31 December 2015

Books: A Man Called Ove By Fredrik Backman (2014)

“Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse (especially for the people who can’t read the signs). People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time? Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, Ove’s very ordered life begins to unravel. “

The book had me at “curmudgeon”, something that I guess I’m kind of one. But while Ove reminds me of myself, he also reminds me of my grandfather, a man who seemed out of time as well. But Ove, in the book, is only 59 and is living in our modern world of the internet. But he can’t seem to understand why people can’t fix bicycles, or bleed radiators, or read signs that clearly state “vehicular traffic is prohibited in the residential area.” Then there is the cat, the one who shows up out of nowhere and continues to stare at Ove, as if he owed money to the feline.

Yes, A Man Called Ove is comical and heartwarming, as it features a vibrant woman named Parvaneh, a pregnant Iranian woman who tries her hardest not to dislike Ove (which, of course, irritates him to no end) who is right out of every Lifetime movie ever made, but Swedish author Fredrik Backman (translated by Henning Koch) also takes us on journey where we are made to think about who we are as humans, and how we want to live our lives. 

Also, as well, how we cope with loss, because Ove really is the epitome for those whom have tried to live a fair and steady life of doing what’s right, only to beset by many trials and tribulations. Over the years, he has been conned, ripped off and harassed. Saddest of all is the bus accident that left his wife, Sonja, the woman he adores more than anything in the world, paralyzed and their unborn child dead.  But our Volvo-loving curmudgeon is not that cranky as we are lead to believe –as it just takes Parvaneh and her family to reawaken Ove’s sense of doing the right thing.

It’s a quirky (but not in a bad way) and very charming novel. It’s has a deceptively simple premise that some may call too simple, but one I found to be perfect on this late December night.

50 Books I Read in 2015

Reading has always been my salvation. when I began to seriously dedicate my life to novels, around my freshman year of high school, I did it because I a social misfit. I seemed not to fit into any particular subculture with in my family or friends. I'm often reminded of the tales my mother would tell about bringing four kids up under the age of ten when my dad died. Apparently, she could set me in the corner with my cars and there I would stay until she could get back to me. I was the one kid of her four that sort of stayed out of trouble. 

But maybe that's just how I view it.

When I started 2015, I did not set a plan on how many books I would read, but I had this wild thought of reading fifty-two books; one a week. I got an early and quick start back in January, when I read six books in one month (I had started The Martian in the last days of December, but is added to 2015 totals). That really set the course for the rest of the year. 

Still, I knew that there was little chance of me getting to fifty-two mostly because I would be in Portland, where filming on the Jay Bell book Something Like Summer was taking place. Helping work on the film, with those long days and exhausted days-off when not much could be accomplished, I let that idea go. As a matter of fact, I did not read a book while I was there. 

But when I returned to LA, I discovered my housemate had done something I asked him to do, which was remove the cable box from my room. This just left me with Hulu and Netflix to watch shows on. It also meant I could not be distracted by TV. So the rush to finish line began at the end of September. 

So here we are, New Years Eve and I'm talking about fifty books I read this year. So as much as September delayed me, I still completed close to the mark. The question is, will I do it for 2016? I laugh a bit, as I'm not sure. In someways, reading has overtaken my life. I do little, mostly because of money. My car grows older, with parts starting to fall off like melting icebergs, and I often wonder if today or tomorrow, the old Focus will give up the ghost. 

I live, or exist, for each day. But I move slowly, like spilled syrup down the cupboard wall. I look forward to putting this year behind me, though. The movie making was the only real highlight of the year, as I have two people struggling with Situations, and lost a dear friend. I have a job which I hate, so I'm looking to 2016 as the year of a NEW job, one where I'm valued and one were I can be happy. 

But reading, like every breath I take, is what makes me go on. I love it, I adore it, and I live it.

Happy New Years. And away we go...

01. The Martian by Andy Weir
02. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
03. Methuselah’s Children by Robert Heinlein
04. Golden Son By Pierce Brown
05. The Man Who Folded Himself By David Gerrold
06. Foundation By Isaac Asimov
07. Swan Song By Robert McCammon
08. The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein
09. The Lies of Locke Lamora By Scott Lynch
10. Red Seas Under Red Skies By Scott Lynch
11. Mort by Terry Pratchett
12. Reaper Man By Terry Pratchett
13. Soulmusic by Terry Pratchett
14. Wee Free Men By Terry Pratchett
15. A Hat Full of Sky By Terry Pratchett
16. Wintersmith By Terry Pratchett
17. I Shall Wear Midnight By Terry Pratchett
18. Willful Child by Steven Erickson
19. Holy Cow By David Duchovny
20. The Fifth Heart By Dan Simmons
21. The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy
22. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
23. The Rebirths of Tao by Wesely Chu
24. Hogsfather by Terry Pratchett
25. These Are The Voyages: Star Trek: TOS: Season One By Marc Cushman
26. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August  By Claire North
27. Boo By Neil Smith
28. Finders Keepers By Stephen King
29. Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
30. The Fold By Peter Clines
31. MagicNet By John DeChancie
32. Time Salvager By Wesley Chu
33. Hollow City By Ransom Riggs
34. Secondhand Souls By Christopher Moore
35. Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs
36. Doctor Who: Human Nature By Paul Cornell
37. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt
38. Doctor Who: City of Death By Douglas Adams & James Goss
39. Ghost Story By Peter Straub (re-read)
40. The Shepherd’s Crown By Terry Pratchett
41. City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
42. The Oversight By Charlie Fletcher
43. Wolf In White Van By John Darnielle
44. Star Wars: Lost Stars By Claudia Gray
45. Avenue of Mysteries By John Irving
46. The Slade House By David Mitchell
47. The Silent End By Samuel Sattin
48. The Bone Clock By David Mitchell
49. Evil Genius By Catherine Jinks
50. A Man Called Ove By Fredrik Backman

28 December 2015

Books: Evil Genius By Catherine Jinks (2005)

At the local library, I picked up Evil Genius for .50 about 6-7 months ago. I was aware of this book, released in 2005, because there has been a lot of Young Adult books published since the success of Harry Potter that carried the same basic themes of some boy (very rarely, girl) with extra special powers. But this series actually seems to be closer in theme to Artemis Fowl series (featuring an anti-hero) than Harry Potter.

“Cadel Piggott has a genius IQ and a fascination with systems of all kinds. At seven, he was illegally hacking into computers. Now he's fourteen and studying for his World Domination degree, taking classes like embezzlement, misinformation, forgery, and infiltration at the institute founded by criminal mastermind Dr. Phineas Darkkon. Although Cadel may be advanced beyond his years, at heart he's a lonely kid. When he falls for the mysterious and brilliant Kay-Lee, he begins to question the moral implications of his studies for the first time. But is it too late to stop Dr. Darkkon from carrying out his evil plot?”

While not original, this first novel in a trilogy by Australian writer Catherine Jinks, is a bit dark, but engrossing. It draws the reader into exploring the sometimes fine line between good and evil, between giving everything to impress people and not asking any questions as to what they will do with your knowledge (the old “I have no control over the use of my creations. No responsibility” factor). Cadel wants to be the best, he knows he’s the smartest person in the room (in his mind) but he’s still a good person on the inside and learns (way too late) that he’s being exploited and decides to turn the table on the people who would use him for evil.

The book is recommended to teens and up, and I think it’s a good idea to follow that notion, mostly for many instances of death, which I found (bizarrely) treated in a rather facetious way. It makes me wonder in many ways why these types of books are geared towards kids when they have very adult content. It’s not that I’m in way conservative or think books should be banned, but I do think some books blur the line between teens/kids/adults due to the fact that today it is profitable for writers to pen books in this genre. 

Then again, this is a great book for folks who think villains (even these James Bond style ones portrayed here) are more fun and interesting than the hero.

Postnote: I will admit I read this book because I knew it would be easy, and that I wanted to add to my list of books read in 2015 to its record high. But now, I guess, I’ll need to read the other two. The more I try to stay away from series books, the more I get dragged back into them.

26 December 2015

The Force Awakens -We've Seen This Before, Right?

I know many think I’m a curmudgeon and that I can no longer enjoy something without criticizing and pointing out its flaws. And while perhaps there is a nugget of truth to that, when I do take something to task, I have (what I think is) a logical reason. And Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the reason for this post.

Part of my problem with Episode VII revolves around them lifting so many elements from Episode IV (also known as the original film that started it all). I’m sure Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy, director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (with help from original writer Michael Arndt) knew that this latest chapter had to surpass the prequel trilogy in many ways. And to be truthful, I think they succeeded because the film is entertaining. But by returning to the tried and true formula of original film, The Force Awakens becomes the latest Hollywood tent-pole film to suffer the indignity of being a reboot and also a remake. This hybrid style of appeasing to older fans and (more importantly, newer ones) gives this newest film a mishmash feelings of great nostalgia (look, it’s Han Solo, Chewie, Leia, and the Falcon!) for what’s come before, but is also sort of empty of style and elegance needed to be a true continuation. 

Of course, life does have a tendency to repeat itself. Looking at Episodes one through three and then superimposing Episodes four through six, you do notice the same basic structure. Now add The Force Awakens and you see the familiarity of themes exposed again – a lost droid who ends up stranded on a desert planet who carries a secret message, an apparently orphaned girl who lives there and who possess special powers, and who “coincidentally” runs into that droid, we also have a cocky pilot, a conflicted young man who’s allegiance is somewhat questionable, a villain that wears a mask, and somebody whom has a surprising family heritage. I think that in George Lucas’ research on mythology he noticed these themes and applied them to his first six Star Wars films; and by doing them in reverse order, you don’t notice them too much. But out of the first six, only The Empire Strikes Back appears to be the most different from the rest. That film, considered by many to be the best, is creatively unlike than the first one; it also more distinctive than third one, which (for better or worse), appeared designed to end the series on a happy note without much further thought on what would happen the next day. When Return of the Jedi ended no one (and I even think Lucas himself) wanted to figure how the universe would recover from this long, deadly, and destructive conflict. Restoration, while always interesting, appears to be much more difficult to translate to the screen (that’s all the boring stuff?).

Also, if anyone has read the Expanded Universe books (now known as “Legends” due to the new movie franchise), it became clear that the victory over the moon of Endor was a prelude to more conflict, more pain, more death. And as much as Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, C3PO, and R2D2 are heroes, the loss of life and universal destruction haunted them as they became the fulcrum in the New Republic.

I don’t think any aspect of the old EU will make it into these next three films, mostly because Disney wants to own the whole kit and kadoodle, so the old EU was abandoned and a new one created. Using any elements from that previous one would mean fees and residuals would need to be paid to those writers. But a lot of stuff goes unanswered, as the TFA put out a number of new questions. Most, of course, will not be answered in the films. That aspect will fall to the new novels that will be released (and already come out). But I’m unsure if most of the broad-based viewing audience this film is squarely driven to will care to read the novels (and we can argue if all –or any questions- really need to be answered).

The movie does give us a Cliff Notes version of events since ROJ (and for movie makers, this type of "laying the pipe" is one of the most difficult aspects of film making; how much exposition is needed to make sense to the viewing audience without boring them and “taking” them out of the narrative), but I was surprised on how much was glared over. I will concede, though, that unlike the original trilogy, the people behind this new one are aware they’re making a trilogy, so they don’t need to really explain too much in the first one, which just is the first act in a three act play. So while some of the glossing is to be expected (and something that did bother me at times, but that’s my own personal issue), I still felt we needed a bit more.

But let me get back to the main topic here: why does this film rewind and repeat so many aspects of A New Hope and (somewhat) The Empire Strikes Back? Why does the film barely acknowledge that 32 years have flown by since ROJ? Why does it appear that the narrative of those intervening decades –as the New Republic began restoration- scarcely seem advanced since the destruction of the Galactic Empire? And while I’m assuming that in the next two films there will give some explanation of why the New Republic appeared to know nothing about (or aware, and allowed its existence) of the Resistance, or how the First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire, there is no guarantee they will, because, again, most of this will fall to the ancillary novels; and (most likely) the novelization which comes out (and least on physical book form) three weeks after the release of the film.

And while some may be driven to do this (like me), I do believe some of the above statements are important story points that should’ve been addressed in this film. They are not, as some will argue, superfluous exposition. Thus you should not force your high paying ticket film watchers to go out and buy supplemental materials because you’re making films for the world of ADHD kids. 

Why is The Force Awakens really a remake and not a continuation? My first conclusion comes to the simple fact that there is a culture of fear that runs Hollywood (ever present in its one hundred plus history, but more so now than ever before). Granted, A New Hope was by far not an original film. It was an update, a reboot before the word came into existence, of the old 1930s Flash Gordon serials, with ancient Greek mythology and samurai legends thrown in for good measure. But since nearly 40 plus years had passed since the Hollywood studios were making them, it succeeded and the rebirth of the space opera (once regulated to just science fiction novels and B films of the 1950s, and Star Trek) began. But Hollywood’s fear of trying something new is, well, not new either. 

On occasions, however, they do something right. While the original Star Wars was a huge battle for Lucas, its success (despite it being a mishmash of old ideas) proved that if done right, a film series can be born. But while The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith were financially successful, it’s tepid response by the fans made the idea of doing a third trilogy a bit off-putting, which is why Lucas probably decided it was time to sell off his creation to Disney in 2012 for a cool $4 billion dollars. Now they would have to deal with the ever fickle fans when the Mouse House announced their purchase -plus telling the world a new trilogy would launch in 2015, a decade after the last film.

But here lies the problem, so to speak. How does the Star Wars Cinematic Universe move on ten years after the last picture (though set decades before the original trilogy) and three decades after the last film featuring the original cast? It was obvious that Episodes VII (at least) would need to spend some time exploring what had happened to Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han Solo, and the rest in the thirty years since Endor; this, mainly, because fans would want them to be in it. Plus The Force Awakens would need to introduce new characters and new situations to its CU to fill out the trilogy. 

But Hollywood being Hollywood becomes conflicted with how to do this. While there have been many men who’ve played James Bond over its long 52 history, when  George Lazenby succeed Sean Connery , who then returned for one more outing, before Roger Moore assumed the role, the makers did not feel a need to start all over again. And while this continued with Timothy Dalton taking over for Moore, and then Pierce Bronson for him, again the makers felt no need to reboot the franchise. They essentially believed the audience was smart enough to understand that a new actor just assumed the role and moved on. When Eon finally decided to reboot the franchise, when Daniel Craig assumed the role in 2006, it was already forty years old. I believe it was a smart move that proved financially successful. It did indeed open the franchise to a newer, broader audience it probably needed.

But then on the opposite end, we have Sony and their Spider-Man franchise and their belief that fans would get confused seeing a new actor play Spider-Man. After three films starring Tobey McGuire, Sony decided it needed a new actor to play the web slinger. But instead of just replacing the actor and moving on like with James Bond, the studio felt compelled to reboot the series again, and so in less than eight years, gave us not only a new actor playing Spider-Man but a new (though still the same) origin story. The fact that both The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2 are essentially remakes of the first two films was not lost on reviewers and fans alike. Stuck with a brand they did not want to give back to Marvel, Sony said they were going to reboot the franchise again. But then they did agree to work with Marvel this time and give the fans a Spider-Man that will closely resemble the original comic book. And while they claim this new film, due in 2017, is not an origin story, I none the less believe somehow, someway, they’ll shoehorn it in again. 

Star Trek was up next. After some ten films, six featuring the original series cast and four featuring The Next Generation cast, the Gene Roddenberry franchise was rebooted in 2009 with new take on the original series. While one can criticize the use of action over the Star Trek’s usual philosophical ideals, by setting it in an alternate timeline seemed like a good idea; it got around a lot of the franchises continuity issues. As a matter of fact, I complemented them on being this creative. It may not be “my” Star Trek, and the Into Darkness may have sucked, but the reboot film itself worked for me. 

When Universal decided to revive their Jurassic Park franchise after critical drubbings that The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III (which was released in 2001) got, they decided that they would go the remake/reboot way. For all of its financial success, Jurassic World is Jurassic Park. Yes it pays homage to the original film (and somewhat ignoring the second film and not mentioning the third), but ends up following the same premise as the first, featuring nearly the same characters with the same character beats. It fails to capture the same deft of wonderment of the original, though and there is no inventiveness, no real wit or suspense; but I will admit it is entertaining, mostly because leads Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt seem to be enjoying themselves.

And that returns me back to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film is a virtual remake of A New Hope and borrows heavy elements from The Empire Strikes Back. Clearly, though, Harrison Ford is in his element here, playing to the long –time fans who’ve always enjoyed his role as Han Solo (let us also not discount that out of the three main actors, Ford has been the most successful and appeals to a wide, varying audience). But Carrie Fisher is woefully underused here –though she’ll undoubtedly be part of Episode VIII and IX. I just hope we see more of her in these later films.  The new cast, led by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, are wonderful. Even Adam Driver’s emo take on Kylo Ren is great. And yes, the film is just as entertaining as Jurassic World.

But I do feel it was unnecessary to assume the audience could not get into a new trilogy without going back and retelling A New Hope’s story all over again. They could’ve easily accomplished re-introducing the entire cast, along with all the new ones -with the same basic plot of the rise of the First Order from the ashes of the Galactic Empire, the mystery surrounding the often silly looking Supreme Leader Snoke- without coming up with a third Death Star like weapon, without having said new characters be replacements/amalgamations of the beloved originals, and without resorting to the smoke and mirrors aspect that surrounds this film. After all, doing a new Star Wars trilogy has lesser risk of failure than most other film franchises, despite the issues that plagued the prequel series. Disney really had a chance here to make something original, but succumbed to bureaucratic convenience that the best way to reintroduce the Star Wars franchise was remake it. 

So, in a way, history does repeat itself.