Monday, May 31, 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The most important thing for anyone to know going into Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) is that the story in question is not Alice in Wonderland. Oh sure, many of the characters are the same – Tweedledum and Tweedledee are there, as is the Blue Caterpillar, White Rabbit, Dormouse, March Hare, Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, and many others. There is also an Alice, but much of the film discusses whether or not the Alice herein is in fact the right Alice, the same Alice who visited Underland (not Wonderland) so many years before. In short, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is less a remake or reimagining and much more a sequel.

© Disney. All Rights Reserved.This comment is not a nitpick or a criticism or a complaint, it is a simple fact and certainly an important one for people to know in case they sit down to watch the release expecting to see a new telling of the old tale. As a sequel, it does draw on moments and the basic story of the original as background information, but even without that background audience members will easily be able to pick up on what is happening.

Perhaps the story is best understood as a combination of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and the poem "Jabberwocky" which appeared in Carroll's sequel to Alice, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. The basic story finds a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) absconding from a party upon learning it's for her engagement and following the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) into a rabbit hole (much as in the original book).

© Disney. All Rights Reserved.Her trip to Underland finds her tasked – according to a calendar that tells the future – of slaying the Jabberwock using the Vorpal Sword on the Frabjous Day. Said Jabberwock fights for the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). It is a destiny which Alice fights desperately at first but eventually agrees to undertake.

As with much about the film, Alice's exact motivations are somewhat murky. She is at first completely against simply following what she's supposed to do, opting instead to attempt to save the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) from the Red Queen.However, at some point she opts to get the sword and attempt to slay the Jabberwock, thereby returning the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to the throne.

Tim Burton is, without a doubt, a visionary director, but if his last few films have taught us anything, it's that his vision is relatively constant no matter the work. Burton's over-the-top, hyper-stylized Alice is incredibly similar in feel to both his take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Sweeney Todd (2007) – just to name two of his recent directorial efforts – which is more than a little odd when one considers the subject matter of Todd. Perhaps it doesn't help to repeatedly use Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp in his films, but certainly other directors repeatedly use the same actors over and over again. Depp's Hatter here, without a doubt, feels eerily similar to not just his other Burton films but his portrayal of Jack Sparrow as well.

Simply put, at this point, Burton's films no longer feel unique from one another – there is nothing here to distinguish or separate Alice from the pack. The ancillary characters, most notably Hathaway's White Queen and Crispin Glover's Knave of Hearts, could have proven interesting characters, if they were given anything beyond the barest amount of character to begin with. © Disney. All Rights Reserved.There is more to Burton's work than simply throwing Johnny Depp into a funny outfit and letting him be funny, but if one were to attempt to describe Burton's films of late in brief, that explanation would suit more than one of them. That is something of disappointment because both men are capable of much more.

It is also a disappointment because Burton's Alice is – logic and motivation notwithstanding – a pleasant 109-minute romp through Carroll's world. In fact, were I choosing someone to direct a live-action version of the book, Burton would be at the top of my list. And yet, despite the fact that Burton has never done Alice before and this is not the same story we've seen before, the film seems all too familiar.

Also familiar, but in a good way, is the high definition release Disney has given us. The studio has figured out the exact right way to make a film look and sound on Blu-ray, and Alice in Wonderland is no exception. The colors pop off the screen, there is an incredible amount of definition to virtually every texture, and it suits Burton's stylized look perfectly. It is absolutely beautiful to look at from start to finish. The 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally good, making excellent use of the surrounds and bass, and is well-mixed for home viewing. You're probably smart enough to realize that you're not actually in Underland while watching the film, but the bits of background noise (ambiance, if you will) in each scene do a pretty good job of convincing you otherwise.

One of the odder things included on the Blu-ray release is, should one have an Internet-connected player, the disc menu providing you with that day's weather forecast. I couldn't quite guess what the joke is, although I'm sure there is one. The release also comes with the far more easy to understand standard bevy of behind-the-scenes pieces. They're broken down into larger categories "Wonderland Characters" and "Making Wonderland." © Disney. All Rights Reserved.These are further broken down into short pieces describing exactly what you would think (characters and behind-the-scenes how-did-they-do-that bits). There is nothing terribly shocking about any of it (save maybe Helena Bonham Carter's prosthetics and makeup), but it does show all the work that goes into creating such an immense film. Should one buy the three-disc Blu-ray release it comes with both a DVD copy (which has some of the featurettes but not all) and a digital copy.

If you're looking for a new and different Alice in Wonderland story you may well find yourself incredibly happy upon finishing this film. If you're looking for a new and different Tim Burton story, you're likely to be greatly disappointed.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010) on Blogcritics.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Television's Long, Dark Summer has Begun

Wow, what a sad, sad week, televisually speaking.  I deleted my Law & Order "Season Pass," I deleted my Lost "Season Pass," and my TiVo's "To-Do List" is depressingly short.  That sort of thing happens at the end of every television season, but this year it hit me rather hard and I'm not quite sure why that is.  It's not that there isn't going to be a lot of new television on this summer, but man the end of this season seems like a tough one.

It's not that I was some star-crossed Lost fan who has lived and died by how well the mythology all tied together, or that I watched Law & Order for 20 years straight.  It's not that I thought that this season of Scrubs was good or that the show hadn't gone on long enough (or that it even ended this week and not months ago).  But those were three long-term shows that aren't going to be on anymore.  It's a tough thing for me to do deal with (and not just because I watched 100 Questions last night).

I don't at this moment feel as though I'm going to have to dig around for any new television to watch this summer (and will not be resorting to watching 100 Questions ever again).  USA is launching some of its summer programming next week (check back next week for my thoughts on the season premieres of Burn Notice and Royal Pains), Hell's Kitchen is coming, and TNT is gearing up to launch its summer slate as well.  As good as cable summer fare is, however (and it's some of the best television around), there are unquestionably moments where I'd prefer to see my TiVo bursting with new shows as opposed to a scattered one to two every night.

There is, for me, a ray of light, though; something of a "the television season is dead, long live the television season" notion.  The fall schedules have been announced and, while there are no premiere dates as of this moment, pilots are starting to trickle in.  It's too early to say what excites me most about the upcoming fall season, but there are definitely some good looking candidates and some clunkers (though perhaps nothing as clunky as 100 Questions).

And that, perhaps, brings me to the conclusion of this little piece.  The traditional television season is officially over and we're now into the summer TV season.  While in recent years more and more original programming has been aired and that remains true this year, there is certainly still often a sense that networks aren't really 100 percent committed to putting on high-quality – or at the very least entertaining – shows during the summer.  Last night I actually spent 30 minutes (minus commercials) watching NBC's newest addition to their Thursday night lineup, 100 Questions

The basic concept behind the series is that a British woman living in the States (Sophie Winkleman) has entered a matchmaking service where she has to answer 100 questions and tells us an extended story in answering each one so that every episode is a question.  It's a cute little way to easily get the show to the magic 100 episode mark, but there was little else cute to be found.  It's a show I really wanted to like (because it is new and going to be on this summer), but from the opening scene one instantly gets the impression that everything the show has to offer has been seen before.  Watching the rest of the episode that idea was only reinforced – it all felt way too familiar and in a bad way.  If it's way too familiar this summer, I'm going to go with repeats of shows that I like instead of new stuff that I'm somehow absolutely sure I've seen before.

Article first published as The Long, Dark Television Summer has Begun on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands Better Left Forgotten

I distinctly remember a time, nearly 20 years ago, when I would sit down to play the original Prince of Persia on a regular basis.  I remember playing the game through the first time and being wowed by the aid of the little mouse, amazed by the shadow created upon jumping through a mirror, and perplexed by the seemingly impossible jump over a great deal of open space (I was young and had never heard of a "leap of faith"). 

From that moment to this, the franchise has always captured my imagination and every entry into it is one that I have looked forward to with great expectation.  Although I was initially quite skeptical at the whole "mucking about with time" notion that has played such an important part in the no longer correctly named Sands of Time trilogy, it only took a few moments with the original Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to be utterly convinced of how great the Prince could still be more than 10 years after his original appearance.  While the Sands of Time set of stories have had its ups and downs, the newest of the titles, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, is more down than up. 

The problem with the game doesn't lie within its story, which starts off with the Prince going to visit his brother and arriving at the same time as an invading army.  In order to try to fend off the overpowering hoards, the Prince's brother unleashes an army that he believes to be that of Solomon.  Unfortunately, the army – which is made of sand – actually fought against Solomon and once unleashed now wants to take control of the world, starting with the Prince's brother's castle.  The medallion that was used to unleash the Army is also, the Prince learns from a mysterious woman, the only thing that can re-imprison it.  Unfortunately, the medallion was broken into two pieces, one ending up with the Prince and one with his brother.  While it ought to be perfectly simple for the two to reunite the medallion, the brother's half has caused him to become mad with power and unwilling to relinquish it.

In addition to being able to rewind time in this title, the Prince also learns to control some of the elements over the course of the game.  He can do things like freeze water and summon tornadoes.  These powers are granted/enhanced in two ways.  First, they come from the mysterious woman, a Djinn named Razia.  Then, after defeating enough enemies, the Prince gains enough points to power-up the abilities (as well as his strength and life).

Between the power-ups and the Prince still being the best Parkour guy around, all the pieces are there to create a compelling Prince of Persia title.  However, that doesn't happen.  The game is horribly marred by bad camera angles, puzzles that make no sense, and a terrible feeling of repetition to every battle against minions (here's a hint – button-mash like there's no tomorrow and you'll be fine).

Initially, it seems as though the camera will pose no issue whatsoever in the title.  When the game opens you can use the right analog stick to adjust the angle to whatever you might please.  Quickly though, the camera takes on a mind of its own, forcing itself into certain angles, stopping your ability to change the angle whenever its relevant, and providing deceptive points of view that cause you to miss jumps because of the odd angle you see things at.  It is almost as though the ability to rewind time exists in this game solely so that you can try things again after the camera angle convinces you have something lined up that you don't, or, worse, the camera decides to whip around 90 degrees as you're taking your run up to the jump, causing you to miss the leap in a manner that would be embarrassing could you have possibly ever predicted that the camera was going to opt to swing so wildly.

Some of the puzzles that Forgotten Sands puts forward are quite interesting, and it's still a great deal of fun to swing wildly all around a room in order to pull various levers to open the right path. However, other puzzles feel only half developed.  For example, relatively early in the game there is a puzzle that requires you to turn levers which rotate toothed bars for a gear to turn along. As with almost every other time that you have to turn a lever in the game, it can be either pushed or pulled to rotate to the left or right. And, as with almost every other lever in the game, whether the Prince ends up opting to push or pull the lever seems to have very little to do with what direction your moving him – push the lever 90 degrees and then keep moving in the same direction and the Prince has a horrific tendency to pull the lever back to its original position rather than continuing in the same direction. 

In the case of this particular puzzle, the gear stops moving even though it appears as though it could easily continue onto the next toothed bar.  The problem appears to lie not within the real-world physics of the problem, but rather a single solution having been provided by the developers and the game forcing you to find that solution, blocking you for no apparent reason from utilizing other – far more obvious – solutions.

With the Prince preparing to make his first big screen Hollywood adventure on May 28 and therefore with an opportunity to bring the legend to a whole new group of potential fans, one would have hoped for more from his latest video game adventure.  The Prince still runs, jumps, and swings like a champion; he still has to dodge blades and spikes; and he maintains his wry sense of humor.  The graphics here won't wow anyone, but they are moderately better than the sound.  In the cutscenes lips are not completely in sync with the dialog, and during gameplay there are definitely moments when you strike a pot with your sword (in order to get more health or magic) when the sound of the sword strike is not in sync as well.

The game is completely linear, but rather than that line being obvious, you do feel as though you're discovering it as you go, which does make it feel as though you're not being forced in one way or another.  Prince of Persia:  The Forgotten Sands is an enjoyable addition to the franchise, but it is certainly not the best nor the brightest.

In fact, I was all set to give this game a three out of five star review ("average" according to our scoring rubric) until I made a second run-through of the title, looking for any and every extra I could find.  My search got me most of the way through the game until, attempting to execute a jump to a platform that I had to recreate with a button push (it's part of the whole playing-with-time thing), the platform failed to solidify... repeatedly.  That, like turning levers, is just one of those things that fails to work correctly.  But, no problem, I was just going to keep trying over and over again, something that is possible as there are unlimited continues.  What knocked this game down one star point is the fact that upon continuing I was put back to a place that could not be escaped from as I had already passed through it once — a gate closes behind you the first time you pass through the corridor and my continue did not result in the gate reopening.  Forgotten Sands has an autosave feature as well and it's the only type of save allowed.  Once the game got continued, the autosave kicked in, saving my progress in a corridor that was closed on both ends.  For this reviewer, that is completely unacceptable — requiring players to start the game from the beginning because the autosave and the continue feature locks them in a closed room with no possibility of escape (and after they died because something failed to materialize repeatedly that should have) is sloppy work and a gross disappointment.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Violence. This game can also be found on: Nintendo DS, PC, PSP, Wii, and Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Doctor Who Fights "The Curse of Peladon"

Though not often necessarily discussed these days, John Pertwee's portrayal of the Third Doctor on Doctor Who still ranks among fan favorites.  A poll available on the BBC's website indicates that Pertwee ranks number four, with 11% of the total vote (he is currently behind David Tennant, Tom Baker, and Christopher Eccleston).  Pertwee's Doctor was the first one whose episodes were in color, and despite (or maybe because of) the fact that the Doctor was stuck on Earth for an extended period of time during his tenure, his stories seem to have resonated with the audience.

Released at the beginning of May of this year, a classic Pertwee Doctor story, "The Curse of Peladon" has been digitally remastered and released to DVD.  The first of two Peladon tales in the television series (the other, "The Monster of Peladon," is also a Pertwee tale). 

The story, like so many other Doctor stories, finds the Time Lord along with his current companion, Jo Grant (Katy Manning), landing in a completely unexpected location – in this case halfway up the side of a mountain on Peladon.  Again, as happens just about every go-round, the Doctor finds himself in the midst of a crisis on the planet.  Specifically, this time, the King of Peladon wishes to enter the Galactic Federation, and members of the Federation council are present to evaluate the planet's request.  All is not well in the kingdom however as an ancient mythical beast, Aggedor, has surfaced and killed one of the King's trusted advisors.  It falls – again, as it always does – to the Doctor and his companion to work out just what is happening and save the day.

Essentially, the story boils down to one about the fear of change, the fear of progress.  One faction of Peladon is not for joining the Galactic Federation, believing that the kingdom should follow the traditional ways and those alone, whereas the other believes that for the people and kingdom to reach their full potential they need to expand their horizons.

In short, it is a classic Doctor Who story.  Told over the course of four episodes, the tale features both obvious bad guys and less than obvious ones as well as some great Who aliens like the Ice Warriors (aliens from Mars).  Pertwee and Manning make the trip to Peladon an enjoyable one, although it is not spectacular.  Fans of the Whoniverse will most likely find "The Curse of Peladon" more of a comfort-food tale than anything hugely brilliant.  The number of common tropes of Who stories contained within it are numerous, but if those tropes didn't work, Doctor Who wouldn't be the long-running, incredibly popular juggernaut that it is today.

The most disappointing aspect of the release is not the well worn (at least, well worn decades later) aspects of the storyline, but instead the rather disappointing look of the transfer.  As with many old television shows, there are often odd colors seen as a shadow when a character moves or surrounding a light source.  There are also some annoying horizontal lines in some episodes.  Certainly none of this makes "The Curse of Peladon" unwatchable; it simply shows its age – it originally aired on the BBC in January and February of 1972.

The release does contain a lot of extras, including a commentary by Katy Manning, producer Barry Letts, script editor Terrance Dicks, and others.  There is also a featurette entitled "The Peladon Saga – Part One," which is a behind-the-scenes piece on the Peladon tales (May 4 also saw the release of the "The Monster of Peladon" which contains part two to this featurette) as well as a piece on the Ice Warriors and one on Pertwee and Manning.  Finally, there is a photo gallery, some printable listings on the original broadcasts, and a comparison piece juxtaposing hand drawn storyboards on the opening sequence and the final sequence as shot.

Doctor Who: The Curse of Peladon, features some good old-fashioned Who storytelling – there are aliens, death rays, political intrigue, and incredibly cheesy costumes and effects. It will, however, do absolutely nothing to convince people who aren't already fans that they ought to become ones.  Jon Pertwee, while not everyone's favorite Doctor, unquestionably has a certain charm to him, and it is fun to watch him at turns use both diplomatic and moderately more aggressive means to pursue his goals.

Article first published as DVD Review: Doctor Who - The Curse of Peladon on Blogcritics.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How I Met Your Mother - The Season Ends, Where Might it go From Here?

I think How I Met Your Mother originally set itself a very ambitious, very difficult goal. Most relationship comedies deal with the progress of a long-term relationship or the beginnings of one. HIMYM is a relationship comedy that is about the time before the relationship existed. With the series having established a set point in the future (the year 2030) at which the narrator, Ted (voiced in the future by Bob Saget and played in the present by Josh Radnor), is talking to his teen/pre-teen kids, the producers have a limited amount of time in which to tell the tale. Getting Ted from point A (the pilot episode) to point B (meeting the mother) in a creative, funny, heartwarming way is not the easiest of tasks; one can't even say until the end of the series if they've been successful. The journey thus far, however, has certainly been interesting.

Heading in to this year's season finale, there has been much talk of dopplegangers. The gang on the show — Ted, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), Robin (Cobie Smulders), Marshall (Jason Segel), and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) — have come to the conclusion that everyone has a doppelganger and to date they have seen one for everyone save Barney. In the season's penultimate episode, Lily and Marshall decided that once this doppelganger is spotted they will begin trying to have a baby. It is in no way spoiling anything in the last episode to say that the issue comes up again;Photo Credit: Karen Neal/FOX after all, the episode is called "Dopplegangers."

As often happens with television series as they progress, this episode isn't the series' funniest, but as we're now emotionally invested in the characters, it isn't bad to see them move forward in life even if their movements aren't the funniest. The episode is certainly not without jokes, but the humor takes a back seat to the tale of the characters whose lives we've been a part of for the past five seasons.

Perhaps How I Met Your Mother, more than other series due to its basic setup, is able to do these human, relatable, serious-without-being-too-much-of-a-downer tales without the episode feeling like a disappointment. The series is not about a group of friends hanging out (although they do hang out); it is very specifically about their growing up and changing and how the various things that happen to them lead Ted to meeting the mother. And, as adults will tell you, the process of becoming one isn't always smooth, pretty, or funny.

Unfortunately, the season finale doesn't feel like it in any way progresses Ted towards meeting his children's mother. In fact, the season as a whole feels much like this episode – it's been fun enough to watch, but it has rarely reached the heights of laughter it did early in its run, and, there have been very few moments this season that feel as though they've pushed Ted closer to meeting the mother. One doesn't imagine that every single episode can lead Ted a step closer to meeting the mother, at least not in a clear and direct fashion, but next year I would like to have the sense that more progress is being made.

How I Met Your Mother certainly faces an easier task than a series like Lost in creating a set of answers in its finale, but as the series continues for a longer period of time it may be making its task more difficult. At this point the show may be the world's longest shaggy dog story, but it may take more than narrator Ted stating "and if all those things I've told you about already hadn't happened I never would have found myself at such-and-such a place which is where I first asked out your mother" at the end of the series for the audience not to feel that narrator Ted is more than a little ridiculous.

On the other hand, narrator Ted is more than a little ridiculous, and it may be the journey and not the destination that matters, even if the destination is claimed to be the show's raison d'être. Whatever the case may be – and wherever Ted, his friends, and the series ends up – I'll be there until the end, and can't really imagine feeling cheated no matter what happens. I do have a suspicion that the ending will be a St. Elsewhere/Newhart kind of a thing, but even that type of conclusion would work in the world narrator Ted has created.

The How I Met Your Mother season five finale, "Dopplegangers," airs Monday night at 8:00 on CBS.

Article first published as Previewing How I Met Your Mother's Finale and the Series' Future on Blogcritics.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 - So Guess What Happens to Peach

Although you may find this quite difficult to believe – I myself had a great deal of trouble wrapping my head around this development – at the opening of Super Mario Galaxy 2, our hero Mario is on his way to the castle to meet the Princess.  Rather than getting to sit with her for a delicious afternoon of tea and cake (or whatever), Peach is kidnapped by Bowser. 

Oh yes, you heard correctly – Super Mario Galaxy 2 starts off with Peach being kidnapped by Bowser. Mario is quickly off to space to save her, because that's where giant Bowser (did I not mention that he's giant because he's found special bonus powers in space?) took her.

In all seriousness though, Super Mario Galaxy 2 progresses in a very similar fashion to 2007's Galaxy, a game which added a fantastic, spherical, twist to Mario's universe.  The goal, as indicated above, is tried and true Mario – beat Bowser and rescue Peach.  Mario achieves this by taking a small ship (that looks like Mario's head) around space, visiting different galaxies and worlds, and capturing stars.  No, there's not a great deal of depth to the story, but there doesn't need to be either (it's like Link needing to get the Triforce to beat Gannon).  Mario saves Peach.  That's what he does, and that's probably all anyone needs him to do – the question is what does Mario have to do in order to save Peach?  What worlds does he go to?  How do levels play out?  Mario games are more about mechanics and level design than story, and in Super Mario Galaxy 2 those elements are truly fantastic.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this new Galaxy and the original is that a classic Mario map has been placed upon the basic structure.  The hub area is gone, Mario's small ship can now only fly to open worlds proceeding along the map.  For this reviewer's money that concept is not well delivered.  Yes, it does streamline some things to have the map, but plotting Mario's journey along a map removes the 3-D-ness of the levels.  To some extent this is dealt with by Mario having the ability to not just look at a single "world map," but a "super world map" as well.  That addition only highlights one of the basic flaws in the concept of the map.

Each level Mario visits to collect stars is referred to as a "galaxy."  Mario's ship flies to different galaxies via the "world map" on which many galaxies are visible.  Then, the various worlds are visible from the "super world map." That basic concept defies everything this reviewer ever learned in any class that even tangentially dealt with astronomy.  Galaxies are larger than worlds, consequently the notion that multiple galaxies are visible on a single world causes a disconnect in my brain that is difficult to overcome.  Every time I had to visit the world map I actually cringed. 

The only thing that helped me overcome my issue with the game's nomenclature were the levels themselves – they are fantastic.  As with Galaxy, there is no level here that feels like it was simply thrown together with leftover bits and pieces that didn't work elsewhere.  Each level is different, requires different tactics, and feels like a complete world (errr… galaxy) in and of itself.

There is a complexity to it all that is mindboggling.  In one level you’re a bee, in another you create clouds, in a third your competing against a sunglass wearing chimp.  The game flows so perfectly from one of these moments to the next, from one world to the next, that even though you just had a ton of fun trying to figure out exactly how to control Yoshi after he's eaten a hot pepper and gained temporary super speed you don't mind moving on to something completely and totally different.

As with other recent Mario titles, you do have the opportunity to revisit levels to collect more stars.  There are alternate paths within worlds, stars which can be fed coins to take you to different areas, comet coins that open up challenges, and plain old separate areas of the galaxy that you'll be transported to if you select a different challenge from the map.

All of the plumber's 3-D forays have featured the mustachioed man in brilliant color and with some of the best graphics we've seen on the various systems to that point, and Super Mario Galaxy 2 is no different. Not only are the levels incredibly diverse and well conceived, they're all beautiful to look at.  You will actually want to spend time just wandering around them not trying to grab star bits (which is still done simply by pointing at them), but just seeing all that there is to see.  You may even, unwisely, opt to spend time watching exactly how a boss moves (because it's just so cool) before trying to defeat him. 

Of course, if you lose your focus you may also lose your life.  While the game is not as challenging as New Super Mario Bros. Wii, it is not a walk in the park either.  It is fast, the enemies are numerous, and while the plumber has a whole bunch of different outfits to help him (like rock suit that lets him smash stuff), his life bar is small. 

If you've ever enjoyed a Mario game before you're going to love this one.  If you just like platformers you're going to like this one.  If you like your games to have an incredible sense of fun to them, you're going to like this one.  If you like games to change on a dime and ask something different of you from one level to the next, you're going to like Super Mario Galaxy 2.  If, on the other hand, you're a fan of properly classifying things (galaxies, worlds, universes, etc.), Super Mario Galaxy 2 may give you an incurable case of the heebie-jeebies.  If that stops you from picking the title up however, you're going to miss out on a galaxy full of fun.


Super Mario Galaxy 2 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: Super Mario Galaxy 2 on Blogcritics.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The CW Announces its 2010-2011 Television Lineup

Taking a look at the new fall 2010 schedule that The CW unveiled today one might get the impression that the network took the easy route because it's the end of a long week. While the network has shifted the timeslots for a significant number of their shows, they're only introducing two new programs in the fall. They will still have no half-hour comedies, and they've dumped the traditional "encore" of ANTM that used to air on Friday evenings.

The devoted fans of One Tree Hill will be happy to see that the show has been picked up for another season, and were there any fans of the new Melrose, they would be unhappy to note that it has gone the way of the dodo. Life Unexpected, which The CW premiered with much fanfare (and which this writer didn't particularly enjoy) has also been given a reprieve, making it onto the network's fall lineup. Said lineup looks like this:


8:0090210One Tree
America's Next
Top Model
The Vampire

The two new dramas are Hellcats and Nikita. Take the latter first. Nikita is in fact based on the La Femme Nikita franchise which was a French film remade into an English language one and then into a series on USA. The series stars Maggie Q (Mission: Impossible 3) in the title role, and Shane West (ER). In this vePhoto Credit:  Ben Mark Holzberg/The CWrsion of the story, Nikita goes rogue and tries to take down her government bosses.


Hellcats stars Aly Michalka (Bandslam) and Ashley Tisdale (High School Musical) as students on the competitive cheerleading squad at their college. Tisdale's character, it seems, is all about the cheerleading whereas Michalka's is forced to join once her scholarship is lost. The college setting is, perhaps, slightly different than The CW's traditional high school one, but perhaps there will be enough juvenile action taking place that one won't be able to tell the difference.

Perhaps the biggest news that can accompany The CW's rather simple schedule (not that simple is a bad thing) is that this coming season of Smallville will mark the show's last one. It will be the show's 10th season, certainly a good run by anyone's definition.

Article first published as 2010 Television Upfront: The CW to Launch Two New Shows on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

CBS Announces its 2010-2011 Primetime Lineup

How the mighty have fallen. Oh, not CBS, which announced its primetime schedule today, but rather NBC, something evident in CBS's lineup. With its new schedule, the Eye network has opted to try to establish a comedy bulkhead on Thursday nights – NBC's domain for years (decades) on end. The new schedule CBS delivered features a whole bunch of timeslot changes and new programs. If one didn't know better they might think that CBS didn't perform well this past season.

Before we get into the details, it must be stated that Cold Case, Ghost Whisperer, Numbers, Gary Unmarried, and The New Adventures of Old Christine all found the chopping block this year. There were certainly some hints that such would happen with a few of these shows (Rob Morrow is in a pilot picked up by another network), but it is sure to upset some of the series' more devoted fans. Additionally, both CSI spinoffs found their ways to new nights as did Survivor. Aggressive may not accurately describe CBS's new schedule which has only left Tuesday nights untouched.

Said schedule is as follows:

Sun MonTueWedThuFriSat
8:00The Amazing RaceHow I Met
Your Mother
NCISSurvivorBig Bang TheoryMediumDrama Repeats
8:30Rules of
$#*! My
Dad Says
Two and a
Half Men
NCIS: Los AngelesCriminal MindsCSICSI:
9:30Mike &
The Good
48 Hours

Looking at the comedies first, CBS has added two to their fall lineup – Mike & Molly and $#*! My Dad Says (apparently that first word is "BLEEP"). Both air out of established comedies, although the latter is going to be on CBS' new Thursday hour comedy block.

Mike & Molly is brought to us by Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory) and features a couple who find love at Overeaters Anonymous. Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy star as the titular couple, with Mike being a cop and Molly being a fourth grade teacher. Both have friends and family in their life, and Molly even has Swoosie Kurtz playing her mother. How the show will handle the sensitive issue of weight may play directly into the series' success or failure.

$#*! My Dad Says stars William Shatner as the father who says a bunch of crazy things, something Shatner has shown to excel at in his most recent television role on Boston Legal. As a sign of the times, the sitcom is based on the Twitter feed of Justin Halpern (yes, a Twitter feed). The father, Ed, has two sons, one of whom, though an adult, is forced to move back in with him. The series comes from David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, the creators of Will & Grace.

Moving over to dramas, Hawaii Five-O is, of course, a reimagining of the television series Hawaii Five-O. The series stars Alex O'Loughlin in the network's third attempt to find a show for the actor whom they so clearly want to be a star (the previous attempts were Moonlight and Three Rivers). Perhaps combining O'Loughlin's fan base with the well-known series name and throwing in other famous actors – Scott Caan, Daniel Dae Kim, and Grace Park – will mean that CBS finally has a winner for the actor. And, yes, O'Loughlin is playing the Jack Lord role of Steve McGarrett.

Jerry O'Connell, who somehow did not end up in a pilot last year (he did appear on Eastwick though a couple of times) is back this fall in the new series The Defenders. O'Connell stars opposite Jim Belushi (because According to Jim is finally really and truly and forever gone). The two men play the named lawyers in a Las Vegas firm which also features a new associate played by Jurnee Smollett who is "looking to put her exotic dancing ways behind her." Rounding out the cast are an assistant played by Tanya Fischer and the estranged wife of Belushi's character, played by Gillian Vigman.

The last new series making the fall (the Forest Whitaker starring Criminal Minds spinoff will be a mid-season replacement) CBS schedule is Blue Bloods. Rather than focusing on the long wealthy, the series is about a family of cops working in New York City. Said family is led by the New York Chief of Police (Tom Selleck), Frank Reagan, or, perhaps by the ex-Chief of Police, Frank's father, Henry (Len Cariou). Donnie Wahlberg, Bridget Moynahan, and Will Estes all play members of the Reagan family as well, and are all somehow related to law enforcement (even if it's as an A.D.A. or taking part in a clandestine police investigation).

It is clear that while CBS may not be introducing the most new shows in the fall, they are not content to simply slot a few new shows in here and there. They have substantially rejiggered their schedule. If the aging (though perhaps timeless) Survivor works on Wednesdays, the CSI spinoffs hold their audiences on their new nights, and the new 8-9 comedy hour on Thursdays works, the network could find itself in an even better position next year.

Article first published as 2010 Television Upfront: CBS's 2010-2011 Lineup Full of Changes on Blogcritics.

Motormouse - The Computer Mouse Goes Sports Car

There was a time when I spent a significant amount of time watching Dragons' Den on BBC America.  To watch various products and ideas get pitched to potential investors was always fascinating – the ideas ranged from the supremely fantastic to the utterly ridiculous, but every entrepreneur who went before the Dragons believed in their idea and pitched it to the best of their ability.  One of my major disappointments though with the series was that it was based in England and that none of the products or ideas that the Dragons approved were something readily available here.  Consequently, when the opportunity came up to get my hands on a Dragons' Den product I was quick to jump at the chance.

The product in question is the Motormouse.  Originally developed by an entrepreneur who went on Dragons' Den, the licensing for the product waMotormouses sold to a different company here in the States, and the car-shaped computer mouse is now available for purchase. 

With a look "inspired" by the Porsche 911, the mouse is wireless and available in silver, red, and black.  It operates with a 2.4GHz wireless USB connection – a small USB connector just pops right into a USB port on the computer, sticking out approximately one-half centimeter from the port.  Inside the mouse's "trunk" one live the two AAA batteries required to power the device and a small crevice into which the USB connector can be stored.  It has two buttons, a scroll wheel, and a 1200DPI optical sensor.  Additionally, rather than containing an on/off switch, the mouse turns itself off after a set (but not apparently user adjustable) period of time and can be turned back on by clicking the left button.

The Motormouse is roughly the size of your average mouse, but lightweight.  It comes with a carrying pouch (and a mini-mouse pad) as well, but frankly the plastic used for the trunk as well as the mechanism by which it opens and closes feels rather flimsy, giving the impression that too much travel could easily result in its breaking. 

On the plus side, despite the somewhat odd car shape, the mouse is quite comfortable to hold, never feeling quite like a regular mouse, but never being different enough to make using it feel awkward.  Though gamers won't find the DPI as high as they require, it is certainly accurate and responsive enough to please the average consumer.  The two buttons and the scroll wheel, which is quite wide, all provide satisfying clicks (and movement in the case of the wheel). 

The few issues with the Motormouse – though none really overshadow the novelty aspects of it – lie in the mouse pad and the actual look of the mouse.  First, the "specially coated" mouse pad, which the instructions recommend one use in orderMotormouse to enhance battery life, is too small.  One constantly feels when using the pad that they are about to run out of road.  Additionally, the mouse doesn't slide very well along the pad; instead, the friction is greater between the mouse and the pad than the mouse and a simple desktop.  These two drawbacks make the pad far too annoying, specially coated or not.  As for the actual look of the mouse, many may be slightly distressed that the wheels don't turn.  One assumes that the need to move a mouse left to right while the wheels would only turn for up and down movements may be why they remain immobile, but the look of the car moving without the wheels turning is disconcerting (perhaps it would have been possible to have the wheels rotate but never actually come into contact with the surface).  Then, while it is cute that one can sometimes see the red light of the optical sensor for the mouse reflected in the cars tail lights, seeing it from the back of the trunk only serves to highlight the flimsy sense one gets about the trunk's construction. 

Our last issue relates to the USB connector itself.  As mentioned above, it is small, but it simply does not feel small enough.  The connector contains a black portion that sits outside the computer and a gold-looking portion that is meant to be completely within the computer's USB port.  However, in trying the Motormouse on several computers, never did the connector's black portion actually meet the computer, some of the metal portion always sticks out of the port.  This makes the connector appear as though it is not fully seated in the port even when it is and is greatly distracting.

Regardless of these issues, the Motormouse with its racing car looks, lightweight, and comfortable feel do make the device an attractive computer peripheral.  Currently available for purchase at the Motormouse Web site, the device's $49.95 price tag ($54.95 with gift wrap), plus shipping, may put some novelty gift seekers off, but it will no doubt please car enthusiasts. 

Article first published as Product Review: Motormouse on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ABC Announces 2010-2011 Primetime Lineup

In announcing their new lineup for the 2010-2011 season, ABC made it clear that they are happy with where they are. The network isn't introducing a ton of new series, is making no changes to Sunday or Monday, tweaking Wednesday and Thursday, and only making substantial alterations Tuesday and Friday. In fact, of all their returning series which appear on their fall lineup, only The Middle is getting a new time period. Assuredly ABC reasons this is possible due to the second season success of Castle as well as three of the four shows on ABC's Wednesday comedy block and the continued strong performance of Dancing with the Stars.

As previously reported, FlashForward, ABC's sci-fi show which viewers tuned out of months ago, won't be returning next year while V will (as a mid-season replacement). Happily, the network put Scrubs out of its misery, as the series – and Better off Ted – has been canceled. Perhaps the oddest change to ABC's lineup is the inclusion of Secret Millionaire, the reality show which features millionaires going undercover to give money to those in need. If the title and premise sound familiar that's because FOX briefly aired the show before banishing it from their schedule. It is appearing on low HUT (housing using televisions) level Friday night, but picking up the castoff series – even if it is relatively inexpensive – seems like an odd way to attract viewers.

ABC's 2010-2011 lineup will be as follows:


7:00America's Funniest Home Videos      
8:00Extreme Makeover: Home EditionDancing with the StarsNo Ordinary
The MiddleMy
8:30Better Together
DWTS: Results ShowModern FamilyGrey's
Body of
9:30Cougar Town  
10:00Brothers & SistersCastleDetroit
The Whole
Private Practice20/20

The first new show of the week on ABC's lineup is No Ordinary Family which is about a completely ordinary, "totally relatable" according to the press release, family thrust into extraordinary circumstances when their plane crashes into the Amazon River. Not only do they live, they develop superpowers. The series stars one-time ABC star (before he became an FX star) Michael Chiklis as the father and Julie Benz (Dexter) as the mother.

Detroit 1-8-7 takes the all-too-often used pretend documentary concept and, rather than putting it onto a 30-minute comedy, will be doing it with an hour-long drama starring Michael Imperioli as a veteran homicide detective. Jon Michael Hill gets to play the new guy and partner to Imperioli's vet. The show with its gritty feel doesn't sound as though it's a natural to follow the light-hearted Dancing with the Stars, but stranger shows have been put back-to-back. ABC though does have the advantage on FOX, which is premiering their new gritty cop show, Ride-Along, midseason.

Last year out of their new comedy lineup, ABC positioned Eastwick, an updated take on Witches of Eastwick that proved to be a blink-and-you'll-miss-it series. This year, with the comedy lineup better established, ABC will be airing The Whole Truth, a legal drama. The concept behind the series is that audiences will get to see both the prosecution and the defense equally as their cases are built on a weekly basis. Rob Morrow stars as the defense attorney and Joely Richardson as the prosecutor. Their characters have been friends since law school (Yale, naturally), but we don't think for a minute that they won't get miffed at one another.

Opening Thursdays will be the new series My Generation which, shockingly, features a documentary crew following a bunch of high schoolers getting ready to graduate in the year 2000 and then revisits them 10 years later to find out whether they have fulfilled their dreams or found new ones. The series, which sounds to be relationship-based, may be a perfect fit with the rest of the night which still features Grey's and Private Practice.

Dana Delany stars in Friday night's Body of Proof. Once a great neurosurgeon, Dr. Megan Hunt (Delany) is forced to give up her job after a car accident. She opts to become a medical examiner and kind of goes outside her job description opting to do more than just the medical examining on some cases. CBS has done quite well airing women-centered shows on Friday evenings and as Delany is a proven star it will be interesting to see if ABC can make the concept work for them.

With The Middle getting the call to anchor the ABC Wednesday evening comedy block, 8:30 goes to ABC's one new comedy of the fall (although they do have a Matthew Perry one waiting in the wings for mid-season), Better Together. A relationship comedy, Better Together features one couple, Maddie and Ben, who have been dating for nine years; another couple, Mia (Maddie's younger sister) and Casey, who after seven weeks announce that they're pregnant and getting married; and Mia and Maddie's parents, Vicky and Joel, who have been married for 35 years. No, it doesn't sound hugely different, but again, without actually seeing it making any sort of rush to judgment would be foolish. ABC did quite well developing comedies last year and even though The Middle may have sounded boring on paper, it's both funny and successful.

ABC may not have the strongest ratings of all the networks, and they may have a bunch of aging shows in their lineup, but it is kind of nice in a day and age when series get canceled after two airings and are never allowed to build an audience for a network to tweak around the edges rather than change things wholesale. If the tactic works or not is something we'll just have to see down the line (and, of course, they do have replacement series sitting on the bench just itching to come in).

Article first published as 2010 Television Upfront: ABC Unveils 2010-2011 Lineup on Blogcritics.

Monday, May 17, 2010

FOX Announces 2010-2011 Network Primetime Lineup

As has become standard for the FOX, in unveiling their new 2010-2011 primetime lineup, the network delivered more than one schedule.  While in the past there have been as many as three delivered – fall, January, and spring – this time out we have only been given two.  It should most certainly be noted that while the network has stated that the second lineup is the midseason one, the odds that they will in fact deliver the lineup as scheduled are minimal at best.  Additionally, do not expect that over the course of a single week the network schedule will magically change – new drama Lonestar will still air for a while in the new year in its old timeslot as will new comedy Running Wilde.

But, we're getting ahead of ourselves, aren't we?  FOX, which performed well this season, has a schedule with few changes to it.  In fact, the fall will only see three new shows premiere, with another three set to air in the spring.  As with every network, FOX does have other programs sitting on the bench waiting to come in, but if something flounders come the spring, don't surprised to see American Idol airing for multiple two hour runs in  a single week. 

The two schedules the network delivered are as follows:

7:00The OT      
8:00The SimpsonsHouseGleeLie
To Me
8:30The Cleveland ShowCops
9:00Family GuyLonestarRaising HopeHell's
FringeThe Good GuysAmerica's Most
9:30American DadRunning Wilde

7:30American Dad
Raising HopeBonesHuman
8:30Bob's BurgersIdol ResultsCops
9:30The Cleveland
Mixed Signals

Fall's new shows are the hour-long drama Lonestar, and two half-hour comedies, Raising Hope and Running Wilde. these last two will be airing back-to-back on Tuesdays out of Glee. 

Lonestar stars James Wolk as something of a liar.  He has two completely different lives in two different parts of Texas.  In Houston he's married to Cat (Adrianne Paliciki) and the son-in-law of Clint (Jon Voight).  In Midland he's got a girlfriend, Lindsay (Eloise Mumford).  Now, there are some similarities between the two lives – for instance, in both places he's trying to make himself rich in a less than scrupulous fashion.  It almost goes without saying that he worries greatly that his life will in fact come apart.

What will instantly strike many about the two new fall comedies is that their titles are both playing on the same theme.  In Raising Hope, a 23-year-old pool cleaner (Lucas Neff) finds himself forced to raise his new baby girl, Hope, while her mother is in jail.  In Running Wilde, Will Arnett stars as Steve Wilde, an immature playboy who has decided to do whatever it takes to make his childhood sweetheart, Emmy (Keri Russell), fall in love with him.  Wilde is told from the perspective of Emmy's 12-year-old daughter… who hasn't spoken in years (except, we assume, in voiceover).

In the spring's lone new scheduled drama (another, Terra Nova, has yet to be given a timeslot), Ride-Along, the audience gets ride along with a Chicago police officer.  The drama comes to us from Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and stars Jason Clark as Jarek Wysocki, a veteran of the CPD.  Matt Lauria stars as Caleb Evers, Wysocki's new partner and Jennifer Beals as Teresa Colvin, the boss.  At least initially, the story will revolve around a murder investigation involved an alderman (Delroy Lindo).

Mixed Signals, midseason's new live-action comedy, stars Kris Marshall, Nelson Franklin, Alexandra Breckenridge, David Denman, and Liza Lapira.  It's a relationship-based comedy about the different places in life three buddies from back in the day find themselves.  While the concept unquestionably isn't new, one certainly ought not judge a book by its cover. 

The midseason schedule also features a new addition to FOX's Animation Domination Sunday lineup – Bob's Burgers.  Bob (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) is a third generation restaurateur who has a burger joint he thinks is pretty swell, mostly because he's focused on the burgers, condiments, and sides and not customer service, business management, or location.  Also, he gets to work with his family, which makes this something of a workplace/family hybrid animated series. 

FOX has certainly followed an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" model for the upcoming television season.  It's a schedule with few new series even if things have been shifted around a little (but not a lot).  The network is continuing to try and program Friday nights despite the fact that they've had little success there for years on end.  The Good Guys, which is airing on Fridays this fall actually has yet to premiere, but is schedule to air a sneak peek this week and then run all summer long on Monday evenings.  It is certainly admirable that FOX is again doing their best to establish a Friday night bulkhead – just as it is that they are again trying to launch new live-action comedies – but the question remains as to whether or not their attempts will fall flat (again).

Article first published as
2010 Television Upfront: FOX Shows Off 2010-2011 Primetime Lineup
on Blogcritics.

NBC Announces its 2010-2011 Primetime Lineup

Having already announced the new series that they would be airing in the fall, the veiling of NBC's unveiling of its 2010-2011 television schedule today contained few surprises. It is, however, a markedly different schedule than what the network showcased last year. As we all remember, that schedule heavily relied on Jay Leno airing in primetime, a daring move for NBC which ended up causing the Peacock network nothing but headaches.That is not to say that the schedule we were delivered today is in any way conservative. The fall schedule features changes on four nights of the week (out of six, as Saturdays are now forever repeats). If one then discounts the fact that Sundays on NBC are entirely devoted to football, only one night of their schedule has remained unchanged from the Spring, Tuesdays, with its combination of two hours of The Biggest Loser followed by Parenthood. NBC's fall schedule, as unveiled today, is as follows:

The new dramas this year (in bold) are The Event, Chase, Undercovers, Law & Order: Los Angeles, and Outlaw. NBC will be launching two new comedies in the fall, the half-hour Outsourced and the hour-long Love Bites airing back-to-back on Thursdays. The network does, of course, have other more scripted and non-scripted programs waiting in the wings (like a new Paul Reiser comedy) and a bunch of shows from this season that will be returning later in the season (The Celebrity Apprentice, The Marriage Ref), but for now, let's just look at the starting lineup (when we know more about the launch of the other shows we'll of course bring our info to you). It should be noted that while Who Do You Think You Are? is shown here in the table, it will be "splitting" the timeslot with School Pride, a reality show in which students, staff, and volunteers renovate their school in 10 days.


7:00Football Pregame (until 8:15)      
8:00NFL FootballChuckThe Biggest LoserUndercoversCommunityWho Do You Think You Are?Encores
8:3030 Rock
9:00The EventLaw & Order: SVUThe OfficeDateline
10:00ChaseParenthoodLaw & Order: Los AngelesLove BitesOutlaw

The Event, featuring an ensemble cast led by Jason Ritter, Blair Underwood, Zeljko Ivanek, and Laura Innes, is about a mysterious cover-up that even the President has been kept out of the loop on. As you may have expected, POTUS (Underwood) is unhappy about that situation. Jason Ritter plays the average Joe Schmo who has found out the truth… "a secret so powerful it could literally change the course of humanity." Oh yes, literally change the course of humanity.

In Chase, NBC will be delivering a new Jerry Bruckheimer produced drama. Along with what is sure to be some flashy editing, viewers will get to watch Kelli Giddish star as U.S. Marshal from Texas who wears cowboy boots. She, along with her team (Cole Hauser, Amaury Nolasco, Rose Rollins, and Jesse Metcalfe), tracks down violent criminals. With any luck she'll be discussing a hard target search of every residence, gas station, farmhouse, henhouse, doghouse, and outhouse in the area on a regular basis.

Wednesday evening's will be opening with J.J. Abrams' new series, Undercovers. Starring Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a married couple who pretend to be mild-mannered folks, but secretly retired from the spy game when the met five years back. Their old boss (Gerald McRaney) convinces them to get back in the game though when their spy-friend goes missing. One assumes that even if they rescue their friend in the pilot they'll maintain their spying ways in the episodes to come.

Though the original Law & Order won't be returning in the fall, the franchise will feature a new entry – Law & Order: Los Angeles. It will focus itself on the Robbery Homicide Division of the LAPD (which was depicted on the short-lived 2002 CBS show, Robbery Homicide Division). With New York City having played such a huge role in every other Law & Order entry, it is unclear whether viewers will take a shine to such a massive location change for this new series. Additionally, with the original entry gone, and the last successful Law & Order series, Criminal Intent, having launched in 2001 it will be interesting to see whether the title Law & Order will be enough to convince audiences to tune in.

The last new drama on the network's fall schedule is Outlaw and features Jimmy Smits' return to NBC after starring in the CBS drama Cane in the fall of 2007 (and appearing on one season of Showtime's Dexter). Smits plays Cyrus Garza a U.S. Supreme Court Justice who resigns from the court and opts to return to private practice to help the "little guy." And, just for good measure, Garza is a playboy and a gambler who has had a "strict interpretation" of the law.

Heading to the comedy side of things, NBC will be featuring the new 30 minute comedy Outsourced on Thursdays at 9:30. The series stars Ben Rappaport as a company manager who gets sent to India to train the staff of a new call center the company has opened there. Billed as "hilarious culture clash," the series may have to walk a fine line so as to ensure that it doesn't offend a growing minority community within the States with its depiction of the subcontinent.

The last new program that will launch with the fall lineup is Love Bites, an hour-long comedy anthology series. Appearing every week will be Becki Newton and Jordana Spiro as two single women whose friends are all married, while other characters will come and go on a weekly basis. Each episode is billed as containing "multiple vignettes" and "three loosely connected, modern stories of love, sex, marriage, and dating."

NBC's fall lineup is filled with new shows from big name producers and featuring big name stars. It's a relatively aggressive new lineup from a network which has now had several seasons in a row of poor ratings. As every network executive knows however, it only takes one great new program to help resuscitate an entire lineup, and the executives at NBC are surely hoping that one of these shows fits the bill.

There are brief promos currently available on the NBC website of all the new shows, so we'll just include one here, the J.J. Abrams executive-produced Undercovers (the pilot for which he also directed). Lastly, fans of Parks and Recreation should note that the comedy may not appear on the fall schedule, but it will return midseason.

Article first published as 2010 Television Upfront: NBC's Fall Lineup on Blogcritics.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mel Gibson Visits the Edge of Darkness (2010)

Mel Gibson has made a career out of playing the man on the edge.  He has done it in action comedies (Lethal Weapon), he has done it in post-apocalypse sci-fi (Mad Max), he has done it in action thrillers (Ransom), and some would say he's even done it in real life (his legal troubles from a few years ago).  It is somewhat comforting therefore to see him return to the motif in his latest film which has just hit Blu-ray, Edge of Darkness.

Directed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale), Edge of Darkness is based on a British television miniseries of the same name (also directed by Campbell).  In the film, Gibson plays Thomas Craven, a Boston Police detective.  Craven raised his now adult daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), alone, and although we are led to believe via home video footage that he did a great job, the two have ended up semi-estranged.  Or, at the very least, they don't discuss personal matters with one another.  At the start of the film, Craven picks up his daughter who is coming for a short visit.  She is clearly ill and has some horrible secret she wants to tell him but can't seem to find the words for.  It is at that moment when the audience instantly knows exactly where the film is headed.

Emma's illness rapidly progresses that first evening back at home, and as they two head out to find a doctor, she is brutally gunned down.  The police, of course, think that the gunman meant to kill Craven, not his daughter (he is, after all, a police detective who has put away many an evildoer).  Only Craven knows the truth… well, only Craven and the audience.  In rifling through his daughter's effects, he comes across her work ID badge which identifies her as a "nuclear engineer" for a company called Northmoor. 

Yes, it is essentially as easy as that – she was horribly ill before being shot and worked as a nuclear engineer.  Lest you feel as though this reviewer is spoiling something, the discovery of the ID badge is made awfully early on in the film and it is shocking that it takes Craven as long to put together the pieces as he does.

Granted, Craven's task is made more difficult by the fact that this is one of those films where everyone, but everyone, is involved in the conspiracy.  Some folks were part of it at the beginning, some are only brought in after Emma's death, but everyone is involved.  Craven, of course, doesn't know this as he starts out, but the fact that it is a conspiracy means that he makes the absolute right decision in not telling any of his co-workers/police friends that it was Emma who was the target of the killing.  At the time Craven makes that decision it is poorly motivated – an eye for an eye revenge is the sole reason – but it proves brilliant in hindsight.  That is just one of the problems with the film – the only truly good reason Craven has for going it alone on the case is that it is a conspiracy, but he can't possibly have known that when he first decided to take the vigilante route.

The plot is murky at best, full of clichéd notions of corrupt politicians, black ops fixers, and corporations more interested in money than human beings.  The film, however, manages to remain better than passable due to the vast majority of the performances.  Gibson, as stated above, has made a career out of this type of loner character – perhaps that is why it is so acceptable that he opts to go it alone – and it truly is a pleasure after so many years of his not being on the big screen to see him return.  Gibson is in top form in the film, he is dark and angry and yet his anger is entirely driven by his grief at being robbed of that which was most important to him.  It is a very good performance in an otherwise dime-a-dozen film.

Many of Gibson's co-stars are equally good, most notably Ray Winstone as Jedburgh, a mysterious man who is tasked with whitewashing all the goings-on.  Winstone's Jedburgh is world-weary and smart, a man who, despite sometimes doing the wrong thing does his best to proceed in the most forthright and honorable way he can.  The one true disappointment in the cast is Danny Huston.  Huston plays Jack Bennett, the head of Northmoor, and a man who, from the first moment he appears on the screen, before he even opens his mouth, is so clearly the bad guy, that the film's believability suffers massively when Craven doesn't torture Bennett into confessing immediately.  Perhaps though the problem is that we as an audience are so far ahead of Craven at that point that we see what he cannot.

Fans of bright, shiny, eye-popping high definition colors won't have much to celebrate in this release as Campbell's palette is a dark, washed-out one.  What the Blu-ray lacks in color however it more than makes up for in detail.  Patterns on jackets, ties, and  wallpaper are distinct and outstanding.  Despite being a dark film, little is lost in the shadows or murky.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also an above average entry.   The surrounds do a good job of situating the audience and the gunfire rings out loud and clear, the sound of each shot is almost enough to make one feel as though the bullet has pierced their skin.

The extras included on the Blu-ray release are relatively standard things.  It is a two-disc set, one of which contains both a DVD and digital copy.  There are several alternate and deleted scenes, and several short featurettes which cover a myriad of topics.  These include ones the story, Craven, Campbell, Gibson, the score as well as the original miniseries and making it into a feature.

Edge of Darkness repeatedly shows us home video moments from the life of young Emma, and throughout the movie Craven is visited by both young and adult versions of his daughter.  These moments exist to add a softer side to Craven, to remind us why he is fighting.  What they fail to do, what the entire movie fails to do, is to provide a compelling motivation for why Craven goes it alone and why any of the other characters do anything that they do.  It is almost as though Campbell and company decided that conspiracy tales detailed in other works provide enough basis for this one and that they, therefore, didn't have to create a fully realized story.  With Gibson in the lead role, it is model that almost works.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Edge of Darkness (2010) on Blogcritics.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Racing Monsters on Nintendo DS's Monster Racers

Gotta catch'em all.

It's a phrase which every Pokemon player knows, and it has greatly added to the length of time fans will sit with each Pokemon title.  After all, if you haven't caught'em all, no matter how good your favorite Pokemon is, you haven't quite won, have you?  It's an idea that has worked so well, that while the phrase hasn't been used in other franchises, the concept has (think Bakugan).  Now, UFO Interactive and Koei have gotten into the game with their latest title, Monster Racers, which is currently available on the Nintendo DS.

The basic story here, as with all get-a-monster-and-train-them-to-be-better-than-other-monsters games, is quite simple.  Essentially, a few years before the opening of the game, an island, Star Island, was discovered and it was found to be full of monsters.  These monsters loved to race one another, and so people decided that it would be good fun to train them and force them to race (apparently as animals who love to do it, there is nothing morally objectionable about compelling them to participate).  Monsters were soon discovered in wild parts of the rest of the world and monster racing has become the new "it" sport. 

Monster Racers begins with you starting off as a young, would-be monster racer.  You are given the option of one of three monsters to start off with, though after you receive your racer's license, you quickly head off into the wild to find and train more monsters.  And that, essentially, is the game.  There are multiple areas of the world to explore, and multiple tournaments and quests within each area.  Your goal is to get more monsters, train them (by winning races) to increase their stats, and generally be an all around good guy (or girl) – searching for crystals for others, saving folks should they get trapped, and making sure that the evil racers always lose.

There are three different types of races available, and you will have to repeatedly play all of them.  There are tournaments, which are a series of races which, when completed, award you a trophy and open up more areas and other tournaments.  There are also challenges, which take place against another racer out in the wild.  And, finally, there are field races, which feature you going up against a wild monster and are the kind of race you will encounter most often.  Field races can actually be won in three different ways.  First, simply making it to the finish line first will end the race and earn your monster points.  Second, there is a "victory line" which, should you be far enough out in front, will appear in the middle of the race (think of it like a slaughter rule).  Hit the victory line and you will win and earn points for your monster.  Lastly, should your monster be of a greater or equal level to the wild monster you're racing, you can shoot "MonStars" at your opponent to friend them, thereby adding them to your menagerie.  Every type of race contains various power-ups like invincibility, speed boosts, and coins (which add to your bank account if you win the race).  In wireless battles with other human opponents the power-ups are more attack oriented, which again adds another dimension to the game, although in the story portion of the game monsters can hurt one another by running into them or using their special ability.

As you travel in the world you are allowed to take three monsters around with you at any given time; every other monster you own is sent back to the Monsterium in Star City on Star Island for safe keeping.  Those that you keep with you will gain a few experience points for every race you win whether or not they participated in it.  Choosing monsters carefully before setting off can be incredibly important, not just to make sure you're leveling up the right monster, but so that you have monsters who excel at whatever terrain your racing on.

Different race courses are created out of different material, some have water, others lava, others sand or dirt, etc., and different monsters respond differently on the various tracks.  In order to be a successful racer, you need to make sure that all of your monsters have leveled up as much as possible, so that should you come across a grass-based track late in the game, your grass track running monster is up to the competition.  Additionally, extra items can be purchased to enhance your monster's stats which fall into four categories:  speed, thrust (acceleration), power (damage your monster can inflict during a race), and spirit (ability to withstand attacks and fill turbo gauge).  Loyalty and will are also factors one has to keep an eye on (win all your races though and you'll never need to worry about either).  As you progress in the game you can even try and breed monsters so as to get ones with characteristics which will better aid you in your monster racing.

With simple controls and minimal use of the touch screen, which is mainly used to provide attributes about monsters and your location in the world, the game is playable by all.  It also tends to be very easy early on, something which belies the later difficulties one will encounter if they haven't taken on every single race available (sometimes two or three times as items and monsters in the wild respawn) in order to level up sufficiently.

It is an enjoyable twist on the basic gotta catch'em all philosophy, and the use of races instead of innumerable mini-games ought to help the title find an audience with those who dislike repeatedly tapping a bullseye or spinning a little ball around.  The game can be saved at any time (except during a race), and the number of races, monsters, courses, abilities, and items available ought to keep those who strive for 100 percent completion busy for an exceedingly long time. 

The graphics are cute, the sounds fun, and there's a lot going on (over 80 monsters exist in the game).  It's an easy to pick-up and play for five minutes at a shot casual title that still has a lot of depth to it.  Plus, with the ability to play over the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection or with others wirelessly in the same room, there are even more facets to it.

Monster Racers is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

Article first published as Nintendo DS Review: Monster Racers on Blogcritics.