Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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A Monster Calls

May 12, 2011

Nearly two years ago, a friend handed me a book, and told me

“Read the first page. I guarantee you’ll want to read the rest.”

It took 23 words.

That book was The Knife of Never Letting Go  by Patrick Ness. I started reading it that night. I finished reading it the next. Or rather, early the next morning.

Luckily, it was only a short wait for the second book in the series – The Ask and The Answer.

The third book – Monsters of Men –  took an agonizingly long amount of time to be released, but it was very much worth the wait. I purchased the book, and had to resist trying to read it as I walked home. I finished that book in a single sitting as well.

This evening, I went to the launch of Patrick Ness’ new novel A Monster Calls. (From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd.)

After the impact the Chaos Walking trilogy had, I should have been ready for A Monster Calls. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to resist opening it on the bus home, even though I knew I had work to do. (Of course, having a tantalizing snippet of the book read at the launch didn’t help) I managed to resist briefly, but I went to bed a couple of hours ago and thought “I’ll just read a little bit more.”

I’ve just finished the book, and I can’t sleep just yet. I have a tendency to be effusive about books I enjoy. I have told anyone who would listen, at length, and repeatedly, about how fantastic I thought the Chaos Walking trilogy was and how they should immediately take  a weekend off and read all three in one sitting. I’m saying this now, because this history of enthusiasm might make you think it’s just my normal level of fervor at work in the words below.

It’s not.

A Monster Calls is an utterly breathtaking work of fiction.

Literally. As I closed the book, I had to take several deep breaths.

And that’s all I’m going to say. I could go on, with many more superlatives. I’ve been writing and deleting several, realising that I’d need either all of them or none of them to convey my reaction.

So there you go.

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It’s a Scream, Baby

April 21, 2011

I’m on a bit of a horror movie kick at the moment, and no horror binge is quite complete without the Scream movies. In this case, they were what kicked off the whole thing. After all, Scream 4 is opening today, and despite my usual reservations about any sequel after a third movie, I find myself being quite hopeful for Scream 4. So a rewatch of the trilogy was in order.

And I’ve been left with one thing rattling around in my head – what is Scream 4 going to be about?

Spoilers (for Scream 1 – 3.) below. You’ve been warned. But you’ve watched them already, right? Also, I haven’t seen Scream 4 yet, so no spoilers for that in the comments please…  

Any good horror movie is about more than just jumps, gore, and making the audience squirm. A good horror movie needs to do that too – and some are so good at it you forgive their lack of any real depth. But the vast majority of horror movies that are merely that aren’t actually all that good at it – and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. For a horror movie to really be able to scare the audience, it has to tap into something bigger than visual nasties. It needs to have a subtext that touches on something we fear, as individuals or a society.

Scream, as a series, was about making a lot of that implicit meaning explicit. It’s most famous for making “The Rules” explicit, and moving them into the mainstream pop culture sphere. But there was a little more to them than that.

There are a number of themes that run through all three Scream films. One of the main ones is about violence in the media, and how that has effected “the young people.” On one hand, the movies seem to be warning about a wave of desensitization (Quoth the Fonz “You desensitized little shits!”) The kids in Scream organize a party to celebrate days off they got because two of their classmates died. They drive off to celebrate the murder of their principal. In Scream 2, a murder happens right in front of a cinema crowd who are already baying for on-screen blood and glorifying the villain.

Glorifying the Villain is something that Wes Craven has commented on before, most explicitly in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – which has a lot of similar ideas to the Scream trilogy. (And is really, really worth a watch, but watch the original first.) In New Nightmare, Wes (as himself) comments that in the sequels to Nightmare, Freddy Krueger became less and less dark, and ended up being the character that you were rooting for. Especially since the victims were always cardboard cut outs. And this is why he has the power to push his way back into the world in New Nightmare – because the audience had forgotten the true horror of him, because the truly horrific story wasn’t being told. In the Scream the public glorify the killer and wear his face (the pranking kids in Scream 1, the “Stab” audiences in the sequels) which makes it all the easier for the various Ghostfaces to stalk their targets. Also, you’ve got Gail Weathers, who takes terrible things and spins them into bestsellers, and the movie producers who turn it into a profitable franchise. The media, as the agent of desensitization/glorification, could be seen as responsible.

In addition to that, the killers themselves don’t truly realise the evil of the acts they are committing – [Billy’s Partner], [Billy’s Mom’s Partner], and Roman all think of their acts as “making a movie” in some way or another, as if their actions are guided only by narrative rules. (The Lumis’ have more traditional motives of revenge, and Roman also has a real motive; he combines into one character what the other movies had two characters for. Because we were expecting two killers at that point, after all.)

All of this could make it seem like Scream, as a trilogy, was a parable about the evil influence of the media, desensitizing our kids and glorifying our worst urges. However, our heroine, Sidney Prescott, refutes this notion strongly in all three final confrontations – in particular in the third installment, where she opines “take some fucking responsibility for your actions.” When all fingers seem to be pointing at media fed desensitization and villain glorification, Sidney breaks it down for us – No-one’s responsible for murder except for murderers. Blaming the media and desensitization just gives the murderers an excuse for what they’ve done (see Scream 2.)

Given the prevalence of this theme in the Trilogy, it would be hard to imagine it not rearing its head in Scream 4. Horror movies aren’t the bogey-man any more in that debate (Grand Theft Auto may have stolen that crown,) but the basic themes remain. And then there’s the internet. Communication technology has changed utterly since Scream 1 (“What are you doing with a cellular telephone, young man?”) and I’m sure Scream 4 will be making use of that. I fully expect there’ll be a good amount of social networking involvement. I’m also predicting that the killings will be broadcast on YouTube. (Or equivalent.)

The original trilogy draws heavily on classic horror movie themes and references to articulate “the rules.” I can’t imagine someone writing Scream 4 and not using it as a platform to reference and commentate on horror movies in the last ten years.

Mainstream horror in the past decade has mostly been about sequels (The unkillable Saw franchise, most obviously,) remakes (Halloween, Nightmare, Friday the 13th,) prequels (Texas Chainsaw and the Exorcist) and imports.(Lots of J Horror, and a smattering of others) Not a lot of novel horror films made the mainstream.  I’m expecting that Ghostface will be trying to “reboot” the franchise in Scream 4, recreate the first story all over again, possibly with Sidney not actually being the main target (someone new has to play the heroine in the reboot.)

Aside from remakes/homages/reboots/prequels/sequels, the other thing that stands out about contemporary horror is the “horror porn” genre. Gratuitous violence for no purpose other than making the audience squirm in their seats. To an extent, this potentially extends the “desensitization” theme of the original trilogy, with audiences now baying for not only blood but suffering on their screens.

Finally… what are the rules of the fourth movie in a series?

By the time a 4th movie rolls around, the focus is usually on the villain. It was the 4th Nightmare on Elm Street where we learn about Freddy’s birth. Saw IV is all about “understanding” Jigsaw. The villain focus also results in villains whose capabilities become even more superhuman – To take Jigsaw as an example, by Saw IV he seems to be able to predict human behaviour with ludicrous precision.

That said, Scream 3 already did the backstory retcon where we saw who “birthed” Ghostface. So that ground has been trodden, and furthermore, Sidney’s actually still in the movie. This is pretty much unprecedented: That the original protagonist is still involved in the story by the 4th movie. The villain is usually the only source of continuity, which is usually why it become all about them as the numbers get higher… so perhaps we won’t see that in Scream 4. Scream has a tendency to appear to follow the rules to the letter in the first two acts, then subvert them in the final act.

So, quick capsule predictions:

1)     Killings on Youtube.

2)     A “reboot” motivation for Ghostface.

3)     Villain focus (reboots and 4th movies both tend to focus more on the villain. See Rob Zombie’s Halloween)

4)     Sidney’s not the main target. There’ll be a “new” Sidney, and Ghostface will want “old Sidney” to watch. Perhaps even approve.

5)     Ghostface will get called on being totally unoriginal at least once. In true arrogant fan fiction fashion, he will believe he is improving on something he purports to love.

I’ll do a follow up post after I see the movie, to see how much of my rambling was even loosely relevant.

I’ll be right back.

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“For Real True is only true now, Story True is true forever”

February 11, 2011

The Unwritten is an ongoing comic published by DC’s Vertigo, by Mike Carey. (Who was a guest at Octocon in 2009 and 2010, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t make it to either)

When I read the first issue, I was gripped by the idea that I’d discovered something very special indeed. The beginnings of a Masterpiece – something that would join the likes of V for Vendetta, Sandman, and Y: The Last Man on that list of graphic novels that you give to people who don’t read comics to demonstrate that the medium is home to some truly great stories. Twenty two issues in, and I’m still convinced this is true.

It’s hard to imagine a premise that would enthrall me more – I  don’t want to go into too much detail, because the way Carey develops the big picture of Tommy Taylor’s world is fantastic, and best experienced through Carey’s words and Gross’ pictures. But in short, it’s a story about the power of stories, about how the stories we tell shape our world.

The writing is incredibly well informed, and the love and respect that Carey has for the subject matter comes off the pages in waves. It isn’t simply concerned with the Fictions, but with the facts related to those fictions – the places and people that surrounded the authors when they created their stories. The Unwritten blends the fact and the fiction of storytelling with grace and precision. It also seamlessly integrates social media and news, the other great tellers of stories, into his grand narrative. Every kind of storytelling matters to the plot.

Speaking of which, twenty two issues into the story, the plot continues to develop well. The release of information is paced beautifully, in which you have a growing sense of understanding of the stakes and of the world, while still managing to surprise and delight you with its twists. Every time the plot turns, you sit back in awe, then it dawns on you that it makes complete sense (though that realisation may take another issue or two.) Which is a rare and special thing – a lot of the time, SHOCKING TWISTS don’t feel right after they’ve happened – they jar the plot and have it change direction all of a sudden. Carey’s twists don’t alter the direction of the plot so much as they clarify your understanding of it. When your eyes widen in surprise, new things come into focus.

While it’s Carey’s writing and vision that really has me awestruck, it would be unfair not to mention Peter Gross’ art – no graphic novel works on words alone, and Gross brings the whole thing to life. The pencils are relatively simple, but he evokes the different genres of stories involved very well indeed. It’s not gorgeous, forget-the-words art. It’s simple, in the sense that it’s non distracting. It immerses you in the story, and it’s perfect for The Unwritten. Yuko Shumizo’s covers are also excellent, really well designed and complex.

There’s plenty more to go in The Unwritten (I hope,) but it has continued to fascinate and delight me in a way that nothing else in comics has been doing these past two years. The end of issue twenty two has me enthralled; Another facet of the tapestry is becoming clear, a dawning sense on an unfinished idea that I know Carey will crystallize for me when I pick up the next issue.

I can’t recommend this book enough. The first two collections are out in trade, and volume 3 is out at the end of March.

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“The future of man is not here… It’s out there…”

January 26, 2011

I find myself caught between various pieces of writing this week – Most significantly, I’m drafting my first thesis chapter. But there’s also writing up my MSc thesis for publication (complete with a brand new “That’s Funny…” moment), the game for Warpcon (Plug: A Storytelling of Ravens http://www.warpcon.com/?page_id=77), a blog post for Lost Hemisphere, (http://losthemisphere.com/blog) and a post for this blog that is this close to synthesising the ideas that led to it but isn’t quite in a form I would call coherent. Juggling this much all at once is great for freeform ideas, but pretty bad for cogently finishing the blog post I’d intended for here this week.

So instead, I’m going to review Johnathan Hickman’s run on the Fantastic Four.

I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the FF. They, like Superman, are characters who interested me on paper. They seemed like characters that could be the centre of really entertaining and interesting stories. But, like so many superhero characters, I rarely read a story involving them that holds my attention or interest.

But I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about the current writer on the Fantastic Four. As usual, there’s a lot of “The next *insert respected author here* type comments going around – I think these are totally unfair to the actual new talent, but they generally indicate that that person is doing something interesting, so I took a look.

And it’s really quite good. It’s not one of those comics you’ll hand to non-comics readers  but it is a very good superhero comic. More than that, it’s a Good Fantastic Four comic. (While never having seen one before, I’ve seen enough “almost there” ones that I had a good idea of what my idea of a good FF comic would look like…)

Starting with the overarching plot and the week-to-week crazy-dimension-hopping-world-changing events…His style, over the course of the run, reminded me of Kirkman and Steven Moffat, in the sense that he’s not just telling the story at hand, but sowing the seeds of future stories.  He packs a lot of information into each issue. There are time distortions, future-versions-of-characters, alternate dimensions, new civilisations… all FF staples, and they’re all part of the tapestry of what seems like a new corner of the Marvel Universe for the FF to inhabit. With this arc, he has made fertile ground for future writers to draw from, without straightjacketing them into a particular course. He’s drawn on old ideas in FF history, but from that built something quite new.

But really, this arc is all about the characters:

The driving force behind Reed Richards in Hickman’s arc is “Solve Everything.” This was my favourite running theme in the run so far. While the FF brand of Sci-Fi has never been rooted in anything remotely resembling real science, Hickman extracts one core idea from the Sci-Fi part of the FF mythology: That we should be looking to the future with an eye to solving the worlds problems through discovery. The future may look bleak, but Reed believes that the world’s problems can be overcome.  I much prefer this optimistic version of Reed Richards – he’s a superhero (though because of his mind, not his silly stretchy powers… thanks, Stan Lee) and should be more iconic than realistic. I want to believe that he has “the capacity to be both Good and Great.” He wants to be a Better Man, and build a Better World. Idealistic? Yeah. But this is a superhero comic, and I’ve had my fill of grim ‘n’ gritty realism.

I’m also massively fond of his portrayal of Sue Storm. Like so many Superhero wives/girlfriends, she is usually written as the +1. For the first time I read Sue and felt like she was a character in her own right. Previous attempts to make this point seemed to mostly involve her leaving her husband or disagreeing vehemently with him, which seemed… flat, as if the writers felt that conflict was the only way a wife could show strength or independence.  Here though, Sue reads like a character who has chosen Reed as her husband because they actually work as a couple and as parents of the FF family. She’s a wife, a mother, a leader, and a Fucking Superhero, all at the same time.  Notably, like Reed, her moments of heroism are not simply down to superpower-slinging, but because of those core elements of her personality. This will be a recurring thing throughout Hickman’s run – The powers will not be central, but rather the things that make them strong and resilient.

His treatment of the Thing wasn’t anything new – but Ben has always been the most likable member of the group, and seemingly the one that writers have the easiest time putting into that role. But nonetheless, his now-staple flashes of vulnerability are well observed. Again, his powers aren’t a focus. I know the “it’s not the powers that make the superhero, but their character that makes them a hero” bit has been done a lot, but when it’s done well, it’s a joy to read. I like stories that showcase the good things in humanity. That’s what Superhero stories are supposed to be for.

Which brings us to Johnny (Human Torch.) Maybe it’s because I’ve got a new niece, but I enjoyed his “fun uncle” role with the kids. But more than that, I enjoyed how his acts of heroism for most the story were based on him being The One With Awesome Flashy Powers. He’s the show-off, the rash impulsive one. But there is a strong element of him beginning to grow up, to realise that Being Awesome isn’t the same as Being Great. Every character in the arc moves forward and grows. What I like about Hickman’s writing is that he can grow a character without altering them radically  – they’re not changing into something else, but rather becoming more the people they always could be.

Fundamental to the world Hickman was building were the children –  a collection of orphaned “children” of super villains/monsters and their own (Franklyn and Valeria). Reed, after abandoning the rest of the grown up scientific community (because they “fear the future”) turns his focus to educating these exceptionally intelligent children to face the challenges of the future.

I really think it’s worth taking a look at. Superhero stories are supposed to be like this. They’re supposed to be examples of the best things we see in ourselves. And at it’s heart, this run of Fantastic Four is all about building a better world while still managing to be better people when everything else is going to hell, and that’s a Good Story. Last year, Marvel announced “The Heroic Age” and DC announced “Brightest Day.” This was taken as a statement of intent to return to the more “light and brighty” superhero comics of old… But I’d rather have superhero stories like this – Bright and optimistic, but not “light” or simplistic.

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No one would have believed…

November 30, 2010

Last night, I went to see Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds: Alive on Stage! at the Point.

For those not familiar, take a look at the video for the opening number.

I was very excited about this – I’ve been a fan of the music since I first heard it, and I was really looking forward to seeing it on stage. In particular, I was interested to see how they’d represent an epic story with Martian Fighting Machines and mass destruction in the context of stage.

Starting with the good-

The stage was mainly taken up with the musicians – on the left, the 8-man rock band, with extra synths and drums, and on the right, a mighty strings section of around 30 people. The second they put bow to string, I was enthralled. Live strings have awesome power.  Jeff Wayne conducted from the centre, and he had fantastic energy.  “Boogie” is the appropriate word for how he moved.  But I knew the music was going to be awesome. That was what I came for.

The stage effects were also excellent – we were treated to an impressive lightshow, by turns disorienting and dramatic. Spotlights ran over the crowd and flashed bright as Heat Rays lashed down (with heavily distorted screams from the guitars for each blast.) The front of the stage burst into flames and actors were incinerated in blasts of light and smoke and heat. And the party piece – a massive model Fighting Machine that spat actual fire over the heads of the players and those in the front rows, with a blast of heat you could feel from the back.

Behind and above the main stage was a wide screen which displayed an animated visual depiction of the story. Some was CG, some was a series of pencilled images with a graphic-novel-esque feel. The CG bits were great for the martians – their faces and voices were strange and disturbing, particularly with the excellent musical accompaniment. However, the CG was often also combined with filmed actors, and in this day and age not-awesome CG looks positively dodgy when beside actors. The hand drawn sections looked fantastic though, and perhaps they would have been better off sticking with them throughout. This was their main crutch for dealing with the larger-than-life parts of the story- the space sequences, the fighting machines, the mass destruction, and Thunderchild.

The narration was provided by Richard Burton and his giant CG head. Which segues nicely into the interesting-decisions-that-didn’t quite-work-out section of the review. Richard Burton’s narrative voice is awesome, and I can certainly see why you wouldn’t want to do away with it. However, with his CG head being the face of the protagonist there was a serious disconnect between the on-stage actors and the protagonist in sections where they interacted. There was an on-stage cast of 5 people, who appeared one or two at a time to sing their numbers. The actors spoke to the crowd, while the CG head (mounted to the left of the stage) turned and spoke to them. And to add to the disconnect, when actors were singing on stage, there was live footage being put up on the big screen behind, poorly integrated into the wider scene. These factors combined to make the human-acted parts seem completely seperate from the otherwise excellent sound-and-light-show being witnessed. Particularly jarring was the fact that the actor singing the thoughts of the journalist didn’t even loosely resemble The Giant CG Head.

This took quite a bit away from the suspension of disbelief – had they simply had the musicians alongside the visual cornucopia, the show would have been excellent in itself.  The performers (including Jason Donovan and that-Rhydian-chap-from-X-Factor-with-the-cold-dead-eyes-of-a-killer) would have been great in a “normal” musical theatre production, but it didn’t fit with the rest of the show.

It’s hard to suggest what might have been done to integrate it all better – but they certainly had a good budget so the only limit was imagination. Telling the story without the background screen visuals would have been very difficult, but I think that the stage and the screen could have integrated better – with some extras on the stage to fill it up, dressing the stage as an actual set rather than a stage-for-the-musicians (and put the musicians somewhere else perhaps?) and having an actual actor playing the journalist (who would also sing his parts) would have improved it for me.

Verdict in a nutshell: Awesome fun, but not as awesome as it could have been. WotW has such a high baseline of awesomeness when accompanied by Jeff Wayne’s music that I feel it could have been stratospheric with a little more ambition and originality.

And I’m just going to throw it out there: Depicting Fighting Machines through bat-signal shadow puppetry.