Monday, April 9, 2012

Return of the Fluff (Inheritance Review)

It would be unfair of me to mock Christopher Paolini's 849-paged finale for being about four times larger than it should have been, and it would be cruel of me to call Inheritance a worthless steaming pile of cow dung (figuratively-speaking).  Those kinds of things would be unprofessional exaggerations.

But I am no professional.

Inheritance is the fourth and final book in the Inheritance Cycle originally kicked off by the teenaged Christopher Paolini and his "Star Wars plot meets the Lord of the Rings universe" Eragon.  The series is about a young man named Eragon who discovers a dragon egg in the forest and suddenly finds himself becoming one of the last Dragon Riders, a once-noble group of elves and men who worked together with dragons to keep the peace in the land.  That is, until Galbatorix and thirteen of his favorite buddies all but wiped out the Riders and set Galbatorix up as ruler of the new Empire.  After over a century of iron-fisted dictatorship, Eragon appears on the scene and joins the Varden, who have rebelled against the Empire in the hopes of restoring Alagaesia to its former glory.

Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr (which I previously reviewed here) are conveniently summed up in Inheritance's first seven pages, which I found both very helpful and rather entertaining in an "I can't believe this is actually here" kind of way.  The plot is unnecessarily twisted and confused; I have to give Paolini credit for keeping everything straight because I cannot imagine any reader being able to do so, even with the 2000-word recap.  From there, you launch straight into battle, which is by far Paoloni's strongpoint.  The battles in this book, with the exception of Roran's scenes (more on him later), are excellently-written and meticulously crafted, if a bit gory.

Unfortunately, his attention to detail is also his great undoing.  I am not kidding when I say that you could cut out the first three-hundred pages of the book, slap them in as quick summary along with the other seven pages, and begin in earnest from there.  I cannot begin to count how many superfluous scenes litter this book: easily the majority of it.  I was being unfair earlier when I called Inheritance a worthless steaming pile of cow dung.  But in fantasy novels there is world-building, and there is fluff, and Inheritance is so fluffy that you'll suffocate before you find the animal underneath.  Paolini had originally intended for this quartet to be a trilogy, and I do believe that, with some simple editing, that could have been easily achieved.

Don't believe that the book is overly-long?  I challenge you to read the chapter in which Nasuada spends multiple pages obsessing over the fingernails of a character whose name you never even learn and see if you still feel the same.


One of the two places where Inheritance really falls flat is here, in the plot line.  You get the sense that Paolini is simply going through the motions by book four.  He is completely incapable of letting more than a few minutes pass by without telling you about them, so while he continues switching POVs between Eragon, Nasuada, and Roran as he has for the past few books, nothing of particular interest happens for a very long time.  For those first three-hundred pages or so there are no twists or interesting turns of events.  The course stays steadily forward at a leisurely pace. Capture this town in the name of the Varden.  Assess damage.  Move on to next town.  Capture in the name of the Varden.  Keep heading north towards Uru'baen.  Fight, win, take stock, continue onward.  This is the kind of pacing suited for a video game, not a book.  Perhaps he wanted you to be as tired of this war as the characters are by the time they reach Galbatorix.  Whether that was his intention or no, I guarantee that you will feel this way.  If I had to choose one word to describe this book, it would be "slog".  The book should have started with the Varden's army outside of Dras-Leona, but instead you get to spend hundreds of pages reading about how three other cities fall to the rebels and how Galbatorix makes no attempt to slow their progression.

Some of the sub-plots work well enough - like watching Elva come to terms with her "gift" of feeling others' pain - but many are not explored sufficiently, and there are countless minor characters and "who the  hell was that?" moments that the author simply left open.  In a way, this keeps the plot more organic - do you know what has become of every person you've ever met? - but at the same time they just continue to add to the page count that needs no expansion as it is.

The biggest problem with the plot is a lack of opposition.  Sure, you only see the POVs of the heroes (though one from Galbatorix would have been awesome), but that shouldn't mean the bad guys aren't hatching any plots of their own.  Galbatorix and the Empire do not react.  They are like poor A.I. in a video game.  They simply wait for the Varden to show up.  How would The Lord of the Rings have progressed without the Nazgul seeking out Frodo?  How would Star Wars have changed if Darth Vader only used Star Destroyers to defend Empire-controlled planets?  Part of the appeal of the Harry Potter series was that Voldemort was always up to something and it was up to Harry to stop him.  There was a sense of urgency; if Harry didn't win by the end of the school year, the wizarding world was doomed.  In Inheritance the only urgency comes from the Varden's limited supplies.  If they don't do something now, then the army will disband - not die, mind you, but disband and go home to find some dinner.  That's not urgency, no matter how much the narrator tries to talk about how urgent things are.  It's no coincidence that the point at which I felt the plot actually began was the point in which one of the bad guys - Murtagh, one of the only interesting characters - appeared and hatched a freaking plot.  That was more than 300 pages in, more than one page for every oiled Spartan who followed King Leonidas to certain doom.  Paolini could learn from the Spartans and their efficiency.

In an odd paradox, though, I would almost argue that Inheritance is both too long and too short.  I know how retarded this sounds, but hear me out before you get the room with the nice padded walls ready.  That stupid fluff metaphor I used earlier?  The fluff made the book seem too long, but once you got down to the real plot - that is, once Paolini got away from spending pages describing fingernails and balls of mud (I kid you not) and suddenly remembered that a story was going on - it felt curiously rushed, like the author couldn't wait to move on to the next scene filled with completely useless knowledge.

Ultimately, though, there is little in this book that is really necessary for the reader to know going in to the final battle, and that's not the mark of a good writer, no matter how technically skilled Paolini's keyboardsmanship may have become since his almost laughable Eragon.

The Setting

By this point in the series, you should be pretty familiar with Alagaesia.  Eragon is from Carvahall.  The Haradric - excuse me, Hadarac - Desert is huge.  Galbatorix lives in Uru'baen.  To Paolini's credit, I found myself rarely looking at the map in the front of the book to try to figure out where in the hell the characters were.  You could watch the Varden's march from Surda to Uru'baen, and that was pretty cool.  By the end of Inheritance you will have seen nearly every place marked on that map, with the exception of the southwestern islands, one of which (Illium), appears to be named after a section of the human small intestine.  If only the islands around it were something like "Je'junum" and "Seecum".  But I digress.

A small beef I have with Alagaesia is that I do not believe that a land of that size has so few settlements.  Only about a dozen human towns on the entire continent?  I don't think so.  Paolini gives no indication that there are farmsteads, or villages, or anything one would expect besides the handful of places listed on the map.  You get almost no sense about how anyone other than the Varden feel about the state of affairs, either, except for the multiple people who actually boo and hiss the Varden once they "liberate" a city.  The citizens of the Empire do not welcome the rebel army.  You start to wonder if anyone under Galbatorix's rule actually wants their king gone, but unfortunately Paolini never tells you.  You have to take the narrator's word for it that the Varden are right and Galbatorix is wrong, so just for fun I started to read the book as if the opposite were the case.  You know what?  It still held, and in many instances it actually worked better.  Uh oh.


This is the other area in which Inheritance fails severely.  I did something I don't usually do while writing these blog entries: I read some other reviews to see what other, less-harsh people had to say, and I found someone on Amazon who summed up Paolini's problem perfectly: "he does not build a world with a story and have characters drive the story forward; he drives the story forward and has characters along for the ride".  This is most particularly apparent in the ending (which I will discuss at the end of this entry), but the problem can easily be seen throughout all of the four books.

Eragon has grown since the first book, and one could argue that this series is first and foremost a coming-of-age tale.  Yet, by the end of everything, I still felt like Eragon was little more than a hollow shell into which the reader was supposed to insert him/herself, much like Bella in the Twilight series.  Eragon often displays emotions like anger, jealousy, and downright brattiness, but they're all so shallow and spur-of-the-moment that all they do is make him seem even more like a baby than he was way back in Eragon.  He is far too quick to despair when he cannot think of a solution, and his continued duels with Arya show just how childish he still is.  There finally comes a turning point in his maturity, but it is so late in coming that I had stopped caring long ago.

Saphira is one of the few interesting characters.  She is like a gigantic cat; her vanity offers one or two small moments of humor, and oftentimes she brings a certain directness to the table that the extremely loquacious humans, elves, and dwarves singularly lack (the two-leggers will discuss every possible angle of an argument any time two or more of them get together, which is both unrealistic and boring).  Unfortunately Saphira has hardly grown since the first book, and her one POV chapter felt more like an accidental photobomb that, like all of the other non-Eragon chapters, did little to progress the story.

Arya, the ever-unobtainable love interest, doesn't change.  This mostly makes sense, as she is an elf and has had quite a lot of time to develop her personality, but you find little in her to really enjoy as a character.  She's just there, constantly rejecting Eragon's advances (a scenario to which I can relate and in which I took a devious delight).  As Eragon begins to match her in magical abilities, you do start to see a friendship grow, but Arya has been nagged by this puppy for so long that I had a hard time believing she would ever come to regard him as an equal.

Roran is a horrible character.  He's the story's Rambo with no personality and a wife who also has no personality.  Roran's chapters are so thoroughly pointless as to almost be comical, and one scene of his in particular gets my award for "most stupidest scene evarr" for Inheritance.  It's the chapter entitled "A Toss of the Bones", involving a surprise attack on the Varden's camp during the siege of Aroughs.  If you've read the book, you know of what I speak.  I cannot think of anything Roran adds to the story other than a point of view of a soldier weak against magic.  This is indeed a theme in Inheritance, but it's nothing that a simple conversation with Roran during an Eragon chapter couldn't have fixed.  I was so tired of reading about Roran fighting for Katrina and his unborn child that I almost wanted the character to die just so that he'd shut up.  When you've come to the point of actually cheering against the protagonists, you know the book is in trouble.  Roran has a certain bloodlust that bordered on disturbing, and let's not forget the fact that at the start of this story this man was a farmer with absolutely no combat experience.  How he was able to constantly beat hundreds of trained soldiers is totally beyond me.

Katrina only seems to be there to give Roran something to fight for.  She and Arya are strange foils for each other in the romance department: where Arya is the independent woman who wants nothing to do with Eragon's advances, Katrina's only two functions appear to be housework and baby-making.  Both Katrina and Arya are extremes, and both are unlikable.

Angela is another prime example of pointlessness.  I'll discuss her in a special rant at the end of this review.  It won't be pretty.  I hate this character with a passion burning brighter than the light of a thousand stars.

King Orrin of Surda takes a bizarre turn in this book.  Specifically, this once-cheery and artistic king apparently decides to shirk his responsibilities and become an angry alcoholic.  He blames stress, but his condition never improves even when circumstances do, so I blame Paolini's issue with having the plot drive the character.  He needed King Orrin to become an antagonist to Nasuada, and so he wrote a glass of wine into the King's hand and a foul temper into his head so that things could continue on as the author required.

Nasuada's POVs throughout Inheritance are actually interesting and tend to show a different perspective on the goings on of Alagaesia.  Her chapters in the latter half of the book in particular offered some fresh scenes of not-action and not-endless-fluff (with the exception of the aforementioned obsession with a man's fingernails), but the whole thing falls apart when in the end you realize that her chapters, like Roran's, offered nothing but a distraction to the plot.  With everything she goes through, to see her as nothing more than a damsel in distress in the climax was extremely disappointing.  There were countless opportunities for Paolini to have done something interesting with her there, but alas.

Murtagh, like Nasuada, was one of the very few characters I cared for in Inheritance.  He is the series' Darth Vader, the character who is most torn between good and evil, but Paolini does not explore this near as much as he should have.  Though it would have broken from his previous books, it would have benefited the plot greatly if Paolini had done a chapter from Murtagh's point of view.  Just like Nasuada, though, Murtagh is thoroughly underutilized by the story's end, and that was a major letdown.

Galbatorix, as you might guess, finally makes his grand appearance, and I have to admit that it was mostly worth it.  I remember nothing of his physical description, but it's his voice that is his most distinctive feature, and Paolini did indeed do well here.  Galbatorix is, for the most part, a smooth talker, and you can almost feel the power in his words.  It was rather silly, though, how long it takes to actually see Galbatorix after you first encounter him; he remains in the shadows for so long that you just know Paolini was grinning as he wrote the scenes and muttering to himself, "Yeah this'll keep the suspense going!"  It was a cheesy effect that somewhat dampened the impact of the character's reveal.  And when the heroes don't do as he commands, his transition from smooth-talking politician to angry whiny baby was so sudden that it almost made Eragon look grown up by comparison.

Everyone else I had trouble remembering from past books.  Orik the dwarven king was alright in a jolly sort of way.  Elva the creepy girl Eragon blessed towards the end of the first book remained creepy and more or less unhelpful, but of course she offered to help out when Eragon needed it the most (even though her "help" amounted to absolutely nothing).  But the characters who had no business in continually popping up were the villagers from Carvahall.  Half the time I couldn't remember who these characters were supposed to be, and the other half of the time I simply accepted that their names looked vaguely familiar and moved on.  There was no reason to spend two solid chapters on the birth of a baby by one of the Carvahall women, especially since you practically never saw the baby's family members again for the rest of the book.

The Editing

As I said before, Inheritance is four or five times longer than it needs to be, meaning that about 80% of the book is pure, useless fluff.  Paolini's writing isn't exactly bad; in fact, it's grown immensely since Eragon.  But his editing and - more importantly, - the job done by his editor are offensively poor.  There was no reason for Brisingr and Inheritance to be two separate books.  That was a failing of epic proportions on his editor's part.  She should be fired.  I mean, come on, look at the tree that Paolini plops onto her desk:

That's downright insulting.  I'm pretty sure she just checked for spelling errors (ignoring the incorrect pluralization of Eldunari) and sent it off to be published.


If you've bothered to read the first three books already, then you might as well finish, but do yourself a favor and start with the siege of Dras-Leona.  Everything before that (and most things after) is completely unnecessary.  Many people have stated that they were disappointed by the number of loose ends left by the book's end, and while I agree that many subplots fell by the wayside and there were probably more characters that I didn't know than those that I did, there were at least as many reviewers who join me in saying that the book should have ended about sixty pages before it actually did, and that's not including the pronunciation guide, the glossary, or the acknowledgments (where Paolini gleefully hints that this is not the last book he'll write concerning Alagaesia, oh joy!).  But if you want to see whether or not Eragon finally defeats Galbatorix, then give this a shot.

But get your best swamp gear ready, because it is a slog.


Many reviews I read were disappointed with the book's "imperfect" ending.  Ignoring the fact that the post-climax felt more like a history book than a novel and that its listing of events went on for far too long, I was thrilled by the fact that Eragon and Arya don't end up together.  The reader is never given any good reason as to why they should.  Their friendship was pretty well-established, sure, but romance?  No.  Hell no.  It shouldn't happen, and it didn't, and that was alright by me.  Paolini did himself a service by avoiding cliche, and for that I will applaud him with the lightest and slowest of golf claps.

Where I do not applaud him, however, is in his deus ex machina solution to taking down big bad Galbatorix.  Deus ex machina, in case you don't know, is a term generally used to refer to moments in stories where a solution just comes completely out of nowhere to fix the problem.  Toy Story 3's ending had this, and so did the ending for Inheritance.  Paolini messed up big time by making a villain who was simply too powerful, and the lengths he had to go to in order for the heroes to win felt more like a cheat code to beat the final boss of a video game than pure, honest ingenuity.

The sudden production of the Dauthdaert, a spear capable of penetrating all magic, was as mystifying as it was completely against the rules Paolini had already set up for his world.  Add that to Galbatorix's use of the Word of Words, and you have a climactic scene that was less about the clashing of characters as it was a cheap manipulation of Paolini's magic rules.  The scene's entire set up was a rude imitation of the climax of Return of the Jedi, with Galbatorix watching as Eragon and Murtagh duel with their colored swords.  But where in RotJ you see Luke Skywalker realize what he could become and defy it, here you just have pointless swordplay and Eragon defeating Galbatorix through the power of understanding.  But, unlike a similar finale for a certain Orson Scott Card classic, this felt like an unbelievable letdown.  After almost three-thousand pages, Eragon pulls some unspoken magic almost literally out of his arse to force the mad king to feel the misery he has brought on his people until he blows himself up?  Come on.  There were too many violations of the magical world which Paolini had established for this victory to feel properly won.  1) The Dauthdaert used to take down Galbatorix's admittedly awesome dragon was too out-of-nowhere, 2) the Name of Names suffered from the same problem, and its effects were never clearly explained (did it completely dispel all magic, or did it just alter magic to the speaker's liking?), 3) To my knowledge Eragon had never even performed an unspoken spell before, and they supposedly take such a degree of concentration that Eragon, near death and in the most stressful situation of his life, could hardly be believed to have pulled off a spell so great that he forced the most powerful magician in the universe to live every moment of a thousand lives.  The most fitting end would more likely have been something to do with Eragon's and Galbatorix's true names, but those things, which had seemed so important to know before the fight, were never brought up.

The whole scene, from the random children as hostages to Nasuada's uselessness to the pointless fight against Murtagh, paled in comparison to the same scene from Star Wars, which was written by George Lucas, the same man responsible for Jar Jar Binks and Kinect Star Wars.  I can hardly think of a greater insult, but Paolini earned it.

Speaking of Nasuada, I cannot over-stress my disappointment in her story arc.  It held such promise.  She and Murtagh had a thing going on during her imprisonment that was - finally! - the first decent bit of romantic tension we've seen in the entire series.  He promises to help her escape, and I was expecting some great moment when he'd do just that and get her out of there just as the Varden begin their final attack, but what happens?  The Varden attack "a day before Murtagh can get his plans in order", and it all amounts to nothing.  And since you see no one's POV but Eragon's after the victory over Galbatorix, you are left wondering how Nasuada feels about all of this, and that was, for me, the greatest letdown of them all.

One more quick note on a controversial point about the ending: Eragon's self-imposed banishment from Alagaesia.  This is a prime example of Paolini moving the plot forward and bringing the characters along for the ride rather than building a character-driven story.  Eragon appears to come to this decision because of the prophesy Angela made in Eragon (Your fate will be to leave this land forever.  Where you will end up I know not but you will never again stand in Alagaesia.  This is inescapable.  It will come to pass even if you try to avoid it).  So, to appease his own fate (read: Paolini's wishes), Eragon decides to pack up his things and all the dragon eggs and sail to the Undying Lands - I mean, whatever lies east a\of Alagaesia.  While I actually understand Eragon's thought process that goes into choosing to train the new Dragon Riders outside of Alagaesia, there is absolutely no reason as to why Eragon "will never return".  Perhaps secretly he does not like Roran, or Orik, or Arya, so he uses this as an excuse to get away from them.  That's how I read it, but perhaps that was just because I didn't much like those characters, either.

Either way, I understand Eragon's decision, but the only reason I know of as to why he will never return to Alagaesia, despite having a flying dragon, is because fate said so.

The Rant of Angela

I like wise, goofy characters.  Yoda and his bizarre speech, Master Splinter and his insistence upon ending each of the old TMNT movies by "making a funny", even Pai Mei and his "contempt for women" in the Kill Bill films; these are great characters.  Despite (or perhaps because of) their humor, you learn just how bad-ass they are over the course of the story.  Their humor shows a certain childishness about each of them that endears them to you.  They show their skills to prove to you and the heroes that they are to be respected, and then they guide the heroes on their journey with wisdom so pure and simple you would be a fool to ignore it.

Angela is a spoof of these characters.

I see no greater failing in Paolini's writing than in Angela.  As Lost fans may tell you, a good mystery does not mean that you answer no questions but raise a hundred more.  But that is precisely what Angela does.  Throughout the Inheritance Cycle you are barraged with references to Angela's past and how awesome she is, yet you learn nothing about her.  There are passing references about her former master and that she visited the elves at some point, but that's about all you get.  She's quirky in a way that teaches Eragon nothing (like how she knits a sweater to ward off rabbits, or how she tells him to beware of earwigs and wild hamsters).  Perhaps strangest of all, she knows of atoms and other scientific things that feel wholly out of place in this fantasy world; though, as ever, you are not even given a hint as to how she has come across such knowledge.  And after saying, "What am I?  Chopped liver?", she had the following to say:

"What a strange expression," said the herbalist.  "Who would compare themselves to chopped liver in the first place?  If you have to choose an organ, why not pick a gallbladder or a thymus gland instead?  Much more interesting than a liver.  Or what about chopped t--"  She smiled.  "Well, I suppose that's not important."
-Inheritance, page 265 (hardback American edition)

As a nursing student, and thus someone who actually knows a little something about the organs mentioned above, I take offense to this sad attempt at wittiness.  A gallbladder is not interesting, I assure you.  It is a storage sac.  And, again, Angela's scientific knowledge receives absolutely no clarification.  I would have accepted just about any explanation, even something like "she's a time-traveler from another dimension", but you are given nothing but idiotic jokes about a small sack of bile.

A character cannot be wise and revered simply because the narrator says she is so.  Angela does show her combat prowess both with magic and her profoundly stupid lightsaber, Twinkledeath (which is of course the most powerful sword in existence, though apparently not as powerful as the Dauthdaert, but that's okay because the Dauthdaert is a spear).  But combat skills do not make one wise.  In the cases of Yoda, Master Splinter, and Pai Mei, each one is an undeniably great fighter, yet the reason why each is revered is because they teach their heroes something about themselves that becomes key to defeating the villain.  They help their students succeed.  They show the viewers some way to look at life that they might not have considered yet.  Angela's only usefulness is to give a prophecy that imposes the author's will upon Eragon and then refuse to die for the rest of the series, despite my most sincere wishes.

It is my understanding that Angela is based on Paolini's sister - also named Angela.  I am not sure how strong that base is, but Angela sticks out so badly in the world of Alagaesia that I have no choice but to believe that she is a fair representation of Paolini's sister.  It almost makes me feel bad, to so strongly detest a character who is in fact based on a real person.  Perhaps that is why I would believe it if Angela were to say that she has time-traveled from another dimension: she basically has.  Paolini has transplanted his modern-day sister into a medieval-style fantasy.  But in the end, all the character has done is cheapen the world Paolini has spent nearly three-thousand pages to painstakingly create.

I hate Angela the herbalist as I have never hated a character before.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I would rather read an entire novel about Jar Jar Binks' indigestion than read another scene involving this witch.  She is an affront to the very concept of "wise" - a concept that must be entirely foreign to our dear Mr. Paolini.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wrath of the Nerds (Wrath of the Titans Review)

Let me get this out of the way first: Wrath of the Titans is fun, gorgeous eye-candy.

Okay, now that that's over with, let's get down to actual critique.

This is Warner Brothers' sequel of 2010's annoyingly successful Clash of the Titans, which I previously reviewed here.  That film in turn was a remake of the 1981 Dynarama extravaganza of the same name, so in an odd sense, this is like a sequel thirty years in the making.  In Clash of the Titans, a demigod named Perseus - the son of Zeus and a mortal woman - must travel to the ends of the Earth to claim the head of Medusa and battle the dreaded Kraken.  I have already voiced my complaints in my review, so I will not reiterate them here.  I bring up Clash of the Titans merely to say that, mercifully, Wrath of the Titans is multiple times better than its predecessor.

Thanks to my upbringing a well as my own personal tastes, I know an uncomfortably large amount of useless knowledge concerning Greek myth, so one may understand why the first film and its distinctly Norse mega-monster would irk me so.  This film, thankfully, stuck purely to its Greek roots, with some considerable modern influences that I will touch upon soon.

Wrath picks up several years after the events of Clash.  Perseus (Sam Worthington) has grown out his hair, fathered a son, and buried a wife - Io from the first film, who fell ill to a scheduling conflict and never recovered.  Despite his fame, Perseus is determined to lead a quiet life with his son as a fisherman, but that wouldn't make for a great movie, so it isn't long before Zeus pays him a visit and a chimera attacks the tiny fishing village for plot-convenient reasons.  One thing leads to another, and before you know it our always-reluctant hero is off to save the day once again.

Right off the bat you can tell that none of the writers from Clash have returned.  This is no longer a tale of sandy Magi, sea monsters from Norway, and scorpions the size of Mack trucks.  This is a tale of fatherhood, a topic all too familiar with those well-versed in Greek myth.  To be honest, this is a tale so much about fatherhood that at times it seems to beat you over the head with Poseidon's trident to get the point across.  Zeus' favor of Perseus leads Ares, the god of war (and son of Zeus himself) to join Hades in betraying the other gods.  Zeus is captured and placed in Tartarus, where his life force is slowly drained to restore Kronos (the head Titan, and father to Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) so that he will reclaim the world from the ailing gods.  Since the humans no longer pray to the gods, the gods' powers are failing, so Ares and Hades think that Kronos will grant them immortality if they help free him.  A nice touch that also probably saved on special effects is that, unlike in Clash of the Titans, you do not see the gods on Olympus, nor do you see them in their awesome godly armor.  The Olympians each don more conservative garb as an effective visual cue that humanity's lack of piety has drained them of much of their former luster.

What I don't understand is why the gods depend on human belief to survive (even though they were around before humans existed), but Titans don't.  Slight plot hole, and by that I mean that it's so large that Tartarus itself probably fathered it.  As I said before, the concept of fatherhood is all over this movie.

What really bothers me is something Wrath of the Titans seems to have taken from the recent film Immortals (2011), which is the idea that gods can be killed.  This seems silly to me.  Ancient myth tells that Hera was so displeased with Hephaestus when he was born that she threw him off of Mt. Olympus, and all it did was make him ugly and give him a limp.  He didn't die from being a baby flung off a mountain, so why should the gods be as vulnerable as they are in this film?  The writers must have felt that having the gods be subject to death would provide a sense of urgency to the plot, but I don't think they fully understand an idea often touched upon in other films: that there are fates worse than death.  I think it'd be more compelling if Kronos' revival from Tartarus would have meant dismemberment for Zeus (a common idea for old god myths).  Perhaps his body parts would be flung to the farthest reaches of Earth, and he'd spend eternity with his body torn to shreds.  That to me seems far worse a fate than "abyss", as Hades at one point explains it.  Having gods be able to die just turns them into humans and, for me at least, makes them much less interesting to watch.

While the film largely nailed their return to Greek form (including some very strong story influence from the recent Heroes of Olympus series of books by Rick Riordan), it still struggles with a Greek sense of Zeus and Hades.  This would be the modern influence I mentioned earlier.  Myth explains that after the victory over the Titans, the three most powerful gods each chose a realm over which to rule: Zeus the sky, Poseidon the earth and sea, and Hades the underworld.  Hades was not "banished to hell", as the film would have you believe (and no one would ever tell Perseus to "go to hell", as happens here to set up a lame joke that that is, in fact, where he is going).  The Christian influence over these films is hard to miss, with Zeus playing the role of God the Father and Hades serving as Satan.  Wrath even includes a theme of forgiveness that may be better-suited for a more overtly-Christian film.  This, combined with the aforementioned plot point that gods can die, is in the end a telling difference between the ancient Greek and the modern American psyches.  The Greeks were not afraid of death in the way Americans are today.  There was no "heaven" or "hell" - everyone went to the Underworld and were then judged and divided based on the worthiness of their souls.  Do great things, end up in Elysium or the Isles of the Blessed.  Do bad things, rot in the Fields of Punishment, but to the Underworld you would go no matter what. Hades became your lord in the afterlife whether you were a hero or a serial murderer.  But put an American spin on the tale, and suddenly gods become vulnerable, the lord of the Underworld and the god of war become the villains, and death is something to fear.  It seems little more than a cop-out to try to keep things familiar with the audience, because heaven forbid we should ever have to watch something that may only be familiar to dorks who read about this kind of thing for fun.

Anyway, back to the movie itself.  Sam Worthington (Perseus) does his hero thing to mild effect.  Liam Neeson (Zeus) could read from the phone book and I'd be entertained.  Ralph Fiennes (Hades) adjusted his Hades from the previous film and made the character less creepy, more generic.  He ditched his whispering death-voice and mostly just spoke normally.  I'm not sure why, but it was disappointing.  Edgar Ramirez was sulky and menacing as Ares.  Toby Kebbell (Agenor, a demigod son of Poseidon) and Bill Nighy (Hephaestus) were definitely the stand-out performances that offered some great comedic relief and a bit of personality to the film's otherwise dry dialogue.  Finally, Rosamund Pike stepped in for Alexa Davalos (who was "unavailable") as Andromeda, but that was just fine with me.  Ms. Pike has been one of my favorites since that horrible Bond film with the guy with diamonds in his face, and she did fairly well with what she was given (which is to say not much).  It's just as well that she looks completely different from Ms. Davalos, as the Andromeda from Clash and the one from Wrath are entirely different characters.  Where before Andromeda was little more than your standard useless damsel in distress, here she is almost perpetually in armor and speaks as casually with Perseus as if she were just one of the boys.  There was one thing concerning her character that I hated, however, but I'll cover that in the spoiler section at the bottom.

While I'm on the subject of casting, something did strike me as very odd.  Aside from the army sequences, in which I believe most of the humans were CG anyway, there seemed to be very few humans on the set at any given time.  Perseus' traveling band of adventurers, despite being accompanied by a Queen, were very few.  And even though the Underworld and Tartarus appear to be one and the same in this film, the place is almost completely desolate despite its enormous size.  Surely it was not designed, with its human-sized maze network, just to hold a Titan the size of a mountain (to be fair, the entire Tartarus sequence was extremely poorly done).  Clash of the Titans at least gave you a sense that Perseus was fighting for a civilization.  In Wrath, you could be led to believe that the only ones who would suffer if he failed in his quest would be the Greek army who foolishly set up camp at the bottom of a valley.  A somewhat minor complaint, but the writers made the mistake of making the story more personal while upping the level of action from Kraken to Kronos without seeming to think that a mountain of lava traipsing around Greece would probably have a greater impact on its population's well-being than a sea monster who was only really interested in eating a single princess in the first place.

I did not see the film in 3D, having made that mistake once already with the prequel, so I cannot comment on how good or bad those effects were.  However, since I understand that the effects were inserted in post-production, I can just about guarantee that they are not worth your money.  The movie was gorgeous in 2D, though.  The effects were top-notch, the people were (mostly) attractive, and the locales were interesting and varied.  The camerawork was pretty good up until the finale, where the action onscreen overwhelmed the camera, and much seemed lost in the translation (though not NEAR as much as was lost in the filming of The Hunger Games.  I'm still sore about how poor the "shaky cam" work was in that movie).  The plot lagged heavily in the middle and leading into the climax, but otherwise the pacing was fine.  The ending was almost touching, save for one point which I will cover below.

All in all, Wrath of the Titans is as I said in the opening line: a fun, beautiful romp through ancient Greece.  Go check it out if you feel like watching Sam Worthington beat up on all sorts of monsters and don't mind an experience that, despite its improved writing, feels about as deep as the saucer of whiskey I leave out for the cats each night.

But don't name your son after the Greek sun god, Helios.  That's just silly.  And strangely ironic.  Son god.  I see what you did there.

Okay, so as I mentioned before, there was one thing about Andromeda that really bothered me.  Towards the end of the film, I remember thinking that I was glad the movie hadn't tried to force any kind of romance between her and Perseus.  They certainly got along and all that, but there was never any indication that the two had any feelings for each other.  And then, out of nowhere, Perseus walks into Andromeda's tent and gives her a big fat kiss.  Then he leaves, and Andromeda is left looking about as stunned as I must have been.  I have never, in my whole life, seen a romance as poorly-done as that, with the obvious exception of Star Wars Episode II.  It's not even fair to call it a romance.  There was zero buildup.  Zero resolution.  The kiss just happened, and that was it.  I don't care that he's Perseus, the savior of Greece twice-over; you don't simply walk into a monarch's tent and start making out with her.  It was stupid and forced and actually managed to top the chemistry-devoid romance from Clash of the Titans, which I didn't think was possible.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two Books, Worlds Apart (A Note on John Carter and The Hunger Games)

Some people in the entertainment industry seem somehow surprised that John Carter flopped as hard as it did while The Hunger Games far surpassed analysts's predictions for its opening weekend.  I'm no expert, but the reasons have seemed painfully obvious to me.  Having seen both movies (and having admittedly only read The Hunger Games and not A Princess of Mars), let us discuss what seems to have gone so right for Ms. Everdeen and oh so wrong for Mr. Carter:

John Carter (2012)
Based upon a series of books that began exactly a century ago, this is an intriguing tale of a Civil War vet jaded by the reality he found when he returned home.  When asked to fight again for his country, he flatly refuses, and while on the run a series of events transpires that beams him to Mars, where he is also asked to fight for a country and a cause he does not necessarily believe in.

From the trailers alone, I had absolutely no desire to see this film.  I understand that it's popular right now to blame poor marketing for the failure of John Carter, but I believe it really is true.  Disney spent an estimated $100 million on this film's marketing campaign, but all I could tell you from the trailers was that some human with super strength had infiltrated the Geonosis scenes from Star Wars Episode II, sans jedi, which of course are the only reason to see any of the Star Wars prequels.  It wasn't until my wife found a paragraph online detailing the premise of the film that I became interested.  Had the marketing department actually focused on showing off the story's plot and its excellent characters then perhaps the film wouldn't have bombed as badly as it has thus far.  This was a good, fun film with some interesting twists and turns and characters I honestly liked, but none of that translated in the previews.

The Hunger Games (2012)
Conversely, I knew exactly what I was getting into with The Hunger Games.  Set in a dystopian future, where a Capitol rules twelve districts with an iron fist, this is the story of a young girl who volunteers to participate in a gladiator-style fight to the death with twenty-three other teenagers - one boy and one girl from each district - until only one is left standing.

I'm not really sure this film even needed a marketing campaign.  I know a number of people who teach in middle school, and all of them say that every one of their students has read the entire trilogy.  I read them two years ago and had been eagerly awaiting film adaptations ever since, but with the end of Harry Potter and the near-end of Twilight, it was only a matter of time before the next major teen franchise found its way into theaters.

They were smart enough to make sure that the brilliant author, Suzanne Collins, was involved with the screenplay, so of course the writing was good, the casting was perfect (ignore the racist idiots who didn't like that Rue is and has always been black), and the artwork for the sets and costumes and everything else were spot-on.

It was a good, good movie... when you could see it.

Perhaps you have heard of a camera effect in use these days called the "shaky cam".  Fun side note: I know a guy named Cameron, and this is the term he uses for himself when he's had too much caffeine.  Anyway, "shaky cam" is when the camera moves around as if it is being held by someone in the scene.  You can see its effects in "handheld camera" films like The Blaire Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield (2008), or the recent Chronicle (2012) (which was excellent, by the way).  Perhaps its best usage was in The Bourne Identity movies, where it gave each scene a certain gritty appeal that worked all too well for Matt Damon & friends.

I understand the concept behind its use for a film like this.  The filmmakers were certainly in a delicate position: how do you make a movie about teenagers killing each other and keep it under an R rating?  If your core audience can't even see the film, then how do you expect to turn a profit?  The shaky cam allows you to sort of fudge your action scenes so that you can show action without explicitly showing the action, so I understand.  However, there were several non-action scenes, such as the opening one depicting quiet scenes around District 12, where the shaky cam was used, and not only was it used but it was used to such a degree that a shot of an old man sitting on his porch looked like it was taken by someone doing jumping jacks in his bushes.  There was no reason for it, and the shaking was so extreme that it pulled me right out of the movie and left me wondering just what in the hell the cinematographers were thinking.  There were a few instances of this, not so many that I ended up hating the movie but enough to seriously annoy me.  The director claims he used the shaky cam to "reflect protagonist Katniss Everdeen's point of view".  Since the book is written in first-person from Katniss' POV, this should make sense, but when the film shows a number of scenes where Katniss isn't even present, that kind of argument holds no weight.

It was a tricky situation into which they placed themselves, and where the camera was concerned I don't believe they succeeded.

John Carter vs. The Hunger Games
So, back to the difference between John Carter and The Hunger Games.  Both had great casting and overall were both good movies.  I think I was more impressed with John Carter simply because it was unexpected - like the marketing sucked on purpose so that the five of us who actually went and saw the film would have a great time since our expectations had been lowered so far - with the exact opposite happening for The Hunger Games, which all too often felt as though there was a better movie going on than what you were seeing.  I could have told you after seeing the first trailer for each film which would do well and which wouldn't: John Carter's is far too old a story to draw in the kinds of crowds that The Hunger Games has.  If I'm not mistaken, HG made about as much on its midnight showings alone as JC has in its two weeks of release.  That's a pretty hefty imbalance between what are essentially both good movies, but it just goes to show what kind of effect public demand and expectations can have on a film's success or failure.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

2011 Movie Preview... Sort of

Welcome to a new year everyone (now that we're half a month into it, anyway).  If you're wondering where the hell I've been, well, you could say that I had an extended Christmas vacation.

Anyway, I realize that I didn't quite meet my goal for 2010 of seeing every movie which I previewed here, but who cares, right?  On to bigger and better things!

I had debated doing the same thing for this year - you know, writing a preview and then seeing each movie on the list - but ultimately someone else beat me to it.  IGN recently posted their own movie preview, and after reading through it, I realized that they hit upon every movie that I would have done myself.  So, rather than write my own preview, I am going to be lazy and simply refer you to theirs, and I guarantee, right here, right now, that I will NOT be making it a point to see each and every movie on IGN's list.  I don't have the stomach nor the wallet for it.  So go here, and witness the joy that will be this year in movies.  I have never before seen a more promising crop of sci-fi/fantasy/comic book goodness set for 365 days in all my life.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Bleeding Effect

In the popular press, it is all the rage right now to try to claim that violent games create violent people.  Sweet, innocent adolescents, they will claim, are suddenly, overnight and without warning, transformed into gun-toting, brass-knuckle-using thugs after five minutes of Halo: Reach.  An hour of WWE Smackdown will send little Johnny scampering to the store, where he will load up on weight gain products and subsequently beat the hell out of his classmates for no reason other than that he played that game.  And all of those trenchcoat-wearing social outcasts who brought Uzies to their schools and used them with extreme prejudice surely had Xboxes hidden away with the latest Grand Theft Auto in the disk drive, still warm from its latest use.  Every single teen in juvenile prison must have played State of Emergency since they could fart.
There are so many things wrong with these claims as to make them almost comical.  Why the media or the politicians or whomever are so obsessed with pinning teen violence on videogames is beyond me.  After all, who buys those games for their kids?  Did violent children not exist before the advent of the Nintendo?  And who lets a violent child grow up without ever teaching him more peaceful ways of resolving conflicts?  Playing Dynasty Warriors 6 no more makes me a violent person than it does make me a Three Kingdoms general.  I play violent games all the time, but I was taught the difference between fantasy and reality by my responsible parents, and I have an easy-going attitude to begin with.
That being said, I have encountered two unusual and rather specific instances in which playing a game really has impacted my poor little psyche.
The first comes from Stuntman: Ignition, a patently un-violent game (at least in the "stabby-stabby blow your brains out" way) in which you drive stunt vehicles around movie sets for faux action films.  Brilliant game, but it has one design flaw.  I hesitate to call it a flaw because it does make it a more challenging game, but I will call it a flaw nonetheless.  You score points by succeeding with stunts, like driving close to an explosion, pulling a 180 turn, driving between two trucks without touching either, etc.  Every stunt you do adds 1 to your score multiplier, and there is a way to string together the entire level so that you have an ungodly multiplier by the end and get a five-star rating: you do "little" stunts between the big ones, like popping wheelies on motorcycles or driving really closely by parked cars, so that your multiplier stays alive (it goes away after just a few seconds) and increases.  This means that you will actually drive out of your way in order to steer close to oncoming traffic, pedestrians, park tables, trees, whatever will count as a "close call" and increase your score.  I got pretty good at this, but unfortunately, it began to transfer into real life.  I remember driving into my apartment parking lot and actually steering to the side just so that I would be driving closer to the parked cars.  I realized what was going on immediately and had to stop playing for a few days.  I call this the Bleeding Effect.

Christmas sale at Wal-Mart!  Outta my way!

I've dubbed it such because of the second instance, which took place just last night.  Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was just released, and as I am a big fan of the series, it naturally sits in my gaming library.  In the Assassin's Creed series, a man named Desmond is hooked into a Matrix-like dentist's chair and relives memories stored in his DNA of his ancestors, like those of a man named Altair from the crusades in 1191.  As he experiences those memories, Desmond slowly acquires his ancestors' assassin talents, something which Desmond's colleagues call The Bleeding Effect. 
This latest entry, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, is special because it has a multiplayer component, which I tried for the first time last night.  You and seven other humans are thrown into Renaissance Italy as various characters who look exactly like the rest of the people in the crowd - guard captains, smugglers, doctors, executioners, etc.  Each player is given another player to assassinate, meaning that while you are hunting down one player, someone else is hunting you.  This means that you have to find your target and watch your back at the same time, because at any moment, some random barber may come up behind you and suddenly fancy himself Sweeny Todd.  In my second match, I stalked my target into a square where we both saw one player kill another.  Then my target went up and killed the killer.  I took the opportunity to kill my target while he wiped the blood off his blade, and right after I stabbed him, some jerk came up and killed me!  We all had a good laugh about this (at least, I did), but after I turned off the game, I realized something slightly alarming.  I still felt the anxiety of knowing that a fellow assassin was trailing me and may strike at any moment.  I felt paranoia, even though the only two things behind me were my Christmas tree and a sleeping cat (who, to be fair, could very well attack me at any moment).

I'll show YOU Protestant Reformation!

If psychologists really want to study gamers, then they should look into this.  A violent kid is going to play violent games, but then, so will mild-mannered cornballs like me.  Rage issues are certainly nothing new, but for some reason the media keeps trying to pin the blame on the gaming industry without taking a second glance at the child's home life, whether he's being bullied at school, if he's insecure, whatever.  The media craves the easy explanation.  "If you do x, then y will happen."  But if you've ever been around a human before, you know that we are never so simple.  Why Stuntman: Ignition and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood have impacted my sensitive little brain while the hundreds of other games that I have played haven't made the slightest dent I have absolutely no idea, but at least these two haven't instilled in me a strange desire to kill people while driving away from a raging volcano.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pigsy's Drunken Demand (Five Element Ninjas Review)

I went back to Dallas recently to see my in-laws because, you know, it's the holiday season, and while I was in town I decided to try and hang out with my three best friends from my junior high and high school days.  It's rare that we all end up in town at once, as one of us lives out of town, one of us lives out of state, one of us seems to have an inordinate fear of leaving home, and the other has no money to travel, so it's usually only the holidays and occasionally the odd summer weekend that finds us all in town at once.  Alas, Rockman works in retail, and we tried to meet up on Black Friday, so Pilgrim, Pigsy and I had to make do without him while he found himself buried under an avalanche of receipts, discarded shopping bags, and crushed dreams.

The problem with this is that Rockman is our group's moral compass.  With him there, we can at least maintain some sense of respectability.  Pigsy and Pilgrim may still tell dirty jokes, but at least Rockman keeps anything more than that from happening.  Without him, though, there is little hope.  As I called Pigsy to tell him that I was on my way with a brand spankin' new Xbox Kinect with which to mess around, he said, a touch too excitedly for comfort, that we should go out and get some liquor, since a boozed-up round of Dance Central naturally sounded like a good idea.  I had my camera with me (for blackmail purposes) and prefer soda to beer anyway, so I said alright.  Unfortunately, I didn't have the right cables to hook up my Xbox 360 to Pigsy's ancient TV, so, after acquiring a twelve-pack of Coca-Cola, a bottle of rum, some kind of beer that Pigsy insisted I try, and an assurance that Rockman would not be joining us for the evening, we returned to Pigsy's humble sty and decided instead to watch an old favorite, Five Element Ninjas, known in America as Chinese Super Ninjas.  I had a beer, Pigsy and Pilgrim loaded up with rum-and-Coke, and away we went.

As Pigsy would later tell me, the problem here is that he loves rum a bit too much.  It is so sweet and tasty, particularly in something like Coke, that before we knew what had happened two-thirds of the bottle was gone, most of it consumed by Pigsy.  After several hours of pausing the movie for a bathroom break or to watch a Youtube video or listen to Pigsy spout philosophical about his personal trainer, we finally finished the movie, but I couldn't have told you a thing about it other than there was a lot of fighting and some dudes wearing copper hats that shot blades out the ends.  The night ended up a wash, and I suspect that Pigsy may have done some serious psychological damage to Pilgrim when, utterly intoxicated, he snapped his fingers in perfect rhythm for at least fifteen straight minutes and repeatedly asked Pilgrim what it meant about God.

While Pilgrim made sure that Pigsy didn't slide headfirst down the stairs to let us out, I snagged the movie and decided to watch it back home, since Pigsy had earlier demanded that I review it as my latest installment of "Pigsy's Gilded Trough Presents" or whatever I feel like calling it this time.  I figured he wouldn't mind me borrowing the DVD for a bit.  He has more kung fu movies than James Bond has one-liners.

Pigsy is the expert on all things Asian cinema, so I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong, but Five Element Ninas is a 1982 film distributed by the famous Shaw Brothers Studio starring Cheng Tien Chi and Lo Mang (a beast of a fellow who, at various times in his life, has had roughly 0% body fat and enough muscle to choke a rhino).  Cheng Tien Chi stars as Tsiau Chin Hau, a man whose martial arts school gets obliterated by Cheng Yun's deadly ninjas, themselves hired by a rival school.  Cheng Yun commands ninjas of the five Chinese elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth), so to exact revenge, Tsiau Chin Hau learns the secrets of the ninja himself and battles the elemental ninjas to the death.

One of the greatest aspects of the film is its clearcut sequence of events.  This is the part where the rival schools duel.  This is the part where the ninjas challenge the good school and completely kick their asses.  This is the part where the good school gets attacked and destroyed.  This is the part where the last surviving good guy learns how to fight against ninjas.  And this is the part of the film where the good guy and his three buddies turn the tables on said ninjas.  Even with the horrendous dubbing, Five Elements Ninjas is easy to follow and highly enjoyable.

Each ninja element takes place in a different location, with a different cheesy low-budget indoor set for each (the seams in the "sky" wallpaper are visible more than once).  The metal ninjas are four men (always four, for each element) dressed head-to-toe in copper-colored ninja suits, complete with wide-brimmed copper hats that, as previously mentioned, shoot blades out at all angles.  The wood ninjas hide in trees.  The water ninjas use wooden tubes for breathing underwater before they pull you down.  The fire ninjas use red smoke and set their swords on fire.  The earth ninjas burrow underground and poke your thighs and nether-regions with long pointy things (much like my wife's favorite battle tactic in Soul Calibur IV - sit back and poke until my guy dies or falls off the stage ad THEN dies).  What's great here is that you get to see how to lose against the ninjas at the beginning of the film and then how to win at the end, so while the "before" and "after" ninja fights take place in the same locations against the same ninjas, they feel like completely different fights.

And what fights they are!  You will see every weapon imaginable in this movie.  Straight swords, curved swords, katanas, spears, axes, daggers, bladed rings, staffs, darts, hooks on chains, tridents, naginatas, poisonous rings, halberds, copper hats, bow-and-arrows, fists, water, fire, Wolverine-claws, foot-claws, stilts, and even a giant kanji sign.  This is one bloody movie.  It is an exercise in the ingenuity of humanity's craft for killing.  You will see more people die in more ways here than just about anywhere else, and no one even uses a gun!

Not only that, but the actors and stuntmen for Five Element Ninjas are immensely talented.  What is so frustrating about action films these days, particularly when extensive hand-to-hand combat is involved, is that the director will film a single punch, then cut the action, then move to a different camera angle and allow the actors to learn the next move, shoot that, cut, repeat.  The mark of a talented film crew and cast is when a series of movements are all shot in one cut.  Watch the beginning of JCVD, for example, or any film by Jackie Chan, to see what I mean.  So many of these old Hong Kong movies are just full of sequences where the actors will swipe at each other with real metal weapons for at least ten seconds before the camera moves to a new shot.  These guys had to have their timing down to such a degree that it is some kind of miracle any of them survived filming.  This is further reason why I hate the "shaky camera" effect so pervasive in Hollywood these days (see: TransformersKingdom of HeavenRobin Hood).  All it does is confuse the viewer and mask the stuntmen's and actors' impotence.

The dubbing of Five Elements Ninjas is comically bad, the kind of quality which films like Kung Pao: Enter the Fist! make it a point to lampoon.  It's not that the actors are so abysmally poor - though they aren't exactly Peter Cullen - it's just that they were directed to not speak whenever their on-screen counterpart is not moving his or her mouth.  This means that you'll get odd

gaps right in the middle of a sentence that no normal English speaker would ever say.  Between that and the oh-so-simple plot, Five Element Ninjas is really meant to be viewed as a martial arts showcase, and it certainly does deliver on that.  I leave you now with a clip showing the initial fights against the metal, wood, and water ninjas, spectacularly kicked off with some shining examples of the English dubbing...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Harry Potter and That Guy (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 Review)

I have a confession to make.  For every Harry Potter film to hit the theaters so far, I've been that guy.  You know that guy.  You know him all too well.  Just before the movie's release, he reads the corresponding book so that he'll know exactly what was changed for the theaters.  He was very pleased with the first two films, horrified with the third, and increasingly annoyed with the fourth, fifth, and sixth.  Yes, I was that douchebag.  I was at my worst with the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the movie ended on a Cliff's Notes version of an outstanding action sequence that blew me away the first time I read it.  I was the guy who complained about the omission of Hermione's "S.P.E.W." organization in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, even though I didn't even like the subplot in the book.  I was the guy who could taste stomach bile in the back of his throat when the Rastafarian shrunken head first graced the screen on the Knight Bus at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

I thought about seeking therapy.  I thought about boycotting the movies and clinging desperately to the moments of pure awesome found on the pages but not at the local Cinemark.  I reread key scenes, like the huge fight sequence at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and memorized the names of important characters who never made it into the films (here's looking at you, Charlie Weasley!).  I considered personally petitioning Chris Columbus to come back to the helm and right the ship.

Karma came back and gave me a nasty turn by sending me to the hospital with what turned out to be mono literally half an hour after grumbling my way out of the theater of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  It was after that that I started to wonder if maybe being that guy wasn't such a good idea after all.  Upon seeing the first trailers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, my buddy Professor Goodtimes explained to me that he actually hated the first two films and has loved the rest, and he hates it when people compare books to their movie adaptations because you simply cannot compare items from two different forms of media.  I happen to disagree - we got into a few rather heated arguments over this - but it did make me think.  Movies cannot be word-for-word translations of a book.  Books simply have different pacing than a movie.  They can explain in a sentence what would take several minutes of film.  Humorous scenes in a novel can fall horribly flat on the big screen.  Comparisons between a book and its movie counterpart can be interesting studies of media, but they shouldn't make fans feel cheated out of certain superfluous scenes or characters, as I had long felt.

And so it was that, for the first time ever, I did not reread the corresponding book for the corresponding Harry Potter film.  My first steps down the path of redemption had begun.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 picks up right where HP6 left off.  Right from the getgo, HP7.1 is dark.  Very dark.  Dumbledore was killed by Severus Snape.  Harry has learned that Voldemort split his soul into seven pieces, with each piece encapsulated in something called a "Horcrux", which could be any old item like a diary, locket, teddy bear, etc.  The wizarding world is at war.  Hermione "obliterates" all traces of her parents' memory of her to protect them.  The Dursleys are forced to leave their home, and when Harry does the same, he is accompanied by an honor guard of no less than about a dozen major characters (including the hastily-introduced Bill Weasley and his hastily-explained werewolf scratch and his hastily-explained engagement to Fleur, the attractive French girl from the fourth HP film).  They get Harry to the Weasley's house and prepare for the wedding of Bill and Fleur, but all hell breaks loose when the Ministry of Magic is overrun by Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and as the wedding gets crashed, our three heroes escape to London and begin their quest to hunt down the Horcruxes and destroy them.

This film will feel pretty different from the last few because they made the wise choice of splitting the book in half.  Regardless of how I feel about the books, movies 4, 5, and 6 were very fast-paced and rarely, if ever, gave you any down-time to stop and think about what was going on.  Subsequently, HP7.1 may feel slow for some.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione spend the movie away from Hogwarts, their friends, and their families, and while their character development and group dynamic was interesting, it does take a dedicated viewer to really enjoy two-and-a-half hours centered almost exclusively around the three kids.  One of my personal favorite characters in all the films and books is Hogwarts itself.  The school has such a unique personality to it that you come to feel like it is a character in its own right, and its exclusion, while necessary for the plot, is a huge letdown, though of course that's not the movie's fault.

That being said, this was probably the best Harry Potter film to come out in a long time.  The three kids are those characters, and the rest of the casting is so spot on that you would think Rowling had those very actors in mind when writing their parts.  The special effects are of course as top-notch as can be, and the settings are varied enough to keep your eyes interested while the characters sit around talking about Voldemort's creepy self-soul-mangling.

The only problem I had with HP7.1 - and this is me retaining a little bit of my "that guy" persona - is that it wasn't set up well enough by the previous movies.  There were too many instances of "oh by the way I'm so-and-so and I'm suddenly important", most notably the two-second introduction of Ron's elder brother Bill and his utterly out-of-nowhere engagement with Fleur Delacour AND his encounter with a werewolf at some point in his life that was only bad enough to give him the occasional craving for raw meat.  I understand that the filmmakers didn't want to include the big fight at the end of HP6, as it (SPOILER ALERT!) would have born too close a resemblance to the big fight at the end of HP7, (END SPOILER ALERT!) but the fight at the end of HP6 was a huge part of setting up this all-important wedding, so from a storyteller's perspective, not from an anal HP fan's perspective, that was simply sloppy moviemaking on their part.

Also sloppy was their dealing with Harry's and Ginny's relationship.  Harry knows that he has to leave Hogwarts, track down Voldemort's soul shards, and most likely die in the process, so in the books he forces Ginny away to protect her, even though she was strong/badass enough to never really believe him.  But in this film the two enjoy a nice little makeout session just prior to the wedding, and as Harry spends the rest of the time touring England, he never once mentions her or gives the slightest inclination that he actually cares for her.  Sloppy moviemaking, regardless of what has ever happened in the original material.  From the film I can only assume that Harry doesn't give a grindylow's ass about this girl, which makes me like Harry a bit less.

Mostly, though, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is nothing more than one enormous setup for Part 2, so go into this one knowing that you will have almost no resolution until next July.  Don't take your kiddos - I am a firm believer that you should be at least Harry's age per film/book before viewing/reading.  The filmmakers have set themselves up for some outlandishly high expectations, and I can only hope that Part 2 delivers.  I hereby solemnly swear, though, that I will NOT attempt to reread the seventh book prior to Part 2's release.  I am that guy, no more.

BONUS!  We saw the movie at Alamo Drafthouse, which, among other things, introduced me to this excellent Youtube video from Tobuscus.  Enjoy, and be sure to check out his other one about TRON: Legacy, which I will almost definitely post in my upcoming review.