Conan the Barbarian – I live, I love, I slay

Title: Conan the Barbarian

Director/Stars: Jason Momoa (Actor), Ron Perlman (Actor), Marcus Nispel (Director)

Genre: Fantasy

Watched: August 24, 2011

Summary: Plot holes galore, but fun!

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The new Conan is surely a guilty pleasure for the fantasy hound like myself. Yeah, the plot and characterization is a little weak, but it is gorgeous, and the action is comprehensible. I have to admit, I enjoyed it. It’s certainly faster paced than the awesome although slightly dated and admittedly cheesy original — my recent review here.

The casting is decent enough. Jason Momoa lacks a bit of the gravitas he had as Drogo in Game of Thrones, perhaps because he speaks English here. He has charisma, and handles the action well, but the American accent really bugged me, and he plays it with a touch of the comedic. Ron Perlman is fun as dad, although he doesn’t mention Crom, but he does talk about the secret of steel — at least indirectly. Stephen Lang has already proven he makes a good one-dimensional bad guy (although he’s no James Earl Jones). There are a bevy of distinctively made up sub-bosses, although none of them are as cool as Rexor and the other headbanger. Rachel Nichols is a little dull as the screaming victim/love interest, although she’s cute enough. But call me twisted, I thought Rose McGowan was hot and funny as nasty sorcerer-girl daughter of big-bad. Yeah her fivehead is CG, but she’s looking great for 38.

And the world looks awesome! The cities and temples (as seen in overhead shots) look totally kick ass. Funny too that they’re all so close together, as it never seems to take anyone more than an hour to ride/walk between locations. I guess the lack of public transit notwithstanding, the Age of Hyboria predates traffic. This is a fairly authentic (to the 1930s source material) Conan world. It has slave girls. Even George R. R. Martin likes slave girls. Said women in bondage are properly absent their tops.

The action scenes are fun and surprisingly clear. They could have edited this to death like a lot of recent movies, but you can make sense of what’s going on in a physical way. I had the good fortune to see it in 2D, without sunglasses.

Someone also did their medieval torture research. The noseless sub-boss employs a genuine torture device in his nameless workcamp. It’s somewhere between The Head Crusher and the Thumbscrew, but it’s real. I went to a torture museum in Volterra Italy, home of Twilight’s most leather-conscious vampire clan, so I’m all up on this stuff. Later in the movie, Tamara spends some quality time bound to a wheel, which is most reminiscent of this, fortunately for her, she’s way too pretty to break and leave for dead. Big-bad even uses a clever homebrew version of the Lead Sprinkler to harass Conan and dad.

But there are a lot of lost opportunities here. The backstory intro is cheesy as hell and not really necessary. Conan has some friends, but we don’t get to see him meet them, nor do they play a really important role in the story. There’s basically no characterization of anyone, but there could have been. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark manage to characterize and have plenty of action. We don’t really find out much about the world or any people in it, instead it merely serves as pretty backdrop.

 

But did I mention I really liked skanky sorcerer-girl Marique?

However, I do have a few questions:

Who cut infant Conan’s umbilical cord? Why did the big-bad bother with the whole “torture dad” bit when his little witch-daughter could just sniff out the mask piece anyway?  When Conan and friends role a bunch of boulders down at the slavers, how is it that they miss hitting all the slaves? Imagine the coincidence that after 20 years of searching for the “pure blood”, Conan arrives at the temple on the exact day in which the big-bad finds her. If sub-boss Remo is such a badass, why does he run from Conan the moment he sees him? Why does the big-bad travel with a ship carried on the back of twenty elephants? And given said elephants, why does he need a whipping crew of slaves to pull it too? And given all that, how do they get the ship on and off the elephants without a crane? Why after big-bad and daughter fall for the ancient trick of being taunted to kill their informant (the old priest) do they gloat? Why did not much come of sorcerer-girl’s poison? Why don’t we see sorcerer-girl at the hair salon, obviously this is where she spends most of her time? Why does Conan let the girl go wander in the woods after sex, knowing that the bad guy is looking for her? And where did those woods come from anyway, as they were on a rocky coastline? Oh, and when sorcerer-girl leaves a calling claw, how is it that she has all five a minute later? How does Conan manage to ride all the way to the city of thieves and back to big-bad’s hideout in about an hour? Why does the hideout have a little monster fun pool in the basement? How does Conan get out of said hideout? And how does his thieving friend? Why if sorcerer-girl is so badass, does she fall for a little cat-fight action and not pull out some new magic at the end? Why if this mask is so powerful does it not really help the big-bad any? Or even curse him as payback for his big-badness? After winning, why does Conan drop off the girl at home and ride off into the sunset with hardly a word of explanation? Surely he could have brought her home to his ruined hovel or had at least one more literal roll in the hay!

Overall, though, it’s about 1000 times better than the Clash of the Titans remake.

For my review of the original manly man Arnold version, click here.

For more Film reviews, click here.

 

 

Conan the Barbarian – Lamentation of their women

Title: Conan the Barbarian

Director/Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Actor), James Earl Jones (Actor)

Genre: Drama

Watched: August 3, 2011 (and before)

Summary: Still one of the great fantasy films

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In honor of the upcoming remake of this classic, the  release of the blu-ray, and the political demise of its star, I decided to rewatch this for like the 10th time — I think the last time was in 1997.

During the long long dark ages of fantasy filmmaking, before the wonder that is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, or the epic new HBO Game of Thrones, we fantasy fans had to be content with a sorry set of films indeed. Above the pathetic likes of Willow and Krull, the 1982 Dino De Laurentiis epic starring the pre-Terminator Mr. Universe was high art indeed. In fact, it’s pretty much hands down the best High Fantasy film prior to LOTR.

It’s fascinating to see how it’s aged. Pretty well.

Technically, the blu-ray isn’t radically better than the DVD in the picture quality department, although it looks good. There is some film grain from the era, and the movie has a lot of contrast which strains my plasma (I need to get an LCD or good new projector). The sound needed a major new restoration it didn’t get, it was pretty terrible. Which is a shame given the spectacular score. Nevertheless, none of this takes much away from the film.

This movie has blood, guts, and tits, snakes, swords, cannibals, wizards and all that long before HBO. Gotta love it. The period head-banger stylings of everyone, particularly the bad guys are great fun.

I love this trio of baddies. Check out heavy metal guitarist Nigel Tufnel on the right. Love him. And James Earl Jones is fantastic as cruel neo-hippy-killer Thulsa Doom. “Steel is week, flesh is strong!”

This movie feels big. It uses wide open location shots in Andalusia Spain to good effect, big sets, and crazy costumes. It’s just plain unabashed. Sure the dialog is laughably cheesy and the script ham-handed. Transitions are abrupt and there is little to no character development. But there are great lines like “time enough for the earth in the grave” and Atilla the Hun’s stolen quote, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” All good stuff.

What’s also very interesting is the forgotten style of epic storytelling, which has more in common with Lawrence of Arabia than it does with modern action crap like Transformers. This film has long Easy Rider style travel scenes with just the thunderous score and more interestingly, several almost ballet like giant action numbers with an operatic orchestral quality. These scenes, notably the raid on the Conan’s village, the assault on Set’s tower (awesome!), and the war-painted invasion of the cannibal Mountain of Power (more awesome!), have virtually no dialog. They have muted sound effects, but predominantly the mood is set with the booming orchestra and the intricately choreographed action, swaying as it does to the hypnotic score.

Really good stuff.

Peter Jackson knows his fantasy films, because he borrowed heavily from this in his own epic. Think the Black Riders at the Bree ferry, or the long descent to the bridge of Khazad-dûm. All favorite scenes of mine.

Michael Bey, eat your heart out!

Click for a review of the new 2011 Conan.

Or for more Film reviews, click here.

More Game of Thrones CGI

My post showing Game of Throne’s transparent CGI was wildly successful (over 25,000 views on my site alone). Apparently its been popular across the web at large because the SFX company released another video of even more.

Particularly interesting is how many of the weapon strike shots (getting stabbed, speared, shot etc) are all added in with CGI. Traditionally this was just done with quick cuts, trick weapons, and fake blood. Now, evidently, it’s cheaper (and better looking) to just have the actors pantomime the response and fill in the weapon and gore. All those latex horror effects guys must be out of jobs!

This is a very effective means of conveying what they’ve done, and also shows you how weird the rough cut of the show must look without the visual effects. And, also tells you why they need six months after wrapping filming to get the show out!

You can check out the first video here, or

my reviews of each episode of Season 1 of Game of Thrones (the HBO series):

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Or my review of A Dance With Dragons.

Game of Thrones – CGI

This is a very interesting little video showing off how the Game of Thrones locations are built up using Computer Graphics, substituting effectively for matte painting in traditional film.

In my extensive reviews of the show one thing I’ve noted is that the “foreground” CGI elements are a little thin. There aren’t much in the way of magical swirls, lightning bolts (LOL) etc. The backgrounds however are incredibly lush — and subtly so, bringing to life the rich and detailed world. This video shows the intricate relationship between the art of the location scout, the set dressers, overall planners, and the CGI team. Pretty impressive!

Also don’t miss this second video with more effects, this includes a lot of action shots (getting stabbed, etc).

Also check out my reviews of each episode of Season 1 of Game of Thrones (the HBO series):

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Or my review of A Dance With Dragons.

A Dance With Dragons

Title: A Dance With Dragons

Author: George R. R. Martin

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Length: 959 pages, circa 400,000 words

Read: July 12-23, 2011

Summary: Awesome, but not without issues.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

My charge through book 5 of Martin’s epic fantasy series was a bit drawn out by my need to concentrate on the second draft of my new novel Untimed, but I finally finished. Before I launch in, it should be noted that this review is full of spoilers.

Dance is huge, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages. This itself is actually a welcome and comforting fact because these books are something to savor. Overall, I would rate this volume as better than A Feast of Crows and slightly worse than the first three. Still, it’s a fantastic book. Prose-wise, Martin is still a master at both people, places, plotting and reversals. It’s just that this book suffers from a few pacing and structural issues.

Most of these stem from his controversial decision to pull out half the characters from the bloated manuscript of Feast and push them into Dance by themselves. So the first two thirds of the new book is everyone who didn’t get a turn in Feast. Now, for the most part, this saved the best for last. Dany, Jon, and Tyrion make up the bulk of the book, particularly this first two thirds, and they are some of my favorite characters. But overall this leaves both Feast and Dance feeling a little more threadbare than the first three books. Personally I think he would have been much better off winding out the story chronologically, trimming out some useless threads (Aeron Damphair, Victarion, and probably the Dornes), and rearranging the plot so as to have some kind of sub-climax at the end of each book.

As it is, Dance reads excellently for the first 2/3, feeling fairly focused on its three mains. But it’s weird to rewind in time and revisit certain happenings from Feast from the other side (for example Sam leaving the Wall). When we get to the cut off point, however, some of the characters from Feast start to weave back in. This mostly has the effect of slowing the narrative and making it more diffuse. At least until the set of cliffhangers and deaths that come in the final chapters.

I also think that Martin is letting his pacing slip a bit. It’s not that each chapter isn’t entertaining and well written — they are — but many threads there have multiple chapters where the happenings could’ve been collapsed without loss. If we hadn’t known a few of those details were there, we would never have missed them. Worse than the pacing issues, however, is a weirdly increasing fondness for skipping some of the big moments. Now Martin has always done that (the Red Wedding, the “death” of Bran & Rickon, etc) but it’s worse than ever. He has a real tendency to build slowly toward a big event, then skip the event itself, showing what happened to the characters obliquely through other eyes at a much later point.

I’m going to go through some of my opinions and analysis thread by thread.

Prologue

I don’t really understand why fantasy authors are obsessed with these. It was kind of interesting, but didn’t advance anything.

Jon

His thread is fine (until the end), but it does feel a bit static. While he’s certainly grown into command, he mostly sits back at the wall and fields interference between factions (Stannis, his queen, the Red Priestess, the Wildlings) etc. Then at the end, he mysteriously decides to rush off to Winterfell. This is a move that makes no sense as he has refused to enter into family entanglements about six times before, and while he is goaded, there is really less at stake for him. Then out of nowhere comes a reaction to this decision that leaves us in a bad cliffhanger. Boo.

Tyrion

The Imp is funny as always and now I can hear Peter Dinklage cracking each and every droll line. Still his thread is also a little dragged out, although it does involve some great sightseeing and is certainly entertaining all along. In the first part of the book it feels like he (and everyone else) is heading toward Dany, but then he gets within inches and turns back. Using him to introduce us to Griff and “Young Griff” is however an excellent device and works much better than an extra POV would have. It is mostly through Tyrion and Dany that we get a sense of the complex and old slave societies of the mainland. Unlike Westeros which feels like late Medieval England, these realms feel more like the ancient east (perhaps an updated Babylon vibe).

Dany

Her chapters are mostly political. She does feel a bit passive. I don’t really understand why she doesn’t try to get a handle on her dragons earlier, this is obviously a key move which could trump all of her political problems. Instead she dicks around (literally and figuratively) with various factions. This is all fairly entertaining, but feels like treading water. Then “a big event occurs” (at least this one is on screen) and she rides off on Drogon. That’s all great, but her narrative disappears until the last chapter. When it returns nothing is resolved at all, but a new out of the blue cliffhanger is introduced. I do really like the world of Meereen and the slave cities, although it feels like we are lingering here a bit long.

Barristan

The hero serves to replace Dany as the POV in Meereen. He’s actually a great POV character with all his lingering thoughts about events during and before Robert’s Rebellion. I really enjoyed his chapters. But they didn’t come to any resolution.

Theon

The hier to the seastone chair returns to us, a few bits worse for the wear. I hated Theon in books 2 & 3, but I enjoyed his chapters immensely here. His transformation into Reek and back again is very deftly handled, with a very proper (and sordid) period quality. It isn’t for no reason that Tarantino used the phrase “medieval on his ass” and that is exactly what the Bastard of Bolton has done to Theon. His pseudo redemption is good. Still, we have classic Martin avoidance of the action with the actual escape from Winterfell. In the cut between Theon jumping from the wall into the snows and his delivery to his sister is a big blank. Not that we needed the travel, but whatever battle happened at Winterfell needed some detailing.

Asha

I could have lived without her POV. It mostly serves to fill in some parts of Stannis’s story when he leaves the wall. The technique is sketchy and I ended up having no idea what really happened during his brutal snowy march and the seige of Winterfell. This I thought was the weakest part of the book structurally, as I’m basically confused.

Quentin and the Dornes

Cut! Dull for the most part, except for some info about the cultures they traveled through. I couldn’t have cared less for these characters. The attempt to steal a dragon was interesting, but was also vaguely described. I’m thinking that Martin, for all his brilliance as a character and world builder, isn’t actually the best at action scenes.

The Dorne chapter back in Dorne: It was okay, but we didn’t really need it.

Jaime

This sucked. I like Jaime’s POVs, but this single chapter had a bunch of crap, followed by one of those annoying Martin reveals that just serve to highlight the gap in information. Brienne returns and they ride off. You don’t find out how she escaped her predicament, what she knows, anything. It just kinda sucked. The effect of her cliffhanger was entirely spoiled.

Cersei

These were pretty good, and I enjoyed seeing her get hers. Martin certainly knows how to throw in the creepy little details so your mind fills in the rest.

Victarion

Cut! I could have lived without these, and they basically just told you he was heading off to Dany with a horn and a Red Priest. Although he’s better than his brother — I’d take any chapter over Aeron Damphair.

Arya

These were great. I have no idea where they’re going, but that’s fine. Arya has always been one of my favorites. Give us more. To be honest it felt like these were the chapters that should have gone in Feast and this the conclusion that book should have had for Arya’s thread. Probably that was Martin’s original plan.

Bran

His chapters were good, but so little, and it all felt dropped as his last chapter is about midway in the book.

Davos

I’ve never been a fan. I think we could have just had these told by raven.

Epilogue

This was actually very good, really being a Kevan in King’s Landing chapter in disguise. I loved the return of Varys at the end — particularly his dialog.

Some observations: There is more magic of sorts in this volume. Martin has a real thing for nubile slave girls — but then again, what self respecting fantasist doesn’t? The scope of this book, with it’s gigantic foreign cities reminiscent of the ancient world is going to make for some hard adapting should the TV series get this far. As I noted in my series reviews the show already has problems with handling large scale people scenes. These slave cities and the like will make that even harder. Likewise with the slave sex and slave violence. I’m all over it (in fiction) but some of it will undoubtedly have to be cut/changed. Sigh. I like that Martin at least highlights some of the sad reality of actually being a nubile slave girl.

Overall, Martin’s books are among my all-time favorite novels. I enjoyed the book immensely, and eagerly await the the next volume (and I’m sure I’ll be waiting for a long time), but I can’t help but think it could have been SO much better if Martin had taken all the material in both Feast and Dragons and reedited them together into two chronological and slightly leaned down volumes.

Also check out my reviews of each episode of Season 1 of Game of Thrones (the HBO series):

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Kushiel’s Dart

Title: Kushiel’s Dart

Author: Jacqueline Carey

Genre: Epic Historical Fantasy

Length: 912 pages, 315,000 words!

Read: June, 2011

Summary: Long, overdone, but intriguing

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This book itself as Fantasy, but it’s certainly not your typical one. Really it’s a sort of reinterpreted epic (and I mean long) historical romance — without much of the modern sense of romance (almost none). But it does have plenty of the traditional, more atmospheric form.

This is a flowery first person narrative about a slave girl brought up as a sort of high end courtesan who gets involved — very involved — in politics. I’m going to try and break down and discuss various elements of the work.

It’s worth noting the tremendous length. The book is 900+ pages and feels it. I enjoyed it, but it’s like four novels glued together. This lends it a decidedly Gone with the Wind effect. Just when you think it should be over (except for the fact that you have 650 pages to go!) everything switches up and it moves on to a new stage. This happens several times.

First the setting. With the exception of a bit of prophecy and one large scale pseudo divinity (the Master of Straights) at about the 85% mark this novel really has no magic. And in fact, is actually a sort of disguised work of Historical Fiction. The Fantasy is more the invented nature of the tale than any actual magic. As best as I can tell the whole thing is more or less set in a reinvented thirteenth or fourteenth century France. It felt late medeval or early Renaissance. At times I wondered if it even had overtones of Carolingian (ninth century France). The names of the places and faiths are all changed, but in a recognizable way for those of us who know our European history. Rome is “Tiberium,” Spain “Aragonia,” the Germanic tribes the “Skaldi.” Carey does a good job of this, and her grasp for the flavor and cultures of Europe between the fall of Rome and the modern era extremely solid. The central nation of the novel feels both troubadour French and even a little Late Venetian Republic at times. There are plenty of deviations from real history. First an foremost the loosey goosey religious situation (as opposed to the dogmatic Catholic church). The religions have been reinterpreted and the nation founded by what appears to be an interesting mating of Jesus and Dionysus. An intriguing (and Romantic) mythical entity who was also followed around by a bunch of demi-god disciples who seeded various schools or bloodlines. Overall, the setting was probably my favorite part of the novel.

The voice. At first I loved the voice. Yeah it’s flowery. Girly. Really girly. And full of words that the Kindle dictionary informed me were “archaic” or just chosen for plain weighty flavor. Words like “limned” or “ague.” The sentences have an unusual and formal structure. There is a LOT of reppetition. This began to wear on me. Carey reminds you like 50 times who everyone and everything is, which considering the vast cast of characters and the incredibly complex political situation might be necessary for those that don’t have a semi-photographic memory or an obsessive knowledge of European history. The narrative is first person, and told from some unspecified far future point in Phedre’s (the protagonist) life. It’s the antithesis in many ways of my own voice, as it’s really really really heavy on the TELL and fairly light on the SHOW. Carey loves to insinuate before the action (when it occasionally occurs, separated by many many pages, but often enough given the titanic length of the book) that things won’t turn out as planned, or that something bad is about to happen. Lots and lots of stuff is done with narrative summary. I myself try to set everything in scene and tell it as it happens in a more hard boiled style, more like the Maltese Falcon or the Big Sleep, even if the subject matter is very different. Carey chooses a more sentimental approach. But at the same time I found the voice very distancing. A lot of this is the feeling that it is written looking back on events, which removes a lot of the tension inherent in the action. The rest is probably the TELL factor.

I liked the whole sex-slave-girl-bondage-courtesan angle. But Phedre is a little too good at just about everything other than pure agressive bravery, and she has her constant companion the warrior-monk for that. While bad things do happen to her, she pretty much flawlessly reads every situation and is titanically lucky / unnaturally talented. I still kinda liked her. And the fact that she has a lot of edgy sex is good. The book alternates between graphic and evasive in this realm, which ends up being more teasing than satisfying. Still, I guess normal people might find it dark.

Now the overall affect of this novel is pretty good. It starts off great. But it sometimes bogs under volumes of political talk I found excessive – and I read multivolume political histories for pleasure! Some of the sub-adventures (like Phedre’s time as a Skaldi slave) are really good and there are lots of varied settings, cultures, and characters. I also really enjoyed the depth of world building and the alternate but very “realistic” religious mythos. But…

There is absolutely no psychological realism to any of the characters, our protagonist included. The central condition of Phedre’s nature is supposed to be that she finds pain and suffering intrinsically hot. Even this isn’t really handled totally consistently. The rest of the people — while interesting and possessed of different traits — merely serve the story or the need to roster out a bunch of interesting types. The don’t feel exactly cardboardy, as they are detailed, but unlike the completely brilliant Game of Thrones, there is no fundamental relationship between the different nature of different personalities, their situations, and the decisions they make and the consequences those decisions bring.

In the end, I found the way in which things just sort of grandly worked out for Phedre tedious. The big war at the end is complex, but summarized, and the wrap up phase of the story nearly 100 pages. Carey also just loves to throw in grand and sumptuousness just for it’s own sake, which at the beginning felt lush, but by the time Phedre has dressed in 62 elegant gowns a bit much.

Still, I kind of liked the book, if only for its world and its very creative reinterpretation of medeval/renaissance fantasy. At times it reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay, but his works felt somehow a bit more connected to place and certainly more emotional.

For more book reviews, click here.

Game of Thrones – Episode 10

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 10 – July 1, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Wrap up with a twist

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Episode 10,  “Fire and Blood” serves primarily as a transitional episode, moving the characters from our headless climax into position for season two. Still, it’s a great episode, doing a good job of managing our many story threads without seeming too rushed.

Arya is pulled out of her fathers execution and set on the way north with Yoren with a bunch of scumbags, Gendry, and some annoying boys. We could have gotten a better look at the men in the cage, but I guess we have episode 1 of season 2 for that.

In Winterfell, Bran has a good scene with Osha and Rickon in which the prophetic (or at least psychic) power of his dreams is hinted at nicely. We actually see Shaggydog too. I’m continuing to come around to Osha, but not sure about Rickon — not that he matters too much.

In King’s Landing we get two scenes showing the odious Joffrey at work. He’s amusing as always, but when he drags Sansa out to the battlements to see her father’s head we do get to see something impressive. Despite her being an annoying snit during most of the season, we can really feel for her predicament here, and the little seed of Stark strength that the situation is nurturing. A moment with the Hound hopefully foreshadows their peculiar relationship too.

Robb makes the transition from warleader to King, and they’ve done a pretty nice job with this. The moment of his proclamation was always one of my favorites, echoing the traditional elevation of sovereigns by the troops (Imperator Imperator!). It feels a tiny bit small, but good nonetheless. They should have picked him up on their shoulders or shields!

Catelyn has one final conversation with captive Jaime, which is as much to establish where we are leaving him at season’s end as anything. Still, this is a very nice scene, and Coster-Walkda continues to nail the character. His continued arrogance is pretty delectable, particularly “I’d hoped the fall might kill him” and the pause when she asks him WHY he pushed Bran out the window.

I suspect the Cersei sleeping with Lancel scene back in King’s Landing will come off as odd to new viewers (although it does satisfy the show’s never ending appetite for boy butt). But Tywin’s handing off of the job of Hand of the King to Tyrion is very well done. In the show it comes off more generous than in the book, less barbed. Sure it’s a reaction to Jaime’s capture, but it makes us think the bad man might actually care — just a little. Then we get just a touch more Shae.

At the wall, Jon is finally determined to run away and help his brother, but his new (black) brothers race after him and bind him metaphorically with a reiteration of their oath. This is surprisingly effective. Partly because of the strength of Sam’s performance, and partly because the oath itself almost brought a tear to my eye. He is then later pleasantly surprised when Morment knows, isn’t too pissed, and he learns they are about to march off north of the wall. And so we have him maneuvered into place with the northern offensive set to launch.

Then before we get to the real wrap up, we have a have a bizarre little bit with Maester Pycelle and Ros, the busiest whore in Westeros. In this we see the relativity of viewpoint as well as more of naked Ros. But what is most disturbing, and most amusing, is the moment at the end when a transparent top (only) wearing Pycelle does a little post sex octogenarian jig.

Now as to Dany, her final pivot of the season, and the culmination of her transformation from meek princess into Mother of Dragons. This is the seminal moment of the first season, the return of magic in Westeros. She smothers the lifeless Drogo, builds his funeral pyre, then loads the annoying Mirri Maz Duur on to burn (good riddance). Finally, walking in herself. But “no true dragon can be hurt by fire.” The acting was uniformly good — except for Duur — through both this scene and her morning awakening with the dragons, but I thought the pyre scene itself needed some more magical effect punch just like the tent scene did last episode. It seems weird and anti-climatic that Jorah and crew don’t notice anything weird and magical at the time, but come check the ashes out in the morning, only to find the hot, dirty, naked, bedraggoned Dany alive and well. This final scene, was however, very effective, despite the gratuitous use of a green dragon as a fig leaf! We just needed some more magic, and the time gap between the two actions possibly reduced. The dragons themselves looked good, although perhaps the camerawork could have been a little more dramatic.

Still it was a great end, and I weep with regard to waiting ten months for more.

As to my concluding thoughts on this very strong television adaption of a great book: Bang up job. I have only three real complaints — fairly mild considering — and all involve punching things up a little bit.  1) The score didn’t feel scored enough. A slightly more dramatic musical underscoring of events would have helped with the scale. 2) The supernatural needed better treatment. Not cheesy, but Lord of the Rings serves as an excellent model. 3) The large scale action and people scenes needed a bigger feeling of scope and more cinematic dynamism. The wide locations shots were great, but they needed this equivalent for crowds, and perhaps some more hectic and creative cutting  (in occasional scenes) to imply larger action.

But they got so many things right. The writing, casting, and acting first and foremost. 90% of the roles were cast and performed to relative TV perfection. And given the time constraints of 10 episodes, they more or less wrote the heck out of it.

Bravo!

Reviews of previous episodes: [ Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5, Episode 6, Episode 7, Episode 8, Episode 9 ] or a cool video about the CGI.

Or my review of A Dance With Dragons.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

Game of Thrones – Episode 9

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 9 – June 30, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Best episode in the series!

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Episode 9, “Baelor.”This is the episode where it all comes together, pretty much summed up by the text I got on first airing from a friend I convinced to watch (he hadn’t read the books — but is now): “OMG!  They killed Ned Stark!”

Not only does it take a lot of guts to up and kill your most central character near the end of the first book of an epic series, but George R. R. Martin really grinds the emotions in by making the reasons it happens so damned personal and believable.

This is the episode where the frothing cauldron of the last two boils on over. For everyone. This emotional tone renders it less sensitive than the previous episode to the diminutive effects of TV. We open with Varys visiting Ned again in the dungeon, and this narrative is used to spell out Ned’s last choice: die honorably, or confess and hope for exile and to save his daughters.

Then we have Robb faced with the choice of making a disreputable deal with an even more disreputable lord in order to gain military advantage in his war. He knows he’s got no choice but to win, and so he’s forced to go all in. Frey is just as amusing as in the books, and while he doesn’t have quite so many children as I imagined, the scene is well done. Particularly amusing is when Catelyn tells Robb he has to marry a Frey daughter and he asks, “how did they look?” and she replies “one of them was well…”

At the wall, Jon ponders not only his father’s imprisonment but the fact that his brother is going to war. Mormont tries to bind him further to the brotherhood by giving him his family sword. This is nicely done and there is some tie-back to Jorah. I particularly like the “he dishonored himself, but he had the decency to leave the family sword behind” bit. In another scene he gets a lecture from Maester Aemon about the hard choices between duty and family. Jon finds out exactly who the Maester was and we have another great scene from the books nailed with top performances.

Tyrion learns that he and his violent new tribesmen friends will get the most dangerous position in the upcoming battle. He stomps back to his tent to find Bronn has brought him a whore named Shae. She’s not how I imagined her in the books (they made her foreign), but I like the way Sibel Kekili plays her. I noticed her last year in the heavy German film Head On, and she’s a gifted actress. Although, we do have to wonder where Bronn dug up such a smart and sexy whore on short notice! Later in the show when the three play medeval “truth or dare” is a really good scene. Shae is cocky and sexy, and Tyrion’s rendition of his boyhood innocence and treatment at the hands of his father is perfect.

However I had mixed feelings about the battle — or lack there of. Tyrion is great and there are some funny lines like Bronn’s advice to “stay low.” But, instead of actually managing to fight — albiet badly — he’s just knocked out. The visual effect of him being dragged along is kind of cool, and I know they were trying to save time and money. But… they could have given us a three minute little window on the fight. I can’t help but feel this is more “TV shrinking effect,” the show’s biggest problem (really it’s only significant problem at all). I can’t help but feel the producers could do something creative and get a little more scope of action without too much more money.

And the same goes for the (non) battle of the whispering wood, where we just see Robb race back to his mother and deposite a captive Jaime at her feet. Come on. It was a night battle, they could have shown some horses and soldiers clashing in front of Riverrun and Jaime’s last stand. The books actually also suffer from certain large scale action being off screen (which I always felt was odd), but I’d hoped the show would rectify rather than amplify this. It would be easy enough.

Now as chaotic as the action is in Westeros, Dany’s journey is just as important. Her world is crashing around her. Drogo’s little chest wound from the last episode is now infected and he’s dying. For some slightly mysterious reason she has trusted the witch lady she saved (Mirri Maz Duur) to treat it, and now is willing to do whatever it takes to save his life, even if that means black magic. I love this part of the story, and I think Emilia Clarke handles it extremely well, but I do have a couple problems. The Mirri Maz Duur actress feels a little silly to me, not too bad, but she doesn’t have enough gravitas. And more importantly, the handling of the magic is underplayed. I liked the weird wailing sounds coming from the tent, but they decided to forgo any kind of special effects for the ceremony. I think this is deliberate rather than purely budgetary (although that is surely a factor). They have consistently played down the supernatural. But they needed it here. They didn’t have to go all the way to swirling wisps of light (ala early 80s Conan), but I think they should have done some kind of creepy animated shadow-play. As it is, the whole dark ritual is left mostly up to the imagination, and it may be hard for the new viewer to know what is supposed to be happening. It almost felt psychological. But the horse death was pretty decent.

And the final scene isn’t half assed at all, which is typical with the show, managing big pivotal (big in the sense of important, not scope) scenes nicely. Arya living in the streets is great, and then her viewing of Ned’s tragic “confession.” Joffrey continues in deliciously despicable style and orders the execution anyway. The handling of this for all involved is well done. Arya perching by that statue. The hysterical Sansa. Even Cersei livid. I would have just liked a little nod to the fact that they use Ned’s own sword: Ice. Come on, everyone loves a sword with a name. Jon said it when he gave Arya Needle, “all the best swords have names.”

Still, by the standards of TV, this is a near perfect episode. The human drama is handled flawlessly, they just need to add a little more cinematic feel to the action and magic.

Reviews of previous episodes: [ Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5, Episode 6, Episode 7, Episode 8 ]

Or the next, Episode 10.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

Game of Thrones – Episode 8

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 8 – June 30, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Oh boy, it’s coming

ANY CHARACTER HERE

I had to delay watching the last three episodes of the show for a month while suffering on vacation in Italy (travel log here). Even after being up for 36 hours I binged through two of the three after unpacking.

Episode 8,  “The Pointy End.” The last third of the season, or even last half, is all about grinding out the consequences of positions and choices made in the first half. Many of these lead to additional hasty decisions that will also have repercussions. Also it is worth noting that this episode is actually penned by George R. R. Martin himself, which is fitting because it’s one where the character arcs are really pivoting.

One of the great things about Martin’s novels are how believable these difficult choices are for the characters. They don’t see the future, aren’t even always aware of all that the reader is, and even more importantly, are filtered through their own biases and priorities.

We open with the play out of the season’s most central pivot, that Ned’s attempt to show the queen and her children mercy leads to disastrous results for his family and for the realm as a whole. His entire household in King’s Landing is slaughtered, and Sansa is captured. But Arya, training with her “Dancing Master” Syrio is not so undefended. Syiro is a favorite character and he is played delightfully by Miltos Yerolemou in the show. I do think that — like many scenes in this episode — that the production felt a little TV. Syiro holds off about five Lanister guards with a wood training sword, which is bad ass, but the choreography could have used just a little more punch. There just wasn’t enough zing to his movements. Still he kicks butt and his final line, “And what do we say to the god of death?” -> “Not today” is awesome. Similarly Arya’s all important stabbing of the stable boy felt a little flabby. Or maybe it was just by mood (very tired).

Ned is briefly visited by Varys in the dungeon, and I do love this portrayal of the spider. Instead of the interior monologue of the novel their conversation is used to expose the central crux of his moral journey: The fact that his mercy (toward Cersei) lead to his downfall, and that he must now chose between family and principles — and they aren’t good choices either way. We also have some wonderful background on Varys.

The news of events in the capital is spreading, linking the separate story-lines together. Jon is forced to cope with his own choices and loyalties between family and duty. We even see a bit of ghost! And then he gets to fight the white walker. This was pretty cool, but again, as I felt with a lot of this episode (but not about Episode 9) lacked a tiny bit of gravitas (not to mention Morment’s raven — boo!). But it’s still important as it really starts to establish his role with the Black Brothers.

In Winterfell Robb must deal with the imprisonment of his father, being forced to become the man he knows he should be. This is well handled, and there is a pretty good sense of him coming into his own. Theon is well set up. In the books he is extremely minor in book 1, but clearly the producers have chosen him as a character to emphasize in seasons 2 and 3. We have a bit of Bran in this part of the arc too. Somehow in the second two thirds of the show Bran feels much more absent than he does in the novels (as there he has all the POV for Winterfell). This brings him back a little, but I would have liked more emphasis on the wolves and the dreams. I’m coming around to Osha a bit though — even if she has crazy hair.

Tyrion and Bronn make their way out of the Vale. Their dialog is first rate as always, and they have their encounter with the mountain men. This too felt a little TV as they just couldn’t show enough men. You see about fifteen, but it really wanted at least 150, a real camp, and more of a sense of ferociousness.

Across the sea Dany is coming down off the high of being promised the world by Drogo to see a bit of the reality of what it really means to be a war leader. The Dothraki are slaughtering the “lamb people” and she tries to put a stop to the rape of some local women. This is a decision that for her will bring momentous change, continuing the theme illustrating the dangers of mercy. We also meet the witch, who looks like some Italian mother from Brooklyn. Like the other big scenes, and many of the Dothraki scenes in the whole show, this little battle felt crimped by the TV budget. Just not large enough or dynamic enough. Drogo’s fight however, defending his manhood and her honor, is pretty awesome. Jason Momoa has some real charisma, and I’m looking forward to the new Conan. He pulls off the very personal manly man-ness (guy-liner and all) to good effect.

The episode concludes softly with the dismissal of Ser Barristan, which is very well handled. You get a real feel for Cersei and this unctuous Joff overextending themselves. Barristan is wonderful too, along with Jaime the only developed member of the Kingsguard.

The plotting  and characters of this story are just so good. Everyone is in motion, in conflict all the time, but not just the kind of meaningless Transformers 2 style conflict, but real honest to goodness stuff that tests their fundamental values.

Reviews of previous episodes: [ Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5, Episode 6, Episode 7 ]

Or the next Episode 9.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

Game of Thrones – Episode 7

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 7 – May 22, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: The pivot of action and consequence

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Episode 7,  “You Win or You Die.” In a lot of ways, this episode is the biggest pivot of events in the maelstrom of plot shifts. While Game of Thrones took it’s time setting up the characters in the first four episodes, 5-7 are a whirlwind of motion. Consequences are the theme.

Because this episode is only on hbogo (for a week) and their are less summaries on the web, I’ll cover the scenes in more detail than usual. So spoiler alert (for this episode).

We open with Jamie and his father Tywin in a military camp, Lord Lannister. The excellent casting continues. They have a lengthy discussion while Lord T butchers a stag. This show uses the repeated device of putting explanatory dialogue on top of certain background but intense actions, like sex in a brothel, or Renly’s shaving. Here the butcher’s work is displayed in considerable detail, adding a nasty factor to the whole scene. We also observe just a bit of what Jaime has to deal with in his home life, and why doing the right thing hardly comes naturally to a Lannister. Oh, and the irony of Lord Tywin skinning a stag… sigil of house Baratheon, is not lost.

Next, one of the most important scenes in the book (and the series). Ned confronts Cersei in the garden, letting her know that he knows about the illegitimacy of her children. He gives her a chance to flee. Of course, he underestimates her, one should never corner a lion. All along, Ned’s honor, his need to do the RIGHT thing by a strict definition of the rules, rather than a flexible political definition, proves to be his achilles heel. This act of honorable mercy, in tipping his hand, more than anything else sets the entire war (which Robert predicted was coming) in motion.

Then we cut to Littlefinger in his whorehouse, training a newly arrived Ros and some other vixen. This earns the episode its nudity in spades. It’s also the same basic mechanic as used with the stag. Still this dialogue, where he slightly unnaturally confesses some of his youthful lessons in life to the whores, reveals a bit more of his complex character. This scene is new to the show, as the information contained here is revealed in Cat’s memory in the book.

We have more Theon exposition back at Winterfell as he attempts to tease Osha and is instead mocked. They are going to very considerable lengths to detail Theon’s background in this season, whereas in the books he barely has a role until Book 2. Osha seems too pretty to me, not hard enough looking.

Then we have Sam and Jon on the wall, where they see an riderless horse returning. They go down to find it’s uncle Benjen’s. Uh oh.

Back to King’s Landing where Renly rushes in to tell Ned that Robert’s been hurt hunting. We then see the injured king and Joff (hiss), and Ned and crew enter. The king shows off his nasty wound, and drives everyone but Ned out. He then writes a letter up making Ned Lord Protector and Reagent, and regrets his decision to have Dany killed (another decision that will have consequences!). When Ned steps out, Lord Varys (his performance is delicious) throws the blame Lancel’s way. Barristen the Bold is here too, and his character has been built up decently — although he’s the only member of the Kingsguard that is, other than Jaime.

Then across the sea, Dany and Drogo are chatting in Dothraki. Boy has their relationship changed. She’s playful and comfortable with him. But he does indicate that he thinks thrones are for sissies. And this from a man wearing way too much eye liner?!? Then Dany goes shopping at the crazy pseudo-middle-eastern bazaar. Some talk with Jormont, and he goes off to pickup his spy message from Varys’ agent — proving what we already knew, that he’s a double agent. Dany meets up with a wine seller from Westeros, and he offers to give her a special gift. But Jormont really is a double agent because he’s suspicious, and saves Dany from being poisoned. This scene has a slightly cheesy feel, as this is a whacky way to assassinate someone, as it depended on the coincidence of Dany stopping by for a drink.

Back to castle Black, where Jon and crew get a speech from the Lord Commander — again, where’s his bird? I loved the bird, and it wouldn’t have added any screen time to keep him. Save with the wolves. This bugs me considerably as in the books each of the boys at least has a completely integral relationship with their wolf, and the beasts are barely shown. In any case, Jon get appointed a steward rather than a ranger. He’s pissed. But Sam sees it for what it is, as he is to assist the Lord Commander directly. Sam is very well cast, and he’s likable, funny, and believably lousy as a solider.

Then back to King’s Landing where Renly is the first to attempt to convince Ned that practicality is more important than honor. If Joff is out of the succession, then that makes Stannis, the older brother of Renly and Robert, but not shown, the king. No one likes him. He has, as Loras said in Episode 5, “the personality of a lobster.” But Ned and his honor are on a unstoppable train. Renly presents detour #1, favor him as king.

But Ned sends a message to Stannis. Then enter Littlefinger to present door #2, make peace with the Lannisters and rule the kingdom as Joff’s Reagent — and Littlefinger’s assistance. Really, this is a pretty attractive looking door, and Littlefinger sells it so well. But alas.

Jon and Sam swear before the old gods. But first we see Ghost for about two seconds, and he’s cute, but where’s he been? The tree itself, with its bleeding eyed face is cool. The words of the oath suitable bleak. Loved it. The man hugs at the end were a bit cheesy though.

Dany and Jormont talk about the failed assassin’s unpleasant fate and Drogo enters.  He is another consequence, as Drogo swears before his gods and the stars to cross the narrow sea and give his bride her father’s throne back. Nicely done, and the Dothraki oath swearing was awesome. Lesson: if you attempt to kill your rival queen, don’t fail.

Then Ned is told of Robert’s death, and he plans with Littlefinger to get the guards anyway so that when he confronts the queen, he has some muscle. They then proceed into the throne room for a nice confrontation, which plays out very nicely. More consequences come back to haunt everyone as the straightforward and honorable Ned is out maneuvered again — caught in the snare of his own honor. Leaving us on a pretty serious cliffhanger. Joff is such a twat, I can’t wait for his wedding.

Absent this week: Tyrion, Cat, Bran, Arya, Sansa. The Lord Commander’s bird and all the direwolves except for two seconds of Ghost.

Overall the episode is great, packed with action and consequences again. We again have four out of the five threads (and really mostly the three: Dany, King’s Landing, and Jon). The note taking distracted me a little, I need to sit down and watch it again without all that.

Reviews of previous episodes: [ Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5, Episode 6 ]

and of Episode 8, 9 or 10.

Or my review of A Dance With Dragons.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.