TV Pick: The Expanse

Sci-Fi network (SyFy?) once had the market cornered on good science fiction TV series.  That was before they decided to rely on wrestling and straight-to-video movies to fill their programming slate.  These days, everyone from AMC to MTV to the premium channels has some sci-fi or fantasy in their lineup – some good, some not.   So it’s nice to see something worth recommending on Sci-Fi/SyFy.

expanse

The Expanse, based on the novels by James SA Corey, takes place in a near future in which humanity has expanded into our solar system to colonize Mars and mine the asteroid belt.  There’s no faster-than-light travel, and one of the central tenets of the books is a realistic approach to the science and challenges of space travel and survival. Continue reading

Star Wars TFA – Reaction

So this isn’t really a review – more of a reaction to the movie.  It would be very hard for someone like me to review a Star Wars movie.  Just too close and too invested in the SW mythos and all that entails, which is why my reactions and viewing experience are what they are.

Which is to say…  Saddened and a bit neurotic.  And by the way, spoiler alert – you probably don’t want to read this if you haven’t yet seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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Hobbit Question

The crew took in the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit last evening.  We enjoyed it, of course, thoroughly entertained…  Some will question the pacing, the character additions, the choices of how to portray that Battle of Five Armies on the slopes of the Lonely Mountain.  Did the story and treatment merit three separate movies?  (Studio executives vote yes.)  Was it a good choice to make this Thorin’s story as much as Bilbo’s?  Dwarf-Elf love?  Why do some trolls turn to stone in sunlight while others do not?  Did we really need to add Middle Earth spice worms?

The answers to these important questions depend on your perspective and level of Tolkien scholarship.  For our part, we are content to enjoy the experience – the full Peter Jackson experience.  Extended battle-scenes, harrowing escapes, crazily epic escapes…  But we do have one nerdish question that must be posed…  Spoiler alert.  Read on after the break if you’ve seen the movie…

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Interstellar Thoughts

We took in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last weekend.  First movie night since our previous baby-sitter went to college, so yeah, the wife and I were reminiscing with friends about how we used to see movies every weekend…

We enjoyed this film quite a lot – sometimes in spite of itself.  As far as I’m concerned, the more big budget movies that reasonably attempt to intelligently tackle space travel and sci-fi themes the better.  Yes, the Nolan brothers are insistent here – insisting that their framework of time and inter-generational connectivity drive the plot – even in the face of the extreme distance and sheer statistical unlikelihoods of interstellar travel.  Just like the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Memento, the Nolans are all in, using the conventions of movie storytelling and expectations to reinforce their thematic agenda.  As noted:  insistent.

We liked the generational love-story.  Very intense, very different from your typical male/female lead romance.  We liked the slow-build first act, reminiscent of Close Encounters.  We liked the scope and feel of the big space moments, supported by an effective score.  The acting performances were all first-rate.

So the science aspect of Interstellar, the insistence on the narrative framework inter-connections…  Yes, they work in the moment, but afterwards this bothered me a little.  And if you look at other reviews of this movie, you’ll find the sci-fi community a little less enamored of it than the general consumer, mostly for this reason.  Ideas on relativity and time, and sustainable life in the proximity of black holes – these are tough to convey to a general audience without too much dumbing down.  I’d be curious to know what actual physicists thought about this.

Still, it’s a very good movie, and if you think you’re the kind of person who’d enjoy Interstellar, you should certainly give it a look.

Marvel’s Guardians

Took in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy last weekend (along with so many others).  What a fun show!  Marvel Studios continues to hit that action-adventure-humor sweet spot, and we would guess that while the majority of the viewing public never heard of Drax or Groot prior to this film, they’re fans now.

Because no one’s demanded it, we’re going to try a little switch on the review format here.  Instead of the longer summary form, we’ll just go with the likes and dislikes, hits and misses, cheers and jeers.

Four likes

  1.  Cosmic Marvel – The intergalactic, sci-fi area of the Marvel Universe has a lot to offer.  Although Stan and Jack originally created some of the aliens and creatures just to give the Fantastic Four or Avengers someone else to fight, the vastness beyond Earth has provided creators with so many opportunities to tell new stories, mix favorite elements of space opera and sci-fi, and envision new worlds.  Guardians, with its mishmash of alien cultures and locales, uses this to great effect to create that fun Star Wars vibe.  We’ve seen hints of Cosmic Marvel in the Avengers-themed movies (especially Thor), but this one really nails it, with references to old school creations like the Kree and Skrull war, the Celestials, and more.
  2. Set Design/Art Direction – Closely tied to the above, big kudos to the visual arts team.  It’s incredible what they can create on screen these days.  Whether it’s Starlord’s ship (orange and blue, baby!), Ronan’s Dreadnought cruiser, the prison, Knowhere (awesome!), or Xandar, the overall result is fantastic.  Not just because of the vivid colors and attention to detail, but also how these environments interact with the characters without suspending the disbelief overly much.
  3. Chris Pratt – Starlord, man!  As a big Parks and Recreation fans, we already knew about the comic timing, which Pratt applies repeatedly and expertly.  He’s a great choice as that Earth-transplant every-dude.  Of course Peter Quill/Starlord has so much potential as an archetypal character.  With a boyhood spend on earth in the 80s, he has those frames of reference, the music, the lingo.  He knows about Captain Kirk and Han Solo and is fully attempting to pull that off.  Pratt’s convincing in the action scenes, and has the range for the more serious moments as well (although you could feel the clowning right around the corner).  His scenes with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) were fun and Saldana also deserves a lot of credit for her performance.
  4. Writers/Script – The story’s pretty straightforward:  Quest for treasure turns into a mission to stop the evil overlord.  The characters are your typical band of misfits.  But give a lot of credit to the writing team – James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, Dan Abnett, and Andy Lanning.  There’s real economy in their scenes; they set up character traits quickly, and the comedic moments are plentiful without feeling forced.  Drax taking everything literally, Rocket’s antics and tough-guy veneer, Groot…  We also appreciate some of those smaller moments and how they worked in a few Marvel easter eggs like usual.  They didn’t overdo the Starlord/Quill character arc, they didn’t force some grand epiphany upon the character.  And whoever came up with the idea for that final showdown with Ronan – well that writer deserves an award.

One dislike

  1. I thought the post-credit mini-scene (now a tradition) was a little weak and somewhat frightening in an 80’s flashback kind of way.  This isn’t really a dislike, but rather an observation:  the movie had just a little too much violence and a one too many crude jokes for me to bring the kids along.  They’re just going to have to wait, which is too bad, because they want to see Guardians very badly.

 

Movies: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

…written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffra, and Amanda Silver; directed by Matt Reeves; starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Toby Kebbell.  And some really good CGI guys…

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the better sci-fi dramas we’ve seen lately.  Set in a post-infectious disease event world, with the vast majority of humans having succumbed to the simian virus in the previous movie, the film rightly begins with the apes.  They are, after all, the stars of this show.

Caesar (Serkis) and the other apes have built a thriving hunter-gatherer civilization outside the ruins of San Francisco – and we quickly learn they have language (written, spoken, and sign), specialized roles, laws, and yes, politics.  They’ve seen no humans in years (and are happy about this) when a human blunders into an ape hunting party and promptly shoots one of the apes.

Turns out, the survivors of San Francisco are running low on fossil fuels, so they’ve traveled out to the apes’ forests in an attempt to get the old hydroelectric dam working.  But Caesar’s having none of it.  He rallies the apes, who converge upon the humans and let them know they need to stay in the city and leave the forest to the apes.

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Books: The Red Knight

In Brief:  Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight blends traditional fantasy elements with strong historical fiction writing to great effect.  The title character leads his band of mercenary knights into the frontier to protect a vital outpost against the chaotic forces of the Wild.  As the forces of the Kingdom of Alban gather to confront the Wild, we meet a number of other interesting characters, Cameron’s system of magic, and a complex-without-being-excessive setting that includes complex politics, medieval economics, and philosophical-religious overtones.

Pros:  The sense of historical realism, even within this fictional setting rife with magic, wyverns, daemons, places this book in rare company.  Once you grow accustomed to Cameron’s method of switching between the main characters – not always to their p.o.v, but always focused on them – the method works extremely well.  Excellent characterization, pacing of the action and the world-building, and a very intriguing setting and magic system.

Cons:  None, really.  This is a very, very good book.  Maybe if you’re not into a Medieval Europe-style setting…  Maybe if you don’t find historical detail woven into a fantasy world fascinating…

Review:  Miles Cameron has a degree in Medieval History and an obvious love for historical reenactment.  He also has had a fine career writing historical fiction (as Christian Cameron), is an old school D&D guy, and likes to camp in the deep woods.  With swords.  This is my guy.  Of course, I didn’t know any of this before picking up The Red Knight; I’d just viewed a recommendation lauding the book for its blend of historical authenticity with fantasy elements.  It turns out, Cameron has written a number of historical fiction books and stories (as Christian Cameron), and his knowledge and familiarity with everything from armor to fortifications to the philosophical foundations of Christianity sets this novel apart.

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Review: Superior Spider-man

In Brief:  Superior Spider-man, written by Dan Slott and illustrated by Ryan Stegman, takes Spidey in new directions with a bold narrative twist.  Volume 1, ‘My Own Worst Enemy’, and Volume 2, ‘A Troubled Mind’, collect the first 10 issues of this ongoing series.  Books like this one continue to show that Marvel  is more than a marketing arm – they still produce great comics stories.

Pros:  Slott picks up from the historic events Amazing Spider-Man #700 and continue with strong storytelling involving major changes to Spider-man and his world.  It’s a much different kind of story, but that makes it no less effective.  Stegman’s panel work and ability with the action and staging are first rate.

Cons:  Well, this is a major shift.  It certainly has the potential to put long-time Spider-man fans, especially if you haven’t been keeping up with the comic books.  You just have to give it a chance.

SPOILERS —-  SPOILERS  —- SPOILERS

Do we still do spoilers?  Anyway…

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Quick Rec – Lego Movie

Not a full review here, but another quick recommendation :  The Lego Movie.  Yes, you can add us to the many, many others lauding this clever and funny family show.  Does it help that our kids are really into legos right now, that it’s their go-to creative time pursuit?  Absolutely.  But don’t dismiss our thumbs-up as simple consumer bias…

Writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller deserve the accolades for a fun story that gets to the heart of playing with legos – the following directions precisely mode vs. free-build creative mode.  Each has its merits, but to the surprise of no one, the movie favors the latter.  Creativity is the principal theme here – what it means to our kids, how we perceive and value it.  And Lord and Miller so effectively capture childhood perceptions of playing and imagining with broad strokes like the different themed lego-lands the characters visit as well as small details like various sound effects (child-produced) or the artifacts from our mundane world.

And, if all that seems a little uppity, well – the jokes are really, really funny.  There are a lot (and we mean a lot) of them, rapidly delivered, with numerous parenting and pop-culture references squarely aimed at the grown-ups.  Due to the vastness of the lego line, the movie drops in all sorts of famous people and character cameos, and the writers obviously had a ball with these scenes and jokes.

The Lego Movie is easily Top 3 for family movies we’ve seen in the last several years – probably our favorite since The Incredibles.  So we say, take your kids, grand-kids, or nieces/nephews to the cinema and enjoy.

Review: Thor – God Butcher – God Bomb

In Brief:  These first two volumes of Thor, God of Thunder, written by Jason Aaron with principal art by Esad Ribic,  give us three versions of Marvel’s Thor from three separate eras.  Thor must track down and face the God Butcher, a foe from his distant past, present, and future.  It’s cosmic comics adventure that takes full advantage of the current Avengers cross-over appeal.

Pros:  The story is first rate – epoch-spanning, with bits of Asgardian and Marvel Universe lore, while clearly being centered on Thor.  Ribic’s art has a Dark Horse/Conan flavor that effectively captures galactic grandeur and Middle Age Norse grit.

Cons:  Well, the price.  The two hardbound volumes retail at $25 apiece.  But that’s a problem the comics industry continues to face.  Also, movie fans hoping to see Loki won’t find him here.

Review:  Reading comics as a kid, Thor was always just kind of there.  He was an Avenger.  He had a hammer.  He talked funny.  I never really picked up any Thor comics, which is weird because I really liked mythology.  Of course the character has enjoyed something of a revival recently, with a couple of  good super-hero movies and the Avengers tie-in.  At Marvel Comics they’re no doubt acutely aware of this, and their Disney masters are on them to capitalize.  Books like The God Butcher and The God Bomb fit the bill.  They can also serve as a reminder to the corporate types (hopefully) that the comics medium still tells stories of high adventure with the best of them. This tale begins in Medieval Iceland, with a younger, brasher God of Thunder enjoying his time among the Vikings.  Thor the Younger has not yet proven worthy of lifting the hammer, Mjolnir, but it’s not for lack of effort on the battle field.  In Iceland, the Vikings find the decapitated head of a god washed ashore – a god of the American Indians – and Thor wonders who or what is responsible.   Continue reading