Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Torchwood - Children of Earth

This is an interesting combination of miniseries and third season. And I like it. I've becoming convinced after watching limited series like Cowboy Bebop that sometimes a limited series is just the way to tell a story. Its long enough, and complicated enough, that you just can't make a movie out of it, but it doesn't justify 7 26 episode seasons. Some series do work well enough to do that. I think Firefly was killed in its prime, just like Farscape, in large part not due to profitability but to executive stupidity. In fact, in the case of the latter, I pretty much KNOW it involved interoffice politics rather than anything the fans wanted.

But until fans directly fund such projects, they will always be subject to the whims of Hollywood executives so they better get used to it.

But I digress.

-Limited Spoilers-

The basic premise of this show is, aliens are coming and they want a chunk of Earth's children. 10% exactly. The more shocking thing (revealed in episode 4) is that the aliens want the children because humans 'make good chemicals.' I've seen aliens mess with humanity for an awful lot of reasons, but at the absolute least you have to hand it to Russel T. Davis (creator of Torchwood) in coming up with an extremely creative way of making aliens want to interact with humans. We're the losing half of an intergalactic opium war.

The visuals were stunning. Whoever worked with the children managed to make them act very unchildlike and in large numbers. We're not talking about one or two Halley Joel Osmets here, but whole crowds of kids acting in an extremely creepy fashion.

The acting in general was supurb, as was the writing. The only major complaint I had was the absolute lack of freaking out on the part of the children in Episodes 1-3 (out of 5). Look, I understand how you want to highlight how much of a natural disruption it is to show the children playing one minute and then having them standing their droning alien messages the next, but I think a far more powerful visual would have been to show some children playing, but be sure to show little Timmy cowering in the closet because he's afraid that the aliens are going to get him.

A lot of reviews I've read have said Episode 4 is boring. No. Episode 4 is not boring unless you're stupid. Episode 4 is the most important episode out of the 5. Episode 4 is where we see WHAT WOULD REALLY HAPPEN if this took place. We see politicians acting like politicians. We see the absolute disgusting nature of humanity and it is portrayed in a perfectly believable fashion. Unlike the contrived visual with the children, this one is spot on. It doesn't have to highlight the bad guys to make them look bad, because they're just regular leaders making what they believe to be the only choice they have, while at the same time willfully ignoring the alternatives.

And it also shows what only science fiction can show, which is that, in other areas, our leaders often make decisions like this every single day, and yet no one lifts a finger to stop it. Abstract policy to most people just that, abstract policy, with no real feeling for the consequences until it happens to them.

Anyone who loves science fiction or anyone who wants to point out that abstract policies have real world consequences should see Torchwood Children of Earth.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Nation - by Terry Pratchet

I have noticed a repeated trend in the British psyche lately trying to recognize the fact that there were an empire for several hundred years. On the one hand, they want to take pride in the fact that they were once a mighty nation, on the other hand, they've grown up and realized that stomping people for economic exploitation is probably not the most morally superior attitude in the world.

Nation is a departure from Pratchet's work in many ways. It is set in the real world, despite hints and shadows at potential supernatural activity that might only be in the minds of the local participants. It answers important questions about culture, nationality, history and the individual. His characters are interesting; the female Daphne and the male Mau. He starts the narrative off with Mau because Mau is the most foreign to most of those who will be reading the book. Mau is a pacific islander (despite a handwavium attempt by the author to pretend that the island and the entire ocean have been made up out of thin air at the end of the book) while Daphne is the unlikely heir to the british empire after a plague killed dozens of other relatives, who ends up shipwrecked on the Island with Mau.

What is fascinating is how the two interact and how the question of the ultimate fate of the island is resolved in the long term. For young adult fiction (or fiction in general) it is quite good and I would highly recommend reading it. Most impressive of all, is that on top of the questions it asks and answers, Pratchet manages to keep his trademark humor throughout.

Movie - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Some have been disappointed by it, some consider it the best movie of the series. I liked it a great deal, and I don't honestly know if I HAVE a favorite movie of the series. I like them all, though I admit I am not a rabid fan, just a fan. I think for me its really a question of admiration for Rowling's storycraft. I've been told that her writing itself is not the most skillful, and I will readily conceed that her building blocks have been used to death in other medium a million times before.

But the skill with which Rowling uses those blocks is utterly amazing. Its like macaroni art put together by Michangelo. The individual components are simply not that impressive, but the artistry of the work itself is undeniable. The plots are pretty transparent despite a valiant effort to make them novel and interesting, but at the same time Rowling does so with a freshness and daring that makes them truly wonderous. Moreover, Rowlings characters are truly human. They behave in human ways and incorporate a larger spectrum of humanity than is to be found in most literature period, much less the YA genre.

Rowling trusts her readers with darkness. She never hides behind the fact that there are dark things out there, and her dark figures do not act like stereotypes (or rather JUST like stereotypes) but like the real thing. More important, her books are an enjoyable read. The movie is no less so.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Backup by Jim Butcher

Yeah. I'll be blunt here.

This is a kickass novella in hardback form. But I feel that Butcher is entering Lucas exploitation levels in selling this thing in hardback form. When I sell something with a lot of white space, I don't include those pages in the cost per page count. This is the kind of novella I would be more than happy to buy when mixed up with other things he's written, or in anthologies with other authors. I've obtained numerous short stories he's written in anthologies because he's my favorite author.

But when a $13.60 hardback book ($20 cover price) is sold then I really feel that my good will as a fan is being exploited.

Which is of course why I checked it out from the library. I'm still supporting the author by encouraging the library to buy more of his stuff, but I'm not being an idiot about the price either.

The basic plot is about an associate of Harry Dresden, Thomas, who helps Harry without his knowledge. Occasionally episodes like this appear in television series, and I like them a great deal. It also adds a fascinating new dimension to the conflict in the Dresdenverse, and it makes absolute perfect sense. In a world where belief makes things real, of course there are things best forgotten, which is where the 'obvlivion war' sets in.

The other thing I like a lot about this book is about how it personalizes a character that is forced to make horrible character altering decisions in the Turn Coat book.

Movie: Terminator Salvation

I had heard mixed things about this, plus given the recent series, I was concerned about the studio I thought that produced it, but it turns out that both opinions were incorrect. The movie is actually a lot better than Terminator 3. It had a few flaws, but using the 'movies are fun' argument that justified Transformers 2: Robot Testacles for earning $200 million, I think we can cut this one some slack.

The movie is basically about how John Conner actually becomes the head of the Revolution. It has a lot of action and an interesting side plot about a man who mysteriously shows up who was in suspended animation and then appears naked out of nowhere who makes a significant difference as to whether the good guys succeed or not.

I liked it, but it had a few problems.

Spoilers ahead.

One of the biggest comments I've heard is how easy it was to sneak into the complex. Yeah, well, apparently a lot of other reviewers are moronic, because it is VERY easy to sneak into the main complex of the bad guy when they want you to.

Now, the 'why pick a guy from 1993 who is going to stick out like a sore thumb to lay your trap' is another criticism I hear a lot about this movie. Actually, the 'its so dumb it just might work' defense seems valid to me. I honestly have to wonder just how much proof you'd have to offer someone if you claimed to be from the future and that you were trying to alter the timeline to prevent a disaster. I'd bet that it wouldn't take much proof and that there would be an awful lot of people that would totally fall for it. Plus, maybe Skynet didn't have a lot of bodies lying around when it first started, so it picked the one with the most data lying around.

Now some things were lame.

Skynet is just stupid. The humans always do the best they can with what they have, sometimes against hopeless odds, but Skynet is aware of all the time paradoxes (hence its desire to kill the guy who is going to be John Conner's father) but it doesn't care about temporal paradox and just goes ahead anyway. It also pulls a 'join me, and together we shall rule the galaxy' with the cyborg guy.

Not yet once has anyone tried to make the paradox work via ignroance. For example, in T3, John Conner is revealed in the future to be killed because he was a moron and trusted a T-800 too much. Why can't he just program the robot with false info and send it back that way to maintain the timeline, and then shoot any @#$@#$@# T-800's that suddenly try to become friends with him?

One can hope that might happen, but I'm not holding my breath.

The good news is that at this point, we're entering new territory with these movies. We don't need to keep wondering if Skynet will send yet another crappy robot back in time, because we KNOW it has to happen to avoid temporal paradox.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Movie: Public Enemy

The movie in a nutshell is about the tail end of John Dillinger's criminal career in the early thirties. Since its a basic matter of history, I don't think I'm ruining things by saying that in the end, Dillinger does not drive off into the sunset with a bag of money in the back of his car. Its just not that kind of movie.

This movie proved two things to me: I like the acting of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Marion Cotillard does an excellent job as Dilligenger's fascination as well. In fact, I would say she has the most compelling part in the movie, because you can see how an ordinary person with nothing worth focusing on in their life could easily get swept up into the chaos of Dilligenger's world.

I liked the movie. It is probably not the most memorable movie for me, despite the fact that I also enjoyed knowing the time line involved. It does do a sufficient job of showing what a bastard J. Edgar Hoover was. The only thing I REALLY wish that they'd shown was how he edged out Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale) who was the guy who actually tracked Dillenger down. J. Edgar Hoover spent a good chunk of his life making sure that no publisher or Hollywood studio would print Purvis's story because Hoover wanted control of the FBI's image and to take all of the glory for himself.

Rides a Dread Legion by Raymond E. Feist

Let me start this by saying that Magician is one of my most reread books. When I think in my mind about how Epic Fantasy should be, this is the first book that appears in my mind. I have recommended this book to more people than I can count. And I still do.

Rides a Dread Legion is the latest in the books set in Mr. Feist's Midkemia setting. Of course, the truth is, that he only helped create the original setting, but since then he has gone on to flesh it out in detailed ways that few other fantasy authors can match. Thus far he has put out more than twenty books in that setting, in a series of trilogies to make it more accessible. He shares this tactic with Terry Brooks, who has written more than a dozen Shanara books (twenty if you include the recent bridge created between the Shanara books and the Knight of the Word series.) From a writer's perspective, this is a really good idea because it makes the setting more accessible to a new comer, and it also gives the writer much greater flexibility in determining plot, which characters to use etc, so it doesn't get stale.

Having said that, the trilogy before the last trilogy, "Talon of the Silver Hawk" felt damn close. It wasn't stale, but it had some elements that Feist has used before. A young boy has a tragic happenstance and then rises to his birthright. The series had a lot that saved it, including the highly unique Count of Monte Cristo element to it which Feist hadn't touched before, as well as the addition of very interesting characters such as the anti hero Count Olasko.

The last series saw the new addition of some fairly forgettable young characters but used PREVIOUS characters in highly interesting ways. The villains were also quite interesting, and the slow, almost glacial metaplot that ties all the series together moved forward as well.

According to Feist, this series is the second to last before the Riftwar saga is done. I presume that is tied to his own retirement, because thus far he has only done one series outside of Midkemia and that is Fairy Tale (which I liked but I can easily see not being popular with some). Then again, he has already written two 'sideways' trilogies which take place in other parts and times in the universe he has already created, and then there is that whole 'Hall of Worlds' stuff, so there is plenty of potential.

This new book starts of a bit slowly with some new Mary Sue elves, but since the Mary Sue elves are the BAD guys in this instance, they're pretty cool. You definitely want to beat the crap out of them, and things sure like they are going to go that way. There is also this whole inevitable demon hoard coming to (yet again) destroy all life in Midkemia. In some ways, Midkemia is the Dragon Ball Z of epic fantasy, with some giant even bigger, nastier thing coming to get you, but Feist has the advantage of having mentioned the bigger, nastier things coming, until in the final series it will be the biggest, nastiest thing of them all. After that, there are no more. And the last proposed title is called Magician: End, which is quite fitting.

Basically, I really liked this book, and I recommend it, but little of it will make sense if you don't at least read the trilogy right before it. It also has just enough ideas to make sense for just two books instead of a full out trilogy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Movie: Charlie Bartlet

I read somewhere that for a decade and a half there was a vast void in the nineties where there were no teen movies like "Sixteen Candles", whereas in the last four or five years the genre has seen a resurgeance. I'm not sure, since I'm not a film history buff, but I have noticed that a lot of the teen movies in the last few years remind me a lot of the ones I grew up with in the 1980's. Charlie Bartlet is such a movie.

Charlie is not Ferris Beuler, but it is the kind of movie I can see someone growing up and loving with the amount that I love that movie. Charlie is not perfect, but for most of the movie he has a serene zen like confidence mixed with a shadowed insecurity beneath it that allows him to be admired and approachable at the same time. It is a comedy but it has a healthy dose of reality mixed into the whole thing.

It is difficult to give away much of the plot without spoiling it since the salient details are doled out wisely a bit at a time, but one can still learn a lot from the trailer and I'll use that as a template. Basically, the plot of the movie is about a teenager who is expelled from every school he is sent to and finally ends up in public high school. To fit in, he sells the psych meds his on call psychiatrist gives him. But the story really isn't about teen drug dealing. Its about identity, coming of age, and an understanding of how to forge your own role in society. In short, thematically, it is right up my ally.

And I liked it. I must say I'm not super enthusiastic about it. It isn't one of my five star netflix movies, but I still liked it a great deal, and would recommend that anyone see it at least once.

The Post American World by Farid Zacharia

I do not discuss politics on this blog. I've got another blog for that, the Codex Americana. But I must still talk a bit about geopolitical things when I review this book, because of the nature of its subject.

First of all, let me say that I like this book. And I highly recommend reading it. And as much as I liked "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman, I like this book more, because of the balanced viewpoint it creates. It is impossible to utterly predict the future, but I have long said that one of the great values of science fiction as a genre was because of the ways it could help us experiment with futures and their consequences.

Sure, we haven't met aliens, but we have played out the situations of what they might be like or what we might be like half a dozen times over. Conversely, the trends indicated in the Post American World are not set in stone, but they are practically granite in their pragmatic logic and patient analysis. Mr. Zacharia plays no favorites. He patiently analyizes, in one of the best ways I have yet read, why the West has been dominant in previous centuries, accepting the best of post modern scholars while at the same time dismissing many arguments that have been made for purposes of political correctness as an attempt at academic guilt routed apology.

He analyzes four of the major powers; two existing (Britian/EU, US) and two rising (India and China). He does not focus on Brazil and Russia as much, but the contrasts between India, the US, and China are fascinating. Reading this books helps paint a view of where we are headed in future times, and likely and intelligent strategies that the US can take to deal with it.

I think that the most valuable element he talks about in the book is the term "the rise of the rest" which is that America is not per se in a decline, but as the larger nations with inherent potential increase in GNP, the US's share of global power will shrink. He highlights the actual unique strengths in the US economy, particularly its vibrancy and its acceptance of immigrants as the true hope of its future. Of course, as an immigrant Mr. Zacharia is probably biased in favor of the US retaining skilled immigrants, but the truth is that he's right. More importantly, as someone who was born in India, lives in the US and who was chosen as the single US journalist to interview the president of China, he is someone who brings weight and seriousness to a discussion of great importance without being paranoid about China or India whilst diminishing the US to a rediculous stereotype.

In short, whether or not you agree with him, his viewpoint is a very insightful one and should be read by anyone who wants a greater understanding of where the world is heading in decades to come.