A review of “Catching Fire”

I went to see Catching Fire today–

I am putting all my spoilerish tendencies in a box for this review, which is hard because they’re wiggly little bastards and some of them bite. If you’ve read the books you know the basic story line, anyway, and if you haven’t you don’t want me blowing the whole thing up. I will have to describe the action of the first movie, The Hunger Games, but I’ll keep it to just a necessary minimum.

I did try to read the books, got through the first two, sorta skimmed the third, and on the whole was not overwhelmed. The premise of the trilogy revolves around a post-apocalyptic North America (“Panem”) in the distant future, which suffers under a murderous tyranny centered on the opulent Capitol. All other districts of the nation of Panem exist to keep the Capitol in decadent luxury; to keep them cowed, an annual lottery selects two “tributes” from each district, to wit, one teenage boy and one teenage girl, who are then forced to fight to the death in a televised arena. The inspiration is both classical and modern, referring to the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur as well as reality TV programming.

In the first movie, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteered for the games to save her younger sister; she and the boy from her poor, coal-mining district, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) manage to survive the murderous competition. In doing so, they create a problem for the despotic Capitol, represented by President Snow (played by a smoothly threatening and really scary Donald Sutherland)– the two of them, particularly Katniss, have become symbols of resistance for the districts, which are ready to blow. Snow’s solution is rig the next games so that previous victors of the games are recalled as tributes, which practically guarantees that Katniss will either be killed or discredited as a symbol.

In many ways the books left me wanting more– I didn’t think they created a very detailed or satisfying future world (they don’t talk about the state of the rest of the planet, and the Districts seem more archetypes than places where living and breathing people live). The film, with the advantages of presenting images, does much better in creating its world, making it look advanced, backward, workaday, and decadent all at once. It looks like a world descended from the one in which we live, but which has been through torments and horrors and which has been twisted into a different shape. It does a good job showing that this world has serious power and wealth differentials, but that the nature of tyranny has not changed over the centuries– but neither has human love and devotion.

The cast in general does a good job, but I want to call out Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, and Jena Malone as Johanna, an in-your-face victor, for special mention. Lawrence is the emotional center of the film, and she keeps us committed to her through all the considerable action. I’ve already mentioned Donald Sutherland, who is the epitome of the intelligent but cold despot clinging to power as the ground shifts beneath him. Jena Malone was a surprise and a delight as the tribute from District 7, who doesn’t mind letting people know how much she resents being dragged back into the games, and whose elevator strip-tease is a highlight (well, for me, anyway). I thought Ms. Malone looked awfully familiar, and I finally realized she played Lydia Bennet in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Now that’s range.

The action keeps you involved, and there is a nice twist at the end. However, the ending itself seems rather abrupt, which is about the only real issue I have with the picture. Catching Fire does an excellent job as a science fiction film creating a dystopian future, while making us care about the human beings caught up in the madness.

I give it five out of five mockingjays.

Looking over the crop of films coming out over the holidays, I am not sanguine that I will be seeing many of them. I will throw in one preemptive mini-review, though– The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is probably going to be as bloated and tedious as the first film. The first film was a major disappointment, and my expectations are low for the second and third. Might not even see them when they come out on DVD. There, I’ve gotten that out of the way.

Later.

On to new adventures….

I approved the CreateSpace proof for Princess of Shadows a little while ago, and it should be available on Amazon within a day or two. Baring any unforeseen problems, this long, long struggle to get this book completed and published is over.

(Relieved breath, slumping shoulders…)

So, on to my next work in progress. I am already 15,000-plus words into Princess of Fire. I can’t resist sharing just a tidbit (copyright me, of course)–

Chapter 1

Sleepless Nights

Kathy woke. She was bathed in sweat, although the room was cool, and she had kicked off her covers. Her night dress clung clammy to her skin.

Fire. No, not fire– it had not been fire in the dream, it had been heat, and pressure– crushing pressure, pressure that had threatened to flatten her like an insignificant insect. Pressure far, far down, constrained, straining…

“Divine One?” Rain said muzzily, from her bed on the opposite side of the room. Security concerns being what they were lately, the Dowager Empress– Kathy’s grandmother– had decreed that Kathy should no longer sleep alone. The young ladies-in-waiting of the court therefore had a rotating duty to sleep-over in Kathy’s apartments, one or two nights a week each. Kathy sometimes wondered how much security one additional noble-born teenage girl could add to the already existing layers of guards, walls and barred gates that were the Enclosure. After nearly a year on Jauthur, though, she had learned not to ask.

At least Rain didn’t snore. Bright Hope snored like a chain-saw. Morning Sunshine talked in her sleep.

“Go back to sleep, Rain,” Kathy said. She sat up in bed and rubbed her face. She tried to sort out the images of the dream, as her cousin turned over. Surely it had been a dream. There was nothing else it could be.

In two nights I added about 3000 words, a pace that, for me, is amazing. I have a lot of pre-imagined scenes and dialogue for this novel, which should be pretty action packed, although not in the shooting-up-the-scenery sense.

At the same time, I am resisting the temptation to try and do more than one project at a time. I sometimes get crazy (well, crazier) like that and try to take too much on at once. It almost always ends badly. No, I am going to stick to one project, not split my ticket, and not water down the soup.

Doodles on the side, though, don’t count. 🙂

Later.

Aftermath

I think a little postpartum depression is setting in; I spent yesterday somewhat in the doldrums, although I wrote a few hundred words on Princess of Fire and got the formatted file ready for the CreateSpace POD edition of Shadows. I should be approving the proof for CS today. Once that is done, every immediate and necessary task for publishing Shadows will be complete.

Although Princess of Fire seems to be eagerly awaiting being written, I may actually spend some time doodling once again on my epic fantasy. It’s gone by a lot different names, but I may just call it The Horseman for the time being. Who knows, maybe this time it will catch fire.

My doldrums are probably deepened by my continued lack of gainful employment. There are nibbles, but no solid hits. Yet. Soon, I hope.

At some point I plan to go see “Catching Fire”, probably this weekend. Once I do, I will almost certainly be posting a review.

Hmm, I need to stop rambling and get back to work.

Later.

Victory

Princess of Shadows went live on Kindle this afternoon. After 17 months of writing, rewriting, doubting, worrying, re-rewriting, cutting, adding, despairing and praying, the novel is done. There really were times I doubted this monster would ever be finished. I’m more than a little brain-fried– I expected that I would have a big emotional reaction, but instead I seem to be mainly just relieved.

As predicted, Shadows came in large, about 152,000 words. However, I did a little research and found that I am in good company– Emma by Jane Austen, is about 158,000 words. Watership Down, one of my favorite books of all time, is 156,154. Moby Dick is 206,052 words (it is indeed a whale of tale. Sorry). I think that, after the cuts I did make, the narrative moves along okay, though.

There’s still mopping up to do– I will be a few days at least formatting the CreateSpace file and getting it pulled together. And if previous experience is any guide I will need to be ready to provide updates to both the Kindle and CreateSpace files as needed. Having said that, this is the most thoroughly edited and corrected novel I’ve published to-date– I’m just leaving room for my all-too-evident humanity.

But otherwise I have a sense of tremendous relief, as if I’ve been carrying an aircraft carrier around on my shoulders that I’ve finally managed to unload into Elliott Bay. Once my shoulders stop aching, I’ll probably start on Princess of Fire, though there may be an extended period of doodling on other projects, as I engage in a certain amount of exultation in the sense of freedom I feel.

Now, if I can just get a day job….

Later.

A quicky quick update of the quick kind

I pushed through today and completed the line edit for Princess of Shadows. All changes are complete, thank God. I resisted the temptation to publish at once; instead I am performing one more check by creating a PRC file and reviewing it to make sure the formatting is correct. I should be able to get through that by tomorrow afternoon; unless I find something horribly wrong, tomorrow evening Princess of Shadows will be uploaded to Kindle. The CreateSpace file will follow in a couple of days.

I’d celebrate, but I’m waaaay too tired.

Later.

Homestretch

I am down to the last 60-70 pages on the final line-edit for Princess of Shadows. With the proof PDF from CreateSpace, I am not only fixing missing words and awkward phrases, I am resolving inconsistencies in the narrative. At one point, I have Kathy walking on the eastern side of a set of hills; on the next page she’s walking on the western side. Half the time a certain town is named Bear Ravine; the other half it’s named Half Grove. And Kathy has lost her glasses (a dead giveaway that she’s not from Jauthur) in at least three different places in the narrative in different drafts, so all of the attendant narrative for each loss has to be reconciled and straightened out.

This sort of thing is enough to make grown men cry. I know because I have been crying a lot this last month.

But it really appears that, assuming the Lord tarries and the blobmen from Alpha Centauri don’t invade, I will finish this novel and have it ready for Kindle publication before December 1st. The CreateSpace trade paperback will probably take a few more days to be ready, but the finish line is in sight.

I will probably collapse in exhaustion for a day or two, but, as I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve got a lot of other stories clamoring to be written. And new ideas are pressing themselves on me at regular intervals– a post by Whim Notes, suggesting, as an exercise, that writers develop a backstory for a picture, caught my eye–

http://whimnotes.net/2013/11/20/back-story-prompt/

I took a look at the picture and a whole story concept sprang to mind, combining steam-punk and fantasy elements. Not sure it’ll bear fruit in an actual novel, but it was fun to try to think about something new.

In any case, I will be so very, very happy to get this monkey off my back. Or the boat anchor off my feet.

Later.

Abandoned fragment #5- Love and rockets

I’m doing better today, and making some progress on the line-edit for Shadows. If I can stay focused I probably have no more than four days or so of work left to do. The operative word in that sentence is, however, most definitely if.

I’ve got another abandoned fragment, and this time it is definitely a fragment, and almost certainly abandoned. For a brief time I had a delusional concept for, of all things, a romance novel set in England during World War II, during the V-2 campaign in late 1944. I don’t read romance novels, so I have no idea where this came from. I now doubt most extremely that I’ll ever write the thing; but since I tend to doodle the really dramatic scenes of my concepts first, I wrote this down, which would have been the emotional payoff for the entire story. Sometimes my writing process is just…odd.

One WAAF officer + one US Army Air Force tech sergeant + one V-2 rocket – one fancy radar set = this scene.

****************************************
Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel

The cellar shook as if it had been hit by a giant’s hammer, together with a roar that left Anne’s ears ringing. She went to her knees from the concussion. The overhead light flickered and went out. Anne felt dust cascade down on them.

The roar ended and the room steadied. Someone was praying, loudly, sobbing every other word. “Shut up!” Anne yelled. “Somebody find a torch.”

“Here, Annie.” A light clicked on. It was a torch in the hands of one of the girls– Steffie. The Scotswoman’s hands shook; her hat was askew, and dust coated her face. The torch’s beam swung around, a solid shaft of light in the swirling dust. Isaacs was picking herself up off the floor; Bradford was the one praying, on her knees in a corner; Cooper sat in the middle of the floor, looking dumbfounded.

“Is anyone hurt?” Anne called, getting to her feet.

“No…I’m all right….Lord Jesus, help!” The chorus of voices told Anne everything she needed to know.

“Come on, Steffie,” she said. “Help me get the door open.”

“Is that wise?” Steffie said.

“Don’t ask questions– come on!”

Anne unlatched the cellar door, but it took both of them to shove it open. It finally swung up and open; timbers had been lying across it. Filtered sunlight flooded the cellar. Anne crawled out and stood.

There was smoke and the stink of burning things; but the first thing she saw was the manse. The roof of the old house was gone, along with the eastern wall. The three remaining walls cupped only broken masonry, splintered wood and a cloud of dust.

“Thomas!” she yelled. She ran toward the manse.

She clambered atop the pile of debris. For a moment she couldn’t comprehend what was where– the interior walls were smashed, as well, and everything was a welter of broken junk. Then she saw the chintz curtains, tattered and bedraggled under a layer of brick. She bent and began throwing bricks aside. “Thomas!”

Steffie climbed up on the wreckage beside her. “Annie, don’t,” she said. “It’s…he’s probably….”

“Shut up and help me, damn you!” Anne snapped. Panic choked her. “Thomas!”

She heard a cough. She stopped, listening. Another cough. And then, “Ah, crap.”

A pile of broken timbers to her left slithered and fell, and there was that stupid, bloody, beautiful mahogany table, nicked and battered, but still intact. And out from under it crawled Thomas.

Anne clambered across the wreckage toward him. Why was she crying now? She nearly impaled herself on a splintered wood beam, and then she was there. “Are you all right?” she asked, relieved and frightened at the same time. She reached down to help him up.

“I’ve been worse,” Thomas said. He coughed again and stood up. His glasses were gone. Pulverized brick dust sluiced off his uniform. He had lost his cap and dust covered his face. Anne saw that one sleeve of his uniform blouse was ripped from shoulder to cuff. More alarmingly, a trickle of blood ran down the side of his face. Thomas seemed wholly unaware of it.

“You need to go to hospital,” Anne said.

“Maybe—gotta clean up first.” Thomas turned, rather unsteadily, and then stopped. “Jesus Christ!” he said. Anne turned to see what he was staring at, and then wondered how she could miss so large and dramatic a tableau.

Between the manse and the radar unit was a huge crater– thirty feet across and half that deep, raw earth sending up tendrils of smoke. On the other side of the crater the transport truck lay on its side, burning. The radar unit itself had fallen off the trailer and lay on the ground. The housing was riddled with shrapnel holes; the dish was shredded. Over the smell of concrete dust and burning petrol Anne could definitely detect the ozone stink of fried electronics.

Thomas raised his hands, in rage and despair. “Look what those Nazi bastards did to my radar!”

It was too much. Anne grabbed Thomas by the lapels and shook him with all her might. “Damn you! I don’t care about the bloody Nazis, and I don’t care about your bloody radar! You were nearly killed, you stupid sod! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“Whoa, stop the roller-coaster,” Thomas said, grabbing hold of Anne’s hands in an attempt to damp out the oscillations. She stopped shaking him and they stood there for a long moment, panting, face-to-face. Without his glasses, Anne realized, Thomas’ eyes were brilliant blue.

Dust be damned. Anne raised herself up on tip-toe and kissed Thomas right on the lips. The sergeant’s eyebrows went up, but he kissed her back. For a moment she hung off his neck and he lifted her up off her feet, and they were just there.

They finally broke the kiss. Thomas set Anne back down. He stared into her face, wondering and confused. Anne stepped back and slapped him, hard enough to make dust fly. She stalked off.

Group Captain Carter came running from the direction of the bunker. He had to step out of Anne’s way. He looked at her retreating figure, then at Thomas. “Are you quite all right, sergeant?”

Thomas rubbed his face. “Beats the hell out of me, sir. And the day started out so normal.”

****************************************
You can probably see why I don’t write romance novels.

Later.

Not my best day ever….

I’m back on the line edit for Princess of Shadows and have gotten past the halfway mark. Maybe– maybe– five or six more days editing, a few other adjustments, and then, just maybe, I can achieve that very-nearly mythical state called publication.

I should be pretty ecstatic about glimpsing the misty shore of that blessed land I have so long sought for this novel, but somehow I can’t quite get there at the moment. In the first place, despite the cuts I’ve made, I am still wrestling with a sense that the middle of this book is pretty mundane stuff. At this late date I am not entirely sure what do about it, or even if it’s a valid criticism– maybe it’s my exhaustion with the material. I kinda hope so.

The other thing dragging me down at the moment is that I went in for a job interview today and totally cratered. Look toward Seattle and see the towering pillar of smoke. The position sounded like one in which I could really contribute, but apparently they are looking for someone with a higher skill level than mine– an officer rather than a sergeant, so to speak. I know I cratered because the folks I interviewed with have already called the placement agency and told them “no, thanks”. Well, at least they didn’t keep me in suspense.

All I’m good for at the moment is to have some chocolate and go to bed. I’m going to go fill that prescription. Maybe tomorrow I won’t feel quite so sorry for myself. It also might be a good idea if I got some sleep.

Later.

The problem with Superman

I missed it when it came out in the theaters, so three days ago I rushed down to my local mom-and-pop corner video store when I found out they had Man of Steel on DVD.

What follows is not a review, which would be fairly pointless for a film that’s been out for months. It is more my thoughts, reactions and questions regarding the film, and how it applies to the super-hero genre in general and my own, still-embryonic, super-hero tale.

Nevertheless, I AM GOING TO SPOIL THIS MOVIE IN EXCRUCIATING DETAIL, AT A LEVEL THAT IS PROBABLY ILLEGAL IN MOST STATES AND THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA!!!! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!!

Okay, that’s taken care of. Onward.

The first and foremost aspect of Man of Steel I really appreciate is that it deals with the tale of Superman with the gravity it deserves. It has humor, but the humor is appropriate and integral to the story, based on the interactions of the characters and not on silly villains or jokes. And there’s not a speck of camp in evidence, which is a profound relief. In my opinion, most other film versions of Superman have abjectly failed in this regard, and I am almost giddy to see a version that takes the character and his world seriously.

The initial scenes on Krypton kept me utterly riveted, aided in no small part by Hans Zimmer’s terrific score. Snyder’s vision of Krypton and Kryptonians is of a dying world and a great race in its decadence. When General Zod commits a coup just as Jor-el is trying to convince the Kryptonian high council of their peril, and a brief civil war ensues, I was rapt. Zod kills Jor-el just as Kal-el’s starship/bassinet launches, which is a great dramatic moment.

Once Kal-el/Clark Kent is on Earth, the movie adheres to some aspects of the classic template, and alters others (in this version Lana Lang is a brunette, and Lois Lane is a redhead. Go figure). Chief among the changes is that Lois Lane figures out Superman’s identity early on, so that particular piece of story tension is off the table, for the better, in my opinion. Clark’s struggle to find his place and understand who he is is dealt with in both present time and flashback. Just about the moment he gets it down, Zod and his surviving flunkies show up. Seems Jor-el had slipped the Codex, the master genetic database for Kryptonians, into Kal-el before sending him off. Zod needs the Codex to recreate the Kryptonian race, whom he then plans to settle on an Earth terraformed to Kryptonian standards, which will mean the destruction of the human race. At this point, it is game on between Superman and Zod (one point– don’t ever threaten Ma Kent. Very bad idea).

A tremendous amount of punching, throwing, smashing and general mayhem ensue, first in Smallville, and then in Metropolis. Once on Earth, the Kryptonians share Superman’s basic super-strength and invulnerability, although finer skills like heat-vision, flying and super-hearing take time to develop. The Kryptonians have to wear breathing apparatus, otherwise exposure to Earth’s atmosphere causes pain and disorientation as these extra abilities awaken and cause sensory overload.

Superman’s initial encounter with Faora and Nam-ek, two of Zod’s flunkies, is basically a stalemate until Superman manages to damage Faora’s breathing apparatus. Superman’s climatic battle with Zod is even more of a stalemate, because Zod has now acclimated to Earth’s atmosphere. The climatic moment comes as Zod, head-locked by Superman, threatens to fry bystanders with his heat vision. Superman warns him not to; when it becomes apparent Zod will carry out his threat, Superman snaps his neck and kills him.

Wait…what?

Rewind, look at that again. Superman breaks Zod’s neck. And at that moment, I was completely thrown out of the movie.

Why? Because up until that point, we had seen that Superman and the other Kryptonians were evenly matched. The fights have a frustrating aspect to them, precisely because nobody seems to really get the upper hand. More to the point, nobody gets physically hurt. In the fight in Smallville, neither Superman nor Faora and Nam-Ek suffer so much as a bloody nose. Faora is rendered unconscious, but that’s because of her breathing apparatus’ destruction. Her face doesn’t even get smudged. Superman takes a flaming locomotive engine in the kisser and emerges without a hair out of place. He throws Nam-Ek into the rail-yard in the first place and Nam-Ek apparently suffers no significant damage. Ditto through the titanic fight between Superman and Zod, up until the last moment.

Reviewing online arguments regarding this moment of the film, a lot of people seemed to justify what is, to me, a glaring logic failure by saying “Superman was on Earth longer, he was stronger”. Well, if so, foreshadow it. Have Superman break Nam-ek’s arm and give Faora a bloody lip, or something, so long as it indicates mutual vulnerability. This is a piece of narrative debt– not only must expectations set up in the first act be fulfilled in the third, the action of the third act must be adequately foreshadowed in the first.

For my money, this was not done adequately. Killing Zod in that manner seemed to violate the rules set up for this universe, which appeared to be that even super-powered Kryptonians cannot significantly hurt one another. Considering all the action that had gone before, where Zod and Superman were basically tossing each other through buildings (and doubtless causing massive collateral casualties in the process) without a scratch, Superman suddenly snuffing Zod in this manner was jarringly out of place for me. What had been, at times, a powerful movie suddenly seemed contrived and false.

(As an aside, a lot of other people were upset by Superman killing Zod because “Superman doesn’t kill people.” Well, in the first instance, wrong, Superman has killed before. In the second instance, as far as I am concerned, the idea that Superman was above killing has always been unrealistic and a relic of the old Comic Code days. I was okay with him putting Zod six feet under, or however they do it on Krypton. ‘Nuff said on that subject).

I am just guessing, but it seems possible to me that the writers of the movie basically wrote themselves into a corner. Having committed themselves to Kryptonian invulnerability on Earth, they got to the climatic battle, couldn’t figure out how to end it in a consistent manner, and just threw in the neck snap business sort of ad hoc. I could be completely off-base on that point– it’s possible they didn’t realize there is a major logical problem, but that would be worse. However that may be, it’s clear to me that killing Zod in that manner without adequate preparation represents a major breakdown of the movie’s internal logic. There are other logic flaws in the story line that I won’t spend time discussing, but they are minor compared to this final “What the f….?”

If I had been part of the writing team for this movie (I can dream, can’t I?) I would have lobbied hard to make Superman and the Kryptonians vulnerable in one way or another, and to show it well before the climatic battle. Personally, I have never liked Superman’s invulnerability as a concept. It has long been identified as problematic for story-telling. It means that, aside from kryptonite, magic and a very few special villains, there is basically no way to put Superman in jeopardy in any ordinary sense. Over the years there have been several major reboots/re-imaginings that sought to dial Superman’s powers back and make him more vulnerable, but the mythos always seems to return to the classic character template. As a consequence, there have been decades of Superman stories lacking any real sense of danger.

Contrast Superman with Batman, especially Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about– Batman fails, is hurt, he definitely runs the risk of death, and he has to struggle to overcome adversity. As a result, a case could be made that Batman is the more compelling character of the two.

So this is the problem with Superman– one I want to definitely avoid in crafting my own story. It’s evident to me that when the time comes I will have to very carefully craft my tale, determine in advance the rules of the universe (as opposed to my usual, make-it-up-as-I-go process) and clearly outline the strengths and limits of my characters. Most particularly I want them to be vulnerable in some fashion that creates real danger and a real story.

As for Man of Steel itself, it has so many really strong elements, and fundamentally the right approach to the character, that it will eventually end up in my DVD collection. The minor logic flaws, almost inevitable in a fantasy about super-heroes (you’re starting with an impossible premise in the first place, so making it sound logical is really hard), I can generally forgive. As far as Zod’s death goes, I will just have to somehow compartmentalize my confusion and disappointment over it.

Perhaps the next film in this series will be able to avoid this sort of problem. More importantly, hopefully I can take this lesson to heart and make my story stronger.

Later.
*********************

Some additional thoughts, a few days later–

I’ve had the opportunity to watch the movie through again, paying closer attention to some of the details, and I feel impelled to clarify my view of the movie. Man of Steel, for my personal taste, is probably the best Superman movie ever made. It is not perfect and it is certainly not a masterpiece, but it does most the things I’ve always wanted to see in a Superman film, taking a much more realistic approach (e.g., yes, when two superbeings battle it out in an urban area, you’re going to get civilian casualties) to the mythos. There are still pieces of the narrative that don’t feel particularly well thought out, and Zod’s death still seems a massive failure/cop-out, but on the whole I appreciate the direction in which Snyder took this version.

Saying this is the best Superman movie ever is, frankly, also a statement of how I feel about most previous Superman films. Basically it’s been 35 years of general disappointment, with the first third of Superman (1978) being okay and Superman Returns (2006) being a worthy effort. Most everything else Superman-related in the movies has been worthless, in my opinion. Perhaps this puts my appreciation of Man of Steel in perspective. Hopefully the next film will build on the foundation Snyder has built.