Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What I've Been Doing Lately...

Between trying to write and trying to keep myself fed, I've been really busy lately. In my spare time, I got into a lot of stuff I really wanted to review here, but didn't have the time too. So today, because I had a brief break, a bunch of mini-reviews:

Secrets of the Wolves: Sequel to Promise of the Wolves, which I reviewed on Lupines and Lunatics awhile back. Been meaning to get around to it for awhile. Now I have, and it's... eh, okay, I guess. It has the "middle of the trilogy" problem where the heroes are running around a lot and getting nothing done. Kaala is juggling three or four goals the entire book and all of them remain unresolved by the end. I liked the characters and the evocative world-building, but I don't think I'll bother with volume three. Not really invested in it.

Shift and Alpha: Yes, I finally got around to finishing Rachel Vincent's werecat series. But I didn't have much to say about it, so I didn't write a review. Honestly, the series kind of ran out of steam in these last two volumes. Alpha, in particular, is padded up and dragged out, making it especially annoying when it fizzles after the final battle, with about ten pages of wrapup. More annoyingly, much of that padding involves milking the Marc/Faythe/Jace love triangle for everything it's worth, which is not only annoying on the surface, but badly undermines the series' feminist underpinnings. Still a strong series overall, but it's too bad that Vincent couldn't keep it together the whole way through.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian: Picked up this collection of Conan the Barbarian stories to study for a writing project. I was really surprised when the first story, The Phoenix on the Sword, reminded me of Shakespeare. More violence and gore than the bard, yes, but the characters and their dialogue feel like they jumped right out of one of the history plays. Somewhat unfortunately, this turns out to be Early Installment Weirdness, and the subsequent stories trade verbal eloquence and kingly dramas for pulpy adventure yarns. Which is not to say the stories are bad. To the contrary, it's easy to see why Howard is still being ripped off decades later. Evocative writing and Conan's charismatic mix of boasting bombast and "fuck off" cynicism allow Howard to transcend the formulaic storylines. They cannot, however, transcend Howard's less-than-progressive attitudes towards women and people of color. Still enjoyable, but I cringed inwardly at several points.

The Lone Ranger: I didn't dislike this anywhere near as much as some people did. In fact, I thought it deserved more credit than it got. A lot of the critics overlooked the frame story. They shouldn't, and not just because Johnny Depp is reminding us that he can still act instead of just mugging for the camera. It's because it provides context for the entire film. Here is the minority sidekick, left on the sidelines of history, reduced to literally working for peanuts in a circus sideshow. Now, he has his chance to tell the story his way, and to hear him tell it the story is a lot different than what you may have heard; he, the alleged sidekick, is a larger-than-life character and the white hero is a dull, boring cipher. It's over-the-top, yes, but so was the original Lone Ranger, what with his squeaky-clean image and impractical silver bullets. So who's to say there isn't as much truth in this as the story we'd heard before? This isn't really a film about cowboys and indians and outlaws and crazy-awesome train chases. If the old west is america's time of legends, than what this film is really about is mythmaking, and myth-remaking, and our changing perspective on the american experience. It does has problems; most notably, the middle of the film is overlong and overstuffed. But I think it's a much deeper movie than everyone has said.

Pacific Rim: On the other hand, this one everyone seemed to like and I just didn't get. People were all like, "Holy shit, america actually made a good kaiju movie/mecha anime!" And I was like "Well, yeah... but it's kinda dull." It made for a decent time in the theater, but the plot was cliche and predictable, coasting on the strength of it's cast and effects. Which were enough, but the next day I couldn't remember a single thing that happened.

Elysium: Like Pacific Rim, I liked this in the theater, but the luster wore off quick. People have said casting Matt Damon as the hero to a bunch of oppressed people of color makes the film racist. While that certainly doesn't help matters, the real problem with Elysium is that it can't decide whether it's about A) classism and economic injustice, B) healthcare, or C) immigration. The correct answer is B, because that's the only way the plot makes sense from an "under the hood" standpoint. As a class parable, it fails because the resolution does nothing to alleviate the poverty in the world. As an immigration story, it's a very black-and-white treatment of a complex issue of international relations, and the metaphor becomes riddled with holes. Not understanding this, the film waffles around a while before settling on C and imploding. Another criticism I'm hearing is that it's overstuffed. It is, but I think that it still could have worked if they had picked one thing for the film to be about and stuck with it. I kept mentally comparing it to 2011's vastly underrated In Time. That film also covered a lot of ground, but did so successfully because they chose one theme and rode it all the way through. But Elysium has the screenplay equivalent of ADD, resulting in a disorganized film that's not only heavy-handed with it's message, but isn't sure what that message is. And who the HELL thought it was a good idea to cast the consistently-awesome William Fichtner in a role where he has nothing to do?!

Teen Wolf: I keep waiting for the moment when this series finds its voice and ascends to awesomeness, but after three seasons, it still hasn't happened. Not that it's a bad series. It's held back a lot by weak writing, with bland dialog in abundance. But a talented cast and solid production and effects shores it up. Actually, any given episode of Teen Wolf is a well put-together hour of television. But every episode is also predictable; with maybe one or two exceptions per season, the things that happen are exactly what you'd expect to happen. And the show shies away from killing important characters- bit players and tertiary characters die by the dozen, but anyone who's popular with the fans or close to one of the main cast is pretty much immortal. We rag on Joss Whedon for killing off people we've come to love, but that element of danger- the feeling that nobody's safe- is the very thing that keeps us invested in his characters. But Teen Wolf is gun-shy, and after three seasons of it there's no tension in the plot. And it doesn't help that this season's overarching story was virtually identical to the last one, with screentime stretched thin among a bloated cast. I continue to watch and hope for that Grow The Beard moment, but I have an awful feeling that if it hasn't hit by now, it ain't coming.