Monthly Archives: November 2009

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

I visited my parents over the weekend, since my schedule is about to be in flux and it seemed like a good time before the flux takes hold, plus the holidays and all. So I spent just about the whole of Thanksgiving break with them, except that I worked on Friday. That’s nice! While there, I inadvertently treated them to a full-length, multi-hour cinematic extravaganza in the form of a Playstation 3 game. After the success of my recommending Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune when he bought the system and wanted something to play on it (not that he actually plays much of anything, but, you know)[1], he picked up the sequel a few weeks ago. And what began as a way to pass a few hours Saturday night quickly turned into a full weekend obsession during which I played the last third of the game for four hours past when I had planned originally to leave, because I was just sure that the climax was right around the corner, and I didn’t want to make them wait weeks for the conclusion and have time to forget what was going on.[2]

If you’re picking up on an undercurrent of admiration for the game’s writing and seamless graphics in that description of my weekend, well, you’re not imagining it. As to the latter, the only real difference between playing the game and watching its gorgeous cutscenes is that the game-play has fewer close-ups. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves picks up explorer Nathan Drake some brief years after the events of the previous game, convinced by shady friends to join in a search for Marco Polo’s lost expedition, a journey that will take him from the jungles of Borneo to the dizzying heights of Tibet and Nepal, not to mention deep into the legends surrounding Kublai Khan. Along the way he’ll crack wise, make lots of new enemies, and see lots of new ancient ruins! It’s good stuff. But on top of that, the writing is not merely good in and of itself, as it was last time; it actually takes note of the past and uses it. If I had been on the fence about the loss of meaningful breast-motion physics from the Lara Croft games to the Uncharted series, I no longer would be in any measure. I care about these people, and want to know what’s going to happen next. That I also get to play a video game along the way? It justifies the expense, but other than that, it’s purely bonus.

[1] V nz chggvat guvf va ebg13 fb ur pna’g frr vg, ohg V cerqvpg V trg n pbzzrag sebz uvz gung ur qbrf fb lhu-uhu cynl Unyb fbzrgvzrf. (Nyfb, vs V’z evtug nobhg gung pbzzrag bppheevat, vg vf yvxryl gb nfx jung guvf tvoorevfu vf nf jryy.)
[2] To be fair, this applies to me as well.

Ninja Assassin

Here are the things I learned while watching Ninja Assassin[1]:

1) Human bodies are basically overpressurized bags of blood that will explode at the slightest provocation.
2) Europe has a severe ninja infestation.
3) Ninjas are like cockroaches: for every one you see, there are at least a dozen you don’t.
4) Ninjas are like cockroaches: they really hate it when you shine lights on them.
5) Ninjas will kill anyone, as long as you pay them with one hundred pounds of gold.
6) Ninja stars[3] are every bit as cool as you thought they were when you were eight.

[1] There really was way too much plot getting in the way of my chopsocky, at least for the first third of the movie. But, okay, a ninja with a troubled past[2] and a precocious (let’s say) Interpol analyst team up against ninja hit squads and the police, on a quest for bloody revenge.
[2] I mean, more troubled than that; like, take ninja as the troubled baseline, and then adjust from there.
[3] No, not shuriken. These were definitely ninja stars.

Ultimate Annuals Volume 1

The reasonably self-explanatory first volume of Ultimate Annuals collects the annuals from each of the main comics in the Marvel Ultimate line-up. An annual, if you’re not familiar, is a extra-large comic published outside the monthly run, sometimes used as the climax of or opening to a major storyline but just as often not very relevant to the immediate continuity. Though, Marvel being who they are, continuity is generally king. The downside to these books is two-fold, in that 1) most of said annuals have already been produced in their respective series, and 2) one of them has not, so I needed the book anyway. Far easier than finding and sorting an actual comic in the middle of my graphic novel shelf, and probably not that much more expensive, used. So, that happened.

However, reading so much material I’ve seen before, and some of it recently, did free me up to pay attention to other concerns, such as the artwork and each story’s place in the arc. So, there’s a Fantastic Four story in which the Inhumans are shoehorned so that they can be seen, and I guess that is my problem with a lot of what I read of the Ultimate Fantastic Four run in the first place. The lack of consistent writer over any period of time made it so that a lot of what I read failed to engage me on a new coolness level, instead of the baseline “I recognize that!” level. Plus, in this case, the art was just distractingly bad. (Not to my taste, if you prefer.) And then there’s an X-Men story that checked in on Rogue, Gambit, and Juggernaut, and it was a pretty good one that did shift things around some and matter later, but felt maybe a little rushed. And then there’s a Spider-Man story that I read in literally the most recent Spider-Man book, and while the story itself was sweet and funny and seems like it will matter for at least the next while, the art was distracting there too, not for being bad, but for being even marginally different after so much consistency throughout the USM run.

And finally, the Ultimates story that I had not read before. By now I was already paying attention to the art, but I think I would have anyway, because it was so distractingly familiar. Finally placed it, same guy that did the art for the Preacher series. His style definitely fits the Ultimates, so that was alright. The story was Nick Fury unravelling a few layers of his ongoing plans, which mostly involve improvements to superhuman defenses and the political fallout from that, but also touch on his ongoing suspicions about Henry Pym’s loyalties and his worldwide search for evidence as to the life or death of Bruce Banner. ‘Cause, for serious, the Ultimates books have always been less “super” and more “spy/political”, and I once more avow my almost certainty of re-reading that entire sequence before I get to the build-up to Ultimatum, probably sometime next year?

Takeaway lessons: 1) Rereading comics can be pretty okay. 2) I allow myself to re-use words with distracting frequency, if I decide they have become thematic rather than merely indicative of vocabularic deficiencies. 3) That Ultimates series just keeps on delivering, but is somewhat more dense compared to the other series, and thus needs more contemplation. 4) Amount, quality, or newness of material have no particular bearing on how long I’ll keep nattering about them, and it’s mostly down to my writing mood when I sit down.

Fables: Homelands

As the Fables world grows to include more and more key characters, some are falling into the background to make way for the rise of previously bit characters. And certainly the tone is changing away from the noir feeling of the early volumes as the stories start to grapple not just with events involving the fable characters, but with their overarching histories and futures. Or maybe it’s just that recent political upheaval is what has pushed Bigby Wolf and Snow White off the main stage, and the tone change is down to their absence as well. I figure it might be both, but I’ll have no way to really know until the Wolf is back and the noir returns, or doesn’t.

Homelands focuses on two characters over another handful of quickly passing years. In the opening, Jack Horner, and the Beanstalk, etc.[1] hatches another scheme for riches and fame, with better than usual success. It may be my independent knowledge, but it very much felt like Willingham saw that Jack was his for-fun character and didn’t really fit the flow of the main Fables story, and this was an explicit way to put him in position for the spin-off series, Jack of Fables, which I will begin reading relatively soon in the sequence, I think. And then in the main part of the storyline, Boy Blue infiltrates the fallen Homelands on a daring quest to rescue his love, save his best friend’s life, and with a little bit of luck, unmask and assassinate the Adversary himself! If that sounds pretty cool and exciting, well, sure enough, Fables keeps on delivering. And if you expect it to keep on delivering in ways the characters (and sometimes readers) cannot hope to foresee, well, that just means you’ve been paying attention.

[1] They’re all the same Jack, you see.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Silver Sable

As promised, a long overdue return to my graphic novel sequence! I’m still gradually catching up with the Marvel Ultimate series; the book I’m reading right now… is not the book I should be reading right now, apparently[1]. Son of a bitch. On the bright side, none of that has any effect on this particular review. And it’s not like I’m ever caught without a backup book in this kind of situation, it’s just frustrating to break order yet again, when I’m only finally getting back into it! So, I guess I’ll start over? Right, then.

That guy Spider-Man, yeah? He has been having a rough couple of months. He lost two close friends right in a row and then had to[2] break up with his girlfriend, and all the while the villains are mostly getting cannier. Plus, enough people have seen his face that if they all got together they could work up a composite and start putting him on milk cartons. When you get right down to it, it’s really about time he caught a break. And, well, that actually sort of happens in Silver Sable. I mean, on the one hand, he is being stalked by one of the pre-eminent bounty hunter types in the world, and that’s not so great. But for once, the chaos surrounding Peter Parker is really not of his own making, not even indirectly. Plus, as the X-Men had previously spoiled for me (since I’m reading a little bit out of order and all), he has a new girlfriend who is far less likely to be killed as a result of Spider-Man’s interference in a normal life. All in all, the book is a humor-centric piece of breathing space amid the various tragedy and drama in Peter’s life. And I’m glad; as well as Bendis handles the drama, it was starting to get a little oppressive in here! …though I can’t help feeling bad for Mary Jane.

[1] It was supposed to be Ultimate Annuals. I instead have Ultimate Annuals 2. And I’m really not sure how my filing system allowed it to happen!
[2] Had to? Plausibly yes. He certainly did, regardless.

Under the Dome

41PZik3LNWLAs with the majority of Novembers in my adult memory, there’s a new Stephen King novel on shelves. Less usually, I got it for about 75% sale at Amazon, because apparently they and like Wal-Mart are in a weird book price war right now for best-sellers? At that price, I’d have bought it unemployed without blinking. (I guess technically I did, since the pre-order was placed just before my start date, last Monday.) In the subsequent week and change, I have read Under the Dome. Don’t worry, I’m finally reading graphic novels again, the schedule will resume normalcy at this time.

The premise is simple, and I think that simplicity is where the genius of the book lies. Imagine a small town, full of people who are good, bad, and indifferent, corrupt and pure, power-hungry and service-minded. Any small town will do. And then, cut that town off. Completely, and in some cases, literally. Under the Dome is about that: about the people on the outside who want to find a way to help; about the people on the inside who want nothing more than to get out and get on with their lives; about the not entirely stable people they could be trapped with; and about the people who only see an opportunity for greatness. Aside from King’s reliable eye for characters, what struck me most about the book was the breakneck pace. Not even halfway through the book, and it already felt like the inevitable decline and fall of Chester’s Mill, Maine was hurtling toward me faster than I could turn the pages. The last couple of days’ reading was actually stressful in some ways. (Not that I minded.)

In the end, the only complaint I have is about the Dome itself, and I don’t really know of a way around it. People will naturally want to know how the Dome got there and why, and I know the question had to be answered. But I submit that this misses the point of the book, and if there were a reasonable way to pretend that its origin could be ignored, it should have been. The book is about people who are trapped, people who are concealed from the eyes of the world and from its external consequences, and the way they behave in these extreme conditions. And that part was golden, and it filled up probably a thousand pages of excellent literature. So, there’s that going for it! (For the record, I am more or less satisfied with the origin story part; it’s just I know some people will not be. I may not have been, if I had actually cared at all? No way to be sure, I expect.)


So, the Mayans, right? I’ve been keeping an eye on this calendar thing since way before it got trendy. That said, I’m glad it got trendy, because how else am I supposed to get a gem of a movie like 2012, in which the world is destroyed non-stop for two and a half hours? In case you have managed to miss the media blitz, it goes like this. The Mayans had this calendar that predicted star movements, eclipses, pretty much everything going on with the earth’s interactions with the rest of the solar system and possibly galaxy. And this calendar has been around for thousands of years, constantly being right. But, as of the winter solstice, 2012, the calendar just ends. I guess the present day Maya people, of whom there are not many, say it’s this thing like the end of an age, and a new age will start afterward? But it was quickly appropriated[1] as the predictive date of the end of the world. After all, if the world doesn’t end, where did all of our eclipses and tides go, Mayans? Either keep predicting, or give us our orgiastic apocalypse fantasies![2]

I should ought to point out that the world does not immediately begin ending once the credits have concluded; in fact, the film opens in 2009, because someone decided we needed a scientific reason for the inevitable carnage. Please note that we were not provided with a scientific reason, at all, but, you know how these things go. All the same, Roland Emmerich clearly understood that his audience would not be pleased by the lack of instant carnage, because the evidence montage was suffused with rapid tension music from the orchestra pit. Then, after a brief pause to introduce John Cusack, the rest of the film actually was the non-stop destructive roller coaster I had jokingly promised my double-dates for the evening. I’m not even kidding; if there was a scene after the 30 minute mark that did not include either an explosion, a tidal wave, an earthquake, flowing lava or (at the bare minimum) floating ash, I genuinely don’t remember it. And every time the film thought about being emotionally serious or speaking intelligently on the loss of worldwide culture or the death of an entire sentient species, Roland’s steady hand was there on the script to pull back from that brink and resume the carnival-of-the-ridiculous the film was clearly meant to be.

The only problem I had, the only problem, was with the audience. Because except for me and my dates, there was nobody laughing every two to five minutes at the newest bit of over-the-top parody of disaster film that I’m positive Emmerich intended to make. I’m pretty sure nobody else laughed the entire time! The director clearly got it. The sprawling cast of Hollywood notables appeared to get it. I certainly got it. Why didn’t they?

[1] Probably by The Man.
[2] Actual orgies, while likely, are not necessarily included. This was meant to be more in the metaphorical doomsday-excitement sense.

The Well of Ascension

I was already reading this book when the Robert Jordan book came out, which explains both why I have skipped my allotment of graphic novels and why I read two books in a row by the same author. At least it isn’t the same series? Anyhow, The Well of Ascension chronicles the continuing adventures of… well, I guess I never talked about the characters in the first Mistborn book, did I? So, anyway, there’s this skaa thieving crew and our heroine, Vin, and they achieved a pretty big victory at the end of book one. And now, as book two opens, they and their noble allies must face new dangers in the form of invading armies, untraceable spies in their inner circle, and a growing certainty that the world is still in the same grave danger that the Hero of Ages was supposed to have defeated a thousand years before.

Sanderson has done a pretty good job of maintaining sense of wonder, by delving more deeply both into mistborn abilities and into the history of the Hero of Ages and the Final Empire. As in the previous book, each chapter starts with an excerpt of writings from a thousand years prior when this chain of events first began. Unlike last time, however, the writings are more or less in order of the story they are telling; it was all I could do not to ignore the book and jump ahead to read the entire ancient record at once, and then come back. All of which to say: see? totally sense of wonder. The mood of the book is by turns ratcheting tension, romantic angst, a little bit of creeping dread, and occasional doses of intense action, all of which build toward a pretty explosive last hundred pages. I was out at dinner Tuesday night and just itched to read the last 20 pages instead of interacting with my companions. I didn’t, but probably only because Skwid was there to answer my minor spoiler and relieve the tension just enough to hold out until I got home.

The Stepfather (2009)

Except, I actually went to see two movies yesterday, not just one. Which sort of catches me up on current horror, except that I think I missed one on a spaceship. I guess I should investigate that? Anyway, said second movie was The Stepfather, a remake of a late ’80s franchise in which this one guy moves from single mother to single mother in search of the perfect family. Since people aren’t, as a rule, perfect[1], he trends toward disappointment. Which is fine as far as it goes, except for his habit of killing everyone in a fit of rage before he moves on to the next family.

The flick was by turns tense, suddenly violent, and occasionally quite funny, but it did raise a few question in my mind. How did I watch two horror movies in a row with no nudity in evidence? (Well, one of them was PG-13, but still: lame!) Is it really warm enough in a Portland summer to justify constant bikinis? (I am willing to suspend my disbelief in service of even mildly occluded plot points.) How come murderous psychopaths have a really easy time picking up women in supermarkets, while I… (Yeah, I got nothing on this one. Obviously.)

[1] This is especially true when gathered in groups of more than one.

Saw VI

There are, aside from the first spare and intelligent entry in the series, only two reasons to watch a Saw movie. Either, you want to see what new Rube Goreberg[1] devices and tests that Jigsaw and his apprentices have devised for their latest victims, or you want to learn a little bit more about the story behind said murderous fiends. Because, the series is really excellent about doling out new information about an increasingly intricate backstory without retconning anything that has gone before, despite the overall tale spending far more time in the past than the future. And it’s really excellent at killing people in new and implausible ways.

So, pleasingly, Saw VI hit both of these marks, and to some extent, that’s all you need to know. But it also went zany. I don’t think I minded much, but it was really strange watching the franchise get all political. Because this time, the targets were not random people who needed to learn lessons about living, but health insurance executives (and associated hangers on) who needed to learn those lessons. The message was ham-fisted, albeit timely. But I think that was kind of the point, the ham-fistedness. To just really stick it to those jerks, if you will, in full-on audience service.[2] Plus, the ongoing plotline stuff was wrapped up a little bit more thoroughly than usual. So, strange movie all around. That said, I’m pretty sure there will be a Saw VII next October. ‘Cause, y’know.

[1] Yeah, still proud of that one.
[2] Not quite the same as fan service.