Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo Del Toro
Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkein

            I was extremely excited for The Hobbit when it was announced that Guillermo Del Toro was directing it in one movie.  Even when it switched to Peter Jackson across two movies, and later three, I still just wanted to see it.  I loved the Hobbit as a kid, and An Unexpected Journey proved to be a joy that, despite the lengthy runtime, was fairly lighthearted and fun, not to mention actually feeling like a complete movie despite being 1/3 of one.  Leave it to Desolation of Smaug to take what was good about the first movie and reduce it to something less enjoyable.
            Desolation picks up where Journey ended, as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), continue their quest to take back Erebor from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Along the way, they meet the elves of Mirkwood and go through Laketown.
            The highlights here stand out immediately.  The entire Mirkwood segment is nice and fun, managing a mix of drama, action and comedy well.  It’s a fast-paced sequence that makes the early part of the movie breeze right along.  And there’s also the CGI Smaug, done with motion capture of Cumberbatch’s face along with his voice acting.  It looks amazing, and it’s sufficiently creepy and awesome to behold.  The fight against Smaug is also good…for the first part.
            You see, where Unexpected Journey snapped along and even its slower moments had some fun to them, Desolation of Smaug drags starting with Laketown.  I can’t remember how Laketown was in the book, but it’s dreary, boring, and worst of all, seems like nothing but setting up a subplot for the third movie.  The worst part is that it leaves very little focus on Bilbo.  Martin Freeman’s performance is fantastic, and when he’s not on-screen for a period and then suddenly comes back, you remember how much you missed it.  Laketown takes him away so much that you begin to feel the movie should’ve been called Bard.  And then there’s the final battle.  It goes on forever, and while there are some good moments, at some point you’re just ready for it to end.  And the movie does “end” in the sense that, at some point, the credits begin rolling.  This is a movie entirely missing a first act, and the third act is incomplete, with the rest of it presumably being in the third movie.  The audible groan from the audience at the movie’s end shows what a terrible idea this was.

            Desolation of Smaug has its good parts, but they get so muddled with the movie’s long pace and little focus on Bilbo that the first movie’s fun is nearly completely gone. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nightwing Volume 3: Death of the Family


Written by Kyle Higgins
Art by Eddy Barrows

            The two crossover comics for Death of the Family I read before Nightwing, Batgirl and Batman and Robin, were fairly good.  They kept the creepy atmosphere of the event and managed to keep an atmosphere of psychological horror.  Nightwing’s is easily the most questionable of the bunch, though, thanks to some flinch-worthy decisions and poor writing.
            As before, this book contains the Death of the Family-related comics, along with two side-stories from before and after, and we’ll start with the meat of it.  And as before, Nightwing is a book I haven’t been reading up to this point, but it’s pretty simple.  Nightwing’s/Dick Grayson’s life is going pretty good, with him hanging out with his old circus troupe and rebuilding Amusement Mile in Gotham as a permanent home for Haly’s Circus.  And then the Joker comes along.  And…well…what happens after that becomes indicative of a greater problem at DC, and it has to do with Dan Didio saying that superheroes aren’t interesting unless they’re filled with angst.  And maybe this is something that works better if I’d been reading the book up to this point, but in this case, it’s a tragedy that feels all too expected.  Things are going good for Nightwing, oh look, the Joker comes and messes things up and everything is bad again.  There’s a difference between the inevitable tragedy and the hurricane that just randomly comes into the hero’s life, and this is a hurricane.  And Joker is a force of chaos, but this just feels unnecessary.  Especially since, ultimately, the payoff of what it’s building up to gets cut off with that conclusion chapter from the main Batman series, and just kills the momentum entirely.  I don’t know.  I find the idea of Nightwing travelling with a circus and protecting them as a hero while working with them as Dick Grayson interesting, and this book just kills it.
            The other two stories are OK, but both crumble under writing problems.  The pre-DotF is about an assassin, Lady Shiva, coming to Gotham, and Nightwing has to figure out why she’s here and who she’s after.  It’s not bad, but rather forgettable, and feels like it’s really part of something that was going on in Detective Comics, not a Nightwing thing.  The DotF aftermath story has The Dealer, a black market seller interested in artifacts of Gotham’s villains, taking something personal from Dick Grayson, and Nightwing retaliates to get it back.  It’s the most interesting story here, but there’s those writing problems.  In particular, the book relies on exposition way too much, and what might be tolerable with a month between issues comes across as ridiculous in a collection.  Every issue reminds you that Sonia Branch’s father killed Dick Grayson’s parents without adding anything more to the conflict between the two of them.  It even constantly uses footnotes to point out what events happened in which issues, making it read like a Silver Age comic.  And for the aftermath story, there’s the fact that Damian Wayne’s death comes into play (and as DC thoroughly spoiled this on their main site before the issue even came out, I’m not considering this a spoiler – at this point, you either know or don’t care).  And maybe that’s a problem with the Batman line at DC right now.  They went from Night of the Owls to Death of the Family to Robin’s death, and there’s little room in here for Higgins to actually breathe and do what he wants to do.  It’s all cleanup for somebody else’s story.

            This will likely be the last DotF crossover I review, and I did not save the best for last here.  Expository writing, unnecessary superhero angst, and very little that actually makes me want to read Nightwing past this. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Batman and Robin Volume 3: Death of the Family



Written by Peter J Tomasi
Art by Patrick Gleason

            Batman and Robin may bring some confusion on first glance as to how this could tie into Death of the Family.  After all, Batman already had his own arc, and as much multitasking as the Joker is doing during the crossover, it would be a little silly to have him doing two plots simultaneously against Batman.  Instead, this is really a focus on Damian Wayne’s Robin, and the own challenge he faces at the hands of the Joker.
            As with Batgirl, this is a series I haven’t really been following since the New 52, so I don’t know what Damian and Bruce have been up to in recent months.  I have a little more familiarity here than with Batgirl for the simple fact that I have read most of Grant Morrison’s Batman run, which focused greatly on Damian, Bruce Wayne’s son for those who haven’t been following things too closely.  The Death of the Family part of this book continues to follow his arc.  Whereas most of the Robins are taken in by Bruce and trained from the beginning, Damian is decidedly different.  He was raised by his mom, Talia Al Ghul, and has the attitude of an assassin.  Bruce has been trying to reel him back a bit, but as always, the Joker knows just the right buttons to push.  In this case, it’s putting Damian in a situation where the “no kill” rule doesn’t just get tested: it’s a rule he wants to follow, but the possibility of doing so seems more and more impossible.  The Death of the Family crossover may only cover 3 of the 5 issues in this collection (and only two of those are from Batman and Robin), but it shows that Tomasi can leave a striking story in a fairly short amount of pages.  And it’s helped out by Gleason’s thoroughly creepy art, which leads the whole thing to have a rather surreal quality about it.
            The other two issues featured here are…alright.  The first is the B&R annual, which has Damian sending Bruce out of Gotham to find some relics of his parents’ past…which Damian also happens to use as an excuse to be Batman for a bit.  It’s a nice story, and those who’ve been following the Damian arc will probably appreciate how its evolution shows well here, but it’s not necessarily a must-read.  The other story is a series of dreams from Damian, Bruce, and Alfred, all dealing with the aftermath of Death of the Family.  It adds a little more flavor to the event, but again, it’s just a nice story.  If you’re here for the Death of the Family stuff, these are nice extras, but they don’t stick quite as well as the main event.

            Ultimately, it’s those who have been following Batman and Robin and Damian Wayne that will get the most out of this book.  Those just picking it up to get a little more Joker vs. Batfamily won’t get as much out of it. 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

            The first Hunger Games movie was what should be looked for in an adaptation: perfectly grasping the book’s elements, creating a quiet atmosphere that manages to differentiate itself from the book, and adding in elements to help the overall story.  It’s the kind of adaptation that simultaneously helped the visuals of the book and stood on its own for new viewers.  And while I haven’t read Catching Fire, I was hoping it would easily match the first movie in quality, and it (mostly) does.
            Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th Hunger Games, but things aren’t exactly going great for them on their Victory Tour, especially since they’re getting the ire of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) thanks to inciting a revolution.  Ultimately, Snow and new game runner Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a plan to get rid of both victors, and it all revolves around the 75th Hunger Games.
            This movie is very neatly divided into two halves, and quite honestly, the first half is where the movie shines more.  The first half deals entirely with the Victory Tour and the buildup to the Hunger Games, and it’s a nice show of the pure bleakness of the franchise.  The dazzling set design and cinematography takes you right into a world where people can be shot and beaten in the middle of an assembly, and even if people bat an eye at it, they know there’s nothing they can do about it.  At the same time, the plans of Snow and Plutarch quickly show that they can only stop the revolution for so long.  It’s a world where the fuse is lit and the fascinating part is watching people try to put it out while others are just making it go faster.  I haven’t read Mockingjay, so I have no idea what this is leading up to ultimately, but I’m excited to see it.
            The second half of the movie focuses on the 75th Hunger Games, and…well, it’s entertaining.  This is more of the special effects and action part of the movie, and it’s obvious the effects budget has been bumped up, with far better looking effects.  There’s even a fairly good-looking fog effect.  The main problem with this half of the movie is that everything just happens so fast.  It’s basically “The contestants run into this one thing, then they run into the next, then the next thing happens”.  And the movie also puts Katniss with other people, which takes away the quiet atmosphere that made the first movie so fascinating and turns it into something more standard.  The second half of the movie isn’t bad, it just doesn’t quite match up to the first half or the first movie.

            Catching Fire doesn’t             quite match up to the first movie, but it’s still interesting and entertaining.  A good enough continuation, if somewhat flawed.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Frozen


Directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck
Written by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and Shane Morris
Inspired by “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen

            Anytime I hear people complain about recent Disney movies, I assume they haven’t seen any of them.  Disney has been on a great winning streak since Meet the Robinsons, and there’s really no sign of them slowing down, especially as they branch out into more genres.  We’ve got a video game movie, an animal road trip, and a time travel adventure, right along the princess musicals which continue to ditch ancient tropes and gain more feminist ones.  And Frozen falls into that latter category with an ordinary Disney plot which takes quite a few liberties with “ordinary”.
            After their parents die (seriously, don’t raise your kids in a Disney movie), Elsa (Idina Menzel) becomes heir to the throne, and at her coronation ceremony, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is excited just to have the castle full of life and the hope of meeting her true love.  But Elsa ends up revealing her magic freezing powers, and in fear, retreats to an ice castle…but leaves the kingdom of Arendelle in a permanent winter, unless Anna, with the help of ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad), a talking snowman, can convince her to thaw the kingdom.
            Frozen’s greatest strength is its eager want to be feminist.  From the beginning, it makes this point clear: the real conflict of the movie doesn’t necessarily come from a villain here.  It comes from the conflict between Anna and Elsa.  Anna is locked out of seeing her sister and believes her sister just doesn’t care about her, while Elsa is left worrying about the dangers of her powers and being seen as a monster.  Their first conversation together at Elsa’s ceremony shows that they’re incredibly awkward together and not really the same sort (right down to Anna’s colorful outfits against Elsa’s more wintery garb), but that isn’t necessarily stopping them from trying to connect.  Elsa ends up being the more realistic of the two, though, knowing that it’s ridiculous for Anna to marry someone the same day she met him but not knowing how to express her feelings.  This is a movie of big snowy landscapes and plenty of silly humor, but the conflict comes down to a surprisingly textured look at two women, and some major moments near the end just help to reinforce that.
            This movie does fall into formula in two notable ways: the comic relief sidekick and the musical numbers.  Olaf fills the role of the former, including his desire to see the summer…without any apparent realization that it will melt him.  He gets plenty of funny lines and slapstick as his body constantly falls apart and gets manipulated.  I don’t really know Josh Gad from anything, but he does a fairly good job here.  The songs here…well, putting it in recent Disney terms, better than Tangled, not as good as Princess and the Frog.  They come fast and frequently enough, especially early on, that there’s bound to be a few you’ll enjoy, a few you could do without.  The two definite best, though, are Olaf’s song, again, all about his desire to see summer, and Let It Go, a showcase for Idina Menzel that boasts beautiful visuals and a Broadway-worthy tune.  Getting it reprised over the end credits is a real treat, and it will undoubtedly be the song of this movie that will be remembered years from now.

            Frozen starts out rather standard and still has some feelings of formula to it, but its well-done character development and feminist themes elevate it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thor: The Dark World


Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Don Payne, and Robert Rodat
Based on characters created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, and Walt Simonson

            The original Thor was one of my favorite Marvel movies after the first watching, but my recent rewatch did highlight some of the problems with it.  Its uneven tone, reliance on slapstick humor, and iffy camerawork stand out more, even if there’s quite a bit of good movie around it.  Nevertheless, I was still excited for The Dark World, partly because I’m excited by all Marvel movies, partly because of Iron Man 3’s wildly different approach to its own franchise.  And while TDW doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it makes the wheel about as good as it can be.
            Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is still doing her own scientific research, and when she finds a strange anomaly in London, she runs into a portal leading to another realm and the aether, a powerful substance which the dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) once used to try to take over all nine realms.  Now Malekith is reawakened, and it’s up to Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Jane, and even Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to stop him.
            One of the themes that seems to be running across the Marvel movies since Avengers is enemies that feel out of place in the world, villains the heroes haven’t prepared for.  Avengers forced normal humans against aliens, Iron Man 3 had a villain that wasn’t another guy in a suit, and here, the dark elves clash with the fantasy aesthetic.  While Asgard’s forces are in armor and fight with swords and spears, the dark elves fly in spaceships, fire laser guns, and throw grenades that apparently warp people out of existence.  And we ultimately expect good to come out of this triumphant, because after all, it’s a superhero movie.  But there’s a dark sense of foreboding throughout, a sense that maybe, just maybe, there’s going to be lasting consequences from what happens here.  It’s not a sense that’s necessarily followed through on (although there are certainly some shocking moments that leave the audience in doubt), but simply having the sense can’t help but change the tone of the movie a little.
            After all, at heart, this is a Marvel movie, and that means big action sequences and big laughs combined together.  And yes, these are some big action sequences.  While previous movies have held off on them and only deliver on them in small doses, Thor fills the screen with some great action pieces.  Standing out in particular are the assault on Asgard and the final sequence, which takes what could be a normal finale and adds in some dimension-hopping action that makes it move even better.  And the humor freely comes in during these moments, not even slowing down the action as it delivers some great jokes.  It creates a movie whose pace falters a little at the start, during some prologue and London-without-Thor action, but once it picks up, it doesn’t stop.  In fact, this may be one of the briskest paces of the Marvel movies.  It’s still a movie that clocks in just under 2 hours, but it’s so exciting it feels shorter.

            Not just another Marvel winner, but a movie that’s even better than the first and shows that Marvel Phase Two is losing none of its steam.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Mara


Written by Brian Wood
Art by Ming Doyle

            Mara is…odd.  Not weird, not bizarre.  I’m forced to think of how I want to even categorize it.  It takes place in a dystopia, but it’s not really dystopian fiction.  There’s some elements of superhero deconstruction, but no more than some standard Superman stories have.  And Mara has its moments of ups, but it simultaneously has its downs which make it hard to say how much I even enjoyed it.
            In a world of constant war, sports have become the distraction of choice, and Mara is one of the best volleyball players out there.  She can carry her team by herself.  And that takes on another meaning when she begins to develop superpowers out of nowhere.
            And I do mean out of nowhere.  I kinda have to spoil something here, but no more than saying that a work has an ambiguous ending: there’s no real explanation for the superpowers.  Or the world.  Or really anything.  You expect dystopian fiction to explain how the world got to the point that it’s at, but it goes no further than “There’s been wars”.  You might expect at least a guess at how Mara got superpowers, but it’s just a mystery that the book doesn’t even make into a mystery.  It’s just…there.  Everything is just there.  Rather than creating a rich world, it creates a world that you want to know more about, but the answer to any question is just a shrug.
            It’s a shame because the book does hit some good points, particularly in its latter half, as it starts to ask the question of whether humanity is good or evil, and Mara’s own personality changes.  Maybe in some world she would be a superhero, but here, she’s just apathetic about doing anything, and the world never gives her a reason to change.  She wants to play sports, but her superpowers suddenly prevent her from doing that.  She ends up distanced from everything.  If there’s one thing that changes this from being a standard superhero deconstruction, it’s that Mara isn’t a violent person lashing out with her superpowers at a violent world.  She’s just a person who wishes she could still just be a normal person.

            Mara uses its themes to make up for what it lacks in world-building.  But lacking world-building still ends up hurting the work, and its pluses can’t quite erase its minuses.  I can’t recommend it, but I also can’t not recommend it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Batgirl Volume 3: Death of the Family


Written by Gail Simone
Art by Daniel Sampere

            If you know anything about Barbara Gordon pre-New 52, or hell, even if you’ve just read The Killing Joke, you know one of the defining moments in her life: the Joker showing up at her apartment door, shooting her in the spine, and leaving her paralyzed, making her Oracle for the 20-or-so years before the New 52 reboot put her back in the Batgirl costume.  But history hasn’t been erased here, and so a crossover with the Joker has big expectations, most of which are met.
            As with the main Batman Death of the Family story, the main appeal here is finding out exactly how twisted the Joker’s current plan is.  Thus, it’s hard to say much about the primary story here without inherently feeling like it’s a spoiler.  I can say that, not only is it appropriately twisted, but it works well as a Barbara Gordon story.  Not only does she get faced with some real horrors and no easy way out, but we see the difference between her and Batman in a situation like this.  Batman may hate the Joker, but not like Batgirl does.  And she gets pushed right to the line of going from justice to outright revenge.  Unfortunately, there’s one major problem: the finale is the same finale from the Batman side.  This means that the story builds up to a climax where either you’ve already read the main Batman part and thus you’ll probably just skip over it, or you haven’t read the Batman part and suddenly you’re moved over to a focus on a different character.  It just feels like a letdown, and I imagine it’s a problem with several of the other crossover books.
            This collection does feature two other story arcs.  One of them is cleanup from the Night of the Owls event.  I haven’t been reading Batgirl or her part of that event, so I don’t know if there was more meaning that I was supposed to get out of this.  It was a nice story, but kind of forgettable, and felt like it ended and then moved on.  The other story arc features James Gordon Jr., who shows up during the Death of the Family part, and Batgirl has to take care of his own plots, which can be just as twisted as the Joker’s.  I don’t know if James has shown up in the New 52 before this, but compared to The Black Mirror, he’s lost the mystery angle of “Is he or isn’t he evil?”  He is very obviously evil here.  But this doesn’t make him any less creepy.  In a book that features a reincarnated super-assassin and THE evil clown, the guy with no villain identity, no powers, just his own warped mind, has one of the greatest impacts, and where the confrontation with the Joker fizzled in the end, the ending to the James arc is stunning.  It’s the kind of moment that makes me want to read more Batgirl just to see the effect the final moments have in the future.  And that’s really good.

            Batgirl’s side of Death of the Family has its flaws which you can really feel.  But when it’s working, it’s working really well.  People who were reading Batgirl before should be pleased, people who came on for the Death of the Family crossover should have plenty of reason to stay.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Earthbound


Developed by Ape and HAL Laboratory
Published by Nintendo
Played on Wii U Virtual Console

            Earthbound’s legacy among Nintendo and RPG fans is downright legendary.  After its downright disastrous initial launch, not helped at all by the release late in the SNES’ life and the odd ad campaign with the slogan “It Stinks!”, the game gathered a cult following.  Across the fan website starmen.net, the high demand for the GBA remake and sequel, and Ness’ inclusion in the second and third Smash Bros games, it was clear that Nintendo must’ve known how much people wanted to see Earthbound again.  But it wasn’t happening, even with the inclusion of the Virtual Console on the Wii.  Until this year, when the game was finally put on the Wii U’s Virtual Console.  And after all the wait (and the $2 price mark-up over other SNES games), can it match up for those who only know the hype, not the game itself?  Oh yes.  It can.
            Ness is an ordinary boy living in Eagleland when a mysterious meteor crashes in his hometown.  Finding a traveler from the future inside, Ness learns of his destiny: he has to go to 8 sanctuaries to collect the power needed to defeat Giygas, an ancient evil which will take over the world in the future if it’s not stopped now.  Along the way, he’s joined by the psychic Paula, inventor Jeff, and the prince of Dalaam, Poo.
            A lot of Earthbound’s charm comes from its fairly unique setting.  It takes what could be a normal plot (travel the world, collect the mcguffins, defeat the ancient evil) and shifts the location.  Instead of a medieval kingdom or a dark future, it’s modern-day America.  Potions are replaced by foods like hamburgers and pizza.  The characters use weapons like baseball bats and frying pans.  The cities range from the smalltown beginnings of Onett to the giant metropolis of Fourside.  And this setting combines with the game’s unique brand of humor.  Nintendo tried to market it as gross-out on its original release, and while there are some fart jokes, it’s not gross-out.  It’s off-beat.  Townspeople are anywhere from normal but quirky to downright strange, especially in some of the game’s trippier environments, like Saturn Valley.  Enemies go from evil taxis and birds to modern art and the famous New Age Retro Hippie.  And they’re just as likely to attack you with standard attacks and psychic powers as they are to furrow their brow or measure something with a ruler.
            The combat system is one of those that’s so simple it makes Earthbound a good beginner’s RPG, but still satisfying enough for longtime genre fans.  The battles are strictly turn-based, none of the ATB system that Final Fantasy and such like, meaning it’s very relaxed.  Each of the four characters has their own abilities and roles, meaning that Paula is the heavy hitter with psychic abilities, Ness and Poo get more of a healing/offense mix, and Jeff has no psychic abilities at all, with his use of items making him potentially powerful, but with limited resources.  The game’s biggest notable feature, though, is the rolling HP meter.  If an enemy does a lot of damage to you, instead of instantly subtracting it, the game “rolls” it down, meaning it can take some time until the damage actually takes effect.  It takes some quick thinking when a character takes a mortal hit, and it’s satisfying when you manage to get a healing spell out before their HP hits 0.

            Earthbound has definitely stood the test of time.  Its clever dialogue and setting and easy-to-learn battle system make it irresistible and unique even today.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Green Lantern Volume 3: The End


Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Doug Mahnke

            It’s pretty incredible what Geoff Johns has done in Green Lantern for the nine years he’s been on the book.  Starting with bringing back Hal Jordan, he introduced the entire color and emotion spectrum of Corps, created huge events like Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night, and basically set the bar high for any writer that follows him.  With The End, his run comes to a close, and it’s a nice conclusion to the ride.
            Following on the events of the last volume, Revenge of Black Hand, the start of this volume sees Hal Jordan and Sinestro out of action, while the Guardians of the Universe are on the brink of destroying everything with their introduction of the Third Army.  And things go from bad to worse when the First Lantern breaks out.  The last hope falls on Simon Baz, a Lebanese-American who’s suspected of terrorism.
            Simon Baz definitely provides a unique viewpoint.  The previous four Earth lanterns were in pretty good circumstances when they became Green Lanterns, while Simon has to deal with government agents who are after him because of the terrorism charge and the sudden acquisition of the ring.  It’s odd that, despite this being a conclusion to a huge run, this is also a strangely good jumping on point in regards to Simon’s story, giving plenty of exposition for anybody who doesn’t know anything about Green Lantern.  And I hope we see more of him in the future.  Sadly, while he is a huge part of the majority of this book, in the final issue, he could basically be replaced with a generic Lantern as more of the focus goes on finishing Geoff Johns’ plot threads, especially in regards to Hal and Sinestro.
            And their relationship is the core here, and has been throughout the New 52 run.  Sinestro’s the easy choice villain for Hal, the yin to his yang and such, but we rarely get as good a look as Johns has given us.  Suddenly, we’ve been able to fully understand him.  Now, most of this does take place in the previous two volumes, but this does come back in a big way in the finale, as Johns puts the finale on his run with their conflict.  In fact, it seems like more of the book should’ve focused on them.  The Third Army is honestly almost pointless, and the First Lantern is a good villain, but not a great villain.  I imagine part of the problem is that both were involved in crossovers with other Green Lantern books—which aren’t collected here.  As the ARC does not collect extra features here, I wonder if the retail version will have a summary of events outside of the main book, which would help fill in the pieces a lot.

            Nonetheless, The End does tell a fine Green Lantern story, has an ultimately great ending, and satisfies on shutting the book on Johns’ run.  The epilogue truly makes the point: the adventures of the Corps will continue with other writers, but this is the end for everything Johns has done. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Toy Story of Terror!


Written and directed by Angus MacLane

            This is one of the years I was really wary about Pixar.  An unnecessary-looking prequel and a Halloween TV special weren’t exactly filling me with hope.  But Monsters U was a success, and perhaps more surprisingly, things stay on the upside with Toy Story of Terror, showing that Pixar can do TV just as well.
            Bonnie and her mom are on the road when an accident forces them to stop at a motel for the night.  The toys go exploring, only to start getting picked off one by one by a mysterious creature.  It comes down to Jessie (Joan Cusack) as the one who has to save them before morning comes and Bonnie leaves without them.
            The focus on Jessie here is a nice change of pace.  The three movies have really been focused on Woody, and while Jessie and Buzz have certainly been major characters, it’s not their journey.  Jessie not only gets some backstory expansion (in particular, looking at the effect that being abandoned in a box has had on her), but she gets to be the actual hero here.  It doesn’t come down to Woody or Buzz or the ensemble as a whole coming together and saving things, it comes down to her own abilities and facing her fears herself.  It’s very well done.
            And it’s just a part of the fact that, even condensed down to 30-minutes-with-ads, Pixar loses none of their touches here.  The story is interesting, and similar to the Small Fry short, shows another side of the Toy Story world which we haven’t gotten to see.  The humor is perfectly done, from jokes regarding new toys that are seen to the toys themselves riffing on a B-movie at the start.  And the visuals have not diminished at all.  I remember with Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda Christmas special, there was something off with the visuals—not quite TV series bad, just not quite movie good.  Here, though, this is as good as any movie Pixar has made.  Of all things, it was a scene in a bathroom that made my jaw drop.  It was just a bathroom, but it was one of the most realistic looking bathrooms I’ve ever seen in an animated movie.  The one flaw here is the use of Mr. Pricklepants as the character explaining all the horror tropes as they apply to their situation.  There’s some humor from it, but it just feels too much like talking down to the audience.

            Overall, if this is the quality Pixar can bring to TV specials, then they can keep making them.  Yet again, they’ve managed to return to Toy Story and keep things fresh, expanding the universe and just making it a franchise that’s clearly loved and cared for by the creators. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Batman Volume 3: Death of the Family


Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo

            For those not in the know on the New 52, it should be noted that one of the big early initiatives was giving many of the books new villains (Darkseid is the only old villain I know of that appeared in an initial arc).  To apparently make a point about this, in the first issue of Detective Comics, Joker got his face cut off.  Of course, old villains came back into the books as they went on, and anybody familiar with the Joker knows that it takes a lot more than losing his face to even make it appear that he’s died to readers.  With Death of the Family, Joker comes back in a big way, threatening to kill off Batman, the Robins, and Batgirl.
            There’s honestly not much to talk about storywise besides what’s already been said.  After all, this is the Joker, and part of the fun of any Joker story is finding out exactly what his plot is.  Yes, he wants to kill Batman, but you’re never entirely sure of what he’s doing.  The book makes sure that most of the information is conveyed to the reader only when Batman knows it, and that means that everything the Joker is doing just seems that much more mysterious.  Even with some side-stories in this book focusing on the Joker, we only get glimpses of how he interacts with the other Bat-villains, not any reveals about his plans.
            What this book does best is reminding us what a threat the Joker is.  Everything he does is meticulously planned, and everything is just as likely to be a joke as it is to be an actual threat.  And what makes him more dangerous than ever here is the information he has.  He seems to finally know everything about Batman, the secret identities of him and the rest of the Bat-family.  And of course, it’s teased whether he actually knows anything at all.  Batman can give everything a logical explanation, but it’s clear that even he’s starting to shake, even he fears that everything he’s built up is just going to crumble down.  Probably no coincidence that this arc comes right after the Night of the Owls, where an urban legend ended up being a major threat to Gotham.  It flipped what Batman thought he knew on its head, and again, the man who prepares for everything suddenly feels like he hasn’t prepared well enough.

            Death of the Family can take a place in the pantheon of great Joker stories.  It’s so easy for him to be overused with little thought, but Snyder has clearly crafted a Joker story built for the clown prince of crime, giving him plenty of new ground to terrorize.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2


Directed by Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn
Written by John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Erica Rivinoja
Inspired by the book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett

            The first Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs seemed like a fairly safe kids movie from the trailers, but managed to win me over with its over-the-top humor and charm that significantly elevated the basic concept of the book.  The second movie brought two worries with it: one being that it’s a sequel, and the other being that Lord and Miller are no longer directing, which can be two major blows against any movie.  Fortunately, Cloudy 2 (mostly) works its humor and charm over once again.
             Starting shortly after the conclusion of the first movie, Swallow Falls is absolutely destroyed, causing the population to relocate.  And Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) even gets a job with genius inventor and childhood hero Chester V (Will Forte).  But the job goes badly, and as things look at their worst for Flint, Chester sends him on a secret mission to Swallow Falls, where the food is still being created—and has evolved into foodimals.
             And the movie gets a lot of mileage both out of the transformed Swallow Falls and the foodimals.  The environment itself is visually stunning.  Realism tends to be tossed out the window, so instead it’s just this fantastical world of food plants and living food.  And the foodimals get a lot of material, from their unique looks to the many puns and jokes the movie pulls out.  And the new team has kept the great sense of humor here.  Some of the jokes would be lame under most circumstances, but they’re delivered with that fun and winking nod that makes you laugh.  And it all goes over the top, such that as the movie gets bigger and more ridiculous towards the climax, it just feels strangely natural.
            The biggest change here is the message, which, without getting into too many spoilers, has changed from the consumerism and gluttony of the first movie—a good idea, as otherwise it would just be repetitive.  Instead, there’s more of a message about environmentalism here.  It generally works, but it does have the same flaw of the first movie: things are so over-the-top that trying for any sort of real world message can just get lost in the shuffle.  The character moments work a lot better, with Flint stuck between his idol of Chester V and his friends.  It lacks the character development that happened in the first movie, but it still works.
            The movie does have its handful of problems, though.  The opening scene is particularly weak, as it recaps the first movie and then repeats a bunch of jokes from the first movie.  It at least gets it out of the way early on, and doesn’t fall into it later.  Well, besides with Brent (Andy Samberg), whose sole joke is that he says “UH OH!” a lot.  And by a lot, I mean going past the rule of three and right into “Yes, we get it” territory.  And finally, there’s the replacement of Earl’s voice, from Mr. T to Terry Crews.  This is a minor problem, as Terry Crews does a good job.  He’s just not Mr. T, and doesn’t have the same effect that Mr. T had.  Honestly, I never thought a movie would lose something without Mr. T, but there you go.

            Overall, if you enjoyed the first movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a perfect second serving.  It keeps the great humor and visuals that made the first one a success, and even its faults don’t stop the movie from being a fun time.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Justice League Volume 3: Throne of Atlantis


Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis, Paul Pelletier, and Tony S. Daniel

            If there’s one thing that Geoff Johns has definitely left his mark on, it’s big comic events.  While Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night certainly had their smaller character moments, it’s the twists, the fight scenes, and the big, memorable moments that make them such enjoyable reads.  Throne of Atlantis doesn’t quite match their scale, but it’s still a big, fun comic.
            A military missile attack gone wrong misses its target completely and hits Atlantis instead.  This causes the Atlantis war protocol to go into effect, with their army led by Aquaman’s brother, Orm.  Now Aquaman has to decide which side he’s on, while Gotham, Metropolis, and Boston are all faced with destruction.
            As should be obvious, while this is a Justice League book, and the Justice League does appear (minus The Flash and Green Lantern, who are busy with stuff in their own books, apparently), this is really an Aquaman story.  You can stop giggling now.  Geoff Johns’ takeover of Aquaman has been pitch-perfect in turning him from a joke into a must-read comic, as he expands on the character and makes him into a true badass—without having to fall on the “beard and hook” crutch that befell the character before Flashpoint.  And part of that is the complexity of the character that he’s developing, especially on being torn between two worlds.  Having to finally make his stand between the world of man and Atlantis is a big moment for him, and what happens in the end of the book will make huge waves (no pun intended) for the character.  And we’re also seeing that, as far as morality goes, Aquaman is as grey as it gets.  So yes, stop the “what is he gonna do, talk to fish?” jokes now.  Aquaman is one of the New 52’s real successes.
            Of course, it wouldn’t be an event comic without some huge fight scenes.  As always, Ivan Reis’ art is perfect for these big, two-page spreads of lots of heroes fighting lots of Atlanteans.  He shows the chaos of the battle without making it confusing for the readers, and he also captures the destruction of the cities well.  There’s a bit of over-reliance on two-page spreads, but then, it’s also built up on, making the battle bigger and bigger as it goes.  I will note that my ARC did not have individual issue credits, so I do not know which issues Reis did and which were Pelletier.  The fact that I could not tell while reading where one ended and another began is probably credit that Pelletier is on the same level.
            Throne of Atlantis also includes a smaller story featuring Wonder Woman fighting the Cheetah, which adds in a few more character moments, including the fact that Wonder Woman and Superman have started on their relationship.  This relationship is pretty controversial, and honestly, I was happier when it wasn’t being brought up.  It’s not necessarily bad, but the story beats aren’t all there to convince me that they should be together.  It still feels very much like pairing the characters together for the sake of it.

            Still, Throne of Atlantis succeeds as being a fun comic, with well-done fight scenes and plenty of Aquaman’s character development.  Whether you’ve been reading Justice League or Aquaman or neither, this is a book worth picking up.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Bandette Volume 1: Presto!


Written by Paul Tobin
Art by Colleen Coover

            There is nothing quite like a fun adventure comic.  The joy the creators had making it, combined with the mix of action and laughs, just makes a comic experience that’s irresistible.  And Bandette certainly hits all the high notes here, with few low ones in sight.
            Bandette is one of the world’s master thieves, easily able to steal whatever she wants, while also turning around and helping out the police officer Belgique when he needs it.  Along the way, she’s managed to anger the evil organization FINIS. This first volume sets up what will apparently be the plot for the rest of the series: “teaming up” (where teaming up really means a competition with the same goal) with another master thief, Monsieur, and stealing the most prized treasures of Absinthe, the leader of FINIS.
            This does mean the first volume might be a little light on plot, since it’s just set-up.  It doesn’t particularly matter.  It’s far too enjoyable to spend time caring about details like that.  Bandette has a purely fun personality, bantering with an assassin who comes after her, seeing very little danger in what she does, and ultimately doing more stealing for good than for evil.  At the same time, when she recovers a set of Rembrandt mini-paintings, she feels free to keep one for herself rather than give them all to their rightful owner.  And it’s certainly reflected in the world around her.  FINIS’ plans all have names like “Operation Kill Bandette” (which she just laughs off), Bandette’s team of helpers are excited just to help her out, and even Monsieur, who tries to be the serious master thief, seems to have Bandette’s idea for a competition rub off on him.  There is some darkness here, though, notably a silly character apparently being killed.  As this is off-panel, it’s hard to judge too much, and could easily be a bait-and-switch on the audience.  Still, hopefully too much more doesn’t happen in that direction, as it would seem to betray the book’s tone.
            This collection is absolutely loaded with extras, to the point where almost a quarter of the book is extra material.  The prize here is the Urchin Stories, a collection of stories about the various side characters throughout the book, most only two pages long.  Since this is a book mainly focused on Bandette, it’s nice to get a look into all these other interesting characters and their own adventures.  There’s a look at some of the things Bandette has stolen, and explaining the real-world significance behind them.  And finally, a sample of the script, and a detailed look at how the art is done.  It’s all good stuff, and if you’re considering buying these comics digitally, the extras may push it into a physical purchase.

            Bandette is definitely a comic to watch out for.  Its many Eisner nominations, and its win for Best Digital Comic, are no coincidence, and if it can keep everything up, it will probably enter the gallery of must-reads.

Monday, September 9, 2013

My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1

    
        IDW seems to love the microseries—a spin-off series from their books which has entirely one-shot issues, focusing on different characters.  The closest I’ve come to it in the past was with Mars Attacks IDW, which was a definite mixed bag.  The My Little Pony micro series collection, Pony Tales, has 6 issues which each focus on a different member of the Mane Six, with the other members only making periphery appearances in each issue, at best.  But just like Mars Attacks, despite the strength of the main series, Pony Tales is a marked disappointment.
            There are some definite winners here, so let’s start with them.  Rarity (Written by main comic series writer Katie Cook/Art by Amy Mebberson) focuses on Rarity being sent to a “health spa”, but ends up doing a bunch of farm work instead.  The plot here works well to contrast the character, and there’s several real laugh-out-loud moments.  Applejack (Bobby Curnow/Brenda Hickey) has a monster stealing the Apple family’s crops and replacing them with squashes.  Its moral is a bit forced, but let’s face it, subtlety isn’t what MLP is known for, anyways.  What stands out here is some well-done art and a nice look at the Apple family as a whole.  This is one of the two stories where no other cast member appears at all, and it works out for the better.  And there’s also a lot of fun with the sound effects (a net being thrown literally gets the SFX “Net sound”).  My real favorite was Pinkie Pie (Ted Anderson/Ben Bates), which has her trying to inspire a clown named Ponyacci not to retire.  This story keeps Twilight Sparkle around, and helps to not overdose the reader on Pinkie’s personality, with the plus of giving her somebody to bounce off of.  And it’s also simply a story that works.  This could’ve easily been an episode of the show.  The humor, the writing, everything just works here.
            But for these three fun stories, the other three are almost a drag to get through.  Twilight Sparkle (Thom Zahler) is at least mediocre, having her work at the Royal Archives with a grumpy librarian.  The twist is predictable (again, it’s MLP, so really, not exactly a mark against it), but there’s some good play between the two.  The biggest problem here is the art—the only issue where it was really a problem.  It’s borderline off-model, with Spike in particular looking much pudgier than he does in the cartoon.  Fluttershy (Barbara Kesel/Tony Fleecs) has her revealing her secret hobby for knitting at an art contest, but being extremely nervous about it.  It just takes too long, and the moral is muddled.  And those two problems remain with Rainbow Dash (Ryan Lindsay/Tony Fleecs).  She has to get rid of a cloud containing negative feelings.  I was done with this one several pages in, and it just kept going on and on.  And while I can chalk Fluttershy and Twilight to “Well, kids might enjoy it”, Rainbow’s shoves a ton of memes that only the older fans would get.  All it does is drag the story down more, forcing eye-rolls at best. 
All three of the lesser stories share the same problem: it’s like a 4-issue story you’d expect to find at the end of an issue, only dragged out to 24 pages.  What could be cute in small doses becomes painful in big doses.  Even the better stories don’t necessarily get past this problem, just hide it better.  Rarity’s and Applejack’s stories certainly have their share of repetition, you just don’t feel it like you do with the other stories.  And also, compared to the main comic, which has bigger stories than you’d expect to see in the cartoon, these feel too much like the cartoon, to the point where they don’t differentiate themselves.

Younger fans will probably enjoy all the stories well enough, but the better three are probably the best bet for older fans or those who want to read them with younger fans.  They have the better writing, the nice morals, and some good humor that the other three stories just lack.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Masks


Written by Chris Roberson
Art by Alex Ross and Dennis Calero

            There is something inherently attractive about hero team-up comics, even if you don’t know a thing about the heroes in question.  Thus why Avengers titles tend to sell well regardless of the team, and why Masks brings together a group of heroes from the pulp era.  But while team-ups generally need to rely on strong characters and story, Masks doesn’t really go past being a cool team-up.
            Taking place in 1930s New York City, Masks starts with a political takeover by the Justice Party, who’s turning the city into something resembling a fascist state.  Masked police officers are arresting people for the smallest of crimes, and everybody is being bribed by the party to keep it happening.  It’s up to The Shadow, Green Hornet, The Spider, a new version of Zorro, and more heroes to come together and stop them.
            The big plus side of Masks is how the Justice Party is used.  They’re a very obvious flip of the coin from the vigilante heroes, and one that’s handled very well.  This only really comes across in the final 2 issues, but when it does come across, it’s pretty hard-hitting.  The standard villain speech of “Join me” has some real weight here that has to be considered by the heroes, and it’s tied in with a message of hope.  That even if there was a Justice Party, there’s a force that would stop it.
            What doesn’t work at all here is the heroes themselves.  I feel no attachment to them at the end of the day.  It doesn’t help that the only one here I know anything about is Zorro, and that’s the classic version.  There’s two big problems here.  The first is that it keeps skipping between heroes, so you don’t get enough time with any of them.  This especially hurts the fringe heroes.  I couldn’t tell you a thing about Miss Fury or The Spider at the end of the comic.  And they’re also just all too similar.  Their smaller differences would surely come out individually, but together, it’s this mass of people that might as well be the same person.  And there’s just not enough conflict within the team that tells me the differences, either.
            One of the other big problems with Masks is how it tells the story.  Constantly, a scene with a character will end with them reacting in shock.  Cut to a different group of characters, cut back, and…we never find out what they were reacting to.  At best, it’s a bunch of guards, which at some point is just status quo.  Setting up cliffhangers that don’t pay off is just cheap.  And finally, there’s the use of Alex Ross on just the first issue.  I have nothing against Calero’s art, but very little can match up to Ross’ meticulous painting.  And it probably takes a lot of work, hence why he only did one issue, but why not just have Calero on the whole series?

            If you’re a huge fan of all the pulp heroes here, then you’ll probably enjoy Masks.  Casual readers can just forget about it, as there’s no reason to care about the people here and not enough identity to them. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Nintendo Land


Developed by Nintendo EAD Group No. 2
Published by Nintendo

            New technology seems to bring on tech demo games, and Nintendo is about the only company that makes these major games for the systems.  Wii Sports was a huge hit, Pilotwings Resort brought back a franchise that hadn’t been seen since the N64, and now Nintendo Land is a system pack-in with the Wii U Deluxe that has 12 minigames (or, as they’re called here, attractions) based on 12 different Nintendo franchises.  So the question is, if you don’t get it with the system, is it worth picking up?
            There’s little if any story to be had here, but there is the hub area for the game.  Instead of having a simple menu where you pick which minigame you want, the hub is an area that features the 12 doorways to the attractions, a tower, a train, Miis walking around (either from Miiverse, or premade ones if you’re not online) and various items you can buy that help populate it.  It is very satisfying to go from an empty area to filling it up with enemies and objects from the attractions, and each one has its own description given by the game’s host, Monita.  If nothing else, having a hub instead of a simple menu gives the game a bit more class and presentation value that bumps up the experience.
            The minigames are divided into co-op, competitive, and single player.  We’ll start with the competitive ones, as these are likely to be the ones that’ll get the family together to play.  They generally follow a similar concept: one side is trying to catch the other side.  Mario Chase is the simplest: the GamePad player is Mario, while the Wiimote players are Toads who have to tag Mario within the time limit.  The game’s simplicity doesn’t stop its franticness, as the Mario player can see everything, while the Toads have to communicate where they’ve seen Mario and judge the distance to figure out where Mario is.  Luigi’s Ghost Mansion bumps it up a bit, placing the GamePad player as a ghost who has to hunt down the Wiimote Luigis, who are armed with flashlights.  Extreme paranoia runs rampant here, as the Wiimote players have nothing but vibration to judge if the ghost is nearby, and the flashlight runs out of batteries after a while.  It’s tense, and the various levels manage to ramp up the difficulty appropriately.  Finally, there’s Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, where the Wiimote players are animals who have to run around and collect candy, while the GamePad player controls two guards simultaneously to track the animals down and tackle them.  Having to control both guards adds a level of complexity and tactics that’s a lot of fun, and the animals have to choose whether to risk getting in one place to get higher-value trees, along with the fact that eating more candy slows them down. 
All of the competitive games are fun, but there’s a strange sense of game balance.  For one, the games use bigger maps with 3-4 Wiimote players than with 1-2, but that generally turns out alright.  If it ever ends up as 1v1, though, the GamePad player can just forget about it.  Mario Chase adds Yoshi carts which hunt the Mario player down and stun them, giving the Toads an easy victory.  Sweet Day has places where the animal can deposit the candy, losing the main difficulty for them.  And Ghost Mansion adds a computer-controlled Monita player with an unlimited flashlight for each human player that isn’t there.  Not too bad with 3 Luigis, but with 1, it becomes a game of avoiding the Monitas.  If you’re going to play any of these games, you need at least 3 people, with 4 or 5 being ideal.
The co-op games are more intense than the competitive, ramping up the difficulty and seeming to aim more for the “core” audience.  Pikmin Adventure is the simplest, which has the GamePad player as Olimar and the Wiimote players as Pikmin.  You run around with a top-down view, fight enemies, and collect power-ups and nectar to level up.  It certainly doesn’t match the actual Pikmin, but it’s a fun pick-up-and-play experience, and easily the one you can share with the less experienced gamers.  The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest is an on-rails shooter/slasher, where the GamePad uses a bow-and-arrow, while Wiimote players put their MotionPlus on for a sword and shield.  If you enjoyed the 1:1 sword motion in Skyward Sword, there’s plenty of it here, but simply going through wave after wave of enemies does get tedious after a while, especially with a shared life meter and some copy-pasted environments.  Along with the co-op quest, there’s also a bow-based time trial mode.  Metroid Blast is probably the closest thing in this collection to what could be a standalone game.  Not a retail game, but a $10 download, certainly.  The GamePad player takes control of Samus’ ship, while the Wiimote players are Samus herself, as you fight off enemies in an arena setting.  This is an honest third-person shooter, no on-rails, an actual experience.  It’s not much more than that, but it’s very fun and exciting.  This also comes with two competitive modes, a ground-vs-air mode and a free-for-all of the ground players.
And finally, we get to the biggest mixed bag of Nintendo Land: the single-player games.  Let’s start this off with one simple fact: with 6 multiplayer games which range from good to excellent, why they felt the need to stuff the rest of the collection with single-player games is beyond me.  Considering that the GamePad player has mainly been staring at the GamePad up until this point, it seems like this is where the gimmicks come out that use it and the TV together.  For instance, Yoshi’s Fruit Cart displays the fruit you have to pick up and the hazards you have to avoid on the TV, while you have to use landmarks on the background to draw a path with the GamePad.  This stands out as one of the weaker games in general, with its slow pace and generally tedious gameplay.  Balloon Trip Breeze fares better.  The TV shows a zoomed-out view, while the GamePad is zoomed-in on the player, as you swipe through spikes and enemies and float your way from island to island.  Having to look down on the GamePad to tap things adds some franticness, and in general, it’s just a fun little game.  Octopus Dance is a rhythm game that has you copy an instructor as you move your arms with the control sticks and tilt the GamePad.  I love rhythm games, and this is a solid one, that’s just difficult enough.  Captain Falcon’s Twister Race makes you tilt the GamePad to lead the Blue Falcon around obstacles.  It’s nice enough, although the difficulty ramps up fast and there’s little leeway in terms of the time.  Donkey Kong’s Crash Course is the single-player winner, as you tilt the GamePad to lead a weird contraption through obstacles.  It’s hair-pullingly difficult as you get used to what you’re doing, and yet you can’t help but say “One more try”.  And finally, there’s the single player loser, Takamaru’s Ninja Castle.  This definitely falls under “Did this really need the GamePad?”  You use it to slide ninja stars and defeat ninjas.  It’s like a rail shooter made unnecessarily difficult, as the sliding motion is tedious and will likely hurt your hand.  And ultimately, this could be done with a WiiMote.
Even with some fun ones in the single-player games, there’s still some big problems throughout.  For one, they’re way too short.  After you beat them, you gain extra levels for next time, but you have to go through the old content first and it never changes.  If there was a corridor of spikes in Balloon Trip, it’ll be there every time.  Next, properties just seem oddly used.  Yes, there’s shades of this in the other games, but it really comes out when you could’ve removed Donkey Kong’s name from Crash Course, and it wouldn’t have mattered that much.  Not to mention there’s some obscure properties here.  Ninja Castle is based on a game that was never even brought to America, and meanwhile, Star Fox and Pokemon get left out completely.

Overall, with the first-year drought of games coming to a close, Nintendo Land’s usefulness might be ending soon.  However, as a collection of a few fun games to play with family and friends, it’s worth getting, and it’s always nice to play with the GamePad before the big stuff comes along. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hellboy: The Midnight Circus


Written by Mike Mignola
Art by Duncan Fegredo

            I love Hellboy.  The many comic series that have built up the long-lasting story have stayed consistently entertaining, the movies have both been a good time, and the games…er, forget about those.  So I was excited to read the original graphic novel, Midnight Circus, but something here is missing.
            The story here focuses on a young Hellboy, who runs away from the BPRD and runs into the Midnight Circus, which is run by demons, and from there…well, things get fuzzy.  Don’t get me wrong, there have been some trippy moments in Hellboy stories in the past, but what exactly happens here is hard to determine.  The references to Pinocchio are interesting, but at the same time, Hellboy doesn’t really have a lot in common with Pinocchio.  And there’s foreshadowing that seems to carry little meaning besides being heavy foreshadowing.  It’s a story where things happen, and in a way, these things are interesting, but at the end of the day, I could not write you a logical synopsis.
            And yet, “things happen” is still a fascinating thing to happen to Hellboy.  If nothing else, knowing the pure weirdness he would encounter in the future, this seems like a spot where Hellboy is first thrust into what he’s going to spend the rest of his life fighting, and he reacts about how you’d expect a kid to react.  It’s interesting to see a different side of Hellboy, who isn’t yet all-powerful, but is still just a kid who has a tough destiny ahead.  The other real strength of this book is Fegredo’s art.  As always, I’m a little disappointed that Mignola does the cover when the interior is a different artist.  At the same time, Fegredo masterfully takes control of things.  In particular, there’s the art changes between the normal world and the Midnight Circus.  I had to check to make sure it wasn’t two different artists, and having it as just one is very impressive.

            So Midnight Circus isn’t quite a perfect story.  Even with the hard-to-understand story, there’s enjoyment to be had here.  But at the end of the day, there’s better Hellboy stories. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask


Developed by Level-5
Published by Nintendo

            Professor Layton is one of those series that just keeps going on, not reinventing itself, just adding new puzzles, and continues to be a joy each time a new installment comes out.  With the 5th installment, and the first 3DS installment, Layton still shows no signs of slowing down, even if some of the new features don’t work out.
            Layton (Christopher Robin Miller) along with his apprentice, Luke, and assistant, Emmy (both voiced by Lani Minella), have come to the desert town of Monte d’Or, which, in a fairly small amount of time, has gone from nothing to a thriving tourist city.  Unfortunately, a mysterious figure known as the Masked Gentleman has appeared, and is performing “miracles” that involve things such as turning people to stone.  Naturally, Layton has to solve the mystery—and it all connects back to a tragic event from his past.
            The story continues to be one of the strong points of the Layton series.  It’s intriguing, making you want to find out the answers to the mysteries, and full of good characters who you like to see pop up.  Even the characters who you talk to just to get a puzzle to solve are interesting characters.  The story’s real twist here, as opposed to other Layton games, is the flashbacks to Layton from 18 years ago.  Layton’s past has been touched on before, but we get to see more of him and his childhood here, at a time when he didn’t even like puzzles.  And, just like in Unwound Future, bringing the plot to something that personally affects Layton gives it more of a human touch that the Professor can sometimes be missing.  Also, don’t worry if you haven’t played any Layton games before: even as the second game of the second trilogy, the plot stands well on its own.
            As always, puzzles are the currency of the day in the Layton world.  From sliding puzzles and a variation on the block-jumping solitaire to brainteasers and logic problems, Miracle Mask is filled with plenty of the usual suspects, but they are enjoyable as usual.  There’s some of the old hat that should surprise nobody, but there’s also some new tricks, like dividing a chessboard of pawns, that haven’t been seen before.  The game does try a few new things along the way, and, well, it’s a bit mixed.  For one, there’s some puzzles that seem too focused on the new 3D graphics rather than actual difficulty.  Guiding a ladybug through a maze is hilariously easy, and its variation doesn’t get any harder.  But there’s also new gameplay entirely.  An early part has you riding through the city on a horse, and an action-oriented scene like that doesn’t have any place in the calming Layton universe.  Some of the other puzzles also rely on things that are moving while you’re trying to think, which generally just makes things unnecessarily difficult.  There’s also a chapter that focuses entirely on dungeon-crawling, with the puzzles involving defeating mummies and pushing blocks around.  It’s entertaining for a while, but starts to wear out its welcome by the end of the chapter.  When the characters wonder if there could be 100 floors, you’ll probably reel in terror.

            Still, Layton with a couple problems is still Layton, even with its problems.  Longtime Layton fans can mark this as a must-buy, and those new to the series can consider this a good place to start.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monsters University


Directed by Dan Scanlon
Written by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert L. Baird

            I think it’s pretty obvious from my Cars 2 and Brave reviews that Pixar’s work post-Toy Story 3 hasn’t quite matched up to their finest efforts, and from all the trailers to Monsters University, it looked like they were going to continue down the road of unremarkable work.  I’m happy to say I’m wrong on that one, as Monsters U is a definite return to form.
            Mike (Billy Crystal) has wanted to be a scarer since an elementary school field trip, and is willing to do whatever it takes to become the best, studying hard at one of the best schools, Monsters University.  Sulley (John Goodman) is planning on coasting through scare classes on his father’s name and his natural scariness.  When they both get in trouble, they make a wager with Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that if they win the college’s Scare Games, they get to stay in the scare program, but their egos end up clashing along the way.
            One of the things the movie really does well, especially comparing against Cars 2, is a successful perspective shift.  Monsters Inc was about Mike and Sulley in a sense, but really, Sulley was the main character.  Monsters U transfers the main character status over to Mike, and manages to bring him past the basic neurotic/sarcastic image from the first movie.  Instead, we really see the road that led Mike from wanting to be the best scarer to simply being the assistant to the best.  And it’s satisfying.  The big trick with a prequel, any prequel, is giving the audience something they can’t figure out from the start.  So of course Mike and Sulley are going to end up as best friends, they’re going to work at Monsters Inc, Randall is going to hate them, etc.  But Monsters U actually makes that journey worth seeing, especially thanks to a series of plot developments in the final act that leverage the predictable-looking plot into something better, with a strong moral that should successfully resonate with those who saw Monsters Inc as a kid and are now in college.  Maybe not Toy Story 3-strong, but it’s still a wise case of knowing how the audience has and hasn’t changed.
            And one way that nobody’s changed is the sheer joy at being in the monster world.  Maybe it’s because most of the other Pixar movies take place in a human world that might peel back a layer, but doesn’t really take us to an absolutely unnatural world.  And while Monsters U is certainly a familiar atmosphere, the monsters and their lives are so different that the small details of the world Pixar has put in are always great.  And Pixar also uses their different lives for the best effect in gags.  A multi-armed monster during exam week is holding several cups of coffee.  The fraternities and sororities in the Scare Games are filled with memorable monsters and jokes, even with their fairly limited individual screen times.  In general, there’s just a great new cast of characters here, with very little reliance on Monsters Inc cameos.  The members of Oozma Kappa, the lame fraternity that Mike and Sulley end up joining, are equal parts pathetic and likeable.  You start out laughing at them, and by the end of the movie, you’re laughing with them.

            Monsters U isn’t quite Pixar’s best, but it’s back to the level where Pixar’s less-than-best was still great.  It’s a good sign, to be sure.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Lost Weekend


Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson

            Sometimes, an attempt to make a movie about a social issue can turn out laughably bad in the future, if not at the immediate point it’s released.  Reefer Madness is still hilariously inept, and the many shorts on Mystery Science Theater and Rifftrax often have ridiculous morals.  It’s ultimately rather shocking that The Lost Weekend handles its subject of alcoholism so smartly that, close to 70 years later, it’s still relevant.
            Don Birnam (an Academy Award-winning Ray Milland) is an alcoholic whose brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) are trying to get him to go on a weekend retreat to the countryside.  Don skips out, though, and ends up on a drinking binge that sees him constantly spiraling downwards.
            What makes the story work so well is the simple fact that Don is the only one who can help himself.  Everybody around him is trying to help him.  Helen has stayed with him for 3 years trying to fix his alcoholism.  A visit to an alcoholic ward in a hospital has a sardonic nurse doing his best to help Don, even with the many people around them who have been there since prohibition.  Even Nat, the bartender at the bar Don frequents, has his small moments of trying to give Don just a little bit of help.  But nobody can stop Don except Don.  And he simply does not know how to stop, he only knows how to go to lower points.  He goes to a fancier bar and ends up short on money, forced to try stealing from another patron.  A writer, he desperately searches for an open pawn shop to sell his typewriter.  He believes that there’s two Dons, the writer Don and the alcoholic Don, and the latter frequently threatens to eclipse the former.
             The movie could easily threaten to turn into one note over and over again, but it keeps finding new ways to turn, new ways for Don to find himself lower than before.  This is bolstered by expert camera work throughout.  As Don searches for a bottle of rye he knows he bought, the light he hid it on is framed in the background.  Don’s search through the city to find an open pawn shop is a series of cuts between closed doors, street signs that show how far he’s going, and Don’s own frantic persona.  And even a cheesy special effect of an obviously fake bat can’t kill the effect of the violent scene that follows.  At some point, nothing can slow this movie down, right to its ending, which stays suspenseful and, even with its Hays-Code-forced hope at the very end, still has touches of the real-life darkness that this movie exists on.

            The Lost Weekend holds up really well, creating a movie that is suspenseful and shocking, losing none of the edge from its initial release when alcoholism wasn’t talked about in movies.