Hunger Games / The Avengers

While I still have a massive post about movies I saw earlier in the year (or late last year) in the works, I figured I’d actually comment about The Avengers while it was still out, and throw in a little Hunger Games love while I’m at it.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games movie has been a hugely successful start to a franchise that—unlike a certain other book-turned-movie series *cough*TWILIGHT*cough*—also has the distinction of actually being a good movie.  I have not personally read the books by  Suzanne Collins, so I can’t comment on the quality of the adaptation, but the movie worked.

The movie is all about tension and pacing, and it handled both deftly with a largely excellent cast.  My only complaint at all comes from the heavy use of handheld camera work for basically everything, which (for me, at least) made static scenes somewhat nausea-inducing and reduced action sequences to blurry messes.  This is, of course, always the effect of handheld shaky-cam, and it sucks every single time that it is used.  Never once has it heightened my sense of being in the action; all it does is make me think about their lame camera work and hope I don’t get sick.

Anyway, back to my point: The Hunger Games was a well-done movie with an excellent cast and is well worth seeing (despite the unsteady camera).  Thematically, it is rather darker than most Hollywood SF not because of the level of violence, but rather in the grittiness and brutality of how that violence is portrayed.  In some respects, just like the games themselves, you don’t watch The Hunger Games—you endure it.

The Avengers

The Avengers is made of win.  There were so many ways this movie could have sucked, but Joss Whedon avoided them all and put together a movie with an all-star cast that met every high expectation people had for it.

(I feel the need to suggest that I may have been a teensy bit happier after the original Iron Man, since that was so unexpectedly excellent and thus seemed all the better, but even that is a tough call.  About the only other criticism of The Avengers I could assemble would be that I was familiar with many of the general plot points since I have a signficant familiarity with the comics, but that is not a flaw with the movie itself, just my experience of it.)

This movie is the payoff of years of anticipation, and thankfully it worked so well.  Delightful action, an over-the-top science fictional story, and layered throughout with humour—The Avengers hit the mark on all fronts.  There’s not really much else for me to say, except I can’t wait to see it again.

The Secret World of Arrietty / John Carter

It has been a while since I last did a movie post.  I had started one way back in January, but it was too ambitious and still sits somewhat unfinished.  I’ll get to it soon, since those movies are starting to come out on home video now.

I did see a couple of movies a bit more recently, though, and so I offer up my thoughts on those.

The Secret World of Arrietty

This is the latest animated Studio Ghibli film to be released by Disney in North America.  While Ghibli’s legendary director Hayao Miyazaki did not helm this one, he was heavily involved in the script and planning, and it bodes well for the future of Ghibli that this movie turned out awfully good.  The movie is a Japanese transplant of Mary Norton’s classic Borrowers children’s novels about tiny people who beneath the floorboards of our homes and “borrow” things to survive, and focusses on the Borrower girl Arrietty.

In typical Ghibli fashion, the animation is lush, beautiful, and detailed.  The perspectives they use evoke the sense of being a tiny person in a giant world better than anything else I’ve seen.  From duels with cockroaches, using leaves as umbrellas, and the dangers posed by the cat and the hungry bird attacking from above, it really gives you a sense of a whole other world surrounding us in our everyday lives.

The story skews to the family-friendly end of the Ghibli spectrum, but is oddly slow-paced and contemplative.  That is not to say it is boring—I was rapt throughout—but much of its wonder arises from the discovery of the world of the Borrowers rather than artificial external dangers, though those arise in due time.  It succeeds by being genuinely beautiful and interesting, not simply because it keeps throwing cheap gags and explosions in your face.

While I wouldn’t say this is the best example of what Studio Ghibli has to offer, The Secret World of Arrietty can stand quite comfortably alongside it.  Anyone who is a fan of quality animation—or quality film in general—should definitely check this out.

John Carter

John Carter is another Disney release that has already gained notoriety as being declared one of the biggest flops of all time within 2 weeks of opening.  There has been much debate over why that is the case even as the film continues to do okay worldwide, so who knows whether it might eventually earn back its massive production budget.

Had Disney actually cared enough to market the film properly, it might have done better domestically.  As a science fiction reader, I knew that the titular John Carter referred to John Carter of Mars, the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘s (creator of Tarzan) Barsoom novels.  This was not at all apparent from any of the trailers I saw.  The one I sort of vaguely remember made it unclear whether it was a science fiction film at all, or a superhero film, or a dumb fantasy movie.  I’m not sure that there was a single thing done to market this film to people who didn’t already know who John Carter was.

Anyway, all of that is beside the point.  John Carter is a good movie.  It has its flaws, to be sure—it starts too slowly, throws in some unnecessary back story, gets a bit muddled in the middle, and has villains with unclear motivations—but it is a fun, enjoyable movie.

It is approximately ONE BILLION TIMES BETTER than any Michael Bay film.  Especially those ones with the transforming robots.

It looked beautiful and the action was fun and well-choreographed.  There was good chemistry between John Carter and Dejah Thoris (the Princess of Mars played by Lynn Collins, who is providing competition to Princess Leia for my Favouritest Space Princess Ever!), and the supporting cast (both human and alien) was strong.  And it did a pretty decent job of evoking a sense of wonder at Burroughs’s vision of Mars Barsoom.

So John Carter was a good (but not great) movie that I enjoyed more than, say, James Cameron’s Avatar (which was well-made and more tightly scripted, but less interesting to me for all its technical superiority) and which did not suck like those bowel movements that Michael Bay keeps excreting onto screens around the world and calling movies.  John Carter is not a deep, mind-blowing, revolutionary movie, but it is a lot of fun, and if a sci-fi action movie is the sort of thing you like, it is well worth seeing.

Personal Update and Thoughts on A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Though I’ve been maintaining my at-least-once-a-month posting schedule, I have fallen behind in a few areas.  Worry not, however—more Pizza Quest updates will be coming soon.

I haven’t been getting out too much, lately, which has been pretty good for my thesis research.  I have been also bashing my head at working on a draft for a journal article that is due in a month.  A month seems like a long time, but this is turning out to be a long article and I can only hope that I have enough actual results to finish it off by then.

I have also been applying and interviewing for jobs, and have recently accepted an offer!  (I do not wish to go into any greater detail until I actually start, as I am pessimistic enough to believe it is not impossible that something could still go wrong.)  Among the many benefits this that this job offers—interesting experience, pay bills, etc.—I am perhaps most looking forward to having a bit of spending money so I can make a triumphant return to Timemasters and catch up on my comics.

Anyway, since my last post, I’ve only seen one movie, though several more should be coming in the next few weeks.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

When I saw trailers for the first Harold & Kumar movie many years ago, I was of the mind that it was not really my sort of thing. Thankfully, during the first year of my PhD I wanted to procrastinate more than I wanted to avoid the movie, and so I finally saw—and quite enjoyed—Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.  The subsequent Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay was a little bit of a letdown, but I think the latest one is an excellent synthesis of the best parts of its predecessors.

It recaptures the zany, ridiculous spirit of the first and combines it with the higher production values of the second, all wrapped in a surprisingly touching—and lewd, vulgar, and hilarious—Christmas story.  That’s right, they haven’t just made a Harold & Kumar movie set at Christmas—it’s a bona fide Christmas movie.  Hell, they even filmed with 3D cameras rather than using that bullshit conversion process used by so many of the summer “blockbusters”, and I’m happy to say I did not get a headache or feel nauseous at all.

John Cho and Kal Penn reprised their titular roles with ease, and thankfully the vast supporting cast of familiar faces was still there.  Especially excellent was Neil Patrick Harris, but really, this should not be surprising to fans of NPH.  The new characters introduced in this story were okay, but they certainly provided fodder for an amusing B-story.

I don’t think I really need to go in to the plot in this review.  If you liked previous Harold & Kumar movies—either of them—then you’ll enjoy this one.  If you haven’t seen any, you’ll possibly be horrified by this one, but if you’re interested you should start with White Castle, anyway.  I left quite happy with the movie and thought it was well worth my money.  (Okay, so I used a free pass and thus paid only for the 3Dness, but still.  Well worth it even at full price.)  I may need a repeat viewing next year to confirm, but this could have the makings of another traditional Christmas movie for me.

In Time / Tower Heist

Last week—through no particular planning on my part—I ended up seeing movies two nights in a row!  The excitement there is more from having an opportunity to get out of the house two days in a row more than excitement at the movies specifically; I’ve become something of a hermit, of late.  Anyway, here are my thoughts, in brief, on In Time and Tower Heist.

In Time

In Time is from writer/director Andrew Niccol, who—to me, at least—is best known for GattacaGattaca was a slightly odd but well-done, thoughtful movie.  Unfortunately, In Time doesn’t hold together quite so well, despite being generally entertaining.

The basic premise is that the key to eternal youth has been unlocked, and so everyone stops aging at age 25.  However, to prevent overcrowding, everyone then has only a year of life left—unless they earn more.  The rich can live for hundreds—or thousands—of years, while the poor live from day to day, struggling to earn enough time at work to keep going until the next day.  Time is the new currency, and everyone is kept strictly isolated in different zones, according to how much time they have.

So, this is an interesting idea, and it certainly allows Niccol to work with a cast of young and beautiful people.  We’re given some heavy-handed tragedy early on, and then Will Salas (played not particularly well by Justin Timberlake, who couldn’t manage the full range of emotion the character demanded) lucks in to a hundred years, and that’s where all his problems start.  And while those problems are interesting, they just don’t hold the story together in a sensible way.

Specifically, there are a number or aspects of the worldbuilding that are necessary to tell the story, but that make NO SENSE AT ALL for a reasonable person.  For example, you can steal a person’s time while they are asleep/unconscious.  WHY WOULD ANYONE BUILD A SYSTEM THAT ALLOWED NON-CONSENSUAL TRANSFER OF TIME?  The answer, of course, it because it is needed for the plot, but that is exactly why this movie just doesn’t hold together well.

I realize this all sounds pretty negative, and I don’t mean to be.  It wasn’t a bad movie, just a flawed one.  It was still quite enjoyable, and while not as clever and thought-provoking as Gattaca, it is still more clever than a lot of movies that pass for science fiction these days.  I certainly don’t regret the time or money spent seeing it.

Tower Heist

Tower Heist was not really on my list to see, but some friends were going, so I figured, “Why not?”  Luckily, it turned out to be an enjoyable comedy.  The trailers play up the presence of Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller, but Tower Heist is not a “Ben Stiller movie” or an “Eddie Murphy movie”, and was actually more dependent on the ensemble cast and the clever writing for its humour.

So this movie was much better than expected.  The setup for the eponymous tower heist was original (compared to other heist films), and the execution has some genuinely tense and brilliant moments.  This was definitely a comedy with some heist movie more than a heist movie with some comedy, but that’s okay.  It was a lot of fun.

A Few Straggler Books

Ahem. I am mildly furious at my WordPress install right now.  I had written about a thousand words on this post two nights ago, and noticed that the autosave feature was chugging along nicely.  However, a bit past midnight, while still writing, we lost power in my house.

Now, I write these posts on my 7-year-old laptop because it has a nice big screen.  What it doesn’t have is a battery that works for more than 1 or 2 minutes.  So, trusting that autosave had been doing its thing, I quickly shut down everything and powered off the computer.  I knew I might lose a little bit, but not a huge amount.

Sadly, that whole thousand words is gone.  There is no evidence of any autosave revisions anywhere that I can find.  So I’ll have to recreate it, but I don’t have the will to re-blather that much again, so—perhaps luckily for you—you are in for a much more succinct version of this post than I had originally intended.

As a quick aside on the title, I had actually started this one right after my last post, and had intended to publish it in short order.  In that context, “a few straggler books” makes sense, since this post finishes off my discussion of books I’ve finished reading recently (for values of “recently” that encompass the last 8–12 months).

It is just as well that I didn’t post it right away, since I haven’t done much in the past month.  (I did get out to see one movie, 50/50, which was very well done.  Both touching and funny, and a lot less vulgar than I’m used to for a movie with Seth Rogen in it.)  So now I have something meaningful to post, more or less on my usual (i.e. monthly) schedule.

(One of these days—when my PhD is done—I will cultivate a more regular blogging habit.  I know you all shall be waiting with bated breath.)

Anyway, my thoughts on some more comparatively recently-finished books are blow.

The Sorcerer’s House, by Gene Wolfe

I won this from the Ranting Dragon giveaway as part of their Locus Reading Challenge.  I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, despite owning a number of Wolfe’s most famous works and hearing nothing about praise for him, The Sorcerer’s House is the first book of his I’ve actually read.

Thankfully, his reputation does not seem to be overstated.  The book is an epistolary novel, mostly letters from ex-con Bax to his twin brother, his brother’s wife, or his old friend from jail.  The letters relate the strange goings-on as, recently released from prison, he finds himself the heir of a large house in a town he was just passing through.  Things get stranger from there.

While the plot is compelling enough, Wolfe is most lauded for the quality of his prose, and such praise is well deserved.  His writing is rich and nuanced and complex, and he expertly gives each character a unique voice that comes across on the page.  He seems to hit on all cylinders: complex, interesting characters doing interesting things via beautifully-written prose.  Just what I look for in a novel.

Though I did read it in a couple of days, I will say The Sorcerer’s House was not a quick or easy read.  The epistolary structure and potentially-unreliable narrator meant that you definitely had to pay attention to what you were reading.  So Wolfe is perhaps not what you are looking for when you want some brain-dead entertainment that is a fun way to kill some time.  He offers a richer reading experience, one that I look forward to partaking in again as I read some of his classics.

You know, when I get around to them.

The Floating Islands, by Rachel Neumeier

I picked up The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier because it had a pretty cover.  I bought it because I like floating islands.  Well, that, and I had a discount, and one of the staff at Bakka had posted a complimentary blurb about it on the shelf.  This is a YA novel, and so a bit out of my usual purchasing pattern, but it turned out to be an enjoyable read.

The story opens with recently-orphaned Trei arriving at the aforementioned Floating Islands where he is coming to live with his mother’s relatives.  On the way, he sees their winged warriors flitting about and vows to become one of them.  His relatives are nice, and after a rough start, he and his cousin Araene become close.  Araene chafes at the restrictions put on women in her society, but has found a number of clever workarounds.  Together, they face new tragedies, danger in the form of an invading army, and adventures neither of them could have imagined.

This was a quick and enjoyable read.  It was reasonably inventive throughout, and had some incredibly cool bits.  There were a few stylistic quirks that bothered me a bit, but I think that is mostly attributable to the, well, YAishness of the book.  I don’t read a lot of YA, but what little I have read has some… quality… that I can’t quite identify but that stands out for me just enough to make me notice it.  Anyway, quite a fun book overall.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

Of course, I was just saying I don’t read much YA, and yet here I am, talking about another YA novel.  I picked this one up mostly due to the overwhelmingly-positive buzz, and I had seen the author on panels at Worldcon in 2009 where she impressed me.  Most of her work that I’ve looked into doesn’t quite strike me as being the kind of stuff I generally like to read, but when this one—a children’s fantasy that was the favourite book of a character in one of her other novels—came along, I figured it was time to take the plunge.

The story concerns a girl, September, who jumps at the chance to visit Fairyland when the Green Wind shows up and makes the offer.  (That was something of a refreshing change. She didn’t go there by accident, or while trying to get away from something else—it just sounded like fun!)  She makes new friends, sees wondrous things, and general wackiness ensues.

Valente’s Fairyland come across as a bizarre mashup of classic fairy tale tropes, Disney films, and clever original ideas.  It feels both familiar and new at the same time, and makes quite an interesting backdrop for September’s adventures.  Along the way September meets an entertaining cast of companions and enemies, and tries her very best to accomplish her quest.

The book, like Fairyland itself, walks the line between familiar and comfortable and wholly original.  I really enjoyed it, and bought a second copy to give to my niece.  As I had suspected after her panels at Worldcon and after reading her blog, Catherynne M. Valente is a clever and talented writer, one who is well worth checking out.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang

This book is really only a novella, published in a fine edition by Subterranean Press.  Oddly, this was perhaps the most disappointing of the four books I talk about here.  That is not to say that it was bad, by any stretch—it was interesting, thoughtful, well-written, and eminently readable.  It was disappointing because the last thing I read by the author (the legendary Ted Chiang) was the short story “Exhalation“, which BLEW MY FREAKING MIND!

So it’s a case of my expectations being set too high.  I had been hoping this novella would be as awesome as “Exhalation”, and perhaps for some readers it is, but not quite for me.  So The Lifecycle of Software Objects was a letdown compared to “Exhalation”, but still very good overall.  Such is the life of a writer so lauded as Ted Chiang—even he can’t always live up to his own hype, I guess.

Anyway, this novella is an exploration of the issues surrounding artificial intelligence, and the implications of having to “raise” them from infancy in order for them to be useful in any way.  As I said, it is well done, thoughtful, and easy to read, though—uncharacteristically for stuff I read—nothing blows up.  (That I was still compelled to keep reading is perhaps a strong sign of Chiang’s skill as a writer.)  It wasn’t quite what I was hoping for after enjoying the hell out of “Exhalation”, but I still look forward to delving more into Chiang’s earlier works.

I Actually Read Some Books!

As anyone who reads this blog has no doubt noticed, it is mostly miniature movie reviews.  That is not at all what I intended this blog to be, and I am still confident that it will be more than that in the future, but for now, with the crushing weight of finishing my PhD research pressing upon me harder every day, it will have to be enough.

Except for today.  Today, I am going to talk about books, rather than movies!  While my love of collecting books never lessened during my graduate studies, unfortunately the time I spent actually reading for pleasure did.  When I left Toronto last fall and realized just how willing I was to sit and watch reruns of TV shows I had already seen, I decided I needed to remedy this sad neglect of my library.

While I have not come remotely close to the number of books I would like to be reading, I’m on track for at least one per month this year.  (Usually the book gets read over the span of 3–4 days, then nothing for a few weeks.)  I have also started going through the years worth of unread comics I have been collecting, to try and catch up.  Those will perhaps get their own post later on.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on some of the books I have been reading, in no particular order.  Originally—as with many of the movies I see—I had intended to grace each of these with their own, more in-depth blog post, but since I read some of them quite a while ago, some briefer musing are in order.

The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher

Though urban fantasy is definitely not my thing when it comes to reading, I actually picked up the first book of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files a while back after reading a blog post and discussion about series that keep getting better with every book.  The Dresden Files was suggested by many, many participants, with no qualms, caveats, or exceptions.  Since it was up to book 9 or 10 by that point, I figured it might be worth checking out, so I grabbed the first volume, Storm Front.

I think I read it in its entirety that first night.

As I said before, the general content (Harry Dresden, the protagonist, is a Wizard private investigator in Chicago) is not really my thing, but Butcher tells a story with break-neck pacing, lots of humour, and a compelling mystery.  It’s not a deep book—I wasn’t thinking about it for days after, or anything—but it was incredibly enjoyable.  The book was told in first-person (again, not usually a favourite), the action took place over a few days, and the world-building, plot development, and character development were deftly intertwined to keep the pages turning effortlessly.

I was tempted to continue the series right away, but I try to vary the authors I read, so I put off reading the next books until earlier this year, when I read books 2 and 3 (Fool Moon and Grave Peril) back-to-back over a couple of days.  I’m happy to say that so far the trend is holding.  The follow-ups to the first one are not necessarily better, but they are certain as good.  Each book so far is also standalone; while they do refer to events from previous books, they are definitely their own stories, as well.

About the only quibble I might have is that a lot of character development is done off-stage.  Since each book takes place over the course of a few days where months might pass between books, we have newly-blossomed relationships suddenly appearing, new characters well-known to the protagonist introduced in media res, and so on.  Butcher handles this very well, but all the same, a lot of that kind of stuff is what I might like to read about.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more Dresden Files, albeit after I get a few more authors read in the meantime.

Angelmass, by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn is probably best known for revitalizing the Star Wars brand—of novels, at least—with Heir to the Empire.  As you can see if you view his bibliography in that first link, he has written quite a lot outside of the Star Wars universe, and Angelmass is one of those.  I picked this one up ages ago; in my younger days I had read Zahn’s Star Wars novels, so if I see a new book of his I always at least pick it up to have a look.  This one sounded interesting.

he initial premise is that there is a black hole—Angelmass—that emits particles that cause humans in their proximity to behave calmly, reasonably, and without lying.  An empire of human colonies called the Empyrean requires that all politicians wear them; the rival human empire called the Pax believes the “angel” particles are an alien plot, and send in a spy to learn more about them.  Naturally, wackiness ensues.

Of course, by “wackiness”, I mean a sort of complex, multi-layered thriller that weaves several narratives together, peeling back mystery after mystery until we reach the end.  I think it paid off on that initial premise in spades (though at this point I forget if we ever learned exactly what the “angels” were), and I was happy to have read it.

There was one aspect of the novel’s structure that irritated me a bit, though it is really about personal preference.  The novel has a number of viewpoint characters, all of whom start apart in what appear to be entirely unrelated stories that eventually converge.  (I have noticed this structure in a number of other big space opera and hard SF novels, too.)  I find it irritating in the beginning—I hate being sidetracked from one character’s story into another one that seems entirely unrelated!  As I said, though, it all comes together, and that quibble really is just because a preference of mine.  (I don’t mind novels with multiple viewpoint characters, but I prefer when they start together and later split up.)

Anyway, Angelmass was an interesting and enjoyable novel.  I will definitely keep my eyes open for Zahn’s other non-Star Wars books.

The Sunless Countries, by Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder is one of my favourite writers these days, and I’ve talked about his works here beforeThe Sunless Countries is the fourth book in his Virga series, and is, perhaps, a bit more standalone than the previous two, even though characters from earlier books do show up.

The Virga series started big with Sun of Suns, which introduced us to a world that was a giant bubble floating in space, with people living in rotating cities that floated inside, clustered around artificial suns.  (As you may have gathered, I think this is awesome sauce!)  The follow-ups Queen of Candesce and Pirate Sun expanded the ideas and the world, and happily this trend continues into The Sunless Countries.

Apart from the awesome ideas and mysteries presented as part of the plot, what delighted me most about this book was the fact that the main character—one Leal Hieronyma Maspeth—is, essentially, a grad student.  (Technically, I think she was a postdoc or lecturer, but her life was close enough to grad student for me.)  She gets caught up in events much larger than her, but rather than just letting herself get swept along, she begins to chart her own course.  She is a fun character who more than holds her own in the face of big events and even bigger ideas.

I really enjoy this series.  You should too.  It is full of exciting plots and characters backed by ideas that are truly big.  Just what I want out of my science fiction.

Hammered, by Elizabeth Bear

I have read a number of short stories by Elizabeth Bear, drop in on her blog periodically, and have bought several of her novels, but only with my recent purchase of—oddly enough—her first published novel, Hammered, did I actually sit down to read one.

Hammered is the first book of Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy.  Jenny is a retired augmented soldier who is simply trying to endure the pain of her physical and psychological trauma and lead a quiet life.  Her former employers want her back, however, and aren’t willing to take no for an answer.

(How’s that for movie tag-line writing! I should get paid to do this kind of stuff.)

What follows is a peculiar sort of novel.  Or, at least, peculiar compared to the stuff I normally read.  While the novel has plenty of action, not much of it rests on Jenny’s shoulders.  Hell, for much of her story, she can’t even take any action.  Sections from her point of view are in first person; it shifts to third for the other characters.  And despite the machinations around her, the story is basically about Jenny’s personal growth.

But it works.  It works well.  It kept me up late at night reading it.  This kind of book is not the sort of SF I normally read, but I’m glad I did.  I do, perhaps, wish the ending had been a bit punchier—I was a little irked that the book ended just as they were exposing some cool stuff that I wanted to know more about.  Of course, I guess that’s what the next book in the trilogy is for….

Napier’s Bones, by Derryl Murphy

I picked up Derryl Murphy’s Napier’s Bones at Ad Astra last April after hearing some good buzz about it (and because it was pretty, like all of CZP’s stuff).  Uncharacteristically, I actually got around to reading it!

The world of Napier’s Bones is one in which numbers have a power that underlies everything, and a select few can manipulate that power.  Those select few—numerates, like the protagonist Dom—tend to seek out artifacts that boost their mojo, often battling it out with other numerates seeking the same item.  (It’s kind of like Highlander except with numbers instead of swords.)

This is probably the most relentlessly fast-paced novel I have ever read.  It starts off with Dom on the run after just barely escaping another, more powerful numerate, and I’m pretty sure there was not a single chapter thereafter in which he was not in immediate peril at some point.  It’s almost like the novel was all climax and no rising action or denouement.  (A tantric novel, perhaps?)

This led to Napier’s Bones being a rather intense read, as the characters—and the reader—never get a chance to relax and catch their breath.  Help is found (mostly unexpected), mysteries are unraveled, and a lot of craziness goes down.  Minds may have been blown.  It was a lot of interesting and bizarre fun, and I am happy to have read it.

Final Summer 2011 Movie Thoughts

It has been a while since my last post on account of finishing up the course I was teaching, marking the final exam, making a significant amount of progress on my thesis research, and having the girlfriend visit for ten days that overlapped with a five-day visit from my brother’s family.  So I’ve been, you know, busy.

But fear not!  I did manage to see a number of movies in that time, about which I am about to expound.  (I also read a number of books, which is delightfully unusual, and about which I will elaborate at a future date.)

I will first discuss two less-fantastical films, then move into the science fiction and fantasy backbone of my usual movie-going.  Note that there will be a few minor spoilers in my discussion of Conan.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a bit outside my normal fare, I’ll admit, but I do enjoy some mainstream comedies/dramas, and Steve Carrell has a good track record of doing stuff I enjoy.  Plus, it had Emma Stone (though not nearly enough of her) who totally won me over with Zombieland and Easy A.  And Julianne Moore, who won me over with Evolution of all films.  Basically, it has a great cast in a well-written ensemble comedy.

I really enjoyed Crazy, Stupid, Love.  It balanced itself nicely between over-the-top comedy and genuine emotional moments, and while there were a few things I wish it had done a bit differently, it did manage to surprise me with some of the plot twists throughout.  Admittedly, it had its moments of predictability, too, but overall it was a really well-done movie—one that I would easily recommend, if you’re in to that sort of thing.

The Change-Up

I cannot be quite so effusive about The Change-Up, which the girlfriend and I saw because we decided to see a movie late Saturday night and it was the only one playing quite so late that hadn’t already started.  Despite having two strong comic actors as leads, the premise of them switching bodies is an old one that has been done many, many, many times before.

(Aside: I actually find the body-swap comedy most interesting when done in a TV series rather than a movie, since in a movie you typically don’t see much character establishment before the switch so you don’t get a strong sense of the different characters in each others bodies.  In a TV series, however, where you have had many episodes—or even seasons—to get to know the characters, seeing the actors pull off each others mannerisms and delivery is really enjoyable.  Stargate SG-1 did this well, for example.)

Thankfully, The Change-Up at least executes the concept fairly well by loading it up with raunchy,  low-brow humour right from the start.  It eventually becomes fairly predictable, and while at times it strives toward trying to incorporate genuine emotional moments, it never really gets there.  It does remain funny throughout—assuming you’re okay with toilet humour—so it is watchable and enjoyable, but it didn’t really offer anything beyond laughs.  So, not a bad movie to watch for a few laughs or to pass the time, but not really something you need to go out of your way to see.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Marvel has been doing a good job with the movies it has released under its own auspices, the latest of which is Captain America: The First Avenger.  This was a well-done WWII-era superhero action movie that established Steve Rogers—Captain America, as he is better known—as something of a tragic figure in his modern reincarnation.  While it does not match the original Iron Man in terms of depth of characterization, it does a better job than Marvel’s subsequent movies (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor), which—while enjoyable and generally well-done—failed to deliver quite the same mix of character development and exciting action achieved by Iron Man.  I feel Captain America: The First Avenger comes close to meeting that lofty goal.

That said, I know a lot of people have complained about this movie.  I do wonder if they knew anything at all about it going in, however, since it stayed quite close to the traditional Captain America origin.  The Super Soldier Serum, the Red Skull, Hydra… they are all part of Marvel lore, and rewriting Cap’s origin completely would be gauche, to say the least.  The special effects were good, and while one man’s action choreography trash is another’s treasure, I enjoyed the action sequences.

So, if you don’t mind a bit of inherent cheesiness in the plot, the Americana and patriotism, and the character development, I think you’ll find Captain America: The First Avenger an enjoyable movie and a great lead-in to next year’s The Avengers, which the whole world is hoping will be awesome.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

I rather suspect I don’t need to say much about this one, so I’ll keep it brief.  I liked Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 much better than the first part, though it still struck me as a bit too loose and jumbled to overtake Azkaban, Order of the Phoenix, or Half-Blood Prince as one of the best films of the series.  I do think it provided a suitably epic climax to the series overall, with most of the characters—especially side characters—getting their chance to shine, even if that shining moment wasn’t staged particularly well for everyone.

The girlfriend says she actually prefers the Deathly Hallows movies to the book, since the movies give a wider picture of what is going on for everyone whereas the books are a little too concentrated on Harry, Hermione, and Ron.  I’ll be curious to see if I agree with her once I get around to finishing off the book series.

So, pretty good, overall.  But I imagine if you’ve watched the previous 7 movies, you’ll watch this one no matter what, and if you haven’t seen the previous movie, why would you ever watch just this one?  I don’t even know what the purpose of a proper review would even be.

Cowboys and Aliens

I’ve noticed a bit of a trend while reading online movie reviews over the last few years, in which there seem to be only two kinds of movies: great and bad.  If a movie is not great, then it is bad, terrible, awful, a crime against humanity.  To me, this is obviously stupid.  Greatness, by its very nature, must be rare and hard to achieve.  To cast down anything that fails to achieve greatness as awful means there’s going to be an awful lot of misery and disappointment in the world.

This opinion of mine is why I perhaps come across as a bit more favourable that most online critics in that I rather like quite a few movies that have been righteously panned.  There are lots of movies out there that are flawed in some way, but still pretty good, and I like to recognize that.  There are also some movies that are in fact perfect but misunderstood, like Speed Racer, about which I can feel smug that I see their true awesomeness.  Similarly, there are movies that are successful but truly awful, like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, about which I can despair for the future of humanity.

This is all a roundabout way of me justifying the fact that I quite liked Cowboys & Aliens when it has gotten generally poor reviews and even worse box office success.  It delivers exactly what the title promises: cowboys and aliens.  The visual effects are good.  The action is good.  The cast is good.  (Come on!  Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, and Sam Rockwell in the Old West! It’s a match made in heaven!)  The plot is a little straightforward and trite, and there’s no hugely deep character development or anything, but at least there is some.

Thus, as a movie, Cowboys & Aliens is, at the very least, okay.  But since I found it more enjoyable than just okay, I’d nudge it up to good, but not great.  I think it lacked enough depth to aspire to greatness; it was just too predictable and too reliant on stock characters.  But it was absolutely enjoyable and fun.  And if you are expecting more than that from a movie titled Cowboys & Aliens, then perhaps the problem is with you and not the movie.

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

The new Conan the Barbarian movie is one I am more conflicted about.  I saw it (thankfully) in 2D, fully expecting it to be awful—and IT WAS NOT.  It was okay.  There were lots of things that could have been better, but for fans of sword and sorcery… well, pickings are slim, and this stands above the last Conan movie.

What could have been better?  Well, the fight choreography, for one.  Jason Momoa, who played Conan, spent 4 years on Stargate: Atlantis in the role of Ronon Dex where he had plenty of hand-to-hand action sequences that were pretty good.  We don’t really see any of that on screen in this movie, however, since apparently they hired some dude with a camcorder to film the fight sequences and had them choreographed by a toddler on a sugar-high.  So while there was plenty of bloody action, not a lot of it jumped out as particularly memorable.

Also: final battle in collapsing lair?  Seriously?  That ancient temple wasn’t even collapsing for a reason!  And, for that matter, how did Conan win in the end, exactly?  When he fought the big bad before, he had his ass handed to him, and yet in the final battle he won the day without even a training montage in between!

Ahem!  So yes, the movie is rather heavily steeped in tropes of the genre, which are a bit tedious though tolerable.  My biggest complaint is actually that the movie didn’t feel enough like CONAN.

Allow me to elaborate.

In recent years I have been reading the original Robert E. Howard Conan stories (and the Dark Horse comic series relaunch that heavily drew on them).  In them, Conan is strong, to be sure, but also smart, clever, and almost entirely self-interested.  He steals, then spends his take on food, wine, and women, and when he runs out of money, he goes stealing again.  He is honourable in his own way, but not particularly heroic.

This movie, on the other hand, struck me as a generic fantasy movie simply reskinned with the Conan license.  The plot was of the epic save-the-world variety, and Conan was freeing slaves just because he didn’t believe people should be slaves.  That, well, it didn’t feel like Conan.  (I could see Conan free slaves while robbing the slavers, say, but not as the main point of his attack.)

Complaints aside, I was sufficiently entertained by this movie to not regret seeing it.  It also had one of the most intense action sequences I’ve seen in any movie, in a bit from Conan’s childhood, that was just awesome.  But then it got my hopes up that the whole movie would be that good, and sadly, it wasn’t.

So, while I liked the movie well enough overall, it didn’t deliver to my satisfaction the same way that Cowboys & Aliens did.  With that movie, you got exactly what the title promised; with Conan the Barbarian, you got a reasonably well-done generic fantasy with hints of and the trappings of Conan.  So while it wasn’t as terrible as I had feared it might be, neither did it satisfy my craving for a Conan movie.

Thoughts on Super 8

I finally got to see the movie Super 8 this past weekend.  It had been subject to a subdued viral marketing campaign, something akin to when Cloverfield came out a few years ago, but thankfully the payoff for Super 8 was much, much better.  I thought Super 8 was a fantastic movie.

Super 8 is a deliberately nostalgic movie, throwing back to the era of summer films with ensemble child casts (think Goonies or E.T.) and set in 1979, right smack in the middle of that era of summer movies.  It captures the awkwardness of childhood while showing the kids dealing with it and having an awesome, incredible adventure that you wish you too could have during your summer break.

The basic setup is that a group of kids filming a Super 8 movie during summer break witness the derailment of an Air Force train under mysterious circumstances.  After, strange things start happening around town which they end up getting caught up in.  Of course, this is just the basic premise of the plot, and ignores the character arcs that are the main driving force of this movie.

The young cast carries the movie, with the two leads (Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) displaying a good degree of nuance, and the supporting actors hitting their notes just right.  The adult characters have an arc that parallels the kids, and while the handling of this is not particularly subtle, neither is it heavy-handed or overbearing.  I would consider this to be a very classically-structured film, and that’s entirely okay.  It totally works.

The reviews for Super 8 were mostly positive, with a few complaining about the ending.  While the ending was not particularly surprising or clever, I do think it worked, and I’m not sure how it could have been different without compromising the feel of the film.  Super 8 is a movie that doesn’t try to pull any tricks on the viewer; it is exactly what it appears to be.  And that’s great, because it is done so well.  Super 8 is easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

 

Summer Movie Mania!

I felt the need to break from my recent movie-posting naming scheme since the titles of the four movies I plan to talk about would make a rather long title when concatenated.  It is, perhaps, an indication that this post is long overdue.

In my defense, however, the past month has seen me actually making some progress on my research, plus teaching, plus actually (*GASP*) reading some books.  For fun.  In the past few weeks I have read three or four books, in fact.  I should probably blog about those at some point.

But not now.  Now, I have some summer movies to talk about.  I had meant to give Thor its own post, but alas, the God of Thunder shall receive short shrift from me tonight.

Please note, there may be spoilery comments, but nothing major.

Thor

Marvel Comics has brought another of its lesser-known heroes to the big screen with Thor, in a film that introduces a character that will be part of next year’s The Avengers.  The Marvel version of Thor is a loose adaptation of actual Norse myth, and this film is a loose adaptation of the Marvel comics.

However, it is an adaptation with a famous director (Kenneth Branagh!), Oscar-winning actors (Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins!), a suitably godlike Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and a strong supporting cast, and it totally worked for me.  That is not to say there weren’t some things I wish had been handled different, but it was a satisfying movie overall.  I especially enjoyed the creative designs for the gods’ city of Asgard and their magic and technology.

My major complaints are primarily about pacing.  Without giving too much away, I feel that Thor learned his lesson in humility awfully quickly, almost as fast as he and human Jane Foster fell for each other.  (Though, to be fair, since Foster was played by Natalie Portman, I could hardly blame him.)  What was there was done well, but it felt like the movie played out over a handful of days, and I think the character development might have been better served with a “living like a regular dude” montage in there somewhere.

In terms of Marvel-produced movies, I would put this up there after Iron Man, but above Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk, both of which were good movies, but I think I liked Thor just a little bit better.  I felt happy coming out of this movie.

X-Men: First Class

I’m not entirely certain whether X-Men: First Class is a reboot or a prequel.  I am certain that it was very well done.  Set in the 1960s during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it shows how Charles Xavier first formed the X-Men with the help of Erik Lensherr (who becomes the villain Magneto), and centres around the tragedy of their parting of ways.

The movie looks great, with groovy ’60s fashion and a solid cast of lead and supporting actors.  There are a few familiar characters first seen in previous X-Men movies, but not too many, and so we get introduced to a number of new characters and special powers.  (Some of the characters would be familiar to readers of the comics, but in many ways this is a hindrance, as their origins are nothing like the comic book versions.)

As I suggested above, I really enjoyed this movie, and thought it was well done.  But, as with Thor, I think there were some minor issues with the pacing of the story.  Not in terms of action versus character moments, but rather in the friendship between Charles and Erik.  The key thrust of this movie is that it is a tragedy, that these two great friends eventually became bitter enemies.  But they don’t really give a lot of time on screen to the development of that friendship.

While I haven’t put together a detailed timeline or anything, I got the feeling that their friendship played out over months (if not weeks).  While I can see that they became good friends in that timeframe, it lacks a certain gravitas.  Had they been working together for years, it would have made more sense to me.

(This also reminds me of another irritation: the close relationship between Charles and Mystique.  If this is a prequel, nothing of the sort was alluded to in the earlier movies.  In the context of this film, however, they grew up together from a young ago.  Their parting was in many ways more tragic that Charles and Erik’s.)

Overall, however, this was a very well-done movie.  Certainly a million times better than X-Men: The Last Stand.  I was happy with this one.

The Hangover Part 2

This movie does not really fall within my usual sci-fi/fantasy purview, but I saw it and feel obligated to say a few words.  Those words are this: if you liked the first one, you’ll probably like this one, because it is the exact same movie.  As such, it was quite funny, but lacked the element of pleasant surprise and discovery that accompanied the first one.  I enjoyed it, but it is not a movie you need to go out of your way to see.

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides

I saw On Stranger Tides in 3D unfortunately, which was entirely a waste of money.  But then, 3D always is.  Apart from the pointless 3D conversion, this movie was okay.  It wasn’t great, like the first one, and while it was less stupid in many respects than the 2nd and 3rd ones, it had its problems.

In this movie, Captain Jack Sparrow becomes our main character, and that, perhaps, is the first problem.  He is fantastic as a supporting character when you can’t wait to see what he’ll pop up and do next, but as a main character—especially when all the other lead characters are also scenery-chewing pirates—he lacks anyone to be outrageous in comparison to.

The plot also seems unnecessarily complicated.  There were several times during the movie when I was bored waiting for two characters on screen to explain what they were doing and why.  From what I understand, this movie was very loosely adapted from a novel by Tim Powers.  I wonder if shoehorning Sparrow and Barbossa into an existing plot led to its overlarge cast and sometimes languid pacing and unnecessary subplots.

But the characters were fun, and the action sequences good, and so overall the movie was okay.  There was some stuff that was definitely big-screen worthy, and there were some cools bits, so I don’t feel disappointed that I saw it.  But it wasn’t awesome or anything; it was just okay.

Paul / Sucker Punch / Hanna / Your Highness

In the last 7 weeks I have finished teaching one course, travelled to Toronto, gave and marked an exam, travelled to Salt Lake City, and started teaching another course.  Around all of that, I even managed to make some progress on my thesis research.

But fear not! I have also managed to squeeze in a surprising number of movies.  I shall discuss four of them here; the fifth (Thor) will get its own entry soon.

Paul

This latest movie from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost kind of does for science fiction film what Shaun of the Dead did for zombie movies and Hot Fuzz did for cop/action movies: poke fun at the genre while firmly entrenching itself as part of it.  However, I think Paul has a level of meta-parody that overshadows its homage to SF movies in that it also rejoices in the fan culture of science fiction, comics, and other nerdly pursuits.

To that end, the movie is absolutely steeped in subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to other films.  What impressed me most, however, was that they didn’t have to struggle to fit them in or set them up, and if you didn’t get the reference the dialogue still worked and was funny enough it its own right.

That said, if you are not interested in science fiction films in general, I don’t think this one being a comedy is going to help matters much.  Also, the more familiar you are with iconic science fiction film, the more you’ll get out of this movie.  I enjoyed this movie immensely, as did the people I went with, but it is definitely not for everyone.

Sucker Punch

I so wanted to love this movie. After having seen Zack Snyder’s 300 (visually cool, if too in-love with slow motion and adapting some thin source material) and Watchmen (a good—but not great—adaptation that I talked about here), I was curious to see what he would do with his own material.

The trailers for Sucker Punch promised hot chicks kicking ass in a variety of fantastical and science fictional settings.  Unfortunately, in the film itself that turned out to all be in the imagination of a wrongfully-imprisoned young woman.  Thus, as cool as it looked, there were no stakes to the action on screen.  Sure, it was representative of other struggles in the real world, so it made sense in terms of the narrative, but it was just disappointing—I wanted to see hot chicks actually fighting zombie Nazis and giant samurai and robots, not imagining doing those things.

But I could forgive that.  It added a layer of complexity to an otherwise straightforward story.  What I didn’t like was how relentlessly dark and depressing that story was.  Pretty much everything that happens to our main characters in the movie is absolutely awful, most of the characters we encounter are the worst kind of scum, and—while there is some hope of things improving at the end—there’s not really much in the way of justice being served.  It’s just dark.

I wanted awesome and fun, and got dark and depressing.  While I think that dark story has its place in the world, dressing it up with imaginary fantasy action was the wrong way to sell it to me.  And apart from the bleakness of the story preventing me from even enjoying those action scenes, the betrayal of the promise of the trailer is what irked me most about this movie.

Complaints aside, I do think this movie was better than most reviews suggested.  I’ve noticed that movie reviewers tend to get upset by any kind of narrative complexity in a film—especially an action film—and I think that Sucker Punch was not as slight as most reviews suggested.  It was certainly a creatively ambitious film, but ultimately I don’t think it was successful in achieving its goals.

Hanna

The movie Hanna seemed to come out of nowhere, and I was pleasantly surprised by it.  Hanna is an SF-tinged action thriller with a strong cast that blends bloody and brutal action with an almost sweet story of a young girl learning to make friends and live in the wider world.

This is one of those movies that is exceedingly well-executed.  While it is not going to be one of my favourite films or anything, it is one where I didn’t see anything and think, “Oh, I wish they could have done that better,” or, “That was stupid.”  Everything hung together well, the pacing was tight, and the ending was… satisfying.

Overall, it was a good movie.  I would recommend it to anyone who likes action, suspense, or thriller movies (whether science-fictional or not).

Your Highness

I didn’t have much in the way of hope for Your Highness.  Humorous fantasy is tough to pull off in general, and I’m not sure that there is enough iconic fantasy film to successfully parody.  But it was cheap night at the movie theatre, I wanted to get out of the house, and it had both Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel, so I was game.

It was okay.  It made me laugh.  And it had a few scenes of a scantily-clad Natalie Portman.  Most of the humour came in the form of anachronism—the modern language and attitudes of the lead character sticking out amidst the more stock supporting cast.  The plot was basically a mishmash of standard fantasy tropes glued together with some foul language and a veneer of gross-out humour.

Basically, this was a dumb but mildly amusing movie.  Unless you have a strong aversion to profanity, ridiculous violence, and some awkward nudity, I would suggest this is the sort of movie you watch if it happens to be on TV and you are looking for something to do, or if it comes up while you are looking for something on Netflix.  It was better than I had expected, though, so for me is was a successful movie outing.

Coming Soon…. My thoughts on Thor.