Monday, November 28, 2011

Movie review: "Breaking Dawn - Part 1"

I've been having a stream of busy days, so I keep being late with my blogs. I watched "Breaking Dawn - Part 1" the weekend before last, but I didn't have the time nor the real will to write it. I mainly watched this movie because my girlfriend was a fan of books and the first movie. Now even she is not sure whether will she watch the last part.

"Breaking Dawn" is an expected sequel of plot started in previous movies. After all problems that have had, Bella and Edward are finally getting married. Their wedding will prove to be a hard thing to swallow for few, especially for Jacob, but it will at last made them happy. But during the dreamlike honeymoon, Bella will end pregnant, which could prove to be a problem nobody expected, especially when the baby start to suck the life of her mother.

There is not much to say about this movie. If you are a fan, you will watch it, but not necessarily like it. If you have it, then you are not even interested in this. For those who went only as a company for somebody and don't have any firm opinion of the serial, you don't have to be afraid - the movie is not bad too much.

Sure, you will understand more if you have watched previous movies because characters don't get much introduction, but you don't have to know past events because the plot is pretty much self-sufficient. If you think a little about it, this part deals with a serious problem (abortion), although I am not sure what would  be the final message. First part of the movie has some sleazy jokes (the wedding) and is somewhat slow (the honeymoon), but later the pace speed up.

Of course, the characters are still over-dramatic and fake, but not obnoxiously so - either they got better or I got used to it. The movie actually makes fun of itself (the graduate hats and this) which can be only applauded.

All in all, "Breaking Down" is not a movie I would recommend anybody to watch (too weak for fans, too bad for the rest), but it is not a total disaster and one can even enjoy the second half of it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book review: "Under Heaven" by Guy Gavriel Kay

I haven't read Guy Gavriel Kay for several years now, since I singed out of library. Before, I used to re-read one of his books every few months, resulting in reading his opus (6 books in library) every couple of years. You can say that he is one of my favorite writers, although I don't count him in Big n (n being 3, 5 or some similar number of favorite writers) for simple reason of him not writing long epic series. He recently (last year) published another of his novels (he published some urban fantasy novel and a collection of poetry, but I don't like urban fantasy and can't read poetry, so I don't count them) and I was somewhat unsatisfied because buying it didn't fit in my schedule. But my local bookstore has a promotional month(s) when you get three books for two, so I decided to treat myself with this.

Although Kay dislikes branding of his books as "historical fantasy", I don't know how else this should be labeled. I allow that it is mostly historical fiction, but there is a touch of fantasy and for me this is a definition of historical fantasy. This is true for this "Under Heaven", too. Actually, "Under Heaven" is a typical Kay book. We have a historical setting and real historic event as theme (An Shi Rebellion, which I didn't know first thing about). We have larger-than-life characters (most of them male, but females are in no way withhold), with unreal levels of honor, cunning and passion that feel real nevertheless. We have a meandering story, with lots of jumps in time and space, short POVs from characters that will never be seen again, changes between POV and narration types. And at last, we have a main character who is a smart and able guy, suddenly finding himself in highest circles (royalty) where he feels inadequate, but actually acts marvelously and then ends removed from important events and future.

In "Under Heaven" this is Shen Tai, second son of famous, now passed away, General Shen Gao. Since their customs obligate sons to mourn their father for two years (except if they are members of army), Shen has chosen something unorthodox (but not forbidden): to spend next two years in isolation, burying the bones of soldiers fallen at Kuala Nor (site of many battles between Kitai and Tagur). Shen's intentions were sincere and innocent, but his actions have now attracted the attention of royalty: one of wives of Taguran Emperor, daughter of Emperor of Kitai, has given him an extravagant gift of 200 Sardian horses (equivalent of Bill Gates giving you 100 million dollars - not big money for him, but you are suddenly in everyone's focus). Now Tai has to find a way of dealing with horses without shaming his family or offending the Emperor or anybody powerful, avoiding machinations of his ambitious brother and enmity of First Minister (whose newest concubine was once Tai's favorite courtesan) - all this in rigid and custom-obsessed society on a brink of rebellion... Of course, this is not all, but if this is not enough to attract you, nothing more will.

As I said, this is a typical book for Kay. We are following one important, but not the most important, character during turbulent times, based on some historical epoch. In this case this is 8th century China: not my favorite history topic, nor one I know much about. Since I don't know much about it, I have to trust that Kay was not making all this up; based on his previous book, I think the setting was truthful as much as possible. The same cannot be said for his characters: they are always too ideal, whether as good or as bad guys. But this make them fun to read about. His storytelling is also specific: a chapter starts with present events, then we a transfer to completely (seemingly) irrelevant time or POV and then this two lines connect. But he does it so good that it feels natural and simple.

About this book particularly: I liked most of the book, but ending was a bit rushed. His books are not usually overly long (relatively), but I think this was a shorter one (560 pages). He does a great beginning: introduction to setting and characters, acceleration of main plot. But then things end too fast. I can't say that ending is unsatisfactory or doesn't feel closed, but I think a hundred more pages of plot development would be a bad thing.

As those who have read his previous books, there are always some fantastic elements present there that don't make much worldwide impact (except in "Tigana"), but make a tremendous personal impact of main characters. It is also present here, and I must say I was surprised how direct it was.

Different people like different Kay's books. My favorite book is "The Lions of Al-Rassan", while I find his most ambitious work to be "The Sarantine Mosaic", and I also adore "Tigana". I less like "A Song for Arbonne" and "The Last Light of the Sun". For some people is the other way around. I found "Under Heaven" better than these last two, but not good as my favorite. Kay's fans will notice that I didn't mention "Fionavar Tapestry": I read only the first one ("The Summer Tree") and I hated it - I really don't connect this book to Kay.

Nonetheless, I would recommend "Under Heaven" to every Kay's fan or anybody who like historical fantasy or is a sucker for romance. Realistic setting, great characters and enjoyable plot make this a very good read!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Anime review: "Usagi Drop"

I finished with "Usagi Drop" last Sunday, but since I was on a business trip for the whole week and didn't have the time to write a review. And now, unfortunately, my impressions are a bit faded, so I will kept this short.

I didn't have any big wish to watch "Usagi Drop" because I didn't find the AniDB description appealing (some guy taking care of some child). But I this was only summer/fall anime with such big grade and it was fairly short (11 episodes), so I decided to fit in between books. I was pleasantly surprised in the end.

It turns out that the description was pretty much correct. Daikichi is around 30, leaving alone and having a moderately good career in some company (still on low position, but with good prospects). One day he receives news that his grandfather has died. When he travels there for the funeral, he finds out that his grandpa had a daughter, who is now 5 years old. Disgusted by his family treatment of the child, Rin, he decides on a quirk to take Rin home and take care of her. Rest of the show shows their slow bonding, adapting to each other and small home problems that any single parent can have.

To make it completely clear, there is no plot for this show. It just displays some slice-of-life activities and similar of Daikichi and Rin: going to nursery school, deciding between a job and a child, meeting other parents, first fever... The show doesn't actually has an ending; there is Daikichi's realization that he is happy for his decision of taking Rin, but there is no real ending. It all points to the conclusion that this is only the first season and that it exist mainly to introduce the setting and characters. Wikipedia and AnidBD articles about "Usagi Drop" confirm that (beware of big spoilers; also, it turns that course of series is quite different of what this anime made me expect).

To make another thing clear, I really like this anime. It has a nice, slow and relaxing pacing and it is very enjoyable to watch. There is some humor in here and almost no drama. If you like anime that show daily life of (relatively) regular people (e.g. "Minami-ke" or "Kimi ni Todoke"), then this is your show. Although not much is happening, show in never dull ; there is just no much action. It focuses more on characters and their relationships and their growing-up; it makes you wonder how would you behave in similar situation. Even though anime focuses much on children, there is no moe; kids are shown quite realistic (for an anime).

Anime is pretty good looking, with unassuming colors and lots of details. I liked the voices of characters, although I can't say anything specific of it. I didn't like the OP and ED; they were too generic and childish.

"Usagi Drop" is not a wide-audience anime, but those who like slice-of-life anime and character development are sure to like it. Do not spurn it just because of unusual theme. Let's just hope that next season (or seasons) will be as good.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Movie review: "Immortals"

This Saturday I went with my girlfriend to the movie to watch "Immortals". We decided this on impulse, so I didn't know anything about the movie, except that it was somehow connected to the Greek mythology. In front of the movies, I notice a movie poster saying something on the line "made by the same people who made 300", which was a turn-off for me, because I didn't like "300". More so, before entering we met two friends, of whom one claimed the movie was terrible, while other said it was OK. So you can expect that I wasn't very thrilled for the prospect of watching it.

"Immortals" is very, very loosely based of few Greek myths. We have King Hyperion (marvelously played by Mickey Rourke), a crazy and violent ruler, who decided to take revenge on god because they didn't answer his prayers. His revenge consists of finding the Epirus bow and using it to free the Titans, who will then presumably kill the God. Since he is not on best terms with humanity also, he gathered an army, turned them to blood-crazy torturers and went postal all over Greece. We then have Theseus, who is a simple villager trained by Zeus (my friend who didn't like the movie argued that Theseus is son of Zeus, but there was no implicit claim on that; one of his co-villager said that his mother was raped by some villager and that Theseus is a product of that rape). After attack on his village by Hyperion and his sentence to salt-mines, he will there met a Prophetess Phaedra, who will mark him as Greece's only hope for salvation. With a band of fellow prisoners, he will start a journey to stop Hyperion and his mad plan...

Some spoilers ahead...

Though, it is not a spoiler to say that Theseus will win. Let's face it: "Immortals" is just this kind of movie when that main character is a good guy and he has to win. If you accept this fact and see this movie just as an action hit with cool 3D effects, you can have a good time watching it. Plot is not overly predictable, actor are not too bad (except Rourke, there is no more stars) and action is good. Just be prepared to large amount of blood, gore and violence.

But, have they changed one small detail in movie, things could have been much different. If Hyperion and Titans won (and I don't buy that vision at the end), I would say this is the best movie I watched in last five years! I mean, for the whole movie Hyperion is on the go, killing and raping everybody, having the largest army ever: he looks unstoppable. And then we have this one guy, good with sword, but just one guy. Care to guess who will win? Theseus was down, with knife-hole in his stomach and severely beaten by Hyperion. If in that moment Hyperion stick his knife in him and calmly walked away, I would have stand on my feed and give it a clap. Creators of this movie had a perfect chance to make a biggest surprise since "The Sixth Sense".

As it is, "Immortals" is a decent enough action blockbuster with 3D effects. Lower your expectation and have a good time with it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Comment: "Game of Thrones" TV show

I started watching "Game of Thrones" recently, so I just wanted to make a short comment about it. I plan to do a review once I finish it.

As you may know it, "Game of Thrones" is a TV series based on the first book in "A Songs of Ice and Fire" series by George R. R. Martin, "A Game of Thrones". I have watched first three episodes at the beginning of this week, but I then had a business trip and will have another one next week, so this show will be going to hiatus. And as far as I watched it, it is great!!

It follows the book very accurately, which is a great plus since this is a great book. I have recently watched again "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and was disappointed how different movie was from books. Of course, not everything could be followed exactly and in enough details, but for now, spirit of the book was truthfully transferred.

My only objection, and a minor one, was how character of Jon Snow was depicted. If I didn't know better, I would think that he was slightly arrested in development. But I believe this will be rectified in next episodes.

As for now, I would recommend "Game of Thrones" to any fan of ASoIaF.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Book review: "The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach" by Steven Erikson

I have recently bought a collection of short novels by Steven Erikson, set in Malazan World and featuring Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, two minor comedic characters from "Memories of Ice", and their even funnier manservant Emancipor Reese (aka Mancy the Luckless). Truth to be said, I expected them to be a bit lengthier; it is less than 400 pages long.

Stories from "The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach" are not intended for everybody - it is clear that Erikson wrote them for fans of his books. He usually isn't one to give clear explanations and introductions to his settings, but this is even more pronounced here and it is especially true for first story. I presume that second two could be read by anybody, but a good portion of jokes and references would be lost on those who never read main Malazan books. This collection is intended for fans who can understand the humor of accidental vomiting in a bowl of worms and excusing it as an offering for Drek.

First story, "Blood Follows", is what I expected of it. It describes Emancipor's first encounter with Bauchelain and Korbal Broach (I don't know why, but he is always referred as Korbal Broach, never only Korbal or Broach) and it takes place in town of Lamentable Moll. He has just lost another employer (another on a long list of dead ex-employers, thus Mancy the Luckless) and after getting drunk in his honor, he goes to apply to mysterious job-offer. At the same time, Lamentable Moll is in panic because of line of gruesome murders where victims lost a part of their bodies. Sergeant Guld, a famous investigator, is feeling he has come to edge in his search for perpetrator...

Second one, "The Lees of Laughter's End", is similar in its dark tones to the first one, but very different in realization. It takes place exclusively on a ship: we have Bauchelain and Korbal Broach with Emancipor; young seer that talks with her dead mother; Captain that know nothing about shipping and relies completely on her First Mate; three ex-soldiers with one brain between them; stolen statues of unknown origin and power; ship's crew scared out of their skins. If this is not enough, ship is currently traveling over Red Road, where every kind of potential can get realized...

The last one, "The Healthy Dead", is typical for Erikson, and deals with the topic of rulers with good intentions. City of Quaint was a normal city few years ago: corrupt rulers, unhappy citizens, poor peasants. A normal kind of city. But the latest king has decided to makes his citizens more healthy, for their own good, regardless of their willingness. Bauchelain and Korbal Broach end up hired by the locals to put things back in order, but they will do it in their own, unexpected way...

One thing I like about Erikson is that he doesn't take sides. There are many examples of this when a character (or group of them) that has been depicted as evil, turns out to be a just a human, neither good nor evil. Good and evil are very relative terms in Erikson's books. But he did a truly marvelous thing here: he took two characters that would be deemed as evil from any other writer and wrote a book with them as main characters, without taking sides. Bauchelain and Korbal Broach here do some really evil things. I mean really evil: the missing ear scene is quite morbid, but the scene with Bloodwine is especially noteworthy; people get killed and mutilated in unexpected amounts. But not in one instance does he take opinions and try to judge. He does make fun scenes, but in every one we can find the suffering of victims. If his intention was to shock us and make us think about good and evil in people, he succeeded completely.

On the side of humor, he did his regular job, which means great. You will find here a regular collection of his extreme characters. As I said, you should me familiar with this setting to appreciate all the jokes. Action takes place somewhere on the continent of Korel, which is part of the world not much explored by Erikson. Only three main characters here are known from before, but you will find other ones familiar too, in style if not in substance.

His writing is typical: lots of dialogue, but also lots of monologue. I have been recently reading Raymond E. Feist's books, and it is marvelous how different these two are in their style. For Erikson is normal to read four or more pages where no one said anything and nothing happened but some characters discussing some metaphysical subject; with Feist, you will be surprised to find one such paragraph.

If I haven't been clear enough about it, this book is even more violent and bloody than Erikson usual, just that you know.

"The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach" is a great collection, but intended primary for fans; as such, I would advise it to any fan of Steven Erikson. Great fun to read, but also a thought-provoker.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Comment: "The Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy

For the last several weeks I re-watched "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy with my girlfriend. We have been both busy, so we couldn't connect enough time to watch whole episode in one sitting (and these movies ARE long), so the whole thing dragged for some time. Because of this I won't make a usual review, but will just write some comments.

First, I really like LOTR. I have read those books over dozen times: while I was a member of library, I used to read them one a year at least. I read and liked "The Hobbit", "The Silmarillion", etc. I also watched the movies at least four times completely and lots of times in fragments (when they were played on TV). My firm opinion is that a person cannot be a serious epic-fantasy fan without liking Tolkien. Sure, there are better books, longer, more complex, more realistic, etc. Sure, Tolkien had flaws, like with female characters or black-and-white morality. Nevertheless, "The Lord of the Rings" is still one of best things epic fantasy can offer: rich and complex setting, numerous and detailed characters, excellent writing, and what is most important, feel of epic that can be used to describe and define this whole genre.

After all this said, I have to admit that I didn't like the movies this time. I don't know is that because of my growing up (last time I read these books I was in second or third year of colleague, some 5-6 years ago; now I have a job and steady relationship, although reading is still one of my priorities) or because all those excellent books I read in the meantime. Except LOTR, library had first four volumes of ASoIaF, "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" trilogy and first two R. Scott Bakker's volumes to show from epic fantasy genre (there were tons of low-fantasy books, like different Forgotten Realms series) and since then I have read a lot of best-selling epic fantasy series (WoT, Feist, Eddings, Erikson...). Nevertheless, I still have fond memories of LOTR and I don't think I would find the books less valuable now. But this time I couldn't enjoy in good sides of the movies; instead I was constantly nagged by flaws.

I know that they couldn't fit the whole book in this short time and that some compromises had to be made. It is normal to dismiss details of settings and less important characters and I think that right choices were done in this department. What I seriously dislike are the simplifications and alterations that were made to draw a wider audience (what they call a Hollywoodization).

First movie is very decently done and I don't think I have anything to complain here. There is one of my favorite scenes ("You shall not pass!"), which was done superbly. They dropped many things from introductory parts (run from Shire, Tom Bombadil), but that understandable and it's more important the movie kept the feeling of the book (except the wizard fight). Second movie is more questionable. I really liked how they captured the anger of the Ents, but lots of things get mauled. They concentrated on the battle of Helm's Deep, which is far from the central point of book; also, fight was overly-dramatized. Saruman is second big complaint: he is shown as evil characters, corrupted and weak; while he is all this, he is far more complex. Third movie was the worst. There were too many changes and I didn't like any scene with Aragorn. They made the same mistake with Denethor as with Saruman. The siege of Minas Tirith looks to easy... List of complaints is long.

I was always proud to talk with non-reader about LOTR books, how complex and good they are. With movies, this wasn't the case; I often felt obligated to defend the books because of someone's bad opinion of movies. I will be watching "Game of Thrones" soon, so I did they do an excellent job with it, or just decent.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book review: "A Darkness at Sethanon" by Raymond E. Feist

With this book I finished my little re-read of Feist's books I have home. I actually have "Krondor: The Betrayal" also, but I have issues with this internal mini-series. Raymond E. Feist started to write this five-book cycle featuring Jimmy the Hand's rise and I remember that I really liked it. He finished three books and then got in some quarrel with publisher of video-game based on these books and never finished it. Anyway, I plan to get some more books before re-reading this one. Things also get a bit confusing about the order books should be read. "Krondor: The Betrayal" is happening shortly after "Riftwar Saga", but it was actually written much later; next book published after "Riftwar Saga" was "Prince of the Blood", which is something of a stand-alone novel. If you now include in this "The Empire Trilogy", which was actually written by Janny Wurts and is taking place on Kellewan in this same time, you get a pretty good mess. I resolved it by skipping "The Empire Trilogy" and reading "The Riftwar Legacy" (Krondor books) before "Prince of the Blood".

I tangled myself in description of reading order while I should be talking about the book... As in last post, there are some minor spoilers for previous books.

Events in "A Darkness at Sethanon" start off a year after those in its prequel, "Silverthorn". There were no new attacks by Murmandus or the Enemy for the past year, but now things are stirring up again. Nighthawks are again active in Krondor, so after some trouble with them, Prince Arutha and his old retinue is again joined by Martin and Baru and they start their travel to the North, looking for final confrontation with Murmandus. There they will find friends and enemies they never expected to see again. In the same time, Pug has finished his education with allies found at the end of previous book and is joined with Tomas, his oldest friend. Two of them will start a journey with ultimate goal of finding the one person who understands all this mess: Macros the Black.

This sounds like very simple plot; and believe me, it is. As before, plot is simple, straightforward and fast. This doesn't mean it's dull; Feist provides us with enough surprises and twists that it stays interesting. Also, considering pace with which events happen, reader doesn't have the time to stop and think much how plot is "easy".

Biggest complain can be directed to characters. While interesting and funny, they are just too shallow and already-seen. At times, I was feeling like I was reading some cheap love-novel, especially when Martin meets his love-interest (love at first sight, duty before love and all other clich├ęs...). But as with plot, speed can cover a lot of mistakes. Also, this is where he really starts with recycling of characters.

On the other hand, world-building (or better said setting-expansion) works great. Feist is able to twist elements he introduced in "Magician" completely around and still sound plausible. This will happen continuously with his books, but he still has one of largest and interesting settings, which he can always return to and work the details.

The book ending was a bit too much "happy-end", but this is nothing that it shouldn't be expected. This book is quite larger than "Silverthorn", but it doesn't feel so; it is very easy to read.

All in all, "A Darkness at Sethanon" is a solid continuation in same tone as his previous book. Not a great achievement in fantasy genre, but a simple book with likable characters that is a great fun to read. Who was able to enjoy "Silverthorn" is certain to have fun with this one.