Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Doctor Who - Revisiting Christopher Eccleston's Doctor

Every summer I do my best to find some new old show to watch... well, something that's old but new to me. A couple of years ago I watched every episode of House, a couple of years before that every episode of Angel. Last year it was actually NCIS. The constant, though, for the past few years has been Doctor Who. In addition to choosing something new, old, and different, there have been tons and tons of episodes of Doctor Who. The show, between the old version and the new, has an incredible number of back episodes that can be watched and, thanks to the genius that is Netflix, so many of those episodes can either be streamed directly to my TiVo or rented and popped into my DVD player.

Thus far this summer I've actually been rewatching episodes of the new series. I think we all know that the new series hasn't been on terribly long, but that the man who really made it what it is, at least in front of the camera, is David Tennant. Everybody loves David Tennant — the man was an absolutely fantastic Doctor. The Tennant incarnation took on so many of the Doctor's old foes, added new ones, and put out some incredibly memorable plotlines. I love David Tennant, he could definitely be one of the best Doctors the show has ever had.

You know what though, I think that Tennant's being so good has completely overshadowed poor Christopher Eccleston. Some may think it a little hard to refer to Eccleston as "poor" — the man is a very well known actor, was well known before the series, and continues to be well known (plus he was certainly the best part of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). He also was the man who brought the Doctor back to life (again, in front of the camera). From the first moment he appeared on screen and introduced himself to Rose Tyler he was great. He was definitely on the goofy side of things, but when he did get serious – and he certainly did get serious – he was superb.

Think back to the episode "Dalek." That was the first episode of the new series in which we saw a Dalek. The Doctor was under the impression that the Daleks were all gone, that they, along with all the Time Lords, had perished in the Last Great Time War. We'd heard tell, a little, of the Time War, of the end of the Time Lords. While there was clearly great sadness in it for Eccleston's Doctor, he had a sense about him that it was worth it because a greater good had been served, that good being the end of the Daleks. To see a Dalek living meant that he had helped sacrifice his entire race and had failed. Watching Eccleston see and react to the Dalek and go from fear to anger in that first encounter is a truly great moment in the new series, one of the best moments the series has offered.

I really think that people tend to forget what Eccleston's Doctor had to deal with. In the last two episodes of the season, Eccleston's last episodes, the Doctor has to confront a massive Dalek force, perhaps not as large as the one encountered by Tennant's Doctor in "The Stolen Earth and "Journey's End," but pretty substantial nonetheless. It is another great moment for Eccleston's Doctor, but I think it's been overshadowed by the aforementioned Tennant Dalek finale episodes as well as Tennant's fight with The Master… or the Cybermen-Dalek finale (Tennant got some unbelievably great season finales).

Part of that overshadowing isn't just due to Tennant's greatness, but, I think, to the writing as well. Russell T. Davies wrote all of those final episodes and I think that, as much as anything, he really found his stride there and not during the conclusion of the new first season.

Whatever the case may be, be it Davies hitting his stride, the rest of the crew hitting theirs, or Tennant's just being so incredibly fantastic (and he is), it all has sort of made Eccleston's time seem like less than what it was. Going back and watching that single season with Eccleston has really made me think again about the series. And, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Eccleston was a fantastic choice to lead the new series and really helped set things up for everything that has happened since. Seriously, go back and take another look at the guy. You're going to love what you see.

Article first published as Christopher Eccleston's Doctor Who on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Feeling out the Memphis Beat

For too long Jason Lee was stuck playing the hapless wannabe do-gooder Earl Hickey on My Name is Earl. Although that show's final season was certainly funnier than the one which preceded it, it did feel as though almost all of Earl's tale had been told and that while it might continue to be funny, there was probably little growth left for the characters. Lee, who was funny on the show, was no longer stretching himself, no longer showing the audience he could do more than be a semi-bumbling quasi-fool.

It is for that reason if no other that Memphis Beat is worth sampling. TNT's new cop dramedy stars Lee as Dwight Hendricks, a Memphis police detective by day and Elvis impersonator by night (but not a jumpsuited one).Photo Credit:  Skip Bolen That sentence may actually make the show sound somewhat more lighthearted than the pilot actually is – Hendricks is serious about his vocation, avocation, and love of Memphis, and the show treats his serious feelings, well, seriously. In fact, if it weren't for the incredible oddness of the idea (and a lamp that is shaped like a woman's upper body where the breasts provide the light), Memphis Beat could be one dark show.

Created by Liz W. Garcia (Cold Case) and Joshua Harto (The Dark Knight), the series is also executive produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov among others. It is a show with a good pedigree and a good cast but it is certainly not without a few drawbacks. For instance, acting opposite Lee is Alfre Woodard as the new boss in town, Lt. Tanya Rice. It is great to see Woodard on television yet again, but her character instantly butts heads with Hendricks as he, though serious about his job, is set in his unorthodox ways and she is a by-the-book lieutenant. Surely someone working on this show could have come up with something a little bit less well-worn than that particular trope. New lieutenant and old detective not seeing quite eye-to-eye but learning to respect each other despite their differences sounds like a first stab at concocting a dynamic between two characters, not a finished idea.

The series also stars Sam Hennings as Charlie White, Hendricks' partner, Celia Weston as Hendricks' mother, and Leonard Earl Howze as another of the detectives on the squad, as well as DJ Qualls as Davey Sutton, the goofy uniform cop who wants to follow in Hendricks' footsteps. Yes, that last character sounds like another stock one. There is also Abraham Benrubi as Sgt. JC Lightfoot, "an officer who uses Chicasaw tribal wisdom in his police work." Okay, that one is not exactly a stock character, but it does have that odd only-on-TV sound to it.

The first case that Hendricks encounters on the series is that of an abused elderly lady who turns out to be a famous Memphis DJ. As tied in as Hendricks is to Memphis, music, and mothers, the case hits him hard and while we are given the impression that he always tries his best he seems to go above and beyond for this one. Considering the fact that there was a lot of character introduction that had to happen in the first episode, the case is relatively Photo Credit:  Skip Bolenconstructed. There is, without a doubt, a flaw in the logic here and there in the case, but nothing overly unforgivable.

Although I hate saying as much, Memphis Beat is one of those shows you can't quite tell about from its pilot episode. The case Hendricks solves in the first episode is interesting and certainly well tied in to the city of Memphis, and the characters could prove interesting. However, there are definitely a lot of potential pitfalls in which the series could find itself. One would hope that the characters, which appear none  too differentiated from your average TV characters, and the relationship between Hendricks and Rice, which appears none too differentiated from your average cop-lieutenant relationship, will get fleshed out in interesting ways and prove themselves in some way different and/or better than usual. But, that might not happen. The cases could remain interesting and Hendricks' methodology quirky enough to keep viewers coming back, but it could all end up veering into the generic.

In its first episode, Memphis Beat seems like a young singer, poised on the brink of greatness. With the right song, right attitude, and right setup, it could be something truly special. It could also make a few bad missteps and fizzle out completely, becoming a never was. Hopefully the show will find the right beat.

Memphis Beat premieres on TNT June 22 at 10pm.

Article first published as TV Preview: Memphis Beat on Blogcritics.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Does Hawthorne Require Medical Attention?

There are few real directions, it seems, in which a hospital-based show can take.  It almost goes without saying that every hospital on every television show finds itself strapped for cash (or that a hospital administrator will at some point lament a big donor backing out) and will be threatened with closure.  What Hawthorne, TNT's nurse-based medical drama, does differently in its season premiere is that they actually close the hospital.  Quite seriously, within the first few minutes of the season opener, Richmond Trinity Hospital closes.

That is both a good and a bad thing for the series.  Christina Hawthorne (Jada Pinkett Smith, who is also an executive producer), the chief nursing officer at Richmond Trinity had everything perfectly organized at that hospital.  Oh sure, she had huge issues in her personal life and there was always a fire to put out at the hospital, but she ran a pretty tight ship.  To have her argPhoto Credit: Karen Nealue with her boss, John Morrissey (James Morrison), on a weekly basis about how she was going to have to do more with less could have provided a less than enticing season-long storyline.

On the downside, the way the series keeps everyone together is by sending them to work at the only other hospital in the area, James River.  While that might be kind of silly, it's acceptable in a TV necessity kind of way.  The issue is that in the first two episodes the series very quickly pits the Trinity staffers against the River ones, with the River ones uniformly  come up wanting.  With no real exception, the James River nursing staff is incompetent or lazy or mean or some combination of all three. Beyond the mean nursing staff, James River also has an incredibly low rating… and is in danger of closing.  It is all too easy and, as Hawthorne and Morrissey both note, it certainly seems as though the wrong hospital was closed. 

The James River nursing staff, led by Gail Strummer (Vanessa Bell Calloway), is drawn in an incredibly broad fashion and without any sort of redeeming value.  One has to assume that by the end of the season the oh-so-perfect Trinity staffers – Bobbie Jackson (Suleka Mathew), Candy Sullivan (Christina Moore), Kelly Epson (Vanessa Lengies), and Ray Stein (David Julian Hirsh) – will have convinced the James River folks of the error of their ways.  One has to believe that good will triumph over evil, or that James River will close and Richmond Trinity will reopen.  I certainly hope that the show figures out a way around that pitfall, it would be great if the evil staffers remain and remain evil, but that doesn't seem a very likely route.

This season-long potential plot issue is actually the one fault of an otherwise well-scripted, well-acted show.  Jada Pinkett Smith is excellent as Christina Hwathorne and the potential blossoming romance between her and Dr. Tom Wakefield (Michael Vartan) is deal with in both a realistic and touching fashion.  Wakefield was a good friend of Hawthorne's now deceased husband and that is something the two are going to have to struggle with should the relationship proceed.

Hawthorne, despite being the second of three nurse-based shows to premiere in 2009 has managed to make room for itself on television.  Although some of the characters certainly fall into broad categories that you could easily see on one of the othPhoto Credit: Karen Nealer shows – Stein is the male nurse; Epson is the bright-eyed newbie, though somewhat less so this year – Hirsh, Lengies, and the rest of the cast do manage to create memorable depictions.  Particularly good is Mathew as Bobbie Jackson, a character whose biggest fault is that she is simply not given enough screen time.

Watching Hawthorne you are not really going to see anything very new nor anything very different, but on the whole what they do they do well.  Hopefully over the course of the season we will see that producers have come up with a far more interesting way of mixing the James River and Trinity nursing staff than they show in the first two episodes.  That may not seem very likely at this moment, but it is certainly a possibility.

Hawthorne's second season premieres June 22 at 9pm on TNT.

Article first published as TV Preview: Hawthorne - Season Two on Blogcritics.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

That's Right, I'm Watching Both Happy Town & Persons Unknown

I do these things to myself, I understand that.  I started watching Happy Town, got a full three episodes into it before the first episode actually was on air, and liked it.  I liked it despite being quite convinced that the average member of the audience wouldn't feel the same way.  The show aired a couple of episodes and then disappeared.  It has come back to air its final few episodes and I continue to watch it despite the fact that there is simply no way that they'll end the series in a satisfying fashion.  I want them to, I'd like them to, but they won't.  It's not their fault, the show simply isn't geared that way.

Okay, I thought to myself, that's just fine, Happy Town won't end happily for the audience, but there is other stuff out there that I can watch – I can feed my addiction to dark, serialized mysteries in another way.  Seriously, it's no problem, I thought, after all, NBC is about to start up Persons Unknown

No, I'm not actually that dumb.  Well, I am, but not quite in the way I presented.

Heading into Persons Unknown I had no illusions that it would somehow be successful. Yes, technically speaking, any show – even ones we don't expect to – can capture an audience, but Persons Unknown still seemed like a long shot.  I could make some sort of easy joke here about NBC not being able to successfully launch even the best of shows these past few seasons, but I won't do that – Persons Unknown by its very nature is a quirky, little mystery series and certainly not the kind of thing that will appeal to everyone.  The promos, I think wisely, did their best to highlight the odd nature of the show which features a group of people who have been abducted, knocked unconscious, and wake up to find themselves in an virtually empty hotel in a virtually empty town with no way out (and who are being watched on camera almost all the time).  If you don't have a show that is going to attract a huge swath of the audience, make sure you get the folks who will want to see that kind of show, and I think that's what the promos tried to hit.

Even with appropriate promos, the numbers for the series aren't particularly good.  But, there I am, tuning in on a weekly basis anyway.  I know the numbers aren't going to get better (again, yes, technically they could, all of America could sit down on Monday night to watch television, find Persons Unknown and be completely enthralled), but I'm going to continue to tune in.  Why?  Because just like with Happy Town, I'm completely intrigued.  I want to know what's going to happen.  I want to know why these people have been put into this freaky empty town, what the night manager of the hotel is doing, and why the people running the Chinese restaurant are running the Chinese restaurant.

I think I may actually have some hope in getting answers there (except with the restaurant).  The show has been billed as a "miniseries event," which seems to indicate that the producers have a full story arc laid out for the course of the "event," a story arc that includes something of a conclusion.  We'll see, they could always go the cliffhanger route, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised by that, but I'm hoping that it'll be a sort of Lost-esque cliffhanger, the kind that changes the question entirely and which I can convince myself I'm no longer interested in.  My biggest fear is that they'll decide to give up on the series before they've aired all the episodes.

Please don’t do that, NBC, please.  I know that if you do you'll probably throw them up on Hulu or, but I don't know that I'll ever make the time to watch them that way, I want them on my TV.

Maybe I just need to keep hunting for that dark and creepy but not scary (I don't like scary) serialized show that will stay on for years on end without ever losing track of the main thread or putting on bad episodes or having actors decide they want to leave or not being continuously and relentlessly riveting.  That's not asking too much is it?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

100 Classic Books or The Nintendo DSi's E-Reader Envy

It seems as though everyone wants to get their feet wet in the e-book game these days.  Prior to the release of it latest handheld system, the DSi XL, earlier this year, Nintendo announced that a title would be released in June called 100 Classic Books. 100 Classic Books, as the name suggests, does in fact contain an even hundred public domain titles. 

While the cartridge will play on any of the DS line of systems, the XL has the largest screen which, at least on the surface, makes it the easiest on the eyes.  I say "on the surface" because while the screen of the XL is larger than the DS Lite or the DSi, it has the same number of pixels which does result in a less sharp image. 

The books included are the exact sort of items you would expect to find.  There are multiple works from Dickens, Twain, and Shakespeare.  There are also works by Verne, Shelley, and Swift just to name a few.  It is a pretty good library and the exact sort of thing an English teacher would look over, nod, and seem satisfied that they make up a good beginning.

The menu system itself within 100 Classic Books is actually quite nice. There is a graphical representation of a bookshelf where one can see the spines of said hundred titles.  That can make it a little cumbersome to actually find the one you want, but there are several different ways that they can be sorted – author, title, or genre – and if you don't know what you want to read, you can have the program suggest titles for you based on your answers to several questions.  You can also search for books by specifying criteria such as era, genre, length, etc.  It is a far better menu system than what is offered by Amazon's Kindle.

There are a lot of options for customization also included.  Background  music, menu colors, button settings, and font size can all be adjusted. The system will even store a temporary bookmark for the most recent title you've read (this is stored automatically if you close the book properly instead of just turning off 100 Classic Books) and three permanent bookmarks per book that have to be manually set.  Upon finishing a book you can also include a review score (out of 10), and a one word description from a pre-set list of choices.

But, all is not well in Mudville, because while the menu system is superior to some e-readers and 100 Classic Books has a lot of customization options, the rest of the platform is severely lacking.  The most obvious of the issues is that none of handheld entries in Nintendo's DS lineup truly provides a sharp enough look to the screen – it's always like you're reading something vaguely fuzzy.  Additionally, even the small font size fails to put enough words on the screen to make you feel as though you're reading anything other than a children's title.  Many readers will also probably feel slightly daunted when they realize that novels on the DS contain thousands of pages (A Tale of Two Cities has 2,812 pages with the small font and 4,374 with the large one).

Perhaps worse than that is the fact that the two DS screens present a slightly different font color, background color, and degree of sharpness to each letter.  The screen can be oriented with either the touchscreen on the left or right (the DS is held vertically), but whichever "page" is the touchscreen is slightly fuzzier and slightly more dark.  It is extremely disconcerting.

100 Classic Books is clearly an entry point for Nintendo into the market, and one assumes that there will be more down the line. There are in fact already titles that can be downloaded using Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection (and 10 downloads are included with the purchase of this cartridge... 10 also being the total number available for download as of this writing), and they all do download very quickly.  Downloaded titles can even be sent to another 100 Classic Books user permanently.  These titles are, as with the ones included on the cartridge, classic ones, but the groundwork has been laid for newer ones (although the likelihood that one will be allowed to permanently transfer those titles seems low).

With the size of both a DS and a Kindle being relatively small, if I want to play games and read I would certainly bring both as opposed to just opting for the DS.  At this point it isn't all that enjoyable to read anything on 100 Classic Books, and the fact that that you can't yet purchase newer titles and/or load e-books of your choice onto it make it far too limiting.  Perversely, one has to wonder if this subpar entry into the e-reader market will make people realize that they truly do want a device which can both play games and read books, thereby pushing more folks into Apple's iPad camp.


100 Classic Books does not have an ESRB rating.

Article first published as Nintendo DS Review: 100 Classic Books on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Blu-ray-livia

Opinions change with time - that which is viewed as brilliant today may be viewed as wholly trite and/or indescribably horrid tomorrow.  The opposite is also true – that which is viewed with derision at one point later very well may be confirmed as pure genius.  It is for that reason that one can't, strictly speaking, mock The New York Times for its negative review of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid upon its initial release in 1969.

In said review, Vincent Canby writes that the film "is very funny in a strictly contemporary way."  Of course, it is impossible to watch the movie now, 40-plus years later, and not laugh.  Canby also writes that within the work "you keep seeing signs of another, better film," and while Goldman acknowledges in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade that there are some problems with the script, the idea today of asking for a better version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is vaguely ludicrous (a project I did in graduate school promoting a remake and explaining how I was going to "fix" the film notwithstanding).  In his closing Canby states that the stars of the film, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross  "succeed even if the movie does not."  Again, while virtually everyone today would agree that all three actors give great performances, there are probably very few souls out there who would suggest that the film – both as a whole and in parts – does not succeed.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not a traditional Western, it certainly follows these men at a time when the Old West was dying if not dead, but it is as good an entry into the genre (providing you don't have a strict interpretation of said genre) as was ever made.  It is funny and serious, lighthearted and sad, and features Newman and Redford at their level best.  George Roy Hill's direction of Goldman's script shows these two men battling not just the law, but time itself, attempting to relive the good old days that have since past them by.  These are men who may be having fun doing what they're doing but still wish that robbing trains didn't require sticks of dynamite.

The film is a buddy movie, a Western, and a comedy all rolled into one.  It also manages a good deal of drama, particularly with the Butch, Sundance, and Etta's ill-fated trip to Bolivia.  Though the film definitely offers comedic moments in those scenes, they are funny in an if-I-didn't-laugh-I'd-cry sort of way.  Nothing confirms more than their trip to Bolivia that Butch and Sundance are men of a different era, one's who long for a time that no longer exists – if it ever did.

Perhaps that's why the film works as well as it does so many years later.  Our nation has a fascination with nostalgia, with history as we would have had it been instead of history as it was.  Butch and Sundance want the Old West where robbing a bank was as easy as walking into it and asking nicely for the money; a time when bankrobbing was done with childlike simplicity.  So many of us want the nicer, simpler times of our childhood, times which were probably neither nicer nor simpler, but certainly seem that way now.  Butch and Sundance get the opportunity to try to make their world the way they wish it could be, something many of us probably wish we could do as well.

In terms of the audio and video presentation of this Blu-ray release is really quite better than anyone has any right to expect from a 40-plus year-old film.  The vast majority of the film looks good, with rich colors and excellent definition.  There are some shots that contain slightly more grain than others and feel a little flatter (and, unfortunately one shot which doesn't seem to match in color and brightness the shot which came before it).  There are also some scratches here and there, but far less than what one might expect from the film.  If one wants to discuss the transfer to HD specifically it is quite good, the source material however isn't the greatest and the issues in the video presentation of the film seem to stem from that.  The feature does come with a DTS-HD 5.1 channel Master Audio track, and it too performs well (the original mono track is also included).  One won't notice very much hiss or static at all, and while the surrounds aren't often used, but the gun (and dynamite) blasts do ring through loud and clear.

The release comes with two different commentary tracks, one with Hill, lyricist Hal David, documentary directory Robert Crawford Jr., and cinematographer Conrad Hall as well as one with Goldman.  There is also a good making of featurette, another piece on the true story of Butch and Sundance, a deleted scene (which has commentary will Hill), and trailers.

It is entirely possible that at the time of its initial release Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wasn't so clearly the long-term winner that it has proven itself to be.  It doesn't take more than a single viewing of Hill's film today though to know that the film is a classic.  It would be foolish of me to state that the film will be still viewed as a great movie 40 years down the line, but it is absolutely worth buying on Blu-ray today.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on Blogcritics.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Tetris Comes Around Again

On June 6, 2010 the puzzle game Tetris celebrated its 26th birthday.  Yes, it may be hard to believe, but those little annoying shapes have been bugging casual and hardcore gamers alike for the past 26 years.  Tetris has been released in one form or another to a myriad of consoles, computers, handheld devices, and just about anything else that can be programmed over the cTetris Party Deluxeourse of those 26 years and now, building on the Tetris Party WiiWare release, Hudson Soft and Majesco have released Tetris Party Deluxe for both the DS and the Wii.

Concerning ourselves solely with the DS version in this review, what can be stated most clearly and emphatically is that it's Tetris.  The game does contain a number of special modes, but even if those weren't any good (and some of them most definitely are a lot of fun), in the end, it still has the old-school version in a portable format and that very well may, by itself, make the game worth it.

As I say though, Tetris Party Deluxe does contain more than just regular old Tetris.  The WiiWare version features 18 different game modes, and the Deluxe version contains a few more than that.  In fact, the press release states that there are six new game modes included here – Bombliss, Sprint, VS Sprint, Master, Co-op VS Co-op, and All Clear Sprint.  Bombliss requires you to clear lines of blocks with bombs to create chain reactions while Sprint asks you to clear 40 lines in the shortest amount of time.  Master Mode is just the game starting off at full speed and Co-op VS Co-op features two teams of two going up against each other in a wide field. 

The number of modes, what with being able to play via Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection and DS Download Play, as well as there being a Beginner's section, can really be quite misleading.  In far more simple terms, there are eight different single player modes (not inclTetris Party Deluxeuding the Beginner's stuff), though again, those single player modes do include one that has you go up against the computer.

Numbers games aside, the truly impressive thing about Tetris Party Deluxe is that while the makers of Tetris could rest on their laurels and simply rerelease the original version of the game over and over and over again and there are those of us out there who would buy it over and over and over again.  Many of the additional modes included in Tetris Party Deluxe, however, are incredibly fun and not just cheap gimmicks included only to inflate the apparent content of the release. 

They are not all winners, for instance, Master Mode is momentarily interesting but little more than that.  There is also Stage Racer which features you taking control of a Tetris piece, a Tetrimino if you will, and guiding it down through a series of twists and turns.  That particular mode seems to have little to actually do with Tetris, outside of featuring Tetris blocks.

By and large, however, the additional modes are tons of fun, particularly Field Climber and Shadow.  In the former, there is a little man who runs back and forth across the bottom of the screen whom you have to get to the top.  That is accomplished by stacking pieces on top of another, with the climber beginning able to only advance in single vertical steps not more.  In Shadow, you have to fill a shadowed area of the screen completely with blocks Tetris Party Deluxeso as to make a picture, all extraneous blocks are removed at the end, but if you make any lines that go completely across, they do disappear.  These two modes both initially appear to be quite simple, but quickly show themselves to be more than a little difficult.

With the myriad of modes, up to eight people being able to play local multiplayer games, Wi-Fi Connect ability to go head-to-head with folks around the world, and even microphone support in the lobby while online, Tetris Party Deluxe really does feel like a fully-fleshed out idea and not a quick and cheap cash-in on the Tetris name. And, as stated above, if all the other fancy game modes aren't enough to convince you to take the plunge, you can still play regular old Tetris on your DS with the title.  That alone, as the saying goes, is worth the price of admission.


Tetris Party Deluxe is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on: Nintendo Wii.

Article first published as Nintendo DS Review: Tetris Party Deluxe on Blogcritics.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Playing 18 with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11

Sitting down to play Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 on the Nintendo Wii is a whole lot like visiting someone who used to be a close friend but you've fallen out of touch with despite only living a mile apart. At first, upon greeting one another there may be a tiny bit of trepidation, but pretty soon you're laughing and having fun just like old times. At least, you're having fun again for a little while, but pretty soon you start to remember that maybe you two didn't just stop being friends, that there actually may have been a reason for it.

As we all know, the Nintendo Wii as a console has some drawbacks, many of which surround Nintendo's decision to focus on the motion-sensing system and not try to one-up Sony and Microsoft in terms of processor power and therefore graphical capabilities. That being said, where the Wii truly excels, where it can and should offer more fun than any other console, is when it comes to sports titles and specifically golf, baseball, cricket, tennis, and just about anything that requires a bat or club. The Wii remote is, essentially, a mini-club and any game that revolves around swinging it in some manner is right up the Wii's alley.

That's why Tiger Woods should be a homerun every single year it comes out – you're swinging a mini-golf club with the Wii remote, there can be no more natural a fit for the system. Last year, the much ballyhooed Wii MotionPlus sensor came out and provided even more accurate motion-sensing abilities making Tiger Woods 10 head and shoulders better than the previous Wii incarnations. Not quite content to rest on their laurels, EA did make a number of changes to this year's game, some of which work better than others.

To be very clear and upfront about this however – and this is a crucial bit of information for Wii owners – you need to play this game with MotionPlus. Without MotionPlus not only will several of the new swing features/views not work, putting is either impossible or far too easy, and the general response one gets to a swing far too variable. No matter how consistently you believe yourself to be swinging the Wii remote, without MotionPlus — and the game will let you play without it (you just may not want to) — it feels almost as if the game is kind of making things up.

As for playing with MotionPlus, well, that's just fantastic. That is outstandingly fun and really is everything you want from the Nintendo Wii. In an attempt to make it even better this year, there are two new swing difficulty settings, one called "Advanced Plus" and the other called "Tour Pro." "Advanced Plus" adds a calculation of swing plane to the system (and seems to place an even greater premium on rotation of clubface), making it slightly more difficult and slightly more true to life.

"Tour Pro" works somewhat less well. Taking "Advanced Plus" a step farther, it asks you to be more consistent and also, allows you to miss the ball completely. That would be fine, except that it requires that you us the new "True View" screen setting and that part of the game is no longer more accurate. What "True View" does is give you a downward look at your ball once you get ready to swing – point the Wii remote down and press "B" to begin your swing and the screen goes from looking out at the hole to looking down at your feet. It would be completely brilliant if you could, in real life, look down at your feet and see the ball, but looking forward to see a downward shot and then swinging the Wii Remote in real life translating to this alternate reality where down is in front of you doesn't make the game more realistic. It might be an interesting challenge and it might be a cute little thing to play around with, but it isn't more realistic. I think I would absolutely love it if I could hook two TVs up to the Wii, one being a flat screen at my feet so that I could look down and see the ball instead of looking forward and seeing a down-facing shot, but without that, it feels too gimmicky.

Tiger 11 has also changed the way you boost your stats. Experience points can be given or taken away for the majority of shots one makes (hit the fairway off the tee and get points, end up in the sand and lose them), and those points translate into your golfer's experience level. By increasing your level you get to add attribute points to your golfer (increase power, accuracy, spin, and recovery) and gain sponsorships. The harder the difficulty setting the more points you earn and the faster your level goes up. The system is quite a bit simplified from the way it used to be and feels as though its been edited to fit better with the new Tiger Woods Online system. You can also choose to enhance one aspect of your game (for money) prior to each round. And, wearing different clothes may get you sponsorship dollars but no longer improves your game.

As for actual game modes, the biggest change (although the Skills Challenge stuff is set up a little differently) is the addition of a Ryder Cup mode which allows you to manage and play on the Ryder Cup team (either side) at Celtic Manor. The heart of the game though is still in Career mode, and that is as deep and involved as ever.

For all that good though there is still definitely some bad that you would certainly think could have been fixed by now in this game. It may be necessary to have jagged lines on players due to the Wii's graphical capabilities, but surely EA could have cleaned up their animated logo a little which has a lot of random bits of digital noise. If you're playing any non-stroke game and win a hole with a bogey or worse, your golfer is still going to look massively disappointed at the way they're playing, the game doesn't take into account at all that you won the hole (and possibly the match). You can't always save a round in the middle, which is exceedingly frustrating in an extended four-play Ryder Cup match which can run nearly an hour (regular career matches can be saved).

The play-by-play still says truly foolish things – like how a three-inch putt is going to move a whole lot or applauding you because you ended up on the fairway in front of the green even though you just missed your green in regulation. Your caddy is still pretty incompetent and if you blindly take their recommendation you're going to be in deep trouble on a regular basis. And, new this year is the game all too regularly giving you a remaining distance to the hole in feet when, as you're just hitting your second shot on a par four, yards would be more appropriate (i.e., you just hit the ball 294 yards and the game informs you that you have 485 feet remaining to the pin so that you have to quickly divide by three to figure out that you have about, I'm rounding, 162 yards to go). Lastly, it does seem odd that they haven't yet added a "drop or rehit" choice after putting a shot into the drink.

You know what though, just like that old friend you lost contact with for any number of reasons, you may decide after meeting them again – as I did with this new Tiger Woods – that any idiosyncrasies they may have are totally and completely worth dealing with. Yes, the game doesn't look as good here as it does on a PS3 or Xbox 360, but you can't swing your remote to simulate swinging a club on those systems. If you play this game with the Wii (and MotionPlus), you're simply not going to care about the better graphics the other systems maintain. Plus, the Wii remote works pretty well for the again included disc golf, which you can now play online (and there's mini-golf too, but not online). The Golf Party mini-games are back too, and while they're kind of amusing, you're just going to want to hit the links over and over and over again. Just make sure you have the Wii MotionPlus.

If you bought Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 last year you may not need to upgrade this year. There are some interesting additions and changes (all courses are unlocked at the beginning of the game), and getting the new game does give you chance to start your career from the beginning again. If you didn't buy it last year and haven't gotten on the MotionPlus bandwagon, well then, we highly recommend you go out and pick up a copy as well as MotionPlus (two if you want to play with friends).

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on: PS3, Xbox 360 and Mobile Phone.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Contemplating the Glee Finale

It would make for the perfect script, wouldn't it? Over the course of a television season going from unconvinced to semi-convinced to slightly disheartened to totally in love – it all sounds just like an executive in Hollywood would have it be, doesn't it? It's got the emotional arc, it's got the journey, the growth… whatever you want to call it, it just works exactly as it should. For that reason if for no other I can't be overly enthusiastic about last night's Glee season finale.

The big question then is exactly how to complain about it? What little bit or piece could be picked at, complained about, mulled over, and generally found wanting? That's where I find that I have some trouble.

Photo Credit:  Adam  Rose/FOX Okay, so the first thing that sticks out that one could complain about is the fact that New Directions' year ended pretty much how you figured it had to. The odds that New Directions was going to make it to nationals at the end of the first season were minimal – that sort of thing has been known to happen before on a show or in a movie, but with the series renewed for next season (and the season after), it's actually easier to have the squad lose at the end of season one so that they can come back bigger and better in season two.

I'm not going to complain about that. It may have been pretty clear what was going to happen, but the way it unfolded was compelling and having Sue end up voting for New Directions instead of against them was pitch perfect for both the show and the character. Her flip in the judges' room worked so well, how can I possibly complain? Glee has been great about making Sue incredibly mean one minute and completely human and full of heart the next. Plus, her argument that she needs an enemy seemed absolutely true, didn't it?

As for the fact that the club isn't going to be shut down, and that too being obvious, well there are just certain requirements of television, aren't there? Let's take it as a given that New Directions wasn't going to make it to nationals this year — where then did that leave the show in terms of options for the group? It had been previously established that they would be shut down if they didn't at least place at regionals so they were either going to be shut down this week and reopened in the season premiere or given a reprieve tonight. Personally, I'd rather that they be given the reprieve now instead of us knowing months in advance what is going to take place in the premiere.

Perhaps then one could argue that the notion of a pregnant woman getting to the hospital and delivering her first child during the amount of time it takes to sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" is absolutely ludicrous. Of course it is, but even I, a nitpicker, can't really pick that nit. That's the way montage functions; Sergei Eisenstein may have even been proud about the way that was cut together.

Ah! I got it! I know why I can't be hugely enthusiastic and declare myself now and forever more a Gleek! Schuester told us that while they did a "nine" version of "Don't Stop Believin'" at the beginning of the season they would make it a "10" tonight. They didn't. The original version of "Don't Stop Believin'" was at least as good as if not better than the version we got in the finale. The version in the finale was good, but it didn't carry the same emotional punch as the one in the premiere did.

Ta-da! The finale was not perfect. I am not completely blinded by the series and therefore not 100 percent in love with it. Take that, Hollywood scriptwriters trying to translate your feel-good nonsense into real life.

Sadly though that does leave Glee open to make things better in the sequel (season two), and that truly is the holy grail of scriptwriting, isn't it? Maybe they do have it all worked out.

Article first published as Going Gleek After the Finale? on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Racing Past in a Blur

There are two basic ways a racing game can go – arcade or realistic.  Activision's new Blur, from the moment you first pop it in to your console, is most definitely the former not the latter.  Everything about the game says "arcade racing," and if you enjoy arcade-style racing, you're going to like Blur.

The easiest way to describe the game is actually to call it kart-style racing with real vehicles.  The heart of the title lies within its power-ups.  These take the form of both offensive and defensive items, eight in total, that are strewn all over each course.  Cars are allowed to hold any three items at one time and can cycle through the one they want to have active.  None of the power-ups is particularly new or different – there is a mine, lightning strike, energy bolt, homing missile, speed burst, shield,  barge (shoves nearby vehicles away from you), and an automatic repair – but they look great and everything in the game occurs at such fantastic speed that trying to figure it all out and use everything to your best advantage definitely takes time to figure out.

Yes, it's absolutely true – levels of Blur go by in a blur.  If you take the time to slowdown and look at the scenery and tracks you'll be pleased with the graphics, but you'll also get yourself blown up real good.  There are a lot of different vehicles which can be unlocked as you gain more fans in the game, and some are able to withstand more damage.  Watching the world go by is a little easier in those cars, but you'll have a harder time catching up to other racers once you're ready to get back on the course because those cars tend to be slower as well.

As for unlocking those cars, and this bit about gaining fans, that all unfolds within the single player mode.  There are nine different groups of races within the single player mode and each of those groups leads up to a boss battle (a one-on-one race).  Come in first, second, or third in a race and you earn lights (three for third, four for second, and five for first).  Two other lights are available during each race as well – one for gaining enough fans, and the other for passing through certain gates on the course.  It is by earning more lights that you open more races.

But, that doesn't tell you how to get those fans, does it?  Well, to do that you need to protect yourself from enemy attacks, attack enemies yourself, and do it all back-to-back as there are bonus fans earned for chaining attacks.  You can also gain fans by being in first, drifting, and doing other generally cool things during the race.  Gaining more fans not only gets you the fan light in each race, but it also ups for Fan Status (the total number of fans you have) and earns you new cars.

Although it's still technically within the single player game you can also participate in challenges with friends, online leaderboards, and upload your successes to places like Facebook automatically.  Multiplayer play also exists – both split-screen with up to four local players and via LAN or PSN with 20 total racers.  Fans can still be earned in online multiplayer which is a great way to boost your level (and the level cap is higher in multiplayer).

With a ton of courses, good graphics and sounds, and a great deal of speed, Blur is a truly fun arcade racing title.  Although cars can't really be customized (some upgrades do exist, but don't think you'll be tweaking every little bit of your car), there are enough of them available (and earning them does go relatively quickly), and they're all different from one another that you won't feel stuck with a poor performing vehicle.  Plus, the cars are based upon real vehicles.  The courses are incredibly varied, so you will find yourself wanting to use many different types of vehicles including those with a great deal of grip, those that drift better, and the all-important off-roaders.

The game also incorporates an excellent tutorial.  Rather than having you play through an entire tutorial section that really dumbs things down and sucks the fun out before you even begin or throwing you into the middle of the action and having you fail several times before you work it all  out, early on in the game a nice voiceover lady comes on just before some (but not all) of the races and gives you a quick little hint on how to do x, y, or z.  You may have worked out whatever she's said already, but she talks while you watch a clip of whatever is being discussed so you still end up with a better handle on it all.

Blur delivers a great deal of fun in a fast-paced environment.  Whether it's happening behind you and only visible in your rearview, off to your side, or right in front of you, there's someone right there trying to knock you out of the race (which can be done if your damage is too great).  But, even a semi-skilled driver can strike back very successfully.  Perhaps though the best thing that can be said about the game is not only that each individual level passes by in a blur, by that when you sit down to play time will as well.

Blur is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Mild Violence. This game can also be found on: PC and Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Blur on Blogcritics.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Caddyshack - Still Alright After all These Years

One would be hard-pressed to state that Harold Ramis' debut directorial effort, Caddyshack, is the comedic equivalent of Citizen Kane. The story is weak, working best as comedic scenes rather than a film as a whole, and the basic "snobs vs. slobs" premise wasn't original even for Ramis who had used the same concept in different settings as the writer of both Animal House and Meatballs. But, what Caddyshack is, is an hysterical film whose parts certainly function better than its whole.

Rather than containing a single strong main story throughout, the film tells several separate tales about members of, and workers at, the Bushwood Country Club. These characters include millionaire weirdo Ty Webb (Chevy Case), real estate mogul Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield), rich uptight snob Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight), Smail's niece Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan), assistant groundskeeper Carl Spackler (Bill Murray), and caddy Danny Noonan (Michael O'Keefe).

As stated in both of the excellent documentaries which accompany the Blu-ray release (one of which is making its home debut here and runs an astounding 80-odd minutes), the film had initially been conceived of as focusing on the caddies and their lives. However, once Chase, Dangerfield, Knight, and Murray came on, their star power and humor caused the focus to shift more to the adults. While that shift did lead to the older members of the cast getting more screen time and some of the funniest moments in the film (which were improvised, not scripted), it caused the caddy story to fall by the wayside. Not having the other film – the caddy film – to judge against, one can't really say whether it would have worked out to be a better movie than what eventually was released. However, the movie we are left with is truly funny and has some incredibly famous and quotable lines.

While there are certainly some stories that are followed throughout the film – Danny's struggle to figure out what he wants from life, Carl's attempts to kill the gopher – the film is really a series of sketches that feature the same characters. It's no less funny for that, but it is not really the strongest of tales. It is a movie of moments, and the moments work exceptionally well.

Everyone who has seen the movie more than once almost certainly has their favorite character and/or line. There's Ty Webb's "be the ball," Carl's pretend play-by-play while whacking flowers, Carl's Dalai Lama story, Judge Smails' poem for launching his boat, Bishop Pickering (Henry Wilcoxon) turning to atheism, and just anything Rodney Dangerfield says during the film (to name a few). Plus, Caddyshack opens with Kenny Loggins singing "I'm Alright" which starts the movie off on the exact right, upbeat note, and the dancing gopher doesn't hurt either.

There are, almost certainly, those out there who will still deride Caddyshack for its loose storyline, limited number of characters with arcs, and the repeated scenes and hints to the movie that Ramis and his co-writers Brian Doyle-Murray and Douglas Kenney originally thought they were making (like the would-be relationship between Danny and Sarah Holcomb's Maggie O'Hooligan). But, that's the same sort of snobbery that the slobs in the film fight against. Caddyshack is an incredibly funny movie and features excellent comic talent near the top of their game.

The new Blu-ray release contains the two aforementioned behind-the-scenes documentaries. Though the actors, Ramis, and the producers who appear in both pieces do have a tendency to tell the same stories in both, there are different folks included as well in the two documentaries which does give them a different flavor. The longer one, "Caddyshack: The Inside Story" is definitely a must-watch (even if Chase and Murray aren't in it). The release also contains a trailer, but that's it in terms of extras.

As for the visual and auditory quality of the Blu-ray… this is a comedy from 1980. The studio has done a great job removing dust, scratches, specks, dirt, and all other manner of imperfections from the visuals. There are some shots (particularly long ones) that do look overly grainy, but that's kind of nitpicky for a film like this. The colors are good, the detail is good (better in some scenes than others), and it certainly looks better than the most recent DVD release of the film. The exact same is true of the sound, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. One won't notice pops or other auditory anomaly and there is a minimal amount of static, but it's not the most in-depth sound design either. You're not going to use this to show off to your friends how great Blu-ray can be, but you won't be disappointed with it either.

As with the game of golf itself, Caddyshack is a timeless comedy. While the hairstyles, outfits, and equipment may be outdated, the basic perceptions about country clubs has changed little over the course of 30 years. Discounting things like clothes, it is easily believable that similar (though not quite as funny) things still happen every summer.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Caddyshack on Blogcritics.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Burn Notice's Fire Still lit in Season Four

At its best, Burn Notice is a television show that deftly mixes humor and action, intimate family moments and plots for secret agent world domination, excellent spy insights and lots of alcohol.  At its worst, Burn Notice is as foolishly plotted spy comedy that is never sure whether it wants to be funny or dramatic and seems ill at ease with both.  Thankfully, those worst moments are few and far between – the show is far more the former than the latter, and the season four premiere, which airs June 3 at 9pm on USA is a perfect example of that.

ThPhoto by: Nigel Parry/USA ough the main character, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), does a great job and bringing new viewers into the fold via his voiceover at the beginning of every episode, for the uninitiated the story goes something like this – Westen was a spy, got burned (blacklisted), and ever since has been trying to figure out who burned him and why.  Through the season's he's actually progressed on this quest, learning that a shadow group known as "Management" burned him and exactly how they went about doing it.  To go into greater detail would not only rob you of some pretty exciting television, but it would also spoil the opening of season four, which is not something I particularly wish to do.

One of the areas where Burn Notice routinely seems to falter is with its juggling of the long-term story and the single-episode ones.  The show, all too regularly, features a few minutes of Michael doing something to progress the long-term story at the beginning and at the end of the episode with the rest of the 44 minutes devoted to the problem of the day (sometimes this formula features a couple of minutes of long-term story in the middle).  It doesn't happen all the time, but it can make for a rather boring several weeks when the show falls into the rut. 

In fact, season four opens with just such a dividing of the time, but as the show is going to be changing slightly again this season in Michael's quest for knowledge, access, and where he plans on finding both, the bookends are good ones.  And, even better, the case of the week is good too.

The rest of the main cast – Sharon Gless, Bruce Campbell, and Gabrielle Anwar – are returning for season four, and they certainly all have various bones to pick with Michael after his extended absence between the end of season three and the opening of this one.  It is Gless, who plays Michael's mom, who gets to do much of the heavy emotional lifting with Donovan in this episode.  Her character, Madeline, was told some awfully bad things about her son at the end of last season and never got the chance to talk to him about it.  As for Anwar's Fiona, Michael's on-again off-again girlfriend, while the two of them have a couple of moments in the premiere, there are surely fireworks coming down the line.

In the end, although Michael's long-term story has turned something of a corner, it appears from the season premiere that we're going to be getting a whole lot more of the same from Burn Notice this year.  That is really not a complaint at all – although the series can find itself stuck on repeat a little too often in terms of its structure, usually the cases are diverting and the writing witty.  Bruce Campbell, who plays Sam, Michael's friend and semi-regular co-worker, is as much fun here as he is in anything.  Anwar manages to mix her character's love of Michael and guns in always entertaining ways.  Gless' chain-smoking, guilt-tripping mother is a master of her trade and the perfect example of why so many think it so important to have a buffer.  And Donovan, his Michael is an utterly obsessed (but with good reason) guy who is just trying to do the right thing, something which we can all relate to, and when it's combined with girls, guns, and fast cars, many of us would like to actually live (without the burn notice and constant threat of death, naturally).

Burn Notice, though it is "summer fare" in that it routinely opens its seasons in the summer, should not be mistaken for what one usually thinks of as summer television.  It features great dialogue, clever plot twists, and good acting.  It is also not too late to start watching the series, the spy comedy seems to still have a whole lot of life left in its fourth season and despite its having a long-term story arc it is easy enough for new audience members to pick up.

Burn Notice's fourth season premieres June 3rd at 9pm on USA.

Article first published as TV Preview: Burn Notice - Season Four on Blogcritics.

Royal Pains - Uneasy Lies the Stethoscope that Treats the Crown

In an article last summer on the USA Network show, I wrote, "I find myself totally and completely unconvinced by Royal Pains. I'm not saying that it's bad, I'm not even saying I dislike it, I'm just saying that I don't get it." On June 3rd, season two of the series premieres, and after watching the opener, while I may understand it better, I like it less. Whereas before I was "okay with everything that takes place on the show," the season premiere makes me less okay with it all. What was a lack of enthusiasm and much contemplation has evolved into doubt.

USA Network Photo: Justin StephensRoyal Pains' season premiere picks up soon after the finale left off. HankMed, the concierge doctor service run by Dr. Hank Lawson (Mark Feuerstein), PA Divya Katdare (Reshma Shetty), and CFO Evan R. Lawson (Paul Costanzo) is still in dire financial straits. This issue stems from Evan's gross mismanagement, lending money to Hank and Evan's ne'er-do-well father who walked out on them years before (Evan had secretly been in touch with their father, Eddie, as of late). But, Hank and Evan are brothers so despite Evan's nearly running the firm into the ground and, we're told by Divya, generally being bad at his job even when he's not being suckered by his father, Evan takes him back at the beginning of the season.

While the televisual motives for that are obvious – it's easier to keep Costanzo in the mix on the series if he's part of the group – Hank's clear displeasure with his brother throughout the premiere episode make one wonder why he would, in such short order, take Evan back. Yes, it's family, but surely Hank wouldn't have been wrong to leave Evan dangling for a little while. It may be possible to argue that Hank's motivations come from being ridiculously pro-family. His arguments against his own father's actions would clearly argue against it, but the case of the week would argue for it.

While I won't go into too much detail on what takes place, Hank is working for a man whose father recently passed away, and the son is spending a lot of time cleaning out his father's old workspace. At one point, though it's clearly upsetting to the son to complete the task, the son argues that he has to do it. Hank takes the opposite stance, suggested that it's "crazy" to clear out the father's panic room, and that the man should just ignore that it's there.

Obviously when a loved one passes away it can be difficult to deal with all the things they leave behind, but arguing against dealing with it seems like bad advice as Hank isn't suggesting that it ought to be done at a later date when the man is feeling better. Hank instead is taking the tack that it ought not be done at all (what would the world look like if everyone took that stance?), that the paranoid panic room that the father put in should remain in the house, complete with the father's stuff, forever.

Extrapolated, that, in a nutshell, is the issue with the premiere. It is full of moments where the audience only has to stop and think for a second about what is taking place to realize the foolishness of it all. Television shows that take place in alternate universes or on alien worlds or at some point in the not-too-distant future can more readily get away with such issues — after all, we don't necessarily understand all the motives in such a world. This show is not in such a world.

Royal Pains may deal with the life of the super-rich in the Hamptons, but Hank is supposed to be the normal guy thrown into the abnormal world; he's the average Joe (but great doctor) that we're supposed to identify with. To watch him continually do odd and at-odds-with-one-another things makes it awfully hard to identify with the character.

It is far more easy to understand where Shetty's Divya is coming from with her troubles in the premiere – she is being forced into a marriage she doesn't particularly relish. It is also easier to understand where Hank's would-be girlfriend and the administrator of the local hospital, Jill Casey (Jill Flint), is coming from as her job is being threatened. In her case, however, as with last season, Jill still doesn't seem like a particularly good administrator so one can understand the other side of the issue as well.

Those two characters are not the main characters on the show – that position goes to Feuerstein's Hank. While I still feel as I did last year about the actors — they're perfectly good in their roles and not in any way the problem with the show — they don't make up for what the show lacks in sensible plotting. I still hold out hope that they'll figure it out – I do still want to know more about the characters – but it is a dwindling hope. Henry Winkler will be joining the show this season as the Lawson boys' father, but whether he'll be able to solve the issues with the show is up in the air.

Royal Pains second season premieres June 3 on USA at 10pm.

Article first published as TV Preview: Royal Pains - Season Two on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

2010's The Wolfman Lacks Bite

Everyone has their own personal favorite type of movie.  Although I would never classify them as my favorite, I am a sucker for the classic Universal monsters – Dracula, Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and all the other creatures who appeared in those films.  I'm not a fan of horror films by any stretch of the imagination, but put a Universal monster into a movie and I'm likely to be quite interested.  Not being a purist, I'm very happy to see new actors take the classic roles as well as directors and screenwriters put their own personal spin on the stories. However, I don't allow my like for the creatures and my desire to see new stories involving them cloud my vision – if the movie isn't good I'm going to be disappointed whether a creature friend of mine appears in it or not.

That being said, Joe Johnston's update to 1941's The Wolf Man, 2010's The Wolfman is a major disappointment.  Starring Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot and Anthony Hopkins as Talbot's father, Sir John Talbot, the film may feature excellent makeup and good use of CGI, but the story and characters certainly leave something to be desired. 

The screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self takes place in Victorian England and finds Talbot having grown up in America, away from his ancestral home in EnglaCredit: Universal Picturesnd.  Talbot was sent there after a trip to a mental institution following his mother's suicide.  As an adult, Talbot is called back to his family's estate by his brother's fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) who is concerned that her betrothed has gone missing. It quickly becomes apparent that Talbot's brother has been killed by a beast, and upon hearing rumors of a wolfman, Talbot sets off to find the truth… only to be bitten.

That's all well and good; it is a Wolfman movie and Talbot is the lead character and consequently must be bitten – those are the rules.  One can almost even forgive the silly story of having Talbot grow up in America, something that feels to have been included because Benicio Del Toro can better approximate an American accent than an English one (for the record however, the American accent is distinctly odd).  What is unforgivable about the film is the fact that once Talbot gets bitten The Wolfman seems to have nothing else interesting to do and most of the movie occurs after the bite.

The story devolves into a tale of would-be love between Talbot and Conliffe and a battle between Talbot and his maker.  I won't give away who bites Talbot, but it should be readily apparent from the first moment the character appears on screen.  There is also a police chase aspect to the entire thing, with an inspector from Scotland Yard, Abberline (Hugo Weaving), doing his best to bring Talbot to justice.

One could argue that the film is simply trying to be an homage to the earlier incarnations of the character and that is why every single moment in the film from start to finish is obvious well before it occurs.  But, do you really want to watch a movie that has little to say other than "how great was that Lon Chaney pic?"  In fact, one of the selling points of the Blu-ray release is that by purchasing it one gets the ability to stream theCredit: Universal Pictures Lon Chaney original either on a computer, a BD-Live connected Blu-ray player or via the Pocket Blu iPhone app.  It certainly would have been better as a digital download instead of merely a stream (the release does come with a digital copy of the new version).

The makeup work done in the film is by Rick Baker, a master of the art, and is enhanced by CG, but when the makeup is the best part of a film, there is something seriously wrong.  Actually, the look and mood Johnston and his cinematographer, Shelly Johnson, give the film really does draw the viewer in.  The world the film is set in is very intriguing – the entire thing looks very good (though overly dark), but the piece is all about mood rather than story and greatly falters for it.

The Blu-ray release, as noted, is incredibly dark.  Some of that is a directorial decision as there is a good deal of detail in the dark outfits worn by some characters, but all too often a scene unfolds in virtual blackness and no amount of detail or sharpness to the picture will help show what simply is not there to begin with.  Though the film is not full of bright, vivid colors, the blood does have a great dark red look and the various lights in a scene (be they blue-white from the moon or yellow from a fire) do play off everything beautifully.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is good but certainly not without issues.  The music, done by Danny Elfman, is full of the usual stings to accentuate when something scary is supposed to be happening and they – along with yells, growls, and various effects – play out at significantly greater volume than most of the dialogue (particularly as Del Toro and Hopkins have a tendency to speak in hushed tones).  It sounds good, but as the loud moments are calculated to create a jump where the visuals and screenplay attempt to but don't, it too ends up feeling disappointing.

Aside from the aforementioned digital/streaming extras, the film does come with both an unrated and theatrical cut of the film as well as extended and deleted scenes.  The unrated cut is particularly odd as early on it shows a scene where dialogue must have been rewritten so as to fit with the theatrical release's opening and not the unrated one (the same scene is present in the theatrical cut but there makes logical sense with the opening).  Even so, the longer version of the film does nothing to illuminate where the endeavor may have gone wrong.  The same is true of the two alternate endings included as well as the behind the scenes featurettes.  These last items focus on Baker and the makeup he did for the film, how CGI was used to enhance the makeup, the stunts, and a making-of piece which discusses some nods to the 1941 film.

Whatever may occur at the end of (or throughout) this film, one has to believe that the Wolfman still has life left within him.  The character is a great one, and hopefully it won't be too long before we will get his next big screen incarnation.  One does hope that Rick Baker will still be the guy who gets to do the makeup.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Wolfman (2010) on Blogcritics.