Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Last of Us: Remastered -- First Impressions

This isn't a formal review.  While I don't feel that you have to finish a game to review it, that is preferable, and if not completed one should be a substantial way into the game before they try to actually review it.  Tonight I only had time to play up until Joel's introduction to Ellie, not far enough to have solid opinions on plot or anything like that, but far enough to have formed some first impressions.

The controls are what you expect from a third-person perspective game, no surprises there.  I haven't played a ton of console games over the years but the few I have played had very similar controls.  Everything is pretty smooth, vaulting, quick turning and moving into a sprint all happen in what looks like very believable ways, aiming is easy and just as responsive as I wanted it to be.  I also liked that instead of having some sort of quasi-supernatural explanation as to how Joel can tell where people are in a room, he just listens for them.  He doesn't need to have some sort of preternatural ability, he just does what the rest of us can do if we take the time to slow down and do it.

The game is beautiful, the environments are extremely detailed, different cloths have different textures.  There are different ways to approach a situation depending on the terrain, your ammo situation and the number of enemies.  One thing I noticed is that the enemies aren't very bright, but hey, they never are.  I'd like to see a game that pressed its numerical advantage sometime.  If the player slips up and reveals themselves while trying to sneak around ten guys you shouldn't be able to hunker down and have them come to you in ones and twos from cover.  Bum-rush me and let there be consequences to my misstep!

The voice acting is top-notch.  It's fun to think about how far that's come in video games.  Gone are the stilted conversations of the past, now we have real professionals doing the job and it's great.  Troy Baker's performance as Joel is especially impressive.  Having been born and raised in the south one of my biggest pet-peeves is hearing an over-done southern accent.  Baker puts just enough drawl into his work for me to believe he's a Texan without ever taking me out of the game by overdoing it.  Take a second to look him up and, lo and behold he's a Texas guy.  He's been hearing that accent since he was a kid most likely, and his apparent familiarity with it shows.

All in all, I enjoyed my first play session of The Last of Us:  Remastered and can't wait to get back to it.  Unfortunately for me, I might not have the time until Friday.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dead Beat, Book Seven of the Dresden Files

Dead Beat
Book Seven of the Dresden Files
Publisher: Penguin Books USA as Roc (2005)
Author: Jim Butcher
Genre: Fantasy, Urban
Pages: 448
Price: $9.99

Dead Beat puts more enemies into Harry's path than ever before, as he battles a cadre of necromancers, and the undead hordes that they can call to their sides. It's a fast paced, fun book that continues to add depth Harry's world, bringing in new faces and making sure that the setting feels real. Unlike some series it's not the same cast of supporting characters book after book, the characters are introduced, play their part, and then fade away until it makes sense for them to be back.

One gripe I have with this story is the inhuman amount of punishment Harry takes during his struggle to oppose his enemies. I know he has the wizard-healing factor thing going for him, but here it seems a little hard to believe that after all that's done to Harry he's still conscious and mobile. Other than that there are some great moments in there, and one stands out above the rest. Harry briefly adds to the menagerie in a truly epic fashion and, although it's just a tiny bit silly, it works.

Perhaps the most important part of this story seems to be mentioned in passing, but never really broached in a serious way. There are threats lurking behind the scenes that seem as though they could strike a blow, not just against Harry but against everyone on the White Council of Wizards, should the opportunity present itself. It's clear that there are machinations that Harry, and thus we, have hardly an inkling, occurring in some truly dangerous places.

Conclusion: Aside from a quibble here and there this is a solid entry into the Dresden Files. What it's most important for is setting up more hints and clues as to what the bigger threat is going to be as we go forward,

Rating: 7.75/10

The Leftovers: Season 1, Episode 5

The Leftovers
Episode Title: “Gladys.”
Channel: HBO
Director: Mimi Leder
Writers: Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery
Runtime: 60 min
Rated: TV-MA
Original Air Date: July 27, 2014

The beginning of this episode is brutal. Joe Pesci at the end of Casino brutal. It goes on from there to have what I think is one of the stronger episodes of the season. The audience is starting to see something out of the characters, I don't know if I'd go so far as to call them dimensions yet, but the writing is heading in that direction. I even managed to drudge of some sympathy for the perpetually unlikeable Chief Garvey during the course of the episode.

We see in this episode a broader view of the situation, through a few quick moments the show didn't feel as insular as it had to this point. I know the intention is to show how this one town in dealing with the strange events they've experienced, but up until this point it's been easy to forget that the same situation is playing out across the country, and probably the world, in much the same way, the cast of characters being the only thing that changes.

There are some genuinely touching moments in this episode, which is something that has been lacking throughout most of the series. The insights we're given into the characters aren't the product of sweeping monologues and long exposition, rather they're in the small phrases and situations that occur in the aftermath of a terrible event. The ending contains a well executed emotional bait and switch, something the audience buys into because of the hope that fills Rev. Jamison's eyes. The acting in the entire last ten minutes or so was very good.

Conclusion: This episode finally seems to have broken some of the characters out of the archetypes they had come to represent. It also gives a glimpse into a truly chilling facet of the story that I hope they explore more. The heartless way that those with authority seem to be tackling the 'Guilty Remnant' situation, and apparently others like it, is something that could become a major factor in the plot.

Rating: 6.5/10

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Strain: Season 1, Episode 3

The Strain
Episode Title: "Gone Smooth"
Channel: FX
Director: David Semel
Writer: Chuck Hogan
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Horror
Runtime: 60 min
Rated: TV-MA
Original Air Date: July 27, 2014

This was a better episode than the previous two, not great, but a definite improvement. There is not as much mayhem in this episode as in previous ones, and I think it works to the story's advantage. We get a little more background on Sean Astin's character, even if it is a somewhat cliched. Dr. Nora Martinez is given more to do than dutifully follow Eph around agreeing with him. Eph's home-life is not getting any better, but he actually showed up for an obligation, apparently on time, and had his heart figuratively ripped out. The acting among the principles wasn't as jarring as it's been in previous episodes, but the ancillary characters are still pretty weak.

The title of the episode alludes to a particularly shocking moment near the end of the episode, I knew it was coming and wasn't sure whether it was grotesque or funny. I'm relatively sure that funny wasn't the emotion Hogan was trying to invoke when writing it, so it probably could have been handled a little better.

There's still no real differentiation between the 'survivors' and the victims as far as what's happening to them that I noticed. That leaves me a little puzzled as to what the purpose of the two categories is. I'm still holding out hope that this will be explained soon. The ending of the episode shows one of two things, depending on how the aftermath plays out. Either Eph grasps the reality of the situation and is willing to do what must be done, or he flipped and channeled is anger from previous events. Hopefully it's the former, as I don't believe a sane person could still be explaining all of these strange occurrences away, and not believe that something really strange was going on.

Conclusion: A better quality episode than the previous two. The main characters are starting to fill in a little bit, giving the audience a reason to care about them. Vasiliy (Kevin Durand) is the only one so far that I've grown fond of in any way, but there's still time for the rest to make an impression. “Gone Smooth” has made sure that I'll be coming back for a few more at least.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tomb Raider: Issues #1-6

Tomb Raider
Issues #1-6
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Nicolas Daniel Selma
Genre: Action Adventure
Price: $3.50/issue

This series picks up right where the game left off, continuing the story of archeologist and fledgling raider of tombs, Lara Croft. Issues 1-6 will be comprising the upcoming trade paperback (due to be released on November 25, 2014) so it seemed like a good place to pause and do a review. Keep your eyes peeled for the trade paperback if you're interested in the story, the individual issues have been very popular and can be hard to track down if you didn't already have them on your pull-list.

Gail Simone does a great job (better than the game, in my opinion) of tackling the psychological toll Lara's adventures on Yamatai have taken on her. She is wracked with guilt, not only for her lost companions, but also for her loss of innocence. Here is a mild-mannered academic that has found she is surprisingly good at killing folks, and that her company is dangerous company to keep. It at times isolates her, causing further self-doubt and introspection. Gail Simone has taken a good character, and made her a much greater character, multifaceted and tough, but most importantly, believable.

That believability is essential, because it gives the reader a real world anchor in a story with a strong supernatural aspect. Without Lara seeming real, the rest of the story would lack the impact that is present there. Mr. Selma's art is important here as well. I once had it explained to me that comic book art is influenced by the subject matter. Realistic characters and settings are drawn in a more minimalist way, so that the reader can fill in the familiar with there own imagination and experience. The more fantastic the subject, the more realistic the art often gets; this allows the artist to fill in the details for which the reader doesn't have a frame of reference. You can see both styles in these six books. Bars and crowded streets don't need to have every puddle of beer and crumpled piece of paper drawn in them, we all know what those things look like. A close-up of statue like, part woman, part crocodile, part elephant guardians though, yes please fill in the blanks for me. It works superbly throughout.

The close of issue six brings about the conclusion of what might be the most influential part of Lara's young life. She has gained the skills she needs to become the adventurer that we all know she'll become, and seems to have attained a measure of confidence in herself that will aid her in overcoming her guilt and doubt.

Conclusion: An impressive addendum to the videogame reboot. Tomb Raider takes the foundation already set for it and builds a three dimensional, well developed heroine that's sure to continue entertaining readers for quite a while. With Yamatai behind her, I can't wait for the next adventure to begin.

Rating: 8/10

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition
Publisher: SquareEnix
Developer:  Crystal Dynamics
Players: One
Genre: Action-Adventure
Distribution: Optical Disc, Download
Platform: Playstation 4
Release Date: January 28, 2014

Lara Croft is back and getting the reboot treatment. A character that has been around since the original Tomb Raider, released in 1996, gets a much needed overhaul. I hadn't played a Tomb Raider game since that 1996 release, so I didn't come into this game as jaded as some players who had suffered through incarnations of varying quality. I'll also state up-front that I ignored the multiplayer. To me this is a single player game, it doesn't need multiplayer and I won't humor a studio tacking multiplayer onto the game in order to add 'value' to a game that doesn't need it. Focus on the single player campaign and make it the best you can, please. Judging from some of the things I've read about the multiplayer modes, I didn't miss much.

With that out of the way, this was the perfect reintroduction of Lara Croft into the gaming consciousness. We get to find out what kind of crucible the badass that we've come to know was forged in, and wow. First of all, Yamatai, the setting for the game, is gorgeous and there are tons of environments for you to work your way through. Each one feels different than the previous ones, you never have that feeling of “Really? Another jungle scene?” The enemies populating said environments don't feel like they're just waiting to be killed, they perform tasks and have conversations, there are a few instances where they are stupid though. Four guys would never run straight at a person pumping shotgun shells into them across open ground, but hey, I was low on ammo and didn't mind.

The 'tombs' you raid consist of an isolated area with a puzzle of some sort. The puzzles are fun to solve without being 'throw your controller across the room' frustrating, and were always one of the things I looked for when entering a new area. It's possible to play through the game without pouring over the map looking for the last collectibles and get a fairly high completion percentage; which was nice as I hate backtracking for that last audio log/idol/map/etc.

Plotwise the game more than does the job, we get an origin story and a believable way for Lara to expand on her skillset. The secondary characters are generally all right, none really stand out, but I also never wished for a command to throw one from a cliff. Camilla Luddington does a great job voicing our heroine and I hope she sticks around for the forthcoming sequel. I was very pleased with the length of the game, it never plodded and it lasted long enough that it felt like I got my money's worth.

Conclusion: A reboot done right, it has me waiting anxiously for the next installment. With the comic series written by Gail Simone continuing the story I'll have a way to get my Lara Croft fix in between, but when the sequel's release date is officially announced I'll be on my way to pre-order it. I can't wait to see what's in store for everyone's favorite raider of tombs.

Rating: 9/10

Saturday is Haul Day 2!!

I made my Saturday rounds and picked up this week's stuff.

First we have Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself (The First Law: Book One) which I've only heard good things about.  It's usually described as having a gritty realism, absent in a lot of fantasy, which sounds like fun to me.

In the comic realm we've got: Gail Simone and Nicolas Daniel Selma's Tomb Raider #6, Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Danny Miki an Fco Plascencia's Batman #33, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla's Afterlife with Archie #6, Warren Ellis and Jason Howard's Trees #1, and Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga #21.

I know the comics come out on Wednesday, I work too late to pick them up during the week, so Saturday is the exciting day of the week for me.  Don't hold it against me!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Feature and Follow Friday 1

Feature and Follow is a weekly even hosted by ParaJunkie and Alison Can Read.

Question of the Week: What is your favorite tv series that you can watch over and over again on Netflix?  

Definitely The X-files.  The X-files was the first show that I followed on television, my Sunday schedule revolved around getting home in time for the next episode.  Things are much easier today with Netflix, but I have fond memories of hurrying home in time to hear Mark Snow's superb opening theme. 


Duma Key by Stephen King

Duma Key
Publisher: Pocket Books (2008)
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Horror, Thriller, Fantasy
Pages: 609
Price: $9.99

On Duma Key, a man who should be dead finds healing in the solitude of painting...but Edgar Freemantle is far from alone.

After a terrible construction site accident severed his right arm, scrambled his mind, and imploded his marriage, the wealthy Minnesota builder face the ordeal of rehabilitation alone and enraged. Renting a house on a stunningly beautiful and eerily undeveloped splinter off the Florida coast, Edgar slowly emerges from his prison of pain to pond with Elizabeth Eastlake, a sick old woman whose roots are tangled deep in Duma Key. And as he heals he paints – feverishly, compulsively, his exploding talent both a wonder and a weapon. For Edgar's creations are not just paintings but portals for the ghosts of Elizabeth's past...and their power cannot be controlled.

Few author's create characters as well as Stephen King. He brings his characters to life by making them actual people, he painstakingly shows the different sides of his creations. They're often flawed, sometimes in such ways that they're occasionally hard to sympathize with. Duma Key takes a little time to get moving. The protagonist, Edgar Freemantle, and how he got to Duma Key is explained through the first 200 pages. It can be a little daunting to do that much reading before the action starts, but I think it's worth it, by the time the first creepy things happen Edgar already feels like someone you know.

Jerome Wireman, one of Edgar's neighbors, is an amazing supporting character. I found myself wishing I knew someone with all of the traits he possesses; he's got humor, intelligence and loyalty to spare and makes the perfect partner/sidekick. I did feel though that so much time was spent on Edgar and Wireman that the fates of some of the other peripheral characters were not that important to me.

Parts of the book felt very familiar, which is both a good and a bad thing. I seem to always be able to tell I'm reading Stephen King. His unique style, especially in characterization and a slowburn method of suspense, is unmistakable. Conversely there were moments that felt too much like other King works. I found myself thinking “Hmmm, that's a little like Bag of Bones.” or something similar every now and then.

Conclusion: It's not The Stand, but it will fulfill you're King fix. The slow pace of the first third is nicely offset by the last third's race to the finish. The ending is melancholy with a sense of triumph too, which is another hallmark of King's style. This is a book for anyone looking for amazing character development and a few creepy moments, but it's lacking the actual horror of The Shining or Pet Semetary.

Rating: 7.5/10

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Blood Rites, Book Six of the Dresden Files

Blood Rites
Book Six of the Dresden Files
Publisher: Penguin Books USA as Roc (2004)
Author: Jim Butcher
Genre: Fantasy, Urban
Pages: 439
Price: $9.99

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.

For Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, there have been worse assignments than going undercover on the set of an adult film. Dodging flaming monkey-poo for instance. Or going toe-to-leaf with a walking plant monster. Still, there's something more troubling than usual about his newest case. The film's producer believes he's the target of a sinister entropy curse-but it's the women around him who are dying, in increasingly spectacular ways.

Harry's even more frustrated because he only got involved with this bizarre mystery as a favor to Thomas, his flirtatious, self-absorbed vampire acquaintance of dubious integrity. Thomas has a personal stake in the case Harry can't quite figure out, until his investigation leads him straight to Thomas's oversexed vampire family. Harry is about to discover that Thomas's family tree has been hiding a shocking secret: a revelation that will change Harry's life forever.

Blood Rites rejoins the reader with Harry Dresden around a year after Death Masks and Harry's life gets complicated, again. This time there's porn-stars, curses, a Black Court vampire/sorceress and statuesque White Court vampires. It's a fun book to read, action packed and exciting. It's not the best Dresden Files book, but it sets up so much that you can give it a pass. Kind of like the pre-Avengers MCU movies; fun and entertaining, but the reader can feel that much bigger things are being setup.

Without spoiling anything major we find out about Harry's mother, the infamous Margaret LeFey and one of her important dalliances. It is also revealed that some of Harry's allies are more than they seem, that one of the few people Harry has any respect for has been lying to him all along, and that Harry's capacity for taking a beating is still quite formidable.

This book is fun because there are two events that could have served as climaxes for a book, and they're both packed into one. During the first Harry suffers horribly and may be scarred for the rest of his life, yet somehow he picks himself up and engineers a dramatic shift of power inside a powerful supernatural faction. Just a normal day for Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden.

Conclusion: There's a lot in this book that a reader of the Dresden Files has to know going forward. Harry is his usual sarcastic self, usually to his own detriment. Although there are a couple of places I felt the silliness go over the top (something about a frozen turkey) it keeps a reckless pace that's sure to entertain.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode Four

The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode Four “Amid the Ruins”
Publisher: Telltale Games
Players: One
Genre: Graphic Adventure, Horror
Distribution: Download

The next chapter of Season Two of The Walking Dead begins in the middle of the action we left in episode three. After a harrowing escape one of our new friends gives Clem some pointers on what life is like in a post-apocalyptic world. We find out some more information regarding our new companions, and also find that the group may have been pressed beyond it's breaking point.

I play this game with two different save files, as I imagine many people do, and this episode seems to build even more on the precedent set by the previous one. The decisions you make really seem to matter, and could be affecting the narrative heavily. There are both happy and sad moments along the way, and I get the impression that things could go very differently based on Clementine's actions throughout this chapter.

The ending is a major cliffhanger, setting up what should be a very shocking finale. Make your decisions carefully and enjoy the story as it unfolds.

Conclusion: “Amid the Ruins” rushes the player towards this season's conclusion. Emotions are running high and it almost seems like no decision is going to have a happy ending. This was the perfect lead-in for the season finale.

Rating: 8.5/10

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode Three “In Harm's Way”

The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode Three “In Harm's Way”
Publisher: Telltale Games
Players: One
Genre: Graphic Adventure, Horror
Distribution: Download

Following the events of episode two Clementine and the group's situation has become pretty dire. Stuck somewhere they don't want to be, at someone else's mercy, they have to figure out a way to alter the status quo, and quickly because they're subject to a proverbial ticking time-bomb.

It's awesome that Telltale brought Michael Madsen in to voice the antagonist in this episode. He has the perfect voice for this kind of work. I hope it's a sign of things to come, as it's fun to hear familiar voices every now and then, especially when they're so suited for the character. There are a few really tough decisions to make, and some members of your group will never be the same again. It is hard not to say too much and spoil things for any of you that might play it, so I'm going to be as vague as possible.

There are a few intriguing additions to the group that I'm excited to see how they play out. One in particular has me very interested. This episode had a weight to it that the two previous one's this season didn't, and it finally seems like some of your choices this season might have a dramatic impact on things going forward.

Conclusion: This is the best episode of the season so far. The decisions seemed weighty, and the consequences will undoubtedly be felt for the rest of this season, and maybe beyond. With today's release of episode four I can't wait to jump right back into the story.

Rating: 8.25/10

Baseball's Unwritten Rules

Following the above hit by Toronto's Colby Rasmus, Texas pitcher Colby Lewis lashed out.  He claimed in an interview with that it is unethical to bunt against the shift.  Unless I'm mistaken, the point of the shift is for infielders to gain an advantage by playing three of them on one side of the infield, and the point of batting is to get on base.  The idea that one part of the batter vs pitcher battle should not use all of their tools is absurd.  It's like asking a pitcher not to use a pitch because it's just to hard to lay off of in that situation.  Give me a break.

Don't want to be bunted against?  Field your position better.  Honestly this wasn't a spectacular bunt, had the third baseman been playing in his normal position who would've been expected to field that bunt?  The pitcher, Colby Lewis.

The Leftovers: Season 1, Episode 4

The Leftovers
Episode Title: “B.J. and the A.C.
Channel: HBO
Director: Carl Franklin
Writers: Damon Lindelof
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery
Runtime: 60 min
Rated: TV-MA
Original Air Date: July 20, 2014

Another Chief Garvey episode, and more of the same, he's the same unlikeable guy that we remember from Episodes One and Two. It's not Theroux's acting that is off-putting, I just don't think they're writing his character is a way to get much sympathy from the viewers. He's perpetually angry and short-sighted. In addition, I don't want to be overly critical, but Liv Tyler brought the same type of performance that we've been from her previously. Maybe there's a reason that her character seems like a wax statue, but if there is it should be revealed to us somehow, as the deer-in-the-headlights look is getting old.

We are given tidbits here and there that hint at more going on in the background, especially in regards to Christine and Tommy's story arc, I'm just not sure that they're enough to keep the audience tuning back in. The Guilty Remnant also uses an opportunity created by a town-wide event to work their own mischief, to what end we're left wondering since they sure aren't going to tell us. Matt pops up briefly, reminding me that while maybe not much happened during his episode, it was the most entertaining to date.

Conclusion: Too much mystery, and no answers/reveals/or motivations for anyone involved. It's becoming harder to figure out why these characters are doing what they do. Getting dropped into the middle of the story with no frame of reference in regards to the characters is working against the show in my opinion.

Rating: 5.5/10

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Strain: Season 1, Episode 2

The Strain
Episode Title:  "The Box"
Channel:  FX
Director:  David Semel
Writers:  Bradley Thompson, David Weddle
Genre:  Drama, Sci-Fi, Horror
Runtime:  60 min
Rated:  TV-MA
Original Air Date:  July 20, 2014

OK, so after the actual disaster and the depiction of some wanton violence in the first episode, we as viewers should expect episode two to slow down a little bit and actually develop some characters.  There's plenty of that as we bounce between Eph's deteriorating family, Gus and his deadbeat brother, and these Stoneheart Group guys that think setting this all in motion is some sort of answer to the old man's health problems.

The acting was a little better in this episode, and I'm excited to see more of Kevin Durand's character, even if his accent was a little hit and miss.  Some of the dialogue though is still off-putting.  There were at least two lines that I very nearly groaned at.  Hopefully as the show goes through a few writers in these first five or so episodes one of them will succeed in giving us good dialogue, and the others can take notes.

My favorite scene occurred between Abraham and Thomas Eichorst.  These are two adversaries that are well acquainted with each other.  Each knows exactly what buttons to push with the other, and there is real hatred present between them.  Hopefully they'll meet again under more equitable circumstances.  With all of these characters getting bits and pieces of their stories revealed it was a little disappointing to see nothing new for Dr. Martinez.  Currently she seems to be only a sidekick for Eph, who pops up to prop up whatever hypothesis he's already spouted.  She very briefly jumped in with a bit of advice but aside from that there's nothing new with her.

This next bit is spoilery, so only highlight if you really want to read it.

If the victims from the flight are going to start killing their families, and then presumably friends, neighbors and so on, and the 'survivors' are going to start freaking out and trying to kill the people around them, what's the difference?  I hope we find out soon because that will bother me until we do.

Conclusion:  Not a bad second episode, and it provided some necessary character details, but the dialogue especially seems to be this show's Achilles' Heel.  If they can get that squared away, and find the right balance of exposition and action per episode they'll be doing much better.

Rating:  6.5/10

The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode Two “A House Divided”

The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode Two “A House Divided”
Publisher: Telltale Games
Players: One
Genre: Graphic Adventure, Horror
Distribution: Download

Episode Two starts to show us exactly how dysfunctional this new group is. There's distrust, an unwillingness to accept the way the world now is and members that can't do anything right. Really though, the highlight of the episode is the cat and mouse between Clem and the man that appears to be this season's antagonist. Once again Clementine shows why she's the best child in the various incarnations of The Walking Dead.

The action sequences in this episode don't seem as forced as some of the previous episodes, they actually serve a purpose in showing new acquaintances what Clementine is capable of. Clem strikes up at least one new friendship that promises to evolve in interesting ways as the rest of this season progresses.

The second half of the episode is chock full of surprise appearances and events that will leave you with mixed feelings for just about everyone you encounter. The climax changes the direction you're going completely, and the outlook is bleak. The defiance in Clem's eyes should let you know that all is not lost, but we'll just have to wait and see.

Conclusion: I felt that this episode was incrementally better than the previous one. We really get to the meat of the conflict this season, setting up for what should be explosive future episodes.

Rating: 7.75/10

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Producers: Chernin Entertainment
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, based on the novel “La Plan├Ęte des Singes” by Pierre Boulle
Rated: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and Brief Strong Language
Runtime: 130 min
Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi

This film takes place ten years after the events of the first film. We find the apes have fashioned for themselves a cozy civilization based on some of the same principles we've based our civilization on (Apes do not kill other apes, for example.) A small band of humans stumble upon the apes and set into motion events that threaten both species.

The danger of seeing a movie a week after release is that it's nearly impossible to avoid hearing other people's opinions of the movie. Some of the folks I pay attention to had talked this movie up to a point that I think was impossible to actually reach, and that unfortunately may cloud some of my thinking on this film. That doesn't mean I think it is a bad movie, it's not, it's pretty good. For the most part Matt Reeves' direction is spot on, although I feel he could've have trimmed the movie down to under two hours. During the last fifteen to twenty minutes I found myself ready for the end, which to me is a sign that some fat could have been trimmed.

Academy Award winning composer Michael Giacchino's score is just there. I never found the music to be inspiring much emotion in me, which was disappointing because I've been a fan of his past work. The acting is serviceable, with Gary Oldman standing out as a man being pushed along on a tide of things he can't control. Andy Serkis' motion capture work is great again, but not as dynamic as some of his other efforts (I still think it's a shame he was overlooked by the Academy for his work in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.)

I'm still looking forward to the rest of this series. I'm interested in how the world gets from where we're left here to the world of human subjugation we see in 1968's Planet of the Apes. Focusing on the apes' story instead of the humans was a smart move, as they should be the stars of the film, but it was done haphazardly, as characters that we're expected to care about are not given much in the way of development. This hurt the movie when we're told that they're in danger; am I supposed to care when I can't even recall whether or not that character's name has been used?

Conclusion: A decent summer movie, but I didn't find it as compelling as some reviewers have found it. Although it didn't elevate the series into something extraordinary it did keep me interested enough to buy a ticket for the next one. Temper your expectations and you'll have fun, go in expecting greatness and you may leave disappointed.

Rating: 7/10

Under the Skin

Under the Skin (2013)
Producers: Film4, British Film Institute (BFI), Silver Reel
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writer: Walter Campbel, Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber
Rated: R (Graphic Nudity, Sexual Content, Some Violence and Language)
Runtime: 108 min
Genre: Sci-Fi, Suspense, Thriller

A Sci-Fi Art film! I'm usually not a big art film guy, but the prospect of an artsy Sci-Fi film intrigued me. So, lured in by that, I watched Under the Skin.

The first thing I noticed about this movie was the sound, and it was something that continued throughout the movie. There are many transitions between very quiet and inundated with sound; silently riding in a van, and then a crowded mall. There are also a lot of rhythmic sounds during the otherwise quiet moments. I felt this added a strange bit of tension. Tension, by the way, is what you feel during most of this film. If you're used to seeing films edited for large crowds this movie will turn a lot of the things you're used to on their head. Jonathan Glazer uses long shots to put more tension and suspense into the scene. You begin thinking to yourself, “We've been focused on her eyes in the rear view mirror for a long time, something has to happen.” Sometimes it does and sometimes you just smash cut to the next thing.

The combination of sound and editing style have the viewer in a constant state of not-quite-comfortable. Which is appropriate because our lovely alien lead finds herself feeling the same way. Although there is minimal dialogue Scarlett Johansson guides us through this outsider's attempts to harvest humans, understand them, and then be like them. Through her eyes we see just how strange we as humans can be; bar/club settings, buying something for a pretty stranger as some kind of cheap pick-up and not accepting others because they're somehow different than us. She sees some of the more positive things we have to offer too, our willingness to help those we don't know and do little things to ease someone's mind and body.

She attempts to abandon her previous life, realizing that she might not actually be a woman, but she would like to be. Unfortunately she finds herself unable to do the things that make us happy. After a shocking role reversal we're left wondering what the alien, and by extension we the audience, can take from the experience; and what the alien point of view says about humanity.

Conclusion: I could be way off, but the what I saw in this movie is that from the outside looking in humanity is one strange beast. As different from one another as possible, but alike at the same time. We should also remember that the worst of our traits are the ones that make the biggest impression on the one's around us. People base their opinion on those things, our children learn to emulate those things, but when it's all said and done we don't leave this world with any of them.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday is Haul Day!

Just got back from various stops, bearing plenty of fun stuff.  First on the list is Under the Skin, a Sci-Fi Thriller with Scarlett Johansson:

An alien entity inhabits the earthly form of a seductive young woman who combs the Scottish highways in search of the human prey it is here to plunder.  It lures its isolated and forsaken male victims into an otherworldly dimension where they are stripped and consumed.  But life in all its complexity starts to change the alien.  It begins to see itself as "she," as human, with tragic and terrifying consequences.  Under the Skin is about seeing ourselves through alien eyes.

In addition, there's Pandemic; a cooperative table top game for two to four players where you and your team race against time to save the inhabitants of Earth from deadly disease that threaten to wipe it out.  The Martian, Andy Weir's debut novel, in which a team becomes the first humans to walk on Mars, only to have a freak accident force five of the six team members to evacuate and leave behind our protagonist, Mark Watney, believing him lost.  He must use the scant equipment and his wits to survive long enough to be rescued.

On the comic book front, we've got Green Arrow #29-32, She-Hulk #6, and Rat Queens #7.  Bookmark the site and make sure to check back in for reviews of many of these.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode One “All That Remains”

The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episode One “All That Remains”
Publisher: Telltale Games
Players: One
Genre: Graphic Adventure, Horror
Distribution: Download

For those of you new to Telltale Games' The Walking Dead series this game is categorized as a Graphic Adventure. It's kind of like a 'Choose your own Adventure' book, there are consequences to the decisions that you make. The first thing you do upon starting a new game is import any saved game files you have from previous games (either or both The Walking Dead: Season One and 400 Days). Those allows the game to tailor the game to the decisions you've made before.

Then you are reminded of your past exploits in a “Previously on...” montage. It's been a few months since I played through Episode One, but that quick montage reminded me how much I enjoyed the first game. The end of Episode One contains one of the few moments I've found in a video game that actually brought tears to my eyes.

In Season Two the player takes control of Clementine (One of my favorite characters in video gaming right now), an incredibly brave and resourceful child that you shepherded through the first season as Lee. As a child of the apocalypse Clem has learned to survive, either on her own or while in a group. This season drops you right into the action and doesn't stop. This episode is full of narrow escapes, harrowing encounters and a scene not for the squeamish. Clem reminded me very quickly why she's my favorite child of The Walking Dead-verse. Never a liability she not only holds her own with the adults she's grouped with, she makes herself indispensable to them.

The group Clem has fallen in with to begin this season seems much more dysfunctional than the group from the previous season. They're all obviously afraid of someone, someone whom they seem to expect to see hunting them around every corner. On top of the paranoia that causes, there's a soon to be child with a mystery father and lots of distrust of Clementine.

The voice acting for the most part is top-notch, with the actors voicing Clementine and Luke standing out the most to me. The game looks like a graphic novel, with the graphics seeming to have a hand drawn quality to them. My only gripe with the game is the same gripe I had with Season One; the action sequences interrupt the story and keep you from finding out more as quickly as possible. Unlike the show, where you wait for the next action sequence to break up the soap opera-ness of the interpersonal relationships, the action sometimes seems shoe-horned into the situation during play. I find myself rushing through the action, barely paying attention, until I can get to the next morsel of character development.

Conclusion: The first installment of The Walking Dead: Season Two picks up right where Season One left off. You experience the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of an adolescent, and discover the changes that such a situation forces upon the survivors. I can't wait to see what the rest of the season has in store, there are already so many questions that need answers.

Rating: 7.5/10

Atlanta Braves' Dan Uggla released!

It's about time.  I know he has a huge contract that the team will have to keep paying, and I don't care.  The team has been hamstrung by working with a 24-man roster for most of the season due to the front office's unwillingness to take this step.  This is a guy that in 3+ seasons with the Braves has batted .209/.317.391 with 79 HR and 225 RBI, oh and 535 Strikeouts.  That's worth league minimum, not the $12 million they've been paying him.  Aside from a couple of stretches in the first season and a half he was here the entire debacle has been hard to watch.  If you really think about last season it's amazing that the Braves won 96 games with both Uggla and BJ Upton in the lineup consistently.  Here's to hoping for some positive developments going forward.

I remember hearing a few years ago that none of the New York Mets outfield was the highest paid outfielder on their payroll, that that distinction belonged to Bobby Bonilla.  He hadn't been an active ball player for years, but had agreed to a deferment on what was owed to him, spreading a large sum out over time to give the team some financial flexibility.  In a perfect world Dan Uggla would realize that this was a business decision, accept it for that and come to terms with a similar arrangement.  Hopefullly he doesn't harbor so much animosity that this is an impossiblilty.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Afterlife with Archie: Issues #1-5

Afterlife with Archie
Issues #1-5
Publisher: Archie Comics
Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Rated: T/Teen
Genre: Horror
Price: $2.99/issue

Yes, that Archie. You used to beg for the comic in line at the grocery store (me too). You have fond memories of the gang's shenanigans (me too). You thought those stories were something you left in your childhood (me too). The first time you heard of this comic you scoffed (me too). I walked by it a couple of times at my local comicbook store (Galactic Quest shout out!) and just shook my head. After a few weeks I noticed that it had gone on to its second printing, and I thought to myself, “Why the hell not?” I picked up the first two issues, and its been on my pull list ever since.

I don't know about you, but I know I smiled when I first opened this book. Sure the art's not as bright and colorful as those old comics, but the characters! They're just like you remember them. (Aside from the Sabrina the Teenage Witch reference, which for some strange reason I didn't even catch on my first read-through. As an aside, doing a little research shows me that this isn't her first foray in the Archie-verse) The art is all browns, oranges, dark greens and purples and it works. Francesco Francavila keeps the general look of an Archie book, and then pulpifies it, in doing so he makes reading it almost feel like watching a horror flick at the drive-in.

My memories of those early comics aren't perfect, and work in a more general way then remembering specifics, but these characters feel just like they should. Roberto Aguirre-Scasa does a great job of slipping into them and making them feel right. Sure the situation isn't standard Archie fare, but they still feel like the Riverdalians (Riverdalites?) we all grew up with. One great character specifically is Hubert H. Smithers, I don't remember any of his previous backstory, but the balding butler of the Lodge's oversteps the rules set out by his father and mediates a tense situation and in the process has me hoping he sticks around for a while.

It had been a long time since I'd read an Archie Comic and, aside from the veritable cornucopia of zombie mayhem, there is some admirable social commentary going on in Riverdale. I'm not going to get into individual instances that made me happy to see, suffice to say I hope that those characters and many of the relationships as they're presented make or have made their way into the Archie universe proper. If our children are reading about such a wide range of people it might actually mean something to their ideas of inclusion and acceptance in their futures. That's as soapboxish as I want to get, pardon me.

Conclusion: I wish I could've been there for the pitch. I can't imagine how these gentlemen convinced the powers-that-be at Archie Comics to sign off on this, but I'm glad they did. Underneath the immediate nostalgia for the characters is a surprisingly savage zombie story that causes me to relish each new release.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Showdown Sunday Results

After considering my feelings towards both The Strain and The Leftovers episodes that aired on Sunday night (July 13, 2014) I feel like I've decided which I will watch live and which I'll be catching up on.  While I enjoyed The Leftovers episode, and felt that it was a huge improvement over the previous weeks, I'm pretty sure that they're not going to alter the focus of the show away from Chief Garvey and over to Matt Jamison.  Since that move doesn't seem likely I think I'll be watching The Strain live.  I, of course, reserve my right to change my mind, depending on how each show progresses.  What about you, which show will you be following as it happens and which will you be catching up on?

Pretty Deadly Volume One: The Shrike

Pretty Deadly Volume One: The Shrike
Issues #1-5
Publisher: Image Comics
Art: Emma Rios
Rated: M/Mature
Genre: Fantasy, Western
Price: $9.99

What an amazing book. I'm really not sure what to compare it to; it's part western, part fable, part epic poem. Beautiful and brutal at the same time; the narrative starts and doesn't stop, slow down or stutter until the last page.

Emma Rios' art perfectly depicts the gritty setting, the violence and the emotion of every scene, making it the ideal counterpoint to Kelly Sue Deconnick's storytelling. The story is told in an almost lyrical way that makes it flow from one point to the next seamlessly, and there is a brevity to her writing that is refreshing, there is a noticeable lack of internal monologues and the rambling thoughts that seem to pad the word counts of some other comic-fare on the market.

Back to the art. I noticed not a single wasted panel, some artists find it necessary to show you six views of the landscape so that you can REALLY tell that it's empty/snowing/sprawling cityscape/whatever. Rios' shows the reader exactly what they need to see, relies on our intelligence without hammering us over the head, and moves on to the next thing. This style makes the action take place at a frantic pace, and I can't imagine it happening any other way. I did notice, in just a couple of action sequences, that I had trouble following from panel to panel intuitively without going back and picking out the details. This caused me to stumble through the action in a couple of spots, but isn't something that I'd expect to even affect every reader.

Conclusion: I can't wait to read more. If this duo can continue to turn out their superb combination of story and art then I'll keep reading it. The imagery and the tone/style fit the story as if they were all made for each other.

Rating: 9.5/10

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Leftovers: Season 1, Episode 3

The Leftovers
Episode Title: “Two Boats and a Helicopter”
Channel: HBO
Director: Keith Gordon
Writers: Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery
Runtime: 60 min
Rated: TV-MA
Original Air Date: July 13, 2014

The Leftovers is a show I haven't been impressed with thus far. A little mystery is a good thing, but it has been a case of too many questions, and zero answers over the course of its first two episodes. As such I felt like this episode would be very important to my interest in the show. The first thing to say is that I'm happy that Justin Theroux's character's presence was kept to a minimum, it's not that he's a bad actor, I just find his character unlikable. He's angry all the time and I feel like it hasn't been a good writing decision to have us questioning his sanity before we care about his character, Police Chief Kevin Garvey. A descent into madness is much more interesting than starting there.

This episode put those concerns on the back burner and focused its attention elsewhere, on Christopher Eccleston's Matthew Jamison. After just a few minutes I sympathized more with his character than the others that we have been introduced to, this is a priest whom was left on Earth after what many would assume was the Rapture. What would this do to this man's flock and faith. The flock, we are shown, has been diminished greatly. Very few attend his services and he's been unable to pay his bills. His faith on the other hand seems to be strong. He follows a few signs/omens and raises the money to save his church. The audience is shown that he is determined and multifaceted as he does some shocking things to reach his goal.

The ending of the episode was a kick in the teeth. I'm trying not to spoil too much here, suffice to say that I'm actually of the opinion that this episode made sure that I'll come back for some more. Here's to hoping that we get some answers in the coming weeks, and that the show doesn't devolve back into unlikable characters and blank stares (please try Liv, just try!)

Conclusion: While still not great, the change in focus this week made sure that I'll be tuning in for a little while longer. I'm still not thrilled with the amount of mystery in this show, but maybe this was a sign of better things to come

Rating: 7/10 (Series thus far: 5.5/10)

The Strain: Season 1, Episode 1

The Strain
Episode Title:  "Night Zero"
Channel:  FX
Director:  Guillermo Del Toro
Writers:  Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Genre:  Drama, Sci-Fi, Horror
Runtime:  60 min
Rated:  TV-MA
Original Air Date:  July 13, 2014

The premiere episode of FX's new series The Strain both delivered and failed to deliver at the same time.  I felt that they set the situation up well, the show was tense when it was supposed to be, and brutal when it needed to be.  There's a specific scene where I imagine the audience who haven't read the book almost groaned to themselves and said, "Really?  More vampires on TV?"  They were then reminded that these are not Stephanie Meyer's vampires.  They don't sparkle, they don't attend balls, and they don't covet that one perfect meal.  They feed and kill; not since 30 Days of Night do I recall vampires perpetrating that kind of violence.

I really liked David Bradley as Abraham Setrakian, I felt like he was making the scenes he was in better, just by virtue of being there.  I also like that although there are many departures from the vampire literature that we grew up on there are little familiar things there too.  The concept of Renfields seems to be alive and well and the show already has its Van Helsing character.

On the negative side; most of the acting was not up to what we have come to expect from an FX series.  The dialogue in places is atrocious, am I really supposed to believe that an air traffic controller has never seen an airplane up close before?  I expected Corey Stoll, coming off of a memorable performance on last year's first season of House of Cards, to elevate the cast.  Unfortunately this wasn't the case.  Part of that is the script (who cares about your milk!?) and another is the uneven acting around him.  I'm usually not one to knock a toupee, as sometimes they're done well and seem like a part of the character, but honestly costume designer; is having hair an intrinsic part of this character?  If not, then why, please why?

I have a feeling that the show will hit its stride, but as pilots go it wasn't spectacular.  Can we please pull the plug on premieres and finales going longer than a standard one hour show's run time?  If you need more time to tell your story split it up, I for one have never had a problem with 'to be continued'

Conclusion:  A slightly bumpy start, but I see some potential in this series.  Something to remember is that the overall quality of a show usually increases after the pilot.  On a side note, there is a scene at the end that completely ruined a guilty pleasure song of mine.  As soon as I saw the setting and heard the song I knew it was coming too.

Rating:  6.25/10