About Me

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Greetings. I am the Illusive One. For many years now I have been a huge video game player, movie viewer, and book reader. For almost as long, I have been a critic of these things and many people respect my opinions of these things and have often said I belong on G4 doing reviews on X-Play or a similar show. Sadly that is not likely to happen. So instead I shall do reviews for you, uninfluenced by other reviewers, of video games books, movies, and, occasionally, music and political actions. I hope you find this informative and helpful. Thank you for your time.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Firefly and Serenity

            Well, it’s April and spring is in full bloom, which has always meant one thing: Summer is coming.  And for me two things come to mind when this season rolls around: very bad sun burns that melt my fair skin and summer blockbusters.  And they have quite the lineup this year, with many anticipated sequels, prequels, and even one or two original films works, (Gasp! What blasphemy is that?!?).  The first major one, however, is The Avengers, the first film to take superheroes from various films and put them into a single movie.  And as anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m incredibly skeptical on how this movie is going to turn out and have an extream hatred on how Marvel handled it.  Exactly why this is, I’ll get into in another post but let’s just say that I’m getting incredibly tiered of films that use what I like to call the “shitty summer blockbuster” appeal and again I’ll evaluate more at a later time.
            Anyway, I brought up The Avengers today because I wanted to discuss something that the film’s writer and director, Joss Whedon, had done in the past.  Until recently, I honestly had no idea who this man was until he was listed as The Avenger’s director.  Apparently he created the show series’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that I never watched, the spinoff show, Angle, a show that never appealed to me, and Firefly, a show up until recently was just “the show that was canceled to soon”.  But because of my skepticism of the upcoming film I was encouraged to check out the latter of the bunch.  Having gotten through the series and its film, Serenity this weekend, I decided to share my thoughts anyone who cares to read.  This is The Illusive One’s look at Firefly and Serenity
             The show takes place in the distant future and follows the adventures of a crew of smugglers, thieves, ex-soldiers and mercenaries, of the star ship Serenity as they pull capers, smuggle questionable items, and fight against mafia organizations, corrupt cops, politicians and shady government organizations.  In other words, it’s a show that should be right up my alley.  But was it really as good as people say?  Should Fox not have canceled it?  Does it really deserve the reputation it gets as a fantastic show?
            The simple answer to that is YES!!!  It does deserve all the praise it gets.  It’s a fantaistic series and I honestly regret not watching it sooner!  So, what makes the series work?  Why does it have such a radical following?  Well, I think that the main reason is the characters as they work very well within the context of the show.  Each of them has a darker side that, depending on the episode, they try to keep in check or wish people to think it dominates their personality.  The captain, Mal, for example, tires to give everyone the impression that he’s a hardened criminal but has a heart of gold that keeps revealing itself.  You also have the dumb, greedy, but extremely likable and reliable Jayne who plays off as a tough guy and mercenary “out for himself” but always stands by his crew when things get tough.  The rest of the crew had their qualities but those were the two who stuck out the most to me.  Now granted, they can seem a little Mary Sue-ish at times but they’re just so likeable that you’ll forget about any contemporary criticism you may have after the first episode.
            Another great thing about the show was, obviously, the great writing and reoccurring themes and problems.  The most notable theme of the show is freedom.  Freedom from the government and any affiliations that may otherwise complicate their lives and the theme song really portrays this as well as the writing does.  However, this always leads the crew to a very basic problem and leads them to even more complex problems.  Mainly, the crew is always strapped for cash and looking for ways make more money.  As a result, they usually take jobs that appear harmless at first but end up becoming needlessly complicated due to the crew’s morals or just bad luck.  Take for example the second episode, The Train Job where the crew of the Serenity is hired to steal an Alliance shipment by a mafia group, which turns out to be medical supplies.  As you may guess, they decide not to turn it over to the mob, which puts them in a complicated situation with them.  Right alongside this is the show’s great sense of humor.  I won’t spoil any of them for you, as it’s a lot better in context but they range from being crude to so demented it’s funny to ridiculous situations and witty lines.  And of course, a lot of the situations they get into are action packed and full of great suspense. 
            I also really liked a lot of the little things that this show had.  For example, there isn’t any sound in space in this series.  While this may not seem like a big deal, you wouldn’t believe how many shows and films neglect this simple fact; sound doesn’t carry in space.  I also really like what this crew often steal and smuggles.  It’s rarely anything as elaborate as gold or money, but often just medical supplies or packs of food that are extremely valuable in the outer colonies the crew frequently deals with.  In my opinion, that’s really cleaver and is something that never seems to get addressed in science fiction.
            I will admit, however, there are a few things that bug me about the show.  For starters, I don’t care at all for the western theme they have in this series.  You see, when I think of colonies in the frontier of space I think of the space colonies you see in Avatar or Mass Effect; groups that don’t have limitless resources by any means but still have technology that reflects the age they live in.  Now I will admit that this is something that I got used to very quickly, but it remains a decision that I disagree with.  That and some of the art direction seems a little off to me.  Again, when I think space ships of the distant future, I think of more along the lines of Mass Effect designs.  In Firefly, however, some of the equipment in the ship, mainly the bridge, had designs that looked like they were from the 80s or something.  Again it’s something that I got used to and it may be a nitpick but it still bothers me.
            All around, this was a really great show, and I can honestly see why it had such a large following.  It had lovable characters, great storylines, a good sense of humor and was an all-around fun show.
            But what about Serenity?  What did I think of that film?  Well, hardcore fans of the series may hate me for saying this but I didn’t particularly care for it and I felt that it left something to be wanted.  There just wasn’t enough time in the two hour film for character development and doesn’t allow you enough time to get reattached to these characters or allow new comers to gain any.  There were a few shock deaths as well that just didn’t feel right to me.  I’m not sure if it was the dialog, the acting, the writing or the directing but these deaths, which should have had me in tears, just came off as passive events.  The story and editing didn’t seem to flow together very well and I don’t think it was a very satisfying conclusion to the series.  Now granted there were a few great twists and the story wasn’t horrible by any means but it was something that I felt should have been told as a show series rather than a film.  In short, I don’t think this was a bad movie, but in my opinion, the 35 million that was spent on this film would have been much better used on a few more seasons of the show rather than this film.  But that’s just my opinion.

            So has this series bolstered my confidence in The Avengers and Joss Whedon writing and directing capabilities?  Well, not really.  Why you may as?  Well, for starters, there is a massive difference between writing and directing for a show series and a feature length film and the number of bad movies he’s written out numbers the good ones he has.  So I still have a few reservations in that department.  And if he does write and direct it as well as he did his T.V. series I’m more or less expecting the same things out of it before I watched the show: better than all the other Avenger related movies to date, more or less on par with X2: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class, but not as good as Chris Nolan’s Batman films.  Again, I’ll go into this a bit more in a later post but I just wanted to share my initial opinion on the matter. 
          But anyway, back to Firefly.  If you haven’t already seen it, I highly encourage you to take a look as it is as good as everyone says.  Serenity, not so much but even that one wasn’t horrible.  Maybe someday, they’ll renew the show, taking place years after the end of the film but I’m not holding my breath.  So until next time this is The Illusive One saying, 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Conan the Barbarian Stories Part One

            A few months ago, a local Books-A-Million was closing down and I took the opportunity to grab a few of their books at a discounted price before it closed the doors forever.  One of the books that I grabbed a hold of was a collection of Conan the Barbarian stories, entitled The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.  Over the past few months, the series had become something of an obsession of mine, partly due to film adaptation that had been released that year and I wanted to know a little bit more about the source material.  And because I haven’t had a look at any books in a while, I decided to give my thoughts on a few of the stories contained in this book.  I’ll be giving my thoughts on The Phoenix on the Sword, The Frost Giant’s Daughter, The God in the Bowl, The Tower of the Elephant, The Scarlet Citadel, The Queen of the Black Coast, and Black Colossus

            The first story on our list is The Phoenix on the Sword, the first Conan story ever written.  Strangely enough, it actually takes place very late in Conan's life at a point where he is already a king and has been long enough to be sick of it.  It has a bit of detail as to how he got the crown but doesn’t go into to many details despite the fact that half the story is just the characters remembering incidents that already happened.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t really amount to much.  It’s just a coup attempt and some demonic creature finds his way into the chaos at the last minute.  And that's about it.
            Anyway, this story isn't one I'd recommend because it's not that good.  It's just people talking, lamenting over their pasts, planning to kill Conan and a crappy final fight.  I could actually do a full review on all that is wrong with this story but I honestly don’t care that much.

            Next we have The Frost Giant's Daughter.  This one seemed to have taken place several years, if not decades, before the events of The Phoenix on the Sword when Conan traveled in the northern lands of the Hyborian Age.  And this one is about is Conan trying to rape a witch.  I am not joking.  The entire story is just about this witch taunting him with her naked body as he gives chance after he fights a battle.  But with that disturbing premise behind, this story ultimately felt like  it should have been a chapter in a much larger story; like you only got a small piece of a much larger the tale.  Like Phoenix this is one I would only recommend to hard core Conan fans.   After reading it I actually found out that it wasn't published until 1976, way after Howard's death and I'm honestly not surprised.  It doesn't represent the best of the Howard's works and is passable.

            Next we have The God in the Bowl and this is where the stories really started to get good.  Once again, it goes further back in Conan's life to the time when he was young and a professional thief.  In it, Conan goes into a temple only to find its head priest murdered and is immediately suspected for it.  The rest of the story is about the guardsmen trying to piece together what exactly happened to the priest.  This in itself may not sound like much but the way the suspense is drawn out makes it worth it.  On one hand you had the guards eager to kill or capture Conan who was just as willing to cut them all down and on the other you were wondering just what it was that killed the priest.
            This one also happened to start a plot gimmick that would become very common in Conan stories for all time to come.  I won't spoil it but let’s just say you'll know what I mean when you read it.  Surprisingly, like The Frost Giant's Daughter, it wasn't published until the 70s, possibly because it was rejected by Weird Tales.   None the less, I recommend that you give it a read because it's a good one.

            The Tower of the Elephant is often considered to be one of the most classic of the Conan stories and I can honestly see why.  While in the city of Zamoria, Conan decides, practically on impulse to break into a tower known as The Tower of Elephant to steal a jewel known as The Heart of the Elephant from the evil wizard Yara.  And this is an enjoyable story.  Most of it is just Conan sneaking around the city and people explaining things but the fights are cool and the final twist concerning the tower was really mind blowing. 
            The only real problems I have with it is that he tries to pull this job on impulse, (which is kind of stupid of him), and how he meets another character who helps him out in the robbery.  Suffice to say, it was way too coincidental.   
            Those flaws aside, I recommend this one.  Odds are if you're a Conan fan you've probably already read this one.  If you're looking for a good place to start then start here.  It's a good one.

            Next we have The Scarlet Citadel and, my God, was this one is awesome!  It takes place sometime after the events of The Phoenix on the Sword where Conan is captured by the armies of neighboring kingdoms Ophir and Koth after he is tricked into helping Ophir.  The rest of the story is Conan trying to escape a labyrinth full of hellish creatures and return to save his kingdom before the armies of Koth can conquer it. 
            Now, there are a lot of good things to talk about in this story so I'll limit myself.  The character of Conan is at his best, the villains were people you wanted to see torn limb by limb and those introduced in this story were awesome for what they were, (it is a pulp fiction story so don’t expect them to be on par with those of A Song of Ice and Fire).  The only negative thing I have to say about it is that at times it seemed a little rushed, as if Howard had been pressed for time while writing the last act of the story.  But still, it's a great one and definitely worth the time to read it.

            Next we have the Queen of the Black Coast, another great classic Conan story.  While I’m not sure of its exact place in the Conan time-line, but it mainly deals with Conan's days as a pirate under the Queen of the Black Coast, Belit.  The majority of the story tells of how Conan became a pirate and how his days as one came to an end.
            Throughout the story, Conan was at his best, being both cynical and badass at once and this was the story that really established what he believed in religiously and exactly how much he cared about it and I think that was a great addition to the story.  In the story's final act, Conan and company go to a lost city to loot its wealth and the story behind said city was very interesting and mind blowing as were the horrors they encountered within.
            The only major criticism I have with this story was the character of Belit.  In a nutshell, 90% of her dialog consisted of just telling Conan how much she loved him and how nothing can separate her from him.  It just stuck me as being at bit....forced, like Howard was trying to build up to something rather than make a three dimensional character, (although the final payoff is pretty cool).
            All around this is another story I would highly recommend.  Unlike several of the other Conan stories, this one actually felt like a complete chapter in Conan's life rather than just being a part of it.  It had a memorable plot, good action and great concepts.  Highly recommended to anyone who likes Sword and Sorcery.

            Finally, we have what I like to call “The Conan the Barbarian Hyabora Retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae”.  But the story itself is called Black Colossus, (why exactly I have no idea).  In it, a princess of the nation Khoraja  names Conan, now a mercenary, commander of her armies on the advice of a God, (just go with it), to defend her nation against the wizard, Natohk and his huge army of nomads.
            This is a story that I have to admit was fairly forgettable.  The characters were fairly boring and forgetful, Natohk wasn't a very good villain and Conan was just dull in this story.  The only things that make it worth reading are the final fight with Natohk's army, and the ending which was I thought was just hilarious.  It's not one of the first stories I recommend but it's by no means the worst either.

                And those are my thoughts on some of the Conan stories.  Are they good?  Well, technically no.  In all honest, the stories and characters have zero depth and complexity and a lot of the stories haven’t particularly aged well and they have garnered a lot of criticism for sexist and racial portals.  But then again, it is called pulp fiction for a reason.  The only reason you read these books is for the same reason you might see a Sylvester Stallone movie or one of the Transformers movies.  You’re just in it to be entertained and that is more than enough to reason to read a book.  Maybe I’ll do more reviews of these stories at a later date, but for now this is The Illusive One Signing off.