Thursday, December 31, 2009

Movie Review - Watson

My lady and I saw Sir Guy of Ritchie's newest movie, "Watson," and we found it wonderfully entertaining. It has little to do with the source material by the esteemed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course, but that is not the point. The movie does not try to emulate Sir Arthur's style, but instead uses the source material as a rough skeleton for telling its own tale full of delightful costumes and sets.

The lead character is played by the talented Jude Law. His character has three motivations: to marry his lovely fiance (a commendable notion to be sure), to look dashing in Victorian-era clothing, and to get away from his sidekick, Sherlock Holmes, played by Robert Downey, Jr.

Downey, Jr.'s Holmes is a frumpy man with amusing facial expressions and permanently tousled hair. Holmes's neurotic genius serves as a good counterpoint to Watson's steely cool. I fear that Sir Guy's love of macho fighting may have caused him to devote too much of the movie to the Holmes character, though this fortunately does not take the focus away from his lead.

Rachel McAdams plays Holmes's love interest, Irene Adler, whose only purpose in this movie is to pout and be American. She pouts a lot and is very American. I suspect she gets her spy gear from Wal-Mart. In any case, I am glad they chose to have this character be a romantic interest for the sidekick, as this allows Watson to have the much more interesting Mary Morstan, played by the (fortunately British) Kelly Reilly.

The villain is Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong. Unlike in many mysteries, there is never any doubt as to his identity. His villainy is over-the-top, and in some ways encapsulates what this movie is about: it is theatrical, unreserved, and shamelessly entertaining. There is a moment at the start of the movie between him and Watson that made me gasp aloud.

I would not think it is necessary to see this movie in theaters to enjoy it, but if you do, be sure to keep an eye on the sets. Sometimes it is nice to simply look around and see Sir Guy's version of turn-of-the-century London.

In conclusion, "Watson" is an entertaining, if not particularly deep, bit of cinema, and I recommend it to anyone who likes gaslights, top hats, and explosions.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Graphic Novel Review: Old Man Logan

I have long searched for a Wolverine comic that doesn't bother with the tiresome backstory, the silly costumes, the countless characters that Wolverine has befriended, fought, and/or married, or the traumas his body has gone through.

This isn't that comic.

It's pretty close, though.

The story takes place fifty years in the future, after a cataclysm wiped out all the superheroes and left the world ruled by supervillains. The landscape looks like something out of Mad Max. Wolverine is a pacifist, emotionally scarred by the cataclysm from fifty years ago. He's married, with two kids, and he seems to have found peace scratching out a meager existence farming the land.

Unfortunately, his landlords are Bruce Banner's ornery, inbred grandchildren, and they demand rent money Wolverine--excuse me, Logan--hasn't got. Then, his old friend Hawkeye arrives and offers Logan $500 to drive across the country with him. Hawkeye is now a blind old man, but that doesn't stop him from taking the wheel and making Logan the navigator.

Logan goes along, on one condition: that he won't do any fighting.

Well, good luck with that.

Also, this comic has a T-rex that bonds with the Venom symbiote:

Read it already.

(I would like to add that the scene with Emma Frost was completely unnecessary. She's one of my least favorite Marvel characters, and her appearance adds absolutely nothing to the story. Also, the last fight is somewhat anticlimactic, but still cool... and I still wish the Venom T-rex would have played a larger part in the story.)

Christmas Gifts may be misinterpreted as Wedding Presents

Hi gang,

It occurs to me that some of you may have sent me Christmas presents through Amazon. If I didn't realize those were Christmas presents, chances are good that I added them to the pile of wedding presents, which we aren't opening until the wedding.

So, if you got me a Christmas present and sent it through Amazon, let me know when it should have arrived, the size of the package, and/or who you ordered it through so that I can open it on time. :)

Thanks, and Merry Christmas!

New Bitey Movie: Last of the Dashkin

Most of you already know that I love Bitey of Brackenwood. Well, in the latest installment, Adam Phillips takes his already formidable talent for storytelling and animation and turns it up another notch. It's amazing. Go see it.

the Last of the Dashkin

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Review: At the Mountains of Madness

I finally finish H. P. Lovecraft's longest work, At the Mountains of Madness, shortly before I read Bad Magic (which has a review here). It can best be summed up like this (page values approximate):

Page 1: Don't go to Antarctica, guys. We found something really scary there.

Page 1 to ~50: We went to Antarctica and it was really cold. Also, we heard weird piping and saw a mirage of a weird city.

(seriously you guys, we saw something really scary. My buddy totally went nuts from it.)

Page ~50 to ~70: My colleagues in the advance camp found a cave full of ancient bones and some million-year-old dead creatures that looked like sea cucumbers with tentacles. Those things were tough. Also, the dogs hate their scent. We will ignore this! Onward, for science!

(I'm not kidding, something totally freaky is in Antarctica)

Page ~70 to ~80: The other camp got trashed and some of the sea cucumber things disappeared. Woa!

(Have I mentioned the freaky thing we saw?)

Page ~80 to ~100: We flew past some weird mountains and found a city that's millions of years old. We got out and explored and somehow managed to decipher the drawings on the walls to learn the history of the sea cucumber race. They created and enslaved the shoggoths, fought the Spawn of Cthulhu and the Mi-Go, and finally went underground when it got too cold for them. Let's just skip over the part where "psychic control" and "senses beyond those of humans" are somehow depicted in art.

Page ~101: We found a big hole in the ground.


Page ~103-end: Dude seriously, that shoggoth was scary. Also, my companion saw some weird city in the clouds that made him go crazy. Yeah, I don't get it, either.

The one cool part of the story was the description of the Shoggoth, which comes at the very end and, much to my dismay, I had already read on the Wikipedia page on the topic.

Some parts of this story were so typically Lovecraft that they felt like self-parody. Just about everything they come across is indescribably terrifying. To illustrate, I leave you with this:

Had it been some trace of that bizarre musical piping over a wide range which Lake’s dissection report had led us to expect in those others - and which, indeed, our overwrought fancies had been reading into every wind howl we had heard since coming on the camp horror - it would have had a kind of hellish congruity with the aeon-dead region around us. A voice from other epochs belongs in a graveyard of other epochs. As it was, however, the noise shattered all our profoundly seated adjustments - all our tacit acceptance of the inner antarctic as a waste utterly and irrevocably void of every vestige of normal life. What we heard was not the fabulous note of any buried blasphemy of elder earth from whose supernal toughness an age-denied polar sun had evoked a monstrous response. Instead, it was a thing so mockingly normal and so unerringly familiarized by our sea days off Victoria Land and our camp days at McMurdo Sound that we shuddered to think of it here, where such things ought not to be. To be brief - it was simply the raucous squawking of a penguin.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Good Weekend for Movies

Last weekend my lady and I saw two awesome movies. First was The Fall, which we got from Netflix ages ago and finally got around to seeing. My lady had seen it before, and ever since seeing the movie poster on her wall I have wondered what this movie was about. Well, I finally got to see it, and it was fantastic.

The plot deals with a little girl with a broken arm poking around the hospital where she is recovering after falling from a tree. She finds a man who is paralyzed from the waist down after falling from a bridge. The man starts telling her stories to amuse himself, but the stories start to serve another purpose as he tries to get her to bring him something. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, and besides, the plot doesn't matter.

The real strength of this movie is in the gorgeous visuals. The sets, the costumes, the cinematography all combine to make it absolutely beautiful. The highlight of this movie is the story the man tells the little girl. What we see is entirely what's in her imagination, so things change as the man's description changes, and she even misinterprets some things. For instance, the man describes an Indian brave who loses his squaw, but the girl imagines a guy with a beard and mustache wearing a turban.

In some ways, this is a darker version of "The Princess Bride." The man is telling a sick little girl a story filled with wonder and imagination. Even more than "The Princess Bride," "The Fall" explores how the listener and the storyteller create the story together.

We then saw Red Cliff in theaters, because we knew that, as a foreign film, it probably wouldn't be in theaters very long.

This movie exists to prove one thing: Chinese history is badass.

"Red Cliff" was a four-hour, two-part epic in China, which was cut down to a single two-and-a-half hour movie for American audiences. You still get more epic badassery in the first ten minutes of this movie than you get in the entirety of just about any other movie, so I didn't mind as much that they shortened it.

The plot deals with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in which a powerful and ambitious prime minister tries to conquer two smaller kingdoms whom he pretends are trying to revolt against the Emperor. The two kingdoms are forced to band together: one has an experienced leader and a bunch of badass generals but with a severely diminished army, and the other has a young, somewhat naive leader with a single really badass general who leads a large but inexperienced army.

There's all sorts of intrigue and character development, but that tends to focus on only a portion of the characters. Most of the characters all but disappear during the plot-related parts and then show up again for the fight scenes. This is okay by me, since the characters the plot focuses on are fascinating and their interaction is one of the high points of this movie.

The other high point of this movie is, of course, the fight scenes. I'll try not to give away too many of my favorite moments, but I'll say this: there is a scene that follows this sequence of events:
  • a guy gets shot by an arrow

  • he pulls out the arrow

  • he runs over to the archer

  • he leaps into the air

  • he jabs the arrow through the back of the archer's throat

If you still don't want to see this movie, perhaps you should read that sentence again.

Surprisingly, the action in this movie is relatively realistic, compared to wuxia films where people go flying through the air and run across treetops. Nevertheless, you shouldn't expect anything less than over-the-top fight scenes, because Red Cliff delivers those in spades.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Book Review: Bad Magic

You like books about magic. You like books about monsters. You like books about a ragtag group of heroes fighting impossible odds. So why haven't you read Bad Magic yet?

In Stephan Zielinski's Bad Magic, mundane reality and many competing forms of magic are all thrown together. If you're tired of those cut-and-dry books in which the real world and the magical world are clearly delineated, or you get the real world but with a single magical element (the real world and vampires, the real world and voodoo, the real world and cosmic horror, etc), Bad Magic is the cure for what ails you. All the various kinds of supernatural forces are piled in together, squeezed in like too many people trying to crowd into an elevator.

You get the raw power of elemental magic, illicit alchemy that seems more like felonious drug use than science, deep dark voodoo, magic that has you babbling in Sumerian, magic that has you weaving lightbeams and siphoning sounds, creepy ghost-like magic, and even magic that lets you talk to giant clams.

The eight main characters all have different approaches to magic, and they argue at times about how to approach and interpret what has been happening in the story. This is when Stephan Zielinski really shines. We get eight distinct characters, each with their own habits, perspectives, shortcomings, and endearing qualities:

There's Al Rider, arguably the main character, a nebbish coward who is the closest to a traditional magician.

There's Pericles "Perry" Whitlomb, who has no magic of his own but is an expert on the occult and a member of the Van Helsing Society. He also packs his father's supply of incredibly overpowered firearms and serves as a paternal figure for the others.

There's Maggie-Sue, a nearly illiterate young woman whose main means of communication are glares and profanity. Her magic is elemental, meaning it's the oldest, most basic kind of magic.

There's Joe Washington, a black dwarf who knows voodoo and Bruce Lee-style ass-kicking.

There's Chloe Lee, whose totem animal is, I kid you not, the Mollusk of Glory, the Great Geoduck clam.

There's Max Sturgeon, a large man with a serious mustache who, though he barely uses magic, leads the team based on the fact that he's probably the only sane person in the group.

There's Kris Arbeiter, the pretty-boy, East German alchemist/junky.

And finally there's Creedon Thiebaud, who's so over-the-top badass that you don't mind that he's just a tad cliche.

The plot is straightforward when you get down to it: the city is being threatened by a cult and it's up to our heroes to save the day. But the plot isn't the strength of the story: this is definitely a journey that's more important than the destination. The things you see along the way, the people you meet and the things they do, are what make this book a success. The world buzzes with energy and life, and there is no doubt that there is material here for a whole series of novels.

Unfortunately, that also makes it hard to write a review, because while I would love to go on and on about the cool things in this story, I don't want to spoil it for you, and I also don't want end up re-writing the novel.

The storytelling is very cinematic and readable. Some knowledge of the Bay Area (or Google Maps) is recommended, as it takes place in San Francisco and the surrounding area. Sometimes it can be a little bit hard to tell what's going on, but that doesn't distract from how quickly you can tear through this book.

The ending of the book was a bit unexpected and anticlimactic. There were also several elements that felt like the author expected to develop them but never got around to them... maybe he's saving them for the sequel!

Like I said before, though, you're not reading this book for the plot or for everything to be tied neatly together in the end. You're reading it for one of the most enjoyable depictions of magic I have ever seen, and that's saying something.


I had a great Thanksgiving, including great food and great company. Unfortunately, both my lady and I got sick afterward, and I'm just finishing the recovery from that now. The silver lining to that is that I had the chance to plow through a fantastic book called Bad Magic over the weekend... I should have a book review posted for you guys soon.