Monthly Archives: September 2011

Two Reviews: Thor (2011) and Night’s Master by Tanith Lee

Okay, so on tap today are two reviews: the 2011 Thor movie and Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master. Let’s go in chronological order.

Night’s Master by Tanith Lee is the first book in what has become known as The Tales of the Flat Earth series. Set on a world that is flat (hence the name), this book follows the various visitations of the demon prince Azhrarn, the titular Night’s Master.

The novel is really more a collection of six novelettes or three novellas. What unifies the six or three is the presence of Azhrarn. He moves, seductive and dangerous, through the various stories bringing joy, pain, and always desolation wherever he goes.

If you remember back to a few posts ago when I talked about myth and history in fantasy, here you will find a useful example of the former. Night’s Master is written in a heavily mythic style. This style works well with Lee’s technique. She is a mistress of simple poetic storyteller prose. This is an early work, but her style and writing skill is really good.

But this same style also hurts the stories as well. As much is said as is left unsaid, and things are left to assumption that should, perhaps, be better explained. Let’s take an example from the very first story- Sivesh. Why does Sivesh so desire the sun? From shortly after birth to about the age of sixteen or seventeen, he was raised by Azhrarn and his servants. Despite his curiosity, he should still think more like a demon, like an eshva or vazdru, than he should a human. His upbringing should preclude thinking like an ordinary human, much less an annoying Romeo figure.

As in mythology, the stories of Night’s Master have a sociological meaning imparted by the storyteller. In this case, the clear message is: do not so readily fall for the love of demon kind, for so often the destroy what they most desire. This typifies Azhrarn character very well. Often he will act to destroy those he once helped, those he desired after they have moved on. But with Sivesh (and even Ferazhin), they should be different than they are.

Despite my criticisms, I am rather fond of the book. Many of the stories are delightful to read. And Lee’s willingness to explore sexuality is a great bonus.

 

Thor (2011 Kenneth Brannagh) surprised me immensely. I did not think I would like it, but I found the movie to be one of the best super hero movies I’ve seen in years. Essentially, this is the story Thor (Chris Hemsworth) proving that he is worthy of being the god of thunder and Loki (Todd Hiddleston) descending into genocidal rage against Jotunheim.

The film can be seen to be two movies in one: Thor’s redemption on Earth and Loki’s fall on Asgard. In this way, I think, as much time could be spent on that absolutely gorgeous world called Asgard.

The visuals are stunning, especially the CGI renditions of Asgard and Jotunheim. Wow, those images are just amazing.

The acting is very good with Anthony Hopkins owning Odin, Hiddleston’s Loki is wonderful, and Natalie Portman is good as Jane Foster. And Hemsworth is really surprising as Thor.

That said, I have to admit that I am actually more sympathetic to Loki than I am to Thor. I wonder if it is intentional that Thor and Loki can both be seen as protagonists? Thor is clearly the protagonist of the overall movie, but Loki has his own subplot in which he himself is the protagonist (though not a super hero). Loki’s plot depicts his tragic fall from a trickster jealous of his brother to a deluded god wishing to prove his worthiness by exterminating the Frost Giants. Which is more compelling, I wonder, Thor’s redemption through self sacrifice or Loki’s fall through revelation?

In the end, I fear that Thor 2 will not be as good as this first movie. More than likely, a director more attuned to action/ super hero films with just rehash the standard formula. Brannagh’s directing on this film is excellent. And it is a pity that he will not be back for the sequel.

 

 

The Wizards of Clark Ashton Smith: Evagh

As I’ve made it clear, I’m a sorcery guy. I like villainous sorcerers and heroic sorcerers, all types of sorcerers. Maybe that is what draws me (in part) to the work of Clark Ashton Smith. His ability to create these amazing characters with who can be either heroic, villainous, or both.

This time, we come to Evagh, the hero of the short story “The Coming of the White Worm.” In this story, set in the prehistoric Hyperborea, Evagh must confront a force of ancient and cosmic terror that threatens to encase the world in ice forever.

So, what kind of sorcerer is Evagh? I would say that he is in the mold of Lumivix from “The Master of the Crabs.” He is definitely heroic in the current sense of the word. He shows concern and even tries to aid the fishermen near his home, he refuses the call for power offered by Rilm Shaikorth, and he sacrifices himself to end the scourge of the White Worm.

As a sorcerer, Evagh seems to rely on his command of spirits to do his bidding. He uses them to guard his home against the unnatural frost, he uses them to gain information, and he uses them, no doubt, for other things.

But in this instance, his spirits fail him. They cannot protect him from the powers of Rilm Shaikorth, but he himself is rather immune to the frost. I only makes him sleepy, and this is a sign that he is a strong and powerful sorcerer.

The thing about Rilm Shaikorth, the White Worm, is that he needs powerful sorcerers, those immune to his spreading ice. Why? So he can eat them. His sustenance is sorcerers. So, Evagh joins a group of six or seven other sorcerers. Most of these joined out of the promises of power that Rilm Shaikorth offers them. Gradually, the number of sorcerers goes down during the sleep cycle of the White Worm. And steadily, the worm bloats in size. But it is not until the last that Evagh learns the truth about the Worm (although it is pretty clear to the reader- and Evagh does suspect something after the first disappearance).

The interesting thing is that it is clear that Evagh joins the other sorcerers not for the promise of power and knowledge but for a means to discover how to defeat the Worm. It is not until he is the last sorcerer surviving that the means to kill Rilm Shaikorth is discovered. And I love it! But the death of Rilm Shaikorth also means the death of whoever kills him. This certainly makes Evagh a hero in my book.

With Rilm Shaikorth, the appearance of unbeatable power is only that, an appearance, an illusion. The White Worm, even if it is transdimensional, is still mortal. But still, that damn Worm is pretty cool for an abomination.

A Quick Reaction to Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 25

Last weekend, I finally managed to read Fullmetal Alchemist volume 25 by Hiromu Arakawa.  The volume before the penultimate volume and the final volume, Volume 25 is, in my opinion, an excellent build up towards the epic finale of the series in the next two volumes.

I may not be the most objective judge when it comes to Fullmetal Alchemist given my love of the series, but let’s get on to it.

The art work is lovely with some great fight sequences between Wrath and Scar (and between the Elrics and Pride, May and Father). Indeed, two of my favorite fights are in this volume: May’s brief battle with Father and Wrath’s final battle.

On her first appearance, May comes across as a rather annoying character, but the fact that she is willing and capable of taking on opponents significantly more powerful than her is a testament to her own strength, and the theme that strength does not come from size and muscle mass alone.

Wrath also has some excellent characterization here. At this stage, his final battle, the man assigned the name “King Bradley” finally comes to terms with who he is and what is best in life- just two nameless men fighting to the death. The opening panels of the fight between Wrath and Scar are some of the most wonderfully realized scenes in the series. Indeed, the animated version is absolutely awesome.

Speaking of characterization, Alphonse too gets a moment of excellence. When he finally comes face to face with his body, he is torn apart by his desire to rejoin with his body and his desire to fight to protect his friends and family. The physical Alphonse is too weak, too emaciated to fight, so Alphonse chooses to return to his suit of armor to continue the fight. This shows exactly how much he has grown in the series. He has said that he is unwilling to get his body back if it means other people will be hurt, but he shows that he walks the walk in this volume.

Moving on to themes, I rather like how the Truth punishes presumptuous alchemists with ironic punishments that suit their crimes. But there is a huge problem here. Should Mustang have been punished? I am not so sure. It works thematically as it reveals the Truth to be brutally arbitrary and rather unjust. But it may not work logically within the narrative. When Ed, Ling, and Envy were trapped in Gluttony’s belly dimension, they use human transmutation to return to the real world. Ling and Ed did not pay a toll, but Envy did by sacrificing several of the lives in his philosopher’s stone. So, since Pride is the one initiating the transmutation, and he pays a similar toll to Envy (if not an actually more severe toll), should Mustang have been spared? Unless of course the Truth took a toll from both of them for its own reasons, which may make sense.

In the end, I really enjoyed this volume. Once volumes 26 and 27 are released, I’ll read them then begin work or a Fullmetal Alchemist analysis project.

Dirty Harry: A Late Review

So, instead of watching the OU- S. Florida State game, I watched the History Channel’s presentation of Dirty Harry (1971 dir. Don Siegel). This would mark the second time I have seen the film (I watched it a few months ago on AMC). To be honest, I rather like the movie, it is nicely filmed and presents a fascinating image of San Francisco in the early 1970s. But I am also troubled by the hamfisted and ill realized political themes.

What I mean is that “Dirty” Harry Callahan, a SFPD inspector hunting the sniper calling himself “Scorpio,” is his own worse enemy. The reason why Scorpio gets off after his initial arrest is because Callahan, in his zeal to capture the killer and possibly save a young girl, does not go through the appropriate, legal methods to acquire the evidence.  How difficult would it be to get a warrant? Especially with the stakes as they are?

What Callahan does is, in the end, a stupid move. But the blame is placed on the D.A. , the Mayor, and a “retired liberal judge” from UC Berkeley. This attribution of blame is, in the end, clumsy. Callahan has a point that the victims need someone to speak for them, but the idea that the police and prosecutors should have carte blanche is an even worse proposition. What is to prevent a not so heroic Callahan from doing what he does to an innocent citizen?

But, as I said, the blame is placed on those in authority, so afraid to lose the case that they will not take steps that Callahan feels is necessary. This blame is clumsy because it neglects to look at Callahan’s own role in foiling the case against Scorpio. Hell, had Scorpio been captured, would he even have been able to be tried given Callhan’s antics? Who really, then, is to be blamed, Callahan or the authorities?

Moving on to Scorpio, I think that he is an adequate villain. He is creepy and psychopathic, but there is something off about him. He does not seem to be nearly menacing enough. In the end, there is something sad about him. This sadness, however, makes him somewhat more  effective. Who really would think that this guy could really be “Scorpio?”

The acting is pretty good. Clint Eastwood is amazing as Callahan, and Andrew Robinson is really good as “Scorpio.” The problem with the acting comes from the secondary players, who seem to be ineffectual foils for Eastwood.

What I really like about the movie is the visuals. I love the location shots, especially the scene at Kezar Stadium. Just amazing. It reminds me why I love San Francisco so much.

In the end, Dirty Harry is a good and enjoyable movie. I do not agree with the politics, but that does not take away from the enjoyment of the movie.

Myth and History in Fantasy: A Rant

This post is, in part, a response to Daniel Polansky’s guest post on The Night Bazaar entitled “The Slums of the Shire.” Largely an advertisement for his debut novel, Low Town, the post is notable for positing a clash between Polansky’s type of fantasy and Tolkien’s. Low Town sounds interesting, but I’ll wait and ILL it through my local library in a few months. What interests me about the post is a lack or inability to understand Tolkien’s fantasy. The reason, I think, is perspective and how one views the mythic or imaginative element in fantasy.

Polansky describes himself as a “history buff” and professes an inability to understand the fantasy of the Tolkien school. There are two things to note, I think. One: what is Polansky’s view of history? Two: How does Tolkien see fantasy?

To answer question one: From reading the guest post, I would guess that Polansky has a rather dystopic view of human nature. He posits that humans would, perhaps, gleefully eradicate an elf species that lived alongside our ancestors, and he expresses an interests in the seedier, darker, nastier aspects of history (hence, the slums of the Shire). This dystopic vision of human nature is highly contestable and uncertain. The histories I have read often (especially new scholarship) display as much about our own and our predecessor’s ignorance about history as it does the actual events of the past. Often I wonder, were things truly as brutish as the “Dung Ages” imply?

To answer question two: Tolkien’s vision of fantasy is highly mythic. With The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien creates a work, a world, that aspires to the level of Homer, Ovid, Mallory, Beowulf, The Pearl Poet, etc. Middle Earth is not meant to be taken as a form of history, but it is meant to be taken as a form of modern myth making. One of the themes of The Lord of the Rings is the coming together of various distrustful races to combat an even greater threat to all of them. Rather or not humans and elves would historically have attempted to eradicate each other is immaterial, what is important is what they represent symbolically. And that it is at times the least of us who make the greatest contributions (like the Hobbits).

So, Tolkien, while being inspired by history, does not allow history to dominate the text. Middle Earth is a “fairyland,” a world where myths, legends, and fairy tales walk among average people. And depending on the vision of the author, rather an epic, romantic, comedic, tragic, or ironic mode is at play within that world.

I would argue that the reaction against the Tolkien Clones has produced a movement towards focusing on history over myth. Basically, a type of mundane fantasy in which there is little magic and myth. Historical fiction set in a secondary world focusing on the excesses of the nobility and the absolute squalor of the peasantry is not something I am especially fond of reading. Though I am a fan of Sword and Sorcery, I prefer the sorcery over the sword every day of the week.

The interplay of myth and history plays a key role in the current debate over the direction of modern fantasy. There seems to be a growing movement towards a brutal, dystopic fantasy which can play out for some readers as nihilistic. But is there something missing from these works? Is the mythic element, which is key to fantasy’s true success and power, missing? I don’t know. I’ve read some of the “brutal” fantasy, but not all of it. I have read Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before. Personally, I think anyone familiar with Herbert’s Dune should be able to figure that one out (to an extent).

But, all of this is really a matter of perspective. What histories do you read? When were they published? What audience are they intended for? How do you “read” fantasy? How do you analyse what you read? All of these questions are important in understanding how an individual author or reader looks at the world and what he/ she reads and writes. Take myself for example. I tend to prefer rather more academic (published by academics from university publishing houses) over popular histories (even though there are some popular histories that are quite good), and I tend to be more of a literary critic when I read. I am more prone to see things as constructions, including history. The events happened, but those events are artificially formed into a narrative that is intended for a specific audience. Take the attitude towards the medieval period. Shortly after the “Middle Ages,” they became the “Dark Ages” to contrast the with old light of “Classical” Rome and the new light of the Renaissance (“rebirth”) and the subsequent Enlightenment. The Romantics’ view of the “Dark Ages” is colored by their rejection of the “Neoclassical” rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the Victorians’ view is a conflict between the two. And let’s not even mention the Modern and Postmodern rejection of anything, everything, and nothing.

Would I want to live in another time period? I don’t know. The 1960s and 1970s sound interesting. The 1920s are a possibility. Would I really want to live during the American Gilded Age, the High Middle Ages, the Pax Augusta, or the reign of Ramesses II? I don’t think so. But when writing fantasy, is things really about when one would like to have lived?

In my earlier rant about research and historical knowledge, I mentioned my strong belief  in experimentation. For fantasy to grow as a genre, it has to be willing to move beyond the shadows of the medieval. It has to be able to dance between myth and history, between utopia and dystopia, between symbol and versimilitude, and between the imagination and the real.

Fantasy set in a secondary world that fully explores a setting inspired by early Plantagenets is just as valuable as a crazy mishmash of cultures and inspirations. But it is the talent and skill of the author that makes each work succeed or fail. Manga does, can fantasy?

 

 

Three Anime Reviews: GunXSword, The Castle in the Sky, and Desert Punk

Here are three brief anime reviews. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Desert Punk(2004, Gonzo) based on Usune Masatoshi’s manga series is about a teenager named Kanta who serves as a mercenary called, obviously, Desert Punk. Through a series of connected but standalone episodes, Kanta becomes more human culminating in a series of events which question everything the audience thinks they know about the erstwhile Desert Punk.

As a character, Kanta is simply grotesque. He is mercenary, greedy, perverted, and psychopathic. His antics are both hilarious and offensive. His actions, particularly towards his apprentice Kosuna and love interest (?) Junko are repellent. That the situation often turns against him is both satisfying and hilarious.

That the series is geared towards a seinen audience should be no impediment to enjoyment. The series finale is, perhaps, one of the best I’ve seen in the revelation of Kanta’s true loyalties and the rebuilding of hope in a landscape of shattered trust.

The setting is suitably postapocalyptic and dystopic, of people willing to do anything and everything to survive. A society drained of hope can only hope to produce Kantas and Junkos.

 

GunXSword (2005 Goro Taniguchi) is similar to Trigun in that a mysterious wanderer travels a colonized world on the brink of collapse. But Van of the Dawn is no Vash the Stampede. Whereas Vash is, at times, frustratingly pacifist, Van is brutal in his pursuit of vengeance. Almost to the point of madness.

I really enjoyed this series. It has a crisp, wonderful animation and excellent voice acting (I watched the dubbed version). The story, in my opinion, is excellent. GunXSword at first seems to be composed of standalone episodes, but this changes with episode 11 when the series becomes far more tied into the overall arc of the series (the defeat of the Claw Man).

The characters are excellent, especially Wendy and Carmen 99. But the whole cast from ally to villain is well realized with  dreams and motivations for what they each do.

My only issue is that, though Van is more violent, he is rather too similar to Vash the Stampede.

 

The Castle in the Sky (1986 Miyazaki) is a delight. Based in part on the Laputa of Gulliver’s Travels, the movie details a young princess’s search for her roots and a young boy’s desire to prove his father’s discovery of the Castle in the Sky as fact. Add into this a wonderful cast of sky pirates, locals, and menacing government agents, the movie is a wonderfully realized adventure.

The animation is delightful and the acting is well done.

The transformation of Laputa from a militaristic, technological castle to a gentle, beautiful floating garden is, I think, a testament to the temporary hold our technology truly has on the world.

Is the movie a little too childish? I don’t know. I really enjoyed it, but some of the more simplistic messages in the film is grating. And I really don’t think the pirates should have been as friendly as they are.

But the visuals make the movie. The scene in the cave where the etherium is is just beautiful. And then there is Laputa itself which is just amazing.