Nick Marsden's Blog: The Words of Nepharid

January 14, 2014

SPOILER-FREE REVIEW
This is the first of two Hercules movies releasing in theaters this year. The Legend of Hercules is from Millennium Films, the same production company that brought us the remake of Conan the Barbariana few years ago.
I would classify this as a "Period Superhero" movie. It was an origin story for the mythological Hercules. The Greek setting was made to look very much like it was in the movie 300. The costumes could have been borrowed directly from that film. It is not historically, or even mythologically, accurate. But, when it comes to fantasy film, I don't take those things into account. It's a story of myth and fantasy, in which the writers took creative license.
This installment of the Hercules legend strays from most other interpretations. There is no questing, no labors, no helping the average person as a hero for the common man, as in the myth and in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, which is where most people will be familiar with Hercules. This Hercules is not a selfless hero. He is the prince of a Greek kingdom who falls in love with the Princess of Crete. When the princess is betrothed to his older brother, Hercules is betrayed and left for dead in far-off Egypt. His only goal is to reclaim his princess and live happily ever after, but he ends up having to save his kingdom from his brother and step-father.
It seems that the only reason this movie made it to theatrical release (as opposed to direct to DVD) is the script. This is a surprisingly well-written film. For what it is (a superhero action-adventure), it is just about perfectly written. The story is structured with three well-defined acts, and the dialogue isn't too corny. The nature of the story is melodramatic, so a little over-the-top dialogue can be forgiven, but the writers stayed away from cliché lines or groan-inducing proclamations like "You will pay for this!". The characters are written well, with motivations well developed, especially for Hercules's mother, the Princess, and Hercules's older brother. Hercules himself has a singular purpose, which is appropriate for a heroic character in a melodrama. It is only near the end that something happens to the story and there are elements tacked on in the third act that detract from the story and characters. Among these are the suddenly improbable actions of the villain that are only there to spur on Hercules (who really needs no further motivation) and create a larger battle scene at the climax.
This is all the strength the movie has, though. Under the guidance of director Renny Harlan (Die Hard 2, Cutthroat Island), the acting is only average at best from a B- and C-list cast including Kellan Lutz (Twilight) as Hercules, Gaia Weiss as Princess Hebe, and Scott Adkins (Expendables 2, Zero Dark Thirty) as the evil King Amphitryon. The "breakout" performance comes from Roxanne McKee (Game of Thrones), who plays Hercules's mother, Queen Alcmene. She had some impactful scenes that stood out among the other performances. Still, the acting overall was sub-par, but not horrible.
The fight scenes were well-choreographed. However, the editor/director insisted on punctuating the action with freeze-frames and slow-moes (a la 300) that distracted from the action. The fight scenes would have been a lot more exciting without these artificial camera tricks.
All the violence was bloodless. This surprised me and at first I was pleased by it. I've been sickened before by movies like Gladiator and 300 with too much blood and it was refreshing for a movie which is so similar is tone and story not to follow suit with blood splatters like fountains. The violence was just as brutal as any other gladiator movie; when an enemy is eviscerated, you expect to see someblood. But the only blood seen here is what is left on bodies and clothing after the violence has been done. Many times not even that. Because of this, this movie may be considered suitable for older children (13+).
Other effects were only average. Animated effects like lightning were cheesy and poorly produced. It seemed the entire effects budget was spent on the sequence seen in the trailer where Hercules tosses around a pair of stone blocks on chains. This sequence is about 30-45 seconds long and is a key moment in the story, so the money was well spent. People in 3D theaters should be thrilled by it. I can't speak to the 3D quality, however, as I saw it in 2D. The fight scenes were obviously filmed for 3D, however, so it might be worth seeing.
Overall, this was a well-written story with less than perfect execution. It wasn't painful to watch in the least and was actually enjoyable for the majority. The fight scenes were well-put together, with the final fight scene a little improbable, but exciting nonetheless. It had lots of romance, especially toward the beginning and end and should be a fun flick to see on a date-night for fantasy fans (trust me, ladies, you'll enjoy the scenery).

OVERALL SCORE: 6 of 10
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Published on January 14, 2014 15:53 • 44 views

January 9, 2014

A new world, a new story for 2014.
I grew up largely on my own, as a child. I had an older brother, but he moved out when I was young. For a long time, I felt like an only child. A few years ago, while deciding on topics for stories, I decided to explore the relationship between two siblings who are very close, but through tragedy, are torn apart for years, forced to live their own lives in very different situations. Would they still be as close as they once were when they are finally reunited?  Placing this concept on a backdrop of religious conflict and cosmic secrets, I came up with my newest trilogy.

The Gods of Earth, Sun, & Moon, an enormous epic fantasy, will be told in three parts:
The Light of Theolan (Summer 2014)
In the village of Zedren, a stranger has come.  Fleeing a fate so terrible he has lost everything he has, Parke Farmer has come to live in the simple village that is so far from where he has come. Married to a Zedrani woman and the proud father of teenage twins, Braden and Brynn, Parke is haunted by feelings that, one day, his past will come back to haunt him.And return it does, in the form of a shining Paladin. Wielding the magical Light of Theolan, Jerid Geros accuses Parke of the foul murder of his own brother -- and Jerid's father -- a high ranking priest of Theolan. The result is a tragedy that destroys Zedren and tears apart the lives of Parke's twin children.Braden finds himself Jerid's captive and, as the secret of his father's past is revealed, he discovers he has a grand destiny among the Theolars, the followers of the God of Light, Theolan.When Braden discovers a hidden evil within the church of Theolan, he must convince Jerid to turn against the only family he has ever known and fight for the Light of Theolan.Brynn has been so damaged by the events of Jerid's coming that she seeks answers within the mysterious chamber underneath the mystical Shield, an artifact of the Earth Mother, Zedren's patron goddess. Within the chamber, Brynn discovers a secret hidden for millenia that leads her on a path toward her own destiny.
The Servants of Aeve (Fall/Winter 2014)
Brynn and Braden, both believing the other dead, live their own lives amongst very different people. After discovering the secret of the Earth Mother, Aeve, Brynn must unite the people of Zedren against the coming of the Theolar army.Taking her place as High Priestess of Aeve will not be easy. As the daughter of an outsider who betrayed the village, she has never been trusted by the survivors of the Paladin's coming. It will take miracles to make it happen; miracles the weakened goddess may not have the power to produce. The key may lie beneath the Shield, where an ancient civilization long forgotten waits to be re-awakened.As Braden and Jerid seek out the nature of the darkness within the church, the High Priest, Vasilis, begins his war of conversion, spreading the Word of Theolan through force of arms.But there is a third power rising in the land. An ancient name from Theolar's past has returned, decrying the church and fighting back against the Theolar army.Captured by these rebels, everything Braden and Jerid think they know about their fathers will change.
The Eye of Night (Spring 2015)
The deadly Paladin, Jerid, returns to Zedren, accompanied by a familiar man, now a priest of Theolan. The reunion of Braden and Brynn accompanies the three-sided war between Theolars, the rebellion, and the world. Caught in the middle is the little village of Zedren, the last remaining bastion of the Earth Mother, with the Shield the last lock on the prison of an evil older than Theolar.When the Zedrani Shield is destroyed, the last lock will be broken and the gate to hell will be thrown open to release the Eye of Night.
Can twin siblings on opposite sides of the war protect the Shield and uncover the secret of the Gods of Earth, Sun, and Moon?
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Published on January 09, 2014 00:21 • 6 views

January 7, 2014

Yeah, I took a couple weeks off for the holidays, but I'm back at it now. This week, since there wasn't a new fantasy movie to review (I love you guys, but I am not sitting through 47 Ronin just to tell you how bad it is), I'm going to review one of my childhood favorites: Time Bandits!
Time Bandits is a time travel romp from the mind of the grand master of weird, Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Twelve Monkeys). Its tone is more akin to Gilliam's work with Monty Python than anything else, especially the first third of the movie. Many of the scenes play like individual Monty Python skits, Its also very kid friendly, almost to the point of giving in to sheer silliness.
The main plot centers around six dwarves and their theft of a map that allows them to time travel by showing them where holes in the universe exist. It belongs to the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson — Dragonslayer), so of course Evil (David Warner — Tron) wants it. The dwarves just want to use it to steal from famous people like Napolean (Ian Holm — Lord of the Rings).
The main character is a boy, Kevin, who has accidentally found himself stuck with the dwarves on their adventure. He spends a lot of the movie trying to convince the dwarves to stop their thieving. But when they get into trouble, it's Kevin who gets them out of it. Kevin is in this for the adventure. He doesn't want to go home. His family is boring and they really just want him to go to bed on time. There isn't very much character development or change here. Kevin doesn't change as a person or decide he likes his home and family.There really doesn't seem to be a point to the movie at all, except to have a bit of fun. No great questions are explored (except when Kevin asks the Supreme Being about the nature of evil: God's response is one of the funniest lines in the movie), only the trouble that seven people can get into while hopping from place to place through magical portals.
As a kid, I loved this movie. It was always on my to-see list and I never got to see it enough. Now, as an adult, I'm put off a bit by the mindlessness of it. It plays as some sort of dream, all the way until the final credits. Nothing really makes sense, the editing was horrible and the events were disjointed and didn't really have a bearing on the finale. Much of the dialogue was silly:
Evil: "I have the map! And the day after tomorrow: the world!"
Mom to Dad: "If you were a real man, you would have gone back in [to a burning house] for the blender."
This is definitely a film for children ages seven and up. There are a couple of scary scenes, but nothing bloody. But be careful of the ending. For very young children you might have to explain a few things by the time the credits roll.
Overall score: 8 out of 10 (for children), 6 out of 10 (for adults)
—This movie does not age well at all.—
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Published on January 07, 2014 00:32 • 20 views

December 16, 2013

It’s sort of depressing to go into a movie knowing that it’s just part of a story. It was like that for An Unexpected Journey and it’s the same for The Desolation of Smaug. After seeing “Desolation”, I’m convinced that these films will only be enjoyable when I can watch them all in a row.
This is a long movie, but doesn’t drag as much as “Journey”. The plot moves along pretty quickly. While “Journey” was a sort of one long, meandering chase scene, “Desolation” covers three side plots: the woodland elves of Myrkwood, hiding from the orcs in Laketown, and finally, the initial confrontation with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain. Except in the very beginning, the plot moves forward logically. There is even a side-side plot with Gandalf, which is a continuation of what was done in Journey.The filmmakers took a lot of elements from Lord of the Rings and transplanted them in this film. An elf healing the wound of a morgul blade. An underground chase scene in a dwarven city. A visit to the Prancing Pony complete with strange looks from strange characters. Gandalf finds himself in peril after visiting a rival wizard’s home. It seems like they recycled a few too many scenes.
The inclusion of Legolas was seamless and he had some great scenes, as well as a playful rib at his future relationship with Gimli. Evangeline Lilly played Tauriel, the “other” woodland elf and some of the best scenes in the film were of her relationship with Killi. Lilly is a much better elf than Liv Tyler ever was.
Smaug was a great character. His dialogue was well written and he was menacing. He could have killed the hobbit and dwarves dozens of times over, yet he always had a reason not to. He wanted to make Thorin and Bilbo suffer for different reasons. Just the threat of that power was a thrilling thing. I very much enjoyed Smaug and it was worth the rollercoaster ride of the first two thirds of the film.
I knew this movie would stop somewhere with a cliffhanger. In the book, once the dwarves get to the Lonely Mountain, the story is pretty much over, yet the there is one more movie to get through here. So when Bilbo finally stood before the “greatness” of Smaug, I was waiting for the inevitable cliffhanger. There were almost a dozen places after that where they could have cut if off. However, they kept it going and I was glad for it. After seeing the cliffhanger, I have to agree that it was the logical place to stop.
I saw the movie in 3D with the new 60 frames/second format. This was the worst part of the movie. The 3D was good, but the video looked like a low budget BBC TV show shot on a handheld video camera. Some fast motion blurred strangely and the video look of the picture made some of the sets look artificial. It really took away from immersion in the film. It just looked fake (or maybe too real for a fantasy film). That said, the detail was incredible and seemed to be beyond HD.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but was wished they had finished the story in this second film. The next movie is “There and Back Again,” and, as expected, will have to stretch out the final battle against Smaug or add a lot more of the Gandalf side-plot in order to make it to two and a half hours.
Overall Score: 8 out of 10
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Published on December 16, 2013 19:26 • 17 views

December 2, 2013

There was a time, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when companies like Walt Disney released several edgy sc-fi/fantasies for young adults. Movies like The Dark Crystal, Willow, Time Bandits, and Labyrinth. These are the classics of fantasy film. I will be reviewing movies like this in weeks where no adult fantasy movies are released in the theaters. These are the films I grew up on and loved. These are the films that drew me to fantasy as a genre I wanted to write. 
Released in 1981, Dragonslayer was one of these films. It wasn’t the cheery kiddie fantasy of Wizard of Oz or Willy Wonka. Nor was it the nudity littered fantasy of Conan the Barbarian or The Sword and the Sorcerer. It was an action-packed adventure with just the right amount of magic, humor and romance for someone into serious fantasy. It was the movie equivalent of the epic fantasy novels I preferred.
Starring Peter MacNichol as the Luke Skywalkerish hero, Galen Bradwarden, Dragonslayer is the story of a bumbling wizard’s apprentice who takes it upon himself to slay a marauding dragon when his master dies before being able to undertake the journey necessary to battle the beast. Galen believes he can fulfill his master’s task thanks to a mysterious amulet left to him by his master that seems to give him magical powers. 
He is stymied by the distrust of the king who has made a pact with the dragon. In exchange for the life of a virgin girl chosen by lottery, the dragon leaves the rest of the kingdom alone. The king believes his system is best for his people and fears that any attempt to kill the dragon will result in reprisal against his kingdom when it ultimately fails.
But when the king’s daughter discovers that she is not included in the lottery, she rigs it so that only her name can be drawn. When it is his own daughter’s life on the line, the king turns to Galen as his only hope of saving her.
The story is one of a man who discovers he doesn’t need a crutch (magic) to be great. When the time comes to battle the dragon, Galen must end the old ways of magic, leaving behind any hope he has of being a great mage. Left unsaid here is that, with the destruction of the dragon, so ends the world of magic. The people of Urland are turning to Christianity and away from the earthly powers of wizards and dragons. It’s a poignant struggle, as we are witnessing the end of wonder. 
{A warning to die hard Christians. The religion is not treated kindly here. If you are offended by such things, you might want to watch something else. This movie depicts Christians as fools, second only to government. It's a bitter pill, but one that is paid off to the rest of us at the end of the movie in the film's final big punchline.}
The movie’s special effects from Industrial Light and Magic still hold up to today’s standards. In some aspects, it exceeds them. The dragon is a lifelike animatronic creature with smooth motion. It is shown at first in spare glimpses, lending a majesty to it that most movie dragons lack. It is not animated, so it has a touch and feel to it that no CGI creature ever could. It is accompanied by sound effects, breathing, moving, the sound of scales rubbing against each other when it moves. When it is finally shown in its full form, it is with excellent stop motion animation, menacing and swift. These effects only fail when the dragon is shown in flight. When the creature is either animated or an animatronic model is pasted on location shots in post-production.
Magical effects are done with hand-drawn animation and lighting. All are well done and convincing. Animated flame effects reflect in the character’s faces. Magical spells come to life with practical lighting and effects. One of the funniest moments in the movie is near the beginning, when Galen is practicing his magic on the hapless old man who was once the wizard Ulrich’s servant. Whatever wire effects were used are seamless on film.
Along with the quality special effects, the film is shot on locations in England, Wales, and Scotland that evince a feel for the fantasy world of Urland. The locations are on par with the New Zealand locations Peter Jackson uses in The Lord of the Rings. Cloudy, mountainous terrain and grassy wilderness. The filmmakers spared no expense with production values. Castle locations and other indoor locations that were probably shot in a soundstage look convincing. There is no green screen used here like in modern day films and TV shows. The walls of the castle look like stone. The interior of the dragon’s cavern-lair is rough-hewn rock, slick with water.
The direction is top notch by writer/director Matthew Robbins (*Batteries Not Included, and Mimic (Writer)). He knows how to deftly present the dragons to evoke the most menace and how to get the best performances from his actors without (for the most part) descending to cheesy melodrama as many lesser fantasy films do.
The acting in the film is solid. No one actor truly stands out. Peter MacNichol and Ralph Richardson, as Galen and the wizard Ulrich respectively, are excellent. Caitlin Clarke, as the love-interest, Valerian, has dialogue that seems a little stilted and can slip into melodrama, but she comes off okay as the snarky tomboy who wants to be a “real woman”. The soldier Tyrion, who is Galen’s human nemesis, is played by John Hallam, by turns sinister and charming. The king, Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre) is regal, yet repugnant. The weakest performance comes from Chloe Salaman. She plays the Princess Elspeth just a little too earnestly.Even the dragon itself is a rich character. It is an ancient beast near the end of its days, struggling to survive and leave some sort of life to its children. There are scenes with the dragon that show its humanity and its anguish – and ultimately, its rage. It is not just a faceless beast to slay, but is a remnant of an older time struggling to stay alive and relevant.
One of my favorite things about this movie is the music by Alex North, who did the music for 2001, a Space Odyssey. It is bombastic and exciting without being melodramatic. It has a tinkling refrain that reflects the spark of magic; the fantastic.
Overall, this is a rare fantasy production in which the cast and crew poured their passion and their talent. It is the 1980’s equivalent of The Lord of the Rings in quality. Most other fantasy films either do not take their content seriously or are limited by budget and talent in acting or special effect. Dragonslayer is a film that still plays as well today as it did 32 years ago despite having only one or two actors known for anything but this film. Peter MacNichol has had a long career after this film (TV shows Chicago Hope, Ally MacBeal, and most recently, Agents of SHIELD) and this film was one of Ralph Richardson’s last films in a long, long career reaching back to 1933. If you love fantasy films and have not seen this movie, it is a “must-see”. It stands among the greats.

Overall Score: 9.5 out of 10
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Published on December 02, 2013 01:31 • 72 views

November 25, 2013

This is a spoiler-free review
Here is another book-to-film movie. Catching Fire was the 2nd book in The Hunger Games trilogy. While I hadn’t seen Enders Game before watching the movie, I have read Catching Fire, so I will compare the two. Good thing for Catching Fire, this comparison is fairly positive.

The nature of The Hunger Games is that one book leads directly into the other. So it is for the movies. If you didn’t see The Hunger Games, do not watch Catching Fire until you do. Catching Fire dispenses with any and all explanation of the world of Panem and the 12 Districts. You will be lost if you have not read the books or watched the first movie.

I’ll be rating this movie on story, acting, and overall quality. I’ll also be discussing the spare differences between the book and the movie.
StoryStarting less than a year after the first Hunger Games, Catching Fire begins with a tour of the 12 Districts by Peeta and Katniss, who are now at odds because Katniss faked her feelings for Peeta. However, President Snow himself has a given Katniss orders to make sure the relationship seems real to the people of Panem. He wants to avert a rebellion that was started by Katniss’s defiance in the Hunger Games. It is unclear exactly how Katniss and Peeta pretending to love each other will matter. Only talk of distracting the people is mentioned. I assume that Snow and the others in charge are supposed to be too stupid to think that people pay more attention to their reality TV than they do to the reality of their own lives. The tour is a failure because the people of the Districts see past the sham. So President Snow and his new GamesMaster, Plutarh Heavensbee, cook up a plan to quell the uprising. They start a new Hunger Games, using only winners of previous Hunger Games, which puts Katniss and Peeta back into the arena.  All of this is just Act 1. 
In Act 2 and 3, we are treated to a new Hunger Games. This second movie assumes you've seen the first, so most of the preparation is skimmed over and none of it is explained. I like not having to sit through the exposition again, so I was happy. The training and prep along with the beginning of the Games themselves go by swiftly, with only a few necessary plot points thrown in. It is when we are in the arena again that we can enjoy the new things that the GamesMaster has in store for the tributes. It's all very exciting. It plays a bit like Jurassic Park. It's not just the other tributes that are the danger, but the arena itself is turned against them.
The story is well put together and from the beginning, you can see how the writers and filmmakers ratchet up the danger and tension. When I read the book, I didn't see this as well as I did in the film. But with every new scene, it seems, there is a new danger to overcome, even before the Hunger Games start. This all made the movie fly by at incredible speed.
ActingThe acting in this edition of The Hunger Games is spot on. There were plenty of emotional moments to go around and every involved actor sold it. You even got to see Effie, played by Elizabeth Banks, break down when it was clear “her victors” would be going back in again. First, she tries to calm her own anxiety by resorting to her usual superficial quirks. But when it comes to saying goodbye to Peeta and Katniss forever, she can’t contain her grief. It was an amazing moment of character; bravo, Ms. Banks. Of course, Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence was flawless as Katniss. I still don’t like Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, but that is more of a personal opinion. I just think he looks and acts like a blockhead. His acting was okay. 
Even new characters like Finnick Odair (who I always thought of as Middle-Eastern by his last name) was played well by Sam Claflin (not Middle-Eastern). Johanna Mason, played by Jena Malone was a fun, sparky character and well done. There was even an elevator moment where I wish I could have seen out of Hamish and Peeta’s eyes. Lucky guys!
The villains were well played again. Donald Sutherland is delicious as President Snow. He is able to handle the delicacies of this character, who is sinister and threatening in private while being charming and threatening in public. This is such a scary man but you only see it when you read between the lines like Katniss obviously does. Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is somewhat of a backstabber, it seems and you can never tell what his true motives are or where his allegiances truly lie. I liked him better than the GamesMaster from the first movie, who had an amazing beard, but not much character.
Book vs. Movie:This edition of Hunger Games adhered closer to the book than I remembered the first Hunger Games being. They did make sure to highlight romantic moments between Katniss and Gale more than I remember the book doing. I always thought that was a limitation of the books. It seemed to me that they made much of Gale/Katniss/Peeta, yet there never seemed to be a connection between Gale/Katniss. The first movie was a stern offender on this point. But they made up for it in Catching Fire.

One of the offenses this movie made was glossing over Peeta’s artistic skills. They barely made mention of it, and then he’d spout off about colors and it left the audience going “Where did that come from?” (In the beginning of the book, you find out that Peeta turned to art after the first Hunger Games and became an accomplished painter.) If the movie was going to forget about the art thing, they should have cut that artistic dialogue, too. In the arena, you get most, if not all (that I can remember) of the dangers from the book. From the mist to the monkeys to the lightning, they cover all the bases. However, I wish they had done less, because there was one scene that left audience members in my theater chuckling and it occurred to me that if you didn’t understand the nature of the arena (that everything is created by the Gamesmakers) then it would seem silly. As it was, it even drew me out of the story for a moment.
OverallThis movie clocked in at 2 hours and 26 minutes (thanks IMDB), but I didn’t realize it until I looked at my clock on the way out of the theater. I was actually thinking that it was too short. When the movie was over, I guessed an hour and a half had passed. This is good. The pacing was spot-on. It was high intensity, high action all the way through. When this long of a movie passes this fast, it means the editor and director did a great job putting the film together.  I had two problems with this movie (together costing the movie ½ point). One, was the issue with the arena I mentioned earlier. The other was the way in which it ended. The ending is abrupt and there is very little resolution. The end serves only to set up the final film. If I remember right, the book ended the same way, which is one of the reason I didn’t like it so much. A bad ending can ruin a good book (or movie for that matter). 
I am enjoying the films far more than I enjoyed the books. I absolutely hated the third book, Mockingjay, so I am hoping the film version is as good as this one was. When I read the books, I read all three together. Now, I must wait another year or two until the final film. Catching Fire is my favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy film of 2013 so far.
Overall Score: 9.5 out of 10
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Published on November 25, 2013 23:12 • 34 views

November 19, 2013

The Dark World, Swartalfheim, is one of the nine realms of the world tree, Yggdrasil. Thousands of years ago, it was the home of the Dark Elves (Or Swart Alfs). The Dark Elves came to be in a time before light came to the universe. They prefer the dark and want the entire universe to be devoid of light (which the other races, obviously, don’t want). So, the Asgardians took up swords and kicked their asses. But the weapon they tried to use to accomplish their goals, the Aether, was not able to be destroyed and the Asgardians hid it in an underground cavern.
This is the story that opens the movie Thor: The Dark World. It’s a flashback very like the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. And like that flashback, it is entirely unnecessary. About a half-hour into the movie, Odin actually tells the same story to Jane Foster when explaining the events that bring her to Asgard.
This is the singular flaw in Thor: The Dark World. If the editor had cut this opening flashback, the Aether would have been a mysterious force unknown to the viewer. When Jane Foster is exposed to it, the suspense of what is happening to her would have been that much more impactful. But someone at the studio thought the audience for this film would be stupid. Or, they were trying to stick to the formula from the first movie, which also opened with a flashback.
Other than this flashback, the Thor 2 is a fun, action-packed superhero flick. It doesn’t quite rise to the heights of some of the other Marvel movies like Captain America (the best of the bunch in my opinion), but I thought it was more interesting than the first Thor. It’s still a family drama, as Thor in comics form has always been. We have dispensed with the father-son tension and now we have sibling rivalry. Loki is disgraced and imprisoned – wrongfully in his opinion – and Thor is just a short step away from a throne that Odin seems eager to let him have (I’m guessing both Odin and an obviously bloated Anthony Hopkins want to retire in peace).
When the Dark Elves return and threaten Yggdrasil (the universe) again, Thor is forced to team up with Loki to save the life of Jane Foster, who has stumbled upon the Aether and been possessed by it.
This movie is heavily centered on Asgard. Where 80% of Thor was set on Earth, Asgard takes up 50-60% of Thor 2. 
Earth is the place this movie goes for its comic relief. The laughs come hard and fast when we are around Jane Foster’s crew. The comedy duo of Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgaard rip up the screen. Skarsgaard especially did some very brave work here as Erik Selvig, who is suffering from the aftermath of his possession by the Tesseract from The Avengers. Dude is cracked! Kat Dennings is the one-liner machine we know and love from Thor and 2 Broke Girls. I still love it when she can’t pronounce Mjolnir (Meow-meow). This time, she has a foil in the intern’s intern, Ian. Though Ian is merely just another face that could have been left out of the film, Kat turns the comedic tables on him a few times for laughs.
On Asgard, it’s the action that comes hard and fast. The seriousness is turned up a notch and we get the bad-ass royal family unloading on demonic monsters and Dark Elves. Though Odin only gets to wave his staff around (Hopkins has just gotten too fat to do anything else), Frigga (Renee Russo) gets a full blown fight scene. I was shocked when Frigga unloaded a flurry of sword attacks on an unsuspecting Dark Elf. Renee Russo has such a calm, regal demeanor, you just don't see it coming. It’s so much fun to see the denizens of Asgard fight for Asgard on Asgard. We didn’t see that in Thor, where the Asgardians only fought a war against the frost giants on Niffelheim and then got their butts kicked during the frost giant attack. Here, it’s a battle royale when the Dark Elves attack Asgard directly.
So we got laughs, we got action, do we got story?
Sort of.
Thor 2 is obviously Act 2 of a trilogy. It picks up where Thor (and Avengers) left off and sets up Thor 3. However, if you try to figure out exactly how that happens, you might have a little trouble. The overall story of the Dark Elves and the Aether is more of a plot point in the overall Marvel universe (which I will explain in a bit). But the real story here for the Thor universe is how Loki, ever the god of mischief, manipulates his family to get what he wants. This little plot is embedded so deep in the Dark Elf story that it is hard to see until the big reveal at the end of the film. Then, you go “OHHH!!!” and that light clicks on in your head. I didn’t see what was really happening until my second viewing of the film, when I knew how it was going to end and I could pay attention to the details.
For the Marvel universe, we are getting one step closer to the final confrontation with Thanos. The Aether has a relationship with the Tesseract (that energy cube from Captain America/Avengers) which is only revealed in the first cut scene during the credits. We can only guess that there will be more powerful artifacts revealed in future movies (like Guardians of the Galaxy) that will move the series toward Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet.
The performances were all pretty much as they were in Thor. Tom Hiddleston is a great Loki, Chris Hemsworth is a bad-ass Thor, etc. No one really underperformed here. I was a bit underwhelmed by the Dark Elves in general. They didn’t seem as big of a threat as they were made out to be. As villains go, they were boring, even the leader Malekith. One interesting point is that the Dark Elves spoke all their lines in their own language when speaking with each other. But even that language was obviously cobbled together. It wasn’t as richly portrayed as some other fantasy languages out there. I’m pretty sure the words didn’t mean anything, as they didn’t quite jibe with the translation captioned on the screen. Also, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) didn’t come off as the powerful evil he was supposed to be (on par with Odin). The Aether itself was the bigger threat.
Overall score: 8.5 out 10
Better than Thor, but still suffers from poor editing (the prologue) and a weak villain. It had a healthy dose of humor (which I am now expecting Thor 3 to top) and some really exciting and creative fight scenes (especially Thor/Malekith’s world-jumping battle at the end). The Thor franchise is becoming the “fun” Marvel franchise that Iron Man originally was.
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Published on November 19, 2013 01:34 • 42 views

November 6, 2013

I tried my best to limit the spoilers in this review. This should be a relatively spoil-free review.
This review isn’t about the differences between the book and the movie. It’s about the movie. I haven't even read the book yet. I’m judging this movie on its story, structure, characters and acting. It’s a big movie, what the studios call a “tentpole”, so it goes without saying that the special effects were amazing. You don’t release a movie like this with crappy special effects. I’ve heard a lot of people complain that the movie strayed considerably from the book. I’m not surprised by that. Ever since Hitchcock began adapting books (hardly any of his movies were original works), the book adaptation biz has been tricky. Screenwriting is not like book writing. In order to tell a visual story in 2 hours, you need to structure the narrative differently than a 352 page book (thanks to Amazon for the page count).

I also read an amateur review call this movie “soulless” and flat. I don’t agree with this at all. First, this is a sci-fi film. It can look cold and heartless at first to someone not used to the genre. Second, the two main characters in this movie, Ender and Graff, struggle with a concept that has so much soul that it could almost be an R&B album: 
How far will you go to protect the ones you love? Is it worth giving up your very humanity?
I made a concerted effort to stay away from spoilers before watching this film. The most I heard about it was that it had a twist ending (apparently, the novel does). That said, I saw the twists (two of them) coming. Fortunately, I saw the twist, but the characters did not. Ender and the other teenage geniuses had no way of seeing the truth behind the games they were playing. They were blinded by the nature of their training. This allowed for the buildup of tension as the adults hinted to the audience what was really going on while the kids were clueless. I didn’t mind the predictability all that much because of this. As long as their ignorance is not just due to stupidity, I’m happy to give up the surprise. I’m sure the filmmakers were aware that the majority of their audience would be in on it, thanks to the book. Judging by the reaction (or more precisely, the lack of reaction) when the big twist was revealed, most of the audience during my viewing saw it coming as well.
The story was structured in a literal buildup of complexity. It starts with the kids playing video games on an iPad type tablet, then it builds to them playing a team laser-tag type game in weightless space. Ultimately, that turned into playing more games with simulated starships. In a similar way, Ender’s character is pushed in more complex ways. At each stage, Ender finds a way to succeed until he finds himself becoming the monster he has tried so hard not to be. That is when his mettle is truly tested and he has to decide what is more important, his humanity, or the lives of all humanity.
The characters were all well thought out. The two main characters, the child genius, Ender, and the military commander, Graff, played well off each other. If Ender was pushed to become better at each stage of his training, Graff went through a mirrored arc. First, Graff insists that “the morality of what we do here" will have to wait until the war is over. He tries to separate himself from what he is doing to the kids he is training. But as Ender comes closer and closer to what Graff wants him to be, you can tell he is beginning to care for the boy more than the soldier.
Each side character had a role specific to Ender. His sister, Valentine was his anchor to Earth and his analog to humanity as a whole. When he considers the threat to Earth, he always thinks about his sister first. His brother was the example of the monster he feared to be (and I applaud the filmmakers for expressing this in a 2 minute scene and tiny bits of dialogue scattered through the film). His various teammates were indicators of his advancement as a leader. And, of course, Petra was the love interest, a Hollywood construction used pretty much only to make borderline sociopath Ender more relatable. I hope the book version of her was more robust.
There were a few antagonists for Ender along the way, the bully in his first school, his commander, Bonzo, in the second school, etc. But the main antagonist was Graff. Graff was the representation of the human government/military. He was the one who was responsible for making Ender what he was. And when the truth comes out, he is the one who the audience will ultimately blame. He’s not a bad guy. He’s not a villain. There are no villains in this movie, except for maybe Bonzo. Even the mysterious aliens, the Formics, are not really villains. They are just a vague threat in the background and the catalyst for the action in the movie.
The acting by the principle actors is phenomenal. Asa Butterfield (Ender) is convincing as a borderline sociopath who hates what he sees himself becoming. Harrison Ford is Graff. Graff is complicated. He is responsible for saving the world, yet he must use children to do it. There are moments where Harrison’s face becomes this complex sea of conflict that expresses the war going on in Graff’s soul.
Some of the minor actors show up to play as well. One of the standouts is Moises Arias, who plays Bonzo, the only really nasty character in the movie. He plays the role with such delicious hate and antagonism. I also liked Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister. There was good chemistry between Asa and Abigail. They were convincing together.
The performance that fell flatest for me was Ben Kingsley, who played a character directly associated with one of the twists in the film. He didn’t show up until the final third of the movie, but even then, his character was uninteresting and seemed to only be there to reveal the key exposition in the film that answered most of the questions that the first third of the film asked. I’m sure he was more important in the book (I hope). I feel sad for the once-great Kingsley. After his horrible treatment at the hands of the people behind Iron Man 3, he is put in another role in which he has no chance to showcase his talents. Hailee Steinfeld, as Petra, was one of the other iffy performances for me. She was cute and adorable and everything else a “teenage love interest” is supposed to be, but she delivered her lines off a teleprompter, it seemed. There was a little chemistry between her and Asa, but her acting ability needs work.
Overall, the story was well told. The theme was apparent and well expressed. Structurally, it hit the beats it needed to. I got sucked into the story by the end of the first act. The main characters had well thought-out arcs. I was all ready to give this movie a great score (4 out of 5).
But then, the “resolution” came along. You know those extra five minutes that most movies use to wrap up the story? This movie took the story one step further in a development that felt like it was tacked on. Even the foreshadowing of the final event felt like it had been shot in post-production and dropped into the final cut later. Suddenly, we have the start of a new story. An artificial promise of a sequel. Characters began to act out of character (I’m looking at you, Petra). And just like that, I remembered I was watching a movie. And just like that, I lowered my opinion of the whole thing. Endings are like that. They can make or break a movie.
Yes, I know Ender’s Game is just the first of a 5 part series in the books, but I hate it when a movie sets up a sequel so ham-handedly. There was nothing subtle about it. I wish I could express it better without spoiling the end, but I can’t.
Bottom Line  Story: I liked how the story flowed and how it increased the complexity and tension as it moved along. I got sucked in early on and didn't get pulled out until the last five minutes. It was a bit predictable, but for me this movie was more about the characters than about the plot.  Characters: Ender was forced to dig deeper within himself at each stage of his training in order to advance. At the same time he was obviously being pushed to become something he is not. Through watching and guiding Ender, Graff becomes a more compassionate human being.  Execution: The story was somewhat predictable, even for someone who hadn’t read the books. There were clichéd tropes like the hard-ass drill instructor (Dap) and the territorial rival (Bonzo) as well as the "team of misfits defeating the undefeated team in the final, championship game". But these all were secondary to the overall plot. 
The movie shines when it is Ender vs. Graff – a complex relationship almost akin to father/son. These two actors played off each other well and their confrontation at the climax of the film had an emotional pull that I haven’t seen in a sci-fi film in a long time. 
That should have been the end of it, though. 99% of the movie was about Ender/Graff. But the side plot at the end extended the movie where it didn’t need to go. We could have waited until the sequel to see that. Cutting the last five minutes and all the foreshadowing of it would not have hurt this movie at all.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5
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Published on November 06, 2013 02:01 • 28 views

November 2, 2013

I've tried to think of topics that affect me on a day to day basis to put in this blog. I didn't want to make it a “writer’s blog” that would only interest writers. But I know, based on my Twitter following and the Sub-Reddits I post on, that I would have to write some things about writing.

So here is my general view on writing. This includes the things that have been bugging me in the last week or two while browsing Twitter and Reddit.

Write Why are you not writing? I’m not talking about avoiding distraction or scheduling time in. I’m talking about finishing the shit that you’ve started. Please stop posting five paragraphs of your first chapter on Reddit, then taking the feedback you get and starting the chapter over from scratch, then posting the new paragraphs of the same chapter again, then... you get the idea.

ClichésOkay, I know clichés can be off-putting. I’m not talking about the turns of phrase you’ve heard a million times. I’m talking about the concepts that have pervaded certain genres for decades, if not centuries. Some of these concepts are archetypes. They speak to the audience we are trying to reach. I write fantasy. From a fantasy perspective, there are certain archetypes that I’m hearing now are being considered hackneyed or clichéd.

The orphan with a great destiny: I loved stories like this when I was a kid. They spoke to me. And in these times of bullying and terror in schools, this is a great archetype to hang on to. If I were a kid nowadays, I’d love to escape into a fantasy novel where the hero is a young person like me. I think that writers don't like this because they are now grown up and don't relate to the orphan anymore. But if you are writing what is now called YA (which most of the fantasy from my childhood would be called if it was written today), then your audience will relate.The Hero’s journey: I heard on a writing podcast that we shouldn't write stories about the hero’s journey anymore. They are old and clichéd. I wanted to reach through the speakers and strangle the popular fantasy author who said this. The hero’s journey is an important story to tell. It describes the perilous path to self-improvement.
The important thing here is that there are many stories that are told over and over again for a reason. They deserve different interpretations.

There is the key: Different Interpretations!

Don’t tell the same story in the same way. In my trilogy, The Never-Born, I tell these stories, but I tell them in my own way. I take clichés and turn them on their head. That is part of the reason I’m writing the story. Hell, the bad guy is even the “orphan” kid’s father! And I make fun of this idea when one of the characters blurts out “Do you know how Star Wars that is?”

But in The Never-Born, I take this hero’s journey and pay it off at the end in a completely different way. I have tried to make my interpretation different than others. It’s the story inside these concepts where the reader will see the payoff. It’s fantasy. It’s escapism. It’s telling a story that resonates on a subconscious level. These are the important concepts of writing. There is nothing new. No one is telling an original story. No one. Not Neil Gaiman, not Brandon Sanderson... no one. We are only telling the same stories in different ways. That is what being original is about.

Take the cliché and make it your own.

VoiceHow do you express your voice? This is a question I’ve been seeing on the periphery of a lot of Reddit and Twitter posts, not to mention many blogs I’ve been reading. Veteran authors are constantly telling us newbies to “find your voice”. What does that mean?

To me, it means telling your story how you want to tell it. I’m constantly reading posts and articles about “how” to write. People telling me that I can’t write a certain way.

For example, they say, “only use said and asked” for dialogue. Never use any other type of dialogue tag. Use action to express how a characters voice sounds.

Well, I’m an auditory guy. When I write dialogue, I hear the voices. I want my reader to hear the voices as I do. So sometimes I’ll use things like “growled” and “whispered”. Why should I leave a reader guessing about the sound coming out of my character’s throats? I want the passions to be expressed without having to resort to stage actor blocking (The type of OVER-EMPHASIZED ACTIONS that stage actors use so the people in the back row can see them).

That is my voice. That is how my books will always be and I make no apologies. My dream is for my readers to suddenly break out in reading the dialogue aloud as they read as I used to as a kid.

I’m a dramatic writer. I trained as a screenwriter, for film. My writing is short on exposition and fast paced. I try to be cinematic, so I use motion and the environment when I can. I use conflict dialogue a lot. I feel uncomfortable when I need to write long descriptions, but I know sometimes I have to. I discovered while writing my second Never-Born novel that I had to recap some of the events from the previous book and that nearly killed me. It was "too much" exposition, even when it was scattered through the book as needed.

That is my voice. What is yours?


There was another thing that was bugging me, too, but I forgot what it was and this post is running long anyway. If I remember or the issue rears its ugly head (see that? Cliché! Bite me!) again, I’ll post about it. And, who knows? I might just change my opinion on “said and asked” for another project. I’m only 3 novels in, so I’m still learning and finding my voice.

I think by the time the next post comes along, I’ll have seen Ender’s Game. I’ll post my first movie review here when I do. I’ve posted reviews of almost every fantasy/sci-fi movie I’ve seen on Facebook for the last few years, but I’d like to use this blog for that from now on. I can be more detailed and express myself better in a slightly longer format.

Well, I’ve hit my 1000 word mark, so I’ll catch you all later!


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Published on November 02, 2013 17:38 • 23 views

October 28, 2013

Last week, I was driving on a sunny day. I keep my sunglasses in my car so that I don’t forget them and so I don’t lose them (they are expensive Ray-Bans). On this day, I pulled them out and put them on. When I came back home, I was in a hurry to do something or another and I was thinking about that. I got into my apartment and I thought “Why is it so dark in here?” I still had my sunglasses on. I took them off, left them somewhere and promptly lost them until yesterday... in my own place. If I had been focused on driving and on the moment, I would have remembered to take them off, put on my normal glasses and tuck the sunglasses in their normal spot in the car.
It’s little things like that that get me frustrated. It stresses me out. It puts pressure on me in that moment - and in later moments - that I don’t need. It’s not a lot all at once, but it builds up over time.
Something we all need to do is learn to be in the moment. When we are doing something, we need to learn to focus on that one thing.
Are you driving?
Drive! (Especially if you get into your car at work and the next thing you remember you are at home)
Are you eating?
Eat! (Can’t remember what you had for breakfast? Why did you bother to eat?)
In order to do that, you need to stop rushing.I find that I forget important things when I’m rushing. I’ve forgotten to brush my teeth. I’ve forgotten to shave. I’ve forgotten whether I locked the apartment door before leaving for the day. All because my mind is more worried about where I need to be than where I am. Wouldn’t the quality of our lives be better if we were always living in the moment?
When you are not rushed, you are concentrating on the moment. When you give yourself time, you can take your mind off things that may be unimportant (I have to get home now so I can catch the new episode of Agents of SHIELD!) and pay attention to what you are doing (Driving the car safely).
GUIDE TO THE NO-RUSH LIFESTYLE:

Plan Plan your day ahead of time so you know where you need to be and when (set alarms if you need to – always set alarms with enough time to spare to get there, not at the time you need to be there). Make time in your life for the things you need to do, one at a time.

Prioritze Your Schedule Unless you need to for work or other obligations, don’t let anyone dictate your schedule. Even if you do have other obligations (children, family, etc), try to stay on top of them. You have control over your time. If there is a conflict, make sure you reschedule, If your daughter has a soccer game at the same time as your son has a baseball game, you may need to make it up to one of them, or attend half of one game and half of the other if possible.

Be Early Be the person who always shows up early and strolls in as if nothing in the world matters (because it doesn’t). Would you rather be the person who shows up on time, rushing to your job scared that the wrong red light will make you late, or would you rather be the person who is always fifteen or thirty minutes early (or on time if traffic sucks) and can kick your feet up at your desk and read a blog or a web-comic. Even for non-work appointments, I am always early. Sometimes that translates to getting out of the appointment early. If I have to wait, I always carry my Kindle so I can read a chapter or two of a book. Often, this is the only time I can set aside to read for fun.

Get a Head Start Get up early so you aren’t running late. Figure out how much time you need to get ready for your day, then add 15-20 minutes to that. Set your morning alarm accordingly. For example, let’s say you need to drop the kids off at school at 7:30. It takes you and your kids an hour to get ready (I know, this is just for demonstration purposes). Set your alarm for 6:15 or even 6:00 – earlier if you are like me and sit on the bed for 20 minutes reading Facebook posts on the cell phone. If the kids get to school at 7 or 7:15 instead of 7:30, that gives them more time to hang with their friends or finish their homework before the first bell. Then you can take your time getting to work. Drop by Starbucks or run through a drive-thru. You won’t have to worry about being stuck in traffic. If traffic is bad, you can kick back and turn up the radio knowing you don’t have to worry about being late.

DVR your TV shows Watch them on your own schedule. If you are rushing home at 8pm to catch the latest episode of Two Broke Girls, you are trying too hard to kill yourself. If you don’t have DVR, get a 50 cent VCR and a couple tapes from a yard sale. I set aside 2 hour blocks through the week to watch my shows. 2 hours before bed lets me relax and I can usually skim through commercials to get 2 one-hour shows and a half-hour show done in one shot.
 Do you have any other tips for slowing down and living in the moment? Feel free to leave a comment.
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Published on October 28, 2013 04:45 • 24 views