Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pole Position it's not. This if F1 2010

To be very clear, The Stig I am not, I'm much closer to Richard Hammond.

There is an episode of Top Gear which features Richard Hammond learning how to drive an F1 car, not the easiest of tasks.  The speed at which they travel, the sharp corners which they go around, necessary reaction times, and all the other odds and ends to think about (brakes, tires, engine, other racers, etc.) require epic amounts of concentration.  That amount of concentration is faithfully reproduced in Codemasters' new, licensed, F1 game, F1 2010.

Codemasters is the same studio who brought out last year's brilliant Dirt 2, and if you've played the off-road racing game you'll instantly recognize bits of F1 2010, most notably the trailer from which you can adjust the main gameplay settings and manage your career.  The insides of the trailer may appear slightly different here and most of the time you'll be facing towards the door instead of away from it, but the basic feel is unmistakable (as is the area just outside the trailer).  Of course, it's a setup that worked for that game, so perhaps the borrowing of it for this game is smart and efficient rather than just the latter.  F1 also features the same in-race Flashback system so that you can rewind a set number of times if you make a big mistake.

Where the game greatly differs is in the type of race you're going to encounter.  F1 is far more difficult once you're in your vehicle than Dirt ever was, and that's even setting this game to the easiest level of difficulty, which includes a braking assist.  The game can help you out in other ways too.  Rather than tweaking each part of the car set up – aerodynamics, braking, balance, suspension, gearbox, tires, engine, and alignment – yourself, you can have your engineer do it for you based on general outlines you provide.  Yes, the game allows you the ability to do these things, but having the engineer do it is a nice feature as you try to learn all about actually driving an F1 car.  And that, dear readers, as Richard Hammond could tell you, isn't easy. 

The goal with the multiple difficulty levels seems to have been to ease you into F1 racing, which is a completely different breed of animal, but it doesn't always work terribly well.  The ability to turn on or off an on-road depiction of the appropriate racing line is great (as is the fact that the line indicates by color whether you should be hitting the gas or break), and certainly by following the line you'll learn where you should be on the course (all 19 of the actual courses used by the pros this year are included).  However, the braking assist doesn't really teach you how to brake properly, it just takes control of the car for you.  Similarly, while a little pop-up will appear on the screen if you've overtaxed your engine, and you'll hear your pit telling you to stop revving the car so high, you'll never really be told what you're doing to cause the issue.  In short, the game could really have used an expanded tutorial section to bring people who are unfamiliar with the sport into the fold.  

Unfortunately, while the game sports excellent tutorials on how to appropriately set up your car, monitor weather, and manage your career, it doesn't delve greatly into the actual driving.  It is a simulation game that throws you right into the simulation.  Much of the driving is left for you to figure out during your practice runs on each course.  In Career Mode you do get a lot of time for that (one hour practice on each course if you've chosen a "short" race weekend and three sessions if you've gone for the "long" one), but until you really get up to speed on what you're doing it can be frustrating. 

Once you do work it all out though, you're going to have a good time.  There is always a lot to keep an eye out for while on the course – and the game doesn't take kindly to the most minor corner cutting or bit of rubbing – but it is both fun and intense.  Races can be made longer or shorter depending on one's preference, and pit stops can be ordered by the crew or decided on all on your own.  There are unlockables as well if you perform well enough during the practice laps and you'll even need to hit goals in terms of starting position and final position if you want your career to progress.

Graphically speaking, the game isn't quite what you might want it to be.  Many of the straight lines have a jagged edge and while the on screen display (OSD) is nice enough, little in the game feels terribly well-defined.  This is particularly noticeable should you hit a breakable barrier, go over dirt, or manage to remove part of either your car or someone else's.  All the flying bits and pieces are blocky and the dirt that attaches to your tires doesn't appear remotely real (even if the altered physics caused by the dirt may be).  The weather effects both in terms of physics and graphics are excellent, but will make driving more than a little bit harder.

F1 2010 also has some issues with the conveying of information in the race.  The OSD often lets you know before your pit crew when a caution flag has appeared on the course and when it has been removed.  Your pit crew will also always let you know about such issues, although flags can get cleared quickly enough that your OSD will tell you to resume normal conditions before the pit crew ever chimes in that there was a problem to begin with.  That can make for a quite confusing 30 seconds (are they talking about a different, new, caution or the same one that just got lifted).

Much of the game is played out in the aforementioned Career Mode.  In that mode you join a lower ranked team as the number two guy and have to hit objectives in order to get better and join more prestigious squads.  You can also do a single player Grand Prix mode which allows you to play as an actual F1 driver or in Time Trial mode which, as the name indicates, is about you racing the clock (or downloaded ghosts or times put up by friends taking turns). The game also offers two different multiplayer options, an Online XP mode which has rankings or a Quick Mode which has four different race types (Pole Position, which is looking for the fastest lap over the course of 20 minutes; Sprint, a single three lap race; Endurance, a race 20% the length of a real race; and Grand Prix, a seven lap race with positions determined by a 15 minute qualification section).

If you've been following along reading the times discussed above, one thing should be abundantly clear – F1 2010 is not a game designed for you to pick up and play for 30 minutes at a shot.  It's possible to do short stints by doing time trials or a Sprint online, but to really play you're going to need to devote time to not only learning how to drive initially, but also to actually doing full practices (to learn the course and unlock improvements) and races (a very short race would be 10 laps with lap times exceeding two minutes, and the numbers go way up from there).  It's a deep game and there's a lot to do, but it won't be accomplished quickly. 

The great thing about Dirt 2 was that it was a game that you could pick up and play for a few minutes and really feel as though you had learned something and improved.  With a huge variety of race types and all the races taking far less time, it wasn't as hyper-focused.  It also was more arcade oriented than a simulation and it definitely didn't have anything to do with F1 racing.  It thus catered to a slightly different crowd.  F1 2010 will find fans among those already interested in the sport, but will not succeed at drawing in new people, an ability Dirt 2 did have.  That's not a knock against the game, simply a reality of the simulation given here. 

As a pure aside, but something I feel compelled to mention, there is at least one localization issue present in the title.  While the word "tires" is spelled in the sort of English we use in the United States in the manual, when the word appears in the game it is with a "y" instead of an "i."  The in-game spelling would certainly be approved of by Richard Hammond, but may cause others a moment or two of pause.

It you're looking to learn more about F1 racing or to really challenge your videogame driving skills, you're going to like what you find in F1 2010.  It still does have some rough edges however – it is Codemasters' first F1 game for current generation consoles – and I look forward to seeing what improvements appear down the line.

F1 2010 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on: PC and Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: F1 2010 on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

No Jokes Now, There is an App for that and in this case it's Called Poo Log

Poo Log is an app which focuses entirely on one's bowel movements, and does so in very specific fashion. Therefore, quite obviously, what we are going to deal with here will be, at minimum, vaguely scatological. Those with a weak stomach or poor sense of humor may wish to stop reading at this point.

Based on the book What's Your Poo Telling You? by Anish Sheth M.D. and Josh Richman, the AvatarLabs iPhone app, Poo Log, helps users track their bowel movements and learn loads of important information about what goes on inside their intestines. The app is a mixture of both solid, serious information and looser, funny bits and pieces.

Poo Log is divided into three main sections: the log itself, Poo Pastimes (a quiz), and a Poo Graph which charts your bathroom activities over time. The basic notion is this – when you head to the restroom to do your business you open the app and a timer starts running, you then occupy yourself by answering quiz question the Pastimes section (samples: "South Asians, on average, poo four times as much as people in England… 1) True 2) False" and "What did a Philadelphia city official say after a Veterans Stadium employee was caught stealing over $34,000 worth of toilet-paper?... 1) 'He must had a really bad case of the runs,' 2) 'We now have a leading suspect for all of the TP'ing on the Main Line,' 3) 'Man, he really wiped that stadium clean.'). When you finish doing your business you click "new poo" and answer some swell questions about what you just produced. Your answers are given a score and provide you with a final PQI (poo quality index) which is plotted on a graph. You can then check the graph over time to see how you're doing (and can even go back and look at why one performance's score was an eight and another a 15 by checking the log). Finally, if you're a high frequency bathroom goer and record more than one bowel movement a day, the app will not only average your PQI but denote the day with a brownish-yellow circle as opposed to a white one.

Okay, so that's what it is, but as an app does it cut the mustard? Well, that's going to completely depend on who you are. While it does provide an interesting way to keep track of what you're doing in the bathroom and how much time you spend there (if you use the timer), the questions that the PQI is based on seem to have a lot of room for interpretation. Said questions are divided into different sections – delivery, size/shape, number of particles, smell, number of wipes, and sentiment – and each answer provides a score of one to three points. That sounds all well and good, but the answers aren't quite as cut and dried as it may at first appear. For instance, surely a one-point earning answer in size/shape of delivery category, "pebbles or liquid," shouldn't then move down to a three-point answer in number of particles if you only have one pebble. To this reviewer that would signify a pretty poor performance, not a good one.

Of course, that's probably exactly where the app goes from being serious to being a fun, but only somewhat useful, tool. The PQI seems to be more for your own personal tracking of what is going on with your intestines than hard medical data that your doctor will want to see and query you about. It must be said that you can add in notes at the bottom of your PQI score to help justify why your poo was rated as your poo was rated, but as it's for your own benefit I'm not sure why you would want to. Now, if they allowed you to take pictures and could then analyze the pictures to help provide you with a PQI score… (okay, horrible idea, scratch that).

So, what can we finish up with? If you like to track what it is that's going on with your intestines just for your own personal edification (or to share with friends… if they're interested), Poo Log is a pretty fun way to go. The iPad specific version of the app actually allows you to have multiple users track their movements. I can't quite imagine a family really wanting to discuss such things (you should have seen the looks I got every time I tried bringing it up with my wife), but the option is available if you have an iPad. In short, it's fun, it's harmless, and not a bad way to spend your time in the bathroom.

Article first published as iPhone App Review: Poo Log on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hey Look, it's Babies

No matter what some people may say, no matter how much they may scream and yell at the top of their lungs that it is otherwise, we are all far more the same than we are different.  Perhaps nothing brings that fact into such stark relief as looking at children.  They may have slightly different toys, they may dress differently or talk differently, and they may look different, but they're the same the world over.  In his latest film, Babies, director Thomas Balmes follows four babies from four different countries from their birth until their first steps and documents just how similar we all are.

Balmes cuts back and forth between the four babies – Hattie from San Francisco, Bayarjargal from Mongolia, Ponijao from Namibia, and Mari from Tokyo – exploring how, despite the different cultures, babies have a tendency to all respond in the same way, learn similar things, and advance in a similar fashion.  Some of this, one could (maybe successfully) argue, is potentially a lie created through the magic editing.  Just because you see children do things in four different parts of the world one after another doesn't mean that it happened remotely at the same point in their life – that the magic of editing makes it appear as though it has.  It is possibly true that the editing of the film has helped heighten the similarities, but as everything happens before the kids can walk, there really is not a lot of shifting of time that can occur.

That is, in essence, the brilliance of the film – it is so simple and yet so wonderful.  More or less, the film is just watching these moments in the lives of various babies.  The camera is on them, focused on them.  Parents, siblings, animals, everything else, is purely incidental.  You sit there for 79 minutes (it's a short full-length film) and watch the babies interact (or not) with the world around them.  It is not (or at least ought not be) an amazing revelation, but the revelation the film delivers is that we are all more the same than different.  Some of the lessons Babies gives us – kids will get into trouble, they always do the most interesting thing when you're not looking, pets are fun, and siblings cause issues – are things we probably already knew, but that are great to watch unfold in their simplicity anyway.

With no narration and minimal amounts of music, 79 minutes feels like the exact right length for the film – it is long enough to feel fulfilling without ever really lagging.  In fact, the most disappointing aspect of it all is the bare-bones release that it's been given on Blu-ray.  This is a film that cries out for a director's commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, an extended discussion of what went into both filming and editing the movie, a talk on how the families were chosen, an explanation of it all.  The main feature works, but anyone watching it will come up with a lot of questions about it, questions that could have easily been answered with a commentary track or in featurettes, but the release – almost mockingly – avoids that.  Instead, we are given an exceedingly brief look at the babies and their families three years later (part of which involves watching them watching the movie) and photos and videos of other babies sent in by sweepstakes winners.  There is so much more that could have and should have been said here and the fact that it isn't including can be considered nothing less than a massive disappointment.

The technical aspects of the release are solid though not spectacular.  With the minimal amounts of sound other than ambient noise, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is in no way taxed.  There is some directionality given for the sounds, but nothing major or spectacular.  The video is, for the most part, crisp and clean, although there are definitely some scenes with more than their fair share of grain.  While the colors are not muted, they are certainly not eye-popping and the definition in most scenes, most notably close-ups of skin, is impressive.

As a Blu-ray release, Babies provides a great lesson, but very few answers.  It is wonderful to watch these children grow and experience the world for the first time, but anyone wanting to know how it all came about – and that has to be an almost equally fascinating story – will walk away disappointed.

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

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Race Around the World Begins Anew - The Amazing Race 17

At the start of the new season of The Amazing Race, host Phil Keoghan promises us that this will be one of the most "grueling" races ever.  That news will no doubt please long-time fans of the series who suffered through two less-than-stellar outings last season including the Spring one which was certainly far more simple than what we have seen in the past (on more than one occasion I have described it as being a "remedial" version).

For those not in the know, The Amazing Race is a reality competition show which follows teams of two as they venture around the world and complete specific, culturally-based (usually) tasks in the countries that they visit.  Most episodes end with a pit stop that sees the last arriving team eliminated, although every season does feature a couple of "non-elimination" legs.  The last leg features the final three teams competing for a one million dollar prize.

Going back to the "grueling" promise, the most recent cycle of the Race felt as though it contained tasks that were far more simple; a minimal number of legs where there were options at airports; and, most distressingly, a whole lot of teams who seemed as though they wouldn't have been able to handle it had they been asked to do even a little bit more.  Simply put, not only were the tasks too easy, but the teams were almost uniformly unimpressive.  Teams always face some difficulty on The Amazing Race, but last time out, even when the difficulties were minimal, teams balked.  When told that they hadn't completed a task correctly at least one team threw a tantrum and threatened to quit.  It all made for a distressing season for fans of the series and hopefully Phil's message up front means that things will in fact be different this go round.

What is certainly not new are the types of we see.  Perhaps more than any other reality show, The Amazing Race seems to have a standard set of types of teams that they look for and those types – the parent/child one (actually, three this time out), recently dating couple, personal friends, work friends, etc. – are all certainly represented.  The most noticeable type that is missing this season is the slightly-older-than-just-middle-aged couple.

The show may be sticking to a formula, but it's a formula that has helped The Amazing Race win the Emmy for the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program from 2004 to 2009.  It was nominated again this year, but failed to take home the trophy (possibly because neither the Fall nor the Spring cycle were overly compelling).

Also not new this year is host Phil Keoghan whose main task is to explain the challenges to the audience and stand at the pit stop and great the times as they arrive.  Phil routinely manages to inject some sort of humor and honestly seems to feel bad when he has to send teams packing.  In a world in which so many reality show hosts either seem uninterested, solely out to publicize themselves, or overly-involved in the outcome, Phil maintains the air of a classic, competent, and truly compelling master of ceremonies.

It is difficult to tell from just the first episode whether or not this year's crop of contestants are better than what we saw last year – and it is impossible to know whether or not the tasks they will be given over the course of the season will be good ones.  The best we can hope for is that the producers realize exactly where they went wrong the last time out and have opted to correct their errors.  Yes, putting one's faith that they have made the necessary course corrections simply via Phil's promising a "grueling" competition may be either a little overly-enthusiastic or naïve, but after so many excellent seasons it is a trust that The Amazing Race has most deservedly earned.

The Amazing Race premieres September 26 at 8:30pm with a special 90 minute episode.

Article first published as TV Preview: The Amazing Race - Cycle 17 on Blogcritics.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seeking out the Guilty Party

A little while back I opened my mailbox one afternoon and found a package.  Not a terribly unusual occurrence in my life, I was still somewhat curious as the package had been rerouted from an old address to my present one.  Upon opening the slightly worn padded envelope, I find a copy of a new Nintendo Wii game put out by Disney Interactive, Guilty Party.  The cover featured seven exceedingly goofy looking individuals apparently attempting to find a clue (an envelope that was not so cleverly tucked under a rug). Along with mentioning the title, the cover of the game also sported the tagline "mystery fun for everyone!"

I will admit to not being hugely intrigued by what seemed to be yet another party game for the Nintendo Wii.  There is certainly nothing wrong with party games, but the sheer volume of them that has appeared on the Nintendo system is staggering and makes it for developers and publishers to distinguish their product from someone else's.

As we have all been told repeatedly though, don't judge a book by its cover. That is a lesson I learned yet again with Guilty Party.  The game may not be any sort of massive blockbuster that stores open at midnight so that people can get their hands on it as early as possible, but Guilty Party is incredibly fun and a fantastic game to sit down with as a family (or, if you're like me and a kid at heart, all alone with so that you don't have to have others spoiling your good time).

The story the game follows is pretty simple – the head of the Dickens Detective Agency is retiring and will be leaving the agency to one of the members of his family, all of whom work for the company (the members of the family are the goofballs one the cover, each  is an amusing over the top caricature and just one of the reasons the game works).  However, the evening comes to an abrupt end when the dastardly Mr. Valentine appears and… well, I'm not going to tell you what sort of crime Valentine commits.  Your job as the player is to select a member of the family to be your avatar and to proceed through several different individual mysteries in the game in order to unmask Valentine.

The game is broken up into chapters, with each one taking place in a different setting (mansion, opera house, train, etc.).  In each of these locations there is a single mystery that has to be solved and which will not only lead you to a specific guilty party for that mystery, but will help advance the story to the next location and thereby draw you ever closer to the elusive Valentine. 

In order to solve each mystery, players take turns talking to characters and searching rooms for clues.  These turns are executed via the use of tokens – you are given a set number per turn and they are used to move to different rooms, question suspects, and examine potential evidence.  Run out of tokens and your turn ends (in single player turns still end but then it is instantly your turn again). 

By collecting the bits of evidence you end up being able to draw a sketch of your suspect in your Detective Notebook.  Many clues are irrelevant to identifying the suspect (although do help piece together exactly what took place) and the sketch is purely a rudimentary one based on four characteristics – hair length, gender, weight, and height.  Once you can answer all four of those things you are ready to accuse one of the characters and advance.

It all sounds so basic and so simple, but looks can definitely be deceiving.  Not only are the individual mysteries absurdly funny, but the minigames one has to play in order to win the clue from the suspect can be a hoot as well.  One minigame asks that you stare a suspect in the eye, another that you catch word bubbles, a third that you put money in their hand to bribe them, a fourth that you recreate a picture of their favorite foods, and the list goes on from there.  Each minigame changes slightly over the course of the larger game so it is always just different enough to keep you on your toes.

Beyond the changes in the minigames as you progress, the clues themselves become harder to recognize to the point where even many adults will have to ponder over exactly what they've learned in order to correctly identify the suspect.  It is never frustratingly difficult, but what first appears to be a walk in the park turns into something much more intense.  There is also a limit to the number of turns one can take before the guilty party escapes, but it in our tests that limit was never even close to being approached.

The intensity is only ratcheted up by the addition of the fact that suspects can lie to you.  Each detective is equipped with a handy-dandy lie detector to let you know whether they're telling the truth or not, and in a multiplayer competitive game that becomes crucially important.  As everyone can see the clues and screens at the same time, in a competitive multiplayer game (cooperative multiplayer is also available) you can press a button on the Wii remote to cause the lie detector to lie so that others won't know whether or not the on screen clue is true.  

The game is made more complex still by the addition of Savvy Cards.  One of these cards is given to you each turn and they allow you to do things like move around without it costing you a token, bring a suspect to you, and unlock doors.  Conversely, in competitive mode, they can also lock doors and hamper your human opponents in other ways.

Guilty Party is this small, unassuming, title that ends up being so much more.  The mysteries themselves are funny, the characters hysterical, and there is actually a bit of a challenge in puzzling out whodunit.  The addition of both cooperative and competitive gameplay works brilliantly as does the Party Mode feature.  This last area is particularly smart – once you've unlocked a level in Story Mode you can play it in Party Mode… sort of.  You see, the Guilty Party changes up the minigames and whodunit in Party Mode so that you can replay chapters over and over again, always with a slightly different experience (or at least as different as any game of Clue ever was).

If you are someone who is looking to take that basic mystery board game to the next level, Guilty Party is a great way to do it.  The game truly can be fun for all ages and the fact that it changes as you go really improves the replay value.  It would be nice to see the game further expanded with even more chapters, so here's hoping for a sequel.

Guilty Party is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief, Mild Cartoon Violence.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: Guilty Party on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NHL Slapshot - EA Shoots, EA Scores!

Sometimes it is actually about the journey and not the destination.  For gaming that is probably true in general – it isn't just about the final cutscene where the bad guy falls, it's about getting your character to that point – but it is perhaps more true of the new NHL Slapshot for Nintendo Wii.  EA's latest sports title, Slapshot, as the name indicates, is an ice hockey game and a decent amount of fun, but it isn't the pros that make the game great, it's getting there.

The majority of the game doesn't center on playing a professional hockey season (although that is available), but rather on the Peewee to Pro game mode.  We've all seen the various create-a-character setups that have gone into other sports titles before, some of which allow you to, after making an avatar, train him and improve their skills as they play games, but Slapshot goes for more than just that.  In Slapshot, if you choose, you can start all the way down at the Peewee league in three-on-three games.  You receive a set of season goals (x number of points, y assists, z goals, etc.) and go out and play on a frozen lake somewhere.  As to be expected, as you progress through the various levels (Bantam, CHL, AHL/NHL) the goals become more demanding, the opponents tougher, and the rink locations more serious. 

This is where the heart of the game is and it works well, although it must be said that the actual player season goals are slightly problematic as they're not moving targets.  That is to say, if you play games with one minute periods the number of goals you need to get over a season is the same as if you play 10 minute periods and obviously you're going to have far more chances to hit your required number if you have more time to do it. 

In Pewee to Pro you do have minor control over what your teammates on the ice are doing should they have the puck, but your main concern is you and your performance.  You are graded throughout each individual game on how you live up to expectations and between periods are given notes on your strengths and weaknesses.  It's a cute system although it does become terribly annoying to keep hearing the same minor complaints over and over again between periods and see that your gameplay has been given a nearly perfect score.  If you're doing everything right and your score reflects as much, the notes ought to as well.  Yes, there is always room for improvement, but hearing the same minor complaints echoed over and over again in the midst of a seven-nil shutout does get a bit tedious.

The mode also features the ability to earn experience points based on playing well.  While initially the points can only be distributed to basic offense, defense, and athletic sections, you do eventually get specific subcategories in which you can level up.  Additionally, performing well within a game unlocks special boosts which you can equip in games (better faceoff ability, stronger shots, harder hits, etc.).

Existing on more of an arcade than sim level, any gamer out there with a modicum of experience in any type of sports title will have to ratchet up the difficulty to one of the higher levels or they will end up seeing a lot of embarrassingly lopsided (if you're the computer) games.  It is always nice to see yourself handily defeat an opponent, but it's also nice if they can at least pretend to hang with you – something that won't happen on any easy difficulty setting.

Should you opt to skip the Peewee to Pro mode and head straight for an actual professional hockey season, you may very well find yourself disappointed with the title, at least you will if you're used to playing any other EA Sports title.  It is possible to manage your team, edit lines, change strategies, etc., but in comparison to a FIFA or Madden, the options you have at your disposal are minimal.  You are not the GM, you are not the owner, you're a coach who has other people draw up a minimal number of options from which you can select what you want.

Before you get too disappointed by that, it must be said that the actual gameplay is fantastic.  Slapshot comes with a mini-hockey stick in which you place your Wii remote and nunchuk (definitely read the instructions or watch the video to see how to build it, because it's not as easy as it at first seems).  There is a short training section on how to use the stick as well, but for the most part it's intuitive (as it should be).  Even without MotionPlus (the game does not support it), the game senses your moves exceedingly well.  Hold your stick horizontal and thrust it out when your character is next to an opponent and you will send them crashing down to the ice, have the puck at your man's feet and make the move for a shot on goal and the character does the same.  Using the nunchuk you can aim for your corner of the net and also indicate which direction you want to pass in (done with the A button).  Dekes can be performed either automatically or manually, and speed bursts are available as well.

The game can be played without the stick using either the Wii remote alone or a remote and nunchuk, but there is absolutely no reason to play that way.  As this isn't a title that offers a GM mode and that allows for ample tweaking of settings, all it has is the actual gameplay and that is head and shoulders better with the hockey stick. 

Much in the way the Madden for the Wii feels like a trimmed down version of the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, Slapshot feels like a junior version of NHL 11.  Whereas Madden keeps the same title across consoles but does things differently, Slapshot has been given a different name to denote the differences from its big brothers.  It would certainly benefit the title to have online play and a more fully conceived and realized season or franchise mode in future iterations.  It would also be nice if it were less arcade-feel and more simulation, but Slapshot has all the makings of the first iteration of a great new franchise.  And, if you ever want to play with friends you need to go out and get a second stick because no one playing will want to be stick-free.   With decent graphics, good music, and average play-by-play, if you're looking for hockey on the Wii, Slapshot is unquestionably the way to go.

NHL Slapshot is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: NHL Slapshot on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue: More is Sometimes a Good Thing

Cynical individuals would refer to the ever-expanding Disney Fairies line as an unfortunate way to capitalize on the fame and wonder of J.M. Barrie's Tinker Bell; a crass commercialization of the character at the expense of her true identity and legend.  Those people ought to take a look at a four-year-old as she sits down and watches any of the direct-to-DVD films in the Fairies line that Disney has put out.  One look at the wonder and merriment that appears on the face of the youth would give even the deepest cynic pause.  Or, if you prefer, all you need is faith and trust… and a little bit of pixie dust.

Tink is magic, she is mesmerizing, and she has been one of the calling cards of Disney since long before the Fairies franchise existed.  One very well may ask which came first, people's deep and abiding love of all things Tinker Bell or the Fairies franchise?  Is the former the outgrowth of the latter, or vice versa?  With Tinker Bell t-shirts in existence long before the Fairies franchise came to be, is it possible – just possible – that Disney was only trying to meet a demand with the growth of the character and her new world?

Yes, one can certainly question that new world, taking Tinker Bell out of Peter Pan's Neverland and telling her back story, but origin tales are nothing if not incredibly en vogue over the past decade.  Plus, to be fair, in the mythos © Disney. All Rights ReservedDisney has created, the home of the fairies, Pixie Hollow, is a part of Neverland.  Additionally, what Disney hasn't done in creating the franchise is provide a cut-rate, disappointing world for the little fairy who could.  Her new adventures have at least as much gusto as other current Disney ventures.

Tinker Bell's latest direct-to-DVD (in this case Blu-ray) tale, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue is an incredibly amusing romp which tells the story of the first time fairies interacted with humans.  That is something greatly frowned on in the fairy world (apparently), but between Tinker Bell's inquisitive nature and Vidia's rash, judgmental one, it happens in this movie.  It also happens because a little human girl, Lizzy, deeply believes in fairies and creates a little fairy house (which is what the inquisitive Tink finds and in which she becomes trapped).

Lizzy has problems of her own, including a father who, while well-meaning, just doesn't have enough time for her.  As Tink's friends – Rosetta, Vidia, Silvermist, Iridessa, Fawn, Bobble, and Clank – try to rescue her, Tinker Bell tries to help make Lizzy's father believe in fairies.  Lizzy's father, Dr. Griffiths, is naturally skeptical of such a notion, but the two young women try their best and form a great friendship as well as have a great adventure or two of their own.

It is a very fun, albeit somewhat undemanding, film.  It certainly makes for a wonderful addition to the Tinker Bell films, and, as said above, will keep a young crowd mesmerized. 

Will the cynics (who probably refer to themselves as "purists"), despite the great deal of fun to be had, complain?  Of course they will, and, unfortunately the film does give them some things to complain about.  Most notably, there is the question of when Vidia, who has been overzealous in her anger and caused trouble for Tinker Bell before, will learn her lesson (I would wonder how a cynic would know of Vidia's past history, but am confident that they will).  Then, when drawing a picture that seems to be of how to get to Neverland, Tink draws Big Ben and two stars to the left of it rather than to the right.  Normally, one would get to Neverland by heading to the second star to the right (and straight on till morning).  Perhaps though Tinker Bell is just confused here, or purposefully misleading Lizzy because she doesn't want anyone to know how to get to Neverland, or not drawing what she appears to be drawing.

What no one – cynic or not – will be able to complain about is the way the Blu-ray release looks and sounds.  Disney has truly figured out how to put things on Blu-ray in a way that makes them come to life.  Tinker © Disney. All Rights ReservedBell and the Great Fairy Rescue is full of amazing levels of detail and eye-popping colors.  I might wish that the fairy dust itself twinkled better on skin, but that is not a sizable complaint by any means.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is just as fulfilling as the visuals.  The turning of a small stream of water into a raging river (because the fairies are small) works exceedingly well in the audio track without ever getting to the point where it will scare the youngest members of the audience. 

In terms of extras, the two-disc Blu-ray set contains a music video; deleted scenes; a "Fairy Field Guide Builder," which essentially is a game that asks you what you know about fairies; and a short featurette on a fairy-house building contest where the winner got to go to Disney World.  The second disc of the two disc set is a DVD version of the film with all the same extras.

The odds are that one will never be able to convince the cynics that they ought to even give the Disney Fairies line and Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue a chance. So, don't try.  If you like Tinker Bell and would like to see an extension of her mythology or have a young one who is even vaguely interested in the character don't hesitate to pick up the Blu-ray – you won't be disappointed.  It may not be as grandiose as Toy Story 3 or other theatrically released Disney films, but it is enjoyable, it is great to look at, and your kids will love it.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue on Blogcritics.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

How I Met Your Mother Opens Season Six

It is perhaps true that every television show has its Achilles' heel, and it is unquestionably true that the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother has one.  Despite HIMYM's having been funny more often than not over the course of its first five years, the producers have always seemed to struggle with the core story – how Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) met the mother of his children.  In fact, one could argue that the series at times has had such difficulty with the issue that they have ignored it entirely (although that may just be because they decided it was an unimportant question).

How I Met Your Mother is, ostensibly, the longest shaggy dog story ever told.  It has been utterly hysterical in some moments, heartwarming in others, and even occasionally heartbreaking.  It is a successful comedy with funny actors (Neil Patrick Harris has been repeatedly nominated for Emmys for his role) and lots of great moments, it just has never found the right way to go about telling the story of how Ted meets the mother.

It makes a great deal of sense that the show would struggle with that issue as, should Ted meet the mother, the series might just have to end.  It has left the producers with the perplexing issue of how to tell the story, keep it Photo Credit:  Eric McCandless/FOX interesting, and simply never reach the conclusion.  Too often, that has led to Ted's girl of the week – a woman whom present Ted (the story is told as a flashback) dates in a single episode and from whom he may or may not learn a valuable lesson about what he wants in a woman (or, with whom he ends up at the same party as the future mother, passes by the future mother, sees the ankle of the future mother, etc.).  If the episode opens with Ted having met the woman off-camera, the audience knows she will not be the mother and that can be (depending on the comedy bits involved) a huge letdown.  If Ted is trying to get a date with the woman, then it could be the mother, but without a serious amount of television promos having aired before the episode the odds of that are small.  We are then, again, left with the potential for a huge letdown.  On the other hand, if there is nothing to advance the plot in the episode there are lots of folks who might wonder why they are bothering to watch at all. 

Put another way, as I said above, the mother has always been the show's Achilles' heel.  If the producers lean too heavily on finding the mother without truly progressing in the story in a new and different way, they risk boring the audience.  If they ignore the mother entirely, they risk alienating it.

In the sixth season premiere of How I Met Your Mother, airing this Monday night, I promise that we'll learn something valuable about the mother.  However, I won't say what.  Hopefully, that will be a tantalizing enough prospect for those on the fence.  And there, with tantalizing the audience about the mother, the show has succeeded.  Whether it is a yellow umbrella spotted in the background or the peek at an ankle, it is those moments when real hints are dropped, and when Ted actually comes within inches of the mother, that the show truly succeeds.

That is not quite fair, the show succeeds elsewhere as well.  For all that How I Met Your Mother is about the meeting of the mother, the stories that it has told about Ted's friends Barney (Harris), Robin (Cobie Smulders), Marshall (Jason Segel), and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) may really be the stand out element.  While it can be great to see Ted struggle with finding the right person to be with, watching his friends struggle in various aspects of their lives may be more enjoyable.  Barney is a womanizer whom we've seen get (slightly) humanized through the years, Robin is looking for the right career and love (but not necessarily of the long term variety like Ted), and Marshall & Lily are the happy couple who still face the usual issues in life.  As the audience has very few ideas about where any of these characters will end up in the future, there is less of a need for the producers to move them in a certain direction, or for the audience to need them to move in a certain direction.

As for this particular season premiere of How I Met Your Mother, the show seems to be picking up right where it left off – Barney is still on the prowl, Ted is still out for love, Robin is smarting over the loss of her boyfriend, and Marshall & Lily are still contemplating having a family.  The premiere episode manages a great mix of both humor and sentiment, and even features the return of Rachel Bilson as Cindy, the girl who is the roommate of Ted's future wife (not that Ted knows that).

How I Met Your Mother may sometimes struggle finding the right path to be on (or in deciding whether it wants to be on a path at all), but the journey – be it through a forest or on a clearly marked trail – has been a great one through the past five years.  There is little reason to think that season six will be any different.  Would this reviewer eventually like to see Ted meet the mother?  Absolutely, but only if it doesn't mean that the series is coming to an end.

How I Met Your Mother's new season begins Monday, September 20 at 8pm.

Article first published as TV Review: How I Met Your Mother - Season Six on Blogcritics.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Apprentice is Back! Yippee?

For several years, we have been without a non-celebrity edition of The Apprentice.  By some, that has been lamented.  Of course, with the numbers being what they were for the regular edition, The Celebrity Apprentice helped extended the life of the franchise and probably allowed for the new edition of The Apprentice we're getting this season to exist.  The ratings for the regular Apprentice the last time it appeared were just not good enough to keep the whole thing afloat.

As for this new season, was it nice to see the show back last night?  I think so.  It was fun, but I do believe that the recession theme was a little overplayed.  I think by now we all know that the last few years haven't been terribly easy economically speaking, but to attempt to focus on how all the candidates have been hurt terribly by the recession was… well… done in typically overly bombastic Trump-style.  Certainly in two of the stories we heard from the Photo Credit:  Virginia Sherwood/NBCwomen's team, the recession seemed to have a minimal effect on their lives.  One candidate said that she had several job offers when she started looking, but they weren't perfect.  She did take one, but thought she deserved more.  Another candidate was fresh out of grad school.  Grad school, while certainly beneficial, doesn't – even in the best of economies – mean that you're going to find a job immediately, so I'm not sure why she felt so hurt by it all.

Beyond that, it seemed to me that when you have some silly people on the show – and there are silly people on the show this season – you're undercutting your recession edition message.  It makes for good television to have some less than great candidates because they add drama, but it takes about 30 seconds to look at some of these "recession" candidates and realize that they ought not even be hired in good times.  I don't think the show wanted to send that message, but they unquestionably did with their selections.

Oh, there was definitely good too.  Most notably, it was nice to see that the contestants had to do a real tasks with lots of moving parts.  The celebrity version of the show has never been very good at creating difficult tasks – the celebs have had to work, never of the quantity or difficulty that regular contestants have faced.

Maybe these new candidates had watched too much of the celebrity stuff though (we're getting into SPOILERS), because both teams failed last night.  Yes, the men won the task, but Trump didn't like either of the office spaces that the teams had created.  Neither place really looked so horrible, but they also did not appear to actually be conducive to getting any sort of work done. 

Perhaps that is because the teams never really appeared to have a vision for where they were going, it just seemed like they had a series of checkboxes about what an office space required and set about ticking off those boxes without a thought as to actually having people work in the spaces.  That could be the fault of the editing of the show, on the men's side we did at least get some talk about a "green" office space before they went off and did there thing with no more discussion of what was green or why.  I would have loved to have seen whether there were green elements or if it was just ignored, we got an indication of the latter, but nothing concrete and with it being a two hour episode we should have gotten a concrete answer.

As much as it ever has, this season of The Apprentice appears to have the potential to be a good one, but that is going to rest on the shoulders of the candidates.  It is my biggest wish at this point that Trump opts to do the right thing and fire the bad candidates because they deserve it, rather than letting them stick around to add drama.  I don't hold out much hope of that, but it would make for a better season.

Article first published as The Apprentice Returns on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Black Cauldron Gets a New Release for its 25th Anniversary

When you have produced as many features as Disney, there are going to end up being greater works in the pantheon and lesser ones.  Today, Disney is releasing to DVD in a "25th Anniversary" edition, a film that is somewhere on the lesser side though by no means near the bottom, The Black Cauldron

Based on a series of books by Lloyd Alexander, while the tale may fit within the mold of classic Disney storytelling, the dark look is anything but Disney.  The film actually carries a PG rating and is unquestionably not for the youngest of viewers.

The story revolves around Taran, an assistant pig keeper who quickly finds himself on a quest to protect the Black Cauldron from the evil Horned King who wishes to use it to raise an army of undead soldiers to rule the world (as evil people do).  Taran is incredibly outmanned and lacks any sort of experience, but meets an odd little creature named Gurgi, a princess named Eilonwy, and a minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam and together they manage to put a crimp into the Horned King's plans. 

The Black Cauldron contains lessons about sacrifice, doing the right thing, and the power of friendship.  It also has a cute, lovable, little creature in the form of Gurgi; bad guys; dragons; witches; magic; and adventure.  The basic problem with it however is that all of those elements just kind of appear, there is nothing beyond the most cursory explanation of what's going on and why.  There is, in short, quite obviously, a whole lot of backstory we don't get told.  The screenplay (a quick look at IMDb indicates that it was a team effort)  must get a lot of the blame for that, but part of the problem also lies in the selection of the source material. 

Alexander wrote a series of novels that dealt with this world and some of these characters (and other characters as well), and the film is most definitely not simply the second novel, The Black Cauldron, or a filmic adaptation of that second novel.  The credits for the film even state that the animated work is based on the "series."  Trying to cram in all the necessary elements to tell a single cohesive animated story geared mostly (though with a PG rating not entirely) for children is not the easiest of tasks.  All too often while watching The Black Cauldron one will get the sense of wanting to know more, to see more, to find out more, and that more is never given.  The best, most simple, example of this is seen in Taran's picking up a magic sword in the film, a sword that is highly prized by the three witches they later encounter.  The sword and its former owner have a story of their own, but no information on either is given – they simply exist, and why the witches want the sword so badly is never explained (beyond the fact that the sword looks pretty and is clearly magic).  The tale of the sword and its owner just don't fit into the tale being told here, but they are still relevant and their not being included is disappointing.

The film is still a great deal of fun, and much of it still works despite the lack of wanted backstory because the basic outline is so familiar.  Essentially, what you have is the story of a young man who longs for adventure getting more than he bargained for.  There is good in the film, there is evil, and there is some comic relief.  Were it less dark and a musical it could be any number of animated Disney features.

Truly, it is this second to last of these things that really differentiates The Black Cauldron – it is a dark movie.  Outside of the opening scene in Taran's village there are few moments in it not filled with dread, despair, the undead, or other bits of evil.  Disney movies certainly have had their dark moments, but none quite like this one.  The darkness succeeds in aiding the subject matter and story, but is more pervasive than in other Disney works.

The new release contains several special features, although none, unfortunately, delves into the making of the movie.  There is a deleted scene, a gallery of stills, two different games, and a Donald Duck short.  They are all interesting in their own way (even if DVD-based games always seem terribly slow and none-too-engaging), but it really would have been nice to have a behind the scenes look at the creative decisions made in producing the film.

The Black Cauldron has a place – a solid place – in the Disney canon.  It is an interesting, if at times clunky, movie and even if it not among the most loved or respected of the animated features, it has its fare share of admirers.  However, with such a minimal release for the film's 25th anniversary one can't help but get the sense that even the folks at Disney are not all that enamored of it.  Where are the making of featurettes?  Where are the discussions with the filmmakers?  Why is this a single-disc standard DVD release instead of being given the outstanding Blu-ray treatment so many other classic Disney films in recent years have been given?  It is all almost a tacit acknowledgment that this isn't their best feature and that while it may have a devoted fanbase, it is a small one. 

Despite its weaknesses, I enjoy The Black Cauldron and find it an interesting detour from what is thought of as traditionally Disney.  The film clearly has an interesting pedigree, it's just a shame that this release doesn't make those elements known.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Black Cauldron - 25th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Timmy Time is Upon Us (or at Least is Upon Playhouse Disney)

One of the greatest strengths of Aardman Animations is that the stop-motion tales they deliver are amusing to every age group.  Watching an entry in the Wallace & Gromit franchise or an episode of Shaun the Sheep is something you can do with your whole family – from young children to grandparents – and everyone involved will gain something from the experience.  The tales are fun, clever, and often very witty.  Aardman now has a spinoff of a spinoff with their new (to this side of the pond) Timmy Time, and unlike other Aardman fare, it's specifically geared towards a younger crowd. 

Fans of other Aardman productions may already be familiar with Timmy, the youngest sheep in the flock on Shaun the Sheep (itself a spinoff of Wallace & Gromit).

In this new series, the lamb is sent off to preschool with various other farm animals.  Every episode features Timmy learning some important preschool-appropriate lessons – stuff about taking turns, being nice to others, listening to teachers, etc.

It is a concept that certainly has some merit and as a parent I can certainly say that my child likes to see things relatable to her life on television.  With the bright, simplistic sets and varied other, identifiable, animals in the stories, it is easy to think that a young audience will gravitate towards Timmy Time and, perchance, learn an important thing or two.  However, while the show may be imparting positive messages to youngsters and doing so in a way they will enjoy, it does little to convince an adult audience that they at all want to sit down with their offspring (or the preschoolers for whom they care) and watch with them.  The episodes are  short, each runs about 10 minutes, but will certainly feel longer for the adults watching.

The issue doesn't seem to revolve around a lack of forethought, creativity, or some sort of deficit in production values.  In fact, Timmy Time appears to be up to Aardman's high standards in all those regards.  Each animal seems perfectly conceived and executed as do the backgrounds, foregrounds, and plots.  Perhaps the entire program is a little too over-thought; perhaps in their effort to make a preschooler appropriate series, one that might help teach kids, they succeeded in crafting a brilliant series for that audience… at the complete exclusion of any other one.

Timmy Time is airing as a part of the Disney Channel's Playhouse Disney lineup, an entire set of programs designed specifically to attract a younger audience.  The series certainly feels like a good fit with the rest of the programming on Playhouse Disney, some of which is more adult-friendly (but certainly not all of it).  It is difficult to believe that as a part of that lineup Timmy Time won't find an audience and that said audience won't be head-over-heels in love with the little guy. 

As for parents, they will certainly admire the series for what it is and what it does, they simply won't want to watch it as they would with other work from Aardman.


Timmy Time aired a special sneak preview this past Tuesday and will begin airing regularly on September 13.

Article first published as TV Review: Timmy Time on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tim Robbins is Totally The Player (1992)

Robert Altman's 1992 film The Player represents another outstanding achievement in a directorial career that has had many richly deserved accolades over the course of more than a half-century's work.  The film follows Tim Robbins' Griffon Mill, a Hollywood movie executive who finds himself the object of a despondent screenwriter's obsession and is an example of satiric, dark comedy at its best.

Based on the novel by Michael Tolkin (who also wrote the screenplay), The Player manages to both beautifully mock Hollywood and yet – with eyes wide open – playTim Robbins in 'The Player.' into many of the tropes it mocks.  Is the movie coming down pro-Hollywood?  Is it coming down anti-Hollywood?  The truth may actually be that it is simply out to spin an excellent yarn and willing to use any means at its disposal to do so.

It is clear from the famed opening tracking shot of the film, a shot which lasts over seven and a half minutes, the film is going to be satirizing Hollywood and typical Hollywood conventions.  Not only does the opening track shot treat us to an introduction of many of the major players in the film, but it discusses famous film tracking shots (perhaps most notably Orson Welles' Touch of Evil) that by its very nature it is mocking/paying homage to.

The plot of the film revolves around Mill who has been receiving death threats via postcards for several months from an unknown, unnamed writer who had a meeting with Mill and whom Mill never called back.  At least, that's the story that the postcard writer allows Mill to work out, whether or not it's true is something the viewer will have to see for themselves.  At the same time that Mill is trying to uncover his stalker, he is also fighting for his career at the studio as his boss, Joel Levison (Brion James), is bringing in another executive, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), in an attempt to force Mill out. 

The film weaves back and forth between the two plots beautifully and Mill soon finds himself tracking down the man he believes to be the obsessed writer, David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio).  Without giving too much away about the plot, the police (in the form of Whoopi Goldberg) are soon involved; Mill finds himself involved with not one, but two love interests (Cynthia Stevenson and Greta Scacchi); and dozens and dozens of Hollywood stars put in appearances as either themselves in cameos or characters in the film. 

In fact, much of the fun in the film revolves around paying close attention to both the foreground and background to see exactly who you can see.  It is easy to spot Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Lily Tomlin, Susan Sarandon, Burt Reynolds and many others who either speak or end up front and center in a camera shot, but then there are a whole lot more stars who say nothing and are just there in the background.

The caliber and quantity of the cameos does much more than simply make for an amusing game, it truly help situates the story in Hollywood.  This is a dark comedy which first and foremost is about Hollywood and the process by which movies are made, having celebrities appear as themselves throughout the piece helps ground the characters in the film in the real world, and makes the mystery that much more intriguing.  There is never a moment watching The Player when one doesn't truly believe that such things happen in Hollywood all the time. 

Cleverly crafted and with both witty dialogue and great performances throughout, The Player is dark, deadly serious, and yet terribly funny.  In an industry which already semi-regularly pokes fun at itself, this movie raises the bar.

Where the film does not excel is in its Blu-ray release.  Although the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is perfectly respectable, the dialogue-heavy film requires little of it, and the picture quality leaves something to be desired.  The audio track is most noticeable during the score with some of its bass, otherwise it is simply there (but without hiss or pops).  It won't knock your socks off, but unlike the visuals there are no moments that disappoint.  As for said visuals, there are some scenes in the film with a noticeable flicker to them, and others that contain far too much noise.  This latter issue is particularly noticeable in a single, repeated, shot used late in the film and makes one think as though whomever was responsible for that portion forgot about the shot completely.  The colors are good and there is often a great deal of detail, but the disappointing shots are the ones that will stick with the viewer.

In terms of special features, this new release contains a commentary track by Altman and Tolkin, deleted scenes, a trailer, and a featurette in which Altman discusses the film.  None of it is by any means earth-shattering or groundbreaking, but both the commentary track and the featurette do contain some good insights.

Any deficiencies in the release aside, 18 years after its theatrical debut, The Player remains just as wise and witty a look at Hollywood as it ever was.  The Hollywood the film satirizes is the same one that we all imagine still exists today and consequently, despite the outfits, the film doesn't seem in the least bit dated.  Between the great cast, great cameos, great director, and great screenplay, The Player remains a must-see film.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Player (1992) on Blogcritics.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Office: Season Six - Dunder Mifflin Delivers on Blu-ray

Ever since first premiering in March of 2005, NBC's The Office has managed to consistently be funny even if it has never been a massive ratings hit.  Based on the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant British series of the same name, the show follows the lives and semi-careers of the workers at the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. 

Well, at the start of the season they work Dunder Mifflin anyway, one of the season-long story arcs this go-round is the impending financial ruin of the company.  As the show is returning to NBC's schedule this fall, everyone knows that whatever befalls Dunder Mifflin, the core group of Scranton staffers will be remaining together at the end of the season, but it is still a fun storyline to watch play out.

One of the biggest strengths of The Office is not just the aforementioned core group of staffers, but the fact that the producers have managed to expand the series into a much larger, and much more realistic office world with a large group of secondary characters.  Yes, season six still finds much of the action revolving around office manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and paper salespeople Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer), and Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), but it certainly extends beyond those people as well.  Everyone from Oscar (Oscar Martinez) to Stanley (Leslie David Baker), to Darryl (Craig Robinson), to Phyllis Lapin (Phyllis Smith), and Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) gets their moment to shine.

It has been widely publicized that Steve Carell will be leaving the show when his contract expires after season seven.  While he will certainly be a great loss to the show, even with his being the center of so many storylines, it is not impossible to imagine the series without him due to The Office's ensemble nature.  Anyone who has spent time watching will have a favorite supporting player, many of whom the series has managed to flesh out into true, three-dimensional individuals. 

Pam and Jim fans will be pleased by the fact that season six not only contains a double-episode featuring their wedding, but another featuring the birth of their first child.  For those less amused by the antics of the couple, not only are there lots of other things happening as well, but there are episodes without either one or both of them (following the wedding and the birth).

What is most impressive about The Office by season six is the fact that neither have they run out of stories, nor do any of the tales feel more ridiculous than any of what has come before.  The producers have been quite successful in balancing both semi-outlandish humor and down to earth heart.  The series has the rare ability to both make people cry from laughter and just plain cry.  This particular season has its fair show of both types of moments and, as a whole, is very enjoyable.

The weakest aspect of the show at this point is its inability to find an emotional hook quite as strong as the one from early seasons – the will they-won't they, Jim and Pam story.  Watching that love story unfold was a great reason to tune in every Thursday night and while it is still wonderful to see the happy couple living their life together, the audience's emotional entanglement is somewhat lessened.  There are office romances – and potential office romances, like Andy and Erin (Ellie Kemper) – in season six, but wisely the producers have chosen to go in a more comic fashion with them.  To attempt to duplicate the Jim-Pam story would not only be impossible, but hugely disappointing.

The Blu-ray release of season six sports a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, but in a sitcom, the surrounds, while used, are not strictly necessary to enjoy the experience.  The track is a crisp and clear one, but obviously dialogue and center channel heavy.  The visuals are good, with high levels of detail including textures on clothes.  However, this reviewer's copy of the episode "Scott's Tots" contained a scene which was not correctly transferred to the disc – rather than appearing in the correct 16:9 aspect ratio, the scene played out as a letterboxed 4:3.  All the other scenes in that episode and in all the other ones were correct, and while we have asked the publicist about this particular issue, we have not yet heard back.

The release also comes with, as you would expect, a plethora of special features.  There are hours of deleted scenes and a blooper reel that lasts as long as an episode of the show.  There are also commentary tracks for several episodes, an episode of Parks and Recreation, an Office digital short, a copy of a video that was played within an episode this season, and the promos the series did for the Olympic games.  The set also contains the ability to watch episodes from the upcoming seventh season after they have aired via a BD-Live connected player.  As no season seven episodes have yet aired we were not able to test the feature but it is advertised as being in HD (depending on your internet connection) and is certainly intriguing. 

Season six of The Office proves that the long-running series is still going strong.  To this point it shows no signs of slowing down nor becoming less funny.  What will happen once Carell leaves is still unclear, but season six anyway is on safe ground.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Office - Season Six on Blogcritics.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Prime Suspect - The Complete Collection: A Whole Lotta Jane Tennison in a Single Box

How exactly do you end up with a wonderful television series?  Is it cast?  Is it writing?  Is it the production values in general?  Is it a combination of all these things?  Or, does it require all of them and, perhaps, just a little bit of magic?

Being released to DVD for the first time ever as a single set, Prime Suspect, is certainly the last of these things.  Over the course of the seven different seasons of the show the only constant is Helen Mirren as DCI (at least initially) Jane Tennison, but Mirren and Tennison are certainly enough to build a series around.  Additionally, the ever-changing cast of supporting players is also outstanding, including names like Ralph Fiennes, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Salmon, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Miles, Jonny Lee Miller, and Zoë Wanamaker.  As with the cast, the behind the scenes crew changed as well, but the series always found a way to talk about important issues of the day, even if the discussions were sometimes a little heavy-handed.

Taking a step back for a second, Prime Suspect aired (although not continuously) from 1991 to 2006 and followed the exploits of Mirren's Tennison, an outwardly tough-as-nails Detective Chief Inspector.  At the outset of the first season, Tennison gets her long overdue shot to investigate a murder and instantly finds herself – as she knew she would – as one of the only women (and the sole one of her rank) in a big boys' club.  She need not only navigate a minefield among her higher-ups, but also the rank and file who would rather she not be ordering them about.  It is a tough place for her to be, a place as tough as the serial murders she finds herself investigating.  In the pursuit of her career, Tennison gives up a lot in the first season, and gives up plenty more as the show continues in subsequent years of the series.

Many may get the wrong impression by hearing Prime Suspect referred to as a "television series that ran for seven seasons."  That is a perfectly accurate statement, but every season save the fourth one contains one mystery that is investigated over the course of two episodes (each season, again save the fourth, runs for less than four hours each).  The anomalous fourth season contains three separate mysteries each of which runs roughly the length of one episode from any other season. 

Due to the short nature of the program it may be more accurate to refer to Prime Suspect as a series of mini-series.  It is certainly true that when Helen Mirren won Emmys for her portrayal of Tennison in both the fourth and final seasons it was in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special category (she was nominated in the same category for Prime Suspect in every season but the first).

Heading back to our earlier question, perhaps what makes Prime Suspect such a brilliant piece of work is its ability to not only deftly craft interesting mysteries (even when you know who did it), but also its ability to juggle both the mysteries and the personal story of Tennison.  In more than one season the audience gets to see not only how the case affects Tennison's personal life, but how her personal life affects the case.  There is a push and pull there that feels not only true to life but also something exceedingly difficult to create without it feeling forced.

At the center of that push and pull, at the center of everything with the series, is Helen Mirren.  People often talk about an actor being "made" for a certain part.  I am not convinced that such a thing is ever true, but it is nearly impossible to imagine Prime Suspect with anyone but Mirren as Jane Tennison.  Watching Mirren and Tennison age and grow and find their footing in a world which ages and grows as well over the course of the 15 years from first season to last is a wonderful experience.  Prime Suspect is never afraid to touch on any subject and while Tennison may momentarily falter with some of them, Mirren never does in her portrayal.

Were one to criticize the series, it might be suggested that the series' need to pick a minority group (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) to explore via a crime loses some of its punch by the third season.  It must be said that the case is certainly not less interesting by that point, but even before the opening credits roll on the season one can't help but wonder which group will take center stage this time out.  Additionally, this may only crop up as a problem for viewers watching the seasons in rapid succession. 

The nine disc set of Prime Suspect – The Complete Collection comes with a minimal number of bonus features.  In fact, only seasons six and seven get any bonus features at all.  Season six has a behind-the-scenes featurette while seven contains a photo gallery, cast filmographies, and a longer featurette which discusses the series as a whole.  Additionally, the same set of bonus features exist on the previously released individual seasons.

While Prime Suspect is, at its core, a crime drama, it is a crime drama that elevates the genre to high art.  Mirren is more than deserving of every accolade she has been given for her work on it, and it is sad to think that there are no more Tennison stories coming our way in the future.  If you haven't seen or don't own any Prime Suspect, The Complete Collection is definitely worth picking up.

Article first published as DVD Review: Prime Suspect - The Complete Collection on Blogcritics.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Has a Road Rally

Over the course of its three season existence, Disney Channel's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse has undergone a number of changes.  Some of the songs sung in every episode have been tweaked; the animation has improved; and, among other things (and perhaps most notably), Toodles has gained not only a face and a voice, but has been increasingly anthropomorphized. 

For the uninitiated, Toodles is the holder of all the tools that Mickey and friends need on a daily basis – whenever the group requires a little bit of help they call on Toodles and he comes a-calling.  The series itself began in 2006, but it wasn't until the first new episode of 2010, "Happy Birthday Toodles," that Toodles gained his face and voice.  Now, in the latest DVD release (which will premiere on Disney Channel the same day it hits store shelves), "Road Rally," Toodles experiences a great deal of envy.

The new "full-length" episode (essentially the length of two single episodes) features Toodles feeling overshadowed by, and more than a little bit jealous of, another creation of Professor Von Drake's, The Rescue Truck.  His bicycle having fallen apart, Goofy is given the truck by the Professor in order to participate in the Clubhouse gang's road rally.  The only caveat the Professor gives is that Goofy must help when people need him, thereby encroaching on Toodles' usual territory.

As one would expect, by the end of the episode not only does Toodles feel better about his position in the Clubhouse family, but everyone else realizes just what they did that may have greatly upset their friend.  It is another good lesson delivered by the series, but it's not the only one the episode tries to impart.  The heroes may be participating in a road race, but as is explained on more than one occasion, the race is all about having fun and not coming in first.  That's a lesson that Pete ends up illustrating if not learning.

"Road Rally" is also full of songs and good cheer.  It is, in short, just the sort of happy-go-lucky, amusing for preschoolers, tale that we've come to expect from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.  The ultimate question for parents is whether or not they'll enjoy the story alongside their children, and unless the parent in question is one of the anti-Mickey brigade it seems likely that they will.  Certainly parents who have seen other episodes in the series will be amused by a couple of humorous, oblique references to events from other episodes. 

There is also a clear dedication to the look of the animation that ought to impress those watching.  The colors remain bright and colorful and while the animation may appear rather basic it is anything but.  Not only do the characters' clothing feature different textures, but the treads on Goofy's Rescue Truck feature tiny Mickey silhouettes.  It is that attention to detail which, although unnecessary, is the sort of nice, added touch that make the series a delight.

The DVD release also features a bonus, regular length, episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse ("Pluto Lends a Paw") that hasn't yet aired on television.  Additionally, there is a two difficulty level Discovery Mode which asks viewers questions about the main, "Road Rally" episode.  Finally, as this reviewer has complained about the lack of this in the past, it must be noted that the bonus episode included here is formatted for 16:9 televisions, just like the main episode, rather than only being included in 4:3 format as has occurred on some previous DVD releases.

Mickey Mouse Clubhouse – Road Rally is available for purchase on DVD September 7, which is the same day that "Road Rally" will premiere on the Disney Channel at 7:00pm.

Article first published as DVD Review: Mickey Mouse Clubhouse - Roady Rally on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Stepping into the Arena with Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring

Despite the fact that while growing up we were fans of professional wrestling, our knowledge of lucha libre is somewhere approaching zero.  It is not that we actively avoided Mexican professional wrestling in our fanboy days, it is much more that we didn't search it out, especially with the WWF and Hulkamania running wild (and we've just dated ourselves).  In recent years, lucha libre has grown in popularity and, as we saw at Konami's Gamers' Day, there are now videogames devoted to the sport.  Well, there is one game anyway – Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring.  The game is a licensed product, using wrestlers from the AAA lucha libre league, and we took it for a little test drive.

Now, while the sport is expanding in this country there is certainly a large possibility that you're like us and don't really know your lucha libre from your Nacho Libre.  Well, one of the things that we liked best about this new title is that it repeatedly provides you with a little bit of the history of the sport complete with footage of old battles.  Of course, while the history is nice, this is a wrestling game and consequently that's where the truly good stuff needs to lie, right?

Starting off, Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring allows you to make a character – a luchador if you will – and then decide whether he is going to follow the path of the técnicos or rudos (that would be good guys or bad guys, respectively).  There are several matches of increasing difficulty and you're given little hints in advance about how to proceed.  Those hints aren't hugely helpful while you're in the midst of a two-on-one handicap match, but it's nice to think that they'll be able to help before a match begins.

Opting to try the técnicos side, we were quickly lulled into a false sense of security in our first match as we repeatedly bashed our opponent with punches, kicks, and even the occasional steel chair (use it twice though and you're disqualified).  As the match progressed, the poor rudo was dreadfully hurt – we could tell this because his little icon in the corner of the screen had turned red on all of his various body parts indicating a high level of damage.  The rudo, we like to think, had no idea where he was or what he was doing, what we know for certain is that our pounding of him was much loved by the fans.  In fact, the fans play a crucial part in the game – the more fan love you get (and you get it by pummeling your opponent and showboating), the stronger the moves you can perform.  Once your popularity meter is full, you can perform your signature move and really clobber your enemy.

Attacks outside of basic kicks, punches, and high-flying acrobatics are done by initiating a grapple with your opponent.  Once you've started a grapple (either strong or weak depending on how much popularity you have), varying combinations of buttons perform suplexes, submission holds, and all other manner of punishment-inflicting brutality.  The system seemed very well thought out, but that didn't make it any easier to execute some of the moves as we progressed to harder and harder matches (it felt as though the tougher the opponent, the more hurt they have to be in order to successfully execute moves).

Despite the nice grappling method, luchadores being able to – literally – dance in the ring in order to gain popularity, and the ability to inflict copious amounts of damage on an enemy, we were slightly concerned by the lethargic pace at which the luchadores walked around both inside and outside the ring.  It was simple enough to get the characters to run, but covering any amount of space walking took far too long.  It was almost as though the luchadores forgot that they were fighting for their honor and not just out for a stroll around the park.  As we were seeing an incomplete version of the title, it remains to be seen if they'll pick up the pace for the final release, but we definitely have our fingers crossed.

One of the other big aspects of the game was not available for use – online multiplayer.  We were told that in online multiplayer not only will you be able to compete against others but that you will also be able to select whether or not the match will be for your mask.  And, once your character loses their mask, that's it, there's no getting it back. Progress far enough in the game and you'll be able to make a new one, but the mask you lost will be gone forever.

Right now, Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring looks like it's coming together quite nicely.  The title is due to be released October 12, and we'll have more news about it as it comes in.

Article first published as Konami's Gamers' Day: Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring on Blogcritics.

Grease Makes its way to the Wii

Some films are just crying to be made into videogames, and not just new films, old ones.  Look at Star Wars, even before the film franchise was expanded, there were incredibly successful – and some very good – videogames made based on it.  Other films, however, don't seem to be quite as obvious choices to be videogame-ified.  Case in point, Grease.  Although the movie shows significant staying power – it was just rereleased to theaters as a sing-along this past summer – it doesn't feel like a natural fit for home consoles.

The good folks over at 505 Games, however, would beg to differ.  Not only, apparently, did they feel as though Grease could be made into a videogame, they went ahead and did it.  Now, owners of the Nintendo Wii (and DS) can rock out to Danny and Sandy at home (and not just on DVD or Blu-ray or one of the myriad of times its shown on basic cable). 

So, you can play Grease at home, but should you?

That depends.  Are you a massive fan of the film who wants nothing more than to relive the songs over and over again in a multitude of forms?  If you are, then unquestionably you're going to love this, no need to read further.  Are you someone who hates the film, wants absolutely nothing to do with it, any of the characters from it, and walks away just because someone says to you "tell me more?"  If you answered yes to that, then no, you're not going to like the game, you have no need to read further either.  On the third hand, are you someone who could go either way with the film?  Do you like it but still find yourself wary of other products with the name attached, thinking that said ancillary products may not live up to the film?  You ought to read on.

People who follow videogames will tell you that there is a general sentiment that games made from movies are, almost without exception, disappointing.  This videogame version of Grease will do little to convince those folks that they are wrong.  Balance board, microphone, and Wii remote playable it may be, but it simply isn't a lot of fun.

The Story Mode unfolds as a series of minigames.  A quick little montage of clips from the film (but with no words) plays out before a level as you read an introduction on the bottom.  Then you have to go ahead and play a short level themed upon whatever song they sing in that portion of the film.  Lots of levels require you, if you have a Wii remote, to move it up, down, left or right as instructed by cues on the screen (if you have a balance board you lean).  Other levels require you to bang out dents in a car (it could be greased lightning), race your car with incredibly simplistic controls, or even try your hand at various sports (also with pretty simple controls).

This is all to say that the game, in very basic fashion, gets you involved in various songs from the film, and that all sounds like a good deal of fun.  Problems do creep in however.  First up, the graphics are none too sharp.  If you didn't know you were playing Grease, you probably wouldn't think that the main guy was Danny and the main girl Sandy, they'd just be a brown-haired guy and a blonde girl.  That may be forgivable, but it's harder to accept the fact that when using the Wii remote the game doesn't always seem to register your moves and that the Story Mode clocks in at well under one hour.  If you can get past those problems, it's probably safe to say that you're a massive Grease fan and consequently you're going to be more disappointed than others (although everyone will find this disappointing) to learn that the game doesn't sing certain lyrics and even refuses to spell them out on the little sing-along section at the bottom of the screen.  Some of the lyrics may be a little colorful (the description of what girls will do when they see the car in "Greased Lightnin'"), but other words (like cigarette and virginity) don't seem all that harsh.  Whether or not the lyrics are family friendly is beside the point, if you're not just making a game based on a musical, but specifically building the game around the songs surely when you choose to include a song you should include all of it. 

The only reasonable explanation of why that wasn't done was to hit a specific rating for the game, one that would include kids.  Grease not only still ends up with an E10+ (Everyone 10+) anyway, but is also a based on a movie more than 30 years old.  That means that it would be reasonable to expect only an older crowd to buy it, a crowd that wouldn't be scared away by a T (Teen) rating.  Beyond that though, as certain modes (there is also a Quick Play and Party Mode) allow singing of the songs with microphone support, not writing down the full lyric feels kind of cheeky. 

Party Mode allows for up to eight players going through the various levels (plus those you can unlock in Story Mode), and definitely seems to be where people will get the most mileage of the title.  That being said, as none of the minigames are too invigorating in general, there are probably better (although not Grease-related) options.

I think that in today's age of karaoke and rhythm games there is almost certainly a place for a title based on Grease (even if it doesn't feel like an obvious choice).  With a mat allowing for more control of moves than a Balance Board; an emphasis on singing in Story Mode (none is required); or maybe even a Rock Band/Guitar Hero style full-on, play the songs yourself thing, Grease could be a great game.  This release is not that and will almost assuredly leave those who are not hopelessly devoted to the franchise feeling as though they've ended up with a beauty school drop out and not the one that they want.

Grease is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief and Mild Lyrics. This game can also be found on Nintendo DS.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: Grease on Blogcritics.