Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: Buried Heart

Buried Heart Buried Heart by Kate Elliott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Court of Fives trilogy concludes in this long but tense and terrific novel, bringing the whole series full circle, especially where its ongoing themes of colonialism and racism are concerned. Truly, Efea will rise, but it'll be a long and difficult road for Jes and her people to get there, and they'll need a few allies among the Saroese first. Kal, perhaps? Of course, first he has to make himself overcome his natural inclination to uphold the corrupt institutions of his people, purely to keep his own power and social standing, tenuous though it may be. A little heavy these themes get at times, but like most examples of literary allegories for social justice, it's not exactly meant to be a comfortable read. Best of all, though, the series makes it clear that mercy is a better route than vengeance and blood (I'm paraphrasing here, but at least it makes for a better ending than the - also paraphrased - line about a tree being too diseased at the root to cure implied for the future of Efeans and Saroese alike.) I'm actually more than a bit surprised that this series hasn't been called out all over the place for Kate Elliott writing outside her lane in terms of race, but I'm very glad that there's at least one other case (like, say, the works of Corinne Duyvis) to serve as proof that it's perfectly okay to do so, provided it's done with sensitivity of course, and that maybe people shouldn't be asking writers of color these kinds of unnecessary questions? I'm thinking Elliott did write pretty sensitively, especially given that Justina Ireland gets herself a space in the acknowledgments as a beta reader.

To the Court of Fives, I now say vas ir...anoshe, and now I find myself needing to read a few more of Kate Elliott's books.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Justice League: Snyder Can't Save The World Alone


Ah, the other big comic-book movie universe, the DC Extended Universe (still not a big fan of that name, BTW, but that's neither here nor there.) Two weeks after Marvel gifted us with its MCU latest in Thor: Ragnarok, DC stepped back up to the plate with Justice League, its answer of sorts to Joss Whedon's Avengers (with Whedon himself co-writing the screenplay and giving uncredited director work on the reshoots.) But you already knew that. You also knew that this movie had a pretty troubled production due in part to the increasingly poor reception of previous DCEU films, with the obvious exception of this year's super-smash hit Wonder Woman. And also the fact that it ultimately wound up being shockingly expensive, with a disappointing first weekend at the worldwide box office that doesn't even meet its $300 million price tag (though it comes close.) And that Rotten Tomatoes wouldn't even release the movie's official score until practically the day of its release, effectively delaying the inevitable news that DC had another Zack Snyder turkey travesty on their hands as far as the critics were concerned.

But hit pause on that, and if you're still torn on whether to watch this movie,, not the coconut. Consider that maybe Snyder not being 100% involved with this one's production was actually to its benefit, at least as far as tone goes. Because while this movie winds up suffering from quite a few flaws - like the over-reliance on some often piss-poor CGI, or the surprisingly thin plot for a jam-packed superhero blockbuster, the revealing Amazon armor compared to Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, Batfleck's phoned-in performance, and Snyder's general mishandling of Superman - its tone, not quite MCU-light even with Joss Whedon's trademark battle snark but certainly more hopeful than the overly nihilistic Batman v Superman and chaotic misfire of Suicide Squad, was a step in the right direction while acknowledging the film's own hamstrung-by-its-predecessors'-mistakes nature.

"Children," Diana says. "I work with children. Also, where in Hades is Bale when you need him?"

It's funny, I actually thought Batfleck was quite a nice novelty in BvS, one of that movie's saving graces alongside Gal Gadot's terrific, if underutilized at the time, Wonder Woman. Now, though, especially knowing how visibly ashamed and disappointed Ben Affleck's become with his DCEU involvement in recent months (he's not even going to be headlining The Batman if and when that's ever made, is he?), it's so clear that he's let that negativity contaminate his performance as Bats in this one. More than anyone else (except maybe Cavill's Supes), he's a relic of the days when it looked like Snyder was going to run this franchise into the ground - almost perpetually tired and dour and gruff. Meanwhile, Supes (who died in BvS and made the kids in the theater cry ugly tears the day I saw that movie, but we all knew he was coming back from that final shot where it looked like we were about to get zombie-Supes!) comes back, of course, but the question is, is it even worth the price of admission to witness this dark Kryptonian perversion of Jesus? Is it really too much to ask that we please just have Supes be fun and optimistic like Tyler Hoechlin's portrayal on Supergirl, say?

Yeah, make Cavill more like this.
I wouldn't mind if they did, Ricky. That Hoechlin man offers some stiff competition.

Going forward from this movie, I really expect that Cavill will get to show more of Supes' fun side. More hope, and not get it nastily truncated like in the movie's prologue where a kid's interviewing him on cell phone video for a podcast, where the kid's asking what his House of El symbol means and the video abruptly cuts off and cue "Warner Bros. Pictures Presents." He'll have a lot of catching up to do, though, compared to the rest of the (currently) half-dozen-strong Justice League. Even Cyborg (who starts out brooding and wrapped up in a hoodie because he's got to stay locked up at home while he's presumed dead) and Aquaman (who's a sarcastic assbutt pretty much the whole damn time, but often just plain a dick - like, when Batman first comes to find him and he makes it a point of refusing the call to action) brighten up the day far better than our should-be-sunnier Kryptonian buddy does.

Who're you callin' "brooding?"
He's callin' you, brother. And damn straight I was a dick to Bats. "I hear you talk to fish?" *untranslatable Atlantean*

But of course next to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman and Ezra Miller's Flash, no one's exactly gonna look like the life of the party. Even more than Superman, who's supposed to be the symbol of hope in the DCEU, Wonder Woman shoulders that symbolic responsibility right alongside her already-in-place personification of love, and loses not a single badass point. This in spite of the camera's unnecessary fondness for her ass (hard to say if Snyder or Whedon's more to blame on this one), but Diana Prince is all the flavors of strong as she forms another movie's beating heart.

Proof you shouldn't make me angry. Someone help me spam Snyder's and Whedon's inboxes with this until they stand aside for Patty Jenkins, please?

The funnest piece of sunshine, though, is Ezra Miller's Flash. I wasn't terribly impressed with his ten-second-or-so cameos in BvS or Suicide Squad, especially not when Grant Gustin already charmed his way into my soul with his angelically gifted performance on the CW series. But you know what? Not unlike Tom Holland vs. Andrew Garfield, Miller does his own thing as Barry Allen, making him the adorkable kid of the gang. Inexperienced, and a bit bogged down by his insecurities and fears (extra-bad news when your enemy commands an army of zombie-things that target people's fear), but also more powerful than he realizes, and more ready than he realizes to finally become a functioning member of a society operating on a plane he has little grasp of.

Feel free to headcanon me as autistic. Ricky encourages it. And also queer - come on, you totally saw me checking out Aquaman's butt, right?
I'm in a relationship, you know.

The villain Steppenwolf, though, is one of the movie's weak links, mostly for not really adding anything to the table. He looks like an unholy hybrid of Surtur, Ronan the Accuser, and Ares; he speaks entirely in agonizing clich├ęs; his evil plot manages to mash up both of Whedon's Avengers movies, Age of Ultron included; and his name makes me think only of a certain classic rock band. He's also one of the movie's many CGI failings - as cool as a lot of the visuals are, usually when we get into slow-mo bullet-time with Barry and/or Diana, the CGI gets way too much at times, and considering the movie's massive price tag, it really has no business looking this bad. There are so many shots of everything looking artificial, like the Gotham skyline like it's still Tim Burton making the movies in the late 80s.

The cherry on top, though, has to be the infamous CGI Supes-face. Done to remove the mustache Henry Cavill had to wear for his next high-profile role in Mission: Impossible 6, it's gotten a lot of noise for giving him what amounts to a poorly animated upper lip. (And why would they even go there anyway? There's precedent for Supes having full facial hair in Man of Steel, after all.) For all that noise, though, I didn't see quite what everyone else was seeing. I saw not so much a CGI mouth as an entire CGI face at times. Not really as bad as the infamous video-game quality Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One last year, but glaring enough to stand out and further drag down many of Supes' scenes, including his inevitable Lois Lane reunion. On that subject, even more than in BvS, Lois feels like such an afterthought, begging the question of why they'd even include her here to begin with and all but waste Amy Adams' time and talent. To be fair, I'm not a big fan of Lois Lane in general, except maybe for Erica Durance's portrayal on Smallville - and maybe Gwenda Bond's YA Lois Lane series if I ever get around to reading those books - but Amy Adams' version of the character, as always, remains tragically underwritten, and is one of the many reasons why I insistently ship SuperWonder instead of Clois.

On a related note, here's another one to spam Snyder with. I sincerely hope he'll stop trying to make WonderBat happen.
Actually, that's probably Whedon doing that. Black Widow and Hulk, anyone?
O Zeu kai alloi that case, I'll spam them both.

Though Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon's collaborative effort leaves a little to be desired, it's not anywhere near as dreadful as some of the previous DCEU films. I can't exactly call them "bad," the previous Snyder DCEU movies, because they're really more undesirable than anything else with their relentless deconstruction of Superman in particular. But here, when Snyder at least relinquishes enough control to allow some of his darkest instincts to be reined in, resulting in a faster, shorter, and tighter-paced movie in addition to a happier one. I gave BvS a B on first viewing, though in hindsight I'd downgrade that to a C. Justice League, I'll give it a B+ and hopefully it'll stick through the years.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember: Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: Old Man's War

Old Man's War Old Man's War by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first John Scalzi book I read wasn't his first, but instead Lock In, which was suitably complex and well-thought-out but not so well-executed, due to its general lack of interesting characters or even much of a sense of humor. Seeing Scalzi's debut, a sly parody of classic sci-fi from Heinlein to Bradbury to even Orson Scott Card (though of course far cruder in content than anything Card would ever serve up), I think I've got a much better measure of his style and talent with this one.

Though Old Man's War isn't perfect, largely because its second half tends to suffer from a thin and meandering plot, the first half is where it truly shines, loaded as it is with laugh-out-loud moments. This book is at times quite crude and crass, but no less intelligent for it, and hell, it makes me almost want to get KloraDerm skin (almost, because the infertility is too much of a drawback for me, since I'm not an old man yet.) Also, reading about the whole KloraDerm thing makes me realize that here's another way Avatar, though I love that movie to death, turns out to be a bit derivative - Scalzi gave us a concept of colorful humanoid avatar bodies for use in the interstellar theater four years before James Cameron got to release his movie!

And one more thing - the opening lines. Three sentences, not one opening sentence like is traditional, but if you read those three (as my boss at the Stanford Bookstore has suggested I suggest to customers), you will not fail to laugh, and that'll be just the first taste of Scalzi's screwy sense of humor you get.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leigh Bardugo's look at the folklore of the Grishaverse gives those of us who thus far never read any of the three short stories she wrote in this department a chance to see some more subtle world-building for Ravka, while also including three additional short stories to give us glimpses into Zemeni, Kerch, and Fjerdan culture. (Not Shu, though, but that's no surprise given that Shu Han is by far the Grishaverse nation about which we know the least.) The stories themselves all read like some of our world's fairy tales with a very dark, original-Brothers-Grimm style, sometimes to the point of predictability - though not always, of course. Bardugo's too inventive for that. The best part of the book, though, is the lavish illustrations that accompany each story, with a little more to the picture being revealed on each page until each story ends with a beautiful full-page image. Though these illustrations sometimes distract from the text, they also become extremely inventive, to the point where even when you think you know what's next in this little flipbook effect, your expectations will be seriously challenged. At least this book is here to help tide us Grishaverse fans over since Six of Crows ended with two books (God, I'm tired of the duology trend) and until King of Scars comes along in about two years' time.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Dumplin'

Dumplin' Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This month's book club read at work was a little not my style, though certainly good as another #ownvoices read I've spent some time sleeping on. Though Dumplin' wasn't quite to my taste, it had more than its share of small moments of relatable humor - like Will's laments early on about how people in relationships always get way too public with their displays of affection - and some very well-written relationship drama. I think the biggest flaws this book had were a few too many characters, and the pageant storyline taking over the book slowly but surely to the point where the latter half starts to feel repetitive, and finally a very abrupt ending that doesn't really tie the story up - though at least there'll be a sequel, Puddin', next year. But I can tell you that for what it's worth, this book, the first Julie Murphy novel I've read, is pretty lighthearted and fun and really not to be missed by the YA audience.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: Fairest

Fairest Fairest by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thank you, Marissa Meyer, for giving us this piece of insight into the increasingly evil, increasingly deranged, and surprisingly sad story of the appalling, atrocious, love-to-hate-her-'cause-she-is-so-freaking-evil Queen Levana. It's a short story, only a shade over 200 pages, but Levana is so Cersei-grade nasty that it proves compulsively readable to a shocking degree. And I do mean Cersei-grade - of all the books in this series, this one is the least family-friendly by far, the only reason I would hesitate to recommend The Lunar Chronicles to anyone under, say, thirteen years old. Now I've got one more full-length novel left in my reread, and of course the short story collection. Haha, but remember when I thought this book would be just another e-book exclusive? Nope, not the case, and thank the stars for that.

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Review: Cress

Cress Cress by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Long, but oh so totally worth it. The Wham Line at the very end sells it, natch. Along the way, Cress, the semi-official midpoint of The Lunar Chronicles, delivers the most globe-hopping adventure up to this point in the series, with a jam-packed storyline full of not one, not two, but three vastly reimagined fairytale heroines. And Cress, of course, is perhaps the most radically reimagined of them all, a Rapunzel whose tower is a satellite, and whose painting skills get a serious upgrade to world-class hacking. All the books in this series are great ones, and Cress is absolutely no exception.

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