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Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

Warning: minor spoilers ahead.

I remember, several years ago when Marvel first unveiled their plans to make an Avengers movie – and, by extension, a Captain America movie – that I wondered how or even if it would be possible to make a Cap movie that wasn’t laughably ridiculous. Not only is Captain America even more of an out-of-date boy scout than Superman, but his colorful costume – while acceptable within the boundaries of comicbookdom – surely couldn’t survive the transition to film. How could Marvel ever make a Captain America that was cool enough to draw a big audience? I was never interested in the character to begin with, back from my comicbook collecting days; and a movie version? Thanks, but no thanks.

Pictured: an idiot in a costume. This is from an actual Captain America movie.

Pictured: an idiot in a costume. This is from an actual Captain America movie.

Boy, how have things changed.

The 1940's Cap costume from "The First Avenger" makes a triumphant return in "The Winter Soldier".

The 1940′s Cap costume from “The First Avenger” makes a triumphant return in “The Winter Soldier”.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, in my opinion, the best movie yet to come out of Marvel Studios (yes, I’m including Marvel’s The Avengers in that list). While the first Cap movie was just meh, and Cap’s participation in The Avengers was no more than a measured improvement, he really comes into his own in The Winter Soldier. There are several reasons for that, which I will discuss below.

First, this is the first time we truly see Captain America as the legendary leader that he is from the comics. He was a rookie in The First Avenger, but he was supposed to have become legendary by the time he froze in the Arctic; however, I never got the feeling that he was anything more than a propaganda tool with superpowers. The Avengers had a slightly more mature version of Cap, but he still seemed reluctant to take over the team, being instead overshadowed by the overwhelming presence of Robert Downey’s Tony Stark, and thus reduced to being just one of the guys. He does take the mantle of leader during the Battle of New York, but that was more a product of everyone else deferring to him than of him assuming command to get the job done.

It isn’t until this movie (and it’s done right from the start) that we get to see Captain America the leader, as he was meant to be. We also get to see Captain America the badass, kicking butt with his moves, speed, strength, and complete mastery of his impossibly rebounding vibranium shield. Not only does he take on a dozen guys at the same time in the confines of an elevator, but he charges head on against a SHIELD fighter jet… and wins.

Because fuck you, he’s Captain America.

Badass mode on.

Badass mode on.

Fuck you.

Fuck you.

Then there’s Natasha Romanov (shouldn’t it be Romanova?) a.k.a. Black Widow, who proves to be a perfect sidekick. We have known since the dreadful Iron Man 2 that she kicks ass, so nothing she does in here is a surprise in physical terms; however, here she shows a more… noble side, if you will, of her character. Heroic, even. There’s an exchange between her and Steve Rogers in which she asks him if he would trust her with his life the way she trusts him with hers (this is after he saved her life from an incoming missile, because fuck you he’s Captain ‘Murica!). His response after having seen her loyalty tested? “I do now“. So I guess that was meant to humanize her a little bit, make her more relatable. Not sure how much that counts as character development, but she’s there to kick ass while looking hot, so whatever.

As for Nick Fury, I think this is the movie where we see the most of him. It’s definitely the movie where we finally see his memorable moment (like how in The Avengers every member of the team had his or her memorable moment), even if it ends with him and his super SHIELD SUV turned upside down and about to be fucked up by the Winter Soldier.

New character Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon, wasn’t anything special, but he did his job and I don’t mind seeing more of him in the future, especially since he is supposed to become an Avenger soon. His was another character for whom I wondered how he could get done without those wings looking cheesy and stupid. And they didn’t.

Spread your wings and fly away...!

Spread your wings and fly away…!

Second, the plot is better. The First Avenger was the obligatory origin story with the obligatory “he’s got to fight a major bad guy” third act. The Avengers was fun, but it’s plot was reduced to a not so carefully planned alien invasion that, for some weird reason, chose New York as its first and only entry point. The Winter Soldier doesn’t rely only on the mystery of the actual Winter Soldier, but delves into spy movie territory combined with some very nice action sequences and special effects. I particularly liked Nick Fury’s chase sequence, as well as any time the Winter Soldier showed up to wreak havoc. HYDRA’s overtake of SHIELD gave them more credence - let’s face it, it’s far more interesting to have an evil organization that for several decades has been shaping up the world, instead of fading into oblivion as soon as Cap took care of their former leader the Red Skull; as Dr. Zola said, if you cut off one head, two will spring in its place, like the Hydra of myth. They were a real menace in this film. HYDRA’s twist was one of my favorite parts of the movie.

As a side note, I wonder how said twist will affect the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series. I mean, is there any SHIELD left by the end, still standing but full of corruption? Even Maria Hill jumped ship!

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HYDRA’s plan did stumble a little bit at the end…

 

Third is the Winter Soldier himself. There’s actually little of him throughout most of the movie, yet all this does is enhance the moments whenever he does show up… at the expense of character development, I admit. I would make the comparison to Darth Maul from Star Wars Episode I, but you do have some backstory with the Winter Soldier, not only from this movie but from the first one as well. His real identity is another cause for conflict, adding to the drama. The Winter Soldier is every bit the physical equal of Cap, being a Terminator-like presence and giving way to some awesome fight sequences between the two.

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The Winter Soldier takes crap from no one.

The Winter Soldier takes crap from no one.

The movie felt almost like an Avengers movie, with the stakes being just as high. Because of the more interesting plot and the better action sequences, I prefer The Winter Soldier over The Avengers, but the biggest reason might be that this was the movie that made Captain America cool enough to draw in a big audience. This is the movie I never thought would happen.

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Review: “Her”, directed by Spike Jonze

I loved Her.

Watching Spike Jonze’s latest (and Academy award nominated) film was in itself almost like meeting a new person not knowing what to expect, then getting to know that person and realizing that you share many things in common, that you understand each other perfectly. That’s also, by the way, more or less the arc that Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, goes through as the film progresses, except that instead of a person it is an Operating System. You know, like Windows. Or Linux. And the weirdest thing of all was that it wasn’t weird at all.

The film takes place in a non-determined future where Theo works as a writer for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, essentially dictating to a computer letters requested by their clients to be sent to their loved ones, sort of like personalized greeting cards. He is going through a divorce and hasn’t gotten over his wife yet. It is during this time that he buys a new operating system called OS1, that boasts being the first operating system with artificial intelligence so advanced, it’s like a friend that understands your every need. The AI of “Samantha” (how the OS named itself when Theo asked for a name) evolves as time goes on, not only getting to know Theo’s every need better, but starting to really behave like a person, with feelings and sentience. Theo’s recent problems with his life are screwing up his social interactions, leading him ever closer to Samantha, eventually starting a relationship with her.

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Theo Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his attempts at human interaction with a very hot date (Olivia Wilde).

A relationship that, believe it or not, even turns sexual.

There are several things working for this movie, first one being a very realistic and practical vision of the future. The “look” is essentially the same that we have right now in 2014 (hey, we are kind of in the future, right?), except a little bit more polished, with technology that instead of calling attention to itself is already embedded into daily life so deeply, it is almost invisible. What we have nowadays as smartphones are by the movie’s timeframe nothing short of a personal assistant, and when Theo integrates his own smartphone-ish device to Samantha that personal assistant becomes less robotic and more… human. That is how I envisioned smartphones in the future when I got my first taste of Siri a couple of years ago.

The second major thing working for this movie is the love story. At first glance a romantic relationship between an operating system and a human seems completely insane; but if you stop to think about it (and trust me, as the movie went by I was thinking a lot about it), it makes perfect sense. Right now, we are living through something very similar; remember when the internet exploded back in the late 90′s? The new social interactions via chats, that took physical contact out of the equation, were criticized and branded as the end of civilization as we know it, and to an extent that’s true; the world is both much closer and much farther apart than ever before, and things will never be the same. But the point here is that feelings can very easily spark from a completely computerized relationship (I have experienced them firsthand). In other words, you do not need the physical interactions for a deep relationship to spring. And if Samantha is an AI so complex as to appear human, what is the difference, really?

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In fact, by the end of the movie, Samantha – as well as the other AI’s from the OS1 program – had evolved into something greater, a new species of sentient beings, if you will, a concept that brought to my mind the end of Ghost in the Shell. And that’s the last major thing that the movie had going for it: how it had plausibly, and unassumingly, told a story that started out as a romance and ended with a very SF touch in a very elegant way. Kuddos to Spike Jonze on making the best SF movie of 2013 (sorry, Gravity!), and one of my new favorites.

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Review: All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

When the trailer for Tom Cruise’s next movie, Edge of Tomorrow, first started making the rounds on the social networks, I didn’t bother to watch it. It sounded like yet another generic sci-fi movie where Cruise is a superhero like he always is. In fact, I haven’t watched Oblivion for much the same reason, despite actually liking most of Tom Cruise’s movies and science fiction in general.

But then – for whatever reason – I sneaked a peak, and I was hooked.

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Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise star in “Edge of Tomorrow”.

It’s not that the movie seems completely original, or has the potential of being a masterpiece. No, it actually does look kind of like yet another generic sci-fi movie where Cruise is a superhero like he always is. What grabbed my attention were two things: one, the trailer was beautifully made, and two the SF “Groundhog Day” time loop he seems to be trapped in. Looking for more info on the movie I found that it was based on a Japanese military SF novel titled All You Need is Kill, and that was all I needed. To get the book, I mean.

Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel has much the same qualities as my favorite SF novel of all time, The Stars my Destination: reads fast, grips you and never lets you go. Neither one of them has the brilliance of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, for example, but both possess good stories set in worlds turned upside down by uncommon circumstances; while The Stars my Destination changed the landscape of human civilization by the advent of mental teleportation, All You Need is Kill does so by trapping its main character Keiji Kiriya in a time loop where death is but the reset button.

The setting is as follows: an alien civilization far more advanced than us is exhausting their planet resources and needs new worlds to colonize in order to survive. They find Earth suitable for those needs, but first they must terraform it, so they send a big ship full of terraforming machines (called “Mimics” by the humans) to do the job. Neither the aliens nor the machines care much about the life they are about to wipe out, so the humans have no choice but to defend themselves.

As we enter the story the war has raged on for years, and new recruit Keiji Kiriya enters his first battle.

And dies.

He wakes up thinking that that was a weird dream prior to his first real battle, except that everything he experienced in the “dream” is happening again. The one thing that changes this time around is how he gets killed, as a spear that had previously done his friend now came straight at him. By the time he realizes what’s going on, it’s clear that, no matter what he does, the Mimics will find him and kill him.

Enter Rita Vrataski, the hero of the United Defense Force, nicknamed officially “the Valkyrie”, and unofficially the “Full Metal Bitch”. Rita is a one of a kind supersoldier, winning so many accolades now the UDF is making up hero awards just for her, since no one else had ever done the things she has. Turns out Rita was the first to be trapped in a time loop and, just like Keiji after her, has used the battle experience to hone her mental skills into something normally impossible for a human. Obviously, at one point Keiji and Rita will unite forces, but the interesting bit here is that Keiji’s time loop is not the same as Rita’s (she eventually managed to get out of hers), so he has to begin at zero every time they meet to train together.

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The UDF propaganda machine in full force for Rita Vrataski.

Since death isn’t the end in a time loop, the real threat comes from dying once the time loop is broken. I have spoiled enough already so I won’t give away how they have to do it; suffice to say that once they were on their way to break it, I was genuinely concerned for them both. You see, Sakurazaka didn’t focus only on the technical aspects of the war and the time loop; he took his time to expand not only on Keiji but also on Rita, so that by the end we know them and are rooting for them to beat the damn Mimics and come out on top. The ending, while I felt was a bit forced, did its job emotionally, and somewhat reminded me of how I felt about the ending of the SF military classic The Forever War. The ride was great, and the ending stays with you. What else can you ask of a good story?

I wonder how Edge of Tomorrow will fare. I’m not really expecting it to be a great adaptation, but so long as they keep the core elements intact and don’t change the end into a Hollywood cliché I’ll be happy. Tom Cruise is as far removed from Keiji as you can get, but Emily Blunt is sort of how I pictured Rita in the novel (although I have a friend that fits the Rita mold like a glove, and that’s who I was picturing as I read it). If the adaptation is at least as good as Ender’s Game‘s was, I’ll be a satisfied customer.

Here’s me crossing my fingers.

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Thoughts on the new Amazing Spiderman 2 trailer

The Amazing Spiderman 2 is coming on May 2nd, 2014, and the first trailer just hit the web (pun intended). I see a lot of people excited about it, but I have mixed feelings. Here are some thoughts on it:

1. Too much OMG drama

Peter Parker is one brooding motherfucker.

Peter Parker is one brooding motherfucker.

Remember when Spiderman used to be a fun character? Sam Raimi’s Spidey kept getting more emo with each movie, so much so by the third one that the entire franchise had to be rebooted because, well, who wants an emo Spiderman. Sure, part of what makes Spiderman so relatable is how he has to deal with ordinary problems all the time in addition to his extraordinary problems as a superhero, but he is still supposed to be a fun-loving guy. Not exactly comic relief, but that one member of the group (if you are, say, the Avengers) that lifts the spirits of the rest with his charm and wit; but apparently Batman’s huge success post 2005 has made it mandatory that superheroes brood and have big fucking issues all the time. Man of Steel had a Superman on the verge of using Celexa to treat his bleak and confused view of the world, courtesy of Pa Kent messing up his head with conflicting messages (“you are destined for great things, but don’t go around saving lives or anything stupid like that!”). This trailer shows a Spiderman dealing with MONUMENTAL issues from the get go, shown by the typical inner monologue of the hero, a technique used already in the third trailer of the first Amazing:

Every day I wake up knowing that the more people I try to save, the more enemies I will make.

Sure, he smiles a bit at the beginning when he’s telling Gwen Stacy why he’s late for their date or whatever, but then the trailer shifts back to the monumentalness of it all and the big secret of his father Richard Parker and OsCorp, Aunt May being Aunt Mayish (or what passes for that in the movies, since she is now some sort of wise old figure), Electro being melodramatic, and so on.

Where’s the fun, Sony?

2. The new Harry Osborn

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I liked James Franco in the role back in the Raimi trilogy. They fucked it up in the third one, yes, but what didn’t they fuck up in the third one? That was a complete disaster. Anyway, as good as Franco was as Harry Osborn, I have a feeling Dane DeHaan is going to be better. His character in the movie Chronicle went through a transformation from a meek kid to a power-hungry maniac who couldn’t cope with the superpowers he gained from that meteorite. It sounds cheesy but he did a great job with it, and considering Harry Osborn will go through some of the same psychological shit – as Peter’s best friend and Spiderman’s worst enemy – I’m pretty sure he’ll nail it.

3. What’s with the CGI?

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It looks shitty. I mean, I remember how the CGI work in the original Spiderman blew everyone away. Now, of course, it looks a bit dated, but for its time it was amazing (another lame pun! I swear it’s the last one). With this trailer, it just doesn’t look like they made any leaps forward with the technology; Spiderman looks as cartoony now as he did back then, maybe more so. And there seems to be so much of it, though that might be due to the editing choices of the trailer. Either way, a lot of scenes look like they belong in the Playstation game trailer of the movie, not on the movie itself.

4. (Potentially) interesting plot with OsCorp and the Sinister Six

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Yes, this has been a rumor for quite a while now, and the trailer added fuel to the fire with the above shot of Vulture’s wings and Dr. Octopus’ arms (remember, neither one shows up in this movie). I like this sort of foreshadowing and planning, and this is a seed that was planted since the first Amazing Spiderman and the end credits scene in that movie. It helps explain the sudden rise in supervillains, at least.

As a side note, while Spiderman was my favorite superhero back in my comic book collecting days (along with Batman), I never read a story related to the Sinister Six. I knew about them, of course, but never read the actual story. I’m sure, however, that when this movie’s premier date is approaching there will be a special offer in Comixology for the Sinister Six collected issues in digital form. They just can’t pass up this opportunity.

5. Too. Many. Villains.

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We all know how great this worked in the aforementioned Spiderman 3. I’m not implying that it can’t work, just that it’s completely unnecessary. This is giving me that same vibe of Man of Steel 2 and its Too. Many. Superheroes. Just like Warner seems to be in a rush to release their Justice League movie, Sony seems to be in a rush to get to the Sinister Six plot, so we get a sample with the Sinister Three here. Why can’t it just be Harry’s gradual transformation into the Green Goblin, with Electro as the main villain? Rhino here seems to be just as welcome as Sandman was in Spidey 3. Plus, that design is idiotic. I hope that having actors of the caliber of Paul Giamatti and Jamie Foxx means the script is decent enough to merit their inclusions.

Stupid Rhino.

Oh yeah, here’s the trailer:

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Is Man of Steel 2 a test run for Justice League?

Ever since Warner Bros. announced at Comic Con that Batman would be in the new Man of Steel sequel, one thing was clear: this was not going to be a Man of Steel sequel.

Sequels to superhero franchises don’t have other superheroes sharing top billing, because then it stops being a superhero sequel and becomes a superteam movie (something only Marvel has done so far with the X-Men and Avengers movies). WB hasn’t been very subtle about it, of course, tentatively naming this Superman “sequel” Batman vs. Superman, except that now – with the official announcement that Gal Gadot has been cast as the new Wonder Woman – it’s clear WB isn’t just not making a Superman sequel, but they are actually rehearsing a Justice League movie without really calling it a Justice League movie.

This was my dream Wonder Woman... too bad WB already used her up.

This was my dream Wonder Woman… too bad WB already used her up.

We all know Marvel has the upper-hand as far as universe building is concerned, with their Avengers heroes all set up in their own movie franchises (at least those that are worth it, except for Hulk for some reason) and even expanding into outer space and the Guardians of the Galaxy. If they haven’t completely knocked out DC at this point is due to Sony holding unto the Spiderman franchise and Fox refusing to let go of the Fantastic Four, plus a certain director named Nolan producing the most lucrative superhero trilogy in history; but the fact remains that DC has fallen behind Marvel where Hollywood is concerned, and with The Avengers they have taken a strong lead. DC/WB can make up the ground if they make a Justice League movie (let’s face it, the Avengers roster is nothing compared to a Justice League roster), but rushing it could prove fatal. So now the plan seems to be that, instead of patiently positioning their pieces like Marvel did, they are going for a quick checkmate with a movie that is officially a sequel but unofficially the introduction to the Justice League characters, other movies be damned.

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You might as well put a golden tiara on top of the bat.

I’m not saying I am totally against this, I’m just worried that they are going to mess it up by cluttering Superman’s movie. Man of Steel showed both promise with Henry Cavill’s Superman interpretation and a lack of complete understanding of that character by Zack Snyder and the writing team. Still, there’s room for improvement, but will this Superman ever get that chance? He will be up against a brand new Batman, and now there’s a Wonder Woman whose exact role in this story is yet unknown, and the possibility of Flash also showing up. These last two characters deserve their own movies, so is this WB placing them in the public consciousness before that happens, or being lazy about it so people know who they are before jumping into the JL? I think there’s always a chance that all of this works out, and I’ll be first in line when the new movie comes out in a cluttered 2015, but I’m still worried.

On a last note, I don’t really know Gal Gadot, having only seen one of the Fast and the Furious movies and not remembering her at all, but at least she has the right looks (just a bit of gym work to buff up for the role). Is she leading role material, or was she cast because she is good with supporting characters and that’s enough for what WB intends to do? Can she carry a WW movie? The answer to these questions might reveal WB’s plans for Wonder Woman.

Goodreads Review: Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Gone With The Wind 75th Anniversary EditionGone With The Wind 75th Anniversary Edition by Margaret Mitchell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Literary speaking, this book is as well written as any I have read. Amazing, well developed characters; perfect story pacing and dialogue; a narrative style that keeps your interest throughout the 1000+ pages of novel; enough historical detail to give it authenticity without becoming a scholarly drag; an epic storyline set against one of the most pivotal moments in U.S. history… there are no faults that I can find from a writing perspective. The only fault, one which I’m sure must have been addressed countless times already, is the blatant racism Mitchell displays at several points in the novel. More on that later.

As I went through the novel I kept going back to the movie sequences of what I was reading about. I have to say, for such a long book the movie adaptation was incredibly faithful, and while a lot of people will point out that the movie is about four hours long, the truth is that what was contained in this novel could have easily taken fifteen to twenty hours of screen time. That David O. Selznick and company managed to “trim it down” to four hours and still appease the public with what would become a classic among classics is nothing sort of spectacular. Remember, this book was the greatest bestseller of its time, and the frenzy it created could perhaps be compared in modern times to Harry Potter (different audience, obviously), and so would the demand for as faithful an adaptation as possible. The casting was spot on, and that, too, made it into my imagination as I read. Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’ Hara got to be some of the best cast roles of all time. They were legendary in the movie, and they were legendary in the novel.

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Scarlett O’Hara

The story centers mostly around Scarlett and her growth from a fifteen year old spoiled girl to a twenty eight year old woman. By the end of the story she is by no means a “finished product”; there is still plenty of room for further growth in her character, but she has gone through a lot and she is very different from how she began. The point was never to make her a heroine (if anything, she is sort of an anti-heroine), but to show her relentlessness against all odds, and how that drive will not only allow her to survive the devastating effects of the Civil War, but to prosper – first from the state of economical poverty she was thrown in by the war, and later from the moral poverty she suffered of from the get go. The rest of the cast in the story is there to chip away and mold the character that is Scarlett O’Hara into what she “finally” becomes. They are as much tools in her development as the sequence of events that are set into motion.

Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes

Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes

Two characters in particular, beside Scarlett, held my sympathy and attention: Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes. Rhett is the quintessential dashing rogue, the rebel that will play his own game and get ahead of the rest of his society, a society which adheres to antiquated rules and is eventually forced to change in order to survive. Because of this, Rhett is despised and/or envied by most, except for Melanie Wilkes, whose saintlike (or perhaps, naive) personality only allows her to see the good in people. In the wrong hands this character would have been trite, uninteresting and unrealistic; but Mitchell knew what she was doing, and as with the rest of her cast she built a solid foundation from which Melanie emerged as one of the most sympathetic characters I have ever read. Her last scene – the result of which I knew already from the movie – still managed to move me, and even had me wondering as of what she really knew of the relationship between Scarlett and her husband Ashley Wilkes. Both Rhett and Melanie were perfect complements to Scarlett: Rhett’s personality allowed him to see Scarlett for what she really was and still – and thus, purely – love her just the same, while Melanie’s blinded her to Scarlett’s many faults, allowing her to become the fiercely loyal friend Scarlett needed to endure many of her calamities.

As for the racism, it didn’t bother me for the most part. I simply took it as a Southern story told by a Southerner, to which feeling superior to blacks was as normal as breathing. It gave the story an added authenticity that would be lost nowadays in the politically correct climate we live in. The problem is that at some points Mitchell went on a rampage, blaming the “inferior” blacks as much as the Yankee Republicans (who were the true villains of the story) for all the sufferings of the poor, defeated state of Georgia. While the racism was left to the background as an afterthought it was easy to handle, but when Mitchell pushed it to the forefront for no other reason than to denigrate blacks it became an infuriating experience. Mark Twain was just as authentic with his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without being offensive; Margaret Mitchell’s true colors shone here, and that was the one thing were the movie can claim to be superior to the novel, since David O. Selznick made a point to cut the offensive parts from his adaptation.

All in all, however, Gone with the Wind is one of the greatest novels I have ever read, and a superior product to its classic adaptation. Then again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise; books usually are superior to their movies.

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Review: Star Trek Into Darkness, with some Star Wars sprinkled in

I’ll start by issuing a warning: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

I really won’t bother with holding back on them, so if you haven’t seen the movie (unless you happen to be one of those people that don’t give a fuck about being spoiled before a movie) stop now, go watch the movie, then come back.

With that out of the way, I’ll start by talking about my expectations of Into Darkness. As you all must know by now, JJ Abrams will direct Star Wars Episode VII. He has made no secret about being a fan of Star Wars, just as he has made no secret how he has never been a fan of Star Trek; when the 2009 Star Trek alternate universe movie came out, you could tell Abrams was projecting his Star Wars fantasies into it. Sure, you can argue that the franchise needed new life, and that in order to bring it into the 21st Century moneymaking business it had to be more action oriented. However, Abrams is no stranger to intelligent science fiction, as his series Fringe showed for five seasons (let’s not get into LOST, that ended in a clusterfuck), so it was always possible to get the best of both worlds, and have an intelligent Star Trek that was also heavy in action, a la Wrath of Khan.

Well, that didn’t happen.

While I enjoyed the 2009 Star Trek, the end result was anything but intelligent: the villain was so hellbent on vengeance he did not see he actually had the tool to save his planet (the destruction of which sparked his desire for vengeance in the first place); the “science” in the movie couldn’t even make the cut to pseudo-science (and I’m not talking about the time travel); and it never made any sense to put someone so green as cadet Kirk in charge of the best ship of the fleet, no matter his movie heroics. However, it worked as an action oriented movie, and the time travel was the perfect excuse to reboot the franchise with the original beloved characters, so I was sold… up to a certain point. My hope was that the next one would focus more on the exploration part of Star Trek and be more intelligent.

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No, we don’t have to go to Star Trek: The Motion Picture levels for an exploration story (as much as I liked it).

So the question is: did it succeed in that?

Well, yes and no.

Star Trek Into Darkness focused just as much on the action as the first one, and it did not cover any sort of exploration. It was, as many had guessed for a long time, a sort of remake of Wrath of Khan, except with the characters switched: now it was Kirk that made the ultimate sacrifice, and Spock the one that learned the lesson at the end of the day (also, it’s now Spock who furiously yells “KHAAAAAAAAAN!!!!” when it seems that Khan has won). It might have added a bit of Search for Spock by reviving Kirk so quickly, but it was mostly the Khan story. So, on the “more exploration and less explosions” side, it wasn’t a success.

On the other hand, the ending completely opened the window into that facet, bringing the beginning of the five year mission of exploration the original series covered and – since Abrams is no longer directing – the possibility to see a shift in the themes from character driven to science and/or social driven (we saw a tiny bit of that with the whole “prime directive” dilemma in the opening sequence). Abrams can still produce and get some writers with real science fiction blood in them to work on the story.

Or, maybe, they will shed the idea completely.

Now, just because the movie was pure action and nearly no science fiction doesn’t mean it wasn’t intelligently approached. I loved the way they mirrored Wrath of Khan so intensely without making an actual remake. No, this was a well thought out story that works well on its own, but for those who know their canon it brings the idea that, maybe, the universe is ruled by fate; things didn’t happen exactly like they happened in Wrath of Khan, but the sequence of events bring very similar results.

As for Khan himself… where to begin?

Khan TV khanintodarkness

We were all expecting this “John Harrison” character to be Khan all along. I actually went into the movie having almost gotten rid of that idea, though, just as I had almost shed the notion that Robin and Thalia Al Ghul would be in The Dark Knight Rises by the time I entered the theater. That helped, of course, when the time came for the revelation. For some reason, even after Kirk tried unsuccessfully to beat the hell out of Harrison, I wasn’t really thinking of Khan, the guy with the superhuman genes and intellect. All the ingredients were there, and yet I didn’t bother to put two and two together until it was already too painfully obvious, and that was because Benedict Cumberbatch was playing a different sort of Khan than the one I saw in Star Trek II. This was Khan before he was desperately looking to avenge himself to Kirk (sort of like what happened in 2009′s Star Trek with the villain), a Khan that was coldly calculating and biding his time to save his crew and screw Admiral Marcus. Cumberbatch did to Ricardo Montalbán with his take on Khan what Heath Ledger to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and it was awesome to behold.

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Dr. Carol Marcus, 2013 and 1982 versions. Whomever made this, God bless you.

To complete the mirroring of Wrath of Khan was Dr. Carol Marcus. She’s still years away from building her Genesis device (if she’s ever going to build it in this timeline), but she’s already an amazing physicist that, uh, knows how to deactivate torpedoes and shit. I half expected her and Kirk to get it going at some point to plant the seed for the future David Marcus. Plant the seed, get it? Cuz… bah.

I should mention that Kirk’s death to save the Enterprise moved me as much as Spock’s did in Wrath of Khan. I was literally holding back tears at that point, and given how Spock at least stayed dead at the end of that movie, I thought Kirk might as well, since this was alternate Wrath of Khan and all. It didn’t happen, and although that bothered me from a dramatic standpoint, without him coming back the five year mission that I have been waiting for would never happen. For that reason only I can forgive the sleight of hand.

So yeah, it’s a great movie, enjoyable as a popcorn flick and as a Star Trek movie (though there are plenty of trekkers pissed off by it, can’t be helped). What bothers me about the whole situation is how Abrams – unwittingly, yes – was so disrespectful to the Star Trek franchise as a whole. What he made in both 2009 and 2013 were starwarised versions of Star Trek. To top that now he’s actually jumping ship to direct Star Wars. I know he didn’t mean any of it, but it feels very much like a rebuff. The Star Trek franchise has looked up to Star Wars at various points in its history, beginning with The Motion Picture, which was hyper budgeted and filled with unnecessary special effects as a reaction to 1977′s A New Hope. Even in the video below Star Wars ends up pwning Star Trek.

And now Abrams is spurning Star Trek in favor of its arch-nemesis. Star Trek should be better than that. It can be better than that. I just hope that whomever takes over the helm of the franchise treats it with the respect it deserves, and while I think that Abrams was disrespectful I hope he remains as a producer. The man can work his magic even when his heart is not 100% into it.

As for Star Wars, I’m sure he will work perfectly for Episode VII; he will be to Star Wars what Peter Jackson was to The Lord of the Rings: a fan who also happens to be a talented director working on his dream project.

So now, after all the explosions and screams and deaths and rebirths, can we finally, and boldly, go where no one has gone before?

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A (brief) look into the character of Sigrdrífa, plus final Cover!

Sigrdrífa is a shieldmaiden. She is a Norse warrior in search for battle and glory. She is inspired by the valkyrs of myth, those women warriors who searched the battlefields for the slain and worthy to enter Valhalla, and join Odin’s army, the Einheriar.

I think my fascination with the valkyrs stems directly from Richard Wagner’s magnificent theme from his opera Die Wälkure. You know the theme, the one that shows up in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, or in countless other movies. The opera version, containing the singing of the valkyrs with their “hoyotohos” battlecries, is even grander than the “mainstream” version most people have heard. This is music that evokes a thousand images and feeds the imagination. It’s music that makes you want to write about it.

So here I am, writing about it.

I still do not know exactly what story will come out of it, but I can show you one image that has come out of it; here’s José Vega’s finished cover artwork:

Samuel-Perez---book-cover-final-highrez

For more on José Vega’s art you can visit his webpage below.

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volsunga saga

Chapter 4: What I have learned from reading the Völsunga Saga, Part 2

After the series of sick murders I presented in the first part of my Völsunga Saga post, these last few points will seem tame by comparison; but before we get to them, I found I had forgotten one last idiotic “for the fuck of it” murder to include previously, so here it goes:

Gudrun, that lovely mother who fed her own sons to their father for revenge’s sake, is the one character who constantly avoided death, despite her actively seeking it after getting fed up with all the bullshit in her life. (Probably the gods having some fun at her expense). After the offspring cooking episode she tried to commit suicide by throwing herself to the sea, but all she managed was to be washed away on some shore, being found by some other king, get married for the third time, and suffer her daughter Swanhild’s murder by… because… I don’t even remember. Doesn’t matter anyway, we all know everybody dies in this saga. The important thing is that Gudrun had Swanhild’s brothers (man, this woman had so many children as backup, no wonder she didn’t give a fuck if she killed a couple here and there) avenge her, a task that would also mean certain death to them. So, basically, she also had them killed.

Anyway, here’s what the saga has to say about their quest for vengeance:

And now, as they went on their way, they met Erp, their brother, and asked him in what wise he would help them.

He answered, “Even as hand helps hand, or foot helps foot.”

But that they deemed naught at all, and slew him there and there. Then they went their ways, nor was it long or ever Hamdir stumbled, and thrust down his hand to steady himself, and spake therewith-

“Naught but a true thing spake Erp, for now should I have fallen, had not hand been to steady me.”

A little after Sorli stumbled, but turned about on his feet, and so stood, and spake-

“Yea now had I fallen, but that I steadied myself with both feet.”

And they said they had done evilly with Erp their brother.

Seriously, I’m not making this shit up.

3. All you need is gold, gold! Gold is all you need!

This is somewhat connected to the first point about murder being meh, and the weregilds. It’s just funny how everything can be solved with gold. Like this:

So Grimhild comes to hear where Gudrun has take up her abode, and she calls her sons to talk with her, and asks whether they will make atonement to Gudrun for her son and her husband, and said that it was but meet and right to do so.

Then Gunnar spake, and said that he would atone for her sorrows with gold.

Or this:

Now thought Atli the King that he had gained a mighty victory, and spake to Gudrun even as mocking her greatly, or as making himself great before her. “Gudrun,” saith he, “thus hast thou lost thy brethren, and thy very self hast brought it about.”

She answers, “In good liking livest thou, whereas thou thrustest these slayings before me, but mayhappen thou wilt rue it, when thou hast tried what is to come hereafter; and of all I have, the longest-lived matter shall be the memory of thy cruel heart, nor shall it go well with thee whiles I live.”

He answered and said, “Let there be peace betwixt us; I will atone for thy brethren with gold and dear-bought things, even as thy heart may wish.”

I won’t even bother putting those two examples in context; just bear in mind that while both involve Gudrun, they are different instances of losing family to different kings. All that gold, however, wasn’t enough to salvage her mental stability; I mean, Atli tried, and the thanks he got in return was eating his own sons, and drinking their own blood. The ungrateful bitch!

goldgoldgold

The solution to all problems.

4. Speaking of ungrateful bitches, Brynhild is a BITCH.

The first thing that caught my attention about Brynhild was that she’s the Brunhild of Wagner’s operatic masterpiece The Nibelung Ring, being the title character in The Valkyrie. She is the main inspiration for my own Sigrdrífa - in fact, while there is a valkyrie called Sigrdrífa in Norse Myth, she is sometimes associated with this Brynhild.

The second thing that caught my attention about Brynhild was how much of a fucking bitch she was.

Brynhild was an awesome warrior, and as it usually happens with awesome female warriors, they get to set the rules about who can and cannot marry them. Her father can’t simply marry her off to whomever he pleases; the man who wants her hand must earn it. Sigurd, the greatest of the Volsungs and first husband to Gudrun, meets Brynhild while he was still single and available. He immediately falls for her, but of course Brynhild being a woman (and thus excessively complicated) she says nay to his advances. It’s not that she doesn’t like him back, it’s just that… well, she’s a woman. Things must be complicated. They do pledge love for one another but without the marriage or even the sex to make it worthwhile (yes, Sigurd was badly friendzoned), but eventually he meets Gudrun’s family, and Gudrun’s mother puts some sort of spell in him that makes him forget all about Brynhild and marry her daughter. Eventually Brynhild and her conditions for marriage reach the ears of Gunnar, one of Gudrun’s brothers, and he decides to take her; but unable to pass the test they put a spell on Sigurd that disguised him as Gunnar, and Sigurd beats Brynhild’s test, winning her for Gunnar.

To make a long story short, Brynhild eventually realizes the deception, and gets very angry at both Gudrun and Sigurd. Here’s what Brynhild says to Gudrun when she was about to tell her the truth of what had happened: “Ask such things only as are good for thee to know – matters meet for mighty dames. Good to love good things when all goes according to thy heart’s desire!”

Well, Brynhild, if you had followed thy own heart’s desires when you had the chance, you wouldn’t be in this pickle now, would you?

That’s not the bad part, though. It’s perfectly understandable that she would be pissed at realizing just how stupid she was for rejecting Sigurd, it happens to all of us at some point in our romantic endeavors. What doesn’t happen to most of us is how she went batshit crazy and eventually caused the deaths of Sigurd, Guttorm (one of Gudrun’s brothers), and started the chain reaction that would end with the destruction of all of Gudrun’s kin, the end of the Volsungs, and Gudrun’s own batshit craziness.

All of this because she played hard to get.

Bitch!

Bitch!

And there you have it, the things that I learned from reading the Völsunga saga, which was – basically – that Norsemen, despite their apparent overall craziness, are not really that different from us. They just took it to the extreme. Will I take it to the extreme with Sigrdrífa?

Stay tuned!

NEXT TIME: A look into the character of Sigrdrífa

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A look into the art of Sigrdrífa: Interview with José Vega

Back in January, when I posted the official announcement for the Sigrdrífa novel, I included the first sketches for the character drawn by artist José Vega. Since then the character has been developed and the cover finished. That final version won’t be released yet (after all, there is still plenty of time before the actual novel is released), but I will present here part of the progress, plus a short interview with José.

José Vega

José Vega

Q: What got you into art?

A: Well I was not the typical artist who has been drawing and painting since being a kid. I got introduced to drawing in senior year by a friend and we used to redraw anime drawings back in the day when DBZ was popular. I decided to go to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale where I got exposed to different types and realms or “art” from Animation, to 2D Illustration, traditional painting and 3D. I got my major in Media Arts and Animation and started working as a 3D Visualization Artist doing architecture and Interior Design. I was more into the 3D world building models due to my work and because it was a more technical approach, however I was always a gamer. I loved games and I always liked to see “The art of________ ” of the games that I liked and the more I looked at those books the more I got into the pre-production process of making games. So after a few years I lost my job due to the recession, moved around the states till I ended up back in my island (Puerto Rico) where I grew up and after a year of having digital painting as a hobby and doing it more and more I decided to go for it. I started getting more involved in communities, forums and with other artists and my passion for 2D Digital Illustration grew to the point where I am at now. Still evolving and defining.

Q: Any particular influences on your style?

A: Well, I was always attracted to the games I played like Blizzard games, Halo, Soul Reaver, many others. But I can recall 2 incidents in specific where it influenced my art in a tremendous way. The first was when I first started getting serious about my artwork and polishing my skills to become a professional. I found out about Feng Zhu video tutorials from his school. And by that time he had about 30 episodes of small and short tutorials on different topics on Digital Painting. And I remember watching one in the morning and one at night before bed for like months, even though I had watched them already. I learned a lot and my artwork took a leap forward due to the videos. The other incident was in early 2012 where I decided to go for a month to Canada to the Imaginism Studios workshop. It was an intense and remarkable experience. It was all about Art and friends. The lessons I took about foundation, rendering, style, imagination, etc., were very, very important in creating what I am right now. It was a great experience.

Q: If you could pick a film or franchise in which to work on as art designer, which one would it be?

A: WOW, this is a very hard one.

Ok so after thinking a lot I think it would be AWESOME for me to work in a new series for the Legacy of Kain games, Soul Reaver. It is a game series that I enjoyed a lot when it came out and it has been a while since they make a new game.

Q: What was the process behind the design of Sigrdrífa’s cover?

Character concepts

Character concepts

A: Well after reading the author’s description of an idea, usually what I do is do some research. And the first thing I look for is for a good color palette. There are a lot of ways I can go for that but after finding that then I start with more specifics like, research on armor, book covers, composition, etc. Once I have all that gathered up I start sketching, making thumbnails to play with composition and placement and look for the best possible image and design, which in my opinion is probably the hardest part because once I have that its all about rendering and spending time with the image.

Background sketch

Background sketch

Cover background, finished version

Cover background, finished version

For more on José Vega’s art you can visit his webpage below.

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NEXT TIME: What I have learned from reading the Völsunga Saga, Part 2