Monday, December 31, 2012

TV Show Review - The Wire

When I reviewed Copper, I mentioned how little I care for most episodic cop shows. The formula of catching a different bad guy every week is trite and unrealistic, and becomes painfully difficult to believe. Hell, some of those CSI shows are practically science fiction.

But The Wire is the kind of television that lets us know cop shows can be awesome. There's no formula. There are no neat ribbon-tied endings. There's no needless drama or hair-raising feats of derring-do. There are cops who do their jobs, and there are bad guys who do their jobs, and there are all the people affected by this cycle. And then there's the story.

If I had to pick one word to describe The Wire, it would be 'natural.' Everything about The Wire happens naturally, never forced, never gimmicky. The acting is superb. The story develops organically - there's no pre-determined ending, just the sort of cause-and-effect that actually makes things happen. Dealers sell drugs; cops go after them; people get killed. There are surprises and events that you didn't see coming, but they're not tricks or plot devices. The story can surprise you because life can surprise you.

The people who made The Wire did their research, too. The show feels real because the writers did more than just have a couple police on set. I have a cop friend who is also watching The Wire, and from the stories he tells me, I have absolutely no problem believing that the writers for The Wire have an exceptionally deep understanding of how actual police work.

For one thing, The Wire doesn't pretend that all cops are superheroes. It willingly acknowledges that lots of police are less than stellar human beings. Many cops are ladder-climbing political whores. Many more are just power-tripping bullies. And a bunch, a pretty fair-sized number, are damned serious about protecting and serving, and they're hamstrung by the fact that they are all government employees.

The Wire never shrinks from blatantly indicting what are otherwise sacred cows. Corrupt black politicians who trade on their race to keep them rich and in power. Police commissioners who are more concerned with looking good on paper than with stopping crime. Incompetent detectives who are only riding their desks until retirement. Reporters who will stop at nothing to get a good story - even if it means making it up themselves. I could keep going, but I might end up spoiling something.

However, just because some of the characters are assholes doesn't mean they're villains. The top brass might be fudging crime stats, but if they are, it's because the mayor's office is putting too much pressure on them. They might be decent guys who have to do what it takes to make ends meet. The detectives might have once been gung-ho crimefighters, but now they're jaded and exhausted by a system that lets complete outsiders tell them how to do their jobs (and often prevents them from doing it at all). Even the drug dealers, the guys we assume should be the bad guys, are often quite sympathetic. They're selling heroin because it's the only thing they know how to do.

Now, I've told you how well The Wire reflects real life, but that isn't enough to make a show this amazing. To make a series as powerful and brilliant as The Wire requires more than knowledge of how things really work. To be this good, the characters and the story have to be enthralling. And they are. Which at this point is probably redundant.

The trap into which most TV writers fall is a need to make the show more interesting than real life. The hero doesn't just get in a gun fight; he blasts away at four assassins and then leaps off a pier to save a drowning infant. Cops dive to the ground just as the car bombs fill the screen with brilliant orange explosions. Dramatic last-minute rescues and perfect one-liners are the mainstay of television cops - but they're just as make-believe as Lord of the Rings.

Real life is fascinating. I could tell you about how my grandfather was one of four pilots from an entire carrier who survived an air battle against the Japanese, how he floated in the Pacific for hours after giving his lift vest to a fellow sailor. Or I could tell you stories about how my old man called in artillery on the Viet Cong, or how he was badly wounded months later. Hell, I could tell you my own stories, about being in the middle of a bush war in Uganda or how my first girlfriend and I saw a man die. Real like does not need to be tricked-up to be interesting, and the writers of The Wire know that.

The Wire does more than just show us a believable story in a realistic setting. It goes the extra mile and makes it amazing. It makes you care about the people, the kids whose parents are drug addicts and the cops with the drinking problems. It punches you in the stomach and then holds your hair back while you puke. It shows us people - real, believable, natural people - and it makes you love them, even when you hate them.

And as if that wasn't enough, it makes you think. It makes you wonder what we could do differently. It makes you want to get involved. It makes you want to take up arms against a sea of troubles (although not in a Shakespearean-suicidal-tendencies kind of way). It makes you care, not just about the fictional characters you see on your screen, but about actual junkies and homeless people and embattled cops. It makes you want to find out more, and it makes you want to be more than a spectator in your own story.

I just finished the show last night, and I am equal parts glad to have seen it through to the end, and sad that there is no more to watch. It was moving and powerful and brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and always thoroughly enjoyable. I know I'm enjoying the afterglow right now, so my opinion could be colored by the recency of the experience, but I can't think of any television show I've ever seen than was as good as the Wire. From now on, every show I enjoy will have me saying, 'it was good, but it wasn't The Wire.'

I owe a special 'thank you' to readers who commented on my Copper review for turning me on to this amazing show. Hopefully someone will read this and say, 'man, I really need to watch that,' and then I will have paid it forward.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Board Game Review - Mage Wars

I recently conducted an extensive interview with the creators of Mage Wars to find out a little history behind the game. They told me that the game idea came from a 14-year-old boy who was looking through Playboy magazines and wondering what the girls would look like with magic undergarments and gnarly monsters. That horny teen mentioned to his father, who was a nerd, that he wished he could play a game where half-naked women fought awesome monsters and shot stuff with lightning. His dad, who was also horny, thought this sounded like a magnificent idea, and so they created Mage Wars.

That is not true. I did not interview the creators of Mage Wars. I talked with one of their marketing guys at a convention, but we mostly just talked about beer. I don't know if the randy teenage nerd story is real, but I kind of doubt it. Though if you look at the art in Mage Wars, it totally could be.

Mage Wars might not have the most original title ever, or even a particularly original game idea. Spellcasters dueling in an arena is only slightly less innovative than a game about zombies. But what it does have is the best implementation of the mage-off I've ever played. And considering how many wizard-on-wizard games are out there, that's saying something.

The best way to sum up the game play in Mage Wars is that it's like Magic: The Gathering and Summoner Wars met in a bar, and Summoner Wars got Magic knocked up, but then Magic drank during the entire pregnancy and went into labor early, but the baby was fine anyway and didn't get fetal alcohol syndrome or anything, and went on to go to an Ivy League school and never meet its real father. You have a lot of card play and deckbuilding, and you also have cards as miniatures moving around on a big grid. And those two things are like Magic and Summoner Wars.

However, once you get past the initial similarities, Mage Wars is definitely its own game. For one thing, the longest game of Magic I ever played was still over in 40 minutes, and if you finish Mage Wars that fast, one of you is very bad at the game - or someone is cheating. Mage Wars has a lot more game than the other two combined, and while I definitely enjoy both love-child parents, Mage Wars is deeper than either of its predecessors.

Instead of a deck, Mage Wars give you a spellbook. This is still a whole bunch of cards, but you keep them in a little card folder, and every turn you prepare two spells. You pick those spells, so you never go, 'dammit, I just can't get the cards I need,' unless you're a moron. However, this also means that it slows down a little bit, because if you can't decide what spells to ready that turn, you just sit scratching your chin whiskers for five minutes while the other player silently fumes.

And instead of giving you just a few smart options to do on your turn, Mage Wars practically lets you do whatever you want. You can summon gorgons and demons to do your fighting for you, or you can gear up and send your mage right into the fray. You can throw up magical walls of fire, hurl mind-bending delay tactics, or seed the field with diabolical traps. There are so many options that choosing your actions for any given turn can be an agonizing decision. And then when your opponent turns your heaviest hitter to stone and you strands him in a cloud of poison gas that eats at his rocky innards and you didn't prepare a dispel, you also have the options to curse loudly and flip the table (unless it's my table, because my table is really, really heavy. You would both have to cooperate to flip my table).

Planning and strategy and clever tactics play into every step of the game. Charging too fast might be the wrong move at one point and the best possible play at another. You might decide to stick with ranged attacks and wind up allowing your opponent to bring out too much strength on his own, or you could devote effort to close-up brawls and wind up mired in defensive safeguards. It's not easy to see what the best plan would be until your enemy blasts you with a lightning bolt and turns your healers into meat pies.

I love Mage Wars. I've played several times now, and every time, I find some new trick or cool combo or neat ability. I can't wait for expansions, and I intend to pick up the supplemental card decks so I can build more custom spellbooks. I'll play any time I've got two hours and a willing opponent. But I should definitely offer some warnings, in case you're thinking about buying Mage Wars.

This is not anything like a light game. There are 44 pages of rules, and you'll be referring to them the entire time you're playing. If Mage Wars was any less European, it would come with firearms and hookers. It could take you three hours to finish your first game, and if you're not a quick study, you'll have to play a couple times before you know what you're doing. In other words, this is not a game for pussies. Casual nerds need not apply.

On the other hand, if you like a game with meat on it - and not like a slice of sandwich meat, but that giant turkey leg you can get at the renaissance faire - you want Mage Wars. If you want a game that will make your head spin with all the stuff you can do on your turn, you want Mage Wars. If you want a game where all the dudes wear head-to-toe armor and the chicks show up in Victoria's Secret, you want Mage Wars.

Basically, if you're a serious nerd who likes awesome games, you want Mage Wars.


2 players (more if you're feeling frosty)

Deep and smart
Lots of planning and strategizing
Smart tactical plays are critical

Heavier than an unwanted fruitcake
Rabid feminists may be offended (I am not, as I actually like naked women)

 So you need a monster of a two-player game that you can use to murder an entire afternoon? Here you go:

Friday, December 28, 2012

Comic Review - Y: The Last Man

If you're not a huge comics nerd (and I swear, I'm not… well, not any more), you may have missed Y: The Last Man. It's not a superhero book. In fact, there's almost nothing super about it. Some of the people are total bad-ass hard-ons, but for the most part, it's a story of regular people in irregular times.

In the first issue of this incredible series, every living creature on the planet bearing a Y chromosome dies at the same time. They're talking, walking, flying planes, holding press releases, fighting battles - and BAM, every single male of any species pukes blood and drops dead. Men and pigs and cows and horses, all simultaneously toast.

Except Yorick and his pet monkey.

That's the premise of this incredible book, but it's not entirely what the book is about. Like the best science fiction, Y: The Last Man uses an impossible situation to discuss issues that resonate with readers living in a completely normal world. Gender roles are the most obvious starting point, but the story expands to touch on depression and religion, nationalism and crime, power and greed. This is a thought-provoking, intelligent tale that proves beyond any doubt that comic books can be incredible, if we just quit trying to put gunfighters in brightly colored spandex.

As soon as Yorick discovers that he's the last surviving male on the planet, he sets out from Boston to find the love of his life, who is unfortunately in Australia on a research grant. That's a bit of a commute for a guy who can't just jump on a plane, due largely to the fact that there are not really very many planes running any more. Most of the pilots were dudes, and the women who are left are not trying to get American Airlines back to JFK International.

The result is a sort of buddy movie crossed with a road movie crossed with a comic book. A few fascinating characters emerge as the story unfolds. We meet Agent 355, the assassin-spy assigned to protect Yorick on his travels. We meet Dr. Mann, whose work with cloning may unlock the secret to saving the world. There's Alter, the Israeli leader who intends to capture Yorick and make her country the only nation to survive the apocalypse. And Hero, Yorick's sister, is a troubled woman attempting to cope with the dark deeds she commits when she allows herself to fall prey to her doubt and despair.

The characters in Y: The Last Man are, by necessity, mostly females. After all, if there were more than one male character, the title would be all wrong. But even male readers can identify with the living, breathing survivors of a world-changing catastrophe. We can see ourselves in the drug-smuggling ship's captain, the tough congresswoman, or the small-town survivors who make the best of a tough situation.

And the story doesn't just show us villains or heroes. Like the best stories, sometimes the bad guys are completely likable, and sometimes the good guys are total douchebags. Hell, for most of the characters, there is no good or bad. There's just people doing what people do. And this realistic approach to a fantastic situation makes the story believable and compelling and impossible to put down.

The best part about reviewing Y: The Last Man is that the story is done. It ran for about five years before wrapping it all up. The result is sixty comics that tell an incredible tale. You can buy it in ten collected editions, but those are only in print, and these days, the only way I buy comics is on Comixology. If you want it that way, you can only get the issues one at a time, but that's actually better, because this way you can see all the amazing work that was done on the covers.

I don't read many comic books any more. Most of the comics being made today are about superheroes, and I'm done with superheroes. They don't make any sense, their timelines are completely screwed, and they keep trotting out the same tired characters rather than letting them die off and making new ones. I have exceptionally high standards when it comes to comics (except for Darkbrain - their comics are horrible, but the porn is hilarious), and so when I find one that's worth reading twice, I like to crow about it. If you haven't read Y: The Last Man, you're in for a treat. And if you have, go back and read it again. It's that good.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Game Review - Gauntlet of Fools

Time is short tonight, so I'm going to tell you about a game that's short. Mostly because it's easier to write about short games, being as there's only so much you can say.

The game is called Gauntlets of Fools, and it's 20 minutes of laughing and getting stomped by terrifically dangerous monsters. You need at least three people to play this madcap romp, but to really experience the wackiness, you'll want more than that. So basically, if you're at a party and everyone is half-trashed, and someone goes, 'HEY! We should play a game!' and they are much louder than is really necessary because they are a wee bit soused, you can say, 'I know just the thing!'

In Gauntlet of Fools, each player is going to pick a dungeon delver to venture into the dungeon and delve. The dungeon will kill each of you - it's a guarantee. The only question is, when the last of you falls prey to traps and monsters, who will have the most money? It's a stupid question, if you ask me, because money is a moot point if you're all dead, but that may be why the game is not called Gauntlet of Reasonable People.

The trick to start off is that some combinations of hero and gear are going to be terrifically super-powered, and others are going to be downright weak as watered-down beer. So the first guy takes the ninja with the throwing stars, and the next guy says, 'yeah, I'll take the ninja with the throwing stars, only I'll blindfold him,' and then he gives the ninja a penalty. Then the next guy says, 'no, I will take the ninja, and I'll tie one hand behind his back,' and the ninja gets another penalty. This continues until all the heroes are taken, and theoretically, this should result in a moderately even distribution of heroes, because the accountant with the cheese wheel is roughly as deadly as the ninja with the throwing stars, blindfolded, one hand behind his back, hopping on one leg, after having skipped breakfast.

Then you go into the dungeon, and at this point, monsters start popping out and beating the crap out of all of you. Some of you might kill the monsters, and then you will get paid. Others will instead be mercilessly beaten and fed to sea monkeys. You will roll an awful lot of dice, and if enough of you have been drinking, someone at the table will have absolutely no idea what's happening. That's OK, really, because you don't actually need to have a firm grasp on what you're doing to play Gauntlet of Fools. It's also not called Gauntlet of Teetotalers.

Eventually, every last one of you will be dead. Not literally, of course, unless you get alcohol poisoning. That actually happened to a girl I knew in college. Well, I didn't know her first hand. I heard about it from a friend. Thinking back, I don't think he knew the girl, either. In fact, I would bet that it didn't actually happen at all, though I suppose theoretically it could.

Anyway, you're all dead, and now you count up your money (or you let someone more sober than yourself count your money). The one who got the most loot wins, but in a game this short and silly, everyone who played and had any fun at all is the winner. It's a silly, shallow game that's fun enough that we played it several times in a row, and I will definitely keep it handy for my next drunken binge party. It could be called Gauntlet of Party People, but it's not. It's Gauntlet of Fools, which is probably a catchier name, anyway.


3-8 players

Fun and fast
Light and silly
Will probably lead to some laughing

Not a whole lot of game, but it's fun anyway

If you want to learn more about Gauntlet of Fools, then good luck, because outside of a random scattering of game reviews, I can't figure out where you can get a copy. It looks like you can preorder it somewhere. Maybe.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Movie Review - Crackling Fire

I actually had a really long anti-Christmas rant written already. I was going to complain about how Christmas is too commercialized, like I was some kind of wise man pointing out what everyone in the freaking civilized world already knows. But then I realized that I don't have a single useful thing to say that everyone hasn't heard a hundred times since Thanksgiving, and I decided to go another way and tell you why I had a good night.

Amazon has this cool service called Prime, the main feature of which is fast, free shipping all the time. But a lesser known side-benefit of this service is that you get access to a huge range of streaming video, and it's all free. So tonight, while trying to invent a reason to hang out with my family, I turned on the idiot box and started looking through free movies we could watch. At least that way, we would all be in the same room, and nobody would be hurling profanities (or at least the profanity would all come from the people on the television).

Then I noticed the funniest thing - a video called 'Crackling Fire.' This was not an action movie about a firefighter in Iraq. It was not a romance movie full of passion and drama. It was exactly what it said it was - a one-hour video of somebody's fireplace. I am not making this up. Someone filmed their fireplace for an hour and sold the video online.

I turned it on as a lark. I was laughing, wondering aloud what kind of moronic doofberry would pay for a video of a fireplace. I was only turning it on to mock the very idea - but something incredible happened.

My seventeen-year old son was transfixed. He ran around and turned off all the lights except the Christmas tree, then sat on the floor and proceeded to watch the fire burn. Or rather, the video of some other man's fireplace. And my daughter, who is a jaded sixteen-year-old who rarely has time to spend with any of us lower life forms, laid down on the floor to watch.

I was dumbstruck. This was insane! Who wants to watch a fireplace on television? Why not just film a fishtank for an hour? (And yes, I know that people do that. It's also lame.) I picked up the remote, intending to turn off this stupidity that had already gone too far, and everyone else in the family shouted me down. Knowing when I'm beat, and figuring it couldn't last too long, I left it on to listen to the crackling fire. On television.

I was wrong about it not lasting. It lasted the whole hour. We watched that stupid fire for a full hour, during which time we did something we hardly every do any more - we talked. We laughed and joked and enjoyed each other's company, and it blew my mind. I can't get all four of us around a table to play a game any more, but an electronic fireplace in a darkened room, and we're suddenly Little House On The Prairie.

That hour was one of the best Christmas memories I'll have. My kids (who watch Sons of Anarchy and play Assassin's Creed) asked me to tell them some of the stories I used to tell when they were young. Hell, I couldn't even remember these stories, and they were giddy as they recalled me telling them tales of The Shadow or Tarzan or Scrappy the Squirrel.

(Scrappy is an original creation, one my children used to love. In these stories, Scrappy goes to visit his two friends, John and Judy. Only I always messed up the names, and then my kids would correct me. 'Scrappy was off to see Ralph and Lydia-' 'No, Dad, John and Judy!' Then some dick would mess with the kids, and Scrappy would sort it out by throwing acorns at the bad guy. Scrappy was a bad-ass with an acorn, so the tales usually ended with the villain in intensive care after Scrappy embedded an acorn in his eyesocket and then the bully had permanent brain damage and spent the rest of his days crapping into a colostomy bag. God, no wonder my kids swear.)

I don't get Christmas spirit, or rather if I do, my Christmas spirit comes in a glass bottle and is usually at least 43% alcohol by volume. But I swear, that one ridiculous video of a popping fireplace has given me a better Christmas than I've had in years, and it wasn't even Christmas. I still insist that the idea of watching a fireplace on TV is a sad commentary on how much electronics have replaced actual experiences, but I also know that I'm going to be hunting for more fireplace movies, because while the fire was fake, the family was real. For that hour, my daughter wasn't hiding in her room texting her friends about how stupid her parents are. My son wasn't holed up somewhere listening to Social Distortion and reading magazines about knives. My wife wasn't frustrated with the mess in the house (which is caused largely by the kids, who for some reason walk in the house, drop their bags and coats, and then walk directly to their rooms and leave their crap in the living room). We were a family, and even better, we all wanted to be a family.

Fair warning, though - that crackling fire video has the weirdest thing. At about minute 42, some crazy classical music plays for a few minutes. We used it to tell a ghost story about haunted fireplace movies, but next time, I will look for a video that does not include random musical interludes. Because I want my family time again, and this time, I don't want to be interrupted by unexplained Tchaikovsky.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Movie Review - Total Recall

I tend to get Running Man and Total Recall confused. Both are dystopic-future sci-fi flicks with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and both have wacky cool tech like exploding neck collars or Martian terraformers. I don't have any trouble remembering which movie has the hooker with three boobs, though.

The new Total Recall doesn't help any. Aside from a few overlapping details (for instance, the triple-nipple streetwalker is in the new one, too), the old Arnold movie and the new Colin Farrell version are really not very similar at all. The names are largely similar - friend Harry, wife Lori, old flame Melina, bad guy Cohaagan - and the plots bear a passing resemblance to each other. Overall, however, these are not the same movie.

For one thing, Colin Farrell is a much better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm a big fan of the miniature Austrian giant, but when it comes to acting chops, let's face it, he's really not very good. Colin Farrell, by comparison, is actually believable as something other than an immigrant who gets a lot of exercise.

Also, the women in the new one are hotter. The old one featured Sharon Stone and some dame who vanished from my memory as soon as the credits rolled, but the new one has Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, who are two of the three sexiest women in movies today (the third being Megan Fox). I could watch Kate Beckinsale pressure-clean a dog kennel and it would be hot. Running around in her drawers and doing wild acrobat stunts just makes her that much better. Add in Jessica Biel as a gun-toting resistance fighter, and this is a movie designed for men who want to see killer dames doing violence and looking tasty.

The visuals in the new Total Recall are staggering, too. There's a car chase on elevated freeways where the cars are magnetized to stay hovering in the air on the bottom side of the road. There are ridiculously cool high-tech disguises. There's an elevator that goes from Australia to Britain, and it drops into zero-G as it races past the planet's core. Holographs and super-guns and robot assassins make the new Total Recall a science-fiction nerdgasm. Also, club music in the future is just dubstep.

What's missing, however, is the thought-provoking element that made Philip K Dick one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time (and it's missing from both movies). Sure, there are fantastic gun battles and daring rooftop chases, but the depth of Dick's genius goes unrealized. Compared to Bladerunner, which actually did a remarkable job of conveying the ideas Philip K Dick brought to his fiction, both Total Recall movies are almost mindless.

This part is actually kind of a shame. Philip K Dick embodied the best parts of science fiction, by using fantastic situations to get us thinking. His fiction presented futuristic ideas that related to us now. Moral gray areas were his specialty, and while his stories had villains and heroes, it wasn't always easy to tell which guy was the good guy and which was the bad guy.

Also missing is the crisp writing that makes us fall in love with stuff like Firefly and Star Wars. The characters in Total Recall are not so much three-dimensional people as they are vehicles that carry us from one action scene to the next. There's no cocky smuggler peeling off one-liners, no sharp-tongued woman who irritates the hero as he falls in love with her. The dialog carries the plot, but not much more. I had a great time watching Total Recall, but it's not destined to become a classic because the characters don't come alive. Even with a cast full of people I love to watch, the real stars of Total Recall are the explosions.

The new Total Recall is a cut-and-dried action flick with some good, old-fashioned violence and thrilling movie magic. The bad guys are very bad, the good guys are heroic, and the gunfights are splashy and exciting. I'm totally fine with that, because I love to see stuff explode, but if you were hoping for depth, you're going to be disappointed.

On the other hand, if you want to see gorgeous women, awesome future-tech and bad-ass action sequences, Total Recall is right on the money. It's a ridiculously fun movie, and a great way to just turn off your brain and enjoy a Saturday evening.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Card Game Re-Release Review - Sentinels of the Multiverse

The battle had raged for hours. Unity, The Fanatic, Tempest and Absolute Zero had finally found Citizen Dawn and her super-powered followers in the primal jungles of the forgotten land, and the casualties were steep on both sides. Unity had fallen to a pack of blood-hungry velociraptors and Tempest was badly burned by a volcanic river of lava. But now Dawn was badly weakened, and her minions lay defeated all around her. The Fanatic bravely sacrificed herself to deal Dawn a devastating blow, leaving only Absolute Zero to go toe-to-toe with the charismatic leader and channeler of the sun's might.

Both remaining combatants tapped on their last reservoirs of strength, Dawn blasting away at Zero, and Zero in turn smashing at Dawn with icy blasts.

"Surrender!" yelled Absolute Zero, as Dawn stumbled away, careening out of their jungle battleground and onto an open field.

Citizen Dawn pulled herself to her full height, wiped the blood from her eyes, and screamed, "NEVER!!"

Then a T-Rex ate her.

This is what happened the last time I played Sentinels of the Multiverse. Seriously. A dinosaur ate the villain. It was AWESOME. The time before that, a bunch of slightly bored, overpowered heroes threw a beating on Omnitron, the self-aware robot terrorizing Megalopolis. None of those heroes got much more than scrapes and bruises, though. Omnitron was a wimp compared to Citizen Dawn.

These kinds of stories are why I love playing Sentinels of the Multiverse. Unexpected twists, massive superpowered assaults, energy blasts and alien invasions and defiant last stands. This is what you get when you play this game.

If you've been paying attention for a long time, you probably noticed that I already reviewed Sentinels once. I liked it then, but I also had complaints. Too much paper accounting was my biggest beef, but I also had problems keeping track of stuff like damage immunity and power-up punches. And then there was the problem where 20 decks of cards would slide around in the box and get all shuffled up unless you bagged each one separately, and that was a pain in the ass, too.

Well, apparently the guys at Greater Than Games heard me, because they issued a reprint of Sentinels of the Multiverse that fixed every single problem I had with the game. Now it comes with a pile of cardboard counters that will help you remember when you've got a damage bonus, when you're immune to fire damage, and how many hits are on the pterodactyl. These counters make a good game into a great game, by allowing you to just play without forcing you to keep an accounting ledger handy.

Not only that, but now the box has two rows of card slots and dividers, so you can organize the cards and even put bigger cards between the individual decks, making it easy to pull out just the heroes and villains you want, and leave the rest in the box.

(One tiny, tiny problem I have now, and it's the only complaint about the entire game - the card rows are too narrow. I mean, making the box big enough to hold card sleeves might be optional. Making the box big enough to hold the cards themselves - that's pretty much mandatory. But it hasn't been enough of a problem yet to cause me any serious concern, so I only mention the entire complaint within a set of parentheses.)

My original set of Sentinels of the Multiverse was lost in my house fire, so I can't tell you if the actual cards are different. I don't remember for sure that there was a scaling mechanic in the original, but I also don't seem to see as much of a problem playing with three or five heroes. Lots of cards do damage based on the number of heroes, and there are other factors that take into account how many good guys you can put on the table. The more difficult villains will be even more heinous with five heroes, and a little less dangerous with three. Still, having more heroes is going to be easier than fewer, but since the idea behind this game is the story you tell, I'm mostly going to discount any potential scaling issues.

Basically, Sentinels of the Multiverse has gone from a really damned good game to an exceptionally great one. For my money, it's the best superhero game you can buy. I can almost hear the cheesy lines, see the speech balloons full of villainous pontification, and feel the huge capital-letter hay-makers. I love this damned game, and I haven't even busted open the expansions yet.


2-5 players (may require some players to double up on heroes)

Great stories and fun art
New additions to the reprint make it easier and faster to play
The best superhero game you can buy

(Box is a little tight)

If you want a fantastic superhero cooperative game, you owe it to yourself to visit the Greater Than Games site and buy yourself a copy. You can thank me later.

(Except you may have to wait a little bit, they keep selling out.)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rant - Senseless Murder

I had a review I intended to write tonight. It was even about a game. But then I got home from work yesterday and all the news would show us was scenes from the mass murder in a Connecticut elementary school, and then I started talking about it with some friends and my wife, and it got me riled up.

The first thing that got me cranky was that the first topic that pops up is gun control. And it's not just those sissy Democrats, either - one side starts saying how guns should be properly controlled to stop this kind of thing, and the other side starts saying how if all those teachers had guns, they could have stopped the bad guy, and neither is doing much more than turning a horrible, senseless tragedy into an excuse to jabber about gun laws.

Gun control is the wrong discussion. The dude in Connecticut had Rice-A-Roni where you and I have brains, and if he had to walk those halls with an Airsoft gun and a copy of REO Speedwagon's greatest hits, he was going to kill some kids. And the opposite argument - arm the teachers - is simply insane. Who the crap wants guns in schools? What kind of lunatic would think that was a good idea? Besides, the guys who would be willing to carry a firearm into a classroom of inquisitive six-year-olds is the very last guy I want having one.

But that's not to say there are no discussions we should be having. Let's start with our general feeling about mental health in these here United States. You know what the most common theme you see among homeless people would be? If you guessed, 'bad hygiene,' you would probably be right, but the second theme would be 'bat-crap crazy.' We don't have any patience for loons in this country. We throw you a couple Xanax or prescribe some Prozac and hope you go away. We don't treat our mentally ill very well, especially if they don't have the right health insurance. And given their propensity to lose jobs, they mostly don't. (Cue an argument in favor of socialized medicine, which I am not going to champion right now, but I sure think we're overdue for it anyway.)

Or how about the overly Puritan approach we bring to - well, to everything? Look at the shows your kids can watch with the televisions you put in their bedrooms. Breaking Bad. Revenge. Vampire Diaries. CSI. The Walking Freaking Dead. Those shows have two things in common - one, they are never shy about showing you a dead body with blood oozing out the wounds, and two, you never, ever see a naked ass. The halftime show at the Superbowl could feature heads exploding, but if you get a half-second glimpse of Janet Jackson's star-spangled nipple, fines get levied and people get fired. We would rather our kids see a grown man get his legs chopped off in a car crusher than watch a girl change her bra.

Consider also the decline in social interaction that has come about as a result of our increased dependence on electronic communication. Our children are actually proud of the number of friends they have on Facebook, and less impressed by the number of friends they have in actual, real life. When your best friends are little more than digital impressions, when you don't have to make small talk or be concerned with bringing a hostess gift to a dinner party, basic fundamentals of human interaction break down. This disconnect between perceived reality and actual reality has a psychic toll, one that this country is paying in lives.

Let's also discuss the state of a nation that is terrified of its own shadow. I already hit on this in my Batman review earlier this week, but it's worth repeating. We allow ourselves to be groped and fondled just to get on a plane. Our grandparents - the ones who crossed the Atlantic in seabound troop transports to free the world from the tyranny of fascist tyrants - would be ashamed of us. We abandon personal responsibility and freedom in favor of letting someone else tell us we're safe, and then we're surprised when some pathetic asshole shoots up a school.

While we're on the topic, what about personal responsibility? Does anyone else remember a time when abortion was reserved for special cases, and if you got your incautious ass knocked up, you had yourself a baby? Look at the number of completely ludicrous lawsuits filed every year by people who would rather make someone else pay for their mistake than own up to being a gum-flapping retard. We've gotten so soft, so dependent, and so willing to take a handout that the government has started doling out financial aid to mortgage brokers who destroy their companies through their own greed and general incompetence. In a country where it's so easy to say someone else owes you a living, how hard is it to blame your anger on a bunch of schoolkids, or your parents, or that teacher than gave you a D?

I've saved the best one for last. And by best, I mean most obvious (at least to me). Can you tell me the name of a mass shooter in the last fifteen years? I'm going to guess that you can. Now, can you tell me the name of one single victim? Just one. Any one. If a nutjob sprang to mind automatically, and the victims were statistics, you can thank Nightline. Or 20/20. Or your local NBC affiliate. The news will chase down the killer's identity, flash his picture every three minutes, tell you about his Twitter feed and the problems he had at the DMV last July, but good luck getting the same attention for the teacher who sacrificed herself to save a roomful of fourth-graders. The victims and heroes in those scenarios are forgotten and ignored, while the killer winds up with a Wikipedia entry and effective immortality. When that dicknosed little loser has a choice between offing himself in his mom's basement or becoming a household name, which do you think he'll choose? And Diane Sawyer will be sure to give him a hand with that, too.

I don't get overly political here, because frankly, it's a site about stuff nerds like. I'm no Lou Dobbs, and I don't pay enough attention to always know what I'm talking about. Feel free to ignore every opinion I just spouted off, but do me a favor and shut up about gun control already. We've got a hundred problems more pressing.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Board Game Review - Zombicide

The zombie-game craze has to end sometime, and I hope it ends soon. Too many games about the shambling dead have begun to clog up the gaming pipeline like an undead deuce in a low-flow crapper. But I am really glad that before the whole phenomenon comes crashing down around us, we can run out and get Zombicide, because even in a market flooded by crappy zombie games, there's room to shine.

Zombicide is a cooperative game about fighting the groaning hordes with shotguns, baseball bats and molotov cocktails. It plays like an extended scene from an action movie, with copious violence, horrifying deaths and an impending sense of doom. It's fast and furious and gory as hell, which makes it absolutely perfect for my taste.

I'll be the first to admit that a tactical zombie game with individual heroes, plastic miniatures and a custom map made of interchangeable tiles sounds a hell of a lot like Last Night on Earth. And since Last Night on Earth is so freaking awesome, you might not think there's a reason to own them both.

Except that Zombicide is not Last Night on Earth. Zombicide is faster, and true to the name, involves an absolutely absurd level of human-on-zombie violence. You'll stomp zombies like you were mowing weeds, but they'll just keep coming. In fact, the more you kill zombies, the faster they come - but at the same time, you get better at killing zombies. There's a brutal cycle where your skill determines how quickly the brain-eaters appear, so the more you do, the harder the game gets. The tension ramps up fast, and if you manage to escape with all your arms and legs, you've done pretty well.

Zombicide focuses on the action. There are no distracting story elements, cameo characters, or unforeseen events. There are zombies, and there are heroes, and there are guns. And there's blood. Lots and lots of blood.

There's also speed. You've got a job to do, and you want to do it as quick as you can. The longer you're out there, the meaner the zombies get. Dawdle too long, search too many empty rooms, and before you know it, you'll have overwhelming crowds of the walking dead choking up the streets. Run like you mean it and kill indiscriminately, because if you don't, you'll get cornered in a dead-end alley, spraying bullets while a wave of diseased walkers rushes over you and buries you in dismembered limbs and rotting eyeballs.

A huge part of this ratcheting tension is possible because Zombicide is a full-on cooperative game, which means there's none of this nonsense where everyone works together and one player wins. Either you all win, or you all lose. Sometimes all you need to do to win is get one guy off the board with the supplies you scavenged, which often means the rest of your group sacrifices themselves to a certain death just so that the fast guy can make tracks and escape.

So Zombicide is excellent, but there are a few things I wish were in there. For starters, I would love to see surviving characters improve between games. If my chainsaw-swinging roller-girl learns how to get bloody with a sawed-off, I would love for that girl to still be bad-ass next time I play. It would really improve the story-spinning side of the game if characters got better as you played. It wouldn't be possible, the way the game works, but it would be fun.

And the cooperative aspect of the game has a tendency to make everyone act like logistics experts. 'OK, if you go first, you can shoot twice at those walkers. The runner will move two, so we need to wipe him out. Since you get that free gun action, you move out, shoot, and retreat back to here. I'll use my free search to see if I can pick up another shotgun, and then spend an action to trade. After all that, you can do some complicated math in your head and then alphabetize your sock drawer.'

The analysis part of Zombicide does make it a little less chaotically violent, but it sure doesn't ruin it. It's still plenty of moving fast and fighting hard, and I'm not sure how the game could get rid of the methodical factor and still be as fun. However, I think it could have been a hell of a lot better with some story-related events. If a zombie spawn card had more random events like crashed helicopters, enemy survivors or zombie flash mobs performing Thriller in the middle of Main Street, that would have really given the game a more narrative feel. As it is, it feels like an excerpt from a story, rather than a story itself.

I really do want to emphasize that I thoroughly adore Zombicide. It is wild and tense and crazy fun. I wish it were a little better, but I can enjoy the hell out of it just the way it is. There are tons of zombies in the box, and the heroes are a hoot. The art is spectacular, and the rules (while obviously written by someone for whom English is not a first language) are easy to learn and play. If you were to trim all the fat off a zombie movie, leaving you just the parts where the heroes run fast and kill stuff, you would have Zombicide. And you would like it.


1-6 players

Exciting and cooperative
Intensely violent
Amazing art and tons of great minis
Fast and fun as hell

Feels a little mechanical
A little light on story

I found a really good price on Zombicide at Sci-Fi City Games. I've bought from them before. I would buy this, if I didn't already have the game.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Movie Review - Lawless

I'm a fairly shallow guy. I like sci-fi movies, superhero movies, tough-guy-shooting-people movies, and mob movies (only when I was a kid, we called them gangster movies, but we can't anymore because now that doesn't mean Al Capone, it means guys who buy pants that don't fit). So when I saw the trailer for Lawless, I was like, 'hey, that looks cool!' even though it had Shia LeDoof, and I freaking hate that guy.

I should have taken a hint from the fact that the stupid kid from Transformers was in the movie. That should have been my clue to avoid the movie completely. But it had the guy who played Bane! It had Gary Oldman, for crying out loud! How bad could it be?

Pretty bad, is how bad. It could be pretty bad. Which is to say, it was pretty bad. About halfway through the movie, my wife goes, 'do we have to finish watching this stupid movie?' and I said, 'at this point, I have to review this movie so that I can find some way to get back at the bastards who made it. And that means I have to see how it ends.'

Lawless tells the meandering, unfocused tale of three hillbilly brothers in Virginia who run moonshine during the days of prohibition. There are cool old cars, tommy guns and cops on the take. That alone should be enough to redeem it, but they made the worst mistake they could have made, given the casting - they focused on the lamest character in the whole story.

Shia TheDouche is the star of Lawless, and while I was hoping to see him maybe redeem himself by being something other than the awkward halfwit he plays in every other movie he makes, I was disappointed. He was exactly as useless as he always is (with the possible exception of the latest Indiana Jones movie, which I actually enjoyed despite the stupid ending and the fact that it had Shia DeFruit). He can't shoot a gun. He can't woo a woman without throwing up. He makes stupid mistakes that get his family whiskey still burned to the ground. And he's a candy ass, to boot.

Guy Pierce is also in Lawless, and I actually like him. He was awesome in Memento, and outside of that weird thing where he's the crossdressing performer with the bad guy from Matrix, I can't think of one of his movies where he wasn't pretty great. Except for this one. In this one, he's a deviant freak who murders children and abuses women, and also shaves a weird line down the middle of his head. I get that he's supposed to be the bad guy, but the director sent him so far over the top that he's barely recognizable as a human being.

I blame the writing and directing for the horrid failure of Lawless. They had a great story to work with, one where three fiercely independent and almost preternaturally tough brothers (not counting Shia TheGoof) make their own deals, defy the rule of law, and kill people when it's good and necessary. This could have been exciting and gritty and awesome. Instead it's a story about a weak-minded dingbat who wishes he was a bad man, but instead he's a loser who gets people hurt all the time by being an incompetent boob.

It's not just the misplaced focus that messes up this movie, either. The pacing is horrible. There are some fantastic scenes of death-defying raw heroism, but they are few and far between, being punctuated with stuff so odd and yet still so boring that you will wonder who thought this would make a good movie. Or rather, you would wonder that, if you were to ignore my advice and watch this movie.

Obviously, the director and writer of Lawless were going for a mood piece. They wanted to show what life was like, to give us some insight into the American South during Prohibition. But they also wanted it to be a little surreal, a little odd, to show us how different life was for people who lived in crappy houses and had crappy clothes and made whiskey in tarpaper shacks deep in the mountains. We could have seen all that without the terribly bizarre church service or the disturbing sex crimes, but the creators of the movie wanted to turn a straight-up bad-ass gangster movie into an arthouse flick.

If I were to offer any advice, I would tell you unequivocally not to watch Lawless. It's not even silly-bad or fun-bad or laughable-bad. It's just bad-bad. I haven't been this irritated with a movie since Deathproof. The story that takes place around the main character would have been really cool, but sadly, the best parts are background, and the foreground is wickedly lame and almost painful. Skip this one.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Movie Review - Dark Knight Rises

[Spoiler alert. I won't spoil Dark Knight Returns, exactly, but I'm assuming you've seen the two movies before this one. Because if you're a nerd, you should have seen that one by now.]

If I had never seen The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises might have been the best superhero movie I ever saw. But I did. So it's not. And actually, The Dark Knight was also pretty damned good. But still not as good as Avengers. I have to stop before I start handing out abritrary numerical scores.

The Dark Knight Rises does a splendid job of spinning the final chapter of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy franchise. Unlike the previous batch of Batman movies, that started out with style and ended with cheesy camp, the Nolan trilogy has a definite start and a definite end. It's a tightly controlled tale that still takes nearly nine hours to tell, which makes for three very long movies.

And they're not as fun as they seem like they should be. Nolan's Batman is very much the brooding semi-psychotic obsessive that we got when Frank Miller gave him a grim-faced makeover, and that kind of character makes for serious movies, even when they are about people who wear Halloween costumes to work. But then, these are not supposed to be 'fun' movies. They're dark and serious and moving and powerful.

I could go into all the stuff about how the acting is great and the casting is great and the effects are great and the action is great, but if you've seen the other two, you already know that. And if you haven't seen the other two, you need to watch those first. So either way, I'm not going to talk about all that.

Instead I will discuss the theme of Dark Knight Rises, because there's a lot more happening than what's on the surface. Nolan obviously has some pretty interesting opinions about terrorism, the United States, and the human condition. He opens with a Bruce Wayne who has to walk with a cane and never leaves the house - years of fighting crime have ruined his body to the point that many of his joints have no cartilage left at all, and his scar tissue has scar tissue. It takes some clever inventions to make him able to walk at all, much less jump off buildings and kick people in the face.

So now I get both political and high-brow, so bear with me a minute. Let's say that Bruce Wayne is the United States. Let's say that when he is the hero, when his strength and ability to whoop the crap out of bad guys lets him save babies, he stands tall. He's psychologically whole.

But then enter the end of Dark Knight, where Batman allows himself to be labeled the villain to save the image of Harvey Dent as a hero. The city responds by outright hating Batman. They enact the Dent Act, which allows them to clean up the streets by denying due process to criminals involved in organized crime. Batman has to hang up his cowl, because he's no longer the hero. Now he's public enemy number one. And Bruce Wayne can't dig that.

To extend the parallel to the United States, compare what has happened since 2001. We are fine with embracing the Patriot Act, which allows law enforcement to decide who is bad and keep them locked up without a trial, which allows Uncle Sam to listen to our phone calls and track our Internet searches and even see what books we check out from the library. We are fine with it, because it keeps us safe. But it can't keep us happy, because while we know we're making the nation a safer place, we also know, deep down, that surrendering those freedoms is against everything that made America the greatest nation on Earth... once upon a time. But that's cool - it's called the Patriot Act. How bad can it be? You don't want to go against the Patriot Act, do you? Aren't you a patriot?

I'm definitely out on a limb here, and I accept that. I may have seen stuff in this movie that normal people missed because it wasn't there. But I don't think so, because the theme continues. In previous Batman adventures, the bad guys are bank robbers or extortionists or murderers, but Bane is none of those. Bane is a terrorist, plain and simple, with the single intent of destroying what he sees as corrupt. Even Joker had other motivations, including a psychotic desire to see the world burn, but Bane is not crazy. He hates Gotham and wants it to end. But he's not crazy. He's determined. He's a new kind of villain - the kind who bombs skyscrapers with suicide jetliners.

There's a lot more in the story. There's the rise of a heroic nation as opposed to the dispirited, unguided desire to ask for change and walk away when it doesn't happen. Nolan shows us how embracing a lie for political ends corrupts not just those in charge, but everyone affected, from the powerful to the disenfranchised. We see that you don't have to be a fighter to be heroic. The subtle but damning messages delivered by The Dark Knight Rises start with the title and end with the credits, and discussing every aspect that holds a double meaning would take a lot longer than you want to sit here reading this. Besides, by now, your 15-minute break is almost over and your boss is going to start wondering why you're not working.

The Dark Knight Rises is a magnificent movie. It's not as fun as Avengers, but it's not supposed to be. It's the crowning piece in Nolan's trilogy, the final page in his powerful three-part message. Sure, it's dark. Hell, it's in the name. But it's dark for a reason, because Christopher Nolan has a rather dark view of the United States, and while he also shows us hope for a better future, he doesn't seem particularly optimistic that we can get there without a serious, dramatic change in the way we think and live.

For that matter, neither do I.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Standalone Expansion Review - Puzzle Strike Shadows

I don't feel like writing. Just read this review, because everything I could say about the base game applies to Shadows:

Ha ha! Just kidding! I would not be that lazy with a game review! You deserve more. Also, my guy at Game Salute would get pissed and quit sending me review copies. That's the real reason.

So hopefully by now you've read the original Puzzle Strike review. Everything I said there applies here. Just don't read the review of Third Edition, because in that one, I make a huge boner mistake and sound like an asshat. I mean, more than usual.

Shadows is a standalone expansion for Puzzle Strike that has everything that was in the original Puzzle Strike box, except it's all different. Well, most of it. The standard chips are the same, but the chips you can buy are different, and so are the characters. There are, however, the same number of chips, and the box is the same size. So, I don't know, it's the same, but completely different.

The new stuff in Shadows is really the reason to pick it up. Presumably you've been playing the original Puzzle Strike so often, and have so many games under your belt, that you desperately needed a new box of puzzle chips so that you could do completely different stuff. That was not really me - I don't have time to play anything as often as I would like - but if it's you, stop reading and just go get Shadows.

On the other hand, if you're on the fence, you should know that the new stuff in Shadows feels more in-your-face. We set up one game where we deliberately put all the underhanded, nasty, dick-punching chips in the middle of the table, and it was ridiculously fun. It was also mean as hell. How those people are still my friends, I can't really say.

The characters have a lot more interaction, too. The dominatrix chick will make other players play the chips you want them to play, or just deal out wounds. The cutesy blond girl will heal everyone at the table. The bruiser monster guy will make everyone throw away money. The handsome bearded man will keep other players from getting ahead by cutting off their ability to spend money. Essentially, all these different characters do different stuff than all the different characters in the other box.

I like the actions in Shadows, too. There's one cheap chip that gives you a huge turn - but then you lost the chip forever. There's an attack that throws just a little pain on every other player, and you can do it as often as you want. There's one that I think is horribly overdue, where you get to just go find your character chips. Basically, Shadows has a lot of variety, and it's not just rehashed crap from the first time.

Let me boil this down. If you like Puzzle Strike and want more of the same, but different, that's what Shadows is. If Puzzle Strike comes out of your closet every six months, and then you play it twice, there's no reason to throw more money at this one. If you haven't bought either one yet, I like Shadows better, but it's got more advanced strategy, so it's really not for beginners.

Come to think of it, the entire review could have been that last paragraph, and you would have had everything you need to know. I wrote more so that publishers wouldn't think I was lazy.


Same pros as Puzzle Strike

Same cons as Puzzle Strike

Do you want this? You can get it here:

Monday, December 3, 2012

TV Review - The Walking Dead

OK, I've held off long enough. I was all, 'everybody has already seen The Walking Dead. We don't need a review of a show that anyone with two brain cells is already watching.' And then the mid-season finale was last night, and I was all, 'holy crap, this show is the best frikkin show ever,' and lost all restraint in my need to talk about how awesome The Walking Dead is.

I'll get this out of the way first - I'm not reviewing the comic book. Seriously, ever. I love it, and can't wait for December 12 to find out what happens in the next issue, but it's the kind of book that when you ask a comic book nerd what he's reading, he'll go 'Walking Dead,' and you both shrug and go, 'well, yeah, duh.'

And I wasn't going to review the show, either, for a very similar reason. If you're a zombie fan, you have to be watching this show, so what more is there to say? But after the episode I watched last night, I just can't contain myself any more. The Walking Dead is fantastic, and I simply have to tell everyone who will listen that they ought to be fans, even if they already are.

If you are a fan of the comic book who (for no possible reason I can fathom) is not watching the TV show, you should know that it follows the comic only as a general guideline. There are characters on the show who are not in the book. There are people in the book who are not in the show. There are different scenes, different stories, and completely varied orders of events. Most importantly, you never know who will die. There's no guarantee that just because your favorite lasted 50 issues in the comic book, he can't get struck down halfway through season one (not that I'm saying that happened, or even referencing a particular character or incident. It's just an example. No spoilers have been revealed).

What I can tell you, without giving anything away, is that the show is impeccably timed and incredibly tense. The storytelling is precision perfect, often gut-wrenching, and thoroughly addictive. The second half of season three won't be out until February, and man, I can't wait. It's not even just because of the horrible cliffhangers they left us last night. I want the show to come back, and not just because I want to find out what happens. I want to spend more time with the people on the show.

And that's really what has me hooked - the characters in The Walking Dead are beyond believable. I watched eight seasons of Lost, and those overly attractive castaways were never more than puppets on strings. But in The Walking Dead, I feel like I'm spending an hour every Sunday night hanging out with a bunch of people I actually know. Even the ones I hate, the ones I hope will die - I still feel like I know them, like I'm not watching from a recliner in my living room. It's like I'm sitting on a filthy plastic chair at the side of the room while they argue about where to go next.

It takes a lot more than great writing to make me this connected to a show. To feel like these people are this real, they have to LOOK real. Even the attractive people are dirty most of the time, and not all of them are good-looking. They tend to be fit, but if they were lard-asses, zombies would have caught them by now, so I can see past the fact that all the women have killer asses. They look like normal, believable people. They have bad hair days. They grow filthy beards. They wear torn clothing and sleep on mattresses that I would swear I can smell - and they smell like dog farts.

The effects and makeup are also excellent. Just one flapping rubber mask, just one off-kilter contact lens, and the illusion would break down. Not shatter, necessarily, but weaken. And yet every episode just continues to build the feel that you're not just watching this horrific world. You're in it. You can feel the sticky Southern heat, smell the rotting corpses, taste the bland oatmeal. Everything about the show brings you into their world.

I would be lying if I said the show was flawless, though. Early on, there were problems. It took a while for some of the people to grow on me, and especially around the first half of season two, the show was flat-out slow as hell. The pacing was completely off, and it was almost work to sit through another hour just to turn to my son and go, 'man, is anything ever going to happen on this show?' That problem is GONE, by the way - this season has been absolutely phenomenal. Not too slow, not too fast, just the right amount of development mixed with just the right number of gruesome deaths. But if you're plowing through the reruns, keep in mind that you have to get through some slow patches to get to the genius.

And for a long time, they were also having a lot of trouble giving me a reason to give a crap about some of the characters. One guy in particular was so irritating that I just wanted a zombie to eat him so he could be interesting (if you're watching the show, you may know who I mean. Be cool and don't spoil it). Some people seemed to be deliberately stupid. Some were just intentionally unpleasant, beyond what normal people would be. The writing has been so amazing this season that it's not hard to forget the low points from before, but they were there nonetheless.

Finally, I do have one more problem with The Walking Dead, and it relates to both the show and the comic. I am seriously over the 'people are the real monsters' drama-queen bit. Other zombie-related entertainment has shown that you can definitely tell a good zombie story where human beings are not mostly douchebags, but it still plays as a recurring theme. At this point, it seems like it's written by a bunch of crappy poets sitting around a coffee shop on a Tuesday night listen to an open mike and saying, 'deep, man, deep.' The best zombie entertainment is allegorical, but this particular allegory has been done to death.

However, The Walking Dead obviously has no intention of altering its direction, and while I don't agree with it completely, I'll be damned if I'm not entirely hooked. I can't stop watching. I know there's heartache ahead. I know there are deaths and sorrow and pain, and yet this particular story has 100% of my attention. There's no guarantee of a happy ending, and I don't care, because in this case, it's not about the ending. It's about the people and how they change as the show progresses. That, and how they totally kill a ton of different things. That part is also awesome.

Oh, one more reason I'm reviewing this tonight - there's a big marathon coming up on AMC. If you're behind on the show, or missed an episode, or just want to dive in at the beginning, you can get completely caught up when they run every episode over New Years Eve and New Years Day. Yes, it's a month away, but that will give you time to get your order in with your cable company. Because if you're not watching The Walking Dead, you should be.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Classic Movie Review - Aliens

My parents were very, very Christian. The first time I saw an R-rated movie, I was 17 years old. They didn't want to let me see Back to the Future because they heard that the mom has a crush on her son (which was true, but it was 1950s mom and 1980s son, so that was OK). I once had to leave a party because my friends decided to watch Commando, and I was not allowed.

But my old man had a weak spot - kick-ass sci-fi. The exception to the R-rated movie thing was when there was an awesome science fiction flick we could rent from Wherehouse (you might remember Wherehouse as the place where you got videos before Blockbuster put them out of business. You might remember Blockbuster as the place you got videos before the Internet put them out of business). So even though there was copious profanity (or, as one guy says at the beginning of the movie, harsh language), I got to watch Aliens on VHS. Though by the time we could rent it, I was already 17, so I still didn't really get to game the system.

Aliens is one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time. Ridley Scott kicked off the phenomenon with ideas he cribbed from HR Geiger, but it was James Cameron who made the movie fans wanted to see. Hard-assed space marines battling acid-blood bugs in a derelict planetary colony? Yeah, like you could pass that up.

It's almost a moot point to review Aliens. If you haven't seen Aliens, a movie that has been available for more than 25 years, then I'll send the nerd police around to repossess your nerd badge. The original was a sort of high-concept horror-in-space flick, and while it was OK, it was largely unremarkable. The sequel put it on the map, and marked it permanently in the collective sci-fi geek consciousness.

In case you're one of the very few actual nerds who has not seen this absolute classic of space movies, I'll run it down for you. Ripley, the tough broad who managed to eject the creepy alien from her ship in the first movie, gets recruited to return to the planet where the first bugs were found. Predictably enough, things go poorly, as the hard-hitting marines are under-equipped to deal with a threat of this magnitude. There are excellent explosions, thrilling gun battles, moments of tension and suspense and outright fear. And then lots of people die.

The brilliance of Aliens is not just in the great plot and excellent camera work. The action scenes are spectacular, but the stars of this movie shine brighter. Some of the lines in this movie are etched into my brain like alien acid - 'It's game over, man! Have you ever been mistaken for a man? In case you haven't been keeping up with current events, we just got our asses kicked!' OK, most of the best lines belong to Hudson, but there's still the eternally memorable, 'Get away from her, you BITCH!'

The story has betrayal and greed, heroism and redemption. Characters who seem like cowards turn out to be loyal and brave. While virtually nothing goes right for the marines and their civilian escorts, their strength in the face of adversity is inspirational. Corporate greed is overruled by human compassion and grunt common sense. And as I may have mentioned, there are more explosions than a Michael Bey movie.

Aliens was so good that it spawned lots of great material. The creators of Space Hulk, for instance, should be paying royalties to James Cameron, instead of trying to shut down every reference site that dares to post a rules summary for a game that's been out of print since the Clinton was president. There were comic books, video games, and a whole slew of sequels (and if you've seen the third movie, you know the only smart thing to do is pretend it never happened at all. You know, the way we do with the Star Wars prequels).

You might be wondering why I'm reviewing Aliens at all. It is a rather old movie, and most of us have seen it already. But it was at the top of my mind because I watched it this evening, and was amazed that after 20 years, it's actually better than I remember. After all that time, I still remember the names of the marines, even the ones who got killed early like Frost and Spunkmeyer and, of course, Drake. I anticipated all my favorite lines, laughed at Paul Reiser's ridiculous 80s haircut, and was on the edge of my seat even though I've seen the movie a half-dozen times.

Aliens is just as fantastic as it was the first time I saw it. I don't care if it's been out for two and a half decades, it's a magnificent movie, and if you don't like me reviewing old classic nerd flicks, ask the guy with the gun to your head if you can read something else. If you haven't seen Aliens, you need to correct that oversight as soon as you possibly can. Maybe right now.