Mike’s Prattle


The Latest (long, read at your own peril)

Posted by Mike on April 13, 2009

I guess it’s roughly time for some updates. Of late, probably like everyone else, I’ve turned to thinking about financial stability. I bought my folks’ old Toyota Camry 94 about 2 1/2 years ago and it’s turned out to be a bottomless pit in terms of repairs. In the last few months I’ve had the car in the local shop about 5 times and this doesn’t include appointments for new tires and an oil change. The auto started cutting out on me especially at standstills so I turned it in only for $600 of tune up related repairs, only for the problems really to never go away. Apparently the problem is a big carbon build up, which means after having it in a bunch of times the next step, after my gas tank hits empty is to hit the local Chevron and get Techroline-laden gasoline to try and remove the carbon. I’m told this isn’t an issue that will leave me stranded but it’s really offputting when the car is at a stop. I’ve also still got a few hundred dollars of minor repairs needed doing, so it’s been a serious drag. But it’s increased my resolved to get fully debt free by late next year and ready for a new car as soon after as needed.

About 2 1/2 weeks ago, I was 10 minutes into Lost when what turned out to be a leak from the shower fixture upstairs had gone underneath the tile, soaked the particleboard underneath the tub and started dripping out the airconditioner vent. I then had 3 maintenance guys in my apartment for the next few hours. Fortunately one of them thought the particleboard would dry but it looks like I’ll be getting some bathroom work done in the (near? future?). Still haven’t heard anything.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with my oldest nephew watching Doctor Who, which is one of my best and influential childhood memories from living in England. He is taking to it like nothing else (7 years old and so far only one moment too scary where I had to hit the fast forward). We’re through Season 1 and through the Eccleston to Tennant regeneration so watching him deal with it was quite interesting, in the internet age you generally know these things in advance, but kids don’t so he was clearly a bit bummed that Eccleston became Tennant, but I think he’ll take to Tennant pretty quickly, he already likes him although “he’s weird.” True that, at least that early. But hey, I’ve always thought you need to watch the show through the eyes of a kid, so I’m having a lot of fun and so is he. He generally cuddles up a lot during the show so it’s pretty obvious to tell when he gets a bit terrified. Speaking of which I thought Planet of the Dead, the most recent special, was brilliant.

I spent most of a past Sunday going through a huge box of stuff needing filing. It took almost the entire day but sported one bonus. In coming across the receipt for my DVD player I found out it upconverts to 1080p, which is really nice considering that was the main reason I wanted to get a Blu-Ray, now I feel I can safely wait for that. With my car costing me a small fortune lately, it’s a bit of a relief. The other thing I wanted it for, was to see the Planet Earth BBC documentary. And then a week ago Discovery started airing it on the HD channel so even though it’s cut up a bit I managed to DVR the lot. Well worth it for sure.

Anyway in between being responsible and dating back a few weeks or months are the latest games I’ve been Xboxing, the new TV is dominating life of late. I must have spent a good 20 years being nowhere near video games, after growing up like everyone else my age on the Atari 2600 console. Video games are a lot different now (duh), but not just because the graphics are a lot better, but because the storytelling is. Mass Effect, in particular, is something of a triumph of this art, mixing a first person shooter with a Choose Your Own Adventure type of conversation tree. You captain a starship (or at least you do starting a fraction into the game) and send missions to various planets in various parts of the galaxy. In this game the side quests are a bit too simplistic for the most part, but the main quest is pretty incredible, with lots of nice twists and some great dramatic moments (not to mention being able to date the blue girl a la Captain Kirk). There is one moment about half way through I thought might kill the game for me, basically an incredibly difficult “boss battle” where you have to fight squadron after squadron before fighting what is essentially a “magic user” of a sort. Ironically I missed the autosave when I finally made it through the squadrons, not knowing the whole thing was really continuous. The final boss was actually pretty easy in retrospect. Mass Effect also has some pretty great music, with some sequences straight out of the 70s/80s Tangerine Dream playbook, all that was missing was the wailing guitar solo. Anyway, lots of fun and I’m really looking forward to Part 2 due next year. Bioware really does rock when it comes to video games, I’ved liked everything I’ve tried so far (mostly Neverwinter Nights, Baldurs Gate, and Jade Empire below).

Legendary was extremely problematic, one of those games you want to take your rage out on. It’s a cool idea, a thief opens Pandora’s box, you end up first person shooting various mythological creatures like werewolves, griffons, krakens and such, but the engine seemed annoyingly clumsy creating dreadful unneeded stress in tense moments as various clutter hindered your movement. I’ve made it almost all the way through this one, but the mission where you’re finally on the roof and have to knock out certain areas as soldiers and werewolves constantly move at you has proved a little too difficult for me and combining that with the frustration made it worth putting away for the time being. At least unlike Diablo II and Dark Corners I didn’t feel it completely wasted my money. But anyway I have to agree with the hoards of poor Legendary reviews who thought cool idea, bad execution.

Fable: The Lost Chapters I bought even though it was an Xbox game to prepare me for Fable II. It’s an RPG with a third person active real time fighting style. It too also had a pretty difficult mid game mission, which was one of those dreaded escort situations, in this case rescuing a kid from a cave full of hobbes (evil dwarves or hobbits I guess). With a bit of on line assistance I found a way to lessen the threat on the way out of the cave by going in and out of rooms. I found that none of the later boss situations were nearly as difficult but as is the case with real time fighting, once you get the hang of the controls you generally can hold your own. For me it was a matter of having two main offensives, one being able to handle a weapon really well and having a beefed up long range lightning attack for anything not within melee range. Fable was interesting because it’s one RPG where you can marry your character off (more than once, thanks) and have some interesting conversation situations, although I didn’t think they were fleshed out enough to really come to life. Overall it was pretty fun, but not at all on the level of a Morrowind, Oblivion or Neverwinter Nights.

Halo 3 had me go back to check out Halo:Combat Evolved and Halo 2, both of which were very easy to pick up with virtually the same controls, even though both are Xbox originals rather than the Xbox 360 Halo 3. Halo 2 could nearly compete graphically though, it was at least wide screen and I believe HD and looked beautiful. Really the whole trilogy is a total blast, with missions ranging from regular first person shooting to driving a number of vehicles all with their own unique styles. Often it’s a matter of having a playfield with a number of options which you can use to battle your way out. Halo’s relatively primitive in retrospect, with some repetitive spots, including a long sequence in a “library” battling a wave of The Flood that I had to repeat when I forgot to save one night. But overall all three games are amazing and well worth the hype they come with and certainly I’ll end up replaying 2 and 3 again. There’s a reason these break sales records.

Gears of War isn’t terribly far off from Halo, although it’s much more adult and grimmer, a post apocalyptic scenario where you are a marine that looks like he lived his life on steroids with other similar marines (including one with the nickname Cole Train :D) battling really ugly aliens on a wartorn Earth. The graphics are pretty amazing and about as close to lifelike as it gets on the current next gen consoles (although I suspect the sequel’s a bit better), however the story is a bit on the short side overall. I’d basically beat the final boss before I realized it really was so it was over before I knew it. Was fairly tough and challenging in “normal” difficult but not too much. The most challenging moments were using a laser pointer to bring down a satellite weapon on baddies you couldn’t normally kill, but they were also pretty satisfying.

The game I most recently finished Jade Empire was also an Xbox original but my what a great game. An RPG based on a sort of fantastic steampunk China that never was, it had a similar sort of third person fighting system to Fable but heavier on the kung fu. And even more so than Fable, I found myself struggling with it at first but as soon as I had it mastered I barely lost to anyone, even taking out the final boss on a first try (basically jump around like crazy and switch between fast and special attacks depending on occasion). It had a very cool plot, if, like most games, a bit on the cliche side, starting you as a protege of a martial arts master with the typical stirrings of a greater fate to come, moving from situation to situation in longer arcs only to end with a strange sequence of shorter encounters that end up utilizing your minor characters. There’s even a hilarious minigame for when you’re using a flyer that was like playing Galaga in the early days. Very beautifully done though, with great voice acting including a hilarious John Cleese cameo as a British outlander.

Anyway I’m also trying to keep up with an endless array of TV programming and movies, so I’m glad I have a DVR which at this point I’m just doing my best to keep it from getting full. I’ll be very glad when summer comes so I can reappraise what I watch as it’s way too much.  Anyway a quick summary starting with:

The Best: I recently mentioned Lost, which has really gotten my attention of late, it’s also one of work’s bigger watercooler programs. Just terribly inventive in structure on all accounts, perhaps even on the edge of unravelling. But I’m terribly invested now.

Season 2 of Damages just finished, another really tight FX show to replace The Shield. Basically an unusual legal drama about a high stakes firm that goes after dangerous and influential big companies with plotting structures that get tangled up and are untangled unusually over the course of a season. An unbelievable bevy of great actors starting with Glenn Close and Rose Byrne, but featuring a wide cast of ex HBO greats from shows like The Wire and Deadwood and even a creepy part for SNL alum Darrell Hammond (whose McCain impersonations over the last year or so never cease to crack me up).

Also great but on the bubble are NBC’s Kings which debuted so poorly on Sunday nights they’ve practically already shelved it, but its modern metaphor on the David and Goliath story was instantly fascinating no doubt due to Ian McShane’s turn as the King of a monarchal New York City equivalent. It’s really a shame this one didn’t get a chance to shine, but then again anything that reduces the pile is OK by me at this point.

Also on NBC is Monday’s Chuck which is just a hilarious spy/geek humor combo that manages to set up what seems like a limited scenario only to spin out great episode after great episode. It doesn’t get a lot of figures, no doubt placed next to shows like Dancing with the Stars and House, but it’s got a hilarious cast of characters and a bunch of great guests and more than any show on the bubble right now it’s the one I’d like to see go on the most. Anyone who lived through the 80s should appreciate its humor, it’s almost like Family Guy (well when it was good) that way.

Following Chuck on Fox at 9 is 24 which can suck one year and then be great the next and fortunately Season 7 ranks with 1, 2 and 5 as the best of what is a hilariously and inherently ridiculous but ineffably fun piece of work.

Also cancelled and finished unfortunately is Wednesday’s Life on Mars (of which I still have 2 eps on my DVR to go). I think the original English show is one of the best television works ever made and surprisingly found myself loving the US version as well, possibly because it reused a lot of the same plots and had a superb cast. Possibly the most heartbreaking cancellation of the last few years, ABC made a huge mistake not sticking with this one.

Breaking Bad on AMC continues to be really good as well, following the exploits of a chemistry teacher and cancer sufferer turned meth cooker. It’s a harrowing view but also one of the most in your face shows on the air that rarely flinches from its consequences. Dark and daring.

I’m still catching up on the first season but the Starz show Crash is really impressive so far, a mosaic story and current Dennis Hopper vehicle. It’s part Shield, part Desperate Housewives, part Blue Velvet and perhaps a bit early to tell, I’m only watching it when I need to before it falls off On Demand (read about 3 or 4 eps in).

In the Middle: I did like the season finale of Battlestar Galactica although I’m of the opinion that the show took a fairly big dive in quality after Season 2 and the move to New Caprica. Ever since then there’s been enough about it to keep me watching, but there’s something unravelled about the whole thing, like it just doesn’t hold together and the whole Starbuck as an angel thing and all of that was kind of like a revelation that was cool for about ten seconds and then felt like a deus ex machina. Or Planet of the Apes. Part of any good show for me is having characters to have some investment in and sympathy for and it was getting remarkably thin for me by the end of the show. I’m debating whether I want to start with Caprica, but it’s superb cast will probably reel me in.

For example House is a pretty good example of a complete jerk written where you manage to still be interested in where the arc goes even when the procedural part of it is becoming ridiculously predictable. In fact I’d probably like it a lot more where it not so by the numbers every week and it’s one that gets the DVR nearly every time when it’s up against Chuck. If I didn’t like Hugh Laurie so much I’d have diced this one two years ago.

Friday Night Lights just ended on its NBC run last Friday and while it doesn’t have the impact it did for me the first Season, probably because it has too many soap opera elements for me to be fully comfortable with, it’s certainly better than it was last year. The characters definitely have a lot of heart, which always feels somewhat uplifting, some dynamics of relationships that actually work that you rarely see elsewhere where rifts tend to drive the drama. Just renewed for two 13 episode seasons too.

Big Love on HBO has always been a bit too serious for me, a little boring but I thought Season 3 reached something of a crescendo towards the end. Perhaps there’s something just inherently uncomfortable about a working polygamous relationship that keeps it edgy, almost like you don’t want to believe it’s possible given the ramifications. But the whole cast of bizarre backwoods polygamists that were trotted out were pretty freaky and the unravelling and eventual redemption of Chloe Sevigny’s character towards the end was a good idea, for me it was just happening when I could barely stand her anymore. Some great acting all around.

United States of Tara on Showtime was an interesting take on multiple personality syndrome with an interestingly modern like family, certainly the wisps of Juno you might expect given Diablo Cody. Definitely the kind of new gen work that makes me, at 38, start to feel just a bit older.

Just OK: Dollhouse was the heralded return of Joss Whedon to TV and basically fulfilled all the prophecies you’d expect given the death of Firefly. A top half series of tedious procedural episodes that were apparently rejiggered by an unhappy Fox, only for it to get mildly more interesting in the last couple of weeks. I doubt it will last so I’ll probably see it out, but at least of late it’s more Joss-like, perhaps too little too late.

Eastbound & Down: Just finished, a mildly funny HBO show about an offensive misogynist ex baseball player. Like coexecutive producer and guest star Will Ferrell, it’s only occasionally funny, but it does have something of a sweet heart at central despite there being little too love about the lead. But 6 1/2 hour episodes wasn’t a painful burden.

Reaper: Not nearly as funny or strong as it was the first Season, I doubt this one will last despite every episode still having a couple hysterically funny moments and a great actor playing the Devil. The constant on again off again romance starts to drive you nuts after a while and the secondary romances with the sidekicks are almost unbearably ridiculous. One I hope gets the axe just because I’m afraid to be reeled back in next year.

South Park: Like the last two years, this season started out with a brilliant episode (skewering Disney and the Jonas brothers and purity rings) only to continue to churn out substandard, rushed nonsense. It’s only that it still can shine really bright that I keep watching. But I stopped buying the DVDs after Season 9.

Family Guy: Similar without the brilliant opener. Without substantial improvement in the final run of episodes, I’ll be hanging this one up. There doesn’t appear to be much effort behind it anymore

Anyway after several sessions trying to finish this post, I’m worn out so that will have to be enough for now.


3 Responses to “The Latest (long, read at your own peril)”

  1. cko said

    Reaper! No, please get reeled in again next year. Sure it has its annoying side, but overall it’s light, with funny characters and a great premise. Write the CW to continue it so you have something to be annoyed by!

  2. dt said

    I’ve been enjoying Kings, largely because of McShane, though I could do without the whole religious angle, but it doesn’t surprise me it isn’t doing well. It’s just not a network style show, the characters aren’t black and white enough. Put this on a cable channel & I think it does much better,

    • Mike said

      I could nearly watch McShane read the phone book, after all he’s the guy who brought poetry to profanity in Deadwood. Assigning Kings to Sunday night and expecting it to draw given it’s apparent large budget almost makes me think they didn’t have enough faith in it. But hey I’ll watch whatever McShane’s in next.

      Reaper on the other hand looks fairly doomed.

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