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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader


One thing that C.S. Lewis is to be commended on is that he never told the same story twice. It’s odd to think it, but only three of the seven Narnia books take place predominantly in Narnia. The others involve other countries across different time periods, with protagonists who had vastly different goals, motivations, and reasons for being there. Adventure stories, quest narratives, rescue missions, fairytales – each book is vastly different in its structure and content, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is possibly the most different of all.

With Peter studying with Professor Kirke and Susan in America with the Pevensie parents (this, by the way, is the first time the last names of Pevensie and Kirke are mentioned), Edmund and Lucy are stuck with Uncle Harold and Aunt Alberta in Cambridge – which wouldn’t be so bad except that they’re also saddled with their cousin Eustace Scubb.


Photography

I splurged the other day and treated myself to two of the most beautiful books I've ever seen in my life: Classic Shakespeare Stories and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, each one illustrated by two of my favourite illustrators: Angela Barrett and Jackie Morris.



I'm just holding out for the weekend so that I can sit down and soak them in properly. Much like a fine wine, beautiful books have to be savoured.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Arrow: The Odyssey

It’s been a while since I’ve watched and reviewed Arrow, so luckily for me this is one of the strongest episodes to return to. For the first time the island flashbacks do not feel like flashbacks at all, but rather the meat of the story, contained within a framing device of Diggle and Felicity tending to a badly wounded (and unconscious) Oliver.


But first we have to discuss the opening scene. At the conclusion of the last episode, the vigilante burst through Moira’s office to deliver his “you have failed this city” speech at arrow-point. It’s a fantastic setup in which Oliver holds his own mother at bay without her knowing it, only for Moira to cower behind a picture of Ollie and Thea. But the moment Ollie lowers his bow, Moira reaches for her gun.

It’s a great character moment for her, presenting her as a woman who may be begging for her life on behalf of her children, or could equally be using them as a diversionary tactic. Obviously it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario, but the audience has been privy to a number of scenes that demonstrate she’s more than a mother – yet at the same time, that she’s treated more as a pawn than an active player. Here the question is, what’s stronger: her maternal instincts or her self-preservation?

Oliver spends the rest of the episode fighting the after-effects of the bullet, suggesting (on a meta-level at least) that it’s the latter. Ollie naturally doesn’t see it that way, and despite Diggle’s misgivings, orders an end to their investigation into Moira. Unfortunately, this means that the show has put the Ollie/Moira confrontation on the back-burner indefinitely, and despite Felicity being let into the club, it feels as though they’ve opted to maintain the status quo.

This can work for a little while, whetting an audience’s appetite whilst holding back on the full-course meal, but too much stalling will only make me restless.

So perhaps to make up for this cop-out, the island flashbacks are as compelling as they’ve ever been, answering some questions at the same time they raise others.


Slade is preparing Ollie for a supply plane that lands in ten days time, hoping to sufficiently train him to such a degree that he’ll be a help and not a hindrance in the attempt to take control of it. A throwaway line reveals that six months have passed since Ollie arrived on the island (really, that long?) though he still seems to be struggling with the art of stick pounding and gun grabbing.

The training is a bit of a contrivance to justify all the show's martial arts (instead of simply teaching him how to fire a hand gun), but the episode is structured much like a drawn-out montage, in which each new obstacle Ollie faces depicts him attaining a higher level of capability.

This is as good an excuse as any to put this here:



When we begin Ollie is being completely decimated by Slade in training, only for him to rely on steady nerves and quick thinking when he stands on the land-mine, and decisive action when it comes to taking out the guard in the radio tower. In this he fails, yet it’s a with  literary reference that Ollie gets to surpass his mentor, realizing that the answer to the challenge code is the second half of a quote from The Odyssey

It’s a relatively neat way of watching him evolve from frat boy to his current badass persona, yet the fundamental difference between Ollie and Slade is still clear: Ollie rejects Slade’s creed that everyone is out for himself and decides to go back for Yao Fei before Slade can bomb the entire island. And though Slade does opt to follow him back, his decision – much like Moira’s – seems split between two possible motivations: the chance to save Ollie or a desire for vengeance against his old partner Billy Wintergreen. This theme continues into Yao Fei, who we learn here is only working with Fyre in order to keep his daughter Shado safe.

Brain versus brawn, choices versus leverage, commitment to a cause versus mercenary employment – these were the underlying strains of the island flashbacks.

Strewn throughout were a number of interesting symbols and objects used to unify the proceedings. Much like a connect-the-dots puzzle, they had virtually no meaning to anyone but the audience; the distant spectator who sees all and remembers everything. Yao Fei noticing a copy of The Odyssey on Fyre’s desk, for example. It has no bearing on Oliver’s ability to crack the challenge code at a completely different time and place, but it puts the text in the audience’s mind for when the radio tower scene comes.


We also witness Slade picking up his mask and staring at it significantly before leaving; a reflection of Wintergreen’s reappearance in his identical mask – linking their histories even if we only know the basics of what really happened between them. And finally, the tattoo of the dragon on both Shado and Ollie’s backs – two lingering shots that have no bearing on the characters at all (that is, no characters respond or react to them) but which serve as an indicator to the audience of future developments – or so I assume.

Miscellaneous Observations:

I noticed the name “Hannibal Bates” in Ollie’s notebook. Heh.

There were some nice character beats during the framing device: Felicity’s multi-coloured nail polish, Oliver’s prepared blood and Diggle’s rudimentary medical training.

Though it seems fairly ridiculous that Fyre would order Yao Fei to instruct his men in archery when they’ve all got assault rifles, I suppose it’s meant to be another puzzle piece that will eventually intersect with Ollie’s own skills with the bow.

Interesting how Billy Wintergreen didn’t bother to start talking until Slade turned up, and that Ollie once again fell back on money to wriggle his way out of a situation (by offering Wintergreen more than Fyre).

And now the question arises: who is Fyre working for? The most obvious guess would be Malcolm Merlyn, but that didn’t sound like John Barrowman’s voice on the phone.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies



The Hobbit teaser trailer was finally released at Comic Con, and though I still have issues with the fact it’s been renamed The Battle of the Five Armies, there’s a lot of neat stuff to look forward to here.

Bilbo is still the least-interesting character to me; I don’t know whether it’s because of Martin Freeman overload or because The Desolation of Smaug more-or-less made him a supporting character amidst a ton of more compelling ones, but I’m most looking forward to Bard and Galadriel (the former because of what the book promises, and the latter because of what the film franchise hints at).

A big surprise was the trailer’s use of the song Billy Boyd performed in The Return of the King; it’s a poignant way of linking the prequels with the original trilogy.

Galadriel’s feet! Has Peter Jackson been watching Firefly?  

Other people have reservations with the whole Tauriel/Kili quasi-romance, but I’ll admit that I’m looking forward to seeing how it’ll all pan out. Kili’s fate is pretty much set in stone thanks to the book, but what about Tauriel? I can’t help but feel that she’ll die in battle (it’s the only way to explain her absence in The Lord of the Rings), which will also have an inevitable bearing on Legolas and his attitude toward dwarfs.

The mounts that the elves are riding look rather like something out of Hayao Miyazaki. Yakul the red elk from Princess Mononoke, anyone? It’s not just me?

Loved the shot of the dwarfs marching out to battle, flanked by Bilbo and Thorin.

I spotted Thranduil a couple of times, but there was no Radagast to be seen. Do you think he’s been Jar Jarred? (Because honestly, I quite liked the guy!)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Legend of Korra: The Enemy Within

Could this be the best episode yet of season three of The Legend of Korra? I really think it is!

It’s also a beautiful example of how to turn twenty minutes of screen-time into an elegant whole. The structure, the pacing, the foreshadowing, the climactic finish – it was all beautifully done. And since this is the last episode we’ll get until August (WTF Nickelodeon?) it's lucky that it deals with two fairly significant plot-points.

Whereas the previous two episodes were focused more on characters and their relationships with each other, The Enemy Within finally introduces Korra to her antagonists, but not in the way you might expect.

This is the last episode we’ll get for a while, so thankfully it gets two fairly significant things done: it introduces Korra to her antagonists, and does so in a way that holds off any major confrontation until later down the track. As it turns out, Korra is unconscious for the entirety of their attempted kidnapping, and is still none the wiser as to their motivations by the end of the episode.

It’s a smart way to see our convicts in action (is there a group name for them yet?) but in such a way that it whets our appetite for a while longer.

Source

But to start with, there’s a brief opening sequence in which we see Korra and Bolin practice their newfound metal-bending abilities, and farewell Opal as she heads for the Northern Air Temple. It serves three purposes, firstly to introduce Bolin’s Chekhov Skill of throwing pebbles with pin-point accuracy, secondly to remind us of Aiwei’s truth-telling abilities, and thirdly to lull us into a false sense of security. By the time the convicts turn up, we’ve had nothing but pleasantries. Now shit gets real.

The convicts have somehow broken into Zaofu (yeah, I’ve been calling it Laofu – whoops) and for reasons that are still as-yet unknown, paralyse Korra with Shirshu-spit darts (great continuity!) to better make off with her limp body. Thank the spirits for Evil Detecting Animals, as between Naga and Pabu’s attempts at a warning, Bolin and Mako are roused out of bed and wake the rest of the compound.

Er...Bolin?

What follows is a beautifully choreographed fight in which both sides are evenly matched. Though outnumbered, the convicts are wide-awake and fully-hyped, whereas Korra’s team is running around in their pyjamas and still trying to make sense of the situation. A stalemate arises when the convicts manage to position themselves on an island surrounded by the effects of Ghazan’s lava-bending. Though P’Li’s combustion blasts keep everyone at bay, Zaheer is separated from the rest of the group, and Lin and Suyin come up with the idea to lower themselves down on cables from the retractable ceiling.

It’s a ploy that works, mainly thanks to Bolin’s aiming skills (which take out P’Li’s combustion abilities) and Su’s dexterity when it comes to negotiating the cables (those dance lessons really paid off!) So the convicts are forced to retreat, pulling a classic Batman-esque disappearance when Zaheer creates a dust cover that all four manage to vanish into.

This disappearance, as it happens, is a completely justifiable narrative “cheat”. I’m sure there will be a few people complaining that there was no possible way they could have escaped, but the contrivance works in the context of the story. Remember: if it serves the plot, you don’t always have to adhere to the rules of realism, and in this case the fight was over and the convicts had served their purpose. It doesn’t matter how they got away, only that they did.

More importantly; even though they've been defeated, they in no way feel like less of a threat.

Which lets the rest of the episode deal with the investigation as to how they got into the closed compound. With Aiwei as the questioner, each guard is brought before them, though to no avail. Sisterly tensions arise once more when Lin suggests that Suyin be questioned, but she defiantly submits to Aiwei’s procedure and comes out clean.

But it’s the very next guard that Aiwei finds suspicious: an eighteen year old that protests his innocence, despite a search of his apartment revealing evidence that he was complicit in the attack. But things don’t add up for Mako – the suspect is too young, the evidence too neat, and Aiwei too insistent that they wait for a while before questioning him.

Poor Mako, I know he’s been given a lot of flak in this fandom, but whether you’re a fan of him or not it makes perfect sense that he’s the one to question what’s going on here. Not only is he a cop (or trainee, or whatever he technically is) but he’s also been on the receiving end of a Frame-Up, courtesy of Varrick. And if you come to the conclusion that the young guard is innocent, then there’s only one person that suspicion can fall to...

The gang investigate Aiwei’s house, and again I was impressed by how well the situation was set up. Bolin shifts a vase on the bookshelf and Mako notices scuff-marks on the floor, indicating that it can slide back and forth. When Aiwei reappears the gang struggle to communicate in only half-truths, and very wisely do not touch a drop of the tea he pours for them. But Aiwei shifting the vase to its correct position on the shelf is a beautifully subtle indicator to the audience that he’s realized they’ve found his escape route, and a thick metal wall is raised while he makes his escape.

Turns out the man is Crazy Prepared, for once Korra finally breaks through the metal there’s a bomb waiting for them at the other end of the escape tunnel.  

It’s a neat little detective story, and I’ll admit it kept me guessing for a few seconds. Aiwei is well-established enough as a character that you feel the sting when he turns out to be the traitor, but there’s enough emphasis on Suyin insisting on being questioned that doubt is cast on her for a few seconds (initially I thought that maybe Aiwei would realize Su was lying about something, only to cover for her). Obviously the sisters haven’t quite patched things up between them, and another rift looks to be on its way when Lin finds out that Su helped Korra escape Zaofu in the middle of the night to hunt down Aiwei.

As far as cliff hangers go, it’s a pretty cruel enticing way to leave us hanging.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Hopefully we’ll see Opal again soon at the Northern Air Temple. I can’t say that I’m totally enamoured with her, but she’s a pleasant enough character who will probably fit in well with her fellow air-benders.

Asami is back, but her lack of bending abilities unfortunately means that she doesn’t get a lot to do. Still, I’m pretty sure it was her driving the getaway jeep at the end there (though it was blurry), and I’m still desperately holding out for this scene:

Varrick continues to be gold! His exchange with Mako over how to frame someone – which is precisely what he did to Mako last season – was hilarious.

I can’t say why exactly, but I love that P’Li is taller than the rest of her cohorts, including her boyfriend.

I love how the boys were so quickly on their feet and out the door once Bolin shouted the alarm. Mako didn’t even bother to look out the window to confirm Korra’s kidnapping.

A gorgeous little detail was the small mole on the face of the female guard. It’s things like this that really make the show feel like a fully realized-world, right down to the Bit Characters.

That Aiwei insists on waiting before interrogating the young guard further is quite chilling in hindsight. You can’t help but suspect that a “nasty accident” had been planned to get him out of the way before he could prove his innocence.

Source
 *shiver*

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Old Wounds and The Original Airbenders

The latest two episodes of The Legend of Korra continue to tie up loose ends, shed new light on old characters, and bring our antagonists one step closer to the Avatar. Again the dual airing of episodes lends itself to contrast and comparison, and now we finally know (even though they don't share any screen time) why Lin and Tenzin split up. Each one, in their own way, is entirely too stubborn to sustain a long-term relationship with the other.

Tenzin’s scene with Pema only exemplified this: though Tenzin/Pema probably don’t have the same sort of passion as Tenzin/Lin may have done, Pema is a calming, quiet presence and knew just what to say to him in that particular situation. In other words, sometimes the person you marry is not the person that creates mountains of angst and drama – and that’s a surprisingly mature message to put across to what is at least partly a teenage audience.

In fact, both these episodes were surprising in regards to who the writers chose to focus on. Korra and Bolin are in supporting roles, whilst Asami and Bolin are nowhere to be found. Instead the story-arcs explore the clay feet of our adult characters, in which Lin acts genuinely nasty at times, and Tenzin is depicted as a frankly terrible teacher. Yet both stories have enough depth to make their foibles understandable.

I recall there was a bit of controversy last year when it was revealed Aang was a less-than-ideal father to Kya and Bumi (focusing most of his attention on Tenzin), but I felt this was a viable portrayal of the character – backed up by the fact that Toph was apparently a less-than-ideal mother to Lin and Suyin. And why not? Life has no definitive happy ending, and there’s no end to how a character can develop (or regress). Since the original gang had their own parental issues, it’s only understandable that they would struggle with their own children. I’m looking forward to seeing if Zuko’s daughter has any hang-ups.

In this case, Toph’s stifling upbringing made her too lenient with her own children, giving them too much freedom when they should have had at least some sense of discipline. Though Lin finds it in following her mother into the police force, younger sister Suyin becomes more of a teen rebel.

It’s not every show that can make therapy interesting, but Lin’s acupuncture session is like a cross between Aang’s chakra lessons in The Crossroads of Destiny and Korra’s flashbacks of Aang throughout Book One: Air, in which we get glimpses of Lin’s strained relationship with her mother and sister, as well as the origin of her facial scar (which almost feels like a shout-out to Indiana Jones).

Mercifully, Lin’s beef with her sister doesn’t have anything to do with jealousy over her family, but with deep-seated resentment over an unresolved issue that’s been left to fester. In their youth, Suyin was irresponsible and reckless. This is in stark contrast to her more conscientious sister, who watches her suffer no consequences for having driven a getaway car, maimed her sister’s face, and forced her mother into an early retirement – all without any remorse. Heck, I’m pretty ticked off on Lin’s behalf, and Lin is no doubt reminded of these events every time she looks in a mirror.

And yet the show is too smart to cast Suyin into a villainous light for all of this, and anyone who was expecting the city of Laofu to snap shut like a Venus Fly Trap (admit it, that possibility was lingering at the back of your mind) is thankfully proven wrong. From Suyin’s point-of-view, the whole thing was resolved years ago. She and her mother talked out the problem, and reached an understanding.

It’s all rather complex in its simplicity; the fact that one sister’s experiences can have a deep psychological impact on her, whilst the other can work through her issues and move on. And it’s a credit to the show that they were prepared to cast Lin (in a manner of speaking) in the wrong. No doubt Suyin was a frustrating and selfish little snot in her youth, but ultimately Lin was the one who chose to brood for years on end. It might sound unfair, but her current unhappiness is on her.

Yet thanks to an all-out brawl between the sisters and a genuine attempt at communication, the situation is finally resolved. Special kudos to Mindy Stirling’s voice acting, for you can actually hear the change in Lin’s voice after she makes peace with herself.

Meanwhile, over in the Northern Air Temple, Tenzin is having his own problems with his brother Bumi. And his daughter Jinora. And his array of new airbending students. In an attempt to engage them in the nomadic air culture, he only manages to drive them away; treating them like airbenders when they’re simply not. A monkish lifestyle might be easy enough when you’re born to it, but trying to adapt after a lifetime in the Earth Kingdom is something else entirely.

And there’s even a dash of hypocrisy to the proceedings, in which Tenzin refuses to let the one acolyte that is interested in Airbender customs get her tattoos. Between pushing Bumi too hard and insisting on Jinora’s obedience, Tenzin is soon witness to the two of them storming off.

But Kai is still around, and he convinces Jinora to goof off and investigate some baby air bison. Harmless enough fun, except – you guessed it – poachers are on the loose, and aren’t above kidnapping children to hid their activities. Not the most original villains, but then they don’t need to be.

It’s Bumi and his military training (along with the possibility of two children in danger) that kicks the airbenders into action, and it’s not long before Kai and Jinora are safe and sound. It’s all pulled off without much help from Tenzin – though even he gets a little validation when Daw’s newly-shaved head gives him ample warning of an incoming net.

The thing I like about this particular episode is that is seeks to demonstrate that some people just aren’t natural leaders, aren’t natural teachers, aren’t naturally attuned to the spirit world – and that’s okay. In the shadow of his famous father, Tenzin often tries to be everything to everyone, and as a result, can’t really manage to handle anything well. It’s only when he stops trying so hard to make himself (and everyone else) perfect that he can be an effective teacher.

No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to learn and improve on whatever skills you may or may not have, and (as we also saw with Lin) your capacity for growth and change doesn’t end after your formative years. Tenzin’s “my way or the high way” is very reminiscent of his initial treatment of Korra in season one, yet here there’s a neat bit of role reverse with Korra giving him advice over the radio.

True to life, these characters always seem to be in flux – which is fitting for a season called Change. Throw in a mini-subplot involving Bolin’s reluctance to learn how to metal-bend (overcome when he has a chat to Opal) and it’s almost like watching an episode of Full House, where family truths and self-esteem issues are dealt with on an episodic basis (only without the triteness).

That leaves our convicts, hiding out among the vines in Republic City, and apparently just vetoing the idea of “taking out the President.” Between depiction of their driver deciding to throw himself off the bridge sooner than warn the police, and the obvious deaths that the quartet must have caused during the ensuing chase, you have an expertly handled build-up of a legitimate threat.

Their confrontation with Korra can’t come fast enough.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Laofu is like a blend of the Emerald City and a great metal flower garden. A lovely detail was having the rooftops open each morning, just like real lotis flowers.

Some neat continuity in these two episodes, such as Suyin teaching Korra to metal-bend with meteorites (of the same kind that Toph’s bracelet was formed from?), and a throwaway gag involving the Earth Queen apparently eating her father’s pet bear. And yet for all these call-backs to the past, there are details reminding us of the more contemporary setting – I especially liked Tenzin and Korra communicating through radio channels.

No Asami for two episodes? Not good enough. The consequence of adding more characters to the blender always means that some will be pushed to the background... but seriously, I want my girlfriends back.

I wonder, could Aiwei’s ability to read people’s heartbeats (and so tell if they’re telling the truth or not) work when they’re wearing metal shoes like Lin’s? Because he was able to tell that Korra was lying, though I don’t recall him doing the same to Lin.

Surely Varrick magnetic suit has to come back in some capacity, right?

The plural of bison is bison. Good to know.

Among Tenzin’s students, it’s nice that they’re making a decent effort in establishing the personalities of such minor characters. So far the hapless Daw and the Hermione-esque Otaku are the standouts, but each of them has a distinctive design.

Korra describes her job as “conflict resolution” – and there’s the Avatar in a nutshell.
 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: Prince Caspian


Thanks to a bargain bin at my local bookstore, Prince Caspian (along with The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew) is one of the three Narnia books I owned as a child, and which I’ve consequently read many more times than the remaining four books (though I had The Silver Chair on audiotape). So it holds a special place in my head-library of nostalgic childhood reads, even though it’s arguably the weakest book in the series.

The structure of the story is the most unusual element of the book: the Pevensie siblings are waiting for a train to take them to school when they're pulled out of their own world and onto a sandy shoreline. They explore, they find a ruined castle, and they realize that though this is Narnia, several hundred years have passed since their last visit. They have spent only a year in England, but (according to this time line) thirteen hundred years gone by since the Pevensies reigned in Cair Paravel. Everything drips with loss and nostalgia.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Links and Updates

Whew, I only have time for a quick update today, but rest assured that a lot of good stuff is on its way.

I’m well underway with my Narnia re-read, and the review for Prince Caspian should be up soon – and it's significantly shorter than my previous one for The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, thank goodness. I’ll rewatch the film tonight and hopefully have it posted tomorrow.

Though it’s been out for a while now, I’ve only just sat down and absorbed the latest trailer for Doctor Who season eight, with our clearest look yet at Peter Capaldi in the lead role.



I’ll admit, I’m still a little bit miffed that Capaldi has been stolen from The Musketeers (he was a sublime Cardinal Richelieu), especially since my interest in Doctor Who has been on the wane recently. Too many of Moffat’s party writing tricks have gotten stale, and I can’t say I’m hugely invested in the search for Gallifrey (assuming that’s what the new episodes revolve around, and no I haven’t touched the leaked scripts).

Still, I’m interested in the new dynamic between the Fourteen and his Companion (hopefully an older man will eliminate all traces of UST), so I may watch casually and do a season-long review as opposed to my usual episode-by-episode posts. Like Sherlock and Game of Thrones, this is a show that has to be seen if you want to understand at least 60% of Tumblr's joy, outrage, tears or OTT wailing into the void.

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Here's our first glimpse of Elsa in Once Upon a Time, which makes me feel I made the right decision to call it quits at the end of season three. It’s hard to really articulate why adapting Frozen of all things was the straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to me watching this show. Because it feels like blatant pandering and/or bandwagon jumping? Because Frozen only came out last year, putting rest to the insistence that there is any sort of “master plan” going on? Because the show now feels like elaborate cross-over fan-fiction starring your favourite Disney characters as opposed to a subversive look at how familiar fairytale characters would cope in modern times?



I don’t know exactly, but more than anything else this show has tried to pull off, this one really rubs me the wrong way. For those sticking with it, I legitimately hope you enjoy what’s to come, but there'll be no more reviews from me on this front.

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If you have a spare ten minutes, then please check out this wonderful little short-story called Little Knife by Leigh Bardugo, a companion story (along with two others) to her novel Ruin and Rising. It’s a fairytale, vaguely Scandinavian/Russian in atmosphere, with all the familiar motifs you’d expect: a beautiful girl, a greedy father, a suitor’s challenge, a threefold trial, and a supernatural helpmate – but with a satisfying twist on expectations.

Here’s a taste:

The river dove through the earth, moving with strength and purpose, leaving caverns and caves and tunnels in its wake. It crossed the length of Ravka, from border to border and back, as the rock tore at its current and the soil drank from its sides. The deeper the river plunged, the weaker it became, but on it went, and when it was at its most frail, little more than a breath of fog in a clump of earth, it felt the coin, small and hard. Whatever face the metal bore had been long worn away by time.

Reading it is like enjoying a refreshing yet spicy hot drink, and it looks like I’ll have to add yet another book to my already dizzying TBR pile.

***

Yesterday I attended a Bear and Doll Show, which took place in a room full of elderly women engaged in knitting, crocheting or other forms of embroidery, and a hopeful little boy trying to sell pink candy floss.

I thought I’d share some photos as – you have to admit – bears and dolls have a power and appeal that can’t properly be explained. They were the companions of our childhood, our very first friends and confidants; and so as adults they become windows back into the past, vessels of nostalgia and carriers of that mysterious quality of earliest childhood.

Walking around brought back a lot of memories, and so many of the dolls and teddies on display were genuine works of art: tiny little personalities staring up at you with doleful eyes. I snapped some pictures of my favourites:

 
 

 
 
 


 
 
 

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Finally the Writer’s Festival starts in Christchurch this August, and I’m in the midst of putting together my time-table for the event. There are so many interesting seminars and guest stars, that it’s a bit like being put in front of a buffet table and told you can only fill up one plate.

I’m going to stick to my specific interests, which always has (and probably always will) be Young Adult, Kid Lit, fantasy, sci-fi, history and the supernatural, and luckily there’s a lot to sate my appetite on this score.

If you live in New Zealand, be sure to check out their webpage and if you’re interested, here’s my (current) itinerary:

Saturday 30th August

Creating Worlds: Young Adult Readers (Elizabeth Knox, Laini Taylor, Karen Healey, Tania Roxborogh, Meg Wolitzer)

The Truth About Writing KidLit (Gavin Bishop, Melinda Szymanik, Tania Roxborogh)

Margaret Mahy's The Changeover: 30 Years On (Stuart McKenzie, Elizabeth Knox, Karen Healy)

Sunday 31st August

Supernaturally (Laini Taylor, Elizabeth Knox)

Beyond the Veil: Historical Ghost Stories (Diane Setterfield, Rosetta Allan, Coral Atkinson)

Even more exciting, it looks as though I’ll have the chance to interview Laini Taylor, the author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy! I plan on refreshing my memory with a re-read of her books, and I’ll let you know more as soon as I can confirm a date/time.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

Yesterday I took two youngsters to see the sequel to Dreamwork’s How To Train Your Dragon, a film that treads a familiar path with its use of a gawky, awkward teen who is a misunderstood outcast in his society until he gains or discovers something wonderful that makes him even more of a misunderstood outcast until said discovery ends up saving everyone’s lives and proving the error of society's ways.

And yet the original film rose above its internal clichés to be an incredibly moving tale of A Boy and His X; something that can be attributed to its blend of beautiful animation, John Powell's stunning score (never underestimate how much music can elevate a story), and its portrayal of Toothless the dragon, a creature that has the mannerisms of a cat, the temperament of a dog, the utility of a horse, and the bonus gift of flight.



Move over Hedwig and Nemo, dragons are now in demand as the world's most desirable exotic pet.

Plus, there’s not a lot that can go wrong with the premise of Vikings versus Dragons. It’s so simple yet so ingenious that it’s a wonder someone didn’t come up with it sooner.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 understands some basic truths about sequels: they have to enlarge their horizons, delve deeper into characterization and expand on the world-building – but at the same time it’s important not to go too overboard. For if there was a weakness to this film, it was that it simply tries to pack too much into its limited run-time.

Spoilers below...


Review: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Part III)

Okay, so I’ve made a long-winded argument as to why I think The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a fairy tale and not a fantasy or religious allegory, and I’ve spoken at length on Edmund’s portrayal in both the book and the 2005 film. I promise my re-reads of the following six books will not be this verbose (I don’t think I could manage it even if I wanted to), but here are the rest of my assorted observations.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Part II)

WWII and Edmund’s Motivation...

If anyone follows me on Tumblr, they’ll know that whenever I post something Pevensie related, I tag it with the phrase “my favourite Pevensie is the one I’m looking at.” I’m a fan of all four characters, and it’s impossible to decide which one I enjoy the most.

When I was younger, Lucy was my favourite character. When I got a bit older, I realized that I was totally Susan. Peter (let’s be honest here) is rather dull, and yet - as though in compensation - gets to do all the cool heroic stuff. But Edmund...well, the more you read these books, the more interesting Edmund becomes.  




Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardobe (Part I)

I was planning this review to be a well-structured and organized essay on the lasting appeal of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one that examined character and theme, context and legacy, all in an orderly and chronological fashion.

Well, it’s not that. This is more of a grab-bag of ideas and observations.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Legend of Korra: In Harm's Way and The Metal Clan

I still can’t get my head around the airing of these episodes (lengthy gaps followed by two back-to-back episodes...huh?) and I can only assume it’s a consequence of the leak, but hey – if it means that I have to wait longer for double the episodes then I guess it all pans out.

Five episodes in and the structure of this season is becoming clear: the Avatar team will traverse the world in search of new air-benders (providing little mini-arcs in each new location) whilst the over-arching storyline of the escaped prisoners and their interest in Korra will eventually unify the episodes.

It’s a sensible choice, for a large part of the appeal of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender was its world-building, in which the beautiful animation showcased a variety of cities, terrains and landscapes. To revisit the same world a few generations later gives the creators the opportunity to showcase both old and new locations: here Jinora explores the catacombs under Lake Laogai, finding that the tunnels are now flooded, which serves as a stark contrast to the shining city of Laofu, populated by metal benders that have structured it to resemble a bed of lotus blossoms.


But perhaps the best idea this show has had is to finally drop the tedious love triangle, focusing instead on the dynamics of Mako/Bolin as brothers and Asami/Korra as girlfriends. The real irony of all this is that I’m certain the initial love triangle was born out of Bryke’s awareness of the shipping wars of the original show, and designed as an attempt to give the fandom what they thought it wanted.

It really didn’t work.

But though I would always caution any writer/artist/creator against bowing to the demands of their fan-base, I think that this newfound focus on the girls (and giving Asami considerably more air-time) is one of their smartest decisions. Even now and then a fandom means it when they say "more girls", and it would appear that the creators were listening.

After a bit of astral project courtesy of Jinora (which actually reminded me of Samara from The Ring what with the way she fizzed in and out of focus), the air-benders are found and a rescue mission is launched. Though I call foul at Tenzin allowing Jinora to race off with Mako and Bolin to find Kai, everyone manages to escape safely – there’s even time for a quick political quandary about what exactly is legal in this situation.

According to the Earth Queen, the new air-benders are Earth Kingdom citizens, and therefore she has every right to conscript them into her army. To Korra and Tenzin, they are newly-born air-benders and have a duty to accompany them to the Northern Air Temple to begin training.

So which are they? Earth Kingdom citizens or Air Nomads?

Tenzin ultimately offers them the choice to stay where they are or go with him (a much better tactic than trying to lure them in with the perks of a monkish lifestyle), and it turns out that free choice trumps patriotic duty. Naturally they decide to go with him to the temple – only for the A-plot to arrive in the form of Lin, bearing news of the escaped prisoners and insisting that Korra return to Republic City for her own protection.

As is Korra's way, she refuses, for they've just had word of a new air-bender in the city of Laofu. Indeed, there seems to be an influx of both air-benders and female characters of late, not just in the reintroduction of Lin Bei Fong, but in the first appearance of her extensive extended family.

Suyin: the half-sister you never knew Lin had
It's at this point we learn the rather astounding news that Lin not only has a sister called Suyin (whose daughter is the very air-bender that the team has come to find), but that Toph a) is still alive and apparently wandering the world on a quest for enlightenment, and that b) her daughters have different fathers – men that Toph presumably didn’t marry.
 
Wow, let’s just let that sink in for a minute.

It’s always a risk bringing in long lost relations (see Robin Hood and Merlin for how not to do it), but in this case at least you could argue there’s a reason for it, as Lin is highly reluctant to associate with her sister and her family. As yet, the question still remains as to why.

Because of the dual-airing of these two episodes, you can’t help but hold up Suyin as a comparison to Hou-Ting. Introduced as “the matriarch of the Metal Clan” as opposed to any sort of Metal Queen, Suyin has a low opinion of royalty, employs ex-convicts on her staff, and tolerates no secretive business in her city – Lin’s presence in Laofu is quickly exposed thanks to her associate Aiwei who (like Toph) has the ability to tell if a person is lying.

Whereas Hou-Ting was rounding up air-benders against their will in order to conscript them into a private army (though I’m not sure why she needed such a thing with the Dai Li around), Suyin’s benders are less interested in fighting as they are with dancing, sculpturing and games.

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In any other show, a futuristic Utopia such as this would inevitably have a rotten core. We’ve seen this story play out a dozen times – of a serene paradise with a dark secret lurking beneath the surface, where no one pays any attention to the single character who insists that something is wrong. In the interests of avoiding clichés, I sincerely hope that the writers side-step this storyline and simply keep things as pleasant as they appear (though Varrick’s presence doesn’t bode well).
 

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But as difficult as it is to take things in the city at face-value, it would appear that the discord in Laofu is all down to Lin. She begins grows ever-more aggravated the longer she spends with her sister.  

Although we get some hints, it’s still not entirely clear what her grievance with Suyin is, but I hope and pray that they’re not going to make this a “bitter old maid” story, what with the “lonely career woman” longing for the life her sister has, complete with husband and children – but surely they know better than that, especially given what we’ve just learnt about Toph.

My personal head-canon surrounding Tenzin and Lin’s breakup was that early on in their relationship, Lin decided that she never wanted children – something that simply wasn’t feasible for Tenzin, who had a responsibility to repopulate the earth with air-benders. No doubt there were other factors at work, but when the relationship ended for good, Tenzin had to quickly find himself a young, fertile wife. None of this is spelt out explicitly in the show itself, but I’ve always felt that this was the implication behind what we learnt about Tenzin and Pema in Book One: Air.

I don’t necessarily want this theory to be canonized in any way, for though I’m happy that Lin is currently getting some spot-light, I’m a little concerned about where they’re going with this – especially regarding Suyin’s speech that what she was looking for was “a family of her own.” Seriously, that life style is not for everyone. If she's a happy career woman then Lin doesn’t have to be envious of either her sister or her ex-boyfriend.


This entire subplot felt a bit like an unnecessary family drama – complete with a barrage of new characters that are going to prove difficult to keep track of – so fingers crossed that it’ll be resolved satisfactorily.

All of which leads us to the very best part of the episodes: the escaped prisoners.

P’Li was sprung by her compatriots despite the efforts of Zuko, the twins, Korra’s father and Zuko’s dragon. The release itself was mainly down to the incredible water-bending abilities of Ming Hwa, and when you watch her, you have to appreciate that she’s doing all her bending with her mind, not with the usual hand/arm actions of other benders. More than that, but she’s apparently strong enough to make water cold and hard enough to easily break through metal.






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P’Li ended up a lot taller than I expected, and her reunion with Zaheer (a long passionate kiss) fits in well with what we already know about these prisoners. It's the warmth and camaraderie between the four of them that make them so engaging. So many “villain teams” dislike or even despise each other, but these guys are clearly good friends. Each prison break involves a warm reunion, either with a handshake or a make-out session.




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From there, it’s only a quick shave and a haircut before Zaheer heads to Air Temple Island as part of a clever ruse to scope out the territory, integrate himself with the new air-benders and try to figure out the Avatar’s current location.

In another great moment for the women, Kya kicks a fair amount of ass after she figures out exactly who this guy is, and it makes a lot of sense when you consider that she would probably be one of the few benders in the world qualified to take on an air-bender. Their rarity means that their fighting styles would seldom be used in defensive training exercises – but luckily for Kya, she grew up with an air-bender for a brother. Though Zaheer manages to get the upper hand, at least Team Avatar know of his approximate whereabouts.

But for now, their motivation and goals still remain a mystery. Lin tells us that the four of them tried to kidnap Korra when she was just a child, but that in all their years of imprisonment they never once explained why. Yikes – what could be so important that they would endure all that isolation and containment and still not crack? The plot certainly thickens on this front, and suggests the possibility that maybe they’re not as “evil” as everyone seems to think they are.

My theory is that they’re acting on some sort of theological grounds. Zaheer certainly seems to be the type, what with the way he quotes old masters, and there's a significant difference between "kidnapping" a child and "trying to kill" a child. Perhaps they didn't necessarily mean Korra any physical harm, and religious zeal seems to be the theme of all Korra’s villains – let’s just hope that we get more of clearer understanding of these guys than we did for Unalaq and Amon.

The attempted kidnapping also nicely explains just why Korra was kept secluded in a compound for so long – sure, it’s a bit of a retcon, as I’m sure that this particular storyline hadn’t been conceived way back in Book One, but it slides nicely into existing canon. Hopefully a confrontation won’t be too far away.
 

Arrow: Betrayal

It’s the halfway point of the first season, and so the show wisely decides to steps up a notch when it comes to its overarching plot. For the first time Oliver is forced to confront the fact that his mother might be complicit in the shady dealings that his father urged him to investigate, and naturally he’s not handling it too well. The evidence is in the small book of names that Felicity brings to him: it’s identical to Robert Queen’s, but according to her it belongs to the still-missing Walter – and he found it in Moira’s bedroom.

Diggle is detached enough from the situation to look at it objectively, though Oliver naturally doesn’t want to believe that his mother is wrapped up in any objectionable business. Having been confronted with the book, Moira calls it a list of people who owed Robert favours before promptly throwing it in the fire.  


Even without all the scenes that the audience have been privy to, her demeanour is enough to tell us that she’s lying. But Oliver doesn’t want to think the worst of her, and so gives into the temptation that most of us fail regularly: that of doing nothing instead of getting involved in something that we don’t really want to know more about.

Terrible things happen in this world on a daily basis, and most of us cope with it by pretending that nothing's wrong. But even for a vigilante who runs around with a bow and arrow to confront crime each night, it’s too much for Ollie to consider that his mother might be a part of it. So the blinkers go on, and he focuses on recently-released-from-jail crime boss Cyrus Vance.

But Diggle isn’t in this show just to drive the white people around. Taking matters into his own hands, he investigates Moira and eventually manages to record a compromising conversation between her and Malcolm (smoothly deflecting one of Malcolm’s security guards in the process).

There’s no hiding from the truth now, and the episode ends on a fantastic cliff-hanger in which The Hood bursts through Moira’s office windows and delivers his familiar spiel: “you have failed this city.”

It’s a bit extreme, as surely the situation warranted a little more investigation to establish what exactly she was meant to be failing at, but it makes for a great final scene.

On a related note, it interests me that the audience has known for some time about Moira’s back-handed dealings and her relationship with Malcolm Merlyn – certainly not in any great detail, but enough for the audience to remain one step ahead of Oliver in regards to what’s really going on.

This is a somewhat risky storytelling manoeuvre, for though it’s been used to create suspense over Oliver’s growing awareness of the truth (and anticipation of the inevitable confrontation between mother/son), it also could result in what I call AAK Syndrome (Audience Already Knows Syndrome) if dragged out too long.

Making viewers aware of circumstances beyond the protagonist’s knowledge can be an enticing way of making them feel as though they’ve been let in on a secret, but it also runs the risk of making the protagonist look stupid or of trying the audience’s patience if his/her ignorance is dragged out too long. As such, I’m hoping that they’ll forge ahead with this particular plot-thread and make the fall-out of The Hood’s confrontation with Moira worthy of its set-up.

But there was a whole other B-plot to get through in this episode, one which picks up a thread I’d thought the writers had forgotten about: that of Detective Lance bugging The Hood’s phone and giving it back to Laurel, planning to track the vigilante if she ever makes contact with him.

I do have some sympathy for this guy, especially when he says: “if [the vigilante] is a hero, I don’t know what my life as a cop in this city means.” But like Oliver, he sees what he wants to see, and to him The Hood is bad because he exists outside the law – no arguments. And if using his daughter as bait is the way to catch him, so be it.

Ironically, despite each man’s constant declarations that all they want for Laurel is her safety and happiness, the two of them seem to do nothing but put this girl in jeopardy. My favourite scene of this episode, perhaps even more so than The Hood confronting Moira, was Detective Lance and The Hood on the rooftop, the former pointing a gun at his own daughter, the latter using her as a hostage so he could get away safely. Sure, the cops all had rubber bullets, but Oliver – and more importantly, Laurel – didn’t know that at the time.

Following on from this scene, it made sense that the final sequence against this episode’s antagonist was a team-up between the two men to rescue her, but that she isn't particularly impressed with the conduct of either one. 

But hey, look who our Villain of the Week is! Doctor Whale (a.k.a. Doctor Frankenstein) from Once Upon a Time! David Anders may look like the Cheshire Cat in human form, but unfortunately the writing didn’t do him much favours. Let it hereby be known that the old “gimme a hug so that I can stab you with a hidden weapon” may sound like a great Character Establishing Moment, it’s long since earned its place on the list of villainous clichés. Don't do it.

And it gets worse. Apparently the police can’t arrest or even investigate him without evidence, even though you’d think that a lawyer going missing and a criminal setting up residence in his house would raise a few red flags. That was topped only by Vance using murky security-camera footage to count how many arrows The Hood uses (twenty-four) and planning his own security measures by hiring... twenty-five men.

I’ve often wondered if the show would ever touch on the inherent weakness of arrow being Oliver’s weapon-of-choice, particularly in regard to their tendency to run out after a while, but to do it like this made it seem remarkably silly.

Meanwhile, over in the flashbacks, things are getting ever-more convoluted – though hopefully some clarity is on its way. After being tossed off a cliff by Yeo Fei, Oliver wakes up and realizes that he’s been given a map.

Anyone home?

It leads him to a crashed plane (what every reluctant flyer about to embark on a plane ride wants to see) where a man is hiding out. It’s Manu Bennett playing Slade Wilson! Okay... I know the name Slade and I know he’s bad news, but considering this is a fresh continuity, I’ve no idea where all this is headed.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Why do all those arrows knock the random Mooks out instantly? They should be writhing on the ground, screaming in agony.

I do like the tape-recorder arrow though. Think we’ll ever get the infamous boxing glove arrow?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a chauffeur? I had to do so much driving around today, and the sight of Moira hanging out in the backseat of her luxury car while Diggle did all the work made me sigh with envy.

David Anders gives us a lesson on evil eating: keep your chin up, chew voraciously, and have your mouth open. It really brings across that “I’m gonna eat you!” vibe.  

A conversation in which one of the participants knows more than the other will always make for a good scene. In this case we had Oliver commiserate with Tommy over Laurel’s deception concerning The Hood – he rather audaciously scolds Tommy for not protecting Laurel from the vigilante, but you could also tell that he was maybe a little bit pleased that they’re having couples trouble.



I know that a regurgitation of Oliver/Laurel is inevitable, even though the emotional obstacles between them are practically insurmountable, but for now I’m glad that Ollie seems committed to keeping his distance (except when the plot requires him not to).

I love that they let Laurel put up a pretty good fight against her assailants, though she inevitably reverts back to Distressed Damsel for the climax.

It hit me in watching Tommy and Detective Lance’s reaction to Laurel’s kidnapping that it’s all down to the actors to sell moments like this. No one in the audience really fears for Laurel’s life, so it’s the reactions of her nearest and dearest that have to demonstrate that her endangerment has an effect on those around her.

Lucky that John Barrowman’s voice was so garbled on that tape recording. They’re obviously going to hold back on the reveal of him as the Black Archer for as long as possible.