Saturday, December 27, 2008
I love monster movies. A lot. But then, everyone who knows me knows that. I love Jaws, I love Creature from the Black Lagoon. And I just can't help but watch whenever a dreadful sci-fi original monster movie comes on. However, I recently realized that I was woefully unacquainted with that creature feature subgenre of Killer Crocodile movies. I've seen a billion shark movies, but no croc movies, so I went out and rented three of the more recent endeavors and watched them with my little sister. Over the next couple of days I'll slowly be adding reviews.
Rogue is set in Australia, home of the deadliest type of crocodile in the world, the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). The plot follows a travel writer (Alias's Michael Vartan) who takes a boat trip to watch crocodiles on the river. The trip is fairly uneventful, even if there's fantastic Australian scenery, lovingly captured by the cinematographer. There is a brief run-in with some rambunctious locals (including rising star Sam Worthington), but nothing out of the ordinary until the boat starts to turn around and sees an emergency flare fired up in the distance. The boat captain (the ever-cute Radha Mitchell, now cuter with native Australian accent) decides to go ahead and push into unfamiliar territory to see if they can help whoever is in distress. Unfortunately, all they find at the end of their rescue mission is an overturned boat and one pissed-off, super-enormous crocodile that sinks their boat and strands them on a little twenty-yard island that's rapidly drowning with the rising tide.
And that's the difficult with crocodile movies. Sharks live in the water. It's easy to get people out into the water and then make them get stuck there. Bears, lions, werewolves, etc, all live in the woods. It's easy to get people in the woods and make them get stuck there. But crocodiles live and feed on that narrow strip where water meets land, and it's really hard to get people onto that strip and make them get stuck there. Because if they're on land, in theory, they should be able to get away from the croc.
Rogue gets around that problem through a heavily contrived set-up, but by the time the movies enters its second half, you no longer care because it's just that tense. The wrecked tour group has to use limited equipment and a lot of luck to try and navigate a mere fifty yards of water to the shore, but never has fifty yards seemed so long. And the cast does a decent job of not falling straight into the horror movie cliches, even though they really kind of are.
Now, as always, the monster is kind of the star of these movies, and the crocodile here is no slouch. It's somewhat obviously CGI, but it's really big, and it's used to startlingly good effect. We see it frequently, especially toward the end of the movie, but the director is also very good at using the serene surface of the water, or nocturnal underwater photography to great effect. If nothing else, Rogue will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Finally, for those concerned about such things, this movie is not especially gory. I saw the Unrated edition, and except for language, it probably could have passed with a really strong PG-13. However, there is some animal munching that goes on for those sensitive to such things. This movie is easily my favorite of the three croc movies I saw, and a contender for a place in my Creature Features Hall of Fame.
Raymond Feist is one of those grand old names of Fantasy fiction that I am hyper-unfamiliar with. Recently, given my love of fantasy, and my familiarity with both modern trends in fantasy fiction and older trends in heroic fantasy (Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, Karl Edward Wagner, etc), I decided it was time to look at a few of the epic fantasists that followed Tolkien. My attempt at Eddings crashed and burned spectacularly (I'm sorry...never again), but the first Feist I read, Magician: Apprentice, was pleasant enough that I decided to keep reading his Riftwar Saga.
Feist imagines two worlds coexisting with each other, and accessible only through interdimensional rifts. At the end of the first book, medieval European analogue Midkemia was under attack by the samurai-modeled Tsurani, and the protagonist Pug had been kidnapped by an enemy band and taken into slavery.
Well, the new book wraps up the story nicely, although without as much pizazz as I would have liked. Pug has been working for a nice long period of time in the slave camps, when he is recognized by a wizard as someone having great power, and whisked away to study magic with the Tsurani Black Robes. His friend Tomas is now kicking way more ass than he did before, but at least part of that is because his magical suit of armor is possessed by the ghost of its former master, last member of a super race that died out millenia ago. His magic armor also helps him with that other vital heroic task: snagging a hot chick. And of course, Prince Arutha is being all dark and brooding as he sets out on a voyage to seek aid in the war from Krondor, accompanied by ex-Corsair Amos Trask, and thirteen year old wonder thief Jimmy the Hand. It all comes together in the ending for the mother of all battles and a downright wizardly-conclusion.
Except it's a little underwhelming. For a pair of novels in excess of 400 pages, the ending feels remarkably slight. Nonetheless, Feist writes in a readably, storyteller's fashion, and fills his books with a host of likable, if overly familiar, characters. His action scenes are serviceable, his monsters are clever, and he ladles on the magic (which is either a good or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about wizards). I for one, enjoyed more than I disliked, and will be reading the third book in the series, Silverthorn, in the future, so watch for my review of that.
Voices from Chernobyl is a beautiful book, an interesting book, an enlightening book, and even a darkly funny book. It is also an entirely devastating book. I've always been somewhat interested in the Chernobyl disaster, given the apocalyptic undertones that surround it: the Ukrainian ghost town of Pripyat, the Red Forest of dead trees, an entire generation lost as all the women lost the ability to have healthy, or even living babies, and the giant "Sarcophagus" of concrete, frantically dumped over the reactor to contain the radiation. I wasn't even six months old when it occurred on April 26, 1986 so obviously I missed a lot of the panic that happened at the time, but this book brings it all back, along with all the misinformation that the Russian public received.
Voices from Chernobyl is bookended by two tragically romantic stories. In the first, a woman tells of her husband, a firefighter, who was one of the first on the scene. No one told him what had happened, so he and the other firefighters all showed up in their shirtsleeves. Two weeks later, he died, his body covered in cracks and lesions left by radiation poisoning, and his wife gave birth to a daughter who died less than an hour later. In the second story, a liquidator, sent in to help clean up the reactor slowly dies, his body mutating hideously from radiation, observed by his wife who is desperate to keep him from realizing what is happening, so desperate that she hides mirrors from him. In both stories we see women who love their husbands, struggling to stay with them, fighting against a disaster they do not understand and a government that is reluctant to help them. And a disaster that ultimately defeats them.
And these are just the bookends. Alexievich, an award-winning journalist, has assembled oral accounts from many people. Soldiers, liquidators, scientists, and ordinary people who lived in Pripyat. Some of the stories are political, as with the soldiers who were sent into Chernobyl, unsure of exactly what they were doing, and whose radiation exposure was calculated from tables back at the base, and not from actual concrete readings. Some are darkly comical, as in the old ladies who refuse to be removed from their houses and now live in deserted neighborhoods well inside the radiocative Zone. And some are pathetic, as with the hunters who are sent in in the weeks following the disaster to shoot household pets, in order to limit the spread of disease. But all of them bear a dark tragic feeling, because these people have seen something truly horrible, and you can't forget it, no matter how unemotional what you are reading seems. The narrators will drop little reminders of just what they have seen, and sometimes, these reminders are just heartbreaking.
We came home. I took off all the clothes that I'd worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain...You can write the rest of this yourself. I don't want to talk anymore.
But through it all, the Russian spirit remains. Cynical, depressed, vodka-dependent, but incredibly resilient and fatalistic. One feels at the end of this book that if there were a people in the world that could deal with this sort of catastrope, it is the Russians. In the end, this book is not just informative, but a good picture of an entire people. I'll give it:
7/10 (Ah ha! New rating system!)
Sunday, December 7, 2008
One of the things you realize pretty quickly after you start reading science fiction is that these days, it's been split into a million sub genres. Hard sci-fi, Space Opera, Cyberpunk, New Weird, etc, etc. One of the more popular but lesser known genres is Military Sci-fi which further divides itself into two classes. On the one hand you have the long running series books by people like Elizabeth Moon and David Weber about young, brilliant star-ship captains (usually women) who fly through space getting into all sorts of wide screen space battles. The other class is about futuristic grunts (usually men) who slog around on alien planets and shoot lots of nasty critters in the face. This latter type is best exemplified by two classic sci-fi novels, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, both of which belong on any self-respecting sci-fi fan's book shelf regardless.
Anyway, Robert Buettner's Orphanage is most definitely military sci-fi, and it is most definitely of the latter class. The story is set on earth in the near future, when some unknown force in the galaxy starts lobbing projectiles at the planet's surface, killing millions. As a result of this, the world is thrown into a near-apocalyptic state, and the armies swell as governments train new soldiers for the possibility that these extra-terrestrial attackers ever show themselves. Jason Wander is a juvenile delinquent who takes the military route out of jail, and barely manages to make it through Basic, narrowly avoiding a dishonorable discharge and being promised only the least flattering jobs. Luckily for him though, he's got connections in high places and finds himself attached to the world's first orbital expeditionary force, heading into space to engage the enemy who have set up a forward post on Jupiter's moon Ganymede.
The novel follows a fairly simple formula that all military sci-fi follows. You've got your training chapters about the tough indoctrination the soldiers go through, you've got your advanced training/early adventures section which shows soldiers either fighting lesser enemies or going to new environments and learning to use new weapons, and then finally, you've got the big battle. Buettner hits all of these points, and he does a pretty good job. His description of Basic Training particularly hit home to me, because it is one of the most accurate depictions I have seen in a book, and it felt very strange to read about something I had just gone through this year. It might be boring to anyone else, but to me it was almost eerie. Once he moves on to the moon though, things really pick up, as we move into new, more exciting, imaginative events.
Characterwise, Buettner also does a good job, even if he is just busting out the usual archetypes. You've got your ordinary guy grunt hero, your handsome rocket jock, your cute female supporting character who's also really proficient with some sort of highly destructive weaponry, and your socially awkward scientist. While he doesn't really do anything new with these characters, the author makes you care about each of them enough that the final few pages of the book fly past pretty quick. In particular I enjoyed the entirely non-romantic friendship between Jason and his machine gunner, a diminutive female Egyptian lieutenant, who's been demoted in the wake of the recent catastrophes.
Now, the main thing that will either sell Orphange to you, or convince you it's not your thing is the writing style. A lot of military SF is written in a very conversational, slang-filled style, perhaps to convey the notion that it's the story of a grunt. Or perhaps its just the legacy of Heinlein, who wrote so many of his books in the same exasperatingly colloquial manner. I honestly don't like it much, and it really knocked down my opinion of the book, especially when Buettner adds on another of my favorite sci-fi pet peeves: characters who use futuristic slang and jargon. Karl Edward Wagner had it right in his great essay "The Once and Future Kane," if your character means the F-bomb, just have him drop it.
Finally, I'll just say a few words about the alien enemy. They were just a little underwhelming, even though they felt like a knowingly retro opponent, a throwback to golden age alien invasion stories. After all the variety that has been presented in recent books, particularly the downright managerie coming out of John Scalzi's books (some of the best recent sci-fi adventure novels recently - read Old Man's War. Now.), they just felt a little unimpressive.
So in the end, there were a lot of things I liked about this book, but I was really displeased with the writing style in places. Or perhaps, to rephrase, I enjoyed this book a lot, but I have my doubts as to its overall quality. I will definitely read the second installment, but I feel conflicted enough that I'm going to have to go ahead and give this book:
2/5 (add a point if you are military or really like military SF)
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Wanted is not actually about Angelina Jolie, regardless of the marketing hype, which was apparently only aware that it had one star in its film. Wanted is actually about accountant Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) who is a doormat on medication for his anxiety disorder. Then one day, while at the grocery store he meets a strange women named Fox (Angelina Jolie) who has some rather astonishing firearm skills, and who saves him from the mysterious assassin Cross (Thomas Kretschmann). It turns out that Wesley is the son of a super assassin recently dispatched by Cross, and is the only person with enough power to defeat him.
Because, you see, assassins in this movie are kind of like superheroes. They belong to a society descended from a medieval clan of weavers known as The Fraternity, who inspect a giant piece of cloth woven by an immense machine, translating a code that just so happens to be kill orders from Fate, sewn into the fabric. And no, I'm not making that up. These assassins apparently also have to ability to speed up their metabolism and thus slow down their perception of the world. Basically, bullet-time from The Matrix. Somehow though, this ability to slow down time also gives them the ability to leap insane distances, and curve bullets in parabolic arcs that allow them to shoot people who are hiding behind targets. It's not really explained, and that's kind of a key part of whether or not you like this movie.
Wanted is loosely based on Mark Millar's irreverent comic book of the same name, and I mean loosely. About the only thing they kept is the seething rage of Wesley, and to be honest, the story is better for it. This movie actually has a pretty cool plot behind it, and it's directed with a hell of a lot of panache by Timur Bekmambatov. Bekmambatov is, of course, best known to US audiences primarily for his two Russian import movies, Night Watch and Day Watch, based on the dark fantasy novels of Sergei Lukyanenko (which are definitely worth reading, by the way, if you're into that kind of thing). And if you saw either of those movies, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Flashy cars that perform all sorts of physically impossible feats, insane, hyper-kinetic action sequences set to thunderous heavy metal music (the two knife fights in the movie are remarkably reminiscent of Anton's battle against the vampires in Night Watch). And the ending shoot out is easily of the same caliber as the ending battles in Equilibrium or The Matrix.
The acting is also pretty good. I'm not really a big fan of Angelina Jolie, but she has a little bit of fun in this movie, which is nice to see. Morgan Freeman basically just plays Morgan Freeman these days, because Morgan Freeman is everybody's favorite character. Which is basically just a way of saying that he does a good job. And Terrence Stamp and Thomas Kretschmann both turn in strong supporting roles. The latter especially is wasted in most English-language films, because he has a lot of screen presence (let's be honest, Captain Englehorn from Peter Jackson's King Kong was the most badass character in that film).
But James McAvoy was the real surprise. I've thought he was a pretty good actor since his turn as Leto Atreides II in Children of Dune (and how does that work anyway? Isn't he technically Leto III, since the Harkonnens killed Paul's first son? Huh. Sorry. Nerd digression.), and this movie continues to support that opinion. While the female portion of the world was swooning over his role in Atonement, it was kind of funny to see him turn around and basically play the blockbuster action hero in this movie. And he does a good job. Starting out the film as a twitchy loser, and slowly transforming into a guy who can take out an entire building full of killers, McAvoy manages to sell both sides of his character without making the change seem more surprising than in any other superhero flick.
However (yes, there is a downside), as much as Wanted is a crazy, over-the top, fun action experience, there are times when it might be just a little too crazy, a little too hyper-kinetic. This is a complaint one can level against any of Bekmambatov's films, and it holds here as well. Every so often, you're jerked out of the story by the sheer goriness of the film or wry instances where the fourth wall is broken (such as in a scene where a character smashes a keyboard over another character's head and the keys fly at the screen spelling out "Fuck you"). And whether or not that detracts from your enjoyment of the movie depends on how much it bothers you.
Personally, I'll rate Wanted a:
3/5 (with reservations for the sheer amount of over-the-top carnage)
Friday, December 5, 2008
Good vampire movies are hard to find. I don't really like the popular vampire archetype of Nosferatu as sexy, angsty creatures of the night who are only really looking for love, or perhaps peace from a life of violence. Come on. We're talking about reanimated corpses that want to drink blood from living human beings. To a certain extent, the Blade movies addressed that side of the mythology, but they went the comic book route. Their vampires were basically super villains that drank blood and convened in secret cabals and stuff. 30 Days of Night however, is the vampire flick I always hoped they would make, and is now, in my opinion, the best vampire movie ever.
The town of Barrow, Alaska is about to get a very unpleasant surprise on its last day of sunshine for a month. A Russian tanker shows up off the coast, and a few days later someone steals all the cell phones in the town and burns them. Then someone kills every dog in Barrow. And finally, a stranger shows up in a diner rambling incoherently and orders raw hamburger meat. Trying to tie all these things together is the local Sherriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett). Further complicating things is the fact that his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), missed her flight and is now stuck in the town with him for a month. And this is all before the clan of vampires move in.
30 Days of Night is a survival film, akin to Dawn of the Dead or Aliens. It's about people in a messed up situation trying to stay alive until help (or in this case, the sun), can come. Thankfully these people fight back. They have guns, they have flares, and they have an axe. I always hate horror movies where people just wait helplessly for the monsters to get them. The residents of Barrow try to kill the bad guys. They just aren't very good at it.
Which brings me to another good point: the vampires. These guys are freaking scary as hell. They've got snow white skin, black eyes, and mouths full of fangs. Plus, they're almost always stained with crusted blood. During their initial assault, there are a couple of amazing overhead shots that just convey a sense of utter hopelessness as the monsters storm through the town, killing everything. They're smart, they have a language (rendered as some sort of guttural, teutonic sounding tongue), but they are completely heartless, and take pleasure in tormenting and torturing their prey.
And that's something to keep in mind. In addition to being really scary, this movie is also extraordinarily gory. Occasionally I forget exactly how messy mainstream horror can get, and this movie is a potent reminder. Throats are cut and torn, limbs and heads are removed on-camera, and people are ripped to shreds by heavy machinery.
Basically, what I'm saying is that this is an extremely good horror flick, but it *is* a horror flick. It's messy, it's scary, and people die. But it's tightly done, and extremely well shot, and the actors give it a solid human edge, which really carries through in the surprisingly poignant ending (which is very reminiscent of my other favorite vampire movie - ooh! It's like a trivia question!). I honestly think this is one of the better movies I've seen recently. It's not great cinema, and it's not Good cinema on the level of, say, Children of Men (one of the few movies that almost made me cry), but it is 100% awesome entertainment. So, for that I give it: