Wednesday, April 25, 2012

[Book] The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Whimsical.  Fantastic.  Amazing.  A fairy tale of broad depth and scope, bottling the wonder of the old world turning into the new at the turn of the 20th century.  It represents a conflict between big ideas and the small players that are affected by them; a true nature vs nurture concept while at the same time showing good vs evil. 

Two magicians get two pawns as apprentices that they set against each other.  This is an old contest between them, but this venue is new, and the most public it has ever been.  The fly in the ointment, however, comes when the two fall in love with each other.  This is very well handled by Morgenstern who charts the course of their romance in a way that takes place over years rather than days or months as someone involved with a romantic work such as this might be tempted to do.

She also works the perfect line of giving rules and guidelines for her magic while at the same time keeping the magic actually magical.  There is no 'tapping an alternate plane of existence for energy' or any of that kind of postmodernism...its just MAGIC and it just is.  Sure it is described as 'a different way of doing things' but that still might as well be MAGIC.  And, so the legend goes, the more people who know it, the less powerful it is.

In a book such as this, the delightful thing is that you don't know if it will end well for our heroes, or badly.  It is a fairy tale but more of the Terry Gilliam or Charles De Lint variety; old school.  The characters are all very well rounded, and eventually become more and more aware that they are pawns to pawns in a game over which they have very little control.

Her greatest achievement for the book, however, is that it makes even the most well traveled or cynical of us want to visit the Night Circus.  It is the kind of book that screams for a movie so that we can see with our actual eyes what our mind's eye has painted for us, and it will never quite live up to the expectations.  The prose is magnificent, as is the pacing and the plot.

I highly recommend reading it.

[Book Review] A Perfect Blood by Kim Harrison

On the back cover of the book one of the authors supporting it describes it as a combination of Tank Girl meets...I don't even remember.  Something involving Urban Fantasy.  But essentially, its true.  My favorite series of all time, The Dresden Files, has in Harry Dresden a protagonist who describes himself as "more force than finesse" which has nothing on Rachel Morgan.

Rachel is about a subtle as a bag of hammers.  Note, she isn't stupid.  She's just very very very 'let's go kill this thing right now until its dead.'  And her subtler strategies typically involve finding the sneakiest way to go and find the thing to kill it.  I'm not saying she's bloodthirsty either, but I am DEFINITELY saying that Combat sans diplomacy is her preferred modus operandi and quite frankly she's pretty good at it.  Otherwise she'd be dead.


This is the tenth book in the series.  Rather than explain the whole series to those who might not have read it, you can learn about it here.  I will say that obviously I like the series, otherwise I wouldn't have read the 10th book in it, now would I?

As far as a Perfect Blood itself is concerned, its a good book.  Very often by the time a series gets this far, it starts to show its age, formula fatigue as I like to call it.  Even the Dresden Files did a little of this before major shake ups.  I will say that while the core dynamic between Ivy, Jenks and Rachel is (more or less) kept the same, as is the love/hate thing with Trent, the rest of it is extremely dynamic and Harrison uses very few to none of the Dues Ex Machinas that might tempt one to use in a world filled with magic.  She sets her rules, and she sticks by them.

More over, since the fantastic (ie Inderlanders) are 'out' in this world it is far more believable than it otherwise would be, and you see real consequences for both the world and the characters themselves, and this book is no exception. Now that the whole world knows that she is a demon, they want to know what she can do.  The dynamic tension between the mortal and supramortal law enforcement agencies is well played out, and she has just started to hint at the true politics of things, as well as the inevitable but natural government response of a super secret 'meta agency' that probably combines the elements of both (which, in my opinion would probably be necessary to make a world filled with as many nasty things as The Hollows work).

The humans are the bad guys in this one.   The biggest complaint I've had about the series for a while is that, as a mechanism for highlighting the awesomeness of the Inderlanders, the humans have, for the most part, been cartoon characters until by the 4th or 5th book we entered our token black and human character, Glenn, who has slowly learned to accept the Inderlanders.

That changes in this book, and while most of the humans are still scum, there are definite exceptions to the rule.  Granted, the better of them ends up becoming a demon by default but still.  So while the humans are STILL mostly cartoon characters, there are hints and shadows of humans with much more depth (ie the Men in Black) and a rather nifty new villain.  IE now that Rachel is getting 'along' with Al and Trent, a new villain is needed and HAPA fits the bill nicely.  HAPA is a human hate organization that has infiltrated lots of human society and wants to harness demons to frak everything else.  If you notice the inconsistency in this plan, so does Harrison, and-let's be honest, internal consistency in belief systems is not exactly something commonly found in the real world either.

In short, I like it.  It has its flaws, but I don't care about those flaws and the general awesomeness shines through.  Read it.  After you read the other 9.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Movie - Taken

It has been a while since I saw this movie the first time, but watched it again recently on Netflix with the family. First and best thing it has going for it...villains you don't care about. Seriously, since Nazis we've had a real shortage of villains you can find in the real world who are basically just so evil that you don't care what physical violence is done to them. Sex Trafficers are a good addition to that list though.

The film goes through an excellent set up, with the daughter willfully ignoring her concerned father's legitimate security concerns, which also end up saving her life in a fantastic scene (seen in the trailer so not a spoiler) where she is hiding under the bed and has to reveal details of her kidnappers in only a few seconds.

And then we see Liam Nielson get to work. He's not batman. He is absolutely lethal in combat, but it is still at the believable gritty real world level. There are no absolutely over the top vehicle scenes like you see in a lot of movies in this genre, and while the film does push the envolope (hard) it stays (in my opinion) in the 'this could theoretically happen in the real world' scenario, including why people like the slavers are able to get away with a lot of what they do.

Its an action thriller but Liam's performance is so good that you are emotionally connected to him as well. You can feel his absolute torment as his daughter is suffering, as he helps the other victims that he manages to find or rescue along the way and has concerns for them as well. He is a one man force of nature and (again from the trailer) the bit where he threatens the guys who take his daughter...and delivers on that threat are excellent.

There is, I should warn, torture in this. I'm firmly against torture, but I understand that it is used sometimes. From an artistic stand point, I would have found it less believable if he hadn't tortured when he felt he must. They're not portraying him as a saint, but a 'flawed but good man' which comes across in this. Conversely, he is never sadistic or truly vengeful, just ruthlessly efficient and utterly without mercy at those who have taken his daughter.

It is, to be blunt, an absolutely fantastic movie and if this kind of thing interests you, its a must see in the thriller/action genre.

Movie Review - Rachel Getting Married

I can see why Ann Hathaway got the positive reviews that she did in this. It was a break from previous type casting, and her non verbal acting alone was extremely memorable. Having said that, honestly...? This thing felt as if someone took clip footage of someone's home wedding and spliced in about 10 minutes worth of a well done indy short that you might see at Sundance. The entire thing was in shaky cam. I'm not a big fan of shaky cam, and I really don't feel it made this more realistic.

The slow reveal about the underlying tensions despite the veneer of positive relations when the family originally met are well confirmed. The echoes of a tragic event (not spoiling it) revealed were well choreographed, and you can understand that they have so much footage of the wedding and preparations thereof to help establish emotional ties to the characters as well as hide the building sense of drama in plain sight.

It is also well done in that it is not 'cliche.' The main character does not, for example, relapse as you might expect (that's not a spoiler). People are human.

Having said that, I really still honestly felt this film could have been about half of the length it was. Would that have made it commercially unviable to have a 44 minute film instead of 88 minutes?

Maybe. But it would have been a hell of a lot more watchable. There is a lot that is solid and well done in this film but it still needed a serious edit pass. Particularly in the toast scene where the protagonist gives her awkward speech and then, because we can, we give 3-4 more. Maybe to show that other people went after here? Why did we need to know that?

It was gratuitous and frankly silly. Good movie. Worth watching. On 50% fast forward.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Movie - Cabin in the Woods

Short Version: FANTASTIC!

Medium Version: Five friends go into what is supposed to be their certain predestined doom, only to find out that reality is often messier than the fictional fiction they are supposed to emulate. Which might sound crazy but so is the movie.

Long Version: Spoilers below.

So this is basically a meta movie. I've read some who call this an analysis of the relationship between the audience and Hollywood. There is some of that. After all, horror fans demand these conventions and are squeezed into amalgamated cans of preponderated crap that are then packaged and sold to the Sline populace for as much bang for their buck as possible on Opening Weeekend.

But I think it is more than just a meta movie. It is also a movie that tries to apply reason where reason normally has no business existing.

Why do ordinarily smart people split up or have sex or mess around with the creepy artifact? Are they really guilty of something when the odds are tilted in the favor against them so much that they are doomed from the start?

This movie is on the surface about five characters in search of a bloody death, but becomes much more once they get out of the cliche and into the support structure of the infrastructure. Joss Whedon both obeys and destroys regular convention but does so in a way that still keeps it grounded in some kind of reality without going full out Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail.

I've heard some people hate this movie but many love it. If you like Whedon, odds are you'll like this. If you hate movies that make you think, even if you normally like 'all kinds of cinema' then this probably isn't your thing.

Me, I probably will own this movie even if I don't normally like Horror per se (though I am starting to like it.) I like things that break the norm and break the rules, which this definitely does without getting to wrapped up in its own cutesyness.