Monday, May 30, 2011

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

*Warning* May contain spoilers.

So apparently, POTC4 has been receiving a lot of hate and I’m not sure why. I suppose a lot of people were expecting this movie to wash out the bad taste that the last two movies left. Look, this movie isn’t going to redeem the franchise. I think they tried to make it the best they could. Could it be better? Sure, but that can be said about anything.   

The story is a little disjointed, but it isn’t the bloated mess that was the last two movies. Things begin when Spanish fishermen discover a man (alive!) in their nets and he’s holding onto a map that leads to the fountain of youth. The Spaniards set out, thus kicking off the Fountain race. Unfortunately, it’s never disclosed on how that guy in the net managed to survive underwater for who knows how long, or where he came upon the map.

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is back, and no surprise, he’s caught in a bad place. He escapes the clutches of the British Monarch only to run into an imposter in a tavern. The imposter turns out to be a long lost love of his Angelica (Penélope Cruz). She has a ship. He doesn’t. So he joins up with her and her father, the voodoo pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) as they too search for the fountain of youth.

I’m going to butt heads with some of the criticism, such as the one saying this movie is preachy! Okay, just because there’s a cute clergyman (Sam Claflin) doesn’t mean this movie is trying to push Christian morals down your throat. Every time clergy boy got on his high horse, he was always knocked off by Blackbeard or Sparrow.

Everyone is weird! Jack doesn’t stand out! Well, everyone is a pirate, yes. Are they all weirdos? Eh, I’d say each has unique qualities, but Jack doesn’t get buried. You have Blackbeard who’s a badass mofo on one end, and then you have clergy boy and Angelica (to a lesser degree) on the other end. Jack treads in the middle, being selfish, but also showing a selfless side.

Also, there’s another theme to consider, in that all the characters are essentially true to themselves, despite trying to turn a new leaf or two. Blackbeard says “I’m a bad man,” and guess what? He is! He tries to care for Angelica as the one good thing in his life and – he can’t, he just can’t. Angelica lies in the beginning and, well, lies in the end. Remember Jack showing he could be selfless? Well – it doesn’t last. He may care for Angelica but he ain’t stupid. And Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is, and always will be, a pirate, no matter what hat he wears.

It’s too dark! Now this I agree with. There are some scenes, like the one beach scene before the vampiric mermaids’ attack, where all you can see are silhouettes. And mind you, I saw this in 2D. Apparently, no one took into account that people will be seeing this film in DARK movie theater. D’oh!

You know how movies have that extra little teaser scene after the credits? My advice: Skip it. I usually really enjoy these teaser scenes, like the one from THOR, but this one was wimpy and too short. You can easily wiki it to find out what it is.

So the bottom line is: If you love these characters and want to see more of Jack Sparrow and his zany adventures, then you’ll enjoy this film (I think). If you want something new, refreshing, with a twist of lemon, then go find something else. I mean, c’mon, it’s a franchise, what do you expect?

I give Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides 3 out of 5 seafaring stars.         

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

2001, Gollancz Books. 480 pages.
Writing rule of thumb: Don’t parcel out your good ideas, saving them for the sequel. It takes more than one to make a good book.

Alastair Reynolds must have listened, because his novel, Revelation Space, is packed with great ideas.

When a 26th-century dig turns up clues about a dead alien civilization on a distant world, archeologist Dan Sylveste will stop at nothing to discover who -- or what -- caused “The Event” that wiped them out. But as determined as Sylveste is to find answers to the mystery of the extinct Amarantin, others are just as determined to find him. Among them, the crew of the city-sized interstellar ship, Nostalgia for Infinity, who need Sylveste to cure their captain of the nano-plague which is slowly consuming both him and their ship. And among them -- assassin Ana Khouri, contracted by the mysterious Madamoiselle, who has her own interest in Sylveste – namely seeing him dead.

Across multiple worlds and decades, these factions pursue their own ends only to find themselves mere pawns in a millennias-old struggle between ancient intellegences. And of course, this is a struggle that will determine the survival of life in the galaxy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss

2007, DAW Books. 662 pp (hardcover)
“As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men.”

-Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind)

So stipulated, at almost 700 pages, Rothfuss’s debut novel, The Name of the Wind, should have enough words to stoke a mental inferno.

But even for all its hype and commercial success, I'd have gotten more spark from an empty Bic.

For a book its publisher claimed was the best fantasy manuscript they’d seen in thirty years – likening it to George R.R. Martin and Tad Williams – this book tips the scales with too many elements that are just average or awkward.

The story revolves around Kvothe, who we find as an unassuming innkeeper in a backwater village as the tale begins. But when a travelling scribe named Chronicler comes into town, we learn Kvothe is something of a legendary figure – one whose influence has somehow affected the world for good and for ill. At the scribe’s request, Kvothe reluctantly agrees to recite the story of his life for Chronicler to…well…chronicle.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Movie Review: Thor

So to kick off the summer movies we’ve got the thunder god himself. Now, I have never read the Thor comic books, so I can’t compare, but this was an enjoyable actiony flick.

The story starts with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) hunting cosmic disturbances. A wormhole appears and amidst the chaos, they hit a guy. But just not any guy – it’s Thor! (Played by Chris Hemsworth)

The movie then backtracks to Thor’s day, where he’ll be announced heir to the throne of Asgard. But the party is crashed by ice giants. In his anger, Thor and his friends head over to the realm of ice giants to demand an explanation – and they end up almost getting killed. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) saves their asses and strips Thor of his power for his foolishness, and then sends him packing to Earth. And thus, we are brought back to the beginning – but not the end.

As an action flick, I say this satisfies, what with Thor tearing through stuff like it’s made of tissue paper. Although, there are a few points where characters literally pop out of nowhere. I know they’re gods and they can fly, but who knew they could instantly teleport, too? But that’s a minor itch.

A big itch is the forced romance between Jane and Thor, as well as Thor’s transformation from arrogant war monger to self-sacrificing hero. Sorry, but I just didn’t buy it. There wasn’t enough screen time between the two lovers, although there is certainly the start of something, but so far, all I felt was that they’re good friends. Also, he’s only been on Earth for a few days, would his personality dramatically change just like that? Of course, I suppose you could excuse it and say it was the power of love, but we all know that’s utter bullcrap.

Natalie Portman’s acting didn’t do much for this film either. Granted, her role isn’t as big as Hemsworth’s, yet, she really didn’t seem natural in this. I’m becoming convinced that Portman’s twittery acting style is better suited for more serious, drama films such as Black Swan, where her character faces a lot of tension. In Thor, she seemed to struggle with acting like a nice, intelligent scientist.   

Another itch: Thor’s friends. Aside from being completely cornballish, they didn’t add anything other than a bit of info dump and weak comic relief. I get it, everyone has friends, even the mighty Thor, but couldn’t we leave them out? They’re just embarrassing.

On the plus side, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was awesome as far as villains go. Although I hear he isn’t true to his comic book character, I much prefer a villain with some conflict, which Loki certainly delivers. He is the god of mischief, after all.

I also enjoyed the blend science and fantasy, which made things somewhat plausible. Asgard is one of the nine realms, and transportation is possible between these realms via wormholes. Oh, and they even had robots! I love how the robot featured in this film was a throwback to Gort from The Day the EarthStood Still (both are huge androids and shoot lasers from their head).     
(left) Gort, (right) badass robot from Thor

Rating: 3.5 out of five thunderous stars.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Movie Review: Heavy Metal 2000

A few years ago, after getting back from Taco Bell, nachos in my hands, a former boyfriend decided to expose me to Heavy Metal the movie. I was stunned after watching it – not in a bad way, but just how different a movie it was (oh yeah, and all those inflated boobs). The gist of it is a collection of fantasy and science fiction short stories tied together by the mysterious Loc-Nar.

Reminiscing, I figured I’d check out the “sequel” Heavy Metal 2000, released in 2000. People gave it a bad rap, but honestly, it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s definitely a homage piece to the original Heavy Metal, taking some of the best parts and stringing them together in a coherent plot (which the original lacked). The story starts when a miner named Tyler (who faintly resembles Sternn) stumbles upon the ‘the key’, which is essentially the Loc-Nar incarnate. The key will open the fountain of youth on another world – the drawback – whoever holds the key will become insane. And in his insanity, Tyler manages to take over the mining crew ship and steer it towards his goal. But on the way, he pillages a village and kidnaps a girl. Problem: the girl has a sister, Julie, and Julie is pissed.     

Julie is the black-haired version of Taarna – except she talks, and boy does she have a personality. Julie is just another bitchy kick-ass gal, because God forbid there should be a nice heroine that can also kick-ass. Whereas Taarna’s silent treatment worked to her advantage, and I never disliked her or what came out of her mouth.
(left) Julie from 2000, (right) Taarna from original Heavy Meatal
 The animation itself is also a drawback, as it looks like a Saturday morning cartoon on Fox. The original had a very mature appearance about it and didn’t resemble anything that kids watched back then. Also, the original was beautifully bright, whereas 2000, all colors are subdued (I actually had to brighten Julie’s pic because it was SO dark).

There is violence, lots of it. Guy gets a bullet through his head, brain splatter, guts hanging out. The sex, however, is pretty tame, mostly breast fondling, which causes it to feel like a kiddie movie that has been upgraded to adult status, rather than a movie made for adults.

The CGI blended in worked for the most part, although there were a few spots where it stuck out like a sore thumb. I did enjoy the scenes with spaceships coasting through metaspace, very lovely.

The music, a trademark of Heavy Metal, was rather bland and didn’t put oomph into the scenes. But then again, I prefer music from the 70’s, 80’s, so nothing in this movie connected to me like how it did in the original.

I suppose in the end, nothing can compare to the original, it was groundbreaking at the time of its release in 1981. However, 2000 movie isn’t horrible. The plot is decent (despite the inconsistencies), and the action pretty cool. Although I recommend seeing the original first before this.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.    

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

Voted #1 on Tor's Best SFF Novels of the Decade poll. I had heard of it before, but when I was looking for books to catch me up with what's been going on in science fiction (I've been reading a lot of nonfiction) this became my shopping list.

It was a lighter and faster read than I expected. Quickly digestible. It doesn't skimp on the violent details, but I wouldn't call it gruesome. I also wouldn't call it hard SF, but it's not excessively soft either. Good balance, in other words.

From a writerly perspective, war from the standpoint of one grunt on the ground is difficult. It has to be a character-driven story, since as far as action goes the goals are simple and well defined and consistent across all war stories: survive and/or win. Here, the war is really just a distraction from the goal that even our first-person narrator isn't entirely aware he has until the third act. Nicely done.

I've read a little military SF, and I'm glad that this did not fall into the trope of the hero being the best soldier ever, suffering through the inadequacies of his comrades. It's also not married to imitating Napoleonic naval warfare, World War II  or any other era. The world building is substantial (since there are many and varied worlds) and impressive for a relatively short book.

I'm interested to see what he does with this universe in the rest of the series, and I hope to be reviewing them here too.

4 out of 5 weeblies

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

You need to read SFF in order to write it

I see this happen all the time on forums where people share their work. Newbie writer gets a cool SFF idea and writes it out, then posts it. Turns out their idea has not only been done before, but they offer no new angle, and pretty much reinvent the wheel, so to speak. The wheels have already been invented by past generation of SFF writers; they established the tropes that many readers have come to know and love (or hate), thus paving the way for newer writers to focus on other aspects of SFF storytelling.  

Why not take advantage of that? Why unwittingly write something that sounds like it came from a 1970’s SFF magazine?

Tropes of classic SF
In order to move forward, you have to reach into the past and learn from those authors, both their successes and their follies. Absorb it and come up with something better or different than what they wrote. By not reading the classics (Herbert, Asimov, LeGuin – just to name a few authors), you’re doing yourself a disservice, having to build up from ground zero when you could have easily used some well-known tropes. And no, it doesn’t make you a “cookie-cutter” to use old tropes. The key is to be aware that you’re using them, thus giving you an edge on how to subvert them and make them your own.

A good place to start for potential SF writers is watching the original Star Trek, as it has a butt-load of SF tropes embedded in the scripts. Sorry fantasy writers, not sure where you may start – perhaps Tolkien or mythological stories, mostly based on Greek or Western European culture. I’m sure one my fantasy-savvy co-bloggers could fill the readers in. 

Some tropes can be very sexy