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October 24, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

CoverIt seems like the hot thing to do these days after your series goes off the air is actually to put out a reunion movie before your fanbase forgets you existed. Even a few years later isn't so bad too. Look at the success of direct-to-video features from both Stargate and Dead Like Me, with constant rumored projects in the works for shows like Jericho and Pushing Daisies. The latest is a look back at Battlestar Galactia, the critically acclaimed SyFy reimagining of the 1980s epic most would rather forget. Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is written by Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and directed by series star Edward James Olmos.

The story here takes us back to the original miniseries launch, following the Cylon attack on the twelve colonies, and carries us through the first episodes of the show. I know what you're saying, we already know what happens, we've even got it on DVD. But wait, this time it's from the Cylon perspective. What were those sixes and eights doing before we got glimpses of their lives. Until Season 3, we were only treated to subtle glimpses of Cylon society and what their schemes might bring, kind of like a teaser to remind us bad guys were still pursuing the heroes. Now, the curtain's pulled back and the various stages of the master plan are unveiled.

This installment is a must-have for die-hard fans of the series. It fills in many gaps and blends seamlessly into the existing episodes. At times I even wondered if I was watching some shots from different angles originally aired or if this was a deleted scene or recycled footage. Tricia Helfer, as always, brings her A game. "Let's get this genocide started" is not an easy quip to pull off, but Dean Stockwell's Brother Cavill manages to steal the scene with it. While I'm not sure if this is the last we'll see of the BSG universe, I'm glad we got this much. It's not often fans of a successful show are treated to afterthoughts this great. I guess the lesson learned here is sometimes there are more stories left to tell, even if not a whole season's worth.

October 22, 2009

When did autumn get here?

I've been terrible with timely posts this fall, I know. Been busy, been travelling, been playing Fable 2. I'm over it.

The summer of one bowl big salads has morphed into the autumn of one pot hearty stews. We've already had one chili and a pasta/tomato/peas/salami thing. I'd give you the recipe, but the chili is a family secret, and the other I don't know what all I put in there. Incidentally, I read that cayenne is good for staving off colds, so I made sure it was a super hot chili. My throat was burning off, and it's a good thing!

Newsflash! I did finally finish Stephenson's Quicksilver! it was both one of the best and one of the worst books I've read recently. If that makes no sense, scroll down for further discussion of what I was going through while I was reading it.

On a better note, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is both eminently readable and subtly satirecle, two of my favorite things. Even funnier, I just watched the “Monk” episode of Terry Jones's Medieval Lives, and while watching it I could say “those people are in my book!” it was delicious nerdy fun that even Yomiko Readman would be proud of.

Been reading buckets of Steven Brust lately, just can't get enough. Bought Orca (part of the Vlad Taltos series) and The Phoenix Guards (sorta kinda a prequel series to the Vlad books), and zipped through Orca in about 2 days. Vlad Taltos is becoming one of my favorite fictional characters. Smart, sarcastic, scrawny and a smart-ass, sometimes he beats people up, sometimes he pays people to beat other people up, and sometimes he gets the shit kicked out of him. When I first met Vlad many volumes ago, he was young, brash, and an assassin for hire, mostly working for the corrupt Jhereg, a royal house in the Draegeran Empire. Always the misfit, he's too human to ever truly fit in in the Empire, and too Draegeran to ever fit in back in the east, where the humans live. These days, he's semi retired, semi forcefully. Having done something horribly wrong (if someone knows what book this occurs in, and what happens, please tell me the book!), he is now on the run form the Jhereg, who would love to give him an unrevivafiable death sandwich. Hiding out in the east, and venturing back into the Empire when duty calls and to sneak a visit with his ex-wife and son, Vlad spends his days as part muckraker, part witch for hire, and part punching bag. Having a telepathic familiar and being on a first name basis with the Empress doesn't hurt either.

These books are filled with action, sarcasm, wit, sarcasm, intruigue, action, and a little more sarcasm, and a surprising amount of romanticism. Not romance, with kissy stuff, but romanticism. Think of it what you will.

Some fans have voiced some angst about Brust never giving a real physical description of the Draegerans, other than that they are tall and live a really, really, really long time. Humans call them Elves, in a derogatory fashion. But not having a physical description of them? It's never bothered me. To me, the Draegerans are just tall humans who seem not to age. They seem to accept Vlad and his family pretty readily, allowing humans to live in the vicinity, and even meet with the body politic. So not knowing everything there is to know about the Draegerans? Not a problem, not one bit.

October 20, 2009

Warehouse 13, the First Season

CoverThe first season of Syfy's most popular series to date, Warehouse 13, ended with, well, a bang. I suppose I shouldn't say bang. It was really more like an earth shattering explosion, and I mean that both in the physical sense because the last episode did end with a bomb going off, and in the metaphorical sense, because it also ended in some unexpected, and heartbreaking betrayal.

For those of you who haven't been watching the show, here's the basic premise. As we first meet our two main characters, Mika Bering and Peter Lattimer, (played by Joanne Kelly and Eddie McClintock), they are working as secret service agents, charged with protecting the President. This is a job that gets a lot more interesting when a carved head in a museum starts bleeding, and then forces a man to try to kill a young girl, seconds before the President is scheduled to visit.

This incident gets the attention of Mrs. Fredrick, a truly terrifying woman played by C.C.H. Pounder.  She is the leader of Warehouse 13, as she says, it is "hers." And so, both agents are sent to the Warehouse, where they meet Artie Nielsen, (Saul Rubinek). He is currently running the warehouse.

Once inside, the secret service officers encounter several incredible artifacts from America's History. Among them are Harry Houdini's wallet, a football that seems to launch into space when thrown, and a wishing kettle. Said kettle has the interesting side effect of producing a ferret when anyone wishes for something impossible. Seeing as how Bering's first act is to grab the kettle and wish for something impossible, she is now stuck with a ferret.

Warehouse 13 is described as "America's Attic." It is where anything strange, anything unexplainable or dangerous is stored away until we can understand it. It is the job of Bering, Lattimer, and Artie, to find these objects, and tuck them away.

The show really got interesting with the addition of Claudia, played by Allison Scagliotti. She's a nineteen year old techie, with some serious problems with listening to the rules. I have some issues with this character, mainly that most of her lines are either overly childish, or just plain cliché. This is really a shame, because I think Allison has a lot of acting talent, and I hope the writers start treating her better.

One huge and crucial issue in the first season is that the field agents Pete and Mika are just not privy to a lot of the history of the Warehouse. More importantly, at least as far as the plot goes, they don't know a lot about Artie's past. All of this comes to a head when a dangerous former Warehouse agent, James Macpherson, played by Roger Rees, decides to take the Warehouse down any way that he can. I don't have a lot of love for the character to tell the truth. Macpherson is scariest when he's not on stage, given the fact that he's being played by a older British man, who looks more likely to make you a nice hot cup of tea with lemon than to try and kill your family. Though, that didn't stop him from threatening to kill Mika's mother and father.

As for the season finalize, I was disappointed in one thing. I don't think enough was resolved. Macpherson escapes the Warehouse, in fact leaves it in ruins, possibly killing Artie, and certainly leaving Mika and Pete stranded, with no way to get out. It is my personal opinion that Artie is not dead. I believe that he had hold of the Phynix, an artifact that enables one to withstand fire. The thing that worries me is that the Phynix needs to take the life of someone else to save the life of the one holding it. So, who is really going to be dead at the start of season two?

Syfy has ordered at least nine more episodes. Unfortunately, there is no date yet as to when the second season will start. I will be watching vigilantly, however. This show has the air of the X-Files, but funnier. It's like Buffy, but intelligent. It is, at the end of the day, a great show, despite its short comings, and I hope to see it continuing into season two.    

October 15, 2009

Review: Children of the Corn 2009

 

 Children of the Corn DVD

In the history of cinema, particularly in the made-for-TV movie genre, Stephen King adaptations are touch and go. For every venture like It or The Stand, there's also The Langoliers and The Shining. All ranging in scope from divergent to die-hard faithful, the latter not always being an optimal viewing experience, as evident by the film I discuss today. Having premiered on the SyFy channel earlier this month, Children of the Corn is now available on uncut DVD at a retailer near you. This new vision comes partially from King himself, who takes a credit on the screenplay, stars David Anders (Alias, Heroes), Kandyse McClure (Battlestar Galactica) and a slew of really creepy children and teens.

 The premise, if you're unfamiliar with either the original short story or 1984 adaptation starring Linda Hamilton (Terminator), finds a couple on a road trip who, through circumstances beyond their control, wander through the remote Nebraskan town of Gatlin, where the religiously zealot children have purged themselves of adults and started their own society. Donald P. Borchers screenplay closely follows King's original story, making few embellishments on the way. In an age where the hardcore fanbases call for absolute faithfulness in their adaptations, maybe they should just stay quiet for a minute.

What Worked: The kids were downright disturbing. While only four or so actually have a character to speak of, the mob mentality and Yearning for Zion-esque wardrobe and daily routine are enough to keep me from ever going to Nebraska, even though I clearly get the difference between fiction and reality. Daniel Newman stands out in the role of Malachai, with a ferocious edge and unyielding devotion that only exists in youth. Seeing him one moment tender with the girl carrying his child, quickly screaming into the leader of the militia-like group of men, accompanied by anyone old enough to stand and carry a weapon. The most gut wrenching moment of the ordeal comes in the beginning of the third act when we see the prophet child Isaac overseeing a fertilization ritual between a newly of age male and female. In Gatlin, those of mid-teen years must pair off and reproduce, before they're sent in exile and self-sacrifice to He Who Walks Behind the Rows, their alleged god in the corn.

 What Didn't: Almost everything else, for me anyway. I didn't find a great deal of chemistry between the two leads. Their banter at the beginning of the story is the kind of everyday conceit that works amazingly in King's prose, but not so well on screen. The climax is a bit lacking, however true to the source material it may be. Say what you will about 80s horror movies, but I found myself missing some of the artistic liberties taken in the original, including the adult travelers' fighting back. There's a great moment after our female lead has had her encounter with the townsfolk where her male companion shows the children who's boss. I just wish he'd gone a little further. The war veteran/PTSD subplot held a lot of promise at the beginning, but failed in its execution. One comment on the atmosphere, Gatlin seemed to sunny and bright all the time for me to feel any real sense of dread.

Ultimately, this remake/reimagining falls short of both its source and 1984 film. Lacking any moment of catharsis and failing to truly break any new ground, you're better off renting the original.

STAR WARS: The Force Unleashed (XB360)

CoverStar Wars has a long, mostly successful history in videogames. Its titles run the quality gamut from instant classics (Shadows of the Empire) and underappreciated gems (Episode I: Racer) to failed crap (Masters of Teräs Käsi). And with a legacy spanning virtually every genre from dogfighter to MMO, it’s interesting to see how one of the franchise’s latest additions sets about carving itself a saber-sharp
niche. STAR WARS: The Force Unleashed doesn't mince words: its marquee appeal is right in the title. TFU is a game built around the idea of letting players wield devastating Force powers—an idea that it gets mostly right. The Force mechanic isn't without its hiccups; but luckily, there's more to the game than the title suggests.

TFU's story (wedged neatly between Episodes III and IV) unfolds during the final days of the Jedi purge as the Empire continues to tighten its grip on the war-torn galaxy. The game drops the player into the formidable boots of Starkiller, an "orphaned" Jedi youngster who is adopted by Darth Vader and raised as his personal Dark Side agent. The Apprentice travels across the galaxy, hunting down the last of the Jedi and eventually going undercover to stir up counterrevolutionary
forces designed to distract the Emperor from Vader's impending betrayal. Fans can expect to see a number of familiar faces (including Bail and Leia Organa) sprinkled in among the newbies. Although most of the new characters are welcome additions to the Universe, Starkiller is the only one afforded any real amount of depth. LucasArts obviously made an effort to create a compelling and conflicted personality in the game’s lead, and they certainly succeeded. It's a shame they didn't lavish as much attention on the rest of the cast. The game's narrative is fairly intriguing overall, wrought with plenty of twists and surprises. A contrite bit of sentimentality in the ending's final moments mars an otherwise engaging story; but it's a small price to pay for a tale that's both
highly relevant to the Expanded Universe and fits so remarkably well into post-Prequel canon.

LucasArts didn't skimp on the game's production values: TFU doesn't have the most impressive graphics engine, but it does feature some massive environments, beautifully rendered planetscapes, and brilliant lighting effects. In-game models move and react believably, if not
entirely realistically. It's cool to watch Force-levitated troops latch onto nearby objects to stay grounded, but it would have been nice to see enemies with guns snap off some defensive shots while hanging in midair. Most of the character models in the game's cutscenes have a stiff, robotic quality—which is great for the droids but a little awkward for humanoids—and lifeless eyes. Some
pre-rendered CG might have cleared up these problems, but they're minor complaints. All the requisite Star Wars sound effects are represented, from the crackle of colliding lightsabers to the rattle and screech of passing TIEs. Somewhat unfortunately, the requisite Star Wars music is included, as well. I've got nothing against the classic Williams score, but after having been rehashed and repurposed for countless games, it's become more than a little cliché. A derivative original title theme does little to differentiate itself from the rest of the soundtrack.

TFU's gameplay consists of combat-intensive action mixed in with some light platforming and puzzle elements. Lightsaber combat is fun and satisfyingly effective. A variety of unlockable combos, flourishes, and midair juggles, combined with a semiautomatic defense system,
mixes up the action; but a lack of any primary ranged weapons means you'll often be caught slowly advancing on groups of enemies equipped with unblockable projectiles. Adding to the frustration is most enemies' ability to interrupt your attack animations and score hits while you're knocked down. This can lead to lots of cheap deaths, especially on the game's higher difficulty settings. But the real stars of TFU are the upgradeable Force Powers, offensive and defensive Force attacks (including lightsaber throws and lighting strikes) used to augment combat and solve basic puzzles. Despite a finicky targeting system (the game often likes to choose attack points for
you), these Powers combine seamlessly with your arsenal of melee attacks, creating opportunities to chain together devastating combos and kill strings. Style points, which are awarded for creative combat and environmental destruction, can be cashed in for upgraded Force abilities and character attributes. Improving yours stats becomes essential later in the game as enemies become more pervasive and attack in larger numbers.

Some rather mindless Quick Time Events (timed button-pressing minigames) are employed to finish off powerful enemies and wrap up boss encounters; but a failsafe system that lets you instantly retry botched QTEs strips these moments of any real challenge. This bit of handholding seems especially odd next to the game’s unforgiving, rage-inducing highest difficulty setting. Swarms of overpowered enemies will quickly surround and overwhelm the player, leading to an endless repetition of unfair deaths; and don't even get me started on the boss fights. Believe me, I enjoy a challenge (and the satisfaction of unlocking an elite Achievement) as much as the next hardcore gamer, but it's tough to feel like a badass Sith apprentice when you're being habitually dispatched by clusters of torch-wielding Jawas. An occasionally unintuitive checkpoint system and inattentive camera round out the game’s major flaws; expect to sit through the
same meandering cutscenes when you repeatedly die just inside of a new area.

In addition to the single-player campaign, TFU offers a series of throw-away training room challenges. This lack of mode variety isn't especially problematic, as the gameplay doesn't exactly lend itself to multiplayer deathmatch. (A two-player, online co-op campaign mode could have been fun, but might easily have unbalanced boss fights.) Dedicated players can redo missions to collect hidden Jedi Holocrons (which unlock special costumes and lightsaber mods) and complete
secondary objectives, max out their attributes, or search the final level for an alternate, non-canon ending. Progressing through the campaign opens up a series of Extras including character and object profiles and a theater to view all of the game’s cutscenes. Promised DLC, already included with the Wii, PS2, and PSP versions of the game, should help extend the title’s lifespan. But for anyone not brave—or masochistic—enough to attempt TFU’s higher difficulties, there may be a disappointing lack of replayability here. These problems probably don’t constitute enough of an argument to dissuade Star Wars fanatics from buying the game, as the story and production values
alone are likely sufficient to satisfy series diehards. But everyone else is better off sticking to a rental.

Score: 3.5/5.0

October 13, 2009

Trueblood, The Complete First Season

CoverIn Trueblood, The Complete First Season, this HBO original series sets Vampires cohabiting with humans in the small country town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Vampires come out of the closet thanks to the creation of Tru Blood, a synthetic concoction, which allows Vampires to live without killing humans for sustenance.

The story line, based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by New York Times best selling author, Charlain Harris, is an interesting character study surrounding the life of Sookie Stackhouse. Sweet and innocent, sometimes too good to be true, Sookie is a clairvoyant who can hear people's thoughts. She is bombarded by everyone's thoughts, save the newly settled vampire, Bill Compton, who's just moved in down the road. Bill immediately becomes Sookie's love interest, ruffling a lot of feathers, causing trouble and murder to abound.

Created by Alan Ball, the first season boasts murder, whacked out churches and deep woods exorcisms, weaved along in an almost comical fashion with moderate gore. One favorite scene shows Jason Stackhouse's latest girl is stuffing vampire guts down the garbage disposal. Jason is Sookie's ex-jock brother who nails about anyone in town who's not tied down.

Easy and seductive, this first season is somewhat reminiscent of a night time soap. Although sometimes unique and surprising in its story line, hardship, sex, seduction and loneliness feed fuel to the fires of its characters.

Primarily a character study, the well-crafted dialogue and comedic nuances lead you to develop a camaraderie with the characters, who even if annoying, become quite likable. Notable Characters include of Jason, Sookie's brother, and Tara, her best friend. The flamboyant Lafayette, a local drug dealer who supplies V, or vampire blood, is charming and inviting. You almost don't mind that he trades sex for V with a vampire, or sells it to Jason who develops an addiction to it. Then there's Sam Merlotte, who owns the local tavern where most of the story happens. We find he has his own powers, not to be confused with those of vampires, toward the end of the season.

Bonus features include Tru Blood beverage ads, service ads and vampire mock-u-mentary about vampires in America.

Well cast and intelligently written, most of the time, Trueblood The Complete First Season is an entertaining watch for the creative viewer. It could disappoint die hard Vamp fans, but definitely has something for just about everyone- from steamy sex scenes to magical realms of existence, Trueblood binds the gap between the world of fantasy and everyday life in a rural hick town about as fun and creatively as you possibly could!

October 07, 2009

The Elder Gods by David Eddings

CoverI was in sixth grade when I picked up my first fantasy novel. It was David Eddings' Pawn of Prophecy and it opened my eyes to the fantasy literature at my fingertips. Since then I have moved on to different books and authors, but I always remembered David Eddings as the author who opened my eyes to the genre. When I heard that he had died recently I resolved to read his final series entitled The Dreamers. I got home with the first book in the series, The Elder Gods, and dove into this whole new world.

After diving a short distance into the book, this world didn't look so new to me. I had the nagging feeling that I had seen this world before. As I read and Eddings went into depth concerning the cultures that inhabited the world of The Dreamers it seemed that these cultures had been present in his previous series. The Maag pirates in the book appeared to me to be a mix of Chereks from the Belgariad and Thalesians from the Elenium series. Disconcerted by this fact I decided to concentrate on the aspect of the story that Eddings had always done best, character development.

David Eddings was asked what made his books so successful and he replied, "Characters. My people are as real as I can make them." After reading a David Eddings book you come away with the sense that you have read about, not some characters, but a group of friends. Eddings was a
master at creating camaraderie between his characters that made the story fun and filled with inside jokes. In The Elder Gods it appears that Eddings tried to create this feeling, but again it seems familiar. Not only are the inside jokes recycled, but so are the characters. In The Elder Gods there is a girl who is actually a goddess. She is obsessed with being held and giving kisses. While a sign of affection this tendency is also a ploy to get what she wants. The description I just gave could be taken and applied to the character Aphrael from Edding's earlier series The Elenium.

For his final series I am sad to say that Eddings relied less on creating new characters and cultures, but instead relied on his standard stock characteristics developed in his earlier works. While I
believe that anyone who has read Eddings' past work will be disappointed in this book I would not want to turn off anyone who is unfamiliar with Eddings. This book could be used as a springboard into Eddings’ classics. We were all richer for David Eddings’ creative influence, and he will be missed.

October 05, 2009

Caprica

CoverThe series finales of your favorite television programs tend to leave a strange taste in your mouth. That taste is often both an appetite for still more adventures with your favorite clan of characters, be they Buffy’s Scooby gang or the crew of a Federation starship, and the ill-inducing sensation that what just transpired wasn't as satisfying as you anticipated. The finale of Ron Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica this spring left neither. Viewers, myself included, seemed for the most part, satisfied.

The finale did leave us something—an onslaught of trailers promising more. Fans in the know had heard rumblings but were treated to the trailer for not only "The Plan," a two-hour stand-alone movie chronicling series' events from the Cylon perspective, but also the long-awaited first scenes of prequel series Caprica. Casual viewers may find themselves waiting until January 2010 for more; that's when SyFy (the new moniker of the SciFi Channel) will begin airing the series. But the show made its debut in April on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download. The series stars Eric Stoltz, Esai Morales and Magda Aponowicz set in the colonies 58 years before the cylon war we've heard so much about.

In a world intoxicated with its own success, technology looks to be taking a dangerous turn. In the first few scenes we see teenagers entranced with boundary-bending virtual technology and a robot as a mundane household servant. At its core Caprica is a story about two families with a somewhat intertwined destiny. Daniel Greystone is a businessman, robotics by trade, at the top of his game. Joseph Adama, yes, THE Joseph Adama, we know is a lawyer working in Caprica City, a flourishing metropolitan area that recalls most futuristic depictions of city life, minus any grit or grime. Early on a tragic accident claims the lives of a few of their family members, inciting the events that will lead to… well, we know what happens eventually.

Overall I'm not generally a fan of prequels. There's something about the origin story that just doesn't work for me when we already know the outcome. But this is where Caprica stands apart. Not only does it establish a mythology that while not conflicting with the BSG time stream also blazes new ground, but, by episodes end, a familiar endoskeleton is already in the picture as a major player. If you were a fan of BSG, you'll probably be a fan of Caprica. While the parent series explored aspects of religion, war and politics, this offspring promises a little of the same (terrorists of the one, true god) with more to build on while asking us the ultimate question—what exactly does it mean to be human?

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