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Excellent Military History and Demonstrations
28 February 2014
Warning: Spoilers
R. Lee Ermey is among my favorite TV personalities - one of the few celebrities that can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. He is a competition shooter and former marine, and brings a unique and hilarious blend of bravado and humility to his work.

In this series Ermey, along with numerous weapons experts, walks the viewer through the history of several types of weapons, from the archaic blade to state of the art tanks and helicopters. Each historical weapon progression is demonstrated by Ermey and/or weapons experts, often firing weapons into his favorite target - watermelons.

(BEGIN SPOILER) Some of the banter he uses is side splitting, particularly that in the Rifles episode. In this, he stages a contest between the US Springfield bolt action rifle of WW1 against the British Lee-Enfield rifle of the same era. His opponent is a British National who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years. The man obviously speaks with a British accent and after learning how many years he has lived in the country, Ermey says with tongue firmly in cheek "30 years, and you still haven't learned to speak American." LOL! After the 5 round Springfield loses to the 10 round Lee-Enfield, Ermey brings out his semi-automatic M1 Garand to have a rematch and wins quite handedly, if not on a level playing field. (END SPOILER) Any who enjoy arms and military history as well as weapons demonstrations should not miss this excellent show.
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Outstanding Military History Program
2 April 2013
From the Snow boys we have a second excellent military history contribution. This show focuses on some of the most decisive battles in 20th century warfare, from Amiens in WW1 to the Gulf War of 1991.

The format is similar to Battlefield Britain. We are shown the location of the conflict on a world map, and get a birds eye computer simulation view of the developing battle. This concept in particular really makes the show for me, as I can see the battle from a unique perspective that only aerial reconnaissance could provide. The show is accentuated by frequent accounts from soldiers on either side, as well as civilians who were often in harm's way. There are numerous weapons and other demonstrations, as in BB, that show the destructive effect of such devices like artillery, or the effects of a ship engine room fire. Few shows I have ever seen provide such interesting and meticulous details to the battles of history.

I have few criticisms for the show. I have mixed opinions about the graphics of the "mapcase" for showing the battles. It is more stylized, or less realistic, than in Battlefield Britain. It is a bit cartoonish in appearance, yet it does make it easy to distinguish the opposing sides and their movements. Many of the sides in BB would wear uniforms that would make it easier to tell them apart, while modern uniforms tended to be drab colored and difficult to distinguish except up close.

My meager criticisms do not in any way tarnish what remains to be among the best military history programs I have ever seen. Along with Battlefield Britain, this is a show that any with an interest in such history would be loathe to miss. I only wish that the Snows could have continued to cover more historical conflicts. Dan has a new outstanding program called "Filthy Cities" and hopefully he will someday return to battlefield history.
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Filthy Cities (2011– )
Another outstanding show featuring Dan Snow
29 March 2013
I have been fascinated by the television contributions of Dan Snow and his father ever since Battlefield Britain, and consider them to be among the finest historical documentaries I have ever seen. History for me is about the experience from the viewpoint of those who lived through the times represented. It is often difficult to picture the world during these times. The Snows understand this desire and along with the show's developers have consistently provided the viewer with a front row seat to history, with special emphasis on the viewpoint of the commoner during these times.

The excellence continues with Filthy Cities. In this show the audience is taken on a tour of the nasty underbelly of some of the worlds greatest cities from varied periods in history - medieval London, 18th Century Paris, and 19th Century New York. We experience the sights, sounds, thrall, and particularly the smells of these cities in the time periods depicted. The focus of the show is firmly in the management (or lack) of the tremendous waste streams such urban metropolises create, from human waste, to garbage, to industrial pollutants in addition to the inevitable outbreaks of disease and death which followed. It paints a no doubt highly accurate picture of the tremendously unsanitary conditions of these cities, and what engineers, rulers, and the populace at large attempted to do about the problem.

I have a scant few criticisms for the show. Sometimes it does seem like they try a bit too hard to gross out the audience. Yet these things that few in a modern industrial society need to deal with were a daily routine for the people of yesteryear. The smells and nature of filth were an inescapable reality for the populace, even the upper crust of society.

I sincerely hope that more episodes will be forthcoming, perhaps a glimpse of Ancient Rome or Athens, or Asian cities like Bejing or Edo. If you have an interest in history, especially with the aforementioned desire to picture places as they very well may have appeared, then you should not miss this outstanding program.
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Last Man Standing (2011– )
A few good laughs
2 February 2012
I have only seen a few episodes of this comedy, but it seems generally good for a few laughs. I was never a fan of Home Improvement, just wasn't my style. Last Man seems to be a bit more mature and, well, funny.

It can't be just me - I think Nancy Travis is jaw-dropping sexy. She looks better to me in this show than she did nearly twenty years ago in "So I Married an Axe Murder." Wow. IMO she outclasses her female co-stars that are 30 years her junior. I'd watch the show just for her, especially if she keeps donning the drool-inducing pirate costume like she did for the Halloween episode.
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Conquest (2002– )
Superior Military History Program
1 August 2011
Along with "Battlefield Britain," I would rate this as one of the finest shows relating (primarily) to military history that I have ever seen. The host, Peter Woodward, is a supremely competent historian and weapons instructor, and brings a unique passion and charm to the show with a very effective dry sense of humor that does not detract whatsoever from its serious nature. His delivery is gripping and a solid cornerstone of the program.

The premise of "Conquest" is for Peter and/or his team members or associates to develop competence in a particular and rather dangerous endeavor, mostly military but with a few detractors like Demolition Derby. Peter goes into great detail about the history of the weapons or machine that they will be using, weaving this masterfully into training and demonstrations. The end will generally involve a contest of sorts, where his team attempts to "win" at the endeavor for which they have been training.

The show reminds me in some ways of "Deadliest Warrior," as there are numerous weapons demonstrations, tests of skill, and a contest at the end. The contest in DW is a staged dramatization, whereas the contest in Conquest is generally real (with safety precautions), and real time. The participants are very sportsmanlike, and there is none of the puerile banter that infects DW. The show came about several years before DW as well, so I have no doubt that the creators of the latter borrowed more than one idea from this program.

This is a serious show for a mature audience with more than just a passing interest in history. That's not to say it is without humor, it does have some light hearted moments. I have rarely seen weapons tactics described and demonstrated in such detail, with as much emphasis on the drawbacks of each as with the benefits. They also describe the mindset or experiences of the warriors in such situations, such as the discomfort of wearing armor, or the fatigue caused by wielding weapons or marching with a full kit. Anyone with an interest in military history should not miss out on Conquest.
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Wiedzmin (2007 Video Game)
Dark, very mature RPG
22 June 2010
Starting with the introductory cinematic - one of the best I've ever seen - the player becomes deeply involved in this grim story. That's what the game feels like. A very complicated, intriguing, and interesting tale. Few other RPGs I've experienced can so deeply pull the player in to the plot as this one does.

Such is the emphasis here, and the character choice that is so integral to other games is non-existent. Yet I enjoyed the lack of choice in characters since it kept the focus squarely on the story, where it quite refreshingly belonged. In fact, this is almost the polar opposite of one of my favorite series of games, the Elder Scrolls, in that there is no choice but to become wrapped up in the main plot line.

Besides the story, many other things are relatively unique or at the least uncommon for an RPG in The Witcher. This is, first and foremost, a very adult game, unlike most RPGs I've played. There is foul language, sexual situations, and many morally ambiguous decisions to be made. The world is dark and seedy, with many unsavory characters, prostitution, organized crime, drugs, bribery, fencing, gambling, widespread corruption, and much more. The setting is rife with crime, disease, and political intrigue. The combat system involves not endless, quick clicking, but slow clicking to time and string together a series of attacks. Several of the monsters are not clearly "evil" and do not attack the player on sight but attempt to reason and convince him to spare them or help them lift their curse.

Speaking of the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, he has striking similarities to other fictional characters that are favorites of mine. In particular his look and combat prowess borrow heavily from Michael Moorcock's creation - Elric of Melnibone. His voice, guile, and the fact that he is a complete man-whore remind me especially of Clint Eastwood and his western "man with no name" characters from the Sergio Leone "Dollars Trilogy," or High Plains Drifter.

I do have some criticisms. Some of the dialog is corny and doesn't seem to fit the character of Geralt - such is one of the problems with using a premade character. Naturally the often long load times are cumbersome. I didn't like how dramatically the XP award for monsters dropped as Geralt rose in levels, since many creatures went down in about the same amount of time at LVL 2 as they did at level 25. A couple of the monsters were very difficult to overcome - but worse than this was the fact that such encounters often occurred at the end of a long cut-scene with no chance for saving (can't save mid-fight), so I would die and then have to go through the whole scene all over again.

Despite such flaws, this is on my top ten list of RPGs, and I've been playing them since Bard's Tale on the Apple IIe. Most certainly give it a chance. And don't forget to try the over-the-shoulder (OTS) camera viewpoint - makes it an almost entirely different game.
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Gross, unsettling exploitation film
3 March 2010
I've been on quite a gore kick of late with some zingers like Day of the Dead (1985), High Tension, Land of the Dead, and May. I'd put this one in amongst them in terms of gore alone. Some "Unrated" movies I'll get done with and ask myself why they were branded with such a rating. Some of the above, including Last House, left no doubt as to why they deserved to be beyond Restricted (R).

The story, acting, soundtrack, and ambiance initially was enough to make me want to stop the film and get to bed early. It is very poor quality in all of the above. That must have been the point as a direct homage to some of the 70's and 80's films of the same nature. They were bad, but yet had an undeniable power to them with their disturbing scenarios, gratuitous gore including many gross-out scenes, and overall non-PC actions.

The crazies in this one initially played it straight, and seemed like a loving family as do many in such films at first. I wish they had kept this demeanor and tried to be somewhat sympathetic instead of turning into completely sadistic psychopaths - it would have made the crazy setup more disturbing than the generic looney pastiche that I'm so accustomed to.

So if you're looking for a thought provoking and well acted film with a great storyline, then go elsewhere. If you have a bit of a horror vice for being disturbed and grossed out without any of the aforementioned in tow, then pour yourself a tall one and get ready for a stomach churning experience...
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High Tension (2003)
Intensely brutal and unsettling
25 January 2010
Warning: Spoilers
It's difficult to decide where to stand as a horror fan. Is the subtle effectiveness of a "The Others" better, or the raw, unabashed power of "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" more desirable? Perhaps a little of both, or all of the above? I suppose the true horror fan watches and learns to appreciate all types of offerings in the genre.

Haute Tension definitely falls into the latter sub-genre. This is a hardcore showing with not just gore, but severe brutality. The film was just plain MEAN - to the point and completely devoid of humor of any kind. The victims were not a bunch of unlikeable teens whom I could not connect with emotionally, but were real people. Not just that, but an average family who seemed from all appearances to be very likable. This upped the stakes considerably, since I had somewhat of an attachment to the characters.

Now let's get to the violence. This was one of the most disturbingly gruesome displays I've ever seen on film, and I have watched several over the top gore fests the like of "Dead Alive." The kills were lingered upon in full lighting and the gore effects done old school - apparently no CGI was used at all. There were no quick cuts away as you see in many modern horror offerings. And the killer went out of his way to make sure his victims were dead. In one instance, a victim gets an axe in the chest and falls forward to the ground on top of the implement, obviously mortally wounded. Most killers would be content with this, but ours takes the time and effort to step hard on the victims back to force the axe in deeper (and this was the mildest kill in the movie). There was no apparent motive in the killings, either, apart from the fact that the killer just enjoyed doing the deed.

There is a huge "twist" toward the end of the movie that I still have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it does cause the viewer to think back over the movie a bit and adds a considerable layer to what really is mostly a suspenseful and phenomenally gory straight up slasher. On the other hand, there are some gaping plot holes that are difficult to fill in with common sense. The first frame of the film does in a way set up the whole story here, however, in that it is told from the KILLER's perspective. As twisted as this schizophrenic nutjob must be, we can clearly surmise that the memory of events is not completely clear and certainly not logical as you or I might gather. Did the events even occur at all? There is considerable ambiguity here, and it is something that I have grown to appreciate in a film, whether horror or otherwise. Doesn't mean I bought it wholesale, but it is interesting nonetheless.

I almost felt the film was too gory, and that the outrageous effects were not necessary nor did they add to what was an otherwise taut psycho thriller. I mean it made my stomach churn - I really needed a long hot shower afterwards. That and the plot turn that I have not fully digested are why I gave this film lower than perfect marks. It certainly did leave an impression, however, and I have had trouble getting some of the images out of my head. That is in my opinion the hallmark of good horror - to leave a lasting impact.
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Ghost Whisperer (2005–2010)
What a great show
8 January 2010
My current favorite show on television. It's strange, since it is very dramatic and if not for the supernatural angle I'd probably not be interested.

The show concerns the "adventures" of Melinda Gordon, a woman that has since an early age been able to see and communicate with spirits. According to the premise, spirits of those who die generally go "into the light," while those that are troubled in some way or do not desire to go remain "earth-bound." Melinda helps the spirits, with boundless energy and patience, to resolve their issues and move on.

Nearly every episode is a tear jerker. There are also some scares and creepy images in nearly every episode. Along with the heavy drama and themes, this makes it unsuitable for young children. It often plays out like a soap opera, with weird plot turns and numerous manipulative characters. One episode is even a bit of a self parody in that the central town, Grandview, is chosen as a shooting location for an episode of a popular (fictional) day time soap opera.

Quite a bit of comedy is thrown into the series with the inclusion of Jay Mohr and Jamie Kennedy. They can, surprisingly to me, act very competently with a perfect mix of humor and serious drama. I know they have both done it before, but I was impressed nonetheless.

There are a number of shocks and heartbreaks as the series progresses. Can't say that I was keen on all of them, particularly the Sam/Jim plot, but it certainly kept things interesting.

Although the supernatural is the overriding theme of the series, most of the show consists of drama and detective work. It cleverly appeals to men and women, and it keeps my interest on a daily basis. Enjoy with my recommendations.
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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006 Video Game)
Immersive, fun, and often challenging
16 November 2009
I have truly enjoyed the Elder Scrolls series, more than any other RPG game or series. The open ended feel, wide range of quests, and unique method of levelling a character all added to an RPG experience like no other.

Oblivion continues the format, with a number of significant changes over its predecessor - Morrowind. One of the complaints I had with the latter game is that it became pathetically easy after gaining only a handful of levels, as there were a number of simple buffs (alchemy!) that would make the character nigh invincible. The quests were still interesting, but the combat became too easy. Oblivion changes this by leveling the monsters along with the character. For instance, at low levels you could be wandering through the forest and run into a relatively easy to kill wolf, but at higher levels later down the road in the very same forest you might run into a very tough troll or minotaur. I have mixed feelings about this game feature. On the one hand, it does keep combat challenging and often intense, thereby making it more interesting. On the other hand, if you wait too long to pick up the main quest, it can be extremely challenging and frustrating to complete. You must be careful about creating your character and finding and making use of the trainers in the game to help boost skills and stats on the level ups. Standing toe-to-toe with multiple enemies in Morrowind was no problem at mid to higher levels - in Oblivion this is asking for a lot of hurt just about any time in the game, if not downright suicide. It certainly gives a FPS edge to the game that will keep you on your toes.

Another refreshing change is with the mercantile system, if you will. Merchants now have unlimited gold, but a cap on the amount they will pay for one item. Now you don't need to employ bizarre strategies to get the merchant gold higher, just need to give them a serious discount on very valuable merchandise (not a problem as with all the looting you'll have plenty of gold anyway). Items in general are not as valuable and mercantile/persuasion won't get you top dollar for your goods, as it did in Morrowind. There are no merchants (to my knowledge) like Creeper or Mudcrab that will give you full price - most give 50% or less of full value for items. You can still use alchemy to create and sell potions, but the homemade brews won't net you a fortune.

Something else that for me is a mixed bag is that Oblivion introduces minigames for persuading NPCs and picking locks. Both seem to be independent of speechcraft and security. That is, if you play the minigame well, the outcome will be favorable - a happy NPC and a picked lock, that is. It is a little bit fun at first, but can be just as tedious as the old method after a while. I'd rather just have the comp check my security skill against the lock and automatically decide the outcome. Same with persuasion. On the other hand, at least you have a chance with both endeavors even early game, if you are patient (the series in general does require a bit of this attribute).

In general, Oblivion is an outstanding game and one that I have enjoyed tremendously, albeit with some frustration. The game world is nearly breathtaking to behold. The landscape is beautiful, and jam packed with caves, ruins, and other locales to explore. The creatures have gotten a serious visual upgrade over Morrowind. All the Daedra look and sound more terrifying, particularly the Daedroth and Dremora - wow! For a minute there I thought I was playing Doom 3.

The quests are varied and interesting. The guilds don't give you as many things to do, but that seems right. After all, aren't there other members in these guilds? And if so, why would they give you all the work? It makes it easier to keep track of quests when you don't have so many to complete at the same time.

I got the original game and both expansions in a pack for $20 at Best Buy, and to me that is an absolute steal for this game. RPG fans, and Elder Scrolls fans in particular, should not miss out on this fantastic experience.
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Ghost Adventures (2008– )
Interesting, often terrifying
9 June 2009
I had sampled a number of reality haunted location shows in the past, such as Britain's "Most Haunted," and found them generally unappealing. Several of late have been more interesting, and "Ghost Adventures" is one of them.

The formula for each show is similar - a team of paranormal investigators spends time in a purportedly haunted location in the hopes of capturing evidence of activity, whether audio, video, personal, or other experiences. Much infrared and night vision camera work ensues, with many dramatic moments and even a few expletives. Afterwards their footage is reviewed and replayed to note any unusual anomalies, like EVPs, "orbs," noises, or occasional visual phenomena including apparitions.

Since I have a great interest in history, the highlight of the show for me is the fact that the crew visits a wide variety of locales throughout the United States that have long and storied pasts. Most of them are unknown to me, boosting my interest substantially. The host does a fine job of providing background for the locale and the purposes of the many rooms or buildings within, not to mention possible reasons for the hauntings. Some of the locales are buildings which have been long abandoned, and are private property not opened to the public. Much of the furniture, layout, and years of dust are preserved for all to see.

The supernatural phenomena captured by the crew is fascinating, and often disturbing. The show relies on the trust and belief of the viewer to convey the fear and drama, and unfortunately much of what we see could be explained or reproduced with special effects technology. But even if the supernatural phenomena could be explained away, there is a certain ambiance to large, spooky, and historic buildings that is in itself fear inspiring.

There are a few flaws that sometimes detract from the experience. The investigators themselves do not carry themselves as professionals, and are apparently amateurs. Although they are brave to spend the night in such places, the show oftentimes reminds me of a juvenile dare, as opposed to a serious investigation. The host can often be downright obnoxious, and his antics sometimes cut into the atmosphere of the surroundings. The focus for the crew is to create tension, and they clearly inject drama in an attempt to make the show more interesting to the audience. This is all right, but for me further reduces their credibility as investigators.

In the end, though, the show's strong points make up for its flaws in my opinion. I will always try to catch it whenever possible, and find it to be generally fascinating and terrifying.
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Deadliest Warrior (2009– )
Action heavy, logic lapsed
20 May 2009
I must first say about this series that the premise is outstanding, and one that has crossed my mind on numerous occasions. What would happen if a medieval knight met up with a samurai? Who would be victorious in battle?

The show then attempts to determine whom is the better warrior amongst two different kinds in history - in many cases two warriors that are separated by many centuries. The arms and armors available to these warriors are demonstrated, both in their lethal potential or in their stopping power in the case of armor. The demonstrations are fascinating, including weapons experts that strike or fire their weapons at ballistics gel encased, and presumably reproduction skeletons. A physician or medical specialist then examines the footage, or the dummy in some cases, and describes the type of trauma inflicted. At the end, we get a well choreographed fight between two re-enactors dressed in costume to simulate the potential outcome of such a contest, as well as a statistics model that determines the winner in 1,000 contests. I like this concept because despite the advantages a particular warrior might possess over another, the randomness of combat will ensure that even the presumably better warrior will lose at least a percentage of the time.

The problems with the show are many, however, and seriously challenge the credibility of the participants. As others have pointed out, a warrior is more than the sum of his weapons and armor, which the show spends the most amount of time demonstrating. I think the premise could be dropped and have the show focus on weapons demonstrations only. Although the mindset, culture, tactics, and goals of each warrior are mentioned, these descriptions are brief and superficial. In addition,the hypothetical combats displayed are all duels. Most of the warriors portrayed would rarely, if ever, be faced with a duel situation, instead fighting in a unit of many soldiers/warriors. The worst part for me has to be the banter or trash talk between the weapons experts representing each respective warrior. It reminds me of a WWE matchup or a pre-boxing/MMA trash session instead of a presumably serious and/or scientific look at a hypothetical combat situation.

At any rate, I do enjoy the show because it has many good aspects. But the flaws do not make for "must-see" TV. If they would focus a little more on the tactics, drop the banter, and perhaps consider tactical unit combat instead of duels, I believe the show would be much improved. The producers are obviously trying to cater to a younger, action thirsty crowd, perhaps in an effort to make history more interesting. I applaud this rationale if nothing else, but the more discriminating viewers with a desire for logical and factual history, such as myself, are often left wanting.

If any wish for a superior show with similarities to DW, check out an earlier History Channel series called "Conquest" with Peter Woodward. The latter is more mature, yet still with some light hearted moments. It covers nearly every criticism I have for DW and then some (see my review).

EDIT: I had not seen Season 3 prior to this original review, and S3 does cover some of my criticisms for the first two Seasons. The banter here has been toned down substantially and the combats all consist of units fighting each other. The warrior's mindsets, values, and motivations are explored with the addition of Richard Machowicz. I also liked the addition of the "X Factors" as well, or somewhat intangible characteristics such as mental health or physical fitness which could positively or negatively impact a side's performance. Overall the changes added a more serious and scientific component to the show that was a substantial improvement IMO.

There are still a few problems that I saw, particularly with the tendency to match two opponents who were not a very good matchup to begin with. Hannibal and Genghis Khan was a good example, as they were separated by nearly 1,400 years and Khan's armor and weapons technology was far superior. Same could be said of William the Conqueror and Joan of Arc. It was a little silly to see a unit of five men firing a heavy artillery piece at each other as well. The elite modern soldiers did not have weapons that they most likely would have carried. I am particularly thinking about the Rangers/North Korea and Gurkha/French Foreign Legion in that all these soldiers would have probably carried hand grenades and a pistol of some kind. Roosevelt/Lawrence of Arabia or even Washington/Napolean would have probably had pistols as well. Oddly enough, only Pancho Villa/Crazy Horse were depicted carrying pistols.

In general, the format changes in S3 were an improvement and I enjoyed it quite a bit more than the previous seasons.
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Battles BC (2009– )
Entertainment over Realism
2 April 2009
This show takes some of the well known conflicts of ancient civilizations and adds a modern flare to them. An obvious attempt to make history more appealing to the current generation of viewers, the focus here is on entertainment. Real historical figures are given a weapon in each hand with no shield and are seen wading through and besting countless foes from the opposing armies in usually single combat. The fight scenes are interspersed with expert historian commentators who have many interesting things to say about the particular conflict and its participants.

While I applaud the History Channel for attempting to make history more accessible and interesting to the modern viewer, much realism has to be sacrificed in the attempt. The depiction of combat here may be somewhat exciting, but to the more seasoned viewer like myself it is absurd and ironically a bit monotonous in its tight and predictable choreography. Enemies are usually dispatched with a flash of cartoon blood at the end, making it appear to be a comic strip more than a historic battle. The only view of the battle is at ground level - no bird's eye views of the developing battle here. Rough diagrams are shown of troop dispositions, but I expect more in this age of readily accessible computer simulations.

The accompanying commentary is excellent, and one of the best parts of the show. The commentators help to flesh out the rationale behind the conflict, goals of the commanders, and progress of the battles. They help to fill in the details that are lacking in the re-enactments.

Although I do enjoy the show, I cannot recommend it to the more serious historian. This show is for those who have only a marginal interest in history, and demand entertainment over a realistic depiction of battle. "Warrior Queen Boudicca" is one example of a History Channel program that has some man-to-man fighting but is supplemented by great bird's eye views of the battle, and both conducted in a more realistic manner. Perhaps the finest example of how to do this sort of show right is "Battlefied Britain" from a few years back, but it is not airing any longer to my knowledge, although it is available on DVD.
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Wild West Tech (2003–2005)
Interesting, informative, violent
1 December 2008
The Old West of the United States is a place as shrouded in legend and mystery as any time in history. Fortunately there seems to have been enough reliable eyewitness accounts for historians to have pieced together a more logical picture of life during those times.

There were numerous innovations during this period, both for destructive and constructive practices. From the obvious such as rapid fire weapons and smokeless powder, to railways and mine technology, this covers just about every advance one could imagine. The focus is, however, on the technology of warfare, which most probably find more fascinating than less exciting disciplines.

It is most interesting how the show weaves the tech into tales of the myriad colorful characters of the west, from lawmen to prostitutes and outlaws. Many figures stand out in Western lore, such as Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, and others. But there were many lesser known, but equally interesting, figures with fantastic stories to tell, and the show does an outstanding job of making these tales known through well shot re-creations. Several apparently expert historians, character actors, cowboys, and old west exhibition shooters contribute to and add much via interviews and demonstrations over the course of the show.

Although there is no specific time period for the "Wild West," I had always thought of it as a relatively narrow span around the mid to latter part of the 19th century. The show provides tales from the early 19th to the early 20th century, however, which I found to be surprising and intriguing.

Be forewarned that this is a show for adults, even though it is typically shown early in the morning. Extreme violence is often shown and graphically depicted. Then there are the prostitutes, outlaws, and other unsavory characters representing the more colorful aspects of the time.

This is without a doubt one of the finest TV shows depicting the Old West, and one of the best shows on today. Fans of this time period and history would be loathe to miss out, and even those not crazy about such things would find much to enjoy.
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13 Seconds (2003 Video)
Bad acting, good horror
3 November 2008
It must be tough to catch a break in the film industry these days. How much originality can one bring to the table particularly in the genre of horror, and on a very limited budget? And then how good can one really expect to make a film when you can't afford to hire even amateur actors? It wasn't difficult to decide early on in this one that the acting and dialog were atrocious. In checking the bios of each actor, it appears this is their only experience, and it shows. The story wasn't bad, but the characters make so many dumb moves throughout, particularly after they witness unusual or supernatural shennanigans. You know the drill - let's split up and search the joint even though we've witnessed some really crazy stuff. And let's stick around even after an apparent murder or two goes down. The editing is such that it is just too tight or makes the story progression confusing.

The saving grace of sorts for "13 Seconds" was that it served up a hefty dose of horror imagery and some impressive scares with consideration to the budget. We get tossed into the mix very early and are assaulted with a barrage of terror tricks, from gore to unnerving sounds. The gore was well done and sufficiently disturbing. The bad acting was in a way appropriate within the context of the film, producing a surreal atmosphere of sorts. Tension was also built up very well in a number of scenes. The director also uses various camera angles to add to the ambiance. Lastly, the ending was a twist that rubbed my horror nerve just right.

In all 13 seconds was a worthwhile experience. If you can stomach the dialog and acting, then maybe you'll get some pleasure off of the experience as well.
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Supreme Commander (2007 Video Game)
Superior RTS Game
29 October 2008
From developer Chris Taylor, we have what is essentially the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation (TA). TA was, in my opinion, the best Real Time Strategy (RTS) game ever made, so even an updated follow up would need to be extraordinary.

Supreme Commander (SupCom) did not let me down. It provides the essentials of what made TA great and adds a number of small, yet useful, improvements. In both games, the player begins with a powerful unit called a "Commander (Com)." The com is a builder, starting the player off with basic resource and unit producing structures, but also acting as a formidable warrior as well.

TA and SupCom had/have two resources - metal and energy (mass and energy in SupCom). In order to generate these resources, the Com and builder units create structures that produce them at a constant rate. They only stop producing if they are destroyed. An interesting thing about SupCom is that the resource system is also real time, continually draining and adding to the pool at a constant rate. For example, if you wish to create a unit that costs 100 mass and 1000 energy, you don't need that in the bank, it just drains slowly from the pool over the course of unit construction. The builder units can be tasked to help build something as well - the more units are on it, the faster it is built (and the faster it drains your resources). Resource management can be tricky, but is an interesting and unique experience in the realm of RTS.

TA had no middle ground between lvls 1 and 3 for resource generation with the map dependent exception of the geothermal structure - you would jump from small output lvl 1 solar collectors to super energy producing lvl 3 fusion power plants with nothing in between at lvl 2. SupCom adds intermediate resource producing structures at Tier 2. Also, metal (now mass) extractors can be upgraded by themselves - TA would require that the old extractor be reclaimed or detonated in order to place the more advanced extractor in the same place, with a construction unit.

Then there is the combat! If you are used to tactical combat games, like Dawn of War, or smaller scale combat such as Age of Empires or even Starcraft, then SupCom will be an almost overwhelming experience at first. You can attack by land with infantry robots, tanks, other vehicles, and super experimental units. You can attack by sea with warships, submarines, combat hovercraft, and amphibious tanks. You can even attack by air with fighters, bombers, hovering gunships, and large experimental units. You can build defensive emplacements to protect your base, and bombard the enemy with artillery units that can hit the enemy from very long distances. And then there are the nuclear missiles that can strike anywhere on even the largest maps. But there are anti-nukes that can also be built to launch and automatically take out any incoming strategic missiles. In fact, there is an appropriate counter tactic to just about every attack method.

Any criticisms? Well, the system requirements were steep for the time, and even top end machines would have some trouble now and then. The learning curve is fairly steep, and the game most certainly requires you to be on top of things nearly 100% of the time. Even small mistakes would be difficult to recover from in multiplayer games.

SupCom is most certainly a different type of RTS game, and in my opinion requires a very different perspective from most entries in this genre. If you feel prepared for a game more about macromanagment with yet a hefty dose of micromanagment, then SupCom is for you. Just be prepared to be schooled in the beginning, first by the AI and later by online players. You'll definitely lose a lot before you win, but I suppose that's not too much different than most other games of skill.
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The Other Side (I) (2006)
Exceeded my expectations
27 October 2008
There are piles of low budget, poor quality horror films at the local rental store, and I've been through dozens of them. What makes them bad is rarely the special effects, but the writing and acting.

The Other Side appeared from the cover to be a horror movie, but played more like a straight up action film with a strong supernatural current running through. There were some horror elements, but they pretty much took a back seat to the action.

The acting and script were surprisingly good, with an interesting story to support them. Some of the special effects were inferior, but I can always let that slide if the other elements are handled well. I felt the character interactions were believable, as were their reactions to the crazy situations. I've seen many horror films that throw their characters into remarkable circumstances and there is minimal system shock - as if they'd somehow been desensitized or done this before, even though they had not. If a character is unimpressed and minimally affected by his or her circumstances, then how am I supposed to be terrified?

One of the biggest criticisms I have for the film was with the opening. We are served with a barrage of images that take snippets of events which occur throughout the film and toss them together in a sort of collage that lasts only a few minutes. This was an apparent "Pulp Fiction" or "Memento" type of moment I suppose, with the attempt to inject some art into the film. It did not work - the entire first few minutes should have wound up on the cutting room floor. My stop-button finger was definitely twitching and if it had gone on for much longer then I probably would have missed the rest of the movie.

Fortunately I stayed and found the experience to be entertaining and worthwhile. This one will not win any awards and probably doesn't have a wide appeal, but the horror fans of the world like me should be pleased.
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Good times ahead
23 October 2008
I have been pleased so far with just about every offering from the "After Dark Horrorfest" series of horror movies, and "Gravedancers" is no exception. Three friends mourn the loss of a fourth friend by having a final party graveside. Things turn sour after they recite a mysterious letter and begin to dance on random graves.

The film actually starts off with what were my only criticisms, namely the characterizations and the premise. The three friends did not have very good chemistry together and it was difficult for me to buy that they were all old buddies that used to be very tight. Life had changed since their college days, but I still felt they should have shared a better dynamic. Then there was the premise, which felt a bit contrived, of hanging out at a graveyard and having a party that sets the stage for the rest of the movie.

Once I got past these minor issues, I was taken on a pretty wild horror ride for the rest of the running time. Although the premise was a little hard to swallow (well, it IS a horror movie after all!), it was most certainly unique and eventually segued into a fantastic and interesting back story that wound up being about my favorite part of the experience.

There were some genuinely potent scares served up, some of which took me by surprise. The stylized look of the ghouls/ghosts I found to be very effective as well. I also relished the side characters, particularly the great Tcheky Karyo as an experienced parapsychologist.

All in all, then, Gravedancers was a great horror entry with chills, scares, and fine acting. If you are looking for a great movie time this Halloween, then here's the ticket.
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Do not miss this RPG experience
19 August 2008
I played this several years ago and for some reason stopped. Three years later and 6 years after its release, I've become an addict again.

Morrowind is a unique RPG experience that I have enjoyed more than any other. The story takes place on a human empire's furthest and most recent conquest - the island of Vvardenfell. The island is populated by Dark Elves, or Dunmer as they refer to themselves, as well as many original and unusual natural and unnatural flora and fauna.

The world seems enormous due to the rich layers of detail and the breadth of quests available. It is actually considerably smaller than either of the previous entries - Arena and Daggerfall. But it is much more interesting due to the detail. I have only played Daggerfall, and it was enjoyable to an extent, but it was just too cookie-cutter for my tastes. Every building and town looked the same, and the dungeons were a mess of weaving, 3D corridors that were extremely tedious to navigate, even with the minimap.

Although Morrowind scales the size of the world down a bit, that is the only thing about the game that is smaller. There are a number of "guilds" or other organizations that can be joined, each with their own ranking system and multitude of quests that take the character to the far corners of the island world. The environs are richly detailed, with varied terrain, numerous towns that are all unique in layout and architecture, fantastic environmental effects like sandstorms and rainfall, and a dramatic night sky filled with stars.

The best part of the game is that it is almost entirely open ended. You can play any type of character you wish, from a virtuous crusader to a dastardly villain. You like to steal things? There are valuables everywhere for the taking (but not without consequence). You prefer to be a noble warrior? There are a number of guilds and quests to suit your sense of right. How about a bloodthirsty barbarian? Got you covered. Maybe a mafia-like hit-man? You bet! Or maybe you are more of a pacifist that would prefer not to fight at all unless it's absolutely necessary? You'll be very busy here. Or just maybe - you'd like to be all of these rolled into one? Well guess what? You can! Now there are competing factions, and law to be upheld, so your decisions may not be without consequences. But with a little caution (and resorting back to saved games), you can be a very successful career criminal in this world. In fact, there are a number of illicit trades that you can become involved with, including slave trading, narcotics, murder for hire, and of course theft. There is even some implicit prostitution in several of the towns. This is not Grand Theft Auto, but the criminal underworld is just below the surface with many opportunities for those who are so inclined.

I stressed the criminal element here merely to demonstrate the game's depth. There is also much political intrigue that the character can become involved with. This makes for some very interesting game play with numerous side stories to be told. Now to solve the game, you must eventually become involved in the "main" quest. But there is so much else to do that you may very well forget about this for a long, long time. In fact, you can come back to it whenever you wish without penalty.

The game relies on a skills-based system for character advancement. You start with a set of skills, ranging from weapons and armors to speechcraft and mercantile. Each one improves with use only. There are no "experience points" for killing monsters. If it takes you two swings to kill a monster, then the skill for the weapon you used increases by two swings. With the skills trainers and opportunities to use these skills, they are increased fairly rapidly, resulting in level increases.

With all the glowing praise I have for the game, there is still room for some criticism. Although increasing one's skills and wealth early in the game is a challenge, as it progresses this becomes easy to the point of tedium. Some of the very valuable items that are supposed to be rare seem to appear with frequency. And the character eventually gets so much outstanding equipment that he/she becomes nigh invincible. Many would not consider this much of a flaw, but when the game fails to challenge it becomes less appealing. There is still an incredibly interesting story and quests to follow, but I feel that some of the game aspects should have been redesigned. It is truly a paradise for the power gamer, however. The combat is rather straight forward and simplistic, but this is not the main focus of the game as it is with so many others - in nearly all other RPG game titles the character must wade through and kill hordes of things just to level up and advance along in the game. You could technically advance to a high level in this game without killing a single thing (although that might become a bit tedious and boring). The only other problem, in a way, is that the game is of the "sandbox" variety, meaning that it never really ends. It is rather anti-climactic.

When all is said and done, however, this tops my list of the best RPG experiences of all time. Immersive, entertaining, with a phenomenal breadth of things to do, places to go, and people to see, this is an experience that any RPG fan would be loathe to miss out on. Do yourself a big favor and go get the Morrowind Game of the Year Edition as soon as you can. I have not played Oblivion yet, so it may even be better. But Morrowind must even then be highly enjoyable.
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Beakman's World (1992– )
One of the best TV shows of all time
4 August 2008
This show had it all - highly entertaining, educational, and just plain fun all rolled into one. The funny thing is that its target audience was obviously children, but I was 22 when it first aired, had no children of my own, and throughly enjoyed the show.

Most if not all of every show revolved around questions posed by the audience, i.e., children. The hosts (primarily Beakman) would proceed to answer by performing basic, yet interesting scientific experiments or explain the prevailing theory, with a thick dose of humor over all.

From all the great shows, the one I remember most was this question - "why do farts smell bad?" Now naturally, this question was fodder for all sorts of jokes by the sidekick guy in a rat suit. But Beakman, as always, tackled the question with a fantastic blend of serious science and circumstantial humor. I've never heard such a question asked on a children's show before, but it was handled very well, with the anticipated humor not completely detracting from the serious matter of providing the answer.

As a young adult I was amazed by this show, and even got up regularly, on Saturday morning no less, to see what Beakman had in store next. The show was cleverly designed to please both adults and children, and certainly worked its magic on me. Definitely give this one a chance.
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Survivorman (2004– )
Unique, interesting show
30 July 2008
I was transfixed by this show since my first viewing. One man in the wild for seven days - no camera crew, nothing but a multi-tool and some basic equipment. The show is set up to more or less mimic a typical survival situation - lost at sea, lost while hiking, a plane crash in the wilderness, etc. It adds an extra element of credibility and realism.

The host then proceeds to do what he must to survive with what he has available, and to make use of or anticipate a use for what he is left with, be it a damaged bicycle, plane, parachute, backpack, etc. Les is alone in this, performing everything including all of his own camera work. So when we see him walking off into the distance or climbing down a bluff, he has to walk or climb all the way back to his camera to retrieve it.

The wilderness settings are incredibly varied, from the arctic to the jungles, tropical islands to open ocean. We get a taste of just about every possible terrain as well, from mountains to desert plains.

The thing I like the most about the show is its practicality. Les doesn't take unnecessary risks for the sake of entertainment. He cooks his food whenever he can, doesn't attempt unrealistic tasks that would set him up for injury, and otherwise attempts to conserve his energy as much as possible. He also stresses the psychological aspects of survival, focusing on keeping his spirits up to avoid the depression and lonely solitude of his situation.

I don't have much criticism for the show. Les plans to be rescued in seven days, and it is often easy to see this anticipation in his routine. In a way this reduces the tension, since we know he will be saved at a predetermined time. But then again if someone isn't rescued from being lost in a few days, then their chance of survival diminishes dramatically. It is not realistic to eschew certain safety considerations and prolong one's suffering merely because I think it might make for a more unpredictable show.

So then my complaints really are minor and perhaps frivolous, since this remains among my favorite shows on TV. Practical, interesting, often exciting, and filled with useful survival information, this show is great and deserves the success it enjoys. Enjoy with my recommendations.
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Man vs. Wild (2006– )
Fear Factor in the bush
30 July 2008
I watched and enjoyed Survivorman well before Man vs. Wild came along, and expected a similar type of show. The producers apparently anticipated the same reaction from their audience, and decided the show needed to be spiced up a bit.

So we have the host, Bear Grylls, performing all sorts of highly adventurous activities, like swimming upstream, climbing cliffs and trees, eating live animals/insects, and so forth. This makes for great entertainment, but much of what Bear engages in is impractical and even dangerous at best in a survival situation.

Now granted, it would also be impractical to assume that this show should be construed as a survival guide. Bear does, however, give a great deal of information and good advice mixed in with the thrills. I find him to be mostly level-headed and good natured, even when faced with very difficult situations. Despite his hardships, I don't believe I've ever heard him complain once. And that really is as important to survival as anything - having a positive attitude and making the best of one's situation.

His credibility does suffer a bit with the admission that he tends to sleep in hotel rooms or base camps as opposed to in the wild. That certainly keeps him fresh and ready to face new challenges, but perhaps most importantly to speak with authority and excitement in order to keep the audience interested.

It's difficult to sort through the good and bad advice, since the show is as concerned with entertainment as it is with developing survival skills. I suppose one must do whatever it takes to survive, but some things can make one even worse off. In one instance, Bear drinks his own urine without much second though, but in another case he is very careful about determining the source of potential drinking water. And a parasitic infection from frequent consumption of live animals might make hunger seem nothing but a dull ache in comparison.

In all, Man vs. Wild is a good show. It is more of a show about personal challenge for Bear than it is for survival education. "The Bear Grylls Challenge" might have been a better name. At any rate, despite the liberally sprinkled good advice, this show is primarily for entertainment purposes. If you want to learn about more practical, albeit less exciting, application of survival technique, then watch "Survivorman."
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Beginnings of the slasher genre
23 May 2008
Before Halloween, Friday the 13th, and countless other such films there was "Black Christmas." And unless you are a horror film aficionado, you probably had never heard of it.

Of course there was the remake, or "reimagining," a year or two ago, which I did not see but did not hear many good things about. After all, a truly good movie doesn't need to be remade, no matter how old it gets.

Black Christmas definitely was good enough to stay un-reimagined. It will appear dated to some, but for me this really played in its favor. Older movies often have corny dialog, but it feels more genuine than many modern horror films. Characters that are truly terrified don't constantly make wisecracks or seem otherwise indifferent to their situation.

The dark mood of the film was set very early, and was gradually built upon until the finale. It did not rely upon "boo" scares but upon ambiance, situations, and general creepiness to convey the horror.

If you want to see the roots of the slasher genre, or are just pining for a unique and excellent horror experience, then Black Christmas won't disappoint. It may be hard to find but is worth a little extra effort. Check it out.
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Forrest Gump (1994)
Fascinating story from beginning to end
2 April 2008
Forrest Gump is a film that I could watch over and over again and still be moved, entertained, and inspired. It is the story of a simple man that inexplicably becomes embroiled in extraordinary events. It is a tale of remarkable coincidences and great emotional loss.

Hanks is at his cinematic best here, creating a highly believable character that one cannot help but love, despite his flaws. And how about the supporting actors! Gary Sinise is brilliant as the often reluctant friend to Gump. Robin Wright perfectly captures the love interest that is a close yet very different person than Gump. Sally Field is likable and endearing as the mother with boundless love for her only child.

The story is never boring, with events flowing seamlessly. There is a story telling angle here with a narrative overlay is unique and serves to accentuate major plot points. Most characters are recurring parts of Gump's life, and they come and go throughout the film.

Perhaps the most inspirational part of the film is the character of Gump himself. Although simple, he has an astounding realization of right and wrong, yet remains non-judgemental to those around him. He suffers great emotional loss at several points throughout the film, yet remains strong and carries on because he knows that he still has obligations and that there are others whom might depend upon him in some way.

I have few criticisms about the movie. There were a few times where Hanks slipped out of character a bit and reminded me more of his typical comedic personality, but they were few and far between. I'm striving to think of more, but I just can't come up with any.

Forrest Gump truly is an inspiring, heartwarming story that will undoubteldy stand the test of time. It has a wide appeal, but this is well deserved. Enjoy with my recommendations.
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Battlefield Britain (2004– )
Outstanding series
4 March 2008
Among the finest historical documentaries I have ever seen. There are many shows about the wars of history, but few get to the real meat of the battles like this one. Although some time is spent on the events leading up to the battle, the most interesting moments revolve around the battle itself.

The father and son team spend a great deal of time showing the viewer what it may have been like to be involved in these battles from either side of the conflict. There are excellent computer animations of the troop formations and movements, prevailing winds, weather, terrain, and other important battlefield considerations. The progress of the battle from start to finish is shown also using detailed computer animation to display troop armaments, arching arrows, etc. The Snows also test modern reproductions of the armaments used in each conflict, displaying their accuracy or killing potential. Some time is spent on the aftermath of the contest, and the often tremendous loss of life and injury inflicted.

I hope that the Snows continue to create such fascinating material in the future. They have apparently hosted another series called "20th Century Battlefields," but I have unfortunately been unable to see it yet. If it is anything like "Battlefield Britain" then I'm sure it would also be excellent. This series should not be missed by any with an interest in military history.
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