Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Gotham: Season 1, Episode 2

Episode Title: “Selina Kyle
Channel: Fox
Director: Danny Cannon
Writer: Bruno Heller
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Runtime: 45 min
Rated: TV-14
Original Air Date: September 29, 2014

The pilot for Gotham didn't immediately grab my interest, and I still have reservations in regards to the starting point of the series. With that said, “Selina Kyle” was an improvement on the first episode. Maybe it's because they've gotten a lot of the introductions out of the way, this episode seemed much more focused than the premiere. The audience is now learning about characters, instead of learning of them, and it is of course a much more effective method of storytelling.

Most of the performances are smoothing out a bit, with Jada Pinkett Smith, Robin Lord Taylor and Camren Bicondova standing out. With half of the episode revolving around Bicondova's character it would have been very noticeable if she faltered. She manages to nail the young teen, trying not to seem so young around adults, moments while showing some uncertainty when she's unobserved. Taylor's descent into madness seems to be happening a little too quickly, but he's playing it well. Smith's portrayal of Fish Mooney is one of the brightest spots thus far in the show, her back and forth with Falcone was very tense, and you could see in her eyes that she was already plotting her revenge by the end of the scene.

They are still putting characters into scenes that the audience just doesn't need yet. Edward Nygma just pops in awkwardly and delivers a line more suited to an extra. Non-comic book readers won't recognize the name, so they don't need to see him in every episode, and comic book readers can make it through a scene without seeing something that validates their knowledge of the source material and still enjoy the scene, I promise. Also, there's a scene with some gouged out eyes. The effects are horrible, just because you can CG something, doesn't mean you should. That's why you have a make-up department, surely someone had some modeling putty to spare.

Conclusion: A marked improvement over the first episode, due mostly to the more focused nature of the narrative. If the showrunners can cut down on the not-so-subtle elbow nudges to the comic reading fans, and use some practical effects when they can, they should be able to build upon these first two episodes to deliver an entertaining story.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Strain: Season 1, Episode 12

The Strain
Episode Title: "Last Rites"
Channel: FX
Director: Peter Weller
Writers:  Carlton Cruse, David Weddle and Bradley Thompson
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Horror
Runtime: 60 min
Rated: TV-MA
Original Air Date: September 28, 2014

“Last Rites” isn't a bad episode, but it highlights the things that the series has been doing wrong since the beginning. Much of the show's runtime up to this point has been spent focusing on familial difficulties and health problems, now when things need to happen they seem crammed into one episode without much in the way of explanation.

Remember the hacker, who's name I had to look up again, Dutch? She just disappeared a week ago after Vasiliy had seemingly convinced her to stay. Well she's back with a fully formed plan that will allow Eph and the crew to get the story to the masses and hopefully get the rest of the population taking some sort of productive action. Instead of half an episode last week being spent on Zach's cigarette run at Mama Martinez's behest, the audience should have seen some experimentation or trial and error in regards to what seems like a pretty elaborate plan.

Setrakian's flashbacks in this episode now consist of him in his middle years, still fighting the good fight, in Albania. There's little in the way of new information presented there, as the most significant things revealed were already fairly easy for the audience to assume. Augustin is still underused, but had the most intriguing encounter in the episode, I'm just hoping that the season finale doesn't leave the audience wondering what's going to happen to him.

Eichorst is finally taking the threat that Setrakian and his not-so-merry band represent seriously. With numerous examples of him committing the oldest villain sin in the book, letting your greatest threat get away again and again to somehow heighten their suffering, I have to wonder why the sudden change of heart? I will partially forgive the script though, because it made for one of the more suspenseful scenes in the series so far.

Conclusion: The penultimate episode of the season contains a lot of exciting moments, but they feel rushed due to time constraints. Some things finally seem to go the good guys' way and one of the major distractions in the show has been trimmed away. “Last Rites” managed to get me excited for the finale by moving the plot along more than many of the previous episodes.

Rating: 7.25/10

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Doctor Who: Season 8, Episode 6

Doctor Who
Episode: “The Caretaker”
Channel: BBC
Director: Paul Murphy
Writers: Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Runtime: 45 min
Rated: TV-PG
Original Air Date: September 27, 2014

The previews for this episode misrepresented it a bit. Going in I was dreading an episode long examination of Clara's dating life and the hijinks that ensue as she goes gallivanting across space and time, only to rejoin the date minutes later. Luckily that part of the episode was rather understated, over before the first commercial break. What we did get was a rather generic monster of the week episode, sprinkled with a lot yelling by everyone involved.

Capaldi's incarnation of the Doctor is not as light-hearted as past iterations, but there were moments of real anger from him in this episode. Going forward I'd be interested in seeing more fear of the Doctor, not just from his enemies, but also his allies. This script was very quip heavy, I'm all for some playful banter, but every line of dialogue doesn't have to be boiled down to a snappy little one-liner. It's fun for a little while, but the Doctor's companion is the audience's proxy, requiring explanations for things that are basic to the Doctor. How often would you continue a relationship with someone when nearly every question asked is answered so snarkily?

The monster this week will fade from memory shortly after viewing the episode, completely generic. The main point of “The Caretaker” is seeing the two relationships being presented to the audience maturing a bit. By the end everyone seems to understand the others a little bit better. There is one hilariously misplaced bit of gymnastics that has to be mentioned. It seemed like the kind of scene that gets brought up very early in writing, and should've been the first deletion during revisions, but somehow it made it into the final product.

Conclusion: “The Caretaker” didn't give the audience any iconic Doctor Who moments, aside from the one cringe-worthy bit of leaping. It seemed rather a bridge between our introduction to Capaldi's Doctor and the real substance of the season. The protagonists know a lot more about each other than they did previously and now we can make progress towards what this season is really about.

Rating: 6.5/10

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Saturday is Haul Day 11!!

Taking it easy this week, and only brought comics home.  From left to right we've got:  Rachel Rising #28 by Terry Moore, Saga #23 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, The Sandman: Overture - Special Edition #3 by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III, Tomb Raider #8 by Rhianna Pratchett, Gail Simone and Derlis Santacruz, and finally Wayward #2 by Jim Zub and Steve Cummings


Tusk (2014)
Producers: Nate Bolotin, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Nick Spicer, et al.
Director: Kevin Smith
Rated: R for some disturbing violence/gore, language and sexual content
Runtime: 102 min
Genre: Comedy, Horror, Drama

In complete honesty, I'm not sure what to say about this movie. I by no means regret going to see it, it was an interesting time at the movies. I think the viewer could fall into a trap of trying to see more in the film than was there to see. Maybe there's tons of symbolism and social commentary in there, a treatise on the nature of man hidden among this dialogue and absurdity laden horror flick. For now I'm going to assume that's not the case. The one bit of commentary that I will point out is mentioned early in the film; we as Internet goers should be thankful that the videos of us doing stupid things haven't made it to the web yet, and less enthusiastically mock those who were not so lucky.

With that bit of seriousness out of the way, let's move along. Tusk owes its inception to Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier's podcast, SModcast 259 The Walrus and The Carpenter. After riffing on an ad for free living accommodations provided the tenant dress as a walrus Smith gave his fans a chance to vote for or against the movie being made, they voted yes and we have the film here before us.

Tusk almost seems like two movies back to back. The first part of the movie sets up the characters well, with strong performances from all of the cast. Justin Long's Wallace Bryton is suitably obnoxious and self-important, Genesis Rodriguez plays his girlfriend Ally, the scorned but still loving companion to a man that she admits she sometimes doesn't even recognize anymore. Haley Joel Osment steps up as Teddy, whom I imagine is Wallace's only friend. The real star of the show is Michael Parks. Whether he's mocking Wallace, reciting literature, or soliloquizing to a captive audience; Parks' Howard Howe is electric. In a cast full of strong performances Mr. Parks stands tall. Tension builds during the first part of the movie as the audience is given deeper and deeper glimpses into the the madness that grips Howe. You can feel the inevitability of what is to come.

There's a surprise appearance in the last act of the movie that many people have pointed to as a turning point. I, however, don't feel that the tonal shift coincides with that appearance. It happens when Howe's handiwork is revealed to the audience, in all of its ridiculous glory. I'm not sure of the response this reveal was intended to garner from the audience, but in my viewing it was mostly laughter. To that point in the film tense dialogue and a Misery-esque situation had seemed like the introduction to a disturbing horror tale. Upon the reveal though, Tusk becomes something much less serious, and in the process stumbles a bit.

Conclusion: Stellar performances from the cast anchor what is a very strange movie. Kevin Smith's familiar hand in the dialogue is at times unbalanced by wordy monologues, saved in part by the delivery of Michael Parks. The shift in the third act was jarring, but enjoyable, from dark psychological horror to an odd sort of absurd surrealism.

Rating: 7.75/10

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Godzilla (2014)
Producers: Yoshimitsu Banno, Alex Garcia, Kenji Okuhira, Patrica Whitcher, et al.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence
Runtime: 123 min
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller

A giant monster movie with an all-star cast, absolutely, sign me up. Between the cast, the prospect of a tremendous amount of destruction, and a trailer that sold the audience a movie that utilized both of those things to their fullest. It appeared that Godzilla would pick up where Pacific Rim left off and revitalize the giant monster genre.

It looks as though that mission has been accomplished, with both of those movies announcing sequels, and deservedly so. Taken in whole Godzilla is an entertaining popcorn flick that sparked public interest and made the studio a good sum of money. When looked at in pieces the movie isn't quite as good as it could have been. First, the cast doesn't seem to live up to its potential; Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen managed to evoke some emotion from me, but the rest of the cast was surprisingly wooden and forgettable.

The wideshots used in this film are amazing. Once picturesque landscapes and skylines become rubble strewn sites of utter desolation. The flames and flares used to accent such scenes work brilliantly, somehow adding an epic feel to what we're witnessing. Or sadly, sometimes not witnessing, as one of my pet peeves regarding the film is the constant cutting away from the action. This isn't Jaws where mechanical trouble and revolutionary filmmaking conspired to hide the antagonist from view for half of the movie. This is a movie where monsters fight other monsters, so please, going forward let us see the fighting! When we are afforded the opportunity to see Godzilla and the MUTOs go at it they provide a knockdown drag out fight worth watching.

Conclusion: A movie that is greater than the sum of its parts. Godzilla overcomes some movie making missteps and acting that is only serviceable to deliver a fun experience. With the promise of a sequel I look forward to seeing the flaws corrected and witnessing a true monster throw down.

Rating: 6.5/10

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

Throne of Jade
Temeraire – Book 2
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group as Del Ray (2006)
Author: Naomi Novik
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Pages: 398
Price: $7.99

When Britain intercepted a French chip and its precious cargo—an unhatched dragon's egg—Capt. Will Laurence of HMS Reliant unexpectedly became master and commander of the noble dragon he named Temeraire. As new recruits in Britain's Aerial Corps, man and dragon soon proved their mettle in daring combat against Bonaparte's invading forces.

Now China has discovered that its rare gift, intended for Napoleon, has fallen into British hands—and an angry Chinese delegation vows to reclaim the remarkable beast. But Laurence refuses to cooperate. Facing the gallows for his defiance, Laurence has no choice but to accompany Temeraire back to the Far East—a long voyage fraught with peril, intrigue, and the untold terrors of the deep. Yet once the pair reaches the court of the Chinese emperor, even more shocking discoveries and darker dangers await.

I made a mid-week trip to the bookstore to purchase books two and three of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. I don't generally do that, I have plenty of spare reading material around the house, but every now and then a series will grab me hard enough that I have to keep with it until it has played itself out. It was with that enthusiasm that I started Throne of Jade.

Mrs. Novik corrected some of the things that were a little grating about the first book. There is far less pet name usage from Laurence towards Temeraire, it's still there, but no where near as prevalent as in the first book. Will Laurence has loosened up a little bit, losing some of his stuffiness to the laid back nature of the Aerial Corps, he's still more proper than those around him, but it's more tolerable than it was before. The author has retained her ability to describe to the reader the customs, practices and general setting of the 19th Century, now expanded to another nation that is very different from the England the reader came to know in book one.

Because the book moves the setting of the series across a vast distance, and because of the nature of travel at the time, much of the story takes place on a ship. This was a double edged sword. On one hand we got to see a side of Laurence that we only briefly encountered in the first book, a side showing him in his more natural environment aboard a ship. On the other hand, this requires a good deal of the book to take place during travel. Requires might be a little too strong a word, as it seems some changes to the story could have alleviated the ocean-going monotony.

The main dilemma in this story is the question of where Temeraire will end up, and how that will effect the relations between Britain and China. The course of those relations is set into motion very early in the book, and resolves itself quite nicely at the end. The space in between falls into a trap common in fantasy literature; the dreaded travelogue. What occurs during the long travel sequence feels like a series of encounters dreamt up by your dungeon master at your last Dungeons and Dragons session. Concerns over food, sickness, disagreements between traveling companions, and sea monster attacks roll by one after the other, only very occasionally emphasizing a point that couldn't have been better emphasized elsewhere. The one moment of revelation for Temeraire during the journey was rendered unnecessary by his first visit to a Chinese city, the point being made more strongly and in a better fashion than it was before.

The major fighting sequences in the book are well told and filled with tension. While the reader can be fairly sure that Laurence will make it through the violent encounters safely, the same cannot be said for the rest of his crew. Mrs. Novik has shown a willingness to shed supporting characters as needed to lend weight to the battles Laurence and Temeraire fight. My hope going forward is that some of those side characters are fleshed out a little more, so they don't feel so much like red shirts on an away team.

Conclusion: This is an adequate follow up to His Majesty's Dragon. Where the author made progress in some areas, curtailing some of the characters more annoying characteristics; she also fell into some of the storytelling styles common in fantasy that she had avoided in the first book. This seemed to bloat what would otherwise have been a more concise and streamlined story.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gotham: Season 1, Episode 1

Episode Title: “Pilot”
Channel: Fox
Director: Danny Cannon
Writer: Bruno Heller
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Runtime: 50 min
Rated: TV-14
Original Air Date: September 22, 2014

Shortly after Gotham was announced it was revealed that Thomas and Martha Wayne would die early in the series. I question that decision, should this series not focus on Gotham and how it became the dark city of violence and corruption we've come to know? I would have preferred some time to get to know the Waynes. We've been told many times that they were great philanthropists that were waging a losing struggle against the underbelly of Gotham. We all know what happens to the Waynes, but no where near as much as been shown about the work they did before their murder. Is this to be another Batman origin story, or is it to be a portrait of Gotham as told through the eyes of James Gordon? It would seem that Gordon's decision to buck the system and become a force for good would have been more poignant if he and the audience had been shown the fight he was attempting to continue.

The decision has been made though, and the audience must take the show as it is, not as it might have been. The first episode of Gotham suffers many of the pains that are common in television pilots. It seems like many of the actors aren't quite sure at this point how they're going to play their characters. The script does little to help them along, often offering up corny dialogue. It was also a little tiresome to be continuously introduced to characters that will become the mainstays of Batman's rogues gallery. Spacing the reveals out over several episodes would have been a better choice than to show the audience Catwoman, Penguin, Riddler, and Poison Ivy all in the pilot. Getting the ball rolling in the first episode is one thing, overloading the allotted fifty minutes with constant winks to the audience is unnecessary.

Ben McKenzie seems to be a decent Jim Gordon. It's hard making the decision based on this one episode, with Gary Oldman's performance still so fresh in the viewers' minds, but hopefully he can grow into the role over the next few episodes. I'm also a fan of the decision to change the Alfred Pennyworth character a bit, Sean Pertwee plays him as a sarcastic and rather foul mouthed counterpoint to the seriousness of the show. That touch is needed somewhere and I like the idea of it coming from a surprising source. Jada Pinkett Smith seems like she will be a good villain, absolutely ruthless; although at times she seemed to be affecting a southern accent and at others it dropped away completely, it seemed out of place in the setting and I'll be glad if she forgets it going forward.

The city of Gotham looks great. It's constantly overcast and dingy, with every single alley appearing to be one that you wouldn't want to walk down alone. It has the feel of a deep, dark concrete forest; predators lurking around every corner. Even a quiet fishing trip isn't safe.

Conclusion: There are a number of missteps here, though through good storytelling their magnitude can be diminished. As the actor's grow accustomed to their roles I hope to see them fitting into them more naturally. The look of the show is the highest point, but so far we haven't seen Gotham as it could be, a character unto itself that chews up and spits out some people, while forging others into heroes, martyrs and madmen.

Rating: 6/10

Monday, September 22, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Producers: Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso, Stan Lee, et al.
Director: Antony Russo and Joe Russo
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout
Runtime: 136 min
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Comic

Captain America: The First Avenger was my least favorite movie of Phase 1 of Marvel Studios' Marvel Cinematic Universe. I thought it missed with its tone, moved too slowly, and I felt like Captain America just wasn't much of a superhero. When the Russo brothers were announced as directors for the follow up I became even more skeptical. How could guys famous for Community (which I enjoy immensely) manage to pull off a successful sequel to a movie that I wasn't a fan of?

First, they picked up the pace. Part of this is being unburdened of the necessity to tell an origin story, Winter Soldier gets right to the action. The action sequences are leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor. The car chase is an adrenaline fueled joy ride, with bullets flying. The fight scenes are well choreographed and interesting, and Cap now feels super powered. He's powerful and fast, taking out henchmen just as effectively as his Avengers brethren and his shield is now not only protection but an amazing offensive weapon. Captain America now feels like he deserves the leadership role he's taken on.

The plot of the movie fits perfectly to what we know about Cap. Where our world today is filled with ambiguity and shades of gray, he sees right and wrong and stands up for what is morally right. In doing so he doesn't feel preachy, just doing what needs to be done, what every normal guy would do given his degree of power and skills. Robert Redford plays the best kind of villain, someone who's motivations we can understand, even if we don't agree with the means. He's doing what he feels like is best for the greater good, despite the horrible cost to get there. Black Widow plays a huge part in this movie and manages to be a great supporting character to Cap's quest, without falling into the tired cliche of damsel in distress. Falcon felt a little forced, with not quite enough time to develop him properly, hopefully he pops up again with a little more time to shine.

My one complaint is not necessarily of the movie itself, but the decision making process at Marvel. Please stop 'killing' your characters and bringing them back. I know it's a common occurrence in comics, but even in that medium it's a trend that has long since lost its emotional impact. Do you want to surprise me with a death? If so keep the character dead.

Conclusion: My favorite Marvel movie to date. Maybe it's not as full of popcorn movie moments as The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, but it is, in my mind, a more complete film. The truly amazing thing is that Marvel and the Russos took the franchise I was least interested in and turned it into something I can't wait to see more of.

Rating: 8.75/10

The Strain: Season 1, Episode 11

The Strain
Episode Title: "The Third Rail"
Channel: FX
Director: Deran Sarafian
Writers: Justin Britt-Gibson and Chuck Hogan
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Horror
Runtime: 60 min
Rated: TV-MA
Original Air Date: September 21, 2014

This week on The Strain Ephraim, Setrakian, and crew put their harebrained plan into action, and it goes about how we expect it to go. Dutch has disappeared, althought I thought Vasiliy was going to get her to stick around and Zach and Nora's mother are left alone in Setrakian's bunker. That's right an eight year old and a senior citizen suffering from dementia are left to their own devices in a highly tense situation because Nora decides to argue that she's going along on the aforementioned infiltration. I'm not one to whine about women going into dangerous situations, but come on, in that scenario who's babysitting who? Wouldn't it be better to have someone there to oversee the homebase? Nora has waffled several times regarding what it takes to eliminate a vampire, but she chambers a round in a pistol and the audience is supposed to buy that she's less useful at Setrakian's than on the hunt.

Zach and Mrs. Martinez being left home alone did lead to one of the more exciting sequences of the episode, with a momentary brush with Gus. Gus was a bright spot in this episode, exhibiting a wide range of emotions as he came to grips with all that's going on. Hopefully we'll soon see him joining Setrakian's merry band. Eph spends most of this episode with his brain turned off, making bad decision after bad decision. One would think that a man grounded in science would take a second to think about what was happening before charging off blindly, alas that is not the case.

The Master pops up near the end of the episode and monologues for a while, as villains are wont to do. It's hard understanding what he says as he's saying it and I found myself leaning forward trying to pick up the words. The subsequent struggle seems to cause a rift among the good guys and has left them worse off than they were at the beginning of the episode.

Conclusion: An improvement over last week, but not by much. The lack of logical thinking by many of the main characters makes the suspension of disbelief difficult. It does build towards the finale, but not as strongly as it should, given it's proximity to the final episode of the season.

Rating: 6/10

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Doctor Who: Season 8, Episode 5

Doctor Who
Episode: “Time Heist”
Channel: BBC
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Writer: Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Runtime: 45 min
Rated: TV-PG
Original Air Date: September 20, 2014

This was a fun one-off episode. The Doctor answers a mysterious phone call, and then wakes up in a room with Clara and two strangers, with no memory of where they are or for what purpose. What follows is an exciting heist episode with shades of the Ocean's movies, complete with a slow motion entrance by the crew. Douglass Mackinnon uses camera angles reminiscent of those movies to heighten the similarities, without it feeling like a rip-off.

The story itself is fairly straight forward, with some decent action and tense moments. The object of the heist was predictable, but still leaves the audience with a feel good attitude by the end. The other members of the Doctor's crew were fun and well-acted, without some of the wooden moments that we've seen from other guest stars this season

At the very end we see that the Doctor might have an ulterior motive for all of these last minute excursions with Clara. I'm actually a little excited to see this side of him. Sometimes with all of his grand plans and time/space hopping it's easy to forget that he might suffer from the same pettiness and insecurities as the rest of us. As long as Mr. Moffat and company don't overdo it I think this will be a fun avenue to pursue

Conclusion: Despite some predictability this is an entertaining episode that looks to be leading the Doctor in a fun direction. It's not the best one-off episode they've done, but it's more than serviceable; fun and enlightening regarding the new Doctor's personality.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday is Haul Day 10!!

Another week, another bag o' booty.  First there's Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards and starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, and Bryan Cranston.  This will be my first viewing of the movie as I missed it during its theatrical run, I'm excited to see how it lives up to my expectations.

There's also; The Wicked + The Divine #4 by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson and Clayton Cowles, Trees #5 by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, and Supreme Blue Rose #3 by Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl
Publisher: Broadway Books (2012)
Author: Gillian Flynn
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 422
Price: $15.00

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

When I heard that David Fincher would be directing a movie version of this book I knew I had to read it. I'm of the camp that reads the book before seeing the movie. Does it sometimes result in disappointment? Yes, but its also the way the story was originally meant to be told, and that's how I like to experience a story for the first time. When I found out that Gillian Flynn was going to be penning the screenplay, and changing things up to keep readers on their toes it was a done deal, read away.

Let me say that I love the concept of an unreliable narrator. While having someone tell you a story in real life, twisting it to their own self-serving purposes sucks, it just works for me in literature. As the reader you know that there are nuggets of truth in what's being told and you have to figure out which details go into the truth pile, and which ones to discard as lies. It adds a dimension to the story that is lacking when the reader knows they can trust everything the narrator tells them. Gillian Flynn pulls this off masterfully, you loathe Nick Dunne, then you sympathize with him, then you can't trust him as far as you could kick him. He's smarmy and untrustworthy, and maybe worse, maybe a killer.

Just when you think you know what's going on Mrs. Flynn pulls the rug out from under you and leaves your head spinning. With basically no one in the story to trust the reader is drawn deeper into lies upon lies before the truly unsettling conclusion, when its revealed exactly how far some people may go to get what they want. Gillian Flynn has been accused of painting very unflattering portraits of her characters, especially women, but I find this to be unfounded criticism. She writes people as people, some good, some bad, regardless of their gender. Instead of finding misogyny in it I find it refreshing to find that the characters that she writes feel like real people, not archetypes out of whom I know exactly what to expect.

Conclusion: Well-written and exciting, Gone Girl keeps the reader on their toes and holds nothing back. Just when you think a character's actions can't get more despicable you're proven wrong.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Live by Night
Publisher: William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (2012)
Author: Dennis Lehane
Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Pages: 416
Price: $16.99

Boston, 1926. Prohibition has given rise to an endless network of underground distilleries, speakeasies, gangsters, and corrupt cops. Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a prominent police captain, has graduated from a childhood of petty theft to a career in the pay of the city's most fearsome mobsters. But life on the dark side carries a heavy price. Beyond money and power, even the threat of prison, one fate seems more likely for men like Joe: an early death. But unil that day, he and his friends are determined to live life to the hilt.

Joes's dizzying journey up the ladder of organized crime takes him from the flash of Jazz Age Boston to the sensual shimmer of Tampa's Latin Quarter to the sizzling streets of Cuba. Live by Night is a riveting epic layered with loyal friends and callous enemies, tough rumrunners and sultry femmes fatales, Bible-quoting evangelists and cruel Klansmen, all battling for survival and their piece of the American dream.

I had never read a Lehane novel before. I enjoyed the film adaptations of Mystic River (2003) and Shutter Island (2010). I heard great things about Gone Baby Gone (2007) and with two more of his novels being brought to the big screen, The Drop starring Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini and this novel in 2016 I figured it was time to see what kind of literary experience his books were.

The settings are great. Each city has it's own quirks and rhythm, carefully constructed within the framework of the Prohibition era. The side characters that come with each change in venue were memorable and always seemed present to actually serve a purpose in the story. The interplay between criminals and those sworn to uphold the law seemed spot on for the period. Unfortunately the story those side characters are there to support is not new, it's a little tired with a sense of been there done that.

That 'seen it before' feeling could've been offset by a lead character that pulled the reader through the story through his charm and quick thinking. Make no mistake, Joe is fast on his feet, often staying a step ahead of those that seek his downfall. He's not particularly charming though. His motivation is revenge, and his plan is to exact that revenge by being successful and driving his competitors out of business or eliminating them completely. The issue I took with this motivation is that it doesn't really seem like the Joe we come to know through the course of the book. The usually pragmatic and well-reasoned protagonist seems more like the type of man that would cut his losses and move on, not harbor an eight year grudge.

The ending wasn't what I expected. Instead of what I thought would be the logical ending, Lehane writes several more chapters detailing things that felt rather unnecessary. Because the pace was slowed so much by these chapters the actual conclusion doesn't have the same impact that it might have. The ending felt like the motivation that was lacking through the rest of the book, but at that point the story is over.

Conclusion: The flat and at times unbelievable nature of the lead character does not make this a bad story, it simply keeps it from being a great one. Joe's machinations are still entertaining, and it's fun to see how his plans unfold. The idea that the consequences of a violent life often visit themselves on the deserving and the uninvolved alike is an important one, it's just thrown at the reader a time or two too many.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Saga Volume Three

Saga Volume Three
Issues #13-18
Publisher: Image Comics, Inc
Story: Brian K. Vaughan
Art: Fiona Staples
Rated: M/Mature
Genre: Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Price: $14.99

This part of the Saga story is action packed and informative. Most of it takes place during the events of the last part of volume two. Many of the side characters get their moments to shine, and in the process become much more well developed characters. The new characters added in these six issues get the full treatment, and by the end seem like characters that we've been reading all along.

The trouble is, almost this entire book takes place during a time period that was covered previously; this means that there is still relatively no forward motion in the main story. The reader sees new creatures, brought to life by the wonderful Fiona Staples, new worlds and the dangers they bring, and a few new characters, but what is the next step in Alana, Marko, and Hazel's life? The character development is great, believe me, I enjoy seeing real personalities and motivations played out on the page for us, and I know there is something happening next. I just need to see a little more of it than what's been shown thus far.

Maybe the reason I feel this way is that I really like what I'm reading. I'm invested in these characters and where they go and how they get there. That has been accomplished, now it's time to find out where that takes us. It seems like nitpicking, even to myself. Even if the remaining books consist of our intrepid heroes sitting around playing board games, I'd probably still read it. It is that well-done and I am that interested, but it's called Saga, and a saga implies a grand, sweeping story. That's the part I'm waiting for.

Conclusion: Despite the absence of elements advancing the overall story much; the new characters introduced in this volume, and the insights gained concerning previously introduced characters, keep this volume moving forward at an easy pace. Both Vaughan's knack for dialogue and Staples amazing artwork make this a joy to read.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Strain: Season 1, Episode 10

The Strain
Episode Title: "Loved Ones"
Channel: FX
Director: John Dahl
Writer: Gennifer Hutchison
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Horror
Runtime: 60 min
Rated: TV-MA
Original Air Date: September 14, 2014

So, The Strain is coming around into the home stretch, this is the last third of the season and everything should be going forward at the the fastest pace we've seen this season. Right? Unfortunately this was not the case. This was an episode that focused entirely too much on things that the audience already knew, and tried to make them more significant by having them occur to someone 'important.' The only issue there is that the character in question hasn't done much over the course of the season to make the viewers care about them.

Also present is a bit of a side adventure concerning Vasiliy and Dutch Velders. Oh, you don't recognize that name? She's the hacker that, you know, hacks and stuff. Don't feel bad, I had to look up her name as she's one of the least developed characters on the show. Nearly a third of the episode is eaten up with her attempting to undo what she's done to the Internet and phone service. That plan, like most of the episode, goes no where; the only thing we learn along the way is that Setrakian's group may have some allies in high places.

Near the end of the episode something important finally happens when the Master shows up with what looks like a reactionary plan to Setrakian and Eph's efforts. I'm still hoping it will be well handled, otherwise it's only a ploy that we've seen in countless other works of fiction. There were also, along the way, a couple of Eph's actions that I'm sure the audience was supposed to find shocking; but at this point we've seen that kind of thing many times, so with no emotional weight behind it those actions fell flat.

Conclusion: When the season should be ramping up it seems to be sputtering. The rehashing of things the audience already knows couldn't be made to be more interesting just because they were happening to someone new. This was unfortunately the worst I've felt about this show coming out of an episode.

Rating: 5.5/10

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Doctor Who: Season 8, Episode 4

Doctor Who
Episode: “Listen”
Channel: BBC
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Writer: Steven Moffat
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Runtime: 45 min
Rated: TV-PG
Original Air Date: September 13, 2014

I'm not sure if there's another writer in television who's work is more obviously his than Steven Moffat. Without having checked the credits for this episode I could've told you who wrote it. Moffat's episodes feel more complete and tighter narratively speaking than anyone else currently writing for Doctor Who. Under his guidance the audience is treated to what I thought was the most enjoyable episode of this season.

This is an atmospheric episode with loads of tension and several creepy moments. I enjoyed the entire premise of the episode; maybe when we're afraid for no reason, there is a reason. As the story progressed and various threads and times were revealed the slightly convoluted narrative path tightened down to the importance of a single moment. There's too much fun to be had for the viewer to ruin that moment for those that haven't seen it, suffice to say that it definitely cast a familiar character in a new light. There's a little paradoxical mischief being worked in this episode. Who's words were those really, who said them first?

There was, unfortunately, no mention of the overall arc of the season, which leaves me thinking that an episode important in that respect is just around the corner. There is still a lot of time being spent on Clara's personal life, and I know that this is due to rise in prominence from the other character in question, but lets get on with it already! Lets get the whole team together and go adventuring, enough beating around the bush.

Conclusion: “Listen” is a very entertaining episode, the best thus far in season 8. What it didn't tell us about 'heaven' and its creepy lady resident it made up for with a strengthening of the bond between the main characters. Built around a great premise it went in a direction I didn't expect, but enjoyed thoroughly.

Rating: 7.75/10

Saturday is Haul Day 9!!

This week's Haul is a little bigger than I originally expected.  First we've got Captain America:  The Winter Soldier, which is, to date, quite possibly my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.  Then there's Supernatural:  The Complete Ninth Season.  What started off as a guilty pleasure has become a show that I don't want to miss an episode of, while the eighth season wasn't the best the ending left me really interested in what was happening next.  I didn't get a chance to catch the ninth season on TV and have miraculously avoided spoilers for almost a year, so I'm excited to finally find out what happens.

Comics-wise there is quite the list of entries:  Future's End:  Constantine #1 by Ray Fawkes and Juan Ferreyra, Future's End:  Batman #1 by Ray Fawkes and ACO, Cloaks 1 of 4 by Caleb Monroe and Mariano Navarro, Hexed #2 by Michael Alan Nelson and Dan Mora, Wayward #1 by Jim Zub and Steve Cummings, Wild's End 1 of 6 by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard, and finally Death of Wolverine 2 of 4 by Charles Soule, Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten and Justin Ponsor.

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's Dragon
Temeraire – Book 1
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group as Del Ray (2006)
Author: Naomi Novik
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Pages: 353
Price: $7.99

Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature.

Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

Dragons and the Napoleonic Wars, sign me up! I'm a sucker for reimagining/retelling of historical events slanted in such a way as to accommodate some kind of fantastic element. As such I enjoyed many aspects of this story. Naomi Novik has clearly researched the time period very thoroughly and does a good job of bringing the social attitudes, manner of speech and sense of honor to life for the modern reader.

The best part of His Majesty's Dragon is the interaction between Laurence and Temeraire. Will Laurence is a somewhat stuffy gentleman with strong feelings of duty and honor. Temeraire is an uncannily intelligent being possessing the naivete and sense of wonder of a child. Despite his tremendous size and intelligence the reader is reminded that Temeraire is less than a year old during the course of this story. That mix of intelligence and curiosity make him a refreshing counterpoint to Laurence's more traditional views. Going forward I can see Temeraire's inquisitiveness and and fresh outlook exerting a change upon his master.

The action scenes are exciting. Some of the dragons are gigantic, accommodating crews numbering in the dozens. This is a most welcome change to what we've come to expect from dragon rider stories, gone is the concept of a single rider laying waste to armies with a dragon ally. The dragons here are immense airborne weapons platforms, not only rending with claws and teeth, but allowing their crews to fire on the enemy with rifles and destroy fortifications and large targets with bombs. The setting means that while dragons are still formidable, they are not indestructible, due to the prevalence of cannons and other gunpowder based weaponry. That fact serves to lend a sense of danger that would otherwise be impossible when speaking of beasts of such size.

This is Naomi Novik's first published novel. There are things I expect of seasoned authors that some debuting authors seem to have trouble with. With this particular story the difficulty comes from the advice your creative writing instructor would try again and again to drum into your head, “Show, don't tell.” While this seems like an easy concept to grasp, in reality it is anything but. Here in lies my one major problem with this story as it unfolded. The reader is told that bonding with a dragon is very selective and potential dangerous, that the rest of society looks down on aviators as second-class, and many other things throughout the course of the story. Going forward in her career I hope that Mrs. Novik relies more on her readers' intelligence, and counts on them to understand these kinds of things through the action and her characters' interactions; and not being told those types of things explicitly.

Conclusion: Not without minor flaws, His Majesty's Dragon puts a new spin on the dragon sub-genre of fantasy. The blend of history and fantasy feels fresh and has me interested in how Temeraire's world's history will differ from our own. The potential for growth from both main characters is an exciting prospect going forward.

Rating: 7.75/10

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Woods: Issues #1-4

The Woods
Issues #1-4
Publisher: Boom! Studios
Writer: James Tynion IV
Artist: Michael Dialynas
Genre: Horror, Sci-fi
Price: $3.99/issue

To start us off I have to say this first. This is the first Boom! Studios comic I have read. One of the first things I noticed is that there are no advertisements during the body of the story. Without those pages getting in the way of the story's progress I found this to be a great way to assemble a comic. Instead of hastily bypassing the ads while trying to get to the next story page I actually took the time to look through them at the end of each book. I hope this becomes a trend, as an uninterrupted body of the story is much easier to read, and the space spent on ads seems better utilized when placed that way.

The Woods is a new story that drops a prep school in Milwaukee onto a forest enshrouded moon some unknown distance from Earth. Using the isolated setting James Tynion IV introduces common themes from various sci-fi and horror stories such as; strange beasts lurking around every corner, power struggles, a loner that seems to know what is going on, different factions and an unknown intelligence that is pulling the strings from the shadows. Think The Mist mixed with Predators, with a dash of Lord of the Flies thrown into the mix, just to spice it up.

None of that is to say that it is a bad read due to the familiarity, quite to the contrary. The characters are varied and interesting, which is a good thing, as the reader is introduced to many in very short order. I found myself having little trouble keeping track of who was who. This is due in equal parts to Tynion's ability to give them differing personalities, and Michael Dialynas' artwork. Each character has his or her own distinct look. The story itself, while not necessarily new, moves forward with the confidence of an author that knows the characters' motivations and goals well.

There are two stories running parallel in The Woods. One of them focuses on a group of students that have ventured into the forest searching for answers and an explanation for what has been done to them. The other part of the story focuses on what is happening with those that remain inside the school building, the ways in which they're coping, interacting with each other under stress, and preparing for whatever the situation throws at them next.

Conclusion: The Woods #1-4 are collected in The Woods Volume One: The Arrow. While it doesn't seem to bring anything earth-shatteringly new to the genre this is a well told and drawn story. The diverse characters and my curiosity are enough for me to overlook some of the more formulaic elements present.

Rating: 7.25/10

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Switchlbade Honey

Switchblade Honey
Publisher: AiT/Planet Lar
Story: Warren Ellis
Art: Brandon McKinney
Rated: M/Mature
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Price: $9.95

Switchblade Honey began as a joke between Warren Ellis and his girlfriend. What if a starship was captained by Ray Winstone? From there the story takes off, a cast of navy outcasts get a ship and a mission and there off into space.

The story is short and to the point. Battles are waged and disasters averted. Warren Ellis keeps the story moving forward with crude dialogue, with lots of drinking and smoking intermingled. Aside from one character that is pretty straigh-laced the rest of the crew are troublemakers with morals. This has the unfortunate side effect of making one much like the others. Brandon McKinney's art is crisp and clean, and while quite nice to look at, I don't feel like it serves the story as well as a grittier style might have.

While trying to distance itself from mainstream science fiction through the original premise the clear-cut morality of most of the characters sabotages the attempt. The clean lines and clear images make everything look like the science fiction we're all familiar with, which was not the stated purpose.

Conclusion: The stated intent of the story is betrayed by the lack of differentiation between the characters and the clarity of the artwork. It's still an interesting premise that I'd be excited to see continued. I'm just not sure that this an introduction that makes that a possibility.

Rating: 6/10

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
Publisher: Viking (2009) The Penguin Group through Plume (2010)
Author: Lev Grossman
Genre: Fantasy, Urban
Pages: 402
Price: $16.00

Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He's a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he's still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.

Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.

Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.

I never read the Harry Potter books, but this book was pitched to me, as it has been to many others as Harry Potter for adults. I knew the basics; a magical academy, a coming of age story, supreme evil and a journey that ends ultimately in victory. What begins as an interesting premise quickly becomes a joyless, by the numbers fantasy story, with one of the most unlikable protagonists I've ever had the displeasure of reading.

Enter Quentin Coldwater, a teen going through the motions of his life. He's attempting to do what all of us have to do, set our adult lives into motion and get on the track that will determine what kind of adult life we'll have, long before many have any idea what kind of adult life they want to have. Determining what you are going to do and be for the rest of your life while still a teenager is a daunting task, one that intimidates many into indecision and self-destructive behavior. I was actually pleased with the first part of the book. Here's a character with plenty of room for improvement, lots of growing to do. Say what you will about the how hard it can be to go through puberty, the real time for growth in a person is that transition between teenager and adult. That's a true coming of age, and I was excited to see it happen in a fantasy setting.

The time spent at Brakebills (the magical college Quentin attends) was handled fairly well. Five years are accelerated and probably account for half of the book. Along the way the reader is treated to many things that are familiar to anyone that's gone through this period in their life. There are a couple of harrowing encounters along the way, but aside from the magic it is a story you yourself might have lived through. Upon graduation I was sure that the story would take a turn and we'd finally see some sort of development in Quentin.

Alas, it was not to be. Alcohol, drugs, and sex rule the day, with Quentin sabotaging the only relationship he seems to actually care about. When Mr. Grossman finally worked his way around to Fillory I already had a sneaking suspicion that not much was going to change going forward. The climax of the story is woefully unfulfilling, and instead of leaving with a sense of hard won victory or at least lessons learned our 'hero' decides that happiness is impossible.

Before I'm told that I just didn't get it, I assure you I did. Quentin is unhappy, and that unhappiness taints everything he touches and experiences. If you don't know happiness nothing can magically bestow it upon you, not even magic. While true, and maybe even a necessary thing to write about now and then, that is a rut that you can't write a compelling story around. A book is about a character's journey, not the places he goes or the things he does, but what changes those travels and trials work upon the character. When the character ends up in the place that all of the early promise was supposed to rescue him from, the story falls flat.

Conclusion: I have trouble not finishing trilogies/story arcs/sagas and will most likely read the follow ups to The Magician at a later date. The conclusion of the book did show a glimmer of promise, but I won't be running into the bookstore five minutes before they close because I just have to find out what happens next. Maybe Quentin's growth will just take longer to tell the readers about than I anticipated, but as it stands The Magician is a promising premise sullied by a selfish, self-defeating protagonist that fails to engender sympathy or transform himself one iota along the way.

Rating: 5/10