Thoughts on speculative fiction. Join in the conversation on books, television and film. I review everything I read or watch from the world of the imaginative and the fantastic.

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June 5, 2014

A New Scrapyard Ship book by Mark Wayne McGinnis: Realms of Time adds history to the space adventure series

The next book in the Scrapyard Ship series by Mark Wayne McGinnis is out, and first of all, the cover art is incredible. I love it. Get Realms of Time here.

The stakes increase in the fourth Scrapyard Ship book when Earth is threatened, not with destruction per se, but with time altering drones meant to send the entire planet back approximately 100 years. Jason takes action against the drones, only to worsen the situation; the five drones place on five different continents are knocked out of sync, meaning that Earth is divided up into multiple varying time realms. In order to disrupt the drones and return Earth to its correct timeline, Jason and his team need to travel through these time realms, some in the recent past, some millions of years into prehistory, and some in the future.

What does that mean? It means a series beloved for its space travel adventures now meets historical fiction, and new storylines that are detailed, expert and very satisfying. There's still space action to come to the galaxy, where the Allied forces gear up to assault the Craing worlds and end their conquest once and for all, but Realms of Time adds a new flavor to the series. Plus, you still get to see Jason maneuvering through what always appear to be impossible situations until you see his clever solution, the gang's dynamic growing and changing, Mollie developing while remaining amusing as ever, not to mention getting to know Dira a little better.

Fans who've been dying for more of the story get another satisfying piece, gearing up for a resolution. Enjoy!

May 28, 2014

X-Men Days of Future Past [review time]

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, Halle Berry and Peter Dinklage

The verdict is in, and surprisingly enough, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best X-Men movie to date, and that's saying something, given that First Class was a very impressive return for the series.

I didn't think they could top superheroes meet Cuban missile crisis, but I was wrong: what topped it was genocidal AI super-robots that can adapt to any mutant power (thanks to genetic engineering and Mystique's DNA). Why is that good? Well, it borrows perhaps from Terminator, (okay, yeah, maybe a lot), which means a dark dystopian theme and Matrix-esque end of the world visuals, plus it's a fitting return to what X-Men is really all about — humanity's rejection of its own evolution: the mutants.

Days of Future Past opens on a future where the world has essentially been destroyed by a war between humanity and mutants, one where humanity's weapon is the Sentinel, a contracted military weaponized robot with AI, mutant-exclusive targeting and an ability to adapt to counter any mutant's ability. To establish the strength of the Sentinel, a small band of mutants faces off against one, and all of them, no matter how cool and badass their power, get killed. Since we care about some of those characters, like Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), luckily it turns out that Kitty's band of mutants have been evading the Sentinels when she sends someone back in time to deliver warnings of the attacks. None of them are actually dead, and the group rendezvouses with more important named characters: Xavier, Magneto, Storm and Wolverine.

Once the badass invincibility of the enemy is established, the plot is hatched, and it's the same you've come to know from the trailer: Wolverine volunteers to go back in time and stop this future from happening. That's because Kitty's ability to send a consciousness back is limited, and going so far back would destroy the average mind, tearing it physically apart, or something, so Wolverine is the only one who can simultaneously heal his brain as it's being rent asunder. Or something.

Time travel is overdone in general and I winced every time Wolverine had to repeat that he was from the future or assures Xavier and then Magneto that "you sent me," but what was done nicely was the overlap of past and future, where scenes cut back and forth between the 70s and an apocalyptic world some decades (as in less than a century) later. Our 70s gang spend valuable screen time simply grouping together and then trying to track down Mystique and stop her from murdering Bolivar Trask, played by Peter Dinklage, who invented the Sentinels (and it was his murder that allowed Mystique to be captured and her DNA replicated to allow the Sentinels to transform and adapt like she can). After many attempts, which admittedly gets kind of old fast, Xavier isn't getting through to her, and time is running out in the future due to some nonsensical mechanic where the course of events won't be changed until Wolverine wakes up from his dual-consciousness nap in the past, and the future gang are getting picked off and killed by Sentinels, unable to run while Kitty's doing her voodoo thing with Wolverine's body (note: if that makes no sense, I apologize. It's confusing. Maybe go see the movie instead of reading a spoiler-full review).

Where the strength of First Class was the character development and complexity drawn out from Xavier, Erik and Raven, Days of Future Past actually has its strong point in its plot, which is refreshing, and said plot just relies heavily on the dynamic established in the first film. Except that in the ten year gap Xavier's feelings toward Raven have become surprisingly love-triangley, and while he continues to act as a surrogate older brother or guardian to her, he also resents Erik for taking her away from him, getting inside her head and making a killer out of her to fight his, Magneto's, war. That said, if you don't remember First Class or haven't seen it, that whole dynamic might come across as more of a hot mess.

That doesn't mean there's no good character drama, though. From the trailer you may have been wondering, like I was, why James McAvoy seemed to be up walking 'round again as if he's not a paraplegic. Not telling. Suffice to say, young Xavier has more development where that came from, not to mention more struggles with his relationship with Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence. It's all very tragic and puts X2 and X3 in perspective to see these men with their utter bro-mance continually at odds with one another on what should be a theoretical matter but in practice is very bloody (whether to fight a war, humans versus mutants, or to try to live peacefully). Even in the future, you'll get a lamentation from Ian McKellen that their friendship was strained by foolish young passions, but never an actual admission that he was wrong. It's subtle, but it's there. The man ain't changing.

The best moment of the entire thing was hands down Quicksilver's superspeed mischief set to Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce. Evan Peters was silly and hilarious. A deserving addition to the ever-growing cast of mutants.

I'm okay with the ending. There's probably room for debate there but as someone who is very familiar with but not a comic book nerd addict of the X-Men canon, I was quite happy to see Famke Janssen and James Marsden alive and beautiful as ever. Hopefully Cyclops and Jean Grey are alive enough now to make it into the third installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, and hopefully there won't be another apocalypse, because this dystopia was already pretty close to the end of the world as humans know it.

I seem to have made it through an entire review without ranting about any particular flaw. Did I miss something? No one disagrees with me that this was even better than First Class, right? Well if you do, bring it on. Tell me I'm wrong. Oh and if anyone found any plot holes, particularly time travel related plot holes, do tell!

May 26, 2014

The Last Buckaroo — Free today

The latest from J.R. Wright, The Last Buckaroo is free today. Pick it up on Amazon here.

Perfect for the Legend of the Dawn withdrawal I was going through, The Last Buckaroo is more of J.R. Wright doing what comes natural to him: storytelling that’s both classic and contemporary, with a style that’s all his own, but might also harken back to some greats. Pick this one up for the love story, but even more page-turning is the storyteller’s voice that gets stuck in your head (in a good way).

Yancey Burke is the last of his kind, and that makes it hard to make his way in a world that's changing around him. Set in Montana, 1919, even the old West is beginning to modernize and for Yancey, "there were no more frontiers to move on to, no more ridges to cross."

In the here and now, the struggle Yancey faces is being locked up for the murder of Clyde Banyon, an unfair investigation by Sheriff Preston Ames and a stacked trial headed by Judge Jethro Samuels. Luckily there's a pretty redhead in town grappling with her feelings for Yancey and, though he may be an old fashioned buckaroo, Katie Peck is determined to get him off the hook for the crime he did not commit, bringing in rebellious and off the cuff star lawyer Woody Clampett to get the job done, and when that's settled, the question becomes what Yancey Burke is to do with the rest of his life now that jobs such as wrangling cattle and so on are no longer available.

A lovable cast combined with a gripping story make this an all around fun read that's sure to be timeless.

May 20, 2014

Godzilla and the malevolent creatures (2014) [review time]

Godzilla is one of those franchises where no matter how long it's been since the last remake, doubts abound and movie-goers are filled with uncertainty and questioning. Questions like why now? and wait, what do you mean it's actually good? can be overheard in coffee shops and sidewalks everywhere. In this case it's been a while since the last, arguably horrendous, attempt, directed by Roland Emmerich in 1998, and yeah, it is actually kinda good.

Bryan Cranston's character Joe Brody is basically Walter White: Nuclear physicist edition. Loves his kid, loves his wife, lets his crazy obsession destroy his life. When the nuclear power plant at Janjira in Japan is affected by inexplicable, unaccounted for seismic activity, Joe's the guy responsible for admonishing that this isn't an earthquake coming and something's really wrong. He's the expert, the crazy genius, the only guy smart enough to see that something strange and catastrophic is about to happen.

It's probably sounding to you like that thing is Godzilla, right? Wrong. Whether or not it ruined the movie is up for debate all over the internet, but either way, viewers were misled by the title of the film. It's not really as much about Godzilla as you might expect. In order to come up with a smart, complex plot about a giant dinosaur monster crushing cities with his big dino feet, the creators came up with "malevolent creatures" (using IMDB's descriptor for its genius vagueness) for Godzilla to hunt across the globe and kill in a big epic brawl. I still liked it, and I think the trade-off was more plot with more interesting science fictional implications, but I also feel cheated and lied to, given that all of the strange occurrences in the first half of the movie that I thought were the Godzilla were actually these "malevolent creatures," and I don't like feeling stupid.

The story of Godzilla himself is a good one. In 1946 he was awakened by a Russian submarine accident, and the US and Russia knew about it all this time, so (as the trailer will tell you), the US and Russian militaries conducted all of their nuclear tests over the Pacific in an attempt to kill it. They couldn't. All the nukes in the world couldn't kill this giant prehistoric god of all creatures. Humanity is weak and technology pales before nature. I like it!

After all that good storytelling, the dialogue gave way to the military trying to kill Godzilla and the malevolent creatures. Words turn to action, and it's mesmerizing, big action that captures your attention and grabs it again and again just when you think you're going to nod off because what's actually so interesting about dinosaur monsters stepping on buildings?

The good cast had good performances but it’s wasted on one of those films where the screenplay must have drizzled out about two thirds of the way through. Don't get too attached to Bryan Cranston, and don't expect his watered down Walter White to have any material to work with, but obviously the man could do no wrong, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson still looks handsome even when the script fizzles out and he stops talking and instead stares either wide-eyed or catatonically at the destruction of the SF skyline. Who knew Kickass would end up good looking? He totally Neville Longbottom-ed. Elizabeth Olsen followed suit, looking pretty and doing absolutely nothing. So if you were going to see Godzilla because you were excited about the cast, don’t bother. They weren't the main event.

The main event was watching prehistoric parasites and the god of all dinosaurs face off and completely abolish my fave city, San Francisco. Oh yay, another monster fighting movie! I really liked the art direction.

Seriously though, it was kind of all about the visuals. I mean I liked the first half better which was actually about the story and a little bit about science, but in the end, it’s greyscale destruction and the kind of immensity that can only really be conveyed through film, although Percy Bysshe Shelley and George R. R. Martin, for two, have certainly tried. 

What you should expect is Jaws meets Alien and I'm guessing Pacific Rim, but I haven't actually seen it, meets King Kong and Breaking Bad. Without color. I don't recommend that you rent it. Go see it with your friends on the big screen, or not at all, and if you missed it, you missed it. Go rent Kickass, or any of the other aforementioned pictures, instead.

May 8, 2014

X-Men First Class: Will Days of Future Past live up to it?

Whether you're a diehard who never lost the faith or a newcomer to the X-Men film franchise, it's pretty likely that the stunt they pulled with X-Men First Class caught your attention one way or another. Set in 1962, it's visually catchy, by which I mean the costumes and the setting will grab you even in the 30 second TV spot. It's no Mad Men but the styles are a ton of fun. And if the costumes and hairstyles didn't grab you maybe working the Cuban missile crisis into the mix did? Yeah, them be nukes. It was a brave comeback and it worked.

X-Men First Class was an impressive return for the series that had been greatly dwindling in the quality of its characters, story, writing, even aesthetic with the travesty that was Origins: Wolverine or The Wolverine, whichever the hell one I saw, don't ask me. Even X-Men: The Last Stand saw the beginning of a decline for the X-Men series (Don't believe me? Check out how the IMDB ratings dropped between films or the footnote below*). Fans responded to a decline with their votes, but X-Men First Class was an entirely different case. It has the highest IMDB rating of the series at 7.8, which is really, really high, considering films among the top 250 of all time (as voted by users) only have an 8.0. I guess users are harsh critics (the highest rating on all of IMDB is Shawshank Redemption at a mere 9.2 rating. Nothing close to 10 exists).

What makes it good? What saved the franchise? Well I already mentioned the visuals, and I'm glad that finally in the sci-fi/fantasy film world someone caught on that when we want striking visuals we don't mean CGI anymore, we're not impressed by that anymore. Art is character-driven these days and not only did X-Men dress up their characters is stunning 60s styles, they also sketched out their stories and made those much more central, I thought, than the plot, which was fine but not great. The cast also helped. Put Jennifer Lawrence in anything these days and she can carry the whole show herself, but First Class didn't even need her; Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy held their own plenty. And including January Jones in anything personally makes me very, very happy. So a good looking cast.

Now that's not to say First Class was perfect. For one thing, I don't feel the need to ever watch it a second time. I feel like the character-driven nature was a nice turn but it still managed to be drowned out a little bit by the action which they of course had to deliver, otherwise it wouldn't be a superhero film. It's just that Kevin Bacon's villain was very boring, with the exception of the flashbacks to Nazi Germany. It couldn't really be helped. I can't think of a better story for them to have told. The heart of it was where it needed to be: on Xavier's loss of his friend Erik/Magneto, and the schism between mutants and humanity, and between the X-Men and Magneto's clan.

Probably the strongest story managed to be Raven/Mystique's, which is impressive. There's a psychological sketch going on there that does get buried by the action a little bit but it pervaded the film and gave her actions motivation. Actually I think her reasons for joining Magneto were much better fleshed out than Magneto's motivations for turning against Xavier. Sure, we know he's been through a lot and life has been hard for him, poor Fassbender, but it's easy to forget all that with the training montages in the middle and the lovey dovey dialogues he has with McAvoy. He doesn't seem dark or tortured during the middle third of the movie, which is nice — there's little I love more than a compassionate relationship for a character who is suffering and really needs it — but then when he goes all evil it seems rather sudden.

Nitpicking aside, both the rating and the strong points I've identified make it clear that X-Men First Class was a revival. Now what will happen when worlds collide, past and future, old cast and new cast? Well for one thing you get a SUPERCAST! Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence, Jackman, Paquin, Berry, McKellen, Stewart, holy crap, who's excited? Not to mention Peter Dinklage and Ellen Page. What are they thinking? They're gonna give us all heart attacks. But as we learned with Valentine's Day and Movie 43, it really doesn't matter how many A listers you throw in there, if it's nothing but a gimmick, it's not going to do anything for the quality if there's no quality there. Yikes. Now I'm starting to worry. Maybe too many celebrities is a sign of doom.

So here's the trailer.

It looks funny. Big. Epic. I'm hoping there will be an emphasis on characters over action in this one but seeing Wolverine as the team leader has me pretty worried. There was so much they could have done with that character, and instead they gave us two mindless action flicks that weren't worth watching. I'm not done lamenting that. And to be honest they've always had a super cast to work with, this is nothing new, so if they don't use that talent properly, we may be in for yet another failure.

So what do you think will happen when the old series collides with the new? First Class was a damn good start to a reboot but there may be some cause for concern that Days of Future Past is going to slide into old bad habits. Too much action and too many one liners. Bad writing. Underdeveloped characters that had oh so much potential. Are you afraid or are you rejoicing? Leave me a comment and let me know. Maybe ease my fears a little bit.

*What kind of blogger would I be if I made you do your own research? Here's the footnote: X-Men (2000) has an IMDB rating of 7.4, X2 (2003) has 7.5, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) sunk to a 6.8, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) has a 6.8, and The Wolverine (2013) has a 6.8. That's actually a fairly good rating (6.8), despite that the Wolverine movie I saw was crap, but the point is there was a decline. The point is, X-Men First Class is way back at up 7.8, and the new enterprise managed after many failures to rekindle its original quality.