Month: May 2014

The Hunger Games. A Review of the Books.

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There are a couple things I generally don’t do. One is that I don’t usually read young adult fiction, though in the past I have and been pleasantly surprised (Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series was incredible).

Another is that I don’t usually read novels after I have seen a film version of them. Before seeing the film? Yes. But after tends to spoil the experience.

I did both after seeing the first Hunger Games film the other year. I had heard of the books a couple of years prior to that from a friend who rather glowingly praised them. She mentioned that the books at that time were only just beginning to gain notice but that films were planned.

They are quick reads, not overly long despite the content, and read almost like a transcription of some of the film’s story boards. It’s generally not the kind of writing I’m used to, but among other things I considered that the price to pay for reading young adult fiction.

I found the initial presentation of the characters to be pretty good, and the plots were tightly written through the first book and a half. But that price I mentioned paying started to take its toll on my experience about half way through the second book and was pretty rough through Mockingjay.

My main problem with the books was how they were written. I couldn’t tell if the writing was kept more simplistic to prevent things from getting too complex for younger readers or something else, but the result is that the quality of writing seems insufficient to support to wealth of themes and concepts and plots Suzanne Collins attempts to convey.

Action sequences seemed frenetic and chaotic, but not purposefully so. The writing just jumped around inconsistently. The conspiracy in Catching Fire was okay but not nearly as engaging as the more focused struggle in The Hunger Games. By the end of Mockingjay, everything was so rushed that all of the plots were scattered and sloppy in their resolutions. Characters no longer made distinct choices as much as they were moved by the author via deus ex machina square by square across a checkerboard of trite plot points and contrived emotions.

Filmmakers are releasing Mockingjay in two parts. The novel would have benefited by doing the same instead of Collins’ rigid attempt to shore horn everything within a trilogy of three act books based on her playwright experience. 

Perhaps the worst casualty of the writing was Katniss Everdeen herself. Initially, the character was presented brilliantly. She is an independent, capable, clever teenage girl who can stand up to others physically and intellectually and win. She even confronts the despotic President Snow and tries to beat him at his own game.

Katniss unravels by the end of Mockingjay. Instead of the pressure of her previous trials hardening her into a diamond, she shatters. I understand the author’s theme with this is “war is bad” or “this is what conflict does to people”, but the way in which Collins depicts this is disrespectful to the marvelous and inspiring character she crafted, and her plight could have been handled more capably if there were more time and pages for this story to be fleshed out.

The final nail into the Katniss’ coffin is how she finds her happily ever after as a married women with children. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to raise a family, but for a character such as Katniss, the ending is too cliche, simple, and frankly (with all due respect to the wonderful films of Disney) Disney-esque. Introducing her as an independent young woman but then leaving us with a broken housewife puts the author’s views on women into question. Is this the future she wants her young adult female readers to glean from her work?

Despite these frustrations, there are a few things that I enjoyed about the books. The setting, a dystopian future where dissent is quelled with deadly reality television, is curious and enthralling. The backstory frames the setting quite well, and poses some implicit questions such as how our world came to such a state as Panem.

Tracker Jackers, mockingjays, the different characteristics of each District, these qualities and more brought the world to life. I liked reading the tidbits of lore.

The “bread and circuses” games themselves are horrifying and appropriately bloody and traumatic affairs. I was slightly shocked reading about them, but completely entertained. The premise of this whole series is a really strong one, and held together even when other things fell apart.

Even the decadent culture of the Capitol is sickening in a way and provides a mirror of sorts to our own obsession with entertainment and vanity. Taking Katniss from an Appalachian backwater and seeing her forcibly transformed into a TV star was mesmerizing. The fact that even all out war was televised is eerily familiar to our society.

Just like Katniss, great concepts and sci-fi elements were made over into something flashy and stylish. I found myself wanting the substance to shine through instead. I also found myself wondering if the films were always planned and that quickly releasing these books to the young adult market was just a way to expedite the movie-making process.

I especially enjoyed the first book and a half, but my issues with the writing heavily affected my enjoyment of the rest. Mockingjay itself had great potential, but was too speedily and clumsily resolved. Maybe the films will do it better, which is, to me, a compromising sentiment. On the other hand, had these novels been treated and released as full-on speculative science fiction, we would have had a wonderful modern classic that explores the evils of war and statism. Instead we got a watered down teeny bop pop culture phenomenon in the vein of Twilight. 

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Do I Want To Go To The Mexican Aftershow Party?

Yes.

Yes, I do. Especially if it’s anything like Kevin Drew describes it in the so named song, “Mexican Aftershow Party”.

This song came up on my Kylie Minogue station on Pandora, of all places. I was immediately drawn to the 80’s sounding synth, so I gave it a like. I found myself looking forward to Pandora playing it for me again and again.

There’s a mysterious quality to the song that makes me wonder if Mexican Aftershow Party is some kind of code word for a gathering of indie kids the same way a kiki is for gays. And I want in on it at least once, just to see if it takes place in a hookah den where they talk about anarchy and Apple products.

The semi-spoken lyrics lure me deeper into the mystery as the intensity of the song builds and I feel like I have started listening to the avant garde soundtrack to an 80’s sci-fi flick like Starman or something. Then, not only am I experiencing a song from 2014, I’m slightly regressing to my childhood.

I wish I could listen to the rest of Kevin Drew’s album “Darlings” on Spotify, but I keep compulsively repeating the track, which is what I do when a song infects me. See, earworms have the same effect on me that Khan’s parasites had on Chekov and Captain Terrell in Star Trek 2.

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The song’s video, which sadly lacks the thousands of views it deserves, is hypnotic in its own way. It depicts Kevin, painted with gold or glitter or something, performing his song on stage. The sensual audio experience transcends to visual, and the audience in the video can’t help but look on in wonder or cry, speak in Spanish or feel up a young man’s hairy thigh which is tantalizingly exposed.

The song creeps up on me in the same way and I don’t want it to stop.

X-Men: Days of Future Past Is Finally Present.

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I saw it last night, and it was a healing experience. I felt that a long, dark chapter had finally come to a close, and now I can look forward with optimism the way I did over ten years ago. What do I mean by this? The tale is quite an epic in itself, apart from the film and its predecessors.

Let’s start in the past…

X2 was released on the eve of my high school graduation. I saw it a handful of times in the theater, and it remains my favorite film of all comic book films released. I was gladly surprised at the first X-Men film a couple years before, but nothing could prepare me for the drastic upping of the ante that occured with its sequel. My friends and I who had grown up with the comics and TV shows were absolutely giddy at the stories explored in X2, the characters and how they developed, and the hint of Dark Phoenix that we saw in the film’s conclusion.
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In short, this film was not only a grand experience by itself, but it delivered a promise of more to come. This is where the tale takes a darker turn.

Director Bryan Singer jumped ship from his X-Men franchise to make a new Superman film (Superman Returns, which is sadly underrated and still better that the more recent Man of Steel, but more on that another time…). He ultimately left the series in the hands of Brett Ratner. Despite some decent film credits in prior years, what we got from Ratner was a steaming pile of film mess. The promise we were left with at the conclusion of X2 was betrayed in a whirlwind of too many incomplete plots, needless character deaths, hollow emotional stakes, and an overall tired feel to the film.
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The respect Singer has attempted to show the source material in his two films became a cash grab by Ratner. Sure there were more mutant battles with special effects, a few love triangles, and Ian McKellan is a awesome actor, but nothing could save the film. I was glad when the film was finally over, because I felt like I had just watched a sacred part of me get publicly defiled.
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And thus began a period of my film-watching life where I learned not to expect or want anything from a film. It wasn’t all X-Men: The Last Stand’s fault, it was Hollywood in general (even the third Spider-Man film released around this time was a letdown). I had this sense that nothing sacred could survive. Eventually it would become tainted and wither away. With this third film I watched a phoenix rise from ashes merely to throw a brief tantrum before sputtering out darker than the faintest ember.

There were other films in the series. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which I only partially viewed because my distaste eventually got the better of me) and The Wolverine (another Wolverine film which actually got some decent praise, but I still have not seen it). These were dark days for X-Men and these were also times when other superhero franchises were having there time in the limelight. Perhaps, though, we owe Hugh Jackman a bit of thanks for his enthusiasm for Wolverine. In retrospect, it seems the mutant’s healing factor seems to have rubbed of on the franchise…

Then there was X-Men: First Class. I’ll admit that by this time I was fatigued to the point of apathy. Another X-Men film, I thought, and new actors this time. How will that work?

It worked quite well as it turns out. With a jaundiced eye I watched and was slowly yet surely convinced of the film’s genuine effort to be a good film. While I didn’t agree with some of the stylistic choices and directing, I couldn’t fault the entire film for those minor issues. There was finally a decent film to ameliorate my mutant malaise, and maybe I could hope for a better film in the future?

No… Don’t. Abandon hope when considering anything from Hollywood. Remember what happened with X-Men: The Last Stand. Just be glad First Class didn’t suck… Those were my thoughts.

But then there was the announcement of X-Men: Days of Future Past and it’s ensemble cast. It’s intentions to bridge the original trilogy to First Class. It’s goal to tell a story based on a renowned comic book story. These were things I remember hoping for after X2. Could this be the film I thought was promised to me? Could things such as this happen, and more than a decade after the fact to boot?
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Well maybe. My hardened heart needed more. More is what it received in abundance when the first trailer was released (I have a strange affection for movie trailers, so I watched this a bunch).  A work of art in itself, this distilled preview teased me with plot points without spoiling the entire package, and left me curiously invigorated. Perhaps this new film would be… okay. Just don’t get too excited.

Despite my early anticipation of the film’s release, the actual date of release had snuck up on me. Before I knew it I was sitting in the theater feeling… nothing. I don’t go to late films because I’m becoming old in my late 20’s and staying out all night is a game for the young. But then it began. Then it ended.

And now in the present…

Let me just say, I rarely say that films are a healing experience. Sure there are some that are inspiring and heartwarming, educating and reaffirming, and others that I want to experience all over again the moment the credits roll. But healing is something I reserve for literature or art, and despite the industry’s attempts, film is rarely art. X-Men: Days of Future Past may not be art, but Bryan Singer pulled out all the stops, and exposed some secrets in just the right manner so that we can be reacquainted with forgotten yet familiar faces.

At the end, a main character is in disbelief that he succeeded and that things have returned to “normal”. Lives have been restored, the past corrected, mistakes erased. For over ten years I watched a film franchise up close and from a distance. I loved it and hated it. It hurt me, but ultimately healed me. I wonder now if the darkest parts of this saga were worth it in the end, knowing now that things turn out alright. Perhaps. All I know is that X-Men: Days of Future Past is the X-Men film I have been wanting for over ten years. A deep pain from my youth has been soothed.

All I can say now is, go see this film, and join the rest of us who ironically anticipate Apocalypse.

Sex and the City Re-watch Recap: La Douleur Exquise!

So there’s a new restaurant in town: an S&M place named after the episode’s title. In addition to excessive skin and leather, we get to see Samantha with a whip (wasn’t she turned off by a guy who had whips?), and Charlotte with kinked hair.

This whole scenario brings up the issue of fetishes. Do the girls have any?

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Carrie has to leave to see her fetish, Big, who is about to leave for Paris for work. She snags Samantha’s whip for a bit of pretravel pain play.

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Stanford (Stanford has his own storyline!?) spends his free time on the internet in archaic chat rooms. Like many gays, he has an outlandish screen name, and chats about his particular interest, underwear.

Charlotte’s interests are more down to earth. As in literally on the earth, since she likes shoes. She enters a shop where all the styles beckon and she very nearly swoons. But she isn’t the only one in the shop that day who sees something she really likes. The nice salesman, Buster, gives her quite the discount.

Miranda is book shopping on the street for biographies. She meets a guy who also enjoys the voyeuristic experience of reading about others’ lives.

While Big is packing, he drops the bomb that he may be moving to Paris. Carrie is blindsided, and wonders why he didn’t tell her earlier. “Don’t got carried away”, he stays. Not a good time for puns, buddy.

At brunch, Carrie throws a tantrum and realizes that maybe her fetish is the painful relationship she keeps trying to carry on with Big. Is she a masochist?

Miranda winds up going on a date with Will Arnett (can’t remember his character’s name). He likes other voyeuristic things other than biographies, it seems, like messing around in public places. Surprisingly, Miranda goes along with it, because who hasn’t done it outside the bedroom? And I don’t mean in the living room or kitchen, either.

Later, Stanford confesses his nightlife to Carrie, and his alter ego: Rick9plus.

Sigh.

At least he admits it’s sad, and he’s scared a guy he’s been cybering with wants to meet him and that he’ll be an in-real-life letdown.

Despite the numerous opportunities for judgement, we see a non-shitty side of Carrie who supports her friend. “Be safe, have fun”, she says with nary a hint of derision.

But shitty Carrie (or shitfaced) makes a return and drunk dials Big. He’s in France. But no one’s in his under pants. Something has crawled into Carrie’s, though and she rants and raves about how she’s doing more for the relationship than he is. While I agree with her arguments, she could have chosen another time. This is, however, quite the funny argument, complete with Carrie’s party foul as she spills her martini.

Miranda, meanwhile, is getting head in the cab. Maybe that’s a bit too far. But parked cars are okay, right?

Charlotte makes a return to Buster, who wants to give away some shoes in exchange for rubbing Charlotte’s feet. And this is how Charlotte met a foot fetishist who enabled her bad habit.

Just as Charlotte gets on her high horse over Miranda’s public displays of sex, she gets humbled by the girls for accepting her free high heels. She does the honorable thing and attempts to return them. She can’t, but winds up trying on several pairs of shoes for Buster. It’s a very awkward time.

Later, Carrie greets Big with cheap food that she makes to sound French for being Le Bitch. Big rebuffs Carrie’s offer to move to Paris with him. Then Carrie explodes again because it seems that Big doesn’t even care about the “us” between them and would rather put an ocean between them. And so they break up, despite their love. Their painful love.

Speaking of painful, Stanford has to meet his date from the web. Turns out that the dress code at the club is under wear only. More on this later.

Because Miranda finally gets to have sex with her fling in the bedroom. While his parents watch. Nevermind. Creepy.

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Just as Stanford is about to give up, thinking he was stood up, a cute young guy compliments his undies, which are French, and probably the most French thing in this episode. They hit it off and share a drink.

Carrie is still awake later when Big comes over. Having said everything, they wordlessly make love. Carrie knows it’s over. She says so the next morning and gives up Big to distant Paris.

For the first time in a while, we get a truly good episode with this one. It deftly treats all the characters’ various experiences with fetish in appropriate ways, wether with humor or understanding, and furthers the drama of the plot. I always feel like this one is a season finale, but fortunately there’s more season two left.

Lord Foul’s Bane, A Book Review

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Lord Foul’s Bane, first book of Stephen R. Donaldson’s series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever was released way back in 1977. This is the year of Star Wars, and a decade following the preeminence of Lord of the Rings, so another epic fantasy on the book charts is no surprise. But is Lord Foul’s Bane just another epic fantasy? Let’s see…

High fantasy setting? Check.

Magic? Check.

Bearded, wizardly men with staves that shoot fire? Check.

Mythical creatures? Check.

Wicked evil foes? Check

Quest for a magical artifact? Check

Main character has a magic ring? Check.

Main character is a bitter, bitter leper who commits rape within hours of arriving to this wondrous fantasy land? Er… … Check?

While Lord Foul’s Bane has many standard, even trite, elements of the fantasy genre, it turns the system on its head by providing you with a rather agonizing protagonist.

The story starts regularly enough. Thomas Covenant is from our world. He is a published author. He used to have a family, but they left him when he discovered he is afflicted with leprosy. The stigma against his ailment is more painful that the disease itself, and Thomas now lives as an outcast, and society wants nothing more than for him to keep his distance.

By means unknown, Thomas is transported to The Land when he is struck by a vehicle. There he is greeted by the villains of the novel straight away. Goulish Drool Rockworm, who does the bidding of Lord Foul the Despiser. Foul, oddly enough, almost stupidly, gives Thomas a message to relay to the lords of the land that spells doom and destruction.

Thus begins an adventure through The Land where we meet its peoples, learn that is has a deep history, and a dark past.  The journey, too, seems pulled right out of any mythic form. Thomas must assemble a group of companions who can both fight and provide him with knowledge that will help him unlock mysterious and innate powers that will help him overcome a great evil.

On the surface, that’s exactly what this novel is about.

But remember: Thomas is from Earth. Our Earth, our time (well… the 70’s). Things like this don’t happen. Can’t happen. Furthermore, Thomas is a leper. His severe nerve damage limits him drastically, and even the merest cut could spell his demise. He certainly isn’t the stuff of heroes, and his magic ring? It’s just his white gold wedding band that he nostalgically wears even though his wife has long since abandoned him.

What the story really explores is the internal journey Thomas makes as he struggles with his disbelief with this entire experience (hence his title The Unbeliever). But Thomas is a bitter, bitter man. He is wholly unlikable, and he digs himself in a rather deep hole with his attitude. He is an anti-hero to the extreme.

This is where I had problems with the book, originally. You see, I generally don’t like novels about anti-heroes. They seem to me like the author’s chance to live out a fantasy of being an asshole to everyone yet still be celebrated for it. I have been surprised before, such as with Anne Rice’s Lestat character, and was surprised here as well.

I still don’t like Thomas, but I pity him. He has had a difficult life, so it’s not like he chose to be a leper, or that he chose for his wife to leave him, though that doesn’t excuse all of his choices. It’s a sour irony that Thomas is an outcast at home and wants to be a part of society, but while in The Land, he is a vital figure but he wants nothing more than to be alone.

As far as the setting Donaldson created, he obviously has a lot of affection for it like any author would, but he shows some restraint as the novel progresses and doesn’t encumber us with every minute detail of the world.  While I do think parts of the journey in the novel dragged on during passages of travel, I didn’t feel like I was on a guided tour with signs explaining the history of ruins on the hill, or some relics in the grass.

When compared to other fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings, there are quite a few shared elements. Donaldson even writes with an archaic, expressive vocabulary that makes the novel seem like some ageless and forgotten tome. But the abrasive character of Thomas Covenant, who clashes with every generous offer and benevolent character in The Land, is an intriguing and effective story telling device that sets Lord Foul’s Bane apart from its contemporaries.The unlikable character is such a conductive element that the conflict and drama in the book become explosive, but not just because of physical battles or magical spells.

If you find yourself bored with conventional fantasy, and you feel like you’re reading the same thing time and again, give Lord Foul’s Bane a try. It retains the superficial fantasy elements so that the whole affair has that flavor, but there is a twist to it all. Lord Foul’s Bane may very well be a rebel among fantasy novels, but it’s not one to be quelled.