Song of the Day: Take Me Out To The Ballgame (performed by Edward Meeker)


This was a very special one for baseball fans like me.  Today was opening day!  Unfortunately, my team, the Texas Rangers, lost their first game of the season but the great thing about baseball is that there will always be a chance for redemption.

Ever since Edward Meeker first recorded it in 1908, Take Me Out To The Ballgame has served as the unofficial anthem of Major League Baseball.  It’s also the perfect choice for today’s song of the day.

 

Song of the Day: Make Thee An Ark (by Clint Mansell)


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I’ve been waiting for quite a long time for the release of Darren Aronofsky’s biblical disaster epic. Now that it’s finally here it also means a new film score from Aronofsky’s collaborator Clint Mansell.

The soundtrack to Noah is definitely on par with past Mansell scored Aronofsky films going all the way back to Pi. It’s a soundtrack that’s both epic, majestic and more than just a tad apocalyptic. One of my favorite tracks from the soundtrack comes at a moment of triumph early on in the film which creates a sense of hope in the face of the approaching divine apocalypse.

“Make Thee An Ark” starts off slowly. Layers on layers build within the string work by the Kronos Quartet who have worked with two Mansell on past Aronofsky films. The track actually has a nice musical throwback to Mansell’s work on The Fountain. It’s probably the influence of that past film which made the Noah soundtrack appeal to me more than the previous ones for Black Swan and The Wrestler.

The Reaper of Souls


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There’s no need to be afraid. Spoilers do follow (to the extent that a Diablo game can be spoiled). You have been warned.

So, in the relatively recent (surprisingly still recent!) past… Blizzard Entertainment released a hilariously long-delayed sequel, which is sort of their hallmark, in Diablo 3. Probably everyone who had some interest in the Diablo franchise played it. And, in several ways, it was sort of the ultimate evolution of the Diablo formula and format. Is the storyline silly? Yes. In fact, it borders on preposterous. But it also holds together in a ‘good enough’ way to propel the action through a variety of beautifully rendered locales killing everything in sight. Reaper of Souls does not alter this formula. Presumably none of us tuned into Diablo for storytelling, right? It’s not an RPG. It’s a game where you click on monsters and kill them. Your reward is better loot, which makes it easier to click on monsters and kill them. It is weirdly absorbing in its way, but it is not high art. This is a game about a visceral experience; it is purely about fun.

And Diablo 3 was fun. It improved heavily upon Diablo 2. Each class can now be either sex! Each class now has a half dozen abilities in play at a given time, rather than just ‘left click’ and ‘right’ click… and the procedural generation, while still present, is a little more structured… or, at least, it feels a little more structured. Some areas seem to vary little between different playthroughs. To be perfectly honest, while it is a very competently produced game, a tight experience, with lovely graphics… I didn’t feel like I had $60 worth of game when I acquired Diablo 3. I think I eventually got enough play hours out of it to where I can shrug and move on… but I didn’t expect to find myself shelling out another $40 for Reaper of Souls. I did it anyway, though.

The good news is, for what fence-sitters may remain… Reaper of Souls is pretty good! Let’s discuss several reasons why:

– Act V. Act V is a massive act, easily twice the size of any of Diablo 3’s four acts. It comes complete with an entirely new selection of monsters, three major bosses with complex battle mechanics and a variety of environments, all of which are pretty cool. It’s hard not to respond to Act V as the best overall Act available in the game now. Act V, for those who haven’t been paying attention, follows the Nephalem’s quest to save the entire world of Sanctuary from a renegade angel, Malthael, whose exact plan remains unknown.

– Crusader. Crusader is the new class, a melee attacker like the Barbarian or Monk. The Crusader uses a weapon and shield style, though the weapon can be two-handed with the use of a passive skill slot. In play, they feel strong defensively, with a good area of effect capability. I have yet any of their legendary items with my own eyes, but the class does represent a new way to experience the game. I certainly can’t claim to have 60’d a Crusader, let alone 70’d… but I have played the Crusader, and it is good.

– Loot 2.0. I know this actually launched at the start of March, but it was part of the build-up to Reaper of Souls. I get how a company seeking profit would clamp onto the idea of the real cash auction house. I get how the economic power of the World of WarCraft Aution House could invite the creation of a similar body in Diablo 3… but even the most hardcore players I know would suggest that the existence of both cash and gold AHs was a mistake in Diablo 3. At best, they did nothing to improve the experience. In the real world, they significantly harmed it.

Now that the Auction House is gone… we get Loot 2.0. A universal improvement over loot 1.0, randomly generated loot now tends to generate according to your needs. Stats are much more likely to roll for your class, legendaries will (almost) always be for your class. Sets? I haven’t seen much of, despite a good number of hours invested… but I assume they adhere to similar principles.

– Bosses 2.0.

One area where Reaper of Souls really shrines is in boss design. Did you like the act bosses in Diablo 3? Because loot 2.0 comes with boss 2.0, and even without the expansion, the purple encounters throughout the game have been tweaked, revisited, improved… and it goes double for Reaper of Souls itself. Uzrael, the first of three significant act bosses, was more complex than the act bosses in Diablo 3… more complex than Baal had been in Diablo 2… Blizzard applying lessons learned from years of creating raid encounters for increasingly sophisticated MMO players. But there are balances to be struck, and they differ between products. A single character has to be able to confront Malthael at the finale of Reaper of Souls, and ultimately that’s as much a part of the game as 10/25 man raids are for World of WarCraft. This is a process that easily could have been screwed up, but instead it’s been implemented beautifully. Malthael’s encounter is an epic affair, featuring no easily discernible pattern, with Malthael possessing at least a dozen different types of attacks, some of which are not easy to dodge. He will test both your skill and your gear, and it was awfully satisfying to finally see him fall.

– Difficulty 2.0

Reaper of Souls heralds a new dynamic difficulty system for Diablo.. one that is based, more or less, on your gear… rather than your level. In Diablo 2, and again at Diablo 3’s launch, difficulty consisted of Normal, Nightmare, Hell, etc. difficulties, each higher difficulty “unlocked” by completing the previous one. In order to proceed, you have no choice but to play through the entire storyline, consecutively. It made it harder to just “jump in” to games with your friends unless they were in the same difficulty of the game, and the difficulty jumps generally were quite drastic.

Difficulty 2.0 attempts to smooth all of this with a much more dynamic difficulty system. Now, the player has access to a several ‘standard’ difficulty levels, and then Torment levels which are designed for high-level (60+ minimum) play. The higher the difficulty you play on, the bigger the bonus is to the player’s experience points earned, gold and item find. Since this sliding scale also stacks with the inherent bonuses from having multiple players in the game, high level runs on Torment difficulties with your friends can produce quick dividends in terms of loot. Of course, there’s always better loot just around the corner…

These are the most substantive changes. They were needed, they are positive, and if anything could re-invigorate the Diablo 3 experience for you… this patch and expansion will probably do it. The game features many other improvements, like customising items (both a single property of a given item can be swapped out, and its appearance ‘transmogrified’, using a new artisan in town), an expanded stash, re-worked items and class features, and so on.

There are two big negatives, however. They are intertwined, and they are compelling.

– $39.95 U.S.. And that’s not me getting overcharged for physical media at Wal-Mart. That’s from Blizzard’s digital store, through my Battle.net account. For an expansion? Ouch. Now, obviously, they did a lot of work on this one. Act V is big, Malthael is a bad ass, and all of the other updates and improvements were welcome… but it’s still a stiff price tag to pay for a game add-on. I’m suspicious of the idea that a new character class is really that big of an addition to this type of game. But there it is. They’ve already got my money.

– It’s still Diablo. That means that its replayability mileage for you [i]may vary[/i]. Just keep that in mind, before you shell out your hard-earned money. Still, if Diablo has always been something you’ve enjoyed, you will find this the most pleasing offering so far.

Anime Boston 2014


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Over the weekend of March 21-23, both site contributor pantsukudasai56 and I were in Boston, MA to attend the annual Anime Boston convention. We’ve done this 3 times in the past 6 years and each time is as fun as the last. This year the convention’s theme was “Magic & Mischief”.

The convention wasn’t as anticipated as previous ones because of the uncharacteristic lack of a great guest line-up. There’s the usual American voice-actor guests which always dominates not just Anime Boston but most North American anime conventions. There’s the usual annual appearance of voice-actor Greg Ayres, Kyle Hebert, Wendee Lee and Trina Nishimura, but leading up to the start of the convention only a couple of Japanese guests of honors have been announced. One was veteran seiyuu Yuu Asakawa (who I had already met over at Anime Expo 2010) and the other being Cowboy Bebop screenwriter Dai Sato.

Here are the cosplay pictures that both pantsukudasai56 and I were able to catch during the convention. As I continue to improve as an amateur photographer I hope to get better and more pics with future attended cons.

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“Empire Of The Dead” #3 Shambles Back In The Right Direction


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If you’ll recall — and, hell, it remains true even if you don’t — the second issue of Marvel’s “event” mini-series Empire Of The Dead left me feeling decidedly unenthusiastic about this book”s future, given that all it really managed to do was tread water for 20 pages and then stop. But hey — maybe I’ve been a little too quick to judge. It’s been known to happen before.

I’m not here to tell you that Empire Of The Dead #3 (or, to be true to the copyright indicia, George A. Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act One, #3) regains all the momentum we lost after a really solid first issue, but it does go some way toward explaining a few head-scratching things left over from last time around, like what all those rat slaughterhouses all over town are about (rat blood is provided as nourishment for the vampires who can’t afford the real, human stuff) and why certain factions of the city council are, shall we say, less than taken with Mayor Chandrake’s leadership (turns out they’re all fucking vamps and feel he might be hoarding all the choicest — supplies, shall we say — for himself and his family), and actually does manage, in the midst of all this palace intrigue (some of which, in fairness, is dialogued in incredibly clumsy fashion) to propel the main narrative forward in some interseting new directions, which is a heck of a lot more than the second installment was able to do.

As predicted by anyone and everyone who knows anything about Romero, the relationship between Dr. Penny Jones and former-SWAT-officer-turned-zombie Frances Xavier has quickly become the central focus of this series, since questions of “how different are they from us, anyway?” have been foremost on the father of the modern zombie mythos’ mind at least since he introduced the world to Bub in Day Of The Dead, if not earlier (recall the “this place must have been important to them” line as the undead make their leisurely way through the mall in Dawn for perhaps the first verbalization of this obsession), and it turns out that Xavier is probably even more advanced than we already thought, given that she actually gets bored with some of her less-challenging training exercises/tests and decides she’d rather play some basketball instead (hence that awesome cover art shown at the top of this post).

Things get a little out of hand, though, when — well, that would be telling. Suffice to say this issue ends on a nice cliffhanger that sufficiently whets the appetite for next month’s installment and definitely leaves the reader with a pleasant-enough “hey, maybe things are back on the right track here after all” feeling.

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As far as the art goes, I’ve got no cause for complaint whatsoever. Alex Maleev’s “rough sketch” style continues to grow on me, and it’s nice to see a world this un-stylized depicted in such an honest, non-flashy, “warts and all” fashion. Everybody looks as worn down by life (or unlife, as the case may be) as they ought to, and every panel of every page oozes a kind of post-apocalyptic “we’re doing the best we can, but shit, it’s getting tiresome” feel. I dig it a lot — and I dig the heck out of Arthur Suydam’s variant cover (shown directly above) as well — as, I assume, anyone with working eyeballs will.

So yeah — my optimism about this series has returned, and with two issues to go in the opening five-part “act,” it’s safe to say I’ll be on board for both to see how things play out. Some of the major characters — specifically Paul Barnum — still seem under-utilized, but hopefully they’ll get some more to do soon, as well. All in all I have to confess that I should have known better than to doubt The Master — I have renewed  faith  that, wherever he’s taking us, the trip will be worth it.

AMV of the Day: Valor (Kill la Kill)


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The second AMV winner to come out of last weekend’s Anime Boston 2014 was for Best Action.

“Valor” by MycathatesyouAMV pretty much a montage of the hyper-fast battle scenes from the current anime of the moment, Kill la Kill. The editor uses Celldweller’s “Tough Guy” track and just goes with the tempo and speed of the song to focus on the insane action this anime series has become quite well-known for.

Definitely a better Best Action winner than last year’s Anime Boston action winner.

Anime: Kill la Kill

Song: “Tough Guy (Tim Ismag Remix)” Celldweller

Creator: MycathatesyouAMV

Past AMVs of the Day

TV Review: Bates Motel 2.4 “Check-Out”


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As this week’s episode of Bates Motel came to an end, my immediate response was to say: “Now, that’s what I’ve been talking about!”

Much as Norman Bates could never quite decide if he was himself or if he was his mother, Bates Motel has always struggled with whether to fully embrace the over-the-top potential of the show’s concept or whether to try to be a more conventional and audience-friendly show.  Those of us who have been watching since the first episode have often been left to wonder whether Bates Motel would ever truly allow its version of Norman Bates to become as mentally conflicted as the version who showed up in Alfred Hitchcock’s film and Robert Bloch’s novel.  I have always been on the side of those who wanted the show to start boldly going over-the-top and to truly embrace its status as a prequel to Psycho.

The first three episodes of the second season provided hints that the show’s producers agreed with me.  Last night’s episode, however, proved it.

The episode’s final moments , which featured Norman (Freddie Highmore) slipping in-and-out of his mother’s personality while waving a knife at his Uncle Caleb (the same type of knife that was used to kill Janet Leigh in Psycho), were so powerful that they tended to overshadow everything else that happened during the previous hour.  Now, in the case of the drug war subplot, I really don’t mind forgetting.  The drug war is probably the least interesting part of the show and I always find myself hoping that each new episode will be the episode that wraps it up.  Both Dylan (Max Thieriot) and Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) are interesting characters and they’re both played by talented and appealing actors so why not put them in a subplot that is truly worthy of their talents?  Both of these characters are at their strongest when they’re having to deal with Norma and Norman so why waste time with a plot that — so far at least — has nothing to do with either of them?

However, I did enjoy the episode’s other two storylines.  It’s hard not respect just how determined Norma (Vera Farmiga) is to pretend that everything is normal when it’s clear to everyone else that nothing is normal.  As I’ve stated since this show began, Vera Farmiga kicks ass.  As a result, even though we all know that she’s making the wrong decisions and is raising a future serial killer, it’s impossible not to cheer for her.  From the creepy scene where she and Norman talked to each other while laying in bed to her harrowing argument with Dylan to her hilariously awkward date with George (Michael Vartan), this week’s episode was full of classic Farmiga moments.  Incidentally, I still don’t trust George.  He seems like a nice guy but then again, so did Deputy Shelby.

(Speaking of Deputy Shelby, whatever happened to that girl who chained up in his basement?  Is she still running around in the woods?)

Meanwhile, Emma (Olivia Cooke) may have finally found a boyfriend.  She started the episode waking up in a motel room with the cute guy that she met at Bradley’s beachside memorial.  No, he tells her, they did not have sex though Emma later tells the guy that she would like to do it with him but, at the same time, she wants her first time to be special — especially since it might be her only time.  Emma is my favorite character on the show and Olivia Cooke always does a good job playing her, so I’m always glad to see her get to do something but I have to admit that her new boyfriend isn’t exactly an exciting presence.  Typically, when it comes to television romance, we always hope that our favorite supporting character will end up with the show’s main character.  Certainly, Emma still likes Norman but do we really want to see her get together with him?

Especially after what happened last night.

Freddie Highmore really does not get enough credit for his performance as young Norman Bates.  A lot of that is because Norman is written to be something of a blank.  Highmore has to bring to life a potentially soulless character while also working in the shadow of Anthony Perkins’s iconic performance in Hitchcock’s film.  However, especially during this season, Freddie Highmore has really made the character of Norman Bates his own.  That was especially obvious during this week’s episode.  While soft-focus images of his mother being abused flashed through his mind, Norman waved a knife at Uncle Caleb while speaking in Norma’s voice and it worked brilliantly because of Freddie Highmore’s introspective performance.  Freddie Highmore take a potential jump sharking moment and turned it into the climax of the show’s best episode yet.

Did Norman kill his uncle?  That’s something that we’ll have to wait until next week to find out but one thing is for sure.

Bates Motel, much like the characters who run the show’s title establishment, is capable of anything.