Monday, August 4, 2008

Home from San Diego

Mrs. Speculator and I just recently returned from our regular sojourn to San Diego and Comic-con, about which I will be writing more in the next few days. But in the meantime, I went through a number of books and movies, about which I'd like to say a few words apiece. So, allow me this space to do a little catching up, and then I'll get to subjects with a little more depth. (Mrs. Speculator and I have begun watching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I can't help but hear his voice in my head for these introductory remarks. I'll work on getting my wit as sharp as his in his own introductions.)

Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson: This is the seventh book in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and it works much like the other books in the series: a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, are given separate threads which are slowly and sometimes not gently pulled together into a huge tapestry. Unlike the earlier novels, however, the gods begin taking a much more active role in the affairs of this world, and the various races can no longer ignore the activity surrounding them and their affairs. This novel returns to the country of Letheras, where we last saw an immortal Tiste Edur take the emperor's crown and watched as a single motley fool worked to overthrow the whole system for its economic corruption. As we return, the emperor remains immortal, but suffering from his immortality: Erikson twists the fairly standard trope so that the emperor actually does die, but returns to life after each death, a process that has driven him to the border of sanity and perhaps beyond.
The titular heroes of the series, the Malazan, find themselves far from home and their commander ordering them to invade Letheras, despite their relatively small forces.

Once again, the strength of the novel is the tremendous characterizations and the interaction between those characters. The plot feels like it meanders until all is resolved, and the reader is witness to world-changing events yet again. The scope is magnificent and daring, and the book moves really quickly, and like an avalanche, captures the ubsuspecting reader (but only if you devote more than five minutes a day to the book--my own personal weakness this time around). My biggest difficulty in finishing Erikson's Malazan books is having to wait to pick up the next one. I still cannot recommend this series, and this book, enough, and I do actually proselytize it in person.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute: This book had been required reading for me, either in junior high school and high school, and most of what I remember about it was how impressed I was supposed to feel upon its completion. It is supposed to be a classic of the atomic age, a bitter parable of man's folly to build weapons that are capable of destroying the world. And perhaps it is a classic, but it has outlived its possibility: the people in the novel are stereotypically the demure and courteous characters of the early 1960s, and worse of the British Empire, who face the impending doom of fall-out from an atomic war with the all-too-familiar stiff upper lip. All the characters remain calm and accepting of their doom, much as I would expect in the very final stages of such a disaster. Perhaps it is a different time, or perhaps I have been biased by disaster movies of the last 30 years, but I have a really hard time thinking communities could remain so calm for half a year as they knew their inescapable death was approaching. Civilization, as the book's epithet claims, goes out with a whimper.

I suppose part of the purpose of such an anticlimactic ending is to point out the ridiculous position that having so many earth-shattering weapons puts humanity in. And I remember the days of the 70s and early 80s, before the Berlin Wall fell, when nuclear destruction was a very real fear in our daily lives. Those times have past, leaving this book a somewhat interesting artifact of a different way of thinking. The characters are generally likable, though not particularly deeply written, and so mostly unknowable. But two of the main characters perform actions that I cannot explain, thus weakening the novel for me overall. I wonder if anyone has considered rewriting On the Beach updating it for modern attitudes and culture.

Wanted, as most of the reviews take time to point out, bears only a passing resemblance to the comic series on which it is based. It was difficult to set this aside as I watched the movie, so much did I enjoy that series, but then the sheer goofiness of the movie just swept me away so that I didn't care. James McAvoy plays Wesley, a middle-class dweeb caught in his unhappy job and unhappy life with no way to escape. That is, until the most improbable of events pulsl him out of that life, much like the stable-boy in the fantasy trope who finds he is hear to the kingdom. Wesley is the son of the world's greatest assassin, a member of a guild who has appointed themselves the world's protectors, "killing one that thousands might live." Instead of a ring or a sword, Wesley's destiny is revealed in the body of Angelina Jolie, who comes to rescue him from the sights of a competing assassin who has set himself up against the fighters for justice. What follows is the first of several ridiculous chases through the movie that forget the laws of physics and materials, including the human body. And yet they are so breath-takingly shot as to be ridiculsously fun, such that you find yourself laughing at the scenes on the screen as well as the audacity to even pretend the stunts could actually happen.

But once the screenwriters set up their characters and world differently from the way the comic series did, the movie really has no other direction to go in than the one it takes. The movie becomes predictable in its sweeping movements, if not in the audacaity with which it tries to carry off its scenes and stunts. The characters which had carried so much potential become awful stereotypes, and sadly predictable as a result, suckign a great deal of the joy out of the movie. Adn yet it is lavishly shot, a gorgeous production, making me think of Crank with a huge special effects budget or Smokin' Aces with a global conspiracy plot. It really is a lot of fun and perhaps advanced the effects craft for forthcoming and better movies, but I can only recommend the movie in that light, or as a matinee to pass time you find yourself unexpectedly trying to fill. It's the fluffiest of cotton candy, which seems to be the movie's goal in the first place, and it's clear everyone in the really strong cast are just having a good time.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is also a cotton candy movie, but it really doesn't have anything to offer. It isn't particularly fun as it mocks itself and winks at its viewers metafictionally in a sad effort to replace the powerful chemistry between Brendan Fraser and the original lead actress, Rachel Weisz. Her departure drags on this sequel as the usually wonderful Maria Bello just cannot pull off the combination of grace, style, and joie de vivre with which Weisz earlier played the same role. Fraser seems to just go through the motions, searching for a backboard off of which to play. The now-adult son, played by Luke Ford, is annoying in the stilted father-son conflict that doesn't seem to have any basis beyond the imagination of the screenwriters, or at least doesn't really show in the film itself. Even the effects, the strong point of the first Mummy remake, feel pretty dated and bland.

Unfortunately, Michelle Yeoh is scintillatingly beautiful when she shows up, serving as a stark indication of what the movie could have been had they really tried. Jet Li is dramatically underused and ridiculous in his appearance, never really getting a chance to show any ability to act. When I think of these movies in the future, I'll be trying very hard to remember how much fun the first movie was and the potential it showed for the action genre, potential that has seriously been misplaced. I am going to work very hard to forget that the second and third movies, especially the third, was ever made.

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