Author Archives: Chris

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice

I’ve been reading these Tommy Taylor books long enough to put them on the same level as Mike Carey’s Lucifer, if not quite the pinnacle of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Of course, Mike Carey writes The Unwritten series as well, so I suppose that wouldn’t be an exactly shocking comparison. I guess what I mean is that it’s nice to see him spread his wings and tell a literary story that is all his own and that nevertheless aspires to the heights The Sandman achieved.

I will, of course, have to go back and reread the series at a gulp, after it’s completed. (That’s probably true of Lucifer, for that matter. The television series is not, uh, a suitable replacement, although it is good trashy fun.) And the place I would inevitably start is with Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, an unexpected prequel that not only details the lengths Tom’s father Wilson went to, establishing the symbiosis between his son and the fictional character based on him (or that he is based on? I don’t think there’s a correct one-way distinction to be had), it actually provides the story of the first Tommy Taylor novel. Which, of necessity, is less of a Harry Potter rip-off than the books have seemed when only shown in snippets in the main sequence of The Unwritten series.

Then again, it also hastens to explain that the synergy between character and infant is the cause of the Tommy Taylor series replacing other child wizard academy books as the archetype of the series, so from an in-world perspective, the distinctions were probably a lot less necessary than they were from the perspective of an author and publisher looking to not get sued for plagiarism. Because, as good as the conceit of the series is at letting it get away with the in-world rip-off, I doubt Rowling would much care about a clever conceit.

I think I’ve gone off message at this point? It just fascinates me, what Carey has done here. In any case, The Unwritten is a good series, and you should read it! And this is a good prequel, and you should read it too; but like all good prequels, you should read it later, to avoid spoilers for previous books.

X-Wing: Mercy Kill

This is I think the next to last volume in the Star Wars Extended Universe series of books, by chronology. It is also, to my knowledge, the last book written by its author before he died unexpectedly a couple of years post-publication, certainly during the timespan when the EU was being gracelessly removed from Star Wars canon. There’s probably some kind of metaphor there.

Mercy Kill is about three things. Superficially, it’s about tying up loose political ends from the Fate of the Jedi series. Externally, it’s about a “wouldn’t it be cool if?” moment, the cool thing in this case being to bring back Wraith Squadron, the special ops branch of the New Republic’s navy. Being spec ops, they never used X-Wings as much as the rest of the navy did, but they were developed in the X-Wing series, and so here we are. (Also, it hasn’t been called the New Republic for a long time, but that doesn’t matter to you I’m sure, and being spec ops spy types, it doesn’t much matter to them either.)

Third and I’m sure most importantly, it’s about the horrors of war, the beauties of friendship, and the ways we cope with these things and the loss of them, and the long road of recovery. …okay, that’s a little bit overdone, but it’s not not about those things, and seeing as the series is all but ended, I’m feeling a little maudlin, okay? Oh, and fourth, like all the X-Wing books, it’s more than a little funny in the way that all good caper stories are. I guess I didn’t say, and wouldn’t have said before since I read the rest of the X-Wing / Wraith Squadron books years before there was a site to review them, but these are wisecracking, safecracking special ops people with hearts of gold, not grim dour special ops people who never leave a man behind. So the book is fun, which you would probably intuit from the Star Wars title, but might not from the mention of a special ops force as the stars.

Also, Star Wars isn’t always fun anymore, is it?

Firewatch

The biggest problem with Firewatch is that I don’t really know what the genre is. Walking simulator is a really bland descriptor, indie is not a type of game, it’s a type of studio, and it felt a lot less interactive fictiony than other games I’ve used that tag on before. So, what kind of game was this?

One kind of game it was is “pretty great”. After a series of unfortunate life events, this guy Henry takes a job with the 1980s Wyoming forestry service on firewatch. Which, if not self-explanatory, is when you sit in a tower all summer looking for fires before they become uncontrollable. And over the course of the summer, a story unfolds!

The story is fine, too, but mostly what I loved was the haunting atmosphere. You’re wandering around the woods, no company, virtually no human contact, just the voice on the other end of the radio that is your supervisor between you and utter isolation. Which is I think what Henry was going for, but it gets really hard to take after a while. I am an introvert, in that I want to spend only a small amount of time interacting with people; but I guess I’m a soft introvert in that it comforts me to know that if I needed a person, it would be really easy to find one. I’m pretty sure a summer spent not seeing another person’s face and only hearing another person’s voice at their whim would leave me pretty dang bonkers.

Or maybe it was only haunting to me, because, see above? Either way, there was nothing I didn’t enjoy, even down to the  emotional discomfort. The one bummer was trying to figure out the controls. There was Steam controller support, but not in the sense that the game’s instructions matched them; purely keyboard driven, alas. Having a gated ecosystem is the better way to console in terms of support, but significantly limiting in terms of what games are available. So, definitely worth the trade-off! But still.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Fun fact: I only saw the Disney animated Beauty and the Beast once, theatrically, 26 years ago. I had the soundtrack CD, so I know it pretty well, but I only ever saw it the one time. (Less fun fact: Twenty six years ago. I was in high school, which is even less fun still.) Between that dimness and the 30+ minutes of new footage, the original live-action Beauty and the Beast that Disney traced the animation from but then kept locked in a vault all this time was pretty close to watching a new movie; at the least, it was like watching a familiar movie where all I could remember was how it ended. And, I mean, fairy tale, so I would have “remembered” that part either way.

The artificiality of the thing faded sooner than I expected it would. Like, there’s the artifice of most musicals in the first place. Why are they singing? Why does it not bother them that they’re singing? Especially, why does it not bother them that they’re singing in groups?! But that’s not even what I mean. The part where you know all the words and these people should be animated, and they’re moving like the animated people moved in your memory, but they’re real? That was weird. Until it wasn’t, which was my original point, so I guess I’m glad it faded. All the same, there are things in animation that do not translate well in live action. Like, the snowball fight. The girl who has no real options in the world because it’s the 1700s, but even worse, she’s smart enough to understand she has no options, plus everyone dislikes her for being smart enough to know such things, or really any things, so she has even fewer options than that? That girl, and the prince who was such a failure of a human being that a witch cursed him so that his outsides would be more capable of the destructive rages and petulant angers that his insides were already wracked with, that girl and that prince get in a snowball fight. Well, she throws a snowball at him playfully. And, to be fair, he playfully throws one back, only his outside form has not yet caught up with his gradually bettering insides yet, because that’s only just started to happen, so he’s a hulking beast throwing a snowball that fits in his hand and is therefore roughly the size of Emma Watson’s head, and my point here is that Emma Watson getting laid out flat on her back and unconscious from one playfully intended snowball maybe plays better when it’s the animated version of Emma Watson than it does when a 400 pound hairy asshole just nearly murdered Hermione Granger. Y’know? Unless the point of live action fairy tales is to demonstrate just how exceptionally patriarchally bent they are, in which case, nailed it.

The sad part is, I’m not even saying I didn’t like the movie. It was pretty well executed, and he really eventually isn’t an asshole, and probably wasn’t even for the snowball thing; I just twitch at the idea that she had to fix some asshole, as that was her only path to a reasonably good life. I’m sure things have improved since then, though. I mean, not the part where everyone in the village hates Belle, that part is still true. Just ask Hillary Clinton. But the part where it’s possible to have a good life despite being hated for it, that’s an improvement!

I may have gotten off topic? But the truth is, probably not. Anyway, super-awesome coda: there is a drive-in theater like 4 miles from my house! And that is where I saw this. Downside: a hybrid car is not the right car to take to the drive-in. It kept turning itself off to save battery that honestly did not need saving. So, small tweaks. It’ll be better next time.

Also, the back end of the double feature was Rogue One, which I’m happy to report is still good.

Z 2136

As you have no reason whatsoever to remember, I read the previous two books in this trilogy sometime in the last year or two I guess? And they were perfectly cromulent serial schlock. Hunger Games plus zombies, only a little light on the good half of that equation; and if I’m being honest with myself, probably they could have done a better job copycatting the game aspect of the equation. But still, if I don’t pause and think about the hundreds of better books on my to-read shelf, there was nothing wrong there.

As of Z 2136, consider that trend broken. And I mean, broken just really badly. This is the worst book that I’ve ever managed to finish. The writing didn’t change, and the already established characters were still, y’know, fine I guess. But the new viewpoint characters and the change in plot direction were just abysmally bad. Here’s my point, which I will need to entirely spoil the surprise ending of the second book plus I guess all of this one to make, but that’s okay because, seriously, do not read these books:

There were three main characters in the series, a father and two children. The father was part of the government apparatus but also had sympathies with the rebels who didn’t like living in six dystopian cities even though the walls kept the zombies out. Later, he killed his wife via mind control and was put into the zombie hunger games. Later still after learning the truth, his daughter was too. None of that really matters except that it’s an establishing shot for the shock ending of Z 2135, in which the father is executed, Ned Stark style. And then in the afterword, the authors were all, we weren’t really planning on this, but we decided we needed a big cliffhanger, so here you go!

Which leads into the third book, where one annoying guy is transformed into a raving lunatic, while another bad guy is transformed into a new father figure to replace the one they killed and then apparently realized they still needed. Result: half the book is spent on the motivations and travails of new characters about whom I already didn’t care, only now everything was so weird and forced that I actively hated them instead of just not caring much. Then, later, the book just kind of grinds to a halt instead of having an actual ending. Everything I’ve seen indicates this is a trilogy, which is a relief since Amazon would probably have already sold me book four at 99c before I knew how horribly things turned out; but I lost control of that sentence, and how I meant to end it was “but if I didn’t have these outside sources, I would be quite certain they were planning on writing more.” Because while it was not a cliffhanger demanding more story, it also was not the end of a story.

If everyone had died, that would have been more emotionally satisfying. First, because everyone never dies, and I’m pretty sure any real zombie apocalypse is much more likely to turn out that way than the way they always do turn out. But mostly because, fuck these people. They basically all deserved to die, and the ones who didn’t are at this point acceptable casualties in my vendetta.

Kong: Skull Island

I feel bad about this, insofar as it implies things that are not true. See, I saw the new Kong movie like 10 days ago, on opening weekend. And yet, no review! The implication, of course, is that I didn’t care for it, when the implausible truth is that I just completely forgot to write anything. (I mean, I remembered once or twice while being busy with other things, but basically not at all until I finished the book I’ve been for some reason reading, and then remembered, wait… uh-oh.) So now here I am, both late to the party and simultaneously devoid of credibility.

Through such predicaments I forge ahead! Here’s the deal with this movie. It’s a monster movie, and those are always, at heart, as dumb or as cool as you think monster movies are. Of course there’s no uncharted island in the Pacific populated by humans co-existing with giant prehistoric beasts. Of course there wasn’t in the 1970s when this is set, either, even though it’s mildly more plausible from a “we haven’t charted every square meter of the world yet” angle. And either you’re the kind of person who nods at what I’ve just said and goes on with your day, or you’re the kind of person who says, I know there isn’t such an island. But wouldn’t it be cool if…? On top of that, it’s a Kong movie, which means that an oversized ape is going to fight oversized non-ape monsters and helicopters, and some people are going to respect him while others want to use him, and he’s going to have a soft spot for diminutive blondes. All of these things are inevitable, and you’re either cool with them or you’re not.

My point is this: if you are cool with those tropes and inevitabilities, this is a spectacularly executed example of the genre. Samuel L. Jackson, in one scene, portrays Captain Ahab as well as I believe he has ever been or will ever be portrayed, and John C. Reilly’s character would be enough to carry a lesser movie by himself. (The leads are pretty good too? But with less to work with script-wise, since they are busy being leads.) Plus sexy special effects, an Apocalypse Now visual sensibility without getting bogged down in being anything like Apocalypse Now as a story, and a post-credits scene that has me salivating for this movie to make back enough on its investment.

The Shallows

The Shallows is a straight up woman vs. nature tension movie. One sentence premise that fills an hour and a half of breath-holding and making the same motions the actor is making, as thought it would help her. Remember Frozen? The one that’s not a Disney movie, I mean, where the kids are out skiing and they get trapped on the ski lift at the end of the weekend and have to figure out how to survive the weather or the fall with no help coming? This is like that more or less, but with surfing instead of skiing and with, er, different challenges.

It’s definitely a what you see is what you get kind of flick, and would be moreso if I had not avoided a really obvious one word spoiler just to prove I could. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon, though obviously I should be playing video games instead. Still, gave me a chance to listen to the Blues Brothers soundtrack while writing this, so I guess it’s not a bad trade.

(I’m not kidding about that doing stuff for the imperiled character thing, by the way. I was saying for her in Spanish the things she was yelling in English, as though my lesson would help her learn anything or let the people she was yelling at comprehend any better. You know, as you do.)

Logan

So, another X-Men continuity movie[1]. Logan is set in 2029, which is somehow only 12 years from now. I think there are maybe two or three things I can say about this movie, without getting into territory I’d rather avoid. I mean, it’s basically impossible to review anything without spoilers[2], so I always try to limit myself to what you’d know within 5 minutes (or 1-2 chapters) anyway, but sometimes it’s more than that, and this is one of those times.

The first thing is, this is a movie that doesn’t fuck around. Wolverine has always killed people, which is unusual enough for a comic book setting, but he’s never killed people the way he would kill people, you know what I mean? Here, he definitely does. Which is useful as a calibration tool for the rest of the movie, is my point. The second thing, I’ve already said in one of the footnotes anyway, so if you are trying to avoid spoilers more than I am (which maybe you should!), you can miss that easily. The third thing is that the movie is about something. I think it’s been a while since the theme of a film has shone strongly enough for me to care about mentioning it. (Or maybe they’re always so obvious as to not be worth mentioning?)

Anyway, this is a movie about responsibility. It is the lens through which nearly every character views things. Like, I don’t know if everyone is right about what responsibility has or has not accrued to them, nor whether everyone is right about how they do or do not discharge that responsibility. But it permeates every decision, and it’s a strong theme for a strong movie. Which reminds me of a fourth thing I can definitely say, which is that the three lead roles are acted exceptionally well. Nobody will look at this movie when the 2017 retrospective awards season comes along, but I think maybe they will have made a mistake, when they do not.

[1] As opposed to the rest of Marvel continuity, since the Disney people made a deal with the Sony people to share Spider-Man, so now there are only two such continuities extant.
[2] I picked the poster that most reminded me of The Last of Us, because the movie put me in mind of that. Which is a spoiler if you’ve played that game or know of it, but explaining that the correlation is by no means perfect, or even necessarily strong, would itself be a spoiler. This is hard, is all I’m saying.

A Cure for Wellness

A thing I’ve learned from movie-watching is to not go on vacation in Europe. I mean, remember Hostel? Or the second Hostel?

A Cure for Wellness, to be fair, is not about idiot backpacking teens with Eurorail passes. In fact, what it reminded me of for the first half hour or so was Dracula. (The book, I mean.) There’s this guy, probably not named Jonathan Harker, who is sent by his investment firm into the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company CEO from a health spa thingy, except it’s in a castle at the top of a mountain overlooking a subtly wrong village, and, okay, once he gets there the comparison mostly falls apart; after all, instead of an empty husk of a castle with a gothic warlord in a red dinner gown and the most elaborate updo of, I’m prepared to say, all time, it really is a health spa thingy. Or maybe a sanitarium? Or maybe a hospital? It’s fair to say that basically everyone there is getting treatments, no matter whether the issue is a nervous breakdown or a broken femur or just a couple weeks of downtime in a spa.

Also included: history lessons, vitamins, catacombs, a nubile ingenue, and eels. There is a plot, and it’s not a bad plot. It is not, I would posit, two and a half hours worth of plot? But that’s okay! The movie is not here for plot. It’s here for atmosphere, and it’s been a good long time since I’ve seen a horror movie with this much atmosphere. So, yeah. Check it out.

 

Jack of Fables: The Fulminate Blade

So, this is the other Jack of Fables. After saving all of existence, Jack Horner has entered a kind of retirement. But his son, Jack Frost, is still wandering around the Fable worlds, trying to make a name for himself as a hero. This is a disconnected-from-everything-else book about that.

The Fulminate Blade is a literal thing, a kind of lightning sword that is the only thing that might kill a giant in the sky who stands accused of stealing gold and virgins from the kingdom below. You know that time (not pictured in any particular Fables book, but well known I think within the fables themselves) when Jack Horner climbed a beanstalk and fought a giant over an egg-laying goose with a chemical imbalance? This is like that, but a) science-fictional more or less? Amazon says it’s the far distant future of the world of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. That may be true? I can find no evidence of it in the text, but as guesses go: sure, it could be. Why not? …and b) with a lot more intrigue, from every direction.

Unrelated to any of this even moreso than any of this is unrelated to the rest of the Fables storylines: I’m pretty much done with Walter Mitty the miniature Blue Ox. Even one page per issue is two pages too many. Luckily, the Jack of Fables spinoff series is wrapping up soon!