Author Archives: Geek Squirrel

About Geek Squirrel

Author, Poet, and fan of all things geek.

Geeksquirrel’s Nutty Review: Guardians of the Galaxy #5

I’ve been following this comic since its release, and I have to admit that unfortunately I am unimpressed. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the upcoming Marvel movies, and as such, the company saw fit to re-launch the long-defunct series, this time paring down the cast and adding tentpole character Iron Man to the mix. Thus far, the results have been lackluster.

The original GotG was an epic space-faring story featuring spectacular cosmic battles and reality-bending plots. The Guardians were conceived by half-human, half-alien Peter Quill as a trouble-shooting force whose responsibility would be to protect the galaxy from cosmic-level threats. (By cosmic, I mean the kind of thing it usually takes a TARDIS to sort out.) The comic was high on humor and adventure, and the charm of the stories came from this band of misfits and renegades facing down such things as a giant spaceship powered by faith and an enormous space octopus from an alternate reality.

Now, under Brian Bendis’ direction, the cast has been pared down to it’s bare essentials, and the team’s adventures have become pretty much pedestrian affairs. Once headquartered in the decapitated head of a Celestial and backed by a telepathic Russian space dog, the Guardians now tool about in a much-less impressive stolen space battleship and fight threats so underwhelming they would barely attract the attention of the Avengers.

This issue featured the debut of Angela, a Neil Gaiman creation from the independent comic series “Spawn”. Entering the Marvel Universe for reasons somewhat vague, Angela begins by taking on Gamora in a decidedly unexciting battle, while GotG leader Peter Quill finds out about a potential reality-threatening event. The entire issue is singularly uninteresting. Everything from Rocket Raccoon’s boring conversation with Tony Stark to the appearance of GotG favorite Mantis seems to be stripped of veneer. Rocket is supposed to be the funniest of the characters but his dialogue falls flat in the face of Tony Stark’s somewhat predictable Star Trek references about his tryst with Gamora. The situation is exacerbated by Bendis’ lack of attention to detail, for Rocket claims no knowledge of Earth pop culture, when the 2008 run had him admitting to purchasing a collector’s edition copy of the movie “Beaches” on ebay.

The problem is that Bendis has effectively sucked all the mind-boggling concepts that made GotG impressive in the first place. Plus, he doesn’t get Rocket, and if you don’t get the Raccoon, you really shouldn’t be writing Guardians. It has been said that GotG was chosen to be a film because Marvel wanted to go in a more fantastic, cosmic direction, but this will be made difficult if the comic series insists on becoming mundane and pedestrian.


Geeksquirrel’s Nutty Review: Man of Steel

It is, I think, an axiom that every hero is a reflection of their generation. Back when Superman was first created, he was pretty much a tougher-than-average strongman who had no reservations about bullying people into submission. As time wore on, the character grew to become the archetypical boy scout that dominated his persona for most of his existence. In the Superman films of the 70’s and 80’s, this persona was used to provide humor. The naive hero who said he fought for truth, justice and the American Way was rebuffed with a caustic “You’re going to be fighting every politician in the country!”. Such was the cynical post-Vietnam climate the these films were created in. Over time, the comedy overran the series, to the point where the idea of Superman and his enemies was hardly something to be taken seriously, but rather an opportunity to be cornball and show dumb sight gags involving super-breath. As beloved at it rightfully is, the Christopher Reeve Superman was still a trifle campy, so much so that the original director Richard Donner was fired over trying to keep things serious.

Given that, how will Superman fare in a gritty, terror-ridden world where everything alien is viewed with suspicion? That is the question that Man of Steel tries to ask, and I think this is why so many of the negative reviews of the film seem to pine for the whimsical style of the Reeve era. This is Superman taken as realistically as possible. It is very much a darker film; even the brilliant whites of Krypton have been replaced by a moody Matrix-style planet. But within this dark environment there is still at the core the same message of hope that has always been there. Superman’s purpose is to inspire us to be better people, to reach for an ideal even if we constantly falter in the process. Such an inspiration is sorely needed in the post-911 world, and it is no mistake that Clark’s efforts to defeat the Kryptonian General Zod are inter-cut with individual heroics by humans both civilian and military. It’s as if our real-life heroes are suddenly granted an superpowered ally, or as if Superman himself has become a metaphor for the heroics that we witness in every catastrophe. Those who were wishing for the kind of flights of fancy that the original films did so effectively will be disappointed. There are no romantic moonlit flights with Lois Lane, nor any pathetic criminals getting their just desserts in comedic fashion. What we get is as close to a real-life Superman as you can get; one who is surrounded by tragedy but who still strives to do the right thing, and in the process he inspires others to do the same.

That said, the movie is far from technically perfect. The third act suffers from the kind of over-extended action sequences that plagued Star Trek: Into Darkness, leaving the viewer longing for a breather. The muted color pallet also makes it difficult to follow the faster-than-a-bullet action sequences, with Superman’s darkened uniform sometimes blending into the background. On the plus side, the film is stacked from top to bottom with Oscar caliber actors, all of whom invest completely into their roles. Henry Cavill, while admittedly limited in his dialogue, is able to convey the mystery and loneliness of the alien searching for his place in this world. His one performance flaw is a tendency to yell a lot, much like a Spartan out of director Zack Snyder’s previous film, 300.

Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline are both wonderful as the much-bullied younger versions of Clark Kent. Amy Adams turns in her usual charming performance as a somewhat muted Lois Lane. She is less grating and irascible than Margot Kidder’s take on the character, but she occasionally lacks the same fiery spirit, and her chemistry with Cavill is not nearly as electric as that between their 70’s counterparts. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe are both impressive as Jonathan Kent and Jor-El, two very different men who nonetheless share the same core values and share the responsibility for fathering the fledgeling hero.

Critics of this film should not be surprised that we got a darker, grittier take on Superman. It is, after all, the reason why Christopher Nolan was involved in the first place, and it continues the realistic take on the characters that Nolan began with his Batman trilogy. It is somewhat ironic that DC Comics, once considered the more traditional, brighter and lighter of the two major comic firms, has begun a series of films that will undoubtedly be much more grounded than their original source material, while Marvel has for the most part gone for the flashy, humorous and more whimsical approach that DC was once known for. Superman was the first of comic superheroes, and hopefully the proposed films of the long-floundering DC universe will follow his lead, giving us grounded, realistic stories that still carry a message of hope.

Man of Steel gets Four Acorns out of Five!


Geek Squirrel’s Nutty Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness.

In a previous blog I posted my concerns about J. J. Abrams’ seeming lack of comprehension regarding the original spirit of Star Trek. Some readers considered it an indictment of the rebooted franchise, and in a sense it was. That said, Abrams did deliver a fresh take on the series that was enjoyable and modern, despite its flaws. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams and his writing staff appear to go overboard in their attempts to please old school Star Trek fans, and while I applaud their efforts, their failure to really understand the philosophy of the series leads to some serious problems in the third act. That said, Into Darkness is still a very enjoyable movie and almost everything that a good summer blockbuster should be. It succeeds as solid entertainment but fails to reconcile itself to the original source material.

The movie itself is not short on action. Most of the sequences are well-choreographed and exciting, but some of them, particularly a shuttle chase midway through the second act, are borderline gratuitous and could easily have been removed. The actors are all given something interesting to do, and each deals with it with varying degrees of success. The principles all turn in well-crafted performances, and Benedict Cumberbatch finally gives the world at large a taste of his acting abilities. The film also attempts to deal with some post-9/11 issues in a somewhat limited fashion. There are attempts at the higher sense of morality that the original series was famous for, but the third act backslides into simple good vs. evil sensibilities.

Some of the movie’s stumbles lie in the common blockbuster errors of excesses at the expense of logic. Many situations are set up based on the flimsiest of notions, like the opening where the Enterprise is hiding underwater in order to avoid detection from a primitive alien race. Why it was necessary to hide the immense ship in the ocean when she would be perfectly safe and secure in orbit is never explained, nor does it serve any obvious purpose other than to set up a ‘money shot’ of her rising from the depths. Similarly, newcomer Alice Eve is exposed in a ridiculously juvenile T and A scene. Abrams piles on the explosions in the third act, setting up action sequence after action sequence like Michael Bay on a weekend bender. Again, these sequences are wonderful as individual set pieces, but they tend to overrun the movie like an endless parade of shiny red fire trucks.

Much of the film’s major narrative flaws have to deal with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, and in deference to those who have not seen the movie, I will refrain from spoilers until further down in this review. Suffice it to say that Cumberbatch begins as an intriguing, mysterious villain, but devolves into a common bad guy that needs to be punched out as brutally as possible. Again, part of this lies in attempts to cater to fans of the original series, which some viewers might find pleasing but others may find highly contrived. I will allow you to form your own opinion on the issue, but I personally fall into the later camp. If you wish to read a more detailed analysis, feel free to stick around after the final rating, otherwise, this is your spoiler warning.

Star Trek: Into Darkness gets Three Acorns out of Five!
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The Final Frontier…..

Still with me? All right then.
Abrams has admitted that he was not a fan of the original Star Trek, nor did he appreciate the type of idealistic moralizing the show indulged in. This is eminently clear in his writing staff’s treatment of the latter half of Into Darkness, which is essentially a reboot of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. In re-visiting the classic film, Abrams effectively shoe-horns large chunks of dialogue from the original film into the climax of his own, instead switching the roles of Kirk and Spock so that the good Captain is the one who makes the sacrifice. Abrams and writer Robert Orci wisely back off from a verbatim re-shoot of the emotional death scene, but enough of the dialogue is in place to make some viewers visibly cringe upon witnessing what seems to be a near-parody of a classic sci-fi moment.

In rebooting the original story, however, Abrams and Orci back away from exploring a potentially deeper moral in favor of returning to simple good guy versus bad guy mentalities. Throughout the first act, Kirk is portrayed as a person hell-bent upon revenge against Khan, and it is only Spock’s calming influence that prevents him from simply killing Khan outright. This is reinforced when the crew discovers that Khan was merely a pawn in a conspiracy engineered by their superior officer at Starfleet. Khan’s terrorist actions were in effect an attempt to stop a renegade Admiral who was holding his people hostage. At this point, the morality of Kirk and company is evident. Kirk realizes that his desire for revenge may be at least somewhat misplaced, and he brokers a truce with Khan in order to defeat the Admiral. This creates an interesting commentary on the post-9/11 world. The idea that the pursuit of revenge has corrupted the United States has been a facet of other post-9/11 fiction, most notably the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. But no sooner has the Admiral been defeated then Khan reverts to his evil ways, setting up the reboot of the original film’s ending. This completely undermines the potential for a morality play on the level of classic Star Trek, for in the end, the crew decides to “get the bastard” in order to avenge Kirk, and Spock is only prevented from killing Khan due to a contrived need for a deus ex machina to revive his Captain.

In attempting to re-imagine Wrath of Khan, Abrams and his writers back away from the kind of philosophical and moral stance that was a hallmark of the original series; a moral stance that Abrams confessed he did not enjoy or appreciate when he first watched the show. The creators’ lack of understanding of the source material is equally evident in their treatment of Khan himself, for the potential of redemption existed within the character when he was first introduced in the episode “Space Seed”.

KIRK: Name, Khan, as we know him today. (Spock changes the picture) Name, Khan Noonien Singh.
SPOCK: From 1992 through 1996, absolute ruler of more than a quarter of your world. From Asia through the Middle East.
MCCOY: The last of the tyrants to be overthrown.
SCOTT: I must confess, gentlemen. I’ve always held a sneaking admiration for this one.
KIRK: He was the best of the tyrants and the most dangerous. They were supermen, in a sense. Stronger, braver, certainly more ambitious, more daring.
SPOCK: Gentlemen, this romanticism about a ruthless dictator is
KIRK: Mister Spock, we humans have a streak of barbarism in us. Appalling, but there, nevertheless.
SCOTT: There were no massacres under his rule.
SPOCK: And as little freedom.
MCCOY: No wars until he was attacked.
SPOCK: Gentlemen.
KIRK: Mister Spock, you misunderstand us. We can be against him and admire him all at the same time.

Khan was presented as more Napoleonic that Nazi, and while his attempt to take over the ship was ruthless, he expressed frustration at what he saw as being forced to kill in order to achieve his ends. It is Khan’s admirable qualities that eventually persuade Kirk to give him a chance to start his own civilization by marooning him with his people on a habitable planet. (The fact that it tragically did not work out was the setup for Wrath.) As such, the potential for creating a more layered villain existed in this story, and had Abrams and Orci taken notice of this, they might have broken new ground with the character. Had they chosen to keep Khan on the path to redemption, or at least made him somewhat redeemable, they would have kept to the spirit of the original series while creating a more original and creative story. At the very least, they could have stuck more to the spirit of the original episode by exiling Khan rather than beating him down and shoving him into a cryo tube. By choosing to re-create Wrath of Khan, however, they created a contrived, forced conclusion that trampled on the morals espoused by the original series. Adhering to the philosophy of original Trek would arguably have delivered a film more satisfying to old school fans, while at the same time escaping the sense of re-treading (harsher critics might say ‘stomping on the hallowed memory of’) Wrath of Khan

It is a shame that Abrams and Orci seem to be unable to reconcile the flashy effects, superb acting and spot-on characterizations with a story that explores deeper issues and breaks new ground. If a third installment is created, I am hoping that they will end these rather weak attempts to pander to old school fans with mishandled plot reboots, and instead focus on what new Trek does best: present a newer, hipper and more action-oriented film that respects the original material rather than pays lip-service to it.

P. S. Am I the only one who thought the “old Spock” cameo was also a waste of time?


Clara Oswin Oswald

I’ve been pretty critical of Clara Oswin Oswald of late, and I figured it was high time to try and articulate my issues with the character. First, as one of my readers very astutely pointed out, often one’s reaction to a new Doctor Who companion is predicated on how one feels about their immediate predecessor. In my case, it’s quite obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed the Doctor’s previous companions, Amy and Rory. That said, I have tried to give Clara the benefit of the doubt, but I find that as the episodes progress, this is harder to do.

First, I should say that I adore Jenna Louise-Coleman’s characterization of Clara in all of her incarnations. She is charming, quirky and plucky, which are all the necessary ingredients for a good companion. I love her personality, but I am having difficulty with her storyline.

The first problem is how the character was introduced. We have been effectively given three introductions to Clara; first as Oswin, then as Victorian Clara, and finally as the modern Clara. Of the three introduction stories, the first was the strongest, while the last was undoubtedly the weakest. This is not only in terms of the actual episodes, but of the characterization of Clara. When first introduced, Oswin is by her own words, a “screaming genius and a tad bit sexy”, and the way she goes about her day while marooned on the Dalek prison planet makes you want to root for her from the beginning. Victorian Clara’s investigative skills are at the forefront in her episode, and the scene where she follows the Doctor up the ladder to the TARDIS was nothing short of enchanting.

Unfortunately, Modern Clara is not featured in the best light when the Doctor finally finds her. She is initially confused by a simple thing like the internet, and she is placed in a reactionary role. Rather than initiating the adventure, she reacts to a situation that is thrown upon her. She displays none of Oswin’s cleverness until her mind is enhanced by the Great Intelligence, and takes none of the initiative that Victorian Clara displays. This version of Clara is a character who is thus far someone whom things happen to, rather than someone who gets things done.

This is a major difference from most of the modern-era companions. In her debut, Rose is the character who rescues the situation by saving the Doctor from the Autons. Jack proves himself as a man of action from the beginning, and even Martha saves the Doctor from asphyxiating in her first adventure. Amy’s courage is proven both in her scenes as a young girl and an adult, and she also resolves the situation in her second adventure, “The Beast Below”. Mickey, Donna and Rory all start out as reactionary characters who, like Clara, appear to be simply reacting to the adventures around them, but each eventually proves their worth through individual heroics. The current version of Clara has yet to take the kind of heroic action that made us understand why the Doctor chose his companions. Every one of her predecessors proved that they could be a hero in their own right, but Clara has yet to show her mettle in a convincing fashion.

The interesting thing is that her previous incarnations both demonstrated the kind of characteristics that one would expect from a companion. Oswin’s bravery is self-evident, and she saves the Doctor by deleting his identity from the Dalek mainframe. Victorian Clara passes the tests that Madame Vastra and the Doctor have set up, and shows her determination by following the reclusive Time Lord even after he tries to shake her. While it can be argued that all three versions are supposed to be the same character, this particular version of Clara has yet to earn her stripes. Her back story has none of the frustrated longing of Rose, Donna and Amy, nor does she appear to be growing in the manner of Mickey or Rory. She is, thus far, a passenger and an observer, and even when she has helped, it has mostly been a follow-on to what the Doctor has already done. Her sacrifice of the leaf in “The Rings of Akhaten” simply puts the last nail in the coffin; she does not think of a solution, but is simply following the Doctor’s lead. Ditto her assistance in “Cold War”. Her reliance upon the Doctor in her initial confrontation with the Ice Warrior smacks of dependency, and her final words at the climax are again merely a follow-up to what the Doctor has already done.

Personally, it will be very difficult for me to like Clara, despite her charming personality, until she earns her stripes. Until she demonstrates some independent characteristics, challenges the Doctor or even outright disagrees with him, she will come off as weaker than her predecessors. Hopefully her time will come, but until it does, she will not have proven that she deserves to be in the category of “those magnificent companions”.


Geeksquirrel’s Nutty Review: The Rings of of Akhaten

We begin with the Doctor doing some time-stalking of his latest protegee. He visits Clara’s past and surreptitiously observes bits of her life. To all intents and purposes, she seems normal to him, which he finds frustrating. But sharp-eyed viewers will notice some interesting clues about Clara’s origin…things like dates on tombstones, birth dates, and other more subtle references which I will reserve for another thread.

At any rate, the Doctor returns to pick up Clara for her first adventure and takes her to the titular location: the rings of Akhaten. Apparently the Doctor has been here before with his granddaughter (clue) and seems to like the place. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of “The Beast Below”, Clara encounters a child in distress and elects to help her. Clara comforts her by relating how she faced her greatest fear, and how her mother comforted her with a speech reminiscent of Amy’s speech about Rory in “A Good Man Goes to War”.

Did I mention that the girl was dressed in an outfit vaguely similar to the seers in “The Fires of Pompeii”? Either these little touches are deliberate, or the writing crew is getting soft. As the story progresses we are faced with a gas giant planet that feeds on memories, we get an epic speech by the Doctor that is vaguely reminiscent of, oh, an epic speech by the Doctor, and there’s a lot of singing.

In the end, “Rings” is yet another reasonably tolerable episode that does its best to try to be more than what it is. The problems with Jenna Louise-Coleman’s Clara continue. As I said before, I do like Ms. Coleman immensely, but her character has yet to bring the emotional weight that her predecessors did. With Rose, we got a character whose frustrations with her lot in life were palpable. Donna’s life was similarly empty for different reasons, as was Amy’s. Clara’s plight is similar to that of Martha Jones. Both characters were played by good actresses, but both were replacements for beloved companions and struggled under the weight of that prejudice. Martha at least benefited from some good scripts, but Coleman has yet to find her niche.

The problem is that we don’t really care about Clara yet. Her backstory is very pedestrian and lacks the kind of impact that previous companions enjoyed. The only thing that’s interesting about Clara is the mystery that surrounds her, which has nothing to do with her personal character. In the end, this has probably been the most disappointing companion launch in the revived series.

That said, “Rings” does provide us with another epic speech, ably delivered by Matt Smith, but it seems somewhat overwrought and forced. Previous speeches by the Eleventh Doctor were set up to be the culmination of major plot points. In this case, it just sort of happens, and as much as we care about the Doctor, it doesn’t have as large an emotional payoff as it should.

“The Rings of Akhaten” gets Three Acorns out of Five.


Geeksquirrel’s Nutty Review: Doctor Who “The Bells of St. John”

With the return of Doctor Who we are finally gifted with the first regular episode for new companion Clara Oswald. Well, technically, it’s the third time we’ve been introduced to her, but why bother to count? This time Clara is a live-in nanny for a typical London family. She is quickly entangled with the Doctor over a threat carried over wi-fi. It seems if you accidentally click on some squiggly lines when trying to log in, you will be captured and ultimately fed to the Great Intelligence.

This episode, while fun, is wracked with problematic elements. The chief of which is the main threat: a monster that will eat you if you click on the wrong wi-fi connection. Put simply, you have to be pretty darned stupid to click on a bunch of unknown squiggly lines that pops up on your computer, and a monster that feeds on stupid people is not what I would call threatening (since I am a total screaming genius…see what I did there?). There’s nothing less scary than a monster that is easily avoided.
Which brings us to another problem: Clara Oswald. We have been introduced to her twice before, and unfortunately the third time is the dullest. This version of Clara is sadly, not that interesting. Her back story is that of a girl who lost her mother at a young age. Her personal story is not as intriguing as the souffle girl who tried to fight the Daleks for a year, or the mysterious governess who doubled as a serving wench when it suited her purposes. Jenna Louise Coleman is a fine actress and she embraces her role with gusto, but she is not given much to work with except for the usual companion functions of asking questions and getting into trouble.

The primary difficulty with Clara is that we’ve already seen her meet the Doctor twice before, and both of those times carried more emotional impact and set up a more interesting character. Oswin’s cheerfulness in the face of danger and Victorian Clara’s fairytale climb up the ladder to the TARDIS were far more compelling than anything we saw in this episode. Couple this with a very non-scary villain and you have an episode which at best is a below-average but mildly fun adventure story. I truly hope that Clara’s story will turn out to be more intriguing than its start. Certainly Ms. Coleman deserves better.

 

“The Bells of St. John” gets Two and a Half Acorns out of Five!


Of Lightsabers and Lens Flares

J.J. Arabs has officially signed on to direct the next Star Wars film.

First, let me state the obvious: he will probably do a lot better than Lucas did on the prequels. That said, I have to say that his work on Star Trek is pretty much like a hot girl cosplaying a character she knows nothing about. It’s slick, attractive and sexy, but there’s something missing. Abrams nailed the relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy and delivered a thrilling action story, but he missed on one of the best (and hardest) things about Star Trek: in the end, it’s about learning to settle differences without violence. In the original series, Kirk went out of his way to avoid killing whenever possible. He spared the Gorn, refused to shoot a man in cold blood (Wyatt Earp, actually, go fig) and never once during the entire three seasons did he kill a klingon captain. The flashy explody stuff came much later, with “Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek III”. Not surprisingly, other than “Khan”, the best of the movies were “The Voyage Home”, which was about whales, and “The Undiscovered Country”, which was about brokering a peace with the Klingons. Star Trek at its heart is about finding a way to make peace.

Now witness this bit of dialogue from Abrams:

Spock: Captain, what are you doing?
Kirk: Spock, showing them compassion might go a long way to promoting peace between us and the Romulans. It’s logic, I thought you’d like that.
Spock: No, not really. Not this time.
Nero: I would rather suffer the end of Romulus a thousand times. I would rather die in agony, than accept assistance from you!
Kirk: You got it. Arm phasers, fire everything we’ve got.

So much for the quality of mercy. Sure, there’s a kind of halfhearted attempt, but the end is so bloodthirsty that it undercuts it completely.

Compare this to a scene from the original series:

Kirk: We are standing by to beam your survivors aboard. Prepare to abandon your vessel.
Romulan Commander: No…no…it is not our way. I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.
Kirk: What purpose will it serve to die?
Romulan Commander: We are creatures of duty, Captain. I have lived my life by it. Just one more duty to perform.

What worries me the most about Abrams and Star Wars is that while he does deliver on action, he falls short on heart. One of the elements that has been missing from the prequels is the wisdom of Obi-Wan and Yoda. There are no scenes where the young warrior gains greater understanding. Yoda’s speech before he raises Luke’s fighter is a prime example of what I’m talking about. I’m afraid that in Abram’s hands we will get what we’ve always gotten: a flashy, fun popcorn movie that turns one of the most compelling elements of the series into a form of magic. No wisdom, no enlightenment, only a cool way of throwing stuff around. Granted, Abrams will still deliver a quality film, but it won’t be perfect, and it might just miss out on a large part of what made Star Wars so interesting.