Thursday, January 26, 2012

Legion of Super Heroes: Trials

Did I say in my review of Unnatural Alliances that there were no episodes in the Legion animated series that were straight up bad? I must have forgotten Trials. Gah, what the fuck was this abortion?

I always forget about this one. It must be some kind of defense mechanism.

This episode opens with young Zyx, the Mxyztplkian type kid from the first season episode Child's Play He was a petulant brat in that one, but at least he was an entertaining one. I wish I could say the same here. Boring and annoying is not an endearing combination.

He's being stripped of his powers by a bunch of rejects from Gallifrey

when suddenly Mordru shows up. I like Mordru as a villain, but his design for the series just doesn't work for me. (Though he does get some bonus points for saying "In the name of Yog-Sothoth, I will have my revenge.")

He was also stripped of his powers for trafficing in dark magic, but rather than undergo the trial that would remove the power-nullifying mystical bands, he sought out the Lamentation Pentacle, an artifact that gives him tremendous powers. He beats up the High Council, but one of them teleports Zyx away before he is overcome. We fade out with an image of Mordu's head hovering about their citadel, which is a cool visual, marred only by that WB logo.

Zyx appears on board the Legion Cruiser, laments that he's been sent to these losers, and Credits.

They land on the planet and the guy specifically vulnerable to magic offers to lead the delaying action against the evil wizard. Zyx mentions the trial to get his powers back and they decide to split the team. One Legionnaire will accompany Zyx and the others will join Superman against Mordru. Superman-X is the last one to say "Not it!" so he gets stuck with the kid.

Superman: We'll split up. I'll lead the team against Mordru and try to delay him, while one of you helps Zyx. Volunteers?
Star Boy: I'm no babysitter.
Bouncing Boy:
I'd rather fight the evil wizard.
Phantom Girl: Uh, I've been to the city before, so...
Timber Wolf: I say give it to the new guy.
Kell-El: What? Hey!
Superman: Done.
: I hate you guys

I'm done with bitching about X's inconsistent characterization at this point, so let's just move on. Zyx waves his hand over the bands and a projection of the White Witch begs him to get the plans for the Death Star to Obi-Wan gives him directions to his first trial, "the Cave of Lore" on the other side of the "Swamp Sea."

"Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope."

You know, I'm seldom embarrassed about watching and writing about kiddie cartoons, but hearing dialogue like that just makes me wince. Those two take off and a bunch of skeletons, gargoyles and orcs attack the other Legionnaires.

I like this fight scene. My favorite moment has to be when Superman is dropped to all fours from the impact of a magical mace, so he kneecaps a bunch of guys with his heat vision. I'm not sure why animated suits of plate armor explode when he does this, but it's still cool.

Meanwhile, in the swamp sea, the two most annoying characters in the show talk, until a monster shows up and eats Kell.

And there was much rejoicing.

Zyx notices the swamp monster is just trying to protect its egg sac, so he saves the eggs from a falling tree and the White Witch pops up like Clippy the Office Assistant and tells him that he has completed the first trial.

"It looks like you're trying to get your magical powers back. Would you like help?"

Meanwhile, Mordru shows up. Superman lances him with a blast of heat vision, bowls him over and goes to remove the amulet, but is shocked off by its energies. Mordru then takes out the Legion with one burst of magical energy, petrifying Superman, aging Timber Wolf and throwing a bunch of frogs at Phantom Girl.

Cut to the two stooges making small talk. Zyx tries to teach Kell a counterspell, but gives up, declaring Kell "a special type of idiot". No arguments here. They arrive at second trial, which is a stupid riddle out of a Dungeons & Dragons module. (I suppose it was that or a chessboard trap.)

Zyx gets his powers back, they teleports to Mordru, who turns the captured Legionnaires into monsters who attack Kell and Zyx. Kell holds them off as Zyx deals with Mordru.  Brief fight, then Kell tries the counterspell that Zyx taught him and this time it works. The Legionnaires are freed and restored to normal and everybody dogpiles Mordru.

They seal him with beams from the citadel, and then Star Boy entombs him in the center of the planet, which was a cool nod to comics continuity.

Zyx gets his ridiculous hat back and we end the episode with the Elders telling everyone how awesome Kell was. Blech.

From the Comments Section: Some Zelazny News

From the comments, for folks who don't read them, a little bit of Zelazny news.

The first is that Chris Kovacs has published an essay "Fallen Books and Other Subtle Clues in Zelazny's A NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER." in the December issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction. In it he discusses who each character is and provides support for his analysis and concludes with a discovery about who Snuff is really based on.

And Chris DeVito has posted a link to Howard Jones talking about his love for the Amber Books. The comments to the piece are generally worth reading too.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Elegy for Angels and Dogs

This is an interesting footnote in the history of Roger Zelazny's stories., a sequel to a Zelazny story, written by another author, Walter Jon Williams.

I first learned of the existence of Elegy from Walter Jon Williams' afterword in Lord of the Fantastic,  and it seemed so improbable that I couldn't be sure that it wasn't some kind of weird joke. I loved The Graveyard Heart but a sequel seemed so unnecessary that I could scarcely fathom its existence. And while it was called a sequel, I figured that it would be some kind of "set in the world of the Graveyard Heart" type bullshit that had so disappointed me as a kid. When somebody advertised a Star Wars story, I expected it to feature Han and Luke and Leia, not be about a day in the life of a random stormtrooper. So, I was rather surprised and somewhat delighted to find that it was in fact a direct sequel, even featuring some returning characters.

At his blog, the author talks about how the story came about. It's really kind of interesting. It was part of the Tor SF Double series, which featured short works by established authors, followed by sequels written by newer writers specifically for the series. It's a pretty cool idea and one which I'd been previously unfamiliar. It's pretty good, and it reads like a Zelazny story. Unfortunately, the story it reads like is Changeling.

We're saddled with a loathsome prick of a protagonist and he brings down what would otherwise be a superb story. From his interview to join the Set. The Doyenne is the first speaker and Lamoral is the second.

"Can you give it up? The family, the traditions, all dozen or so of your castles?"

"All twenty-three to be precise. And no, I have no intention of giving it all up."

"You'll have to."

"I think not. After all, I'll have to resign and produce and heir at some point."

She fixed her legendary scowl on him. Lamoral avoided being intimidated. "For a member of the Party Set, there is no other existence. There is no choice in the matter. Any occupation outside the Set becomes irrelevant - one's family ties crumble away, one's specialized knowledge becomes obsolete, one's occupation ceases to exist."

Lamoral gave her a practiced smile. "I like to think of my occupation as timeless."

"You'll see," she said darkly. By which Lamoral took it to mean he'd been accepted.

As he knew he would, even if he'd spent his interview gnawing on human bones. The Party Set, a
nouveau media aristocracy, would have happily slit a thousand throats for a hint of validation from the Lanadadel, and both he and the Doyenne knew it.

"You'll have to take my brother Alexander as well," he said.

"I hardly think so. More than one member of a family is quite-"

He gave her his most charming smile. "He'll just get into trouble without me to look after him. No, it's both of us, I'm afraid."

He's fantastically unctuous and I kept expecting him to get his comeuppance, but the more I read, the more I realized that the reader was expected to admire this glib Mary Sue. Everyone else in the story certainly did.

The complex and nuanced Doyenne of The Graveyard Heart is reduced to the role of mere adversary, and an ineffectual one at that. Mary Maude Mullen didn't do the research about how many castles he had? That's bullshit.

And it might be reasonable to conclude that I didn't like the story but that's actually not the case, because beneath those two problems there's a really good story here. I liked the concepts Williams explored in Lethe and he shows the same vivid imagination here. Augmented reality spectacles foresaw similar smartphone apps twenty years in advance. Eurydike Ichimonji-Apostolidis is a fascinating and compelling character, marred only by her interest in Lamoral We even get a mention of Diane Demetrios, who had a very small part in the first story as Moore's first wife. That's some fine continuity porn right there, and I think it's because of the author's love and respect for the source material that I can't bring myself to dislike it, no matter how much I hate Lamoral.

We open on a Set party on a facility orbiting Uranus, the "castrated Creator", a turn of phrase that evoked Zelazny for me. The participants return to their cold sleep and on awakening, they learn two things. The first is that there has been a system-wide war and they have been asleep longer than intended because of it, and the other is that the most hated member of the Set, who is surprisingly not Lamoral, but a man who went by the alias of Cao Cao, failed to awaken because a saline solution had been substituted for the enzyme prep shot that would allow him to survive the freezing process.

There's a bit of a murder mystery, but that's almost incidental, for this is a work where the enjoyment is more in the telling than the tale. Lamoral schemes to usurp control of the Set from the Doyenne, but there's little tension there, not only because I hate him and want him to fail, but because the Doyenne as so amazingly incompetent. That bit I quoted above, where he runs circles around her, is characteristic of every time they interact. Her Investment Intelligence lost millions in the Crash of 2130? "My own I.I. did very well in that, by the way," Lamoral smugly informs her.

At the end of the story, we shift gears and get a climax atop a mountain peak that channels both
This Mortal Mountain and Corwin and Brand's confrontation in the box canyon in The Courts of Chaos. We also get a last minute twist that grows logically out of both events in this story and alludes to speculation in the early part of The Graveyard Heart.
Though I can't recommend it wholeheartedly, it makes an interesting coda to The Graveyard Heart and after reading this and Lethe, I'm eager to read more from Walter Jon Williams.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Hills, they are alive! Sing-along Sound of Music

On Sunday, Jen, Lily, Oma and I all went to a Sing-along Sound of Music at the State Theater. If you're not familiar, it's kind of like a Rocky Horror at the midnight movies. You yell at the screen and wave your props and generally enjoy yourself in a community environment. There are costumes too. A woman dressed her kids as marionettes. I think she won the prize, which was a DVD of the movie, which is kind of cheesy, as the people attending these things almost certainly already have a copy of their own.  There was also a guy in a Nazi uniform, which I felt was in rather questionable taste.

There was an emcee, but she was pretty bad. A five minute introduction would have been fine, a fifteen minute one would have been tolerable, and the THIRTY-FIVE minute one we got was entirely too long.

There's no point in summarizing the plot of the movie, since it's so well known, so I'll instead offer my observations on the movie and the event.  It's the Sound of Music on the big screen with karaoke style lyrics for the songs. Evidently they use a DVD or BluRay rather than a film, but I don't know the actual mechanics of it. Lily loves the movie, but she got pretty antsy. In retrospect, I think watching it the night before to get her hyped about it was the wrong move, because that's almost seven hours of Sound of Music in 24 hours.

I like Sound of Music. Angela Cartwright, who plays Brigitta may have been my very first crush as a little kid, in her role as Penny in Lost in Space,

so I've always been fondly disposed towards the her and consequently the movie. I like musicals anyway, but this helped cement it.

Something that struck me about the movie on this movie is how closely it parallels Disney's Little Mermaid prequel, which is another favorite around here (and I ask you, how can the Disney karaoke game have more songs from Cars than The Little Mermaid?! It's a travesty, I tell you!) The mother dies and the grieving father of a large brood banishes all music from his kingdom.

Captain Von Trappe was an interesting guy in real life too, though the Sound of Music takes a few liberties with his biography.

The imdb triva section for the film notes that some of the kids had growth spurts during filming, and that the filmmakers tried their best to hide this (by having the kid who played Friedrich, who grew half a foot in height during production, film without shoes and having Liesl stand on a box to make her seem taller) but I noticed it when they were lined up on stage near the end of the movie, when Max is approached by Zeller. They had been lined up by height at the beginning of the movie and I thought that if they did that again, that they would have to line up in an entirely different order.

I think my favorite character was the Baroness.

Not that one!

There she is! Eleanor Parker as Baroness Schraeder.

The instructions were to hiss when the Baroness showed up on screen, but I always liked her. She's not a bad person. Wikipedia's summary suggests that she's jealous of Maria, and while that's technically correct, I think it's misleading. She recognizes Maria as disruptive influence on her household, because her fiancee has feelings for her, and tells her about these concerns. I don't think it was her specific intent to get Maria to leave as she did, though I don't think she was displeased with the outcome either.

She was the stepmom, and that can't be an easy position to be in, but she made the best of it, and she really seemed to sincerely love the Captain and he her. When Maria returns, and she's talking to Captain Von Trappe on the balcony, they both know it's over. She's talking about what to get him as a wedding present, and he cuts her off and tells her that going throuh with the marriage would be unfair to them both. She accepts this with as much dignity as she can muster, packs her little bags and returns to Vienna, wishing them well.

You don't find that as much in modern romance movies, where it seems that if one of the lead characters starts in a relationship,  but later leaves his or her partner order to be with the other lead character, that original partner always turns out to be some kind of irredeemable monster in order to justify that choice. It was a painful decision for her, but she did the right thing. She loved Von Trappe, but he loved Maria more, and as the song says, "There ain't no good guy, there ain't no bad guy, There's only you and me and we just disagree." Of course, in a movie with actual Nazi's, you don't need to create artificial villains out of people just living and loving as people do.

Also, I see that this was one of Parker's last major roles and that she is still alive. Go her!

I also like the Reverend Mother. This is probably my favorite exchange in the movie, and I'm an atheist.

Maria: I left... I was frightened... I was confused. I felt, I've never felt that way before, I couldn't stay. I knew that here I'd be away from it. I'd be safe... I can't face him again... Oh, there were times when we would look at each other. Oh, Mother, I could hardly breathe... That's what's been torturing me. I was there on God's errand. To have asked for his love would have been wrong. I couldn't stay, I just couldn't. I'm ready at this moment to take my vows. Please help me.

Reverend Mother: Maria, the love of a man and a woman is holy too. You have a great capacity to love. What you must find out is how God wants you to spend your love.

Maria: But I pledged my life to God. I pledged my life to his service.

Reverend Mother: My daughter, if you love this man, it doesn't mean you love God less. No, you must find out and you must go back.

Maria: Oh, Mother, you can't ask me to do that. Please let me stay, I beg of you.

Reverend Mother: Maria, these walls were not built to shut out problems. You have to face them. You have to live the life you were born to live.

Christopher Plummer disliked the movie for a long time. He eventually came to accept it with what I thought was a classy statement. "I was a bit bored with the character. Although we worked hard enough to make him interesting, it was a bit like flogging a dead horse. And the subject matter is not mine. I mean, it can’t appeal to every person in the world...The world has seen (The Sound of Music) so many times. And there’s a whole new generation every year—poor kids—that have to sit through it. But it was a very well-made movie, and it’s a family movie and we haven't seen a family movie, I don't think, on that scale for ages. I don’t mind that. It just happened to be not my particular cup of tea."

I was aware of his distaste for the movie when I saw it this most recent time. I was thinking of it during the scene where Maria has returned the Abbey and the kids had gone down to it to try to talk to her. Now they're back at the mansion and he's trying to get them to admit where they were. So he's mercilessly taunting his kids with this giant smirk on his face, and it's absolutely the most animated he gets for the entire movie. I have to assume that Plummer was channeling a little of his frustration with filming in this scene.

"Stuffed yourself with thousands of delicious berries?"
"Okay, let me see them..."

"Yes, Liesl, I am quite happy with myself. Thanks for noticing."

Monday, January 16, 2012

Roger Zelazny Casting Call: Mandor

I've always liked Mandor. At first he treats Merlin like a younger brother of whom he is fond but not particularly impressed, and it's nice to see that not everyone from Amber to Chaos is wowed by this allegedly precocious wunderkind. Also, he's got a neat Trump:

I held it before me and put the others away, studying the blue eyes and the young, hard, slightly sharp features beneath a mass of pure white hair. He  was dressed all in black, save for a bit of white collar and sleeve showing beneath the glossy tight-fitting jacket. He held three dark steel balls in his gloved hand.

For the role, I think I'd like to go with Jude Law.

A good-looking fella, certainly, but he's also a talented actor, a combination that is less common in cinema than you might expect. A look at his filmography shows he's versatile, and I think he's got the both the menace

Her face grew flushed and beads of perspiration appeared upon her brow. Her eyes were still unfocused, but they brimmed with tears. A thin line of blood trickled down her chin. Mandor extended a clenched fist and opened it, revealing another metal ball. He held this one about ten inches before her brow, then released it. It hung in the air.

"Let the doors of pain be opened," he said, and he flicked it lightly with a fingertip.

Immediately, the small sphere began to move. It passed about her head in a slow ellipse, coming close to her temples on each orbit. She began to wail.

"Silence!" he said. "Suffer in silence!"

and the sense of subdued spectacle

"If one of your relatives strolls by, should I introduce  myself as a Lord of Chaos?"

"I thought you were also a Lord of Deception."

"Of course," he said, and he clapped his hands and vanished.

one finds in Mandor.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Being a dad

So, I was thinking of those coffee mugs you see in gift shops that read "Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad."

Specifically, I was thinking this in the three seconds when it became clear that Lily was going to throw up on me, and while she was doing it. And she was so upset about it, so I was like, "It's okay. Your body couldn't help it. I don't mind" in my most soothing voice while she was barfing on me.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Limericks and Hide and Seek

The weekend was nice. We practiced limericks, (Lily had picked up the concept of a rhyme scheme from somewhere, so she was quick to comprehend limericks when I explained that they were an A A B B A rhyme scheme) and we played hide and seek and watched the sun set in a local cemetery.

There was also some awkwardness. The question came up once or twice, but we always managed to deflect it and with Christmas come and gone I thought we were safe until next December. But we were sitting around the house when Lily suddenly asked,  "Daddy, is Santa Claus real?"

"Of course he is," Pause, "Why do you ask that?" and I couldn't go much beyond that, because questioning her about why she was wondering would only cause her to ask more questions.

Her mind is sufficiently like mine that  I could see the wheels turning. I'm not brilliant, but I am persistent in puzzling things out, and if a situation doesn't make sense to me, I keep turning it over in my head until it does. I could see that same remorseless reasoning at work with her, and it made me a little sad. That kind of tenacity serves me well when solving problems, but it has caused me trouble in my personal life, and if she keeps this up, she's going to figure out that Santa doesn't make any sense before she's six, and that's too soon.

I have a really good memory. Lily's may be even better. We had watched an episode of Batman: Brave & the Bold about four months ago, with Booster Gold and his robot Skeets. She liked it okay, but didn't ask to watch it again as she sometimes does with other shows, so we sent it back to Netflix and I didn't think about it again.

We were watching the Legion of Super Heroes last week and Lily said "Hey! It's Batman's friend's robot!" I've included the time stamp at the bottom of the image. You can click to embiggen, but Skeets is on the screen for no more than four seconds. I didn't catch that the first time I saw the episode. I only know about it because I read some trivia on the Internet movie database. But that's some impressive recall right there.

She keeps trying to get me to wear a monocle too. I can't remember if I've mentioned it here, but my vision is odd. My right eye is 20/15 and doesn't need corrective lenses and the left is over 20/200, which is the threshold for legal blindness. So I've got one pane of window glass and one with a heavy prescription. I mentioned this once to Lily and she totally seized on it. She asked if both my eyes needed glasses and I knew she wouldn't be asking the question if she didn't know the answer. So I played along with her leading questions and she eventually came out with what she was hinting at, that I shouldn't wear glasses over both eyes if I only need them for one. And I don't know what her fascination is with monocles. Maybe she's in love with Mr. Peanut.

Legion of Super Heroes: In the Beginning

This episode of the Legion of Super-Heroes is pretty decent too. My main disappointment is that there's no progress on the Brainiac 1 subplot from Message in a Bottle, though of course, there is merit to having breather episodes after a bombshell like that.

We open with a Senator Tolway giving R.J. Brande and the Legion the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. Cosmic Boy hams it up on the stage when suddenly Grimbor attacks!

In the infirmary, Saturn Girl comes out of her season long "healing trance". She senses the attack and when Lightning Lad cautions here that she needs a doctor's note before she runs off to fight, she holds up her flight ring and says, "Here's my doctor's note", which was pretty cool.

You rule, Saturn Girl!

Meanwhile,  Grimbor and his scavengers are schooling Cam, Superman-X and Cosmic Boy. I'll be generous and assume that the chains are some kind of non-ferromagnetic material, rather than Cosmic Boy forgot about his only super power. I mean, you expect Superman to forget about one of his powers from time to time. He's got a million of them.  Would have been nice to see an acknowledgement of this, though.

"You got me tied down with battleship chains..."

At first, I wasn't sure if it was Grimbor, inexplicably back from the dead, or someone even more inexplicably taking on his identity, but when they were pursuing him, but then they call him by name a couple times, which makes me wonder if this episode aired out of sequence. That would actually make a bit more sense.

Cosmic Boy and Lightning Lad are bickering, which prompts an extended flashback where Braniac 5 tells Superman X how the Legion came to be.

We open in a cabin on a spaceship, with Young Garth Ranzz looking at the picture of himself, Mekt and Ayla that we saw in Chained Lightning.

Yong Rokk (Cosmic Boy) in the next bed strikes up a conversation, Garth says he's there for adventure, and asks if Rokk wants to come with him to see the ricest guy in the galaxy, who's supposed to be on the liner with them. They leave the cabin and the pair sees a young Imra Ardeen (Saturn Girl. Garth introduces himself as "Charles Boogerjuice" in a silly accent (and I'm childish enough laugh at that)

She calls the bluff, pointing out the ticket for steerage and the Braalian mud on Rokk's boots, and adding as an afterthought, that she can read their minds.  The two boys show off their powers, with Rokk fashioning a dunce cap for Garth.

Then R.J. Brande shows up. Saturn Girl senses the assassination attempt and the three kids fight off the bad guys. Saturn Girl still senses danger, but Brande's assistant Doyle is dismissive, and offers the trio some lollipops with the most unctuous smile I've ever seen.

Cosmic Boy throws his away in irritation, but Lightning Lad eagerly chows down.

They continue their journey to Earth and on seeing the Superman museum, decide to form a team called Awesome Kids United, Up with Heroes, The Legion of Super Heroes.

They refer to Brande as Cam's father a couple times, which was a nice nod to comics continuity, and they do fuck all to explain it, which I actually think is kind of awesome. "Wondering how this Texas industrialist is the father to a shapechanging Durlan? KEEP WONDERING!"

Brainy narrates a montage of their early investigation and they find that Doyle was behind the assassination attempt. They save Brande and he throws his buckets of money behind the Legion.

Back in the present day, Cos and Lightning Lad are still bickering and Saturn Girl contemplates returning to her healing trance. They find Brand and Grimbor, and learn the Doyle survived and has been disguising himself as the senator in one of those Rube Goldberg revenge plots so common in comics. He has a cool disguise, but he still sucks.

He orders his disposal goons to destroy the Legion, and the Legion smacks the shit out of them. What was he expecting to happen?

Grimbor loops his chain around Lightning Lad, who smiles and sends a charge down it to electrocute him.

Doyle goes to run, but the Legion grabs him and Saturn Girl says, "And to think, you would have gotten away with it if not for us meddling kids." Heh.

Doyle presses the button on his mastermind doodad, and sets the satellites used for compressing nebulae into stars on to a single target, which will form a black hole. The three founders take off to destroy them before the black hole reaches critical mass.

They're successful and they end up as friends again.We close with the swearing in from the early days of the Legion and it's cool to see the young Legionnaires. And Tyroc is there, which always makes me happy.

Monday, January 9, 2012

80's Amber picture

Chris Kovacs posted this in a comment in the 9 Princes thread, but I don't know if everyone reads the comments, so I'm going to give it its own post here.

His post:

 There's an interesting photo from a 1980s convention that shows a group of fans dressed up as the various characters from the Amber novels. It's at:

If you scroll down among the comments, you'll see that participants in the photo have posted messages explain who is who. Corwin and Deirdre and side-by-side in the back right, and unfortunately Benedict is missing from the photo, having been cut off beside Deirdre.

Thanks for the tip! 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West may be the best video game I've ever played.

It reminds me of Scott Pilgrim versus the World. I like the movie a lot, but I don't think it is the best movie I've ever seen in the same way Odyssey is the best game I've ever played. What they have in common is that they're imagined down to the smallest detail, lovingly crafted, and unlike anything else out there. Every one of of the individual components that comprise these works is awesome, but when taken as a whole, they are so different that they fail commercially because there is no audience for such an idiosyncratic final product. The game sold poorly, but you can get it at a very good price on Amazon and elsewhere.

It's an adaptation of Journey to the West, one of the Four Classical Novels of Chinese literature, which has been adapted a zillion times. The long-running anime series Dragon Ball had its origin in Journey to the West. The story has been told and retold since before there was an America.  A pacifistic monk, named Xuanzang and sometimes called Tripitaka is traveling West to India to recover Buddhist sÅ«tras. It's a perilous journey, and Xuanzang cannot defend himself, but he has four powerful disciples to protect him in atonement for their past sins.

Most well known of these disciples is the The Monkey King, a figure as old as human myth. If you're not familiar with his exploits, click on that link, because it's a decent summary. He's a Trickster Hero, an archetype that runs the gamut from Loki to Coyote to Bugs Bunny. Monkey is a powerful warrior, and also a bit of an ass, and Xuanzang can only control him by virtue of a magical contricting headband that he was tricked into wearing.

Pigsy: So, Monkey let me ask you a question.
Monkey: Yeah?
Pigsy: Do you use a lot of hair product?
Namco's page for the game has a brief rundown on the plot, but it's pretty terrible. The writing is bad and it simplifies things almost to the point of meaninglessness. At its core, Odyssey is a game long escort mission, but its a fun one. And I know, "fun escort mission" seems like an oxymoron to anyone who has ever played one. (If you're not familiar with video games, an escort mission is one where the character you play has not only to keep himself alive, but you also must defend a secondary character, who is often fragile and/or suicidal. My least favorite escort mission had to be on City of Heroes, where the fragile army general I was protecting would run into melee combat to punch enemies that exploded when they died.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. The game is set 150 years in the future, after an apocalyptic war, with killer mechs still fulfilling their programming to hunt down the few remaining humans. We open with Monkey already captured by slavers, and the tutorial is escaping from the ship as it crashes into New York City. This is absolutely the best and most engaging tutorial I've ever played. The ship is exploding and other people are using the escape pods, so Monkey has to reclaim his gear (including his extending staff and his flying cloud)

and race to get to the pods, before they are all ejected and before the ship crashes, eventually climbing on the outside of the ship. At one point, I was hanging on the bottom as the ruins of the Empire State Building came closer and closer, and I was like "Wow, cool cut scene!" and I missed the subtle hints that this was not in fact a cut scene and I'd better start climbing if I didn't want to be a Monkey pancake. (I died on the tutorial level. Yes, I suck.)

All the while that Monkey is escaping, a young woman is always ahead of him, closing doors behind her to delay him and racing to get to the last pod. This is Tripitaka (Trip), though we don't know it yet. I really like her design, attractive without being sexualized.

She gets to the last pod, but Monkey is right there on the outside. She ejects it while he's clinging on, and when he wakes up in the ruins below, he finds that she has affixed one of the headbands used to control the slaves on the ship, and is using it to compel his cooperation.

(Monkey wakes up, Trip sitting in front of him)

Monkey: YOU...Arghh, oh god! My head feel like it's ripped open.
Trip:  It's the headband.
Monkey: What?
Trip: The slave headband, the one I fit on you.
Monkey:  You put this on me?
Trip:  Let me explain.
Monkey: Get this thing off, or I'm gonna rip your head off.
Trip: No.
Monkey: No?!   Do you think I'm screwing with ya?
Trip: Command stop!
Monkey:   Arghhhhhhh!
Trip: Oh my god, it works!
Trip:  Command stay away from me!
Monkey:   Arghhhh! What the hell are ya doing?
Trip:  I hacked the headband, so it could be activated by my voice commands. Activation triggers a systemic pain response.  It's what controls the slaves.
Monkey: I'm gonna kill you.
Trip: You can't.  If my heart stops beating for any reason, the headband will discharge a lethal dose. If I die, you die.
Monkey:   Why?
Trip: I need your help. I come from a wind farmer community. It's about three hundred miles from here. I'll never make it on my own. If slavers don’t get me, mechs will. That's the deal. Get me back to my home and you can go back to yours.
Monkey: Looks like I don’t have a choice.
Trip: Neither of us do...I'm sorry.
Monkey: Okay...let's go.

Now video game dialogue is by-and-large notoriously bad ("Jill, here's a lockpick. It might come in handy if you, 'the master of unlocking', take it with you"), but I thought that was pretty decent. The script alone only tells half the story, because the voice acting, body movements and facial expressions are all wonderful, orders of magnitude better than what I've ever seen in a game before.

It has an impressive pedigree, having been written by Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later). Andy Serkis was heavily involved in production as well, being co-director as well as lending his talents as one of the very finest motion capture and voice actor performers around. I don't know Lindsey Shaw or Richard Ridings beyond their work on the game, but they were pretty exceptional too.

Even watching Monkey move is amazing. His movements are mixture of brutal strength and stunning grace, and the animations are flawlessly beautiful, whether he's climbing or leaping or battering a mech apart with his bare hands.

I think the moment I knew I was on to something special was in Chapter 4. In the previous chapter, Monkey and Trip had been harried by a gigantic robot dog.

They took shelter inside a playhouse and Trip finds a rare treasure from before the war, an intact power cell. She has to power up the playhouse to bypass the electronic lock protecting it, which activates the programs for the play, a holographic performance of the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet.

Meanwhile, Monkey, down on the stage, notices some movement within the building and realizes that the dog has followed them inside. The dog is the size of a truck and Monkey knows that their only hope of staying alive is to avoid its attention and quietly sneak out of the place.

However, the booting up of the playhouse continues, and as Monkey is on the stage, the program thinks he's an actor and an automated spotlight focuses on him and follows his movements. His wide-eyed expression of baffled horror, his false starts from side to side as he looks for an escape are all details that make you believe that this is something that is happening right now. He yells in near panic, "Trip, turn it off. turn it off!  WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?" and the dog leaps and the controller vibrates in your hand in time with its thunderous impact, and Monkey darts away (the end of his sash dangling behind him like a monkey's tail), when the dog mistakes the holograms for real people.

And you're avoiding the killer mech and trying to bring the scaffolding down on it while being distracted by the holograms playing out their scene. It's wonderful experience.

Control is great. I had played Castlevania: Lords of Shadow prior to this, and it was a lot of fun at first, but it was just overwhelmed by the weight of its flaws. Like Odyssey, it has climbing and exploration and boss fights, but Odyssey does each of these elements better. The climbing in Castlevania has two big problems. One is that the camera is static and it's often impossible to see where you're supposed to go or what your character is actually looking at. The other is that it lacks the failsafes of Odyssey. If you try to make Monkey execute an impossible command, he just won't do it. In Castlevania, Gabriel fecklessly jumps to his doom all the time, which gets tiresome after the fiftieth repetition.

The exploration is better too. Odyssey has a minor xp system, which you can use to boost your combat abilities, and you're awarded as many points for finding various orbs as you are for defeating enemies. In other games it might be tedious to run around collecting these things, but Monkey is so much fun to control that swinging from pole to pole is something I could do all day.

The game is essentially a series of short set pieces and boss fights are no different. They're generally pretty easy, but I am sick to death of quicktime boss fights and any move away from them is a change for the better as far as I'm concerned.

The main complain I've seen about the game is that it's too short. It is short for a game, but it's much longer than a movie, and for me, there was a greater emotional investment in the characters, because I spent eight hours instead of 90 minutes and I was instrumental in helping the story unfold.

And finally, the ending.


The game ended like it had to. When Trip and Monkey enter the Pyramid, they encounter the man behind the whole thing. He's an ancient figure, kept alive by the computer interface, and those he has kidnapped are not slaves, but rather people he has given purpose. Pyramid is also played by Andy Serkis, which I thought was a bit of an odd choice, seeing as he's also Monkey, but that's a small complaint. Pyramid has hooked them all into a simulation based on his memories before the war, and he believes the artificial world he is giving them is better than the wasteland in which they live. "You are seeing the world that they share with me. They are not slaves...they are citizens! They have jobs, they have marriages. They bring up their children. Their children go to schools." Monkey enters the simulation and declares it beautiful. I think it's the only time in the game you see him smile. But while he's in there, Trip kills Pyramid and ends the simulation, and the thousands of drones wake up to the real world.

If it sounds like the Matrix, that's because they both drew from the same source. At its core, Journey to the West is a Buddhist fable, and here, Monkey, with the help of Trip rejects the illusion of the world. An illusion can be comforting, but only in rejecting it can one find enlightenment.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Legion of Super Heroes: Message in a Bottle

Welcome back to the Legion of Super Heroes episode reviews. I actually wrapped this review up in a somewhat timely fashion, because I really liked this one.

On watching this again for my review, I'm convinced this is my favorite episode of the season. Chained Lightning comes close, but this one has two factors that push it over the top. One is that we get Superman rather than Superman-X as we did in Lightning. The other is the presence of Streaky the Supercat!

But more on him later.

I actually think I turned it off on my first viewing. I started it up right after finishing Unnatural Alliances, and I was already ambivalent about the season. We open with Lightning Lad, Chameleon Boy, Timber wolf, Superman,  Shrinking Violet and Brainy zipping along the arctic tundra.

Chameleon Boy: It's funny,  Timber Wolf, I always pictured Superman's arctic Fortress of Solitude differently.
Timber Wolf: What, more ice?
Chameleon Boy: Fewer killer robots.

And pan to a vanguard of a million Destructobots. And I was like, "Thanks for the exposition, Cam, but no thanks for the episode," and turned it off.

Now that I'm much more kindly disposed towards the episode, I actually find the exchange pretty funny.  (Plus kudos for saying "fewer", when it's a common mistake to say "less" in these circumstances.)

Also, Shrinking Violet looks cuter every time she shows up.

Superman flies into the Fortress after Imperiex and Validus while the other Legionnaires fight his robots.

He finds the place empty, and then he vanishes like Jeff Bridges in Tron and winds up inside Kandor.

Now, it's the rare person in America who doesn't know the general deal with Superman. My grandmother could probably tell you the basics of his "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple" origin. (And thank you, Grant Morrison, for summing up the character so perfectly in All Star Superman. Link to my favorite panels in the story.)

And then there is the secondary layer of Superman mythology. The Phantom Zone, Supergirl, the different varieties of Kryptonite, and one of my favorites, the Bottle City of Kandor.

It's one of those bits of Silver Age weirdness, but it's an engaging and persistent one, and one that shows up with some regulaity across the different incarnations of Superman. Briefly, if you didn't click through the link and you're not familiar with it already, Kandor is a Kryptonian city that survived the destruction of the planet because it had previously been shrunk down and put in a bottle by the original Brainiac.

While Superman is in the bottle, a robot custodian walks out and fills the Legion in on what's going on. The robot looks more than a little like the Cyborg Superman from the comics. It claims that Superman put it there to keep watch on the Fortress, and the design is an interesting aesthetic choice. I mean, if I were making myself a robot butler, I probably wouldn't build it to look like me with half my face ripped off. 

"Tea and crumpets, sir?"

Vi asks if Superman went into the model, and Brainy says, "That's no model. It's an actual Kryptonian city that's been shrunk." I don't know if it's deliberate or not, but Brainy's use of the passive voice here ("It's been shrunk" rather than "My ancestor shrunk it") seems to be an attempt to distance himself from events, but if so, it's a nice touch.

Anyways, back in the bottle, Imperiex shows up. Superman forgot his protective super suit and is powerless under Kandor's artificial red sun. The robot shrinks them and beams them in, but Vi shrinks in under her own powers and as a result is several feet taller than the rest of the Legionnaires.

I liked that bit a lot. It doesn't add a lot to the main story, but it's a fun bit of flavor.Shrinking Violet doesn't get a lot of screen time over the course of the show, but her appearances are pretty consistently entertaining. They arrive to find a dazed Superman being licked by a dog that seems somehow familiar.


Brainy seems to know more than he's letting on, and Superman calls him out on it. He tells them that "The Messenger" was a device that Jor-El used to stabilize Krypton, which worked until "The Terror" shrunk down Kandor (where it was housed) and thereby removed the only thing preventing Krypton from self-destructing. I really like this take on Krypton and how they tie a number of aspects together neatly into a unified story. I think it works really well in the context of the animated Legion canon.

Superman asks what they know about the Terror, but Brainy evades the question and changes the subject by offering Superman a suit that will protect him from the red sun radiation. Superman is like, "Thanks, Brainy! You're the best."

Cut to Imperiex being evil and trying to find the map to the Messenger. He gets it, and caves in some archtiecture to cover his escape. Brainy rescues some of the Kandorians, who are grateful until they note his resemblance to the Terror.

Superman initially dismisses this claim, but a couple minutes later, they're discussing things in the forest, he asks Brainy if there is something he's not telling them. Brainy spills the beans, Superman angrily asks why he didn't tell him that before and Brainy says it's because it could affect his future...and because he was afraid to.

This is just a great scene. Superman is pretty upset, about all the secrets Brainy kept.  "Then all those secrets you kept from me. That wasn't for my benefit. It was for yours!"

I think the argument can be made that it was for both, but Brainy used the excuse of protecting Superman from his future adventures to avoid telling him things that might come in the way of their friendship. It's a great scene. Brainy knows that he kept more than was strictly necessary to protect Superman and he's angry and embarrassed that he's been discovered. It's a believable, human reaction. (Yeah, yeah,  Brainy is a Coluan, but you know what I mean)

They go to separate regions of the forest, Brainy reviews his footage of the fight and sees that he captured an image of the map, so they meet Imperiex at the temple. Brainy and Superman are good people, so they put aside their spat to concentrate on the fight. They get the Messenger, but Imperiex captures their teammates. He sends them the standard bad guy ultimatum, give him the Macguffin, or their friends get it.

Brainy doesn't want to trade, but would rather evacuate as many of the inhabitants of Kandor as they can, and try to rescue their friends. Superman is having none of it, and is still sore over being lied to for so long.

Brainiac 5: I believe our best option to prevent Imperiex from obtaining the Messenger is to destroy it.
Superman: And sacrifice Kandor?
Brainiac 5: For a much greater good? Yes. And we might still rescue our friends and evacuate a percentage of Kandor's population before the city crumbles.
Superman: Your ancestor destroyed most of Krypton and now you're ready to finish the job!

Superman flies off with the Messenger and tells Brainy he can do "Whatever it is that Brainiacs do when they're not shrinking cities."

Superman gives the Messenger to the ruling council of Kandor and tells them that he's going to confront Imperiex and it's up to them to decide what to do with it if he doesn't return. He expresses regret in having failed them, and they tell him that he hasn't, that he visited Kandor in the past and restored order to the place, and they've been striving to live up to his ideals ever since.

Meanwhile, Brainy is in a Kandorian temple, looking at stained glass representations of the Terror, talking to himself/Brainiac 1, when he realizes that he still has the program for the original within himself. He disables the firewalls and accesses the restricted subroutine.

I love Corey Burton's Brainiac voice. Nobody does monotone robots like he does. He states that he's been watching Brainic 5 since the beginning and has the solution to his problem ready. In the virtual world Brainiac 5 inserts the upgrade. In the real world, he smiles.

Cut to Superman and Imperiex. The artificial sun is setting. Superman's suit has been destroyed, so he is once again powerless. Nevertheless, he and a crowd of Kandorians confront Imperiex. They get the bejesus kicked out of them until Brainiac 5 shows up and modifies the wavelength of the artificial sun, changing it to a yellow star. Superman's powers are restored and he slaps Imperiex's grip aside.

Imperiex: Even with your powers restored, you are still outnumbered.
Superman: Better check your math.

Everybody in Kandor gets Superman's powers and they smack the shit out of Imperiex.

When I say everyone, I mean EVERYone.

Imperiex says to Validus that they should teleport back, Validus roars and Imperiex responds that they'll worry about resizing later, and I didn't like that bit at all. When Validus roared, I just figured he was roaring, not speaking some Chewbacca roar-language. But that's a tiny complaint in an otherwise awesome episode.

After that, Brainy and Superman journey to the ruins of Krpyton and use the Messenger to rebuild it and once they place Kandor on the restored planet, they resize it.

Back on the Legion cruiser, Superman and Brainy apologize to each other, then Brainy wipes his memory of the adventure. Superman walks away confused, and Vi says to Brainy that she's happy for him that he faced up to his past, and she bets he's stronger for it. He says, "You know something, I think you're right." She turns away and then Brainy gives a sinister smile to the camera. End credits.

Great episode.