Category Archives: Comic books & superheroes

Guardians of the Galaxy review

On Saturday, 2 August 2014, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas A.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for an early dinner at Summer Shack and Guardians of the Galaxy at the Apple Cinemas Cambridge. Several other members of the Boston-area social/gaming groups saw the latest Marvel Comics-based movie this past weekend, and we all enjoyed it.

Plot: Guardians of the Galaxy starts out with a young Peter Quill, who is given a mixed tape by his dying mother and is then abducted by aliens. The rest of the movie follows an adult Quill, who has renamed himself "Star Lord" after traveling with space pirates.

A heist gone wrong lands Quill afoul of the Nova Corps (interstellar police) and in jail with a bunch of misfits. They join forces to break out and try to save the galaxy from the evil Thanos' minions. More hijinks ensue.

The overall outline of the story should be familiar to fans of westerns, samurai flicks, and space operas from Star Wars to Firefly/Serenity. At the same time, the characters come from Marvel's cosmic comics, giving the cast and crew more creative freedom because they're not as well-known as, say, Spider-Man, the Avengers, or the X-Men.

Actors: Community's Chris Pratt is newly buff as Star Lord but still the cheerful, bumbling everyman he played in The Lego Movie. Unlike many modern antiheroes, the roguish Quill would rather talk his way out of a fight than kill anyone, and he is the heart of the movie.

The band of interstellar adventurers Quill gathers includes Zoe Saldana's comely assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista's bruiser Drax, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as talking raccoon Rocket and humanoid tree Groot, respectively. Audiences love the banter between the irascible (computer-animated) Rocket and laconic Groot.

Interstellar adventurers

Disney/Marvel's latest success

Noteworthy supporting cast members include Michael Rooker as Quill's piratical mentor Yondu, John C. Reilly as Nova corpsman Dey, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. While they're recognizable from numerous other movies, they all seem to be enjoying themselves here.

The bad guys include Lee Pace (from Pushing Daisies and The Hobbit) as Ronan the Accuser, Benicio Del Toro as the Collector (also seen at the end of Thor 2), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Gamora's blue-skinned nemesis Nebula. In addition, Josh Brolin plays Kirby villain Thanos, who'll likely be appearing again in Avengers 3.

Direction and cinematography: James Gunn does a great job of keeping the plot moving, focusing on the appealing characters, and maintaining a fun tone — even with some tragic backstories and the fate of billions at stake — throughout the movie.

Gunn's love of the 1980s is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy's light touch, the many shout-outs to popular culture and science fiction of that era, and the soundtrack (more on that below). He also included numerous "Easter eggs," or allusions to other Marvel characters.

The action scenes are actually exciting, if still somewhat busy and predictable, and Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me favorably of predecessors such as The Fifth Element, which also had exotic aliens, scruffy underdogs, cool space ships, and planet-hopping capers. As a longtime space opera buff, I'm glad to see such space-based adventures again.

Soundtrack: As the trailer already demonstrated, some 1970s and '80s music goes a long way to setting an upbeat mood and suspending disbelief. Quill's mixed audiotape provides the backdrop and impetus for several scenes, and even if I listened to different genres back then, I can appreciate today's visceral reactions.

Rating: I'd give Guardians of the Galaxy, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. Just as interest might be flagging in the current superhero boom on television and in the movies, Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates Disney/Marvel's savvy exploration of other styles.

Its plot may be predictable, but the cast and characters are likable, the pacing is solid, and I wouldn't be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being the strongest movie at the box office this summer.

Fun and games in June and July 2014

As usual, the start of summer has been busy. On Saturday, 21 June 2014, Janice and I went to the Compleat Strategist in Boston for Free RPG Day. We then met role-players Beruk A., Rich C.G., and some of Rich's friends at Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge, Mass.

I picked up free fantasy supplements for Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Pathfinder, as well as quickstarters for the superhero Valiant Universe and cyberpunk/fantasy Shadowrun. Clearly, I'm still in a retro-clone, old-school Renaissance (OSR) frame of mind.

Other recent acquisitions include Arrows of Indra, Celestial Empire, and the FATE (Core) Freeport Companion, all of which should be useful for my long-running "Vanished Lands" campaign, which is currently using D20/FATE house rules.

As you may have seen by now, I ran four games in one week! After the latest Creation Star Trek convention in Boston (more on that later), I ran my usual "Vanished Lands: A New Dawn" telecom team on Sunday, June 22. The Player Characters encountered monsters while scouting an army approaching the city of Sogewa.

On Monday, June 23, the "Vanished Lands: Vistel's Expedition" face-to-face group continued its adventures. That adventuring party has traveled through time to free some slaves.

Byron V.O., an alumnus of the Boston-area groups who now lives in St. Louis and participates in "A New Dawn" via Skype, stayed with Janice and me after a business trip back east. On Friday, June 27, I ran an extra "Vistel's Expedition" session, and Byron and I were pleased at the strong turnout.

Byron V.O.'s June 2014 visit

"Vistel's Expedition," summer 2014

On Saturday, June 28, I ran "Star Trek: Restoration," and it was nice to host a smaller group for the first time since moving from Needham to Waltham, Mass. The crew of the U.S.S. Rotha was involved in a tense standoff with Romulan warbirds!

After that afternoon session, we met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Josh C. for a solid Italian dinner at Fiorella's in Newton. Byron, who is always a good houseguest and fun gaming companion, left on Sunday, June 29.

On Monday, June 30, Josh ran a one-shot of Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade, using FATE Core (reminding me of what I like and what I'd tweak). That wuxia (Asian-style fantasy) scenario was among the one-shots and miniseries my groups have tried out each summer in between longer campaigns.

Pregenerated P.C.s for "Hammer, Don't Touch This!" — Josh C.'s Tianxia one-shot at Brian W.'s home in Newton, Mass.:

  • "Ma Wei Sheng" [Gene D.]-male eastern human, wandering nobleman, taciturn warrior determined to get out from his family's shadow and make a name for himself
  • "Smiling Ox" [Beruk A.]-male human, master of the Demon Hammer, boastful brute with large appetites and a heart of gold
  • "Sister Chuntao" [Brian W.]-female human, Bodhist nun and former thief, conscious of checkered past and seeking harmony, with monkey Sun
  • "Jasmina" [Sara F.]-female tiger, talking animal with scars and a strong sense of justice
  • "Han 'Dragon Dog' Ping" [Bruce K.]-male human, enthusiastic young adventurer and working-class hero
  • "Yee Wong" [Rich C.G.]-male human, old Daoist wizard, immortal but absent-minded and irascible alchemist
  • "Wolf-Eyed Yue" [Brian S.]-female human, wild woman and member of the secret White Widow sect devoted to helping women defend themselves

The Boston-area and telecom games took a break around the Independence Day weekend, during which Janice and I hosted one of our nieces. During the latest "JasonCon" on Monday, July 7, Jason E.R. (whose "Glassworks: the Devil's Den" superhero scenario using Icons: Great Power recently ended) graciously hosted Rich's School Daze, a narrative, rules-light game typically focusing on high school archetypes.

P.C.s for Rich C.G.'s third School Daze session, held in Reading, Mass.:

  • "Emo Wallach" [Gene D.]-male human goth, junior at Trowbridge High School specializing in art and comfortable in dank spaces; discovered a dead dog and classmate during a stormy night at Camp Crystal Lake; later a friend of "Reasonable Squid" reporter Cynthia Hoskins
  • "Chuck Taylor" [Jason E.R.]-male human jock, Trowbridge senior and friend of "Fighting Krakens" water polo Coach Bronkowski and his bullying son Murphy, helped defeat a homicidal alien with surprise tire-iron attacks; after a change of heart, became a nerd defender
  • "Brandon Shaw" [Bruce K.]-male human, shop yank and Trowbridge junior, prone to bad humor; fancies himself a ladies' man and good with an axe in a scrap
  • "Alan Morris" [Brian S.]-male human Trowbridge senior and budding filmmaker; friend of Henry Lee Jackson, an old hermit with a hook hand; recorded attack by assistant camp leader "Ms. Bellum," who was actually a mantis-like alien; dating Chuck's younger sister Tracy
  • "Feskilado 'Fesky' Mepeselph" [Erik R.]-male human Trowbridge senior, science and clank/electronics expert; snuck pet dogs and cat into camp; later found beheaded, and cat Severus was revealed as an alien guardian

I expect "A New Dawn" to resume this coming Sunday, July 13, and Bruce K. will begin his "Eberron/Pathfinder: Reign of Winter" miniseries next Monday. So many games, so little time!

In related news, the Dungeons & Dragons (5e/"Next") Basic Rules have been released. While there are no earth-shattering revelations, especially after a lengthy playtest period, I'm pleased that Wizards of the Coast released this as a free PDF.

As I've noted elsewhere, this looks closer to what I would have preferred for D&D4e, with a mix of AD&D2 style and D&D3.5/D20/4e rules. We'll still have to wait and see whether D&D5e will tempt role-players away from Pathfinder, OSR, and various indie systems.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) review

Since the latest Godzilla flick, I've fallen behind with this year's genre movies. I haven't yet seen Chef or Edge of Tomorrow, which will probably have to wait for video, but I did catch X-Men: Days of Future Past. This Marvel Comics adaptation cleaned up some of the continuity problems of past films, but its appeal is probably limited to fans of the ever-growing mutant ensemble.

X-Men roundup

More mutants

Plot: For those not familiar with the original Chris Claremont and John Byrne storyline, in one bleak future (actually 2013 in the comics, but probably the near future in the movie), mutants and their allies are hunted by robotic Sentinels and put into concentration camps. This is a direct allegory of the Nazi death camps and U.S. internment of Nisei during World War II.

A few survivors are sent back in time (to 1980 in the comic, the early 1970s in the movie) to stop fellow mutant Mystique from assassinating someone and thereby preventing or at last delaying war between fearful humanity and the mutant minority.

This movie shifts the time traveler from Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat to the popular Logan/Wolverine, and the person who must not be killed changes from Sen. Robert Kelly (who has already appeared in other X-films) to Dr. Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinels, and Pres. Nixon.

While many details have changed, the overall story and tone of Days of Future Past are faithful to the source material. Like Watchmen and the Captain America films, this X-Men outing successfully juxtaposes different time periods, national crises, and superheroes.

Cast: Arguably, the best part of Days of Future Past is seeing the actors from the first batch of X-Men movies (from 2000 through 2009) plus the cast of X-Men: First Class (2011). Hugh Jackman's Wolverine is still burly and wry and serves as the glue holding Days of Future Past — and arguably, 20th Century Fox's whole franchise — together.

While I would have liked to see more of buddies Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as mutant leaders Prof. Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, respectively, it made sense for them to pass the torch to younger actors James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in the same roles.

In the dystopian future, we get glimpses of Halle Berry as Ororo Munroe/Storm, Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, Daniel Cudmore as Piotr Rasputin/Colossus, and Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake/Iceman. Unfortunately, Anna Paquin's cameo as Anna Marie/Rogue was all but cut for time.

In addition, we see some impressive fight scenes between numerous tough Sentinels and acrobatic newcomers Omar Sy as Bishop, Bingbing Fan as Blink, Adan Canto as Sunspot, and Booboo Stewart as Warpath. With exotic names such as these (and I applaud more diverse casting), the X-Men should start a baseball team.

Most of the character development takes place in the past, however, with the aforementioned telepath Prof. X and master of magnetism Magneto. Jennifer Lawrence, who inherited the role from Rebecca Romijn, is again part of their triangle as the shapeshifting Raven Darkholme/Mystique.

Also noteworthy are Evan Peters as wiseguy speedster Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver and Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage as the misguided Dr. Trask. There are too many characters and battles for a lot of character development, but that's typical for any non-print incarnation of the X-Men.

Direction: Bryan Singer, subject of troubling but as-yet unproven allegations, returns with a sure hand to direct the franchise he helped create. The action scenes, actors' performances, and overall pacing are solid.

While time travel can be an overused plot device, it's central to this story, in which Singer fixes some of the fictional history that was needlessly convoluted in past films in this series (to say more would give away "spoilers"). Days of Future Past did a better job than Star Trek: Into Darkness of straightening out continuity kinks.

Cinematography: As with Disney/Marvel's Avengers, the state of the art is kept high for visual effects, fight choreography, and recreating bits and pieces of Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. The dark future is less successful, featuring the same bombed-out urban centers, rainscapes, and computer-generated killer robots as many other dystopian films.

The scene with Quicksilver helping to break Magneto out of a cell beneath the Pentagon rivals Nightcrawler's attack on the White House in X2. In fact I missed Alan Cumming as teleporter Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler. 

Soundtrack: The musical score of Days of Future Past includes themes from previous X-Men movies, period songs, and the right level of punctuation for the action scenes. There were few really memorable moments, but I think this was a more fitting soundtrack than for several other recent superhero movies.

Rating: Overall, I'd give X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is rated PG-13 for violence, brief nudity, and language, four out of five stars, an 8.5 out of 10, or a B+. I found it a worthy continuation of Marvel's mutant saga, and here's how I'd rank it among its peers:

  • X-Men (2000) ***
  • X2 (2003) ****
  • X-Men: the Last Stand (2006) *
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) **
  • X-Men: First Class (2011) ***
  • The Wolverine (2013) — I haven't yet seen this.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) ****

Only longtime X-Men fans will recognize the allusions in the postcredits teaser for Age of Apocalypse, which will likely use a remixed version of the team. Other movies I'm looking forward to include over-the-top noir Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For and stop-motion The Boxtrolls. I'll try to post my favorable review of animated fantasy How to Train Your Dragon 2, which I saw this past weekend.

I'll also try to get around to my impressions of the past year in genre television soon.

Return to the desert

I've already reported on the time that Janice and I spent in Phoenix around her conference for work. On Thursday, 22 May 2014, we drove a rental car down to Tucson for more sightseeing. The last time we drove through the Southwest's deserts was to the Grand Canyon back in 2006. If only the roads around Boston were as straight, wide, and smooth!

We visited the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a historic Roman Catholic outpost  serving the Tohono O'odham people. (The day before, we had looked into Saint Mary's Basilica near our hotel.) It was interesting seeing the layers of aboriginal, Spanish colonial, and American history. As we had seen at the Heard Museum, much of our history of treatment of Native Americans and other non-whites is shameful, but their descendants continue to persevere and try to follow traditional ways.

On a lighter note, Janice and I then drove to the Mini Time Machine, which was more sophisticated than we expected. We had seen similar dioramas and miniatures at Roadside America in Pennsylvania and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C. The Mini Time Machine's collection of dollhouses from the past 200 years was impressive, and we recognized some figurines from our own collections.

From there, we went into downtown Tucson, where we had lunch at Bison Witches, a hip bar and deli. Unlike the sparkling new business and arts district of Phoenix, the neighborhood we visited in Tucson was more hippie-friendly, despite being deep in a "red state."

We also stopped at Campus Candy Yogurt (we had previously visited Yogurt Time a few times) before driving back to Phoenix for dinner at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant. We had previously hesitated eating there because of the name and the fact that it was emptier than its neighbors, but the food was good, and it may just be that fewer people noticed the restaurant or like Mediterranean food.

On Friday, we shipped a box of conference proceedings, maps, and laundry home. We then took the Metro to the Desert Botanical Garden, which gave us insights into the various terrain types of the Southwest. Fortunately for us, the temperatures were only in the 90s Fahrenheit. Janice and I saw numerous species of cactus, as well as hummingbirds, ground squirrels, baby quail, and cute lizards. We also had pity on the park staffers having to disassemble many Chihuly glass sculptures. After walking on some trails, we had lunch at Gertrude's Restaurant.

Gene in Arizona

Saguaro cactus

Janice and I then stopped at the Mill Avenue shopping district and the area around a campus of Arizona State University. Again, we experienced a different vibe from downtown Phoenix or Tucson. We got our daily yogurt fix at Moja Yogurt and checked out Pop Culture Paradise, a nice comic book and game shop.

For our last meals in Phoenix, Janice and I ate at Pizza Studio on Friday night and Matt's Big Breakfast at the airport on Saturday. It's a good thing that we had a substantial meal, because our departure was delayed for about an hour and a half because the pilot's seat needed to be replaced — a first for us. I read the graphic novel Trickster, which compiles Native American tales.

Overall, we liked sprawling Phoenix and the other places we visited in Arizona. While our few days of sightseeing were shorter than a proper vacation, it was nice to get away from our cubicles. Fortunately, we had the remainder of the Memorial Day weekend to get over any jetlag.

Since our return, we've been catching up on work, e-mail, phone calls, recorded television (about which I hope to blog soon), and gaming sessions. We'll likely be busy with the usual rounds of visits to and from family and friends later this summer.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 review

On Sunday, 4 May 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Bruce K. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in downtown Waltham, Mass., for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. We enjoyed lunch at The Grill on Pine St. and the latest superhero sequel.

Amazing Spider-Man 2

Spidey swings back into action

Plot: Amazing Spider-Man 2 takes place shortly after the events of 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man, which rebooted Sony's franchise of the 2000s. Our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler has successfully defeated Dr. Curt Connors/the Lizard but at the cost of the life of NYPD Capt. Stacy, the father of Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen.

Haunted by tragedy, Spidey isn't able to rest for long, when a Russian gang member, a onetime fan and industrial accident victim, and an old friend challenge his vow to protect his fellow New Yorkers, especially Gwen.

Peter also learns more about the mystery surrounding his parents' disappearance years before. I didn't think it was necessary to tie Spider-Man's origin so tightly to his parents or to the creation of various villains, but superhero movies tend to do that.

Acting: Since Amazing Spider Man 2 focuses on Peter more than his costumed alter ego, it's good that Brit Andrew Garfield is a strong anchor to the film. Despite his lanky frame, he conveys both Peter's world weariness and Spidey's joy in swinging through Manhattan's steel canyons.

Garfield is again ably supported by winsome Emma Stone (his real-life girlfriend) as Gwen Stacy and Sally Field as hard-working Aunt May. Jamie Foxx gets the most screen time of the villains as dweeby Max Dillon, who becomes Electro, but Chronicle's Dane DeHaan provides more emotional resonance as Peter's wealthy childhood pal Harry Osborn.

I'll try to avoid "spoilers" beyond what you may have seen in posters and previews, but any Spidey fan knows what happens to troubled Harry. Of course, creator Stan Lee has a brief cameo. Paul Giamatti's appearances as Aleksei Stytsevich/the Rhino are almost as brief and clearly setup for the inevitable "Sinister Six" sequels.

Direction and cinematography: Marc Webb, who directed this film's predecessor, clearly understands the characters, and he wisely focuses on Peter's relationship with Gwen, his Aunt May, his absent parents, and Harry. Amazing Spider Man 2 starts out a little slow, with a few set-piece battles, and it gradually picks up speed.

The web-slinging and fight scenes are very good, but not ground-breaking. I'm glad to see Spidey's classic costume restored. As much as I appreciate the occasional slow-motion scene, showcasing poses from the original Marvel Comics pages, audiences have become a bit jaded by plentiful computer-generated visual effects and pyrotechnics.

As a native New Yorker, it was nice to see an upbeat portrayal of my hometown despite all the destruction, as well as the celebration of everyday heroism provided by police, firefighters, and brave civilians. While Disney/Marvel has little to fear, it's the one area where Spidey complements and competes with the four-color Avengers.

Soundtrack: The Amazing Spider-Man 2's musical score is good, with optimistic themes that Man of Steel could have used. It's not quite as stirring as for the earlier Spider-Man flicks, but I noticed it more than for several other recent films. Peter's cell phone ring tone also harkens back to the 1960s cartoons.

Rating: Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which has gotten mixed reviews. Yes, like most superhero sequels, there are too many villains and leaps of logic, but the acting and dialogue make up for obligatory fisticuffs.

I'd give The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is rated PG-13 for violence, a B or B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or three and a half out of five stars. I liked the first Spider-Man 2 and Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier slightly more, but this is a solid entry for Spider-Man fans and certainly better than Spider-Man 3.

I'm looking forward to the latest incarnation of Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past (which got a non-sequitur of a teaser during Spidey's end credits), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I recently saw and liked Rise of Planet of the Apes), and Guardians of the Galaxy.