Monday, May 23, 2016

Underworld: A Great Action Movie

Underworld directed by Len Wiseman in 2003 was one of the first R-rated movies I ever saw. I watched it on tv late one summer night when the rest of my family had gone to bed, and I really enjoyed it.

Afterwards, I learned that Underworld was reviewed pretty poorly, and even others who enjoyed it said it wasn't a very good movie except as light entertainment. At the time I didn't know enough about that kind of movie to disagree.

Recently, however, it became available on Netflix, and I watched it again. I wish to argue that this is, in fact, a great action/fantasy film.

Summary

Underworld is about a vampire Selene who is a Death Dealer. She hunts werewolves (Lycans) as part of an ancient war. A battle in a subway tunnel involves a medical student named Michael Corvin, and later, Selene learns that the Lycans intend to capture him.

Selene is intrigued and begins following Michael. When he is bitten by the Lycan leader Lucian, she helps him, even though he is now a sworn enemy. Their relationship becomes more romantic as the film continues, and she ends up betraying her vampire family to protect him.

Weak Plot

The lack of plot is the foremost problem according to critics. I, frankly, am surprised that most people seem to find it weak. It is simple, certainly, but that should be optimal in a film whose end goal is to entertain through fight scenes.

 Furthermore, I thought the plot gained complexity as the story unfolded. Hidden motivations and betrayals are slowly revealed, and I found the subtle unweaving of the relationships between the Lycans and vampires intriguing and satisfying.

I certainly understood what was happening better the second time I watched this film, but I believe that is a pro, not a con, and proof that there is more going on than the simple plot of girl falls in love with boy and sacrifices everything for him.

Shallow Characters

The second fault critics find in Underworld is the lack of "deep" characters. Once again, I disagree with this assessment.

First, Selene and Michael fall in love. This process is certainly glossed over. There is no DTR talk, no brooding reflection of the consequences. Kraven, Selene's would-be suitor, accuses her of loving a Lycan, but she never agrees and never says anything about it herself.

This is not a problem. The film is an action movie; the romance, and excuse. There is also something deeply satisfying in the self-confidence Selene and Michael display. Even though they never tell each other their feelings, they know their own and act on them firmly to defend who they love.

Secondly, Selene is a well-developed character beyond her romantic interests. Her betrayal of her vampire family is believable because her strong sense of justice and her independence has already been firmly established. The motivations of others are equally clear by the final battle, if not initially, which kept things interesting with a little mystery.

"Vapid" Dialogue and Other Problems

I appreciated the minimalist dialogue. There were no wasted words. Exposition was brief and clear, letting the film move on to the action, which is the point of an action movie.

I loved the setting. It had a gothic comic book feel, with shots just wide enough to give the audience a taste of the world without rubbing our faces in it: a Matrix, gothic horror combo that was visually appealing.

I loved the real monsters. The Lycans and the vampires were both tangible. Costumes will always satisfy me more than CGI, and Underworld used them to great effect.

Conclusion

Underworld doesn't get as much credit as it deserves. It is way better a vampire movie than Twilight, which for some reason is over 10% more fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. I won't speak for the sequels, obviously.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Weird New Genres and My Reactions

Entertainment Weekly (hereafter "EW") released an article today by  Mahita Gajanan titled "7 New Weird Book Genres." Generally, my reaction is scornful. I have a tough time adjusting to new things when it comes to books, especially because I think that the modern approach to writing leaves a great deal to be desired when it comes to quality. I find it difficult to be sympathetic to these new "genres" when they are more about publicity labels and being the founder of something new than they are about holding certain beliefs about the written word or having a particular talent.

1. Cli-fi (Climate Change Fiction)

EW Definition: "This offshoot of eco-fiction consists of short stories and novels that address the effects of climate change."

Reaction: Probably should have been filed under "Sci-fi."

2. Bizarro Fiction

EW Definition:  "Books that aim to be both strange and entertaining, with hefty doses of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque."

Reaction: This term first appeared in 2005, which is over a decade ago  and I think hardly counts as a "new" genre. Nevertheless, Bizarro fiction is very similar to New Weird which grew out of the traditional Weird genre (including H.P. Lovecraft). However, the argument is that they are not the same. Therefore, it makes me laugh how Rose O'Keefe of Eraserhead Press (among the first publishing houses to adopt the term) defines it by saying, "Basically, if an audience enjoys a book or film primarily because of its weirdness, then it is Bizarro. Weirdness might not be the work's only appealing quality, but it is the major one" (Wikipedia, emphasis added). Perhaps the descriptor "bizarre" would have been more appropriate?

3. Nordic Noir (Scandinavian Crime Fiction)

EW Definition: "Dark, often morally ambiguous police procedurals or psychological thrillers set in Scandinavia."

Reaction: Also characterized by its no-nonsense writing style. So, basically, crime fiction set in Scandinavia.

4. Flash Fiction

EW Definition: "This genre, which consists of stories in a few hundred words, has been around, but it’s now more popular than ever."

Reaction: Ernest Hemingway aside, This is not my cup of tea. The idea seems to be to force an emotional response from the reader with the lightest touch of story. There is little to no payout for a reader's investment, and no firmly established requirements. I would be unimpressed by someone who said they wrote flash fiction unless I understood more completely how they formed standards  and worked hard to keep them.

5. Spoetry (Spam Poetry)

EW Definition: "Poetry composed from the subject lines of spam email messages."

Reaction: Can someone explain to me how the term "poetry" became so muddled that spam counts? These don't even make sense. Are you telling me there is a market for this jumble of words? It's spam. At what point did we decide that throwing out the rules was art? What happened to inspiring images and emotions within the reader through meter, and rhyme, and verse, etc?

6. Twitter Fiction

EW Definition: "Short stories and novels composed entirely of tweets."

Reaction: This is an interesting idea, but how does it sustain an entire genre? If you don't hold too firmly to the definition of "book": Tumbler image captures, of course! There can't actually be a paying audience for this. Furthermore, the lasting worth of these books will be limited as technology changes. I don't see much worth in investing time as an author in this type of book.

7. Cashier Memoir

EW Definition: "Just what it sounds like: true-life tales from behind the cash register."

Reaction: Again, an interesting idea, but do we have enough material for more than a couple sequels? Is there demand for this? Having been a cashier, I've lived through the job; I don't want to live through it again under the guise of "entertainment."

Friday, May 13, 2016

An Insult to My Intelligence: The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes Vol. 1

The Guardian clearly did not read the same book I did.
After I've read a book, I sometimes scan the Amazon customer reviews. They are often funny, especially when they are angry. However, to my surprise, only a few people shared my low opinion of George Mann's steampunk Sherlock Holmes. Many people felt that this collection of short stories was a good introduction to Mann's alternate history. Personally, I felt that my intelligence as a reader was insulted.

Word Choice

I laughed out loud at one review which heralded Mann's writing as "proper English" which young people today needed to be taught. Mann's characters talk in that inflated way people do when they are trying to sound smart. He used derivatives of the word "austere" three times in as many pages. Perhaps he was trying to be ironic, but he just sounds like a college entrance essay relying far too heavily on a thesaurus.

Character Development

Mann also seems to be under the impression that his characters are deep and complex, but they come across as Sherlock Holmes knock-offs. The mystery genre is flooded with genius detectives of various characteristics, but Newbury's only claim to fame seems to be that he is "steampunk" and has a female sidekick who (shocker) is as intelligent as he is.

Setting

However, the steampunk element in this "volume" is limited. The descriptions about the places and people they meet drag, and inspire none of the images of machinery inspired fashion, accessories, or weapons that characterize the genre. There are some steampunk elements in each case: a clockwork owl, a preservation machine, a witch who turned into a tree monster (...what?), but they tend to be minor elements whose function in the story is to have purposes so obscure that the clues they provide are clear only to the "genius."

Plot

That seems to be Mann's strategy for writing these mysteries. Withhold as much information as possible from the reader and then act like his character is some kind of intellectual prodigy when he solves the case with information no one else could possibly have. This is not how Sherlock or Father Brown works. The powers of deduction are here replaced with the power of reveal. Oh, the butler was the victim's long lost brother about whom we were told nothing at all except he died at childbirth. Boy, I'm glad Newbury could figure out that he was alive and vengeful because the clockwork owl hid the broken tea cup!

In conclusion, I found the book impossible to slog through. If you are interested in the steampunk genre and would like to try out Mann, I would recommend starting with something else. There were lots of positive reviews from people who enjoyed his other work. I found him pretentious.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Long and Unsatisfying: A Brief Review of The Chathrand Voyage Saga

The Chathrand Voyage saga by Robert V.S. Reddick has everything a story should have: well developed protagonists, threatening antagonists, engaging problem, interesting setting. I enjoyed the beginning of the series a great deal. The first book The Red Wolf Conspiracy introduced a world of high stakes manipulation and spying networking between two enemy empires: Arqual and Mzithrin. In the middle of these backstabbing plots is the giant ship The IMS Chathrand, purportedly on a voyage of peace. Pazel Pathkendle is a tarboy on this ship, and Thasha Isiq is the treaty bride who will wed a prince to seal the peace. In reality the authorities on the ship are setting into motion a series of events orchestrated by spy master Ort to destroy the Mzithrin from within. Unknown to them, a powerful sorcerer is planning to use this plot against the conspirators themselves, obtain the Nil Stone, and use it to destroy the world.

Too Long

I think the story's central problem is that it is too long. The action is divided by long periods of waiting, traveling, and talking around an issue instead of action. The dialogue is generally important, but the pacing is too slow. As a result, the reader comes up with solutions to each problem before the characters do, and I sat wondering why they were not taking action more often.

On that note, the characters often do not take action at all to solve a problem. A mirth girl named Klyst falls in love with Pazel by a magic misunderstanding, but he is never forced to choose between her and Thasha. He just avoids talking about it, doing anything decisive, or making promises to either of them. Eventually the problem seems to go away when the ship travels to the spell-erasing Red Storm. Pazel's best friend Neeps "catches" the mind plague, and will lose his intelligence becoming no more than an animal. Pazel and Thasha fret about it for a while, some solutions are suggested, but eventually they run into a group of people who find a solution and enact it without the friends' help. The Red Storm throws people hundreds of years into the future, and the characters all wonder how this will impact them, but then it turns out that the Red Storm is weakening (big surprise), so it only throws them five years ahead.

The end of the third book The River of Shadows was the most satisfying, as the conflict between the main characters and the evil sorcerer was finally won, as the series had been leading up to since the beginning. However, the saga continues, and without a clear antagonist, it flounders. There is nothing to do but travel to the place where they can throw the Nil Stone away, which can clearly only happen at the end, and which clearly must happen for the story to end.

Unsatisfying End

This book takes the whole "the world is saved, but not for me" bit too far.  In order to destroy the Nil Stone, Thasha must break down a wall inside herself that is keeping a centuries old sorceress from taking control of her body. Pazel is fiercely opposed to this plan, and the reader is sympathetic to his arguments. But, there is no other way, so he helps her to break down the wall by making her forget who he is with a Master Word. Thasha (now this old sorceress) takes the Nil Stone and continues the fight alone off in some other dimension/underworld place. There is no telling when she'll return, what she'll look like, or how old/young she will be.

Pazel returns to the others, but all his friends and everyone who ever knew him in the whole world have also forgotten him. Not even his sister with the crazy memory remembers him. Two of the good guys leave the world for a future realm. Another returns home to the girl he left behind and their child, but while he was gone, she married his brother. Neeps and his girl are married and leave together, but who knows how long that will last, since he has already had one adulterous relationship.

Neeps accused Pazel of being a "one-note whistle" at one point because he only had eyes for Thasha. Pazel agrees with him. He is so in love with her! She is so important to him! Has he forgotten Klyst? Who he had feelings for and couldn't let go? Nope, cus the two of them get together in the end--forget Thasha, who knows when he'll see her again.

The story seems to intend to follow the classical monomyth, but falls apart during the return sequence. The boons they give to humanity include life continuing as normal. Oh, and those clever conspiracies and spy networks? They became less important than saving the world, not interconnected with it. Highly disappointing as I had invested much of my interest in those characters and plot threads.

Theme of Loss

Everytime it is remarked that the main characters aren't children anymore it is not with satisfaction--look how they've developed as characters--but with sorrow. They have lost so much. Time, friendships, love, trust, etc. It is hardly surprising that the outlook should be so negative when most of the story acts on them instead of the other way around.

There is no sense of victory or pride in their accomplishment. The reader is left wondering whether the cost was worth it. I would advise against this saga as entertainment.