Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – A Book Review

Neil Gaiman has written an incredibly engaging account of the Norse gods in this slim book.  Often seen as lesser than the Greek gods, I believe the Norse deities are enjoying a resurgence of late primarily thanks to the Marvel Thor movies.  Has Loki ever been more popular than during the last several years?  However, the Thor of the Marvel Universe is most definitely not the Thor of Norse mythology.  Not at all.  If you’re looking for a quick read to gain familiarity with these fascinating beings, Greek Mythology is the book for you.

Though all the names remain the same, Gaiman has written their tales in a more contemporary fashion, one that our modern society will find fluid and easy to comprehend.  Gaiman focuses on the most relevant of the stories, and so you can expect to learn about the major events and figures of the Norse pantheon.

Readers will be surprised to learn that Thor is something of a meathead in his original incarnation, Loki is actually Odin’s blood-brother, and Odin himself is far more dangerous than the movies ever depicted.  You’ll experience trolls, frost giants, serpents, dwarfs, monstrous dogs, and Ragnarok – the fall of the Norse gods.

A quick read, I would have no problem putting this book in the hands of my eight-year-old daughter.  It is not a children’s book, but it’s also not inappropriate for children to read.  As I already said, I can’t imagine a better book to provide a basic knowledge of the Norse gods.

Gaiman is no stranger to Norse mythology, by the way.  Odin is a major player in his novel entitled American Gods (which is soon to appear on STARZ as a television show).  He also uses Thor, Loki, and Odin in his seminal comic book series called The Sandman.

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

La La Land – A Movie Review

You’ve probably seen La La Land by now, but just in case you haven’t, I’m here to tell you it’s a fun movie.  It’s a great date movie.  Also, there’s no denying the sheer charisma of both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.  It’s impossible not to like them individually.  Together, they are a force.

But does it live up to the hype?  After all, according to IMDB, it’s won 153 awards out of 218 nominations, and that’s just so far.  We’ve still got the Academy Awards coming up.

Well, to be honest, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Allow me to explain before you “x” out of here with extreme prejudice.   Like I said, it’s a really enjoyable movie.  My wife and I had a great time seeing it together.  It’s rare there is a movie playing that we are equally enthusiastic to view.  Both of us, though, didn’t quite understand the rave reviews.

La La Land is a modern day throwback to a bygone era.  It wears its heart on its sleeve in that regard.  Jazz is an extended metaphor for the movie itself, and just as Gosling’s character must realize that Jazz needs to be reinvented in order to survive, this movie seems to be trying to do the same with the musical comedy.  But, here’s the thing, very little in this movie is a surprise.  You’ve seen it all before, especially in the old classics that it yearns to emulate.  For a movie that tries to bring to light the importance of originality, it’s awfully traditional.

Here’s what really troubles me – this is a love letter to Hollywood.  If La La Land wins Best Picture, I’ll argue it’s for the exact same reason Birdman won … Hollywood loves itself.  There are so many references to old Hollywood in this film—visually, in the dialogue, even in the story beats.  I imagine it will win Best Picture, but in the same way the coach’s kid wins MVP at the end of the season.  Hollywood always votes for Hollywood.

Yikes.  It sounds like I didn’t like the movie, but I really did find it very engaging.

Yet I can’t lie.  I love Emma Stone, but her character came off as fairly cliché.  We have the “damsel in distress” moment when she only decides to forge ahead after the gallant knight sacrifices himself.  Her character remained inconsistent through the whole film.  One minute she is a rock of fortitude, the next she’s throwing in the towel.  So much of her storyline is totally dependent on Gosling’s.

Gosling got a little meatier role than Stone (shocker), but even his character struck me as more “cool” than “complex.”  I liked him, but some of his choices made no sense to me, especially near the end of the film.  I won’t spoil it, but there was definitely a point where I asked myself, “Um … why not?  Go ahead and go!”  Everything he does is for Mia, until it isn’t.  Or is it?  Wait, what?

The camera work proved really amusing, and there were moments I caught myself laughing at nothing particularly funny, just in delight at the interesting angles and viewpoints.  I also loved the singing, though neither Stone nor Gosling are fantastic singers (as they are the first to admit).  The dancing certainly stole the show.  I loved the little moments Stone and Gosling danced together.  Here’s the problem, for a musical, there wasn’t a ton of singing, and there wasn’t enough dancing.  I really could have gone for a lot more singing and dancing!  (I can’t believe I just typed that.)  The last third of the film got quite a bit more into the drama of their relationship and the singing, dancing, and fresh camerawork faded into the background. And, as I said, that whole relationship story of theirs has been done many, many times.  The last third of the film lost a lot of steam.

La La Land is overrated.

And before you tell me to back off, it’s just a musical, let me remind you that this movie is nominated for Best Picture against films like Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester By the Sea, Arrival, and Hell Or High Water.  You can’t play the “just a musical” card in that kind of company with that kind of competition.  Against pictures like those, La La Land seems to be a reproduction of past glory, a retread done with all the new effects.  It’s good, yes, very good, but is it great?  Is it the best?

All right, I’ll be blunt.  I mean, if you’re still around by this point, you must be willing to humor me.  Like with Birdman, I can’t decide if La La Land is a copy, a love letter, a fresh take on an old style, a tongue in cheek piece of metafiction, or just the creators trying to be clever.  I don’t know, and that’s what bothers me.  When I say this movie has been done before, the creators can say, “Well, it’s meant to be nostalgic, a love letter if you will to old Hollywood.”  I don’t like that, because they’ve always got a cop out at the ready.  It’s like they were hedging their bets a bit with La La Land.  They’re not dumb—they knew what they had with the chemistry between Stone and Gosling.  They knew those two guaranteed a hit.  If the critics hated it, they could say, “We’re simply paying homage to those films that inspired us!”

That sort of ambiguity irritates me.

Furthermore, that ending.  This is slightly “spoiler” territory, so you may want to stop now …

I’ll give you time to walk away …

Still here?

Of course you are.  My wife and I are the last two people to see this thing …

Without giving it all away, there is a brief montage of “what could have been,” and through the whole thing I thought to myself, “Wow, I much rather would have seen this as the ending.”  Maybe some feel that’s the whole point, but I think that the movie had a real chance to break out on its own if it had gone down the imagined path.  So much about the actual ending makes no sense to me at all in terms of characterization.  So much of the ending has already been done many, many times.  That alternate ending would have been a fresh resolution to a clichéd tale.

Astonishingly, I do recommend La La Land.  For the most part it charmed and regaled me.  I’d actually recommend it even more if it wasn’t receiving all of these awards.  I think I’d be less critical of it if that proved the case.  As it stands, though, I just can’t get past this movie being about how wonderful and heartbreaking show business can be and Hollywood lapping it up and saying it’s the best thing this year.  It all seems far too self-serving.

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The Secret Life Of Pets – A Movie Review

My daughters wanted to see this movie very badly, so we took them this opening weekend.  Needless to say, they loved it.

The general premise is that this movie looks into the life of pets while their owners are away.  I expected it to be a series of jokes about what’s going on behind those closed doors, but it actually turned out to be a far different movie than I anticipated.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but it becomes an adventurous comedy, a search and rescue of sorts.  The gags follow one after the other with plenty of laughs throughout, and just as things seem to start slowing down, new characters are introduced to liven it up again.

It is PG and a kids’ movie, and, for the most part, it’s totally appropriate for the little ones.  There is no real violence to speak of, though there are plenty of verbal threats.  The only time I actually wondered if they were going a bit too far is when some unwanted pets talked about wanting to kill their owners.  The conversation lasted a few minutes, and it never went beyond just talking about it.  There is no foul language other than words like “stupid” or “idiot.”  Of course, I have warped sense of humor, so I loved the ample never-ending poop and pee jokes.  Ample. Poop. And. Pee. Jokes.

The voices were fantastic as well.  Kevin Hart as the bunny Snowball stole the show, as you might imagine.  Jenny Slate’s Gidget also proved a riot.  But with Dana Carvey, Albert Brooks, Louis C.K., Lake Bell and many others, each and every pet had a distinct, hilarious personality.

The Secret Life Of Pets is a fast ninety minutes that kept the kids and me in stitches.  It doesn’t have the heart or emotional resonance of a Toy Story or Up, but it’s an entertaining flick that parents will enjoy along with the kids.

 

The Remains Of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – A Book Review

I shouldn’t have enjoyed this book, yet I couldn’t put it down.

The novel details a butler named Stevens nearing the end of his career.  Part of the book revolves around Stevens driving across the countryside in order to reunite with a former fellow servant, Miss Kenton.  He’d like to offer her a position … or is there something more he has in mind?  These are no mere servants, however.  Stevens was once the epitome of perfection as the highest ranking butler in Darlington Hall, a mammoth estate owned by an internationally renowned gentleman.  Though those days are past, Stevens reminisces about them as he travels.

I agree that the plot is not the most enticing, yet trust me when I tell you that as the story unfolds, Stevens becomes a fascinating character.  He is incredibly conscientious, yet emotionally impotent.  His loyalty is unfaltering, but he also lacks critical perspective.  His work ethic is nearly super human; however, he cannot prioritize between his work and his personal life.  And his morality?  Dubious, at best.

These contrasts create a deeply satisfying character study.  Make no mistake, though, it is Ishiguro’s pacing that makes it so captivating.  He knows exactly when to introduce revelations.  Just as things seem to be stagnating, the author embarks upon a relevant piece of information that calls everything prior into question.

Best of all?  The entire book is from Stevens’ perspective, so as these alarming details arise, we must doubt not only the guilty parties, but Stevens himself.  There are moments when the reader suspects Stevens may not be the most reliable narrator …

Because Stevens takes his role so seriously, he is an incredibly well studied, intelligent man.  His vocabulary is complex which results is very high diction throughout the novel.  Consequently, Ishiguro creates beautifully structured sentences that demand both concentration and consideration.  I’m ashamed to admit this is my first Ishiguro book, so I don’t know if this style is a reflection of Stevens’ personality or the author’s typical delivery.

Though I only read the book because a friend recommended it, I’m glad I did.  If you appreciate excellent pacing, engaging vocabulary, and a true character study, I believe you will enjoy The Remains Of the Day.

Aquaman: Rebirth #1 – A (Comic) Book Review

I happen to really dig Aquaman.  Peter David’s unprecedented run on the title in the early ’90s won me over due to the sheer originality and complexity of character, and I’ve followed the character ever since.  Of course, as he does with everything he touches, Geoff Johns returned Aquaman to his classic greatness while keeping him just as interesting over a decade later.

Since I found myself in the comic book shop anyway, I figured I’d pick up Aquaman: Rebirth #1 to see what new approach DC and Dan Abnett would take with our favorite Sea King.

Unfortunately, of all the Rebirth titles I’ve read so far, Aquaman struck me as the least innovative, revolutionary, or even interesting.  That’s not to say Abnett wrote poorly – he didn’t.  The dialogue flows well and is consistent with the characters.  The art is fine as well.  Both script and art progress the story resulting in a crisp, pleasurable read.

My issue with the, well, issue is that I didn’t notice anything new of consequence added to the character or mythology.  This installment seemed purely intended to catch up someone who has never read Aquaman before.  We’ve sailed these waters before.

So while the writing and art is well executed, the story itself offers nothing new and, consequently, makes this issue irrelevant.

 

Wonder Woman: Rebirth #1 – A (Comic) Book Review

Wonder Woman is nothing if not a contradiction.  She is warrior of peace, after all.  She absolutely believes in truth and justice, yet she will fight to the death in pursuit of those things.  This complexity of character, an attribute that has always accompanied Wonder Woman, came especially to the forefront during Brian Azzarello’s masterful time on the title.  Within the last six years, it came to light that she was not only the child of the Amazon queen but also of Zeus himself!  To further add depth to the icon, she eventually became the God of War!

Greg Rucka embraces all of these contradictions and uses them to create a gripping first installment to what appears to be a captivating story line.  In Wonder Woman: Rebirth #1, Wonder Woman remembers two distinct pasts, two separate lives, and she wants nothing more than the truth concerning these contradictory recollections.  She uses a unique approach to achieve this desired truth which sets her on a new path, and this new journey will seemingly put her in direct conflict with the entity Wally West is warning of in DC Universe: Rebirth #1.  I love that already Batman, Flash, and Wonder Woman know something is amiss, that they are being manipulated and watched, and it’s only a matter of time before they do something about it …

Two artists are featured within this issue.  Matthew Clark handled the Wonder Woman for whom we are familiar, and then, half way through the book, Liam Sharp takes over when Wonder Woman ditches her New 52 costume and adopts more traditional armor befitting an Amazon warrior.  Consequently, this new armor is very similar to what she wore in her big screen debut last March.

Rucka, like Azzarello, delivers a complicated, multifaceted Wonder Woman with a clear mission in mind.  He is treating her with dignity, respect, and as the capable hero she is.  Like The Flash: Rebirth #1, this issue seems integral to the overall story unfolding within the DC Universe.

I left Wonder Woman after Azzarello’s departure because I didn’t care for the way the new creators handled her, but Rucka has definitely brought me back.  I can’t wait to join Wonder Woman as she discovers her truth.

 

 

 

 

 

The Flash: Rebirth #1 – A (Comic Book) Review

You may remember I went a little goo-goo for DC Universe: Rebirth #1.  I’m very happy to say that The Flash: Rebirth #1 is a can’t-miss connection to that seminal issue.

The first several pages establish Barry Allen’s character and background in case anyone is new to the title.  But then Wally West appears exactly as it happened in DC Universe: Rebirth #1, and it prolongs that moment, makes it even more emotionally resonant, and provides direction for both Wally and Barry.  Then, unbelievably, it goes even a step further and takes Flash into the Batcave to discuss that yellow pin Batman found.  I won’t spoiler any of the actual conversation, but this issue absolutely seems pivotal to the imminent conflict I personally cannot wait to witness.

So from a plot standpoint, this issue is extremely important to where Barry, Wally, and even the DC Universe is headed.  In that regard, I deem it required reading.

I also want to note, though, that The Flash is one of my all-time favorite heroes, and I have to say I much prefer Wally over Barry because I grew up alongside Wally West.  (Again, check out my ecstatic raving …)  However, this issue features the most likable and identifiable Barry Allen I’ve seen since the New 52’s inception.  Joshua Williamson seems to have a great handle on Barry’s persona and, let’s face it, Barry is so much better with Wally by his side.  Like Superman, Barry has always struck me as a father figure, a pure hero.  He is at his best when he is caring for those closest to him, and he needs those closest to him present in order to shine.  I absolutely believe Wally and Barry can share the Flash mantel.  They’ve done it before after Barry’s initial return … they can do it again.

I enjoyed Carmine Di Giandomenico’s art, but it definitely benefited from Ivan Plascencia’s colors.   This is a supreme case of the coloring making the art standout.  They both work together to denote forward movement, fluidity, and ultimately speed.  They are a good team for this character.

Quite honestly, I think this is my favorite Flash comic since the New 52.  It’s got heart, soul, and it seems to be filled with crucial plot points.