My XBox Live Gamer Card
Wednesday, May 27. 2009
I love Star Trek I loved the original series, I loved The Next Generation, loved it when they changed things up with Deep Space Nine, enjoyed Voyager, and paid no attention whatsoever to Enterprise. The films were a mixed bag, from brilliant science fiction to abysmal efforts created solely for the purpose of extracting money from die-hard Trek fans. This film is definitely not the latter.
With each Trek film I looked forward to it with fear and trepidation. We knew long ago that this was going to take the characters we love and give us a prequel to the series, but how do you successfully replace William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig? If you're J.J. Abrams you hire Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Anton Yelchin. These newcomers slip into their predecessor's roles almost seamlessly. In some cases the resemblances are uncanny.
The new film gets us off to a very emotional start as we see James T. Kirk's father saving the lives of many hundreds of his crew mates at the very same moment that the baby James is being born. The young Kirk turns into a rough and ready rebel, drinking hard, playing hard and fighting hard. We see a young Spock on Vulcan being tormented by his school mates for being half human. This eventually leads to the most inventive use of "Live long and prosper" ever captured on film or video tape.
Bruce Greenwood, far too often cast as a heavy, plays Christopher Pike the commanding officer of the Enterprise. He meet with the young Kirk and encourages him to follow in his father's footsteps which eventually he does, taking his hell-raising ways to Starfleet Academy, and setting up the all the required meetings to get The Crew together.
The action is fast and exciting, the story much better than recent Trek films, but also with some glaring plot problems that, if they had been conquered, would have pushed this into Wrath of Khan quality territory. Unfortunately while it is quite possible to suspend disbelief for the duration of the film, mostly due to it's fast and furious pace, those plot problems come back to haunt you when reflecting on the movie.
The performances are really quite brilliant all around. Zachary Quinto is Spock, there is never any question. Chris Pine does well with his portrayal of Kirk, resurrecting many of the mannerisms, but discarding the delivery. Karl Urban looks so much like a young Dr. McCoy that you might have trouble distinguishing the two. The backstory of why he has joined Starfleet is quite entertaining. Everyone else does very well.
While, upon further review, the story fails, I still would place this film high on the list of Trek films. Because of the ingenious manner of resetting the story, it is possible that we will see some very good films in the future. Of course, it's also possible that this will be viewed as an excuse to regularly milk money from the new generation of Trek fans.
I hope that the next installment is of the quality of Khan. That would be totally awesome.
Sunday, November 16. 2008
Friday night Jennifer, Travis and I went to see Quantum of Solace. We had been looking forward to it ever since the excellent series restart in Daniel Craig's first Bond film Casino Royale. We came away mostly disappointed from what may well be the worst Bond film ever. While it may be the worst Bond film ever, if viewed without the Bond lens, it does succeed on some levels as a film.
When describing James Bond, there are all sort of adjectives that can be used, but I usually think along the following lines, suave, debonair and witty. This Bond is none of those things. In fact, during the one brief love scene (which barely qualifies as such) my son asked me, "Dad why did she put out for him?" Granted this Bond is troubled by the loss of his lady-love in Casino. But Bond does not feel right when completely driven by vengeance. He needs something more to be Bond.
There is no wit, there is no charm, there is simply a very good looking man killing his way across the globe in search of some sort of justice in the death of Vespyr, the woman he loved. In addition to the lack of wit or charm there is a decided lack of any of the cool or exciting gadgets we're used to seeing in the Bond universe. Their use was very limited in Casino but we did get to see some of the neat tricks the Aston Martin had available. In this outing we're deprived of even that little bit of gadgetry wow-factor.
On a positive note Judi Dench's M gets a bit more valuable screen time in this installment of the series. She is a marvelous actress and does a great job of bringing Bond's boss to life. Her no-nonsense toughness, plus evident caring for Bond are the one bright point in what is a colossal failure as a Bond film. A Bond film far worse than any outing Roger Moore ever participated in.
If you can remove the "Bond Lens" and watch Quantum solely as an action film with a disposable hero, it is really quite successful. The action sequences are well done and exciting, including one scene in an airplane that is quite the nail-biter. Watching Daniel Craig, beat, thrash and kill his way around the world is an entertaining diversion, but one which requires you to complete forget the character Craig played in Casino.
Wednesday, November 12. 2008
Travis and I finished the Gears of War 2 campaign on Hardcore difficulty last night. We will tackle it again on Insane and see how we do. While Epic and Dude Huge didn't re-invent the game, they did do a very nice job of making it an exceptionally satisfying experience. The campaign, in general, is much more solid and much more satisfying, answering a few questions, but leaving many more unanswered. As this is the middle chapter of a trilogy I don't find that to be much of a problem. The ending, while somewhat abrupt (I didn't expect to be there when I got there) is not as bad as much of what I have read about it in the press. I found it to be very similar to the novel where the climax happens three-quarters of the way through and the rest of the story is winding down.
While the storyline is much better, it is hampered by incredibly hammy voice-acting. There is one scene that is really quite poignant, and if done correctly I would have probably been in tears, but the voice-acting is so over-the-top that I never got past it and fully, emotionally into the moment. The story is also hampered by a couple of levels that seem to have been created for no other reason than to show off some of the cool features of the Unreal Engine.
In general, the levels are a lot of fun, one of them included some of my most satisfying moments ever in a video game. The mechanics are pretty much identical to the mechanics in the first game, however, there are a couple of really nice features that were added. One is the ability to attempt to crawl to safety when you are downed by the enemy. The other is that it is quite possible for you and your buddy to split up and carry on down two separate paths of the level for a brief while. This was forced several times in the first game, and sometimes still is in this one, but sometimes it's an optional path which is quite nice.
The new weapons and finishing moves are lots of fun. The mulcher, mortar, and flame thrower all add new and interesting strategies both in single-player and in multi-player. One of the fun things Epic has done is they have added distinct finishing moves for each weapon. Other new additions are the ability to use any of the grenade types as a proximity mine (you melee the wall) and that the concussion from grenades other than the frag grenades will knock you down.
Gears of War featured and achievement called "Seriously" and you achieved it with something like ten-thousand kills in public, ranked matches. The new game ups the ante on that significantly. Seriously 2.0 requires one hundred-thousand kills. Fortunately you get credit for every kill, not just kills in ranked matches.
Multi-player has changed too. The basics are still the same but there are several new game modes, and one additional player per team. The greatest improvements in multi-player have to do with the game lobby though. No longer is it an exercise in frustration to try and put a group together and take that group in search of battle.
My favourite addition to the PvP game modes is "Submission" (formerly known as Meatflag). The meatflag is a Stranded, lost in the middle of the map. Your job is to down the meatflag grab him as a meat-shield and carry him to the capture point. It's basically capture the flag with one caveat, the flag shoots back. I have seen several of those matches where the meatflag had more kills than anyone on either team.
I think my favourite multi-player mode overall is the new Horde mode. In Horde, you and up to four of your friends are dumped into a map where you will face wave after increasingly difficult wave of Locust enemies, fifty of them to be exact. The sheer fun of tackling that many enemies with your friends, and fighting cooperatively to defeat them is incredibly addictive and lots and lots of fun.
Epic has done a fabulous job on the sequel to one of the best games available on the XBox 360. I highly recommend it.
Monday, November 3. 2008
Yesterday I finished Fable II. I was somewhat melancholy when the credits rolled and that is the sign of a good game. If I am sad when it is over, I know I have experienced something that is not typical, something that is a cut-above. Fortunately, while the main quest is over, I can still experience more of the game as there are some side-quests yet to complete.
Fable II is one of the best RPGs I have played on the 360. The story follows the protagonist, Sparrow, from young child, to adult-hood. From the back-alleys of Old Bowerstone, to the regal halls of the Fairfax Castle, from the beautiful fields of Oakfield to dank dungeons beneath the world of Albion. The world is beautifully realized, all of regions have a look and feel and sound to them that is quite immersive. These regions bring up one of the shortcomings of the game however.
There is no sense of continuity to the world of Albion. After spending many hours in the game I can barely tell you where each of the regions is in relation to any of the other regions. Is Oakfield north of Bowerstone? The region system, and lack of adequate mapping completely yank you out of the world of Albion and put you squarely back in your game room every time you load a new region. For a game that is so well done, this was a horrible oversight. Compare it to the world in Oblivion, or Fallout 3 where you can run, walk or ride anywhere on the map, and know where all the cities and villages are in relation to each other, and you will see just how badly Lionhead failed in this regard.
Character customization is incredibly broad, and not entirely within your direct control. While you can find or purchase and vast quantity of clothing items and mix-and-match-and-dye them to your heart's content, while you can change your hairstyle and beard, you can't directly change your musculature, your height, or your weight. Musculature changes as you become stronger. Height changes as you become more skilled weight changes based on what you eat--eat fatty foods get fat, eat celery get thin. The weight issue is one of the games other minor shortcomings, while there are many foods and beverages that will make you fatter, there is only one that will make you thinner. Given the variety of the diet available to you, this seems to be another oversight on Lionhead's part.
Character leveling is unique and enjoyable. Every battle and many of the foods, drinks and potions provide attribute mana. Attributes are divided up into Strength (blue), Skill (yellow), Will (red), and General (green). When you fight with a melee weapon you gain strength, when you fight with a ranged weapon you gain skill, when you fight using magic you gain will. Regardless of how you fight you gain general mana. If you mix up your combat, you will gain mixed attribute mana. You can purchase new abilities with the correct color of mana (plus the green mana which is a sort of wildcard mana). Each Ability has four or five levels you can aspire to as you play the game.
In addition to questing and getting money and fame, you can work and gamble to get money. You can use that money to buy businesses and residences, and then live off the income and rent. Setting prices can be a noble, neutral or nefarious act, and you are rewarded or penalized accordingly. You are paid every five minutes regardless of whether you are playing the game or not, so you can leave the game for several hours and return to it and find a nice sum of money waiting for you. There are three jobs you can hold in the world of Albion, each of them provide increasing levels of reward as your skill increases, and the mini-games involved in the jobs are fun and addicting. You can do blacksmith work, you can chop wood, and you can tend bar. The pub games, Spinner Box, Fortune's Tower (my favourite), and Keystone also provide fun diversions, and if you're lucky some extra cash.
Activities in the game are good or evil, pure or corrupt, and they shape the world in which you live, and the way the characters in the game respond to you. The entire look of an area can change based on the choices that you make. I had heard much about morality in this game and was hoping for some tougher choices, some epic moral decisions, unfortunately those types of choices did not crop up. Yes there are some that might be slightly difficult but none made me really stop and pause and think. Your goodness or badness or pureness or corruptness can have an effect on both the look of your character, and the look of your dog.
Your dog (which you can name) is one of the highlights of the game, never getting in the way, but ever present. He is a wonderful companion, a treasure hunter and fighter. In addition to your dog, you may marry, and have children. While I quite liked my wife, and really enjoyed watching and listening to my son, whenever I returned home from adventuring, neither of them found their way into my affections the way my dog did.
The main storyline is quite formulaic, and likely forgettable, all except for one place where I shouted "you fucker!" at my television. However, there is so much to do in the world that it is quite possible to view the main quest as a secondary quest and just wile away endless hours in the world of Albion.
Peter Molyneaux has a history of over-promising and under-delivering, however, he managed to keep the promises moderated, and Lionhead has certainly delivered a fun and memorable experience.
Monday, September 15. 2008
Linda Litzke, employee of the Hardbodies Gym, needs several cosmetic surgeries, Osborne Cox, recently of the Central Intelligence Agency, needs a way to make some money. Harry Pfarrer, Treasury Agent, needs more women than your average male. Katie Cox, wife of Osborne, needs Harry Pfarrer. Ted Treffon, manager of Hardbodies Gym, needs Linda Litzke. Lastly, Chad Feldheimer, trainer at Hardbodies Gym, needs...well he needs a haircut and hydration.
Burn After Reading is not the Coen brothers best film, however, it is an amazingly entertaining, quirky diversion, and far better than most of what is available on the big screen. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen it is as quirky, offbeat and sometimes dark as many of their other films. There is no message here, nothing deep and thought provoking, just the Coen's supported by a fabulous cast having a wonderfully good time being mostly silly.
Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) quits his job after finding out from his witless boss (David Rasche) that he is being re-assigned to a far less important part of the agency. The bow-tie wearing, perfectly pronouncing, effeteness of the man is set in contrast to his ability to use the word "fuck" with almost Joe Peschi fluency, and a burning rage that moves from simmer to boil. Deciding to write his memoir (a word he pronounces so perfectly that many people can't understand him), as a bit of vengeance against his former employer, and a way to earn some money, he sets one of the pieces of the complex machine into motion.
Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) wants the philandering Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and uses her husband's quitting his job as an excuse to start investigating divorce proceedings. This sets a second cog in the machine in motion.
When a CD containing what appears to be highly classified "stuff" is discovered on the floor at Hardbodies, Linda (Frances McDormand) and the vacuous Chad (Brad Pitt), set another piece of machinery into action when they attempt to be good samaritans and return, for a reward of course, the "stuff" to it's rightful owner.
Once all the pieces of this machine are in motion, it behaves like one of those children's wind up cars, spinning all over the floor in all sorts of interesting directions. It's a story that is never dull, often pushes the edges of of credence, but is held together by the sheer willpower and willingness of the cast to chew up as much scenery as possible and act like complete buffoons. The buffoonery is heightened by the fact that two of Hollywood's leading men, both with appearances on People Magazine's Sexiest Men lists, are so sure of themselves that they are willing to act like complete imbeciles. I can't imagine that there are too many actors confident enough that they would be willing to take on the task, especially Pitt's appallingly bad haircut.
Along the way we get to meet the manager of hard bodies, very nicely played by Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons (recently seen in the fabulous Juno) has an all-too-brief, but wonderfully entertaining turn as David Rasche's boss at the CIA.
Definitely well worth seeing.
Tuesday, September 9. 2008
When the tweet about the Black Crowes playing a concert at the came across my Twitter feed I clicked the link expecting to see a review of the show. Much to my surprise it turned out to be a blurb about a show the following Friday, and what's more, an affordable show. I checked out TicketMaster who insisted on charging $8.50 a ticket for the privilege of ordering online, and then read that tickets were also available at McMenamin's Crystal Ballroom boxoffice. So I hopped on the bike and rode downtown to get a pair. TicketMaster still managed to get a cut, just not quite as big a cut.
I have never been to the Edgefield for a show so I was really looking forward to exploring a new venue. Friday evening I picked Jennifer up just after 4:00pm and we headed for the show. There was already a line when we got there, but it wasn't long line, and we were quite assured of getting good seats. Once we got inside, we headed into the lovely grassy bowl where the show would be, found a spot on the grass about half-way back (far enough back and high enough up that we wouldn't have to stand the whole show, and would still be able to see) and lay out our blanket reserving our spot. Then we went off to find food and drink.
The first thing I noticed about the prices was "Hey these are reasonable!" Definitely not like the prices at the Rose Garden or a movie theater where once they have you inside they turn you upside down and shake every last penny from your pockets. Our dinner was filling, and my gin & tonic was fabulous due to the McMenamin's private label Vintner's Gin (which is the best gin I've ever had). The best thing about reasonable prices is you don't feel bad about spending money, so I was willing to spend a bit more.
Returning to our blanket we enjoyed the sun and people watching waiting for 6:30 to arrive. Much to our surprise Carney, a Los Angeles band fronted by brothers Reeve and Zane Carney, came on at 6:20 and got things underway early.
From the very first notes I was a bit worried, lead singer Reeve Carney and his band mates channeled just a bit too much White Stripes for me. The White Stripes are interesting, but I have never enjoyed their music, only tolerated it. But after the first song, things improved dramatically. These youngsters (none of them are over 30) really know how to rock, and by the time they got to a cover of The Beatles I Want You (She's So Heavy) I was thoroughly in the groove of things and letting the raw power of the music sweep over me. I was actually slightly disappointed when they finished their half-hour set.
Reeve Carney's vocals were quite good, though a bit weak. As he matures I can imagine he will grow into a very competent front-man. His brother Zane's guitar work was top-notch (though his bright blue guitar looks like it belongs in a video game). Bassist John David Lipscomb, laid down a consistently good bass track, and drummer Jon Epcar kept everything moving with consistent work.
One of the things I really appreciated was there were very few attempts at showmanship. They stood up, and played raw, emotional music, letting the music be the focus of the show not the individuals playing the music.
After half an hour break the Black Crowes came to the stage for what would prove to be and incredible musical experience. Once again there was no pretentiousness, no flash, no whizbang, just a few lighting effects and 120 minutes of amazing jam band influenced, southern rock-n-roll played by six talented musicians. It's a good thing that Chris and Rich Robinson managed to put their differences to rest because they were depriving the world of some fabulous live music while the band was split up.
Chris Robinson is one of those vocalists like Bob Dylan, you have to wonder how he ever got the job as lead singer, but there's no denying that his growl has something wonderfully primeval to it that enhances the kind of music the band plays. The only "hit" the band played was Hard to Handle, and this was my only disappointment of the evening as I am a huge fan of She Talks to Angels and had hoped to see it performed live.
This show was such a contrast to the show I last show I blogged about. Where sick puppies were musically excellent, their lead singer thought the show was about him and not his music. Where Evanescence's music was fabulous, it never left the confines of the CD recording. Both Carney and The Crowes understood that live music is about the music, and that live performances should not sound the same as the CD, and that the audience both wants and deserves more.
Rock and Roll just doesn't get much better.
Tuesday, January 15. 2008
Some people are huge fans of the Coen brothers. I'm not. I enjoyed Fargo very much, and thought that O Brother Where Art Thou was brilliant. The rest have not done much for me, that is until No Country For Old Men.
I've never read anything by Cormac McCarthy. Many many people have encouraged me to, but I've simply never gotten around to it, so I went into the film knowing one thing and only one thing, the people who had seen it loved it. Add me to the list of fans. The film is an amazing piece of work and the three leads all fit their roles wonderfully.
Tommy Lee Jones is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. A better pick could not have been made for the aging sheriff watching the world change out from under him. He finds himself attempting to protect the none-to-bright Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, after Moss finds and decides to keep a briefcase full of money from a drug deal gone sour. One of the gangs wants their money back and they send Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to get it back.
Chigurh is one of the most cold-blooded killers to be found in film. A man who usually kills without having to think about it, and when he does have to think about it, uses a coin flip to decide his course of action, thereby absolving himself of the consequences of his actions, as if the image of George Washington on the quarter has told him what he must do. His ruthless pursuit of Moss is frightening, and very Terminatorish, though it's more frightening due to the fact that he is on some level a human being who believes that other human beings are little more than cattle to be led to the slaughter.
The Sheriff is tired, tired of seeing the world he knows deteriorate, tired of all the changes going on around him, tired of fighting a losing battle against the bad guys. Even though he's tired, he saddles up and does his best to help someone who has made one of the more foolish decisions in their life.
Moss, the tough veteran, thinks he's found a short-cut to taking care of his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), and getting out of the double-wide he calls home. Unfortunately for him, he's stolen from the wrong bad guys and ends up on the run, trying to stay alive.
McCarthy's and by extension the Coen's West is a forbidding place. A place where even as late as the 80s men live and die by how quickly they can draw their guns, and how quickly they can get their sights on target and pull the trigger. This is not a place for the faint of heart. It's bloody and the good guys don't always win.
If you haven't seen it already, go see it before it ends it's run.
Friday, October 19. 2007
Jodie Foster has long been one of my favourite actresses. Even in some of her lamer films, she always manages to hold her own, and perform with grace and poise. Ever since I saw Hustle & Flow, Terrence Howard has been at the top of my "must watch" list. The man has serious game (if you haven't seen his portrayal of the small time Memphis pimp who is a wannabe rap star, you need to see it). When Foster and Howard teamed up for Neil Jordan's The Brave One I knew I would eventually see it. Add to that that the film touches on the question of "what is justice?" and I knew I had to see it.
Neil Jordan who may be best known for the super surprise ending at the end of 1992's The Crying Game, does an excellent job of getting good performances from both Foster and and Howard. They're not spectacular, but they are very good. The interplay between the two of them almost always works very well in what is essentially a two-person film. In fact there are vast quantities of the film where Foster or Howard seem to be the only person on screen.
Erica Bain is a radio personality in New York city (a fitting role for Foster who has a fabulous voice), she has a great job, fabulous relationship with her fiance, David (Naveen Andrews), supportive friends and a great dog. Of course that is far too good a situation to last, what fun would a movie be about a woman who's biggest problem is picking out the correct wedding invitations? One evening while walking the dog, Erica and David are brutally attacked, David is killed and Erica horribly hurt. In those few moments, not only does Erica's life change, she changes. She becomes someone different.
Terrified to walk the streets again, she buys a gun, and then starts using it. The central theme of the film is "What is justice?" Erica starts dishing out her version of justice. She doesn't go looking for it. Except in one specific case her victims come to her. Detective Mercer starts investigating these crimes, and ends up becoming friends with Erica. The good detective has his own sense of justice, and that differs from Erica's. Of course his suspicions grow about who the killer is, and there is a final confrontation. The way that confrontation plays out is the weakest part of the film for me.
I'm sure police officers everywhere are often frustrated that they are hampered by the rules. I, for one am glad those rules exist, yes they make the work of catching the bad guys more difficult, but they also make it more difficult for for someone to be falsely or incorrectly accused of a crime. I dread to think about the state of things should our administration be successful in eliminating some of those rules that they believe make their lives too difficult. I also get a great sense of satisfaction at seeing an ordinary citizen circumventing the rules and dealing justice. I'm not sure how those two thought processes co-exist in the same mind without creating some sort of mental meltdown, but they do.
This film grapples well with the issue, how does a cop with one sense of justice deal with a vigilante with another sense of justice, especially since given the circumstances around each act of vigilantism, it is clear that justice has been served. Equally interesting is the emotional toll this behaviour takes on Erica. She's not the jubilant vigilante, relishing the kill, rejoicing in removing one more scum dwelling bottom feeder from the face of the earth. She's the puking, unable to clean the stench of murder off her body type of vigilante, knowing the exact price she has exacted from each of her victims. She is painfully, heart-wrenchingly aware of exactly what she is doing, and it haunts her.
The film is dark, not just in tone, but visually too. That is because most of the action happens at night, and even when it's daylight, all of the shades in Erica's apartment are perpetually drawn. The opening brutality is very brutal, painfully so, there were several cringe inducing, make it stop please moments, but it was required to set the stage for Erica's transformation. After that opening sequence I was surprised at how the rest of the violence in the film was significantly toned down. It's a visual clue that the violence perpetrated by Erica is not as bad as the violence perpetrated by the thugs at the beginning of the film.
The ending is wrapped too neatly for a subject that is so very messy, but this was definitely one of the more thoughtful films I've seen on the subject of vigilantism. Definitely worth seeing.
Sunday, September 23. 2007
In September of 2002, Fox Broadcasting did something special. They aired a new television show called Firefly. It was so special that I never ever saw it. It was so special that Fox canceled it after airing only 11 of the 14 episodes that had been filmed. It was also so special that Joss Whedon, the cast, and the fans were unwilling to let it go. While Fox didn't pick the series back up like some networks have done with canceled shows, a completely different media company, Universal, was willing to put up the money for a feature film based on the show.
I first became aware of the show Firefly when the film Serenity started making my life "interesting" at work in April of 2005. As some of you know, I work for a company that tracks box office grosses for the film industry. Universal ran several special screening for Serenity in May and June of 2005, and those special screenings had special reporting requirements. I couldn't figure out why this film could possibly require or inspire all this pre-release hype. So after dealing with planning for a week or so, I finally decided I had to find out what the big deal about this movie was. I did some research and found out that it wasn't a film about recovery at all, it was a science fiction movie based on a canceled TV show. I was intrigued. Immediately I started reading up on the TV show, and what I read was amazing. I visited Amazon, and ordered the Firefly DVDs sight unseen, purely because of the quality of the reviews.
When the DVDs arrived my wife, my oldest son and I sat down and watched them, and were completely blown away. It had been a long time since we had seen anything so compelling. It was one of those situations where we didn't want to play the last episode, because then it would be done, and we would miss it in our lives. Fortunately we had the film to look forward to.
We saw the film opening weekend, and while not as taken with the film as we were with the TV show, it still stood head-and-shoulders above much of what is available in movie theaters. I have two major gripes with the film. The first is that the dialog in the series had a rhythm, a patter, a style. If you've seen the early seasons of The Gilmore Girls you get the idea. The dialog was instantly recognizable, it was...shiny. My other gripe was that this large cast felt like family on the series, in the film, a couple of characters end up being barely there. I felt this was a bit of a blow.
A month ago, Universal released a two disk DVD set called Serenity: Collectors Edition. I could hardly wait to get mine in my hot little hands. The first thing you notice about this set is just how cool the packaging is. It's the coolest DVD packaging I have seen. Cool packaging aside, the important thing is the content, are the two disks worth the price? This morning, I completed watching everything on the two disks. The first disk contains everything the original DVD does, plus a few other items, the most noteworthy of which, to me, is the new commentary track featuring Joss Whedon (writer and director), Nathan Fillion (Mal), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Summer Glau (River), and Ron Glass (Shepherd Book). Listening to these five enjoy each other's company while talking about the movie was was not necessarily enlightening about the film making process, but definitely a lot of fun.
The second disk contains many different special features, all of them interesting, though some of them do feature some repetitive footage. Once again there's one standout feature though: "Session 416" which gives us a bit of a glimpse into what happened to River once the Alliance started mucking about inside her head. It's quite chilling to watch her transformation from happy young girl to something menacing, and scary.
If you own the first DVD, and are not a huge fan, you might want to take a pass on this edition. If you are a huge fan, this edition is worth the price even if you have the original DVD. If you've never seen Firefly or Serenity you owe it to yourself to do so. The series is some of the finest television ever created, and the movie, while not on a par with the series, is still very very good.
Tuesday, September 18. 2007
"I've been standing on one leg for three long years, waiting for God to do me a favor, and he ain't listening." With that Dan Evans (Christian Bale), the crippled rancher, sets out to do himself and his family the favor that God, aided by a greedy land owner, has failed to do.
3:10 to Yuma is the latest film from director James Mangold (Walk the Line). It is a remake and re-imagining of the 1957 film of the same name. Dan Evans is the down-on-his luck, small-time rancher trying to survive through difficult times. Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is the charismatic gang leader, and gunfighter who doesn't have a heart of gold, but may have a conscience. Rancher and gunfighter cross paths during a stage coach robbery, and then again, more permanently after Wade dallies with a barmaid instead of getting the hell out of Dodge, errr, Bisbee.
What do you do with a famous gunslinger, who has a gang of ruthless and completely amoral sycophants that will do anything to rescue him? You send him to a federal prison aboard the train. The train to Yuma which leaves the town of Contention at 3:10pm three days hence. How do you get him to the train? You ask for volunteers, and then, when there are not enough volunteers you cough up a large sum of money for the successful completion of the task. With those details worked out, Evans, the railway man, Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), the naive, but willing to help Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk), and the crusty, and violent Pinkerton man, Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) set out to make sure the job is finished. None of them are aware that Evan's eldest son, William, a young man just starting to find his own identity, who fears that his father is not the man he would wish his father to be, has tagged along.
One of the continuing themes throughout this film is "What is the price of a man?" Does Evans have a price? Can he be bought off? Does Wade have a price? As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that Evans doesn't just need the money the railroad has promised him. He needs to complete this job, because somehow it will complete him, validate him. We also learn that Wade may still have a conscience.
The climax of the film is a well-staged gun battle between Evans and Wade's gang, led by feral Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), Evans trying desperately to get Wade to the train station, Prince and the gang trying desperately to stop them.
Mangold gets fine performances out of his cast, Christian Bale always appears somewhat stoic, and as the crippled rancher Evans he uses that stoicism to good effect. I have a feeling I would really despise Russell Crowe were I to meet him. However, he regularly turns in above average performances. This one is no exception. He brilliantly captures the wicked, charismatic master criminal. Ben Foster as Charlie Prince is truly scary, he manages to go the entire film with a maniacal look in his eyes that is completely believable.
When I was growing up I loved westerns, I loved my good-guys in white hats, and my bad-guys in black hats, and no ambiguity. As I've matured, I much prefer shades of gray, and texture to abound. This film accomplishes that very well. It provides us with characters who are believable, and recognizable.
My biggest problem with this film is the ending. To me it seems a bit of a cliche, and yet, it may not be, it depends on how you choose to view it, and I've waffled several times on it, but I'm going to come down on the side of cliche that is slightly redeemed by the final frame.
That minor criticism aside, I don't think we've seen a western this good since Unforgiven.
Sunday, September 16. 2007
Saturday, after a fabulous Thai dinner at Thanh Thao on SE Hawthorne, A friend and I saw Superbad (special thanks to Bob who was willing to dig up showtimes for me when I couldn't get them on my Blackberry), the newest film from Judd Apatow's (Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin) production company. I must confess that I have seen neither of those films though I was a huge fan of his short-lived but fantastic television series, Freaks and Geeks.
First things first, I have not laughed so hard at a movie in ages, laughter that goes from quiet snickers to great gales of very loud guffaws. This movie is hilarious, however that hilarity comes with a price, you have to be willing to put up with more penis jokes and references than you have likely ever heard or seen in one place at one time. In addition to the copious penis jokes (both verbal and sight gags), there are an almost equal number of jokes about female genitalia and sex in general. I suppose it's to be expected as almost the entire film takes place in one day, as two high school seniors, Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill), attempt to get laid.
So is Superbad just an incredibly juvenile excuse for penis, vagina and sex jokes? i don't think so. Beneath it all, it still manages to somehow be--the only word I think fits is--sweet. It's all about the adventures of two mostly misfits who spend lots of time talking about sex, and girls, but never actually socializing with girls. Evan has his eye set on the adorable Becca (Martha MacIsaac) to whom he has actually managed to be brave enough to loan a pen. Seth sets his sights on the beautiful Jules (Emma Stone) with whom he shares a dream lesson in Home Ec, and who wants him to hook her up with some liquor for a party she's throwing.
Apparently liquor is the price of coolness, and to get the liquor Evan and Seth have to enlist the aid of their friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who is even geekier than they are, but who also has fake ID under the one-name-only moniker McLovin. During the big buy the friends get separated, and the story splits into two story lines. One follows Seth and Evan, the other follows McLovin, and the exploits of two of the funniest and most ridiculous police officers ever filmed. Bill Hader plays Officer Slater, the older and wiser (yeah right) veteran. Seth Rogan, who also shares a writing credit, plays Officer Michaels.
While Officers Slater and Michaels are complete buffoons, they're completely lovable, and absolutely hilarious. Their interactions with McLovin are some of the funniest in the movie. Hearing a uniformed police officer hear a siren and go "Oh Shit! The cops!" is priceless.
Eventually the boys and the liquor make it to the party, and some things happen and some things don't happen, and everyone learns a little something about themselves and their relationships, not just with members of the fairer sex, but with each other.
This film will never win any acting or directing awards, nor writing awards, unless they give an award for most uses per minute of the word "fuck" (186 times in a 114 minute film). That doesn't matter to me, behind the language and the penis jokes, this movie has heart, and characters that you actually end up caring about, and there are films with far less juvenile humour, that take themselves far more seriously, that can't accomplish that.
Thursday, August 30. 2007
I just finished BioShock. Just beat the last bad guy, and wanted to get my thoughts down on paper as quickly as possible.
First, BioShock is not just a game, it's an experience. There were moral decisions, and for me some moral imperatives. Irrational Games has taken the first person shooter and set the bar so very high, it will be difficult for anyone to come close. I'm not a fan of the format, mostly because I am not particularly good at it. I enjoy playing multi-player games with my friends, but BioShock doesn't have multi-player at all. It was just me against the computer. The last time I had a similar gaming experience in a similar format, was when I played the original Half-Life on the PC.
The graphics are amazing. The world the developers envisioned truly comes to life, it's creepy and beautiful and amazing. The sound is fantastic, I no longer have access to surround sound (my neighbours are likely thrilled by that) but even in stereo on my TVs speakers it was wonderful to listen to, lending an air of foreboding and approaching doom. The story is brilliantly crafted up until the very end. The men and women who created this truly created a masterpiece of gaming. Glorious art.
Second, BioShock is not a perfect game. It comes close, but doesn't quite win the cigar. The ending is appallingly dreadful. Granted it would likely have been slightly different if I had played the game differently (which I plan to do when I play it through on hard mode). But it wouldn't have been different enough to rescue the depths of the ending's lameness. That said, it was the only true disappointment I had during the many hours I spent in the city of Rapture.
There are a couple of other nit-picky things that I bothered me a bit. While the voice acting throughout is exceptional, Irrational could have recorded a few more sound bites for the Splicers. You can only listen to a Splicer sing Jesus Loves Me so many times before it gets slightly old. Don't worry, you won't be subjected to it that much, it just became evident by the end of the game that even three or four more sound bites per evil-doer, would have been a good thing.
The other thing that bugged me is what is called "texture drop in." this is when objects don't get fully drawn before you see them. The basic shape is there, but the detail is not. they look like plastic bottle without the label, or a shirt without the pattern. Once again, it didn't happen often, but enough to slightly yank you out of being completely immersed in the world.
Earlier I talked about moral decisions. There is one major moral decision in the game. I happened to take the easy way out, rationalized it, and payed the price. There came a point in the game where I had to change the way I played it because I could no longer behave toward one of the groups of characters as I had been behaving. This is brilliantly story telling built around a basic game mechanic. Not only did I decide I had made the wrong choice, but I felt awful about having made it. Since when do games make you feel awful about the choices you make? If more game creators could create that kind of feeling in their audience the game industry as a whole would be in far better shape.
The vast majority of video games are divided up into levels with a boss to deal with at the end of each level. Bosses are usually quite a bit more challenging than the rest of the level, and often have a secret or something you have to figure out to be able to destroy them. I hate bosses, I despise them, I dread them, they are such a gaming cliche that I wish there were a good way to eliminate them. I fight bosses because I have to, not because I want to. Irrational came up with a great solution to the boredom of the boss problem, make the player want to destroy the boss, make it a moral imperative. They did this most effectively on one of the bosses, and not quite so effectively on the others, though one other is worth a bit of note later on. When was the last time you decided a character in a game was too evil to be allowed to live? Dr. Steinman was such a character for me. Listening to him, watching him, seeing just what he was up to, pushed me beyond the normal I've got to kill this guy to get on to the next level, and into this guy has to die, he is far too evil to be allowed to continue his existence. That sort of feeling was also a first for me in a video game.
The second unique thing Irrational did was create a boss you didn't have to beat! Finish the character asked you to complete for him and you got to go on in the game without having to fight him. That was certainly unique for me. I'm not sure whether I will fight him, or leave him alone the second time through the game.
BioShock is one of those rare games that is a small miracle. If you're a gamer and you have an XBox 360, you owe it to yourself to experience this game.
Sunday, August 12. 2007
Some friends invited me to go to a screening of Peter Berg's The Kingdom last Thursday. While it was an entertaining diversion, I doubt it will go down in history as a great example of either the art of film making, or the action genre.
At its heart The Kingdom is a fish out of water story. Unfortunately, the wrong group are are the fish.
Jaime Foxx is FBI Agent Ronald Fleury, who is the head of a team of FBI specialists who manage to connive their way into The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to attempt to get a handle on who set off a bomb that killed over 100 Americans who lived there. Fleury's team consists of Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), the beautiful brainiac, Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), who's job seems to consist mostly of whining, and Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), the older, wiser, seen more life guy. When their plane lands in Saudi Arabia they are met by Col. Al Ghazi, the man assigned to the case, not to solve it, but to keep the Americans out of trouble.
There are cultural differences aplenty, mostly having to do with shaking hands, touching dead bodies, and Janet's lack of appropriate attire. There is nothing racy or sexy about Ms. Garner's wardrobe in this film, nothing like the kinds of things she used to wear on Alias, but it is impossible for her to not be beautiful, and sadly enough her beauty is one of the high-points of the movie. The other high-points are Chris Cooper's performance, which is the best of the lot, Like Robert Duvall, he always seems to be able to carry things when others can't. There is also one amazing action sequence that will likely have you on the edge of your seat.
Back to fish out of water...You would think that four Americans in a foreign country would be the fish out of water, however, it is really the Saudis who are the fish out of water in this film, and that, while unexpected, was actually slightly jarring.
If you are looking for a great movie, don't bother. If you are looking for a harmless diversion, there have been been far worse ways to do it than this.
Sunday, August 5. 2007
Yesterday, after meekly accepting my speeding ticket, and then having dinner with Travis, we went to take in the last of the films in the Jason Bourne trilogy, Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum. I have been a big fan of the books for along time, and have read each of them twice. When I saw the first film, The Bourne Identity, I was disappointed that it really had no resemblance to the source material, but I was thrilled to see a really smart, action movie that held together under close scrutiny and didn't insult my intelligence at the same time. I felt that way about The Bourne Supremacy as well. Now having seen the third installment, I can say that we have been presented a true gift of three exceptional action films.
John McTiernan's classic Die Hard set the standard for modern action films. Bruce Willis's performance as the "every-man" trapped in extraordinary circumstances is one of the best action performances around, and Alan Rickman's performance as the villain created very large shoes to fill for any action movie villain. Unfortunately none of the other Die Hard films were able to capture the bottled lightning of the first movie. Were they entertaining? Sure. Were they exceptional? Definitely not.
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a man struggling to find out who he is. Suffering from amnesia since the beginning of the first film, he begins to slowly peel back the layers of his life trying to determine just why it is that he instinctively knows how to execute violence so very effectively. Damon fills the role of the chameleon Bourne very effectively. His performances as he goes from wondering just who the hell he is to reflexive mayhem and back again have been very believable. He is no different in this film, though his character is far more self-assured. When you look at him, you fully believe this is a man who can simply disappear almost in front of your eyes.
Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) is a man who once served his country by any means necessary who has been corrupted by his power, and now seeks only to protect his own posterior by having Bourne killed as quickly as possible. Strathairn's performance of underplayed and quiet villainy is quite reminiscent of Rickman's performance in Die Hard. Vosen's foil in the CIA is Pamela Landy, played very effectively by Joan Allen. The interplay between these to is one of the most entertaining parts of the film and it fills much of the "down" time between the action scenes.
We are so used to seeing all sorts of amazing action in films these days, bu so much of what we see is computer generated imagery. Greengrass appears to eschew the use of computer generated imagery, and imbues his amazing action sequences with things that are completely plausible in our world thereby requiring his audience to not suspend disbelief. You watch and you say "Wow! I think that could really happen." This film is non-stop action, but it's not action you get tired of seeing. Sam Raimi in Spider-man 3 attempted to pack almost too much in. Greengrass does not make that mistake. He uses the downtime between action sequences to quickly and smartly move the plot forward.
If I have a quibble with the film it is with Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). Nicky is a CIA operative who crosses paths with Jason Bourne, and decides to aid and abet instead of search and destroy. She seems far too much the "damsel in distress" and not enough the kick-ass CIA operative I would have expected her to be. I don't believe you get to where she was without knowing how to take care of yourself, and she doesn't appear to have those skills.
Greengrass shoots a lot of footage using hand-held cameras. This gives the film a very close-to-the-action, documentary like feeling. Unfortunately the "un-steadicam" technique can get a bit distracting at times. There were a couple of scenes where I was focusing more on what the camera was doing than what the camera was showing me. Finding oneself yanked out of the world of the film like that was a bit jarring. The fight scenes are cut very violently. Sometimes it is difficult to follow the action. The first film I remember seeing this kind of editing in was Batman Begins I didn't like it then because the darkness of Batman Begins made a difficult task, almost impossible for me. I liked it only slightly better this time, and that is because the light levels made following what was going on quite a bit easier for me.
Rarely do I enjoy films that don't match the source material, but in this case I will take the two different media, book and film, for what they are, excellent examples of the thriller, that happen to have protagonists that share the same name.
Monday, June 26. 2006
What better day for a father to spoil himself than Father's Day?
On Sunday the 18th of June, I did the unthinkable and willingly spent money on a product produced by Microsoft. I did this after coming to the realization that Sony, who I have fully supported for years (two PS/2s and a PSP), are every bit as arrogant and troubling as Microsoft. Since I don't really want to support Blu-Ray, and since it appears Sony is intent on gouging their fan base and creating a machine with too little bang for too much money, I purchased the more expensive version of the 360 (comes with hard drive, and a few other tidbits), the wireless adapter for connecting to my Wi-Fi network at home, the plug and charge charger for the wireless adapter, and two games Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I also shelled out for an extended warranty..
My normal place to buy games and equipment was (emphasis on the was) the GameStop store in the Gateway Shopping Center here in town. My family had taken me to Applebee's across the parking lot from the store and my boys and I trekked over to the GameStop after dinner only to find that they had closed at 6:00pm! I was stunned I had money I wanted to spend and the store was closed. Unfortunately for GameStop, Game Crazy doesn't share their silly retail hours, and there is a Game Crazy in the same complex as Applebee's and GameStop.
When we arrived at Game Crazy it was staffed by a single person, a young lady named Lully. She was friendly, polite, knew what she was talking about, and had no difficulty convincing me to to buy the extended warranty. We talked about games and XBox Live and rentals (12 free rentals with the purchase of a 360!) and what accessories were required (a plug and play charger for the controller). I spent quite a bit of money in that store and haven't regretted it at all.
Management at Game Crazy, you've got a gem in Lully, you should take good care of her!
I have two complaints about the 360.
I created a gamertag before I had an XBox Live account and after I had played through a bit of both G.R.A.W. and Oblivion. I could find no way to transfer my machine specific gamertag to XBox Live, and ended up starting both games over again once I had recreated the gamertag. As it was very little game play (maybe an hour in G.R.A.W. and two hours in Oblivion this wasn't so bad).
Twice when I've turned the unit on, I have had to restart due to strange video problems, colours not coming on, or coming on to brightly, all the "edges" showing up in one bright colour or another. Both times a restart corrected the problem, but I may be very glad I got the extended warranty!
That said the positives have far outweighed the negatives, and I'm thrilled that I finally allowed a Microsoft product in my house.
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