Black Orchid Review

Review Format 1 - The Plot Spot

Black Orchid, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, begins with a twist that, while not entirely novel in comic books, is still shocking, especially as an opening scene – the death of the title character. In this graphic novel, Neil Gaiman is tasked with taking the titular niche DC Comics character, giving her an origin story and completely revamping her in the process.

Susan Linden, the Black Orchid, is a super-heroine who is captured and brutally murdered by a henchman of Lex Luthor. Unbeknownst to her murderers, elsewhere, a strange purple woman – a plant and human hybrid – is birthed from a large bulb in a secretive greenhouse lab. She is confused and curious, carrying the scattered and tattered remnants of Susan’s memories.

Black Orchid 03

This strange new woman immediately meets Doctor Philip Sylvian, her creator. He begins to tell her more about herself, and her former self. How much of her is Susan, and how much of her is new? She begins a journey of self-discovery to learn more about herself – who and what she really is – in a journey that echoes those of the ancient Greek myths. At the same time, dark forces from Susan’s past, the previous Susans’ pasts, learn of her and seek to do her harm.

Review Format 2 - Target Audience

It may be written by the same author as Sandman, and it may star a superhero – or the shadow of one, but I think that the first and foremost audience who would enjoy Black Orchid would be fans of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing (of course fans of Sandman would most likely enjoy it too!). Many of the themes and aesthetics are the same, and without spoiling too much, there are story connections between the characters of both books.

For readers completely new to the comic landscape of DC, this is a very dense read that might very well be too opaque. That is not to say that the uninitiated cannot find the story interesting, but there are references to characters and places that mean much more if you know what they are and what they represent.

For both familiar readers and new readers, an appreciation for dream-like and murky storytelling and the art is necessary. This is not a plot, nor is there a character, that builds off of action and excitement. Instead, the appeal is in the surrealism, the grim noir elements, and the dark wonder and atmosphere that Neil Gaiman creates.

Review Format 3 - The Short Take

One of the hallmarks of Neil Gaiman as a writer is the way he manages to blur the lines between the mundane or the ridiculous, and the mythic. In Black Orchid, he does that very thing yet again. He takes a fairly campy side character in the DC universe and reinvents them in such a way as to make it feel as at home in Greek myth as it is among the tights and capes of modern superheroes, perhaps even more so. The story borrows elements of Frankenstein, mixes it with noir, and lays the mixture out across a journey not unlike those taken by epic heroes like Odysseus and Orpheus. It’s a strange, but somehow seamless blend. I know we’re talking about the author of Sandman and the artist who produced that work’s iconic covers, but I hope it’s not too on the nose to say that the whole thing feels like a dream.

Black Orchid 02

That isn’t to say that this is anywhere near as good as that seminal work. Sandman’s ideas and imagery felt more complete and fleshed out. Both Black Orchid and Sandman had intelligence and wit behind them, but Sandman felt like it had more heart and love for its characters and world, whereas Black Orchid felt much more cynical of humanity in general.

Black Orchid’s strengths lie in the atmosphere of the plot and the beautiful murkiness of the art. It lies with the core ideas and mythic tropes. It does not lie in emotional investment with its characters, or relatability. This isn’t a story meant to make you cry or laugh. It isn’t a story meant to take you on a rollercoaster of emotions and thrills, nor is it a story to make you think about heartfelt reality. Instead, it is a story that works its way under your skin and makes you feel both uncomfortably grim and yet full of wonder. Not a childlike wonder, but rather the kind of wonder one one feels when they are lost in a beautiful jungle – the kind of wonder one gets when staring into the eyes of a tiger. It is a dangerous wonder.

While Black Orchid never had a moment that made me truly fall in love with it, I find myself appreciating it more and more as I think back over its artistry. There is no doubt Black Orchid is worth buying at full price.

4.0-4.5 Rating - I'll Take it!

If you want to know more about my rating systems, check out what each rating means HERE.

If you enjoyed this review, keep on reading for “The Long Take” and “Spoiler Talk,” and don’t forget to support me on Patreon!

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“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2” Review

The strengths and weaknesses of the film versions of J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece have never been more apparent.

July 31, 2011 – Having not gotten around to this review until well after the film hit theaters, I find that I’m glad it took so long to get around to so I could put my thoughts together about it. Being an unabashed Harry Potter fan, particularly of the book series, it is a sad thing to see the very last car of the Harry Potter train pull into the station. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see anything of this scope for quite some time. While the films have never been perfect, they have still been a great addition, a compliment, to the magical world Rowling built, and in that sense, this final film follows directly in that tradition.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I’m not going to summarize any of the story bits because if you don’t know it by now, it isn’t going to help. This is a film meant specifically for fans of the series. There is no bringing in the uninitiated, and for what it’s meant to be, it shouldn’t waste time with such things. But when I mean fans of the series, I mean fans of the book series, because people who’ve only watched the films will be left nearly as confused and dazed as someone who has had no experience with the series at all. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the basic point is still there. Plot points, character appearances and motivations will pop out of nowhere and return to nothing in mere minutes, or even seconds. These aren’t minor elements either, but huge chunks that provide the backbone of the story. I could fill in the gaps because I’m in the know, but that simply isn’t true of the uninitiated.

This fundamental flaw, that the movies simply can’t be as intricate as the books, has been the bane of every single one of these movies since they were first projected on the silver screen. It takes the punch out of the emotional weight and significance of many of the sequences in each film. In “The Deathly Hallows, Part 2” major questions remain unanswered regarding the shard of mirror that Harry Potter suddenly had for no good reason two movies ago. Pretty much all of the complicated political machinations that make the current situation in the wizarding world what they are are absent, and how exactly did Hagrid get captured by Voldermort again?

These things are, in a sense, understandably glossed over. After all, you can’t show everything. But they are the cracks that threaten the stability of every movie. Really, given the complexity of what has come before, it’s a bit of a surprise that the writers managed to make this last film as cohesive as they did. The film makers might have bee able to rectify this further if they didn’t have so many slowly panning shots of the main trio throughout the film,and given some of that time for other things.

The other big problem with the film is simply how the ending seemed anticlimactic. This wasn’t a problem in the books, where there was a suitable cheer and celebration in the event of Voldermort’s death. We’ve had three straight movies before this of intense introspection and grief, with little to no reprieve. The books were smart enough to give us the victory lap, so why couldn’t this movie? I felt the fight between Harry and Voldermort was suitably harrowing, but it was like a brick falling in an empty room. A big bang, followed by a hollow echo. The epilogue scene at the end was not, nor should it have been, a replacement.

There are lots of little things to go on about, but those two were this film’s true failings, so now that I’m done ragging on it, let’s talk about what the film got right. This begins with the acting. The main trio of Harry, Ron and Hermoine (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson respectively) are all at their best, being a great showcase for how they have grown as actors with their characters, but the real standouts are Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman.) What little time Rickman is given on screen, he manages to imbue Snape with the hidden sadness that comes to light in the final installment of the book series with great subtlety and power, meanwhile Fiennes chews the scenery with a captivating performance as Voldermort, one of the most iconic screen villains, right up there with “The Dark Knight”’s Joker and Darth Vader.

The film also manages to highlight Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and turn him into the (mostly) unsung hero of the Harry Potter universe, and Lewis portrays him as the simple and brave figure he is, not a hero wrapped up in a grand destiny, but rather a man doing what is right despite the circumstances. Other performances of merit include all of the Malfoy family, who manage to convey in the little time they have on screen the complexities of their relationships and who they are as people.

One scene that I felt was actually better in the film than the book was the Epilogue sequence. Without giving anything away, the ending of the book was, while sweet, a bit too sappy and so thoroughly wrapped up nice and neat (complete with those terrible name choices – fans know what I mean) that big red bows practically hit you from out of the page. The film’s epilogue is shorter, and while it doesn’t fully give satisfaction, it avoids much of the sweet sugary sap of the book, while still giving fans a heavy feeling of nostalgia as the circle of life begins anew for another generation of wizards and witches.

Outside of the acting, the special effects are terrific as usual, providing great visuals to accompany the story, and the music is, of course, terrific, though nothing gets to quite the same incredible heights as the theme from the first film. The action is generally spectacular, with lots of explosions and bright flashing lights, even if it’s not as evenly spaced out or placed as it could be.

Closing Comments:
What this film does best is, as always, translate the atmosphere and heart of the books to the big screen, even if it stumbles over plot and specifics. For all of it’s faults, it is a loving tribute to one of modern literature’s landmarks: a children’s book series that grew into something much more, and transformed culture as we know it, with a wondrous world, high-flying adventure, powerful and complex characters, and a deep well of moral understanding that will be an influence on generations to come.


Four out of Five Stars

For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.

Spoiler Talk:
Most of the spoilerific things I could talk about center around my problems with the film, rather than it’s strengths. Wow did they shortchange Fred’s death. For that matter, I had hoped that the filmmakers would actually take the opportunity to make something of most of the off screen deaths, but we don’t get that sort of closure here. The deaths of both Lupin and Tonks are just as out of sight as the books, with at least the benefit of the beautifully sad image of them lying next to one another, almost touching hands. There was a chance to do these sorts of things, but it wasn’t taken.

I actually really didn’t like the fact that Voldermort could feel his Horcrux’s being destroyed. Part of what made the books so satisfying was how he couldn’t see it coming, and was arrogant and sure until his demise. In the film, we see him become mentally unraveled. He becomes less and less sure of himself. More and more paranoid. It was interesting in it’s way, but I think it made him slightly less intimidating than he was in previous films, and in the books.

Boy, Snape was kicked out of office fast. Quite frankly, for his importance to the story of the entire series, I was saddened by how little we got to see of him. Couldn’t the writers have taken a little bit of extra time with his scenes, especially the pensieve memories? What was easily one of my favorite sequences in the book was given barely a few minutes in the film. Poo.

I was disappointed in the Hogwarts grand hall. It felt gigantic in the first few movies, but in this film, it feels tiny. What is the seating capacity like? Two-hundred with standing room only? I understand that the directors want to communicate that this isn’t your freshman year’s Hogwarts, but it doesn’t feel realistic. A massive hall that is left mostly empty and dark by children being kept out of school is a much more powerful image.

As for the final battles, I wanted to see the house elves get in on the action. Heck, when it comes down to it, if they are going to take inspiration from sci-fi films in having a massive shield around the school and a spell barrage, then why not make Hogwarts feel more like a battlefield with beams of light shooting everywhere. To be honest, the battle felt sort of muted once they got past the barrier and the moving armor.

That said, there is a lot of good to be seen as well. I enjoyed pretty much the whole breaking into Gringotts sequence, with Helena Bonham Carter doing a truly bang-up job pretending to be Hermoine pretending to be Belatrix. I like everything with Neville too. Good show.

Molly Weasley’s fight with Belatrix could have used some more punch, in my opinion. The fight as is, under a different context and with the wrong music, could have practically been slapstick comedy.

I could go on, but to sum up my feelings nothing in the film really ever reached the level of epicness that I had in my mind when I read the books, and as I said in the review, that has always been a problem of the series, and not one easily solved. People long said that Watchmen was an unfilmable work, but I personally think that Harry Potter is a lot harder to film successfully.

“Metroid: Other M” Review

So, so good. So, so bad. A study in specific flaws vs. a great whole.

Dec 19, 2010 – Metroid: Other M is a game built out of clashing elements. Nintendo partnering with Team Ninja? Absurd. But it happened, and what came of it is exactly the logical conclusion of the partnership. What you’ll get is a game built of mostly excellent mechanics, smooth gameplay, well-done graphics, and a hit or miss story. It is a game of contrasts and paradoxes, where the single best thing about the game is Samus Aran, and the single worst thing about the game is Samus Aran.

Metroid is something of a legendary franchise, despite never having the same mainstream impact that the other Nintendo franchises are known for, such as Mario or The Legend of Zelda. While I have never completed a Metroid game before this one (believe me, I plan to when I get around to my Metroid Trilogy collection) I am familiar with the major elements of the other games. The gameplay, a blend of open-world adventuring, shooting and platforming, is a staple that other similar games are still labeled after; ‘Metroidvania’ style games. First person shooters finally became distinct enough to drop the “Doom Clone” label, but no game of Metroid’s type have ever escaped its gravity. A sense of isolation, even claustrophobia at times, is also a key component to most Metroid games. Chilling and haunting sci-fi music is another tenet of the games, as is the general silence of the main protagonist.

Other M is very much a Metroid game, though it charts new territory as well.

So with that background in mind, it was something of a shock when Other M looked to stray from some of those key concepts. The gameplay stayed fairly similar in many respects, but there were weird mechanics that involved pointing the controller at the screen to fire missiles, or study the environment in first person. Isolation was an iffy subject, because by the looks of it you were teaming up with this group of space marines now. And the biggest change of all was the silence of the protagonist. The new emphasis on story promised a much more vocal Samus Aran than has ever previously been seen. And these gambles have had some unexpected payoffs, and some dreaded blunders.

The game takes place some time after Super Metroid, the SNES game that still holds a treasured place on many top games of all time lists. In fact the first cinematic re-lives the last moments of that game, bringing a terrific flair to it that serves only to enhance the original. Samus Aran is torn up over the loss of “the Baby,” a young metroid that imprinted on her and thought she was its mother. The Baby sacrificed itself protecting Samus from “Mother Brain” the villain of that title. She wanders the galaxy for a while before stumbling across a distress signal. When she goes to investigate she runs across a number of old friends and comrades from her time in the Galactic Federation military; they’ve also shown up to investigate under orders to save anybody they can and figure out what’s going on in this vessel. Leading the group is Adam Malkovich, Samus’s former commander, who she sees as a sort of father figure. It is alluded to that they have a troubled past. This, and the mystery of the events on the ship, all unfold over the course of the game.

The presence of Adam Malkovich is an unwanted distraction during the first half of the game.

The plot is actually quite strong. The mystery of what happened on the ship pulled me in rather effectively and I wanted to know what exactly was going on by the end. There are still some flaws. A mystery that had me fascinated early on is never resolved in a satisfactory manner, for instance, and Adam doesn’t authorize Samus to use her equipment in the exact moments when she obviously needs it. But overall, I actually quite enjoyed my time exploring the ship and its mysteries.

The characterization is where things get touchy. Samus is given some significant emotional issues and character flaws that serve to make her character more interesting. However, the way these flaws are presented make Samus look like an emotional train wreck. The addition of a voice makes it all worse. Her monologues are heavily melodramatic, but the delivery is wooden and dull. She is portrayed as being a scared little girl trapped in a woman’s body who has loads and loads of daddy issues. It’s not that these elements are inherently bad. Far from it. I think they could serve to make her a very interesting character. But the presentation is so heavy-handed, so over-written, that any real weight is robbed from her characterization. It’s hard to take her seriously as simply a capable woman, much less a space-faring bounty hunter.

Samus stares into the sunset.

It is important to note, however, that these presentational issues are most grating in the first few hours of the game and become far less pronounced and bearable as the game goes on. By the end of my time with Metroid: Other M, these issues were several hours behind me and I was having a great time with the game.
And there really is a lot of great things to be said for the game. Though you’re not as isolated as you were in the earlier Metroid titles or the Metroid Prime Trilogy, isolation is still very much a part of the game. Traversing the dangerous interior of the ship is still a lonely and haunting experience. This is, of course, aided by great level design, fantastic music that draws on the many classic sounds of the franchise, and the nice pacing of the story elements.

Gameplay is the true star of the game, and Team Ninja’s expertise in the area of combat especially shows. Fighting the many threats that Samus faces is tense and exciting, but free of the frustrations that one would expect of having only a D-pad and two or three buttons. In fact, the greatest triumph of the team may be how I almost never noticed that I wasn’t using an analogue stick. For a game with movement in three dimensions, this is an accomplishment bordering on a miracle. Furthermore the implementation of the dodge mechanic was an inspired choice that makes combat smooth and largely free of frustration, and the shooting mechanics are satisfying.

There are also some really sweet take-down moves.

The ability to hold up the gun to charge missiles was a good addition as well. But I found the ability to heal using the same method to be largely unnecessary. It is only useable in that manner when you are near death, but it was rare that I reached that point of near-defeat while having enough time to charge up my health bar. A more frequent scenario was finding myself on the verge of death during a boss fight, only to get killed the moment I stopped to charge up my health.

For several hours, I wasn’t sure what to think of switching over on occasion to using the Wii remote pointer in first-person mode, but by the end of the game it felt natural and I appreciated having he added dimension to gameplay.

Searching the environment for clues.

The mechanic worked very effectively and added a great feel of exploration, not unlike an adventure game (although sequences where you were forced into first person to find specific elements in the environment got annoying).

Its use in combat is a little less smooth, but I like how it forced me to think strategically about how best to approach a combat situation so that I could use my missiles without being hit. I eventually got fast enough switching back and forth between first and third person that I was never even bothered by the fact that you can’t move while in first person. The down time for me during the switch was about as long as pulling up the iron-sights in a first person shooter. In the end, I love the addition of the mechanic, and find it to be a fascinating and creative use of the Wii controller’s functionality.

Show 'em how it's done.

Again, I cannot emphasize enough how good the controls feel. Very few occasions made me wish they were any different, and these moments were mostly fleeting. Team Ninja’s marriage of first and third person is marvelously successful. The only perspective I felt was largely underwhelming was the third-person over-the-shoulder camera. It was during these scenes that I most keenly felt the loss of the analogue stick.

The graphics are quite good for the Wii’s hardware, only rarely dropping the framerate. Samus looks good, and the cinematics are terrific.

The environments can also be very pretty and atmospheric

Textures occasionally look noticeably flat and fuzzy, but these are usually background elements that will go unnoticed. It’s hard to argue against the game’s appearance, especially when it runs so smooth for almost the entirety of the experience. Nintendo shows once again that they know best how to pull the juice out of their own hardware.

On a final note, there is another mission after the credits that takes Samus back to the ship to retrieve a lost item that had the most genuinely touching scene for me in the whole game. That, on top of a truly isolated experience made all the more haunting by the memories of friends lost there. I really enjoyed that little extra tid-bit.

Closing Comments:

So where does this leave me when I try and score a game? On the one hand, I feel that the presentation of the character, the dialogue, inner monologue and voice acting varied from terrible to merely sub-par. On the other hand, the plot was great, the gameplay fantastic, and the production values sky-high. Not to mention the fact that their efforts to give Samus a character and personality is a noble goal, if largely unsuccessful. So I have to judge it based on my take-away experience, and by the end of the game that take-away was actually a very good one. Despite my complaints, I had a great time with the game and how much more can you really ask for?

STAR RATING: (4 Stars out of 5)

Four out of Five Stars

For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.

Spoiler Talk:

What You Don't Hear: Copious Melodrama

The largest single complaint laid against the game always boils down to the portrayal of Samus’ character. In that vein I’m going to focus primarily on that. The plot and events of the game are mostly self-explanatory so I’m pretty much going to leave them alone (though I’m upset that we never find out for sure the identity of the betrayer among the Galactic Federation troops).

Samus is a badass while you’re playing her. Hell, she’s kind of a badass in most of the cinematics too. But then she is shown to be almost completely subservient to some guy we’ve barely heard mention of in the series before (outside of some vagueness in Metroid: Fusion.) She goes so far as to wait for his authorization before using her equipment. Even in cases where her equipment means the difference between life and death. The oft-cited varia suit in the volcano levels being the perfect example of this. It’s discouraging to see someone who represents us, who we might even look up to in some sense, debasing herself I this way.

It's a rare moment when you don't want Samus to tell Adam to shove it.

Now let me frankly say that I think super-feminist examinations of this phenomenon declaring Samus as being completely destroyed as a character are going too far. It is not sexist to portray a woman who has some frailties and weaknesses. I don’t think that goal of feminism should ever be the goal of macho-izing the female gender. The ‘Macho’ attitude hasn’t exactly done a lot for the male gender in many respects. We don’t need female bald-space-marines to add to the overabundance of male ones. That said, I can’t argue that this isn’t bad for Samus as a character. As I said in the article, the way she is presented is damaging, even if the intentions were noble.

Her friendship with Anthony, particularly as shown in the end cinematic, goes a longer way towards humanizing her in a realistic fashion that her melodrama at the beginning of the story. The only scene where I really felt for her and her loss of Adam was when she retrieved Adam’s helmet in the portion of the game after the end credits. For whatever reason, I found that segment to be pretty touching.

Samus' ties to other chracters are important and generally a good thing.

When Samus fights Ridley in this game, she’s already fought and defeated him once in her past. But despite this, she turns into a little girl (she is literally depicted as such in the cinematic) the moment she sees him again. This is the cinematic I would expect for their first meeting, when she is just meeting the shadowy monsters of her past for the first time, not now. Should she be scared? Yeah, sure. But there are more subtle ways of showing that, which are more true to where her character should be at this point in her life.

The strange thumbs-up/thumbs-down element of the story comes across as weird to western gamers, myself included.


But my exposure to anime has given me enough of a window to Japanese culture to know that this is a cultural discrepancy. A slight, but jarring inconsistency that makes the western audience scratch their heads at the weird meaning given to the gesture during the story sequences.
Again, despite my major qualms, I really enjoyed myself, which surprises me quite a lot. I wasn’t sure where I was going to land after the first few hours, and I’m glad I landed thumbs up.

– Edward L. Cheever II~