Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Reading/Watching Log #3

I didn't get much reading done this month, as I was a little swamped with work and studying. Luckily some of my assignment actually involved reading books aimed at young audiences and reviewing them afterwards (see earlier posts) which at least forced me to find the time to explore some new material. 
Other than that, I wrapped up two new seasons worth of pirates and secret agents, and dropped two more post-apocalyptic shows. In fact, the latter left such a bad taste in my mouth that I think I'll be avoiding the genre in the near future. Let it be known that the dystopian fad has run its course. It's time for some happiness and light. 
Other than that, I've been continuing (and enjoying) my trip back to Eighties fantasy films, though some have certainly held up better than others. 

A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George
There I was at work, fighting the urge to check out more books to add to my massive TBR pile, but finding my resolve quaver at the sight of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mysteries. I had watched a few episodes of the television adaptation a few years ago on DVD and was interested to see how faithful they were to the original novels. I held back considering the first novel wasn't on the shelf, but just before I left for the day I glanced over the Recently Returned Section. And there it was: A Great Deliverance with the subtitle "Introducing Inspector Lynley" on its cover.
As it turns out, the show was very faithful to George's text, right down to the minor details. Thomas Lynley is an aristocratic inspector whose career is built not on necessity, but an altruistic desire to contribute to society. Barbara Havers is a middle-class detective sergeant with a wretched home life and an inability to get along with any of her colleges. When their superiors pair them up for a case, it seems a match made in hell – and yet it's the beginning of a trusted and effective partnership.
The protagonists and their personal hang-ups often seem to overshadow the actual case they're meant to be working on (a farmer has been decapitated and his now-catatonic daughter the only suspect) but they're also the highpoint of the novel. Their dynamic and characterization is strong – much more so than the assorted murder suspects – and they're clearly the reason for the success of the series. Who doesn't love a partnership of complete opposites?
The Nest by Kenneth Oppal
This is one of the books I had to read and review for my Polytech assignment, which ended up being surprisingly dark and creepy for a children's book. Never underestimate an author's ability to scare the hell out of readers! Rather than simply cut-and-paste what I've already written, you can read my full review here.

I Was Here by Gayle Forman
Another assignment for Polytech, though this novel was aimed at an older audience than The Nest. I chose it because I wanted to write about the hefty issues that YA authors often tackle in their novels, and it doesn't get heftier than teen suicide. Here's my full review.

Dragonslayer (1981)
My reviewing of Eighties fantasy films continues, though Dragonslayer was the only one on my list that I hadn't seen prior to starting my column on Helen Lowe's blog. By today's standards it plays out as pretty typical swords-and-sorcery fare, though (from what I gather) at the time of is release it made several significant subversions to the expected narrative.
The main character for example, is not a young wannabe knight, but a sorcerer's apprentice played by a very young Peter MacNicol (one of the quintessential Hey It's That Guy character actors – I'll always know him as Janosz from Ghostbusters II). It's not brute strength that takes down the dragon, but cunning and sorcery, and the typical love interest has quite a surprising fate.
It's not a bad film, and the special-effects on the dragon hold up surprisingly well over thirty years later, but the story itself is a little piecemeal. The film does okay in the female character department with the inclusion of Valerian and Elspeth; the former a peasant who disguises herself as a boy in order to seek out help, and the latter a princess who realizes the injustice of being spared from the dragon lottery and so offers herself up as a sacrifice, but both are rather ill-served by the end.
Let's say I wanted to like it a lot more than I actually did.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
So I have this head-canon about The Dark Crystal: that the planet upon which it's set is actually part of the Star Wars galaxy, albeit one that has not yet been discovered by the Galactic Republic. Every time I see a Star Wars movie, a little part of me hopes that one of the background aliens will be an UrSkek, as there's so much about the aesthetic of this film that feels entirely at home alongside the Muppet creatures of George Lucas's original trilogy.  
But as much as I can appreciate The Dark Crystal for its visual beauty and technical artistry, the eye-candy fails to make up for the bland characters and paint-by-numbers plot. There, I said it. The story is The Chosen One sent to find a MacGuffin and save the world because a Prophecy told him to. It's as basic as you get.
In this case our Chosen One is a Gelfling named Jen, who just has to return a crystal shard to its source. The real kicker is that he's outclassed almost every step of the way by his female companion Kira: she has more skills, contributes more to the plot, and even has a more expressive face and interesting backstory. Plus wings!
The world-building and puppetry is beautiful (and I recently discovered there were a series of graphic novels that explore things further) but the story and characters really don't match the nuance and detail of their surroundings. Here's my full review on Helen's blog.
Ladyhawke (1985)
Many fantasy films of the Eighties are regarded as sacrosanct. No one will ever dare to remake The Princess Bride, nobody wants to remake the likes of Ridley Scott's Legend or Ron Howard's Willow, and there's already been plenty of backlash against rumours of a new Labyrinth.
But there's one Eighties cult classic that I think could benefit hugely from a remake: this one. The premise is fantastic in its simplicity and purity: that two lovers are "eternally together, forever apart" by dint of a curse that changes Navarre into a wolf by night, and Isabeau to a hawk by day. There's so much poignancy and bittersweetness you can milk from that setup, though Ladyhawke often feels cluttered up with the incongruous presence of an American pickpocket, a drunken monk, and a disappointingly weak villain. And don't get me started on the terrible synthesized soundtrack.
The film is strongest when it's focusing on the lovers, who somehow manage to have chemistry not only with each other (despite appearing in just one scene together) but also their animal counterparts, which they naturally have to play opposite for most of their screen-time.
The whole thing is begging for a remake; with a more appropriate score, a fresh screenplay that explores the lovers' history together, and contemporary special effects utilized to portray the transformations into hawk/wolf. Heck, give me the budget and I'll do it myself.
Labyrinth (1986)
I don't want to say too much about Labyrinth, as watching it for the umpteenth time has inspired me to perhaps write a more in-depth meta later on, but I doubt I was the only one who returned to it since David Bowie's passing.  
It's difficult to say whether it's a good or a bad film – it's certainly an interesting, inventive and creative film, but when I remove my rose-tinted glasses and cast a critical eye upon it, there are several clumsy elements that stop it from being truly great.
Yet pieces of greatness are there. For instance, there's power in the idea that Sarah finally wins the game of wits against the Goblin King by declaring: "you have no power over me!" But the build-up to this moment – and in fact, the scene itself just doesn't work somehow. Instead of being a revelation that Sarah gradually learns across the course of her adventure (just as Dorothy learned "there's no place like home") the line is instead staged as remembering a line from a book she was reciting at the start of the film. But what moves her to recite the book in the first place? Where did the book come from and what's it about? How exactly do the words manage to break Jareth's hold over her? Why is it important that she realize he has no power over her?
It feels like the film has something profound to say, but it never quite manages to articulate it properly. Don't get me wrong, Labyrinth is one of my favourite movies – but I feel I'm going to have to give it a real in-depth examination in the near future.
Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (1996)
Yup, it's not just movies, books and television I'm reviewing here! This month I settled down with a point-and-click adventure game that I somehow missed out on in my adolescence. Which is a great pity, since – Knights Templar? Treasure hunts? Ancient conspiracies? World-wide travel? My name is written all over this stuff.
Like most of my favourite games, Broken Sword plays out like "interactive fiction". There's a chance to explore various locations, talk to plenty of people, and exercise one's mind with puzzles, but there's a complex underlying story to the proceedings. You play as George Stobbart, an American tourist who narrowly escapes a terrorist attack on a Parisian cafĂ©, and who (naturally) decides to investigate the matter.
Clues lead him and the player to a manuscript that appears to concern the history of the Knights Templar, divided into several panels that branch out into several other plot-strands. There's everything you'd expect from such a setup: ancient ruins, hidden rooms, secret messages, underground cults, and historic mysteries.
With locations in Ireland, France, Syria and Spain, a ton of research appears to have been done on the various places and their history, though with a plot that's pure Da Vinci Code (though it predates Dan Brown's nonsense). Though the climactic finish diminishes the story into the retrieval of a fairly boring MacGuffin (the titular broken sword), the lead-up to this point is a wonderful web of conspiracy and adventure.
My belated birthday present was finding out there were sequels...
Agent Carter: Season Two (2016)
I enjoy Agent Carter in the same way I enjoy all the instalments in the Marvel franchise: as a bit of above-average entertainment that never quite moves me to write any in-depth meta about it. Detailing the adventures of Peggy Carter in the years following Steve Roger's supposed death, season two has her travelling to Los Angeles to investigate a murder that eventually expands to include Zero Matter, an evil Hedy Lamarr, two pointless love triangles, and a bizarre ice-forming phenomenon that I never quite figured out the purpose of.
The show's selling point is Hayley Atwell as Peggy and her deep but platonic rapport with James D'Arcy's Edwin Jarvis, with Dominic Cooper continuing to be a good sport in showing up to play Howard Stark. (In fact, the show is an amusing example of budgetary differences between film and television: they can afford Hayley Atwell in a starring role, they can manage Dominic Cooper in a limited capacity, but there's no way in hell they're getting Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Philips – not even for a cameo).
This season is a mixed bag in a number of ways: Whitney Frost makes for a great seasonal villain, only to be let down by an utterly anticlimactic defeat, and Dottie Underwood certainly spices things up until she disappears completely. The Zero Matter is interesting (and doubtlessly has comic-book significance) up until the point it starts doing whatever it needs to in order to further the plot, with no clear rules about who it infects, the effect it has on them, or its relationship to the rift it causes. Or even where it comes from. Seriously, I've no idea what it was all about.
There are few stumbles, such as the introduction of a hitherto unmentioned fiancĂ© in Peggy's past (who may as well be a cardboard cut-out for all the difference he makes to the plot) and the unwelcome addition of not one but two romantic triangles (which ends up being a complete waste of Sarah Bolger and turns Souza into a wishy-washy louse who goes so far as to propose to another woman while he's still in love with Peggy) but it's still a fairly solid run of episodes that makes the most of its period location.
(For the record, I have no reason to be against Peggy/Souza, but at the same time I can't muster up one iota of interest in it. Weirdly enough, I went away feeling much more moved by Manfredi's devotion to Whitney, and his complete respect not only of her wishes but her intelligence too).
A third season seems in doubt, which is a shame as there certainly needs to be at least one more to wrap things up: the Leviathan plot, the apparent murder of Thompson, the disappearance of Dottie, last season's stinger in which Ivchenko met Zola in a jail cell, and of course, the creation of SHIELD.  There's so much crap out there that gets renewed year after year, but not the solid and consistently entertaining Agent Carter? There is no justice in the world.
The Shannara Chronicles: Season One (2016)
I stopped reviewing this show approximately halfway through the season, but kept watching for completion's sake (unless something truly drastic happens, I hate starting things and not finishing them). Looking back, it was a fairly dreadful show, with a milquetoast protagonist, an unnecessary desire to be "dark and edgy", and a scattering of pointless subplots.
The Shannara books by Terry Brooks are some of the earliest fantasy novels out there, which makes them fairly straightforward staples of the genre. The heroes are stalwart and true, the villains are unrepentantly evil, and the conflict between good and evil is about as basic as it comes. But they're also earnest stories about decent people overcoming great odds in pursuit of the greater good, and sometimes that's all a story needs to be.
Unfortunately, once MTV got hold of that formula, it was distorted in several unpleasant ways. Many of the original additions to the show did little to flesh out the characters and their world, but were instead bizarre tangents that were ill-fitted to the source material: the nutso isolationist who drugged, tortured and murdered his guests, the sinister Amish cowboy cult who threw EDM parties, the attempted rapist who quickly became an essential member of the team – yeesh, it all looks even worse written down.
It quickly devolved from "fun trash" to "nasty garbage", capped off by ensuring that the world-saving mission was in no way allowed to get in the way of the torpid teenage love triangle. That's not even getting into some of the illogical creative decisions. Why, after establishing that Perk gave Wil a whistle that his roc could hear from long distances, did this not come into play in the final episode? Instead it takes the space of a musical montage for Wil and Amberle to make a return journey from a place it took them eight episodes to reach in the first place.
And although Brooks's novels are set in a post-apocalyptic future, this element of the stories is so slight that it's easy to miss it completely. But thanks to our current obsession with dystopian futures (everything from The Hunger Games to The 100) this aspect is played up throughout The Shannara Chronicles, leading to an awkward aesthetic that tries to blend the remote majesty of Tolkien-esque Elves with quasi-steampunkish and mutant-like Gnomes and Trolls. It just doesn't work.
Black Sails: Season Three (2016)
In the wake of Shannara and The 100, it was a relief to return to Black Sails, knowing that the writing and characterization has been consistently solid across all three seasons. It's a strange hybrid of a show, mixing up historical figures such as Charles Vane, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny with Robert Louis Stevenson's John Silver, James Flint and Billy Bones, but it's pulled off incredibly well. (Though it's just occurred to me that Stevenson's Captain Flint is a Posthumous Character, which means he's practically an original creation in the hands of these writers).
Oddly enough, I have no deep investment in any of the characters and the "big death" of this season had almost no effect on me, but as a long-time fan of Treasure Island, it's been fascinating to watch the growth of John Silver into one of literature's most beloved anti-heroes. This season more than any began pushing certain characters into the roles and positions they hold at the beginning of Stevenson's novel, and much of the dialogue and imagery suggests a very deep understanding of the text.
Which makes all the fan theories and shipping arguments breaking out across fandom all the more amusing. Seriously guys:
The answers to all your disputes are there, and have been for the last hundred years.  

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