City of Bones

Title: City of Bones

Author: Cassandra Clare

Genre: YA urban fantasy

Length: 460 pages, 131,000 words

Read: August 17-19, 2011

Summary: Fun until the end

ANY CHARACTER HERE

City of Bones is the first in a series of fairly typical urban paranormal. We have a girl who thinks she’s nothing special, but she discovers she’s part of this whole world of demon hunters, fairies, vampires, werewolves, etc. And right under our noses in New York City!

Seen that before?

Well yes. Certainly one of my biggest problems with this book is just how similar it is to lots and lots of other late 2000s urban fantasy. It’s much like Holly Black‘s stuff (White Cat, Tithe), but with a bit less atmosphere. In fact, the two authors are friends and share the same agent (coincidence?). But City of Bones is similar to a lot of other things as well. At times there’s a wee bit of a unique feel involving the Shadowhunters (that’s what this book calls the demon hunters clan the protagonist hooks up with). Just a little. There’s certainly very very little rooting in any kind of traditional mythology, but instead a whole hell a lot of stuff stolen from contemporary pop myth. Werewolves and vampires both, and guess what? They hate each other. Author Cassandra Clare started off as a Harry Potter fanfic writer, and that shows because she borrows a lot from HP. But not what you’d think. There’s next to no similarity of feel, no wizard school, etc. Instead City of Bones borrows things like naming conventions and loose bad guy structure. Names like “Pangborn” and the like. The evil guy (who faked his death) is back with a “Circle” (ahem Death Eaters) and their’s more. Clare loves capitalized terms like “The Circle,” “The Uprising,” “The Institute.”

Still, for at least the first 50-60% I really enjoyed reading this novel. It’s well written. Albeit overwritten. I can’t understand how the hell they let her through the gates at 130k words. At least 15% could be cut with just a good line edit and there are long long dialog exchanges that are either datadumps or serve only as barbed chatter between the male and female leads. The POV is a little wonky too, 95% of the time focusing on the female lead (Clary), but occasionally shifting to the male or even a baddy. Clary’s very very typical. She’s pretty, but thinks she isn’t. She dives into crazy life threatening fight scenes time and time again, but has no skills herself. But somehow you don’t mind her. In fact she’s pretty likeable. The male lead (Jace) is less typical. He’s genuinely obnoxious (verbally) but mostly tries to do the right thing in deeds. His aloof self is actually pretty well crafted, although annoying at the same time. There is some good tension in the interpersonal stuff — although not even the whiff of sex, which would have spiced it up.

All this criticism aside, I did actually enjoy the first half of the book. I even said to my wife half way: “I’m reading one of those rare urban fantasy’s that’s actually good.” Truth be told, there’s all sorts of drivel I don’t finish and don’t mention on my blog. City of Bones is a long book, and I flew through it to perhaps the 75% mark. I can’t exactly say what made it enjoyable, but it was. Despite the pretty derivative scenario, the characters were engaging for the most part. Clare’s a good action writer — not perfect, but her action scenes are to the point and clear. There’s a definite urban feel to things. Sometimes a little too much as this is one of those worlds where the fantasy types spend a lot of time at clubs posing as hip weirdos. They have “cool” swirly tattoos too (in this context quotes = sarcasm). There are twists and turns and reveals. Some of the big ones you can see a mile coming. Like the deal with Clary’s father. I guessed that one about page 20. The hints were slathered on like a redhead with the sunblock.

Really the only thing that prevents this book from being a solid guilty pleasure (it was never aimed at classic), and me from starting in on the sequel (which people say is actually better), is the cheesy final showdown. It totally lost me. Mired and tortured me in fifty pages of “bad guy gives lots of Scooby Doo explanation in the middle of a fight.” Yeah, he’s like stabbing with a sword and he has time to get about three pages of dialog in during each stroke. We even have this cheesy flashback from one of the older characters (a werewolf named Lucian — we’ve never seen that before!) to a supposedly crucial scene right around the time of Clary’s birth. A big flashback at the 85% point? It’s the only one in the book too. A couple lines of dialog would have told us what we needed to know. The whole end just felt forced. Clare should have kept the villain off screen or something, because he was so ham-handed he was begging for a slice of pineapple. Which is a shame, because there was enough craft in the other characters that I actually grew to like them.

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Fright Night (2011) – Not a waste of film

Title: Fright Night

Director/Stars: Colin Farrell (Actor), Anton Yelchin (Actor), Imogen Poots (Actor), Craig Gillespie (Director)

Genre: Horror

Watched: August 19, 2011 (and before)

Summary: Fun update!

_

As a lifelong vampire fan — hell, my first novel is (somewhat) about vampires — I saw and loved the original Fright Night when it opened in 1985. Truth be told it was always one of my favorite vampire movies (up there with Coppola’s DraculaInterview with the Vampire, Let the Right One In, and The Lost Boys). The 1985 Fright Night offers up a clever blend of comedy and horror. Not only is the movie very funny (and it holds up well today), but it’s not a pure spoof. The plot’s moderately clever, and the vampire, played by Chris Sarandon (Susan’s first husband) has a sinister charm and a genuine sense of menace. In my opinion vampires need a sense of menace (even the goofy Master from Buffy Season 1 is menacing). No sparkles for me.

So it was with some trepidation that I checked out the remake. See the trailer below:

I was pleasantly surprised to find the new version pretty fricking good. The story is loosely faithful to the original film. Buffy writer Marti Noxon penned the screenplay. She’s a consistently excellent writer, with the exception of the incredibly sucky I Am Number Four (maybe someone butchered it after the fact?) with a knack for catchy dialog. Most of the original elements survived intact, but character and balance has been adjusted significantly. Most substantially, Roddy McDowall‘s campy older vampire-killer TV host has been replaced by David Tennant channeling a campy blend of Chris Angel and Russell Brand. But that works.

The casting is top notch. Anton Yelchin is fast talking, self deprecating, and likable as Charlie. Imogen Poots is smoking inferno hot — and 21st century feisty/competent — as Amy. Hers is a career to watch, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her carrying a movie in the next year or two. The rest of the cast is fun too. But it’s Colin Farrell that steals the show with his visceral new take on the ancient killer. Farrell’s Jerry isn’t so slick or romantic as the classical vampire, but he brings a feral intensity to the role which is extraordinarily predatory. Supremely confident, this Jerry starts off the movie as a mere “human” predator, clearly a man not to be trusted with the ladies. But when he senses the kids are on to him, he doesn’t just depend on the defense of disbelief that the original did (although he does have some good fun with this) but goes straight for the jugular — literarily and figuratively. Part white trash, part serial killer, part vampire, he’s all around delicious to watch.

Noxon’s script is full of dark humor and quippy (but not too campy) lines. The story has been rearranged to suit modern tastes. Essentially act 1 has been compressed to almost nothing. Gone is the first third of the movie where the characters (although not the audience) are trying to sort out exactly what they’re dealing with. Instead, we open with vampire, and by scene three (perhaps 4-5 minutes) Charlie’s friend Evil is desperately trying to convince him that the new neighbor Jerry is a vampire. The movie makes no bones about confirming this either. It leaps right into fang games and breaks into a very extended second act filled with big chase and action scenes. This could have ruined the film, but the scenes are slick and intense. The final showdown perhaps felt a little rushed, and there was at least one major story error (the vampires show up in Vegas at exactly the wrong time and place with no explanation of how they knew to be there), but none of this really detracts from the fun and mayhem.

The effects are top notch and don’t get in the way too much. Sure they’re gratuitous, but they’re supposed to be. The editing is more classic, not the frantic mess that’s popular these days. And the cinematography was often quite striking. Certain shots were highly memorable: particularly both fang outs (Jerry and another), the stripper’s final number, and many others.

So vampire fans, go see.

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TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 6

CONTINUED FROM PART 5 ABOVE.

The rest of the series can be found here: [12,34, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:

 

Season 7:

So at long last we meander to the final, and worst, season. Not that it’s awful, but it does suffer from a number of serious problems.

1. The big bad is diffuse. This season, in an effort to be even more apocalyptic, they decided on an incorporal season villain called “the first evil.” A vaguely couched badness that takes the form of dead people, often Buffy herself (she did, after all, die twice). Frankly, the first is kinda lame, and not very funny. It certainly doesn’t measure up to Glory or the Mayor (although it occasionally looks like the Mayor). It’s “first” appearance (haha) where it slowly winds back through all the villains in reverse order is however kinda cool.

2. The slayerettes – About 40% into the season Buffy is inundated by a collection of 17 year-old idiots known collectively as the slayerettes. They totally suck, are just anoying, gum up the relationships we really care about, and often get themselves killed (good riddance). Only Kennedy has any redeeming qualities — mostly in the form of implied girl-on-girl action with Willow.

3. Andrew – For some reason, this lamest and most annoying of the “Trio” is held captive in Buffy’s house, where he can serve to annoy us, the viewers. He does have his occasional moments and lines, like “Episode one boring?” But mostly he grates on the nerves of the cast and viewer alike. Oh Andrew, why at least couldn’t you have died in “Chosen?”

4. Mysterious documentary-style shooting – Certain episodes have a more documentary style that is not evidenced anywhere else in the series. Notably “Storyteller” (deliberate there for sure) and bits in “Touched” and “End of Days.” It felt amateurish and out of place.

5. No good creative episodes – Nothing like “The Body” or “Once More with Feeling.” Nothing. They may have tried with “Storyteller,” but it was lame lame lame.

At least the writers knew it would be the last season, and so in a neat and orderly manner arced the story toward a decent conclusion. And the first half of the season starts pretty decently. The new character, Principal Wood is good. “Help” is a great episode and the Anya episode, “Selfless” has some totally priceless 1,000 year flash back scenes between Anya and Olaf the troll — totally priceless, and made all the better for being in some Germanic/Scandinavian tongue and subtitled. “Conversations with Dead People” and “Sleeper” aren’t bad either.

Ug. Then enter the slayerettes. The only compensating bit being the sub-boss bad guy, the “ubervamp” who is pretty cool and kicks some ass, including Buffy’s.

The second half of the season is uneven, including my least favorite episode in a long time “Storyteller,” but the pretty good “Lies My Parents Told Me.” The new sub-boss Caleb is decent too. Then we have “Empty Places.”

I don’t know what they were thinking, but it’s obvious the writers decided they had to separate Buffy from her friends for dramatic effect, and so they stage a show down in which they all turn against her. In no other episode of the entire series is there a moment where so many characters just act completely out of character. I can buy a few of them turning on her like this, but the writers failed completely to give each and every one of them a valid personal reason visa-via their relationship with Buffy to do so. I could barely watch it.

The return of Faith however is good, and the last three episodes are pretty strong, particularly the series finale “Chosen.” Despite the lame cameo from Angel, it does all end up in a pretty good place, and reasonably satisfying — a difficult thing to do after such a long and emotional series. Overall, it’s certainly a must watch, but just not on par with the magnificent pair of seasons that preceded it.

As with the previous two times I’m depressed that it’s over. This time I’m going to make a serious effort at Jos Whedon’s season 8 in comic book form.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 5

CONTINUED FROM PART 4 ABOVE. And the whole series [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:

 

Season 6:

The transition from season 5 into season 6 is the best of the entire series. After the season 5 finale, with its tear jerking “The Gift,” we slam right in with the two hour “Bargaining,” and it’s more or less continuation “After Life.” I’ve never managed to not watch all three of these together because until the end of the third hour things are so unsettled you just have to keep going.

Season 6 is dark, and in my opinion the seven seasons would be ranked 5,6,3,4,2,1,7. With all but 7 being fantastic, and five and six very close. Six is a bit darker, but I’ll give the edge to five just because I like Glory so much and the whole villain bit is more cohesive. But both five and six have almost no “one off” episodes, even those that technically have a monster of the week like “After Life,” or “Hell’s Bells,” are fundamentally crucial to the larger plot. And episode seven of season six is “Once More, With Feeling,” arguably, along with season 5’s “The Body,” the best episode of the entire series.

“Once More, With Feeling” is just mind bogglingly brilliant. Not only is it a musical, sung entirely by the cast and written and scored by Joss Whedon, but it’s a darn good musical. If you are new to Buffy, don’t watch this episode and expect to be wowed — I mean if you like musicals you might like it — but you have to see it in context of the series to really appreciate it. I’ve watched it no less than eight times, and I’ve been spell bound ever time. Plus I hate musicals. First there is the sheer audacity of it: to just up and write a musical episode, complete with MGM musical style titles in the middle of a long running dramatic series. I even own the soundtrack. But then, much more importantly, is how this episode is actually the most central to the season, the one in which everything comes to a head. It has the most plot, the most climax, of any Buffy episode. Nearly every character is pivoting here — and the music makes it happen. Sheer unadulterated genius.

After “Once More, With Feeling,” things grow really dark. This season our nominal villains are the Trio, three geeks who have ganged up to be super villains. They’re pretty funny, although not nearly as menacing as the mayor or Glory. They do have some tremendous lines like “episode one bad?” But really, their villainy is trumped by none other than the best friend. In the middle of this season Buffy herself struggles with Nihilism, and a career in fast food. But Willow… Her magic addiction threatens to destroy her relationship, her life, and ultimately the world. Lots of other stuff is self destructing here. Giles leaves, Dawn suffers teen angst, Anya and Xander implode, and Buffy turns to down and dirty sex to validate her dark self. This is good stuff, almost too dark.

Nearing the end we have the very emotional “Seeing Red,” and then the high speed tripple whammy of Willow’s vengeful meltdown. The end is good too, just not as deeply felt as “The Gift.”

If only season 7 could have stayed this good.

CONTINUED HERE IN PART 6.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 4

CONTINUED FROM PART 3 ABOVE. And the whole series [12, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:

 

Season 5:

Season 5 and 6 pretty much tie for the best of the seven! Pretty incredible how this show just keeps on getting better and better until the final season. With this season everything slips into a serious groove, but what’s really surprising is the depth of emotion pulled out of the viewers. Nearly gone are the episodic “one off” episodes (discussed in my Lost vs The Love Boat post), instead the story just rolls from one episode to the next with only a few exceptions.

The first episode (“Buffy vs. Dracula“)  is light, but it ends with a shocker, one that is reinforced in episode 2 (“Real Me“). Suddenly, and without explanation only-child Buffy has a little sister named Dawn. What casually might seem like a gimmick to spread the show demographic younger in fact becomes completely central to the season’s plot and deepens the character interactions immensely, particularly for Buffy. The season’s “big bad,” Glory — my second favorite after the Mayor — is a Hell God in need of a magical key to break open the barriers between dimensions. Some crazy monks rebuild the entire reality of the world to hide the key as Buffy’s sister, having altered all reality and history such that she existed all along. Pure genius.

What this really does is turn Buffy’s nice little dyad with her mother into a full-fledged family, upping the personal stakes immensely. And it isn’t all supernatural. Joyce (Buffy’s mom) develops a brain tumor in a long and very emotional arc that ties in brilliantly with the family aspect and with Dawn’s growing understanding of her esoteric nature. This comes to a series of shattering culminations in “Blood Ties” and “The Body.” This last episode is probably the best of the entire series, or at least tied with “Once More with Feeling,” and is a stunning piece of television. Written and Directed by Joss (as most of the great episodes are), it is a tour de force of film making. Free of music, almost free of the supernatural, but jammed packed with horror, reality, and emotion, this is a seriously tear inducing hour. And it includes network television’s first on-screen lesbian kiss!

Wisely after the disruptions in some of the formulas from the first three seasons that college (season 4) brought on, season 5 brings the gang into a stable new orbit. Giles has purchased the Magic Shoppe and this replaces the library as the central hub. Xander and Giles are back in full orbit, and Anya, Tara, and Dawn integrated into the team. But it’s Spike, and his new every episode role and gradual character transformation that really livens things up. In an amusing, poignant, and brilliant turn he falls for Buffy (hopelessly — at least for now) and she literally ends up making him a better man. But this doesn’t stop him from still being sordid, hilariously. “Fool for Love” in particular is a brilliant episode in which Buffy forces spike to recount the story of his creation (by Drusilla) and his killing of two other slayers. Plus the Buffybot is pure genius, and real Buffy’s turn playing the bot to get the truth from Spike truly touching.

There are some serious themes of loss and alienation going on here, growing and growing as we head toward the dark territory that is season 6 — Love it! The weight of the world, the family crises, and the burden of protecting Dawn, take their toll on Buffy. This comes to the world shattering conclusion in the finale, Joss’s brilliant “The Gift,” which even on the third viewing had me crying. Seriously, this show is that good!

As the poignant music surges, and Buffy runs from Dawn to dawn across the platform — Death is your gift!

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 3

CONTINUED FROM PART 2 ABOVE. And the whole series [12, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:


Season 3:

Everyone must have thought: With the little half-length first season, and such a strong second season, that Buffy season 3 was heading toward a huge sophomore slump. But no, this season is even better than the second. Several things contribute to this:

1. The writers learn to deepen the mythology. They bring back old characters in surprising ways. They take gimmicks that made previous episodes great, and reintroduce them with new twists that get even better. Through it the characters and dialog stay strong, the veneer of comedy and fantasy is used to toe into, and then later delve deep into places where TV was usually afraid to venture.

2. The “experimental” or more radically different episode is introduced.  These special episodes shake up the viewers preconceptions about the show. Many of these are written and directed by Whedon himself, and make up some of the best episodes of the series, culminating in Season 6’s “Once more with feeling.” Season 3 comes out of the gate this way with “Anne” (Buffy alone in LA), and continues with “The Zeppo” (told entirely from Xander‘s perspective), and “The Wish” and “Doppelgangland” (where an alternate version of the town and characters are explored). These introduce vampire Willow, who heralds some of the long term changes in store. Willow: “It’s horrible! That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil and…skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.”

3. The main series arcs become more integrated with each of the shows. We get the best darkly comic villain of the whole series, the sinister “Mayor.” The arcing becomes so sophisticated that even the most standalone episodes have important changes affecting the relationships of the characters. We meet bad-girl Faith, who provides delicious counterpoint to Buffy’s honor-bound sense of duty — not to mention introducing sexy newcomer Eliza Dushku. Her presence, twisting as it does across the entire season and winding together with the overall villain arc helps stich the entire season together. The result is very few episodes that feel standalone, as even those with a monster of the week are moving forward the relationships between the characters.

4. Sub arcing involving character relationships, notably the love lives of Xander, Willow, Cordelia, Oz etc. proceeds fast and furiously.

 

Season 4:

This season could have sunk the show, as High School shows often fail after graduation. It’s stil a transitional season,  but it accurately reflects many details of college life (adapted to the Buffyverse). The show’s formula is mildly upset by the change. The relationship of the Scooby Gang (the main gang of friends) and mentor Giles teeters — enough that by season five, college will be downplayed and a new equilibrium established around the magic shoppe as headquarters.

Additionally, the main villain of the season is the weakest of the series, involving a government/army conspiracy and a frankenstein-come-terminator monster. Still, the great writing holds everything together through the change.

Many classic elements of a High Schooler’s transition to college are parodied successfully: college jitters, bad roommates, one night stands, over-drinking, fraternities, four-year lesbians, etc. The show keeps us engaged by continuing the ever evolving relationships. Willow and Oz explode, and she goes gay. Xander finds love with an ex-demon. Buffy has her only healthy relationship of the entire show. Spike, the popular villain from season two makes a return and begins a long an amazing transformation that is pretty much a Whedon halmark, where villains can become heros and heros villains.

The tradition of special episodes also continues with the groundbreaking “Hush,” the extraordinarily creative “Superstar,” and the oddball “Restless.” In “Superstar” for example a relatively minor (at this point) reoccurring character from the past literarily takes over the show. This extends to a meta level, involving the creation of a new custom title sequence just for the episode. There is a radical creativity here, a willingness to experiment and play with even the container and format of TV itself.

CONTINUE WITH PART 4 HERE.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 2

CONTINUING FROM PART 1 ABOVE. And the whole series [1, 2, 34, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Buffy

 

Season 1:

The Buffy pilot is a work of art. In just 74 minutes, it manages to effortlessly introduce a big cast and a complex setup. But it’s the dialog that sells the entire series, and how that manages to consistently characterize a big cast of very funny, yet very real people, caught up in ridiculous situations. There’s a rhythm to it, capturing natural teen dialog, self referentially referred to as “buffy-speak.”

Xander: Well, uh, maybe I’ll see you around… maybe at school… since we… both… go there.
Buffy: Great! It was nice to meet you. [walks away]
or
Willow: Well… when I’m with a boy I like, it’s hard for me to say anything cool, or, or witty. Or at all. I-I can usually make a few vowel sounds, and then I have to go away.
Buffy: It’s not that bad.
Willow: No, i-it is. I think boys are more interested in a girl who can talk.
Buffy: You really haven’t been dating lately.

Whedon even manages to make an info dump funny:

Buffy[to Giles] To make you a vampire they have to suck your blood. And then you have to suck their blood. It’s like a whole big sucking thing. Mostly they’re just gonna kill you. Why am I still talking to you?

The pilot may be brilliant, but some of the other episodes in this mid-season 12 episode run are a little “monster of the week.” The special effects are laughable. But still, the dialog is spot on and the characters are great. Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, and even the evil Darla are all sexy, yet not fully stereotyped. Xander and Giles are just plain funny. Even in this early run, the season has an overall meta-villain, the sinister, yet silly “Master,” a rehash of all Most Ancient Vampires.

The Master: You’re dead.
Buffy: I may be dead, but I’m still pretty. Which is more than I can say for you.
The Master: You were destined to die! It was written!
Buffy: What can I say? I flunked the written.

He’s totally silly, but he’s also kinda scary in his own goofy way. And he is a nasty killer. The connections between the pilot, a few of the intermediate episodes, and the literally killer finale (“Prophecy Girl“) give the show a nice hybrid continuity (see my article on this). Overall it’s the weakest season until Season 7, but it’s still fun, and the show slips in references to material from older episodes in such a consistant manner (much as real High School friends never let you live anything down),  that it’s essential to foundation for the greatness that is to come.

 

Season 2:

It’s with the second second that Buffy really starts to hit stride. As our season villains we get the awesome Spike & Drusilla, a pair of british vampire lovers who play marvelously against type. On first watch a lot of the episodes in this season don’t seem as integrated into the overall story and mythology as they will from Season 3 on, but the clever writing team retroactively mines them as sources for ongoing material in later seasons, therefore pulling them into the fold. The robot employed in “Ted” will eventually lead to Season 5’s robot girlfriend and hence the Buffybot. “Halloween” sets up Giles’ past as Ripper, and his old nemesis Rayne. The creation of a second slayer upon Buffy’s first season death at the hands of the master is revealed. And that’s just a few.

Across all the episodes the relationships between the characters start to really come into their own. Willow’s lifelong crush on Xander is stymied and she meets Oz and begins to dabble in witchcraft. Xander’s negative chemistry with Cordelia draws them both into something unexpected. Giles’ dark past begins to surface. Fundamentally, the writers aren’t afraid to play with their formulas. Since season one, Buffy’s relationship with the brooding reformed vampire Angel has been growing, and when on her 17th birthday she decides to give her virginity to him: Things don’t go exactly as planned. Writers before and after have used the supernatural as allegory for human problems, but never with such darkly comic panache. The show isn’t afraid to go dark. I mean really dark, and still be funny. Most shows would have just beat around the bush of Buffy’s sexuality, but here, she does it, and gets a metaphoric stake in the heart in return. This pivot drives the second half of the season into really dark territory, and it’s all the stronger for it. Watched back to back on DVD there is a raw emotional intensity to the arc, and it comes from just plain good writing. The characters are funny, yet real, and their genuine changes and growth irresistible.

CONTINUED IN PART 3, CLICK HERE…