Friday, July 29, 2011

Anime review: "Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood"

It turned out this was one more of my false predictions, but I am very satisfied with it, because this version of "Fullmetal Alchemist" is one of the best anime I have stumbled on so . Definitely among first ten, at least!

Original FMA was one of the first anime I watched. It was impossible to avoid it at that time. Wherever I looked for recommendations, it was somewhere at the top. Also, comments were full of people discussing whether it was the best or only good. So I of course had to watch it. I quite liked it but I was one the side of those who deemed it only very good. It had some nice premise, good characters and was quite fun, but at that time I was watching only the greatest hits of that time ("Ghost in the Shell", "Berserk", "Cowboy Bebop", "Elfen Lied", "Claymore"...), it some somehow drowned in the mass of other good or great anime. I watched it, marked it as fine and moved on to another stuff completely releasing it out of my mind.

So, when couple of years ago they started releasing FMA:B, which was some alternate version of the same anime (or better said, different adaptation of the same manga) I wasn't exactly thrilled. My thoughts were somewhere on this track: "Oh no, another attempt to suck money with unoriginal idea. They probably just remastered old episodes, added some fillers and now are trying to sell it to new kids who were too young to watch the original". You know, the arrogant mindset of self-proclaimed connoisseur. Normally, I immediately decided not to watch it, since there are better, original anime for me to "waste" my time on.

But then I saw it won a really big bunch of awards. Also, I noticed it has a quite good rating on AniDB. Information that finally tipped me over was when I read somewhere that what I though was original FMA, was actually made much before original manga ended, so they had to make up the ending. On the other hand, FMA:B was supposed to be much closer to manga, which is always a plus in my book.

After I started watching it I was a bit disappointed because first few episodes are identical in regard to plot. Sure, animation is a bit modern and prettier, and characters looked a bit more serious and deeper, but these are not reasons good enough for me to re-watch 64 episodes. Then, were surfaced few details that confused me and made me unsure of my memory. Then, they introduced a few characters that I was pretty sure weren't present in FMA. And then, they went in completely different direction... Of course, by that time I was already hooked up and JUST COULDN'T STOP WATCHING... I think I watched some 30 episodes in two days; the rest I was forced to schedule more evenly on several more days.

"Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood" features a very nicely setting. It is mostly based on first years of 20th century, somewhere around or after the First World War: guns are predominant, but soldiers still carry and use swords; there are many horses, but there are also cars. There are two distinguishing differences. The important one is the use of alchemy. It is in results similar to magic, but it is also based on science, it has many restrictions and it is not so widespread. The rules are not very strictly said and one could find inconsistencies if one would like, but it is nevertheless imagined so good that you don't feel the need to dismantle it; a perfectly guessed balance. The other thing is the use of automails, artificial metal prosthetic limbs, based on steampunk or something like that. Even though the anime could work perfectly without it, and I believe a reason for introducing it were either author personal preferences or desire to comply to bigger audience, it is also very nicely imagined and fits in plot and characters quite tightly. Setting is concentrated in land of Amestris, remotely based on that time Germany: led by Fuhrer President, militaristic and expansionistic.

The story is centered on two young alchemist, brothers Edward and Alphonse (15 and 13 years old, or something like that). After death of their mother from illness, being already abandoned by their father (who is at the beginning shown only as alchemist) they perform one of the greatest taboos of alchemy (also one of the hardest feats) and try to resurrect their mother. For that, they fail and meet the Truth; they are also punished, Edward with taking of his right arm, and Alphonse by taking of his whole body. Edward manages to bring back his brothers soul and affix to an empty armor suit, but they both suffer tremendously. When army learns about their exploits, it offers Edward to become a State Alchemist. Different to regular ones, they immediately receive a rank in army equal to colonel (I think), and more importantly, they have access to funds and extensive data for research; drawback is that they can be called to duty and forced to become human weapons during the war. Because of this they are called "dogs of military".

We join the Elric brothers during they search for Philosopher stone, a mythical substance that supposedly can help alchemist to ignore the laws of alchemy (like that one against raising of the dead or one that states they you can get something only for equal amount of matter/energy). It is only expected that not everybody would use this only for good purposes. And of course, it is an old maxim that power spoils the people... Through their adventure we are introduced to the army, which plays a bit part in politics of Amestris, to other alchemist, to the big enemy and so on. Plot is not a typical one-level, straightforward shounen story. The main story-line is from Edward's and Alphone's POV, but we have a large portions told from members of the army (Roy Mustang, Armstrong siblings, King Bradley...) and even from the "evil" side. There is of course lots of action and fighting, but this is not primary an action anime. I think that equal or even more importance was given to mystery, strategy and politics. I think that FMA had much more focus on action that it is the case for FMA:B. As I said, alchemy plays a great role, but more so on highest level, as plot device (ultimate ritual, sacrifice, etc.) that in everyday happenings. I think that there are lots of episode where alchemy doesn't even happen, or has no influence. It can be definitely said that I liked the plot: it was complex, consistent and quite surprising. This last statement is especially true if you watched FMA before; FMA:B takes you to a completely different direction and does it so in such a great way.

Third thing why this series is so good (other being the setting and plot) are the characters. There is quite large cast, but you won't have any troubles remembering who is who (although I must admit that I didn't even tried to remember the army ranking). Every character has depth and is very believable. I must especially emphasize the fact that even though the Elric brothers are main characters, not everything revolves around them. Other characters interact with them, but they also have their own agendas and don't wait for them at all. Also, not every other character's action is caused by them. For example, Roy Mustang (who is let's say in charge of Elric Brothers) actually interact with them only minimally in the run of show; he has its own plans and even though is willing to use them when they are available, you get the feeling that he would do thing even without them. All characters grow during the running of the show, which is always great. Especial compliments should go to the bad guys. They are pictured as regular flat bad-guys early at the beginning, but we spend much time with them and realize there is much more to them than only bluster and "evil". The destiny of Envy (one of most important bad guys) was one of the most emotional parts of whole series. They are also quite well and originally designed.

I could continue with complimenting it much longer, but I've been trying to give everything an objective review, so I should always mention flaws. Thankfully, there are no major ones, only a few minor. In my opinion, second part of the anime is a bit rushed. I haven't read manga so I don't know how closely did anime follow it (I read somewhere that it is very close), but I believe that additional 10 episodes would even more increase its quality. This is indirect praise, because it is not often that some anime can keep the same level of intrigue and interest for 64 episodes! Also, although I noticed it only later, in some episodes that ending song didn't mean that episode was finished so I missed some material (not much, but sometimes important). I also noticed that the author made all his female characters pretty and well endowed. It is not a real objection, just a remark that even with such a good anime the author or production staff felt they need additional (cheap) tricks to win audience.

Since I recently watched last episode of Harry Potter, I noticed several similar between these two. They are both pieces intended primary for younger audience, but enjoyable by adults with no problems. Harry Potter has magic, Fullmetal Alchemist has alchemy. Both have a large cast, and so on. Privately, I think that FMA:B is better that HP and I hope it will be at least as successful in anime as HP was in movies and books.

Well, to finish this review, I can only say that you should watch this great anime. Sure, there will be those who won't like it. There was an interesting poll on AniDB page for "Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood" with question "Best anime ever?". Although I don't believe that everybody would say yes (neither would I), but I think that majority of people would answer "No, but should be in top ten!". So watch it!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Movie review: "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows", Part Two

This weekend I went to watch the last episode of one of most popular franchise, "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2". I intentionally didn't want to go to premiere because I planned to avoid the rushes. Also, this was my first 3D projection. I didn't have any special desires for it, but all projections were in 3D so I didn't have the choice. After watching the movie, my opinion that 3D is not anything to make fuss about was confirmed. Although it did give few scenes a special spark, it wasn't especially impressive. I presume that in some CG heavy movie (e.g. the new "Transformers") its advantages would come more forward, but for this kind of movie it's completely unnecessary.

Not, let's get back to the movie. As with every ending, it is hard to give a decent review: those who liked it just need a confirmation that the movie is good as they hoped or not, and the others need to start with previous movies. With movies based on books it is even harder; most fans have already read the book so they know what to expect. And with this movie it is double-hard because the book was split to two movies... So I will avoid discussing about the plot, except in most general way. Anyway, it is obvious that movie is intended for those who watched previous episodes and know what is going on, since it offers no introduction or recap. I must say that I don't remember either book or previous episode so well, but even that didn't spoil my enjoyment.

Well, as expected, plot continues the events from previous movie. After destroying some of the horcruxes, Harry, Hermione and Ron still have a few to go. Contrary to the last movie, which was more oriented about displaying the doubts and fears main characters have, here we have a big turn. The decisions have been brought, time for doubts is over and friends are reunited. The last confrontation is looming and it is appropriate that it happens in the place where everything began: Hogwarts. Because of this, movie is mostly action-oriented. Sure, there is magic, info-dumps, some mystery. But all characters are already introduced, there is no need for more worldbuilding; all that is left is to get things done; this doesn't make it some magic-themed "Die Hard" movie, though.

Pacing is fast and good and there are few especially epic scenes (the big, glowing shield and whole last battle, for example). It is nice to see the fame shared with some other characters, instead focusing everything on the main trio. There is not much to say about the acting and characters; they are the same as in previous seven movies. Only objection was that some characters were only superficially touched, but that is just a restriction of the media: it is hard to fit such a big book in relatively short movie properly and with great number of details that wouldn't confuse the audience.

In the end, I can say just that I really liked last part of "Harry Potter". I mean, it is not a masterpiece of movie arts, but audience should know what to expect. It IS "Harry Potter" and it is very superbly done: tension, action and great conclusion. A great movie for both fans and general audience.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Book review: "Riddle-Master" Patricia A. McKillip

I am not really sure how my attention was drawn to "The Riddle-Master of Hed" trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip, but I was under impression of this book being something of a fundamental of fantasy literature, kind of "Lord of the Rings". I actually felt a little embarrassed for not reading it; I consider myself a well-versed in fantasy, and here I was, not even aware of such a classical piece. Media can sometimes be such a seducer, true?

I bought an omnibus edition, called simply "Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy". It contains all three books: "The Riddle-Master of Hed", "The Heir of Sea and Fire" and "Harpist in the Wind". The books start with Morgon, a young ruler of smallest kingdom of the land, island of Hed, full of farmers and famous for its beer. Morgon became a land-heir (ruler of kingdom with special connection to the land) very recently, after the death of his parents a year ago. Before that Morgon was (which is very uncommon for people of Hed) a student of college in Caithnard, greatest place of art of riddling. After they (they being Morgon, and his sister Tristan and brother Eliard) are visited by Deth, a harpist for High One (something of reclusive over-ruler), they learn that Moron won a hand of Raedlerle of An, daughter of a King of a powerful kingdom of An. Morgon decides to take his previously unknown prize, since he met Raedlerle before, while attending college. But while on way there, accompanied by Deth, he gets attacked by mysterious shapechangers and loses his memory. After regaining it, he starts a journey toward High One's mountain planning to ask him about the shapechangers, who are starting to become a real threat. On way there, he meets the others land-rulers and learns about secret behind the stars on his forehead.

Second book brings a radical change in perspective, since it is told from point of Readlerle, a character that was only briefly mentioned in previous book. We follow her as she searches for explanation about Morgons disappearance (first book ends in a cliffhanger, so we don't know anything about Morgon and his fate) and later for Morgon himself, as rumors about him start to fill the land. As searching brings to more distant places, she also starts to find new things about herself, especially her own strange power, which frightens her.

In third book we are back to Morgon's POV. We follow him and Raedlerle as they are first running from, and later fighting, their enemies, who include shapechangers, but other, too. Also, they discover that some of their dead enemies and allies are not as dead as they believed. But the biggest discovery will be about High One...

To me, the books sucked. They were written in the seventies and the author in the introduction clearly states how she was impressed by "The Lord of Rings" so much that it directed to toward writing fantasy. This is clearly in her writing because she really managed to emulate the sense of LotR and still be completely different from it. When I say sense of LotR, I mean about that atmosphere to nobility, a thing that I tend to associate to either older or poorer works. Let's take ASoIaF for example: it is certainly epic, and it contains occasional great nobility, but its prominent characteristic is grittiness; its characters are in no way chivalrous. You won't see that in LotR; people there are either heroes (large or small), noble, courteous and strong, or villains, foul-mouthed and cowardly. For more examples, WoT tends toward that, while MBotF completely inverts it; "Sword of Truth" by Goodking tends to that, but the books are terrible. I am not saying it is bad or it is good; it's just one style and it is just part of book. Anyway, McKillip succeeds in copying this style of LotR, but unfortunately fails in making books as interesting or intense.

There are several things that bothered me. First, I was irritated by characters, Morgon, Readlerle, Lysa... Always taking a easier route would quickly lead to the Dark Side, but I would nice to be that they sometimes do the smart thing instead the perfectly noble thing and clinging to impossible ideals. I mean, it's nice when someone sticks with his believes, but sometimes it is just obvious they will have to make some compromises (except when they are shounen-heroes) so why not do the smart thing and adapt quickly instead of dragging to whole book. E.g. Rand from WoT at first doesn't like One Power, but it obvious that he will be forced to use it. So even though he struggles against it and is reluctant about it, in the end he does accept it as a part of himself and learns to live with it. Secondly, they don't do much in this book; I think that good two thirds of these books consist of traveling. Things do get interesting when they actually start to do something (for example, defense of Lungold), but they are soon interrupted by another trip. Thirdly, I couldn't completely understand McKillip's writing. I don't know if that is because English is not my first language (although I read it more than Croatian, by the way) or she just has such way of writing, but I was often find myself confused by the events. Things do get explained later, but even after reading whole omnibus, I can't say I completely understand what happened. This also happened often with Erikson, but somehow I believe that with him this is intentional; here I believe reason is the lack of skill. This doesn't mean that McKillip is poor writer; even though I am a poor judge for this, I found her writing very beautiful. Also, for a book called "Riddle-Master", full of riddling and people who pride themselves on it, it would be nice to hear at least one riddle...

When I learned that "Harpist in the Wind" won a Hugo award, my opinion of it was something like of a Picasso's painting: experts and people with taste are able to appreciate it and discuss it strengths and details, but most of people would have to take their word for it being a masterpiece. So, "Riddle-Master" can be beautifully written, it can have strong metaphors or pictures, but I don't believe it will be so appreciated by general audience (by this I mean fantasy-literature audience). The fact that is not really omnipresent on web at least partially affirms my opinion. On audience that I think could appreciate this book would be the kids; I would have liked this book when I was 10, when I adored "The Hobbit".

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Movie review: "X-Men: First Class"

Well, this was a hell of a week for me. I was working from dawn till evening, so I wasn't really in the mood for writing after coming home. This movie I will be reviewing, "X-Men: First Class", I watched it two weeks ago... I like X-Men franchise, although I was never a fan. I just think that setting is great. I liked all four movies before this one; I don't consider them some great masterpieces, but they were fun to watch. My opinion of the latest movie is the same.

Although it was made latest, this is a prequel. Events in it happen half a century before the events in previous movies, in sixties (although there is a short introduction happening during World War II). It deals with history of Magneto and Professor-X, two very important characters for the whole franchise. In some ways, the two of them are the founders of whole X-Men thing. Some part of this history was shown in chronological sequels (the fence scene and concentration camp), but this movie develops and explains what happened afterwards. It describes the origins of prof. Xavier and how he met Eric Lensherr and then later separated with him. Around their relationship we see the world, first organized mutants, afterward of WWII, Cuban Missile Crisis and so on. The plot itself is not something convoluted or sophisticated; it is a simple hero-movie plot. But it is very deftly done, especially the fact it is combined with real history.

The same can be said of characters: they are not deep and real-like, but they are all fun to watch. There are no big stars; most of the cast is in their twenties, but they did their job quite well. I usually don't notice how people are dressed in movies, but I really liked their clothing here. I must say that James McAvoy, who plays prof. Xavier, even remotely doesn't remind me to Patrick Stewart (older version of professor). Also, there is a very funny scene with Rade Šerbeđija, my fellow countrymen.

In short, "X-Men: First Class" is by plot and characters a typical super-hero movie that doesn't require much concentration, but it gives you much pleasure. Every part of the movie was done well and there wasn't a boring minute in it. Just don't raise your expectations too high.

Movie review: "Prowl"

I watched prowl two weeks ago at my friend's house. He and few others are watching movies every day, so they are starting to run out of the films to watch. I don't know who picked "Prowl", but he did a very poor choice.

"Prowl" is a very bad survival-horror with one bright spark. Groups of teens (no stars) are traveling to some city where one of them is moving to. After they car brakes, they hitch-hike a truck and continue the journey in its trailer (what a great idea!).  The trucker then drives them to some abandoned pigs-slaughterhouse where they are attacked by group of something (these something look very ugly and stupid...) so they do the usual idiotic things (like getting separated and so on).

The bright spark I mentioned is the ending that actually succeeds in giving sense to this senseless movie. I must say I was very surprised (positively) by last few minutes of this film. But this still doesn't pay off the time and brain cells you will lose on previous 75 minutes. Feel free to skip this one.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Movie review: "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer"

It passed some 10 day since I watched this movie, so it's starting to get smudged in my memory. I planned to watch this movie for some time, although the reason is a bit unclear even to me. Few years ago I read a great book, "Jitterbug Perfume" by Tom Robbins. The book is fantasy-comedy-philosophy-etc mix that is very enjoyable and I would recommend it to all, especially those with great imagination. Anyway, I thought (or better to say, I hoped) that this movie has something to do with the book. It doesn't, but the movie is nevertheless worth a watch.

"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is a story about life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (played by to me unknown Ben Whishaw). At the beginning of the movie we are shown the preparations for his execution, with ragged masses of 18th century Paris screaming for his blood. Then we are flashbacked trough his life. He was born in unenviable circumstances. He lived first in orphanage and then was sold as worker in tannery. His prominent feature is his extraordinary and superior sense of smell. On the other hand, he lacks any moral or emphatic constraint and posses only basic animal instincts of survival. And his only wish if to explore new scents, whether considered good or bad. We will follow his life in this exploration and later in his search for mythical ultimate perfume (which include murder, as you can guess from the title).

First, this is very "realistic" movie. By this I mean it shows the dirty and ugly part of human life. And this life was quite ugly in 18th century. Rats, dirt, not washing, working in practical slavery, and so on. Secondly, this is very violent movie. Grenouille is not picky with means of attaining elements for his perfumes. And it looks like he carries a bad luck for anybody who associates with him. Thirdly, this is a very strange movie. Contrary to all this violence, sex and dirtiness, it is very peaceful and pastoral movie. Grenouille doesn't talk much and most of the explanations during the movie are given by narrator (voice of John Hurt). Fourthly: it is very funny movie. Grim and bizarre humor, but funny nevertheless.

We also have few stars in the movie. I recognized Alan Rickman, and now on IMDB, I found that Dustin Hoffman also has important role, although I didn't notice him. The acting is, of course, great.

"Perfume" looks to me like one of those movies you either love or hate. And I somehow think that for most people it will be the hate choice. But for those who like bizarre, history and are patient, I think this is a great movie.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book review: "Shadowrise" by Tad Williams

Interesting, I just noticed that on front cover, then name of the author if larger that the name of the book. This is also true for first two parts. If I was an ignorant buyer (ignorant about Tad Williams and this books, not in general way), I don't think I would buy it. It gives an impression that the publisher is trying to sell the book based more on author's previous fame than on the quality of the book itself. Fortunately, this is not completely true.

I finished reading this book last weekend, but I was quite busy after the vacation, so I didn't have the time to really devote myself to writing its review. Now is Saturday, so I finally can.

This is Tad Williams' third major work. First was "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" tetralogy (initially planned as trilogy, similarly to "Shadowmarch" series) and I read it. It is a very good epic fantasy series. I wouldn't say it is a masterpiece, but I would recommend it to every fantasy fan because it doesn't have any big flaws, it has an interesting setting and it's a very fun read. Second one is "Otherland" series, something of a cyberpunk or science fiction which I haven't read, although it has good reviews. I actually planed to read it last year, but other things got priority priority, so it lost its place in schedule. Other than that Williams wrote several standalone novels, of which I read only "The War of the Flowers", a very unique fantasy with setting I would compare to China Miévile's "Perdido Street Station", although not so good; but good nevertheless.

"Shadowmarch" series, which started with novel with the same name, was return to classic fantasy a la "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn". But it was even more than that. I don't know how much it was on purpose, but if someone else wrote this book, Tad Williams would be able to sue him for plagiary with no problems. We have very similar setting: pseudo-Medieval kingdoms with sever hundred years of more or less unchanging history and technological level, one Church and so on. We have elves that were once on better terms with humans, but now they have retreated behind a barrier. We even have small gnomish people that occasionally interact with humans. Characters are also very similar. Main character in both series is teen boy with red hair living on court. Then there is a friendly court-doctor who privately deals with more mystic forces. Even the plot starts in the same way: unrest and succession after disappearance of king.

But after the same start, "Shadowmarch" starts to diverge. It introduces new elements of setting, new characters; plots takes different turns... When you get to the second book, "Shadowplay", it is a curious combination of known and unknown. All in all, this series is somewhat tough to recommend. There is many better fantasy series out there, with more originality, more tension, better characters and so on. But on the other hand, it is in no way bad, just mediocre. So, if you read haven't read "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" I would advise you to start there. If you already had and liked it, you can give "Shadowmarch" a chance when you don't have anything better to read. If you didn't like MSaT, don't even try this.

And if you read first two books, "Shadowmarch" and "Shadowplay", I think you will like "Shadowrise" because it was best so far. I am only sorry that I didn't do a reread before reading it. I remembered all the characters in general way, but I forgot some specifics of their circumstances, since I read "Shadowplay" only once.

We have several POVs. Princ Barrick is on a quest in fairyland, although he is not even sure why or what he has to do. He is almost alone (except a raven Skurn), with no weapons or equipment, and he is definitely lost there. All he knows is that he has to bring a mirror elven general Yasammez gave him to elven King, to have a hope of saving humanity. He will not have a nice trip, but at least he will learn more about the reasons fairies attacked his kingdom. He will also find some sources of power that he never dreamed of attaining. His sister, Princess Briony has finally finished her journey and is now safe in the court of neighboring and friendly kingdom of Syan. At least this is what she believes at first; she will learn that she is not so save after all, and that Princess can't afford to have any friend. But she will also find strength to stop being just a victim and to try to do something for her kingdom. Captain Vansen, after sudden parting with Princ Barrick is now in Funderling Town under Shadowmarch castle. Together with Chert Blue-Quartz, doctor Chaven and other Funderlings he will try to defend the Funderling Town and Shadowmarch from underground invasion of Quars. He will also find a chance for at least temporary truce, only if he succeeds meeting with Quar General. Above them, in Shadowmarch castle, poet Matt Tinwright is have much smaller aspirations: he is trying to survive between serving regent Hendon Tolly, taking care of his missing mistress Elan and spying for former minister Avin Brone.  On the other side of the world, but slowly traveling to Shadowmarch, we will follow Pinimmon Vash, a Prime-Minister to Autarch Sulepis of Xis. Although having almost infinite power, he is like a fly to his Emperor, a living god. Even more, Pinimmon, minister to several Autarch before, will learn that the current one in nothing like his predecessors. He will also learn that he can't understand King Olin, who travels as prisoner toward his kingdom, where he will be used as mean for some unknown purpose. Somewhere behind them is young Qinnitan, abducted by mysterious Vo, who is bringing her to Autarch. But Qinnitan will do everything to escape for this fate.

In this book don't expect any sudden changes in style, setting or atmosphere compared to previous books. But expect a nice reading in familiar circumstances. There are not any boring parts. Plot develops naturally, and even though is sometimes predictable, it still introduces enough surprises to be interesting. We have everything: an important journey, court politics, religion and magic mix, history, occasional comical scenes... Characters behave in believable ways and still develop. Most interesting part to me was gradual revelations of this world's history and mythology, especially how it was seen from different races.

In the end, best thing to say about "Shadowrise" that is was very fun to read. I recommend it to all who read first two parts and liked it; they won't be disappointed.