Tag: mythology (page 2 of 2)

Movie Review: Immortals

Every once in a while, I’m made aware of an opportunity that makes me feel like an actual professional critic. Much like Salt, my bros of the taped glasses over at Geekadelphia hooked me up with passes to see Immortals last night before its release to the general public. Considering my tendencies towards breathing new life into old myths, I was excited. While the trailers pretty much sold the film as a re-dressed 300, I was curious to see what director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar did with some of the oldest storytelling material in the world.

Courtesy Relativity Media

Our story revolves around Theseus, humble son of a dispossessed woman in a Hellenic village by the sea where he trains as a warrior to protect her. He doesn’t have much faith in the gods, even as they look down from Olympus on mankind while under strict laws from Zeus not to directly intervene. Indirect intervention is fine, but doing too much in a godly fashion would threaten to rob humans of their free will. There is only one circumstance in which this law is to be broken: if the Titans, sworn enemies of the Olympian gods imprisoned in Tartarus, are ever released. That is the plan of Hyperion, diabolical king at the head of the vicious Heraklion army, who would see the gods slain and he as the sole ruler of humanity… but not if Theseus has anything to say about it.

Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s first film was The Cell, a crime drama from 2000 that is remembered far more for its unique visual style than any of the story or actors involved. Many of his images, while surreal and otherworldly, were shot so cleanly and with such aplomb and definition that they could be framed and considered works of art in and of themselves. So it is with Immortals, only this time around, the works of art are in motion more often than not.

Courtesy Relativity Media
Seriously, if you were going to live forever, wouldn’t you want to look this good?

It’s the decisions the director makes that stand out in the film. For one thing, instead of the usual stable of established, operatic actors, the Olympian gods are played by beautiful young people in peak physical shape, and the gentlemen especially are dressed in minimalist costumes to show this off. This lends itself well to the depictions we see in Greek sculpture and art: bearded as they often are, the Greeks were not shy about their bodies. Nor is Immortals shy when it comes to violence, but again the director sets himself apart. It is only when we see these golden gods in action that the slow motion so familiar to fans of 300 and other movies of its ilk comes into play. Violence at the hands of humans is not dressed up in fancy camera work or tricks of post-production other than ribbons of blood and thrusting spear-points; rather, it’s presented with visceral intensity and earnestness that definitely demands attention.

As for the story itself, we have something of a mixed bag. Reinterpretations of Greek myth are certainly nothing new, and the writers of Immortals do make a few interesting decisions, such as keeping the war between the Olympian gods and the Titans on a human scale and the things done with Theseus’ battle with the “Minotaur.” And there was one bit in the plot that I honestly didn’t see coming. The script, however, is far more inconsistent than the quality of the visuals. There were a few points in the plot where I had unanswered questions or sensed a bit of a hole, while at others I felt the characters could have used less talking and more showing through action and expression. Hyperion especially stood out to me as something of a problem, despite Oscar-winner Mickey Rourke giving him an imposing physical presence.

Courtesy Relativity Media
It’s a dumb pun, but it works: Cavill looked pretty super even if his performance wasn’t.

This is not to say the acting was terrible; I’d say it was about average for material such as this. I’m not sure why Mickey Rourke spends half his time seeming so bored with the goings-on, but I’m willing to chalk that up to the script having Hyperion all but bellow “I AM A BAD GUY AND I WILL DO BAD GUY STUFF NOW”. Henry Cavill as Theseus is perfectly passable and Freida Pinto as the Oracle does all right, but I felt their little romance sub-plot was a little rushed. The Olympians, Luke Evans and Isabela Lucas in particular, brought a measure of humanity to their characters and presented their godliness with sufficient gravitas, so I guess I can’t complain too much about this part of the film. They struggle to elevate the mediocre script and never overshadow the visuals with scenery-chewing or laughable execution.

While certainly not a perfect movie, Immortals delivers an experience that’s enjoyable and engaging without feeling pandering or terribly rushed. The clean, smart direction and bold, lush visuals go a long way to get the audience past any narrative issues that crop up over the course of the film. At no point did I feel confused as to what was going on, as can be the case in some other action flicks, and it never felt like the movie was talking down to me. A little more polish on the script and more solid performances from some of the cast would have made the movie truly fantastic instead of merely impressive. But if the only real complaint I can make about Immortals is “there wasn’t enough of it”, I guess you can take that as a recommendation.

Stuff I Liked: For all the negativity out there regarding 3D, this movie did it just about perfectly. Gods played by young, beautiful people instead of well-established, older actors. No technology that felt overtly anachronistic.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: A little sloppiness in the plotting and screenwriting. Mickey Rourke looking bored more than anything else. Other actors not quite selling the melodrama. Only faltering attempts at scale in terms of size and distance. The romance sub-plot moves a bit too quickly.
Stuff I Loved: The stunning visuals, the very canny use of some of the action tropes that drew in the 300 crowd, extremely well-shot action and a Greek myth that feels as lurid, sensual and bombastic as a Greek myth should.

Bottom Line: The very clever and skilled direction of Immortals lifts it just far enough out of mediocrity for me to give it a recommendation. It won’t win any prizes or hearts for its script or acting, but its blend of unique original flair and old-school Greek mythology does delight the eyes and get the blood pumping. A solid, above-average period action flick.

Anthology of Interest

Courtesy impactguns.com

A few of them exist here in draft form, and I’m keeping others under wraps for now. But the fact is I’ve written six short stories mixing old folk tales and myths with relatively modern genres. While I dive headlong into to the rewrite of the novel currently entitled Citizen in the Wilds, I want to keep these yarns on the backburner, because I think there’s potential here to entertain and maybe inspire.

But I have no idea how good it is or how soon I can present it… or even what to call it!

Maybe I should hunt down an agent. I’ve been considering that possibility, as it may help relieve some of the pressure of hunting down everything that needs to be done in order to bring this thing to life, rather than having it lay around my metaphorical table like so many dead components. But how does one go about pitching an anthology? Is it as simple as saying “Hi, I wrote story X, Y, and Z and want to put them together, it’ll soar like an eagle in outer space and you totally wanna tap this”?

I’d like to hire an editor. Some of these stories are months or even years old. I’m certain they need work. I’m perfectly willing to put two in the chest and one in the face of any turns or beats that don’t work – I just need to know where to aim. Hopefully I can make arrangements for that after getting my feet under me again thanks to the new dayjob.

By the same token, I’m going to need a cover artist. If this anthology does make it to Kindles and Nooks and whatnot, there’s no way I’m letting it leave my sight when even the potential exists for it to look like it was put together by a scrub. It’s another step between the raw form of the stories and the finished anthology I’d be willing to pay for.

Finally, the whole thing needs a name. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, because how does one sum up the conceptualization of a Japanese mythic figure in a period horror piece, a Norse myth in the Old West, a Chinese celestial tale cast as a modern romance, a Grimm fairy tale dressed as superheroics, a Native American creation story in the dark streets of cyberpunk and a Greek myth played out through science fiction?

I’m still trying to figure it out. Ideas are welcome, as are volunteers to take a stab at the aforementioned aspects I can’t handle myself.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Original Text:

Spoiler

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

Joseph Campbell is famous for basically saying that all storytellers are essentially telling the same story. Be it a myth based on the perceptions of the ancient Norse of their weather patterns or the all-caps melodrama and bright, splashy colors of a comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, our stories are a way of exploring ourselves and the world around us. Sometimes, the old stories are reimagined and transitioned into new forms that appeal to the altered sensibilities of modern audiences. Sometimes this works; other times, it doesn’t. Not every middle schooler is going to have a nascent interest in the mythology of ancient Greece, so author Rick Riordan took it upon himself to set those stories in the foundations of those tumultuous schoolyards, giving us Percy Jackson & the Olympians. The first volume of this chronicle, The Lightning Thief, got the major motion picture from Hollywood treatment.

And by ‘treatment’, I mean the potential for storytelling that’s worth a damn got tied to a chair and worked over with a baseball bat.

Our titular character is a struggling middle-school student with apparent dyslexia and ADHD. His mother is married to a complete and utter douchebag while his birth father scampered off while Percy was still a newborn. His best friend, Grover, walks with crutches and has a penchant for cracking wise that works really hard to put Chris Tucker to shame. A visit to the local museum and a lecture by his wheelchair-bound Latin teacher begins to reveal some truths to Percy: his dyslexia is due to his brain being hard-wired to read ancient Greek, mythological creatures want him dead, his best friend is a satyr and his teacher’s a centaur. Oh, and he’s the son of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. He must undertake a quest to return the lightning bolt of Zeus lest the king of the gods starts a massive war over its theft. Why Zeus would leave his trademark weapon which also happens to be the Olympian equivelant of a tactical nuclear strike laying around unattended is one of the many, many unanswered questions brought up in the course of this plot. Odin had a damn treasure vault for stuff like this, and Zeus couldn’t even slap a “No Touchie” magical whammy on the thing? But let’s move on. I don’t want to spend my entire rage quotient in the second major paragraph.

Having never read this series of books, I can’t comment on how well the narrative of the novel transitioned into the screenplay. What I can comment on is a visible shift in style and pacing by director Chris Columbus. This is a man best known for his light-hearted, kid-oriented films such as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Lightning Thief feels a bit like an act of teenage rebellion against those more childish forays into filmmaking. While once we might have spent more time with Percy at home or school learning about what makes him tick and how he deals with the challenges of his young life, we’re thrust into the action almost immediately and given very little time for exposition.

This is both a good thing and a bad one. Exposition, after all, is difficult to get right and more often than not becomes an anchor welded around the ankle of the story, dragging the audience into the cloying darkness of boredom. However, without even passing attempts at exposition the story is left adrift, batted without foundation between one event and the next with nary a thing to connect them. Percy’s got a quest for a series of magical MacGuffins and an incidental need to rescue his mother to keep things going, but these elements have their own problems, seperate from those plauging the rest of the film.

It would be one thing if the MacGuffins were tied one to the other by clues that needed to be investigated on the scene where each is found. Instead our heroes have a magical map that just tells them where to go. Cuts down on stuff like intellectual curiosity and character building, sure, but who needs that stuff when you have mythological creatures to battle with swords? As for Percy’s mom, her character is also given something of the short end of the stick, and while most people would be genuinely concerned with a parent’s sudden death or disappearance, Percy reacts to the incident with a bit of dull surprise, quickly lost when he spots the girl. Because, you know, hormones are a much better motivator for moving a story along than concern for a loved one.

Without decent motivation or characterization for our hero, all we have left is action and spectacle. Again, the film falls short of delivering these elements without making things either bleedingly obvious or unnecessesarily dense. Instead of discovering the ways and means of his water-based demi-god powers, Percy has to be ham-handedly told how they work. Our heroes get out of their first two major scrapes thanks to everybody in the world having seen Clash of the Titans at some point, without explaining this point in-universe. The intrepid band spends five days in a pleasure palace before Percy’s dad calls him up on the Olympin telepathiphone to inform him of the fact that they’re farting around in a pleasure palace. And this says nothing about the aforementioned girl, supposedly the daughter of the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy, not employing the most practical and straightforward means of ending confrontations possible. Sure, it’s in keeping with traditions to train with swords and bows and whatnot, but just think how many of these encounters Annabeth could have resolved more quickly, directly and painlessly with the implementation and distribution of fucking guns.

Let’s see, what else is wrong with this flick? Grover’s irritating from start to finish, the only character who has interesting motivations and character beats in the slightest gets maybe five minutes of screen time, there’s no real tension and any attempt the story makes at trying to be more than a pandering and predictable distraction for middle schoolers just trying to make out in the back of the theater is slapped down in favor of more of that blunt telling over showing bullshit I’ve harped about for the last three minutes. Given my personal interest in stories like this reworked into other settings and genres to prove their viability and longevity, I wanted to like The Lightning Thief, but the more I watched the angrier I got. No amount of Sean Bean or Kevin McKidd can save this flick. Harry Potter does a much better job of giving us relatable adolescent characters in a fantasy setting, and cribbing notes from Clash of the Titans made me yearn for the early 80s schlock of that original film and wonder about how bad the new version is. I guess I’ll find out next week. For now, skip Percy Jackson. Give the books a try if you’re part of the target demographic, but if you’ve already read Harry Potter and aren’t frothing at the mouth for more of the same, I doubt you’re missing much. Find Madeline l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or T.H. White’s The Once and Future King instead. They’re classics, they’re poignant, and you don’t have the token black character weighing the whole thing down with his attempts at being both the ethnic wisecracking sidekick and the Magical Negro. But at least you can make a fun drinking game out of every moment the so-called heroes of The Lightning Thief just get a solution handed to them and don’t have to think for themselves, much like the audience.

Wait. Scratch that. I don’t want to be responsible for any of you dying from alcohol poisoning.

A Writer’s To-Do List

Checklist

So last week’s ICFN was delayed. It’s still on hold. I’m waiting to hear back from third parties that were interested in conveying it to a different format. Awaiting correspondence always makes days or weekends feel longer, from responses to job postings to queries about Magic trades.

But while I was waiting I took a look at the various projects I’ve lined up for myself.

There are three things that go against me when I try to sit down and get my writing pants on: I’m always thinking of new ideas, I’m not terribly organized and I’m easily distracted. All it takes is a cat darting across the floor, a ringing phone or a stray thought on something awesome unrelated to the project at hand to force me to refocus my efforts. I do turn off HootSuite and other things when I’m actually writing, but that only addresses the distraction problem.

You can take a look at my desk, my kitchen sink or either basement I have stuff in (here in Lansdale or at the ancestral place in Allentown) as silent testament to my lack of organization and pack-rat nature. This also ties in to my ideas. New ones creep into my brain all the time. An action sequence, a bit of dialog, a new character in an old setting… this stuff floats in and out from time to time. It takes conscious effort to nail it all down. And once I do, I need to get it into some sort of organized sequence.

Obviously I want to finish things I’ve started before I begin anything new, so let’s get some priorities straight here. This is pertaining mostly to my own publishable (eventually) writing, not other projects I’ve taken on (the Vietnam manuscript) and the weekday drivel in this blog.

I feel I should finish Red Hood first. It’s the shortest piece, and with it my collection of mixed-myth stories reaches a total of five. Akuma (Japanese oni in a period slasher story), The Jovian Flight (Greek myth IN SPACE!), The Drifter’s Hand (Norse myth in the Old West) and Miss Weaver’s Lo Mein (Chinese myth as a modern romance) round out the rest. That may be enough for an anthology, but I’m uncertain. I may want to do a sixth story.

The rewrite of Citizen in the Wilds must come next. I’ve started outlining the new opening, and will track the appearances and growth of characters to ensure they’re consistent and sympathetic, two problems pointed out by at least one review on Book Country. The problem with the way it opened before was I was cramming too much exposition into the first few pages and not giving the characters enough time to develop and establish connections with each other and the reader – in other words, I opened too late. So I’m starting a bit earlier. Giving these people more breathing room. You know, before I kill most of them.

I have an idea for a Magic: the Gathering piece but as it may be nothing more than fan fiction and Wizards has better things to do than entertain the notions of a relatively unknown hack like myself (as opposed to known hacks like Robert Wintermute), I’ll try not to devote too much time to it.

Once I finish up with the other stuff I’ll go back to Cold Iron. I plan on taking this lean, mean and well-intentioned supernatural noir thing I threw together during my commutes of the last few months and putting it through the prescribed Wendig cycle of editing my shit. The Wendig cycle, by the way, has little to do with Wagner’s cycle. More whiskey and profanity, less large sopranos and Norse symbolism.

Meantime, the blog will keep the writing-wheels greased. More Westeros fiction for the Honor & Blood crowd. More flash fiction challenges. Reviews of movies, games and books. Ruminations on trying not to suck as a writer.

And Guild Wars 2 stuff, because that MMO looks pretty damn awesome, not to mention damn pretty.

Stay tuned. I may be down, but I ain’t licked yet.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Big Trouble in Little China

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/bigtrouble.mp3]

It may appear at first glance that Big Trouble in Little China is one of those clever, funny deconstructions that film students are always raving about. There are even some moments where someone over-analytical may mistake it for a parody. But John Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek but straightforward action-adventure is not interested in tearing down the conventions of the genre nor in necessarily poking fun at it. It’s point seems to be simply having a great time telling a unique story with some inventive action. The hero just happens to be the guy who isn’t the big-name Hollywood tough guy. The hero isn’t even white. And that? Is fantastic.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

We’re first introduced to Jack Burton, a wise-cracking long-haul trucker with all of the swagger and bravado of any 80s action hero you’d care to mention. He’s friends with Wang Chi, the young owner of a restaurant in Chinatown. The pair head out to pick up Wang’s fiance from the airport, only to witness her being abducted by members of a Chinese street gang. Following her into Chinatown they stumble into not only a brawl between the kidnappers and their rival gangs, but three supernatural warriors called the Storms and their ghostly lord, Lo Pan. Lo Pan wants the girl for himself, and it falls to Jack and Wang to rescue her.

This might seem like a run-of-the-mill setup for an 80s action romp, but Big Trouble in Little China isn’t all that interested in re-treading old ground. Carpenter and Kurt Russell, the man playing Jack Burton, are clearly looking to do something different. Rather than making sure the tough-talking strong and manly white man conquers the bad guys and scores the girls, the two have set out to give us the story of a man who thinks he’s the action hero, when really he’s the comic relief character. This must have been a fun subversion for Russell, as his roles in Escape from New York and The Thing thrust him firmly into the action genre. It’s the mark of a smart man who looks to avoid being pigeonholed as soon as possible.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
If nothing else, Jack’s got a great war face.

I mentioned before that Big Trouble isn’t a parody. It isn’t looking to lambast the action genre the way Hot Shots! would. Instead, it cleverly presents Jack as both sidekick and audience surrogate for the narrative. Since this is a movie shot & released in North America that deals at least tangentially with Chinese mythology, there’s going to be a marked cultural difference in terms of aesthetic, foundation and execution. By putting us in Jack’s boots while the powers of the Three Storms are revealed and the depths of Lo Pan’s fortress are explored, we see this unfamiliar world through his eyes and he voices many of the same reactions we might. And for the most part, they’re hilarious. For example, a monster menaces the party as they make their way to rescue the girls who’ve been kidnapped. The sorcerer Egg Shen, accompanying our heroes, simply says “It will come out no more.” Jack’s response? “WHAT? WHAT WILL COME OUT NO MORE?” Not exactly the hysterics you’d expect from a big, tough action hero, right?

As much fun as the movie has with the conventions of other action flicks, it also takes us on a rather uncontrived adventure that has more than a few surprises in it. It introduces us to aspects of a culture to which we might have been ignorant in a way that’s appealing and not terribly difficult for an unenlightened American movie audience to understand. I can’t say all of the portrayals of Chinese myth are entirely accurate, of course, and how exactly does one become an ‘evil bodhisattva’? Being a product of the 80s, some of the effects may seem a bit dated to a few viewers, but there’s plenty of action and fun to make up for that. Even the studio couldn’t stop the movie from having a good time. They had Carpenter throw in a superfluous prologue scene for fear of the audience not understanding the fact that Jack’s a supporting protagonist, but from the reaction of the guy in the suit interviewing Egg Shen, not only does our writer & director show he has confidence in his audience, he understands the sort of folks who just don’t get it.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Fashion and hair design by Ming the Merciless’ majordomo.

Originally planned as a Western, with Jack as a drifter whose horse is stolen, setting the film in Chinatown with Jack just wanting his truck back while Wang & Egg Shen take up a divine struggle against a deathless sorcerer allows Big Trouble in Little China to tease and tip over so many aspects of action movies it becomes scarily close to a deconstruction. Deconstructions, however, tend to take stabs at their origin material with varying degrees of bitterness. John Carpenter, however, clearly has affection for action movies and isn’t interested in tearing down the walls of the genre, just coming at them from a different angle. In doing so he created one of his best works. It’s narrative, while at times oblique or even silly, is tightly written, and the characters behave in human ways, especially Jack. It’s a fun time at the movies, a unique adventure and a great example of the so-called main character needing to take a back seat when he enters a world he (and we) are not familiar with. The only thing I can really say against Big Trouble in Little China is that it isn’t available on Netflix Instant – you have to wait for the disc in the mail. But trust me when I say, the wait will be well worth it.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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