Tuesday, January 24, 2012

TV show review: "The Pillars of the Earth"

I started watching this series with my girlfriend sometime in December, after we finished watching "Game of Thrones". I heard few people talking about it (it was also going on TV around that time) and then remembered reading about the book somewhere, so I thought it will be a good watch.

"The Pillars of the Earth" is an 8-episode historical TV-show with a story set in 12th century England. As it covers a period of couple of decades there is a lot of going around. On highest scale we follow the war between cousins, after King Stephen takes the throne from rightful Queen Maude. But the focus is put on a town of Kingsbridge and its residents: Prior Phillip, an ambitious but extremely pious and moral man; Tom Builder, a master builder whose dream is to build a cathedral; his son Alfred and talented foster-son Jack. Their plans to build a cathedral in Kingsbridge will be a thorn in the eye for corrupted Bishop Waleran and wicked family Hamleigh, which stole the neighboring Shiring Castle from its rightful owners, young Aliena and Richard. In the background of all this events is the story of Jack Shareburg, a mysterious man who was killed for witnessing a sinking of the White Ship which carried England's original Crown-Prince.

Plot is not bad as it is, but it is pretty much predictable and full of tropes. I presume that it worked much better in the book where it could be developed in more details, but here, more experienced viewers will able to guess immediate events without much trouble. But if you like history you will probably find it interesting. It is gritty and violent, with lots of fights and scheming.

Characters are much better, although they also suffer from the same problem - they had to be simplified to fit the frame of the show. But they are complex enough and should be able to pique your interest. This is especially true for Bishop Waleran and Prior Phillip, who are probably two most complex characters in the series. The Hamleighs will also be able to provide you with some shock. Most of the "good" characters behave as you would expect from them, but the "bad" ones will be there to make things interesting.

The production of this series is a minus for it. Much, much weaker than "Game of Thrones" (comparing these two is maybe unfair from me, but I have watched them one after another). Locations and people are quite limited. Mass battles are anything but. The cast is pretty good and well known, though. No one is a big star, of course, but even I was able to recognize a lot of faces, if not names.

Taking all this in consideration, "The Pillars of the Earth" is nice enough historical series, although I would not recommend it to anybody. This is a series for lazy Sundays, if you don't have anything better to watch.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book review: "The City and the City" by China Miéville

I was recently visiting a local bookstore, and they have been having this 3-for-2 action for some time which I wanted to take advantage of. I had two books picked and planned to pick the third in spur of the moment. It turned out there wasn't any books I had considered before (and had on my wishlist) so I (somewhat unwillingly) bought "The City and the City" by China Miéville.

So far I have read only one his book, "Perdido Street Station", which I liked immensely. It is some mix of urban fantasy, science fiction and steam punk, happening in a fictional world of Bas-Lag and a city of New Crobuzon. There are two more books set in this same setting. Anyway, my point is that although I liked this book so much and had heard some really good things about Miéville (reviews of his books are continuously great), I decided not to buy his books because they are not long epic fantasy series (which is my preferred genre). My money and, much more important, my time are limited; and although I would like to read more, 3-5 books a month is currently my standard. Sadly, I don't see it becoming higher in future.

Back to the book in question. This is a very unique book and revealing much about the plot or setting would unquestionably spoil it. You will just have to believe me and multitude of other reviewers that Miéville's books are worth reading.

Basically, this is a regular thriller. It starts and ends with an investigation of a murder. Its main character is a police inspector; we have some hard-core police investigation, which later in a book grows an international conspiracy and acquires cooperation with not-so-friendly neighboring country. I am sure everybody read such books and seen movies with this generic description.

What makes this book so special is the setting. At first, it is a common one: fictional country and its capital city, somewhere in middle-east Europe (not exactly in Central Europe, but not under Russian influence either). As you start reading, everything will first look normal. But since this is a book by Chine Miéville, you expect that things will be anything but normal. So you continue and find nothing amiss, except some descriptions and names that you can't really grasp, but that don't look really unexplainable. And then, somewhere close to page 100 (and keep in mind this is a 400 pages book), it hits you in all its uniqueness and strangeness!!! And your only option then is to continue reading until you finish it...

As I said, the story is quite commonplace and so is the main character, inspector Borlú. A middle year's police inspector, smart and experienced. Somewhat smarter and more dignified that his peers, but not so much to make him a loner. The story is in first-person view and Borlú is a very good narrator. I would say he is also a common-place main character, except his compassion hidden behind a strong facade. This is especially seen in a scene later in the book, when he participates in more-brutal-than-usual police interrogation.

I liked how Miéville incorporated real-world references and details here: slow internet, movie references, real companies... Sometimes the city in the book looked quite similar to the capital of my own country, Zagreb. Although I don't think of Zagreb as romantic as the city in the book is seen - but that is probably because I am used to it.

Although I found this book great, it is not flawless. Setting is very well imagined and quite shocking at first, but the sense of shock gradually fades as you get used to it. This becomes more present as you close toward the end of the book, when all is explained and some more mysterious elements disappear. Maybe if few things were lest unexplained, a sense of wonder would remain stronger. But the story itself has enough twists to keep you interested.

Never minding this small objection, "The City and the City" is one of the best books I have read in several years, really intriguing and original. It is relatively short and it definitely doesn't belong solely to fantasy genre, so I would recommend it to everybody. As for myself, I plan to read Miéville's other works.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Anime review: "Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail"

I have had "Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail" in wish-list since it came out more than half a year ago, but I couldn't find a decent sub to watch it. I finally watched it for almost two weeks ago, now, but didn't have the time to write the review.

I find it very difficult to write this post. First, this is a OVA with five episode, 35 minutes each - not even a full season. Second, it is a third season - those who watched first two will know what to expect, and those who didn't should first watch these two. Third, I watched the second season quite some time ago (four years, ago! I just realized!), so I can't say I remember all the details of plot. Anyway, I intend to keep this short...

In this third instance of "Black Lagoon" we are dealing with only "one case". Roberta, maid of now dead drug-lord Lovelace from Venezuela is coming to Roanapur to exact her revenge. Since Roberta is most deadly person ever to come to Roanapur, a place already full with deadly people, this agitates current powers in the city: ex-Soviet criminal syndicate, Chinese Triada, Italian Mafia, Columbian Cartel, and everybody else. To this boiling cauldron comes young Garcia Lovelace, son of previous head of familly, to ask Rock, the most un-deadly person in the whole city, to stop Roberta...

"Black Lagoon" tries to win the audience with several highlights: great colors, animation and design of characters (especially women, who are mostly young, beautiful and big-breasted), intense action both, gritty and sometimes shocking humor. This is classical example of the genre "girls with guns" But its biggest advantage in my opinion is the "honor between crooks" concept, You know, blood-crazy killers, drug-dealers and smugglers who would probably sell their mother, who nevertheless subject to some unwritten honor code or greater good - in this case their home-city of Roanapur.

This "season" follows the tone of the second one - more serious and darker that the first one, which was mostly flamboyant action. Story is quite good, although in the end it becomes a bit too convoluted. It involves many of the characters from previous instances. I am not sure, but I think there is some gap between this one and last episodes. Also, I would like to see what relationship between Rock and Revy will come to.

Serious continues being visual and audio impressive as before. I especially liked the ending "song", which was a great version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home".

All in all, "Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail" is a solid continuation of a good series. Those who liked first two seasons, especially the second, will pretty much like this one. And those who haven't should watch one of the classics. If anything, this season persuaded me to read the manga in near future.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Movie review: "Knowing"

This Saturday I watched the 2009 movie "Knowing", with Nicholas Cage. I don't usually like Cage's movies, but I got this movie accidentally and the IMDB description looked good, so I watched it with my girlfriend. While watching it, I remembered that actually a friend recently recommended it to me, but I forgot the name.

The movie starts a bit like a horror. During the 1950s, kids in some US school are tasked with drawing a picture that will be put in a time-capsule which will be opened 50 years from then. One kid, Lucinda, instead writes a full page of numbers and places it in the capsule. Later she is found in some store-room, scratching doors with her bloody fingernails and screaming "Make them stop whispering!!" (or something like that)...

In present time, John (Nicholas Cage), a university professor of astrophysics, obtain this paper after his son receives it from the time capsule. Intrigued be the number, he discovers that numbers are dates of big accidents, with number of deaths in them. Worse, he founds that there are three more accidents in future!

Story is pretty good. Later it takes an unexpected turn toward SF, but this works very well. The suspense is done quite good, although you will probably be able to guess the ending.

I didn't like John's character very much (as usually, Cage's characters are always tragic, heroic or something else exceptional - he is a smug person, in my opinion), but neither was he annoying. Other characters are also OK, but nothing special. Whole movie is moderate in general, except the story and the sense of suspense which elevates it from the mass.

In short, "Knowing" is quite a good movie for an evening-watch, except if you for some reason hate SF. A bit of action, drama and lots of mystery, that can leave you a bit pondering.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Anime review: "Souten Kouro"

I was finally able to watch "Souten Kouro"! This anime came out more than two years ago - almost three now - but it wasn't until recently subbed by any group. The reason stated for this by any group that tried tackling it was that the anime was too complex and had too many characters. Considering this and the comments on AniDB, which were all praising, I was pretty much heated up for this show. After watching it, I now see I was misled by these comments, but also that this is a very good anime.

"Souten Kouro" is an adaptation of the manga with same name. Mange, in turn, is based on Chinese historical period called Three Kingdoms and 14th century novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". It is set in the end of third century, when China was a place of great turmoil - a land of heroes, violence and great armies. This story is presented with Cao Cao (famous Chinese warlord and statesman) as a central character. Cao Cao was in history depicted as a cruel, but efficient governor, but this anime tries to put his character in context of this violent times and events and pictures him as more humane and benevolent person.

First, although it is hard to see it as such at the beginning, this is a pretty much accurate historical adaptation. It has a really big number of characters, and most of them are present in only episode or two. Since story in this show lasts some 40 years, and characters change much in appearance and clothing, it is sometimes hard to follow who is who. I tried putting few names in Wikipedia and got results for all - quite big articles with description of event from this anime! So if you like historical stories, this this is your show.

My biggest problem with it is the form this story is presented. This combination of real-life characters and complex story is displayed as shounen battle anime - main characters are twice in size as normal persons, and when they go to battle they scream a lot and singlehandedly kill hundreds of soldiers. Well, it would be unfair and untrue to tell this show is only a battle anime. No, this is only one small part of it - but it almost ruined it for me. This is mostly true for first 5 or so episodes, where early years of Cao Cao's life are depicted - he kills bandits, falls in love with foreign beauties, outsmarts Chief Eunuchs, and so. This part is so similar in spirit to "Sengoku Basara" (which I hated) that I almost stopped watching. This would be a pity because story power up later, but I would be happier if they made this beginning more historical than action show.

This problem is especially present whenever Lu Bu appears. He is also a historical person and in "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" is presented as Chinese mightiest warrior. This mean that in this show he is pictured as 10-foot muscled giant with dreadlocks, who rarely speaks and whenever goes to battle (and this is often) sound a very irritating battle cry (I fail with every try of describing it; you just have to hear it), jumps ten-stories high and kills hundreds of people. On the other hand, he IS a very important part of the story and has some good drama centered around him.

Cao Cao was also very irritating at the beginning - he stands perfectly erect, tall and speaks in proclamations. But later, as he gets older, he really grows into his act and feels very natural. I must say I really liked his character - he has done some wicked but cool stuff.

Another objection, although smaller one, is that anime ends abruptly. We have some really big battles happening, when suddenly at the end of one we got letters "And so he continued to fight until becoming greatest hero ever..." (I made up this sentence, but something like that) and this is it. And at this time I really started to like this show.

Animation and visual aspects of "Souten Kouro" are also something special. Although it has lots of bad CGI effects and computer-generated faces that move like from old video-games, when important characters come to fore they are done superbly. E.g. you can see how gradually Cao Cao and rest grow beards as they become older - they really took care of details. Opening is good, ending not so, but nothing out of the ordinary. Voices are done very good (except that Lu Bu!), other sounds also. Anime has 26 episodes.

As this is accurate historical anime, you can expect some really brutal and violent action. Cao Cao was respected and also had some bad and cruel reputation. On the other hand, expect some good and sharp humor.

So, despite some flaws (too much feel of battle action anime), "Souten Kouro" is pretty good historical anime. It has great complex story and really good and big cast, so it is sometimes hard to follow, but if you are into history, this is definitely a show for you.

Anime review: "Bakuman"

Today I finished watching "Bakuman". Most of the time I give myself a few days of rest before posting a review, but since I am still on vacation and have some free time on my hands, I decided to do it today.

"Bakuman" has been on my wish-list for some time now, based on its high marks, but only on moderate importance. I was feeling a kind of dread whenever I thought about watching it - just look at that image! Especially on the upper-left corner! Include to this words like "middle-school", "marriage", "becoming a mangaka" - how could this be a good anime? Well, it turned out that I was pretty much wrong and this is a great anime!

Mashiro Moritaka is a typical middle-school kid, moderately good student, but without any particular dream or purpose. One day he loses a notebook where has was secretly making drawings of Azuki Miho, a girl who he likes. After coming to school to retrieve it he is confronted by another kid from his class, Takagi Akito, who has found his notebook. On the basis of drawings from there, Takagi tries to force Mashiro to become his partner in drawing manga. Since Mashiro has some bad experience regarding manga (his uncle was an unsuccessful one and died from overexertion), he initially declines. But Takagi tries again, this time in front of Miho (who incidentally, aspires to become a voice-actor), and this time Mashiro accepts - but even more surprising, Mashiro proposes to Miho. Even more surprising, Miho accepts - to become married after they realize they dreams and she plays a role in anime made after his manga.

This anime combines some realistic approach and themes with ridiculous stuff typical for shounen anime - but in perfect combination. For example, the plot: basically, this is a show about two kids who aspire to become mangaka. I obviously can't know what really happens on a road to becoming one, and I presume there is much more than showed in here, but everything that was presented sounded logical and realistic. Our protagonists have troubles in coordinating school, working on manga and private lives; they have to fight prejudice for being too young for this enterprise; they have to deliver their mangas to editors, have to discuss it and remade it; these editors have their bosses to respond to, have to take care of things like pools, formats and schedules; and myriad other small things that make this (in my humble opinion) a realistic representation of young manga authors' life. On the other side, we have a such plot elements that can be found only in shounen anime: the reason why all this is happening is because a 15 year old kid wants to marry when he is 18 (!!); they have friendly rivals who will give everything they have to become mangaka; there is even a genius high-school mangaka who draws them like a machine... But even with all this simplifications and jokes, this anime's first and foremost subject is about what it takes to become a mangaka.

Characters are great, simply said. Mashiro and Takagi are obviously mostly developed, but most of other got a pretty good realization. Mashiro gets a bit more coverage, especially his inner thoughts, than Takagi, which is little unfair because they are both equally good characters. On the other hand, Takagi has an actual girlfriend, Miyoshi (Miho's best friend) - very normal and realistic relationship for a shounen anime. Mahsiro's and Miho's relationship is anything but normal and realistic - they exchange maybe three sentences in whole season - but this IS a shounen anime so there is no room for complaining - actually they move toward normal at the end. Niizuma Eiji (guy from the upper left part of the picture) is the before mentioned "high-school genius", but he is also very good characters - he grows, realizes mistakes, accept advice and so on. Hattori is another character that fooled me - considering his design I thought he will be one-shot character - is another good and fully-realized character - a grown-up editor in manga-magazine. There is another 10-15 named characters. Interesting and laudable is the fact that some characters come and go - for example Iwase has some importance in first part of the show when they are still in middle-school, but disappears later when they enter high-school.

All characters do a lot of growing up: they learn from their mistake, don't always act rashly, and think about past and future. This is to be expected, since show takes almost two years of their time. Another their property worth mentioning is that they are not frustrating, which is often occurring, especially in shounen romance anime.

Jokes are pretty good and I chuckled at loud at least once in every episode. Kudos for jokes where they make fun of themselves ("Doesn't anyone have a fiancée?")! Also there are lots of references to real-life manga and anime: "Dragon Ball", "Naruto", "Bleach", "One Piece"... Actually, a magazine where they are submitting their works is called "Weekly Shounen Jack", which is an obvious reference to "Weekly Shounen Jump".

One thing that got me confused was Miho's anime. If she works only as voice-actor, why does the character she gives voice to looks like her? I can't get it whether this is a mistake or only simplification...

From technical side, anime has 25 episodes, all original, no fillers or recaps. Animation and design is good, but nothing over-the-top. Characters wear different clothes (although restricted number of sets) - I always notice this and find it laudable where it is so. Music I didn't like much, but voice-acting was very good. I especially liked Takagi's voice (done by Hino Satoshi).

I am happy to say that "Bakuman" was a very pleasant surprise. It doesn't belong to the best anime ever, but it is very good and especially enjoyable. Recommendation too all, except to those who watch exclusively action anime. I just hope that next two seasons will be good as this one.