Alien: Covenant Review

SPOILER WARNING: PLOT AND ENDING DETAILS FOLLOW

So I’m that weird guy at the party who, when the topic of the Alien franchise comes up, will swear up and down that Prometheus is one of the best movies in it. Depending on how much alcohol I’ve had, I’ll say it’s the best one. I adore that movie and what it tried to do, and while it may have missed the mark here and there, it ultimately is a gorgeous flick with some really compelling questions at heart.

Alien: Covenant is the direct sequel and everything its predecessor is not, which includes being good.

I’m honestly not sure where to start. It’s hard to separate Alien: Covenant from Prometheus because both try to do the same things, just one fails while the other succeeds. Both look at the Alien mythos and aim to expand upon it and answer questions, and both try to tackle themes that the previous movies never considered.

Answering questions is a very bold—and honestly very stupid—goal when it comes to horror. Monsters are scary because we know so little about them. The Alien is terrifying because it is this brutal force of space  outside our realm of thought and maybe time itself. It is the OTHER.

The Engineer, the Space Jockey, is scary because it has even less going for it. Here is this THING affixed to a chair with its belly blown open and calcified. It’s old, it’s dead, and the cargo that presumably killed it is not. Where was it going and why? Not knowing is better than knowing.

Or so I thought.

See, I believe Prometheus succeeds at answering questions first because its focus isn’t on the Alien but on the Engineers themselves. That dead transporter plays such a little role in the series that he’s fair game to work with. He’s a divergent path, and he’s why the film is called Prometheus and not Alien: Prometheus.

Second, every question Prometheus answers brings bigger and more terrifying questions to the forefront. The few hard answers we do get—and there are very few—only serve to enhance the Alien universe and make it bigger. There are devils as we have seen, but there are gods too. The problem is, they might also be devils. Kicking that question could doom more than just the bit characters stuck on LV223.

Alien: Covenant isn’t interested in asking more questions, only answering them. It doesn’t make the Alien universe bigger but smaller, and in doing so, it hurts the Alien and every question Prometheus asked in the process.

Perhaps this is why I’m so disappointed (and have hardly talked about Alien: Covenant so far in this review). I’m less upset that Alien: Covenant is a bad movie and more that it killed everything amazing about Prometheus.

We started an odyssey with Shaw and David off to figure out who created humans and why, and then we fast forward ten years and not only do those questions not matter, but Shaw has gone the way of Hicks and Newt and David has gone from morally grey to mad-scientist villain.

Alien: Covenant gives us a new cast of characters, a new cargo ship, and the mission of finding a habitable planet and planting new life. Their cargo is a thousand bodies and another thousand embryos.

That’s…fine, I guess. It’s a soft reboot away from Shaw and David, but I can work with it. However, I just need to stop again, because the goal here is just way less impactful and interesting than in Prometheus. The size of our character cast is pretty much the same, but finding God is so much bigger than just making more humans that I feel like we’ve taken a massive step backwards before we’ve even started. By scifi standards, our plot is pretty tired.

The first twenty or so minutes are also just straight boring. We get a parallel view of Walter (oi Ridley, why not name him Eric and continue the tradition?) walking through the ship and checking on his crew much like David did, only for Walter, something goes wrong long before they get to their destination. He has to wake everyone up, and wouldn’t you know it, they intercept a distress beacon.

I’m not sure if this is boring because we’ve seen it before in Alien or because the characters just don’t have anything gripping about them, but watching everyone debate what to do holds no real weight. We all know they’re going to the damned planet even if it’s literally the dumbest idea on the table.

You have a cargo of humans bound for a specific planet to kickstart a new colony of life. You’ve done scans and probably thousands of hours of research, but because this planet is closer, it’s cool to jet over and maybe live there instead?

At least the captain has faith!

The rest we’ve all seen before. We’re now six movies deep not counting the Alien vs Predator flicks, and that means that half of the Alien films have featured a different set of characters finding an Engineer ship, walking through it, and then something really bad happening.

Half of these films have had this exact same sequence. Let’s let that sink in.

The heart of Prometheus was creation, and that continues in Alien: Covenant, though in a very different way. The first had hope at its core, while this movie is just bitterly cynical and even misanthropic at times. Shaw wanted to better our understanding of the universe, and David is just a bored guy on an empty planet with nothing better to do.

His creating the Aliens through experimentation is also woefully bad for the Alien mythos as a whole. The mysterious OTHER outside of space and maybe time itself is the result of a bored dude with too much time on his hands! Real scary there.

There are, thankfully, some great moments to be found. Ridley Scott needed another few rounds of script editing sure, but man is he a master of visuals. Alien: Covenant is a gorgeous movie with some wicked-awesome monsters, and its only real flaw is that you can tell some of the stuff on screen is CGI. There’s a lot less practical work here, which feels odd, but none of it is by any means bad.

The Aliens look good, and the other creatures do too. They even bring a few nice scares to the table, though the movie is ultimately not scary or all that tense.

And despite my qualms with David, he really is the star of the show here. His interactions with Walter are especially great, shoving him somewhere into the uncanny valley with his AI-driven logic and human sociopathy. Fassbender really does phenomenal work. It is a shame that his motives don’t always work and the actual timeline of events falls apart when scrutinized for even a little bit. Or maybe he’s just not as smart as he thinks he is.

Speaking of which, if you were upset with stupid decisions made in Prometheus, you’ll have a right fit here. Yeah, Milburn and Fifield getting high and petting an alien snake ain’t smart, but they were fodder characters. We knew going in they’d die because horror movies need bodies. With Alien: Covenant, the smart people are just as stupid as the fodder.

Our ship’s captain gladly looks into a facehugger egg when David tells him to, even though David had just spent the last five minutes explaining why he was the bad guy.

“No, it’s totally safe. Please ignore my macabre museum of dissected and crucified monsters.”

“Well, I did just get done calling you the devil, but okay!”

The rest is, as I said, stuff we’ve seen before. The first act is boring scifi, and the third act is a blatant callback to Alien, though with way less finesse. At this point, I’d call it just lazy instead of homage. Act two is okay with some good scares and some fun moments with David, but ultimately it holds no weight, and the more questions answered, the smaller the Alien universe becomes.

The quest to find God died with Shaw.

I was nervous going into this movie because I knew we weren’t doing a straight sequel with Shaw and David finding the Engineer homeworld. Someone at Fox or in Ridley’s head said, “no this has to be Alien and not Paradise,” and we were bound to get something lesser in return. That David and Shaw might show up did keep my hopes up, though. I was excited.

Then this movie did literally everything I had hoped it wouldn’t. It then did a bunch of stuff I had never figured it would try because you shouldn’t have that many bad ideas in one script.

Small Favors Review (NSFW)

Note, I wrote this review for WeTheNerdy.com but like how it turned out. I figured I’d repost it here.

Also note, Small Favors is porn.

Welp, I’m reviewing a porn comic for WeTheNerdy because I wanted to see what rock bottom was like. As it turns out, it’s not regular darkness but advanced darkness, you can’t tell the men’s bathroom from the women’s, the accents are strange, the bus schedule is absurd, and I’ve lost my Gloveworld balloon. Patrick is also gone.

Okay. Now I’ve hit rock bottom.

The hardcover edition of Small Favors is 258 pages of porn, specifically girl on girl. Sometimes it’s multiple girls on multiple girls. It is 100% unashamedly porn, and binging all of it in two settings is maybe not the right way to read it. Like, it’s porn. The ideal way to consume porn is just enough to get off so you can get on with your day—in this case, that would be a chapter at a time unless you’re really quick to fire. You could potentially get a lot of mileage out of this thing if you play your hands right.

Our general plot is that Annie is a chronic masturbator, so much so that her own subconscious is upset with her. Like, deep inside she’s real mad that she keeps going deep inside herself. She’s magically sent to her inner mind, scolded for having no morals, and given a manifestation of herself to make sure she remains chaste and pure. This manifestation is named Nibble. Guess what Nibble likes to nibble on?

Girls. She likes to nibble on girls.

The best thing going for Small Favors is that tonally, it knows what it is and it wants you to enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s quirky and silly, and it does its damndest to let the world know that sex and masturbation are fun and should be treated as fun things. It’s cute most of the time, sexy some of the time, and in general…well, porn.

But it’s also a 258-page comic, and as a stuffy critic, I want more than that. Small Favors doesn’t deliver more than that. The characters don’t change, they all sound the same, and personal boundaries do not matter at all in this world of theirs. Every girl Annie and Nibble run into turns out to be a cute lesbian, and every one of them is game for all types of sex.

No one ever has to think twice about going down on someone else; thus, orgies happen at the drop of a pair of panties.

No one ever has to think twice about diseases or general cleanliness, which is why Annie and Nibble lick a stranger’s dildo clean so they can use it. The internal germophobe in me screamed so loud it woke the neighbors.

It doesn’t sound like a problem because it’s porn, but it kind of is. You can’t have the same tone and energy for an entire book without the whole thing getting old. Horror doesn’t work without moments of safety, action doesn’t work without moments of peace, and I guess porn doesn’t work without moments of actual character development.

I never knew that until today, so yeah for me for learning something new.

It would have helped if some of these characters would have at least acted surprised or questioned what was going on, because it’s not like all of the sex in this book is conventional. Most of it is, but there’s some light bondage, rimjobs, anal, and size play because Nibble can shrink, and I can’t believe Annie and Nibble would bat a thousand in that department. Like, at some point having Nibble shrink and crawl into places that people can’t actually crawl into would have to raise an alarm bell.

It would have also helped if the comic had toned down the amount of sex and made what was there last longer. It’s more a collage of parts rubbing against parts than any real buildup, and not only does that get tiring, it leaves any real intimacy at the door. For a comic that’s fine with genitals and penetration, it certainly wasn’t fine with holding a shot. One position would smashcut into another without any transition, making it more busy than sexy.

And color me white privileged, but the comic hits some creepy points that are actually pretty offputting. Small Favors opens up with Annie peeping on her neighbor and going down on herself at the same time, and while the two obviously get together later on, the idea of that just doesn’t sit right.

Maybe I’m being a prude. I certainly don’t want to kink shame anyone because hey, consenting adults and all that, but that above example is missing some consent, right?

Nibble isn’t any better. She has zero understanding of personal boundaries, and honestly, comes off as a bit stupid. It’s weird in a bad way. At one point, she’s in a grocery store and asks a clerk which wine would go best with Annie’s pussy, and I can’t help but find that a bit terrifying. It’s certainly not sexy. Like, that’s the kind of thing someone whose diet consisted of gerbils and human liver would say.

It’s also, sadly, a prime example of the dialogue on display. I think the word pussy averages out to like once every other page, though I didn’t personally count. Wet shows up more than it needs to as well. Taste too.

Finally, I once again have to wonder who this is for. It’s a $20 hardcover…of porn. Those aren’t small, and most people don’t put porn next to their Shakespeare and young-adult dystopias. You can also find better on DeviantArt or FurAffinity for free, and I’ll guarantee there’ll be more character work and better pacing.

At the same time, Small Favors is porn that works as porn and unlike Sunstone, isn’t ashamed to be porn. It’s cute and quirky, and I’m probably the only person on the planet who cares about logic while two people are taking turns licking each other’s assholes.

Enjoy your wanks, everyone.

A Cure for Wellness Review

The reports of body horror and gross-out sequences in A Cure for Wellness have been grossly exaggerated.

This is a problem when you’re sold on a movie as a shockfest of Cronenbergs and good ol’ Lovecraftian horror. Normally I’m not one for goreporn—I’ll never go anywhere near a Saw movie—but I already wanted to see this flick and I figured if the trailers were tame, then the seriously messed-up parts had to be something truly special.

They are not. There are also very few of them.

The plot for A Cure for Wellness is a fairly standard Shadow over Insmouth clone dressed up in a modern setting: Stock-broker Lockhart is blackmailed into going to a Swedish hospital to retrieve Pembroke, the owner of said stock-broking company. It’s shady money stuff. Lockhart then breaks his leg and winds up stuck in the hospital, which is, of course, not what it seems.

While there, he learns about the mysterious past of the place, finds out some nasty stuff, and bad things happen to him.

I’ll admit to attending A Cure for Wellness in the wrong mindset. When you’re upsold on a specific thing, you go in wanting to get to that thing right away and damn the rest. However, it’s not my fault the rest is a two and a half hour slog of basic horror. When I say this is a Shadow over Insmouth clone, I’m not lying.

From the moment Lockhart arrives at the hospital, you know there’s something wrong. Everyone has that Insmouth feel.

You also know that it’s a horror movie.

Let’s take a quick step back and look at The Shining. You know going into that novel that you’re in for Stephen King horror, that the Overlook Hotel is a bad place, and that by the end, people are going to be dead. And then you start reading and forget you’re reading a book. The Torrance family are too interesting, their characters so fleshed out that you just want to learn more. When bad things start happening, you fear for them. When the supernatural elements hit, they’re compelling, and you dive deeper into the narrative.

The book owns you.

A Cure for Wellness doesn’t do that. It’s a problem of character, because at the end of the day, no one is interesting or sympathetic enough to get you to really care. Lockhart’s a complete douche, and Hanna isn’t really around enough to serve more than her plot purpose. The only reason you feel anything for either is because they don’t deserve the crap that happens to them.

Lockhart is also plot-stuck in the hospital. I can’t tell if he’s simply narrow-minded or just stupid, but there are so many red flags about the hospital that it’s intellectually offensive when he doesn’t use any of his chances (plural) to escape without Pembroke. It never even occurs to him!

The movie tries to play at psychological horror and unreliability, that maybe Lockhart’s bad experiences are all hallucinations. It’s a good idea in theory, but it’s never executed well. Does he hallucinate? Yeah. But you can always tell which ones are hallucinations and which aren’t. You also never forget that he’s in a horror movie which takes place in a creepy hospital.

I could never suspend my disbelief, is what I’m saying.

I will, however, give the film its due. The hospital is pretty great. The place is stark white and clean, and of course everyone is drinking the water like it’ll make them live forever if they believe hard enough. It’s creepy. Once you dive a floor down to the hydrotherapy machines, you’re greeted to browns and bronzes and steampunk nightmare contraptions. It’s a hidden evil, but it’s so poorly hidden that it actually becomes interesting for it.

It gets worse the further down Lockhart goes, too.

The movie is also shot really well. I like the color pallet, and I like how creepy and suffocating many of the shots are. It’s also a movie that, when it finally gets around to playing at body horror, doesn’t pull the camera away. At all.

Sadly, there are only three of these scenes. One could argue for a few more, but they never made me uncomfortable. Two at the end are shocking for the sake of it, and neither are executed well enough to warrant anything more than some eye rolls.

The score too is very interesting. There’s a ballerina doll introduced early on and a simple melody to go with her, and this melody appears over and over throughout the flick. It’s used it in all kinds of situations, from the good to the bad, and it always comes off as just a little unhinged. It certainly works.

A Cure for Wellness isn’t what I’d call a good movie, but at the end of the day, I’m not unhappy I saw it. It’s shot well, it makes the creepy hospital work, and the score is fun. There are also some nice body horror elements near the end, even if it takes two goddamned hours to get to them.

The thing is, it’s straight Lovecraftian and I want more Lovecraftian horror in my movies. This one missed the mark, but I’m happy I supported it. The hope is that one day, instead of Hollywood milking A Shadow over Insmouth, they’ll release A Color out of Space or A Shadow out of Time. That would be wonderful.

My Top-5 Comic Series of 2016

2016 is the year I jumped out of my comic-book comfort zone. I sampled as much as I possibly could, and to me, that’s the spirit of the medium. Super heroes are what the general public see, but anyone who’s stepped foot into a comic store knows that when it comes to putting words over pictures, anything and everything is fair game.

It’s wonderful, and 2016 saw the release of many wonderful books. We had more I Hate Fairyland, more Wayward, more The Autumnlands, a new series from Jim Zub, two different Alien runs from Dark Horse, two Neil Gaiman trades, tons of scifi and fantasy from Image, a Lovecraftian crime noir miniseries featuring a talking cat, New Superman, and whatever wonderful piece of literature A.D.: After Death is turning into.

That all being said, picking my top five series and top five trades for 2016 wasn’t all that difficult. This was a good year for comics, but the best-of-the-best truly stood out more than ever. Plus, I gave myself two very strict rules to follow:

  1. No repeats from 2015
  2. The comic must have at least four issues out or completed its first arc.

This means that while A.D.: After Death is probably the best thing I read this year, it isn’t on the list. It also means I Hate Fairyland, Wayward, and The Autumnlands aren’t on here either, since those were my big favorites from 2015.

The idea is to promote new series or series with strong jumping-on points. Plus, talking about how good Wayward is at this point is just boring. I’ll be doing my top-five series in this post and my top-five trades next week.

5. Aliens: Defiance

Written by: Brain Wood

Art by: Tristan Jones, Tony Brescini, Stephen Thomson, and Dan Jackson

Publisher: Dark Horse

If you count the comic books and novels, the Alien franchise is actually jam-packed with content, and a lot of it sees the same ground being tread over and over. It’s perhaps never boring, but even I’ll admit that some of the franchise’s biggest tropes are starting to feel a bit derivative. Brian Wood seems to know this, because Aliens: Defiance is all about taking long-running tropes and expectations and shattering them. Zara isn’t your standard badass heroine, Davis isn’t your standard synthetic, and their fight against the titular Aliens isn’t your standard action romp. Everything about this series is character driven and outright lonely, because no one can hear you scream if no one is around. This coupled with a fantastic lineup of artists that know how to make great use of shadows have turned this into my favorite, non-movie Aliens series to date.

4. Glitterbomb

Written by: Jim Zub

Art by: Djibril Morissette-Phan & K. Michael Russell

Publisher: Image

In my introduction, I said that anything and everything is fair game in the realm of comic books, and Jim Zub is certainly proving that with his new series, Glitterbomb. Take one part drama and one part horror and stick both into a very dark, very strange character piece set in the worst parts of Hollywood. That’s Glitterbomb. Farrah is a down-on-her luck actress with a pig of an agent and barely enough money to pay her babysitter, and while that’s enough for a compelling story on its own, she encounters something otherworldly and…turns. It’s nail-biting horror through and through, though not because Farrah herself is scary but because she’s completely unpredictable. Well, she’s also a little scary. Her shift is some grade-A body horror, and the brutality on display would make Stephen King nod his head in approval. Djibril Morissette-Phan and K. Michael Russell excel at facial expressions that say more than words cannot, and they do blood and gore pretty darn well too. Everyone looks and feels human until they are not.

3. The Hunt

Written by: Colin Lorimer

Art by: Joana Lafuente

Publisher: Image

If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m a big fan of horror. I don’t like the gore-ridden, slasher kind though; if you want to keep me up at night, you need to give me terrifying ideas first and great characters second. The Hunt is both. The idea is that upsetting monsters that are well versed in magic is an awful, awful thing to do, and the character is Orla, a high-school girl who knows just enough magic to think she’s in control when she very clearly is not. The rest is a kaleidoscope of Irish mythology, changlings, threats of damnation, and a small beastery of monsters. The artwork here is never short of phenomenal, so much so that I find myself going back and just flipping through the pages. The Hunt just might be the prettiest comic to come out of 2016.

2. Black Hammer

Written by: Jeff Lemire

Art by: Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart

Publisher: Dark Horse

As someone that isn’t well-versed in super hero comics, it’s impossible for me to talk about the structuralism of Black Hammer, which is one of its biggest selling points. Intellectually, I know know what it’s doing, but I don’t have the experience to really appreciate it. Yet as an average fan of comics–and someone who has a strong dislike of superhero comics–I find Black Hammer to be astounding in its execution and scope. Jeff Lemire is a wonder at characters and voice, and superhero status or no, it’s the characters that sell this series. From their motives to their flaws to their backstories, each one feels ridiculously real, like they’ve been around for twenty or more issues and not six. The writing is truly exceptional. Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart match the tone and characters perfectly as artists, and while Black Hammer is never pretty to look at, it’s interesting and fits the writing.

1. Black Monday Murders

Written by: Jonathon Hickman

Art by: Tomm Coker & Michael Garland

Publisher: Image Comics

Black Monday Murders is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in the last five years, and I make it a habit to read a lot. It’s a crime story, one with a detective trying to solve a murder, yet it’s also a story of cults, satanism, magic, money, bankers, economics, and perhaps immortality too. Everything about it is strange in the best way possible. Each issue is oversized and paced with brutal perfection, because Jonathan Hickman is a genius and he knows what it takes to tell a good story. He also knows that telling a good story sometimes means breaking rules. Black Monday Murders is not afraid to end a scene with a series of blank pages, and it isn’t afraid to use outright prose either. A character might die on page ten, and on page eleven there’s a confidential dossier with half of its words redacted out. The two are related, and it’s up to you to figure out how. Tomm Coker and Michael Garland match Hickman’s written precision with their artwork. The book is gorgeous, and like Black Hammer, the artwork fits the tone, characters, and style perfectly. It’s rare to find a team that so clearly play off of each others strengths, but every scene is better for it.

Underworld: Blood Wars Review

The first movie I ever watched with my still-best friend (hi Travis!) was Underworld. This was back in 2003 when we were both freshman in high school and, by all accounts, a pair of immature idiots. Werewolves fighting vampires? Hell yes. When Underworld: Evolution came out three years later, it became a three-city spanning pilgrimage to find a theater that would let our underage selves in.

We did, by the way. We had to drive almost an hour away, but we found a place that would let us in.

Each new sequel saw us in the theater day one, ready to watch Kate Beckinsale as Selene destroy werewolves, humans, and vampires in showers of blood and gore, and after each film we would leave going, “That was the best movie ever made!” for a full two hours before reality set in. Alcohol was always involved.

Underworld: Blood Wars broke the tradition. Travis is now stationed in Louisiana, and I’m…well, an adult. My tastes have changed. My standards have gotten higher, and I’ve been sober all day. But I’ll be damned—and I type this with a grin—I still hold the same adoration for this series that I did when I was a freshman in high school.

I was unironically and very legitimately excited to see this movie.

Our quick plot summary is this: The werewolves have once again regrouped and are hoping to wipe the vampires out for good. They’re after Selene’s daughter, Eve because her hybrid blood will grant them superpowers, and they need Selene to get to her. The vampires, meanwhile, are after Selene for a handful of reasons, half of which aren’t in her favor because she has a pretty turbulent past with other vampires.

Queue chase sequences, backstabbing, and a heaping pile of violence.

As a fifth installment, Underworld: Blood Wars has a large amount of continuity and lore to work with. This works both in its favor and in its detriment, though perhaps more to the latter than the former. Michael is still gone, and Selene’s daughter Eve is as well. The movie has to jump through a handful of hard-to-buy plot loops to make this work, especially since everyone is after both characters. It’s a grail quest with no grail at the end.

But more than that, the movie really does cherry pick what it wants to keep and what it wants to ignore. Plot points from Underworld: Awakening are brought up, yet the elephant in the room is not. What of the human purge on all vampire and werewolf kind? We went from underground covens and near extinction to gothic mansions and gross levels of wealth seemingly overnight, and that just doesn’t make any sense.

Selene too has gone through some major character development off screen. She’s so gung-ho about killing werewolves in all the other movies that it borderlines on psychopathy, but we start Blood Wars with her sick of violence and sick of living too. That’s a big character change, and one I’d have liked to see. It’s not that I don’t buy it either, but I have a feeling that that journey was more interesting than the one presented in this movie.

Meanwhile, the vampires and werewolves are still at war with each other, and at this point I can only wonder why. Victor is dead. Marcus is dead. Lucian is dead. The key people who started the war some fifteen hundred years ago are no longer around, and I’d say it’s time to let bygones be bygones. There’s no reason to continue fighting other than tradition and spite.

Underworld: Blood Wars isn’t interested in moving on though. It isn’t interested in introspection, either. It has the word “war” in its title, and plot progression and character development be damned, it’s going to deliver on that.

It does.

Similar to Evolution and Awakening, Blood Wars is using its plot as a justification for action. There are a lot of characters at play here (and more moving parts than any of the previous movies), but it’s all to arrive at bloodshed. Our new vampires are taken right out of the first movie, with their snooty politics and plays at power, while our new werewolves are of the Awakening variety: smarter, bigger, and seemingly endless. It’s not a particularly new combination of ingredients, but it’s still fun all the same. The series knows what does and doesn’t work.

As far as new characters go, they’re about what you’d expect from an Underworld movie. Other than Selene and David, we aren’t really supposed to like or sympathize with any of the vampires, and other than Marius, none of the werewolves are even named.

It’s a funny thing, really. Underworld has always played both sides as flawed and at fault, but other than Rise of the Lycans, the movies break their backs to make the vampires out to be the good guys. If I sympathize with zero of our new vampire cast and also know that once upon a time, they kept all the werewolves in thrall, why should I want them to win?

Because at this point, not even Selene cares who wins or loses.

This reduces Blood Wars to a war movie of fodder fighting fodder with Selene and David along for the ride. The thing is, I don’t really know if this is a flaw or not. I’m only here for Selene, David, and our third character, violence. All three deliver.

It’s Selene’s endless supply of bullets; it’s Marius throwing vampires through walls; and it’s David’s blood-drenched sword that brought me back to my freshman self. The fight sequences here are many, and all of them are damn fun. Both of Selene’s bouts with Marius alone made the ticket price worthwhile, and hell, Marius and David shooting four clips into each other only to sweat the bullets out seconds later did too.

It’s not intellectually stimulating by any means, but it is fucking awesome and that has to count for something.

To the movie’s credit, it does expand upon the Underworld lore. There’s a new faction of vampires introduced around the middle of the flick, and they bring with them some light fantasy elements that really do add to the overall package. They also raise some interesting questions about death and the afterlife, which is more thoughtful than this series has ever gone. Of course, they also provide a ton more fodder for the inevitable werewolf invasion, which is, let’s face it, their primary purpose. It’s a war, remember?

Evenso, Blood Wars is a movie that I can confidently say gets better as it goes. The stakes don’t ever get any higher, but the battles and world both get bigger. Like I said, the series knows what does and doesn’t work.

And I have to give some mad respect for the sound engineers behind this movie. Everything sounds great, from the very loud, very punchy bullets to the numerous amounts of skin ripping. Everything feels so visceral and meaty, like in Gears of War 2 when you have to chop apart that giant worm from the inside. Each kill is so satisfying.

I hate to be that guy that gives a stupid movie a pass because it’s fun, but really, if you’re going to see an Underworld movie, your expectations are already set. I was excited for this movie because I was excited for more Underworld, and Underworld: Blood Wars is just that, only a bit bigger and flashier for the effort.

I had a blast.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

2016 has been what I’d call a messy year, but at least we’re getting more Harry Potter. If there’s a consolation prize to be had, it’s that. However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t Harry Potter. It’s its own thing, and we all knew that going in, even if we hoped otherwise. It’s a strange kind of disappointment, because it’s our own fault even if we don’t want to admit it.

Or I’m massively projecting. Either way, the movie is pretty good, but you know, not amazing because it isn’t Harry Potter.

I’ve seen Fantastic Beasts’ plot broken down into a comparison of Dr. Who and Pokemon; however, I don’t really agree. There are some beasts that need finding, but five is a far cry from 150. Fantastic Beasts is far more concerned with world building. America’s wizarding world has its own rules, Aurors, president, and a mounting tension between wizards and Muggles. It doesn’t help that the threat of Grindelwald is looming heavy over everything. In many respects, Newt Scamander and his beasts are simply along for the ride.

Fantastic Beasts is a movie that tries to do too much with too little time. There’s a reason fantasy works better in novel formats: The world building requires pages of space to work with. Hogwarts took thick books to feel real, and New York’s wizarding world feels like it needs the same treatment. Sadly, it doesn’t get pages but a few hours of our time, and that time is heavily split between America, Newt, and a few minor subplots involving a crazy, abusive orphanage of sorts. We can’t have a Harry Potter anything without some child abuse!

Other than the child abuse subplot–which, if nothing else, turns into some cool world building/lore–the two big story elements could be the main focus of the movie with nothing lost. A razor-sharp look at Newt and his animals would have made for an amazing ride of whimsy and awe while a movie about the American wizarding world by itself could have been a breathtaking journey into a new world that’s both familiar and not.

Instead we get both, and the movie  is a bit muddled for it. Thankfully, it isn’t muddled in the same way Warcraft is; I’ve come away here wanting more, not less, but it still detracts some. Had this story been a book, we could have easily had both plots and then some. In a way, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of a traditional Harry Potter flick: absolutely serviceable and fun but with a few too many cuts to feel like that 100% adaptation I want.

And for a movie titled Fantastic Beasts, they really do get waysided. The ones we do see are great, but most show up once as spectacle only to never return. The few that return do so in a Batman-styled utility belt kind of way, “Well this monster can do this to save us from this jam,” before going back to the belt.

It’s not like this is a bad thing though. It’s the beasts themselves that provide the most whimsy and potential for jaw-drops, and each is stunning in its own right. Seeing them move and interact with Newt really made this movie feel like a piece of the Harry Potter world, but a movie titled fantastic beasts should have more focus on them.

Once again, too much to do in not enough space.

If there is another problem, it’s Newt Scamader himself. As a character, he’s more quirks than actual development, making him entertaining for the first leg of the movie and somewhat boring by the end. He’s the guy that likes animals more than people, but we’re never given any reason as to why. There are hints, but without some solid background information, he’s just an eccentric in an eccentric world.

Meanwhile, we have terrorism, child abuse, shady politics, and the threat of open war between wizards and Muggles going on, and I’ll be damned, that seems more interesting.

Thankfully Newt’s two cohorts are far more worthwhile. Jacob Kowalski is a Muggle who bumps into Newt and makes the classic briefcase swap. When animals escape and start rampaging, Jacob gets wrapped up into the wizarding world. He acts as the perfect viewer cipher, going from bewildered and unsure to absolutely delighted. My reactions were pretty much on point with his from start to finish.

But the best part about Jacob is that he’s given very relatable fears and goals. While Newt is stuck in animal wonderland, Jacob wants to open a bakery because he hates working at a canning factory. That’s it. It’s that simple, and it’s in that simplicity that makes Jacob an amazing character to follow. I cared about him throughout the flick, because I sympathized with him. He makes sense.

He’s also completely adorable.

Tina Goldstein is our third hero, a down-on-her-luck Auror who is trying to make up for some past mistakes. Like Jacob, she’s not terribly complicated, and like Jacob, that works in her favor. She really just wants her job back and the respect that comes with it, and what starts as a simple arrest turns into a complete disaster for her and the rest of New York.

Fantastic Beasts falls into an interesting area because Hogwarts is half a world away and all of the characters are adults. The movie is also a few decades in the past, taking place long before Harry Potter was ever born. Yet we aren’t looking at a prequel but a compendium to the wizarding world as a whole, a piece of world building, but for the wrong continent. This is the story of the author of one textbook used for one semester in Hogwarts.

None of that is bad. Hell, in a way it’s all for the best. We all know what happened when Star Wars was given its direct prequels, and we’re all still actively trying to forget those movies. I’d be upset if Rowling approached Harry Potter in a way that was directly tied to Harry because his story is over. It’s fine to let a franchise end where it’s supposed to. It’s why I haven’t picked up The Cursed Child and have no intention of doing so.

That being said, I suppose now that I have my cake, I want to eat it too. My favorite parts of this movie were the nods to the main series as a whole, such as the namedrop of Hogwarts, Newt’s use of the word, “Muggle,” and of course, Grindelwald as the big menace hiding in the background. Let’s be frank here: We all know why we’re going to go see this movie, regardless of reviews or expectations.

It’s more Harry Potter… even if it isn’t.

Derek Kent’s Kubrick’s Game Review

Reviewers Note: My copy of Kubrick’s Game was supplied by the author. The novel releases September 26th, 2016 and can be preordered here

I don’t normally do log lines, but since Derek Taylor Kent’s newest novel is about movies, I think it’s fitting. Kubrick’s Game is Ready Player One written by Dan Brown…but about Kubrick movies instead of 1980’s pop culture. Here’s the thing though: I don’t like Ready Player One or Dan Brown. The former has maybe four good ideas executed in the worst way possible and the latter is a gimmick writer at best.

So when I say Kubrick’s Game is better than both, know that the bar isn’t set all that high.

Let’s get the basic plot out of the way. Shawn is a twenty-something in film school with a crush on his TA. He’s on the autism spectrum. His tick is movies. He especially loves Kubrick, and when his school is given a puzzle to solve—by the late Kubrick himself—he and his two friends are scooped up as major players. Of course, the puzzle turns out to be dangerous because what’s a book without a little danger?

The core of Kubrick’s Game is its puzzle, or its series of puzzles. Similar to Ready Player One which had a large quest embedded in 1980’s trivia, this book has its quest split through every Kubrick movie. All of the little flaws and debates the world has been having since Spartacus through Eyes Wide Shut were released are here, and the longer the book goes on, the more deliberate all those supposed flaws appear to be.

It’s honestly brilliant. I know a bit about Kubrick, enough to enjoy his movies, and I was nodding most of the way. It all fits together shockingly well, made better with captioned pictures from the movies. This book doesn’t just tell you how this works; it shows you. It’s a wonderful piece of movie history, of research, and of intertextual criticism. I cannot fathom how much work went into this book. (I mostly don’t want to because it would give me a headache.)

Plus, it’ll make you appreciate Kubrick on a whole ‘nother level. I have to rewatch A Clockwork Orange now. And all of his other movies, if I’m being honest.

I wonder…I wonder if this book would have been better served as a Holy Blood; Holy Grail type story. For those who don’t know, that’s the book that Dan Brown damn near plagiarized when he wrote The Da Vinci Code. It’s a long piece of “nonfiction” about Jesus and what The Bible doesn’t tell you, and you can find snippets of it on Google Books if you’re bored.

This book could have been that. Keep the research, keep the links between all the movies, and alter the agenda slightly. If Mr. Kent really wanted to, he could have convinced us all that Kubrick filmed [insert one of a thousand conspiracy theories here].

Speaking of which, this novel is loaded to the brim with conspiracy theories. I’m not a fan, meaning my eyes were rolling more than they should have been. They do somewhat fit here given Kubrick’s use of illuminati and freemason imagery, but I half check out when either show up regardless of context.

I don’t want to say it’s the characters that lessen this book, because they don’t. Honestly, all of them are fine and flawed in believable/interesting ways. Shawn is obsessed with making movies on a technical level because he doesn’t understand the emotional significance of them, Wilson is a has-been child actor who wants to be a director, and Sami is the aforementioned TA who doesn’t like Shawn in any romantic way whatsoever. They’re all fine. Hell, the idea of someone who only wants to know how movies are made technically is actually a great struggle because most of us watch them to be entertained and spoken to emotionally. He’s operating on a level I cannot fathom, and it’s handled well.

But the novel itself feels like it’s going through the motions most of the time. The plot speeds along at a fine pace as we hit the obligatory action and relationship drama needed to make a YA novel a YA novel. When I say this book is like Ready Player One, it’s because it hits almost all of those story beats. It’s actually a little boring.

It doesn’t help that just like in Ready Player One, there are long conversations about Kubrick movies that feel more like essays than plot progression.

The action and relationship drama break up the mystery and long essays on film theory, but neither are what I’d call realistic. The first handful of action sequences work, and I suppose they’re fun, but as the stakes ramp up and dangerous people bring out guns and knives, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one was calling the cops. By the final, climactic “fight,” realism is all but gone as gangsters are tackled and their guns are dropped.

The relationship drama is a bit trickier, because half of it makes sense given the context of Shawn as a character; however, I still didn’t care for it. It only ever came off as a distraction, and most of the big drama comes directly from Shawn saying or doing something stupid. I recall one scene that had me cringe so hard I almost stopped reading the book altogether.

Kubrick’s Game is a hard book to review because it technically doesn’t do anything wrong. It handles its core concept well, it has moments of fun, and I enjoyed the characters (for the most part). The ending is kind of bonkers, and I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not. However, there are parts that rubbed me the wrong way, little things that add up over the course of a book, and having read a few novels similar to this one before, I don’t see much that sets this one apart.

Well, other than the fact that it’s written better.

I guess I’ll end with this: If you haven’t read Ready Player One and want a clue-based mystery, this is worth a look. If you have read Ready Player One and liked it, then you’ll like this. It’s better.

If you have read Ready Player One and didn’t like it though, well, this may not sway you at all

Travis S Taylor: On to the Asteroid Review

My history with Travis S. Taylor as an author has been a rocky one. I enjoyed his contributions to the four Looking Glass books by John Ringo, though I’ll acknowledge that those novels are kind of a mess. (I’ll also acknowledge that I’d love a fifth installment.) After those, I jumped into his solo stuff with One Day on Mars and The Tau Ceti Agenda and found both to be poorly-written disasters of childish ideas and one-dimensional characters. I never did finish The Tau Ceti Agenda despite my best efforts to.

When Onto the Asteroid showed up … well, it was either this or an abysmal vampire spy novel. And hell, I was glad to see an apocalyptic story that didn’t involve zombies—seriously, those things are everywhere now. Bring on the mass destruction!

Of course, hindsight says I should have just not read either novel and saved myself the pain of this 330-page slog. Whoops.

Let’s start with the plot: Some new company wants to mine asteroids. Sure. I can dig that! They launch a rocket, stick an engine onto an asteroid, and start driving it towards Earth. I can dig this too. The problem is, the engine fails, and now the asteroid is heading right for our little blue planet. It probably won’t end humanity, but it will destroy society as we know it.

As far as plots go, it’s not inspired, but it’ll do. However, it doesn’t quite end here.

Instead of NASA taking care of this asteroid thing, we turn towards a second company that wants to start a hotel on the moon. Gary Childers is a super billionaire philanthropist who loves space, and since he’s got more money than anyone needs, he gets a bunch of say in how this is going to go down. He also has a really nice spaceship because money. NASA? No. His pilot is going to the moon, even though there are more-qualified people for the job.

See, there’s this strange undercurrent throughout On to the Asteroid that super rich people without limits or rules will save the day. Yeah, that one rich guy set the asteroid towards Earth, but he doesn’t count because there’s a better rich guy who has our back. He’s the nicest person in the whole world, someone you just can’t hate unless you’re a crazy terrorist, and he’s also really smart or something too. The novel goes into pain-stacking detail to make you want to love him no matter what because he is a dirty, dirty Gary Stu.

And because he has money, he can make things happen faster and better since the government can’t get in his way. It’s why there’s going to be a hotel on the moon.

Politically, I don’t like this set of ideals one little bit. It would be nice if the novel had some balance to it, but the evil rich company who set this mess off are ignored so Gary Stu Childers can work his magic, care about everyone more than himself, and then almost die a few times because we’re supposed to care if that happens.

The sad thing is, Gary Stu Childers is the only memorable character in the whole novel. The spaceship crew all blend together into some kind of grey sludge, and everyone else on Earth quickly become unimportant unless they’re really rich. The crazy terrorist stands out by being a crazy terrorist, but he’s just as boring as everyone else.

His shtick, by the way, is that someone hurt his honor so he doesn’t care if the world dies as long as he kills the people who metaphorically wronged him. It’s a real shame too, because his wild-card element should have been tense and fun, but instead it was just another paint-by-numbers thing to find boring. The end to his reign of terror is also so anticlimactic that it’s actually kind of offensive.

Everything about On to the Asteroid is uninspired, but being boring is the least of this novel’s problems.

Travis S. Taylor is not a good writer. His prose is awful—it’s more bland than his characters, all of whom sound the exact same—he seems to thrive on grammatical errors like a vampire does blood, all of his action sequences are grotesquely childish in execution, and his use of hard science turns what should be interesting sequences into choppy pieces of technical writing that are best skipped over.

Baen puts a, “this is an unproofed review copy” warning before all of its .pdfs, but even if that’s the case, there’s no excuse for the amount of typos, grammatical errors, style errors, continuity errors, and general writing nonsense found in this novel. What I read is a second draft, not something that should go on store shelves.

I’m not the biggest fan of hard science fiction, but I will acknowledge that it can better a book. The Martian would not be compelling without the formulas and essays on botany. Plus, Andy Wier makes it interesting. Hell, the same can be said of the aforementioned John Ringo books, whose bits and pieces of particle physics are really quite fun, if not a little too overbearing.

In On to the Asteroid, the hard science is used in the absolute worst way it could be, covering up action with facts and then skipping past the action so we can get back to our boring characters on their boring journey. None of it is fun to read, none of it is enlightening, and all of it should be removed. It does nothing for the narrative.

On to the Asteroid is a bad book. It’s a poorly-written mess of boring ideas in a boring execution that I almost did not finish. I wanted to stop around the middle, but I figured there had to be some kind of little twist hidden near the end, since there was so much left to go. There wasn’t. Instead, a 250 page novel is dragged out past its prime, bogged down by needless facts, repetition, and about a thousand other writing problems that should not be in a product people pay for.

Or to put this another way: When I hit the last hundred pages, I wasn’t geared up to sprint through them like a good book would have me do; instead, I began to skim, reading every other paragraph in hopes of something worth my time to show up.

Nothing worth my time ever showed up.

 

 

Nick Mamatas’ I Am Providence Review

Reviewers note: My review copy of I Am Providence was provided by Edelweisse for WeTheNerdy.com, but the review hasn’t gone up yet because [redacted] made a mistake. The novel releases August 9th, 2016

When I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever really enjoyed a who-done-it story. As soon as I know I’m involved in one, I of course try and piece the clues together to figure out who murdered whom and with what. The problem is, guessing right isn’t all that validating when you want to be surprised, yet guessing wrong usually leaves me feeling like I’ve been tricked in a bad way.

It’s all fun and games until the ending, when it’s either annoyance or disappointment. There’s a reason why I stay away from the genre.

The reason I didn’t skip over I am Providence by Nick Mamatas is that I really, really enjoyed The Last Weekend, his previous novel which came out earlier in the year. (Aside: Congrats Nick on releasing two books in a year! Damn!) I’m willing to take genre risks if I know I like the author.

I Am Providence was sold to me as a horror novel, though there’s little scare to be had. Much like The Last Weekend, it’s a character study on terrible people, or in this case, character studies. The plot takes place at The Summer Tentacular, a con for Lovecraft enthusiasts, all of whom are awful, twisted, and strange in their own delightful ways. The main characters are Colleen and Panossian; the former a newbie to the event and the latter a cynical writer who gets himself murdered.

Panossian’s death isn’t a spoiler since half the novel is narrated by him as fading ghost trapped inside his own dead body. He remembers everything up until the point where he was killed and his face was removed, but not that last crucial bit.

That right there is the only scary part of the book. It’s a terrible thought, being trapped in your corpse while waiting to be embalmed or even buried, stuck forever in blackness. It’s one of the irrational reasons I want to be cremated when I die. At least I’d get blown all over the place and get to view the sky.

The way Panossian handles the whole thing takes some of the scare away though. He’s obviously not happy about it, but much like Billy of The Last Weekend, there’s something a bit too fun about his depression and desperation that turns it from horror into a dark comedy. Panossian has a wonderful voice and tons of opinions, and since he has nothing but time, he lets his mind wander. He jumps from backstory to facts on Lovecraft to his opinions on those who attend the Tenatulcar every year (none of which are positive). It’s more fun than it should be.

The one thing Nick Mamatas can do without fault is create deranged, awful characters that you can’t help but enjoy and feel sorry for.

Colleen too is fun in her own right, acting as straight man in a sea of strange people, some of whom are outright misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, slightly crazy, obsessed, or some combination of all of the above. She acts as a good lens with which to view the event and the murder.

However, she doesn’t act as a good lens to solve the murder, which is a problem. While the cops question the event-goers—most of whom don’t care that Panossian is dead because he was a right prick when alive—Colleen takes it upon herself to help out. She does this by being nosey and all around annoying. The police tell her over and over to stop what she’s doing, and she rationalizes that as, “they want me to keep helping!”

Her attitude, and thus the bulk of the novel, drove me nuts. Colleen turned from a good reader stand-in to someone that was just obnoxious, which isn’t what you want out of a reader stand-in.

Halfway into the book, I was starting to grow a bit bored of the dynamic. Panossian makes a mental ass of himself, and Colleen upsets everyone around her by asking questions no one really wants to dwell on. Thankfully, there’s a nice little twist just when it’s all becoming unbearable.

But this is a who-done-it story, so we have to talk about the ending. I…didn’t like it.

The big problem is that there are too many characters, and once we’re getting a tally of all of the possible suspects, I realized I couldn’t remember who half of them where. When every character but one or two is unhinged, they all start to blur together. It really became a problem when a certain someone was looking like the prime suspect and I honestly couldn’t recall a detail on him.

The little problem is the whole thing wraps up a bit too cleanly. For a novel that’s really into Lovecraft (every chapter is named after one of his short stories, and there are enough facts about Lovecraft that this could be used as a source for a literary paper on the man), it has little to do with his stories as a whole. There’s nothing cosmic or scary, and the end answer was pretty unfulfilling.

I’m not sure if it would have been cliché if the end were some spooky, Azathoth-monster-dwelling-in-the-unknown affair, but it at least would have fit the framework.

And as strange of a complaint as this is, I kind of take umbrage with the way the book views these nerdy con goers. Yeah they’re all terrible people who you’d go well out of your way to avoid at a Comic Con, but I can at least empathize with some of their core fears and obsessions. I worry about not going anywhere with my creative endeavors, and I certainly obsess over nerdy subculture more than I probably should.

I Am Providence doesn’t always feel like it’s on their side though, laughing with them. No, often I feel like the novel is laughing at them. It makes sense within Panossian’s chapters since his are in first person and he’s a bit of a dick, but Colleen is handled from the third-person past perspective. Some of the nastier observations don’t feel like they come from her subjective voice but the author’s omniscient one.

I suppose of all the who-done-it books I’ve read, I Am Providence is the one I’ve liked the most. The setting, the tone, and the writing are all really good and enjoyable, and most of the characters are fun to observe from afar. There really is a lot to like. But damn, I disliked some of Colleen’s actions, and I wasn’t thrilled by the ending.

I suppose if you really like this kind of story, then this is a good example of it and one you’ll enjoy. If you’re curious, I’d say read the excerpts on Amazon. The first chapter is a good indication of what you’re getting into.

If you aren’t a fan of who-done-its, then this one isn’t likely going to change your mind on the genre.

Or flip a coin or something. I dunno. What do you want from me?