Storm season, 2013 edition

Just over a week ago, the U.S. Northeast was hit by a blizzard after a relatively mild winter so far. “Nemo,” as some dubbed it, dumped about two feet of snow on Boston between 8 and 9 February 2013. Fortunately, we had ample warning, and Janice and I were able to work from home on that Friday.

Found Nemo
Clearing up after February blizzard

It took several rounds of shoveling to clear our patio and cars, especially since Janice’s car got buried in the 12-foot-tall pile at the end of a row in our apartment complex’s parking lot. Still, hardy New Englanders were back to work on the following Monday, even if my face-to-face tabletop role-playing game was postponed again because of narrowed roads and difficulty getting quorum.

On Friday, 15 February 2013, Janice and I traveled to Chicago for the wedding of a daughter of one of my maternal cousins. We had visited them a few years ago. At Logan Airport, we had breakfast at Potbelly Sandwich Shop. Janice and I had an uneventful flight, picked up our rental car, and checked into the Hyatt Place in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

We then joined my parents and my brother’s family for a filling lunch at the Lucky Monk brewpub. After a brief rest (since large gatherings usually involve eating), we went to Margie & Joe’s wedding rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner at Bankok House & Shanghai Restaurant in downtown Elgin, Ill.

The next morning, I watched cartoons with my brother and nieces, who also follow the strong but underrated lineup of Young Justice, Green Lantern: the Animated Series, and Star Wars: Clone Wars. We returned to Lou Malnati’s for proper deep-dish pizza.

My second cousin’s wedding was conducted at the Highland Church of the Brethren. The groom’s step-grandmother officiated at a ceremony that Margie & Joe designed themselves, gathering a diverse set of traditions. The reception was held at the Seville, a large hall that can apparently host several such celebrations simultaneously.

We ate, conversed with fellow guests and family members, and danced (even if we didn’t join the younger folks for “Gagnam Style“). The partying went on late into the evening, and a good time was had by all in Chicago. I’ll try to share some photos when they get uploaded.

Our return to Boston was delayed by only an hour by the latest snow. I finished reading Redshirts, which I enjoyed — it’s similar to the movie Galaxy Quest as a loving riff on Star Trek, but it was a little meta for my taste. On the way home, Janice and I got sandwiches at Charcoal Guido’s, a new eatery on Moody Street in Waltham, Mass., for “linner” (lunch+dinner).

After a few weeks’ interruption, the games resumed last night with Jason’s “Barsoomian Adventures: the Tenth Ray of Mars.” I’ll try to post an update for the planetary romance session soon.

Tonight, I’m meeting some former co-workers for dinner at Little India and the latest “Escapists” book club meeting. We’ll be discussing the magical realist graphic novel Daytripper, which I enjoyed. So much to do, so little time!

Animation nation suffers some casualties

I’ve been enjoying much of the latest wave of animated television series this past year, but nothing last forever. This week, the Cartoon Network announced turnover among its “DC Nation” lineup of superhero shows, and Disney XD and Nickelodeon weren’t far behind.

Both the team-oriented Young Justice and computerized cosmic Green Lantern: the Animated Series have recently developed more intricate and mature plots, and both have been fairly faithful to the pre-“52” continuity of DC Comics. Unfortunately, both will be ending.

Season 2 Young Justice lineup
Young Justice, as of Season 2

On the Marvel side, I’ve already mourned the departure of the fun Spectacular Spider-Man and movie precursor Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Disney XD’s Ultimate Spider-Man is decent, but I still prefer “DC Nation’s” interstitial shorts to the “Marvel Mashups.”

Tron: Uprising is also rumored to be canceled after being moved to various time slots. Not only did that show expand on the setting and designs of the live-action movies, but it also built its own strong plots. At least Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems to be doing well, both in terms of writing, voice, and art as well as ratings.

I still need to catch up on direct-to-video releases, including Superman vs. the Elite and Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, and I’ve enjoyed the occasional episodes that I’ve caught of Futurama, Archer, Metalocalypse, and Motor City.

Many of the TV shows that are continuing are fantasy-flavored rather than based on comic books, and I recommend Avatar: Legend of Korra, Dragons: Riders of Berk, and Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness. It’s too bad that the short-lived ThunderCats revival or SymBionic Titan didn’t get a chance to join them.

Janice and I also like the Seinfeld-style Looney Tunes Show, even if we long ago stopped watching Fox’s Sunday night comedies, such as The Simpsons or Family Guy. In addition, there are other popular franchises I haven’t kept up with, including G.I. Joe, Transformers, Ben 10, or Adventure Time. I have caught the cute Lego Star Wars one-shots, of not Ninjago.

Speaking of Star Wars, the Clone Wars has also featured impressive character development, spectacular settings, and a gathering darkness, remedying many of the flaws in the live-action prequel trilogy. If the show gets renewed, it will likely move from Cartoon Network to Disney XD following the Mouse House’s purchase of Lucasfilm.

I’m not especially optimistic that the upcoming Beware the Batman, Teen Titans Go, Avengers Assemble, and Hulk and the Agents of SMASH will be as good as the departing Young Justice, Green Lantern, or Tron. Enjoy them while they last, or catch up on the best of recent cartoons on video!

Rise of the Guardians review

On Sunday, 2 December 2012, Janice and I met role-players Josh C. & Sara F. at the Showcase Cinemas in Woburn, Mass., for Rise of the Guardians. We enjoyed the holiday-themed animated fantasy movie.

Wallpaper for computer-animated fantasy movie
Seasonal superhero team

Rise of the Guardians follows Jack Frost, a boy who is granted supernatural abilities and meets other seasonal icons, including a sword-wielding Santa Claus, the cute Tooth Fairy, a mute but expressive Sandman, and an inexplicably Australian Easter Bunny.

These seasonal superheroes find themselves fighting the Boogeyman and his nightmares to defend the hopes and dreams of children everywhere. Sure, we’ve seen all of the elements before, but how they’re represented and mixed is a feast for the eyes. In terms of computer animation, I’d put Rise of the Guardians very close to Disney/Pixar’s Brave (its rival for awards), as well as to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise.

The voice casting is pretty good, with Star Trek‘s Chris Pine as Jack Frost, The Shadow‘s Alec Baldwin as Santa, Isla Fisher as the lead Tooth Fairy, X-Men‘s Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny, and Jude Law as Pitch Black, the Boogeyman.

Rise of the Guardians is based on a series of children’s books that William Joyce wrote for his late daughter. Guillermo del Toro was one of the producers, and the movie does have some of his love of the fantastical.

Dreamworks’ decidedly non-denominational film appropriates Christian and pagan iconography, most of which will go over the heads of most viewers. It reminded me of L. Frank Baum’s Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which was one of the more eccentric adaptations done by Rankin-Bass.

While it’s no Lincoln, I’d give Rise of the Guardians, which is rated PG for some violence, about a B+, three out of five stars, or a 7.5 out of 10. Of the previews we saw, Jack the Giant Slayer looks like what I’d call a classic fantasy gamer flick. Josh, Sara, Janice, and I later enjoyed lunch at The Restaurant in Woburn, Mass. Next up: The Hobbit [Part 1 of 3]: An Unexpected Journey!


Bringing out the dead: ParaNorman review

On Sunday, 26 August 2012, Janice and I screened ParaNorman. We enjoyed the stop-motion-animated horror/comedy. Like Coraline, the movie uses familiar archetypes and genre tropes but has a better-than-average script, clever allusions, and a decent emotional heft.

Good Undead fun

ParaNorman’s all-star voice cast is unobtrusive, and the zombies may be a bit intense for younger viewers. The writers were clearly familiar with the Salem witch trials and how the town has become a tourist destination in Massachusetts.

Without giving away any “spoilers,” I liked some of ParaNorman‘s role reversals and the revelation of the witch’s identity. I could also easily see the story as an RPG scenario using School Daze. I’d give ParaNorman, which is rated PG, an 8 out of 10, three out of five stars, or a B+.

This coming weekend, I look forward to joining Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., college chum Stuart C.G., and Stu’s family during his visit to the Boston area.

The Dark Knight Rises, a belated review

On Sunday, 22 July 2012, I met Beruk A. and James B. at the AMC Loews Boston Common for a matinee of The Dark Knight Rises. Sadly, the superhero sequel was overshadowed by the tragic shootings in Colorado.

We enjoyed the film, which neatly wrapped up director Christopher Nolan and lead actor Christian Bale’s take on Batman. I liked The Dark Knight Rises a little more than The Amazing Spider-Man, if not as much as the four-color The Avengers.

Wallpaper 6
Nolan and Bale’s Batman comes to a conclusion

Cast: Bale is a decent Bruce Wayne, a tortured soul masquerading as a billionaire playboy. He’s not as fun as Adam West (who once called me “chum”), as slick as Val Kilmer or George Clooney, or as initially odd a choice as Michael Keaton was for the costumed vigilante.

Bale is again ably supported by older character actors in The Dark Knight Rises. Michael Caine is Wayne’s cockney and concerned butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman adds mischievous gravitas as technologist Lucius Fox, and chameleon Gary Oldman is the embattled Commissioner James Gordon.

Newcomers to this cinematic version of Gotham City include Marion Cotillard as mysterious executive Miranda Tate, Tom Hardy as brutal assassin Bane, and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as idealistic police officer John Blake. Blake becomes the audience surrogate in hoping for things to improve, even as the police as a whole are outmaneuvered.

They all did well in their roles — even if Hardy was sometimes hard to understand through his face mask — but Anne Hathaway deserves special mention for her performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

I had some doubts about the young actress, but Hathaway was properly slinky and cunning as the (never-named) cat burglar and con artist. She was believable in navigating Gotham’s seamy underbelly and its glittering galas, and she brought much-needed femininity and light to Nolan’s grim and gritty universe.

Plot: Batman Begins showed how an orphan could become an anonymous champion of justice, and The Dark Knight depicted Batman fighting grotesque villains (Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face and the late Heath Ledger’s unparalleled Joker). The Dark Knight Rises expands on both those themes and is Wagnerian in showing Batman fighting Bane and a conspiracy for the very survival of Gotham City.

Nolan tries to make the plot a complicated puzzle, but even the trailers for the movie telegraphed some of the resolution. Anyone who has read the comic book storylines of Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke, Son of the Demon, Cataclysm, No Man’s Land, and Nightfall knows what to expect.

I appreciate Nolan and Bale’s somewhat more realistic approach to Batman’s world and motivations, but the pendulum has swung very far from the cheerful camp of West’s 1960s superhero. Even the direct-to-video adaptations of DC Comics are moving to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another obvious inspiration.

Rich felt that Nolan’s Batman isn’t as majestic or as much of a loner as he prefers, but I agree that the amount of time that passes for the desperate citizens of Gotham (and the audience) is on the long side.

I thought that The Dark Knight Rises‘ political subtext was muddled. Following Joseph Campbell’s hero pattern, the aristocratic hero must wander, reject his father figure, be humbled, triumph over his dark reflection, and then walk away or die. Other than a bus full of orphans, we see very few of the 12 million ordinary citizens whom Batman is supposedly fighting to protect.

On the other hand, there’s a populist “99%” strain to Bane’s Robespierre-style demagoguery — even if he’s just a tool of the League of Shadows. The military and police are shown as impotent, implicitly endorsing vigilantism. Granted, dressing up as a bat to fight crime doesn’t always make sense, but why bring up those points if you’re not going to fully show both sides?

Visual effects: From the opening scene of a daring aerial hijacking, The Dark Knight Rises‘ set-piece scenes were clearly inspired by the James Bond movies, which Nolan also paid tribute to in Inception. The battles of The Avengers were more cosmic and colorful, but Batman’s gadgetry and vehicles are still impressive.

Like some comic book writers and fans, Nolan’s Dark Knight is more of an urban warrior than a stealthy detective or martial artist. Perhaps this leaves room for the next set of filmmakers to interpret and develop different aspects of Batman. Even though I miss the Batman: the Animated Series of the 1990s and even the recent campy Batman and the Brave and the Bold, I look forward to the upcoming animated Beware the Batman on TV.

Soundtrack: Hans Zimmer’s score is appropriately operatic, if not especially memorable. Unlike the Marvel Universe, whose movies include relatively recent popular music, it seems fitting that DC’s iconic heroes such as Batman stick with classical.

Spoilers and ratings: Note that some of the articles I’ve linked to contain “spoilers” about the plot, but I’ll try to avoid giving anything away directly here. I can see a few ways for how Nolan’s version could have continued, but I’m also content with his conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s story.

Since Batman is the single most profitable superhero film franchise, there’s little doubt that Warner Brothers/DC Comics will reboot the movies as soon as possible, not unlike various Marvel remakes. I do wonder if they’ll be able to maintain the quality amid stylistic and cast changes. I’m cautiously optimistic about the Superman reboot Man of Steel, as well as early plans for a Justice League film (for which I’ll have to write up my own ideas). I just hope they’re fun and well-done.

I’d give The Dark Knight Rises, which was rated PG-13 for violence, three out of five stars, a B+, or a 7.5 out of 10. The only upcoming movie that’s getting buzz and I’m excited about is Peter Jackson’s planned trilogy adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In the meantime, keep tuning in, same Bat time, same Bat channel!

P.S.: Here are my Batfilm ratings:

  • 1943: Batman serials — yet to watch
  • 1965: Batman ***/B+
  • 1989: Batman **/B
  • 1992: Batman Returns **/B-
  • 1993: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (animated) ****/A
  • 1995: Batman Forever ***/B+
  • 1997: Batman & Robin */C
  • 1998: Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (animated) ***/B+
  • 2000: Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (animated) **/B-
  • 2003: Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (animated) ***/B+
  • 2005: The Batman vs. Dracula (animated) **/B, Batman Begins ***/A-
  • 2008: Justice League: the New Frontier (animated) ***/B+, The Dark Knight ***/B+
  • 2009: Batman: Gotham Knight ****/A-, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies **/B (animated)
  • 2010: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths ***/B+, Batman: Under the Red Hood ***/B+, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse **/B (animated)
  • 2011: Batman: Year One (animated) ***/B+
  • 2012: Justice League: Doom (animated) **/B, The Dark Knight Rises ***/B+, The Dark Knight Returns (animated) coming soon