Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Five Percent More Love

Tuesday, January 27th, 2004

Movie links of the day: Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, Star Trek: Nemesis Pictorial Plot Synopsis (rated R for profanity), and Roger Ebert on Macs in movies

The title is from one of the DVD extras on Signs - M. Night Shyamalan prompting the orchestra when they were taping the soundtrack. He doesn’t like CGI, so it was interesting to hear about his struggle with the special effects for the aliens. The other DVD commentaries I’ve listened to recently came with Stargate season 4; Stargate is all special effects all the time.

I wouldn’t want to make a movie myself. The process looks way too complicated and you have to be a business manager, or get your work chopped to bits by whoever is the business manager. I still find DVD commentaries interesting for the insight into how people string a story together under sometimes strict restrictions of time, place, or expense. Lots of money and effort can go into something very small like areal shots of Indian crop circles (or Jonah morphing into Jack in “Beneath the Surface”), while the most striking bits like the Last Supper scene (or Thera with her head on Jonah’s shoulder) come out surprisingly easily.

In that way, filmmaking is a lot like writing. Sometimes you hammer away at the technical details, and sometimes it all just flows out of a good setup.

The Return of the King II

Saturday, January 17th, 2004

My friend who braved the cold to visit Boston this weekend also braved the boredom to re-watch The Return of the King tonight. Silly me, I said it couldn’t be sold out anymore, but it was. Fortunately Loews Boston Common was showing it in two theaters, so we only had to wait an extra hour to see Aragorn come into his own. (Our show sold out as well.)

We enjoyed it more the second time around. My friend got to see the parts she slept through previously. For me, I was too distracted the first time by all the things that violated the letter and spirit of the book, and I was with someone who was getting just as offended and was also checking points of canon with me. (It’s scary how much I know - eg., what happened to the seven rings for the dwarf lords in their halls of stone?)

This time I got to sit back and watch without any distractions - the movie didn’t seem nearly as long. Since I wasn’t so busy getting offended, I could appreciate it for what it was. Elijah Wood still can’t act, but the other hobbits were fun, as were Gimli, Gandalf, and, in his own way, Aragorn. Arwen’s mysterious allergy to Sauron doesn’t improve with a second viewing, but the sections filmed in Elfvision were cool from a stylistic point of view.

My favorite character is still Pippin. Anduril, Flame of the West, gets a lot of Gratuitously Long Sword shots to balance out the traditional Gratuitous Whispering Ring shots. I can see myself blowing a day sometime in the future to watch all three movies on DVD - but I won’t be the one buying the DVD’s.

The Return of the King

Friday, January 2nd, 2004

…also known as The Return of the Franchise.

When we walked into the theater yesterday, the Faramir Offense was all I remembered of The Two Towers. After a truly stunning number of previews, the Franchise opened with a huge hunk of plot that properly belongs to The Two Towers - for example, Minas Morgul (the glow-in-the-dark one) is the second tower of the eponymous pair.

I should note that there is some debate on this point - see for example the Wikipedia entry for The Two Towers, or Tolkien’s letters on the matter - but canon contains a note at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring specifying Orthanc (Isengard) and Minas Morgul as the towers involved. Other options include Cirith Ungol (the orc tower at the head of the eponymous pass), Minas Tirith, and Barad-dur. Two notable towers not usually considered candidates are the Towers of the Teeth, Narchost and Carchost, guarding the Black Gate in the Morannon and blocking Frodo’s way.

No matter which towers you pick, they belong in The Two Towers. The cliffhanger for the second volume is Sam losing Frodo at Cirith Ungol, not some random Faramir character-assassination in Osgiliath. Pippin Wrestling the Palantir also belongs in TTT, where the palantir does not burst into flames, nor does it levitate.

Why did Peter Jackson choose to defang TTT of its second tower and its punch? The fans may never know. Squeezing half of TTT into the third movie didn’t do it much good, either. As a result, there was no room for the real Denethor, nor the real march across Mordor. The Scouring of the Shire was no great loss - having cut Saruman from the final scene at Orthanc, there was no call to bring him to the Shire. And yet the lack of conflict of any sort after the Really Big Eagles scene made the rest of the movie excruciatingly boring for those who hadn’t read the books.

Before the movie, I hadn’t thought much of Tolkien’s skill at writing a novel. His only successful effort from a purely technical point of view was The Hobbit, and that was a children’s book with an omniscient narrator - which is to say it wasn’t exactly in the form of the modern novel, either. The Lord of the Rings, the most beloved literary work of the 20th century, is not loved for its execution or technical merits. Many people, even some like Veronica who have no particular prejudice against fantasy, cannot even read it - yet Peter Jackson’s flaming-palantir version of LotR has given me a new appreciation for the virtues of the original.

There are three things you must love to love the books: epic, worldbuilding, and language. Only the second, the world of Middle Earth, was fully preserved in the movies. Everyone gushes over the landscapes, the cities, the oliphaunts. Even when it’s wrong or incomplete, it’s still lovely. (I wanted to see Morgul Vale, and not every cliff in the book was quite that sheer a drop. People with a fear of heights should avoid the third movie.)

There are moments of epic beloved of the critics (by “the critics” I mean mainly RJ and Naomi Chana): notably the lighting of the beacons of Gondor (for which we forgive even the huge Denethor character-assassination involved in Pippin’s having to do the honors by his pratfalling self), Pippin’s song sequence, and the charge of the Rohirrim (for which we forgive some incredible military stupidity on their part - don’t any of the good guys have archers?). Most of the failures of the movies also come in the area of epic - specifically an omission of the kind of people you find in epics: Denethor is just a madman, not a tragic figure; Theoden has trouble making up his mind; Eowyn isn’t riding undercover; Arwen has some sort of personal Elvish medical problem with Sauron rather than everyone else’s millennia-long epic struggle problem with Sauron; Gandalf doesn’t respect Pippin’s volunteer service to Denethor; Frodo doesn’t trust Sam; Sam doesn’t give the ring back to Frodo immediately; Gimli wants to cheat the Dead; and so forth and so on.

The heart of the books is language but movies are a visual art - language was doomed to lose out. A few stray lines make their way into the plot, but there’s no way to convey on screen the texture given to the books by the eight or ten languages Tolkien invented for the purpose. This is a difficulty the movies share with translations of the books into foreign languages: Tolkien had already carefully translated both Westron and the language of the Rohirrim into English and it doesn’t bear a second translation well, whether into Spanish or into Peter Jackson. Writers are more fascinated by language than the average reader, so while this loss is great in my accounting it’s not really a significant problem for the movies qua movies.

The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge’s fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.
But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

Moving into another medium does mean picking up the problems of that medium - notably, cute people who can’t act. We get reasonably good performances from Gandalf, Elrond, and Pippin, but these only contrast with the problems of Aragorn, Arwen, and Frodo. Maybe it’s the producer who thinks that standing there and looking scruffy/Elven/tortured is enough to sell tickets - and he’d be right. Aragorn and Arwen (and similarly Legolas) can get away with the most here because their characters are just as sketchy in the books - they are part of the epic background, while the hobbits are the more modern, sympathetic viewpoint characters.

Frodo, however, is a huge problem, as I realized while he was standing on the deck of the ship in the Grey Havens, smiling at the shore and looking pretty for the camera. That boy with the baby face was not the 50-year-old Frodo of the books who went looking for the Cracks of Doom, found them, and could not go home again. He was the main character, yet I didn’t care for one minute what happened to Elijah Wood. He was never Frodo to me, especially after he got stabbed on Weathertop and moaned the whole way to Rivendell. Where was his warmth, his intelligence, his endurance, his compassion for Smeagol? Frodo (and in his absence Merry or Pippin) is supposed to be the reader’s linchpin connecting the epic past of Middle Earth to the coming Age of Men, but he doesn’t do that for the movie.

Frodo is not an easy role to play, but another actor might have pulled it off. Pippin, for instance, did hold a nice chunk of RotK together; he also looked the oldest of the four hobbits even though he’s supposed to be the youngest. Merry was underused, and Sam had everything but a proper master. Actors can make or break a movie; Elijah Wood broke The Lord of the Rings. (That is, of course, not his fault but that of the director who cast him.) LotR spiraled apart into a kaliedoscope of pretty scenes because Frodo wasn’t there to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

So my reaction to The Fellowship of the Ring still stands, here at the end of all franchises:

The scenery was wonderful, and the choices of what to cut from the book were not bad choices. However, the choices to rewrite the dialogue, plot and characters were all bad choices - too many to name, but all of them poor indeed. Let me clue the producer in: You’re not J.R.R. Tolkien. You’re not even Christopher Tolkien.

Manifold: Time

Friday, December 5th, 2003

I keep giving Stephen Baxter more chances. Manifold: Time wasn’t nearly as depressing as Evolution, but I wouldn’t put it up there with Raft. Like Manifold: Origin, Manifold: Space is populated with unsympathetic characters - in fact, the same unsympathetic characters. They’re balanced by cool science, including, as usual, other sentient animals - in this case, squid. All the science is real and annotated at the end.

While the science was good so far as it went, there are nine theories listed on the last page and they don’t mesh together in the plot particularly well. The elements are interesting individually, but it’s not clear how the “probabilistic doomsday prediction” was initially avoided in the main timeline, nor why the climactic event had to come as early in the evolution of the universe as it did. The whole squid thing seemed unnecessary as well, but you can’t really knock squid.

The Matrix: Repetitions

Saturday, November 8th, 2003

Word count: 0

First of all, a warning: The Matrix: Revolutions contains violence against eyeballs.

I guess this entry will be all warnings. Unless you’re seriously into Rasta Tech, this movie is a waste of $10. On the Rasta Tech upside, there’s a squid invasion of Zion, allowing all your favorite expendable characters to be noble, brave, victorious, and, occasionally, expended. That was my favorite part—still only eye candy, but things blowing up makes better eye candy than Keanu Reeves not acting.

If you’re expecting the deep thoughts of the original, don’t hold your breath. If you want answers to the questions raised in part 2, you’ll have to write some fanfic. If you’re desperately hoping that the Rasta babes will learn to darn already, you’ll be just as disappointed as Veronica was. Matrix 3 is a movie in search of a plot. The beginning meanders annoyingly, and the script twice as laughable as its predecessor, an impressive feat in itself. Veronica had the whole row breaking down in giggles with her. Keanu + tragedy = farce.

I would advise the W. Brothers not to leap into a large project without a good, solid plot ready. That’s what has torpedoed my NaNoWriting for the weekend—I’m beginning to agree with the NaNo critics that a novel written in haste is no novel at all. Movies produced en masse are no great shakes, either.

P.S. I still believe there was a matrix-within-a-matrix.

Snare, Contact

Saturday, November 1st, 2003

Word count: 1000

I picked up Snare by Katharine Kerr because of the future Islamic fundamentalist angle. The Right Novel, which I didn’t start writing today after all, deals with the far future of Earth and post-Earth religions, and I’m curious how other people have addressed it. I also hadn’t read any Kerr, who’s known mainly as “the author of the beloved Deverry series,” and I’ve been picking up authors I’ve never read lately just to check out their styles.

I enjoyed Snare but it never quite came together for me. The genre was fantasy with misunderstood technology substituted for magic - I’m not sure whether that makes it swords-and-sorcery or not - and at a length of 600 pages it fits the fantasy genre better than sci-fi.

Four cultures inhabit the crowded world of Snare: the medieval Islamic fundamentalists (with three prophets and still counting), the comnee, who are lizard-hunting variants of American plains Indians, the post-French science types in the Cantons, and the oversized ChaMeech aliens. Only the aliens are interesting as a culture - the others haven’t changed much from their pre-modern roots. I was especially disappointed in the Moslems because I had hoped for the most from them.

The plot involved a bit of intrigue and a lot of travelogue revolving around the evil Khan, those who served him, and those who hoped to replace him. One of the bad guys turned out to be Misunderstood, the comnee try to save him from himself using psychobabble and tough love. When the ChaMeech get involved, the story perks up. Both ChaMeech and comnee have a problem with their gods, and all four cultures eventually discover the Truth about Snare. For Truth with a capital T it could have been more impressive or more intuitive, but it did pull the threads together well. Snare was a good yarn, but not as creative with the future as I’d hoped.

I’d heard good things about Contact but neither seen nor read it. Dr. Deb lent me her DVD and was glad to be rid of it. I can see why she didn’t like the movie, and why I did. Contact wasn’t at the level of M. Night Shyamalan, but like Signs it was a tale of faith rediscovered. That theme isn’t one you expect from sci-fi (whence comes Dr. Deb’s disappointment) and it included an anvil or two, but overall it worked well.

The romance disappointed me, however. Our Hero (Matthew McConaughey) wasn’t nearly as believable as Our Heroine (Jodie Foster). Celebrity demi-priest and New Age author isn’t as common a career as astronomer, (and there really aren’t that many astronomers out there). We don’t have much reason to respect Palmer Joss, and neither his offense nor his excuse for it later (because he “loves” her) are forgivable. When you consider exactly what his “love” almost cost Our Heroine, it’s truly horrifying. But take that one lame excuse out and you have a very good movie.

Otherland IV, Fine Prey

Sunday, October 19th, 2003

Besides the title titles, I recently spotted that cool top-bound edition of Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report” in the library. I have to say, I liked the plot of the movie better. In the original short story, John Anderton pre-kills an army general and ends up in the middle of a conflict between a power-hungry army and the equally suspicious police force. The story rolls along at a faster pace than its internal logic can handle - no surprise for Golden Age sci-fi. (The original copyright was 1956.) I did enjoy the resolution, but the movie wins on technical merit.

On to the real books: My seven-month struggle with Tad William’s Otherland behemoth is finally over. I read I in the spring and II and III over the summer. Volume IV, Sea of Silver Light, brought the series to an end, but it didn’t resolve my problems with the books.

I’m not saying the books sat on my windowsill for months with bookmarks in the middle - far from it. Each was an engrossing read; only their length (3270 pages total in paperback) kept me from finishing them in a day or two as I would any other good sci-fi novel. At no point in Otherland did I experience the eternal suffering of Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. I will pass the books on to other people, rather than shuffling them off to the sell-to-a-gullible-used-bookstore pile.

Despite the wonderful characterization and vivid VR worlds, I let months go by between volumes. I cared what happened to the characters, especially Orlando and the Aussie policewoman, but not enough to pick up the next volume in the infinite series. I wasn’t getting something out of the individual volumes, and having finished the series, I haven’t gotten that same thing out of the work as a whole.

Though nominally sci-fi, Otherland wandered, as fantasy tends to, across the vast tapestry of its own setting. The quest was there and did succeed in the end, so I wondered whether it was the structure alone that put me off. I’ve complained already about the plot shifting in every chapter from one set of Our Heros or Villains to another. If those chapters had been grouped together Lord of the Rings-style, however, it would have become even more obvious that nothing was happening. Yes, the characters went from place to place, collected clues, met one another or were accidentally separated, etc., but nothing of sufficient plot-significance happened in books I, II, or III to make me want to see what happened in the next volume.

Otherland is certainly days of reading enjoyment, but it’s too big and diffuse to be a novel. The action at any particular time isn’t quite important enough to the plot - there’s a different proportion of action to meaning than I’m accustomed to. (There was also a gun on the mantle the whole time that was never fired - the little construction robots on Mars. I was really looking forward to them.) If like me you prefer the lean style of most sci-fi (Kim Stanley Robinson always excepted), you may not want to commit to a long-term relationship with Otherland. If you’re the sort of person who reads or writes trilogies, though, this is the series for you.

I’d like to coin a new term, to add to the novelette/novella/novel sequence, that signifies this trilogy style of writing. Novelogy is unfortunately taken, and refers to a series of short stories, probably by different authors, that together form a novel (more or less). Trilogy itself is from the Greek and refers to three dramas, rather than one drama taking up three times the space. Maybe novelitis or noveloma

Anyway, on to Fine Prey, a novel of the usual length by Scott Westerfeld. It was in the first person, and it took me chapters to figure out what gender the main character was. I suspect it took the author a while, too. I turned out to be a she. In no way did Our Hero ever act like a woman. In fact, I suspect she started out male and got neutered somewhere in the editing process.

We meet Our Heroine at the approximate age of seventeen. She has been cloistered at an alien school for most of her life, but she likes to spend her summers participating in an up-close-and-personal blood sport involving alien animals killing one another while she’s wired directly to the predator’s brain. Just what I’ve wanted to do since I was five years old!

On this particular summer off, Our Heroine gets addicted to drugs as part of her involvement with a sado-masochistic woman. I’m not calling her a lesbian because no mention (never mind motivation) was made of anyone’s sexual orientation. Our Heroine and her lover are the only people in the book who appear interested in sex at all, and even their relationship was just filler.

All along, Our Heroine retains her abiding interest in language, especially the alien language Ayan which is all she studies in school. She knows next to nothing about human culture, except for her favorite blood sport. The parts of the novel which deal with the alien language are a bit overdone, but still quite interesting, and the resolution is about language. It’s a good read, marred only by the fact that Our Heroine isn’t male.

The story would have made a whole lot more sense if she had been a he. When Our Heroine falls for Miss Right, she behaves like a male teenager, not a woman. (I didn’t know her gender at the time, and the scene did not entirely clear it up.) Soon afterwards she has a fit of teen rebellion in which she blows off her lifelong blood sport ambitions with no particular new goal in mind. Under the influence of Miss Right, she starts doing drugs, neglecting her summer reading, and running with the bad boys. All of it would have made much more sense if she had been a boy. Because women (of any age) are so much less likely to (1) sleep with women, (2) kill animals for sport, (3) dive headfirst into the bondage scene with a strange lover, (4) get addicted to recreational drugs, (5) blow off school, or (6) alienate their entire social circle than men are, Our Heroine requires that much more motivation for doing all these things. As a Hero, she would still have been largely unmotivated, but many times more believable.

Raft, Blind Lake

Friday, September 26th, 2003

I picked up Raft because I haven’t quite given up on Stephen Baxter yet. It’s an old juvenlie of his, which is to say it’s a boy’s coming-of-age story, so characterization, even of said Boy, is a bit sketchy. Raft makes up for it in spades, though, with a truly original milieu.

Boy is the descendent of the survivors of a unique shipwreck - somehow his forebears took a wrong turn into a high-gravity universe where trees fly and miners walk on the surface of dead suns. The plot turns on the consequences of high, and apparently increasing, gravity, as Boy explores the decaying human societies and meets the wildlife. It’s a wonderful example of the genre.

I also found Blind Lake in the library right before it was slashdotted. Robert Charles Wilson writes some odd stuff, and this one is no exception. An observatory spies on lobster-shaped aliens using a technology no one seems to understand. A group of science journalists come to the Blind Lake installation at the wrong time and are caught in a security lockdown. But how can an observatory threaten to contaminate Earth - with memes?

The characters are well-drawn and their problems unusually normal for science fiction - joint custody, annoying bosses, the trials of being a science writer - but my favorite was the young girl in the middle of the custody battle. Blind Lake manages to be both a a good novel and good sci-fi. I’m not sure it could have been better on either side without a loss on the other.

Darwin’s Radio, Darwin’s Children

Monday, September 8th, 2003

Word count: 200

I spotted Darwin’s Children, the new sequel to Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio, in the library and decided it was about time to read them both. They were rather odd.

Darwin’s Radio is about a viral epidemic in more-or-less present-day America. The Good Scientists suspect they’re dealing with an unknown evolutionary mechanism about to punctuate our equilibrium, but the Bad Scientists insist that it’s just another disease and a very good excuse to increase the CDC’s funding.

Both the science and the politics are engrossing for a while, despite the annoyance of a Woman Scientist and her typical (for Bear) Bad Decisions. Woman Scientist spends the first section of the book angsting about her husband without ever making it clear what there is to angst about. This is a clear violation of the rule against creating false drama by hiding information from the reader rather than from the characters.

When his troubles finally come to the forefront, the husband does manage to create some legitimate drama. In another dramatic subplot, one of the good scientists goes bad. The novel bogs down when Woman Scientist runs off with Rebel Scientist and they decide to make beautiful Radio music together. While that’s fine as a plot twist, the ensuing chase and reproduction scenes are not enough to conclude the book.

But wait, there’s a sequel. In Darwin’s Children our favorite characters are back on the run because the Bad Scientists have tightened their grip on the country. Newly evolved children are locked up in state schools, where many of them succumb to yet another virus being broadcast over the versatile Darwin’s Radio. (That is the moment of interesting science, so don’t blink.)

After spending years on the run, Woman Scientist returns to work for the Bad Scientists in hopes of proving their theories wrong and hers right. The Bad Scientists are worried that Darwin’s Children will start transmitting on Darwin’s Radio once they hit puberty, so they start to do Bad Things. Eventually there is a rescue scene that might have passed for a climax, except that the book stumbles on after that.

The religious experiences of Woman Scientist were odd in that they didn’t seem to integrate into the plot. Though the new characteristics and culture of the evolved children were interesting in the abstract, they were neither explained in enough detail nor given any actual evolutionary justification.
The unexpected conversion of several Bad Scientists into Good Scientists worked well, though, except in the case of the Business Woman when she was tied into the religious subplot. The general defeat of the Bad Scientists could also have been a climax had it not been so tentative and off-stage.

I enjoyed the disaster-novel aspect of the viruses in both novels, but otherwise the present-day realism and wandering plot weren’t what I look for in scifi. If you liked Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, then you may like these two.

American Front, Otherland II, Otherland III

Friday, August 22nd, 2003

Word count: 1040

I’ve had a run of non-novels in American Front and the middle two volumes of Otherland. Yes, they look like novels when you buy them remaindered, but when you get them home and start reading things aren’t that simple anymore.

American Front is part of the Great War series by Harry Turtledove, built on previous novels in which the South won the Civil War and proceeded to whomp the damnyankees in a subsequent skirmish. Now both Americas are dragged into World War I on the sides of their allies - the USA with the Kaiser and the CSA with England and France - and hold their own war to end all wars on their own soil, plus Canada’s.

So far, so good. Where American Front disappoints is in the machine-gun approach to plot. The would-be novel follows several characters through the first year or so of the war, and by several I mean a representative cross-section of both nations, plus a Canadian. The cast of POV characters alone was well beyond my ability to track, so I found the various soldiers on both sides blended into one another. Some characters stood out, such as the US pilot whose career tracked the evolution of the airplane’s role in the war from surveillance to machine-gunning to the interruptor that let him fire through the propellors without shooting them off. A fisherman from Boston grabbed my attention, of course, and the Canadian farmer dealing with US occupation was also a good read. Also of note were a New York socialist, a black butler on a plantation and his white mistress, a black laborer in occupied CSA territory who sides with the rebs as the devil he knows, and a Southern steelworker dealing with not Rosie the Riveter’s, but Pericles the Negro’s unexpected appearance in his mills.

They were all great stories, even the ones I haven’t mentioned about general’s aide, the calvary officer, the surprise US attack on the Sandwich Islands, an infantryman or two I couldn’t keep straight, the mother and daughter in reb-occupied D.C., and whichever other main characters I’m forgetting now. Any one of them would have made a great short story, but split up across 550 pages they were each frustrating. Maybe this episodic soap-opera style of writing is common in genres I don’t read; if so, I’m glad I’m missing it.

Otherland by Tad Wiliams suffers from the same cast-of-thousands episodic effect, though not quite as badly. I made it through the River of Blue Fire and Mountain of Black Glass always wanting to get back to my favorite characters, who were the Sydney police officers investigating a murder committed long before by one of the bad guys. Somewhere near the middle I began to enjoy Mountain much more than previously; I realized that was because most of the main characters were gathering at Priam’s Walls, and though they didn’t reunite into one group very successfully, at least they were mostly in the same universe for a while, which made the plot cohere much better.

I’ve heard two rumors about Otherland - one that it was planned as six novels but cut down to four, and the other that it was originally supposed to be a trilogy. Judging by the coherence of the end of Volume III, I now favor the trilogy theory. I have the last volume already, and finishing it will be nearly as much of a relief as KSR’s Mars trilogy; I like the Otherland characters, but that makes the epic style all the more frustrating.