Monthly Archives: November 2014

‘City & City’ takes police procedural to the next surreal level

“If Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler’s love child were raised by Franz Kafka, the writing that emerged might resemble … The City and The City.” – Los Angeles Times

The above quote is printed on the front cover of my copy of China Mieville’s The City & The City. I use it here because it’s a pretty dead-on representation of the book.

The bizarre landscape of sister cities Beszel and Il Qoma and the unusual political situation feel Dick-ensian. That ability of Kafka to mix the absurd and the dreaded permeates the tale. And while I really only know Chandler by reputation – I’m not much of a mystery guy – the tale of a smart detective who is in way over his head in a murder case that too many powerful people want to go away seems it would be right up Ray’s alley.

But beyond that … how do I describe The City & The City? It’s a pretty basic police procedural at first glance: A young woman is killed, jurisdictional issues come into play, the evidence trail is followed, etc. But there’s also an East Berlin/West Berlin cold war-type situation, yet no physical wall exists between the cities. The division is maintained by Breech, which initially appears to be some combination of dementors and the LAPD. And to this point, I haven’t mentioned unseeing, the secret maybe-it’s-real-maybe-it’s-not city of Orciny and the invasion by a species that seems to be half swordfish, half ape.

OK, so that last part was made up (but now the swordfish-ape picture is in my head). Mieville has created such a unique bureaucracy and setting for his detective story that it’s really hard to drop a quickie review and do his book justice.

And maybe that says more about why you should read this book than I ever could.

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‘Mockingjay’ is great … except for the one part that $#%@s up the big picture

Katniss takes a moment with Gale.

Katniss takes on the mantle of revolutionary.

(There will be spoilers. Seems I shouldn’t have to warn anyone about that, but there you go.)

I entered the first of the Mockingjay films with a bit of trepidation. The snippets of reviews I had read were good, not great, tending to note that it felt like everything was being dragged out so that book three could be made into movies three and four. Anytime one book gets split into more than one movie, there’s the potential for that issue, and it was a concern I had when the split was announced.

I’m not sure what film the reviewers were watching, but apparently they were talking about another Mockingjay. I thought Catching Fire felt rushed and left too much out, nullifying some of the emotional impact of the story. As far as scope goes, Mockingjay is a much larger story with a much more delicate balance with what’s playing out internally for Katniss and for all of Panem. The foundation of that larger story is threefold: First, Katniss stepping up from just being the face of revolution and becoming the Che Guevara of Panem; second, the lengths both political heavyweights – President Snow and President Coin – will go to manipulate Everdeen for their own ends; third, the Katniss-Peeta dynamic. For the most part, Mockingjay Part I nails all of that.

For the most part. Until the filmmakers went and fucked up the political game in one foolish stroke.

One of the central conundrums in the Mockingjay book isn’t if evil President Snow will get his, but if President Coin might not be just as evil as Snow. Some of that plays out in her interactions with Katniss, some of it plays out in Coin’s larger decisions in the fight against Snow. But some of it comes down to some very specific moments in the third book. Is Coin the one who drops the bombs on the healers and children in the square of the Capital City? Is she responsible for Prim’s death? In the book, Snow insinuates that is the case, and Katniss at some level believes him, not so much because of Snow’s promise that he will always be honest with her, but because of what Katniss knows about the military capabilities of District 13 and the flaws she already has perceived in Coin’s character. But in the book, it doesn’t all ride on Katniss having to buy into the events surrounding that one moment. There are other hints regarding Coin’s duplicity, including the implication that, when the Capital attacks during Katniss’s first visit to a field hospital, it isn’t the Snow’s forces at all, but District 13 soldiers in stolen Capital jets, killing their own in an effort to push Katniss over the brink and into the role of revolutionary leader. At the very least, the suggestion is made that Coin may have leaked the information about where and when Katniss would be to draw the attention of Snow and the Capital forces.

That’s essential to Mockingjay. It’s vital. It’s importance cannot be underestimated. As readers put Coin on trial in their minds, that’s a key piece of evidence against the president of District 13. And in one quick, unnecessary scene, the filmmakers blow that. They actually show Snow ordering the strike on the hospital, and show that he received the information via his own surveillance network. The ambiguity is snuffed out. In the context of that part of the movie, it’s a small thing. In the larger context of the series, it undercuts a huge chunk of what author Suzanne Collins is attempting to accomplish. One of the major themes of the Hunger Games trilogy is use and abuse of power, how even the good guys can make bad choices, even if for very good reasons, and what that says about the good guys’ character. In the book, there’s uncertainty about Snow’s allegations, but the eye test makes Coin look very fishy, at least. Now, that’s been undone. If the filmmakers are going to make Coin look bad, there’s no longer a list of evidence that exists to makes that case. Now it will all really fall on one moment, that attack in the Capital square near the end of the book.

Will that be enough? Will it work for the movie, even if they’re not following the book’s template? Stay tuned …

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All in on ‘Arrow’

If you've been a bad boy, you don't want to see this coming at you in a dark alley.

If you’ve been a bad boy, you don’t want to see this coming at you in a dark alley.

I had a couple of buddies who are bigger comics geeks than me tell me that I really needed to check out Arrow. I hemmed and hawed for a while, as I am not a fan of many things D.C. outside of Batman.

But since I had periodic gaps while I was waiting for Game of Thrones discs from Netflix, I went and streamed the first two seasons of Arrow. As this went on over a period of a couple of months, I started to realize that I was letting GoT discs sit because I had to see the next episode of the adventures of Oliver McQueen and his pals.

Is it Game of Thrones quality? Hells naw. We’re talking the CW here, so let’s not get carried away. That’s not what Arrow is, nor what it aspires to be.

But when I compare it to another CW superhero drama, Smallville, there’s no comparison. Arrow is head-and-shoulders above the Man of Steel offering. Smallville never seemed to have a grasp of what the larger story should be over time, other than to drag out his origin story. Their “Oh shit, they’ve graduated high school … so now we have Smallville community college” moment was just one example of that ineptitude, as well as the abrupt evolution of Lana into a special being of her own, which was the point where I abandoned the show.

Arrow has a great overarching enemy – the League of Assassins – as well as a much more solid core group of actors than Smallville with Stephen Amell as the titular hero, David Ramsey as sidekick/war hero Diggle, Emily Bett Rickards as Felicity and even Willa Holland as McQueen’s sister Thea, who is starting to shed her the-next-Paris-Hilton persona into a true player among Starling City’s arrow-slinging heavyweights. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it does a nice job of layering the story, revealing key points only when absolutely necessary and taking the narrative to unexpected places.

The evolution of the individual storylines works, as well. Oliver’s transition from stone-cold killer avenging his dad to hero trying to save a city when he couldn’t save his best friend was natural and necessary. John Diggle struggles with the possibilities of what his injury or death might do to the woman he loves and his new child. And while Katie Cassidy’s lack of acting skills in anything other than crying sometimes hurts the character Laurel at times, the idea that she needs to quit being that simpering addict and take matters into her own hands has been one of the more interesting arcs of Season 3, as well as offering some potential for growth beyond that.

I look forward to seeing how Arrow proceeds from here. Here’s hoping they can keep this train on the rails.

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Think you need to see ‘Dumb and Dumber To’? Think again

I hope they collected enormous checks for this crap.

I hope they collected enormous checks for this crap.

You think when you show your son movies like Robin Hood, Men in Tights, Airplane!, Ace Venture, Pet Detective, Spaceballs and so on, you’re bonding over silliness and fun, as well as passing along a humorous legacy.

Then your son sees the commercial for Dumb and Dumber To and won’t stop talking about it. And you realize you only have yourself to blame.

My son, daughter and I trekked to the theaters to see Dumb and Dumber To. Afterward, my son wanted to recite line after line, laughing again at his favorite parts. But his sister and I weren’t playing along, and the gag rehashing instead turned into a bitter argument between my daughter and son about funny and/or less than humorous moments from the film.

So I guess what I’m saying is, Dumb and Dumber To divides families.

The situation is more dire than that, though. It’s not funny. At all.

Of course, you may say, “Adam, that’s just your opinion.” Well, yes, on the one hand. On the other, I have a half-full theater of people who would support me on that one. We all sat there together, for the most part not laughing, even cracking smiles. I’ve been part of audiences that laughed our collective asses off: The Hangover, Pineapple Express, South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, There’s Something About Mary. Hell, man, even Disorderlies.

There was none of that with Dumb and Dumber To. It was mostly collective boredom, a unity in our desire to see it end and be on our way.

Don’t watch Dumb and Dumber To. You’ll wish you hadn’t.

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‘Spectacular Now’ revels in its lack of spectacularness

These two are great together in "The Spectacular Now," which makes "Divergent," in retrospect, seem even more disappointing.

These two are great together in “The Spectacular Now,” which makes “Divergent,” in retrospect, seem even more disappointing.

My wife and I watched The Spectacular Now with our only-a-month-from-being-a-teen daughter. My wife missed the early part of the movie, and, upon sitting down with us for a few minutes, asked me if Sutter (Miles Teller) was “the good time guy.” I nodded, and the two of us mentioned a few names of people from our past who used to “live in the now” like Sutter.

My daughter listened, then said, “I don’t know anyone like that.” My response: “You will.”

The discussion went further than that, but that was the main reason I watched The Spectacular Now with my tween. She’s getting to that age where her social life is going to involve more boy-girl interaction, and not too long from now, she’ll be in high school where some of those interactions will likely involve alcohol. My daughter has always had a pretty good head on her shoulders, so I’m not reacting out of fear. More out of a sense of reality of what is ahead, as well as simultaneously trying to protect her but not send her out into the world unaware of the problems she and her friends could face.

So as a parent, I wholeheartedly recommend this film. It’s an opportunity to open up discussion about some difficult issues – teenage drug use, addiction, co-dependence, etc.

As a film fan, I’d also recommend this flick. I don’t know that it breaks any new ground. It’s well made, with director James Ponsoldt trusting his material and his two leads – the “this guy’s going to be a big leading man someday” performance by Teller and the nuanced acting by Shailene Woodley – to tell the tale, eschewing tear-inducing ballads welling up at just the right time and over-the-top performances that mark other similar films.

Such as Rachel Getting Married. Don’t get me wrong, Anne Hathaway’s turn as the addict Kym whose alcohol problems end up resulting in the untimely death of her brother is solid and maybe her best. But the film is a river of tears, a lake of screaming and oceans of big, emotional – and often uncomfortably public – moments. Rachel Getting Married suffers for it, turning what could have been an interesting meditation on addiction and family dysfunction into a constant blare of grating in service of the Next Big Emotional Moment, a movie which makes it nearly impossible to come away from without any reaction other than mostly being glad that you don’t live next door to Kym and her family.

Spectacular Now feels more real. The relationship between Sutter and Aimee happens almost by accident, just two high school kids who start talking and then find they really like each other. Sutter pursues Aimee while always keeping an eye on his ex, who left him after starting to realize just how much of a mess he truly is. He and his mom fight, but it’s more bickering with undertones of hostility than screaming and raging. When Sutter begins to realize he is an alcoholic douche who his turning out much like his alcoholic douche dad, he pushes away Aimee, blames himself, starting to truly fear what his future holds. Aimee won’t let go, can’t let go, herself the daughter of a dead addict, a girl who loves a guy and can’t see the forest for the trees.

I’m not saying the movie will be a classic by any means, but Spectacular Now ends up being more than the sum of its parts, more mature than many similar efforts, more heart-wrenching because of the viewer’s fondness for all of the characters involved. And for that, I salute it.

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‘Game of Thrones’ pays off, sometimes despite itself

Why, exactly, am I supposed to care about Theon Greyjoy?

Why, exactly, am I supposed to care about Theon Greyjoy?

After mentioning to a buddy of mine about how much I was enjoying Game of Thrones despite certain reservations I was having, he went off on a rant about the general lack of quality in the fantasy arena, whether on the page or on-screen, how mature consumers of fantasy were too often out of luck, forced to read books for kids or seek satisfaction in other genres. As he wound down and admitted my concerns about Game of Thrones were valid, he asked me to name one other fantasy franchise that is doing it better.

He had me stumped on that one.

Because when Game of Thrones is on its game, it’s a whole lotta fun. The general antics of the Lannister family, particularly Tyrion, are a wonderful representation of the incestuous courts of Europe of previous centuries, a constant whirl of gossip, lies and back-stabbing – with the occasional bloody, out-and-out front-stabbing as well – that is the real war behind the grand battles fought in fields and keeps. Arya Stark’s journey from eager kid to burgeoning revolutionary has been well mapped, and she is a survivor in a family that has done its best to get itself killed off. And, best of all, the messianic rise of Daenerys Targaryen from an afterthought in a royal family in exile to the mother of dragons, freer of the slaves and leader of what is about to become the most terrifying and dominating army in Westeros (at this point, I should probably note I’m only at the end of season 3, so season 4 is not in play for this piece).

The problem is all of the boring bullshit you have to put up with to get to the good stuff. Sansa Stark is never interesting on her own, occasionally becoming a worthy diversion when she is swept into someone else’s drama, such as her marriage to Tyrion. Yes, she represents the royal child raised to marry into a match that will serve some political scheme, which makes her important as a symbol, but it also makes her wholly uninteresting as a character. I have a hard time caring about Stannis Baratheon’s storyline, in large part because it’s mostly him acting inconsistently while the red witch and his right-hand man bicker like a couple of girls in the junior high bathroom. Plus, I honestly don’t believe he’ll rise to power, so it’s increasingly difficult to care what schemes the Plankton of Westeros has going on. I cheered during the “Red Wedding” because now I never have to hear Rob Stark whine, grouse and pout again. Rob was dull and managed to make the wrong, most self-destructive decision nearly every time, and it’s a shame his head wasn’t chopped of instead of his daddy’s. And why, God, why am I still forced to watch the misadventures of Theon Greyjoy? So far, all he has contributed to the show is the supposed death of the youngest Stark boys and that “Dude, it’s your sister” moment when he feels up Yara. My time is being wasted whenever the story focuses on him.

But in the end, the big-picture payoff continues to be worth it, even if the journey sometimes gets in the way. So I am hitched to the fate of Westeros, for good or ill.

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