Thursday, December 29, 2011

Super Dinosaur Volume 1

            Robert Kirkman has pretty consistently entertained me with both The Walking Dead and Invincible, the latter of which I could probably write a whole editorial on why it’s one of the best comics out there right now.  He knows how to write a good, long-term story with big payoff, he knows the exact moment when he needs to drop the hammer and shock the reader.  What I’m saying is I had high hopes before I even started reading Super Dinosaur, and what I got wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.
            Super Dinosaur follows Derek Dynamo (who thinks everything is awesome), the young son of Doctor Dynamo, and the titular Super Dinosaur, a talking T. Rex with power armor.  They fight against Max Maximus and his army of other evil dinosaurs for control of the ore Dynore.  If this is sounding like a Saturday morning cartoon, that’s…about what it is.  Believe me, I was expecting more.  I kept expecting the Robert Kirkman twist, the sudden shock of violence or darkness or…anything.  But no, it’s a cartoon in comic book form.
            This isn’t to say it’s a bad cartoon.  Robert Kirkman showed that he can create a full world from the ground up with Invincible, and he’s taken that same process here.  A few minor characters like Squidious, an evil squid who Super Dinosaur has apparently fought in the past, show both his imagination and his world-building.  And it never becomes a parody of the concept.  There are definite flaws here, like the fact that Derek is too perfect and borderline annoying.  But overall, it’s very straight-forward yet entertaining, and would be perfect for kids to get into comics and have a fun story…
            …Is what I really want to say.  But I’m worried.  I think back to Invincible, and how the first volume was fairly standard superhero stuff, only for the twist to hit hard in the second volume.  I’d hate to think that this is decent G-rated stuff from the first volume, only for the second volume to have Super Dinosaur biting Derek’s head off.   But if that does happen, it seems like it really wouldn’t work.  The comic just isn’t smart enough here to match even the levels of the better cartoons on TV right now.  Would a quick change really make things that much better?
            In the end, I really don’t know what to think.  It’s an easy read, basic but fun, but it’s not the most fun comic out there and definitely doesn’t show off Robert Kirkman’s real abilities.  Young kids would probably like it just fine, but anybody older can easily pass this by. 
           Thanks to Net Galley and Image Comics for letting me review this book.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Aliens: Fast Track to Heaven

            Aliens is an interesting franchise, mainly because it always falls on that line between horror and action.  The first two movies are complete genre shifts between the two, and they’re both considered two of the greatest movies in their genres.  There’s the fear of a single xenomorph slowing picking off a crew one by one, and there’s the swarms of them that can be fought off with the right tactics.  No matter what, though, the biggest fear of the Aliens franchise is how the xenomorphs can come anywhere, anytime.  They crawl through vents, come in where you should be safe, and you never know where the next one is going to be.  Fast Track to Heaven just does not hit this concept right.
            The story has a crew working for the Weyland-Yutani at the Heaven station, a space station attached with a space elevator to Hell, the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.  The elevator has been stopped midway, and they investigate to figure out why.  Turns out there’s a xenomorph on-board, who proceeds to slaughter them as they try to fight it off.
            Problem number one of this book is simply that it does not have the length to tell a complete story.  It’s a mere 38 pages, which is less than the length of two standard-size comic books.  It has to rush through characterization and some of the deaths, which hurts it.  We don’t even see one crew member’s death, despite the rather meager cast.  Aliens is also a franchise that tends to distinguish itself with its characters.  There’s a reason Ripley appeared throughout all the non-vs-Predator movies.  Yet I really couldn’t tell you much about any of these characters at the end of the day.  In Alien and Aliens, they gave us plenty of time to know the characters and care when they die.  We don’t even get a moment to do that here.  The 38 pages also results in an absolutely disappointing ending, with a splash page and a wall of text.  I couldn’t believe it had ended that way.
            Now, to get back to what I was talking about with not knowing where the alien comes from.  The problem here is that the alien pretty linearly follows the crew.  It doesn’t hide and creep around and pick them off.  The crew moves forward, the xenomorph moves with them.  Although it’s always nice enough to give them time if they need to talk about anything.  I wanted some tension here.  I guess it really comes back to the length.  With more pages, there would’ve been more time to rack up the suspense.  Instead, it’s just ho-hum, xenomorph killing people.  That’s how I feel about it.  I wasn’t left with anything memorable at the end of this book.  Just an absolutely standard Aliens story.
            The one thing I did really like was Liam Sharp’s art.  It’s a pretty rough art style, but I feel it fits the book well, and he can hit the violence spot-on.  The elevator-turned-xenomorph-home is an absolutely wonderful example of gruesome, creepy imagery.  Sadly, I can’t say the same thing about the coloring.  It’s rare to have a book where the coloring is so very obvious, but the panels are just covered in single colors.  Characters will be red and the backgrounds will be blue.  The few panels where he uses the full palette of colors to make it look like it would are significantly better-looking.
            I really can’t recommend Aliens: Fast Track to Heaven.  It’s just too short, to the point where it noticeably affects the book.  Across a mini-series, this might’ve been a good story.  Across 38 pages, it’s scrambling to get the bare bones out there.  And for $11?  There are far meatier books you can spend your money on.
            Special thanks to Net Galley and Dark Horse Comics for letting me review this book.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Muppets

            I love The Muppets.  I’ve loved the Muppets since I was a kid, I love them just as much, if not more, now.  And a few years ago, I had an idea, something I just kept in my head, for a Muppet movie.  It would be a simple movie, where all the Muppets have to do is put on a show at their theater, but at the same time, it would be the Muppets’ big return to the screen.  The Muppets is my idea put on screen.  Only it’s better than I ever could’ve imagined.
             The plot is so simple.  Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote), Mary (Amy Adams), and new Muppet Walter travel to Los Angeles, and Walter wants nothing more than to see the site of his dreams, Muppet Studios…only to find it’s completely run-down, and oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) wants to tear it down.  So he finds Kermit, they get the gang back together, and they put on a show to save the theater.
            What this movie really has is two things: the heart and the laughs.  The heart is really what’s most important.  This is a Muppet movie.  This is not “The Muppets take on A Christmas Carol”, this is the Muppets as the fans always want to see the Muppets: they’re themselves.  You know how Kermit is going to be, you know Gonzo’s going to be weird, Fozzie’s going to tell bad jokes, and Animal is…well, AN-I-MAL.  Even with their voices that little bit off, the movie loses nothing from the lack of Jim Henson and Frank Oz.  These characters have been so well-defined ever since The Muppet Show that just getting to see them be them again is a joy to watch, and that’s what Jason Segel did: he wrote a script that came from a love of the show and the characters, and it shows every second.
            And there are also plenty of laughs.  The plot itself comes from that sense of self-depreciation that the Muppets has always done so well, along with plenty of self-awareness.  They comment on important plot points, musical numbers, montages, anything they can find.  The fourth wall will be casually broken for a joke, only to be immediately repaired as if it was never brought up.  And in that true Muppets fashion, it just hits you with so many jokes and so many things going on from background events to celebrity cameos that even if one joke falls flat, you barely remember it because you’re laughing at the next one that’s come along.  And then it twists right back to the love of the Muppets that touches your heart and brings a tear to your eye.
            I could nitpick.  I could say that there are some sequences that just don’t work, and some Muppets I wish we had gotten more of (there’s barely a scene each for Rowlf and Swedish Chef!).  Or I could say that this is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  I feel like everybody is saying this, but The Muppets are back.  And watching the movie, I just didn’t want them to go again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Left 4 Dead: The Sacrifice

            Sometime around Half-Life 2, Valve really started to get a lot of praise for their storytelling techniques.  Which is funny, because most of the story isn’t really in the game.  If you want to know what’s going on in Half-Life 2, you have to read the supplementary material.  Left 4 Dead pretty much eschewed anything resembling a story besides the survivors trying to get from Point A to Point B without dying to the hordes of zombies.  So is there really anything you can do with a comic?  Turns out there is.
            The story takes place sometime before the crossover with the cast of Left 4 Dead 2.  The group of survivors (Louis, Francis, Bill, and Zoey) have finally got to an armored carrier driven by the army, and assume that they’re going to the safe zone.  Turns out they’re headed to an army base, where the army is trying to figure out why they don’t turn into zombies…shortly before a horde of zombies starts attacking.  Cue much zombie-killing action, interspersed with flashback sequences that fill in background information on the survivors.
            I’ll warn you right now, this really is a story for the fans of the game.  Now, it’s entirely possible that somebody who doesn’t even know what Left 4 Dead is would read the story and enjoy it.  But there’s plenty of in-jokes and character information that’s not put in this book.  It does its best to try to acclimate the non-gamers who just want a good zombie story, like explaining about the different zombie types.  And thanks to Left 4 Dead’s general lack of story, there really isn’t much you’re missing out on.  The people who are going to get the most out of the story, though, are those who already know these characters well.
            And they really do shine through in this story.  Francis in particular has his rough, snide personality front and center, and provides most of the laughs throughout the book.  But there’s plenty of room for the reader to get to know every other survivor.  The flashback sequences help.  Not only do they tell you what that character was doing before they met up with the rest of the survivors, but they give you an insight into the character themselves.  The game has plenty of back-and-forth between the characters as they’re shooting their way through zombies, but this is the first time dialogue has really been put as the focus.  It’s hard to tell whether it’s the writers strength of writing the characters or Valve’s strength of creating them that really makes the story work, but they’re well done.  These are not your four random people who you’re waiting to see get chomped.  These are characters you don’t want to see die.
            But if half the reason the story works is thanks to how well it’s written, the other half is thanks to the art.  It’s bloody, it’s violent, it’s visceral.  It’s what you want of a bunch of people killing zombies.  This is one of those comics where you also really notice how the panels are laid out.  They’re chaotic, but not in a confusing way.  It’s really in a way that stops any bland form of layout, and more importantly, always makes sure to keep things moving.  It captures the action well.  If there was any complaint I had about the art, it’s that it does get a bit too cartoony for the survivors from time to time.  Then again, I’ve seen many a Garry’s Mod video where “a bit too cartoony” would’ve been the understatement of the century.  It didn’t really impede the story at all, so it’s not worth complaining too much about.
            The Sacrifice does what it set out to do well.  It gives this world some background story that it was lacking, it gives some character development, and it gives plenty of zombie carnage.  A must-read for any Left 4 Dead fans.
           The Sacrifice is one of the stories featured in Valve Presents: The Sacrifice and Other Steam-Powered Stories, along with Portal: Lab Rat and various Team Fortress 2 comics.  Special thanks to NetGalley and Dark HorseComics for letting me review this story.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Puss in Boots (with a bonus review)

            I gave up on the Shrek franchise after Shrek the Third.  I can’t remember exact details of why I thought it was bad.  I just remember it being terribly unfunny and bloated with subplots.  The apparently-improved quality of Shrek Forever After couldn’t get me to see it after The Third.  And yet Puss in Boots intrigued me.  I’m not sure why.  I mean, it’s directed by Chris Miller, who also directed Shrek the Third.  That should’ve been a reason to just avoid it at all costs.  Instead though, Puss in Boots managed to prove itself on its own.
            The story picks up sometime before the events of Shrek 2.  Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is a known outlaw throughout the (un-named) land.  In the middle of an attempt to get the magic beans from Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), he runs into Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), who’s working for former partner-in-crime Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifiankis).  From there, the three of them go on a heist to get the beans from Jack and Jill and use them to get the Goose who lays the golden eggs, which will give them eternal wealth.
            Let’s get the bad out of the way first.  This movie apparently started as straight-to-DVD, and it’s rough enough around the edges to show it.  The animation is fine, as Dreamworks always is, although the humans look a little off.  I’ve always had a thing against Dreamworks humans compared to their non-human creations, though, so that might just be me.  A lot of the problems show themselves in the scripting.  It’s very simple.  It almost seems like they thought they couldn’t do enough going to DVD, so everything seems scaled down.  The action sequences don’t feel big enough.  There’s no unforgettably hilarious scenes.  There’s funny moments, but there’s no long sequences that had me hurting with laughter.  I guess part of the problem might be that this should be Dreamworks’ A-movie of the year, but next to Kung Fu Panda 2, it feels like a B-movie.  Puss also has some things that feel like they just carried over from the Shrek movies.  They keep having these nods to the fairy tale characters (although most of them are from nursery rhymes) that feel more routine than anything.  And yes, a character has to get hit in the balls.
            Fortunately, there is a lot to like here.  The voice acting rises above everything else for me.  The main trio is just on the top of their game here.  Antonio Banderas is projecting Zorro more than before, and it works fantastically.  He’s really the swashbuckling hero of legend here, albeit also a cat, prone to all the things that implies.  Salma Hayek manages to bring sexiness through to the character.  It’s not quite a character with as much depth as you’d hope for, but she plays well against Puss.  As much as the action sequences didn’t quite hit the level for me, any time Kitty and Puss are fighting bad guys, or just having a dance battle against each other, there is something wonderful there.  Zach Galifiankis was the biggest surprise for me.  After seeing The Hangover and Dinner for Schmucks, I’d expect nothing but the manchild out of him.  Yet there’s an actual character in Humpty Dumpty.  Again, not with much depth, but it’s better than I thought I was getting.  I am fully convinced that Dreamworks can get far better performances out of comedic actors like Zach Galifiankis and Jack Black than they give in their live-action performances.  The other really great thing about the movie is that it does not feel like a Shrek movie.  This is not “Shrek 5 starring Puss in Boots”.  This is Puss in Boots.  Even though I mentioned things that carried over from Shrek, everything else doesn’t feel like Shrek.  There’s no pop songs.  The skewering of fairy tales has instead been replaced with a story that feels more like the real-life legends.  The environments are changed to match it, with the forests and fairy tale towns of Shrek gone for vast deserts and Mexican-style cities.  And there’s no cameos or call-forwards.  This is a movie that stands on its own.
            I enjoyed Puss in Boots.  It might not aim as high as it could’ve.  It’s definitely not at the level of Kung Fu Panda 2.  But it’s fun and cute.  And that’s what it’s aiming to be, so I’d call it a success.
            Apparently, the popular iPhone app tying in to an animated movie is becoming a thing now.  First there was Angry Birds: Rio, and now there’s Fruit Ninja: Puss in Boots.  If you haven’t played the original Fruit Ninja, it’s a simple game.  You swipe your finger across the screen to cut fruit while avoiding bombs.  That’s about it.  The Puss in Boots spin-off adds just enough to that formula.  It has two modes, Desperado and Bandito.  Desperado is the traditional endless gameplay, as you attempt to cut every fruit or you lose a life, with the only new addition being Magic Beans that restore lives or give you bonus points.  The big reason to get this is the Bandito mode, which has three tiers of mini-games that you go through.   They range from trying to slice fruit while a giant bomb bounces around the screen, to slicing fruit that flies in certain patterns around the screen.  The amount of mini-games is just enough that they don’t repeat too often.  It ends up just as addictive as the main game.  The Puss in Boots window dressing is also a nice addition.  The backgrounds are taken from the movie's locations, the blades include a guitar and cat claws, you get several Antonio Banderas voice clips to complement your fruit-slicing, and the fruit facts after you fail are replaced with fairy tale facts.  It is a bit skimpy compared to the original game, with less blades and backgrounds and only two modes compared to the original’s 3, but it’s still an addictive, fun time-waster, and the Bandito mode is definitely worth the $1.