May 26, 2014

The Last Buckaroo — Free today

The latest from J.R. Wright, The Last Buckaroo is free today. Pick it up on Amazon here.

Perfect for the Legend of the Dawn withdrawal I was going through, The Last Buckaroo is more of J.R. Wright doing what comes natural to him: storytelling that’s both classic and contemporary, with a style that’s all his own, but might also harken back to some greats. Pick this one up for the love story, but even more page-turning is the storyteller’s voice that gets stuck in your head (in a good way).

Yancey Burke is the last of his kind, and that makes it hard to make his way in a world that's changing around him. Set in Montana, 1919, even the old West is beginning to modernize and for Yancey, "there were no more frontiers to move on to, no more ridges to cross."

In the here and now, the struggle Yancey faces is being locked up for the murder of Clyde Banyon, an unfair investigation by Sheriff Preston Ames and a stacked trial headed by Judge Jethro Samuels. Luckily there's a pretty redhead in town grappling with her feelings for Yancey and, though he may be an old fashioned buckaroo, Katie Peck is determined to get him off the hook for the crime he did not commit, bringing in rebellious and off the cuff star lawyer Woody Clampett to get the job done, and when that's settled, the question becomes what Yancey Burke is to do with the rest of his life now that jobs such as wrangling cattle and so on are no longer available.

A lovable cast combined with a gripping story make this an all around fun read that's sure to be timeless.

May 20, 2014

Godzilla and the malevolent creatures (2014) [review time]

Godzilla is one of those franchises where no matter how long it's been since the last remake, doubts abound and movie-goers are filled with uncertainty and questioning. Questions like why now? and wait, what do you mean it's actually good? can be overheard in coffee shops and sidewalks everywhere. In this case it's been a while since the last, arguably horrendous, attempt, directed by Roland Emmerich in 1998, and yeah, it is actually kinda good.

Bryan Cranston's character Joe Brody is basically Walter White: Nuclear physicist edition. Loves his kid, loves his wife, lets his crazy obsession destroy his life. When the nuclear power plant at Janjira in Japan is affected by inexplicable, unaccounted for seismic activity, Joe's the guy responsible for admonishing that this isn't an earthquake coming and something's really wrong. He's the expert, the crazy genius, the only guy smart enough to see that something strange and catastrophic is about to happen.

It's probably sounding to you like that thing is Godzilla, right? Wrong. Whether or not it ruined the movie is up for debate all over the internet, but either way, viewers were misled by the title of the film. It's not really as much about Godzilla as you might expect. In order to come up with a smart, complex plot about a giant dinosaur monster crushing cities with his big dino feet, the creators came up with "malevolent creatures" (using IMDB's descriptor for its genius vagueness) for Godzilla to hunt across the globe and kill in a big epic brawl. I still liked it, and I think the trade-off was more plot with more interesting science fictional implications, but I also feel cheated and lied to, given that all of the strange occurrences in the first half of the movie that I thought were the Godzilla were actually these "malevolent creatures," and I don't like feeling stupid.

The story of Godzilla himself is a good one. In 1946 he was awakened by a Russian submarine accident, and the US and Russia knew about it all this time, so (as the trailer will tell you), the US and Russian militaries conducted all of their nuclear tests over the Pacific in an attempt to kill it. They couldn't. All the nukes in the world couldn't kill this giant prehistoric god of all creatures. Humanity is weak and technology pales before nature. I like it!

After all that good storytelling, the dialogue gave way to the military trying to kill Godzilla and the malevolent creatures. Words turn to action, and it's mesmerizing, big action that captures your attention and grabs it again and again just when you think you're going to nod off because what's actually so interesting about dinosaur monsters stepping on buildings?

The good cast had good performances but it’s wasted on one of those films where the screenplay must have drizzled out about two thirds of the way through. Don't get too attached to Bryan Cranston, and don't expect his watered down Walter White to have any material to work with, but obviously the man could do no wrong, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson still looks handsome even when the script fizzles out and he stops talking and instead stares either wide-eyed or catatonically at the destruction of the SF skyline. Who knew Kickass would end up good looking? He totally Neville Longbottom-ed. Elizabeth Olsen followed suit, looking pretty and doing absolutely nothing. So if you were going to see Godzilla because you were excited about the cast, don’t bother. They weren't the main event.

The main event was watching prehistoric parasites and the god of all dinosaurs face off and completely abolish my fave city, San Francisco. Oh yay, another monster fighting movie! I really liked the art direction.

Seriously though, it was kind of all about the visuals. I mean I liked the first half better which was actually about the story and a little bit about science, but in the end, it’s greyscale destruction and the kind of immensity that can only really be conveyed through film, although Percy Bysshe Shelley and George R. R. Martin, for two, have certainly tried. 

What you should expect is Jaws meets Alien and I'm guessing Pacific Rim, but I haven't actually seen it, meets King Kong and Breaking Bad. Without color. I don't recommend that you rent it. Go see it with your friends on the big screen, or not at all, and if you missed it, you missed it. Go rent Kickass, or any of the other aforementioned pictures, instead.

May 8, 2014

X-Men First Class: Will Days of Future Past live up to it?

Whether you're a diehard who never lost the faith or a newcomer to the X-Men film franchise, it's pretty likely that the stunt they pulled with X-Men First Class caught your attention one way or another. Set in 1962, it's visually catchy, by which I mean the costumes and the setting will grab you even in the 30 second TV spot. It's no Mad Men but the styles are a ton of fun. And if the costumes and hairstyles didn't grab you maybe working the Cuban missile crisis into the mix did? Yeah, them be nukes. It was a brave comeback and it worked.

X-Men First Class was an impressive return for the series that had been greatly dwindling in the quality of its characters, story, writing, even aesthetic with the travesty that was Origins: Wolverine or The Wolverine, whichever the hell one I saw, don't ask me. Even X-Men: The Last Stand saw the beginning of a decline for the X-Men series (Don't believe me? Check out how the IMDB ratings dropped between films or the footnote below*). Fans responded to a decline with their votes, but X-Men First Class was an entirely different case. It has the highest IMDB rating of the series at 7.8, which is really, really high, considering films among the top 250 of all time (as voted by users) only have an 8.0. I guess users are harsh critics (the highest rating on all of IMDB is Shawshank Redemption at a mere 9.2 rating. Nothing close to 10 exists).

What makes it good? What saved the franchise? Well I already mentioned the visuals, and I'm glad that finally in the sci-fi/fantasy film world someone caught on that when we want striking visuals we don't mean CGI anymore, we're not impressed by that anymore. Art is character-driven these days and not only did X-Men dress up their characters is stunning 60s styles, they also sketched out their stories and made those much more central, I thought, than the plot, which was fine but not great. The cast also helped. Put Jennifer Lawrence in anything these days and she can carry the whole show herself, but First Class didn't even need her; Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy held their own plenty. And including January Jones in anything personally makes me very, very happy. So a good looking cast.

Now that's not to say First Class was perfect. For one thing, I don't feel the need to ever watch it a second time. I feel like the character-driven nature was a nice turn but it still managed to be drowned out a little bit by the action which they of course had to deliver, otherwise it wouldn't be a superhero film. It's just that Kevin Bacon's villain was very boring, with the exception of the flashbacks to Nazi Germany. It couldn't really be helped. I can't think of a better story for them to have told. The heart of it was where it needed to be: on Xavier's loss of his friend Erik/Magneto, and the schism between mutants and humanity, and between the X-Men and Magneto's clan.

Probably the strongest story managed to be Raven/Mystique's, which is impressive. There's a psychological sketch going on there that does get buried by the action a little bit but it pervaded the film and gave her actions motivation. Actually I think her reasons for joining Magneto were much better fleshed out than Magneto's motivations for turning against Xavier. Sure, we know he's been through a lot and life has been hard for him, poor Fassbender, but it's easy to forget all that with the training montages in the middle and the lovey dovey dialogues he has with McAvoy. He doesn't seem dark or tortured during the middle third of the movie, which is nice — there's little I love more than a compassionate relationship for a character who is suffering and really needs it — but then when he goes all evil it seems rather sudden.

Nitpicking aside, both the rating and the strong points I've identified make it clear that X-Men First Class was a revival. Now what will happen when worlds collide, past and future, old cast and new cast? Well for one thing you get a SUPERCAST! Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence, Jackman, Paquin, Berry, McKellen, Stewart, holy crap, who's excited? Not to mention Peter Dinklage and Ellen Page. What are they thinking? They're gonna give us all heart attacks. But as we learned with Valentine's Day and Movie 43, it really doesn't matter how many A listers you throw in there, if it's nothing but a gimmick, it's not going to do anything for the quality if there's no quality there. Yikes. Now I'm starting to worry. Maybe too many celebrities is a sign of doom.

So here's the trailer.

It looks funny. Big. Epic. I'm hoping there will be an emphasis on characters over action in this one but seeing Wolverine as the team leader has me pretty worried. There was so much they could have done with that character, and instead they gave us two mindless action flicks that weren't worth watching. I'm not done lamenting that. And to be honest they've always had a super cast to work with, this is nothing new, so if they don't use that talent properly, we may be in for yet another failure.

So what do you think will happen when the old series collides with the new? First Class was a damn good start to a reboot but there may be some cause for concern that Days of Future Past is going to slide into old bad habits. Too much action and too many one liners. Bad writing. Underdeveloped characters that had oh so much potential. Are you afraid or are you rejoicing? Leave me a comment and let me know. Maybe ease my fears a little bit.

*What kind of blogger would I be if I made you do your own research? Here's the footnote: X-Men (2000) has an IMDB rating of 7.4, X2 (2003) has 7.5, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) sunk to a 6.8, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) has a 6.8, and The Wolverine (2013) has a 6.8. That's actually a fairly good rating (6.8), despite that the Wolverine movie I saw was crap, but the point is there was a decline. The point is, X-Men First Class is way back at up 7.8, and the new enterprise managed after many failures to rekindle its original quality.

May 5, 2014

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson: What worked, and what really didn't [review time]

Words of Radiance felt like a perfect sequel on one lazy read through, but scrutiny brings to light the imperfections, like lamplight to a cracked stone, to use a forced metaphor the way Sanderson continuously does. Popular opinion here is going to rule because the Amazon ratings are in and it’s 1,500 five star votes versus all of 4 one star votes, all four of them without good reason. With that commendation in addition to that fact that hey, I loved it too, let’s skip the raving about how good it is and take a crack at those imperfections, because to be honest, The Way of Kings didn't have any, so what happened here to mar book two?

Aside from the lazy criticism that it’s too long and Shallan is too boring (both lame complaints, buck up yer great lumps!) there are actual problems. Like that Kaladin is one whiney sonofabitch that puts Luke Skywalker’s bellyaching over Toshi power converters to oh so much shame. That we want to be cool and calm and enjoy the interlude chapters, but really, come on, nobody cares about Ym, Rysn, and Taln, we just want to see how the story ends and we have to wade through that (interesting, detailed, high and mighty) fluff to get there. That the climax is, in Robert Jordanian style, all in the last 50 pages of a 1000 page book.

Probably my biggest complaint though is Sanderson’s ego in Words of Radiance. There were hints and whiffs of it creating a faint stink on The Way of Kings and even his takeover of The Wheel of Time (of course taking over the epic series of one of the greatest fantasy authors of our lifetime is a fair thing to go to one’s head) but nothing like the testaments to Brandon’s brainpower in this volume. Shallan and Wit are two characters that demonstrate to me that Sanderson doesn't just write smart characters with high wit and intellect, he shoves them down your fricking throat to show how clever their author is. Take a second look at Wit’s speech in the epilogue and see if you can get through it without vomiting, let alone without letting it break the fourth wall into tiny, tiny pieces. Good way to deflect any and all criticism: “Give me an audience who have come to be entertained, but expect nothing special. To them, I will be a god.” Nice. Any problems I have with your books are just that I've come to expect too much from your master genius.

I wanted Shallan to be smarter than me. And Wit too. Maybe that’s an unfair expectation given that of course you can’t write things you don’t expect your readers to understand, you want them to connect with what’s being said, but if Shallan is so witty, why don’t any of her witticisms go over my head? I wanted them to. Or at least require a second of contemplation or inspire a minute of thoughtfulness. Nope. 

This is one place where Sanderson seems to take characterization lessons from Stephanie Meyer. He tells you she’s witty and clever, but the examples, try though they might, do not impress. If he couldn’t think of anything truly intelligent for her to say, then he didn’t have to try to characterize her as intelligent. I mentioned of the Sherlock pilot that it’s hard to follow Sherlock’s thinking, just as it’s hard to follow Dr. House, and that’s a good thing; that makes the character a genius. It wouldn’t make sense if everything he said was at the audience’s level. Shallan and Wit are testaments to intelligence but they don’t stand up. Shallan’s quips are lame and Wit’s diatribes are transparent. It didn't feel that way in The Way of Kings but if there’s another "Fleet ran fast" in book three, that might just be it for me.

Kaladin continues to feel like a cartoon to me, to the point where I don't picture him like a real character the way I can picture say Paul Atreides or Jon Snow or Rand Al Thor as a flesh and bones man, Kaladin in my imagination is like Harry Potter grown up with a beard (And no, Harry Potter in my imagination is not Daniel Radcliffe). He spends approximately two thousand pages of the Stormlight Archive being a depressed malcontent who hates pretty much everyone, even those we love like Shallan and Adolin, making bad choices like to challenge Amaram and ruin the plan for Sadeas, or to allow Moash to go forward with plans against Elhokar, and only at the very end does he have a moment of revelation. He can’t define his own morality or get over his shit and when he finally does it’s frustrating because you've been yelling at him to get over it for two thousand pages now. 

I'm conflicted though because while I wanted Kaladin to become a Radiant and say the words and get Syl back and all that yada, and I liked Elhokar and didn’t want him to die, I almost think the book would have been more interesting if Kaladin had killed him. I was kind of interested in that dilemma and leaning towards removing him. That would have been too dark for Sanderson’s tastes, but it would have worked for me. But then book three would be a thousand pages of Kaladin whining his remorse. Spare me.

Here’s what I liked about the book: Everything else. The payout on the storms that were coming was very good. The ending was a thrill to read because the stakes were so high, it seemed impossible that they could get out, and Shallan my beloved was the key to their survival, which makes my day (even if her IQ is a fraud, she’s still my favorite character, other than Jasnah). I’m glad that they won on the plains against the Parshendi without a character death (so overrated, I like my characters breathing, thank you) except Roion, who blossomed into a hero all of half a page before he died. Poor guy. I like that the next book is set up to deal with all the parshmen transforming and the Knights Radiant returning.
Oh and I liked Shallan’s flashbacks, which many people hated. The best comment I read on Amazon did point out that it was exactly the same as the Tien story in Kaladin’s flashbacks, where the reveal wasn’t a reveal because you already knew, and it was set up like a plot twist even though it wasn’t, but I’m glad that in Shallan’s case the “twist” was covered in all of one sentence, like ripping off the bandaid. Yep, the “mystery” turned out exactly the way we knew all along, but at least we didn't have to read a whole damn chapter dramatically expounding it. 

Words of Radiance was enjoyable in its escapism and the satisfaction of its journey and conclusion, but to be critical there were some imperfections. I loved it but I think it’s delusional to call it perfect or to give it five stars, if five stars means to you what it does to me — that it couldn't have been better than what it was (i.e. it has no flaws that couldn't have been helped), that it is the best the genre has to offer (the best among comparable books), that a second reading improves rather than diminishes the experience of its quality. It could have been better — it could have been trimmed, and one of Sanderson's giant team of editors could have pointed out that Shallan's witty dialogue needed elevation, or that Kaladin is getting a bit tired. No, really tired. The series might come to be among the best of the genre, but this particular volume is not. It's no The Great Hunt or The Gunslinger or A Storm of Swords; it's not even Eragon (because unlike Kaladin, that little bugger was only unlikable for ONE volume). I don't think I could stand to read it again, unlike The Way of Kings, but if I do, I feel like there will be less to uncover on a second read, and not more.

There are 1500 five star reviews for this book and I think that’s crazy. The Way of Kings was worth five stars. Words of Radiance is a cut below.