Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Small Gods

This is the 13th book in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series. On Discworld, there are many gods, and their power derives from the people who believe in them.  Om happens to be a ‘small god’, who until recently, had no actual believers, in spite of the fact that “Omnianism” is the national religion of Omnia, a very strict religious nation.

Enter Brutha, a young Omnian novice, who has an amazing  memory, but is illiterate, and naive and totally accepting of anything and everything that he has heard (and hence, has come to believe).  Brutha is an actual believer, and hence, Om discovers that Brutha may be his only chance at getting back into the ‘God’ game. Unfortunately, he is now trapped in the body of a turtle, and Brutha is the only person capable of hearing him. To both Brutha’s and Om’s chagrin, Brutha attracts the attention of Equisitor Vorbis, a powerful Omnian leader who upon learning of Brutha’s talents, has plans for him on his trip to the foreign nation of Ephebe.  And as simple-minded as Brutha is, he’s also smart enough to know that it is never healthy to attract the attention of such a powerful individual.

Small Gods is my absolute favorite book in this series so far. It is a brilliant and irreverent satire of organized religion. The fact that in a religious state dedicated to what the priests claim is the ‘one true God’, that no one actually believes except for one very simple-minded naive individual, and that pretty much everyone else is just going through the motions out of fear or loyalty or habit is incredibly ironic. Almost no one questions the Priests or Church doctrine, even when there is clear evidence that some of their claims are factually wrong.

This is Pratchett’s most seriously satirical book so far. Granted, many of his previous novels were not pure parody and also poked fun at and criticised things such as government and city life and the law and popular culture.  But this is his most focused satire to date.  And I absolutely loved it. It also is set in parts of the world that we have not seen before: Omnia and Ephebe, and most of the characters are new as well (though I love the character of Death, and I love his scenes in this novel).

I believe that if you have never read a Discworld novel or story before, that you could start here, and not miss out on much.  But there are some things that certainly would make more sense after reading at least a few of the stories.  If you were to read only one Discworld novel, based on only the books I’ve read, I’d say that this should be the one. That said, you’d be missing a lot of very funny stuff if you did that. But, imho, this is a must-read novel. If I can convince only one person to read Small Gods after reading this review, then I would be happy — I’d be happier if I could convince you to read the entire series, or if I could convince a lot more than one person… But really, this is, in my sincere opinion a great satirical fantasy novel.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

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I just got back from seeing this film. I’m not a huge X-Men fan, even though I admit that I enjoyed the comic way back in the late ’70s and early 1980s. It was interesting to me how it used mutants as a metaphor for oppressed minorities. The character I think that I identified with the most was Beast, a scientific and engineering genius stuck in a blue bestial form. I never saw myself as good-looking, and was somewhat of a shy science and math nerd (my college degree was in Engineering). I remember reading bits and pieces of the whole Phoenix/Dark Phoenix saga, issues of which were mixed together with all sorts of crap at my campus coffee house. That may have been the height of the series (at least it was so far as I was concerned).

The writing for the movies, imho, never quite reached the quality of some of the better comic book films.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed several of them. But they never engaged me as much, as, for example, the first two Dark Knight films, or many of the MCU films. And, to be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure if I wanted to pay money to see this in the theater. But “The Nice Guys” (which was the film I originally went to see) was not going to start for an hour and a half or so, and I didn’t want to hang out for that long at the mall (I’m from the Pre-Mall as social hang-out generation, one of the last of the baby boomer, as it were — and I’m not a fan of malls or mall food or mall chains or what-have-you)

So… the story begins by introducing us to Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) — it’s not really his origin story, as much as it is the story of why he disappeared thousands of years. The story goes that he may have been the very first mutant, and he ruled egypt, practically as a god for a time, along with other mutants, until some of the Egyptians rose up against him at a time when he was extremely vulnerable, and so he was buried alive.

Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who works for the CIA, is keeping an eye on a cult of mutant-worshippers who are digging up something in (of course) Egypt, and we all know what the result of that will be (I don’t think a spoiler warning is necessary). Pretty soon others become involved, including (of course) Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and some of his students, and newly discovered mutants, to oppose Apocalypse.  Meanwhile Apocalypse decides to recruit 4 ‘horsemen’ to aid him in his conquest and reshaping of earth to be a kind of Mutant heaven (I suppose).

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The best parts of the film come early on, with glimpses of Xavier’s school, and with Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto’s backstory, involving him working in a steel mill, married to a young woman and caring for his young daughter. Overall, there are several small moments in the movie (mostly the early parts) that I wish were in a better film — such as Mystique rescuing Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a mutant fight club.

But overall, the problems of the film are greater than those few shining moments. There’s even a scene where Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) does a similar shtick to the one he performed in “Days of Future Past”, where he runs through the Xavier school rescuing people from an explosion, only because we’ve seen it before done much better in the previous movie, it feels like nothing more than a cliched gimmick here. Most of the action scenes are not particularly fun or at least, exciting.

There are things about the film that bother me a lot — the ‘evil plot’ that Apocalypse has does not actually gyve with a lot of his actions and those done by his cohorts on his behalf. In fact, death and destruction are cheap — if you thought that the destruction perpetrated in ANY previous superhero film was shocking, there is no comparison here.  The shear cold-blooded nature not only of the villains, but of the ‘heroes’ is abhorrent. Not only isn’t there any kind of shock at the destruction, not even lip-service is paid to it.  Again, I cant explain in detail without too much of a spoiler, but let’s just say that it makes even the heroes look cold. At least “Superman V. Batman”, and “Captain America: Civil War” acknowledge the terrible destruction that has occurred either in their stories or their predecessors in their respective universes.

I cannot recommend “X-Men: Apocalypse”.  As I said, there are some good scenes in it. The acting, while not stellar, is not bad either (for the most part). But it’s not a good movie.

Captain America: Civil War

565cb3ab8ea89I really enjoyed the first two Captain America films, so I was truly excited about seeing the third one. And it is a long film, with lots of characters in it, both old and new. I’ve heard some people calling it ‘Avengers 2.5’, because, with the exception of Thor and Hulk, all of the other Avengers are here, including the newcomers Scarlet Witch and Vision (played by Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany), the yet to be officially inducted Ant-Man (played by Paul Rudd).  There’s also two newcomers to the MCU, who may one day become official Avengers: Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman), and the newest super-hero, a 16-year old Spider-man (played by Tom Holland).  And all of these characters had to get some screen time in what is, ostensibly, a Captain America film, and not (officially, at least) an Avengers film.

The film starts out with a portion of the Avengers, minus Iron Man/Tony Stark, attempting to foil a terrorist plot, when things go awry. As a result of this, and of, basically, all of the other collateral damage involved in previous Avengers outings as shown in Avengers 1 & 2, as well as in :”Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, the United Nations decides that The Avengers cannot continue to operate as an independent entity. Remember that the Avengers was originally part of Shield, and with Shield gone (as of the previous Captain America film) the U.N. wants to take control of them. Captain America (Chris Evans) is reluctant to turn over control to a third party, and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch side with him.  Tony/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is the chief proponent of signing the ‘Secovia Accords’ so that they don’t continue to be considered ‘vigilantes’, as they are called, and Vision, War Machine (Done Cheadle), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) agree with him.

Now this is not the strongest part of the film. It is partly undercut by the fact that, as I explained, The Avengers only recently found themselves without oversight, and that oversight went away in the previous Captain America film, when it turned out that the group providing oversight, Shield, was corrupt. But ok, if you eliminate that small part of the argument, the fact that the U.N. wants to take control of The Avengers still makes sense, simply because no one wants an armed force operating independently in the world, no matter how benevolent they appear to be. That’s really all that needed to be said — but its there, not to show the U.N.’s motivation, but to show the motivation of the avengers in picking sides.

CivilWarBuckyBut what really finally drives the division in the Avengers is when Bucky Barnes, aka “The Winter Soldier” (Sebastian Stan) is spotted at the site of a terrorist attack. Cap, of course, decides that his friend must be innocent, but his friends (including Tony) warn him to not get involved. And, of course he doesn’t listen.

The movie is not perfect — one of the weakest parts of most of the MCU films has to do with their villains.  And while the main villain of this film is not terrible, he isn’t particularly memorable or fleshed out either. But for the most part, the film works. My little nitpicks aside, it makes sense as a whole. The Russo brothers manage to create two relatable sides in the conflict, which is not an easy thing to do.  It’s still CA’s movie.  But you can still see that both sides have a point.

blackpantherAnd the movie has some really good stuff going for it. Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther is great. The character is well written, and perfectly acted. If you are unfamiliar with the character from Marvel Comics, Black Panther/T’Challa is the king of Wakanda, a nation that the Avengers visit in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”.  It is the only place in the world where Vibranium is found, the material that Captain America’s shield is made out of. Black Panther wears a suit, made, head to toe, completely out of Vibranium.

spider-man_spidermanThen there is the brand-spanking-new Spider-Man, played by 20-year-old Tom Holland. His introduction to the MCU is done so incredibly well.  All that was needed was a caption on the screen saying “Queens”, and the audience I was with erupted into shouts and cheers. I have to say that it was one of the best introductions of a new character in a Marvel film that I’ve ever seen, not to mention the fact that fans have LONG wanted Spidey to join the MCU. And he is a real highlight of the movie, even though he actually isn’t on screen for very long.

But, for me, the biggest highlight of the entire film, and one that will probably be talked about for a very long time, is the long, but never too long fight scene at the airport, which involves all of the Avengers and newcomers, including, most notably, Spider-Man. I can’t talk about it in any great detail without giving away too much.  But it is so incredibly well-choreographed, and scripted and everyone is given a fair amount of screen time to strut their stuff. I won’t say that Spider-Man steals the show here, because there’s enough great action for everyone.  But Spider-Man is certainly a highlight of this highlight.

I haven’t decided exactly where I would place this movie in the pantheon of superhero films, or even among the MCU movies.  It’s not my absolute favorite, but it certainly is up there. It is a bit long, but not by much. And it is a film that I want to see again (and maybe I will, very soon).  It is certainly one that I can recommend, especially if you’ve liked any of the other MCU movies. I will say that it would help if you’ve seen certain other films in the series, especially “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. You really don’t have to have seen them.  But if you want a better understanding of the characters, you probably should.

I do want to mention that this film has both a mid-credit and end-of-credit scene, so you will want to stay until the end of all of the credits. And, of course, it has the usual humorous cameo by Stan Lee.  See the film and let me know what you think of it, even if you disagree with anything I wrote.

 

Some thoughts on Comic Books and Comic Book Movies: Part 2 of 2

I don’t know if this is unusual or extremely common — to abandon a genre because you believe that you’ve read something so good (Sandman) that everything else you read in that genre just seems inferior or childish in comparison.  In retrospect, I realize that the comics I was reading while in college — at least the Marvel ones — were some of the best of that time, that their original owner had deemed fit to save, and if you actually read the month-to-month issues, so much of it really was drek.

In any case, every once in a while, I’d still read a graphic novel or two — a lot of the ones that were recommended to me, though, really weren’t all that appealing.  Sometimes they had an interesting start, but would lose my interest as they progressed (“Y: The Last Man”).  Sometimes they seemed to want to rely too much on shock value, and not enough on writing and characters (“Preacher”, “Batman: The Killing Joke”) making me wonder how anyone could actually get enjoyment out of them.Michael-Keaton-Batman

Comic books though, started having a resurgence on movie screens. There was, of course, Tim Burton’s “Batman”, featuring Michael Keaton, a far cry from what most people remembered from the 1966 TV series. Jack Nicholson made for a memorable, and far darker Joker than Cesar Romero. Batman was dark and brooding. But he also was more human than the perfectly behaved Adam West. The film turned into a rather imperfect franchise that ended with the laughably bad “Batman and Robin”. It was enough to show that a more realistic and darker comic book movie could work — unfortunately the franchise  went down in such big flames that it probably put a damper on future efforts, at least for a good while.15

Later, Sam Raimi had his take on Spider-Man. Tobey Maguire was, imho, a great Spider-Man — certainly he was a little old for the part.  But he does have a young enough face that it still is quite  believable.  And it was the movie that showed that special effects technology had progressed to the point that you could believe you were seeing a man swinging from webs attached to skyscrapers.  It also had a great sequel, featuring Alfred Molina as ‘Doc Ock’, the iconic Doctor Octopus from the comics. These were actually fun movies that didn’t take much effort to enjoy. Once again, I was a Spiderman fan — not a comic book fan, per se. But those first two movies were just fun. I guess there may have been a kind of nostalgia aspect to it. But comic books was suddenly serious business.

Now, this is about as far as I got yesterday, writing this, before I realized I didn’t have time to finish. And if you were looking forward to reading part 2, I apologize for that. But partly because I want to write my review of “Captain America: Civil War”, and partly because I REALLY do not want to write my thoughts now on a whole lot of other comic book movies, I am going to leave this almost in its current state, with only a few final thoughts:amd-batman-jpg

I’ve grown to love comic book movies. I loved the entire Dark Knight series. Certainly, the third one was not as good as either of the first two, but I still enjoyed them. I loved Watchmen — it wasn’t perfect, but for an adaptation of a great graphic novel that most people thought to be unfilmable, it was terrific. But what really got me going was the MCU — “Iron Man”, both Captain America films, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and especially “Avengers” were stand-outs, to me. These were comic book films for both comic book fans AND non-fans. They became a kind of serialized story, like comics were, and like how a lot of TV has become. And now we have a Netflix division of the MCU, and IT’S going strong, without a single misstep among the first three seasons (Daredevil 1 & 2, and Jessica Jones). DC now wants what Marvel has, and they did take a bit of a misstep with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”. But people still loved the movie, and I didn’t dislike it as much as some people seem to think I did. And I still am looking forward to their next few entries in their shared universe, especially “Suicide Squad”, and the Ben Affleck solo Batman film (after all, Batman was the best part of Batman v Superman).x-men-apocalypse-final-poster

And someone last night, when I was at the CA premier, pointed out to me that only 3 weeks from now, the next X-Men film is coming out. 2016 has an unbelievable number of comic book films coming out, some of which may be quite good. It’s gotten so that I’ve actually started reading comics again — well not the comic books themselves, but some trade paperback collections of them. I discovered Mike Carey’s “Lucifer”, a fantastic comic book which is a direct spin-off of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”. TV’s “The Walking Dead” inspired me to start reading the TP collections of (the?) TWD comic. I’ve been also enjoying some of DCs New 52 comics, particularly the Batman ones. I haven’t actually been reviewing them, and I probably won’t. But we’ll see. Anyway, Comic Books are back in my life now, and I even enjoy several of the TV shows (“Flash” is good, light-hearted fun, for example). And that’s all I’m going to say for now about it.

My final thoughts turned into a couple of paragraphs. That happens to me a lot — I go off on tangents. I’ll probably write my non-spoiler “Captain America: Civil War” review a bit later today. In short, I loved the movie. I’ll go into more detail later.

Some thoughts on Comic Books and Comic Book Movies: Part 1 of 2

I already bought my tickets to the very first thursday night showing of the third Captain America film, “Captain America: Civil War” (in IMAX). But I before I see that movie, I wanted to clear my head and get my general thoughts on comic book films in general, in writing.

When I was growing up, one of my best friends was a comic book fan — I wasn’t. He was so incredibly protective of his comic books that I never even got a glimpse of them — they were all protected in plastic coverings, hidden in what he described to me as a very large collection of cardboard boxes in his basement. But like me, he also loved science fiction (unlike me, he was a big fan of fantasy as well, but almost nothing that he ever recommended, outside of a small handful, ever gained my personal seal of approval.

reevesThat said, I did grow up watching the old George Reeves Superman TV series — even at my young age, I recognized that they were kind of silly. Mostly Superman spent is time dealing with minor mobsters and rescuing his mortal friends, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane from danger. Part of the problem, as I saw it, was that the criminals were always stupid — Superman was supposed to be this great hero, and yet they would always try to shoot him.

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Yvonne Craig, Burt Ward, and Adam West

As a child, I was lucky enough to have the Adam West “Batman” series on TV. I was 6 years old, which is likely to be the perfect age for that particular Batman.  But it was such a good, and fun show that even my parents enjoyed it, plus it was on early enough that I didn’t have to fight to stay up late to see it (like I did with the “The Ed Sullivan Show”). Today, it was a very silly show, but as a six year old, it was great. It also was helped by the very silly villains with their truly over-the-top behavior, but always treated quite seriously by the actors hired to fill those roles. This was a far cry from the darker DC movies of current times. It was pure camp, probably the purest we’ve ever seen.  The fact that it was silly, but never actually treated as a parody was part of the appeal of the show.

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Lee Meriwether, Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, and Cesar Romero from “Batman: The Movie”

The Richard Donner, Christopher Reeve “Superman” didn’t really make a big impression on me.  I know a lot of people loved them, and that’s fine.  The first one came out when I was just graduating from High School, ready to enter college, and since the film really left no big impression on me, I had to actually look that up.

X-Men_Vol_1_135But what did make an impression was the fact that Caltech had a student-run coffee house  a couple of blocks from the campus that would be open late.  You could stop by after or in the middle of studying, get yourself a burger or a milk shake, and relax.  It didn’t actually look or feel like a restaurant — other than the  semi-broken and already antiquated pinball machine in one corner, it was like relaxing in someone’s somewhat messy living room. There was an Intellivision set up in front of one sofa, which, for the most part, didn’t appeal to me.  But what did was all of the scattered comic books (both Marvel and DC) that were scattered across tabletops, and a couple of these circular, rotatable metal stands (the kind that still exist today to sell comic books).  It was there that I discovered Spiderman and X-Men and the assorted Avengers, as well as rediscovering Batman and Superman. Based on what was available there (which wasn’t much, I admit) I discovered a love for Marvel, particularly Spiderman and the X-Men. The other stuff was good also, but those two are what appealed to me the most.

cerebus51-4I was still friends with the guy I mentioned above, with the big, but secret comic book stash.  And when I told him about my experiences, he made some really good suggestions of other series to follow.  The most notable suggestions included DC’s “Watchmen”, and “The Dark Knight Returns”, as well as indie comics like “Badger”, “Cerebus”, and “Nexus”.  But most notably, it included Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”.Sandman-Conversation

“Sandman” (and to a lesser extent, the early Cerebus comics) changed my opinion on comic books in general.  For me, comic books were this mindless kind of fun that I could enjoy to decompress from work or studying. But Sandman was different.  The story itself was incredibly well-written, and it was storytelling about how stories and myths are actually created. Sandman was just so head and shoulders above most of what I had been reading in comics up until then that I actually started to lose interest in all things comic-book related up until that point. It made everything else look so… bad by comparison.  I still read Cerebus (until, I felt that it went off the rails and had lost everything that I had enjoyed about it up until then). I loved Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns — they were still smart and extremely well written (and they should be required reading for anyone at all interested in comic books in general).  But they were also complete.  And then when Sandman itself, ended (and what an incredible ending) that was the last actual comic book that I would read for a long time.  I still picked up the occasional graphic novel, recommended by that friend.  But I would no longer read actual physical comic books. They just couldn’t stand up to Sandman.

It was a lot like when I had been reading the juvenile Tom Swift books, and then I discovered Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl, and Larry Niven and Frank Herbert and Theodore Sturgeon and Arthur C. Clarke.  And I could never ever read a juvenile book again because they made me realize that they were such a waste of time. The only juvenile book that I find I can still read, to this day, is “The Once and Future King”, by T.H. White — I could not get through the first Harry Potter book at all. It just feels so terribly unreadable to me, like Monty Python with all of the funny bits edited out.  And really, to me, that’s how most comic books started to feel.