Bill Brocious and Michael Biehn's Johnny Ringo.  The impressive cast doesn't end there as Dana Delany, Thomas Haden Church, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestly, Jon Tenney, Stephen Lang, Billy Bob Thornton, Harry CaPhoto Credit: © WDSHE. All Rights Reserved.rey Jr., Billy Zane, John Corbett, and Terry O'Quinn amongst others make appearances.

As the everyone involved with the film are very helpful to tell the viewer in the included behind-the-scenes featurette, one of the more impressive things about Tombstone is that while other tales of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral have the famed battle as the climax of the third act, it appears far earlier than that in this movie.  It is, unquestionably, an important part, but the movie itself is much more about offering (what it considers) a realistic look at the Old West and the way life was then than it is the tale of the gunfight.

The film – which is the story of the Earps' time in Tombstone, Arizona and their battle with the evil gang known as the Cowboys – is unquestionably action oriented, but Cosmatos (or Russell, depending on which history of the making of the film you believe) manages to show great character depth and concoct a story that would work almost as well with all the action off-screen instead of on.

The Wyatt Earp we are presented with in the film isn't the out-and-out good guy that has been put onscreen in earlier endeavors.  Instead, what we are given is a man who is conflicted, who is married to one woman but in love with another, who doesn't want evil to befall Tombstone but feels he's done his service, a man not above forcing one man out of a gambling business so that he can force his own way in.  It is a great depiction of a well-known historical figure, and Russell carries it off perfectly. 

At least as good in the film is Kilmer as Doc Holliday.  Kilmer plays the tuberculosis stricken southern gentleman as a man on the edge, one who lives every day as though he has nothing to lose.  While he certainly has a tendency towards the nefarious, his friendship with Earp is, perhaps, the strongest pull he exhibits in the film.  Throughout the film, Holliday may look like a man on death's door, a notion only enhanced through is slow movement and speech, but his appearance belies his incredible talent with firearms.  Kilmer's Holliday is a dangerous man, and great to watch on screen.

In fact, with so many great actors portraying so many interesting historical figures, the biggest disappointment in Tombstone is that it only runs for two hours and ten minutes.  We are only given the roughest sketches of several characters, but that's not because they weren't thought through, it is because there was just too much to put all of it onscreen without a really long runtime, which actually may have led to an even better film.

The truly unfortunate part of how good the movie is, how much fun it is, and how realistically it seems to depict the Old West is that this particular Photo Credit: © WDSHE. All Rights Reserved.release is certainly lackluster.  The 5.1 channel DTS HD-MA soundtrack, while it makes good use of the surrounds does tend to make dialogue too low in volume relative to the effects and music (or, perhaps it is the effects and music that are too loud in relation to the sound) – listen to dialogue at a good level and the gunshots tend to sound like cannons.  It is at least a clean audio track, and one can't say the same for the video.  While most of the film looks good, there are several scenes in which a single shot in the scene has an inordinate amount of noise.  There are several dark scenes which leave it hard to distinguish between the actors and the background, and other shots appear to have dirt or other imperfections in them.  There tends to be a good level of detail in better lit scenes, but one won't be stunned by anything they see.

The supplementals that accompany the film are sparse.  In addition to trailers and TV spots, there is a making-of featurette and a look at the director's original storyboards.  The lack of bonus features is distressing; more bonus features than those included here have been part of previous DVD releases. Additionally, what is called the "Director's Original Storyboards" only includes the gunfight at the O.K. Corral Sequence, and the making-of featurette glosses over the history of the film's production.  Throughout the entire three-part making-of piece, no mention whatsoever is made of the trouble on set and the firing of the original director.  Certainly the studio wouldn't want its dirty laundry aired loudly, but to make no mention of it does call into question everything else stated in the extra.

Tombstone is a really good movie, despite any problems that may occurred on set it is a story created with love and care and features several great actors at the top of their game.  It is a film which, unquestionably, deserves a better high definition treatment than it is given here.



review originally published at Blogcritics Magazine

Monday, April 26, 2010

It's Complicated, but Perhaps not as Much as it Should be

It often feels as though there is a sad and unfortunate tendency in Hollywood to leave comedies for younger actors or, at the very least, have middle-aged actors gear their comedies for a "family" crowd. It is therefore a nice experience when one gets to sit down and watch an adult-oriented comedy with adult actors, and it is even better when the comedy in question proves to be exceptionally funny and full of great performances. One need look no further than the 2009 film It's Complicated for proof of that.

Written and directed by Nancy Meyers (The Holiday), It's Complicated stars Meryl Streep as Jane, a chef/restaurant owner and mother of three grown children who has been divorced for a decade after 19 years of marriage. As with so many former couples who have children, Jane still regularly sees her ex-husband, Jake (Alec Baldwin). Unfortunately for Jane that means Universal Studiosshe also see her ex-husband's new wife, Agness (Lake Bell) and her son, Pedro (Emjay Anthony). Though Jane has dated people on and off over the course of the last decade, she has not settled down with anyone, but once an architect she hires, Adam (Steve Martin), enters her life, romance blossoms. Unfortunately for Jane, it doesn't only blossom with Adam, it blossoms with Jake as well.

That is where It's Complicated finds most of its humor and its heart. Meyers puts Jane, Adam, Jake, and everyone else into awkward situations, and while she's able to mine those situations for comedy, she never lets the audience forget that she is trying to depict real human beings. Jane, Adam, Jake, and to a lesser extent Jane and Jake's kids – Lauren (Caitlin Fitzgerald), Gabby (Zoe Kazan), and Luke (Hunter Parrish) – as well as Harley (John Krasinski), Lauren's fiancé, are actual three-dimensional people struggling to cope with life as it comes in the best way they possibly can.

The movie is almost wholly successful in this endeavor with Jane and Adam, both of whom have clearly suffered when their divorces came about and both of whose ex-spouses are cast (via the story of the divorces) in a negative light.

Universal StudiosIt's Complicated is far less successful, however, in its attempt to redeem Jake. We know that Jake cheated on Jane and while we are asked at points in the film to root for them to get back together, it always feels wrong. The audience is never able to escape the fact that Jane has stepped into the role Agness had a decade before when it was Jane that was married to Jake – Jane has become "the other woman." Meyers does give this question some thought in the film, but never, even for a moment, convincingly argues that Jane's actions are acceptable. It is a task the film makes harder on itself as it only ever casts Adam in a positive light and consequently one can't help but feel bad for him as they watch the Jane and Jake relationship unfold.

Worse than that however, is the film's disappointing third act. It's Complicated goes from having a situation that is truly complicated to just clearing everything up magically. To accomplish this, the characters end up discussing what their feelings were earlier in the film, but the feelings they talk about were never actually depicted and thus the ending feels hollow.

The Blu-ray release of It's Complicated is a rather sparse affair. There is a feature-length commentary from Meyers and others involved in the production and a making of featurette. With such funny actors doing such a good job with the comedy in the film, it is difficult to believe that there are no outtakes, no deleted scenes, no bloopers that could have been included in the release.

The technical aspects of the release are certainly better than the bonus features. Some shots do appear to have a softer focus than they ought, but the different colors featured in the Santa Barbara backdrop to the film look absolutely fantastic. Most of the shots have a great deal of detail (save the aforementioned occasional soft focus shots) as well. As this is a mostly lighthearted comedy, one without massive special effects, the 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is rather subdued. Overall, one will find little to complain about, but also little to truly wow them.

In the final summation, It's Complicated is a truly funny film which falters only when it attempts to wrap things up. It has actors who are certainly capable of the dramatic moments (and they handle them well early in the film), and seriousness is certainly what's required, but it just seems as though Meyers' script wrote the characters into a corner and her solution to get them out of it is less than satisfying. Even with that issue, the movie still proves enjoyable.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Praising FlashForward's Look at Demetri's March 15th

I complain (a lot) when things are bad on a television show; I speak up and shout and point fingers… loudly. Consequently, when a show I've watched but found grossly disappointing does something right I feel myself obligated to speak up and say as much.

For a long time – months – FlashForward has been moving towards March 15 (within its world, not ours). That is the date, Demetri Noh learned, on which he would be shot, killed with his partner's gun. While not the season's climax, it has certainly been promoted as one of the big moments in the season. It's a moment that the show gave us this week, and while it wasn't a perfect episode, it was a great moment and one of the better things the show has done all season (and I'm not even going to say something about how that wouldn't be hard).

Photo Credit: ABC/ADAM LARKEYThe episode, I think, had a few missteps, the biggest of which (this would be a SPOILER — in fact, much of the rest of the piece is) was the elimination of Dyson Frost. FlashForward has put forward, over the course of the season, a bunch of potential bad guys – people who may have caused the flash. They then have go on to kill them right after we were allowed to get to know them. It's the sort of introduction and subsequent dismissal that makes me feel as though the producers are still trying to figure out whodunit and haven't quite settled on it yet. Frost was a great bad guy, the most charismatic one we've seen and to lose him is upsetting (if he's actually dead).

Yes, we've gotten the introduction of another couple of baddies, but as of this moment, they seem kind of weak and I particularly don't like Alda as one of them. She seems like a hired hand, but the idea that Demetri and Mark were following this woman who was involved with the flash just prior to the flash (even though they had no idea that the flash was coming) seems a little overly lucky.

Wait, I said that I was going to talk about the good, didn't I? Let's forget about the baddie issue for now – the producers may actually have worked it all out and may be able to make the villains we're left with compelling.

The good was the actual moment when Mark found Demetri and the reasons for Demetri being tied up. Frost, having had a whole bunch of visions about the future was doing everything he could to make sure that he didn't end up dead. Frost didn't want Demetri dead, but certainly preferred for Demetri to die than for him to lose his own life. That was a great reason for Frost to put Demetri in a near death situation.

We don't quite understand why Frost had to proceed exactly as he did and it seemed like there were a bunch of other choices, but that's something the producers were able to get away with. They explained that Frost had seen a bunch of futures and while we can guess about other ways Frost could have gone, Frost already saw down those future paths and had reasons for choosing the method he did. He knew it didn't have a massive chance of success, but it was the best option of which he was aware.

So, FlashForward did a great job of setting up Demetri's predicament with the gun set to go off, and of Mark's quick-thinking to save his partner's life. It was actually a really fun to watch moment in the series, one of the few times they've managed to have a crazy thought process and bit of action that mostly made sense; it put one of the best character's on the show in a life or death situation and extracted him from it sensibly. Plus, it had the great backdrop of the garden of forking paths. That picture Frost had drawn was tantalizing and something which I'm sure truly devoted people will have freeze-framed and closely examined. There was a little bit of something for everyone in the moment and they managed to keep Demetri alive – which is, I think, something we all wanted.

Does this all mean that the show is now heading down the right forking path? I hope so, I'm not guaranteeing anything, but I hope so.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

ABC's Romantically Challenged - We'll Pass

Sometimes after sitting and watching a new television show I need a day or two to process my thoughts – was what I just witnessed as bad as I think it was, is it going to grow on me, did I miss why anyone would find this good, am I crazy or is this the greatest thing that television has ever produced? Whether I loved, hated, or thought something truly middling, there are occasions when I need a little bit of extra time to process. That's why you're reading my thoughts on Romantically Challenged today instead of on Tuesday morning, and, for what it's worth, my opinion on the show didn't change the more I thought about it.

Starring Alyssa Milano and airing on ABC, Romantically Challenged is the story of a group of friends, one of whom has just recently undergone a divorce and has a teenage son (hubby moved to Seattle, allowing for a special appearance from time to time should the show last long enough). Milano's character, Rebecca, is a high-powered lawyer but as she's been married for much of her adult life, she is unwise in the ways of love. Helping her (badly) are her friends Perry (Kyle Bornheimer) and Shawn (Josh Lawson) as well as her sister, Lisa (Kelly Stables). They are, as you won't be surprised to find out, just as romantically challenged as Rebecca herself.

ABC/ADAM LARKEYPerry is the guy who feels too much, who is too emotional. Shawn is the out-of-work, none-too-great writer who is freeloading off Perry, living in Perry's guest room. Lisa is the kindergarten teacher who – it is hinted at – has something of a dirty mind (think Lily Aldrin). Each of the characters has the potential to be funny, they are certainly all characters we've seen before and have liked on a myriad of other sitcoms. However, the funniness fails to come across in Romantically Challenged's pilot.

It is really a very traditional sitcom setup. That is perfectly acceptable, there is something nice about knowing what to expect in general when you sit down to watch a television show. The issue with Romantically Challenged isn't that you know in general what is going to happen, it's that you know in specific – you know the jokes and the punchlines before they occur, sometimes several scenes in advance, and that is massively disappointing. For some reason in the pilot episode they even dare to go back to the well worn, rarely funny, comedic "no, you hang up first" bit, which was last funny when Rachel grabbed the phone from Ross and hung up on Julie.

Alyssa Milano has proven her comedic chops, but why she is the star in such a subpar comedy is wholly unclear. The numbers from the first week were not bad, but it did get a pretty cushy 9:30 timeslot opening with a 90-minute Dancing With the Stars lead-in. The numbers do nut augur well for the show's future, but for Milano and company that might be a good thing – it could allow everyone to quickly forget this project so that the stars can move onto the next.

The series is executive produced by Ricky Blitt (Family Guy) and the incredibly well known James Burrows, who worked on shows such as Cheers, Friends, and Will & Grace. They have the credentials to put out an enjoyable series but have certainly missed the mark here.

The show is actually perplexingly unfunny and that is, I think, why I needed an extended period to contemplate it. ABC has managed to get onto the air this year three new and very funny comedies in The Middle, Modern Family, and Cougar Town (yes, they had a misstep with Hank, but that disappeared so quickly that I had almost forgotten it existed in the first place). Romantically Challenged doesn't in any way measure up to those three.

It would be overly glib to refer to the show as "comedically challenged." It is better to simply say that despite talented people both in front of and behind the camera it is simply not a funny show.

The US Version of Top Gear is Coming!

Nearly two years ago those of us in the United States were tantalized with the notion that there could be, that there might be, that it was possible that we would get Top Gear USA (that was actually the second attempt at creating a US version).  A pilot was ordered, it was shot, and the series quickly disappeared, never making it to air. 

Word came down yesterday though that a new US version is alive and well and will be airing on the History Channel come late this year.  In fact, yesterday's announcement wasn't just that the series would exist at some unknown eventual point down the line, it was that the US Top Gear was beginning production.  The series will be hosted by Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust, and Rutledge Wood (only Foust was involved in the NBC version).

Today, an article posted over at Jalopnik tells viewers what we can expect from the new US version of the show.  The most important item in their list seems to be that the series will follow the exact same format as its British cousin.  It would seem incredibly difficult for any new version of the series to live up to what the British version currently puts out, but the thought that more new Top Gear will be available every year is certainly a tantalizing proposition.

Stay tuned for more updates as we get them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Glee: The Power of Madonna and Guest Stars

At what point did Glee became such must-watch viewing for me? At what point did the show go from one I was very middling about – and was even considering not watching over the summer – to one whose new episodes I so eagerly anticipate? Oh, I still spurn the moniker "Gleek," but I do so like the show. They always seem to come up with great songs and manage to overdo their plotlines – which, I think we can all admit are by and large "been there, done that" – thereby making them fun.

Of course, as we all know, Glee returned last week and did so to some seriously good ratings. Now, this week, they're doing their highly publicized Madonna episode. Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/FOXQuite frankly, I wouldn't respect myself if I didn't tell you in advance that it's quite good. As I think I said sometime back in the fall, though, for me the show really mainly works because of the songs, not so much the characters or the plot. Consequently, I wasn't hugely surprised that for me the Madonna episode wasn't great because the Madonna songs were Madonna songs, but much rather because they were just good songs.

Without a doubt, there is certainly something to watching the show do "Vogue" and the various other songs they do in the episode (which I'm not going to give away in advance even if the promos do give away a few — "Vogue" isn't a spoiler because they previewed it last week and it's available online… like at the end of this article). I am at the right age to recall with fondness watching the "world premiere" of a whole bunch of Madonna videos and the umpteen million changes she went through back in the day. But, again, anytime Glee does a song that I remember from back in the day I'm happy. They don't have to be Madonna songs, but the episode for me tends to be better than the rest because I am aware of and like a greater percentage of the songs than in the average episode.

Not to completely negate everything I've just written, but next week, Glee will air an episode entitled "Home." It's an episode where I knew some of the songs, not a huge preponderance, but I still really liked the episode. What makes next week's episode different? Kristin Chenoweth comes back.

There is an actress I completely love. I first saw her on Broadway, but ever since that introduction, she's become one of those people who I've sought out on television, and who, sadly, is never on TV enough. I know, she was a star on Pushing Daisies, and she was a great part of that show, but she only rarely sang on it and if I had my way Chenoweth would sing every time she appears anywhere (not all the time, but every time).

See, I don't feel that way about any of the characters or actors on Glee. As much fun as they are to watch, and as much fun as they are to hear, they are not Kristin Chenoweth. But, that's not really a fair standard is it? They've done well enough that a show I certainly considered not TiVoing after watching the "special preview," or whatever FOX called it last spring, is now one that I hugely look forward to on a weekly basis.

I have, it seems, completely shot myself in the foot by watching "The Power of Madonna" and "Home" early, but that's the sort of disappointment with which I can live. It remains a series that is going to – for me – live and die on a weekly basis with the songs (and special guest singers), but the world of great recorded music is a large one, certainly large enough for the show to last for an awfully long time – way longer than those kids will be in high school. How are they possibly going to deal with that? Maybe Sue and Will are going to do all the singing down the line. Maybe they'll just bring Kristin Chenoweth on permanently (I can dream, can't I)?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Monster Buck Hunter - More Buck Hunting than Monster Hunting

To some out there the thought of the release of another of Cabela's hunting games will seem completely ludicrous.  After all, how many games do you need to have where you go out and shoot deer, birds, and various other animals?  There is a wholly separate contingent of people out there who will quickly ask the appropriate question in reply – how many games do you need where you go out and shoot zombies or aliens; how many games do you need where you throw a football, reunite the Triforce, or give Bowser what for.

In the latest iteration of the hunting franchise, Cabela's Monster Buck Hunter, the biggest sales point seems not to be the game itself, but the fact that it's packaged together with the Top Shot peripheral.  This particular addition has been available packaged with other hunt games, but if you're going on a hunt with a friend, it definitely makes sense for you both to be armed.  Monster Buck Hunter offers the Top Shot packaged with the game for the cost of a single full-priced title, and $20 more than the game by itself (based on Amazon's current pricing).

For the uninitiated, the Top Shot is a large, orange, toy shotgun that can hold both the Wii remote and the nunchuk.  The trigger for the gun is the nunchuk's Z-button, with the Wii remote sitting towards the business end of the barrel (so that it can accurately point at the screen).  Though moderately awkward to hold initially – and it certainly seems more comfortable when used standing than sitting – one does feel like they are holding a substantial device, one quite capable of blowing away all manner of electronic vermin.

As for the game itself, the action is divided into two main categories.  First, there is the Top Shot Challenge, which sends you to 12 different stages and has you blow away somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 animals per stage.  This portion of the title operates wholly on rails, taking you from one scenic shooting gallery to the next.  Perform well enough using the right weapon (shoot birds with rifle for deer or deer with the shotgun used on birds and you lose points) and you quickly earn power ups that allow you to kill even more swiftly. 

Though it is certainly fun to bag multiple birds with a single shot, the sheer quantity of animals you eliminate in a few minutes had me moderately disturbed.  It is certainly easy to post a high score and satisfy all the objectives, but there is a whole lot of what feels to be senseless killing involved (aliens at least want to conquer the earth and zombies want your brains, so it makes somewhat more sense to me to want them dead).

The game also contains a "bonus" Career Mode.  Here the missions are far more simple, only requiring that you eliminate a few animals in a short while in order to obtain a medal.  This mode doesn't operate on rails, allowing you to move around in order to obtain the best possible angle to bag your prey.  The only issue with this is that although the field of play is defined – you will get warnings if you leave the prescribed area – you can't tell that you're about to leave the area until the warning pops up.  As the allowed area isn't highlighted on the map it can become quite difficult to figure out where you're allowed to go and where you're not.

The graphics, though never stellar, are certainly good enough for you to be able to make out the blacks of the deers' eyes.  The different areas you'll visit while bagging your game do certainly have different feels and looks. Although, in Top Shot Challenge you're going to be far too busy taking down animals to look at the surroundings – and the X-ray vision power-up eliminates all background anyway. The sound is clear enough to help you determine where the animals are coming from and heading to, although the pep talks the omniscient voice gives are terribly repetitive.

As the back of the box specifically promotes, the game offers 96 missions, 36 species, 24 locations, and 24 competitions.  That is all to say that there is a lot there, but there is not necessarily a whole lot of differentiation between the various items.  Yes, you will get medals and awards for taking out all the varieties of each animal, but if you just want to shoot things and aren't looking for that 100 percent completion, you may find yourself quickly bored.  The mechanics have all been worked in previous entries into the series, so there are no real complaints there – it's quite literally point and shoot, which the Wii does brilliantly.

If you're a fan of the series and looking for more things to shoot, Cabela's Monster Buck Hunter certainly fits the bill, but it will do absolutely nothing to add fans to the series.


Cabela's Monster Buck Hunter is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Violence.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fight on: Final Fight: Double Impact

There was a point in time when side-scrollers were huge. Every other game you would see in an arcade or on a home system was some sort of side-scrolling, button-mashing action game. They ranged from the generic to the exceptional, some featuring great storylines, others with excellent power-ups and fantastically fun bosses. Of course, for every game that featured a wonderfully fun idea, there was one that felt like a complete and total cash-in. Lying somewhere near the upper end of the range is the game Final Fight. Now, together with Magic Sword, it is being released for download on PSN and Xbox Live as Final Fight: Double Impact.

Before anyone throws up their hands and starts screaming at their machine for my daring to suggest that Final Fight is not the single greatest side-scroller ever created, just remember I did say that it was really very good. Though the story was never hugely original – a guy's daughter gets kidnapped by a gang lord and he sets about freeing her vigilante-style – the game was great fun in the arcades. The levels were littered with destroyable things, roast turkeys were lying about to replenish health, the bosses were amusing, and Mike Haggar would eventually become a video game legend.

Today though, while the entire idea remains consistently amusing, all of the fun in the game is linked back to the nostalgia for it. From the moment you first open Double Impact you get the feeling that Capcom is celebrating the original arcade release and the memory of the game, not what it may be today. The Double Impact menu screen is actually a fully rendered area depicting two different arcade machines set back-to-back, one with Final Fight and the other with Magic Sword. You can even watch the opening story for Final Fight via the frame of the arcade machine (and play the game using the cabinet view as well). It was, as Capcom reminds you, a great game back in the day.

Then, you get the opportunity to actually play, selecting one of the three characters. While it's fun, it is fun in a retro way, and less fun than it would be if you were playing the game with the original arcade joystick and buttons. The main problem is that the controls, as they kind of always did, feel a little sluggish. You need to anticipate when you're going to want to hit someone and turn around to strike the guy behind you far more in advance than you're used to these days. It's not that the gameplay is slow, it's much more that it's not as fluid as you're used to if you play games released in the last 10 years.

Magic Sword is a more fantasy-based title in which you'll vanquish all manner of enemies with a sword, shield, and various characters you can free along the way (though you only get to keep one at a time). It responds more quickly to commands as well. There are far more levels to Magic Sword, but they're also shorter. Magic Sword isn't really worse than Final Fight, it just doesn't have the same cachet the former does.

To be clear, I'm in no way arguing against anyone purchasing the title. It is a mere $9.99 for two video games, and it accomplishes its task – to give you, the gamer, a fun retro gaming experience. If you like retro, you're going to have a good time. And, the folks at Capcom have one other trick up their sleeve with Double Impact, a trick which could easily sway tons of people into purchasing the download — they've included online multiplayer. That's right, while you can still play with a second person who is sitting on your couch with you, now you can join a game with someone somewhere else in the world, smashing things as Cody and Haggar or that guy from Magic Sword. It's a pretty smart addition to the title, and certainly adds to the value.

I personally was always more of a Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, and, though it was slightly different, Karateka guy. However, as the themes and gameplay aren't massively different, I still get a jolt of amusement from picking up these two titles. Side-scrollers, with their pick-up-and-play ability, required little knowledge of in-depth maneuvers and strategy. It is still pretty easy to appreciate what these games once stood for, and makes you hanker to see what could be done with the title if they made it today but stuck to the 2D side-scroller style.

In short, these are two fun little titles and if you're jonesing for another chance to see where Mike Haggar started you're not going to be disappointed with this port of the title.


Final Fight: Double Impact is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Animated Blood, Mild Violence, Suggestive Themes. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sushi Go-Round Comes Round Again

Web-based casual games are incredibly popular, and that makes complete sense.  Here are quick little games that you can play for a few minutes and then turn off when the boss comes by to check up on you.  They are also quite addictive, and a well made little game can easily turn into something you want to spend a whole lot more time with.  Why not then take the concept behind one of these games, expand it, and sell it as a cartridge/disc for a home or portable gaming system?

In point of fact, that's exactly what SouthPeaks's Sushi Go-Round is.  Currently available for both the Nintendo Wii and the DS, the game is a larger version of Miniclip's Sushi Go-Round web game.  Whereas the web game had eight recipes, one restaurant, six levels, the Wii version contains 10 recipes, five restaurants, and 40 levels.  There are differences beyond that as well, but perhaps before discussing them we should take a step back and talk about what the game is for those uninitiated.

Sushi Go-Round features you, the player, as a young man trying to impress a girl, a girl who likes sushi.  Armed with that knowledge what can you possibly do but open a sushi restaurant (anything to impress a girl, right)?  That information is all imparted in the opening, after which the game proper opens.  As it is essentially just an expanded version of a flash game, the idea itself is pretty simple – people sit down at your sushi bar, you hand them a menu, they order, and you make what they want.  This is all accomplished with click little point-and-click moves.  There is a recipe book which tells you how to make the 10 possible sushi orders that customers request, and you simply click on the appropriate items which moves them to the sushi mat.  Once all the ingredients are on the mat, a flick of the Wii remote moves them to the conveyor belt so that they can travel to the customer.  Easy, right?

At first, it is, but eventually not so much.  The fact that there are only 10 possible dishes to order makes it pretty simple to memorize the recipes – truly an essential thing to do if you are to succeed – means that multiple people will often order the same dish.  Much of your success in the game is based upon customer's happiness and that is dependent upon your getting food to them quickly.  However, all the food travels down the same conveyor belt from left to right, so if the person all the way to the right of the screen orders something and two people to the left of the screen order the same thing, the people on the left snag the food before the guy on the right ever gets it.  Naturally, the customer on the right becomes upset, and while it would make sense for them to get angry at the other customers, that isn't what happens.  No, it's your fault that other customers have snagged their food, and you have no choice but to ply the customer with sake, which doesn't work long-term. 

That's a frustrating limitation – almost as frustrating as the fact that once you add an ingredient to your sushi mat you can't remove it.  Mistakenly click the rice twice instead of once a complicated order and the dish is ruined, not only that but you still have to send it to the conveyor belt and watch your disaster as it passes in front of all your customers uneaten.

The game is made more complicated than just serving up dishes with the addition of other elements.  Your restaurant will run out of ingredients and you'll have to order them – don't plan far enough in advance with your ordering and you'll be forced to pay extra for rush delivery, a massive cost increase early on in the game.  There are also bosses that you'll have to keep happy in order to keep progressing.  All in all, there's a lot going on in the game, a lot more than the web version of the title, which makes it really good that you can save your game and come back later.

What you are not going to find here in Sushi Go-Round are outstanding graphics or excellent sound, in fact, the music can become downright annoying after a very short amount of time.  There are however some modes beyond the basic story mode, including allowing you to challenge a friend, time attack, and then some which slightly modify gameplay by doing things like keeping the day running forever or not letting you serve certain dishes.

If you have played any of the web iterations of games in the genre and enjoy them but hunger for something slightly deeper, Sushi Go-Round for the Wii might just be the ticket.  It's not free, as many web-based games are, but it's not a full-priced title either.


Sushi Go-Round is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference. This game can also be found on: Nintendo DS.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Eleventh Doctor Arrives on Doctor Who

Doctor Who has been around in one form or another (or multiple forms at the same time) for over 40 years. Prior to 2010, there have been nine different Doctors, each with their own particular fan base, mythology, attitude, and outlook. Imagine then, if you can, the monumental task of introducing a new Doctor – the Eleventh Doctor. To do it right you not only would have to set the man apart from the others, you would have to manage to retain all that is the legend. With tales of the Doctor having been in existence for more than 40 years, there is a whole lot of history the Time Lord from Gallifrey carries.

Now consider that the most recent Doctor, the Tenth Doctor (portrayed by David Tennant), was massively popular and that although he wasn't the first Doctor of the reborn series, it is he who best embodies it. How do a new executive producer (Steven Moffat) and a new Doctor (Matt Smith) step in to the story, and not only leave open the potentialPhoto Credit: BBC to bring in new fans, but not alienate those who have become accustomed to former executive producer Russell T. Davies version of the series and Tennant's Doctor? It is a monumental task.

In speaking of becoming The Doctor, Smith, in the promotional material that accompanied the premiere episode of the new season, states, "I think these things are only as intimidating as you allow them to be." Perhaps either the 28-year-old man has, like the Time Lord he plays, truly seen everything, or maybe he's just wise beyond his years. What he is not is jaded, stating that "it's a real privilege to join such a successful show… it's good to be part of something strong and long may it continue."

If the season premiere, "The Eleventh Hour" is any indication, Smith and Moffat may have a very long – and very successful – run with Doctor Who. Is Smith young? Yes. Does he look young? Yes. Is it disconcerting? A little. However, Smith, Moffat, and everyone else involved have managed to work in enough similar mannerisms and attitude from the previous incarnations of The Doctor that even though things are new and different, the man on screen is unquestionably the Time Lord we have come to know, love, and sometimes even fear.

Photo Credit: BBCIt would be hard to suggest that the Doctor we see in "The Eleventh Hour" is the final iteration of Smith's incarnation of the Time Lord. The Eleventh Doctor does find himself somewhat out of sorts in the episode, not quite sure what sort of food he likes, and still appearing somewhat uncomfortable in his own skin. That is a natural outgrowth of the Doctor being new to the body, but what we can glean from that is that both Smith and Moffat have a clear understanding of who the Doctor is. That is not surprising considering the cultural force Who is in England, and that Moffat grew up as a fan of the series. In fact, Moffat says "the reason I started working in TV is because I was such a huge fan of Doctor Who."

In the end, what can be gleaned from this first episode – the most important thing for Doctor Who fans to know – is that Moffat and Smith appear ready, willing, and able to create fabulous new tales of the Whoniverse. One can't say at this point whether Smith will manage to rank as a fan favorite Time Lord, but he certainly gets started on the right foot.

The same can be said for the Doctor's new companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). Though it is a younger version of Pond (Caitlin Blackwood) in the pilot who has some of the best moments in the episode, the adult version of the new companion seems a good match for Smith's Doctor. Gillan is described as being a "relative newcomer" to the industry, but in what is a massive role she acquits herself quite well. She is instantly more likable in the role of Companion than Catherine Tate's Donna Noble and Freema Agyeman's Martha Jones. Both of those Companions soon turned into enjoyable characters, but from the moment Pond is introduced, there is something special about her. Clearly a strong-willed, self-made person, she is also terribly fun and funny. As with Smith's Doctor, only time will tell where the character will head, but she does start off very strongly.

In short, everything about "The Eleventh Hour" augurs well for this latest incarnation of Doctor Who – the team working on the series both on screen and off seem to have a very good feel for the character as well as the series and where they want both to head. Fans of the series and science fiction in general ought to have no hesitations about taking a trip aboard the new TARDIS.

Doctor Who premieres April 17 at 9:00pm on BBC America.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Apollo 13 Blasts onto Blu-Ray

There is just something about outer space.  It has captured the human consciousness in an amazing way, and although our repeated trips to space seem to garner less and less attention, the notion of actually taking a trip to space remains a wondrous fantasy for many.  Perhaps no film in recent memory has helped us conceive of the real life excitement and danger of travelling to space than Ron Howard's 1995 epic, Apollo 13.  Based on a true story, and the non-fiction book by astronaut Jim Lovell who lived the story, Apollo 13 finds Tom Hanks playing the role of Lovell.  It was Lovell who was in command of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.

Howard's film doesn't center itself on the cause of the issue (although it is mentioned briefly at the end of the movie), but rather the outgrowth of the rupture of one of the oxygen tanks.  The causes take a backseat to the real issue at hand – how to get the astronauts home.  It makes for a film which, despite the outcome being known (Lovell is credited during the opening titles), still manages to be an edge-of-your seat thriller. 

Although Tom Hanks was not nominated for an Oscar for this role – he had just won back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump – he gives a spectacular performance as Lovell, and which very likely ought to have garnered him a nomination at minimum.  Somehow, within a small metal box, Hanks is able to express wonder and amazement at where he is, as well as momentary terror about what has befallen them.  Even fearful, however, Hanks' Lovell remains in control of his crew, even if he cannot control his situation.

Hanks isn't the only person to give a wonderful performance in the film.  Joining Lovell in space are Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).  Both Bacon and Paxton deliver exceptional performances, even if, in some of Haise's more fearful moments, he does come off sounding an awful lot like Pvt. Hudson in Aliens. Bacon's Swigert, who was not actually meant to be a part of the team, is the man who executed the fateful command to stir the oxygen tanks, which is what caused the explosion.  As someone who wasn't supposed to be onboard the ship anyway, someone who hadn't been training for an extended period of time with Lovell and Haise, Swigert was the odd man out on the ship at takeoff, a position that only becomes harder after the explosion.  Bacon does an excellent job at portraying the myriad emotions Swigert had to be feeling at the time – everything from joy at his first trip into space to horrific guilt at the thought that maybe, just maybe, he had done something wrong.

The control center characters on the ground in Houston, led by Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), the man Swigert replaced are perhaps an even more fascinating group than the actual crew of Apollo 13.  The ceaseless working, the incredible ingenuity they display at doing everything from reworking a startup sequence for landing the ship for landing to engineering makeshift carbon dioxide scrubbers is nothing less than mesmerizing.  Although it may be Lovell, Haise, and Swigert who are best remembered for their role in the Apollo 13 mission, as Lovell says in the beginning of the film – the astronauts were just the most visible in a large group of hugely dedicated individuals who made spaceflight possible. 

Kathleen Quinlan, who plays Marilyn Lovell, Jim's wife, was, with Ed Harris, nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the film.  Apollo 13 really takes places in three different spaces – outer space, the control center in Houston, and the Lovell's home.  In charge of this third area, Marilyn is tasked with holding her family together, helping her mother-in-law understand what's happening without worrying, and trying to deal with her own personal feelings resulting from the accident.  A nearly impossible task, Marilyn somehow manages to hold it all together, and while Quinlan doesn't make it look easy, she does make it appear believable and natural.

The 15th Anniversary Blu-ray release of Apollo 13 (timed to come out the same week as the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 flight) sounds absolutely fantastic.  The audio is crisp and clear, and places you perfectly within the various arenas in which the film takes place.  While much of the film is dialogue heavy, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack really gets a chance to show what it can do on several occasions, most notably takeoff, which sounds – and feels with the bass rumble – fantastic.  James Horner's Oscar-nominated score is, as with the film itself at turns haunting, thrilling, and emotional.  The visuals are not quite as good as the sound.  One won't find anything to complain about in terms of black levels, colors, and detail, but there are the occasional moments where it appears as though there is a little bit of dirt or digital noise present.  The look is a very grainy one, but truly helps place the film in its 1970 time period.

This new release contains three different documentaries:  "Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13," "Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond," and "Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story."  The second of these pieces focuses itself on the space race in general rather than the flight of Apollo 13 specifically, that is left to the first and third documentaries.  "Lost Moon," while it does deal with the historical situation centers itself far more on the making on the movie, whereas "Lucky 13" is more about the reality of what took place.  All of them are really interesting, well put together looks at a moment in time (whether that moment is the flight or the making of the film).  The film also contains an audio commentary by Ron Howard and one by Jim and Marilyn Lovell.  Other releases of the film have contained more in terms of behind-the-scenes moments however, and it is odd that those other featurettes were not included with this release.

It must also be noted that the Blu-ray has exceptionally long load times, it took more than three minutes every time the disc was started to actually get to the main menu (and that is skipping the trailer that runs before the menu).  Upon starting the disc it insists on not only going out to the internet to download a current trailer before loading the film, but then also requires you to select the language you want the menus in every single time you load the disc.  Between that and Universal's insistence on advertising other films via their menu screen ticker, one gets the impression that it won't be too long before they work out how to interrupt the film in the middle to play a trailer or two.

Questions on the particulars of Universal's policy regarding bonus features and loading aside, Apollo 13 is a great movie and one that looks and sounds quite good in high definition.  It features some impressive sequences filmed in a zero gravity plane, scenes which couldn't have been easy to create.  It is a film which rekindles everyone's childhood dream of being in space, and tells the fantastic but true story (with a few moments of dramatic license) of a moment where we turned potential tragedy into tremendous triumph.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

FlashForward - Would Asking for Logic be too Much?

Do you ever sit down and watch a TV show week after week thinking to yourself "no… really… this time it'll be good.  I know it, I just know it – this time they'll figure it out and it will be everything I ever wanted in a TV show."  There are a bunch of shows that I feel that way about, a bunch of shows that I watch week in and week out and stick with due to their potential.  FlashForward is one of those shows.

I think that if they tried, they really could create a mostly believable plot – and really believable if you accepted the pretend science that they've come up with – they just don't seem to want to bother with working things out piece by piece.  They don't seem to want to think logically about what's going on.  This week they gave us a couple of great examples of that.

The first of these was actually at the top of the show.  This week's episode started with a flashback to three years ago.  In the flashback Mark had recently Photo Credit:  ABC/Eric McCandless been shot and was at Olivia's hospital having just finished being treated for the injury.  Olivia came in, talked to him, and he promised to put his family before his job… always.  When the show then cut to the present, Mark was moving out of his home, at least temporarily separating from Olivia.

FlashForward has failed to provide any reasonable explanation for this separation.  Instead, we have two main bits of information, neither of which – even combined – adds up to Mark and Olivia separating.  First, we have the fact that last week Olivia suggested that she and Mark move away so as to keep the family safe and Mark declined, something about saving the entire world being more important.  Okay, fair enough, Mark broke his promise, but he is trying to save the world, doesn't that count for anything?  Is Olivia really going to leave him because he's decided that trying to save humanity as a whole?  I don't see that.

The other bit of information that might argue for their separation not coming out of the blue?  Well, that's the fact that in their future flashes, Olivia and Lloyd were together in bed, Mark had been left by the wayside.  Frankly, I think that's a weaker reason than the first one for them to separate.  Mark and Olivia already know that the flashes aren't written in stone, that their future can be changed.  If you really and truly love someone are you going to break up because someone says "gee, one day you may actually be broken up?"  I can't imagine that.  I'll give you that the flashes are more definite than a random person on the street coming up to you and suggesting you're going to break up, I still don't buy that rational people would end their marriage because of a flash.

The other major bit of the story that didn't make any sense last night was Mark and Demetri traveling at all possible speed to San Francisco to interview a guy who played chess over 20 years ago with one of the bad guys, Dyson Frost.  Mark told Vogel that the guy in S.F. was their best lead in the case.  That is to say that despite the fact that Mark, Demetri, and everyone else on the taskforce has been working on the flash and who caused it for months, their best lead in the whole case is a guy who was an opponent of the bad guy over two decades ago and whom they have no proof ever met the bad guy after that.  What about all those other leads they have gotten during the case?  Why do they have to go to San Francisco to meet this guy instead of calling him on the phone?  What makes them think he'll know anything whatsoever?

The answer to those questions and why Mark and Olivia split is the same – it was required to advance the plot in the way the producers wanted to advance the plot.  See, if Mark picks up a phone to call the chess guy, the mole in his office won't have time to send someone to shoot the chess guy.  If the chess guy lived then the producers wouldn't be able to spend the rest of the episode working out who the mole was which is what they wanted to do in the first place.  Mark and Olivia have to separate because they're separated in the flash, not because of how their characters feel, but because if they don't separate the producers can't have Lloyd end up with Olivia and have the flash come closer to being true.  The moment of the flash is the climax of the season, the story has to eventually arrive at that point – it's inevitable within our world that the gunfight at the FBI office will happen, it's not inevitable within Mark's.   Consequently, Mark and Olivia have to split, even if it doesn't make sense in terms of what's happening to the characters (and it doesn't).

There had to have been ways for the producers to both smoke out the mole and separate Mark and Olivia that would have been within the natural course of events within the tale.  They haven't gone that route though, instead they've chosen the easiest possible way to get to their endgame, whether or not it makes any logical sense.  And, in this case, it doesn't make any sense.

Every week on FlashForward tends to proceed in the same manner.  To use chess terminology (which the producers seem fond of) – the show seems to be pushing pieces around the board in order to arrive at a checkmate (the climax), but the manner in which they move the pieces violate all the rules of chess. 

How are we not expected to be upset by that (even if Seth MacFarlane was on again)?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Desmond, Lost, a Return, a Theory, and Ramblings

We're talking about last night's Lost episode today, so if you haven't seen it you probably don't want to read anymore because there'll be information given out here that will be spoiler-ish. While that ought to be obvious with my saying that we're talking about last night's Lost, perhaps, like the series itself, nothing is ever truly obvious.

One of my great sadnesses with the series is the ever-evolving cast. The cast changes may be necessary for whatever story the producers are telling, and there are whole bunch of characters that I don't mind not ever seeing again – Boone, Ana Lucia, Boone's sister whom I hated so much I've decided to never mention her name again – but then there are other characters that I greatly miss. Topping the list of this latter group is Charlie Pace.

Is it that Dominic Monaghan is a great actor? Well, I have really enjoyed him in the various movies and television shows in which I've seen him. I think he's one of the best parts (maybe the best part) of FlashForward.

I miss Charlie on Lost. As other characters appear, disappear, come back, move around, etc., I have tended to forget about them. Oh, they're in the back of my mind somewhere – when the show asks us to remember them I absolutely can recall what their story was, but I don't think about them and what they would do if they were on the show that week. Charlie, however, I do think about. Charlie I wonder about constantly. Even when I can barely remember Claire, I hear the way she says his name, and when we do see Claire I hope that she speaks of him again. Charlie had a great transformation story on the show, and Monaghan was able to be alternatively funny and serious as the role demanded. He was a drug addict one minute, a loving, would-be parent the next.

I miss Charlie regularly and hope against hope on a weekly basis that he'll be back. I know he won't, but I hope for it anyway. "Not Penny's boat," how great was that moment (the first time we saw it, I mean, not Desmond's flashing to it last night)? That might be the best moment the show has ever had, but it was Charlie's last (sort of, kind of, almost).

Speaking of that sort of, kind of, almost, I know what you're thinking – are we going to talk about the fact that in the alternate reality Widmore and Faraday's mom are married in the present? That George Minkowski is a limo driver for Widmore? No. No we're not. I'm not touching it, not touching it in any way, shape, manner, or form. Why? Because I would be completely guessing as to what the alternate reality is all about.

Last night the show implied that the alternate reality is the result of the nuclear bomb, that it's the "what would have happened if the bomb had woPhoto Credit:  ABC/Mario Perezrked" reality, and that back on the island is the "what would have happened if the bomb didn't work" reality. But I'm not sure if both are currently taking place, if one or the other is a hypothetical, or if neither is actually going on at this moment.

I'd like to think that both are happening – I really have no proof whatsoever that's the case, but I have a thought or two on it. What if Widmore needs Desmond because he's unstuck in time, because – as we saw after the experiment – Desmond has the ability to live in both realities? Really, he has the ability to exist in both universes in this theory, as it would seem to suggest that the realities split into two separate and distinct ones due to the nuclear blast. I don't know why Widmore wants or needs that, but it is what I think is currently going on. But, that's just one way the puzzle might fit together.

There are totally answers out there that I can't wait to get, but I don't feel as though I have enough pieces of the puzzle yet to answer all the questions. Seriously, do you? But, are you happy we kind of talked a little bit about it, didn't we?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Chuck Keeps Changing, Will we be Left Behind?

I am worried about Chuck.  Not so much Chuck (although I do worry about him too), but about Chuck.  It's not that I don't think this season has been fantastically wonderful and amusing and that I haven't liked all the developments as they've played out (particularly last night's episode even if it was pretty clear where everything was headed).

Here's the thing – Morgan in now officially on Team Chuck, General Beckman put him there.  Awesome already knows Chuck is a spy, Morgan knows Chuck is a spy and is on the team – how long before Ellie, Lester, and Jeff find out?  How long before the rest of Burbank knows that Chuck is a spy?  At some point doesn't the circle get too large?  At some point doesn't the Ring say to itself "hey, everyone in all of Burbank is acting awfully fishy?"  It almost feels as though they're heading to that point that relationship-based sitcoms and dramas often hit where everyone has slept with everyone else, no matter how ludicrous the notion once seemed, and that isn't a good thing.

The truth of the matter is that I'm well and truly torn.  I don't feel like Chuck has yet hit the point where it's just plain silly- I don't.  But, I feel it looming in the distance and I feel Josh Schwartz and everyone else over there at the series must also sense it.  Are they going to be able to back off its arrival?  How can they even accomplish such a feat?  Are they going to have Morgan get his memory wiped?  Obviously that's a possibility within the world of Chuck, but is that a good one, is that one that fans would actually want to see?  I can't imagine that it is.

One of the best things about Chuck, for me, was seeing this guy balance his regular life with his new-found spy one.  That seems to be gone.  Virtually everyone who surrounds him now – at least the folks he seems to want to surround him – are either spies or are aware that he is a spy. The balancing act is gone.

Yet, I think all fans of the series can admit that last night's episode was fantastically fun and amusing.  Even the stuff that may mean trouble down the line for the series – like Morgan's being placed on Team Chuck – was great to see unfold.  Perhaps that means that I'm not giving the producers of the series enough credit.  Perhaps it means that they've got a plan completely worked out to keep it awesome.  Again, I just can't imagine what that plan would be.

In short, and I really am going to keep this brief, the series seems to be walking a very fine line.  The progression that has taken place has been completely natural within the rules of the world as established on the series, and yet, if they continue much further the very setup of the entire show will have altered.  The one thing I really didn't like about last night's episode was Chuck leading the assault team to try to rescue Sarah – that's not the Chuck I want to see, but that seems to be the direction in which the show may be heading. 

How do you draw the line and stop it from going too far?  It takes a wiser mind than mine to answer that question.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Eating up Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

It is Monday morning, and because we all know the weekend doesn't really count, let's talk Friday television, shall we?  Well, we're not actually going to delve into all of Friday television, just the relatively new and completely wonderful Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.  The show, which is currently airing Friday nights on ABC, has Jamie Oliver attempting to recreate the success he (the show tells us) had in transforming the school lunch program in England.  Because we in America like everything – including our waistlines – bigger, he's not just going to muck about with a school lunch program though, he's trying to change the way an entire town eats.

The truly amazing thing about Oliver throughout all this is that on the show he truly comes across as simply wanting to help people out, wanting to see folks eat healthier, live longer, and be happier.  One has trouble imagining thPhoto Credit: ABC/Holly Farrellat Oliver is doing it completely out of the goodness of his heart – surely he wants money and/or accolades as well – but on the show it certainly looks as though it is a completely altruistic effort.  I'm as jaded as anyone out there, and I almost believe he's working completely and totally for the betterment of our country. It's amazing.

The show does fall into the almost necessary trap of showing Oliver slaying demons, or non-believers in his food revolution if you prefer.  We're only three episodes in at this point, so the bad guys haven't yet crumbled to his way of thinking, but it does seem clear with both the way Alice the Lunch Lady and Radio Host Rod have been setup that eventually they'll either come around or be told by a higher authority to sit down and shut up.  That's actually unfortunate as Oliver, the kids, and a bunch of the adults seem completely genuine in the series, and the almost necessary turnaround of the villains won't.  Rather than strengthening Oliver's argument, those wins are going to make the show feel more scripted than it currently does.

Now, at the same time, I want to see Oliver beat Rod and Alice, I want to see them lose.  They are great villains and perfectly epitomize the two main areas Oliver is trying to tackle – school lunches and community attitude.  Both Alice and Rod are against changing anything although they have different reasons for it, Alice says it'll be too hard and Rod argues that no one wants to be told what to do.  Alice is right, it may be a little more difficult to cook food than to reheat frozen chicken nuggets, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.  Rod may also be right, people don't want to be told what to do, but that doesn't mean that educating all of us about what we're eating versus what we could be eating (and how easier or difficult the change may be) shouldn't be done.

On this past week's episode, Oliver himself said french fries were fantastic, and they are, but they shouldn't be eaten on a daily basis.  I think in the end that's one of his biggest takeaway messages – you can go out and eat french fries and pizza and chicken nuggets from time to time, but they ought not be staples of anyone's diet, and it's not necessarily that much more difficult to cook up something fresh and healthy. 

Oliver actually gave one family on the show all the ingredients and recipes they needed to cook delicious, healthy meals, and when he went back to visit them it appeared as though they hadn't followed through on actually cooking the dishes.  That is really what he's going after, the mindset that says that it's easier to order out something that's really bad for you than cook something that will take little time when you have everything you need right there.  That is the first step – when presented with two options choosing the healthy one.  After that he can move on to having people walk across the street to get a healthy option when the unhealthy one is right in front of them.

It's a process, but what Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution shows us is that it's a process that can be fun, that can be delicious, and that does make for some pretty great television.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Ruling on The Marriage Ref

Just a quick-ish thought this Friday morning – The Marriage Ref upsets me.  I've had trouble working out exactly why it is that the show upsets me, but after some serious study of the matter I've put together some reasons.

First, the biggest problem with the series is the fact that whether the episode is good or not totally and completely depends on the celebrity panel.  A good celebrity panel makes the show truly funny.  I know, you don't think the show could ever be truly funny, but if you go back and look at the show that had Ricky Gervais, Larry David, and Madonna on it, you will see funny.  If you look at either of the episodes that has Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa, and Jerry Seinfeld… you won't see all that much funny.  Last night's combination of Kirstie Alley, Jimmy Fallon, and Sheryl Crow was somewhere in between.  But, how is a show expected to survive if they can't get funny people who are having a funny night on a weekly basis?  The series is so hit-and-miss due to the celebrity panel that I'm not sure what could cajole people into watching it weekly.

The Marriage Ref is at least smart enough to posit two answers to that question – Tom Papa and the couples.  Taking the latter of those answers before the former, anyone can see how foolish an answer it is.  In general what we've seen from the couples is that one member of a couple has a ridiculously dumb idea, like last night's guy who wanted to put a urinal in his guest bathroom, and the other member of the couple is sane and rational.  It's all a setup – at least one member of the couple has to be ridiculous because it makes the opportunity for jokes easier.  The problem is that even when people end up siding with the ridiculous member of the couple the reason tends to be "well, who is he [or she] hurting by doing that?"  Obviously the other member of the couple for one, and all too often good sense and reason as well.  So, "who are they hurting" is a bad answer, especially after the celebrities have just made fun of the person they are then siding with.  Watching someone else's dumb arguments isn't worth turning this show on for, it has to be the response to, and discussions about, the argument.

The other person, of course, who is discussing the argument is our ref himself, Tom Papa.  He seems like a very funny man, a man who is quite capable all on his own of making up funny things on the spot about what's taking place.  Why then is he a problem?  He's a problem because I don't for a minute believe that he's thinking up anything on the spot – everything he says when he issues his decision sounds scripted and looks as though he's reading it off a teleprompter.  I'm not saying that he didn't write it in advance, and maybe even wrote both decisions in advance and then is just reading the correct one, but his semi-humorous quips during the decision don't have the sort of spontaneous feel that they should.  Plus, why does he have to say when he introduces the couple live "let's go to the real so-and-sos in their real home?"  That makes it sound as though the taped argument we saw of the couple introducing the issue is actually a bunch of actors doing a dramatic recreation, and I certainly don't believe that's the case.  It's just a really poorly written introduction.

For such an incredibly hyped show, one that had a ton of lead time, it feels really poorly constructed – there's just so much about it that doesn't work.  We haven't even touched on the utter insanity of having Natalie Morales (or anyone) there to read inane facts that are semi-relevant to Papa and the celebrity panel.  Of all the poorly paced moments in the show, that is the worst.  Morales isn't there digging up facts on the spur of the moment for Papa, she's been given a list of facts in advance and Papa has been told what sorts of facts she has on hand, and probably even instructed that he has to go to her "x" number of times over the course of an episode.

It is just all so… disappointing.  There's really a world where this could be a funny show on a regular basis, a world where it could all work perfectly.  Right now though it just doesn't.  I'm rooting for it to work, I like Papa and a lot of the celebs they have on, I just think that some tweaks may be in order.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Cable On Demand, Netflix, Amazon on Demand - VOD Options Abound

The world is growing ever smaller and we are ever more connected. Of course, as this is a technology piece we're not so much going to focus on the ever more connected with one another aspect, but rather the ever more connected with other stuff aspect. And, let's face it, why would you want to be connected to others when you can be connected to infinite amounts of media?

It was recently announced that several Hollywood studios and a few large cable companies were launching a 30 million dollar advertising campaign to promote video on demand, something completely and totally and easily accessible from your cable box… unless, of course, you own one of those HD TiVos in which case you've been cut out of the on demand loop. What you're not, though, is out of luck, and that's because while an HD TiVo doesn't allow you access to your cable company's on demand library, the cable (or satellite) company isn't the only game in town.

Netflix, the nice folks who have helped force Blockbuster to grossly change their business model, allows for a lot of movies and television shows to be streamed directly to your TiVo. Netflix doesn't seem to do the day-and-date big budget streaming releases like VOD, but Amazon Video on Demand, also available from a TiVo (as is Blockbuster's VOD service), does. Netflix isn't actually hugely behind either as they are currently (as of the writing of this article) offering Julie & Julia streaming, a title which was released to video at the end of last year.

It should also be kept in mind that Netflix and their streaming capabilities can follow you anywhere – you can stream video to your PC, PS3, Xbox 360, TiVo, several different Blu-ray players, Roku boxes, and now on your Nintendo Wii as well (Amazon's service is also available on PC, Xbox 360, and other devices). Though certainly a boon for those who lack one of the other Netflix enabled devices within their home theater system, the Wii system is not as good as the others.

In order to access Netflix from your Wii, first one has to request a disc from Netflix (the same is true of the PS3 solution). Said disc then has to be in the system any time one wants to stream a movie (again, like the PS3). Additionally, the Wii hardware does not support HD output – unlike the other devices which do – and what you end up seeing on screen doesn't look as good as good on the Wii as on a TiVo HD. It's definitely a less clear, less sharp image. It's not that Netflix looks bad on the Wii — in fact it is perfectly acceptable — it's just not as good as on other devices. Additionally, Wii owners will be familiar with the fact that the Wii doesn't come with an Ethernet port, only 802.11g connectivity (a wired Ethernet adapter is available for purchase), while most of the other Netflix capable devices can function wired with no additional purchase (save the Ethernet cable). Simply put – your wireless network has to be up to the task.

Does that make Netflix the best solution? You can take it anywhere and watch it on everything. Well, even when running on an HD device, what you get isn't really HD, and if you get HD On Demand from your cable company it is (all "i" vs. "p" arguments aside). Amazon Video On Demand for TiVo also provides a higher quality picture than Netflix, but that is actually downloading an entire program to your TiVo instead of streaming it and consequently ought to look better.

In terms of quality of video, number of workable devices, and size of library, for my money Amazon's Video on Demand is the best choice. However, the biggest issue with it is that money factor – Amazon doesn't have an all-you-can watch monthly rate, and without that it makes it a little harder to pull the trigger on each individual purchase (at least it does in my world).

There are a lot of ways out there for one to get their VOD fix, and none of them is perfect, but I for one certainly dream of a future where a single company for a single monthly rate can provide me all the movies and TV shows I watch on every single device I own and/or dream of owning. Or, even better, perhaps someone will figure out a way to stream the content straight to our brain.

Ahhh, but we can dream.