Sunday, April 25, 2010
If you're paying attention, you know that this is the first of three "pissed-off-special-ops-soldiers-with-a-grudge" flicks coming this year, the other two being The A-Team and The Expendables. I was looking forward to this one just a bit more than the others, being a fan of the source material, Andy Diggle's zany left-wing espionage conspiracy comic book series. And the movie is pretty close to that, serving up an over-the-top, slick, frequently hilarious action romp that I would highly recommend to anyone who likes action movies.
The titular Losers are a skilled team of black-ops soldiers who narrowly escape betrayal and death after they learn a little too much on a clandestine mission to Bolivia (changed from Afghanistan in one of the film's few minor renovations - otherwise, many of the scenes and a lot of the dialogue is directly lifted from the comic). Angry and disillusioned, they hide out in South America until a mysterious woman named Aisha (Zoe Saldana) gives them a way to get back into the states under one condition: they kill the mastermind behind their betrayal, a CIA bigwig known only as Max (Jason Patric). From there it's one long sequence of shootouts and heists as they follow a trail of dirty money and deadly technology to their target.
For starters, while I would be the first to say that the movie is not great, it is entertaining as hell. The action is hyper-stylized, with plenty of freeze-frames, slow motion, and speed ramping to keep it looking pretty. In addition, the film refreshingly veers away from grim and gritty cinematography to deliver one of the most colorful movies of this type that I've seen in a while. Aside from one awful bit of CGI at the very end, it's very hard to criticize the technical execution of the set-pieces.
The script is also a winner, with great banter and witty one-liners, all delivered pitch-perfectly by the cast. Reading a lot of reviews in the press, I get the impression that many critics aren't sure quite how to take a movie like this. On the surface it's a serious tale of betrayal and revenge, but under the surface is a snarky, wry take on the conspiracy genre. Even if the posters and imposition of cartoon logos over live-action scenery weren't enough, the dialogue alone should tip you off that this is a comic book adaptation, with all the straight-faced kookiness that that entails.
Of course, much of this rests on the cast, which is made up entirely of people you know, but might not know where you've seen them before. Jeffrey Dean Morgan turns in a good performance as Colonel Clay, a grumpy, brooding leader who never wears anything but a suit with an unbuttoned white shirt, even when he's storming an enemy compound. Columbus Short and Idris Elba also turn in solid performances, with the former being especially impressive, given that I'd never heard of him before. Oscar Jaenada doesn't say much, and relies almost exclusively on body language and a cowboy hat as laconic sniper Cougar, but he manages to make an impression anyway. Zoe Saldana is a talented actress who is capable of a great range of emotion, but for this role, she's mostly just using her sex appeal, which admittedly she has in spades.
But the show is really stolen by two actors. Chris Evans is someone I like a lot, and I was pleased when he recently landed the role of Captain America in the upcoming Marvel film. Here he's once again in a supporting role, but his physicality and motor mouth serve him well as Jensen, the Losers' resident hacker. No matter what's going down on screen, he's always hilarious, whether he's dropping a one-liner or wearing one of his myriad ridiculously tacky T-shirts. The guy's definitely got what it takes to be a star, and it seems like the rest of the world is figuring it out finally.
Jason Patric is also taking some flack in the press for his portrayal of Max. I personally thought it was brilliant, Max coming across as a supremely bored, sarcastic business executive who nonchalantly performs or authorizes acts of horrible violence, lapsing into non sequiturs moments later. As a villain, he's reminiscent of early Joss Whedon, especially Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Mayor from way back. It's a bizarre turn, but it perfectly suits the crazy world of The Losers.
As far as negatives, The Losers is really only trying to be a popcorn flick. I don't have a problem with that, but if you're expecting a serious action movie, you're barking up the wrong tree. This is an over-the-top movie that defies the laws of physics and ballistics carelessly and has a blast doing so. I highly recommend it as the best movie I've seen so far this year.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
I had heard a lot about Michael Connelly's detective series, and recently decided to give it a try. The Black Echo is a solid police thriller, and is sure to be liked by those of you who like harder-edged, procedural mysteries.
Harry Bosch gets called out to the Hollywood Dam to take a look at a dead body shoved in a drainage pipe. The corpse turns out to be a man that Harry worked with many years back when the two of them were tunnel rats in a Vietnam, and driven by that association he starts looking into what appears little more than a heroin overdose. It soon leads to a cache of missing jewelry, a team of ruthless bank robbers, and a pair of IA detectives out for blood.
The writing in The Black Echo is the highlight. Clipped, sparse and no-nonsense, the third-person narrative style feels perfectly suited to the grim, dog-eat-dog world of crime that we've just been plunged into. It's essentially Raymond Chandler's writing, updated with twenty-first century vocabulary, and in the third person.
As far as plot, it's a mixed bag. I liked the inclusion of the Vietnam stuff, but there was never any twist that I didn't see coming. And in mysteries especially, the twist is a big deal. I remember the "I should have seen that!" moment from reading Sherlock Holmes as a kid, or the stomach lurching, totally foreseeable surprise in Ross MacDonald's masterpiece The Chill. And The Black Echo never really has that. So while the plot is appropriately layered and satisfactory, it is never really as surprising as I would have liked.
The characters are pretty good, too, with only two being the main focus. Harry (short for Heironymous) is your standard-issue tough guy with a heart of gold who drinks too much and smokes too much. But personally, I'm a big fan of old-school hard-boiled cliches in characters, so I didn't have a problem with it. Eleanor Wish, the FBI agent who works with Harry on the bank case, is also pretty well developed, an intelligent woman who definitely has some trust issues and can never be complete trusted. Thus, while we have your standard sexual tension, Connelly also wisely keeps us guessing about Wish's intentions, which keeps it from getting boring.
In the end, it's a solid mystery. Dark, gritty, and written in pitch-perfect tough-guy prose, it's the perfect book for a late night and a bottle of Bourbon, or something like that.
I love the old Harryhausen movies, so hearing that a remake was on the way, I was somewhat skeptical. However, my love of giant monsters and Greek mythology overrode my doubts, and I wound up excited to see this flick. And Sam Worthington has proven himself a capable tough-guy action star, so that was a plus as well. However, after watching it, I have come to the conclusion that this movie is entertaining enough, but it's not really that good.
The plot is a bizarre mash-up of the myth of Perseus, a war between humans and gods, and maybe just a tiny bit of the recently popular God of War Playstation games. A son of Zeus, Perseus is rescued by a poor fisherman. When a senseless act of violence perpetrated by Hades results in the death of his family, Perseus sets out for revenge.
So we'll start with the tone of the movie. The trailers would have you believe that this is a grim, gritty, Gladiator-does the Greek myths kind of flick. Not really. It's more of a popcorn flick with a heavy dose of light, cartoonish action. The monsters are generally impressive (the fates were especially gruesome - resembling something out of Pan's Labyrinth), but none of them seem real. Some people have called the effects subpar. I wouldn't really say that, I'd just say that it's obvious we aren't supposed to believe these critters are real. None of them look any more realistic than something out of a video game, especially not the giant scorpions.
As far as acting it's a mixed bag. Sam Worthington is perfectly satisfactory when he's crushing heads or stabbing things, but in an early sequence following the death of his family when he's supposed to be grief-stricken, he mostly just seems extremely tired. The movie also pulls out two James Bond alums who give good performances. Gemma Arterton plays the romantic lead decently, though it's not an especially interesting role. Mads Mikkelsen however manages to steal the show as the grumpy aged warrior Draco. The rest of the cast is packed with people you know from various movies, but I'll quickly point out that both Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are great as the gods Zeus and Hades respectively.
The action sequences are all decent, although they bunch together and come very quickly, and also have a tendency to be disorienting, such as the battle with Medusa, which takes place in a ruined cave temple where the geography is a little hazy. However, the final scene of aerial combat is pretty cool.
Like I said, the monsters are also pretty good too although many times their connection to Greek myth is tenuous. We've got Medusa and Pegasus, but pretty much everything else is pretty generic, and they even go into Islamic lore with the Djinn. Our few looks at Olympus show a sort of campy, shiny regal court where everyone wears armor that looks like it was made out of tin foil.
So really, it's not a bad movie, and it's entertaining, but there are lots of places where it just a feels a little lazy, like the team behind the movie was just sort of cranking it out, and not really trying to make a great film.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
The world of speculative fiction lost a great man when David Gemmell passed away in 2006. I remember reading Legend back when I was about fifteen and being captivated by its well-drawn characters and unabashedly heroic tone. When Mr. Gemmell died, he left this trilogy unfinished. The final volume was completed by his wife, and we now have all three books complete. While I am sorry to have lost him, if the first book is any indication, Troy is a magnificent swan song for one of the best fantasy writers ever to have put pen to paper.
This bold re-imagining of the Trojan War is not really a fantasy, rooted instead solidly in Greek and Mediterranean history, and playing fast and loose with established mythology. All the familiar characters are here (Agamemnon, Priam, Andromache, Aeneas, and Odysseus to name a few), but in different, highly original ways.
Prince Helikaon is one of the greatest Dardanian warriors to ever sail the sea. When he is entrusted with carrying the princess Andromache to Troy to be married to prince Hector, he unwittingly sets in motion a series of events that will lead to the legendary war. Helikaon is not well-loved in Mycenae, given his habit of slaughtering Mykene pirates that prey on Dardanian ships, angering their king, Agamemnon. However, his escort mission throws him right in the path of a devilish coup centered on the great walled city.
Mr. Gemmell's strength was always in his characters, and it is no different in this book. From the stalwart, heroic Helikaon to the ugly but charismatic Odysseus, every person in the story comes across as a living, breathing human being. As a result, readers who are familiar with mythology can't help but feel a little bit of excitement whenever another familiar face appears. From the chillingly unhinged child Cassandra, to the aging, cruel, but undoubtedly magnificent King Priam it is very cool to see all these familiar faces re-imagined. He even goes a little further, throwing in an exiled Egyptian prince who seems suspiciously like he belongs in the Old Testament. The secondary characters, most of them original, are just as well-drawn and involving.
The plot is compelling and draws the reader right in, although at the end you will doubtlessly be a little disappointed that the war itself has not started yet. Everything unfolds in an unhurried, but well-paced manner, characters developing and leaping off the page, even as events propel them forward into confrontation.
Another of Mr. Gemmell's strengths was his action sequences. Things are no different in this book. While his stories are less about the geography of the fights, or cinematic battle scenes, they are visceral, physical conflicts that result in blood and pain which comes so vividly off the page that one can almost hear swords clashing on armor.
Lord of the Silver Bow is an excellent historical adventure novel, and I look forward to finishing the trilogy, even as I sadly recognize that we shall never have anything else from this great author.
When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the guys who used to run around catching animals for zoos. Raymond Ditmars, Roy Chapman Andrews and of course, Gerald Durrell (if you have yet to read anything by him, find The Bafut Beagles or My Family and Other Animals right now...like, before you finish reading this review...it's worth it). It was with some sadness that I learned as I got older that zoos no longer hire these sort of Naturalist-Cowboys. Animals are captive bred, or loaned out from parks in foreign countries.
But there's still a thriving illegal animal trade, and that's what The Lizard King is about, specifically reptile smuggling. Reptiles are a pretty good deal when it comes to smuggling. Collectors are fanatical about specific species and colorations, and the animals themselves are easy to conceal. Cold-blooded, they will remain very still if you cool them down, allowing them to be hidden in secret pockets or rolled up in socks. And the rewards are phenomenal, into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What I did not realize before reading this book is how dirty the reptile business is. There are plenty of huge reptile businesses and breeders, but many of them do a lot of transactions with smugglers. As long as they can deny that they knew the animals were illegally obtained, they can avoid legal action. Thus, almost any reptile stockhouse can be linked to theft or smuggling, and the middlemen who run these operations frequently dabble in other sorts of smuggling to boot. It's an eye-opener, and an interesting side of the business to see.
Another eye-opener is the types of people who do this work. Many of them grew up keeping snakes or lizards, or even have advanced degrees in herpetology. Some of them come from snake-catching dynasties that interacted with people like Ross Allen or Carl Kauffeld. They're criminals who come into the profession through their fascination with reptiles, and stay for the cash.
But all these facts are incidental to the subject of the book, which is about a Fish and Wildlife plan to bring down pet store powerhouse Simply Reptiles. The two people of primary interest to this story are F&W agent Chip Bepler, and Simply Reptiles' owner, Mike van Nostrand (who still runs Simply Reptiles today, although it is now a strictly legitimate business). The book follows them carefully, laying out not just the story of the case, but also backstory on both main players, occasionally jumping into sidebars of herpetological lore which will be fascinating to laymen, but which most serious reptile enthusiasts (such as myself) probably already know.
While the book is a fascinating look at a little-known area of crime, it is also somewhat light. It feels like a magazine article blown up to book format, which given the author's journalist background, it would not surprise me to learn it was. The writing is workmanlike, neither exceptionally poor, nor amazingly good. Christy is clearly also interested in reptiles, which gives the book a bit more spark.
In short, it's a decent book but not a great one, and I recommend it to the serious reptile enthusiasts out there. Everyone else won't find a whole lot of interest here.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
It is very difficult to find a good summary of this book online. This frustrated me until I actually read it and realized: it is very hard to summarize. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent fantasy debut. It is compared to Phillip Pullman a lot in the blurbs, and that seems appropriate. Imagine an engrossing fairytale told as a cross between His Dark Materials and Pirates of the Caribbean and you have The Red Wolf Conspiracy.
The book begins with a young tarboy named Pazel Pathkendle who has an unusual gift: he can understand any and all languages, and is also prone to bizarre fits where he can only speak in gibberish. Through a series of unfortunate events, he winds up on the Chathrand, a massive ship the size of an island, that carries over a thousand souls. It is on a diplomatic mission to the enemy nation of Mzithrin, carrying an aristocratic heiress with the intent of marrying her off and making piece between two warring nations. Unfortunately, there is another sinister plot afoot.
Sounds simple doesn't it? The thing is that Redick has a mind-boggling array of cool little touches that he throws in, and that basic plot is also home to a deadly assassin, a dark sorcerer long thought dead, merpeople, a sea captain slowly going mad, a race of warriors only ten inches tall, a powerful mage from another dimension, an oddly heroic sentient rat, an oddly villainous sentient rat, and a dead god called the Shaggat Ness.
This book reads a little like a young adult fantasy. And that is not a knock. Indeed I had some very pleasant flashbacks to my childhood reading Brian Jacques's Redwall or Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three. It has it's share of grim moments, but it's remarkably PG about them, and maintains a pleasantly wide-eyed sense of wonder throughout that makes it feel like the world's most awesome bedtime story stretched out to novel length.
At the same time, all this stuff can make the story seem a little abrupt. There were times where I'd kick back and read about fifty pages before bed, and then go to sleep thinking, "Okay...everyone's fortunes were just drastically reversed." And it happens over and over. Major plot points, stunning twists, they all happen in the span of twenty pages. There are honestly more twists and action in a hundred pages of this book than in most full fantasy novels. This can lead to a feeling that certain events have been robbed of significance, but in the end I found it to be pretty easy to shrug and just roll on, thoroughly enchanted by Redick's world.
So really, if you like fantasy at all, you should check this one out. There have been plenty of great fantasy debuts over the last few years, but this is one of the best and most accessible to new fans. How much did I like it? Expect to see a review of The Ruling Sea some time next month.
The Fourth Crusade is notorious in the history of those vilified and greatly misunderstood wars as being the one where Christendom turned on itself, the Catholic forces besieging and then destroying much of Constantinople, totally forgetting about their mission to the holy land. In this excellent history, Phillips manages to clarify much of the events of the time.
Beginning with a quick recap of events, Phillips jumps right into Pope Innocent III's call for a crusade and the subsequent planning. Knights were the chief weapon of the crusades. Certainly the foot soldiers and archers were useful, but in the thirteenth century the mounted horseman trained since childhood in warfare was still the master of the battlefield. Therefore a main recruiting ground for this expedition was a Tournament in Ecry France. Here the first flaw in the plan surfaced. A crusade was an expensive endeavor, and as it turned out the numbers were guessed at and rounded up so that when everyone showed up in Venice, the numbers were much lower than expected. Throw in an unexpected change of command, and suddenly the effort was slightly directionless and in great need of funds.
At about this time, the exiled prince of Constantinople, Alexius IV, was looking for an army to help him dethrone the current emperor Isaac. Convincing the crusaders that he could support then, and playing on the existing dislike of the Greeks, he took the Army to the Byzantine empire. Through a string of misunderstandings, betrayals and hotheaded actions, what resulted was nothing less than the sack and ruin of greatest city in the known world.
This is a very twisted, very political story. Armies may only be effective through the training and ruthlessness of their soldiers, but they run on logistics. Never an easy aspect of strategy, logistics were a nightmare in the middle ages. Throw in all the people vying for control, the myriad kingdoms that crusaders had to pass through, and all the Byzantine backstabbing, and you have an extremely complicated tale. But Phillips gamely guides us through it, even utilizing a sense of dry humor at times (such as commenting on the confusing frequency of the name "Alexius" in Byzantine royalty). It's a fascinating story, that is both confusing and all too understandable when properly explained.
Having just finished Riley-Smith's extremely accomplished, but somewhat dry history of the crusades, I cannot say enough about Phillips's readability. He is clearly fascinated by what he's discussing and he makes the reader feel it, frequently going into little sidelines about medieval architecture or artwork or the history of the Byzantine empire's elite Varangian Guard. It's a very fun book that can easily be consumed in just a few sittings.
As far as negatives, I really have none. It's a confusing slice of history, so on one read-through you probably won't understand it all unless you flip back to previous pages multiple times, but that's to be expected. It's certainly no fault of the narrator. An engaging, entertaining work of medieval history. Highly recommended.
Friday, April 2, 2010
This was the first of Card's Ender series that I had not read, so I was approaching it with a great deal of curiosity. Xenocide is considered by many to be the place where the first quartet fell off in terms of quality, and I am forced to side with them. This third book contains more of Card's trademark ethical and philosophical musings, and has some truly brilliant insights in it, but it is also significantly longer than it needs to be, and in places gets downright plodding. Add into it a truly bizarre final hundred pages and readers will be left shaking their heads and wondering what exactly the outline for this book looked like.
So here's how it stands at the start of this book. There are three entities on the planet Lusitania: the humans, the Pequeninos, and the Buggers. They live together, more or less in peace, but they all have also developed an immunity to the terrifying Descolada virus, which means they can never leave the planet for fear of bringing a terrible disease to the rest of the world. Afraid that they will be unable to prevent this plague, the Starways Congress has sent a fleet to destroy Lusitania, but due to the meddling of the extremely powerful A.I. Jane, they have lost contact with it. Now Ender and his adopted family are trying to find a way to solve the problem of the Descolada, even as the Pequeninos and the Buggers decide to pursue the dream of space travel on their own, inadvertently threatening the entire human race. These developments may lead the three races to open war, even as on the far away world of Path, a gifted scientist named Qing-jao seeks the answer to the Fleet's mysterious silence.
This book does a good job of cranking up the tension until the reader feels that there can honestly be no good solution. Due to this extreme ethical dilemma that involves genocide (called Xenocide in Card's books, given its implementation against aliens) and the question of whether or not sentience automatically merits rights, much of the book is filled with long philosophical discussions, many of which center on Card's own carefully constructed scientific and ethical vocabulary. In many ways, this is the book that kind of puts the lie to Card's status as a science fiction writer. He's an incredibly good spec-fic writer, but very little of this book could be considered hard science, especially when he starts getting into his "philotic physics," all of which is admitted up front to be influenced by Hindu philosophy.
Card's fascination with other cultures is even more obvious on the world of Path, which is steeped in Chinese culture. Qing-jao is one of the god-touched, which means that in our parlance, she has mental issues. In this case, extremely strong OCD. This is one of the many areas that Card excels: the ability to show us someone's mind. The first few chapters where we experience Qing-jao's crippling compulsion to wash her hands or trace lines in the wood, all explained in terms of uncleanness and duty to the gods are truly great pieces of writing. Qing-jao herself is never truly sympathetic until near the end where she becomes a very tragic character, and the final chapter, which centers on her, is amazing. It's almost worth reading the whole book just to experience the poignancy and significance of those final few pages.
And that's the good thing about Card. Just as he used Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead to ask questions about war, warriors, and freedom, here he asks questions about destiny, faith, and morality. Those other books were excellent sci-fi reads, with a lot of depth, but here we got the same amount of depth only it's attached to a significantly shakier tale. The ending is especially suspect, being both extremely hard to swallow, and extremely anti-climactic. It's bizarre, unsatisfying, and smacks just a bit of lazy writing. But I will withhold final judgment until I hit the last book of the Ender cycle, Children of the Mind.
So if you've been following the series, your desire to read this one hinges on how much you want to know the rest of the story. You could just as easily stop at Speaker for the Dead and be satisfied.
As I have mentioned before, my attitude toward James Rollins has changed considerably. His early books weren't very good, and I viewed them as cheap attempts to capitalize on Matt Reilly's "Jerry Bruckheimer on speed" approach to thriller writing. However, as Reilly's writing has somehow gotten even more juvenile and nonsensical as time has worn on, Rollins's skills have matured considerably, not just in his ability to write a page-turning mystery, but in his ability to present scientific and historic problems with new depth and respect. His new books are must-buys for me, and I will say that for those of you who like good thrillers, the dude is a guaranteed good time.
His latest, Altar of Eden, is a much more personal book for him, and is also unrelated to his recent, amazing Sigma Force series. It is personal because he has chosen to write it from the point of view of a veterinarian (Mr. Rollins is also a veterinarian) and spends much of the book focusing on animals, which any reader of his books could tell he has a deep love for. This personal connection with the subject manner comes across very clearly, and despite the fact that the book is not as good as recent Sigma efforts, and a fairly goofy climax, it is still an excellent quick read.
Lorna Polk is veterinarian who works at the real-life Audubon ACRES facility in Louisiana. As the story opens she is called out by the US Border Patrol to investigate a wrecked boat that is packed with animals. But these aren't ordinary animals. Every one of them is deformed or mutated and displays an astonishing level of intelligence: a featherless parrot that speaks in mathematical equations, or a pair of conjoined capuchin monkeys. However, before all the animals can be taken off the boat, it is blown up. Now in addition to tracking an escaped animal, Polk finds herself hunted by a deadly team of mercenaries who operate out of a hidden island base where the secrets of creation itself are being uncovered.
As you can tell from that summary, this one is a little far-fetched. It's definitely more in keeping with 2008's The Last Oracle in that regard, but it never feels too unrealistic until the end, where it veers almost completely into science fiction. The action is toned down just a little bit from the Sigma series, and the mystery is definitely played up, although the final explanation for everything was a little confusing. Rollins does occasionally present endings which are just a little too technical or (more possibly), too under-explained to be well understood. Not that I blame him however, because a lot of the science he draws his ideas from is extremely hypothetical if not highly suspect (the entire twist of Black Order hinges on a theory with an extremely flawed understanding of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).
The two main characters of Lorna Polk and Jack Menard are well developed and compelling, but their tortured back-story may roll some eyes. I mean, I'm a huge fan of Mr. Rollins, but I would be the first to admit that all his characters could be from "Soap Opera Characters 101." Alcoholics, soldiers with daddy issues, people who are clearly in love with each other but let past tragedy keep them apart, he's used them all, sometimes more than once. But they are an engaging and resourceful pair of leads who carry the story along quite capably.
So while I personally can't wait for The Devil Colony, due later this year, Alter of Eden is a perfectly entertaining way to pass the time while waiting for Commander Pierce and his team of scientists with guns to return to book shelves.