Tag: Reviews

Spoilers

There's recent research indicating that people who know spoilers ahead of time actually enjoy them more than people who are surprised -- that anticipation increases satisfaction.

This was -- and here's where I start to get a little pretentious -- this was the view of the ancient Greeks at the very dawn of theater.

(Did I just spell "theater" with an "-er"? Guess I'm not being that pretentious.)

When I was a freshman in high school, we read Oedipus Rex in English class with my favorite teacher. He told us the twists upfront: that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. Of course, the whole play is a mystery about Oedipus slowly piecing together the clues toward that ending.

One of my classmates indignantly asked the teacher why he told us the ending before we read it. The teacher responded, "Because the audience in those days would have already known too."

Sophocles, I think it's safe to say, understood storytelling. He understood suspense. And he understood that it's entirely possible to build suspense even if the audience knows what's going to happen.

And at this point I offer a Warning: The rest of this post is written around major spoilers for both Game of Thrones the TV series and Song of Ice and Fire the book series. Including bits that haven't been on the show yet.

Of course, if you believe what I've just said in the preceding paragraphs, you'll keep on reading anyway, spoilers or no.

I've spent the last week and a half or so catching up on Game of Thrones. But I already knew, with a couple of exceptions, what was going to happen, as I'm already all caught up on the books.

So I knew about the Red Wedding. I knew what was going to happen. I anticipated it.

And it was still affecting as hell.

Whether it was more enjoyable than the first time, more enjoyable than reading it -- well, that's an interesting question.

I will say that there was a lot less confusion in watching it as a foregone conclusion.

The big bits in the books, the shocking parts, the stabby parts -- I find that I wound up going back and rereading them, several times, to make sure I'd really read what I'd just read. Ned's death, the Red Wedding -- and here's the part where I get into stuff that hasn't happened on the show yet, so this is your final warning --, Joffrey's death, Jon's stabbing -- my reaction to those was, as much as anything, Wait, what? I had to go back, read it again. Particularly with Joffrey's death -- I had a feeling that the other three examples I've just given might happen; certainly there was plenty of foreshadowing that something bad was going to happen -- but Joffrey's death caught me completely by surprise. (Perhaps because it's also the only major twist in the series that gives readers something they want instead of hurting them.)

Watching it on TV, knowing what was going to happen -- it increased the air of foreboding, the grim knowledge that the outcome was inevitable. I clenched my teeth, clutched the arm of the couch, and caught every single little bit of foreshadowing as it built.

And speaking of Joffrey's assassination, every bit of foreshadowing lands harder knowing that it's coming. Margaery Tyrell and the Queen of Thorns feigning friendship to Sansa is that much more cruel, knowing that they're not merely pumping her for information but setting her up to take the fall for his murder.

Then again, I also paid special attention to every change, every surprise, every moment that wasn't in the books. Robb's wife being stabbed repeatedly right in the belly -- Jesus Christ, that may have even topped the book for gruesomeness. Grey Wind dying in a cage instead of putting up a fight. Catelyn killing Lord Frey's wife instead of a handicapped grandson. Roose Bolton being the one to kill Robb himself, rather than just sitting back and watching. Every alteration was that much stronger for being unexpected -- and I think the biggest question in my head right now is how Shae's story is going to turn out, since it clearly won't be the same way as in the book. (Though, on the other hand, it could simply be the obvious -- Tywin finds out about her and makes good on his threat. Which unfortunately would leave us without the last interesting little twist we learn about Tywin, but I think that ship's already sailed.)

It is, as you'd reasonably expect, hard to quantify something like enjoyment. But I think good stories are ones that don't rest entirely on twists and can still be enjoyed even if you know what's going to happen. Indeed, I'd sussed out who Jon Snow's real parents were by the end of the first book, but that hasn't decreased my anticipation for the big reveal when it comes.

Bender's Back, Baby!

"Guess this is your lucky day, Pimparoo."

That would have been my one-sentence reaction to the returning Futurama, but then the third act happened. (I haven't watched Fry and Leela's Big Fling yet, just 2-D Blacktop.)

There are a lot of great Futurama episodes. The best have an emotional core to them -- Jurassic Bark, Luck of the Fry-rish, Godfellas. Other great episodes experiment with the format of the show -- any of the Anthology episodes, for example. (Well, I wouldn't describe the Holiday Spectacular as great, but all the rest.) Some are deftly-written time-travel stories, like Time Keeps On Slippin', Roswell that Ends Well, The Why of Fry, Bender's Big Score, and The Late Philip J Fry. Some are biting political satire, like any episode with Nixon in it. And some of them do clever things with the medium of animation -- like Reincarnation. And this one.

The Professor's hypercube was a nice touch. The Mobius strip played with the concept a little more. But the actual segment where they're caught in the Second Dimension is fucking ingenious. The writing -- the Professor explaining how everything works here -- is brilliant, and the design is even better.

This is an episode that did immensely fucking clever things with science fiction and with animation. I've never seen anything quite like it -- the closest thing I can think of is Homer3, which played on the same premise in the opposite direction.

The show's had its ups and downs. But as this just-started thirteen-episode run is the last we'll be seeing of it for awhile, it's great seeing it fire on all creative cylinders and do shit that I've never seen it or any other show do.

Also: the latest issue of the comic is legitimately great too. Zoidberg becomes unstuck in time and has to prevent a catastrophe from happening while still trying to piece together just what exactly is going on.

Newsroom

I never got around to watching West Wing, but I know Aaron Sorkin's work well enough to say yup, Newsroom sure is an Aaron Sorkin show.

It's a show where snappy patter gives way to self-congratulatory political bombast; it's probably the most sanctimonious liberal wankfest you'll find on TV now that Olbermann's gone. And I say that as a liberal, a guy who generally likes Olbermann, and for that matter somebody who's been enjoying The Newsroom. Mostly.

But man it does get pretty over-the-top.

And that's when I like to picture Jeff Daniels with frozen snot caked to his face and his piss-soaked pants stuck to Jim Carrey. It helps to deflate the hot air a bit.

The show's also written around not one but two (and, spoiler alert, three by the end of the first season) annoying damn will-they-won't-they office romances: one between the two principals, and another between a couple who bear at least a passing resemblance to Jim and Pam on The Office.

And when I say "at least a passing resemblance", I mean the Jim Halpert character is named "Jim Harper".

He's not as fun as Halpert, though. He's more of a joyless workaholic who nevertheless is more appealing than Not-Pam's current boyfriend. While Not-Pam is less charming than Pam, makes poorer life decisions, and is frankly a little dumb in a way the show repeatedly plays for laughs. In short, the whole thing reeks of the network demanding that the writers stick some romantic tension in between all the political monologues, and the writers put about as much effort into it as changing "Halpert" to "Harper" would suggest. ("So, 'Poochie' okay with everybody?")

In their defense, they know it. There's a whole episode devoted to how the show-within-a-show has to cover Casey Anthony because it's getting clobbered in the ratings by focusing on shit that's actually important instead. The message is pretty clear: look, sometimes you have to put crowd-pleasing bullshit on your show to get people to watch the important parts. And I have faith that the writers are smart enough and have a strong enough grasp of irony that the connection is intentional.

Hyrule: Just Visiting

As I've said before, the upcoming Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has me torn between excitement and cynicism. I see stuff like this

and there's a part of me that's giddy in spite of myself -- I feel excitement at how good this game could be, and trepidation at how mediocre it will probably be.

Jeremy Parish, who played the demo at E3, wrote a piece called Yoshi and Zelda Demonstrate the Trouble With Playing It Safe which articulates my concerns about the game perfectly: so far it seems to be running on nostalgia, a glitzy cover tune lacking in the genius of the original.

Could be it's just a professionally-created fangame.

So what happens when you do get a professionally-created fangame based on A Link to the Past?

As it happens, there is one: The Legend of Zelda: Ancient Stone Tablets, a game for the Japanese Satellaview add-on.

It's about what you'd expect from a modestly-talented developer playing with the LttP engine: the pieces are there but they just don't fit together as well.

First of all, there's the exploration. Good big chunks of the world are covered by Fog of War as the game begins, and it doesn't feel like the world opens up naturally to you as you go so much as that you're ushered through it region by region. Part of this is simply the nature of its design -- it was designed to be played across four days, with each day revealing a different portion of the world map -- but, well, just because there's a design constraint giving it a good reason to feel confined doesn't make it feel any less confined.

Indeed, from pretty early on you're encouraged to make use of instantaneous travel rather than encouraged to hoof it across Hyrule before being given the keys to the ocarina.

But if the overworld doesn't seem to offer much that's new, the dungeons just seem perfunctory.

They're shorter, they're smaller, and they're a lot more straightforward. The puzzles are simple (though in at least one case the "push a block down a hole" bit is implemented much better than its original use in LttP's Ice Palace, one of the weakest, most convoluted puzzles in the game -- though it at least rewarded players for taking the levels out of sequence), and the thematic elements of the dungeons are gone, replaced with a weird sort of mishmash of different tilesets and bosses. Why the fuck does the Water Temple look like the East Palace inside, and have the sandworms from the desert level as its boss? Who the fuck knows?

It's not that I haven't had a bit of fun playing Ancient Stone Tablets. It's like a cover tune on open mic night -- it's fun to hear somebody new try out your favorite song, even if they're not as good as the original band.

But I haven't had any great urge to finish it, either.

Guess we'll see how the new game goes. Maybe it'll be a lot more ambitious than it looks.

Or maybe it'll be pretty much a remake with less-inspired level design. That would be a shame -- but it'd still probably be worth playing through once or twice.

Star Trek into Idiot Plot

Major spoilers follow, I guess, albeit mostly stuff everybody's been expecting since roughly the end of the last movie.

So let me get this straight.

Eric Bana travels back in time and kills Kirk's father.

And this causes Ricardo Montalbán to turn into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Did that happen 300 years prior to the era Bana actually traveled to, or did it cause an already cryogenically-frozen Ricardo Montalbán to turn into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Like, was he really surprised when he woke up?

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the real Khan to be the guy in the pod they had to open up to save Kirk.

I mean, it's not like the plot reasons for Khan's ethnicity and national origin changing are that important. There is a rather strong argument to be made against the Hollywood trend of recasting minority roles with white guys (and no, trolls, casting Laurence Fishburne as Perry White is not "the exact same thing", because you see making a film's cast more diverse is not the exact same thing as making it less diverse), and, moreover, there are some rather regressive overtones in making the ultimate genetic model of a human being a pasty white guy. But as for the plot reasons? You could really handwave all that stuff. Whatever; it's just a movie; they recast the guy. Don't think too hard about it.

Which would be much much easier to do if the last act of the film weren't spent beating you about the head and shoulders with Wrath of Khan references.

After the first couple, I thought, You know, I'm getting way more out of this than people who haven't seen Wrath of Khan recently.

By the end of the film, I thought, You know, they're much happier for not getting all those damn references.

Hell, I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud when Spock yelled "Khaaaaaaaaaaan!"

Anyway. I'm a casual Trek fan. I've seen a few episodes and movies here and there; I generally enjoy them.

I can definitely see the fans' gripes that the new movies are dumbed-down action flicks -- but what the hell, they've been pretty entertaining, and impeccably cast.

I still love Benedict Cumberbatch. Even if I don't think they should have cast him as a Mexican.

Welcome Back to Astro City

One morning when I was fourteen years old, my uncle asked me, over Sunday breakfast, if I'd heard of Astro City.

"It's great," he told me. "There's this kid who comes to the big city because he wants to get a job as somebody's sidekick."

"Sounds like something out of The Tick," I said.

"Kind of," he responded, "except that it's played totally straight."

So I picked it up, and Uncle Jon was right -- it was wonderful.

I don't remember if #4 or #5 was my first issue, but in short order I'd bought all the back issues too, including the trade of the original miniseries. I haven't missed an issue in the 16 years since. And most of them have been downright sublime -- while, at worst, some were merely all right.

Astro City has disappeared a few times over the years, usually owing to writer Kurt Busiek's chronic health problems. Yesterday, after a nearly three-year hiatus, it relaunched with a new #1. And it was delightful.

Straight away we're introduced to a new character (though one, Kurt teases, who we've seen before) called the Broken Man. He looks like Bowie in Labyrinth or Dream in Sandman, and he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly as he narrates the rest of the issue.

And what an issue it is. It's new-reader friendly and makes for a great jumping-on point -- but it still manages to pack plenty of nods in for the old fans. Brian Kinney, the kid who came to Astro City in 1996 to become a sidekick? He's in there. And some other familiar faces are too.

It feels like going home. It feels like checking in on old friends you haven't seen in years. And there's only one other comic book that makes me feel like that: Love and Rockets. I think it takes a pretty specific set of variables -- a strong, singular vision by the same creators over a sustained period of time, who are willing to let you feel that passage of time as their characters grow and age, and who are confident enough in their world-building that they can take a break from the same old characters, explore the world, and check back in on the old cast a few years later.

Reading Astro City is like coming home. There's a purity to it, and a joy, and an earnestness. In a time when the superhero genre and superhero fandom are dominated by cynicism, Busiek, Anderson, and Ross aren't afraid to show a world that's bright and full of wonder. And to tell a story that has a complete beginning, middle, and end all in one issue, even if it is Part One of something.

It's not entirely free of irony -- the Broken Man makes a crack about the previous story arc a couple of pages in that made me laugh -- but it's cheerful. It's a book that remembers that superheroes can be both fun and awe-inspiring.

Or not. Because, as much as anything else, it's also a book about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives in an extraordinary world. Regular folks, going to work, living their lives, raising their families.

And that's why Astro City struck a chord. And why it continues to resonate, two decades in. The title aside, it's not really about the city -- though the city is certainly important -- and it's not about superheroes -- though they're pretty important too. It's about people.

And in the new Astro City #1, Kurt Busiek delivers a solid story, with faces new and old, new mysteries, and the prospect of plenty of adventure to come.

As for Brent Anderson, he's really hitting his stride again too. I was a little disappointed with some of his recent work as he began experimenting with digital inking, but in this issue he's back to his crisp old self. His Samaritan, in particular, is a joy to see again, and he handles the rest of the sizable cast with aplomb. Whether he's doing an action scene or just swooping in on an ordinary family, he keeps the action brisk and dynamic. And I'm particularly fond of the new, Kirby-inspired alien character who shows up near the end of the issue.

Ross's cover (I got the "main" one, I guess?) is great as always, but this time it's more remarkable for its composition than for its detail, as 2/3 of it is the dark shape of two doors opening out on the world. It fits the story nicely -- both reflecting the mysterious door as a focal point, and drawing attention to the reader looking in on this world from outside, another key element of the story.


So, by all means, go out and buy the new Astro City #1.

And in the meantime, the original, 1995-vintage Astro City #1 is free on Comixology.

If you want a few more recommendations, my favorites are the first three trades, Life in the Big City, Family Album, and Confession. You can read them in any order (chronology is important for the later ones, namely The Dark Age and Shining Stars, though those appear to be out-of-print at the moment anyway).

And while I urge you to support your local comic shop or independent bookseller, well, if you'd rather do the Amazon thing here are some links that I'll get a kickback on:

  1. Life in the Big City (original miniseries -- 6 self-contained issues)
  2. Family Album (ongoing series #1-#3, #10-#13 -- some self-contained issues and short story arcs)
  3. Confession (ongoing series #4-#9, a single story arc, plus a short story from #1/2)
  4. Tarnished Angel (#14-#20, another arc)
  5. Local Heroes (#21-#22, the eponymous 5-issue miniseries, the Supersonic one-shot, Since the Fire 9/11 tribute -- mostly self-contained single-issue stories; I think there's one two-parter in there)

...and from there it looks like kind of a mess, with The Dark Age and Shining Stars apparently out of print for the time being. I'm guessing that'll change soon; maybe I'll update this post when they're easily available again. Meantime, it looks like the individual issues are pretty easy to get ahold of.

Anyhow, all this to say...I love me some Astro City, and the new #1 did not disappoint. I'm glad it's back.

Go Team Venture

I just watched the season premiere of The Venture Bros.

Not only was it worth the wait -- now that June is here, I'm glad it was delayed. Because not only was it worth it, now I've got something to watch as all my other shows are wrapping up their seasons.

Venture Bros. is certainly one of the smartest, and may indeed be the best show on television.

Mark my words: the show will have the legacy of a Buffy or an MST3K: a show that seems, deceptively, like it's just a novelty, but when you scratch the surface shows that it is deceptively intelligent and truly unique. A show that, on those strengths, attracts a cult following, and in the years to come gains recognition as a treasure and a high water mark of the medium.

A decade from now there'll be college courses taught on The Venture Bros. Hell, Todd Alcott's analyses are halfway there already.

I can't think of another show that's quite so fearless in constantly evolving and changing its status quo -- and in simultaneously painting its characters in an unflattering light. One or the other, sure -- but both?

Not bad for a show that, at first blush, looked like it was just a cute little Hardy Boys/Jonny Quest spoof.

And which is still that, too -- and does a fucking great job of it.

Rapture of the Nerds

Rapture of the Nerds is about what you'd expect from a collaboration between Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow: brimming with big ideas, clever in the technical details, a little on the unfocused side when it comes to actual storytelling.

I enjoyed it. Didn't care much for any of the characters, but I don't think you're supposed to. Some of the plot developments were predictable, many weren't; in at least one case a Chekov's Gun feels like it doesn't quite fire, but for the most part the authors do a great job of following up on the plot threads they start. The climax is clever if, again, unfocused and over too soon.

Well, I guess this makes for a somewhat unfocused review lacking in followthrough, too, which is appropriate enough -- I thought I had more to say but I guess I don't, and anyway I'm tired. The book's well worth a read, and since it's creative commons you can read it for free and then decide if it's worth more than that to you.

Free Comic Book Day Musings, 2013

A highlight reel from the last couple days on Brontoforumus:


The Tick

(Originally posted yesterday, 2013-05-05.)

The free Tick is pretty great but makes a basic storytelling mistake in not introducing the supporting cast. I know who Tick and Arthur are, but Bumbling Bee and Rubber Ducky aren't referred to by name until pages 12 and 13, and they never say Cod's full name, unless Cod is his full name.

I know there's a general backlash against techniques like the 1960's era of characters all addressing each other by name on the first couple of pages, and the 1990's method of just having each character's name appear in a caption when they first appear, but there are still ways to integrate it organically in the story. Arthur addresses Bumbling Bee as "Bee" several times in the first few pages, and she later tells Cod she wants to "meet up with Ducky". Those could trivially be changed to the characters' full names without seeming out-of-place.

And again, Cod is referred to as "Cod" exactly once in the story, and I assume that's one more shortened name.

For all that it's still a perfectly fun Tick comic. Arthur gets a vacation, Tick gets an undersea adventure, there are hijinx with the other heroes, and eventually Arthur gets to save the day. It's enjoyable. I would buy more Tick comics if they didn't charge seven bucks for 20 pages. And I heartily recommend the Complete Edlund collection, even though it is really pricey for its quality of materials. ($35 for B&W on newsprint -- but you will definitely get $35 worth of enjoyment out of it. I keep meaning to do a full writeup of it.)

The backup stories and prose sections aren't bad either. But given the latter's repeated reference to how this is bound to be some people's first Tick comic and be introducing people to these characters for the first time, it's that much more baffling that they dropped the ball on actually introducing the characters.


Superman

(Originally posted yesterday, 2013-05-05.)

DC, of course, has spent the past two years on a big relaunch, where its continuity is fundamentally changed and all the characters are redesigned.

And so, for the Free Comic Book Day issue of Superman, which is likely the first Superman comic many people have picked up in years, if not ever...

...they reprint the Donner/Johns/Kubert issue from, what, 2006, 2007, that introduces Chris Kent.

Lois still knows Superman is Clark Kent. They're still married. His costume still has red trunks on it. And the story is best-known for the introduction of a character who was written out pretty soon after, who nobody really remembers, and who sure as hell doesn't exist in the New 52.

But we can't have Stephanie Brown appear in Smallville, because that might confuse people.


Star Wars

(Originally posted earlier today, 2013-05-06.)

The Free Comic Book Day issue is pretty much the perfect little Star Wars story: somebody for some reason decides it would be a great idea to fuck with Darth Vader, and then learns that it really isn't after all. Also Boba Fett gets to shoot some dudes.

I think it's Wood's best Star Wars comic yet; all of my complaints about the pacing-for-the-trade present in the main series are gone here, it's over and done in pretty short order.

It's so easy, after the last 4 movies, to think of Vader as a gigantic pussy. This comic doesn't just play him as a stone-cold badass, it actually uses his engineering talent cleverly too (spoiler: as he's crawling around the outside of the ship, his would-be assassin tries to jump into hyperspace -- but Vader's already destroyed the hyperdrive with his light sabre).

Anyway. It's free (though you've gotta sign up for an account); it's well worth reading. It comes with Avatar (the Last Airbender) and Captain Midnight, too; haven't gotten around to reading those yet.


Digital Freebies

(Originally posted earlier today, 2013-05-06.)

Anyhow, for those who missed FCBD, Bleeding Cool has a list of freebies available at Comixology, the Dark Horse store, and elsewhere. No Tick, sadly, but definitely check out Star Wars.

KDE under Mint

Still sitting up in the ER with my wife. She's sleeping and I've nothing else to do, so here goes, a post about my ongoing Mint experience that I mostly banged out yesterday:


I've got KDE running under Mint, behaving mostly the way I like my desktop to. There are a lot of fiddly little things that just don't work quite right for some reason -- Alt-Tab works, but Alt-Shift-Tab doesn't; the taskbar is just slightly too big and I can't drag icons to reorder them even though it's explicitly set to manual order; the themes are all slightly off from what I'm used to (Oxygen is too bright and Oxygen Cold is too dark); and I'm typing this in gedit because Kate won't let me type in documents where the lines go above a certain number of characters. I'm sure all these problems are fixable -- and hey, maybe if I'd just installed Mint KDE from scratch instead of starting with Cinnamon and then adding KDE, I wouldn't have had them in the first place --, but it sure has been a fiddly pain in the ass.

In short, despite the problems I've had with it, I'm inclined to believe the hype that OpenSUSE really is the best KDE-based Linux distribution.

So for now I'm keeping it installed, running updates from a chrooted YAST every day, and hoping one of them will eventually fix the damn thing.