Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ranking A View To A Kill

I previously ranked some of the James Bond movies hereherehere, and here. I watched A View To a Kill last weekend with my son. It was the last of the Roger Moore movies, from 1985. Although it's the one I've probably seen most in my life, as it used to come on HBO regularly when I was a kid, I haven't seen it in probably 30 years. There was a lot I didn't remember!

For one thing, it's actually fairly quiet and circumspect, as far as Bond movies go. That's probably one reason I don't remember much--like my son last week, I probably bailed during the talky parts and only came back during the action scenes. Much of the first half of the movie concerns racehorses being doped at a horse farm in rural France, while much of the second half features a genuine romance developing between James Bond and a sweet heiress who's inherited her family's oil wells in California and is determined to hold onto them, despite the legal maneuvering of the villain Zorin. I was a lot more into the plot as an adult than I'm sure I ever was as a ten- or -eleven-year old.

Since the Bond movies are formulaic and their quality is based on how well they fulfill the formula, I created a little rubric to rank the Bond movies, with several categories a movie can get points in. We're going to tweak the formula slightly for this movie. A Bond film gets 2 points if the movie is one of the top 4 Bond movies for a category, and 1 point if it's in the top 8, plus a couple special categories. Here are the criteria, with a maximum of 14 points available:

Story/Plot--2 points--Is the plot coherent and logical? Are the stakes high?  (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Action--2 points--Are the stunts exciting? The car chases thrilling?  (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Villain--2 points--What's a Bond movie without dastardly villains and their henchmen? (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 4)

Setting--2 points--The Bond movies are all about exotic locations. (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--2 points--What's the cool stuff?  (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Bond girls--2 points--The ladies, oh yes, the ladies. (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?--1 point--These are the best Bonds (no need to debate) and get an automatic extra point if appearing in the film.

Musical theme--1 point if in the top 5

A View to a Kill
Story/Plot--The story is well-written, Zorin's scheme to corner the world market in semiconductors by inducing an earthquake in Silicon Valley is fairly sensical by Bond villain standards, and the romance between Bond and heiress Stacy Sutton is surprisingly sweet. An unexpected result: this is in the Top 4. (2 points)
Action--A great climactic scene atop the Golden Gate Bridge, along with an entertaining car chase through the streets of San Francisco, put this in the Top 8. (1 point)
Villain--Zorin, played by a very young Christopher Walken, doesn't quite live up to the standards set by other villains. (0 points)
Setting--Rural France and San Francisco are nice, but not quite exotic enough to score here. (0 points)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--No special cars or special gadgets, and Zorin's lair is unremarkable. The vast mining operation he is using to drain a lake that will trigger earthquakes in Silicon Valley is more impressive, but not enough to score here. (0 points)
Bond Girls--Grace Jones? I don't think so. Tanya Roberts as heiress Stacey Sutton is sweet but not a classic Bond girl. (0 points)
SC or DC? No
Music--Theme song is by Duran Duran and is a real classic, so much so that it practically takes over the soundtrack. There's relatively little use of the classic Bond theme, with an orchestral version of the Duran Duran song playing throughout. Pushes Thunderball out of the top 5. (1 point)
Total: 4 points

Rejiggered points for other movies:
Skyfall moves into the Top 4 for Action (+1)
Raoul Silva in Skyfall moves into Top 4 for Villain (+1)

On Her Majesty's Service moves into the Top 8 for Setting (+1)
The Man With the Golden Gun moves into Top 4 for Setting (+1)
Live and Let Die moves into the Top 8 for Gadgets/Vehicles/Lairs (+1)
Thunderball moves into the Top 8 for Gadgets/Vehicles/Lairs (+1)
The Man With the Golden Gun moves into the Top 8 for Bond Girls (+1)
Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale moves into Top 4 for Bond Girls (+1)
Thunderball (-1) for Music


And, here are the updated results:
1) The Spy Who Loved Me (12 points)
2) Casino Royale (10 points)
3, 4) Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (tied with 9 points)
5) Skyfall (8 points)
6) Thunderball (6 points)
7, 8, 9) Live and Let Die, Spectre, The Man With the Golden Gun (5 points)
10, 11) Die Another Day, A View to a Kill (4 points)

Monday, March 6, 2017

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Fatal, But Not Serious A novel by my friend, Frederick Lewis! I think the closest comparable for this book is A Confederacy of Dunces. Both drop a lot of ridiculous characters against a Southern backdrop with hilarious results. Fatal, But Not Serious pits the salt-of-the-earth residents of Williams Island, a fictitious barrier island off the coast of Georgia, against a sham environmental organization that wants the government to remove the island's residents so it can build a sustainable eco-lodge for tourists.

The novel has a deft sense of comic timing and effectively builds the conflict between the island's residents and the environmentalists, who resort to increasingly underhanded means to get the residents to leave. I think my favorite part was when a Brazilian woodpecker, painted to look like the nearly-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker that hasn't been seen on Williams Island in decades, becomes a media sensation and is chopped up in the rotor blade of a cable television camera drone that's tracking its every movement.

What I would like to see in Mr. Lewis's next book is more emphasis on developing characters. Going back to A Confederacy of Dunces, yes the characters were ridiculous, but Ignatius J. Reilly and the others were also believable (to an extent) and sympathetic, with their own foibles and complexities. The characters in Fatal, But Not Serious are more two-dimensional. Nor need it come at the cost of the sharp political satire--Primary Colors comes to mind as a political satire that managed quite a bit of subtlety in its characterization. Mr. Lewis shows a lot of promise and I'd like to see what he manages next.

Complete Peanuts Volume 26 Okay, I've skipped ahead to the final book in this series, because I'm afraid this one will not be in print long. The Complete Peanuts is a noble project to publish every strip of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, from its inception in 1951 to its final panel in 2000.  It's a gargantuan undertaking, and a new volume covering two years is issued every six months.  (I have previously reviewed the 1977-78 volume herethe 1979-80 volume here, the 1981-82 volume here1983-84 volume here, the 1985-86 volume here, and the 1987-88 volume here.)

The series finished the regular run of strips with Volume 25, with Volume 26 containing ephemera--ads, short books, and related artwork that appeared in various media. The highlight to my mind is the comics that appeared in a late 1950s comic book series by Dell. While most of the strips were done by other artists, Schulz did a few himself, and these definitely have the flavor of late 1950s Peanuts. In fact, they read rather like lost Sunday strips. Apparently they have never been reprinted before now.

Some fun things in this book, but this volume is definitely for the completists rather than the general reader.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Ranking Dr. Strange

Thinking about going to see the Logan movie tonight, and just realized I never got around to ranking the Dr. Strange movie.

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic movies, Captain America: Civil War, and the Man-Thing.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Dr. Strange is one of my favorite comic characters; I have tons of his comics, and I was really looking forward to this movie. Well, the movie was cool, great special effects, fun story, but somehow it did not capture at all what I like about the comics. That's probably not fair, so I'll try to judge the movie on its own terms. But that overall impression definitely colors my opinion.

The movie follows gifted but arrogant surgeon Dr. Strange, whose hands are injured in a car crash. Even after healing he will never operate again (ironically, the one person who could have fixed them was him), and he descends into a downward spiral of despair and alcoholism. But then he hears about a mysterious healer in Tibet, the Ancient One, who can cure ills not treatable by Western medicine. Desperate, he sets out for Tibet and eventually finds the Ancient One, only to learn the Ancient One has different plans for him than resuming his medical work....

Dr. Strange gets lots of points for its mind-blowing special effects, a real advance in the sophistication of computer generated imagery, I think, very much like Inception. In fact, it reminds me a little of the early 1990s, how The Abyss blew everyone's mind with its effects but wasn't that popular, only for Terminator 2 to come along a year later and show everyone how CGI could be applied to more popular action films. I wonder if Dr. Strange will be the T2 in this situation.

So my overall ranking for Dr. Strange will be in the bottom half of the pretty good category. Others with less previous knowledge of the character might like it better.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Monday, January 2, 2017

Writing Goals for 2017

Here are my writing goals for 2017:

1) Finish revisions to my short story, La Jolla Ballroom, and submit for writers' group anthology. This one is done, I did the final revisions this morning.

2) Finish current novel, The Love Machine, by June. I think I'm over halfway done at this point. I've been doing editing and revision of each chapter after reading it aloud at my writers' group, so it (hopefully) will need little revision once I get to the end. June's pretty ambitious, but I should be able to manage it.

3) In January, complete beta reads for manuscripts. I'm beta reading two novels for fellow authors in my writers' group.

4) Revise third novel (probably starting in June). Also, come up with a good title for it. My third novel, finished a couple years ago, languishes in limbo. It's done but needs a a major re-write.

5) Continue work on short stories, including Steader, and others as time permits. I have a short story I started a few months ago titled Steader that I think could be really good. Just need to finish it! Plenty of other ideas for stories floating around too, nothing too well-formed, but lots of things with potential.

5A) But only write short stories if it is something new. I feel like I've gotten in a little bit of a rut with my short stories--some of my recent ones have seemed too similar in tone, and too easy for me to write. So I've determined only to write short stories that will stretch my writing muscles in some way. For La Jolla Ballroom, it's using period dialect from the 1930s. For Steader, it's writing a tense thriller.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

What I'm Reading: Complete Peanuts, 1987-88

The Complete Peanuts is a noble project to publish every strip of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, from its inception in 1951 to its final panel in 2000.  It's a gargantuan undertaking, and a new volume covering two years is issued every six months.  The project actually finished recently with volume 26, but I'm a little behind and have only reached 1987-88. I've reviewed five previous volumes of the Complete Peanuts: the 1977-78 volume herethe 1979-80 volume here, the 1981-82 volume here1983-84 volume here, and the 1985-86 volume here.

Marcie learns what it's like

This volume continues following the strip during its gentle decline into old age. The first half of the book has surprisingly few long story arcs, but plenty of the dull strips about Snoopy's brother Spike, who lives in the desert near Needles, CA, and doesn't do a whole lot. I don't object to the occasional strip with him, but does he have to come back so often? How many cactus jokes can Schulz give us? In the second half of the book we get a few longer arcs, including one where Snoopy heard a rumor that the summer Olympics have been moved to Needles and decides to go visit his brother to help him sell souvenirs. Of course, the Olympics did not really move from the actual location that year (Seoul, South Korea), and Snoopy soon returns home.

There a couple more interesting arcs. One is when Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty decide to trade their useless right fielders: Marcie and Lucy. So convinced is she that Marcie is the worst baseball player on the planet, Peppermint Patty throws in a pizza with the deal, only to discover that nope, Lucy's even worse. Too late, Charlie Brown already ate the pizza! But even so, they do decide to trade back.

In another story arc, Sally volunteers to write the Christmas play for her school, only to write a part for Geronimo instead of Gabriel. When she corrects her mistake in the script, the kid who was going to play Geronimo feels cheated, but the argument is moot when the school board cancels the play altogether for being controversial. Schulz doesn't spell it out, but I suppose the controversy is putting on a religious play in a public school. In any case, Sally's relieved because now she doesn't have to deal with the Geronimo kid.

There's also a new character who's fairly delightful (although I think she was actually introduced in the last volume), Lydia. Lydia sits behind Linus in class and he has fallen in love with her, a condition she uses to continually bedevil him. At first she refuses to tell him her actual name, going through Sarah, Melissa, and so on. (But wouldn't Linus know her real name from the teacher calling roll at the beginning of the day? Never mind.) Whenever Linus asks her if she wants to do something with him, she asks if he isn't too old for her. Later, they exchange addresses for sending each other Christmas cards, only Lydia gives Linus the wrong address and his card is returned. She's out-Christmased him! Of course all this drives Linus crazy, but when Lucy asks why he bothers to have anything to do with her, he admits that he finds her fascinating.

This is actually a little livelier than the last volume, and I noticed a number of strips where Schulz puts in a level of effort on the art we haven't seen in a while. Still, it doesn't approach the great strips from the Peanuts heyday from the mid-1950s to the early 70s. This one is more for completists then general Peanuts fans.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Scary Movies: Aliens

What am I doing reviewing a scary movie the week before Christmas? Well, every Saturday night, the  members of my family alternate picking a movie for everyone to watch, and my son's choice this past week was Aliens. (I reviewed Alien a few months ago here.) No, we didn't let my daughter watch, and my wife sat this one out too. So it was father-son bonding.

Though this is the sequel to Alien, it has quite a different flavor than the first movie. The first was directed by Ridley Scott and was about a monster loose on a spaceship--essentially a haunted house in space. This movie, however, was directed by action master James Cameron and operates as an action-horror film, full of guns and soldiers and aliens getting blasted. (I speculated here that 1982's The Thing was the first entry in the action-horror sub-genre.)

It follows Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, the sole human survivor of the first movie, who has returned to human civilization. She finds a job as a loader operator on an industrial work site but suffers from nightmares that keep her from sleeping and finds it hard to relate to others. A big corporation has recently planted a small human colony on the planet where she and her crew encountered the alien in the first movie, disbelieving her warnings that malevolent aliens live in an abandoned spacecraft there. When the Corporation loses contact with the colony, they start to think she might have known what she was talking about.

Despite misgivings, she  accompanies a contingent of space marines to the planet to investigate. Not surprisingly, they find on arrival that the colony has been taken over by the aliens, with all humans apparently killed, their bodies used to incubate baby aliens. A battle between the marines and the aliens ensues in the depths of the aliens' breeding chamber, and the stakes rise even further when Ripley discovers a seven-year-old girl still alive, named Newt, who has managed to survive for months in the ductwork beneath the colony's buildings. Ripley, Newt, and the few remaining space marines must escape the aliens and meet a ship that is returning to take them from the planet's surface, but will not be able to stay long if they are not there on time.

ALIENS (1986)

Story/Plot/Characters--Pretty good acting by horror movie standards and a well thought-out plot. Cardboard characters though, and with a whole platoon of marines, there are a lot of them to keep track of, with little to differentiate them. Though most are killed off early, we still know next to nothing even about the ones who last most of the movie. (2.5 points)
Special Effects--Like the first movie, the effects in Aliens are masterful and spectacular. Spaceships, slavering aliens, abandoned industrial buildings, and planetary surfaces are rendered completely believable. I actually wished at some points the movie would slow down and give viewers a chance to enjoy some of the beautiful scenes. (2 points)
Scariness--Like The Thing, the very nature of the movie as a hybrid between action and horror undermines much of the scariness. Scenes that would be chilling in other movies simply turn into shoot-outs. Some tense parts, but my son spent very little time hiding on the stairs, as is his wont with scary scenes. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Definitely some atmosphere in the abandoned buildings of the colony and the alien biology is disgusting and freaky. But again, as with The Thing, the fast action pacing undermines the atmosphere to an extent. (1.5 points)
Total=6.5 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1976)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Saturday, December 10, 2016

What I'm Reading: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

My wife read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children when it came out in 2011 and thought I'd like it. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten to it on my reading stack until now. Apparently it was released as a movie a couple months ago; I'm not sure what kind of reviews it's gotten. I liked the book well enough, but had some reservations.

Before I get to the book, I have to describe how the author, Ransom Riggs, conceived of it. He started collecting weird old black and white photographs at flea markets--things like children floating in the air, or young women in elaborate mourning clothes, or a man covered in bees. Some of them must have resulted from photographic tricks, others simply begged the question why somebody would take such a picture. At some point, he started wondering if he could make a story out of them, and the idea for his first novel was born. The photos are, in fact, scattered throughout the novel, and act as an interesting complement to the writing.

The book is about a teen-ager named Jacob whose grandfather has always told him wondrous stories about his childhood in an orphanage on an island off the English coast where kids with bizarre powers lived separate from the rest of society. When his grandfather is killed by a monster that only he seems to have seen, Jacob is sent to a psychiatrist who recommends to his parents that Jacob should go to the island, where he can work out some of his mental issues. At summer break, his dad, an amateur ornithologist who himself wants to spend a few weeks on the island searching for a rare bird, takes Jacob. It's probably no surprise that Jacob discovers his grandfather's stories were not just made up....

It's actually quite a beautifully odd story, and the photos add something to the atmosphere. But they also take something away. When I read a book, I like to use my imagination, and I didn't need the pictures of the children. In fact, I rather came to resent the way the pictures dictated how I should picture the story in my head. I have to conclude that their use was a gimmick, and Riggs would have been better served using them simply as inspiration, and letting his story speak for itself. (Of course, he would have foregone a certain amount of publicity that's accompanied the use of the photos in his book, but that's a different matter.)

Another problem is that Riggs is clearly a writer who doesn't necessarily plan things out all the way, but just starts writing and sees where the story takes him. And that's great--that's the kind of writer I am, and I feel it lets characters breathe, and lets the story take turns that never would occur otherwise. But I do think there are one or two places in this book where Riggs writes himself into a corner and can only get out of it with plot twists that feel contrived. (I made a similar point about the Amber novels here, although in that case I felt the loose plotting worked a lot better.)

Nevertheless this was a fun and unusual novel, and quite easy to read despite some of its surrealistic touches. Any adult fan of fantasy literature would probably enjoy it.