Monday, January 25, 2016

A Sneak Peek at The Magicians

Over the weekend, I found that the first episode of The Magicians, which starts with the first two parts tonight, was available on demand, so I gave it a shot.

I wasn't crazy about the book. I liked the idea of it because I wanted more contemporary fantasy that was about wizards and magic rather than vampires and werewolves, but the book itself struck me as cynical and derivative. It seemed to me more a case of "fantasy" about fantasy fans rather than a book written for fans of fantasy. It seemed to be trying too hard to be "edgy" in the sense of "Harry Potter, but with drinking, sex, smoking, and drugs!" and that made me dislike the characters. I never bothered reading beyond the first book, especially because the way the characters were at the end of the first book made me really intensely dislike them. It seemed to me that the fantasy tropes were all obviously taken directly from well-known works, and in some cases from a superficial understanding of those works.

However, I kind of liked the first episode of the series, though there's still a chance that I'll turn against it (since I was still okay with the book that far into it). In a nutshell, (VERY MINOR SPOILERS) the series (the book is slightly different) is about a young man who's getting ready for graduate school but who is still obsessed with a series of fantasy novels (basically Not!Narnia) that provide his escape when the real world is too intense. He goes to a grad school interview in Brooklyn and finds himself at a school in upstate New York, where he's being tested on magical aptitude. He gets into the school for magical training, but he starts having strange visions of that fantasy world from his favorite books, with one of the characters giving him cryptic warnings. Meanwhile, his best friend also ended up at the aptitude test, but she failed and was sent home, supposedly with her memory wiped. But she does remember and becomes obsessed with the idea of magic and wanting to learn to use it.

They seem to be aging it up from college to grad school in the series, and on the one hand that's good because it avoids making it a teen thing (see the Shannara series) and it makes some of the goings on at school a little less sketchy if these are all 20-something adults. On the other hand, a guy in his early 20s who gets annoyed that his friends aren't as into the series of kids' books they were obsessed with in their teens does sound a little weird. Mostly, I like the imagery in the series. I like the world they've created, and I think they've done a good job of making it its own distinct place rather than Not!Hogwarts and Not!Narnia. I could never get the originals out of my head while reading the book, but the series creates its own world. I still feel like they're trying way too hard to be edgy, but that's just my personal taste.

Bottom line: I'll check out the next part and then see if I want to keep up with it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Expanse

I was a little late getting around to watching The Expanse because it premiered in the middle of the holiday busy season, but then after the new year I watched the first three episodes OnDemand, then had to wait until they had a marathon earlier this week to catch #4 on the DVR since that one wasn't available OnDemand and they just skipped to #5. I haven't yet caught last night's episode because I was a few minutes late getting to it and for some odd reason my DVR wasn't letting me watch it while the recording was in progress (which I thought was what the DVR was supposed to be for, but I digress) and I didn't want to stay up to watch after it finished recording. So, these thoughts are based on the first five episodes and for all I know, they've blown it all up since then.

This is a new SyFy show that's sort of space opera meets film noir detective story. There are two parallel plot lines that seem to be converging and that turn out to be about more or less the same basic issue. In the space opera side of things, there's the crew of a ship that answers a distress call and finds something very unexpected that pretty much turns their lives upside down, so that they lurch from dangerous situation and crisis to dangerous situation and crisis. In the film noir side of things, we're on a base in the asteroid belt, where the workers who provide resources to the planets aren't too happy about not getting a share of the resources, and on these mean streets/station corridors, a jaded cop in a fedora makes a halfhearted effort to keep the peace -- until he gets an off-the-books assignment to track down a missing heiress.

I'll admit that I'm not overly keen on the very dystopian look at the future, with all the "rich people are evil and oppress poor people" (as written, produced, and performed by people who probably make more per episode than much of their audience makes in a year) and "we're all going to die of global warming" messages that seem mandatory in any vision of the future produced by current Hollywood. But it's a science fiction show taking place primarily in space, on space ships and space stations, on the SyFy channel, which is kind of exciting. They went through a phase of veering more toward paranormal, which I like, but with two summer shows (Killjoys and Dark Matter) and now this show taking place in space, they seem to have returned to their roots.

I also haven't yet really latched on to any particular character. In the first few episodes they've done a good job with the "no one is safe" concept, so it's not entirely clear who the regular cast of characters is going to end up being. That makes for a lot of shocks and surprises, but it also means I started pulling back emotionally and not wanting to get attached to anyone. They're going for gritty, which means there's no one who's entirely a truly "good guy." That means I'm mostly watching for plot because I'm curious about how all these things are coming together and what it all means. I don't think I'm going to end up really obsessed with this show, but it's interesting, and they're doing some good stuff with worldbuilding (being based on a series of novels probably helps there). The acting is pretty good. I'm just not finding any real heart to it, even as I'm eager for the next episode to find out what happens. We'll see how long that curiosity about what's going on will sustain me in the absence of any characters I actually care about.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Star Wars is Back!

I've been putting off writing a review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens for a while now, not because I didn't like it but because I'm having a hard time focusing enough for any kind of detailed analysis rather than just going "SQUEEEEEE!!!! STAR WARS IS BACK!!!!!" I thought I needed to see it again to process it beyond just the excitement, especially since I came down with a cold about halfway through the movie (seriously, suddenly I couldn't stop sneezing and someone turned on a faucet in my nose, and I ran out of tissues). So I saw it again, and I may have had more detailed things to say, but I still pretty much felt like I did back in 1977 when my mind was blown and I sat in the back seat shooting down TIE fighters with the window crank handle as my family drove home from the movie. Though I did refrain from rushing out to tell the entire story to all my friends the next day this time around, and I forgot to help my mom look for the Star Wars sheet set she says she still has (yes, I had Star Wars sheets on my very princessy canopy bed, which I think sums up my personality and interests quite nicely).

So that's pretty much my non-spoiler review. I didn't hate the prequels as much as a lot of people did (not that they were great movies, but they didn't ruin my childhood, or anything like that), but this movie actually really felt like Star Wars. It felt like a real world instead of a computer graphic, and the characters talked and acted like people rather than robots (and that includes the robots). I actually think these new characters are more three-dimensional and fleshed-out than their original trilogy counterparts were at this point in that trilogy. Those characters were essentially archetypes. There wasn't a lot of depth or detail to them, and to some extent that helped because it made them so universal. These characters all feel more real. They have more defined goals and motivations. I also think that this movie works as an entry point in the series, with the previous generation characters functioning a lot like Vader and Kenobi did in the first trilogy, where we knew there was a history there but we hadn't seen it play out yet. If this was your first Star Wars movie, you might not get the impact of all the moments and references, but you could still follow the story and figure out the older characters from context, like we had to do with the original. The difference now is that if you're intrigued, you can go watch the backstory right away instead of having to wait to see what further hints are dropped in subsequent movies or a trio of prequels.

And now for the spoilers. Go away now if you haven't yet seen the movie. Really. Trust me on this one, it's better unspoiled.