How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World / *** ½

httyd3ibzThere’s something frustrating about sitting down to write a review of a movie, only to find that someone has already said everything you wanted to say, and probably said it better. Alas, such is the case with How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, in that Tasha Robinson’s exceptional review for The Verge basically nails all of my issues with the film, as well as capturing the film’s strengths nicely. And yet, here I go, attempting to go against a professional writer. Wish me luck.

The How to Train Your Dragon series, for a time, felt like something really special – a welcome breath of fresh air for Dreamworks Animation, which had been so long synonymous with bland, snarky animation without any sense of style, depth, or complexity – essentially, the worst kind of family fare. And then along came the original film, which gave us a rich fantasy story, genuine emotional stakes and payoffs, and visual style to spare, all while still delivering a fun – and funny – family film that really worked. And although the second film didn’t quite match up to the first, delivering the same style and verve but muddling the story, there was still a sense of joy to the movie.

But in the end, The Hidden World suffers from the same flaws that the second film did, and while the style, humor, and fun are still present, there’s still a sense of inessentialness that permeates the whole film. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun watching it – there are some amazing sequences of pure joy, including a long, silent flight through the clouds of two dragons, or the first glimpses of the titular hidden world, that embrace the medium of animation in a satisfying way. And the film’s knack for comic timing remains, most notably in the film’s gloriously silly dragon courtship sequences. (At its best moments, the film makes you want a nature documentary about dragons in the wild, complete with Richard Attenborough’s narration.)

But for a final entry in the series, you can’t help but feel that The Hidden World doesn’t really have much to say. Sure, the story concludes on a nice note, but it feels like it concludes because the film series is out of steam, and not because the themes or ideas really demand it. The film still doesn’t really know what to do with Hiccup’s mother, introduced in the second film, leaving her awkwardly placed somewhere between a background character and the supporting cast. The film’s villain feels like a retread of the second film’s villain, down to the disappointingly one-dimensional nature and lack of any truly interesting motivations or personality. (That the film originally planned on bringing back the second movie’s villain is evident, and makes you wonder why that idea was scrapped.) And more than anything else, the themes of the film feel thin, with too many things going on in not enough depth.

All of which sounds harsher than I mean it to, because I generally enjoyed watching The Hidden World simply as a pure, fun adventure movie. It’s stylish, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, and while it feels disappointingly thin, it’s still a good piece of entertainment. But you can’t help but feel like this series could have found a way to be so much more than that, and the fact that I left this feeling like I’d consumed just more empty calories is a bit of a letdown for a series that came out of the gate so strongly.

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The Road Warrior / *****

78cee454f10d0db23a51d6ce458766adIt’s hard to know what the most incredible thing about The Road Warrior is. Is it the way the film tells its tale with so little dialogue (less than 20 lines for its title character)? Is it the world-building conveyed entirely through costuming, props, and visuals? Is it the jaw-dropping action choreography that mixes human stunts, car chases, and every other element into something truly astonishing? Is it the way the film uses archetypes to create something that feels mythic and iconic, even as it’s so familiar? Is it the fact that, miraculously, no one died making it, despite the fact that every single moment feels viscerally dangerous? Or is it the fact that George Miller made such a marvel not once in his career, but twice?

Maybe it’s all of those things and more. But whatever the case, The Road Warrior is a knockout, no matter how many times you’ve seen it, no matter how familiar you find it, no matter how familiar you find the ideas. Indeed, that familiarity works to the film’s advantage, using the archetypal characters and plot to streamline the story and strip out every extraneous aspect of the film, leaving in only the essential elements and making them sizzle all the more for their simplicity. Operating in the tradition of filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Miller conveys everything we need to know through cinematic techniques – larger-than-life framing, iconic costuming, the roar of engines, the expressions of the actors – and turns the simple story of a drifter who agrees to help a community stand up against bandits into something mythic and larger than life.

All of these aspects are the same things I loved so much about Fury Road, and things I said about that film. And yet, somehow, The Road Warrior doesn’t suffer in comparison to its descendant – the action is still incredible, the world-building still rich, the characters still compelling even in their simplicity – maybe because of it. I still spend the entire climactic sequence with my jaw hanging open, even knowing the tricks Miller would pull in Fury Road; I still find Max’s slow moral awakening satisfying and even powerful; I still find the villains unsettling, from The Humungus’s growling monologues to Vernon Wells’ angry screams.

The Road Warrior is one of those movies that reminds you what cinema can do that no other medium can pull off. It’s visceral, it’s funny, it’s astonishing, it’s tense, it’s quite literally awe-inducing. It’s a film that is in love with what cinema as spectacle can accomplish, giving you an experience like nothing else and leaving you swept up in a world that feels both familiar and totally alien. Do I maybe slightly prefer Fury Road? Yeah, a bit…but you could leave me with either film and I could watch them for years and never get tired of them, and that’s maybe the truest test of a great film there is.

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Immortal, by Nick M. Lloyd / *** ½

immortal_smallNick M. Lloyd’s Immortal starts with an attention-grabbing hook: the entire population of Earth receives a warning, simultaneously, from an alien intelligence called the Ankor. That warning: that Earth will be engulfed in a gamma ray burst released from a supernova, sterilizing the planet of all life. But the Ankor are promising aid…as long as we help them build the machines and trust them as they place their devices around the globe.

That’s an intriguing setup for a book, and that’s without factoring in the numerous other rich ideas Lloyd has working in this book: the nature of artificial intelligence, questions about simulation theory, privacy concerns arising from data collection, bioengineering ethics – in short, there’s a lot going on in this book, from plot to ideas, and Lloyd’s knowledge on these fields is evident throughout – he covers these complex areas of discussion with the comfortable knowledge of someone who’s studied the material and knows it well.

That can occasionally mean that Lloyd’s writing can be a bit dense or off-putting for the layman, though; mind you, I’d much prefer the book being too complex to it being too simple, but it can be frustrating at times. The bigger issue, though, is that those ideas don’t always quite fit together as well as you’d like. Immortal is incredibly ambitious, and that’s nice to see, but it does feel like the book is taking on a bit too much at times, juggling more themes and ideas than it sometimes knows what to do with. And while Lloyd has lots of thoughts about all of them, and the debates are engaging and thought-provoking, the book can feel a little scattered at times.

Luckily, there’s still that core plot of the novel – that impending alien invasion – that gives the book a pull you can’t deny. Lloyd’s plot is ambitious, with a half-dozen key characters, each of whom has their own doubts and concerns, and that’s not even factoring in the global scale of the storyline. But Lloyd keeps it moving at a rapid pace, doling out each new evolution of the narrative at the right moment and nicely conveying the constantly spiraling sense of chaos arising from the events, as well as raising the stakes constantly as the book evolves.

Immortal isn’t perfect. As I’ve said, the themes can sometimes get a little sprawling and unfocused; beyond that, a couple of the characters don’t quite come to life as much as others, with the book’s main villain ultimately feeling a little cartoonish and one-dimensional at times. But it’s a book that’s full of ideas, with a story unlike any that I’ve read before, with a great sense of scale, tension, plotting, and stakes, all of which kept me turning the pages pretty constantly, and able to overlook those issues while enjoying the ideas Lloyd was mulling over. And isn’t that what hard science-fiction is supposed to be about?

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If Beale Street Could Talk / *****

if_beale_street_could_talkBarry Jenkins’ previous film, Moonlight, was a quiet masterpiece – a story of uncomfortable love and discovered identities, told in a beautifully elliptical fashion that conveyed its narrative entirely through three separate vignettes, allowing the viewer to create the larger whole. His follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, is no less masterful or moving, once again telling the story of a young love, but one set against a far different backdrop, and whose impact ultimately feels far different and more devastating.

Set in the 1970’s, If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of Tish and Fonny, a young African-American couple whose secret love is about to come out into the open thanks to Tish’s unexpected – and unplanned – pregnancy. That’s the stuff of high drama, and in a lesser movie, we’d get the angry parents, the disowning, the refusal to speak to a “fallen” woman – all those awful tropes. Instead, we get a joyous scene of unexpected celebration as Tish’s family celebrates the new life, joined by Fonny’s father – only to find their own reactions at odds with Fonny’s more conservative, religious mother. It’s a magnificent scene, and Jenkins once again demonstrates his knack for naturalistic, lived-in performances, as worried faces crack into smiles, as tensions simmer over, as pasts are conveyed without so much as a line of dialogue.

But that scene is only a misdirection, as we soon see what Jenkins – working from a novel written by James Baldwin – is guiding us toward. Yes, If Beale Street Could Talk is a romance story, and a beautiful one; using a wandering chronology, dreamy cinematography, and an immersive score, to say nothing of perfectly captured moments, Jenkins spins a whole life together out of fragments, and makes you want this romance to succeed, to want these young people to find happiness.

Which makes the fact that Fonny has unjustly been put in jail, with no signs of hope for a release, all the more devastating.

Jenkins walks a fine line here, never forgetting the characters of his film, but never forgetting either the backdrop for the film – the industrial prison complex, the inequalities of the judicial system, the racial disparities of society. Yes, If Beale Street Could Talk is a romance, but the characters of its world are inexorably shaped by the society in which they live, and watching the toll it takes on them gives the film an inescapable impact. From the fathers working scams and odd jobs to pull together money for the lawyer to landlords finding excuses not to rent to black tenants, from the worried lines on a mother’s face to the slowly growing gulf as Tish and Fonny keep looking at each other on opposite sides of a wall, Beale Street drives its points home not by lecturing or telling us the cost, but by showing it to us. (Perhaps the most devastating, unforgettable demonstration of this comes in the form of a long monologue by Brian Tyree Henry, playing a friend of Fonny’s recently released from prison whose carefree demeanor gives way to a haunted, destroyed inner being suddenly and painfully.)

As if all of that’s not enough, somehow, Barry Jenkins manages to mix the tragedy of the system and the beauty of love perfectly, letting each play off of the other and enriching the ideas through the juxtaposition. The love is all the more powerful for its contrast against the bleakness of the world, but the inequalities are all the more hateful for the way they rip away the love. And all of it is handled with the same generosity, humanity, gentleness, and sheer humane perspective that Jenkins brought to both Moonlight and his debut, Medicine for Melancholy. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece – a film both romantic and tragic, and somehow all the more effective for the way it uses the two together.

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Speed Dating with the Dead, by Scott Nicholson / ***

speed-dating-with-the-dead-kindle-721x1024Whatever else you can say about Scott Nicholson’s Speed Dating with the Dead, you can’t say that it doesn’t go for broke. Indeed, Nicholson’s story of an ill-fated paranormal conference in a haunted hotel packs in no shortage of nightmarish moments, from succubus attacks to malevolent ghost children, from apocalyptic visions to demonic possession. It’s a shame that it doesn’t make more sense than it does, though.

Nicholson knows his way around a scare, though – that, I can’t deny. There’s a mid-novel sequence in which events unfold entirely through a series of telephone calls and a creeping shadow that genuinely creeped me out while doing so little, and it’s not alone in being an effective horror sequence in the novel. Indeed, in many ways, Speed Dating with the Dead almost works best as a series of horror vignettes more than it does as a cohesive whole, giving you a mosaic of nightmares where almost all of the tiles are little gems.

But man, does the book as a whole never really work. Set aside how deeply unsympathetic every character is, across the board; let’s talk about how many characters’ motivations barely make sense as the book unfolds, be they because they’re selfish to the point of absurdity or motivated by religious fervor that seems to whiplash all over the place. Nicholson has some big “shock” moments as characters do unexpected things, but they feel more baffling than clarifying, giving us new sides of characters that don’t really feel like a twist so much as they feel like a transformation that comes out of nowhere and never makes sense. And all of that is better than a book-ending revelation about our “protagonist” and his family, which just left me baffled as to what I was supposed to make of it.

Of course, that goes for the book as a whole, too. The big picture of Speed Dating with the Dead is “all hell breaks loose at a paranormal convention,” but if you want to make sense of what’s going on here, well, good luck. Is this the work of demons? Are the ghosts of the hotel real, or in league with the demons, or are they themselves the demons? What does God have to do with any of this, if anything? And what about our main character’s deceased wife? If you figure any of this out by the end of the book, more power to you; to me, Speed Dating with the Dead felt like a haunted house version of Calvinball, where the rules and boundaries shifted with every chapter, leading to an anarchy that definitely gives us effective scares, but never comes together into a satisfying – or even coherent – story.

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The Glass Diplomat, by S.R. Wilsher / ****

fb_img_1535005482307S.R. Wilsher’s The Glass Diplomat uses the backdrop of Chile’s Pinochet era to tell stories both political and personal. On the one hand, it’s the story of a young Englishman whose father was disappeared during the era, leaving him with a lifetime of questions and doubt; on the other, it’s also the story of his relationship with the Abrego family, a family whose father is connected with the regime, but whose other members find themselves questioning the orthodoxy in wildly different ways.

Like he did in his earlier novel The Collection of Heng Souk, Wilsher is fascinated by political uprisings and social unrest, but likes to view it through the perspective of the individual, not of the government or those in power. As The Glass Diplomat unfolds, Wilsher gives us an outsider’s perspective on the conflict, but never forgets that “outsider” aspect; no matter how much Charlie has memories and connections to Chile, his English background and homeland marks him as someone who can’t ever entirely understand what it’s like to see things from the perspective of those who know no other place. (Moreover, Wilsher doesn’t forget Britain’s own dirty hands in the establishment of the regime, which adds its own complexity to the tale.)

But – and this is to the novel’s credit – The Glass Diplomat focuses less on the long-term social implications of the Pinochet regime, or what it did for the country as a whole, and instead what it felt like to live through it, and what it brought out in people. Wilsher is fascinated by guilt and morality, and how politics can shape those choices, making the unconscionable action acceptable and the noble action dangerous. Moreover, as in Heng Souk, he’s drawn to characters who have to live with the sins of the past, choosing how it will – or won’t – define them.

That he does all of this while telling a love story that spans decades, as well as telling a family saga, all combines to make The Glass Diplomat a satisfying, rich read, one that is undeniably political while also being extremely personal. Yes, there are some self-publishing issues here and there that I wish had been caught – verb tense shifts, run-on sentences, and some other grammar points really can pull you out of the book – but those are relatively small issues in the face of the rich story he’s telling here.

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The Black Company, by Glen Cook / *****

81z2cp0cdllI had never heard of The Black Company before reading it – indeed, the only reason I had a copy of it was because of the Tor.com ebook club. But reading it feels like when you watch Citizen Kane for the first time and realize just how many references and homages you’ve missed over the years. Because without Glen Cook’s 1984 “grimdark” novel about a group of mercenaries serving in a catastrophic war between good and evil – and maybe on the side of evil – you don’t have George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie, and without them, you don’t have so many other writers.

And yet, despite that lineage, The Black Company entirely feels like its own book, even thirty years later, reminding you of nothing so much as itself. Narrated by Croaker, the titular company’s doctor, The Black Company is the tale of a fantasy war between a resurrected evil known as The Taken and a resistance force led by a group of wizards known as The Circle. And while nominally the Black Company – an ancient order of mercenaries whose records go back for generations and are maintained by Croaker – works for the Taken, in Cook’s hand, their concerns are rarely about the bigger picture. Instead, these are soldiers’ tales, always driven by the battles in which they’re fighting, the damages suffered by their comrades, or their own personal grudges. Indeed, many of the book’s most memorable moments have less to do with the larger conflict than they do the rivalry between two of the Company’s wizards, whose constant tormenting of each other provides some much-needed levity.

And yet, it’s not hard to see why the “grimdark” label gets applied here. This is a stark, realistic approach to fantasy, told from the perspective not of the high and mighty lords saving the kingdom or the noble heroes fighting for justice, but for men fighting for money and just trying to stay alive. It’s the best kind of “low fantasy,” showing us what happens while those in power struggle to see who comes out on top and who survives the battles. More than that, it’s a book that reminds readers just what the cost is when leaders wage war and who has to implement those policies.

None of which detracts from just how compulsively readable The Black Company is. Croaker is a great narrator – world-weary but intriguing, with shades of gray that give him depth while never making him a cardboard hero. (Indeed, such is the world of the Company that the smallest actions have so much more impact.) And the rest of the Company is populated with equally intriguing figures, each of whom I would love to have narrate a book – One-Eye, the Captain, Goblin, Elmo, Raven, and so many others. Cook manages to bring all of them to life – even the Taken – all while never leaving Croaker’s own perspective on the world or veering far from the story of this war.

The Black Company, I learned after I read it, is genuinely held up as an icon of the fantasy genre, and it’s not hard to understand why, even if all you cared about was the long shadow it casts. But even if no one came after it, the book’s story, characters, plotting, ideas, themes, and world are so rich and satisfying – in such a relatively tight package that stands so well on its own – that I’m a little stunned that I hadn’t read it before. Luckily, it looks like there’s a lot more Glen Cook waiting for me out there to read.

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