Sunday, October 28, 2012

Movie reviews: "The Dark Knight" and "Fracture"

This weekend I watched two movies, both a bit older.

At my friend's place, we watched "The Dark Knight". This is an older hit and my friend actually watched it, but I haven't and I wanted to be familiar with it before watched its sequel, "The Dark Knight Rises".

"The Dark Knight" is a part of the of the Batman series, that started with "Batman Begins" in 2005 (it looks I should have watched this one again). This "episode" involves Joker as main villain, but also features Harvey "Two-Face" Dent - both of them were villains in previous movies before reboot.

Main difference between the older moviev and this one is that the latter is a dark and gritty movie, as is appropriate regarding contemporary trends. I really liked it - Joker in the original "Batman" was crazy, but here he is really psychotic and scary (played marvelously be Heath Ledger). Batman (played by Christian Bale) is on the other hand angsty (but not too much to be irritating) and gritty. Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) is also a great character - his journey from idealistic crime-fighter to a manipulated villain is interesting to watch. Other characters are also great, and played by big starst: Michael Cain, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Eric Roberts.

But there is one flaw of this movie. Basically, this movie is one bit "Xanatos Speed Chess" game between Batman and Joker. I am a fan of this trope and enjoy it, but you have to know when to stop it. And here, it was played a bit over-board. Not much to be really bad, but plans-inside-plans and constant turnovers were a bit tiring after two and half hours.

But all in all, "The Dark Knight" is a great addition to the Batman franchise, and I think that I will enjoy the sequel as much.

The other movie that I watched was "Fracture" from 2007. It is a classical cat-and-mouse game between a young and successful public attorney Willy Beachum (played well by Ryan Gosling) and genius engineer Ted Crawford (play even better by Anthony Hopkins). Ted kills his wife for having an affair, but he prepares it so that he can't be convicted. Willy, on the other hand, is transferring to big private law firm and is not really enthusiastic about this case, until he realizes how easy Ted manipulates him and others.

Movie is really interesting, but it had one big, big flaw. The key move is shown at the beginning - I don't know was this my lucky guess, directory sloppiness and actual intention (like in the "Columbo" movies). But I kept waiting for some other thing arises, and when it didn't, I was disappointed.

But all in all, "Fracture" is a pretty good movie, one to watch in a lazy Sunday afternoon.

The Wheel of Time reread: "The Great Hunt" by Robert Jordan

Well, I am progressing fine with my WoT reread, even somewhat better than expected. I finished "The Great Hunt" somewhere around last Wednesday, but I didn't have the time to write my post about it, so here it is.

"The Great Hunt" is where the real thing starts. In "The Eye of the World", Jordan was still playing safe, between an encompassed single book and start of a big new series, but here he kicks it off with a bang. After finding the Eye of the World in last book and Rand's "defeat" of the Dark One (and his discovery that he can channel and that he is possibly the Dragon Reborn), here we learn that things are not so much done, as only started. Stealing of the Horn of Valere, the ascension of Padan Fain as a major player, introduction of Senchan, Aiel and Ogier, elaboration of Aes Sedai, Darkfriends, there is really much going on. A major portion is of the book is dedicated exactly to this: introduction and elaboration. Here the WoT becomes a really detailed and complex series as we know it.

This book contains a lot of my favorite chapters: Aes Sedai discussion of the dark prophecy in Shienar, Rand's introduction to the Amrylin Seat, politicking and the Great Game in Cairhen, travel via Portal Stones and the parallel worlds (a major favorite, this one!)... I usually adored the chapter at the end when Rand fights Turak - I was surprised with my lack of excitement. Well, this was at least partially due the fact that I read this chapter very late in the night after a busy day.

As with the notions and concepts of setting, a list of characters also gets a main expansion: Verin, "Selene", Siuan Sanche, Hurin... The list is a big one. But we also get to know "old" characters better, especially Rand and Egwene. A big part of the book is about Rand's struggle to accept what he is - a struggle that really ended only recently in "The Gathering Storm", the 12th book in series! It is also curious how Mat is still not a POV character yet - we have POVs from Rand and Egwene, of course, but also from Perrin and Nyneve. Of course, this will change in next book, "The Dragon Reborn": a happy moment for most fans, I think.

There is not much else to say about "The Great Hunt", except again that this is one great book, one that really started the success of "The Wheel of Time" series.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Wheel of Time reread: "The Eye of the World" by Robert Jordan

So, two weeks ago I started a reread of complete "The Wheel of Time" series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. I read these books several times, especially first five books. "The Eye of the World" I must have read at least five times, probably even more, but this was all three or more years ago. I was pretty happy to read this book again - it felt all right.

Rand al'Thor is a young man, a shepherd like his father, living in quite peaceful and unimportant village called Emond's Field, in region called Two Rivers. His life is abruptly changed after his farm and village get attacked by Trollocs, monstrous creatures of Dark One that haven't been seen in these parts for hundreds of years. Surviving the attack, he is told by mysterious Moiraine that he and his two friends, Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara, were the target of the attack. She is revealed as Aes Sedai, a member of female order of magic-wielding Channelers, dedicated to fight against the Dark One, but feared by most people. She also tells them that their only option is to follow her out of Two Rivers to save their village of further attacks, which will at the same time give them opportunity to find out why is the Dark One after them. So they embark on the journey, led by Moirane and her Warder Lan, and accompanied by Egwene, willful girl from their village and Thom Merillin, traveling entertainer with much more in his past. At the same time, the three of them start having the same dream, in which they encounter a man in black that calls himself Ba'alzamon,...

I must say I had trouble with writing a brief synopsis of the book, and that I am not really satisfied with it - it doesn't captures enough details and meanings. This is one of the things that had drawn me into this book the first time I have read it - complex and detailed setting. Even though this is the first book of long series (and authors are usually quite self-restrained with first books in case it doesn't get popular) it has one the the best defined and detailed setting. "Malazan Book of the Fallen" is more complex (it is one a whole different level), but Wheel of Time manages to be complex without being difficult. Well, all this becomes more evident in further books, but "The Eye of the World" still sets the basic rules and notions - the history, geography, One Power, Aes Sedai, Shadowspans. From my current perspective, I can see some minor flaws that I haven't noticed back then, but nothing that would spoil my reading. And of course, some of these notions will end abandoned in future books, but Jordan was able to make it look as he planned it from the start.

Of course, "The Wheel of Time" follows classical approach of epic fantasy, which it is full of familiar tropes: good guys are white/bright/nice looking, bad guys are black/shadowy/ugly; there is lots of strict honor-codes, shy romance, people don't going to toilets... But familiar doesn't mean bad. Although this sounds trashy, Jordan was really able to put spirit and novelty to same old stuff. So yes, Rand, Mat and Perrin are typical young country folks in process of becoming princes, Moiraine is a wise counselor, Lan is honorable warrior, etc. But nevertheless, I enjoy reading about them.

It is curious how many times I remembered "The Dragon Reborn" and how many important events happened there, but this will have to wait until I read through to that book.

I always think as "Malazan Book of the Fallen" as the best series I ever read and of "The Wheel of Time" as my favorite series. And "The Eye of the World" is the perfect start and representation of the series: a classical epic fantasy tale full of honor, struggle, romance, magic and epic. If you are into this things, there is no better series to read (well, except "The Lord of the Rings", but you can't live only on one article).

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Just started a reread of "The Wheel of Time" by Robert Jordan

Today I have started a reread of complete "The Wheel of Time" series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. This is one of my favorite series (next to "The Malazan Book of Fallen" and "A Song of Ice and Fire") and since the last part, "A Memory of Light" is coming at the beginning of January, I want to be prepared.

My plan is to read one book a week, and with 13 books already published, I should be finished just in time to continue with the last one when is published. If I am faster than I think I will be, I will add some anime series in between books. In case I am slower... Well, that's all right with me.

Looking forward to reading all these books again.

Anime review: "Nazo no Kanojo X"

I regularly (once a month or so) browse AniDB calendar to see prospective candidates for watching and add them to my wishlist. So when I need to pick some anime, I go to my wishlist, filter it to show only finished series and then choose one that looks the best. AniDB allows choosing a priority for watching, red, yellow and green, so I usually first add them as yellow and later upgrade or downgrade them depending on rates and reviews. Such was the case with "Nazo no Kanojo X" (or "Mysterious Girlfriend X"). I first added it, and them my interest started dropping when I saw the ugly front-cover picture and bad rates. But somehow reading the short reviews on its AniDB page persuaded me to give it a chance, since there wasn't any other series I was really interested in.

"Nazo no Kanojo X" starts... Well, both usually and strange. Main character is Tsubaki Akira, a normal second-year high-school boy. He is quite ordinary, without girlfriend, although he would like to have one. At the beginning of the second year, a new transfer student is introduced, Urabe Mikoto, and is placed on seat next to Tsubaki. He initially tries to be friendly to the new girl, but she turns out to be a strange and quiet loner, ignoring Tsubaki and literally everybody else in class, spending all free time sleeping at her seat. After the first shock, Tsubaki gets used to this and she just melts to the background of class. Until one day! Returning suddenly one day to the classroom, Tsubaki finds her sleeping later, and after waking her up, she notices a pool of drool left on her table. Tsubaki, being a horny teenage boy, disturbed by noticing how pretty actually Urabe is, decides to lick her drool. He feels shocked and ashamed by his behavior, but forgets about it soon. Next day he has a strange dream about her, and few days later he gets a fever and has to stay at home. He is surprised when Urabe visits him after school, uncovers his licking of her drool, and tells him that from now on he is addicted to her drool and that they now share a bond....

Well, this is not the strangest premise of romance anime I have ever heard. Just going through my list on AniDB ("Bakuman", "Itazura na Kiss", "Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou", "NHK ni Youkoso!"... And I will not even start with those based on dating-sims) reveals Japanese fondness of bizarre reasons for coupling two persons, but "Nazo no Kanojo X" definitely has one of the more nauseating - drool. But if you are not very squeamish, don't be thwarted by this seemingly disgusting premise, because "Nazo no Kanojo X" is one of better anime I have watched this year and is definitely underrated. Although this sounds like a recipe for ecchi anime, it is not: this is a seinen romantic comedy. There is some fan-service (panties shots, boing-boing), but nothing over the top; girls are sometimes shown naked, but their bodies are without features, only silhouettes. I just realized that this anime is very similar to "Nisemonogatari": even though there is a lot (and in "Nisemonogatari", a really lot) of sexual innuendo, this is not a primary point of this anime. If you are watching either of this anime for fan-service or arousal, you are completely missing their points. There is also a noticeable supernatural streak in here, although it is taken for granted. Any yes, the show justifies its name ("Mysterious Girlfriend"), because there is a lot to reveal yet about Urabe.

"Nazo no Kanojo" is definitely a seinen anime. Although there is a lot of blushing, nosebleeds, and drooling, as you could expect from anime romance comedy, it is the characters that make this a real seinen anime. By this I mean that they are not one-dimensional and perfect: they are bizarre, but they are also realistic. I know that this sounds like two opposites, but if you are a fan of anime, you know what I mean. For example, Harima from "School Rumble" if unrealistic idiot (I don't mean this derisive, he is one of my favorite character ever); Tsubaki on the other hand is quite realistic idiot. He is a naive/innocent/goffy like a teenage boy that he actually is. Urabe, who is on one side completely bizarre character, on the other hand is reasonable and multifaceted character, which is able to recognize the flaws in others and her, but she is also able to accept them as part of people. Tsubaki is the main character and we see the story mostly from his POV and hear his thoughts, but there is lots of Urabe POV's and inner observations. Both of them are strangely shy. Except them, there is only few other characters in series and they are the usual one-dimensional (but funny) anime characters.

Jokes in the anime are good, and they are not of laugh-out-loud type and more focus is put one romance than comedy. And of course, all is all mixed with this strange topic of sharing drool (and not by kissing).

At the beginning, I was almost put off be "old-school" design of characters, something that I connect with older anime like "Akira" or "Golden Boy", but I soon get used to it. "Nazo no Kanojo X" actually has a pretty good animation, design of characters and vivid colors, which is especially seen in Tsubaki's dreams, which are very imaginative and impressive. The show has pretty good sounds and background music. Two other things I appreciate: people wear different clothes and even though at first it looks like Tsubaki lives alone with his sister, it is later shown that this is not true. There are 13 episodes in series and there is an additional OVA, which is actually a regular episode. Manga is still on-going and I hope that there will be a second season some time in future.

In conclusion, "Nazo no Kanojo X" is definitely an underrated anime, but I can understand this because it belongs to not the most popular category and has an off-putting element. But if you are into more serious romance comedy (like "Lovely Complex" or "Bakemonogatari") and are not particularly nauseous, I would recommend not to skip this anime.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Book review: "The God Engines" by John Scalzi

I've been hearing lots of good things about John Scalzi for some time now, but I haven't read anything by him yet. I know his is famous for over Internet for his opinions and blog, and that he wrote mostly SF. So when I decided to occasionally buy SF, I added one of his books, "The God Engines", on my Amazon wish list. I have some plans for my reading this fall and winter, which I will announce in one of my next posts, so I decided to read something stand-alone last week and I picked this.

I've been surprised how "The God Engines" is similar to "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" (which I read not so long ago) in premise. In both books we have gods who are chained by one other god and forced to serve humans as tools and weapons. Here, gods are literally chained, in hulls of space-ships, and used are their primary source of power. As long as the crew maintains its faith, they have nothing to fear and the god can be punished into submission. But when Captain Tephe and his crew is sent on a secret mission, they will find their faith in question, and who can then say what will happen next...

My second surprise was the shortness of this book: with 136 pages this is only a novella. But it is my own fault for not reading more about what I was buying. I am more attracted to longer books, and I was able to finish this book in two days, reading only few hours each.

But the book is pretty good and I can see why Scalzi is famous. It is a type of novellas that I used to read in collection that were published few years ago in Croatia, gathering a lot of older SF hits (Clarke, Haldeman, Hamilton...). The setting is very imaginative, and although we don't see much of it, looks pretty solid. It has a curios mix of high technology and religious dominance (something like in later books of "Hyperion Cantos" by Dan Simmons). The story is also very good, but I was delighted by the ending: I really didn't see it coming.

On the other hand, I am wishing it had a bit more meat, because the last part feels a bit rushed.

"The God Engines" is a very good novella and I would recommend it to everyone, SF fan or not. But I wouldn't recommend buying it: borrow it or buy it in some larger collection.

Anime review: "Moyashimon"

As I already said, I think this is a poor anime year. I am not really sure how I found this anime, since it is from 2007 and it doesn't have some great rating, but as I didn't have anything else to watch, I decided to give it a try.

"Moyashimon" is based on interesting idea, and when you read its short description on AniDB, you can get a completely wrong idea about it. Nominally, the story is about a boy named Sawaki who can actually see microbes: not as they look when you look at them with microscope, but as a kind cute little "monsters" who communicate with him. He is just entering Agricultural college with his childhood Kei, and both of them are conscripted by famous (but little wacky) professor Itsuki and his attractive assistant Hasegawa, to help them in their research.

Well, although all this has its place in this anime, at the same time this is a slapstick comedy about college life, sake and growing up, including a lot of sexual innuendo and fan-service moments. There is even few episodes where microbe don't even appear (The Spring Festival). Every episode starts with the recap of the previous one, there is normal OP and ED, and at the end there is a short educational movie about bacteria, so the real action last even less than in normal anime. You are right to ask how all this stuff fits in 11 short episodes. The answer is that it doesn't! The anime doesn't really have an ending and all this feels more like an introduction than a real season. Considering that there is a second season of anime and that manga is still ongoing, this is maybe even true. Another problem is the non-existing over-all plot; there is few threads started, but they are strangely left unfinished and unexplained.

On the other hand, anime is full of good jokes and interesting characters. Well, humor is actually pretty individual thing: if you find "being picked as the lucky student to perform cow's ovaries examination" funny, you could like this anime. As I said, there is lot of sexual jokes, but nothing really crass. Characters are one-dimensional and unreal, but they work well together. "Moyashimon" has a strong educational streak about microbes, which you either like or hate.

One of the weaker points of this anime is the design of characters. Few of them are designed purely slapstick, but even those who are drawn "real" are very unimaginative and... Ugly is a bit too strong word, but non-pretty. Colors are also pretty bland, which is a big negative point for me. On the other hand, a big positive point is that people change clothes regularly. I really can't say anything, being positive or negative, about the sound and music.

All in all, "Moyashimon" is good anime, with some interesting setting and good jokes, definitely is not a hit series, owing to its lack of proper story or direction. Even if you find this interesting, I would recommend looking for a review of second season before starting with the first one.