Sunday, April 29, 2012

Young Adult (2011)

by DionysusPsyche

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a deadbeat writer, decides to visit her hometown of Mercury in an attempt to swoop in and steal her high school sweetheart away from his wife and child. Her old classmate, and less popular peer, Matt (Patton Oswalt), tries to stop her from ruining the life of her old flame.

First impressions
So much mixed tape action! Although Mavis writes teen fiction, once back in her old town, you can actually see a high school dynamic taking place. Not in a weird Never Been Kissed kind of way, but in a way that happens when people go home. It's fun to listen to her voice overs of the book she's writing which mirror her own feelings on the current situation.

The good and bad
Mavis's behavior is irredeemable in many ways, sophomoric, and completely awkward to watch. Trying to run away with a married man is a bad idea, but her attempts at flirting and causing jealousy are not fun to watch or remotely amusing. What I did like was her unlikely (or in film world, predictable) friendship with Matt. They also point out each other's weaknesses which is more than regular movies where friends' blatant remarks would almost never actually happen.

Mavis's parents are cute. It's clear their intentions are good, but the main character's holier than thou and immature attitude show that all efforts in kindness and good will go unappreciated.

The painful awkwardness throughout the movie casts a splinter over the movie. It doesn't get any better until it reaches its peak then fades off. This is the one thing I disliked most about the movie, which actually puts it on par with my review of Bad Teacher.

Mavis wants to travel back to a time when she feels she was better although as Matt puts it she was not better. She may be broken, but Mavis's admissions of mistakes are a long time coming. Ultimately, she realizes that it is time to move on.

My feelings on this movie are mixed. Parts of it are enjoyable, but the over all unevenness of the film and lack of turnaround for the main character make me unable to truly recommend it. If the denouement of the film was more commendable or the flinch-inducing scenes weren't quite so bad, I would recommend it. Diablo Cody is the writer for this and Juno although I enjoy the latter more. Unfortunately, I found Young Adult a waste of time to rent.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Caine Black Knife

Caine Black Knife is the third book of The Acts of Caine, the most epic sci-fi fantasy series I've ever seen. The second book of that series, Blade of Tyshalle, is arguably the best fiction I've ever read. Consequently, this book had a lot to live up to. I would note before I start this review, though, that I have read this book before. Just recently, the author, Matthew Stover, released the fourth and possibly final book of the series, Caine's Law. As Caine Black Knife ends on a cliffhanger, the two books are inextricably linked with Black Knife serving as Act One to Law's Act Two. Minutiae aside, I thought that these points were important to know as there is definitely a review bias going into this.

Conceptual Background

As stated before, Caine Black Knife is the third of an ongoing sci-fi/fantasy series that is stunning in its complexity. In this future fictional universe, Earth has been drained of resources and nations have been replaced by corporations who have introduced a mandatory caste system, ramifications of a worldwide plague. Of these castes, our main focus is on the Entertainers, a mere one or two rungs above the lowest caste. Though the world presented here is a dystopia, science and invention have continued their merry march onward, and two important technologies are discovered. First off, there is the link to Overworld; a complicated machine is invented capable of teleporting people over to a fantasy world reminiscent of Lord of the Rings at its darkest. Second, a method is devised through which people can ride along inside the eyes of another; by plugging into a Matrix-like chair, one can observe the memories of people stationed in Overworld or ride along real-time. This chair also allows one to feel exactly what the other person feels, as well as read their thoughts (or inner monologues).

When combined, these technologies represent the entertainment of future Earth. Actors are sent to Overworld to entertain as creatively as they may, usually through causing as much chaos as they can. In addition to the potent experience provided by riding along an actor's adventure as if you were the actor himself, there is the fact that the denizens and creatures of Overworld don't really know that Earth exists or that actors walk among them. There is also the fact that, if you die on Overworld, you are dead as dead can be. All of these factors combine to create the most intense visual and physical experience you can possibly imagine, all from the safety of your chair at home.

Character Background

The main character of this series is the most famous actor of them all, Hari Michaelson, whose stage name is Caine. Caine is the most prominent actor because he is the epitome of the anti-hero, a man who has no qualms with getting down and dirty in a barfight, no hesitation in assassinating kings, and zero interest in moral quandaries unless they affect his friends. He also is masterful at crafting an incredibly intense story, and so a recording of one of Caine's adventures is guaranteed to be adrenaline-pumped, bloody, and legendary.

But he is also a character with immense complexity and the description I just wrote is but the tip of the iceberg to who Caine is. Where previous books focused on the dichotomy and internal war between the 'real life' Hari Michaelson and the gritty, savage persona that is Caine, Caine Black Knife focuses on the consequences of Caine's growth as a person and the lives that he has ruined in his initial quest to stardom. But I'll get to that. What's important to know is that, at this stage in the series, the link between Earth and Overworld has been cut and so Caine, with no remaining enemy to fight, must decide what he wants to do with his life on Overworld. And so he decides to pay a visit to an old friend.

Dual Narrative

The first thing that makes Caine Black Knife distinctive is Matthew Stover's choice to employ a dual narrative. We have two timelines: the timeline of the present where a grizzled, dissatisfied older Caine searches for Orbek, and the timeline of that past where a younger, bloodthirsty Caine craves excitement and glory. Through this we get a sense of how Caine evolved from the nasty upstart of his youth to the older, more mature veteran. At first, I feared that this would distract from the story that I was primarily interested in: that of the Caine of the present who the readers have been behind every step of the way. But I quickly found that the separate narratives cohesively contributed to one another. This was largely because of the setting.

Both narratives take place in the same location: the Boedecken waste. With young Caine, this is the site of his first adventure and major claim to fame, The Retreat from the Boedecken, where he leads a troop of fellow adventurers in confronting and fighting to the last against the most fearsome ogrilloi (think Uruk-hai) tribe the world has ever seen, the Black Knives. In this, he is pushed to the limit and beyond, and discovers much about himself and how far he is willing to go both to survive and to win fame on Earth. With old Caine, we see the Boedecken from the perspective of a dozen or so years in the future, where the land (that I found much like Afghanistan) has been settled and the remnants of the ogrilloi are enslaved by the Knights of Khryl (akin to our Knights Templar from the Medieval era). Older Caine sees the ramifications of the adventure of his youth on an entire race and, in short order, sees how old companions and enemies have changed over the years. The dual narrative is crafted so well that events in the young timeline are almost immediately mirrored by revelations and meetings in the old timeline, providing an unprecedented depth to what happens in the plot as well as providing deeper perspective.

The Evolution of Caine

And that perspective gives us an ever growing sense of the complexities of this character that is Caine. And truly, from a writer's perspective, Caine certainly is a marvel. Here is a character who, on the surface, sounds just like a male Mary Sue (a character who is ridiculously important, incomparably badass, infallible, undefeatable, overly skilled and overly idealized). After all, superficially, Caine is the epitome of the most epic dark action hero you can possibly imagine. He makes Wolverine comparable to a Carebear, Tyler Durden look like a slappers-only pansy, and Mad Max akin to some pre-pubescent teenager out for a romp. Caine's father was a social science professor, meaning that Caine is just as likely to quote John Locke or Niccolo Machiavelli as snark off a one-liner. He's smart, vicious, capable, and incomparably deadly. This is a man who has, at this point, killed the best swordsman who ever lived, a fully armored and powerful Lord-Commander of a knight order, and a god.

And yet, as Caine Black Knife and previous novels make abundantly clear, Caine is also emotionally broken, incapable of lasting happiness, forever lamenting and cursing the mistakes and victories of his past, and following pretty much to the letter the description of a sociopathic serial killer. He has a desire to kill and, what's more, he prefers doing it with his bare hands. As Black Knife reveals, there's also a significant part of him that enjoys being in despair and with his back to the wall as that is when he feels most alive. Aspects of his character such as this shine through in Caine Black Knife, throwing additional light on his worst aspects while hinting that perhaps, on some level, he seeks atonement for his actions.
An ogrillo. Nasty looking bastard.


I found Caine Black Knife a worthy addition to the series, although it was cut short with a cliffhanger. This is permissible since it is intended to be the first of a two book duology (the next of which I'm reading immediately), but I've found that ending a book with a cliffhanger is just about as annoying as ending a TV season with one. Unless you are 'behind the game', so to speak, your wait in seeing the cliffhanger resolved is hideously long. That and, in its essence, isn't a cliffhanger just a marketing trick? Anyways, enough of that.

There are some other things I wanted to mention about Caine Black Knife too that made it great. The introduction of the Knights of Khryl brought an interesting and multifaceted holy order into the fold. I found Angvasse and Purthin Khaylock to be among the most intriguing characters of the series and each got a mere chapter or two of screentime. Such is the power of Matthew Stover's worldbuilding. Similarly, the comparison of the Black Knives of the past to those diehards of the present was a curious separation. I wanted to see what happened to Orbek but I'm simply going to have to wait for the sequel I suppose. Lastly, the twist near the end that made the Smoke Hunt basically equivalent to a bunch of Earth teenagers playing Call of Duty with Overworld riots was as hilarious as it was disturbing. Matthew Stover's occasional proclivity to meta fiction and teasing the fourth wall is always great to read.

I do have a few complaints, though. Some of the young Caine's chapters involving the ongoing fight against the ogrilloi within the Boedecken caves became quite difficult to follow. Matthew Stover tried to make it as intense as possible by making the sentence structure as short and disjointed as possible and, while that worked most of the time, sometimes this just made it impossible to really determine what was going on. As for the old Caine, there were a couple of times where conversations became hard to follow because minor characters (such as Tyrkilld, Knight Aedharr, who was all over the place) decided to snark with the same humor as Caine, making it difficult to tell the two apart. And, of course, the aforementioned cliffhanger and my dislike of cliffhangers in general.

But altogether, this book and, really, the entire series is the most comprehensive, absorbing, thought-provoking, and intense series you will ever read. So long as you are okay with occasionally nasty violence, a truly ridiculous (and hilarious) level of profanity, and very dark themes, this is one of the greats.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Retribution: The Battle for Japan 1944-45

The Pacific theater of World War II just doesn't get as much attention as the European side. Many of us know the details of the Normandy landings, the D-Day invasion. We know the excesses and twisted nature of Hitler and the Nazis, their creation of concentration camps, subjugation and extermination of the Jews. We have a strong cultural memory of indefatigable Churchill holding Britain against the enemy as if by willpower alone, the Battle of Britain, American's lend-lease agreement and our entry into the war.

But, for some reason, we don't ever go into much detail about the Allies' war with Japan. We may remember the names of some of the toughest battles: Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Iwo Jima. But not many of us can explain why those battles were significant or even what happened in them. Our knowledge of the war centers simply on two events: the ambush at Pearl Harbor and the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a peculiar hole in our general history books. In reading Retribution, I sought to fill that hole in my own knowledge about the Pacific war.

Island Hopping

The Pacific war was frankly terrifying, and the author (Max Hastings) does an incredible job in bringing that horror to the reader. Hastings' writing style makes for addicting reading; he flip flops between discussion of grand strategy and detailing personal stories of the soldiers and leaders directly involved in the conflict, making sure to treat all sides equally. I found that his talks of the interactions between nations and why each spot was or was not strategically important to be enthralling; through this explanation it is easy to follow the progression of the war as each region is conquered or passed over. On the other side of things, the primary sources and stories he manages to find really bring you into the action. Everything is given a personal weight akin to what you'd find in a novel. You yearn for each man or woman to get through the war safely. You find yourself rooting for members of both sides, even to your surprise. It is a long history but every moment of it keeps your rapt attention.

The author's point of view does bleed through in numerous spots, however. It is up to you to decide whether or not this is a failure, or if it is an unavoidable facet of authors writing on history. I found myself observing multiple times areas where Hastings seems anti-Japanese to the point of near-racism. He dismisses their years of scholarly analysis on the war. He views their method of dealing with such an awful past to be reprehensible (modern Japanese governments have had a habit of trying to avoid talk of this era of their history). He, on multiple occasions, excuses American excesses and atrocities by basically saying that “the Japanese did worse, so anything the Americans did was okay by comparison”. There are certainly truths behind these assertions, but the vehemence with which he attended to them made me raise an eyebrow and view the claims with increasing skepticism.

Despite all of this, the author was incredible in portraying an era and area of history I know relatively little about in a way that was both quite understandable and often gripping. I will definitely go on to read other histories by the author, but I wanted to also point out that Hastings isn't without quirks or faults.


A number of things I learned from this book shocked me. For example, did you know that the Japanese were terrible at war compared to the Americans? Oh, I know that America had an advantage in numbers and technology. I mean that Japan was truly awful at waging war. Their army and navy regularly were at odds with each other and, on multiple occasions, actually allowed members of the other branch to die in battle rather than mount a rescue. I can remember a few stories where the Japanese navy decided that it would be a waste of resources to supply this island or that (despite the fact that they were essentially allowing their own side to starve and die). For example, in the battle for Iwo Jima, the army decided to set up defenses in the hills and the navy decided to fortify the flatlands before it. Instead of working together, it was more like two separate loosely allied sides fought the same enemy. Hastings tells of Japanese army men watching as their navy brethren fought and died against the Americans without making any effort to help.

On top of this, the Japanese military had so much influence that it made many truly stupid decisions. You would assume that an army man would know that his supplies are pretty crucial to winning a war but, despite this, Japanese leaders made next to no effort to protect their own convoys from American wolfpacks (submarine groups) or bombers. Consequently, they lost countless food, munitions, and weapons shipments, crippling their ability to wage war far sooner than necessary. In addition to this, the military paid no attention to the fact that, when they dug in, they were able to provide incredibly nasty opposition to invading American forces. Instead, they harped on about their warrior spirit and ordered numerous charges that got hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers killed for no good reason.

Samurai Ideals Taken to the Extreme

This enormous emphasis on Japanese warrior spirit (bushido) explains both why Japan lost and why they proved such a tenacious enemy. Before I read this book, I had the impression that the Japanese forces of World War II were near equal to our own, the only difference being the immense discrepancy of resources. In truth, it is incredible that the Japanese lasted as long as they did, as their incompetence in the war is hard to exaggerate. Their bushido created an insane amount of morale (in that the average Japanese soldier was culturally indoctrinated that surrender to the enemy was worse than death) but bushido also prompted them to treat anyone who wasn't a soldier as inferior and less than human. In this, we can see eerie parallels to the atrocities and justifications of Nazism and fascism in general. But, in the case of the Japanese, this prompted them to treat their merchant population and suppliers as cowards, the lives of their citizens as unimportant, and negotiation or surrender as a sacrifice of national honor and a betrayal of all of one's ancestors.

Consequently, the average Japanese soldier fought like a lion but was perpetually on the brink of starvation, armed with sub-par weaponry, equipped with minimal ammunition, and encouraged to suicide attack as many of the enemy they could, by grenades, bayonet charges or, eventually, using their own planes as weapons. This was no way to win a war. The Japanese rationalized it by hoping that the insanely bloody battles this resulted in would scare the Allies into giving the Japanese more amenable surrender terms. But, because the Allies were already committed to total war (along with the fact that such nasty attacks only pissed them off even more), the Japanese merely dug their own grave. It is worth noting, though, that the Japanese warrior spirit was so ingrained in their society and upper echelons of leadership that, even after both atomic bombs had been dropped, most of the Japanese leaders didn't want to surrender. Even after the Emperor insisted upon it, this surrender was almost averted by a military coup at the palace.


All in all, this book gave me a lot to think about and I learned a great deal about the Pacific war in reading it. Though this review focused primarily on the Japanese side of things, it is worth noting that there's a great deal in the book about the Allies as well. Through this, I learned of the conflict between China and Japan that one tends to hear very little about, the differences and clashes between the Communist and Nationalist Chinese, and the British attempts to reclaim their old imperialist ventures from the Japanese, and the consequent American opposition to the idea. The epic involvement of the Indian Gurkhas is covered, as well as the questionable involvement of the Australians in the Pacific conflict. Soviet irredentism and imperialism, detailed arguments for and against the launching of the nukes... This book covers a lot and does it well. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the time period.

As a final note, I wanted to reiterate a point that Hastings makes in his conclusion. He points out that the American experience in Japan inaccurately inflated our culture's impression of what our military should be capable of. He states that Japan was an enemy uniquely vulnerable to our combination of overwhelming naval and aerial power, and that our commitment to total war as well as Japanese incompetency made us outrageously successful against them (discounting the difficulty in evicting stubborn Japanese from their island gains). Hastings argues that this has led the American public to assume that every war that the U.S. is involved in should be akin to this or else isn't worth fighting, which is why public opinion has soured so quickly with just about every war since. I found this definite food for thought; it is arguable that, because of World War II, America has found it hard to justify or understand limited wars that are more subject to differences in public thought. Our history makes us crave wars (when they must occur) where there is clear “good and evil” and where just about everyone is unified in bringing down the enemy, or else. This helped me see how World War II is viewed with such peculiar nostalgia, and the seeming romanticism with which we can seem to view it, that time period, and the people who lived in it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

J. Edgar

Written by Joe the Revelator

During a mother-son bonding moment, the ruling matriarch of J. Edgar's life tells him a quaint story about a boy everyone called Daffy (short for Daffodil) at the end of which Daffy takes his own life because he can't stand the pain and ridicule caused by his sexual inclinations. She makes it very clear she would rather her own son be dead than "Daffy". Immediately following the old bat's death, he wears her dress and jewelery.

It's easy in retrospect to excuse a man's actions by saying he was confused by his sexuality. Especially if we look back a few generations when alternative lifestyles were shunned, ostracized, and generally frowned upon. The term "Confirmed Bachelor" comes to mind, which was a phrase coined during the Victorian era when one couldn't openly accuse notable men of being gay. In J. Edgar, being a confirmed bachelor seems to be his only redeeming quality.

Confirmed Nutcase

J. Edgar, as he is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is vain, self-centered, twitchy, fussy, anal, and magnificently paranoid, which make him the perfect candidate as the first chief director of the FBI. His nickname was speedy, for his rapid, terse way of speaking. And to his own reluctant admission, he had no personal friends or acquaintances when he first received his position.

The first half of the movie is told through J. Edgar's perspective as he dictates his memoirs to a string of FBI typists. He lies his way through historical FBI and most wanted cases like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the shooting of John Dillinger, and JFK's assassination. Now and again his self-congratulatory tirades are interrupted by the typists who are faced with the task of spinning his claims into truths.

And there are brief glimpses into the real J. Edgar when his actions are brought into question by lifelong colleagues. His dutiful secretary takes dictation as he rails against MLK in a fraudulent letter designed to undo King's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. And his partner, aged and palsied, calls into question the very memoirs that comprise the earlier scenes of the movie. If it's possible to write a twist into a plot based on real events, this is a clever way to do it.

Snappy Suit

My only real complaint about J. Edgar is the relevance of this movie for today's audiences. J. Edgar Hoover died during the Nixon administration, and while I enjoy a good historical drama, I fail to see the connection to today's issues. Aside from unlawful wire tapping and ongoing pressures for the gay community.

But this is a petty complaint at best. I found J. Edgar to be a riveting character study of a young man who built an amazing wealth of power from a very modest allotment of government resources. If the story of his professional career is overshadowed a bit by his personal struggle, it is to the benefit of the viewer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Games I'm Not Allowed to Play - Dwarf Fortress

Oh yeah. That screenshot looks like the brain fart of your old DOS computer, doesn't it? Funnily enough, this shot captures a lot of what makes Dwarf Fortress so complex and, by extension, addicting. As you might be able to guess, the right side of the screenshot is an overhead two-dimensional representation of the fortress. Those are rooms, dining halls, armories, warehouses and more. The icons depict different things and, remarkable as it may seem, playing the game enough allows you to recognize them fluently. While you may not be able to, I can see the bedrooms of various dwarves, I can see the room with casks of ale. I can see beds, tables, foundries, ore, engraved walls, and on and on. Some icons are easier to guess the meaning of than others. For example, the two big arrow symbols pointing outside are ballistas ready to be fired. All of the smiley faces are dwarves. Outside, you can see on the far left the curve of a river, the bridge over it, and the road leading to the fortress entrance.

Long story short, this is a game that manages to find a truly insane amount of depth and complexity by using the most basic graphics imaginable. By setting the bar for graphics so low, it permits a massive amount of resources to be dedicated to the most crazy awesome things you can think of. Your dwarves can all be equipped, clothed, given rooms and tasks unending. They can make friends and gain skills that make them more (or less) useful to the running of the fortress at large. As for the fortress, you can construct traps, pump-driven systems, smithies, forges, farms, and more. You can conduct trade with visiting merchants, distant elf nations, and go to war with goblins, undead, and even homicidal elephants. What is perhaps so addicting about this game is that it is basically a medieval/fantasy SimCity to the most complex (yet definitely learnable) and hilarious degree.
Bird's eye view of a fortress
I say hilarious because there are no win conditions. Part of the fun is seeing how far and how long you can go before the fortress collapses due to domestic strife, outside intervention, or even inadvertently digging too deep and opening a corridor to Hell. One of the times I played, some asshole accidentally killed the cat of my most deadly swords-dwarf. He hunted down and killed the offender. When the police-dwarves stepped in to arrest him for the murder, they proved unable to, and he swiftly killed them too. A growing cycle of violence quickly consumed the entire fortress as family members got pissed and swore bloody vengeance. In time, the swords-dwarf was killed, but too much violence had put internal affairs on pause for so long that the survivors all starved to death. All the children were stolen away by nearby monkeys. Not kidding. All of this started because some prick accidentally stepped on a cat.

It can require a dark humor to get entertained by this, but it gets to the point where your management skills cannot counter or keep up with the chaos that the game can present you with. A flood can throw off your construction plans. One dwarf might get jealous of another, causing dissent that you must prepare for by having an established system of justice (or by straight up assassinating the guy). The game is tough and it requires planning, but it is planning of a sort which doesn't frustrate so much as make you consider what you might possibly do to work around it. Example: goblins show up, you barricade the doors. How do you solve this problem? Well, you don't have to if you work on attaining self-sufficiency within the mountain. Alternatively, there might be a plateau reachable from another level that the goblins can't reach but you can, allowing you to plant farms and reach the outside world that way (or even snipe down at the goblins with crossbows). You could send out your combat-capable dwarves to fight them, you could create an alternate entrance that is actually filled with traps for the goblins to run into when they see a new open door. Or, hell, if you're really determined, you could dig deep, find a lava flow, and create a pipeline to dump magma right on top of their heads!


The sheer creative possibilities and the massive options before you is what persuaded me that I had to stop playing Dwarf Fortress. It brings out a sadistic inner architect and social experimenter that can never be satiated. It makes me want to hurl myself into it again and again to build ever more intricate and interesting fortresses and to see how many dwarves I can take care of and keep safe (or domineer) before the system falls apart. But, even though I've banned myself from playing it, I've still been plenty entertained by the stories of others who do.

For a brilliantly depicted example of an entertaining game of Dwarf Fortress, consider checking out this link. It'll send you to a site that tells the story of one particular fortress where players would switch off for every in-game year, each different player having different projects and different things happen to them until the fortress' inevitable doom. Things such as a dwarf-elephant war, accidental drownings, and fights over who gets the best crypts. It's hilarious and definitely worth checking out if the game intrigues you, but not enough to get sucked into the addiction first-hand!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Legend of the Seeker - Season One

Written by Joe the Revelator

Legend of the Seeker is a show loosely based around the events occurring in Terry Goodkind's novel; Wizard's First Rule. In the same way Fantasia was based on the behavior of hippos in the wild, or how Troy was based on the Iliad. Names are taken from the Sword of Truth books and pinned to characters who look or act nothing like their literary counterparts. The rules that govern magic are carried over from the books and broken repeatedly. It was clear from the first episode that this series was a payday for Goodkind, or his publisher, and not a true-to-the-letter retelling of the books.

Abandon all hope, ye bookworms

To keep this review from becoming a nonstop comparison of the books, I'll say right now that the show and the novels are vastly different. It's like someone cut out sections of the source material, paragraph by paragraph, and used them as wallpaper. Parts of the plot-line feel disjointed and out of place. Events from the books are jumbled together or missing. Even Goodkind's devoted readers (those who didn't skip his lengthy rants, tangents, and the stories that had nothing to do with the main character) will be hard pressed to sort through the scenes.

For those who haven't read the Sword of Truth novels, prepare yourself for the newest incarnation of Xena Warrior Princess. Even some of the producers from Xena and Hercules are listed in the credits for Legend of the Seeker. And, like Xena, the action in the Seeker is cartoony and bad, the acting is iffy, and comical parts are punctuated with whimsical sound effects.

All of this worked for Xena because the Warrior Princess didn't take herself too seriously. The writing for the Seeker, however, is extremely serious and downright dark at times. There are themes of oppression, the necessity of violence, of torture and murder, sex, morality, and the subjugation of freewill. The Legend of the Seeker tries to cram Goodkind's principals, high-horse and all, into campy 45-minute episodes.

Hobo Wizards

On a positive note I believe that whoever did the casting for the Seeker made some interesting choices. Zed, the Wizard and mentor of the hero is played by Bruce Spence, who was also the Train-Man in the matrix trilogy. The role of the Mother Confessor, along with most of the characters, are filled by veterans of other HBO and Showtime serials. And Craig Parker (Darken Rahl) is so convincing as an evil wizard-dictator, I'm starting to think it was his full time job before the acting gig.

Richard Rahl/Cypher himself is played by Craig Horner, who is likeable enough in a tan, surfer-bro kind of way, but I find it distracting that he's physically smaller than the mother confessor. Whenever he's pitted against the fat, bald, biker warlords of the evil empire, he looks like a wet kitten fighting with bulldogs.

Process of elimination

If you've run out of documentaries on Netflix, and you've no more books to read, you might give the Legend of the Seeker a try. Aside from a few glaring inconsistencies from episode to episode, and its juvenile approach to romantic plot lines, Seeker has enough odd notions and flashy effects to hold viewer attention for the better part of an hour.

Monday, April 2, 2012

No Country for Old Men

I've read Cormac McCarthy before. Probably a year or so ago (there's a review on this blog somewhere) I read The Road, a chilling post-apocalyptic tale. It was downright depressing. Its writing was tight and spared no words. And, somehow, that style of writing made the setting come alive. You wouldn't expect it but, when used correctly, a little detail can be more effective than a lot. Even now I can remember mental images of scenes within that novel as well as how its writing powerfully brought them forth from within me.

Through some miracle of movie-making, the Coen brothers manage to replicate McCarthy's writing style in their direction of another of his novels gone to film: No Country for Old Men.

Minimalist Intensity

Dialogue is at a minimum. Shots are slow and firm. The camera dancing and shaking of other movies these days is avoided. You watch, glued to the screen, as characters do tasks that, despite their menial nature, hold your attention without wavering. Background music barely exists, arising infrequently and only when you are at your most unsettled. But I don't want to mislead; No Country for Old Men isn't a horror movie. But it is a deliberative, dark, and cynical blend between thriller and drama.

We follow three characters whose destinies are intertwined in different ways, even if some of them never meet. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam veteran in Texas who finds two million dollars and runs off with it. Javier Bardem plays Anton Chigurh, a truly disturbing serial killer who pursues Moss. And Tommy Lee Jones plays Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the law enforcer who wants to figure out why corpses keep turning up and what is going on. What follows is one of the most intense cat-and-mouse hunts I've ever seen.

That Chill Down Your Spine

Why so incredible? The filming and the characters. It's hard to emphasize just how powerful an experience it is to see the implacable advance of Chigurh as he follows hint after hint as to where Moss has run to next. It is a chase reminiscent of the Terminator movies; no matter what you do, he just keeps coming, destroying anything in his path without remorse. But this killer is quiet, creepy, and brutally effective, ascribing to some warped set of principles that has him kill some but spare others. Sometimes he whips out a coin, insists that you call it, then kills you if you choose wrong, all without explaining why or what he is doing. Or sometimes he doesn't. He's completely divorced from the normal rules of society, but yet you gather that he does have some sort of rules that he holds himself to. But they are so alien as to be unfathomable to you or me.

And yet, what makes the movie especially gripping is the fact that his prey, Llewelyn Moss, is quite smart himself. This is a man who has made multiple tours of Vietnam and who fits the archetype of the self-sufficient and capable Western cowboy. He's both street-smart and knows how to kill. Part of the fun is watching how each man does their best to lose or track one another, preparing as many traps and contingencies as possible. And, despite being understandably a little freaked out by Chigurh, Moss never loses his cool.

Lastly, we have Sheriff Bell, who, while he has plenty of experience, is one who is clearly out of his element. He is a man of the past, unable to comprehend or change to understand how men like Chigurh can exist. His character is the reason the title for this movie (and the book) is what it is; Bell serves to follow in the wake of Chigurh and Moss' devastation so that he (and, by extension, the audience) can dwell on how this is all possible. Through him, we ponder concepts such as the fragility of life, the ephemeral solidity of morals, and whether good people can make a difference in the face of such mindless violence. Though his character has a relatively minimal effect on the overall plot, Bell is our lens of sanity into a world that is as ruthless as it is savage.


In spite of the incredibly dark nature of No Country for Old Men, the well-known charm of the Coen brothers shines through to make sure that not all is gloomy. It is subdued, but definitely noticeable. Moss' confrontation with the hilariously stereotypical United States border guard is one example. A landlord's casual dismissal of Chigurh is another. These are moments that entertain while still holding to the tone of the film.

As is abundantly obvious, I highly recommend this movie. It is probably my favorite Coen brothers film and, if you are able to handle mature themes and some nasty violence, it is one of the best of its genre. Be sure to check it out if you haven't already.