Archive for August, 2008


This is the first of what is sure to be a long series of Neil Gaiman reviews here on A Slight Apocalypse. Graduating students in Norway’s high schools are required to hand in something a little more substantial than the usual stuff when spring comes a-knocking, and while there’s a lot of time left until then, I thought I might as well get started with some of his minor works. The idea is that I’ll write a long paper on Neil Gaiman’s authorship, wherein I will hopefully come with a lot of thoughtful observations and clever remarks, and in order to do so I’ll obviously have to read/re-read a lot his work. I’m not planning on starting the real process for at least a couple of months, but until then I’ll probably work my way through stuff I haven’t bothered with before – like “Coraline”, “The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish”, “Mirrormask” and “Interworld”. And of course, “Odd and the Frost Giants”, which is a children’s book published for this year’s World Book Day and can be bought for only a single British pound. Or, alternatively, you can be handed it as a free gift in a Norwegian bookstore, which how I went about it.

“Odd and the Frost Giants” is just under a hundred pages long and printed on as a small paperback with some nice black&white illustrations at the start of each chapter. The story is about a little Norse boy named Odd (still a common name around these parts of the world). Odd is not a lucky boy. His father dies at sea and Odd and his mother moves in with a new, uncaring man that has no love for Odd because he already has a lot kids from a former marriage, but also because Odd has had a nasty limp ever since a tree landed and crushed his foot. Odd soon tires of the constant bickering and decides to move out to a little hut outside the viking village, but little does Odd know what’s waiting for him in the wilderness…

This is exactly the kind of book that I would have loved when I was a child. Neil Gaiman’s prose flows easier than anyone else’s, and each page practically drips with magic and mystique. Add that the book is filled with Norse mytology – my favourite mytology – and it becomes doubly enjoyable. However, it’s not an important book, nor an incredibly good one, but it tells a heart-warming story that feels satisfying on every level it operates on. The fact that a lot of those levels are on the fluffy rather than the original, meaningful side doesn’t take much away considering its target group, but it does stop it from being a great and lasting story.

7.0/10 (weak)

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The West Wing

Sorry about the sporadic posting, guys. I have no excuse really aside from a sudden lack of inspiration and the fact that school’s back, that I’m working in the weekends and that I have seven cute puppies that desperately need cuddling (when they’re not trying to hamstring me with their newly-discovered appetite for human flesh). I’ll try to get things up to at least two post a week before long; I just need to find a workable routine.

But to make up for my negligence, I’ve decided to throw you a bone and review all of the seven seasons of the West Wing. I am perfectly aware that I’ve already done the two first here, and still stand for what I’ve said earlier, but the thought of just doing season 3 to season 7 seems more than a little silly to me when I could write one massive one instead. It is, after all, what I do best, isn’t it?

I’ll try to keep things as spoiler-free as possible and give you proper notice if I’m nearing a major plot point. So, let’s jump down below the picture and see why the West Wing is such a great show that it’s ended up high on my all-star list.

The West Wing is basically about what happens in the White House and the general American political process. It features characters mainly from the senior staff to the President, as well as some secretaries, senators, advisers et cetera, et cetera. It was originally conceived of by master-writer Aaron Sorkin, who wrote a lot of episodes up until the third season, when he had to drop out because “personal problems” (i.e. drug abuse if I’m not mistaken). John Wells took over as executive producer and the show suffered a steady decline in quality that ended in highly mediocre and sometimes outright boring fifth season before things took a giant leap upwards in the final two seasons of the show. The best season is without doubt season 1, closely followed by nr. 2, but season 6 & 7 (both Sorkin-free) could give season 3 a run for its money any time of the year. Overall though, it’s a show that managed to retain a very high quality through a long and vital run that culminated in something that, if not a completely, then an adequately satisfactory ending. Which is nice, but it begs the question why the show was as good as I claim.

Well, that one’s easy, really. Ask yourself what you want from a drama series, and chances are that the West Wing has it in abundance. Good dialog? Hell, it’s got the best dialog any show has had, bar none.

Good characters, then, that are hopefully played by good actors? Ehrm, yes, I do believe that the West Wing qualifies on that criteria, too. Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is probably one of them most filled out and believable people ever portrayed on television. No, I’m not kidding. Schiff plays Ziegler so well that all talk about characters seem superfluous, because Ziegler isn’t just that; he’s as real a man as you’re likely to see. He’s bitter, but with a unwavering sense of ethics. He’s brilliant, but very fallible. He’s not the most lovable character on the show (that would probably be Josh Lyman – a favorite of mine, too), but dammit if he didn’t steal nearly every scene he was in. And if he didn’t steal it, it was just because the other actors were so damned good that (I mean, Martin Sheen as president of the USA!) Hugh Laurie would’ve had major problems holding his own.

One of the obvious pitfalls of a show like this is that it’s hard to keep things new and fresh. At the start of the show it wasn’t very hard because they had a vast amounts of scenarios to take from, but by the end of season 3 you could see that they began struggling to shake things up. They switched around the cast and brought in fresh faces (did they ever explain what happened to Sam before season 7? If so, I didn’t catch it), they set up big – and sometimes a little unbelievable, but mostly disturbingly relevant – international conflicts, but it lost it’s spark somewhere along there and it didn’t get rekindled before the second campaign of the show started up.

And while we’re on the that track, I’d just like to note the similarities between what went down in season 7 of the West Wing and what’s going on with Obama and McCain now. It’s pretty fucking weird if you ask me, because somehow the writers wrote a near-perfect blue-sheet for the next democratic campaign. It’s freaky if you ask me.

The biggest flaw of the show, however, is the lack of stones it showed when it came to the interpersonal drama. Not that there wasn’t more than enough of it or that what there was didn’t hold up to the rest of show; no, that’s not what I’m saying. There was a lot of potential for great drama between the characters, but when the chips were down and time had come for something to actually happen between some of them, it just… sort of vaporized or wasn’t featured much ’till we’d all hopefully forgotten about it. One could claim that the West Wing had a more realistic approach to these things than your regular American show -and you’d be right – but every so often I found myself wishing that they’d throw me a bone. Any bone would’ve done, really, I just want to see some resolution! It did sew up several of this lines in the last season, but not to the extent I’d hoped.

I could probably go on and on and on about this show. I could mention that my favorite episode the one at the end of season 3 and that one of the worst ones was the documentary style episode they did on C.J. in (I think) season 5. I could also mention that I’ve gotten A LOT MORE interested in politics after I watched this show and that I feel now that I actually learned a lot from this series. Which is, you know, nice if you’re going to put down the amount of time I did on this.

But none of this actually matters. This is easily one of the best and most watchable drama series ever made. Most of you have already watched it and are just reading this to check whether I’ve gone nutter butters or not, and those of you who haven’t gotten around it yet probably have a set of good excuses, like being low on money or spare time to throw away at stuff like this.

No, petting puppies doesn’t count as a good excuse, no matter how cute they are. Why do you ask?

Season 1: 10/10

Season 2: 9.0/10

Season 3: 8.5/10

Season 4: 8.0/10

Season 5: 7.5/10 (weak)

Season 6: 8.5/10 (weak)

Season 7: 9.0/10 (weak)

Richard Morgan and I don’t always get along.

And no, I don’t mean on a personal level. It’s not like I’m claiming to have met him or even chatted with him under the most informal of circumstances. I’m sure I’d think he’s a terrific guy if I ever got so lucky, but that’s kind of beside my point here, ’cause I’m talking about his fiction. I’ve currently read three books by this guy (this one included) and while I loved “Altered Carbon” to bits, I had a roughly opposite reaction to his latest SF thriller, “Black Man”.

So when the guy announced that he’d have a go at writing a gritty epic fantasy series that would, by all accounts, be something out of the ordinary (well, who claims otherwise? Aside from Terry Brooks…), I went ahead and pre-ordered a copy. I figured that “The Steel Remains” was probably going to be one of the most exciting things in the Fantasy genre this year, and a quick look at the early reviews gave off a similar impression. It looked like another home-run for Morgan.

However, for me it was a swing and a miss, even if I’ll admit that I did enjoy the show.

(If the book cover looks familiar it’s because the Swedish prog. band “Opeth” used it first for their album, “Blackwater Park”)

“The Steel Remains” is another fantasy books in the same vein as Joe Abercrombie’s “The First Law” trilogy, Glen Cooks “The Black Company” series and to some extent, Steven Erikson’s “Malazan” saga. It doesn’t feature any elves, there’s no moral high ground, no black and white pitting of evil against evil and the three main characters are all terribly flawed. In other words: there’s not much left of the familiar Tolkienesque trappings, even if Morgan manages to fall face first into some of the slightly more vogue clichés that have been so faithfully deployed by the names I mentioned above.

The plot doesn’t seem very fresh, either. Ringil “Angeleyes” Eskiath is a war veteran that’s retreated to quiet countryside to live – if not comfortably – then at least enough to get by on his fame and reputation as a hero. However, all is not well in the capitol of Trygalle, and Ringil’s mother arrives to get him back to the society who judged him a degenerate because of his choice of bedmate, so that he can help her find his lost cousin. There is, of course, more to that story than what it seems… In the south, the Yelteth Empire gets news of devastating destruction at one of their port cities and the emperor tasks Archeth – the last of a mysterious race called “the Kiriath” – to find out who the hell has the audacity to attack him. Lastly, there’s Egar Dragonbane (pretty self-explanatory name, innit?) who’s returned to his barbarous folk to be their chief, but not everyone is pleased by his leadership…

The book is only 345 pages long in trade-back, which is quite a lot below the normal for the first volume of an epic fantasy series. However, the content in those 345 pages is exactly what you see coming after Morgan is finished setting up the plot and gets down to executing his story lines. Actually, it’s not even that, because I actually expected more from an innovating guy like Morgan. There’s just nothing new or cool or awesome about “The Steel Remains”. It’s got a good beginning and a typical ending, and when I closed the book I thought, “is that it?”. Am I supposed to be entertained or surprised, like the author tries to at times, by the fact that Ringil is gay? Or that they do drugs in this world? Or that there is slavery? Am I supposed to think that it’s weird to see people cuss like normal people do?

Because, you know, I just don’t see it. These are all things I’ve seen done before, and done better to boot. In the end, this book boils down to nothing more than an off-the-shelf gritty fantasy story with nothing to more contribute but Morgan’s effective prose and a talent for describing the visceral parts of sex and war. Nothing new under the sun there.

But the biggest failure that this book has to sport is its characters. Maybe I should give Morgan a book more before I judge them, but so far I can’t spot a single likable or interesting person anywhere in his world. Sure, Ringil and Egar are pretty kick-ass in the sword-wielding brute kind of way, but nothing makes me feel for them or even offer them a shred of sympathy as they march to their inevitable doom. Hell, I rooted for the bad guys towards the end just to find a party I could connect with.

All this being said though, I won’t go as far as saying this is a bad book. Some parts of it drew me in like the little escapist I am and most chapters kept me wanting to read on, even if it became abundantly clear that no redemption was in sight. The thing is, it’s simply not a good fantasy book, either. Everything about it is mediocre, and I’m sorry, but I expected more, and I don’t think I was wrong to do so.

Richard Morgan and I might not always get along, but when we do…

I’ll be the first one to tell you he’s a great writer.

6.5/10

(It's Not What I) Wanted

This really has been the summer of superheroes. It all started with the shiny awesomeness that was “Iron Man” before we quickly continued onwards with the second take on “The Incredible Hulk”, which I’ve sadly not had the chance to watch yet. Then I sat and twiddled my thumbs patiently while I waited for “The Dark Knight” to come riding out to a cinema near me, but to fill the nerdchasm (i.e. an undefined amount of time between great nerdgasmic events) Hollywood was nice enough to administrate the methadone via “Wanted” (loosely based on Mark Millar’s graphic novel, which I reviewed here) and “Hancock” (which wasn’t based on anything it seems except some exec’s will to cast Will Smith as a superhero gone bad). Oh, and don’t forget “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and “Dr. Horrible” and probably a few more than that, too.

Now, of the movies I’ve mentioned, I’ve only reviewed two (Iron Man & The Dark Knight), and both of those went above and beyond what any sane person could expect. However, when the shoe dropped on “Wanted” – the only movie based on material I was particularly familiar with – it didn’t so much hit the sweet spot as it kicked me into the curb and proceeded to stomp out anything I liked about Millar’s novel in the first place. This was a fucking disappointment for me, and if you can take your eyes of sweet Angelina below, I’ll tell you why you should avoid this stinking turd of a film.

But before I get down into the whys and wherefores, let me take a second to make some things clear: when I say I was disappointed, I don’t mean that I actually had grander expectations than your average Joe. I had hoped for some light, rompish fun with some sexy actors that didn’t demand anything of me beyond keeping my eyes open and my brain shut off. I’ve seen one of the director’s movies before, “Night Watch”, which was okay from a purely aesthetically viewpoint, because it was really nicely shot and put together, though the story-telling stunk like a fortnight old diaper that had one point belonged to someone with a cabbage-fetish. Yeah, okay, so maybe not quite that bad, but trust me when I say that the guy who’s made these films should seriously consider taking a class or two before he takes on his next project.

No wonder he got a big gig at Hollywood! Quick, let’s hire the guy who makes brainless action movies and hand him a seven digits budget! What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Well, apparently the worst is still to come, because “Wanted” went over quite well in US and they’re already talking about making a sequel. And if you think about it, “Wanted” does everything it says on the box, but does that make this a good or passable movie like some critics seem to think? My answer is no, because if I’m supposed to swallow shit like this just because it’s summertime – as if quality is a product that goes bad when the sun peeks out from the clouds – then I say fuck that. Take a look at “The Dark Knight” if you can stomach being handed poor excuses like “Wanted” and tell me that the notion doesn’t make you sick.

The movie is about Wesley Gibson. He’s an accountant (who doesn’t want to tame lions…) with a nerve-problem, a shitty and wining girlfriend and a best friend that likes to fuck said girlfriend whenever Wesley isn’t around. All in all a pretty depressing existence, really, but that all changes when Fox (Angelina Jolie) walks up to him one day at the apothecary while he’s picking up his medicine and tells him that the world’s greatest assassin is out to kill his ass. Oh, and Wesley also happens to have some form of mutant heart that can go 400 beats a minute and inject massive amounts of adrenaline into his system, giving the owner the power to Slow Everything Down and probably also, Never Have a Cardiac Disease. Fox takes Wesley into her organization’s care and trains him so that when the time comes, he’ll be the one to kill this mythical assassin. This organization, also known as “the Fraternity”, has existed ever since some monks discovered that their loom was telling them who to kill (stick with me now) so that the world didn’t fall apart at the seams. Their motto is: “Kill one, save a thousand”, and the guy in charge is Mr. Sloan who spends his time hunched over the Loom of Faith (!) while it weaves the name of the person whose time is up…

The Loom of Faith is of course the world’s worst excuse for a plot mechanism. It’s just so silly and unbelievable that when I first saw it I had to turn to the person next to me just so that I could shake my head in disbelief one more time. I would’ve loved to be in the writer’s room when they came up with that and got it green lit. It should have been recorded for the sake of cinema history.

The rest of the ingredients of this film are usual ploys. There’s some of “Fight Club” here, some “Matrix” there and I wouldn’t be damned if it didn’t take a whole chunk out of “Star Wars” (who again stole it from someone else, but who’s keeping score anyway?). Wesley, played by James McAvoy, was always wholly uninteresting and while I can’t bring myself to say nasty things about Angelina, I just kept wondering if she actually could’ve pulled of ANY of her stunts in real life. She seems so fragile and weak. Not even Freeman was any good, and I normally like him well enough.

However, fair’s fair and I’ll allow that “Wanted” does have some really well-crafted action sequences, even if the bullet-hitting-bullet stunt got old very quickly. It was also kind of cool to see that “Wanted” made use of the same underground in Chicago that “The Dark Knight” used for its car-chase scene. They even used the same exit!

So, when everything is taken into account, I can’t do anything but say that I think this is a shit-poor film with a shit-poor plot and some quite cringe-worthy acting. But the action is fun and you do get to see Angelina naked for a couple of seconds… And those seconds, my friends,…

Those seconds were pure cinematic bliss.

3.0/10 (weak)

M.I.B. Until Tuesday

I’ll be missing in… err… blogging till next Tuesday because of limited internet access during my little vacation to the capitol of Norway, which is also known as Oslo. I’ll try to pop by and check on you every second day or so, but I can’t promise anything more than that. However, when I return, I’ll be sure to post a couple of book reviews as well as some thoughts on “Wanted” and “Hancock”. Should be good, yeah?

The Dark Knight

I had the craziest expectations going into this film. I mean, after watching “Iron Man” earlier this year, I seriously doubted I’d see a superhero flick of equal or greater quality this year. Logic and probability could simply not allow it, even if I fucking loved “Batman Begins” and gobbled down Nolan’s “The Prestige” raw. But then the torrential down-flow of insanely good reviews started pouring in, calling The Dark Knight “the best superhero movie yet”, “Oscar worthy” and “The Godfather 2 of superhero films”. I couldn’t resist the hype, and when I got the quality confirmed by Loki (a Batman connoisseur if you’ve ever met one) who gave it a meagre 10/10, I was just about ready to spin off this side of the Earth.

Now I didn’t just expect The Dark Knight to simply blow me away, because I was so hyped up that that a tornado of fell proportions would have had trouble swaying me. I’d have sniffed and said sarcastically, “Is that all you got?”, and left the cinema feeling utterly dismayed if the movie wasn’t a cataclysmic, apocalyptic, world-shattering experience of pure existential awesomeness.

So I sat down to watch it, feeling pretty doomed and also a little bit silly. Nothing could live up to what I was there to see, and obviously it didn’t because, well, you’re still here right? No worlds got shattered, no apocalypses, however slight they might have been, did come to pass. But I did feel a more than a little rattled when I walked out, and also more than a little bewildered. Despite the extensive amounts of reviews I’d read, nothing had fully prepared me for what Nolan had thrown together. I had to watch it a second time before I could post my review. I had to have a second chance at examining the nuts and bolts and which wheel went where and when.

And now that I have done that, I kinda just want to go back and watch it one more time.

Please…

Just one more time!

The Dark Knight is the sequel to the lauded origin story aptly named “Batman Begins”, which hit the box offices in 2005, though the two films aren’t dependant on each other at all. You’re of course more likely to enjoy The Dark Knight on more levels if you’ve seen its predecessor, but I actually brought with me someone who hadn’t seen BB on my second trip to Gotham City, and he said it was the best film he’d seen… well, he said “ever!“, but I’m sure he meant “in a very long time”. He also had the benefit of not seeing Katie Homes in the part of “Rachel Dawes”, because she was replaced with Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Donnie Darko”, “Secretary”) in The Dark Knight due to “conflicting schedules” (i.e. get the crazy scientologist the hell away from this movie!).

This movie takes it cue from the ending of BB where Batman is handed a joker card and told that there’s this lunatic clown that’s been causing all kinds of mischief in Gotham City. Batman is doing his best to shut down the mob and clean up Gotham, so this two-bit criminal is naturally some way down on his to-do list. But when the movie kicks off with a bank heist scene (that totally kicks ass btw) where the Joker plays an integral part, Batman and Lt. Gordon has to push forward with their plans to cut the mob where it hurts – their wallets.

I won’t go into further detail about the plot of the movie right now because the guy who spoils The Dark Knight for you is someone who deserves more than a pitchfork or two. I will, however, say that this film is quite different from any other superhero movie that I’ve ever seen, because it doesn’t really feature the superhero – Batman – as its one and only protagonist. He is obviously the most important cast member, but he’s used sparingly and more as a bystander ready to step in if he’s ever needed. Does that sound a bit lame? Well, trust me – it isn’t. It’s fucking brilliant, because it helps Nolan bring the film into the gritty, realistic vein he’s aiming for in a way no one’s ever done with a superhero film before, and it’s probably also why this movie is the first in the genre that can be a serious contender for a Best Picture nod. Because The Dark Knight is a film so filled with drama and awesome performances that it in my opinion leaves this year’s winner, “No Country for Old Men”, eating bittersweet dust. This movie has twists, it has turns and it has a real venomous bite…

… And by all that is holy, it is a triumph of style in every way. It’s beautifully shot, giving you the wide look when it’s needed as well as the up-close and personal angles that brings the characters to life. If there is one area that Nolan can improve, it’s his action sequences who’re sometimes a little too chaotic and not as stressful as some directors make them. It’s better in this movie than it was in Batman Begins, but there are a few sequences that could have needed ironing out in this one, too. Another thing that bug me with these movies are the horribly generic background chatter that we have to put up with while Batman is flying over roof-tops or getting hit by flying projectiles. I guess they’re meant to be funny, but they’re really not. For example, there’s a scene where a helicopter crashes during a car-chase scene where a police officer goes “That’s not good!” when it starts to go down and follows up with “That’s not good!!” when it hits the ground. I guess I’m just nit-picking now, but I this movie is so spotless that I have to pull the scab off something…

Like Heath Ledger’s new portrayal of “The Joker”. Ledger, who recently passed away after having completed this movie, does the performance of his lifetime in this role, and anyone who says Jack Nicholson did it better is a lying bastard or does simply not have any comprehension of what goes into the part. Ledger is plays the Joker as true psychotic, and when he says he’s got no rules, that he’s an agent of chaos, he leaves you no choice but to believe him. But the part of the Joker isn’t only (the litotes are truly overflowing tonight) terrific because of how remarkably well played and believable he is, but also because he’s a plot device that every writer must dream of. He can do anything and be believed to be behind everything. Every action he takes can be justified by saying, “Well, he’s the Joker! What did you expect?”. And that’s probably why I had to watch this movie twice to fully wrap my head around it. ’cause some of the twists aren’t fully comprehensible if you don’t understand what lunatic the Joker truly is.

As for the characters, I couldn’t find a flaw there either except with Gyllenhaal, whom I never really warmed to. She was good and did her job just fine, but man, I loathe it when they change actors in the same roles. It’s jarring and it takes away something of my suspension of disbelief, but then again, everything is better than a scientologist in a leading role, so I guess I should shut up. Aaron Eckhart (“Thank You For Smoking”, “The Black Dahlia”) pulls off a smashing performance as Harvey Dent, though I’d have been surprised if he’d done anything less. The guy’s an outstanding actor. The Batman himself, Christian Bale, is not in my opinion as good as Eckhart or Ledger (who is?), but he does fit the bill perfectly and he continues to deepen the character with The Dark Knight. Hopefully the rumours about Bale beating on his sister and mother are untrue (unlikely as it might seem at this point), because I’d have to actively dislike him if they weren’t, but for now I’m content to say that he does a good job here. Nothing can change that, just like nothing, apparently, can change the fact that he’s an unbelievable asshole. Who knocks around their own family? Sheesh.

I could go on and on about this movie, but I have to wrap things up sometime, and since I can’t think of any major sticking points against it, besides, you know, that it has an ending (a good one, too), I’ll leave you with these thoughts: The Dark Knight is for me the closest thing to perfection this genre has ever produced and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out on one of your generations cultural highlights. Remember Star Wars? The Godfather films? Grease? Titanic?

Someday it’s going to be, “Remember that Batman movie, The Dark Knight?”

And if that isn’t the strongest recommendation anyone could give, I don’t know what you’re looking for.

10/10