Friday, July 29, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Fables vol 15 – Rose Red

The Dark Man is an elemental being, a focus of all the Fear, Hate and negative energy in the universe has invaded our world looking to destroy the Fables. He has already leveled Fabletown, their hidden village within New York City, and he’s now erecting a tower in its place – a castle disguised as a hotel, from where he will amass his power and feed on the dark emotions of the world’s people. The Fables meanwhile have escaped to the Farm, a place where the non-human Fables have lived away from the prying eyes of humans. But the place is now overwhelmed with the refugees, and things are deteriorating fast as different factions begin to vie for power. The only one who might be able to defuse the situation is Rose Red, who back in volume 1 had been sent to the Farm for penance and had earned the respect of many Fables as the Farm’s leader. But Rose has been slowly allowing herself to fall apart ever since the death of Boy Blue, whom she loved but never realized until it was too late. She is visited by an apparition, who may be her mother, and at long last we are shown her tale – from her abandonment to her quest for revenge against her sister Snow White. Will she finally be able to overcome her past and help stave off the disaster that threatens to overwhelm the Farm? Meanwhile, Totenkinder the witch has become a young woman again, and she is seeking answers in the homelands for how to defeat the Dark Man. But will all her research be enough to finally give her what she needs to defeat this new adversary? After a fantastic run, the last couple of volumes of Fables had not been doing much for me, so I knew that Rose Red might be make-it-or-break-it time for this series. The good news is, it came through with flying colors. Whereas I found the last couple of volumes to be mostly forgettable, here was a very focused story. There are some wonderful things about the Fables series in general, the way it focuses in on characters who had been secondary in a prior volume and makes them the focus of the next, often along the way giving them a chance to overcome their current circumstances and become a hero. Rose Red continues that theme and it’s a welcome return and reminds me of many of the best previous arcs in the series. Likewise though, Fables knows how to surprise the readers. Even as one character gets some redemption, others show surprising twists to their character – changing your perception of previous events and opening up many new possibilities for the future. Beyond that, this particular volume ended much differently than I thought it would – a surprising twist that really throws a wrench in things and provides a nice twist while at the same time being very complimentary to where this series began. I’m a believer again in Fables, and will be sticking around to check out the next volume as soon as it’s available – something I wasn’t so sure of prior to reading Rose Red. This is one of the best arcs in the story, ranking up there with my favorites, and if you’ve stuck around this long it’s well worth reading.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Items Received

Real Vampires Don't Wear Size Six by Gerry Bartlett (Berkeley)

For a vampire, losing weight can be hellish-from the national bestselling author of Real Vampires Hate Their Thighs.
After Glory St. Clair kicked out the demon that had set up shop in her body, she had a serious fallout with longtime lover Jeremy Blade. But before Glory can win him back, she has some issues of the hellish variety to deal with.
When Lucifer himself offers Glory the ultimate temptation-work for the devil and he'll make her a size six-the curvy vampire's not sure if she can resist. But what Glory does know is that somehow, she's going to get back the man she loves and show everyone that real vampires always have more to love.

V is for Vampire: An Illustrated Alphabet of the Undead by Adam-troy Castro and Johnny Atomic (Harper Voyager)

A Is for Arterial Spray,
B Is for Bedroom Window,
C Is for Children of the Night . . .
A humorous and wonderfully illustrated A-to-Z guide that takes us inside the world of bloodsuckers. Learn all about that violent nut Van Helsing, the art of undead seduction, the dangerous myth of garlic, the trouble inherent in vampire real estate deals, the downside of eternal youth, as well as where to aim that wooden stake, with a friendly reminder to . . .
Lock the house and protect your neck!

The Diviner by Melanie Rawn (Daw)

Bestselling author Melanie Rawn's triumphant return to high fantasy.

The only survivor of royal treachery that eliminates his entire family, Azzad al-Ma'aliq flees to the desert and dedicates himself to vengeance. With the help of the Shagara, a nomadic tribe of powerful magicians, he begins to take his revenge-but at a terrible cost to himself.

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher (Roc)

The eagerly awaited new novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling Dresden Files series.
When we last left the mighty wizard detective Harry Dresden, he wasn't doing well. In fact, he had been murdered by an unknown assassin.
But being dead doesn't stop him when his friends are in danger. Except now he has nobody, and no magic to help him. And there are also several dark spirits roaming the Chicago shadows who owe Harry some payback of their own.
To save his friends-and his own soul-Harry will have to pull off the ultimate trick without any magic...

Bricks by Leon Jenner (Hodder & Stoughton)

This is the story of a bricklayer. A master of his craft, he keeps its sacred teachings secret. For him a house is the dwelling place of a soul, and a house must be built in the right spirit or the soul inside it will suffer. The building of an arch is a ritual to obtain a right relation with the earth and a connection with the truth. The bricklayer also recalls his previous life as a Druid priest. He talks about the creation of the sacred landscape of these islands; how even a simple stick lying on the ground would tell people the direction they needed to go in; how when people stared at the stars, they were staring at their own mind. This Druid was also a builder of worlds, one of a group of higher beings able to move in an infinite number of universes that create and end constantly. These higher beings are eternal, know everything, and hold everything together. The speak mind to mind. They can prevent battles simply by walking between the two charging armies. The reader sees the world through the eyes of this great, magical being at the time of the Roman invasion, and learns how he tricked Julius Caesar and set in train the series of events that would lead to Caesar's assassination on the Ides of March. But as the bricklayer continues, he worries he is losing his ancient, sacred powers. The vision begins to fray at the edges as we learn how he has recently taken violent revenge on yobs who have mocked him. Is he really connected to a once living Druid priest, or is he gradually losing himself in his own fantasies?

Magic on the Line by Devon Monk (Roc)

In the secret lockup of the Authority, the council that decides what can and can't be done with magic, an undead magic user has possessed one of the prisoners. He wants his freedom-and then some. Now Allie Beckstrom and her lover, Zayvion, are the first line of defense against the chaos he's about to unleash on the city of Portland...

The Shadow Reader by Sandy Williams (Ace)

A Houston college student, McKenzie Lewis can track fae by reading the shadows they leave behind. For years she has been working for the fae King, tracking rebels who would claim the Realm. Her job isn't her only secret. She's in love with Kyol, the King's sword-master-but human and fae relationships are forbidden. When McKenzie is captured by Aren, the fierce rebel leader, she learns that not everything is as she thought. And McKenzie must decide who to trust and where she stands in the face of a cataclysmic civil war.

Dead Man Walking by Stefan Petrucha (Roc)

After Hessius Mann was convicted of his wife's murder, suppressed evidence came to light and the verdict was overturned-too bad he was already executed. But thanks to the miracles of modern science Hessius was brought back to life. Sort of.
Now that he's joined the ranks of Fort Hammer's pulse-challenged population, Hessius attempts to make a "living" as a private investigator. But when a missing persons case leads to a few zombies cut to pieces, Hessius starts thinking that someone's giving him the run-around-and it's not like he's in any condition to make a quick getaway...

Shadow Fall by Seressia Glass (Pocket)

Truth is the most dangerous weapon of all . . .
Kira Solomon’s life has never been simple. Battling against the Fallen, serving the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, becoming romantically involved with a 4,000-year-old Nubian warrior—these are now everyday realities. But something is changing. Kira’s magic is becoming dangerously unpredictable, tainted by the Shadow she has been trained to destroy.
Matters grow worse when an Atlanta museum exhibit based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead turns out to have truly sinister properties. As the body count rises, even long-trusted allies start to turn against Kira. She can hardly blame them—not when the God of Chaos is stalking her dreams and the shocking truth about her origins is finally coming to light. As one of the good guys, Kira was a force to be reckoned with. But if the only way to stop a terrifying adversary is to fight Shadow with Shadow, then she’s ready to find out just how very bad she can be. . . .

Kindling the Moon by Jenn Bennett (Pocket)

Meet Arcadia Bell: bartender, renegade magician, fugitive from the law. . . .
Being the spawn of two infamous occultists (and alleged murderers) isn’t easy, but freewheeling magician Arcadia “Cady” Bell knows how to make the best of a crummy situation. After hiding out for seven years, she’s carved an incognito niche for herself slinging drinks at the demon-friendly Tambuku Tiki Lounge.
But she receives an ultimatum when unexpected surveillance footage of her notorious parents surfaces: either prove their innocence or surrender herself. Unfortunately, the only witness to the crimes was an elusive Æthyric demon, and Cady has no idea how to find it. She teams up with Lon Butler, an enigmatic demonologist with a special talent for sexual spells and an arcane library of priceless stolen grimoires. Their research soon escalates into a storm of conflict involving missing police evidence, the decadent Hellfire Club, a ruthless bounty hunter, and a powerful occult society that operates way outside the law. If Cady can’t clear her family name soon, she’ll be forced to sacrifice her own life . . . and no amount of running will save her this time.

Basilisk by Rob Thurman (Roc)

Stefan Korsak and his genetically-altered brother have evaded the Institute for three years. When they learn the new location of the secret lab, they plan to break in and save the remaining children there. But one of the little ones doesn't want to leave. She wants to kill...

Water to Burn by Katharine Kerr (Daw)

Secret agent Nola O'Grady is back and ready to save San Francisco from all evildoers, alien and otherwise. With the aid of her bodyguard and lover Ari Nathan, Nola's new mission is to track down and apprehend the mysterious "Brother Belial," head of the now-dispersed Chaos cult-and a possible invader from another dimension.

Blood Rights by Kristen Painter (Orbit)

Born into a life of secrets and service, Chrysabelle's body bears the telltale marks of a comarré -- a special race of humans bred to feed vampire nobility. When her patron is murdered, she becomes the prime suspect, which sends her running into the mortal world...and into the arms of Malkolm, an outcast vampire cursed to kill every being from whom he drinks.
Now, Chrysabelle and Malkolm must work together to stop a plot to merge the mortal and supernatural worlds. If they fail, a chaos unlike anything anyone has ever seen will threaten to reign.

"Battleship" Trailer

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Giveaway! The "Relic Master" Series by Catherine Fisher

Courtesy of Penguin Books (Dial imprint) I have a set of the "Relic Master" series by Catherine Fisher (all 4 books!) to offer for giveaway!

The Dark City
Welcome to Anara, a world mysteriously crumbling to devastation, where nothing is what it seems: Ancient relics emit technologically advanced powers, members of the old Order are hunted by the governing Watch yet revered by the people, and the great energy that connects all seems to also be destroying all. The only hope for the world lies in Galen, a man of the old Order and a Keeper of relics, and his sixteen-year-old apprentice, Raffi. They know of a secret relic with great power that has been hidden for centuries. As they search for it, they will be tested beyond their limits. For there are monsters-some human, some not-that also want the relic's power and will stop at nothing to get it.

The Lost Heiress
Even though Tasceron and its Emperor have fallen, there is a rumor that the heiress to the throne still lives. If so, her life is in grave danger, especially from the Watch. Galen and Raffi must race to find and protect her.

The Hidden Coronet
The coronet, a potent ancient relic, might be the only way to defeat the power that is destroying Anara. But it has been lost for centuries, and only legend tells of its whereabouts. Will Galen and Raffi be able to find it before the Watch does?

The Margrave
Galen and Raffi's quest has brought them to the Pits of Maar. There, below the surface of the world, in the deepest darkness, a most evil thing is waiting for them to come.

Just add your information to the form below to enter (all information is guaranteed confidential and will be discarded once the contest ends) and I will randomly pick one winner by Wednesday August 10th. No multiple entries please-- all multiple entries will be discarded. Open to U.S. entries only.

Good luck!

**Contest Closed**

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Captain America"- Possibly My Favorite Entry Into the Avengers Saga So Far

I was really looking forward to "Captain America;" the previews looked awesome and I always liked the good old-fashioned square-jawed superhero. So I turned a blind eye to the early reviews and jumped in with both feet-- and found that my enthusiasm was well placed.

"Captain America" is the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a diminutive guy with aspirations to enlist and fight the Nazis in WWII --despite his physical limitations and continual designation as 4F (unfit for service). But Rogers isn't a gung-ho type who wants to flex his muscles (if he had any), nor is he particularly interested in killing. He just wants to do his share like all the other men going off to war. And it's his persistence in trying to enlist that catches the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the creator of the Super Soldier Serum, who sees in Rogers the combination of humility and tenacity needed to round out the physical strength his serum will give the men to whom it's administered.

With the help of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the civilian genius that founds Stark Industries and fathers Tony Stark, Erskine doses Rogers with his serum and achieves spectacular results. Rogers has a chance to prove his mettle immediately following his transformation, but when he's caught on camera he becomes a symbol of the perfect soldier. Instead of getting his wish to go to the front lines, he's instead chosen to sell war bonds in a Captain America costume. Rogers, not happy with his new role, performs without complaint. But when his best friend is captured across enemy lines, he defies orders and in doing so proves his worth and earns the right to go to war.

The biggest threat to the world, however, isn't the Nazis- but rather a Nazi other than Hitler with a taste for world dominion. Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the head of Hitler's advanced weaponry division, becomes obsessed with the occult and an object known as the Tesseract. Forming his own organization known as HYDRA, Schmidt pursues power through the possession of the Tesseract and the illicit use of Erskine's serum. Unlike Rogers, Schmidt doesn't have the character traits needed to ensure that he isn't warped by the serum and he becomes increasingly inhuman and dubs himself the Red Skull. Somewhat predictably, but not without suspense or entertainment value, the movie then moves to the inevitable confrontation between the physically equal Red Skull and Captain America.

There are a lot of people who love this movie-- as you'll see through the enthusiastic reviews-- and a few who think it doesn't have enough explosions and CGI. I fit into the first category. Most reviewers will tell you, that while likable, "Captain America" isn't as good as "Iron Man." I get that. Robert Downey Jr. is a great Tony Stark. "Iron Man" has a ton of flair as a character and even a sub-par entry into that franchise is still pretty darn good. Who can compete with the bombastic appeal of Downey in the role?

But, I gotta say, I liked the understated quality of Chris Evans' Steve Rogers. To start, it's important to put the character in context. This is a story that takes place in the 1940's. America was a different place and people had a different set of values. You can't place a guy like Tony Stark into 1940's America and have it make a lot of sense. The closest you can get to that is Howard Stark and he's quite a bit more subdued than his son. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the best qualities our young men possessed at the time. He sincerely wants to do the right thing and he isn't going to spend a lot of time with any modern-day angst. He's the kind of guy who puts his head down and gets the job done. So when reviewers go on about how Evans wasn't given enough with the role and how they wish it was more emotive, I think they're putting modern expectations on a story where it doesn't belong. Additionally, when we get a sneak peek at the new "Avengers" movie at the end of this film, I think it's very smart to balance the outrageous personalities of Tony Stark and Thor with the quieter Steve Rogers.

But it isn't just my personal preferences that allow me to like this movie. It's just a good film. It's well constructed in terms of plot; somewhat predictable, but what isn't in a comic book movie without a tragic ending? The performances are strong, from Evans' earnest Rogers to Weaving's insane Schmidt. I did miss Weaving's resonant, bass voice (that I've become accustomed to thanks to the "Matrix" trilogy) as he loses that for an authentic German accent here, but you can't fault his acting ability as he imbues the Red Skull with a convincing bit of menace. And the supporting cast of Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Chester Phillips and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter add the right touches of humor and sentimentality.

There's no way I could claim that "Captain America" is better than the first "Iron Man" (though I can say that it's better than the second) but I might be able to say it's better than "Thor." What I can say is that I would have a hard time picking a favorite between "Iron Man" and "Captain America" thanks to my own personality. As much fun as it is to watch Robert Downey strut across the screen as Tony Stark, I identify with Steve Rogers more. He's an admirable guy who doesn't set himself up for those uncomfortable moments we've come to associate with Stark. And, as if to reflect the personality of the main character, the overall tone of "Captain America" was distinctly toned-down from that of its sister films. The colors aren't as brash and the CGI isn't as explosive-- and that is a good thing in my opinion. Though the shield that Captain America carries seems like a tame weapon in comparison to the Iron Man suit, and Thor's hammer, somehow it becomes cool in Evans' hands.

"Captain America" isn't the comic book work-of-art that "The Dark Knight" is, but it's a very good addition to the Marvel universe that includes "Iron Man," "Thor" and "The Hulk." I think most fans will put it nearly on the same level as "Iron Man" and whether you prefer it or "Iron Man" will likely depend on if you like the more in-your-face personality of "Iron Man" or the calmer tone of "Captain America."

Though I suppose we don't have to go around picking favorites...

Movie Review: I, Robot (2004)

Detective Dale Spooner (Smith) is hot on the trail of a possible homicidal robot case, which no one will give the light of day due to his outspoken anti-robot prejudice. But what he does find, when it's almost too late, will change the way the world views its electronic servants.

First of all, I never really got these future cyborg movies. Of all the shapes we can and have given robots to date, why humanoid? I understand the occasional humanoid, for one purpose or another, but how many functions would be more easily served with robots in different shapes? How many robots out there right now, working in hospitals or under water, or building cars, human-shaped? Not a one.

While we're on the subject of all these movies... that's exactly what this is. Terminator, The Matrix, I'm sure you could name a couple more. This is a perfect example of cut-and-paste movies: take 2 genres that work, in this case, robot invasion and Will Smith, and stick them together. Nothing wrong with that, when it comes to making a good movie, just makes it physically impossible to get a perfect score out of it. Not very original, though there are plenty of ways to go worse.

Despite the lack of originality, I have to say this is pretty entertaining. Maybe that's just me as a Smith fan speaking; there's not much other draw to this movie. There are a few funny moments ("Which one?" "One of us") and a few decent action scenes, but that's about it. It's a one man show, and they just happened to pick the right man to pull it off.

The effects are, of course, modern CGI, though not as bad as some. It's a good use of CGI effects: they're actually imitating something they can realistically imagine, and so it doesn't look like complete crap (even if the robots don't exactly look real either). They're far from awesome, but the robots also aren't the type of effects where you watch the whole movie thinking about how stupid they look (the Green Goblin immediately comes to mind as an example, though there are better ones out there).

Overall, you either like it or you don't. Analyze it, there's nothing in it for you. The originality is lacking, the acting in general isn't very inspirational. If you liked the Men In Black movies, you'll probably like I, Robot too, though don't expect it to be nearly as good.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review: Choices of One by Timothy Zahn

It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Rebel forces are searching for a new base of operations, and find that the Choices of One shape the futures of all. In the wake of the destruction of the Death Star, an Imperial governor on the edge of the Unknown Regions has approached the Alliance leadership and offered up a well mined moon as a new home base for them. But can he be trusted, or is this actually a well-set trap for the Rebels who are now being actively hunted by Darth Vader. Meanwhile, the Emperor has gotten word of his possible defection, and so dispatches his enforcer Mara Jade to determine the truth and respond with appropriate action. Mara knows she’s working in the unknown where all potential allies may be working against her – so she brings along the former Imperial soldiers now known as the Hand of Judgement as backup. The Rebellion sends along various teams to conduct their own investigations as well. Luke Skywalker assigned to the rebel ambassador in hammering out the details of the potential deal, but finds himself wrapped up in a plot way over his head, where he’s being set up as a patsy. While looking into the potential base of operations, Han and Leia come across another secret base within the mines, one that might have something to do with a warlord named Nuso Esva operating in the region. Nuso Esva is seen as a huge potential threat by Captain Thrawn, but who is actually the better tactician, and who will outmaneuver whom? I found Choices of One to be very refreshing read, in fact I think it’s Tim Zahn’s best book since Vision of the Future. Not only that, he proves again why he is the author to beat in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) with this novel. There is a fantastic moment - I hesitate to call it a twist - just near the end of the book that puts the whole thing on a whole new level. It's one of the only Star Wars books I can ever remember wanting to go back and reread immediately. The plot is a little like a cold war spy film, with intrigues and a tense undertone to the whole affair. This is the kind of book that someone who has walked away from the EU (or never tried it) could easily pick up and enjoy. But for long-time readers, many minor plot points start to bear fruit in this book. Hints that have been made in the past about the Chiss facing other threats start to come to a head. Zahn addresses retcons he himself has made over the years. He addresses the Empire of the Hand and we start to see how and why it was created. There’s a discrepancy that exists (though somewhat unacknowledged) in the 501st (during the movie era versus far later in the timeline) which is given a possible explanation in Choices of One. And there's a few really cool, unexpected cameos early in the book. The Hand of Judgement has more personality than I remember from Allegiance, where Zahn first introduced them. These former Stormtroopers are fully realized characters now, interesting with individual characteristics this time around. After Allegiance I’d have been happy to never hear from those characters again, but upon finishing Choices of One I find myself hoping that we picking up with these characters in another book. Thrawn is given a worthy nemesis in warlord Nuso Esva. For those, like me, who’ve questioned some of Thrawn’s appearances since the original Thrawn Trilogy and how different his character has seemed – Thrawn in Choices of One makes far more sense to me, and matches well with the character I remember. It is also said that Zahn mostly just builds off his own prior writings/additions to the Star Wars Expanded Universe – and yes, that can be said about this book as well. As I said near the beginning though, that kind of take can be kind of refreshing – he takes the time to fill in areas of the saga and ultimately it’s also the reason his books are far more approachable for new readers (or lapsed readers) than other Star Wars books might be. The hardest part for me in writing this review has been in keeping away from the surprise, it’s something any reader should do their best to avoid being spoiled on because it's worth discovering on your own while reading it. Choices of One is a great "one-shot" single book adventure - even as it could be both a continuation of the story from Allegiance, and could be used as a stepping stone to the next novel, should Zahn choose to use it as such. It has all the classic elements of Star Wars in it, with some great space battles and lightsaber-wielding, a rousing swashbuckling adventure. This is one of my favorite Star Wars novels, hands down, and I highly recommended it both to long time readers and those who are just looking for a single Star Wars story.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Giveaway! "Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence

Not too long ago I wrote how the beginning of Prince of Thorns made me uncomfortable. But after reading several very complimentary reviews I have to acknowledge that I have probably totally misjudged this book. I can live with being wrong-- but I can't stand the idea that I might have been unfair.

So, in the interest of fairness, I'd like to offer a copy of "Prince of Thorns" for giveaway (courtesy of Penguin Books) so that you may have the chance to read the book for yourself. I also need to give a quick nod to Mark Lawrence-- a great guy who showed nothing but respect for my point of view.

Product Description
A stunning fantasy debut from a major new talent!

When he was nine, he watched his mother and brother killed before him. By the time he was thirteen, he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king...

It's time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what's rightfully his. Since the day he was hung on the thorns of a briar patch and forced to watch Count Renar's men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him-and he has nothing left to lose.

But treachery awaits him in his father's castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce, can the will of one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?

Just add your information to the form below to enter (all information is guaranteed confidential and will be discarded once contest ends) and I will randomly select a winner by Thursday August 4th. No multiple entries please. All multiple entries will be discarded. Open everywhere.

Good luck!

**Contest Closed**

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review: "Mechanique" by Genevieve Valentine

One of the best things about blogging is the exposure to books I wouldn't have known about if it wasn't for the various relationships forged along the way. One of my favorite authors (Alex Bledsoe) recently recommended the book Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine and once I read that the story was about a "steampunk-flavored circus," I was in.

Mechanique is a meandering story, much like the circus it depicts. Set some time in a distant future in a world torn apart by bombs and fractured into townships led by petty government men, the Circus Tresaulti comes to town amid a minor fanfare of colorful posters and a parade through town to display their magnificent mechanical parts. You won't notice the slightly tattered condition of the circus tents as you marvel as the strongman with a clock set in his scrap-metal spine or the men who use their long, powerful steel arms as the swinging trapeze.

This isn't your usual circus in more than the obvious ways. It isn't the gears that sets these performers apart, it's their hollow, copper bones and the strange agelessness that comes with them. There's a magic that the ringmaster possesses, with her griffin tattoos, that no one quite understands. She weaves her spell over acrobats and jugglers, but it's the musical, haunted wings that really draw in the crowds-- at least they did once upon a time. Now the wings are a dream to those who fight over them.

But a larger enemy has an eye on the circus now... and he wants the boss's secrets to built the perfect army.

"Mechanique" is one of the most unique stories I have ever read because of the way it was written. When I say 'meandering' I mean it. The narrative jumps around quite a bit and the timeline is rather confusing at first. It took me a good fifty pages to get a grip on the story. And it isn't just the timeline that's confusing. Valentine uses a parenthesis throughout the book to offer asides in the story and it confusing until you catch on to the rhythm of the book. But then a strange thing happens; you get caught up in the story and the confusion melts away.

Everything about this story skips around, perhaps in sympathy with the nomadic lives of the circus performers themselves: Boss, the ringleader with the mysterious capability to grant hollow bones and immortality; Panadrome, the one-man band who is never without his instruments; Elena, the hard leader of the trapeze artists who may or may not hide a caring heart behind a cold exterior; Little George, the barker who desperately wants to get his bones and belong to the circus once and for all; Ayar, who took the bones against his will to save his partner Jonah; and Alec, the man who wore the musical wings crafted of bone and gold who slowly went mad with their tormented legacy. Many of the performers are former soldiers who take to the unsettled life in the circus because it has it's own stability and sense of family.

The things that could be a detriment to the book end up being its strength because the unusual style adds to the sense of magic. It has a flair and flow that's hard to describe but easy to recommend. It's not one of those books that bombards you with action, though it has more than its share. Valentine parcels out the accounts of the characters and their histories and leaves enough of the setting as a blank page for us to fill in with our imagination. Some things never change, like the character of the "government man"-- some truths are obvious to any reader. Just as the cost of war is also universal at any time and any place. And it's the combination of the surreal circus superimposed over the dystopian landscape that makes "Mechanique" stand out in such a memorable way.

I really liked "Mechanique." The combination of the circus with the steampunk elements works so well. It's just a genius combination. And I think that the marriage of style and substance utilized in this work takes it beyond something interesting and turns it into something special.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

"The Thing" Trailer

"Hugo" Trailer

Monday, July 18, 2011

Movie Review: Blade (1998)

Blade, the human-vampire hybrid, has been leading the war on the denizens of the night for years. Now, as a power-hungry vampire seeks to escalate the war, Blade may be all that stands between humanity and devastation. Most of us are taught from a young age that first impressions are everything. If that's the case, then Blade definitely delivers. I don't know what it is about the opening club scene- the trippiness, the impossible red of the blood-doused skin, or something else- but it hooks me every time I watch it. Blade is the definitive action antihero - he's unstoppable, he's got an attitude, and he's not exactly the sociable type. If nothing more, that makes for an entertaining movie. Now, if only he would just work with the vampires. Like any good action movie Blade has plenty of comic relief, even if it is a bit piecemeal. You've got Quinn, the biker-enforcer type guy that makes you wonder what the brain capacity requirements for second in command of evil are. You've got The Pearl, whose alter ego seems to be The Worst Liar Ever. You've got lines like the first one Blade delivers, which only differ from the art of Samuel L. Jackson by a fraction of a hair. And, of course, you've got the twenty or so incarnations of "I'm gonna rip your head off", all of which end with Blade hitting them almost before the threat is over. Being an action-horror-comic movie, Blade has some decent gore. Unlike many traditional vampire images, where there is nothing visible after a bite but a quiet slit on the neck, there's blood all over the place here. It splashes all over the vampires face, the victims' shoulder, and generally a whole lot more bestial. Most of the gore and effects are surprisingly realistic. The exploding heads, etc., particularly Frost, are probably the worst effects in the movie. The first head cleans itself up nicely with a splash of good, dark blood. Frost, on the other hand, is preceded by a bunch of ugly CGI blood and ends with more of the same. The movie's not perfect, if I've been giving you that impression. There are a few loose ends, failed morals, etc. as well. I had to go into the Special Features to figure out why Quinn was so much harder to kill than the other vampires. I still don't get why everybody was after Blade in the hospital, despite the fact that he was attacking a 'corpse' who had just killed a doctor in plain site of everyone. I have yet to discover if Blade eats beyond his serum. Finally, the one obvious attempt at dealing with racism (even going so far as to use the title 'Uncle Tom') ended itself immediately when the same person who said "do you think the humans will ever accept you?" referred to humanity as "cattle". One part of the plot that should have been done without is the return of Blade's mother. Really, there was no need for her. None at all. Except, of course, for the immense sexual tension between mother and son to lead up to the most sexual scene in the movie: the orgasm caused by the longest blood drinking ever. All in all, Blade's pretty good if you like action movies. It's a little too much of an action movie, invoking such cliches as declaring Blade "the chosen one", but it's entertaining, has some good gore, and has some well-acted characters.

"The Dark Knight Rises" Teaser Trailer

There are no words for how much I am looking forward to this. ::fans self in excitement::

Items Received

The Ascension: Super Human Clash by Michael Carroll

They'd done it. Not only had Roz, Abby, Lance, and Thunder survived their first battle with a super villain, they'd defeated him. Krodin was dead, and they had saved the world. Now everything could go back to normal-good old, boring normal. School. Parents. Friends.
But three weeks later, the world suddenly changes. The United States is under martial law, the people are little more than drones, and where Central Park should be there now stands a massive glass-and-steel building, home to the all-powerful Chancellor.
In Michael Carroll's follow-up to the acclaimed Super Human, the world has been remade in the Chancellor's image, and it's about to get much much worse. Only this young band of heroes has a chance of stopping him, but can they return the world to what it was, or will they be stranded in this alternate world forever?

One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire

October "Toby" Daye is settling into her new role as Countess of Goldengreen. She's actually dating again, and she's taken on Quentin as her squire. So, of course, it's time for things to take a turn for the worse.
Someone has kidnapped the sons of the regent of the Undersea Duchy of Saltmist. To prevent a war between land and sea, Toby must find the missing boys and prove the Queen of the Mists was not behind their abduction. Toby's search will take her from the streets of San Francisco to the lands beneath the waves, and her deadline is firm: she must find the boys in three days' time, or all of the Mists will pay the price. But someone is determined to stop her-and whoever it is isn't playing by Oberon's Laws...

7th Sigma by Steven Gould

Welcome to the territory. Leave your metal behind, all of it. The bugs will eat it, and they’ll go right through you to get it…Don’t carry it, don’t wear it, and for god’s sake don’t come here if you’ve got a pacemaker.
The bugs showed up about fifty years ago--self-replicating, solar-powered, metal-eating machines. No one knows where they came from. They don’t like water, though, so they’ve stayed in the desert Southwest. The territory. People still live here, but they do it without metal. Log cabins, ceramics, what plastic they can get that will survive the sun and heat. Technology has adapted, and so have the people.
Kimble Monroe has chosen to live in the territory. He was born here, and he is extraordinarily well adapted to it. He’s one in a million. Maybe one in a billion.
In 7th Sigma, Gould builds an extraordinary SF novel of survival and personal triumph against all the odds.

In Memories We Fear by Barb Hendee

Elisha Clevon lives a quiet life--for a vampire-- in Portland, Oregon. She has learned to feed without killing humans and to train others of her kind. Along with her protector, Philip Brante, and their human companion Wade Sheffield, she seeks out other vampires to offer them a community and to teach them to live in peace with humans.

When a series of killings in England points to a new-- and feral-- vampire, Elisha, Philip and Wade travel to London to make contact with the terrified creature and to offer him sanctuary to stop the bloodshed. But the vampire they find is not what they expect. Maxim is centuries old, with no memory of anything other than living in the forest and living off animals. Now he's gained a taste for human blood. Philip thinks he's too dangerous to save, but Elisha won't give up-- even at the cost of Philip's love and her own life.

The Paradise Prophecy by Robert Browne

A spectacular thriller inspired by John Milton's Paradise Lost in which the final chapter of the War in Heaven is about to play out on Earth, with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance.
The Myth
When God cast the archangel Satan into Hell, ending the War in Heaven, peace prevailed on Earth. Until the fallen angels took revenge in the Garden of Eden. Ever since, mankind has been in a struggle between good and evil, paradise and apocalypse: the fall of Rome, The Crusades, World Wars, nuclear proliferation, the Middle East Crisis... The War in Heaven never really ended-it just changed venues. For millennia, God's angels have been fighting Satan's demons on Earth, all in hopes of bringing about Satan's greatest ambition, the Apocalypse.
The Reality
Satan has never been closer to his goal than right now.
Agent Bernadette Callahan is a talented investigator at a shadowy government organization known only as Section, on the trail of a serial killer with nearly supernatural abilities. Sebastian "Batty" LaLaurie is a religious historian who knows far too much about the other side- and that hard-earned knowledge is exactly what Callahan needs. This unlikely duo pair up for a race across the globe, decoding clues left in ancient texts from the Bible to Paradise Lost and beyond. In the process they stumble upon a vast conspiracy-one beyond the scope of mankind's darkest imagination.

Sucker Punch Two Disc Extended Blu Ray Pack

Product Description
Born from the creative vision of filmmaker Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300), this epic action fantasy launches from the vivid imagination of a young girl whose dream world provides the ultimate escape from her darker reality. Locked away against her will, Babydoll (Emily Browning) has not lost her will to survive. Determined to fight for her freedom, she urges four fellow captives – outspoken Rocket (Jena Malone), street-smart Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), fiercely loyal Amber (Jamie Chung) and reluctant Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) – to band together and try to escape their terrible fate at the hands of their captors Blue (Oscar Isaac), Madam Gorki (Carla Gugino) and the High Roller (Jon Hamm).

Heartless by Gail Carriger

Lady Alexia Maccon, soulless, is at it again, only this time the trouble is not her fault. When a mad ghost threatens the queen, Alexia is on the case, following a trail that leads her deep into her husband's past. Top that off with a sister who has joined the suffragette movement (shocking!), Madame Lefoux's latest mechanical invention, and a plague of zombie porcupines and Alexia barely has time to remember she happens to be eight months pregnant.
Will Alexia manage to determine who is trying to kill Queen Victoria before it is too late? Is it the vampires again or is there a traitor lurking about in wolf's clothing? And what, exactly, has taken up residence in Lord Akeldama's second best closet?

When the Saints by Dave Duncan

When we left the Brothers Magnus, they had assembled in Cardice to help Anton Magnus defend the castle from attack by a neighboring state with a significant military advantage and several officers who at any moment could request help from saints—or, depending on your perspective, from the devil.
But Cardice has a secret weapon in the form of young Wulfgang Magnus, who can ask a few favors of his own from these devil-saints. The only problem is that Wulf is in love with Madlenka, the countess from Cardice who was forcibly married to Anton to explain why he’s suddenly leading the country.
Even Wulf is unsure if family and political loyalty should override love. He’s also beginning to realize that the magical battle he’s stepped into has some serious rules that he doesn’t know, and has no way to learn. And when several wild cards in every battle can tap into nearly limitless sources of magic, who knows how far and wide the battle might range?
This stunning continuation of the story begun in Speak to the Devil amps up the romance and intrigue, while letting readers spend more time with master fantasist Dave Duncan’s unique, complex, and ornery-but-delightful characters.

The First Days: As the World Dies by Rhiannon Frater

Rhiannon Frater’s As the World Dies trilogy is an internet sensation. The first two books, The First Days and Fighting to Survive, have won the Dead Letter Award for Best Novel from Mail Order Zombie. The First Days was named one of the Best Zombie Books of the Decade by the Harrisburg Book Examiner. AmericanHorrorBlog calls Rhiannon Frater “a writer to watch.”
The morning that the world ends, Katie is getting ready for court and housewife Jenni is taking care of her family. Less than two hours later, they are fleeing for their lives from a zombie horde.
Thrown together by circumstance, Jenni and Katie become a powerful zombie-killing partnership, mowing down zombies as they rescue Jenni’s stepson, Jason, from an infected campground.
They find sanctuary in a tiny, roughly fortified Texas town. There Jenni and Katie find they are both attracted to Travis, leader of the survivors; and the refugees must slaughter people they know, who have returned in zombie form.
Fast-paced and exciting, filled with characters who grab your heart, The First Days: As the World Dies is the beginning of a frightening trilogy.

Shadow Kin by M.J. Scott

On one side, the Night World, rules by the Blood Lords and the Beast Kind. On the other, the elusive Fae and the humans, protected by their steadfast mages...
Born a wraith, Lily is a shadow who slips between worlds. Brought up by a Blood Lord and raised to be his assassin, she is little more than a slave. But when Lily meets her match in target Simon DuCaine, the unlikely bond that develops between them threatens to disrupt an already stretched peace in a city on the verge of being torn apart...

A Blight of Mages by Karen Miller

Hundreds of years before the great Mage War, a land lies, unknowing, on the edge of catastrophe...
Barl is young and impulsive, but she has a power within that calls to her. In her city, however, only those of noble blood and with the right connections learn the ways of the arcane. Barl is desperate to learn-but her eagerness to use her power leads her astray and she is banned from ever learning the mystic arts.
Morgan holds the key to her education. A member of the Council of Mages, he lives to maintain the status quo, preserve the mage bloodlines, and pursue his scholarly experiments. But Barl's power intrigues him-in spite of her low status.
Together, he realizes they can create extraordinary new incantations. Morgan's ambition and Barl's power make a potent combination. What she does not see is the darkness in him that won't be denied.
A Blight of Mages is the new novel set in the world of Karen Miller's bestselling debut The Innocent Mage.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Review: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

Aside from the fact that the title has gotten a little ridiculous, The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught, this is easily the most approachable book in this series from Jack Campbell since Dauntless (the first book) and one of the best in general as well. This is saying a lot about a book series that I continue to praise with nearly every release, but it’s no less true with this book than it was in the past. Upon the conclusion of a centuries-long war in the stars between various factions of humanity, it has been revealed than an alien presence has been orchestrating said war to keep humanity otherwise occupied with its own conflict and remain unaware of the aliens’ existence. But now Admiral John Geary, who has managed to end one war, may be faced with starting up a new war in its place. Fearing his war hero status, the Allied Worlds’ Government gives Black Jack Geary command of the fleet and a new mission – to explore the territory of the aliens and try to make peaceful contact. This despite the fact that the aliens have repeatedly warned humanity to stay away, have used weapons of mass destruction on humanity to ensure their privacy, and are suspected to have captured humans who ventured into their space before, never to return. As Admiral Geary returns the fleet under his command to action, he finds a whole new set of problems than when he was first put in charge. Now he’s bringing along soldiers who were ready to put war behind them and ships that are beginning to fall apart with no funds to fix them. He’s got commanders who now respect him, but now they’re looking to live up to his example and try to make the kinds of daring decisions he’s known for so that they can impress him. His government liaison is a woman with whom he had a prior relationship – which is awkward enough, made worse by the fact that he’s now married to one of the Captains in his fleet, so jealousy runs high. And the liaison is hiding something from him, a fact made worse by the errand the fleet is forced to run prior to arriving in alien controlled space, as they pick up POWs which include her husband and other high ranking military personnel, Admiral Geary may find his own place within the fleet coming into question once again. While reading the prior 6 books in The Lost Fleet series is a good idea because they are excellent books in their own right, it’s not necessary in order to read and enjoy Dreadnaught. This book goes out of its way to make sure it is new reader friendly, and it achieves it in multiple ways. First, everything and anything you might need to know about the prior series is explained in the pages of this book, and it’s never done in a boring fashion. In fact, it serves as an excellent reminder even for those who have read the books, since it’s been seven years now since the release of the first book. Never once did I feel like it was a dry retelling, only the memories of the events that have shaped this series so far as thought of or discussed by various characters. One of my biggest complaints about the prior books in this series was the very technical way in which space battles were described. I’m sure they were agonizingly correct in their physics, but they made for boring reading. Well, Dreadnaught removed most of that techno-speak and boiled down the space battles to a much more manageable level. Perhaps part of it is that Admiral Geary now trusts his commanders to make the right moves and therefore he does less direct orders to them, but it seemed like an authorial choice to cut back on that kind of detail. There’s still enough detail given in the battle that I can picture what’s going on, without my having to skip over paragraphs that I just can’t follow. I found this to be a huge improvement and one that also makes this book very approachable for newcomers. It’s still a tight 3rd person novel, meaning the reader is only ever privy to John Geary’s point of view. This is both a boon and a bane to the story. On the one hand, the reader will get to know John Geary very well – and he’s a very likeable character so that’s not a bad thing. On the other hand, I’d like to get to know some of the other characters better as well, and really all we ever know about them is through Geary’s interactions with them. At the same time, it also can make for a more intriguing novel, just as Geary doesn’t know the motivations of other characters, so we too as readers are kept in the dark. That means the secrets aren’t revealed until the author is good and ready to let both the reader and the character know. I’m not sure this is something I would change about the book, but I will be curious to see what Jack Campbell plans to do with his “The Phoenix Stars” series that he had previously mentioned was in development, taking place in the former Syndic controlled human space – the prior enemies of the Alliance. Will that series also be written from one perspective, or will it include a larger cast range. I suppose I should warn that Dreadnaught does have a bit of a cliffhanger ending, not terrible, but certainly an ending that begs for resolution in the next book. This is a pattern with most of Jack Campbell’s books in this series (with the exception of Victorious) so it’s to be expected, but if you’re looking for a stand-alone type novel that’s not really what you’re going to find here. Still, it’s a great starting point for new readers, and I highly recommend it for the scifi fans out there.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Giveaway! "The First Days" by Rhiannon Frater

Courtesy of Tor Books I have a copy of The First Days: As the World Dies by Rhiannon Frater to offer for giveaway.

Rhiannon Frater’s As the World Dies trilogy is an internet sensation. The first two books, The First Days and Fighting to Survive, have won the Dead Letter Award for Best Novel from Mail Order Zombie. The First Days was named one of the Best Zombie Books of the Decade by the Harrisburg Book Examiner. AmericanHorrorBlog calls Rhiannon Frater “a writer to watch.”
The morning that the world ends, Katie is getting ready for court and housewife Jenni is taking care of her family. Less than two hours later, they are fleeing for their lives from a zombie horde.

Thrown together by circumstance, Jenni and Katie become a powerful zombie-killing partnership, mowing down zombies as they rescue Jenni’s stepson, Jason, from an infected campground.
They find sanctuary in a tiny, roughly fortified Texas town. There Jenni and Katie find they are both attracted to Travis, leader of the survivors; and the refugees must slaughter people they know, who have returned in zombie form.

Fast-paced and exciting, filled with characters who grab your heart, The First Days: As the World Dies is the beginning of a frightening trilogy.

Just add your information to the form below to enter (all information is guaranteed confidential and will be discarded once contest ends) and I will randomly pick one winner by Thursday July 28th. No multiple entries please-- all multiple entries will be discarded. Open everywhere.

Good luck!

**Contest Closed**

Winner! - "Dead Iron" by Devon Monk"

I have randomly selected the winner of a contest I had up featuring "Dead Iron" by Devon Monk.

And the winner is--

Giada Mariani; Italy

Congrats Giada!

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" Trailer

Love me some Robert Downey Jr.

"Sucker Punch"- I Don't Care What You Think, I'm Gonna Like This Movie

After reading all the reviews for Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch I was sure it was going to be complete dreck. I thought I'd be subjected to non-stop scenes of violence perpetrated against women and/or an incomprehensible mess of a plot. What I found instead was a movie that I think was completely misunderstood by most of its audience.

Part of what compelled me to review "Sucker Punch" was all the hate directed at it. I can't say I've loved all of Zack Snyder's films myself but I do know that his movies have been well received in the past. I found myself wondering what entertainment faux pas was committed by Snyder to put the bullseye on his back-- and I think I figured it out. This isn't a movie for teenage boys. In fact, I'd argue that women are more likely to understand what Snyder was going for here.

Baby Doll (the heartbreakingly beautiful Emily Browning) is brought to a mental institution after an altercation with her sleazy stepfather results in the death of her younger sister. She learns that she has five days until a doctor (John Hamm) is brought in to give her a lobotomy. Like many people who are the victims of trauma or abuse Baby Doll retreats to an imaginary world to cope with her circumstances.

There are two fantasy worlds that figure into Baby Doll's imagination. The first layer is one in which she imagines that she has been brought into a brothel, disguised as a burlesque theater, that is run by Blue (Oscar Isaac). Each girl is taught to dance and told by their dance instructor (the 'real-life' psychiatrist)  Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino) that their best chance of survival is to prove useful by being able to dance. When prompted to dance Baby Doll finds herself transported to yet another world where she is told by the Wise Man (Scott Glenn) that she will need five objects to escape and sends her on a quest that exists in both the brothel and the hyper-reality of the second dream.

When Baby Doll awakens from her dream with the Wise Man she finds out that her dance is so compelling that no one can look away while she dances. So she enlists the help of the other girls in the asylum to track down the needed objects while Baby Doll keeps the men distracted. The other girls include Rocket (Jenna Malone), her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). Rocket has a special affinity with Baby Doll after she is saved by Baby during an attack by the cook at the asylum. Her sister, Sweet Pea, reluctantly agrees to the plan on the condition that the girls abandon their scheme if things get too dangerous.

After the set-up the film then moves into stylized action sequence portion of the story. As each girl sneaks away to steal the items for their escape, Baby Doll begins her dance and enters the fantasy world in which she and the rest of the girls go to battle. They fight mechanized German soldiers, slay dragons, fly in warships and attack flying machines straight out of a steampunk drawing. It's a slow moving, ethereal feast for the eyes.

Most reviews I've read are frequently punctuated with accusations of misogyny because Baby Doll envisions herself in a brothel for much of the film. The critics say what kind of movie about female empowerment has the women dress up in skimpy outfits and work as prostitutes? The mistake these reviews make is that they think this is supposed to be about female empowerment.

Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I'm an expert on misogyny-- no more so than any other woman. But I know what it's like to live the female experience. I know that no matter how many on-screen fictions we see in which women plow through the enemy, we cannot so easily deal with external threats from men. We are physically at the mercy of a gender that is much stronger than us and most women worldwide are not as fortunate as us who live in the westernized world. We may have the benefit of "No Means No" campaigns, but how well do you think that would go over in Middle Eastern cultures that are strongly male oriented? And if we, as women, were so able to fight back as our entertainment would have us believe we could, would we need those kind of campaigns in the first place?

These are the things I think of when I watch "Sucker Punch." These women are not empowered; nor are they destined to become so. They are helpless and at the mercy of the men who rule their world. It's not that Baby Doll wants to be in a brothel, but it's a concept she can use. As a woman in a hopeless situation, the only ammunition she has is her sexuality. And despite all the cries of objectification! there is nothing explicit about "Sucker Punch." We aren't subjected to rape scenes because they are never brought to fulfillment. That's right; no one is actually raped. No one is prancing around nude either. In that context I can't help but wonder what the *real* cause of all the nonsense accusations of women-hating this movie has drawn because I never hear any of these people complain when women are trotted out as eye-candy in films like "XXX" in which a women is shown gyrating on a bed purely for the entertainment of the hero of the film as a sexual prop. Did I somehow miss the outcry? How many people complaining about this turn off the TV in disgust when James Bond has his latest casual fling with a woman with a semi-obscene name?

I think the sin that was committed by "Sucker Punch" is that it wasn't a revenge fantasy. It wasn't a movie that delivered the "proper" ending. It was about the way women survive when they're out of options. The sacrifices they make and the things they will endure are not the action oriented themes that I'd guess the audience for this film were expecting. I can understand the complaints that center around the lack of character development; that's fair. And if you thought it was slow-- I can accept that. But saying it's sexist is not something I can let stand without opposition. And when you get right down to it, the women fare much better than the men in terms of characterization. The women are empathetic and seeing their suffering is hard-- and it makes the men look even worse in comparison. And I think that's the real itch that can't be scratched in terms of why this film isn't universally liked. Rather than purely entertain, it makes some people uncomfortable.

I'm used to going against the grain when it comes to films in the sci-fi/fantasy realm. I didn't get the hoopla over "Avatar" and, though I liked "Inception," I don't go into fits of ecstasy at the mere mention of its name. So take my opinion with a grain of salt- but I liked "Sucker Punch." As well I might like a movie told from a woman's point-of-view. One that borrows more from something like "Moulin Rouge" than "300." I don't know if I can say this is a "woman's" film because you have to be a certain kind of woman to appreciate an action film with a feminine perspective--and I guess I'm that kind of girl.

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Transformers 3"-- Pick an Audience Already!

**Spoilers Included**

If there's one thing I can say about the "Transformers" film franchise-- it's predictable. If you've seen one, you know what you're getting into if you decide to see the next one. Which is great for me in that I don't need to write a traditional film review for a film like this-- my opinion is unlikely to be necessary.

That said, the latest movie in the franchise, The Dark Side of the Moon did surprise me a little bit by it's inclusion of darker themes. However, any improvement this franchise might have achieved by growing up a little is undercut by the determination to also pander to the youngest audience members who are more interested in watching live action-figures than seeing a movie with a logical story line.

"The Dark Side of the Moon" picks up the story of Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBouf), who is now a college graduate in search of a job. Inexplicably the likable, but slightly nebbish guy, has found another incomprehensibly hot girlfriend (Rosie Huntington Whiteley) to take for granted. Struggling to find a job that "matters" Sam frequently bemoans the fact that he has saved the world twice but can't get a better job than working in the mail-room for Bruce Brazos (John Malcovich). In a plot-skipping coincidence Sam's new job brings him into contact with a former NASA employee Jerry Wang (the hilarious Ken Leung from "The Hangover") who has some information about Autobot technology NASA recovered during the iconic first U.S. mission to the moon and proof that humans are conspiring with Decepticons to take over the planet.

Passing on the information to Sam proves fatal for Wang and in the ensuing aftermath Sam witnesses the return of the Decepticons and rushes to tell the Autobots, now working for Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand), the Director of National Intelligence. Mearing rebuffs Sam's information which forces Sam to recruit his former nemesis and Sector Seven field agent Seymour Simmons (John Turturo). The plot starts chugging along at this point as Sam begins to put together the pieces of the mystery surrounding technology retrieved by both American and Russian cosmonauts. That information leads Optimus Prime to head a mission to the Moon where he finds the former leader of the Autobots, Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy) and five pillars that form part of a space bridge to Cybertron. But the illusion that the pillars are safe from the Decepticons is short-lived as Sentinel Prime soon reveals that he had formed a secret alliance with the Decepticons during the war on Cybertron and that he intends to use the pillars to bring Cybertron to Earth and rebuild the planet using slave labor from Earth.

Once the movie establishes its factions of good guys and bad guys it moves into almost non-stop action mode and seems to turn into one frenetic chase scene after another. But I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge that this particular "Transformers" movie has some of the most compelling moments in the whole series. The audience can't be surprised by the transformation of the robots anymore and we're used to the massive destruction the huge machines leave behind, so the story has to deliver as it can't solely rely on the CGI anymore-- and in some respects it does. The story takes a considerably darker turn as the battle turns from being just between the Autobots and the Decepticons as the bad guys start targeting humans and the body count rises. For a while we see what a full-blown invasion movie looks like Transformers-style.

However "Transformers 3" has the same problem, to a lesser extent, that "Transformers 2" had-- what audience are they targeting exactly?

When the first Transformers movie came out I went and saw the movie beforehand to make sure it was appropriate for my kids to go see. It was loud, harmless fun so we took our kids and they loved it. When the second one came out we let the kids watch it with the presumption that it would be similar to the first and were somewhat dismayed by the more juvenile aspects of the script including humping dogs and the increasingly frequent potty-mouth of Sam's mom. But we figured that we survived movies with some racy content when we were kids ("Grease" comes to mind) thanks to the fact that it was completely over our heads. But, again, Michael Bay changed the rules on me and took the violence to a new level by showing people getting blown up (bones flying and everything) which had me frequently checking to see if my kids were getting alarmed (Inexplicably my daughter fell asleep).

Normally I would be championing a film that, as the third in a series, strives to evolve; and in a way I still want to give the movie some praise for making the effort. But there is a huge incongruity in a film series that also includes so much childish appeal. You have heroes that look like over-sized Tonka trucks that often act like the children's toys they are. Much of the set-up includes over-the-top slapstick humor that doesn't necessarily jibe with the second half of the film. It isn't that the various elements can't co-exist, but such wild swings in mood can be a bit jarring.

The other challenge that comes with watching "Transformers 3" is that the suspension of disbelief required is so great that it's an almost overwhelming obstacle. The least challenging thing to believe is that Sam Witwicky could get an even hotter girlfriend this time around-- and that's saying something. The action sequences in this movie are loooooong. One particular set piece takes place in a high rise building that is first nearly cut in half (but the top half remains standing) and then is chewed up by an enormous Decepticon from the bottom up. The heroes are tossed around like dolls, thrown in and out of the building and basically stalked by monsters who have no reason to be coy when they could just open fire and be done with it. The visuals are great, but don't necessarily make any sense. The Transformers are so massive that you just can't credit the amazing survival of the humans who come into contact with them-- much less the fact that they so often come through completely unscathed.

One of the most enjoyable elements of "Transformers 3" is the supporting cast. John Malcovich is always fun, though I would have loved to have seen more of him. Frances McDormand is given a good amount of screen time, and does appear to have fun; though she doesn't quite have the scenery chewing flair that you might expect of a top-flight actress slumming it in an action flick. But Alan Tudyk has got to get the award for being the main scene-stealer as Dutch, the German sidekick to John Turturo's character. Much has been said of the lovely Rosie Huntington-Whiteley-- mostly to knock her acting skills. But I'm actually going to say that I found her to be much better than Megan Fox-- and did we really think she was hired for her acting skills?

Many have said that "Transformers 3" is the best of the franchise and I might be inclined to agree. But overall I'm not sure what that's worth when it comes to a series that is likable in a bull-in-a-china-shop kind of way. I've often thought that there were a lot of missed opportunities when it came to these movies because films don't often get the chance to explore the idea of friendly aliens coexisting with mankind; and there is really no attempt to try to capitalize on what could be the foundation of a half-way thoughtful idea. Instead the trend continues in which the plot vacillates between silliness and violence, with some crude sexuality thrown in for good measure. There are some genuinely fun moments and it goes without saying that the third installment of the series is significantly better than the second. I will admit that I was sucked into the film and did enjoy it; but I also spent a decent amount of time cringing at some of the things being presented by film makers who had to know the audience was going to include children. Next time, and you know there will be a next time thanks to the box office receipts, I preview the movie first.

Brightest Day: Volume 1

The DC Blackest Night event and its prologues were filled with interesting characters and events, setting the stage for massive changes in the DC Universe that almost demanded an epic follow-up. How does the beginning of the sequel event, Brightest Day fare?
If the first two issues of Blackest Night had a lot of setup, then the first 8-issue volume of Brightest Day is the very definition. Every event that takes place in Brightest Day Volume 1 is setup; even when things happen, it’s only to set the characters into position for setup to take place. Not sure how this can be?
Brightest Day follows the story of Deadman, the formerly dead hero now forced to wander at the mercy of the Entity, the embodiment of life in the universe awakened by beings with similar intent and now carrying out its own agenda, to ends as yet unknown to the world’s heroes. Following the events of Blackest Night, Deadman found himself unwillingly among the living and being warped from place to place, witnessing the lives of his fellow resurrected.
Notice something missing? For those who didn’t much appreciate the emphasis that Blackest Night placed on Geoff Johns’s star heroes, the Silver Age Green Lantern and Flash, rejoice! For the rest of us… not so much. Hal and Barry barely play a role here, mostly to exposit information as they did in the beginning of Blackest Night, in this case by visiting the resurrected with Deadman playing the role of an invisible witness. They visit just a handful of the twelve main characters of this series before stepping off the screen.
Other than Deadman, the only one to retain his white ring, the White Lantern draftees go on with their lives in varyious ways. Several of the resurrected are immediately incarcerated by the Justice League, while others register with the Justice League only to take some alone time. The Martian Manhunter takes to life as a botanist on his homeworld, while Hawkman and Hawkgirl set out to permanently end the source of the curse that it seems the white light has freed them from, at least temporarily. Ronnie Raymond, the former Firestorm, faces the fallout from his actions as a Black Lantern- actions that he doesn’t even remember, let alone have control over- and finds himself part of Firestorm once more, this time, with three minds instead of two. And remember, three’s a crowd.
But I can’t focus on that too much, now. Remember, there are twelve potential plots (eleven, if you consider Hawkman and Hawkgirl as a single plot and ten if you consider Deadman as just storytelling adhesive, although he does face his own challenges brought on by the Entity demanding that he embrace life) and each one must be touched upon in almost every issue.
I’ve got to admit, as somebody who’s barely familiar with most of these characters (Atom, the Hawks) and not familiar at all in some cases (Osiris, who appears to be Black Adam-lite and even uses Black Adam’s name in place of “Shazam!”), this just drags. And drags. I can’t say Blackest Night had the same problem. Yes, I had some base familiarity with Aquaman, but he was already dead, and I knew absolutely nothing about Mera. Jason of the new Firestorm has transformed from a college student who just doesn’t want to think too hard about the future into an angry kid who blames his fellow victims for his misfortunes, something that Black Lantern Firestorm is particularly keen on assisting him with.
Why the sudden changes in the characters? Why is the plot so much harder to focus on all of a sudden, and the characters so much more difficult to follow? I assume part of the reason to be the noble cause of trying to connect readers with more obscure heroes, once with less ties to what we know and with less standard story arcs. The other reason? This one’s not hard to see. In fact, if you walk into the bookstore and look on the shelf, you can see it.
On Blackest Night, the name takes up less than half of the binding, leaving space for the name of the writer and one of the artists on its binding. Why? DC was obviously promoting the best of the best, expecting names such as that of popular writer Geoff Johns to sell the book to those that Blackest Night didn’t already hook.
Brightest Day by contrast, leaves room for nothing but the title on the binding. Is it a lack of talent involved? I look in the book and no, Geoff Johns’s name still appears in the credits, as does a number of the artistic skill involved in Blackest Night. The colors don’t seem any worse for wear. But as I browse the rest of the credits, I realize that while more than half of the creative team behind Blackest Night returned for Brightest Day, the familiar names are still a minority. Geoff Johns is no longer the solo (nor, I assume, primary) writer, and several artists have been added. What results is a book pulled in too many directions, the art dumbed down so that many characters that appeared particularly striking in Blackest Night are much less distinct or compelling visually here.
For an example of how simplified these characters were, in her first scene I wouldn’t have recognized Mera had she not been sleeping with Aquaman. The Martian Manhunter faces a similar makeover, as do many of the humans. As somebody who grew up drawing on a daily basis, I can tell you how hard it is to make human faces of similar complexion, gender, build and emotion distinct. The artistic team behind Blackest Night had the knack. The artistic team behind Brightest Day, more often than not, do not.
Now that I’ve compared this book to one of the best comic events I’ve read in recent years, how does it stand on its own? Well, several of the stories have potential. I’m genuinely interested in this serial killing Martian that J’on J’onzz is investigating, just as I’m somewhat interested in this world that Hawkman and Hawkgirl find themselves on- given the assumption that portals to other worlds created of rituals involving doorways of bones are something that needs little explanation in their world, which is a huge assumption if I’ve ever made one. I’m not entirely apathetic to the whole point behind the Brightest Day plot either, even if some aspects seem entirely contrived (why is the Entity telling one man their purpose is to attempt to kill someone, and somebody else that their purpose is to prevent it when that happens?).
The thing is, each of these plots are just barely starting- save those that are only given a cursory glance and then ignored till near the end of the volume, when The Entity explains their purpose for being resurrected- meaning that, after potentially having spent thirty dollars on this book, I’m barely invested in any of the characters or plots. In fact, if I were to find out that the plot threads featured in such spin-offs as Brightest Day: Green Lantern were not to feature at all in the remaining volumes of Brightest Day (as I believe they don’t), I probably would not be anywhere near as willing to spend money on them as I was this one. In fact, I’ll need to hear pretty good things to buy the next one, even with all I’ve put into this series myself.
And that’s where it really comes down to it: recommendation. Was there a compelling story? Yes… and no. There were literally a dozen stories, and each has the potential to be compelling. Is the art good? The art is okay… but it’s nothing to recommend the book for on its own, unlike Blackest Night. Are the characters interesting? Well, the character dynamics are sometimes worth watching, and J’onn J’onzz has been known to feature in some interesting stories, but so far we haven’t seen enough of any one character to recommend it for them. Do the events pertain to readers of DC? I don’t even think the events in this novel are entirely necessary for readers of Brightest Day. This entire volume is setup, with many plots in the same place they were in the beginning at the end, with a small amount of character development covered. The Martian Manhunter’s plot and the Hawks’ plots are by far the ones with the most development, and each of these features in few enough pages that they’d be hard pressed to collect them all and call them a single issue. It’s not out yet, but I have a feeling most readers could pick up Brightest Day Volume 2, ignore a few small questions (or even better, have editor’s explanation boxes like they used to) and jump right into the story without having to sit through 256 pages of setup. Unless you’re a huge fan of Deadman, Dove and Hawk, Martian Hunter or Hawkman and Hawkgirl, that’s my recommendation.

The Man in Black is a weekly review at Fantasy & Sci-Fi Lovin' News & Reviews. For more of his reviews, you can visit his home page at