Tag: Reviews

Insufferable is Awesome

I got a Nexus 7 for Christmas. As you might expect, the first thing I did was root it. The second was to get all my usual apps -- E-Mail, RSS, emulators -- set up and working. The ones I'm used to from my phone.

But the third thing? Comics.

I've been very excited about Mark Waid's digital comics endeavors for years now. He gets it. Release your books in DRM-free standard formats, and treat pirates like they're potential customers instead of treating your customers like they're potential pirates.

In a nutshell, I'd been waiting to get a tablet just for the opportunity to see what it was Waid was up to.

Well, for starters, his books up on thrillbent.com are just straight-up free downloads.

Want to download all of Thrillbent's marquee book, Insufferable, by Waid and artist Peter Krause, for free? (Hint: yes. Yes you do.) Here's a simple, handy bash script to do it:

for((i = 1; i <= 9; i++)); do wget http://www.thrillbent.com/cbz/insufferable/Insufferable_0$i\_Mark_Waid_2012.cbz; done for((i = 10; i <= 34; i++)); do wget http://www.thrillbent.com/cbz/insufferable/Insufferable_$i\_Mark_Waid_2012.cbz; done

And presumably next week #35 will be out with a "2013" in place of that "2012" in the filename and it'll go on from there.

From a nuts-and-bolts storytelling perspective, Insufferable is a perfectly compelling superhero book. It's a Batman pastiche, but I happen to like Batman pastiches. (I often say that my all-time favorite Batman comic is Astro City: Confession.) The setup here is, loosely: What if Nightwing was a total douchebag?

It follows that moment of the sidekick -- named Galahad, in this case -- striking off on his own, no longer able to work with his mentor (Nocturnus). And Galahad isn't the class act that Dick Grayson is -- he's an insecure, spoiled celebrity. Nocturnus, meanwhile, has seen better days; he's something of a has-been and is now superheroing on a budget.

That, by itself, is enough for an intriguing, human superhero yarn. Insufferable would be a thoroughly enjoyable book on the strength of good old-fashioned traditional comic book storytelling.

But instead, it innovates. Waid and Krause make a point of doing things with a digital comic that can't be done on paper. Frames appear one swipe at a time; characters' facial expressions change. In one case, Nocturnus does the classic Batman entrance -- in one panel, the room is empty; swipe your finger and suddenly he's just there. As Galahad rides off after the bad guy, he receives a tweet making fun of him. Swipe and a few retweets appear over the scene; swipe again and the screen starts to fill with them.

Waid discusses these techniques in a recent Robot 6 interview. He cites the master, Bernie Krigstein, as his greatest inspiration in thinking of panel composition as a tool for pacing.

Waid's got the right idea, and it almost always works. As I read Insufferable I keep thinking of how smart he and Krause are in their use of these techniques, how they're not flashy and they're not there just for the sake of Doing Something Different; they actually serve the story in a way that -- while original -- has its roots in decades of traditional comics.

For my money, there is one example where it doesn't quite work: repeating the same panel exactly. I get what they're trying to do -- hell, where would Bendis be without that technique? -- but while you can repeat a panel exactly on paper as a pacing tool, it throws me to see it in a digital comic. There's a simple UI design reason for this: when a user interacts with a program, the program is supposed to do something. If I swipe a page, I can't tell the difference between "the same panel repeats" and "nothing happens". My first thought isn't "Oh, that's a beat", it's "Did I not press hard enough?"

There's a simple solution -- just change something, anything, in the panel. Make somebody blink, or change a facial expression slightly -- anything at all to give the user some sort of feedback that yes you turned the page and now this is the next image.

But you know, the occasional false note is the price of innovation. Yes, I found something small that, in my opinion, doesn't quite work in Waid and Krause's book. But there's so damn much that does work, and works astonishingly well.

I've said before that now is the best time to be a comics fan. Insufferable is one more example of why. Go give it a read -- it won't cost you anything and I think you'll be glad you did.

I haven't gotten around to the other Thrillbent books yet, but I intend to. But first -- well, it's Wednesday. I've got some traditional, paper-and-toner-and-staples comics to go pick up.

Wreck-It Ralph: Fuck the Haters

Finally got around to seeing Wreck-It Ralph today. And I must say, it was great; one of my favorites of the year.

I'd braced myself, based on reviews, for a movie that went off the rails after the first act and descended into poop jokes, product placement, and a completely different character's arc -- and an ending with a lousy message. But that's not how I read it at all; spoilers follow.

I'll grant that there was product placement -- hell, the climax revolved around Mentos. And there were poop jokes -- because it's a kids' movie with Sarah Silverman.

And the ending -- Ralph goes back to being a bad guy but now he enjoys it? I guess I can see how some people thought that betrayed the story's premise. Hell, I'd have figured they'd go the route of Ralph's clear inspiration, Donkey Kong, and make him a hero in a sequel.

But you know, there is something to be said for the message: you may have a lousy job, but you can find ways to make it better. There's a bit of Camus's Myth of Sisyphus to it; Sisyphus may not have a choice in how he lives, but he does have the freedom to feel however the hell he wants about it. (And it doesn't hurt that Ralph's coworkers finally start treating him right.)

I'll also grant that the movie spends an awfully long time in Sugar Rush, but the game proves to have a pretty rich set of environs after all. Indeed, it almost feels like they cheat a little bit, like there's a whole lot of stuff in there that doesn't belong in a racing game.

Then again, maybe it's a franchise. Maybe it's like in Mario Kart 64 where you can go off the track and ride right up to the castle from Super Mario 64. Maybe Sugar Rush is just one piece of a larger world. Don't know -- but it's even fun thinking of examples of games that make this idea make sense.

And as for Mario Kart, the racing sequence really does a wonderful job of evoking it. The tracks have a lovely design, familiar but different, and beautifully realized.

For all that, I'd almost grant that the movie peaks early, in its opening act -- except that my favorite part was the credits.

On the whole, sure, it's not perfect -- it's probably not even my favorite animated movie of the year. (Maybe my third, after Pirates! and ParaNorman. Yes, before Brave -- though Brave would be #4.) But you know, it's a movie that steps into the shared-franchise space of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Toy Story and actually manages to be a worthy entry -- maybe not as good as those two, but that it can even stand in the same league as those giants says a lot.

Razors Reviewed, Revised

I previously posted of my experience with a variety pack of double-edged razors I bought from Amazon. I divided them into two simple categories, good and bad.

Now that I've used them all (except the Merkur) a little bit more, I have some revisions to offer.

Merkur

Previous Verdict: Nice Clean Shave

Revised: No revision; I only had one Merkur blade. Standing by the original review; it was a nice clean shave.

Blue bird

Previous Verdict: Nice Clean Shave

Revised: My second experience with the Blue bird wasn't as good. Some skin irritation. Not bad, but not as good as the first time around.

Bic

Previous Verdict: Nice Clean Shave

Revised: My opinion is unchanged. Bic is the best of the lot. The way things stand now, when I run out of all these razors I want to buy a bulk pack of Bic.

Astra

Previous Verdict: Nice Clean Shave

Revised: Round two with the Astra wasn't bad, but I'm going to have to revise the "nice clean shave" claim. In fact I'd say it's the least close shave out of all seven razors; I spent twice as much time going over my face several extra times to get rid of my stubble. On the plus side, it didn't irritate my skin; it's not a bad razor but it's not great, either.

Shark

Previous Verdict: Cut the Hell Out My Face

Revised: Oh my, no. Shark remains, far and away, the worst of the seven; as its name implies, it is a savage, bloodthirsty monster that will rip your flesh to shreds. When it wasn't making me bleed, it was raising bumps all over my face from irritation and ingrown hairs.

Gillette

Previous Verdict: Cut the Hell Out My Face

Revised: Not so bad the second time around. Not as smooth an experience as Bic, but pretty good; definitely a better razor than I gave it credit for the first time.

Feather

Previous Verdict: Cut the Hell Out My Face

Revised: I have nicked my skin more with the Feather than most of the others, but on the other hand it feels smoother and shaves closer. On the whole I guess it's the opposite problem from the Astra.

Summary

Interestingly enough, on further review my Best and Worst razor remained the same, while all the others sort of converged toward the middle. A median with a couple of outliers -- the statistician in me is pleased.

Concerning Hobbits

Well, I really liked The Hobbit. Though I'm a Tolkien geek (let's go through the list: read all the appendices in LotR, read The Silmarillion twice, Unfinished Tales, both volumes of The Book of Lost Tales, and The Lays of Beleriand; I've got a couple more books in the set that I haven't gotten around to because you can only read so many different versions of The Children of Húrin before you need a break) and I can understand the mixed reviews from people whose hearts aren't filled with joy at hearing Gandalf's semantic deconstruction of the phrase "Good morning."

Let me start off by saying, I saw the IMAX 3D version, but not the HFR version -- my local IMAX is still equipped with a film projector, no digital. (As such I didn't see the Star Trek feature or any trailers, either.) So I can't speak to HFR. The comments I've heard from family who have range from "It didn't make much difference" to "It gave me a headache, and the CG characters looked great but the human actors looked terrible."

All that said: there are plenty of other eccentricities to the film, and while I think they all come out okay, I can see why there's disagreement.

(Spoilers follow. Though I think they're pretty minor, all things considered.)

Foremost, It's the first of three three-hour movies adapted from a book that could be comfortably translated to 90 minutes.

And, related, it achieves that length by padding it out with tonally-inconsistent material from other books.

Much of which includes appearances by characters who aren't in the book, most of them from the LotR films.

Truth be told, I'm okay with all those things.

First: the reality is, while The Hobbit the book is a standalone novel which was published prior to Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit the films are prequels to an already-successful movie trilogy. There are different expectations here -- and for continuity's sake, the audience wants to see familiar actors reprising their roles.

That said, none of it felt tacked-on to me. Even the framing sequence with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood -- well, okay, so it seems to imply that Bilbo wrote the whole book in a single day and that seems pretty nutty, but aside from that, it provides a sense of continuity with the LotR films, and also allows Holm to narrate the Dwarves' backstory.

Which I suppose brings me to the point of extraneous material: while this film pads out The Hobbit with material from other books (mostly Unfinished Tales), it adapts that material faithfully. There are some liberties here and there (like the White Council meeting in Rivendell instead of Lothlórien), but on the whole it's true to the backstory that Tolkien wrote.

And the thing is, considering The Hobbit as prequel instead of a standalone work, it's important to include the portions of the story that lead into Lord of the Rings. The Necromancer in Dol Guldur? Not only does that story lay the groundwork for LotR, it's also central to Gandalf's motivation. Why is the world's greatest wizard interested in thirteen Dwarves' quest to slay a dragon? Because he doesn't want Sauron to have a dragon. In The Hobbit as a standalone work, that's not really important -- Gandalf's just a mysterious and eccentric old wizard -- but coming from Lord of the Rings first, people are bound to wonder just what he's doing with Thorin's company, and where he's going all those times he wanders off. (And I'm hoping the sequels delve a little deeper into his meeting with Thráin.)

And to that end, bringing in Galadriel and Saruman for a powwow isn't just a tacked-on scene -- it's part of Gandalf's story. And moving it from Lothlórien to Rivendell makes good narrative sense. Plus it gives the movie a chance to depict Elrond in a way that's more consistent with Lord of the Rings -- because let's be honest here, in the books Elrond in The Hobbit and Elrond in LotR may as well be different characters.

(Poor old Christopher Lee, by the way -- he's really not looking so good. And am I correct in thinking he was green-screened in and wasn't even filmed in the same room with the other three actors? Nevertheless, it was good to see him and I'm glad he was in good enough health to shoot the scene.)

The downside, I suppose, is that it does bring in those tonal inconsistencies I mentioned. The Hobbit is a children's fairytale, while Lord of the Rings is an epic myth. They're very different books, written for different audiences -- and the movie version of The Hobbit tries to be both.

Personally I think it succeeds -- I think it does a great job of mixing the light elements of the Bilbo story with the darker ones of Gandalf's, and the Dwarves' backstory -- but I'll acknowledge there's something regrettable about a Hobbit movie that you wouldn't want to take your kids to see, lest the on-screen decapitation of Thrór give them nightmares.

That said, I'm perfectly all right with the trolls resembling the Three Stooges and the Great Goblin being a disgusting, bullfrog-throated wretch played by Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries. There may be some fans (casual or Serious) who don't care for those depictions, but I think they fit the story just fine.

And then there's Radagast. His part of the story is probably the biggest departure from Tolkien's work, but, perhaps not coincidentally, was my favorite. Sylvester McCoy plays him as a wonderfully batty character who is nonetheless wise and compassionate -- not to mention a damn fine wizard. And Gandalf's respect for him, and Saruman's lack thereof, perfectly encapsulate the difference between those two characters: Gandalf sees the value in those who seem humble, meek, weak, or just plain weird, while Saruman's arrogance blinds him to the nature of true power. It's the same mistake he makes in judging Hobbits (though that's got the added dash of hypocrisy that he's quite happy to drink their wine and smoke their pipe-weed).

Which I suppose brings me to another criticism: We've seen this all before. Bilbo's opening narration about the fall of Erebor mirrors Galadriel's narration about the fall of Sauron in Fellowship of the Ring; the battle outside the gates of Moria looks an awful lot like that battle, too. (An aside: nice touch having Balin tell the story of the Dwarves' attempt to recapture Moria. I'm guessing most of the audience won't make the connection to Balin's Tomb in Fellowship, but it's a good bit for the fans.) The escape from Goblin Town is like the escape from Khazad-Dûm re-staged as a comedy. Hell, they even work Weathertop in there.

So, for all of that, I can see how this movie can feel like more of the same -- redundant, maybe even unnecessary.

But for my part, it didn't seem that way -- in fact, I'd say I really enjoyed the hell out of it.

Django Unchained

Nobody makes a revenge flick like Quentin Tarantino.

And nobody makes a movie with racists as the villains, while simultaneously having just a little too much fun depicting racism, as Quentin Tarantino.

Frankly I think reviews are a little superfluous. Quentin Tarantino is a known quantity. If you've ever seen one of his movies, you have a pretty good idea whether or not you're going to like Django Unchained. And if you haven't seen one of his movies, go watch Pulp Fiction.

Doctor Who: Inferno

Originally posted brontoforum.us, 2008-12-28.


Inferno, it turns out, is another great Pertwee serial that is available through Netflix (disc only, no streaming).

Essentially, it's like Mirror, Mirror, except instead of Spock with a goatee, it has the Brigadier with an eyepatch.

It's a little long (could be one episode shorter -- he spends the entirety of the first episode in the parallel universe trying to explain to everyone that he's from a parallel universe), but really it runs at a great pace overall and has a whole lot more action than most Who from that period.

The parallel universe is used to good effect, emphasizing characters who are much different (the Brigade Leader is a coward hiding behind his gun and his rank) as well as characters who are more or less the same (the pompous Professor Stahlman, who would doom the world rather than take a blow to his ego, and the dashing Greg Sutton, who defies him), with companion Liz Shaw somewhere in-between.

The best device, IMO, is that in episode 4 or 5 the Doctor outright tells the parallel cast that they're screwed and past the point of no return and there's nothing he can do for their world, but that he can still save his own, leaving several episodes for the parallel cast to come to grips with their certain impending doom and react accordingly.

The "there are some things man wasn't meant to tamper with" premise is stale, but works well for an apocalyptic "Earth ends in fire" story -- the ending of the penultimate episode, with a wave of lava coming toward the cast, is cheesily green-screened but nonetheless makes a striking image.

The finale is another episode that could safely be chopped in half, but it mirrors the events of the parallel world, with slight changes, satisfyingly. The ending is vintage Third Doctor, with the Doctor and the Brigadier butting heads and then one of them forced to eat crow.

The transfer has all the usual flaws I've now come to associate with Pertwee-era serials, an often-grainy picture and occasional wavy lines. I watched one episode (3 or 4) on an SDTV and it was a lot less noticeable.

There's also a second disc with extras on it; I assume they're neat but I'm not going to bother.

All in all, classic Who; worth renting, worth buying. (It does help to have a cursory background knowledge of the Third Doctor's setup, that he's been exiled by the other Time Lords and trapped in 1970 London, and that at this point he's trying to fix his TARDIS so he can travel again. Probably good to check out Spearhead from Space first, and maybe The Silurians. The Ambassadors of Death, the serial immediately preceding this one, is out on DVD now too, but I haven't seen it yet.)

Dragon Quest 1&2 SFC

I've occasionally been poking through the Super Famicom remake of the original Dragon Quest on my cell phone -- you know, when I've had downtime and haven't had my PSP or DS or suchlike with me.

First of all: man, onscreen D-pads suck, even for games that require as little precision as DQ. I have to savestate-spam just to get around the outside wall of Rimuldar without accidentally walking out.

Second: there's so much that's wonky about the interface of this remake. The stupid little half-steps you take instead of moving a full tile at a time, the bizarre decision to stick the action button on X and leave the menu on A (something they stuck with on up through 7 on the PS1!)...frankly I'm almost inclined to tip the Game Boy remake as the superior version of the game despite its inferior graphics and sound, just on its smoother interface.

(Also I recall the GB version having a more charming translation. I probably snorted out loud in class when I took the Princess to an inn and the keeper remarked the next morning that we'd sure been up late last night.)

(Yeah, I played Dragon Quest in class for most of CSE122. If you'd ever tried to sit through a lecture with that instructor, you'd understand.)

Doctor Who: The Green Death

Originally posted brontoforum.us, 2008-12-03.


The Green Death is pretty good. By-the-numbers story, with too much wandering around in caves and futuristic businesses, but the Third Doctor and the Brigadier are in top form, and the villains are pretty awesome too.

The environmentalist bent to the story is obvious but still takes a backseat to rubber monsters and an evil computer. It does do a decently fair job of setting out the green-versus-labor dilemma and pit the down-to-Earth miners against eccentric hippie scientists, with the Brigadier somewhere in the middle, ever the pragmatist. It also strikes a chord in that the evil polluting corporation is so powerful that it has the full support of the PM, and in one scene the villain threatens to have the Doctor (I think it was the Doctor) arrested under the Emergency Powers Act.

There are some problems with the transfer in places -- I streamed it, so I'm going to chalk all the artifacting up to that, but there are bits where there's flickering light at the bottom of the picture and a couple of places where it looks like the master tape was crinkled. Nothing deal-breaking.

Anyway, it's become one of my two favorite Pertwee serials (the other is Inferno); must-see (streaming on Netflix!) and worth buying.

Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet

I am very tired, so here's another old Doctor Who review. Originally posted Brontoforumus, 2008-11-18.


The Pirate Planet is not what you expect either from the title or for the writer (Douglas Adams). The pirates are not of the traditional variety (though the leader has robot parts), are never referred to as pirates, and it is unclear until halfway through or more why the serial is called "The Pirate Planet".

But all that's part of a series of mysteries in the serial that are quite cleverly revealed. Some are obvious, others (why do gems fall from the sky right before the stars change?) are not.

Adams crafts a story with far fewer laughs than you would expect, but it's quite clever and plays out at a good pace, and features an interesting cast of characters (particularly the villains). As usual, he wears his environmentalist cred on his sleeve, but uses it in a way that makes the story interesting.

For $11, it's on the "worth owning" list.

That said, I have zero interest in watching the rest of the Key to Time Series. I've already watched 200 minutes of a collection quest; I don't really see following the remaining 450. Frankly, as much as I love Baker I think I'll take a break from him, maybe watch some more Pertwee or Davison.

Tron Lives

Tron: Uprising is like an amalgamation of all my favorite cartoons from the 1990's.

Like Batman Beyond, it's the story of a familiar character, a shadow of his former self but still formidable, training a brash young successor.

Like Sonic the Hedgehog, it's the story of a small group of rebels waging an asymmetric war against a ubiquitous technocratic dictatorship.

And like Beast Wars, it uses the fact that its characters aren't actually human as an end run around standards and practices in order to be the most violent children's cartoon on television.

Seriously, it turns out that if you change "kill" to "de-res" and change blood to little blue cubes, you can show a dude with half his face cut off and the outline of an eyelid still blinking over an empty eyesocket. Game of Thrones wasn't that graphic when Tyrion took an axe to the face.

Also: Fred Tatasciore's impression of Jeff Bridges is uncanny.

Anyway, in case you haven't caught the show yet, here's the first episode (which thetvdb classifies as a "special" instead of the first episode, thus offsetting the numbering of every single episode by one -- so thanks for that, thetvdb). It's hosted on the official Disney XD channel, so that means it's not liable to be taken down any time soon, but also means it's probably region-locked -- sorry 'bout that.