Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Road Diverged In A Wood: A Dichotomy of Feelings on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

[Edited 2013-12-18 due to some reader feedback] A great essay from TheOneRing.Net was also brought to my attention. Christopher Tolkien has blocked PJ from using any of Tolkien's other works. This could explain why so many new elements have been added whereas others would have made more sense.

Like any good Tolkien fanatic, I queued up to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug this past weekend. And by queued I mean I went online and bought AVX tickets wherein I could show up five minutes before the movie started. Long gone are the days of actual queuing with fellow fans, decked out in fandom gear, discussing what scenes you were looking forward to and how PJ (Peter Jackson, for the uninitated) would execute them.

I was so excited to see this film that I even stooped to making a pun when I posted my impending viewing on my facebook feed: "Beorn ready." Alas, only a handful of friends understood my joke. Many others thought I had fallen prey once again to autocorrect. Even though I was "Beorn ready," there were things I loved and things I didn't love about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Beware: Spoilers Ahead

Love: The Journey
The Hobbit or There and Back Again as it is sometimes called, is a journey narrative at it's core. This could also be said for The Lord of the Rings. The film version does a pretty good job of keeping the journey aspect going, the dwarven company is constantly striving for Erebor. Where we may lose this forward momentum will be in the third installment, The Hobbit: There and Back Again. We get to see the set pieces of Mirkwood Forest, Dol Goldur, Beorn's homestead, Laketown, and The Lonely Mountain. Theoretically, the third movie will be predominantly set in Laketown and the plains surrounding the Long Lake.

Didn't Love: Beorn
The last visual of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey proper is our company making it's way up a bear-shaped mountain. Therefore I knew that we were going to meet Beorn and he would not be sacrificed in Lord of The Rings Tom Bombadil fashion. PJ has stated that he wanted to get rid of anything that didn't help move the film and plot forward and Beorn kind of falls into this category, so I wanted to see how Beorn would appear. Long story short, Beorn could have been cut. He literally only served to get them some horses and provide another chase scene.

Love: The Elves
I was excited to see Legolas again, and see how PJ would bring in Thranduil the Elvenking of Mirkwood Forest. I was a bit more hesitant in regards to the new character of Tauriel. I was pleasantly surprised and actually ended up really liking Tauriel. The interactions between Legolas, Thranduil, and Tauriel added a lot to the film and furthered the discussion between being a part of versus apart from Middle Earth, a theme we see in The Lord of the Rings. I left the theatre basically going "Elves are BADASS."

Didn't Love: The Love Triangle
This love triangle was literally shoe-horned in. Evangeline Lily (Tauriel) has said that she originally signed on and filmed her scenes sans love triangle. When she was called back for re-shoots there was suddenly a love triangle. Now they may have added in this love triangle for REASONS for the third installment (avoiding spoilers for the third film), but it really doesn't need to be there. However, there was a reason that the story of Arwen and Aragon was in the Appendices and not in The Lord of the Rings proper. It felt forced (though the acting was fairly organic), but seemed to draw a lot of parallels with Arwen (hello there elven glow and kingsfoil).

Love: The Dwarves
In the novel, the dwarves are greedy, stupid, and clumsy. The dwarves of the film universe are much more, thanks to the direction of PJ and the individual talents of Richard Armitage (Thorin), Ken Stott (Balin) and Aidan Turner (Kili) (the other dwarves are given considerably less screen time).

Don't Love: Azog and Thorin's backstory
Azog literally appears in one line in the whole of The Hobbit. Thror (the grandfather of Thorin) was slain by Azog in the mines of Moria. So far, it hasn't really been made clear that Bolg is the son of Azog. I can see how they maybe thought that Thorin needed even more motivation, but isn't it enough to want to reclaim his throne and dwarven homeland? We know that the Orcs follow our protagonists throughout the movie and I found it a bit unnecessary to have them continue to show up again and again.
The orcs presence is Dol Goldur ties The Hobbit together with The Lord of the Rings and we could have made due with just their scenes with the Necromancer. In the novel The Hobbit we know that the orcs and goblins are on the trail of Bilbo and the dwarves. PJ makes the decision to have them follow right to the gates of Thranduil's domain and into Laketown. The chase really sets the stakes and adds a sense of haste -- as if making it to Erebor before Durin's Day wasn't enough motivation to proceed quickly -- but also detracts in that there is just too much going on.

Love: The Necromancer
I did like how they brought in The Necromancer and revealed him to be Sauron. This is alluded to in The Hobbit, but is made more clear in the less widely read The Silmarillion. I did think that the encounter between Sauron and Gandalf in the ruins of Dol Goldur was a bit heavy handed, but overall, I liked it. What would have been a really cool touch is a side plot line that never made it into The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit but is present in the chapter "The Quest for Erebor" in The Unfinished Tales. Thrain (Thorin's father) was in possession of the One Ring and lost it. Thrain was imprisoned in Dol Goldur and Gandalf sees him imprisoned there before Thrain passes away. This is some ninety years before the timeline present in The Hobbit. This is when Gandalf came into possession of the map to Erebor and the key to the mountain.

Didn't Love: Bilbo
This is more of a love/don't love. Martin Freeman practically is Bilbo Baggins. My concern with Bilbo in The Desolation of Smaug is that he was more reactionary than the borderline hero he will grow to be by the end of the trilogy. Bilbo is our window into Middle Earth, but I almost felt inundated by shots of his facial expressions. Freeman is adept at conveying the complexity of a hobbit with a bit of Baggins and a dash of Took, but it felt almost as if Bilbo was lost in such a sea of supporting characters. The most compelling moments are those Bilbo shares with Thorin, but Richard Armitage is quite a scene stealer.

Love: Smaug
Loved him. Period. Only complaint: The dwarves lock themselves in the mountain. They don't battle Smaug. That being said, Smaug versus the dwarves was the most prolonged action sequence besides the barrel ride out of Mirkwood.

Didn't Love: Bard and Laketown
Luke Evans is extremely likeable as Bard. PJ has gone to lengths to give Bard a backstory whereas in the novel Bard is a more mysterious figure. Single Dad Bard is a more compelling character but at the same time I found that the time spent dragging out the powerplays between The Master of Laketown and Bard could have been better spent. Stephen Fry turns in a memorable glorified cameo as the Master and there's a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance by Stephen Colbert. I'm also going to group the fracture of the dwarven company into this category. Hopefully both Bard's inflated backstory and the presence of the dwarves in Laketown will be furthered explained in the third film.

Love and Hate: Spiders
I hate spiders. These are obviously relatives of Ungoliant (as mentioned by Radagast in An Unexpected Journey and/or Shelob (from The Two Towers). They were less sinister than Shelob but still frightening to our diminutive dwarves and Bilbo. I like the nice touch in that they sounded very much like Gollum and that Bilbo could understand their speech while wearing the Ring. Bilbo saves the dwarves from the giant spiders and Sting finally becomes a named sword. Tauriel makes her first badass appearance. Still, I hate spiders.

Love: Miscellaneous
-Gandalf: as always
-lines tying together The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
-mention of Gimli. I LOL'd
-Bombur's Barrel Ride

Overall Rating: A-
I loved The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug but as more of a Tolkien purist, I was a bit disappointed. The film seemed to have sacrificed some elements in order to add others in. PJ has strayed from the Elven path. Hopefully, unlike in Mirkwood Forest, PJ will be able to find his way back and walk the higher road of forward momentum and fan service in The Hobbit: There and Back Again.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Book Review: Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season

Genre: Fantasy, Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication Date: August 2013

From the jacket: It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others’ minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing. But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city—Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly—as soldiers in their army. Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives. The Bone Season introduces a compelling heroine—a young woman learning to harness her powers in a world where everything has been taken from her. It also introduces an extraordinary young writer, with huge ambition and a teeming imagination. Samantha Shannon has created a bold new reality in this riveting debut.

When I first started hearing about Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season I confess my curiosity was piqued. But I was skeptical. Bloomsbury has been promoting the heck out of it but reviews have been devisive. Shannon has been heralded as the next J.K. Rowling. ANDY SERKIS has already purchased the film option. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. My reservations initially stemmed from the fact that Samantha Shannon is TWENTY ONE YEARS OLD. Not to say that no young writer can accomplish a great work but that the accolades feel a bit premature based upon the merits of one novel. However, I found that I couldn't put The Bone Season down.
The Bone Season is the first of a proposed seven book series. With that in mind I began to read the novel. A parallel version of London and Oxford is shown, being created by a rift in Victorian times - a son of Queen Victoria is revealed to have been Jack the Ripper and a user of black magic, allowing for a schism to occur and clairvoyance to flood the world. I don't want to fall prey to summary as I have provided the book jacket summary for the novel above. But It is definitely front-loaded with a lot of info dump. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. I found myself referring time and time again to the appendices that provide the reader with a glossary as well as a dichotomy and hierarchy of the seven orders of clairvoyance. The world-building that is present in the novel is more than impressive. It is multidimensional and layered and pulled me in almost instantaneously.
That being said, the only area of the world-building which fell a little flat for me was the fact that Paige and her fellow "voyants" as they are referred to in the novel, are in hiding. With the powers that they possessed I was surprised that they were the underdogs of society resorting to a life of crime in organized syndicates rather than being top-dog. As I progressed through the novel, some of the reasoning behind this became clear, so at least the areas in which the world-building is weak can be tweaked or revealed at a later time.

The Bone Season is a great debut in the fantasy and speculative fiction genres. To continue to compare it to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games does Shannon and The Bone Season a disservice. It is a compelling work of imagination and I look forward to the rest of the series (and the movie!).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Salvaging Salvation

Because Terminator Salvation Is Not the Failure That Critics and Fan Boys Proclaim

The first time I watched Terminator Salvation (2009) was the fall it was released on DVD. But I didn’t buy it on DVD – I streamed a grainy bootleg from my PS3 onto a cathode-ray tube TV. During that viewing, I sat upright in my bed, straining to make out every scene – not just because of the bootleg’s poor quality, but because I thought it was a damn good movie that demanded my attention. I’m not a Terminator fan boy though, and I soon forgot about the film and went on with my life, eventually investing in a flat screen.

Move four years into the future. It’s 2013. I found a portion of my summer’s extra-curricular studies analyzing science fiction novels and films for philosophical and social commentary. So in other words, I watched a lot of Star Trek. It was, however, while reading “The Second Variety” back to back with “Imposter” in Philip K. Dick’s Collected Short Stories that I recalled the fourth entry in The Terminator film franchise. All these stories share settings of post-apocalyptic futures where killer machines disguised as humans are, themselves, unaware of their artificiality. So I gave Salvation another watch, and, like Butters after watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I find myself in the minority, saying, “I thought it was pretty good!”

I say the minority because Terminator Salvation currently holds a 33% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes [i]. In his two-star review of Salvation, Roger Ebert complained that “One of Hollywood's oldest axioms teaches us: The story comes first. Watching ‘Terminator Salvation,’ it occurred to me that in the new Hollywood, the storyboard comes first. After scrutinizing the film, I offer you my summary of the story: Guy dies, finds himself resurrected, meets others, fights. That lasts for almost two hours” [ii].

It’s from this kind of review that I would like to defend Terminator Salvation. I feel director McG does tackle the philosophical commentary so often found in good science fiction – one that seeks to define humanity by distinguishing man from machine. It might just be harder to see this through all the explosions and smoke.

One can prove McG’s intention to make Salvation an intelligent sci- fi action flick: “I think intelligent action films represent the magic of movies at a very high level and I'm thrilled to throw my hat in the ring and be part of it”[iii]. Regarding Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), Skynet’s human-machine hybrid who retains his human identity, McG stated, “[Marcus] is a real exploration of what it means to be human . . . You can have metal bits and pieces running through your body, but it doesn't make you any less of a man. And the question is, where do you become a machine and let go of your humanity?”

Here I’d like to point out that in Salvation doesn’t just question the difference between man and machine through the character of Marcus, the robot/machine hybrid. More importantly, its through John Connor (Christian Bale), who condemns Marcus based solely on his physical mechanization. The film is as much the story of Connor’s salvation as it is Marcus’s, and in this sense, also The Resistance’s, which orders the destruction of Skynet’s headquarters despite collateral damage of thousands of human prisoners’ lives – a sacrificial act Conner disobeys: “Command wants us to fight like machines. They want us to make cold, calculated decisions. But we are not machines. And if we behave like them, than what is the point in winning" [iv]?

In essence, Connor goes through much the same character arc as Sarah Connor does in T2: Judgment Day (1991), who starts as a paranoid militant bent on murdering an innocent software developer and becomes someone capable of trusting a Terminator as a father figure for John. Since no one in their right mind would criticize Linda Hamilton's portrayal of Sarah Conner for its intensity, I feel Roger Ebert misses the point when he complains that T2: Judgment Day’s Edward Furlong is “infinitely more human as John Connor than 
Christian Bale is in this film." Salvation’s John Conner is not intended to seem human. Marcus the robot-human hybrid is.

This film is not the failure that critics and fan boys proclaim. If you want an action sci-fi with big explosions, you should like Salvation. And although it’s no Blade Runner (1982), if you want to ponder the difference between man and machine in the super cool Terminator universe, you should like Salvation. But if you want a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger with the tone of a James Cameron film, you’re going to be disappointed – because that’s a stupid thing to expect. It doesn’t star Arnold Schwarzenegger and it isn’t directed or written by James Cameron. If Salvation did suffer from misguided expectations, maybe it will garner respect in years to come.

Just for the sake of things that could have been, apparently, prior to Salvation’s poor reviews, McG had plans to make Salvation part of a trilogy:

“John Connor is going to travel back in time and he's going to have to galvanize the militaries of the world for an impending Skynet invasion. They've figured out time travel to the degree where they can send more than one naked entity. So you're going to have hunter killers and transports and harvesters and everything arriving in our time and Connor fighting back with conventional military warfare, which I think is going to be fucking awesome. I also think he's going to meet a scientist that's going to look a lot like present-day Robert Patrick (who famously played the T-1000 in Terminator 2), talking about stem-cell research and how we can all live as idealized, younger versions of ourselves" [iii].

Imagine that: a T-1000 origin story revolving around the philosophical quest for immortality…and more explosions. If that sounds cool to you, it’s unfortunate that this future will not come to pass. The fifth Terminator movie which is currently in development with a summer 2015 release date is set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, while McG and company are out of the picture [v]. I just find it so confusing why people would make another Terminator film starring Arnold. He’s old now. It doesn’t make sense for Terminators to age. They’re robots – they don’t age. I don’t even…

Also, notice how I wrote an entire Terminator article without making any forced “I’ll be back” jokes. Discipline. Discipline is a thing.

[i]  Terminator Salvation.” Rottentomatoes.com. Web. Accessed Aug. 2013.

[ii] Ebert, Roger. Terminator Salvation.” Rogerebert.com. 19 May, 2009. Web. Accessed Aug. 2013.

[iii] McG. "Salvation By Cyborg" by Ethan Alter. Film Journal International 112.5 (2009): 14. Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. Accessed Aug. 2013.

[iv] Terminator Salvation. Screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. 2009. Dir. McG. Prod.  Derek Anderson. Perf. Christian Bale and Sam Worthington. 2009. Warner Bros, 2009. DVD.

[v] Thomson, Iain. Schwarzenegger says 'I'll be back' for Terminator 5 reboot.” The register.co.uk. 29 June, 2013. Web. Accessed Aug. 2013.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Five Fave Zombie Tales

During our discussion following seeing World War Z, the attending Blades all digressed into geeking out over our favourite zombie works, referencing classics of the genre, and generally highlighting the giant shoulders WWZ stands upon. So here's some of the Blades' lists of fave zombie tales from the broad scope of possible narratives.

Samantha's List:
1. Deadgirl (Film) Deadgirl is not a typical zombie flick. It concerns only a single, female zombie who is somewhat non-threatening. Throughout the film, she is chained, naked, to a surgical table and kept imprisoned by two living boys ... the story escalates from there. Directors Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarimiento manage to take a done-to-death genre and make it fresh and terrifying while also addressing rape culture. They explore the idea that zombie flicks are less about the zombies and more about how the living act when no one's watching. Despite Deadgirl's serious message, it still has plenty of that campy gore and scare we've come to expect from zombie movies. 
2. Cabin in the Woods (Film) It is incredibly difficult to make a horror-comedy that doesn't suck. Cabin in the Woods succeeds in walking the line between hilarity and horror. It is self-aware and smart. Plus, it pays homage to some of the best horror stories ever told, including international terrors that usually don't get much credit in Hollywood (Japanese horror is unbeatable--literally in CitW) 
3. Cell (Novel) I like Cell for two reasons. First, like The Ring, Cell plays on the fear of technology--phones, in this case. Secondly, it reworks the zombie monster. Stephen King never calls his zombies zombies, he calls them phoners. And, unlike zombies, phoners quickly begin to group into flocks where they share one mind and communicate telepathically. What's scarier than a zombie that can communicate with its group...? ... The dentist. But no one would read a book about the horrors of a root canal (unless Stephen King writes it, then it'll be a best seller). 
4. Resident Evil (Film) Resident Evil is fantastic because it's both a zombie horror story and a mystery. Usually, film viewers are thrown into the zombie apocalypse after the infection has already spread to a large segment of the human population. Viewers get a half-assed origin story for the infection (aliens, government experiments, mutated rabies virus, broken photocopiers that finally induce incurable rage among coworkers, etc.). That's not the case with Resident Evil. We get to see the origin story unfold before the Earth is overrun. Resident Evil also combines some of the best horror elements without becoming contrived. There's a creepy little girl (who's also a computer bent on killing the humans it once protected), mutated monsters, dark hallways, an infection, decapitation, flickering lights, packs of vicious dogs, lasers, and an evil corporation. It's definitely worth a watch or two. 
5.World War Z (Novel) Through a series of realistic (fictional) interviews, Max Brooks manages to give readers a plausible look at what a zombie infestation would mean for the world. Brooks, like most zombie writers, has his own take on what a zombie would act and look like--which is interesting, no doubt--but it's his living characters who are truly compelling. I also found the *SPOILER* (somewhat) utopian ending very different from most zombie narratives *END SPOILER*. Plus, Max Brooks is Mel Brooks's son...bonus points right there.

Courtney's List
1. Shaun of the Dead-I don't think I can justify this with an explanation. It's one of my favorite movies. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Dylan Moran (the guy who looks like a grown up version of Harry Potter) work so well off one another.
2. Zombieland-The film had a great balance of action, comedy, and gore. Every time I see a zombie film now, I find myself referencing the set of rules that Jesse Eisenburg's character lists. Brilliant.  
3. 28 Days/Weeks Later-Epic scores composed by John Murphy. Any movie he has worked on, he creates haunting scores--again epic, and beautiful. I'll just say epic once more because I LOVE John Murphy's work.
4. Dawn of the Dead (both--but, leaning towards Zack Snyder's remake)-The opening and ending sequences to the remake are the main moments from the film that stick with me. The use of Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around," and The Jim Carrol Band's "People Who Died" compliment the movie so well. And Sarah Polley was a pleasant surprise also. 
5. Resident Evil (games)-Having I have seen all the RS films (non-animated), I prefer what I have seen and played in Resident Evil 2 for playstation and Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles for Wii. The infected vary in characterisitcs, "species," and originality that you just don't see in all the films. And though I do love Mila Jovavich's character in the film, the games showcase the other female characters more heavily--adding more variety in story and selection (in terms of skill to "fight" he infected and capture items/intel to complete the game...but never really coming anywhere near a "cure" or "antidote")

David's List
1, H.P. Lovecraft, ‘Herbert West–Reanimator’
2, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
3, Shea & Wilson, Illuminatus! [Those poor poor hippies]
4, Grettis saga [featuring Glámr, the old Norse zombie]
5, William Seabrook, The Magic Island [real-life zombies by a real-life cannibal]

Mike's List:
1. I Am Legend - Richard Matheson (novel): I got my copy in one of those Science Fiction book club promotions where you paid a buck and got a stack of books. It was the shortest in the lot, but it's the only one I still own. While Matheson was writing vampires, Romero admitted it was a huge influence on Dawn of the Dead and his subsequent zombie films. This book is one I've returned to many times.
2. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (audiobook): I've never read the print version, but the audiobook deafened me to how similar Brooks' character voices apparently are. It's tough to think Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, and Denise Crosby sound the same! I love how the book is short fictions inside a larger frame. It's not solid in every story, but there are a number I find gripping every time I listen.
3. Valley of the Dead: the Truth Behind Dante's Inferno - Kim Paffenroth (novel): Unlike many high-lit/low-culture mash-ups, Kim Paffenroth's zombie-filled retelling of Dante's epic poem is very smart. Paffenroth does far more than just jam zombies into the rings of hell. He demonstrates a strong understanding of the scholarship surrounding Dante's Divine Comedy, with episodes from Inferno recrafted, yet retaining their original meaning.
4. "Nightcall" by Kavinsky (song): It's but one song, but the story behind it is that the lyrics are the voice of a man who has recently become a zombie, and yet is somehow aware of it. I love the mix of '80s techno-soundtrack and horror backstory to this very cool, very hip tune.
5. Dreadnought by Cherie Priest (novel): Best use of zombies in a steampunked America where the Civil War has gone on for two decades: this is like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, except with Airships, Trains, and then Super-Dreadnought-Train with a Texas Ranger, a Civil War Nurse, and a shitload of zombies. One of my fave steampunk reads, as well as zombie ones.

Brittney's List

1. The Walking Dead (graphic novels and television show): The Walking Dead, in graphic novel form and television form, should be viewed as two completely different entities. While they both start out the same they are both travelling in completely different directions and at different velocities. Without getting into spoiler territory, I'll focus on the teenage characters: Carl and Beth. Carl and Beth have VERY little to do in the graphic novels. As is the status of the teenager in most zombie texts, they are there as filler. I wouldn't even consider many of them as secondary characters. However, when we make the move from the graphic novels to the television show, Carl and Beth both take on larger roles, especially Carl. It will be interesting to see where his character development takes him.
2. This Is Not A Test - Courtney Summers: Courtney Summers usually is lumped in with the boy meets girl YA fiction, so when a book blogger friend of mine recommended this novel to me I was pretty curious. A group of teenagers face the zombie apocalypse together and set up home base in familiar but dangerous territory -- their high school. I won't get into it much more than that, but I found it pretty refreshing.
3. Feed - Mira Grant (First entry in a trilogy): We cured cancer and the common cold but in doing so created The Rising, affecting humans and animals alike. Set ten years post zombie apocalypse, a group of bloggers try to find out what REALLY happened. More of a thriller than straight up horror, in a medical and political vein.
4. The Forests of Hands and Teeth - Carrie Ryan: The Village meets Dawn of the Dead. Like almost literally. But I'm a sucker for an unreliable narrator. Like most YA, there's a DUNDUNDUN surprise! love triangle.
5. Generation Dead - Daniel Waters This is the first entry in a series and I have to say it now -- VERY melodramatic, sometimes even eye-roll worthy. That being said, it is a very different take on the zombie text. Because of all the genetically and chemically altered food teenagers eat, some of them have been reanimating and are dubbed "differently biotic." There are many echoes of civil rights movements in history (including our own present -- what does it really mean to have EQUAL rights?).

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pacific Rim

I've read a number of reviews which compare Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim to Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. This is not a bad comparison - they share the same basic plot: monsters from another universe are trying to break through to this one. Giant mechs are humanity's best hope. These mechs are piloted by people who engage in combat in a violent form of synchronized swimming. The problem with these reviews is that they make the comparison as a pejorative, which it is not for the fan of kaiju-eiga (giant monster movies, particularly Japanese rubber-suited-battle-fests). C.S. Lewis advised critics to know what they are criticizing before doing their work. Pacific Rim is a kaiju-eiga. It stands on the shoulders of many men-in-suits, not just the Power Rangers. For the Power Rangers themselves are the product of Ultraman and Godzilla. Pacific Rim pays homage to all those films, and then some, from the Gundam series to Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yes, it uses ideas we've seen before. Yes, it engages in blockbuster cliches. But in addition to not really knowing the genre they're watching, these nay-saying critics have neglected to note something else.

Pacific Rim is Power Rangers made by Guillermo del Toro. And that's saying something.

Fans of del Toro's more serious work, such as The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth may be disappointed by Pacific Rim's utter lack of serious subtext or social commentary. Admittedly, there are some brief overtures to the environment and the decommissioning of military forces, but these are in the service of the narrative, not political statements. Del Toro's heroes are of the same stripe as many of his other films: they are rogues, rebels: they are no longer the military, they are "the resistance." If there is any political subtext, it is just that del Toro still hates Facism. This is nothing new, and Pacific Rim adds little to an argument del Toro made better in Pan's Labyrinth. This film is part of del Toro's Hollywood legacy, built upon action adventure hits such as the Hellboy films and Blade II. The takeaway message I left the theatre with is that in the case of Apocalypse, we should put Idris Elba in charge.

The film is loud, bombastic, and over-the-top, much like the Jager mechs at the heart of the film. It is unapologetic in its imagination of disaster. It is precisely the sort of "inadequate response" that Susan Sontag spoke of in the 1960s in reference to the SF films of her day. I have also seen critics decry the film for pandering to audiences' desire to sit mesmerized by shiny lights while shoveling buckets of popcorn into their mouths. The lights are shiny, and the film is of the popcorn variety, and this is not a bad thing.

To paraphrase Michael Chabon's "Trickster in a Suit of Lights," when did entertainment become a bad word? Chabon was speaking of short fiction, but the idea holds true for film as well. Before film was a propaganda device or a means of meaningful documentation, it was a means to entertain. It is still its raison d'etre. But entertainment does not necessarily mean low quality. Chabon champions the short story writers who entertain in the ghettos of genre, but do it well. Entertainment need not be shoddy. And Pacific Rim, as Forbes stated, is what a summer blockbuster should be. It is a tight narrative with brisk pacing that keeps us interested in the humans behind the mechs. It's the movie Transformers could have been if it hadn't been written by committee, and if it had remembered we came to watch giant robots, not Megan Fox.
Pacific Rim delivers the viewer into an immersive, fully realized world that bears a skeletal resemblance to Power Rangers. But the similarity is only skeletal. The flesh that del Toro has placed over that skeleton produces a very different experience. If Power Rangers is targeted at my 7-year old son, Pacific Rim is the movie that the seven-year old will love when he is 17, 27, 37, and so on. I saw grown men mimicking Jager moves as we left the theatre. I wanted to emulate those moves myself.

This movie is for the fan of the kaiju-eiga. It is a twenty-first-century overhaul of the giant monster film where two men in rubber suits engage in Wrestlemania in a miniature metropolitan area. The destruction is glorious, the fights are breathtaking, and the characters are the sort one expects when they're named Hannibal Chau, as Ron Perlman's is for his favorite historical figure, and his favorite Asian food joint. They are pulp heroes in a mech anime given flesh, set to the Wagnerian-metal blend of Ramin Djawadi's soundtrack. If you thrilled to Power Rangers when you were a kid, you need to see Pacific Rim. The Rangers are all grown up and ready to go fishing. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

World War Z roundtable discussion

This month, we tried something new - three of of our bloggers went to see World War Z with special guest Jeff Nelson. We all had previous experience with Max Brooks' book (Courtney rightly hesitated to call it a novel) either as print (Brittney and Courtney) or audiobook (Jeff and Mike). The four of us attended a late-night, non-3D showing of WWZ in a packed theatre one week after the movie's major release date. The following transcript is our very fresh thoughts on the movie, only slightly edited for readability and coherence.

Mike: I want us to start out by talking about our expectations for the film, what we came to it with in terms of Max Brooks' book, trailers, or pre-release buzz.

Brittney: When I heard that they had to reshoot 40+ minutes of content--a huge chunk of screen time for them to redo--I thought, "Brad Pitt's making this with his Plan B productions - how could he let this happen?" Add to that the rumors about fights with the director, and I was coming in with pretty low expectations. 

Jeff: I didn't hear much about the production drama, but I did manage to hear the spoiler - basically, how they were going to beat the zombies in the end. But despite that, I really enjoyed it. 

Courtney: When I first saw the trailer, I thought it seemed yet another average rip-off zombie flick, with fast-runners of I Am Legend and 28 Days Later. And then a week ago, I got over that prejudice and decided to read the book, because I heard it's a decent read; I read the majority of the novel--if you could call it that--and it changed my expectations of the film. I wondered how they would focus on the individual stories that were being told. That said, I was going in with low expectations.

Jeff: I'd heard the audiobook with Mark Hamill, the much abridged one, but I couldn't remember details about plot points, so I didn't really have expectations concerning the book.

Mike: I've never read the print edition - I've listened to both versions of the audiobook: both the much abridged 2006 version, and the less abridged 2013 version. I actually think this is the best way to experience the book, given that it's an "oral history" of the zombie conflict, and the voice actors are really gifted performers who elevate Brooks' prose with their performance.

Brittney: I think if I had listened to the audiobook, the reading experience would have been different - there were so many voices, at times almost written in dialect, but there was still a uniformity to the character voices, perhaps because of the repetition of ex-military voices or civilian voices. I had previously read the book, and when I heard about the movie, I wondered, "How is this going to happen?" How are they going to turn all these different narratives into one cohesive narrative. So I was pretty skeptical.

Mike: I was hoping it would be like Contagion, which is like WWZ without the zombies. 

Jeff: I think when you're looking at adapting a book to a movie, you have to strip it down and focus on one main element or one character, rather than trying to tell everything in two hours, because it just can't happen.

Courtney: It reminded me of Resident Evil, the first and third games for the Wii, where you as the player are trying to find something -- a cure, or a better, more secure environment for the entire game. It's the continuous movement, collecting data, info...breadcrumbs, as is in the movie...which was very clever in the movie. Brad Pitt keeps making these connections using little details that he saw along his journey: it's very similar to the flow of Resident Evil.

Mike: That's an interesting moment of intertextuality, though I'm stretching the use of the term text to say so. Instead of referencing an earlier fast-zombie in a film, you're referencing a game. I'm reading the second edition of Linda Hutcheon's Theory of Adaptation, which just came out this year. She basically says we need to get away from discussions of adaptation which focus on fidelity to the book as original, as though the book has some priveleged status when you have so many other possible media for adaptation. Normally, academics only talk book to film, and miss out on discussing other adaptations like video games or comic books, or in my estimation, even trailers as works of art. She says that when you have a video game adaptation, it's not about fidelity to the original narrative, which is linear, it's a non-linear narrative that happens in the same world as that book. Which is another way of considering an adaptation - not, "is this exactly like the book?" but rather, "is this happening in the same world as the book?" If you consider WWZ in terms of book-to-film fidelity, it's a failure. If you consider it as another story in that same universe, it fares a bit better: at least, up until the last hour.   

Brittney: That's a good point. I think initially, it could have fit into the narrative. But in the book, one of the military men says you can literally walk away from the zombies--you could speedwalk and get away. I didn't like the changes the film made to the zombies' origin and the way they act, since it changes the way they deal with them completely. 

Mike: Agreed. The first hour, aside from the film's change from slow-walkers to fast-runners, could easily have taken place in parallel to the stories in the book. Brad Pitt's story even intersects with them at points, like in Israel. It kept the film from being a slavish recreation of a story I already know. But once they started playing with the origin and solution, the film generated a sort of alternate history of the zombie war Brooks imagined. But my greatest disappointment with any comparisons of fidelity to the book was the loss of the social commentary. In the book, the most horrific moments don't involve zombies: they involve real-world atrocities that are already happening.

Jeff: You mentioned that movie and even trailer stands on its own from the book — maybe opening titles can too?If the movie had any message, I think it could be that it's important to pay attention to what's happening in the world, and that was emphasised most in the opening titles.

Brittney: I lamented the loss of multiculturalism and multi-nationalism from book to film. 

Mike: There was a little bit!

Brittney: A very little bit. We got Israel and we got...South Korea.

Mike: And when we were in South Korea, all we saw were Americans.

Brittney: No Koreans!

Courtney: But there was an ethnic diversity to the people the characters were interacting with, even in Wales - the doctors at the W.H.O. But Brooks really went to every corner of the globe...he even had the Canadian Armed Forces!

Jeff: I agree that the lack of social commentary is a failing of this movie, when you consider other zombie films, especially George Romero's, which were often commentary on consumerism or what have you. Aside from the credits, that commentary is lacking.

Courtney: I just read something about the music, Muse's "The 2nd Law: Isolated System." Brad Pitt wanted to find something like "Tubular Bells" or the Exorcist Theme, and they knew that Muse was creating their new album based on Max Brooks' book, because Matt Bellamy likes to use literature as inspiration for the songs he's writing. And that song is about escaping consumerism, or control, etc.

Jeff: I like the idea of it being a "post-zombie" movie. One of the characteristics of earlier zombie movies is that nobody ever says the word "zombie." As soon as you say the word zombie, it becomes ridiculous. But they call them zombies here, or the military calls them...

Brittney: Zekes - they other them. In World War II you have Charlie, you have Hans, you have...

Jeff: Gerries...

Brittney: And here we have Zekes. They didn't humanize them, whereas in The Walking Dead, there's this perception that "they're people!" And a lot of characters have trouble with that, that they have to kill this person they previously knew. In WWZ we don't get any of that. They become the Other.

Jeff: For any kind of apocalypse movie, I always enjoy the lead up before it hits, where there's clues in the background action while the main characters go about their lives. Rise of the Planet of the Apes did that well, although is was mostly working off the original movie.

Mike: The build-up in the film of WWZ was really strong. It felt like the film I'd wanted Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead to be. Snyder's Dawn of the Dead started so well: I was terrified in those opening minutes, and loved that wide-shot that showed the car driving through the urban devastation of the zombie plague. And then the action moved into the mall, and it ceased being interesting. I suppose that's what I didn't like about the final act of WWZ - once the story moved "indoors," I wasn't as interested. The scenes of large-scale zombie hordes were really well-done, and kept emphasizing how bad things were.

Brittney: Eli Roth made a good point regarding that kind of wide-spread terror. He said that the one thing that he always wanted to see was the actual moment the plague hits, not just one spot but everywhere. You usually end up seeing glimpses of the widespread panic on news, like the opening of World War Z, but you don't actually get that global panic of it happening everywhere. 
Jeff: I remember reading that the director had the idea to model the movement of the zombie swarms on insects, which I found really effective.

Mike: The whole film seemed crafted around the idea of speed - the pacing was fast, the zombies were fast - which is appropriate, since the medium of film is all about speed and concision. A book has the time to unfold, but a film only has those two hours. Plus, the fast-zombies made for some great jump-scares.

Brittney: I know I jumped in my seat a few times - the zombies moved so quickly - you couldn't anticipate all of the jump-scares. It keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and makes for a much better movie.

Courtney: Again, I was really reminded of Resident Evil, where you battle fast-moving zombies. The movements of the zombies in WWZ were very much like those in the Resident Evil video game. And those zombies were also triggered by sound.

Mike: It's definitely built on the shoulders of other works, which is inevitable--

Courtney: --there are only so many original approaches...

Mike: Yes, and we're past the crest with the wave of zombie films and fictions in this last decade.

Brittney: We're post-zombie...Sean of the Dead might have been one of those crest points.

Mike: Yeah - and for this film to be as entertaining as it was despite that, is a testament to its quality. I'd give it a solid 4/5. It's not a great film, and it's not Brooks' novel onscreen, but it is a great thriller, and I have to give it props for being a film younger teens can see, and enjoy, without it being a splatterfest...

Jeff: Yeah - there were no scenes with intestines being ripped out. I'd also give it a 4/5. I do enjoy a good zombie movie!

Courtney: Having watched the movie, I'm kinda disappointed, since it was a Brad Pitt vehicle. Though it was pretty intense, I would give it a 3/5.

Brittney: I give it a 3.5/5, because this movie almost entirely fell on Brad Pitt's shoulders. He was in nearly every scene, and he gives an excellent performance as the family man who just has to get home. But the ending was too predictable, which was a big let-down for me.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

First Glimpse - Tauriel from The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

As of this morning Entertainment Weekly posted our first clear glimpse of the elven Tauriel from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, who is played by Lost alum Evangeline Lilly.

Tauriel ('Woodland daughter' (S. taur [forest, great] + -iell [pat. fem. suffix; daughter])) as they have come to call the unnamed elf who appears in the Elven King’s halls plays a small but key role in The Hobbit. Peter Jackson has expanded the role in The Desolation of Smaug but we won’t know to what extent until the film hits the big screen. It's hard to tell if Tauriel is the same elf that helps Bilbo in the halls of the Elven King (revealed to be Thranduil, the Elven King of Mirkwood Forest) or if Jackson has conflated a number of characters into her role.

However, the styling has got to have J.R.R. Tolkien rolling in his grave. Tauriel looks like the love child of Peter Pan and Link from The Legend of Zelda. It makes sense that she's all in green, given that Thranduil's kingdom lies in the heart of the Mirkwood, but I expected a bit more camoflauge and a little less costume.

Evangeline says this of her role (Entertainment Weekly):
“Tauriel is the head of the Elven Guard… She’s a Sylvan Elf, which means she’s of a much lower order than the elves we all became acquainted with in The Lord of the Rings. She doesn’t hold the same kind of status that Arwen or Galadriel or Elrond or Legolas do – she’s much more lowly. She sort of goes against the social order of the elves a bit.”

Tolkien's The Silmarillion and the many volumes of The History of Middle Earth go into great detail regarding the different demarcations and schisms of the Elves throughout the Four Ages. There are small but important differences, to which Lilly alludes to when she indicates that Tauriel is a Silvan elf and not of a different elven group.

It’s said she will have a “significant” relationship with Legolas, the son of Thranduil, but whether that means romantic or not we’ll have to see. Lilly has been adamant that it is not of a romantic nature. Peter Jackson has indicated that Tauriel actually means "Daughter of Mirkwood." Taken literally, she could end up being related to Legolas and/or Thranduil.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens December 13, 2013.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Top 5 Best and Worst Zombie Film Clichés

With World War Z due to come out this summer, I thought it might be fun to compile a short list of the best and worst zombie film clichés. There are many clichés (especially bad ones), but I've limited myself to 5. Feel free to add to the list.

1. WORST: Suddenly zombies!

TV's The Walking Dead is the worst offender when it comes to this zombie trope. In one scene, the group of survivors are in the clear. There are no zombies anywhere. The survivors begin to relax. They throw around a football or reveal something funny, sad, and/or interesting about themselves, like "Did you know my biggest fear is to be devoured by a million hungry zombies unexpectedly? Haha, but that'll never happen." In the next scene, there's a horde of hilariously slow moving monsters coming for them. The survivors act all bamboozled and panicked by the "sudden" arrival of this murder of zombies (because they've only been sneaked up on a MILLION times before).

"Maybe we should open it." - Every survivor ever
I can't help but wonder how none of the survivors  heard a thousand clumsy, moaning monsters stumbling through a thick forest?  I mean, did no one hear the snap of even one tree branch? Zombies are possibly the least stealthy of all the monsters. Yet, they always have the element of surprise. It makes no sense.

2. BEST: We can rebuild him. We have the technology.

Apparently apocalyptic survivors no longer need their writing hands. Steve the survivor loses his hand and instead of looking for a way to stop the bleeding and reattach that lost limb or, even better, crumbling into a shivering ball like a normal human being, he immediately replaces it with a weapon. Evil Dead, The Walking Dead, and  Planet Terror all use this trope--though Planet Terror probably did it as a homage or pastiche to other zombie narratives.

Zombies, you can't tell, but Ash is giving you the finger.
It might seem lame at first, but there is something entirely badass about ignoring your pain and shoving steal into your fresh wound so you can keep killing monsters. That's determination. That's inspiring. Someone should make that shit into a motivational poster.

3. WORST: Your boob's out, dear.

No one can make a putrid, graying dead body sexy, right? Wrong. Hollywood can. And they do it with the "accidental" boob. There's always one (slightly less decomposed) lady-zombie shuffling around with a single perky boob out in the open. It makes the viewers' arousal so confusing and disturbing. Like, she's dead, there's pus oozing out of the gash on her very flat stomach, but her boob's out, so it's kinda hot.

This reminds me of something, but I can't put my finger on it...

A little lipstick and this pretty zombie's ready to both arouse and disgust viewers everywhere.
And it's always one boob. The Hollywood director was like "Ok, how can we get some nudity in here without making it look forced? Take that model 's boobs out. Wait, wait, that's too much. Just one boob. Yeah, like that...like it was a happy accident."

 A logical person might argue that zombie nudity makes the story more believable. Zombies decompose and so must their clothes. But if that's true, why don't I ever see an old man zombie walking around with his saggy balls exposed? I'd like to see Hollywood do that. Well, I wouldn't like to see it...

4. BEST: It's just a flesh wound...

There's one survivor who's in denial. She's been bit real bad. And she's going to become one of those...those THINGS! But, she's going to pretend she's fine, because she doesn't want to believe she will turn. Maybe she'll be different. Maybe she'll fight the infection and live.


Sure, she'll hide her infection for a while, endangering her group ... until she is foaming at the mouth or one of her ears falls off. One of the group members will turn to her and stupidly ask, "You doin' ok, Donna? You look kind of pale." And then Donna will rip that group member's face off.

5.WORST: Oh, that zombie used to be an Olympic runner.

Remember that scene in Austin Powers in which the security guard is screaming at the steamroller slowly moving towards him? Instead of moving out of the way, even taking one step to his left, to get away from the distant vehicle, he just stands there and waits for it to hit him. That's what a zombie chase scene is like. And no shaky camera maneuvering can trick me into thinking a zombie chase scene isn't ridiculous.

A fully rotted corpse with a missing leg is not going to outrun a healthy teenage girl. And yet, it happens all too often. Inevitably, the teenage girl, out of breath from running for literally a minute, trips on an obvious tree root and, for some reason, can no longer work her arms and legs. It would take little effort for her to pull herself up and escape, but that zombie is only a mile away! Plus, she's been skipping gym class.

Maybe it's the film industry's way of warning about the dangers of the obesity epidemic.  Maybe it's the film industry's way of encouraging you to get on that treadmill you bought three years ago and used once for a minute and thirty seven seconds. I mean, it is pretty pathetic that a teenage girl would rather let herself be devoured by an undead cannibal than run for another minute.  

Either way, it's a bad cliché.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

10 Versions of Superman: Superman: The Movie (1978)

With one month until Man of Steel comes out, I figure it's high time to chart my own history with the Blue Boyscout. You'll note I didn't call this series "the top 10 Superman graphic novels," since they aren't all graphic novels per se. Plus, some days I just hate that term, since it feels like I'm trying to justify reading comic books. But not all the works on my list are coherent, stand-alone tales, and one of them is prose. Further, not all of them are actually Superman stories. One is a movie, the other the first three episodes of a television series.Nevertheless, in anticipation of the release of Man of Steel, here is the first of my series of posts on my lifelong love of Superman!

Superman: the Movie (1978)

I was already hooked on Superman through comic books, Saturday mornings' Superfriends, and reruns of the 1950s Adventures of Superman when I saw Superman: The Movie in 1978. My family was moving from the town I'd grown up in, my mom was in the hospital, and my sisters and I were staying with my grandmother. My dad had come to visit, in between arranging the move, checking on my mom, and buying a new house. I was laying on the floor, scanning the ads for movies in the city newspaper, something I couldn't have done in the small town I'd lived in. I was fascinated by how the Calgary Herald had pages of movie ads, and spent lots of time studying the art. I turned the page to see a huge, quarter-page advertisement: the crystalline Superman-logo on a black background.

In the pre-Internet days of movie advertising, it wasn't just current films that were featured in newspaper ads: film companies marketed for upcoming films as well. I scanned the ad for the offending words, "Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You," and when I found them lacking, jumped up and ran to my dad, pleading to go see it RIGHT NOW. And being the man who was my first DM, the guy who bought an early Betacam so I could make stop-motion films, and the guy who snuck me into a drive-in showing of Conan the Barbarian when I was 11, he did.

The marketing for the film boldly claimed "You'll believe a man can fly." Given that I thought the special effects in The Adventures of Superman were pretty cool, that didn't require much on my part. I remember more about that moment of seeing the advertisement than I do of seeing the film, I know that to this day, the moment when Margot Kidder as Lois Lane falls from the side of the Daily Planet to be caught mid-air by Christopher Reeve as Superman, I have to brace myself. When Reeve coolly states, "Easy miss, I've got you," and Kidder replies, " You've got me? Who's got you?" I cry. Every. Damn. Time. (I'm doing it right now, actually, just thinking about it).

I think there's something essential about my childhood wrapped up in that moment, empowered by John Williams' score, that causes that emotional reaction. It's why I own Superman Returns, despite loathing the rest of the film - the rescue of the plane, followed by the homage line of flying still being the safest way to fly, is worth the money I paid for it. Occasionally, I take the Singer film off the shelf and watch that scene, and promptly shut it off and put it back on the shelf.

But with Superman: the Movie, I watch the whole thing, or numerous highlights, and I do it every year. I have problems with the last 20 minutes, but I also know those problems are largely due to the ambitious attempt to make the first two films simultaneously. I felt hugely vindicated when I discovered the first movie did not originally end with that ludicrous time-reversal sequence. But I can forgive that ending, given the build-up to it.

It's a film that has grown better with repeat viewings as an adult - the things I loved as a child remain highlights: all those vignettes of crime-fighting and near-death rescues, of saving Air Force One, of shoring up the missing train tracks. But as an adult, I've gained an appreciation for the humour of the scenes with Luthor and his bumbling sidekicks. The scene with the gorgeous Valerie Perrine as Miss Tessmacher saving Superman from drowning, weakened by kryptonite, has become a favorite, for the moment when she kisses him before removing the kryptonite. Superman asks her, "Why did... why did you kiss me first?" To which Miss Teschmacher replies: "I didn't think you'd let me later." It's a sweet moment, the prelude to one of my favorite action sequences of the film.

In my childhood, this film loomed as large as Star Wars. When the sequel came out, I saw it multiple times. I still own both soundtracks on LP. And as much as I hated Smallville, I applauded their inclusion of Christopher Reeve on the show, because, as so many others have already said, the man was Superman, both onscreen and off. I know Superman: the Movie is the reason Superman Returns was such a disappointment: Bryan Singer made the mistake of creating a film that tried to recapture 1978 in 2006 through homage. Instead of letting me enjoy a new movie on its own merits, his heavy-handed referencing of the Donner film kept forcing me to make comparisons, which Singer couldn't live up to. That's the trouble with referencing a classic. Right or wrong, you keep comparing it to the original, which for me, is wrapped up in decades of nostalgia, video-tape rewatches, and moments in blue-long underwear jumping off my balcony, believing that a man can fly.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A few moments caught at Calgary’s Comic and Entertainment Expo 2013

Video of Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) from Game of Thrones (myself and Samantha Massey talking in the background).

**It's important to note that there were at least 50 different Doctors (Dr. Who) cosplays, and I managed to not take a picture of any one of them out of spite.**