Sunday, April 20, 2014

Meet Me There (movie)

Director: Lex Lybrand
Writer: Brandon Stroud
Starring: Lisa Friedrich, Michael Foulk, Dustin Runnels

You might now know because I rarely ever talk about it on here, but I've long been a fan of professional wrestling. I've been watching WWE on and off since 1996. Occasionally it opens a few interesting doors through association. Meet Me There was one of them.

I've followed Brandon Stroud on Twitter for a while, due to enjoying his weekly Best and Worst of Raw columns. It was there I learned of the film. I enjoy a good horror film - which have been in short supply lately - and I didn't have anything planned for that night, so my sister and I decided to go. The lady who owned the room we rented out for the weekend even decided to join us.

Going turned out to be a good decision. It happened to be the premiere, so everyone was in attendance, including Dustin Runnels himself and his father Dusty Rhodes. I started with wrestling at childhood, so The American Dream was before my time, but I'm the sweet spot for having fond memories of Goldust. Meeting the both of them was a highlight. It's not often you get to hang out with wrestling legends. Turns out they're nice people. That goes for everyone involved in the film, actually, from Mr. Stroud to Lisa Friedrich on down.

Everyone - from the cast and crew to the people who came to see the film - hung around outside waiting for the prior film to finish its showing. Sometimes we discussed wrestling, sometimes the movie we were about to watch. Eventually, the audience of the prior film filed out of the small theater and we all made our way inside. We had a movie to watch, after all.

A pretty good one, as it turned out.

After an opening that succeeds in thoroughly unsettling you, we meet our protagonists, Calvin and Ada. Almost immediately - and wordlessly - we see the problem that drives the movie; they're dealing with a lot of sexual frustration and counseling isn't helping. Ada reveals that she cannot remember much of her childhood, something that throws up some obvious red flags and seems like the root of their troubles. Calvin, looking to make some headway, throws out the idea that the two of them drive to her hometown in the hope that it would jog some memories and help them through the situation.

Since we are talking about a horror movie, I don't think you need me to tell you things quickly go directly to hell without passing Go.

A key strength of the film is in the writing. Dialogue in film can feel too neat at times, but going too far in the other direction isn't ideal either; spend too long meandering and you risk losing the audience. Meet Me There manages to find that fine line between the two, giving enough background to the characters to make a connection without boring you to tears. There are moments in the film that are legitimately funny, as well; I audibly laughed a couple of times, especially at the Smurfs story.

They also manage to get some real mileage out of clearly limited resources. The effects are all practical and the feel is that of a B movie, which I mean in the best way possible. Actually, that might not be a hundred percent accurate, either; perhaps it's better to say it reminds you of a seventies horror film, back when most of the greats were made with little money. Speaking of seventies horror films, the film occasionally reminded me of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which isn't a knock; the opening five or six minutes that feel unrelated until late in the film, the murderous rednecks, the entire town seemingly complicit in whatever shenanigans are afoot. I'm not sure if it was intentional, but if that film was an influence, I felt it.

Another positive is the ambiguity surrounding the events depicted in the film. The cast and crew had a Q&A session after the screening and what struck me was that, when asked what the last twenty minutes of the film meant, everyone had a different answer. I even had my own theory - that the town is meant to represent purgatory - which barely resembled any take they had. Not every film can pull something like that off - you risk the audience wondering what they've just seen - but when it works, it's very effective. Films based on the work of Phillip K. Dick like to go this route.

None of this is to say it's perfect. The film had some audio issues worth noting, including a score that felt unnecessarily loud; on more than one occasion I found I had difficulty making sense of the dialogue because of it, a problem my sister seemed to share. I think I recall the director mentioning that it had something to do with the audio mix not meshing properly with the theaters equipment - and that it wouldn't be a problem going forward - but even so, I can only go by my own experience.

There were a couple of points where the delivery faltered a bit, too. It wasn't anything major and the cast still managed to make the characters feel real, but occasionally a moment would have an iffy reaction that was a little jarring. It's forgivable - the film certainly has a leg up on most low budget horror films in that there's infinitely less ham and cheese in the acting - but it would feel wrong not to mention it.

That said, any trouble is easily balanced by Dustin Rhodes turn as the preacher and the lady playing his not-all-there daughter. Both were highlights. The daughter might have been the creepiest part of a film that had a lot of satanic imagery, some super xenophobic hillbillies with shotguns and a cultish orgy in the woods.

All told, it's well worth attending. It's easily the best the horror genre has given us in a while using a fraction of the resources. I had a lot of fun, got to hang out with some cool people and generally had a memorable night in what turned out to be a memorable weekend. There's obviously no guarantee you'll get to hang out with a Rhodes or crew member, but at worst you'll get to see a pretty good film.

You can't exactly catch it in your local theater, though. You can check the official website for screenings. DVD copies are, thus far, only available to the people who backed the indiegogo campaign, but when asked I've been told they're hoping to get distribution. If and when they do, I'll update this.

My Opinion: Watch It

Friday, April 11, 2014

Indestructible Hulk: Agent of SHIELD (comic)

Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Lenil Yu
Collects: Indestructible Hulk #1-5

In a reversal of my last review, this was a book I was actually prepared to like. Mark Waid's a rock solid writer who's penned a few runs many consider to be among the all time greats. Even on a bad day he usually manages something that's a decent read. Should be a safe bet.

Unfortunately, I felt that Indestructible Hulks first volume whiffed. There are a few reasons why, not all of them the fault of the creative team. Regardless, they add up to something of a letdown.

We start off harmlessly enough. Shield is looking for the Hulk in the wake of Avengers vs X-Men. We don't get a lot of specifics, but they aren't really necessary; the Hulk is an engine of destruction on a good day, so it's not hard to see why Shield might be after him. Banner finds Maria Hill - probably the most utilitarian character in Marvel by now - and runs a proposition by her; they give him all the resources he wants to invent and he'll let them use the Hulk as they see fit.

Fair enough for the first issue, but by the second we've run into some problems.

The Shield thing I don't mind. The Hulk is a very basic concept at its heart - the Jekyll and Hyde dynamic multiplied tenfold - and has often required some spice to keep it interesting. By the time of Marvel Now, Hulk has been an inter-dimensional traveler, hero to a microscopic kingdom or two, been shot into space, ruled a planet, had a couple ridiculous fever dreams, got his own rainbow corps of Hulks and battled with MPD, his many personalities including a super smart fusion of Banner and Hulk, a straight up evil Devil Hulk and a grey version that enjoys making like an old fashioned mobster. As far as basic concepts go, throwing in with Shield in an effort to try and channel the destruction in a positive way is probably the sanest direction Marvel's gone with in a while.

No, the thing that gave me the most trouble is the one this creative team isn't necessarily responsible for. For a few years now - starting, I believe, with Greg Paks second run on Hulk - Marvel's pushed hard on a "Bruce Banner's kind of a genius" track. Still, Waid and Yu take is the furthest it's gone to date. Bruce Banner is now in the upper tier of Marvel geniuses; not quite a Reed Richards but above the likes of a Tony Stark.

You may think I'm kidding about that last part, but I'm not. Issue number two has Iron Man as a guest star. It's also the issue where they lost me.

See, issue two is entirely devoted to telling us Bruce Banner is smarter than Tony Stark. Not entirely unreasonable that they'd put him over Iron Man - this is Hulks book, so he's going to get the rub - but it reaches a point where Bruce Banner looks like one of the most awful human beings walking. The first issue had a sense of smug self importance about the character - some of his dialogue with Maria Hill rubbed me the wrong way - but it wasn't bad enough to make me stop reading and wonder what the hell was going on with him. Not so with issue two.

Let's do a quick rundown of everything that happened. First, Iron Man shows up, understandably concerned that Shield just recruited the friggin Hulk, a guy known for toppling buildings if he so much as sneezes. He greets Bruce, understandably skeptical, and everyone decides to get in a little condescension before breakfast. Banner then dangles a carrot in front of Tony o he'll volunteer as wingman for a trip out to the Arctic to safely test a new, safer method of fracking. Tony fiddles with it in an attempt to make the process go faster. Banner flips his lid and it's at this point that we find out that this was his plan all along. He deliberately lured Iron Man out to the Artic so he could transform into the Hulk and beat the daylights out of him. The stated reason is because Banner felt Stark always looked down on him. This is apparently enough to justify turning into a demi-god of rage and blitzing a dude in a metal suit. A futuristic, high tech one, but a metal suit nonetheless.

Whatever the case, Iron Man attempts to fend Hulk off so he can get back to the device, which he didn't finish calibrating. It's now set to blow thanks to Hulks reckless attack, because Banner clearly thought this plan out in great detail. The explosion nearly kills Iron Man, which I guess is okay because Hulk saved him from being torched. I guess cleaning up a mess you made negates that whole "near death" thing. They go back and have a laugh, Banner condescends some more and Tony has to brush it off, go to the bathroom, look in the mirror and tell himself he's still rich. He's that shaken by Banner's clearly superior intellect.

Anybody else see the problem here?

There's the obvious issue in that, by this point, Bruce Banner has become entirely unlikable. Iron Man is very nearly killed amidst a brawl Banner lured him to a secluded spot with every intention of starting. He's now the smartest person in any room that doesn't include Reed Richards and he knows it, leading to an off-putting sense of sheer smug that makes you want to see someone deck him. Worse still, he doesn't have any of the charm or likable qualities that keep a character like Tony Stark interesting despite his many screw-ups. This is made even more striking by a character throwing out the notion that what Bruce really wants to be is Tony Stark; the issue tries to refute this a bit in the most "nuh-uh, Banner's better" way possible, with Banner himself basically laughing the implication off about an hour after he nearly killed the guy and Stark musing that Banner would have to aim lower to be him, but it really does feel like Stark is the type of character they're trying to mold Banner into now. The results are mixed, to be kind.

A problem that isn't as immediately obvious is what this intellect upgrade might end up doing to the character. There's a decent chance it might ruin him. We're not talking scientist level smarts anymore. He literally builds a new, world altering invention each week. The kind that solve problems like food and energy shortages. Obviously, this is glossed over and the effects this would have on society aren't shown. There's no downside either, aside from the obvious question of how he can make this stuff yet still find himself magically unable to find a cure. In conjunction with the Shield concept, the Hulk isn't even a counter anymore; his destruction is now, thus far, contained and used to take out threats to the US.

How is this character not a Mary Sue at this point? I do realize this could be going somewhere. Trouble is, do I even care anymore? I'm not sure.

The following three issues didn't do much to change my mind. Hulk basically goes off to fight quasi-Atlanteans or some junk. There's one sorta-Atlantean girl who wants to ride the Hulk, but hates Banner - if that sounds familiar, you've read some Hulk comics - whom Banner later kisses in hopes she'd deck him and he'd transform. Aside from the minor sexual assault, it's fine, but after that second issue, I needed something to pull me back. Those three issues did not fit the bill.

On the upside, the art is quite good. I've been a bit negative regarding Yu's art in the past, partly due to how scratchy it could get. There's little of that here. I'm not sure what else can be said about it. You'll never hear me claim to be a good art critic, because I'm really not. I know what I like, can tell you about what I don't and that's pretty much it.

I hate to be this hard on Indestructible Hulk - I've enjoyed Waids work in the past and went into this wanting to like it - but it just didn't work for me. I may read the second volume if the library has it in the future - I'm at least somewhat curious as to whether the aforementioned problems are leading to something or if it's just how the character is in this book - but I'm not going out of my way for it. As always, I note that you may get more out of it than I did; my opinion is far from absolute.

My Opinion: Skip It

Monday, March 24, 2014

All New X-Men: Yesterdays X-Men (comics)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Stuart Immonen
Collects: All New X-Men #1-5

This is not a book I was prepared to like.

While we do have the upside of Avengers vs X-Men having ended the "Extinction Era" of the X line - in my opinion, one of the worst in franchise history - we knew ahead of time that Bendis was leaving the Avengers line to take the reigns of the X books. For me, that's cause for trepidation; I've liked a fair bit of his work, but loved little of it, while I hated others still.

Not helping the situation is that the run was slated to involve the original five X-Men. Marvel rarely goes back to that well for good reason. The original five were mostly bland, with the worst offenders - Archangel and Beast - requiring complete overhauls to be remotely interesting.

Color me surprised, then, that All New X-Men is really good.

Bendis is on his game - possibly because he has new toys to work with rather than the same property he'd worked on for close to a decade - and the central conflict has more weight than I expected. Beasts mutation is killing him and he wants to make some kind of impact before he dies, so he goes back in time to recruit the original X-Men. His hope is that either the original group will force Cyclops to face what he's become or that seeing their futures will in some way steer the Cyclops from the past away from it. Kind of a dick move on Beasts part that could cause more problems that it would solve - I'm hoping someone calls him on it at some point and it's not just waved off - but few things can motivate someone to drastic measures quite like death, so I can buy it.

This is not a story that could have happened without the Extinction Era, which for me taints it in some way. But the reason this has weight is because the franchise has gone in some dark directions, whether Marvel wanted to admit it or not. If you brought those five back from that more idealistic time at any other point, it probably wouldn't have worked simply because it would be hard to believe their revulsion. But we live in a time where the X-Men have shacked up with Magneto, renounced humanity once or twice, fought to allow a world devouring entity to make it to Earth and now see their old leader calling for revolution. If you're going to do it, now's the time.

It works. Mostly. There's a lot for young Cyclops, Jean Grey and Beast to chew on because things have changed the most for them. The younger Iceman and Angel, however, struggle not to fade into the background. After all, Iceman has probably changed the least of the five, so it kind of feels as though his younger self is just along for the ride because the rest went. Angel, meanwhile, is as boring as he's always been. We'll see if Bendis can find something for them to do - Angel has yet to find out about the Archangel business, so there is something to be done with him - but for now they're just standing around while the more interesting character conflicts happen.

Some of the dialogue is spotty - and Modern Cyke has some thoughts upon seeing the younger Jean that we'll file under "questionable" if we want to be charitable - but Bendis does a great job of making things interesting. This might be my favorite thing that he's written since Siege; maybe even as far back as the last time I read Ultimate Spider-Man on a regular basis. A lot of his work was just not for me, but this seems to hit the sweet spot.

Despite relying heavily on how things have changed in the last decade of X-Men comics, it felt surprisingly accessible. This is always a tricky call to make when you're already invested in some way; if you've read as many X comics as I have, it's hard to objectively remove that knowledge and judge the material as if you're just trying to get into the franchise. But Bendis has an advantage here; his story focuses around a younger set of characters who have experienced none of this, so if he slips in some exposition about what has happened, it doesn't feel like an intrusion. You'll probably get more out of it if you already have a working knowledge of where the franchise has gone, but it seems to me like you could jump right in and get everything you need to enjoy the story right here.

The title also benefits from some top notch artwork by Stuart Immonen. This guy can easily sell a scene without words. There's a two page splash midway through the fifth issue that succiently summarizes Jean Grey's future in picture. Jean is in the center, surrounded by a patchwork of memories, making a bit of a bullseye. It's very effective and a great scene. Immonen feels like the perfect partner for this storyline, so I hope we can go without a ton of fill-ins as we go along.

Overall, we're left with a well crafted comic that is well worth reading. Time will tell if it continues as strongly as it started, but for now I definitely recommend the first volume. I'm sold.

My Opinion: Read It 

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Dudes a straight up creeper. The second he spots young Jean Grey, he's immediately like "she's so gorgeous, everything I ever wanted in life". Dude, chill out; that's, what, a sixteen year old version of your ex-wife. This is also kind of ignoring the fact that this "perfection" was exactly why they didn't work out in the first place.

Dude's also calling for straight up revolt on television. While picking up mutants for his own school. Which he's calling the New Xavier School. Yup, named after the father figure he himself killed. At least he shows some remorse in this one as opposed to the time he said he'd do it all over again.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Splitz (video game)

Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Marvelous AQL
Genre: Action, Puzzle, Party
Release Date: October 23rd, 2012

Few games can go from fun to frustrating as fast as a Super Monkey Ball entry.

Super Monkey Ball has been around since the early days of the Gamecube and was, in fact, one of the better titles for the system. Thirteen years after the first game, we're on entry number ten; time marched on, but Monkey Ball did not. Save some cruddier level design, this series has refused to move forward at all and that's it's biggest problem.

The biggest - and arguably only - added feature happens to be motion controls. If you so desire, you can control the game through tilting the system. This isn't even all that new a feature; I'm pretty sure the 3DS counterpart has it as well. Either way, the option to use the left analog stick is still there and believe me, you're going to want to use it.

See, the trouble with adding motion control to a game like this is that you only have so much say over what is happening as it is. Monkey Ball has always been unique in that you don't actually control the resident simian or the ball he resides in; you are actually controlling the tilt of the entire stage itself and using that to maneuver the ball around hazards, with sixty seconds to get to the goal. That's difficult enough as it is; adding tilt control just adds an extra layer of imprecision to a game where you're already struggling against momentum and navigating thin pathways.

Banana Splitz doesn't do a great job of being a portable title, either. When I say "nothing has changed" I'm including the way the game is structured. The typical Super Monkey Ball format is to have three difficulties; Beginner will have one world of ten stages, Normal will have three worlds of ten and Advanced will have five. You have a number of lives and continues to utilize and must complete all the stages in a difficulty in one shot.

That's perfectly fine for a home console - you're sitting on your couch, likely with a fair chunk of time to devote to whatever game you choose - but it's a poor format for a portable. Part of the point is to play games on the go and you don't always have a long stretch of time to play. Oh sure, you may have the occasional long commute or wait in a doctors office, but typically you'll pull out the system to kill a few minutes here and there. Most modern portable games plan for this - even the long games, like an RPG, will typically allow you to save at almost any point - but Super Monkey Ball doesn't bother. You either complete all the levels or you quit; there's no saving midway, so if you're on Advanced you're more or less screwed.

As a result, there aren't a lot of upsides to playing Banana Splitz. It's really the same as any other Monkey Ball game, so you may as well get one of those. There are better games to get for your PS Vita.

My Opinion: Skip It

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Uncanny X-Men by Kieron Gillen vol. 4 (comics)

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artists: Daniel Acuna, Ron Garney, Dale Eaglesham, Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Uncanny X-Men (vol. 2) #15-20

Warning: This review is going to contain spoilers for AVX. It's almost unavoidable. This entire volume hinges on the big plot twist of that event. I'm going to attempt to skirt around the identity of the X-Men affected, but be forewarned.

Kieron Gillen's time with the Uncanny X-Men comes to a close with this volume. The book would be immediately relaunched for the second time in as many years, this time with Brian Michael Bendis at the helm. I guess he got tired of writing the Avengers. Damn near ten years will do that to you.

The sad part about it is that it's felt to me like Gillens run never managed to get off the ground. He was on the book for something like thirty five issues, five of them co-written with Matt Fraction. A fair chunk of real estate, but of that number he got to do maybe one or two stories divorced of events or the goings on of the Marvel Universe at large. Looking back, his best issues were frequently single issues he snuck in; the Phalanx and the Mister Sinister issues were easily my favorite of his time with the book.

Unfortunately, most of his run was marred with the sort of problems you see all over this one. This comic makes zero sense unless you've read AVX or at least have a working understanding of what happened in that book. Between this volume and the last, five of the cast have become the Phoenix Five and are all but omnipotent. They immediately decide to make the world an actual utopia, at which point we come in, with not a goddamn lick of that being explained within the comic itself.

This presents some problems beyond the immediately apparent. Near the beginning, they remember Mister Sinister is out there and they should probably go curbstomp him. With little effort, they find him - again, they're basically gods at this point - and commence with said curbstomping.

Obviously, this doesn't go according to plan - I don't think anyone can stretch an ass whopping that one sided for three issues - but it doesn't happen in any believable way. It's pure plot contrivance. They're defeated solely because the plot calls for it, at least up until the Phoenix decides it's better off with the five. Sinister is dispatched immediately after that. Nothing is at stake. There's no explanation to be found, either; I admit that it's been a year since I read the last volume, but I don't recall anything from the rest of the run that could make sense of how the Five were beat.

The worst part is that I'm not sure there was any way around it. Gillens run was ending with this volume and Bendis was coming on board; the Mister Sinister plot had to be wrapped up in some fashion before that happened. But the main X-Men had become demi-gods in the event this book ties into; Uncanny couldn't well ignore what happened, even if it meant there was almost no way to make Sinister a believable - or remotely threatening - adversary to a handful of people backed by the power of a giant fire bird. So I guess the only option was to fudge the lines and wipe the playing field.

After any vestige of plot exclusive to this comic is wiped away, the rest of the volume is your typical "between the panels of the event" tie-in, which is exactly the sort I hate. Gillen, for his part, does a good job of attempting to add to the events of the other book, delving into the warped psyche of the protagonists and attempting to show how deeply this power has compromised them. In fact, he probably adds more depth in his tie-in than the main event had. It comes with the obvious downside though; the last three issues are either a disjointed clip show or an epilogue to someone elses story.

Not exactly how a run by a talented writer should go out.

Most of the art is serviceable, but little stands out to me. Daniel Acuna handles three of the six issues; he's typically a great artist, but his style clashes with everything else we've seen thus far. Ron Garney's work is good, but you won't write home about it. Dale Eaglesham is on for an issue, but that's it; luckily, it depicts a lot of the action from the climax of AVX, so at least he has something interesting to draw.

Carlos Pacheco illustrates the last issue of this run of Uncanny X-Men; it's good to have him back to close out the volume - and tie up any lingering plot threads - but it just serves to remind you how little we actually got of his art We had, what, seven issues total? I'd nearly forgotten that he was supposed to be the regular penciler. They didn't even have him on board to wrap the Mister Sinister story that's been running since the start. Perhaps he just couldn't do it in the time they'd need it. I don't know.

My Opinion: Try It

It's difficult to give a solid opinion on something like this. If you've read up through volume three of Gillens run, you may as well finish. If you're haven't and wonder if the run is worth getting into, I can't bring myself to say yes. It's not really Gillens fault - his dialogue and character interactions are the only reason to even bother - it's just the way this seemed to pan out. We'll see if Bendis will fare better with the franchise; he's a big enough name that he can probably avoid being stuck with whatever event is rolling through the universe.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Quite a few moments are AVX repeats. But man, that second to last issue. Cyclops, now in control of his mental faculties - such as they are - realizes he's killed his mentor on top of making people fear mutants more than ever before. He's over it the second he hears there are new mutants. Even says he'd do it all again. Ice cold.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sword Art Online (Anime)

To say I've been out of touch with the Anime scene would be a pretty accurate statement. The last I bothered to watch was Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The last one I actually bought on DVD was Cowboy Bebop, also known as the greatest thing Japanese animation has ever produced. At some point, I grew bored with it and decided to take a break from it entirely.*

Flash forward to today, where I stumble on Sword Art Online, which might have brought me back into the fold. I binged on it - watching the entire series in a day - and immediately found myself looking to see what else I might have missed while I was away. Even when you're sure you're out, all it takes is one good hit to bring you back in.

The premise of the series is that VR tech is now a reality and video games have naturally begun to make the leap, especially MMO's. Unfortunately, the creator of one such VRMMO - the namesake, Sword Art Online, to be exact - has essentially done the equivalent of spitting in the players faces and waving them the middle finger. There is no logout button. The only way to escape the game and return to reality is to clear all one hundred floors to reach the final boss. If you die in the game, your VR headset will fry your brain, killing you in real life.

With a premise like that, you'd naturally expect a lot of action and for the majority of the series to focus on finishing the game, but a lot of what I appreciate about Sword Art Online is that it does the opposite. The quest to return to reality isn't as much a driving force for the series as you might expect. Rather, the series focuses on the effects that being trapped in a situation like this might have on ones psyche, relationships and demeanor. Some crack under the pressure, some fight hard to clear the game.

Others, like the hero, drift between a desire to clear the game and to just live. His own philosophy, the one he teaches to the heroine, is that even if they're stuck there, it's like it's own reality. Why waste it? You are still alive. Life goes on. It's a message that we see in non essential characters, as well; some of those too afraid to fight or die turn to simpler lives, building families, businesses and even hobbies such as fishing.

All of this is the sort of thing you'd typically see a series gloss over entirely; which is often a shame, because more than once I've found background bits and implied consequences just as interesting as the main plot. But with Sword Art Online, the things you might expect - guilds forming, grinding, everything associated with MMO's and the overall action - are just a backdrop. The characters are the focus and it's easy to grow to like them. It certainly helps that the animation is amazing and the soundtrack is appealing as well.

One other thing I enjoyed about the series is that it's not afraid to switch genre's from time to time. One episode might focus on a boss battle, while the next will consist of a murder mystery the protagonists will have to solve. I don't intend to compare the two series, but I do feel like mentioning that it reminds me of Cowboy Bebop in that regard, which was a series that was unafraid to throw almost any style of story at the wall if the writers felt it would make for a good episode. It lends a fair bit of variety to Sword Art Online and helps to keep it from growing stale.

Not to say Sword Art Online is perfect, as if anything is. The fourteen episodes of twenty five that the characters are stuck in the first MMO - the namesake - take place over the two year span they're stuck within virtual reality. As such, we often jump a month or two in time between each episode. As much is implied in this series as is shown - though we see most of the important character interactions - and that is not something that is going to work for everyone. Some people like a defined plot with a clear throughline from point A to point B. There are plenty of shows like that, but SAO is not one of them and I imagine that is going to hurt it with some.

I also hate to say it, but the second half is a bit weaker than the first. By that point, you care enough about the bond between the hero and the heroine that you're invested in his quest, but it sacrifices some of what made the first half quite as memorable for a clearer direction and goal. It's still very good, but in a different way, perhaps more akin to what some people seemed to expect from the series to start with.

Something about the second arc I also feel ought to be addressed is the fact that the heroine is reduced to a damsel in distress, not to mention absent for the majority of the eleven or so episodes the Fairy arc is spread across. It's a little jarring - the two protagonists define the Battle Couple trope and it's shown she's pretty damn near his equal in battle - if perhaps necessary to keep the series grounded in it's VR concept, seeing as she and some other players are still stuck and need rescuing. Assuming Sword Art Online has a second season/series - and there's more than enough material for that, since the source material is still going and there are two more full arcs after to adapt - this will be less problematic, because it will just be one arc of several, instead of about a third of the series.

It's worth noting she doesn't just sit on her hands though, held captive or not. She escapes at one point through use of her own wits and almost manages to log herself out. She doesn't sit and wait to be rescued the entire time; when she got an opportunity, she went for it. So there is that.

My Opinion: Watch It

All told, I'd say Sword Art Online is well worth your time. I'm actually not sure how good or bad the dub is, as I watched it subbed, but even DVD's seem to have both language tracks on disc as a standard these days, so it doesn't much matter. It rekindled my interest in Anime, so give it a look. You might love it like I did. Even if you don't, I'm sure you'll agree it's damn beautiful.

* I kind of took a sabbatical from both manga and anime. Naruto was what actually did it. I ended up becoming so disgusted and so pissed off at that goddamn manga that I probably stayed away from Japanese media for longer than I intended to.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Time Isn't Always On Our Side (Op/Ed)

Everyone has that one band that means more to them than any other, don't they? The one group that connected with you through their music, maybe even played a role in a wonderful memory. Iron Maiden has always been that band for me.

I got into them kind of late in the game, as you can guess. They've been around since the 80's, after all. Luckily, I skipped the 90's, which was when they were stuck in Replacement Singer Hell. It was around 2000, so I must have been thirteen or fourteen. Dad picked up their Somewhere in Time album to replace a copy he lost a long time prior. At first I didn't pay it much heed, but eventually I listened to it. I was hooked immediately. I rushed to devour every prior album all the way up to the 1990's.

Around this time, Maiden made their comeback. They reunited with their most popular singer and guitarist, made a new album and almost immediately set out on the road to tour. I bought that album of course- its title was Brave New World - and fell in love with it. After my parents bought me the Rock in Rio tape, one thought stuck with me. "I have to see these guys live".

It's funny how many old bands have made triumphant comebacks in the 2000's. Several of my old favorites have returned, putting out amazing new albums that earned a place in my CD collection. They practically defied conventional wisdom; it's usually said - and most of the time it's true - that eventually a band is going to taper off in quality before sinking into the depths of irrelevance.

Maybe it's just bias on my part, but no one bucked conventional wisdom more than Maiden. Of the four albums they've put out, only one was anything even remotely resembling a disappointment and that's only when compared to the other albums released during this comeback period. I'd go so far as to say their most recent - The Final Frontier - is as good as anything they've done in the past. Maiden didn't just age gracefully. Musically, they're far better than they've ever been.

I bought all four of those albums when they came out, of course. For some reason or another, I didn't get to see them live for the longest time. Tour after tour passed me by. It wasn't until last year that I finally managed to see them in concert. It wasn't until this year that I'd know what that night would mean to me.

My mother could never get around well. Hit by a drunk driver when she was seventeen, her knees slowly degenerated over the years, leaving her all but crippled. By last year, she could barely get around with a cane and my arm for support. Much of my life over the past several years has revolved around taking care of her.

I took pride in it. She was a wonderful lady who, despite her lot in life, loved her kids and would do anything for us. It felt like a small way to pay her back. Plus I got to spend a lot of time with her. She was, without question, my best friend and the person I looked up to most in life. I managed to get paid for taking care of her; it wasn't a ton, but it was enough. I'd always had plans for afterwards; she was going to get knee replacement surgery and as soon as I felt I could be away for a while without worry, I intended to go to a training school.

She, as I recall, was the one who convinced me we should go to the concert. She wasn't as excited as I was about it - she had, after all, seen Maiden in their prime and had her stories, which she loved to tell - but she wanted to go to keep me company. Not to mention the fact that Alice Cooper was the opening act; Cooper was one of the few rock bands she had never attended a concert for, even in her youth. So we bought our tickets and when the time came we made the journey down to Darien Lake.

We had a wonderful time. It was hard on her, of course - the simple act of walking was agony for her - but she managed. We took pictures, bought overpriced shirts to remember the occasion by and revelled in the experience. She was enthralled by Cooper, who put on a great show as always. For me, it was the main event that hooked me. You'd never guess the members of Iron Maiden were in their fifties judging by how effortlessly Bruce Dickinson raced across the stage. The energy he possesses is enough to be the envy of men half his age.

After the show, we ate at Denny's and holed up in a motel for the night. I was too exhausted from the show to safely make the drive home. It wasn't some big vacation, but we had a great time. We always figured there would be more to come; she'd get her knee surgery, I'd get a decent job and I'd take her with me to see all sorts of different places. It wasn't supposed to be the last time we got to do anything big together.

Turns out it was.

My mother died this year on the 13th of July around 11 AM*. I'll never forget it. Three days later and it would have been exactly a year from our trip. I still don't know what happened. I still don't understand why. She didn't deserve it. There was so much left for her to see and do. There's so much left we never got to do. So much left, stolen from us without warning. I miss her all the time, months later. The tears have dried, but everything's changed. What I wouldn't give to go back in time.

I'm two days away from my 27th birthday. I can't help but think of her and think of where my life is right now. I put so much into helping her and I can't help but ask myself what I have to show for it? Aside from my father and sister, I'm alone. I haven't had a girlfriend in years. I'm struggling to get everything in order so I can go on with the plans I made well before she passed. What do I really have?

She'll never see me get married. When I have kids, she'll never get to meet them. She'll never see me make it in anything I want to do. It wasn't supposed to be this way. I'm still struggling to figure my life out. To figure out where I go from here. It isn't easy.

One thing I do still have are memories. A big one is that concert. If Iron Maiden weren't around anymore, I wouldn't have that memory.

I guess when it comes down to it, that's part of the point of this. In some way, it made a band I already loved special to me in a different way. I guess I can never make fun of the Rolling Stones again for the fact that they're still around despite being half dead.

So keep on upping the irons, Maiden. Keep going until the six of you are a bunch of skeletons performing on stage if you want. I'll be there. I like to think Mom will be there with me in spirit.

* Yes, this is why the blog has been reduced to maybe a post a month.