Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Hererra (Book Review)

Signs Preceding the End of the World
By Yuri Herrera
Translated by Lisa Dillman
Published by And Other Stories, 2015
Ebook Price: $7.99

Makina is a young woman that works as a switchboard operator for the only phone in a small Mexican town. As such, she knows everything there is to know about the town, from marriage troubles to the activities of the drug dealers that rule over the residents. She keeps on everyone's good side by remaining neutral in everything. She delivers any message she gets, she doesn't get too curious about people's business or try to blackmail anyone. She just can't help overhearing all their conversations. Makina says she is "the door, not the one who walks through it."

The main plot of the book concerns Makina's brother. He had heard that their father had left some land in the United States to the two siblings so he leaves Mexico to investigate whether it's true or not. He writes a couple of letters back home but then the letters stop and he's never heard from again. Makina crosses the border illegally with the help of her town drug lords to discover the fate of her missing brother. She's going to have to carry a "package" for delivery in the US.

I don't really know what to think about this book. For one thing, it's so SHORT, you don't really get time to search for a deeper meaning in it. I get it, it's a "quest" book. Makina's brother is missing. She goes to find him. Along the way, she gets to see varying abuse of illegal immigrants, her "compatriots" by "Anglos"....referring, I guess,  to White Americans. I really don't see it as a quest or an "epic journey" in as much as it's pretty easy for Makina to cross the border. She gets on a big inner tube and just floats across the Rio Grande.

And once she's there, nobody really bugs her or questions her except for an evil white rancher. In this book, illegal immigrants are good. The authorities that are trying to catch them or don't want them here are more vile than the drug lords running her town. Yeah, this "novel" wears its politics on its bleeding sleeve. Even the translator gets in on the action by using such terms as "migration, immigration, transnationalism, transculturalism, and language hybridity (?)". Hmm, she didn't mention ILLEGAL immigration. To me, I would be hard pressed to see this "novel" as anything other than a thinly disguised liberal agenda dossier.

Now, the book cover does say Herrera is "Mexico's greatest novelist". Wow, if this is the best, I'd hate to see their "average" or "worst" writer.

I guess you would enjoy this book if you think white people are evil, illegal immigrants are good and not the uneducated dregs of an entire county, and following the laws of our country are stupid.

You can read this book in about an hour. It is followed by pages and pages of the translator's afterword, thank yous to the thousands it seems people that made the book possible, and a catalog of other books by the same publisher. These pages actually seemed of more weight and importance than the novel itself.

My Grade: D

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho (Book Review)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches
by Matsuo Basho
Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa
Published by Penguin Books, 1966
Price: $9.95

Matsuo Basho was a Japanese poet born near Kyoto in 1644 to a minor samurai family. His family wasn't the most well off. His dad earned a living teaching writing to local children. Basho's big break was the fact that he became the companion to Yoshitada, the local lord's son. Consequently, he shared in whatever education Yoshitada received for free, which introduced him to the world of poetry. When Yoshitada died young at the age of 25, Basho kind of lost direction and interest in serving Yoshitada's father and took off for Kyoto where for the next five years he studied Chinese and Japanese literature and calligraphy in a temple. Soon after he began to publish his own poetry in anthologies.

As he matured he studied Zen and tried to gradually do away with material objects in his life. Some of his fans built him a small house by a river where he would meditate and write poetry. He succeeded at getting rid of most of his stuff but in the end he realized that no matter how many material objects he ejected out of his life, he still had one thing left....his "self". He started a series of long journeys across Japan to erase his self, to become one with nature.

When he started these journeys, he didn't plan things out. He would carry a few things with him like a hat, a rain coat, a little food, and that was about it. He would rely on the kindness of Heaven, temples, fans, friends, fellow poets, and sometimes even complete strangers to aid him along on his trips. Along the way he would write poems and memoirs.

This volume contains five travel sketches in all ranging from a few pages to around 50 pages. The translator in his introduction states the order of the travel sketches is reflective of their quality, with the earliest being the most poorly written and the last being the best. I would argue that the REVERSE is true. I thought that each sketch LESSENED in quality. I felt that in his earlier work, Basho was less self conscious and most open. As he wrote more you could tell that he started playing to his audience instead of actually recording his thoughts and emotions. The last sketch to me was the hardest to get through.

Something that greatly disturbed me early on in this book was when Basho sets off on his first road trip. He soon comes upon a 3 year old kid crying by the side of the river in the middle of nowhere, obviously abandoned. Basho suffers a BIT of distress in one paragraph as he wonders why his parents left this kid to die. So does Basho take the kid to a local village or ask him where he lives? NOPE. He gives the kid a little food and says that Heaven has decreed the kid to be there and that "you must raise your voice to heaven, and I must pass on, leaving you behind." It seemed so horrible to me. It's not the only incident that shows his callousness and complete lack of humanity. Towards the end of the book, two concubines ask to accompany him on the road for part of his walk for protection and he refuses them because he has too much to do.

What he did to that child totally refuted and disqualified anything he had to say about life to me. It also lessened his poetry. Here we have a man who claims he wants to lose his "self" but he's so SELF absorbed that he won't take the trouble to help his fellow man when they need him. Do you think the Buddha would have left that child to die? Basho makes a big show of his emotions when he observes the moon or flowers. He cries at the ruins of once mighty temples and castles, lamenting the fleetingness of power and mortality. But he's not aware enough to help the LIVING. He has no motivation to make the world a better place. He shows no kindness. He simply uses the world as a catalyst to crank out poems. And his poems aren't even THAT great. Like I said, the earlier his work, the more interesting and personal it was. His later sketches read like a catalog more than a memoir or diary. Mainly because he lost his ability to empathize because of his fake existence.

This book is worth reading just to get a feel for Renaissance era Japan but Basho's insight and talent dwindled as he aged so just be prepared for the quality of the writing to diminish as you read.

My Grade: B

Monday, January 1, 2018

Nick Fury #1-3 (2017) Comic Review

Nick Fury #1-3 (2017)
Written by James Robinson
Art by Aco
Coloring by Rachelle Rosenberg
Published by Marvel
Cover Price: $3.99 

This comic series is not about the cigar chewing Nick Fury that I grew up with in the early 80s. Neither is this the Samuel L. Jackson version from the Ultimate line and the Avengers movies. Nope, this book focuses on the Ultimate version's son, Nick Fury Jr. For all intents and purposes he IS the Samuel Jackson version, just younger. Like his dad, he works for SHIELD and has the Infinity Formula running through his veins, which slows down his aging. Think of him as a cooler, younger American James Bond.

 The thing that jumped out about these comics off the bat is the art by Aco, which is great. It has the feel of the Batman 66 series from DC in terms of information overload and color but tones down the kitsch and the creepy photo realism. Aco does a lot of nods to Steranko and reminds me a lot of Mike Zeck. This feels like an 80s comic book mixed with millennial chaos and quick movie editing. But I was never at a loss as to what was going on. The comic is busy with lots of panels but it had its own internal flow which I loved. By the way, the coloring is by Rachelle Rosenberg. To me, without the art, this comic would have been mediocre at best. Aco's art and Rosenberg's color transcend the rather pedestrian writing.

Another aspect of these comics that I enjoyed and that also reminded me of my childhood was the fact that each issue focused on one mission, one conflict. That's unusual in comics of this age. Usually, you have some sprawling saga lasting multiple issues and spanning across other books. I liked the simplicity of the stories here. One and done. So you could pick up the book at any point and not have to know 50 years of backstory. Really, the only recurring baddie so far in the book is Frankie Noble, a Hydra Agent, who takes killing Fury as her personal mission from God.

This book would make a good jumping on point for someone that is a new comic fan or someone that has just seen the Marvel movies. The writing isn't very strong, but the art is superb. I will definitely try the next issue.

Writing Grade: C
Art Grade: A+

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi (Spoilerless Movie Review)

Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi
Directed and Written by Rian Johnson

Episode 8 picks up right where The Force Awakens left off back in 2015. The Resistance was able to blow up Starkiller Base after spending less than one minute planning their strategy and now the First Order wants payback which leads to one of the slowest drawn out chase plots in all of Star Wars film history, perhaps in all of film entirely. For some reason, the First Order doesn't have fast enough ships to catch them? Kylo Ren wants to prove himself after being beaten by a girl. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker wants nothing to do with Rey or the Resistance. He just wants to be left alone. Poe thinks he's smarter than the Resistance leaders and is bristling for more autonomy, while Finn still wants to do his own thing and take care only of himself and Rey.

The first moment I knew this movie was going terribly wrong was when after two years of waiting we find out Luke's reaction to Rey's arrival and being handed his father's lightsaber for the second time in his life. It's a minor spoiler, but it happens in the first five minutes of the movie. Luke literally tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and goes and locks himself in his hut. He tosses the lightsaber so casually and so deadpan that I was immediately reminded of some slapstick comedy like Dumb and Dumber. That's when the tone started to go totally off the rails to me.

There were continuous attempts at being funny and the characters are all spouting one liners and witticisms. It immediately brought to mind the weirdness of Thor Ragnarok. Like all of the sudden, every character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now Spider-Man. Thor just had this weird, awkward feeling from its beginning. I was like "This isn't Thor's character. This is Spider-Man". It feels like all the Disney movies are becoming the same movie and I fear this is the beginning of the Star Wars movies being absorbed into that formula. Ha Ha funny witticisms and humor and behaviors the characters have never exhibited before.

And don't get me wrong, after the initial weirdness, I actually liked Thor Ragnarok. Same thing with this movie. Problem is, at some point you had to recognize this isn't a Star Wars movie. It's a Disney movie. There's a reason 50% of the new Star Wars movie directors have been fired. I really enjoyed Episode 7 until it got to the blow up the Death Star again climax and liked the darker edge of Rogue One, but this episode just wasn't up to snuff in my opinion.

Another thing I haven't liked about the new movies have been the inclusion of the original big three. They don't really have anything meaningful to do in these new episodes. In episode 7, Han just really showed up to die.  Something Harrison Ford had been dreaming about since the early 1980s. He didn't really have any purpose to serve. They're just plot tools. Leia really hasn't done much either except be on screen with Han to this point. I mean, if Luke, Han, and Leia are just there for eye candy for old people, then don't even have them in the movies. I had much the same problem with the new Star Treks. Don't drag the old actors in. Just start afresh.

Oh and at one point in the movie the new AT-ATs are referred to as "big ass". Go figure. When did profanity become a thing in Star Wars? Not that I'm a's just not part of that universe.

The last thing that disappointed me about this movie was there was anticlimax after anticlimax. Just picture this. Whatever events were foreshadowed in Episode 7 or whatever fights or confrontations or meetings you are looking forward to in this episode are going to fall flat. Johnson just didn't have enough imagination to pull off all the situations and explanations that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan set up in the last movie. They had the easy part. They just set up everything on the fly and didn't have to explain anything. Johnson does and you won't like the answers.

As for John William's score, he's pretty much a hack now and the only good parts of the score are when it hearkens back to the original trilogy. He hasn't come up with a memorable music sequence since The Phantom Menace. None of the new characters has a good theme. Did Finn even get one? Rey's is a throwaway and Kylo Ren's is totally generic, like most of Williams's  music nowadays.

What did I LIKE about this movie? Well, I guess it's a Star Wars movie. The new actors are good, especially Daisy, but to me they just didn't have a good script this time around. With the return of JJ Abrams for the last film, I will have higher expectations.

But at this point, I'm beginning to think that Disney should have left well enough alone and called it a day as far as this storyline with the ending of Return of the Jedi. At some point in this movie so many bad things are happening to the Resistance good guys that it almost becomes torture porn. It's almost like Disney had to paint this bleak future after the last movies just to justify making more movies. I want to know what George Lucas's original story ideas for Episodes 7-9 were. At this point he doesn't really have a soul as a director, but he's good at coming up with premises. All I've ever heard was that his characters were going to be young kids and the old Star Wars actors were just going to play supporting roles. I hope we find out some day how HE would have continued the Skywalker story.

My Grade: B

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Movie Review)

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Written and Directed by George Lucas

(Version reviewed is the blu-ray from Star Wars: The Complete Saga)

Episode IV picks up shortly after the end of Rogue One as Princess Leia attempts to pick up Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tatooine to enlist his help against the Empire. Of course her Big Papi, Darth Vader, is pissed and wants his Death Star technical plans back. C3PO and R2D2 eject themselves on to the planet's surface and meet pretty boy Luke Skywalker, layabout and future dead end dreamer. Luke soon is rescued the by a chubby dude with a big belt, a toupee, and a light stick. Their quest is to get the plans to Alderaan. Lovable rogue and furry rug join in the shenanigans along with a Peter Cushing that looks more dead than his cg copy in Rogue One.

The thing about watching this again after a couple of years is the worn look of the characters and of all the tech. . Their hair gets messed up. When Obi-Wan takes off his hood, sometimes his hair poofs up. Han's hair blows in the wind. Leia's hamburger buns sometimes become out of whack. Tarkin's fine hairs stick out in resistance to his pomade. This is in contrast to the prequels where nobody ever sweated and every hair was sprayed in place. Lucas didn't have time to edit out every little imperfection with a computer program and I loved it.

All the ships and droids are beaten and scratched up. 3PO even has a DENT in his head! The reality of it all really takes my breath away. With the prequels, most of the time I'm trying to figure out if the actor is real or cg. Hell, sometimes I'm even wondering if the GROUND they're walking on is real! Lucas started doing "superedits" where he would take actors and transport them into scenes they weren't even in. To me, the Phantom Menace wasn't so bad, but it really got over the top in the next two movies.

The sad aspect of A New Hope is that both Lucases, the hungry and artistically inclined young version, and the old one that was more interested in merchandising and the technical aspect of filmmaking both exist in this special edition version of the movie. So it causes an even greater disparity between the gifted director he could have been and the spiritless special effects geek he became.

There are great shots in Episode 4 that have become iconic. Luke looking at the twin setting suns. The dismembered light sabered arm. Luke's first flabbergasted look at Leia (kinda creepy later on). Theres a lot of experimentation with the camera, editing, and lighting in this first movie. You could tell Lucas was at the top of his game and had to focus a bit more on the story rather than the effects because he didn't have the limitless budget of a computer. A shot that really stood out to me this time around was when Luke and Han and Chewie are on the elevator going to the detention block, when the door opens, they both look really confused like they didn't know which way the door was going to open and they're so close to the camera they almost bump into it. I LOVED it. In the prequels you felt as if all the characters were moving along preordained lines, even down to the actual physical steps they were taking. I just feel if Lucas had stayed in directing, he would have made some real masterpieces instead of being the film equivalent of Frank Herbert, who only wrote one great book.

Carrie Fisher was a bit more snarky than I remembered, but I liked it. She was on the top of her game and carried herself with a lot of confidence and it was really funny how much she made fun of Han. Back when I saw the movie for the first time I didn't see her as a "woman" like you have to do these days. She was just another hero to me. Equal or even stronger than the other two male leads.

And while I'm on that, Harrison Ford basically just phoned in his performance on this movie. Same as Natalie Portman in the prequels. It's like he got up, took a piss, and showed up for that day's shooting. His acting is atrocious. It got better in Empire but that was about the only Star Wars film that he seemed to want to be in. Even in Episode 7, he just showed up for his own sendoff to where he wouldn't have to mess with the character anymore.

The last thing I wanted to mention is how dated and sloppy the "enhanced" scenes are in 2017. They look really cheap, out of place, and cluttered. Especially the scenes in the Mos Eisley spaceport. You see some jawas trying to control a large beast and the movements of the cg actors are so unnatural and there's even a really bad blurring effect. Lucas added in random people walking in the backgrounds that look like ghosts from another movie. What signals the depths of his artistic poverty is to have creatures and robots passing in the foreground that block the entire action of the shot just to say he added something to it. And lets not even discuss the pathetic Jabba the Hut scene and Boba Fett breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera in a "look at me" shot. It got so bad that I started to call my friend who owns the dvd of the original cut but I didn't. Hopefully, Disney will put those out some day. Seems like the 40th anniversary would have been a good time.

I will be rewatching episodes 5 & 6 this weekend so hope to have a review for those up in the next couple of days. I'm going to see The Last Jedi a week from today so will also be watching Episode 7 on Friday to get ready.

My Grade: A-

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Portal of a Thousand Worlds by Dave Duncan (Book Review)

Portal of a Thousand Worlds
By Dave Duncan
Published by Open Road, 2017
Price: $18.99 

Every 1000 years the Portal of a Thousand Worlds opens in the Good Land and whatever dynasty is on the throne at the time falls and is replaced. Sometimes barbarian armies come out of the portal to conquer the land, sometimes armies go into the portal and are never heard from again. There are certain portents that herald the approach of the opening. Those portents appear to be happening as the book opens and so different players are trying to strengthen their hold on their power while others are using the chaos to seize it. The current emperor of the land, Absolute Purity, has rarely been seen, and is rumored to be dead, causing a rebellion of insurgents called The Bamboo Banner, who want to march to the capital to cast out his Empress Mother, who is ruling in his stead, and install their own leader.

One of the problems with the throne is that Absolute Purity has not sired a successor. The Empress has decided to carry out a desperate plan to assure the stability of her dynasty. She is going to install an impostor on the throne and try to pass off his issue as the heir to the kingdom.  To carry out this plot, she needs the aid of the Gray Helpers, an organization that handles funeral rites on the surface, but are secretly assassins, bodyguards, and the power brokers of the Good Land.

Besides the Empress, her son, and the Gray Helpers, the other main force in the book is the First-born, known as Sunlight, a young boy who in actuality has lived and died for centuries but is forever reborn with all his memories intact. He is being held prisoner and tortured by the Empress in an effort to learn whatever he knows about the Portal of a Thousand Worlds.

To me, the book came off as a blatant rip off of Game of Thrones. To me, the only real difference was superficial, replacing Thrones's Middle Ages Europe with 19th century China. The Gray Helpers are so much like the Faceless Men it's not even funny. The Gray Helpers help with funerary rites and as a pseudo religious organization and can even shape shift like the Faceless Men. One of the characters, Silky, goes on a journey similar to Arya except that he embraces the culture of his league of assassins whereas Arya ultimately rejected it. The looming and destabilizing threat of the Portal looms over the book just as the White Walkers loom over all the George RR Martin novels without actually appearing that often.

The plotting by various factions in the book to rule over the Good Land was also very reminiscent of Thrones. Maybe we're all just spoiled now. Any fantasy novel written about powerful families and organizations trying to gain power now gets compared to Game of Thrones. It's really become the main archetype of fantasy, taking over the role of Tolkien. All fantasy novels are now merely comparisons or contrasts to its model.

Chapter 1 actually ends with the words "And winter was coming." Not a lie. It seems like such a nod and wink by Dave Duncan it can't be ignored. Is this novel merely an homage to Martin? Some sort of weird parody?

Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy the book because of the interesting characters. I wanted to see how it all ended. But Game of Thrones is not in any danger of being replaced by this novel, even if it takes Martin 1000 years to complete the next book in the series.

My Grade: B

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (Movie Review)

I'm making it a goal to rewatch all the Star Wars movies in order every time a new numbered episode comes out. I stretch them out over the weeks leading up the new film, this year being The Last Jedi. So if I watch one a week starting two weeks ago I will finish Episode 7 the weekend before Episode 8 comes out. I also thought it would be a good time to write a blog post about each film. So I'm starting today with Episode I.

I remember Episode I came out right when I had got out of college and was starting my career. I knew NOTHING about the movie. Somehow I had missed all the hype at that point. I don't even remember seeing any commercials for it or anything. So I went into it pretty blind about the plot, characters, pretty much everything.

Don't get me wrong, the first movie I remember seeing at the theater as a kid was the first Star Wars movie in 1977 and was blown away. The theater and television landscape now is nothing like it was then. People were STARVED for sci-fi and fantasy back then. You were lucky if one GOOD scifi/fantasy movie came out every couple of YEARS. Pretty much you were reduced to waiting for the next Star Wars movie.

Like I said, I don't remember much of the hype for Episode I. I just remember going to see it with a friend and feeling emotionally detached from the movie even though I loved the franchise. At the time, it just didn't seem to have much context to me. Too many new characters, new worlds, new politics, etc. I didn't feel connected to anyone. I found myself not caring.

Funny thing is I remember there wasn't really much playing at the cinema that summer. I think The Mummy was the only other big movie going. I ended up seeing Phantom Menace something like 8 times at the theater, mainly for the pod racing and light saber fights.

So yeah, I didn't care much for the movie at first, but over the years it's grown on me. Probably has something to do with the other episodes and The Clone Wars cartoon making it resonate more with me.

Something about the movie that ALWAYS was able to reach me was the beautiful score by John Williams. To me, it was the last hurrah to his prime. His scores for all the Star Wars movies since this one have been phoned in and I find it hard to remember many melodies from Episodes 2&3.

To me, the English actors were the only thespians that excelled in the prequels. Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McDiarmid all do great in Episode 1. Even Natalie Portman does a good job when she's ACTING English in the guise of Queen Amidala.

Watching this movie in 2017 as opposed to 1999, the CG looked a bit dated at first, but I gradually started to not notice it and began to enjoy the movie and didn't worry about the effects. Everything felt a bit more solid than in Episodes 2&3 and you didn't feel like the actors were in some green screen purgatory all the time.

Fans HATE the prequels and sadly, I don't really think they're worthy of all the negative feelings...well, at least not Episode I. To me, it was the CLOSEST in feeling and spirit of the original Star Wars. It was happy and free spirited and adventurous....before all the teenage angst and sturm und drang of the next two films.

Yes, and the HATED Jar Jar Binks. To me, he was just part of the ensemble. None of the characters really stood out from the others in this movie. Like the first Star Wars, it was more of a team pic. Funnily enough, my mom liked ONLY Episode I BECAUSE of Jar Jar!

I think the more time goes by and the original fans start to die off, the prequels might even become more popular than the original trilogy. I think new fans and young ones won't approach the prequels with as much hostility as old people. They'll merely see them as "oh, the first three were about Anakin, the second about Luke, and third about Rey". They'll just see them as one long stream, or might even dislike the originals because they're so old and hokey in their eyes.

If you haven't watched Phantom Menace in a while, give it a try, you might lessen a little bit of negative energy in the world when you realize it's a good movie.

Next up for me tonight: Attack of the Clones (I'm a week behind on my viewing schedule, I should be watching Revenge of the Sith).

My Grade: A-