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Monday, September 30, 2013
After last night's series finale, I thought I'd write a post about Breaking Bad. I started watching this show when it first aired, got about half way through the first season, and then for whatever reason quit following it. It's hard enough to watch an episodic show week-to-week, not to mention one that has a complex story arc like Breaking Bad. I'm not a big TV person, but through Netflix and other media, I have managed to find a few diamonds in the rough. I rediscovered the show about a year ago, binge watched the first four seasons, and then started watching the fifth season as it aired, my obsession slowly growing (along with the rest of the world, apparently). And last night, it finally came to a conclusion. I can happily say that unlike almost every other show I've enjoyed (with the exception of The Shield, maybe), Breaking Bad managed to tie up every plot thread and leave the viewer with a satisfying ending that is truly an ending.
My one complaint, if it is indeed a complaint, is that the writers created such a tightly written story that the majority of the last episode was predictable, though that didn't necessarily make it any less enjoyable. For the last several episodes, I've wanted Walt to come out ahead, not because I think what he's doing is right, but because I think the show has always been about him becoming what he truly is: the bad guy. I really hoped they wouldn't kill him off, and that being said, I'm still satisfied with the way it all turned out, because in the end he managed to find a way to get the money to his family, which is all he ever really wanted in the first place. So, even though everything falls apart around him, and he is finally undone (by one of his own bullets nonetheless), in a weird way, he wins.
Breaking Bad was never a show about redemption, so I love that Vince Gilligan and crew did not try to make Walt recompense; the closest he comes to redeeming himself is admitting he's a selfish bastard to Skyler. Walt's ending is not only appropriate but foreshadowed throughout the series, most notably in the scene where he notices his car has been shot up by Jack's men after Hank's death, and the bullet hole is perfectly placed over Walt's reflection. One thing I love about this show, and I'm sure others do as well, is how every shot, camera angle, effect, and prop adds depth and detail to the story. In fact, the dialogue only conveys the smallest part of the narrative. Like the best of films, Breaking Bad's real storytelling power is in its visuals. Even the locales, from the searing deserts of New Mexico to the frigid backwoods of New Hampshire, are important characters in the show, contributing to the atmosphere and the tone of the story.
Despite the hype, Breaking Bad is truly a work of art. The show explores themes that hit close to home, develops characters that you come to know and care about, and delivers an action-packed plot that would make even the best thriller writers jealous. In short, Breaking Bad is the best TV drama I've ever seen, and I'm so glad Vince Gilligan and all the show's writers are getting the attention they deserve for creating what is truly a modern classic.
Friday, September 27, 2013
One of my favorite sci-fi action movies growing up was Pitch Black, a low-budget flick about a group of interstellar passengers who crash land on an alien planet populated by horrific nocturnal creatures, which is bad enough until they discover an abandoned mining outpost and learn that the planet is about to undergo a total eclipse that will last weeks, trapping them in the dark with the monsters. It's a simple plot, but well executed, and one of the most interesting characters is Riddick, played by Vin Diesel (an unknown at the time), an escaped convict who can see in the dark and is the stranded crew's only hope of survival. It's dark, scary, violent, and fast-paced, all the things I love in SF and horror. Unfortunately, David Twohy, the writer/director best known for The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford, made a slapdash mess of a sequel that had little connection to the first film and was tonally just off, the less-than-stellar Chronicles of Riddick. In that movie, the antihero from the first gets wrapped up in an interstellar crusade being fought by a group of space goths called (I shit you not) the Necromongers. Hmmm. Sounds like a bad metal band. Though there's plenty of special effects and over-the-top action sequences, Chronicles totally destroys everything that was enjoyable about the first movie. It definitely takes some risks, but fails miserably.
When I saw that Twohy and crew had somehow managed to make a third Riddick film, my first thought was -- WHY??? Is this franchise even relevant anymore? However, I withheld my judgement, and upon hearing it was much more like Pitch Black than the awful sequel, I decided to give it a chance. At the very least, it would be a fun action movie with aliens, which gets it at least three stars in my book. I'm happy to say that Riddick does indeed make up for the travesty that was Chronicles. I really enjoyed this movie, and yes, there are lots of problems with it, yes, it is formulaic, yes, there are cheesy one-liners, BUT, that being said, it's fun. The movie takes its time to build setting and character, uses its special effects wisely, and sticks to a simple, straightforward plot that it pulls off quite successfully. The opening fifteen to twenty minutes show Riddick alone on a desert planet as he struggles to survive its deadly predators and hostile environment. That on its own won me over and was far more enjoyable than anything in the second film. The scenery is beautiful and alien and recalls elements of Pitch Black while remaining entirely its own setting. I also enjoyed the characters, particular Santana, who is a major prick throughout up until -- well, I won't give that part away, but suffice it to say, he gets his comeuppance. On the negative side, the writers really dropped the ball with the only female character (well I should say only living female character) of Dahl, played by Katie Sackhoff, who is an interesting, tough heroine at first but quickly degenerates into pointless eye-candy. I also thought their handling of her homosexuality was sloppy and underdeveloped. The potential for a great character was definitely there, but I guess it's too much to ask for a Riddick movie to be both exciting and intelligent.
In conclusion, if you go into this movie expecting it to revolutionize the SF genre, you will be terribly disappointed. BUT, if you go into it with an open mind, embrace the cheesiness, and have a sense of humor, you'll have a good time. I certainly did.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Sooooo....it's been a while since I've updated this thing. It hasn't really been lack of interest, more lack of time/energy. Not a lot to report on the writing front. I've finally started to pick up momentum again. I'm working on a new short story, and I'm happy to say I'm several chapters into a new novel, which cannibalizes some of the better elements from The Singularity War, my MFA thesis. Over a year out of the program, I'm still learning lots about writing. I'm trying to be more disciplined in my work, aiming for 1,000-2,000 words a day (not including blog posts or e-mails), and I've set a tentative deadline for a completed first draft in mid-November.
Since my last post, I've read a number of good books, seen some good movies, and become hopelessly addicted to Breaking Bad. I could write a dozen blog posts about that show, but I won't, since that territory seems to be pretty much covered by the rest of the world. A couple books I enjoyed were Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold and, more recently, Perdition by Ann Aguirre, both of which I highly recommend. On the movie front, highlights of the summer for me were Elysium and, somewhat unexpectedly, Riddick, both of which I hope to write more detailed reviews of in future posts. I'm happy to see that science fiction is finally making a comeback on the big screen, which will hopefully fuel interest in the written stuff.
That's pretty much all for now. I hope to post more frequently from now on, and write many more reviews of books and movies, and maybe even reflect on the finale of Breaking Bad once all the hype dies down. We'll see. So long for now!
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
I went to the new Tarantino movie, Django Unchained, with reservations. I wasn't quite sure the director's style would do justice to the issues of slavery or the sensitive nature of the film's central theme. That being said, I think Django transcends its genre and even its director and is, in my mind, a masterpiece. Tarantino has always been a good writer/director. Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds remain two of my all-time favorites. Recently he seems to be moving away from small, self-contained storylines to larger "issue" films masquerading as genre pieces, which is brilliant. As much as the literary/film critic crowd likes to poo-poo genre fiction in all its forms, it's what sells (in both Hollywood and the publishing world), and is a better mouthpiece for social issues than so-called "higher" forms of art.
I think what makes Django Unchained a great film is its combination of elements: solid writing, intriguing characters, and a storyline that resonates with a modern audience (particularly here in the South). Tarantino's portrayal of the plantation owner Calvin Candie captures the sentiment of an entire period of history. One scene in particular struck me as genius, in which Candie saws open the preserved skull of his father's deceased caretaker, a black slave named Ben, in order to show his guests the difference between the white and black "species" as evident by the supposedly distinct shapes of their skulls. While this might seem totally exaggerated to people of my generation, there was an entire branch of "science" called Phrenology devoted to this very thing, thus justifying racism and slavery to an entire civilization. Though Django is steeped in violence and brutality, much of which is served up in hyperbolic Tarantino style, at its heart it is a movie about prejudice and hatred and does a better job examining these issues than more serious films.
One of the best moments in the entire movie is when the Klan pursues the protagonists, Django and Schultz, in a scene that recalls Birth of a Nation, serving as both an homage and a parody. Tarantino is a filmmaker's filmmaker, honoring his predecessors while also making every element of the craft undoubtedly his own. Django Unchained is a great film, and a necessary film, though not everyone will think so. There're always going to be certain individuals who are quick to label movies such as this "racist" or suggest that they make light of social issues, but I will argue the opposite. Tarantino tackles what other filmmakers have been afraid to tackle for fear of stirring up controversy: the prejudice and ugliness of much of the Deep South's cultural roots, many of which are still present today in a supposedly enlightened age. This makes Django Unchained not just a revenge western, but a truly fine example of modern filmmaking. So stop reading this and go see it! You'll be glad you did.
Sunday, December 30, 2012
Here's an interview I did with Neal Asher for a graduate presentation several months ago. If you haven't read any of Neal's books, I highly recommend that you do. He writes high-energy action driven space opera like nobody else, and he's one of the top SF writers working today. Check out his blog at http://theskinner.blogspot.com. His latest novel, Zero Point, is now out from Tor books and is available on Amazon and Amazon UK.
TP: Do you feel that writing short stories has helped you develop a distinct narrative voice which has translated into novels?
NA: I suspect that a distinct narrative voice comes about through writing lots and development over time. I reckon all writers start out basically copying the stuff they love before they head off in their own direction; before they gain a clear vision of what they are aiming for. However, certainly my brevity came about through writing short stories and I still find that after editing my typescripts end up being added to rather than cut. Also the ‘hooks’ I have at the end of each section in a book arose from the short story format i.e. if I was to take each section I write, add in some background detail and some clarification, they could be turned into short stories in themselves.
TP: Why the Polity? How has your vision of that setting changed and evolved since its inception?
NA: I started off with the short stories and in each of those I often used common elements: the runcible, the augs, U-space drives, the AIs and drones, sometimes the same characters. When I came to writing Gridlinked I wanted everything in there, including the kitchen sink. I wanted a canvas large enough to tell just about any story I wished. This has evolved over time what with the sheer weight of the stories told, incorporating the necessity for a chronology, a history. It has also turned into a constriction I hoped it wouldn’t be.
TP: What are the advantages of developing a world in short fiction before writing novels set in that milieu? The disadvantages (if any)?
NA: The advantages are that the short stories work as a test-bed for ideas, technologies, ecologies, characters in fact everything you use in the later novels. For example: you can create superman but soon learn in the short form that without kryptonite there’s little story to tell. The disadvantages are the constraints you put on yourself if you want to ensure those stories are to be included in that milieu. It all needs to slot together and there’ll always be some fan pointing out your errors.
TP: Do you find that short stories can spawn ideas for longer works like novels? This certainly seems true for The Technician, which has many ties to "Alien Archaeology" and "The Gabble."
NA: Yes, definitely. The prime example is The Skinner. I picked up two of my favourite short stories – Spatterjay and Snairls – and used them as the basis of that book, the character Erlin appearing in the first and Janer appearing in the second. They can be handy leg-up and can contain ideas and characters to develop into the longer form.
TP: Do you still write short stories now that you are publishing novels full-time, and if so, what do you find so appealing about the form?
NA: I keep meaning to write more short stories and, sometimes when I get a request I will produce something, but generally the novel writing keeps getting in the way. First off it is the bread-and-butter work. I’m fairly certain now that just about any short stories I write will get published somewhere, but their earning power is limited. Also, liking to have something in the bank, I want to be always ahead of Macmillan. Right now I’m a year and a half ahead, but keep thinking wouldn’t it be great to be two or maybe three years ahead? Maybe that stems from a fear that if I lay off the novel writing for a while I might not be able to do it again, which is silly.
Thanks again Neal! Check out his Amazon page and order some of his books! My personal favorites are Gridlinked, The Skinner, and Brass Man as well as the short story collections The Gabble and Other Stories and The Engineer ReConditioned.