Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Take a Bow, "Glee"; You're All Washed Up

You have to hand it to Fox's marketing department on this one. There was not a particularly large amount of people who watched the "Glee" series premiere when it aired a few months ago but, more likely than not, you heard someone chatting up the show over the summer. Fox slipped in the pilot episode of the series at the end of the spring and, quite purposefully, made the episode ubiquitous on the internet over the summer. As is typical whenever a big media company tries to harness the power of the internet, the results were mixed. On the upside, Fox created a moderately-sized crowd of incredibly devoted followers with only one episode. (In a quickly shrinking industry, that is cause for celebration.) On the downside, they had created demand for a product that had yet to materialize, with no indication that it ever would.

Those who praised the series' pilot heard more than they saw. The first episode is rife with classic songs, many of which are preformed by the show's talented a cappella singers. It was good stuff – their cover of "Don't Stop Believin'" deservedly sold quite well on iTunes. The time spent between those songs (you know, the story), on the other hand, was altogether different.

It is quite difficult to describe the story of "Glee." No, not because it is particularly complex, or anything; it is simply hard to elaborate on the actions of something that merely... lies there and twitches. Even within the introductory episode, the series' writers display a marked inability to identify a theme, character or plotline and then develop it to any satisfactory degree. On paper, you could say that the show is about Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison), a lost, young teacher, who finds new meaning in his career when he assembles a group of outcasts to form an underdog show choir.

Yet, even a premise so woefully trite as this one seems to be above this show's abilities. Why he is so lost is never quite established – sure, his wife is a bitch, but he does not really seem to mind when it counts; he is utterly oblivious to the cute coworker grovelling for his attention. Despite the fact that he draws obvious joy from working with the choir, he still ruminates on whether or not he should really be doing it – he goes off and joins a boy band in one episode – again, raising the question of what, exactly, his problem is, but never answering it. The choir is supposed to be a collection of lovable oddballs, but few of them get more than a line or two (this persists for episodes at a time with some of them), so they remain shallow stereotypes. Furthermore, a major character in the show is the boisterous cheerleading coach, played by Jane Lynch. She is quite funny, but if you know her typical character (dryly creepy and full of glib monologues), you know how out of place she would be in an ostensibly uplifting musical comedy.

This is, after all, the most serious issue plaguing "Glee" – tone. The show wildly banks from sappy to smug to earnest to downright mean from scene to scene. Narrative deficiencies could be overlooked a bit more easily if it was all brought together by some sort of overriding feeling, but "Glee" consistently fails to achieve such cohesion. The cheerleading coach, for example is willing to see her team succeed at any cost and she often makes some of the show's darkest quips when criticizing her cheerleader's bodies. This is an obvious bit of satire, but it proves incongruous in a show that is usually much lighter. At the same time, Rachel (Lea Michele), the choir's lead singer is a deeply insecure girl who is actually bulimic. Her character is usually played quite earnestly (many soulful solos come from her) but, whenever the subject of her bulimia is raised, Rachel brushes it off with a joke and whatever given adult she is speaking to pretty much goes right along with it. Such attempts to be both dark and light at the same time result in many moments that are just plain ugly.

A similar example came last week, in what was actually the show's strongest episode yet. I say it was the strongest not because it was particularly good, but because it did manage to glaze over some gaping plotholes and a bizarre message with a fairly consistent tone. The show's token gay character, Kurt (Chris Colfer), wants to prove to his judgmental father that he is actually straight. (He was revealed as being closeted the week before. I laughed out loud at this, as he is an egregious gay stereotype. Yet, I was okay with this, as it was an attempt to deepen the character, if not a terribly good one.) He does so by joining the football team and kicking field goals to the tune of Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies." (Yes, he dances up to the ball.)

Once such a performance wins the team a game, his father grudgingly resigns to the fact that his son is gay. Kurt sheds a tear and they hug. (You heard it here first: It is okay to be gay as long as you do something stereotypically straight in your own, stereotypically gay way. Inspiring.) Despite the concerning, strange message, the plotline benefits from a consistently light, yet genuine tone.

The rest of the episode is a different story. Kurt teaches the entire football team to dance in the process of winning over his dad? This is not entirely absurd, as many football players do, indeed, study dance, in order to improve their agility. The problem, here, is that the football team has already had its brush with performance art, rejected it and went back to being a bunch of stereotypical douches. In episode three, their alpha dog joined the boy band mentioned above – do not ask – but, in this episode, the boy band is defunct, and the alpha dog is back to calling dancing "gay." Character develo-what?

This episode also has a deathly serious subplot that clashes with the main plot as much as it does itself. A cheerleader is pregnant and she chooses to keep the baby, ensnaring her boyfriend in a lifetime of child support, despite fact that it is really his best friend's baby. (Sorry, did I switch to ABC Family, here?) The solution to her problems presents itself in the form of Mr. Schuester's bitchy wife. She wants to take the baby, so that she can lend some truth to the fabricated pregnancy she has been using to prevent the man from leaving her. As screwed up as the wife's plotline is, it is generally played for laughs. Yet, the writers see fit to have it intersect with the cheerleader's very serious plotline. Add in the score, featuring the a smug, a cappella rendition of a death march and you have a tonal train wreck. (And, uh, why is a supposedly upbeat show so comfortable with being seedy and amoral?)

If these are the only heights that "Glee" has managed to reach over the course of four episodes, it is clear that this show has already overstayed its welcome. There is simply nothing at its core. I, along with many others, wanted "Glee" to work – anything that is not a cop drama gets my support at first – but its consistent sloppiness exposes it for what it is: the work of ad men. Everyone knows that musicals are the rage right now and, one day, some suit at Fox clearly stood up and pointed this out. When all that a show has going for it is a huge budget (securing music rights is not cheap, folks) and a shrewdly executed ad campaign, it comes in lieu of a story. Sadly for the makers of "Glee," a TV show needs a story. Hoping that fans will continue to fill in the gaps with their own desire to see a good show will not carry it much further. With such soulless writing, something tells me that, ultimately, few people will miss it, anyway.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Late for Treatment: A Newcomer to "Dollhouse"

Note that this write-up contains spoilers for the season premiere of Dollhouse.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Hollis-Lima talked about his admiration for Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. Despite all the praise it received from people I'm inclined to trust, I never got around to really watching the show – I saw my friends and roommates viewing it and once I even watched three-quarters of an episode. Still, I could hardly count myself as a regular viewer. As I'd heard the season two opener was a good jumping-on point, I decided I'd watch it and blog a newcomer's reaction. As I can't wipe my memories of my scanty prior experiences of Dollhouse, I won't claim that I went into the show "cold." Even so, I think my experience with the season premiere is representative of the average newcomer's.

Not only does "Vows" quickly introduce the show's concepts – Dolls, mindwiping, handlers, programmers, etc. – quickly, it's also cuts straight to the seedy, unpleasant, and even horrific aspects of the Dollhouse. Yes, the Dollhouse building has a pleasant, slick warmth to it. Yes, there's pretty people and pop music. And yes, there's a lot of humor. But Whedon never lets us forget that his tale is, at heart, existential horror. One of the few Season One episodes I watched anything of had a fairy tale motif. If Dollhouse is a fairy tale, it's not Disney but unedited Grimm. For what it's worth, it appears that next week's episode, "Instinct," will be more explicitly creepy: Echo going to violent lengths to protect "her" baby.

This particular episode focuses on "erstwhile agent" Ballard's (Tamoh Penikett) attempt to use Echo (Eliza Dushku) to entrap an arms dealer. The honey trap is an old staple of espionage and thriller fiction, but it gains fresh perversity when the "honey" isn't entirely willing. Ballard may have the best intentions – stopping criminals from bringing dirty bombs into the country is a Good Thing – but can it really justify sci-fi rape/prostitution? Somehow one doubts that it can. The setup works very well for a season premiere and potential introduction to the series, allowing as it does for sex, violence, and intriguing flashbacks. Discussions on the natures of consciousness and identity are all well and good, but karate and gunplay and Eliza Dushku not wearing much all help bring the show the viewers it desperately needs.

In his earlier post on Dollhouse, Matt said he found the events at the Dollhouse generally more interesting than the Dolls' "engagements." Based off this single episode, I have to say I agree. The arms dealer plot seemed like a retread of dozens of other stories, even with the "topical" element of the dirty bombs and the creepy exploitation of Echo. I was much more interested in the plot back "home," especially as regards Whiskey, the Dollhouse's resident doctor – and a Doll who knows what she is. Watching her breakdown and reconstruct herself was by far the most interesting aspect of the episode. I hope that further episodes explore the character, though it looks as if Whiskey won't be a regular on the show – Amy Acker is listed as a guest star at the beginning of the show. Oh well.

"Vows" ends with Echo telling Ballard something very interesting, though I suppose the real source of the revelation could be the powers behind the Dollhouse toying with Ballard, trying to make him reveal his true intentions. The central conceits of Dollhouse seem to call for paranoid plot speculation – I know that many fans have some pretty wild theories about the overall plot arc. In addition to the big reveal at the end, this episode introduces what could be a major Season Two storyline. We see a senator speak about his devotion to health care (Topicality!) and his belief that the (Dollhouse parent company) Rossum Corporation has withheld major medical advances. The head of Dollhouse security, Boyd (Harry Lennix), says that "He wasn't on our radar" and must have learned about Rossum very recently. It seems there is a mole under the Dollhouse.

One of the things that most impressed me about "Vows" was its character "portraiture." The Doll programmer Topher (Fran Kranz) gets called a "sociopath" early in the episode, but later demonstrates scruples one wouldn't expect to see in so toxic an environment as the Dollhouse. Ballard has good intentions, but Whedon suggests they've put him on the road to hell. Everyone at the Dollhouse seems to have a character – the most unconvincing characters, ironically enough, are the people from the outside world. We can believe in Echo, Topher, Ballard, et al. far more than we can buy the gullible arms dealer who finds high explosives so "beautiful."

As much as I liked watching Dollhouse, I did have several issues with it. For one thing, it was unclear how much time the episode covered. As Echo marries the arms dealer at the beginning of the episode, I take it she has been playing seductress for months now? Are we supposed to assume she never got access to his house and the secrets within before her wedding night? It's all a bit awkward, and for once I would have appreciated a little more setup and exposition. I won't say that the finale action scene was tacked-on per se, but it did feel a little underwhelming. I would have liked to see a little more of the "clean up" as well – the newspapers evidently report "an arms deal gone wrong," but, since most of the criminals survive, one would think their testimony would draw attention to the Dollhouse. The FBI, for example, would be interested to know that a former agent helped bring down the "untouchable" crime boss. I guess there are some things you just can't expect from a one-hour show.

I don't deign to watch much television – perhaps it's a character flaw. But I think I've just added another show to my personal schedule. Hell, I may even have to order that Season One Blu-Ray. Matt tells me there are other episodes far better than the one I just watched. I look forward to seeing them.

Now, a response from Mr. Hollis-Lima:

Matt has already spoken of my love for this show. I have to admit, however, that I found this episode rather frustrating. The ideas in "Vows" were as fascinating as ever, but the episode's structure was straight out of the show's uneasy infancy. It often veered into murkiness, rendering many of its ideas difficult to digest. This makes the episode a far cry from wonderful First Season highlights like "Needs" and "Briar Rose."

As for accessibility, "Vows" may suit perceptive viewers like Mr. Keeley well enough, but I fear that a number of convolutions sent Joe Nielsen Box running for the "Law & Order" repeats last night. Now, I assure you, I am no proponent of lowest common denominator TV; some aspects of this episode were simply muddled.

Echo's assignment is easily the biggest perpetrator here. Ironically, I would say that this plotline suffered from being
overdeveloped; it got too much screen time. Veteran viewers will tell you that engagements slipped further and further into the background as the First Season progressed. This was a good thing, as it allowed them to play an ancillary role in the series' main plotlines. In "Vows," however, details like Echo's wedding of the arms dealer and prowling business associates just raised too many unimportant questions. This plotline should have been stripped down considerably – the whole episode would have benefited from it.

Thankfully, once the arms dealer finally gets his punch to the face, the episode's last act is left with plenty of breathing room. Major plotlines for this season are set up here, and they all look very promising. Whiskey's games with Topher are as juicy as they're cracked up to be and I cannot wait for more. Now that the obligatory moral floundering is past, I am happy to see Ballard resigning to his role as Echo's handler. There's a hell of a lot of trouble that is waiting to crash down on DeWitt's head, too.

There are many questions that need to be answered, but I know this show well enough to expect an answer to all of them in coming episodes (if they have not already been slipped in under some character's breath). This is, after all, a show that almost
requires multiple viewings of each episode; many things only make sense on the second pass. I would say that this is more of a complement than it is a criticism, but one wonders if enough viewers agree to keep the show afloat. If the writers can work their way back up to last season's highs, I am optimistic.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Curing a Fear of Change

This post discusses plotlines from season five of "House." Be warned, those of you who are behind on the series: Many spoilers lie ahead. No major spoilers from last night's premiere, however, are revealed.

Fox's (second?) best show returned last night in bold form. It was one of those rare instances where network television brushed up against a world of writing possibilities that is usually limited to five-star cable dramas. The formula that has invariably dictated this show's structure for five years had finally been shed. There were no "shocking medical mysteries" (!); there was no melodramatic first act collapse of a complete stranger; and, most importantly, there was no contrived resolution for that character, only 55 minutes after his or her introduction. For once, the show was completely delivering on its title: It was about House. It was about damn time.

If you ask me, season five was the best yet. It may have irritated critics and marked a significant decline in the show's ratings, but I appreciated the writers' many attempts at imbuing the show with some genuine life. Face it: Previous seasons had very little in the way of character development. The pairing of Chase and Cameron brought this to the fore; years later, these people were still mostly strangers to us. Sure, Hugh Laurie has consistently chewed scenery since the show's premiere, but even House's growth had largely been limited to season finale stunts. With season five, and particularly the development of Dr. Hadley, we got our first taste of significant, ongoing, character-driven plotlines. Even the Sick Person of the Week gained a new level of resonance. For example, having to treat one of her one-night stands forced Hadley to confront the recent choices she had been making as a reaction to her Huntington's diagnosis.

Big strides, to be sure, but still frustratingly short of the show's full potential. While the writers were audacious enough to buck the show's strictly episodic structure, the characters still seemed to suffer from an inability to remember what happened to them five episodes ago. It seemed as if the show's slavish insistence on solving one case each week was still muddling it's attempts at doing something more.

Then came the final arc of the fifth season. This is where the show blew wide open. House's mental state was finally being called into serious question and, furthermore, it was being done in the style that has always been the series' strong suit – surrealism. This allowed those tedious weekly cases to persist but, all along, be smothered with a delicious coating of menace and insanity. (Major credit goes to Anne Dudek for her portrayal of Amber, and the writers who where smart enough to capitalize on her talents.) It all led up to a finale that was downright heartbreaking. House, finally stripped of his pride, admitted that he sorely needed help.

It was, arguably, the moment to which the entire show had been leading. To do this landmark justice, the writers would have to ensure that the show would never be the same again. Last night's episode did many things to this end. Rejoining House as he completes his detox treatment in a mental hospital, we find him eager to leave. The warden, however, requires that House undergo psychiatric treatment before he is allowed to return to work. He is admitted to the hospital's long-term wing and, for the first time, forced to face his issues head-on.

The writers of "House" smartly eschew most of the show's habits here (except, of course, for the supporting characters' penchant for psychoanalyzing House). Princeton-Plainsboro, House's medical team, Cuddy and even the whiteboard are nowhere to be seen in this episode – a first for the series. (Even the opening is gone!) Instead, action is largely confined to the ward and plot is entirely confined to House's treatment. While the first hour is spent showing House's attempts at subverting his treatment, the second half of the episode puts House in situations we have never seen him tackle. It is thrilling to see a character we have loved for so many years make such strides, as the show explores how attainable happiness is for him.

There were moments during this episode where I wondered if House needed to ever return to his old job – both a testament to how fascinating the episode is and how convincing its most optimistic moments are. It raises questions of how much a show can change before it stops being itself. More importantly, it raises questions of how much "House" is willing to change. For all of the milestones in this episode, the status quo is largely restored by the end. There is much potential for long-term change, but no guarantee of it. (House's laughably brief abandonment of his cane in the third season comes to mind here.) It reeks of insecurity on the writers' part; they are hedging their bets. Can one new character from this episode not make it into the series' main storyline?

My naive excitement over a potentially seismic shift in the show's structure has since given way to something a bit more reasonable: a hope for continued evolution. I do not expect the writers to turn "House" into an exclusively serialized drama, nor would I want this. What I do want, however, is the writers' recognition of what they have achieved with this episode. They have proven that a new patient does not have to come along every week, that their characters can periodically carry the show on their own and that change can be permanent without robbing the show of its identity. Whether or not they recognize this will be clearer next week. Consequently, next week's episode has more riding on it than the writers probably intended.

Incidentally, would they give Hugh Laurie an Emmy, already?

UPDATE (9/23/09): Now, for a different perspective, "House Away from Home," a brief reaction to the episode from Mr. Keeley. He discusses certain plot details that I did not, so consider this a spoiler warning.

Season five of House ended with the good(ish) doctor entering a psychiatric hospital. I assumed, given the show's history, that season six would open with House walking away from Mayfield Psychiatric's Gothic monstrosity and returning to business as usual. I figured House's rehabilitation would be both inconsequential and offstage. It may yet prove unimportant, but at least we got to see it. I don't know if "Broken" was the show's best episode, but it was certainly a very good one. It may not have entirely broken the tried-and-tested House formula, but it came damn close.

If you watch the earliest episodes of House, you'll notice an almost noirish production design: Though set in a state-of-the-art hospital, House's world seems to have a hell of a lot of atmospheric shadows. As the show has progressed (and occasionally regressed), a lot of the show's old mood vanished. One can't blame the cinematographers if shooting the same few rooms and hallways episode after episode became a tad routine. Seriously - how many times have we seen House and Co. walk down the hallway discussing symptoms? Or House entering Cuddy's office to harass her? House had found a groove that threatened to become a rut. The change in setting and tone seems to have inspired House's cinematographers and production designers: There were a number of very "cinematic" and evocative shots. Especially nice was the opening detox scene, all the colors were washed-out, though the camera lingered on the yellow of House's precious Vicodin pills. "Broken" looked more like a pilot episode than it did a show entering its sixth season. I for one count this as a good thing.

As much as I liked the look of this last episode, I was initially wary about the show's plot, as House clearly planned to recreate One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Mayfield. House's many attempts at breaking the system fail; it soon proves that House's "opponent" Dr. Nolan is Our Hero's equal, not a sadistic medical tyrant. I applaud the writers for their skill in messing with our expectations. Despite all this episode's innovation, old habits die hard – there were two "patients of the week." The first patient came in the form of a mute woman. Unsurprisingly, she speaks by the end of the episode. The more important patient by far, however, was House. I've always cared more about the characters than the medicine. I don't expect "character-centric" episodes from medical dramas, but it's very nice when they come.

House is not a perfect show and "Broken" was not a perfect episode. It was disappointing to see House's new romance written off so quickly, and I didn't particularly care to see House still solving medical mysteries while institutionalized. Nonetheless, I think there's a lot to look forward to this season. House is off Vicodin, but on antidepressants. What does this mean? Now that House has had an actual relationship with a woman, how will his courtship of Cuddy change? How will the other doctors react to House's return? Will there be any recurring characters from the psych ward? Will the writers revert the status quo yet again? Time will tell, Mondays at eight o'clock.

Friday, September 18, 2009

How DO You Pronounce That Anyway?: BlazBlue

Despite the unkind things I said about Marvel vs. Capcom 2, I'm a great fan of fighting games. I'm not especially good at them - I can't perform the most convoluted attacks, nor can I parry multi-hit attacks by counting individual frames of animation. And yet there's something about the genre that never gets old for me. It's not just the games' difficulty; I don't feel the same attachment to "bullet hell" shooters that I do for fighters. A lot of it, I think, has to do with my perverse affection for the aesthetics of fighting games: the implausible outfits, bizarre characters, awkward humor, overdone plots, and general campiness. Fights between Soul Calibur's Ivy and Taki look like an unmade Russ Meyer film, while Rival Schools United by Fate (love the title) has a lunatic plot about Japanese high schoolers fighting each other and their teachers – with swords, baseball bats, knives, hand-thrown fireballs, and electrical attacks. Fighting games don't make much sense, but how I love their incoherent campiness.

I've played altogether too many fighters – just ask my friends – but there were a few franchises I always kept coming back to. One of these was Guilty Gear. Back in the early 2000s, Guilty Gear had quite the reputation. Not only did the game have extraordinarily well-animated fighters, unique and plentiful characters, and a good rock soundtrack, but it was also from a previously-unknown developer. Guilty Gear X, the second game in the series, got very good reviews, but when the third game, Guilty Gear X2, appeared, it received raves. Guilty Gear seemed on the way to becoming the 2D fighter of choice for this decade.

Shame, then, that everything fell apart. Instead of making a new game, Arc System Works revised GGX2 multiple times - there was a "new" game that added one character, a further revision that added another but removed two hidden characters, etc. I gather the most recent edition of GGX2, Accent Core Plus (don't ask about the series' naming conventions) is quite good: It has all the GGX2 characters and features the return of story mode, which had been dropped in an earlier iteration. That's great, and I may eventually play Accent Core Plus, as even the basic version of Guilty Gear X2 is a wonderful game. But it does seem a bit ridiculous to me that the "final" version of the game came out seven years after the game's original release.

According to most reviewers, Arc System Works' new game BlazBlue is both a) the "spiritual sequel" to the Guilty Gear Games and b) a totally unique 2D fighting experience. If you think these two statements are mutually exclusive, you'd be right. Guilty Gear and BlazBlue have more in common than mysterious and alliterative titles; many of the fighters in BlazBlue are highly reminiscent of older Gear characters. This is especially true of the two "leads," Ragna and Jin, who look and play just like Guilty Gear's Sol and Ky. Many of the mechanics of BlazBlue echo those of Guilty Gear – the "Faultless Defense" blocks and "Roman Cancel" techniques from the older series appear under different names in BlazBlue.

Despite what first impressions might suggest, BlazBlue is not a palette swap of Guilty Gear. Many of Guilty Gear's excesses have vanished. To take one example, let's consider Guilty Gear's Instant Kills with their BlazBlue counterparts, Astral Heat attacks. In Guilty Gear, every character has a one-hit that can be performed at any point in the round (watch them here). They can only be used once, they're easy to dodge, and you suffer a lot if you miss, but the attacks are still very cheap, especially when used against those new to the game. BlazBlue's Astral Heats are as flashy and fun as the old Instant Kills, but they can only be used in the last round of a fight, when the opponent has 20% health or less, and you have a full special attack gauge.

BlazBlue also elaborates on Guilty Gear's efforts to be an "accessible" fighting game. In Guilty Gear, every character but one had the same button combination to perform an Instant Kill. The idea was that players wouldn't have to waste time memorizing two dozen different commands – if you knew how to do one character's IK, you knew how to do another's. Guilty Gear also allowed for button shortcuts – it's easy to press four buttons at once while standing at an arcade pad, but it's quite hard to do while holding a controller. Guilty Gear let you set shortcuts, so a tap on the R1 button was (say) equivalent to pressing Square, Circle, X, and Triangle at the same time. It was a much-appreciated gesture. BlazBlue is actually even more player-friendly than Guilty Gear – not only have shoulder button shortcuts returned, but there are now even shortcuts for special attacks. Furthermore, each character has a "Drive" attack that can be used by merely pressing the X button. Jin can freeze opponents, Rachel can control the wind, Litchi can place or recall her magic staff, etc. No matter how bad you are at fighting games, it's not hard to look cool while playing BlazBlue.

As I mentioned above, many of the characters in BlazBlue will seem slightly familiar to players of Guilty Gear. At times, this is perhaps tedious: Ragna's play style seems almost identical to his predecessor Sol's. Yet most of the fighters in BlazBlue expand upon their templates. BlazBlue's Carl Clover has quirky play mechanics reminiscent of Eddie from Guilty Gear, but Carl is a far more memorable and unique character than Eddie, one of the less-interesting GG fighters. Similarly, Litchi looks like a slightly sluttier version of Jam, but the variety of tricks she can perform with her magic flying staff set her apart from her precursor. And I shouldn't overemphasize BlazBlue's similarities to Guilty Gear; there are a few characters who, as far as I can tell, aren't near-doppelgangers to fighters from the older games.

BlazBlue, unlike many modern fighting games, has only a dozen playable characters. Normally this would be a great cause for complaint, but each character is so unique and enjoyable that it seems wrong to complain. And while there are not many characters, BlazBlue has quite a lot to do. There is, of course, a classic "arcade" mode, but BlazBlue also has a branching story mode guaranteed to take up a lot of your time. Furthermore, there are plenty of unlockables, including dozens of pieces of concept and story artwork. And while 2D fighters have a reputation for being archaic, BlazBlue has a number of current-generation features. In addition to online play, BlazBlue supports both Trophies and Downloadable Content.

Few games display such attention to detail as BlazBlue. The game displays in 720p and looks great; the animation is great, the backgrounds interesting, and the character sprites ornate. The voice acting isn't top-notch, but many fighters have unique voice clips for certain battles. If Jin fights the "Red Devil" soldier Tager, for example, he might yell, "Red Devil dies today!" in the middle of the fight. Several matchups, such Litchi vs. Arakune or Jin vs. Ragna, have unique battle music. Would that all games paid such attention to the little things.

I won't go so far as to say that BlazBlue is a fighting game for people who don't like fighting games. It isn't. If you do, however, like fighting games, BlazBlue is the game for you. Those with less-than-ideal skills will enjoy themselves, while "serious" fans will find that BlazBlue is extremely deep. Don't let the new name or the paucity of characters put you off: BlazBlue is the best fighting game I've played in a very long time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

LittleBigPlanet: One Year Later

For all of my excitement over LittleBigPlanet last summer, I could not help but feel a bit apprehensive. Media Molecule's humble, little game for the Playstation 3 had tremendous buzz from the media, but no one could be sure how well the game would really work until it was loosed upon the world and given some time to grow. Some wondered if putting faith in the gamer masses to keep such a game alive and vibrant was naive. Thankfully, the game's whimsical aesthetic was not merely window dressing. LittleBigPlanet has not only captured the imaginations of millions of gamers; it has allowed them to flourish.

LittleBigPlanet's launch was, admittedly, a bit rocky. Controversy over the lyrics in one of the game's licensed songs delayed its worldwide release by a few days. It was, sadly, a faux pas that resulted from the developers' desire to make a game that drew from a diverse mix of cultures, but it was rectified swiftly and the delays were ultimately minor. There were a few other flaws, these more closely related to the game itself, that initially hampered the game, as well. The original system for locating a user-created level was woefully clunky. Players only had one choice for finding a level – the cryptic "Cool Levels" section that would select a few new and popular levels to advertise. It did not take more than a few weeks, however, for robust search and sorting options to be introduced to the game.

Suddenly, a burgeoning world full of excellent levels was easily accessible. Yes, there is certainly the predictable share of junk levels – "Easy Trophies!" "1,000 Free Objects!" – but it does not take much work to locate countless, other levels that are easily on par with Media Molecule's own (excellent) work.

The first level I recall truly blowing my understanding of the game's possibilities out of the water was Upsilandre's "LittleBigComputer." Hardly a typical level, there is no platforming and no clear goal for the player; there is simply a fully-functional calculator that the creator had built using the mechanical materials provided.

I find it very unlikely that the developers foresaw their tools being used in this sort of way. That such work is possible speaks to the versatility of the tools they created – not to mention the obvious ingenuity of the level's creator. Be sure to check out the end of the video, when the creator explores the guts of the device. It is jaw-dropping.

Most players, undoubtedly, came to LittleBigPlanet for a more traditional, platforming-based experience. Media Molecule's own levels that shipped on the disc certainly fit the bill. Yet, the developers have not released a single new level since the game's launch. It is a shrewd move – a decisive show of faith in the community and the spirit of the game. I, admittedly, often find myself wishing that they would make a few more levels but the developers know better than to try to overshadow the work of the game's community.

There is no shortage of excellent, traditional levels from the LittleBigPlanet community, either. Countless works showcase an incredible knack for level design, lighting, art design and engineering among many community members.

One example, dan_e2040's "Yggdrasil," remains one of my favorites to this day. It boasts a solid mix of jumping-and-grabbing traversal sections, disappearing platforms and original vehicle sequences. It is all set in a wonderfully atmospheric forest of ancient trees, softly lit by multicolored lights. Even down to the carriage that ends the level, each object is rendered with an amazingly detailed array of rustic branches and planks.

Other creators have dreamed up levels that are equally fun to play, but push the creation tools to their extremes, making levels that not only provide unique challenges, but incredible visual experiences, as well.

ShadowFlareX's "Illumina Garden 2," for example, makes wonderful use of the game's powerful lighting tools. Players must traverse platforms of light, as they navigate the otherwise pitch-black level. Simply jumping from one platform to another takes on a whole new level of difficulty when only the character's feet are visibile. Glowing spheres lift the player for surreal floating sequences and other sections have the player navigating the level in silhouette. While the aesthetics in this level certainly have an effect on how it is played, it will affect viewers' eyes more than it does their fingers. The level is simply beautiful, with bold colors and ethereal shadows permeating every corner.

One glance reveals that this level is brilliant from an artistic standpoint, but anyone familiar with LittleBigPlanet's creation tools will also be floored by ShadowFlare's innovations from a technical standpoint. I am quite familiar with the Create Mode in the game, and I no idea how the creator achieved much of what he or she did with this level.

Needless to say, I have have barely even skimmed the top of what has become a massive collection of levels – over one million as of late July. There is no question that players will continue to break new ground with this game, providing much fun for others to discover. Media Molecule has showed no interest in letting the pace slow, either. The addition of the Paintinator (a paint gun pickup) to the game late last year added a whole new level of gameplay mechanics and the impending addition of water and swimming mechanics this fall promises to change the game even more. LittleBigPlanet: Game of the Year Edition was recently released as well, featuring exclusive, new levels from some of the community's best creators.

One year later, it is apparent that LittleBigPlanet did not merely meet the huge expectations it fostered before its release; the game continues to surprise in both the versatility of the platform and the brilliance of its community's creators. In short, gamers have proven that Media Molecule's faith was well placed and that we all get to reap the benefits.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Clive Owen vs. Big Business: The International

According to IMDB, The International was supposed to appear in 2008, but was delayed until 2009 for reshoots and increased action. I don't know if the delay made the movie any better than it is, but it did serve to make the film topical - when it came out, we were all worried about evil banks. Just about every reviewer of the film discussed The International's supposed relevance, but one can push the topicality angle too far. The International isn't a Syriana-style paranoid exploration of the economy's evil. It's a cop thriller. The problem in real life was that the banks had incompetents in charge. The problem in the movie is that the banks are run by sociopaths. It's a lot less complicated and a lot more entertaining than real life.

The International begins in media res; our hero (Clive Owen) and his law enforcement companions from Interpol and the NYC DA's office already know that the titular bank, the IBCC, is thoroughly evil. We're saved the long scenes of Clive Owen and Naomi Watts digging through archives and discovering horrible forgotten deeds. By the time the film begins, they've already done that. As such, we can get straight to the point of the film: The investigation's endgame. Though there are several references to the bank's prior misdeeds, we never learn how Interpol got onto the case. For the purposes of the film, it's not important.

For the most part, The International is a very detached and "cool"-looking film - there's lots in the way of sleek glass office buildings, white museums, and bird's-eye views of symmetrical urban areas. When the film's not being sleek, it's usually being exotic or scenic: The film has scenes in Germany, Italy, and Turkey. Though there a few sequences reminiscent of the last two Bourne movies, director Tom Tykwer tends to hold his shots instead of engaging in Greengrass-imitation rapid cutting. The camera doesn't linger, but it doesn't sprint either. On the rare occasions that The International departs from its established aesthetic, it's quite jarring. Alas, the most memorable of these scenes really hurts the mood of the film. Did we really need a comic scene with a frazzled and paranoid pothead doctor? It's very out-of-place in an otherwise very intense film.

Aside from the bank "hook," the most famous aspect of The International is its Guggenheim Museum scene. The New York Guggenheim, that great white spiral, is a perfect fit for the movie's aesthetic, and the sequence there is by far the best part of the film. The Guggenheim has appeared in movies before - there's a chase there in Men in Black, of all things - but I don't know if it's ever been used better than it is here. The Boston Globe's Ty Burr has called it one of the best action scenes he's ever seen. For once I agree with the man. The museum scene is on par with the crop duster sequence in North by Northwest. It's a shame that the rest of the film isn't as good as Hitchcock's masterpiece.

(For what it's worth, the Guggenheim sequence was actually done in a full-size replica of the building's atrium. I guess the museum trustees didn't want Tykwer and Co. really trashing the place)

The International's cast only has two big names, Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. Owen is good as the obsessed (and oddly-named) detective Louis Salinger, but Watts is awful as Eleanor Whitman, Clive Owen's sounding board and platonic (!) friend. I suppose much of the problem lies with the script - Salinger is one of only two or three characters with anything like development; we learn that Watts' character has a husband and kids, but they don't have much impact on the plot. Similarly, we see one of the villains at home, but don't learn much about his non-murderous activities. Perhaps due to rewrites and reshoots, the movie has serious pacing issues: Things move very slowly until the Guggenheim sequence, after which the film gets quite fast. Still, the script does have its moments: The ending isn't entirely a copout, for one, and the film poses moral questions without being too heavy-handed.

I liked The International and I recommend it, albeit with caveats. Though not one of the best recent thrillers - say, Casino Royale or The Bourne Ultimatum - The International is a very fun and well-made movie. It's worth seeing, not because of its topicality, but for the second part of the film, after the Guggenheim shootout. If only the start of the film could match its finish.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Are You Ready for Your Treatment?

The Dollhouse offers a service. For a certain amount of money, you can have the exact person you want – the exact person you need – instantly. Do not think of it as a fantasy, however, because a doll does not act; a doll is a genuine, complete human being, designed to your specifications, temporarily at your service.

That is the sales pitch, anyway.

What goes on behind the scenes, in order to make all of this possible, is what concerns "Dollhouse," the Fox TV series that premiered this past February. The dolls are, indeed, real people. They are people who, for one reason or another, wanted to disappear. In return for guarantees of no long-term harm, no memories of it all and a large sum of cash, they give up their bodies for a period of five years. During this time, they reside in the Dollhouse, awaiting assignments, or "engagements," in a blissful state of submission – the tabula rasa, if you will. When called up, a doll is imbued with a personality (usually a composite of real personalities, designed to suit the needs of the assignment) and sent out under the surveillance of his or her handler.

You may find the concept of the Dollhouse to be disturbing, fascinating or, even, both. Its moral and ethical implications are vast and complex. Thankfully, the minds behind "Dollhouse," led by "Buffy" creator, Joss Whedon, are up to the task of exploring these complexities while keeping the show exciting and engrossing. This is simply some of the best writing on TV right now (and it happens to be aided by an excellent cast and strong crew).

This is largely due to scripts that consistently raise the show's premise to new heights. The series' first few chapters are largely episodic, focusing on one engagement per episode, as performed by a doll named Echo (Eliza Dushku). Over the course of these few episodes, however, some central concepts are introduced: Echo is growing in ways the Dollhouse did not intend (namely, she is retaining information, even after the compulsory post-engagement wipe); the technology is not as solid as the Dollhouse's staff would like to think.

These early episodes also display the diversity of jobs the dolls must do, ranging from romantic encounters to hostage negotiations to backup singing. Through all of these encounters, we discover the wide range of perspectives clients have on the service they use and the vast potential for danger that it brings. As the show develops, however, it becomes less concerned with external workings of the Dollhouse and concentrates on the dolls and those working there. Here is where the show begins to flourish.

It is precisely because "Dollhouse" is so concerned with the human cost of the technology that it succeeds. Each character is actively struggling with their role in the use of a technology that could very well prove to be apocalyptic but, for now, is used for a vaguely consenting form of slavery. Accordingly, they each have their own doubts, motivations and ethics. Echo's handler, Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) believes the Dollhouse is abhorrent, but he has a genuine concern for Echo that is, at once, moving and confounding, as she has no consistent persona with which he can develop a relationship. Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) is in charge of the Dollhouse. She views everything as a business transaction – something that proves to be a surprising source of compassion, as she insists on treating the dolls well, as per their contracts. Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the smug scientist who is solely responsible for the Dollhouse's vital technological component, sees himself as a philanthropist.

There are nearly a dozen other characters in "Dollhouse" that have equally valid justifications for why the hate, love or simply tolerate the Dollhouse. Not the least of these characters are the dolls themselves, who slowly grow over the course of the season, proving that there is no such thing as a blank slate. You see, after thirteen episodes, Whedon and his writers have proven that they intend to leave no stone unturned in this valley of potential ideas. This is a rare case where calling a show "high concept" is praise of the highest order. Never resorting to convolution for the sake of itself, this story unfolds like a blooming flower, revealing a new world of potential with every episode.

It is likely that you have not heard much about "Dollhouse." The ignorance of television critics, the ineptitude of Fox's management and a vocal crowd of internet detractors have all conspired to make sure that this show is rarely evaluated on its own merits – if ever evaluated at all. Push your way past the din, however, and you will find that "Dollhouse" is network television's best kept secret.

The show's second season premieres on Fox at nine on Friday, September 25th. This allows more than enough time to get caught up on the series, available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download. The first season's final five episodes are also available on Hulu for free, providing a decent jumping-on point. Otherwise, Joss Whedon assures viewers that the second season premiere will be accessible to new viewers.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Arkham Asylum: The Demo Didn't Lie

A month or so ago, I wrote a blog post about Batman: Arkham Asylum, wherein I expressed my high hopes for the title. Of course, I knew that licensed videogames are usually awful, and that superhero games in particular have a dark history. Rocksteady, the Brits behind Arkham Asylum, had only released one game before Batman: A mostly-forgotten shooter called Urban Chaos: Riot Response. I hoped Arkham Asylum would live up to the promises of its second demo, but I didn't expect it to be quite as good as it turned out to be. Arkham Asylum is one of the best games I have played this year – and I have played some very good games – and probably the best single game released in 2009. It's not perfect, but it tries really hard.

I've described the basic gameplay in my previous post on Arkham, so I'm not going to go over the basics again. Instead, I'm going to talk a little about how the developers made Arkham Asylum so successful.

First, while Arkham never feels like a real place – the facility's architect clearly had Batman in mind, what with all the ducts, gargoyles, and breakable walls – it nonetheless feels alive. Part of this has to do with the much-praised Riddler challenges. Some of the "challenges" consist of nothing more than finding hidden question mark trophies, while others require you to find various "relics" of famous and obscure Batman characters. You never get to fight Mr. Freeze or Killer Moth, for example, but you get to see the traces they left on the island. Though Batman can't interact with most objects on the island – if there's a book on a table, you can't move it, nor can you break the table – all the little details help make Arkham Asylum vibrant. There are 240 Riddler challenges, but the developers, evidently kind people despite their Britishness, provide in-game maps that, once found, make it comparatively easy to locate any remaining Riddler challenges. You won't be tearing your hair out trying to complete all the Riddler's "missions."

Most of my friends will tell you that I have far too high an opinion of Christopher Nolan's two Batman films. So some might be surprised to hear that I think one of Rocksteady's best moves was to ignore Nolan. True, there are some aspects of Nolan's Gotham that appear in this take on Batman, but villains like the Scarecrow and even the Joker are far different from their most recent cinematic appearances. More importantly, the game uses a few villains unlikely to appear in a third Nolan movie: Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Killer Croc. All these villains have distinct purposes in Paul Dini's script; this isn't just a boring supervillain team-up. And while none of them ally with Batman, it's clear that some of the villains are working at cross purposes with the Joker and his crowd.

Paul Dini has done great things with Batman both on television (Batman: The Animated Series) and in comic books (Dini wrote Detective Comics for several years), but the TV show had strict content limitations and there are some things you just can't fit into a twenty-two page monthly comic. Dini's script for Arkham Asylum is "adult," but not painfully so – there's not much in the way of blood or cursing for the sake of cursing. There is, however, some wonderful black humor, especially if you take time to listen in on the conversations of Joker's henchmen. When you sneak into a room of foolish and unaware thugs, it's tempting to jump from cover and beat down the bastards quickly, but it's worthwhile waiting to punish them, as their conversations are frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Dini's script only loses its quality at the very end of the game, when something ridiculous happens to facilitate a final boss fight.

Even the weakest parts of the script benefit from the wonderful voice acting. Mark Hamill, the best living Joker actor, gets first billing in the VA credits. He deserves it, as his Joker gets by far the most dialogue of any character in the game – the Joker taunts Batman over intercoms, lectures to his thugs, and even occasionally tries to kill you. Kevin Conroy, another actor from the Animated Series, plays Batman. He sounds great, as ever. The rest of the cast is just as good, but Hamill and Conroy are by far the most important to the game's success.

I've played many games that hide their best parts behind several hours of tedious or over-easy gameplay. Metal Gear Solid 4, for example, has some of the best stealth gameplay I know. Unfortunately, it also has awkward rail shooter segments and a few poorly-implemented fights. I might want to replay parts of it, but there are several portions I never want to touch again. There are no really odious portions of Arkham Asylum, but even if there were, Rocksteady has added a "Challenge Room" feature to help us avoid them. As you finish Riddler challenges, you will gradually gain access to these rooms, which can be accessed from the main menu. Not only do the Challenge Rooms let you replay the best stealth and fighting segments from the main game, but you can also compare your scores to others' with the online leaderboards.

Whenever I finish a game, I think about what I would have differently from the developers. In some cases, it's a lot. With Arkham, there's not much. As other reviewers have said, the boss battles are somewhat weak; there are some portions of Arkham Asylum that are almost straight lifts from Metal Gear Solid, but Rocksteady doesn't yet have Hideo Kojima's knack for memorable boss fights. I'd also like to see more Bat-gadgets. While most of the gadgets are great fun to use, especially the Batline, the grapple, and the Sonic Batarang, a few of the items disappoint. One item, for example, is only used to hack into security panels. Couldn't hacking have been automated and that gadget slot been filled with ninja-style smoke bombs? I'd like to see more integration of gadgets into combat; as it stands most gadgets are fairly useless in a fistfight. Finally, I'd like to see more gliding and more jumping from really high places. Because Arkham Island only has so many insane leaps to take.

I absolutely loved Arkham Asylum. Though it's a somewhat short game, there's plenty of good post-game content, and the game is so fun that, for me at least, a replay or two seems inevitable. If you like Batman and have a PS3 or an Xbox 360, this is a must-own. If you're one of the two people who doesn't like Batman, you should try it too. It just might make a convert of you.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Under the Sea, Without the Benefit of Singing Lobsters

The Mouse is a hungry beast. It swallows up massive companies like little hunks of swiss cheese. Few of these deals garner respect from film fans but, a few years back, one that did just that came along. It was the deal that made Walt Disney the exclusive distributor of Studio Ghibli films in the United States. Even for Disney's biggest detractors, it was quite a match; Ghibli has been called the Disney of Japan for quite some time. I suppose, then, it was only a matter of time before Ghibli's obvious superiority over Disney made for some irony.

The work of the reigning god of Japanese animation, Hayao Miyazaki, "Ponyo" is a deeply flawed film. Yet, despite its shortcomings, it illustrates the astonishing talent of the man and his studio. Where the plot is strange and underdeveloped, the animation is astonishingly vibrant. Where the characters are occasionally difficult to grasp, the film's tone is clear and resonant. It may not be a shoo-in for next year's Oscars, but "Ponyo" takes an oft-adapted story and uses it to create an incredible visual experience. It is something that Disney proper has not managed to do consistently in about seventy years, but Ghibli does today on a regular basis.

Sosuke is a pretty precocious five year old. He needs to be; his mom, Lisa, generally has her head in the clouds. Whether it is ranting about ecological issues, rushing to her job or pining for her absentee husband, she only finds time for occasional bursts of parenting. One could say that Ponyo is in a slightly different situation. Her father is extremely protective. She is also a goldfish. Ponyo is the daughter of a wizard, Fujimoto, and a spirit called the Great Sea Mother. One day, Ponyo escapes from her father's submarine and travels to shore. There, she encounters and befriends Sosuke. He takes her ashore in a bucket. This throws nature horribly out of balance.

If that last leap threw you, one cannot blame you. Many of the ideas in "Ponyo" are glazed over in much the same way. There are themes of ecology, friendship, acceptance and other things, but they develop irrationally. To be blunt: The script is quite weak. I still think, however, it is better than that of "The Little Mermaid" in some ways. (That is the other film based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale.) Lisa's lame parenting, if a bit muddled, still adds some complexity to the film's first two acts. Similarly, Fujimoto hates the humans for what they do to the ocean, but is hardly a bad guy. Miyazaki has never been interested in one-dimensional writing and, while this script does not do much with its ideas... at least it has some. "The Little Mermaid" had nothing more than a tired, star-crossed love story and it made that look difficult to render. People may roll their eyes when I ask for some decent ideas in a kids' movie, but I firmly believe that no movie has to be brainless, or ever should be.

Kids, after all, are not idiots. One just has to speak their language to know this, and Miyazaki is fluent. "Ponyo," to be honest, does not need a great plot to succeed because its visuals communicate so much. Every corner of every frame is bursting with life. Even the smallest character is instantly replete with charm and personality. These qualities are never affected through excess speech or inane song. I will always wonder at films that wish to shove lines and lines of dialogue down the throats of a demographic that is still learning to speak. Children understand visuals far better than words. Picasso knew it and he envied it. Today, American animators almost invariably forget it.

The visuals in "Ponyo" seem to have sprung from the mind of a child. Colors are bright and forms are expressive. The film, nevertheless, is full of detail and Miyazaki's incredible ability to use lighting, measured motion and breathtaking background art to create an unparalleled sense of place is in full swing. The simplicity of the visuals are borne of supreme talent, not a lack of money. Ghibli films generally have less than a quarter of the budget of Disney films, but limitation breeds creativity; framerates may be low at times but Miyazaki knows how to harness the power of motion like no one else. When characters soar in one of his films, the effect is profoundly moving.

Moments such as Ponyo's wave-borne pursuit of Sosuke or the calm aftermath of a storm have such emotional texture to them and, especially in light of the script's weaknesses, it can all be attributed to the animation. It is difficult to say the same about any recent Disney films. The storm sequence in "The Little Mermaid" shows undeniable technical ability (read: money) but only the most superficial artistic merit (read: it was a bit scary). In much the same way, Disney's characters may vibrate with a full, twenty-four frames of animation per second but, without any soul to back it up, it imbues them with a creepy and artificial aura.

For all of the showing up being done at Disney's expense, however, the company has (as per their contract) treated Ghibli's films with the utmost respect. "Ponyo," like its predecessors, has enjoyed a very wide distribution for an anime, as well as a top-tier American voice cast. The American trailer may draw laughter for all of its stunt casting, but this cast does its job well. Frankie Jonas slips into the role of Sosuke seamlessly, as does Noah Cyrus for her few lines as Ponyo. Tina Fey is a bit shakier as Lisa. She plays the role of a mother better than one would think, based on her past roles, but she hits a few false notes here and there. Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett step up to make Ponyo's parents sound Mythical and British without trying too hard. A number of other notable actors round out the ancillary cast with solid work, as well.

The English script is probably the shakiest of Disney's Ghibli translations that I have heard. I suspect that some of the script's lapses in logic only came about in translation. It is, however, hard to say. It is not saying much, either, as Disney's previous work in this area has been quite good. ("Princess Mononoke" remains the best in my mind, even with Billy Bob Thornton playing such a prominent role.)

"Ponyo" is not Miyazaki's best – not by a long shot. "Spirited Away" is far more moving and surreal. "Princess Mononoke" sports far more grandeur and tension. "My Neighbor Totoro" remains the most tender fairy tale in recent film history. Yet, "Ponyo" is not a failure. Its world is immersive, its characters deep, its ideas real and its animation that of a virtuoso. Furthermore, its faults may be greater than those of the film that last adapted this story, but so are its successes. "Ponyo" is proof that Disney has not been the source of Disney magic for quite some time now, even if it has licensed it for distribution in some territories.