Friday, September 30, 2011


Written by Joe the Revelator

For someone who has read more Norse mythology than Thor comics, watching the Marvel adaptation became an exercise in word association into nerdy Norwegian. Hannibal Lecter talking about frost giants, Asgard, and Jotunheim comes off as well as Star Trek's liberal use of scientific jargon. Regardless, Thor is a fantastic looking movie.

Thor, the sponge-brained quarterback prince of Planet Viking, struggles to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father. His attempts to display kingly might come off as vain and vicious, as he slaughters his way through the ghettos of the ice giant's world; a world which the old king had already conquered and subjugated.

To punish Thor, King Hannibal strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to the realm of Earth through an intergalactic ray gun, sending his signature hammer after him with a charm that only a virtuous man can wield the hammer and thus carry Thor's godlike powers. The king's second son Loki, who is literally an adopted ice giant in human form and looks as sinister as Satan's goatee, is left in Asgard to help rule in Thor's stead. How could this possibly go wrong?

Thor Schmor

Once on earth Thor is met/hit by a trio of twits who, in the most heartwarming way, teach him the ways of our planet. Most of this is done by way of witty dialogue and watching Natalie Portman make eyes at the big blond ape. Their mission, which is thwarted by S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes the recovery of Thor's hammer which is lodged in the middle of a crater where it landed.

If I sound at all hostile towards Thor so far, it may be because I went back and read a few comics after the fact. In the panels the story didn't seem quite so translucent. And Thor's revelation and trial over goodness versus ego had more weight. In the movie he charges after the killer sentinel (G.O.R.T.) sent by not-evil Loki, with almost the same abandon as when he thrashed the ice giants. The difference here is that he lacked his god powers.

Smite the with thy righteous hammer

The movie itself looks pheonominal, from the halls of the gods to the rainbow bridge, to the gold-clad gate guardian who looks like Isaac Hayes on PCP (I imagine this is what he actually does in heaven).

If not for any other reason, watch Thor for the amazing CGI or the cutesy relationship between man-child Thor and the lab mouse Jane. For me, this movie serves one valid purpose; to connect the dots when the Marvel mash-up movies involving S.H.I.E.L.D. come out.

Monday, September 26, 2011

True Blood

Like with most things that give me even the slightest raised eyebrow, I went into watching True Blood with some hesitance. Given the prevalence of vampire stories that have permeated our culture over the past few years, I couldn’t help but be skeptical at the thought of trying another show centered around the mythical creatures. But, thankfully, I try to be open to new things and, after a number of friends recommended it to me, I decided to give it a shot.

Not Your Teenage Sister’s Vampires

The most important thing the show did for me was for it to not be Twilight. While there is a measure of romantic melodrama within the relationship between Bill and Sookie, overall True Blood does a fantastic job of subverting expectations. While I wouldn’t call the show “realistic” by any means, it has managed to consistently keep me hooked to its darkly humorous feel, overall sexiness, and impressive character focus.

An important distinction between True Blood’s vampires and the vampires of other stories is twofold. First, unlike the vast majority of other vampire stories out there, in True Blood the vampire population has come out and publicized their existence to the world. The results are as interesting as they are varied. As one might expect, many people are understandably freaked out by these creatures who can walk among them at night and destroy them on a whim. On the flip side, others find the revelation fascinating and seek to learn more, some even to the point of fetishization. What makes this premise plausible is the invention of “Tru Blood”, bottled blood of all kinds easily distributable across the world. With this, vampires don’t need to feed on humans to survive, thus making it theoretically possible for them to coexist.

The second distinction is that these are the most powerful vampires I’ve ever seen or read about in any media form. With powers that only rise in age, True Blood’s vampires can become capable of super speed, immense strength, glamour (mind control), flight, regeneration and, through giving their blood to others, an incredible ability to heal the nastiest of injuries. Not to mention that, since vampires are immortal, you can run into ones that have been alive since before Christ died, creating some really interesting stories and historical tie-ins. However, the power comes with the price of vulnerabilities, mostly what one would expect with vampires. Sunlight, wooden stakes, needing to be invited into peoples’ homes, a nasty aversion to silver... They may be powerful but they aren’t unkillable, and this helps create a balance between the humans and vampires of True Blood. 

The Dance of Character Arcs

What really kept me around with True Blood, though, was the characters and the show’s clear love for them. Although some of the characters were hard to empathize with or care about at first (Jason Stackhouse, I’m looking at you...), True Blood really works hard at giving depth to every single character you see. Even the acerbic detective Andy Bellefleur becomes strangely charming once he gets his time in the limelight. And this is very important as, particularly at first, the show seems very... small. Most of the characters and stories center around the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps and, within that, much of the action takes place at Merlotte’s bar. That scenery doesn’t really change much and makes it that much more remarkable that the show is able to keep one’s attention. But it does and, what’s more, pulls it off with flair.

What impressed me even more, though, was how True Blood somehow manages to keep so many different story arcs going that often have little or nothing to do with each other. It often feels like what the separate characters are going through has no relation to the trials of the others or even the main plot itself; the plotlines feel that divorced. I can’t really give specific examples without spoilers, but this facet of True Blood mystified me (in a good way) above all others. In any story, when the character arcs get that divergent, the plot usually gets very convoluted and causes one to lose interest. But True Blood manages the separate stories with excellence and great pacing, tying them together later on in the smallest ways that somehow manage to hold to a clear continuity.

Long story short, True Blood impressed me. I just finished the third season, am going to start the fourth soon, and I’ve yet to encounter any part that seemed to drag for very long or turn me off from the show. I’ll admit, it was hard to get over some of the more unlikable characters at first. But in short order I came to turn around and like them, even the ones you would least expect.

My only warning is to point out that this show has an eye-popping amount of sex, violence, and gore. Personally, I was fine with it, but it is very important to note that this is an adult show. Drugs, sexual deviancy, mature themes; you name it, it probably has it. If you’re wary or uncomfortable with the presence of any of that, then I would advise staying away. Otherwise, you are in for one entertaining and awesome show.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


It is remarkable how powerful a story can be when it seizes upon something that we take for granted and infuses that with a strong dose of reality. Take Superman, for example. Sure, he’s a fictional character, but he is so ingrained into our cultural psyche that we assume certain things about him will always be true. We believe that he will always do good. We take for granted his maturity and his almost father-like regard for the human race. We assume that he will never falter or stray from his path of righteousness, even if it kills him.

Irredeemable is the dark and introspective comic that seeks to subvert those expectations. Its premise is simple, yet deeply disturbing. What if Superman were like you or me? What if powers were given to someone who emotionally couldn’t handle the stress? What if Superman’s childhood wasn’t quite so idyllic? What would be the result?

 Before and after
The Plutonian

Fully knowing that people would not accept such a warped take on an adored character, Mark Waid (the author) decided to go off and create his own Superman, The Plutonian (Tony). He is within his own comic book universe unrelated to that of DC Comics, populated with original and interesting superheroes who all have one thing in common: none of them are as strong as the Plutonian. Just like Superman, the Plutonian’s powers are so far off the charts that it isn’t a far stretch to call him a god. When you are so powerful that you can kill someone with a flick of your fingers, it becomes very clear very fast that you aren’t normal.

What makes the Plutonian’s story so tragic is when you think about how lonely that would be. And how frightening. Irredeemable focuses on Tony’s character, his struggle, and his inevitable failure to handle his powers and the responsibilities that go with them. And the ramifications of a man with that power gone insane.
Physical Trauma

One thing that doesn’t occur to us is how Superman became practiced at using his immense power. Somehow his adopted parents, who have no powers of their own, trained him to have absolute control over his strength? How? Irredeemable seizes upon this and make this an important facet of the Plutonian’s path to insanity. Having no family of his own, he is sent from foster home to foster home, from one adopted family to another, seeking acceptance, seeking someone who can mentor him and teach him how to control his powers.

But the answer is as simple as it is depressing. There is no one like him. We watch spellbound as Tony gains power but, as a child, is unable to understand how to handle it. Imagine lashing out at a friend in anger. As kids, we all did this at least once before we knew that violence was never the best option. For Tony, the result is brutally murdering a friend, breaking his body in half, spraying blood everywhere. Imagine how traumatic that would be.

The result is a childhood where Tony is feared and shunned by every family that takes care of him. And the consequences are both physical and emotional. Forever after making such mistakes, and having no point of reference for how to easily control his powers, the Plutonian spends all of his time in constant fear that he will slip up again, afraid that he’ll lose control, holding back in terror that people will judge him or that he’ll hurt someone dear to him.
Emotional Trauma

Irredeemable delves also into the emotional ordeal of growing up with the powers of a Superman and the expectations that come with it. The result of a childhood without friends or family is a desperate need for acceptance and love. Everything Tony does is fueled by this desire. In a sense, this makes him more selfish than Superman; where Superman saves people because it is the right thing to do, the Plutonian does it in large part because he wants people to adore and accept him. But he finds that even that isn’t truly attainable.

The average Joe looks at him as a celebrity or a god, not a real person. His fellow superheroes thank him for his help, but are as wary as they are uninterested in really knowing him. The demands of saving the world end up feeling like a strain as people take for granted that he will come and save them. What is the point? Tony tries to escape through romance and love, but finds that people only love him for the legend and icon he represents; they are incapable of empathizing with or truly understanding him.

The combination of physical insecurities and fears alongside being emotionally crippled and seemingly the only caring man in a sea of indifferent faces makes it only a matter of time before the Plutonian snaps.

The result is truly terrifying to behold. It is genuinely hard to describe how effective Mark Waid is at creating a sense of palpable fear in the reader. The entire population, superheroes and humans, have no idea how to stop a being so powerful that he can destroy an entire city populated by millions in mere minutes. How can you? This is made even more intense by one’s ability to empathize with Tony. Though you condemn his actions, you can’t help but understand why he has snapped and why he lashes out against those who he once fought for and beside. And it isn’t like the people he faces are incapable of love or emotion, it is just that they were never truly able to reach Tony, to the tragedy of the entire world.

Thus Irredeemable is a character study steeped in horror and sadness. We see the efforts of the Plutonian’s former comrades-in-arms to save him or kill him. We see, through flashbacks, Tony’s life and how it all came to this. And we see how nasty it is to live in a post-apocalyptic world where you can be killed at any minute by a being so powerful and godlike that it seems like there is no hope. No hope at all.

As one can clearly tell, I found Irredeemable to be an immensely powerful, compelling, and almost depressing comic to read. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the psychology of people and fictional characters, as well as anyone looking for a story that is far more mature than what you might expect about superheroes wearing tights. There is a great deal going on in this story that makes it eminently readable; despite my exhaustive review, I didn’t even get the chance to talk about the foils that come up against the Plutonian, how the lives of the superheroes he fights against provide stark mirrors of his own path and personality, and how Tony tries all manner of psychological techniques to hide from and fight the pain that he has caused. But I don’t want to spoil everything. I simply advise you to read and experience it for yourself.


Written by Joe the Revelator

I did not go into this movie with high expectations. To me, the title "Faster" implied a chase movie like The Transporter. It was another action flick after a summer of bad action flicks, barely a blip on my radar, which I nicked from the cheap shelves at the video store.

The lead, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is charming in a thuggish way, but so many of his films fall flat. They lack the finesse of good gritty action. Doom and The Scorpion King were ridiculous backdrops for the directors to show how many ways The Rock could beat the piss out of dudes, and South Land Tales was plodding and overstuffed with big name stars.

I started the movie with one eye on the screen and the other on a project I was tooling around with. It ended with my project forgotten, shoved aside, as I gave my full attention to the story.

Human force of nature.

The Rock's character is an uncomplicated ball of rage. He's the getaway driver of a bank heist which was thwarted by a rival gang. They took the money and murdered his brother, nearly killing The Rock as well with a bullet to the back of the head. Now the Rock's done his prison time and is looking for revenge, systematically executing the miscreants who have all gone on to lead very different lives in the intervening years.

Driver (The Rock) is unflinching and single-minded with a .454 Ruger in hand. The depth of his character is suprising, perhaps because it's paralelled by a sociopath adrenhalin-junky billionaire assassin, and a not-so-recovered police investigator played by Billy Bob Thorton. Watching them hunt down the avenging protagonist is an exercise in brains and skill going against pure, raw force.

Forgiveness seems to be a big theme, as well as addiction and motivation. And while there are a few chase scenes they remain brief; same as the fight sequences. The emphasis is on the drama that comes before and after a fight, rather than a protracted scene of violence. A good example of this is when The Rock kills a bouncer in the club bathroom and after a fair brawl, is asked by the dying man to call his only son to apologize for his father not coming home. The cellphone is slid across the floor toward The Rock's feet with bloody handprints all over it.

Revenge is a dish best served Bold.

Brevity is the soul of wit, and revenge is the soul of action. I can enthusiastically recommend this movie to almost anyone. It's powerful. It's deeper than 95% of the action coming out of Hollywood these days. And it's fairly unknown as of yet, which means you can brag about being the first to see it to your friends.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords is probably my favorite of all the A Song of Ice and Fire books that I’ve read. All of my favorite characters get their moments of glory, and so many climactic battles and events occur that the plot moves at a breakneck pace. I could talk endlessly about how influential and powerful events such as the Red Wedding and Mance Rayder’s attack on the Wall are on the overarching story. I could go off on exhaustive explanations and assessments of each great House’s power, influence, and general progress in the “Game of Thrones”. But, being me, I find the travails and complexity of the characters to be of the most interest.

Of them, I want to focus on the character of Oberyn Martell. While the amount of ‘screentime’ he gets would qualify him as a minor/secondary character, he nonetheless is one of my favorites of the entire series.
House Martell

Throughout the series up to this point, the reader knows that there are seven kingdoms in Westeros. All but one quickly become embroiled in the continental war that erupts. All but one: the kingdom of Dorne to the south. Of Dorne, all we know is that it is a land comparable to our North Africa or Middle East; it is a region sun-baked, containing the only deserts in Westeros, and full of a people as hot-blooded as the heavy heat perpetually shining down upon them. For reasons largely unknown to the reader, Dorne remains neutral for the majority of the series, choosing to stay put and watch events unfold. They align themselves with the Lannisters only when a royal marriage is made between their Houses. Yet, even then, their agenda remains hidden.

For, unlike any other House at this point, they do not commit any troops to support the side they claim to ally with. Instead they send Oberyn Martell to represent their nation before the court at King’s Landing.
The Red Viper

What makes Oberyn Martell such a memorable character is that he is the very first character we see of this kingdom, and his very presence serves to upset the political balance that many of the other Houses have striven to maintain. It is a bit complicated to explain, but sending Oberyn is equivalent to political dynamite; not only is he a controversial figure, but he has a history with one of the other Houses (the Tyrells) that immediately causes tensions to skyrocket when he arrives. Adding fuel to the fire is Oberyn’s incredibly forceful, dangerous, and mocking personality. He is fully aware of the stress he causes and he revels in it.

It is hard to convey how impressive and earthshaking it was to read of Oberyn’s arrival and the ramifications of his visit to King’s Landing. Where everyone else is busily scurrying about, playing political games, and trying to come out on top in the “Game of Thrones”, Oberyn comes out of nowhere with a supremely arrogant confidence and acts like he owns the place. Nobody else knows precisely what he will do or why he’s even there, and this only serves to add to his legend and mystique.
Prince of Dorne

The crowning moment of his influence to the series is his decision to serve as Tyrion’s champion in a duel with Ser Gregor Clegane, in an effort to avenge his sister’s death in a previous war. It is worth noting that, at this point in the series, the multi-faction war seems to be drawing to a close with the Lannisters victorious. The Starks are leaderless and scattered. The Tullys and Baratheons are drained of power and on the ropes. Everyone else seems aligned with the Lannisters. But when Oberyn dies, it seems clear that the war is not over. Everyone fears that the Martells will commit to one of the opposing factions and renew bloody war once more.

Though his time in the series is short, the superb writing and thought that went into The Red Viper’s character made him an incredibly compelling character for me. His decision to defend Tyrion for his own devices, his efforts to mess with the political balance of King’s Landing, and his epic duel with Gregor Clegane were insanely awesome. And the ramifications of his actions will likely influence the series for many books to come (I’ll have to keep an eye on this as I keep reading).

The one downside for me, however, is that, after Oberyn Martell, the introduction of other characters from the kingdom of Dorne will undoubtedly seem subdued and uninteresting by comparison. Showing the reader such an immensely charismatic and dominating heavy hitter from the start has the effect of making those who follow seem lessened. But time will tell; I still have two more books to go before I have to wait for George RR Martin to write more!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Thirteenth Warrior / The Eaters of the Dead

Written by Joe the Revelator

In the Thirteenth Warrior, the action adventure movie from 1999, Antonio Banderas plays Ibn, an Arab poet who is kicked out of his luxurious palace lifestyle for dallying with a rich man's wife. He is summarily sent to the far north as an emissary, where he happens across a band of vikings. After a wild night of partying they conscript him to fight an ancient army of bear people.

For anyone who hasn't seen this film, it may be worth your time if you're into viking adventures. I remember watching it with friends in college, crafting cardboard beer box helmets, trying to swill cheap rum whenever the surly, ZZ-Top bearded wrestlers on the screen drank their grog. Or when the character of Ibn makes a complaint about the rough lifestyle of the northmen, which is nearly constant.

But for the most part, reviews for the Thirteenth Warrior haven't been favorable. I've spoken to many people whose opinions I value say it was a boring, cookie-cutter, hack-and-slash fantasy, filmed like a self-serious historical fiction. For those who have seen the pre-CGI production of Beowulf and Grendel with Gerard Butler, and the newest Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie as a golden goddess (really...that narcissist), the 13th Warrior is like the former. It sacrifices its potential for over-the-top entertainment in lieu of plausibility.

Reality TV meets ancient scrolls.

So why, in a movie about vikings dispatched by a crazy witch to kill bear people, would anyone care about the bonds of reality? Because this story might actually be true.

I recently read Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, the novel on which the 13th Warrior was based. I expected something on the order of Sphere, also by Crichton, a fantasy story with elements of quasi-scientific theory, maybe something about viking blood being sucked by mosquitoes who got trapped in tree amber. What I got was a competent lesson about a real Baghdad ambassador who was sent to the north, held captive by vikings, and taken as a conscript to fight against squat tribals with sloped foreheads who wore bear skulls and furs.

Eaters of the Dead reads like a translation, or a heavily edited translation, of Ibn's journey. There are lengthy stretches where Ibn talks about trading with merchants and traveling, gaining passage through enemy lands, and consulting with his advisers. His manuscript is packed full of details that have been referenced and found accurate by historians, including geographical information that wasn't available to Ibn in A.D. 922.

Leaping horses not included:

Amazingly, 13th Warrior is fairly congruent with Eaters of the Dead, aside from Ibn riding a horse so agile it could have been a Pegasus. So as you watch a movie that made 60 million, far less than the cost of production at around 160 million, a movie that was given such poor reviews by the critics, just think to yourself; This might have happened.

My only regret after reading the book was how much was left out of Ibn's accounts of viking society. In an early scene during the movie a dead viking king is burned on his ship, filled with his earthly possessions. His dutiful slave woman also volunteers to be burnt alive to accompany him in Valhalla. But the screenwriters somehow neglected to include Ibn's account of the entire viking tribe having their way with her sexually before they strangle her with a cord to prevent her from fleeing the burning boat.

Ibn means Son Of:

Usually when books are retooled to fit the big screen, facts are removed, dialogues are shortened/simplified, and characters are softened to appeal to broader audiences. I promise the same has been done to Eaters of the Dead. I recommend reading the book and watching the movie again, and trying not to shit bricks.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Night Watch

Set in modern day Russia, Night Watch is the first book in a science fiction/fantasy series that rises above the mold. The concept is inherently simple, but analyzed from a point of view that makes it endlessly compelling.
The Watches and The Others

There are two sides: the Night Watch and the Day Watch. Contrary to what you would expect, the Night Watch is composed of the forces of Light, whose job it is to sheriff over the forces of Darkness (whose time of power is the night) and make sure they don’t get too out of hand. By contrast, the Day Watch is staffed by members of the darker side who watch the forces of Light to make sure they don’t get too uppity. The important thing here is that the purpose of the Watches isn’t to fight evil or good respectively; their job is to maintain a balance and a peace wherein the sides aren’t warring with each other, instead spending their energies maintaining a bloodless ceasefire.

Those who populate the Watches are known as “Others”. These Others are people with extraordinary powers, fantastical in nature, that separate them from other human beings. These often manifest in forms we are used to; the Day Watch has many vampires, werewolves, and Dark magicians among their staff. But there are also original ideas in the book that add extra layers of interest to what would be otherwise standard fantasy fare. The concept of “the Twilight” is a major one: a parallel reality that Others can venture into in order to see the world as it truly is, with multiple levels that reveal different aspects of the environment around them. Another is how the concept of probability can be manipulated by those with and without power, a trick that can manifest in the form of swirling vortexes of bad luck ominously hanging above peoples’ heads. I, no doubt, am making it sound kind of complicated, but the author’s easily understandable prose puts it in a form that is as accessible as it is addicting.
Ambiguity of Ethics in a World Without Absolutes

What Night Watch’s greatest strength is, however, is its willingness to delve into the ethical dilemmas that arise from a system such as this. Night Watch follows the travails of one low-level Night Watch agent, Anton Gorodetsky, and through him we see how difficult it is to make decisions that are wholly good in a world of grays and murkiness. For the Night Watch, though populated by those who we would call “good guys”, has to make many really tough calls. When forced to choose between saving one person or another, how do you choose? Is it good to compromise with evil if it means saving more lives than you would have otherwise? Is it ethical to have a system where you collaborate with evil to preserve peace instead of war? How do you know if your actions are good if you can’t foresee the consequences that may arise from them?

It is questions like these that are prevalent throughout the novel and are given center stage through the actions and ruminations of Anton, who is a man trying to do good in a world that seems designed to embroil him with incredibly tough moral dilemmas. To that point, he finds himself questioning his purpose, his “enemies”, and even his own side in an effort to be the best man he can be.

I found Night Watch to be incredibly compelling to read. I’m definitely attracted to complex questions in stories, and Night Watch is chock full of them. But I would point out that it isn’t an uplifting book. Not only is it written by a Russian (and, no offense to Russians, but historically they tend to write some pretty depressing shit), but it is heavily weighed down by one man questioning himself constantly and his purpose in life. We all ask ourselves questions like Anton does, which is a big part of what makes the book resonate so powerfully. But it is worth noting that, if you are looking for just a straight-up action oriented sci fi/fantasy novel, this is not what you are looking for.

But, then again, if you are open to the idea of an exciting, philosophical, and well-written book that does not shy away from questions and situations that make you sit back and ponder, then this comes highly recommended. Magic, vampires, demons, and stories of good versus evil don’t come much better than this.