Monday, December 13, 2010

Essential TV Box Sets: Married...With Children: The Complete Series

As a child of the 1980's, I remember looking forward to the new episode of "Married...With Children" every Sunday night, both because I loved the show and because I was allowed to stay up past 9 pm, which was a big thing for me at the time. The show was an endless parade of dumb characters, goofy situations, toilet humor and negative stereotypes, which is to say that it was (and still is) right up my alley. Fans of the series have reason to rejoice because the entire series is now available in one convenient box set for a modest price, so if you've been on the fence about collecting this iconic 80's sitcom, there has never been a better time.

The show follows the life of the Bundy family, led by the misanthropic "man's man" Al Bundy, a shoe salesman who's life peaked in high school as a star football player and he's been stuck in a rut ever since, through he frequently recounts his ultimate glory of scoring four a single game! The running jokes on his character is that he earns less than minimum wage, drives a 1972 Dodge that's one foot in the scrap heap, and he has a little problem with foot odor. He's married to his high school sweetheard, Peggy, who has tunrned into the ultimate layabout, a housewife who doesn't cook or clear. Here time is spent on the couch, with the butt of jokes being her penchant for Oprah and bon-bons. As the title of the series implies, they have children and they are equally colorful. Their oldest daughter, Kelly, is the archetypal "dumb blonde" who gets by purely on her looks, but is loveably dim and generally well-meaning. The younger son is Bud, who is shown to be socially unpopular with woman and often finds solace in porn magazines and blow-up dolls. Pretty edgy stuff for a sitcom, especially in the era of wholsesome family entertainment like "The Cosby Show" and "Full House".

Rounding out the characters is Marcy, the Bundy's neighbor and frequently a target of Al's maliciousness because of her short hair and, shall we say, diminutive breast size. She has two husbands throughout the series, the yuppie Steve and the pretty-boy Jefferson. Both of these characters provide their own level of comic relief. In latter seasons, Al's circle of friends consists of fellow blue-collar men who form an organization called "No Ma'am", a men's pride club of sorts that is basically an excuse for them to get together, drink beer and basically do "guy things". The comedy shifts from more of a "class clash" in earlier seasons to more slapstick and absurd situation comedy in latter seasons. It's the reason why boys my age always used works like "hooters" and "nudie bar". Both eras have their highs and lows, however the series was consistently well written over it's 10 year run and it's incorporation of sexist and often risque humor was definitely something new. Critics have considered it to be the opposite of the Cosby show (the title was originally "Definitely Not The Cosby's"), but I would liken it to a lighter version of "All In The Family".

Not every episode was a winner, but the series is more than the sum of it's parts. It's a slice of nostalgia for anyone who grew up enjoying it and it stands as one of the edgiest and most enduring comedies of the 80's and 90's. Unfortunately, the DVD treatment has not been as kind to this series as it has been to others. Outside of the "Reunion Special" in the first season, previews for other shows and a few token easter eggs, there is a dearth of special features in a series that is screaming for them. Subsequent DVD releases might add something, but this set and the single season sets that came before are as bare-bones as they come. Still, for anyone considering getting the series on DVD, the entire series for $100 is difficult to pass up and easy to recommend.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Impressions: The 2010 Spike Video Game Awards

I just finished watching the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards, an annual drudge-fest that has been carrying the flag for award show mediocrity since 2003. What could have been a grand occasion to honor the best in video games is instead degenerated into a lame and painfully unfunny slew of dumb jokes, cheesy one-liners and the sound of crickets chirping when the host, presumably just cashing a paycheck, throws out a zinger to a less-than-enthralled crowd. The 2010 awards was hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, who displays all the wit and hosting prowess of wooden plank, and the endless slew of "special guests", unfunny sex jokes and tortured one-liners kept the proceedings chugging along at the pace of cold molasses in January. Having said that, it's not the personalities or even the awards that make the VGAs worth watching, it's the game announcements that really get the collective hearts of gamers pumping.

The world premier announcements include some surprises and a few that we knew already. The big hitters were, without a doubt, "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception", "Resistance 3" and "Batman: Arkham City". These games were hardly secrets, but it was good to see official announcements and some spiffy trailers. The unexpected announcement of "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" got my gaming friends on Twitter scrambling to tweet their joy, and the revealings of "Mass Effect 3", "Forza Motorsport 4" and "Portal 2 rounded things out nicely. With 2010 being a banner year for games, the recent announcements lead me to believe that 2011 will be just as fruitful for the gaming industry.

As for the awards themselves, let's just say that the only thing less predictable in life is stepping out into a rainstorm and getting wet. The endless love for games like "Call of Duty: Black Ops", "Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood" and "Red Dead Redemption" were expected and not totally unwarranted, but lesser-known and equally good titles were totally left out and it leads me to believe that the VGAs are just a big popularity contest. Perhaps video games occupy a narrower frontier than movies and music, but it's good to see underdog titles get some love and you rarely see that in popular gamer culture. But this s Spike TV, hardly the hallmark of quality and objectivity, so perhaps this is to be expected.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Review: The Human Centipede (Blu-Ray)

(2009) Horror. Starring Deiter Laser, Ashley Williams, Ashlynn Yennie and Akihiro Kitamura. 92 minutes.

There are two kinds of horror movies nowadays; gorefest flicks that go right for the throat and give you a healthy dose of blood and guts, and more psychological horror films that leave a lasting impression and prove that what is implied is sometimes more shocking than what is shown. "The Human Centipede" falls somewhere in the middle, delivering some enough viscera to appease the splatter fans while providing a truly horrifying premise to really make you squirm in your seat. It's not a great film by any stretch, but it offers a level of originality that is not often seen in horror films today. Part horror, part twisted fetish movie, this is unlikely to be a movie you'll forget anytime soon.

The center of the movie is Dr. Heiter,a reclusive former doctor who was once a respected surgeon specializing in the separation of Siamese twins but now devotes his time to his obsession - combining animals to make one cohesive body. As luck would have it, two American tourists happen upon his house one rainy night and he decides to keep them for his experiment. Add in a Japanese tourist he kidnaps and he's ready to unveil his masterplan: to create a human centipede. How he achieves this is really the most horrifying aspect of the movie; he plans for them to all share one digestive tract, with the person in the front eating, passing waste through the middle person and finally out the end of the back person. This requires two of the people to be surgically grafted, rectum to mouth, and their knee ligaments are severed so that the cannot stand up. The bulk of the movie is the surgical procedure, with the rest being devoted to the mad doctor "training" his human centipede and their attempts to escape.

As horror movies go, this is one of the more interesting ones that works on some levels and doesn't on others. The production is above average for it's type, especially considering that oddities like this are typically low-budget European or Asian exploitation or Arthouse films, so it obviously has a bigger budget than most. The acting by the three "pieces" of the centipede is patchy at best, especially the Japanese male who has been given some incredibly bad dialogue and who spends the bulk of the movie screaming and shouting nonsensical banter. The best performance of the movie comes from German stage actor Dieter Laser, who plays an effectively creepy villain akin to a more unhinged Hannibal Lecter. He is an imposing presence and his facial expressions and manner of speaking really add to the level of discomfort the movie gives off.

In truth, the film is far less graphic than anything you would see in an Eli Roth or a Saw movie, but there are some cringe-inducing scenes nonetheless. The real horror comes in the form of the situation that three unfortunately people find themselves in, both before and after the procedure, with the mad doctor explaining to them what is going to happen and seeing their anguished reactions. Trying to imagine yourself in such an ordeal is really where this film hits the mark, and it will definitely leave an impression on you long after you've seen the film.

For all it's strengths and faults, I enjoyed "The Human Centipede" and I can see it becoming a cult classic 10 years from now. With a sequel being made already, it is likely to have a good following among fans and draw the ire of film critics and parents for years to come. The originality of the plot and the shock value are enough to make this an easy recommendation for horror fans who are looking for something a little different.

Rating: 6/10

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Remembering John Lennon (1940 - 1980)

The current generation would be forgiven for not feeling the loss of John Lennon as much as our parents did. Admittedly, I was only two months old when Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan, but as a life-long fan of The Beatles, the loss still resonates every time I listed to one of the songs he penned as a member of Liverpool's finest or as a solo artist. For my parents, who lived through the era of Beatlemania and who followed Lennon's musical and political activities, his death rocked them to the core. Like Elvis Presley before and Michael Jackson after, the death of a music icon resonates as much as what they accomplished in life. On the 30th anniversary of his death, we remember John Lennon as a musician, artist, activist and a larger than life personality who remains one of the pillars of our popular culture.

During his time with The Beatles, he and Paul McCartney penned the bulk of their popular songs and his instrumental contributions on rhythm guitar helped shape their distinctive sound, and although Paul sang many of the Beatle's bigger hits, his vocal stylings on songs like "Twist & Shout", "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were highly underrated. As their career progressed, George Harrison helped to shape their dabbling in eastern styles of music, but John brought in the political ideals that were a reaction to the climate at the time, most notably the war in Vietnam. Songs about peace, love and the end of the war were recurring themes and they carried over into his solo career, resulting in his now iconic peace ballad "Imagine". His seven day "bed in" was a huge media event and it gave rise to another popular anti-war song, "Give Peace a Chance", a song that is so poetic in it's simplicity.

Personality-wise, Lennon spoke as loud as his music and he was known for giving very entertaining, and often very politically charged, interviews and speeches. He openly debated the merits of the war in Vietnam, took part in peace rallies and concerts, and became famous for his billboards that simply said "War is Over...If You Want". Earlier in his career, the infamous "bigger than Jesus" fiasco was his biggest misstep, but only because the sensibilities of the overly religious were offended. He defended his position and the storm subsided, but not before public burnings of Beatles records and memorabilia were held. Later in his career, he became as well known for his activism as he did his music, and this led to the controversy and legal turmoil that dominated his final years in New York. The United States declared him a threat to their national security and initiated proceedings to have him deported, citing an old marijuana conviction as their reason. For a detailed account on this period, check out the documentary "The USA vs. John Lennon".

No matter how iconic a person may be, I don't believe that anyone should be sanctified in death. Lennon penned some of the most enduring songs in pop music history, but he didn't always have the Midas touch. For every "Imagine" and "Merry Xmas (The War is Over), there was the unlistenable "Two Virgins" and some of the more, shall we say, avant garde offerings of the Plastic Ono Band. Opinions also differ on his relationship with Yoko Ono, however I have always felt that the criticism of her was nothing more than sexism and racism masquerading as informed opinion. Heavy criticism was also drawn over the breakup of The Beatles and his relationship with Ono being the catalyst, however they were on a creative and collaborative decline and likely would have imploded regardless.

No artist is above reproach and Lennon has his share of turkeys, but he managed to share political views and engage in other endeavors without descending into embarrassing scandal as so many other artists have. The criticism never seemed to overshadow his music and this is why his legacy will endure with more dignity other artists who died young. Elvis had his steady decline, dubiously dubbed the "Fat Elvis" years, and Michael Jackson...well, that's all I need to say. The worst thing I can point out is the "Two Virgins", both for the music (a collection of noises, feedback, squeals, etc) and the infamous album cover in which he and Yoko are naked, full frontal. I read somewhere that this was inspired by dropping acid and I totally believe it.

Lennon's death on December 8, 1980 was a shock to the system for pretty much everyone and it remains one of those events frozen in time for anyone who was around to experience it. My mother still recalls where she was when the news broke, much as this generation will remember the moment that they first heard about 9/11 or Michael Jackson's death. The outpouring of grief was unparalleled and people still hold annual vigils on the anniversary of his death. The remaining Beatles handled the tragedy with a sense of dignity, as did Yoko Ono, who has done everything possible to keep his memory alive in the 30 years since. From my own perspective, I wasn't old enough at the time to appreciate the gravity of his contributions to music, but I have grown to appreciate both his music and ideologies.

Every generation has lost someone who defined their culture and this raises them to near-mythical status. John Lennon was that for our parent's generation and remains so for a new generation of fans who are discovering The Beatles for the first time. How appropriate it is that the music is relevant again, with the reissuing of their albums and even their own Rock Band video game coming out, and legions of bands cite Lennon and The Beatles as their inspiration. Lennon's death is mourned every year and the prevailing question "what if he was still alive" is a frequent topic of conversation. All I know is that he was a great musician, an irreplaceable personality and a true icon of popular culture. He is definitely missed.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Available for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Retail Price: $59.99

Like many people, I enjoyed the first Assassin's Creed for what it was but felt that it was lackluster in it's mission variety and repetitive in nature. Assassin's Creed was leaps and bounds ahead of the original, and the good news is that Brotherhood is a continuation of that winning formula. Coming out a year after the previous game might make this seem like a glorified expansion at first glance, but Brotherhood is anything but that.

The story shifts back and forth between Ezio, returning home to find that war has broken out and his arch nemesis does some nasty things that warrants Ezio's motive for revenge and overthrowing him, and to Desmond in 2012 as he and the rogue scientists attempt to unravel the past in order to escape the murderous templars in the present. The plot is not overly engrossing, however it's the characters that bring everything to life and Brotherhood really excels in this area. Ezio is a compelling character a always, and the game is filled with a rich cast of colorful characters that are both new to the series and returning from the previous game. The difference in this game is that you are not supposed to run through the story on your own; you are expected to recruit assassin's to assist you througout the game and they are yours to summon whenever needed. Sadly, the AI is not spot-on and sometimes they are not as useful as you would hope, but they do come in handy when you are getting slaughtered in battle.
A character in and of itself, the city of Rome is vibrant and bustling with interesting and sometimes amusing people. Beggars line the streets, prostitutes beckon you to hire them and groups of vigilantes gather in the public squares, all adding to a sense of realism that made the previous game so endearing. The bulk of the game is spent in Rome, which may feel like a step back from Assassin's Creed II, where you would travel between cities, but Rome is so vast and populous that you'll easily overlook this. The story missions are well paced and full of intense action, and the platforming segments in the shrines are fantastic as well.

A concealed firearm will ensure that your enemies go out with a bang!

The gameplay is largely unchanged from Assassin's Creed II and the free-running mechanic works as well here as it did before, so anyone familiar with the game can dive right in. Rome is a huge city with plenty of rooftops, so it's sometimes fun to just run around and take in all the sights. In addition to the story missions, there are various things you can do around town to earn money.

Like Assassin's Creed II, there is an economy system here in which you purchase shops and they add to your treasury balance, which is essential for upgrading your weapons and armour. A new addition that's a nice touch are the areas of the city that are under the tyrannical rule of Borgia and his armies, and you can liberate these areas by destroying their towers and killing the captains. This adds some of the most intense and exhilarating moments in the game, since these tasks ramp up in difficulty fast. Graphically, this game is a sight to behold and it is easily on par with Assassin's Creed II. The character animation, cutscene quality and design of the city are all well done and despite some noticeable pop-in, it provides a wonderful sense of immersion.

Like all video games, Brotherhood is not perfect and it does have it's share of flaws. The free-running mechanic is tight and responsive for the most part, but it is not always accurate. There have been several occasions where I meant to jump in one direction and I ended up going the other way, sometimes falling to my death or losing valuable seconds in some of the time-based objectives. This even happens when you are clearly facing a place where you can jump. Additionally, there is some glitchiness with your AI controlled assassins and even some of the friends you need to interact with. For example, they would get stuck in walls, stand there doing nothing or simply teleport to another area. It's not a huge problem, but it does pose some annoyances when you really need things to run smoothly.

Thrown in to add a level of challenge, you can now achieve full synchronization by completing missions a certain way. For example, if you complete a mission in under a certain number of minutes, avoid losing health, or killing someone in a particular manner, you will achieve full synchronization and this will add up to achievement points/trophies. Unfortunately, some of the sequences are lengthy and it's disheartening to know that you've failed this so early into the missions. This does add some frustration, but it's hardly a deal-breaker and some might actually view this as a strength.

The last thing I'll touch upon is the multiplayer, which is something very interesting and unique. You are thrown into a large area with other players, given a person to assassinate, and likewise someone is after you. The objective is to kill your target before you get killed, and the style in which you do it will determine how well you do. For example, if you run up and knife someone in the back, you've achieved your objective and move on. But if you do it with style and stealth, you earn more points. This is a refreshing change from all of these online shooters that mainly focus on kill streaks, so being a hardcore online player doesn't ensure that you'll do well here. It's definitely something different. On the other hand, the pace will definitely feel slower to those who prefer the breakneck pace of online shooters, so this is an acquired taste. If you don't like multiplayer, you don't lose out because the single player campaign is 20+ hours long and there is plenty to keep you busy.

The speed at which this game was released certainly attracted some sceptics, however I am happy to say that Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is every bit as fun, challenging and beautifully done as the previous game. Those expecting an entirely new game with a new plot and cast of characters might be disappointed, but anyone who loved Assassin's Creed II is really missing the boat if they don't pick this up as well. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Netflix Canada

For a movie fanatic like me, choice is a good thing. I have spent the last few years building a sizeable movie collection and only recently have I stepped into the Blu-Ray arena, and I am always looking for new outlets through which I can enjoy a variety of movies. Having watched from afar the benefit that Netflix has had for US consumers, it was great news to hear that the service is now available in Canada and I quickly jumped at the 30 day free trial that was being offered to first-time subscribers. After using Netflix for a few weeks and delving deeply into their catalogue, I have formed an opinion that can best be described as tentatively mixed. For a service that is still embryonic in the Canadian market, it’s introduction is more of drop in the puddle as opposed to the big splash that many had hoped.

Let’s be clear on one thing, the service is $7.99 per month and your expectations should be adjusted accordingly. This is less a competitor to your local video store or cable TV service and more of an alternative for second (or even third) run movies that you can have conveniently streamed through your PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii. I opted to use my PS3 and my opinions are based solely on my experience on this platform. The main draw of any service like this is the selection of movies, and this is where the first wrinkles in the service become evident; the selection is just not impressive. Canadian subscribers can expect to be 8 to 12 months behind on DVD releases and at least a full season behind on TV shows. For example, the first three seasons of “Mad Men” are available while the fourth is not, and movies like “Horton Hears a Who” and “Imagine That” (both from 2008) are considered to be new releases. Popular shows like Lost and Dexter, long available to US subscribers, are listed in the catalogue but are unavailable in Canada.

Perhaps to compensate for this, there is a good selection of older movies and I have found plenty of movies that have been sitting in my “have to see” pile for ages that I have finally been able to sit down and watch. Most notably, their selection of documentaries, foreign and horror films is rather good and they have a good mix of popular and independent releases. The selection of TV shows is also a mixed bag, but thankfully they have most seasons of shows like “Intervention” and “Heroes” that are available. I have read that the limited selection in Canada, at least at the time of the launch, is due to licensing restrictions but I find it rather poor planning to introduce a service without having covered those bases first. Business sense would dictate that a strong launch is what ensures lasting success, and Netflix has unfortunately experienced an average launch at best.

On the technical front, Netflix functions exactly as you would expect. I have experienced absolutely no problems with lag or buffering while streaming content and the load times are excellent for a streaming service. I stream from a Playstation 3 and utilize an HDMI connection and there has been no conversion problems or picture/sound quality problems that I have often experienced with streaming online videos on my PC.

As well as the Netflix system works on a functional level, the same cannot be said for the menu system. On one hand, the movies are conveniently organized by gene and from the newest to the oldest additions, which makes browsing movies and finding hidden gems rather easy. On the other hand, the menu navigation clearly has problems. For some reason, the cursor seems to be move to the left whenever you move down the list of movies, so you will often go back to a previous menu or load another area when you didn’t intend to do so. This is especially problematic when scrolling through a list of TV episodes, since I often got kicked back to the main page for the show and I had to go back into the episode list.

Another problem is the movie catalogue incorporating titles from both the US and Canadian services. Due to the aforementioned licensing restrictions, the bulk of the US catalogue is unavailable to Canadian subscribes and it makes little sense to list them on the Canadian site, however using the “search” function will bring up several movies and TV shows that are not available. For example, I wanted to see a documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina called “Trouble the Water” and I quickly found it by utilizing the search function. Imagine my disappointment when I loaded the movie page and it said “Not Available”, and the same thing happened when I wanted to watch back episodes of “Breaking Bad”. Listed but not available – what a tease!

As previously noted, the Netflix service is $7.99 a month for unlimited movies, so this should be weighed against the weaknesses in the selection that I have noted above. The benefit of Netflix is really in the older and more independent movies they have on offer, and for that I would tentatively say the price is worth it. If anything is stopping me from recommending it outright, it’s the fact that it’s still new in Canada and we have yet to gauge the quality and quantity of the movies that are going to be added. Netflix is not something that can compete with DVD sales, which is arguably the sweetest plumb for movie studios, so Netflix is less profitable and will consequently be last to the party when it comes to movie releases. However, I have found several movies that I have been meaning to watch and also some great movies that I never knew existed. The streaming quality is good and the service is reliable, so I recommend taking advantage of the free trial and see if Netflix is for you.

Rating: 6.5/10 (based on the launch; rating could improve over time)