Two quick announcements…

Since 2004, I’ve been posting my book and movie reviews on a little self-designed/maintained website called ClydeUmney.net. Earlier this year, I decided to shut it down in favor of a WordPress blog, but one of the things I was concerned about was losing all of that material – honestly, that was a ton of writing (upwards of 2,400 movie reviews and 1,000 book reviews), and I didn’t want to lose it all.

Well, as of tonight, all of the archives are officially set up and completed on a simple little Google site that provides free hosting. It’s nothing fancy, and it doesn’t look nearly as nice as what I had, but all of the reviews and essays are up, complete with star ratings when I implemented them in 2009, as well as an alphabetical index you can use if you’re looking for something particular.

Anyways, It’s all up for you here – feel free to check it out and enjoy.

Secondly, I’m glad all of that new/old content is up, because this place may be dead for a few weeks thanks to arm surgery I’m having this week. I hope to be back and reviewing soon, but if a couple of weeks go by, don’t give up on me just yet – I may just be (quite literally) unable to post much. I’ll try to work through the backlog when I return.

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Bios, by Robert Charles Wilson / ****

robert20charles20wilson_1999_biosI’ve read several books now by Robert Charles Wilson, and really enjoyed them all; he’s an author who specializes in the wider implications of his ideas, exploring the cultural, societal, and even religious ramifications of his various concepts. Virtual reality worlds, time-traveling warlords, alien contact – Wilson takes them all and explores them in rich, fascinating detail, letting us see how we, as humanity, might deal with those events.

All of which left me fairly unprepared for Bios, which feels wholly unlike anything else Wilson has ever done; it’s a slim volume, and one more anchored around the emotional journey of a single character than humanity as a whole. That’s not to say that Wilson’s usual broad brush doesn’t appear here; it’s just that instead of focusing on humanity’s reaction to something monumental, it’s used to create a rich, complex alien world, one that’s evolved through history to support all kinds of life – except that every bit of that life seems intent on repelling any human contact whatsoever.

What’s actually going on is a bit more complex than that, but by and large, that’s the story of Bios: an expedition by humanity to explore a hostile alien environment goes slowly, horribly awry. But Wilson anchors his story in the perspective of a young woman who’s been genetically engineered to survive such environments; from birth, she’s had her emotions regulated, her immune system tweaked, and so forth…except that in the opening chapter, her emotion regulator is destroyed in an act of sabotage, leaving her adrift in a sea of new feelings she’s unprepared for. And between the apocalyptic conditions on the planet Isis and her fluctuating emotions, our heroine comes to realize that the universe is a very different place than she assumed.

Bios, even if it’s simpler and leaner than most Wilson books, is really no less ambitious, although it takes a while to understand how that’s the case. Suffice to say that, by the book’s end, Wilson is exploring the nature of life in the universe and our place in it, and doing so in a surprising way. The problem, though, is that those ideas never quite gel with the book around them, which is basically a disastrous exploration book. It almost feels like the middle book in a much longer series, or an excerpt from a much grander work that Wilson cut down – neither of which, I have to say, would surprise me entirely.

Still, what’s here works generally well. Wilson shows that he’s capable of getting into a character’s head well and really letting them breathe, and the best sequences of Bios allow the characters to simply react to the strange world around them and their incomprehensible urges. By the end, the book feels more like a collection of pieces than a quite coherent whole, and you can’t help but feel like something’s missing – some bigger pieces that would really make it work. Nonetheless, it’s solid, intriguing science-fiction, driven by some thoughtful ideas and rich scientific background. And if it doesn’t quite soar the way it should, it’s still an engaging enough read for its short length.

Amazon

Macbeth (2015) / *****

macbeth_2015_posterIt would be hard for me not to be excited about Justin Kurzel’s film version of Macbeth. After all, Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play; it’s all but a horror film already, a dark and gripping tale of madness, murder, dark forces, and brutal violence. More than that, though, it’s a play that doesn’t seem to get made often, and only once – by Roman Polanski – with the results mirroring the play’s greatness. (To be fair, there’s Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, but that’s more inspired by Macbeth than a direct telling, so I’m going to leave that out for now. It’s a great piece of cinema, though.) So between the phenomenal casting (Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths? Yes, please) and the astonishing looking trailer that promised some jaw-dropping visuals, you could forgive me for being excited.

And man, was I ever not disappointed.

The big complaint I’ve seen with this version is that Kurzel’s preoccupation with violence casts a shadow over the play’s drama, but that seems like a bad argument when it comes to Macbeth, which is a play very much about the cost of violence. This is a play whose central symbol is blood, after all, so Kurzel’s refusal to sugarcoat the violence and carnage only enhances the drama of the play. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the play’s central murder scene, a relentless, intense experience that left me drained and reeling, only for the murders to continue without ever easing the tension. Kurzel is matched beautifully by Fassbender, though, who conveys the emotional agony Macbeth is in every bit as easily as he conveys the madness that gradually dominates his reign as king. This is a man who’s never more comfortable than he is on the battlefield, and for whom every minute away is a moment where he lives with the guilt of what he’s dealt out.

And, of course, there’s Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. Taking on one of the most iconic roles in all of Shakespeare is no easy task, but Cotillard is up to it, providing much-needed transitions between her iconic scenes. Indeed, in screenplay nicely fleshes out the play in interesting ways, giving Lady Macbeth more a presence in the second half and more directly staining their hands, especially as it comes to his feud with Macduff. (I also truly loved the film’s take on Birnam Wood’s approach to Dunsinane; it’s a simple idea, but it’s executed perfectly, and turns the film’s finale into a hellish nightmare.)

But more than anything else, the film is anchored by Kurzel’s astonishing visual sensibility, filling the frame with shadowy crosses, burning flames, blood-soaked fields, and weary soldiers who can’t escape the wars they’ve fought. His Scottish landscape is simultaneously beautiful and bleak, feeling chilly and unforgiving – and that’s before the eerie apparition of the witches that so often lurks in the back of the action. It’s a haunting vision, one that’s equal parts beautiful and nightmarish, and often both at the same time.

Macbeth is a brutal, stark, unforgiving piece of cinema, one that looks at one of the Bard’s darkest plays and brings it to grim, hopeless life. It fills its battles with death, makes the murders horrific crimes, makes us feel every crime, and leaves us unsure of whether justice was truly meted out. In other words, it does the play justice, turning it into beautiful cinema that never blinks from the pain and darkness at the core of Shakespeare’s tale. I loved every second of it, and as soon as I’ve had some time to recover from it, I’m ready to take it on a second time.

IMDb

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Season 1) / *****

imageI’ve said my piece on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart elsewhere; suffice to say, it’s one of my favorite shows of all time, and one that had a massive, massive impact on me. And when Jon Stewart announced that he was leaving, I was pretty heartbroken, to put it mildly. How was I supposed to survive in an increasingly insane time without Stewart to help me find the humor in what I was seeing, to say nothing of the catharsis he so often managed to provide? Yes, I liked what little I’d seen of Trevor Noah on the show so far, and yes, I trusted that Stewart wasn’t going to leave the show in a horrible place…but I just wasn’t sure it would survive without him.

And yet, somehow, The Daily Show feels as though it didn’t miss much of a beat in the transition, staying just as trenchant, relevant, funny, and scathing as it ever was under Stewart, all while letting Trevor Noah find his own voice and style. Noah is undeniably a little more vicious than Stewart was, and his interviewing skills aren’t up to where Stewart eventually ended up (although it’s got to be noted, it took Stewart a long time to become the interviewer that he became). But he’s also incredibly funny, and the show makes the most of his international perspective, allowing him to bring a different way of looking at the issues – see, for instance, his incredible piece in which he compared Donald Trump to African dictators.

Do I love and trust Trevor Noah the way I loved and trusted Jon Stewart? Of course not. But he’s new at this gig, and the fact that he’s carrying on Stewart’s legacy so well, that he’s making the show as funny as it is, that he’s keeping the show’s mission of bringing truth to power, and that he’s doing it all with charisma and charm – all of that makes me feel so much better about the future of The Daily Show. Add to that a generally strong batch of correspondents (Jordan Klepper and Jessica Williams are always amazing, and Roy Wood Jr. is every bit their equal so far; while Ronnie Chang and Desi Lydic aren’t quite up to the others yet, they’re not bad, and show some good promise), and the show seems like it’s going to be around for a long time to come. And that makes me feel a lot more comfortable about the insanity around me, because at least there’ll be someone there to guide us through it.

IMDb

South Park (Season 19) / **** ½

imageIt’s not like South Park hasn’t dabbled in serialized storytelling before; indeed, for the past several seasons, the show has done more and more arcs over the course of a season, letting characters and storylines bubble over. But rarely has the show attempted anything like it did this season, turning the entire run into one long, bizarre story that somehow incorporated a PC movement, a new Trader Joe’s, gentrification, Caitlyn Jenner, Internet ads, and gun rights into one sprawling piece of storytelling that started simply and ended up as a weird sci-fi epic.

That’s not to say that it all worked, mind you; by the end, I’m not sure I could tell you exactly how the season’s Big Bad fit into public shaming at Trader Joe’s, or how Mr. Garrison’s unusual political platform (itself a vicious take on Donald Trump’s increasingly unhinged presidential efforts) tied into the gun show at the end of it all. On the other hand, though, I can say that it led to some of the funniest episodes the show has done in a long time, as Parker and Stone’s epic scope made each individual piece all the more ridiculous and absurd. And if that’s not enough, it ended up giving the show some fascinating meta commentary, as certain characters and aspects of the show fell under criticism for being less acceptable, even in a show that’s made its name through outrage and offense.

Really, though, the best thing about the season (well, second best; the best is the fact that the show is still hilariously funny, even after almost two decades) is that Parker and Stone still feel engaged and excited with their material, and rather than coasting on the same old storylines and ideas, they keep pushing themselves in new and unexpected directions. And if that means that I get episodes with as many great moments as this one gave me – the wonderful ads for the gentrified part of town, the gleeful embrace of guns, the wonderful confrontation with Canadians at the new wall – I’m not going to complain in the least.

IMDb

From Away: Series 1, Book 2, by Deke Mackey, Jr. / **** ½

25976221It’s not as though the first book in the From Away series didn’t pack a lot of action into its short length, but Book Two manages to outdo it, following up on an explosion that ended Book One in a way that genuinely surprised me, proving a) that Mackey doesn’t have a problem with killing characters, even when you think they’re safe, and that b) this whole thing is much more tightly constructed and crafted than you might expect. Many serialized stories feel a bit thrown together or “seat of the pants,” as though the author is writing it as he/she goes. Sometimes, that works great, but more often, it leads to the series fizzling out as it goes along, with the author forced to deliver payoffs that can’t measure up to the buildup. That doesn’t seem like an issue so far in From Away, as Mackey starts threading together his disparate arcs in unexpected ways, pushing new characters to the forefront while older ones start evolving in unexpected ways.

More importantly, Mackey is ratcheting up the horror, giving us the genuine feeling that everything is about to go to pieces in this little town, and all that we’re seeing is prologue to unimaginable horrors. Mackey has created a strange, compelling little town, and his ability to gradually reveal more and more about it is on display throughout, continually drawing us in and throwing light onto some of the strange happenings we’re seeing. It makes for a great modern variation on e Lovecraftian trope of “small New England town with unimaginable dark secrets,” especially with the ongoing way that many of the town’s own characters don’t even believe in their own history until it starts confronting them.

It’s a great, enjoyable piece of horror fiction, one that makes the serialized format work for me while still delivering the rich plotting, interesting characters, and good writing I like to have in my horror. Bring on Book Three!

Amazon

A Vanishing Glow, by Alexis Radcliff / **** ½

vgcombosmallAlexis Radcliff’s A Vanishing Glow is subtitled “Vol. I & II of the Mystech Arcanum,” so it’s no surprise that it feels like the beginning of an epic series. What’s satisfying, though, is the way that Radcliff mixes worldbuilding with character work and plotting to make a book that works on its own terms, and doesn’t rely entirely on setting up payoffs in books to come. Indeed, the best strength Radcliff displays here is for character building, making heroes that are flawed, interesting, compelling, and likable, all while radiating an intelligence and thoughtfulness that makes them believable as protagonists. Between a soldier turned reluctant politician and a demolition expert wracked by a broken heart, Radcliff invests us in our heroes and makes their setbacks effective not just on a story level, but in terms of how they affect our heroes.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of story going on, though. Radcliff spins a complex tale about political maneuvering, peasant rebellions that may or may not be a feint, mechanical men, and schemes within schemes; the end result feels like it’s got more than a hint of Game of Thrones to it (and Radcliff seems equally willing to kill characters that you might think would live), but manages to stand on its own thanks to its unique world that blends science and magic into something rich and interesting. More than that, the world and the story feed off of each other in the way that the best fantasy stories can manage, where the one is inseparable from the other, and the environment shapes the actions of those who live there.

Sure, I have a few issues with the book here and there – there’s one big reveal near the end of the first volume that feels a bit obvious, and there’s a major event that happens to our primary protagonist about halfway through that feels largely forgotten about, despite how incredibly major it seems. (Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say that it seems odd that none of the other characters so much as comment on what would be an obvious physical change, and it kind of disappointed me how little the book did with that element.) But by and large, it was an enjoyable, well-crafted read, anchored by Radcliff’s solid prose, good character work, and interesting world-building. No, it may not be perfect, but it’s very, very good – heck, it’s got me curious about volume 3, and that’s not something that happens with every fantasy debut I review these days.

Amazon