2013: Movies of Interest

The first of the two big Movie Seasons is almost upon us… indeed I daresay it starts rather soon.  Last year, I wrote about the upcoming flicks that had captured my interest.  I thought it would be a fine idea to do so again.  In fact, if I can remember in time next year, maybe this’ll be an annual feature.

Here are the movies that have caught my interest this year, in a sort-of-order of my interest:

  1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug With a few relatively minor caveats (Storm Giants, anyone? What the Helsinki was that, and how, exactly, was it even remotely necessary for the movie?) I thoroughly enjoyed the first of the planned Hobbit trilogy, as I had expected to.  Being a huge fan of both the Lord of the Rings books and movies, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the next Hobbit movie is my top flick-to-see in 2013.
  2. Man of Steel Only one comicbook superhero ranks higher on my all-time favorite list than Batman, and that is his boyscout, super-powered, primary-color-clad sometimes friend and rival Superman.  So yes: I plan to see the latest incarnation of the cinematic Superman, and I have very high hopes.
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Dear Wife and I quite enjoyed first Hunger Games movie (well, I did; I can’t really speak for Dear Wife, but it is my belief that she enjoyed it).  I finished reading all three books last year, and I’m quite looking forward to the second installment in the film franchise.
  4.  

    Those are the movies that I expect I’ll actually see in the theaters.  After that… there’s a big drop in the likelihood that I think I’ll manage to catch anything else on this list.

     

  5. Pacific Rim I think I’ve mentioned before how much of an anime geek I am.  Not the hugest one around, but still… enough of one that I totally grok where this movie is going.  Giant Robots (called “Jaegers“, no less) versus Giant Monsters (“Kaiju“).  This is totally live-action anime.  And so, I’m excited for this movie.  I figure, though, that this could go one of two ways: this could be this year’s Inception… or this could be this year’s Prometheus.  With Guillermo Del Toro directing, I’m hopeful it’s more like the latter… but then again, Ridley Scott carried a lot of cache into Prometheus… Assuming the sci-fi and fantasy community tends to lean more toward the former than the latter, then you can be sure, even if I miss this in theaters, I’ll queue it up on DVD as soon as I’m able.
  6. Star Trek: Into Darkness I saw and enjoyed 2009’s Star Trek reboot – although a few things about it left me unsettled. (Red Matter?  And really, [Spoilers] did you need to blow up Vulcan?  And with all that time-traveling going on, you really couldn’t, you know, travel back in time and save the planet?  The last fact really miffed me fiercely.  Once you’ve established that time travel is an option, you better have a dang good reason why it can’t be used again to undo later events in the story.)  Regardless of those snafus, I enjoyed the Star Trek reboot enough that I’m very interested to see the next in the new series.  Added to that the mystery of who, precisely, Benedict Cumberbatch is playing – is it Kahn Noonien Singh? Is it Gary Mitchell? Is it some other dude who combines the attributes of Kahn and Mitchell? – adds to the intrigue and interest in this film.  As I expect this movie will skip the time travel plot problems of Star Trek, I expect this will actually be a better movie.  Still… I figure I’m unlikely (all things considered) to catch this in theaters.  So, as with Pacific Rim, I’m sure I’ll be queueing this up on DVD as soon as available.
  7. Oblivion The trailer for this flick has at least intrigued me – it’s hinted that not is all as it seems for Tom Cruise’s character, nor for desolate planet Earth in the far future.  But what really catches my interest: Morgan Freeman as some sort of Resistance/Rebel leader.  Is there any role that is not automatically cooler when played by Morgan Freeman?  That gives me promise that this film can live up to the ideas presented in its trailers.
  8. After Earth ‘Tis the Year for “In the Future, Earth has been abandoned by Humans”, isn’t it?  The attraction of this particular version of that story is in having real-life father-and-son acting team Will and Jaden Smith play a father and son stranded on an inhospitable future Earth struggling to survive.  The downside? It’s directed by M. Night Shyamalan (whose last few movies have not exactly been great, and who lost whatever remaining goodwill he had left as a director when he miscast and ruined the fundamentally un-ruinable big screen adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender) – so don’t expect the trailers to pint that little fact out.  The possible saving grace? This is Will Smith’s baby more than it is Shyamalan’s.  Regardless, I’m interested, but I’ll see what the critics have to say.
  9. Ender’s Game This one very nearly snuck up on me.  There’s very little buzz about Ender’s Game that I’ve seen so far.  Many, many years ago I read (and enjoyed) the novel as well as the companion novel (Ender’s Shadow).  I have yet to read (and not a terrible great interest in reading) the supposed sequels to Ender’s Game. (My understanding, for the most part, is that they diverge in some pretty radical ways from the story, characters, and world presented in Ender’s Game.) Anyway… I’m interested to see and hear more about this before casting judgment.
  10. World War Z Funny… I think I saw this title on a list of movies I made somewhere, once before.  Oh yeah: It was last year’s list.  Obviously, World War Z didn’t make it out in 2012.  But I find myself more interested now than I was then, thanks to several trailers that have given me a better idea of the film.  On the other hand… long delays and changes in release dates usually don’t bode well for a film.
  11. Elysium What was that I said above about the year for desolate or abandoned future Earths? Okay, so the Earth of Elysium isn’t really desolate or abandoned, but it may as well be: it’s a place where the poor and downtrodden are confined while the rich live high above.  (And the meek shall inhereit the Earth?)  What Elysium has going for it is a top-calibre cast, including Matt Damon and Jodi Foster.  Again, however, other than this, I know relatively little about the movie.  So I’ll take the wait-and-see approach.
  12. The Wolverine Remember when I said Superman was the superhero who ranked just above Batman at the top of my personal superhero pantheon?  The guy right below Batman is Wolverine.  And yet… I did not see the X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie.  I heard the reviews were pretty bad.  But I’m open-minded.  I’ll wait and see what the buzz says about Logan’s second solo-outing.  On a semi-related note… I’m still keen to catch X-Men: First Class on DVD some time.

Honorable Mentions:

These are the movies I feel like I want to see (in theaters, where possible). But a few other movies have hit my radar, too. Some of these I have no interest in seeing theaters, but may be interested to catch on DVD later, some it’s practically too late to catch in theaters, and some I just don’t know enough about.

Oz the Great and Powerful There’s no way I’ll find the time to see this before it makes its way out of theaters.  I’m interested in it, but not enough to try to make the time, and especially not enough to to press the issue when there’s a brand new wee bairn at home.

Frozen Frankly, I don’t know enough about this movie yet.  I think it’s an animated Epic Fantasy sort of movie.  But… I’m not really sure I’ve read about it right.  If and when I hear more, I’ll make a judgment at that time.

Monster’s University It’s Pixar and it’s not Cars.  So that’s a good thing.  On the otherhand, while I enjoyed the previous Monster’s Inc., I didn’t love it enough to want a sequel.  This movie seems… I dunno… gratuitous.  But because it’s Pixar and, Cars and Cars 2 notwithstanding, Pixar has a lot of goodwill with me, I can almost garauntee I’ll watch it on DVD at some point.

The Lone Ranger I was convinced, when I heard about this, that it had “Epic Flop of John Carter Proportions” written all over it.  I thought: Johnny Depp (no matter how good an actor he is) in a racially insensitive portrayal of Tonto?  This thing is going to get cremated in the blogosphere!  Now I’ve seen the trailers and I’m… less convinced.  And the buzz is actually pretty decent.  And word is Disney has done a lot of legwork (enough? I don’t know) to make good with Native Americans over the casting and portrayal of Tonto.  (I’m that mythical “1/16th” Native American, which basically doesn’t mean anything, except that a deep respect for Native American peoples has been passed down in my family, owing to that ancestry as told in family legend.  I haven’t done the genealogy work to back up that claim.  But the end result is that I’m a little sensitive to the question of how American Indians are portrayed in stories.)  So… If all that holds true… well… you can expect The Lone Ranger to do bonzo at the Box Office.

Iron Man 3 I have not seen Iron Man 2 (nor, for that matter, The Avengers).  So I know there is Zero Percent chance I’ll make it out to see Iron Man 3.  I at least owe it to the movie to see the two preceeding flicks (even if I still manage to avoid Thor because I think the idea of “Thor” as a superhero character is basically a bit cheesy and overwrought).  I did see and enjoy the first Iron Man movie, though, and I enjoyed Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Stark.  So, whenever I get around to picking up Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, I’ll eventually follow that up with Iron Man 3.

What happened to 2012’s Movies?

As for the 2012 movies that I had listed previously?  As alluded above, I did see the first Hobbit movie and the first Hunger Games movie.  I also caught Dark Knight Rises and Brave at the theaters.  I did not get a chance to see The Secret World of Arietty, but that’s okay, because I’ve always consumed anime on the small-screen in the past.  (I love Hayao Miyazaki, but I’ve never seen a Miyazaki movie in theaters.)  Prometheus was… well… based on all the reviews I heard, it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.  And life’s too short to waste a few hours on a basically dumb movie.  The Amazing Spider-Man, as predicted, I did not see.  I still expect I’ll see it on DVD eventually.  Also didn’t see The Avengers, so no, I did not contribute to that massive box office haul.  John Carter, I heard, was actually better than many gave it credit for.  But, again… well… my own sense of it was not super-positive from the trailers.  (I said it looked “vistual-tastic”, but I also worried, based on the trailers, that there wasn’t much “there there”.  I still sort of feel that way.)  Again, life’s too short. 

So, that’s where I stand on movies in 2013.  How’s about you?

2012 In Review: The Books I’ve Read

Near the start of the year in 2012, I set about some goals for myself.

Now that we’ve put 2012 to bed, it’s time for me to look back at what I accomplished and what I failed to accomplish, and also to look forward and plan for the next year.

To kick off my 2012 retrospective, I wanted to take a look at the books I’ve read.

Reading a certain number of books was a popular goal that many people set for themselves in 2012.  I wanted to do the same: the first year in which I would set such a goal for myself.  But there was a problem.  The unit of “a book” is not universal.  I can put two books side-by-side and they will not have the same salient features that determine how long it might take me to read.  A book might be anywhere for 75,000 words (or even fewer) to 400,000 words long.  The word itself, really, is the more salient measure (and considered en masse, is a more consistent unit of measurement).  So instead of looking to read a certain number of books, I set out to read a certain wordcount worth of books.

The goal I set for myself?  550,000 words worth in 2012 – or about 5 books at an arbitrarily-picked 110,000-word average length.

How did I do?

I blew that goal out of the water, by my own reckoning.

In 2012, I read approximately 977,000 words, give or take.  I read five whole books and parts of three others.  Here’s the run-down:

I read the entire “Hunger Games” trilogy this year, starting with The Hunger Games at the beginning of the year, then later catching up with Catching Fire and finally Mockingjay as my last book of the year.  Those three books accounted for over 300,000 words.  I read the last two-thirds of The Children of Amarid, which I had started in 2011, and I read about 12% from the middle of A Clash of Kings.  (The latter has been difficult for me to get through, and I’m still not done.)  I also read the debut novels of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss – Elantris and The Name of the Wind, respectively.  Both of those left me with quite a lot of something or other to chew on and think about with respect to my own writing.  Finally, I read almost half of the first Steampunk anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.  (I couldn’t read the whole thing because I ran out of “renewals” at the library; I’ll be checking it back out sometime to read a few of the other stories in that volume.)

You want a gut-level insta-reaction or review of each of the above titles?  No detailed reviews, here, but some thoughts:

“The Hunger Games”: I’m probably the last person to read it (because time, she has not been my friend), but I really enjoyed these books, and would recommend them.  On the other hand, you probably already know whether you want to read “The Hunger Games” trilogy and in fact have probably already read them if you’re going to.  Be that as it may: very good books with very few caveats.

The Children of Amarid: was entertaining but not particularly ground-breaking or original.  It was a debut novel, so that says something: it was good enough to get someone (in this case David B. Coe) the attention they needed to get published in the first place.  But on a purely critical level, I found it mostly predictable.  (For example, there were red herrings thrown in to try to hide the villain of the story, but I found it easy to figure out the difference between a red herring and a real villain.)  On the fourth or fifth hand, I felt bad about not liking the book more, because I personally like the author himself (whom I have met). 

A Clash of Kings: I think I’ve discussed my general reaction to Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” before, but if not, I’ll not belabor the point here.  Again, this is a super-popular mega-epic where most of you know whether you like it or not already, so my opinion won’t change things much.

Steampunk: My reactions to the stories I read was highly variable, ranging from “WTF was that?” to “That’s pretty good… but…”  Overall, the stories I did read (from roughly the first half of the book) were not as good as I wanted them to be.  The non-fiction essays were more interesting.  But there was a lot of really great imagery in those stories.

Elantris: was good and yet… disappointing.  This was the first pure Brandon Sanderson book I’ve read, after having read two books co-authored by Sanderson and the late Robert Jordan (The Gathering Storm and The Towers of Midnight, of the “Wheel of Time” saga).  Those two books were fantastic (IMO) and really breathed new life into a series I loved but which had, let’s be honest, grown a little long in the tooth.  Given how strong those books were, I had pretty high expectations for my first all-Brandon book… not sky-high, as I knew this was his first published book, but still pretty high.  And it was pretty good.  But it didn’t rise to the level of my expectations.  And there were noticeable, problematic flaws with the book.  I think I could go on about my thoughts on this book and so… assuming there’s time I intend to dive a little deeper into this one in a future “Interrogating the Text” post.

The Name of the Wind: Mostly lived up to its hype.  It was an enjoyable read that felt fast and well-paced despite it’s potentially intimidating length.  (I say “potentially” because, to a reader like me, a book this long isn’t intimidating at all… it’s practically par-for-the-course.  But I realize that to many readers, it’s very long.)  Most interesting to me was the way in which this book tackled some of its key themes, a few of which are themes that have been tumbling around in my head for a long time, and are similar to things I wan to write about in my own fiction.  Apparently Patrick Rothfuss got there first, and he did it very well.  There’s enough in that book that I think it’s also worth a future “Interrogating the Text” post.

So that’s it: what I read and the short version of what I thought about it in 2012.

What did you read in 2012?  Any surprises, stand-outs, or disappointments?  Did you take any writing lessons from the books you read?  Please share (or share a link back to a post on your own blogs where you discuss those things, if you’d like).

The Fantasy Movie Canon

The Hobbit is now only two weeks away from release, and upon it’s arrival it will doubtless ascend to a high place in the Fantasy Movie Canon.  Needles to say, I’m excited about it.

And in celebration and anticipation of the imminent release of The Hobbit, I thought now would be a great time to delve into what I, personally, consider to be the Canon of Fantasy Cinema.  This is not an exhaustive list, obviously, because I haven’t seen every fantasy movie ever.  But it’s the list that exists in my own head and heart.

To do this, and limit the number of movies in my list to a reasonable number, I had to make a number of rules.

First: a complete movie series or cycle gets one entry.  So, Harry Potter doesn’t fill eight movie slots.  Many great fantasy movies are stand-alones, but several really high-quality ones exist as part of a series, so this rule was necessary to keep them from consuming the list alive.

Second: I’m only listing live-action movies here.  There are tons, tons, TONS of great fantasy-themed animated movies.  From classic Disney movies to the greats of anime and everything in between… I don’t think I could even begin to list them all in a coherent fashion.  Since I’m celebrating the release of the live-action Hobbit, I thought it useful to limit my celebration to live-action movies.

Third: I’m trying to limit my selection to movies that got an actual theatrical release.

Fourth: I have to limit what I mean by “fantasy”.  I’m talking about movies in which magic, the supernatural, or the mythical play an important part of the story.  I’m not talking about superhero movies.  I’m not talking about sci-fi movies.  Generally, I’m not talking about holiday-themed (especially Christmas-themed) movies.  I’m not talking about movies with spaceships, or weird and implausible science or people with mutations, or just anything that’s generally just unrealistic.  I’m also not talking about horror or semi-horror movies.  I love all sorts of movies in all of those categories, but I’m after a particular subset of this broader “fantasy” genre.  I’m talking magic spells, wizards, dragons, fairies, myths and legends, and what-have-you of this sort.

So, with the rules out of the way… here it is (drumroll please):

The Not-At-All Official Canon of Fantasy Cinema

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

There can be little doubt that this movie series is rightfully ranked at the top of the Fantasy Canon.  It was not only ground-breaking in terms of the technology used to tell the tale and the breathtaking visuals and the overall quality of the production itself… but it is a powerfully-moving adaptation of the the single-most genre-defining epic of fantasy literature.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy undeniably deserves the lion’s share of credit for creating the market for literary epic fantasy.  Peter Jackson’s adaption proved that a fantasy movie could be not only good entertainment, but great art.  These movies are the only ones on this list that won Academy Awards not only on technical merits, but for Best Movie and Best Director.  It is, in a word, a masterpiece.

2. The Princess Bride

“As you wish.”

“Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”

“Inconceivable!”

“You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I could go on, but you get the idea.  This movie is not a special effects extravaganza.  The magic is subtle and amusing, but not overtly visual.  It is not typically cited as a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

But on the strength of its script alone, and the amazingly perfect performances of its terrific cast, this is the only movie that can even come close to claiming the number-two spot on the Fantasy Canon list.  Few movies have made so indelible an impact on the popular culture.  Few movies warrant (or reward) relentless rewatching.  Few movies are so amazingly quotable.  Few movies rise to the level of The Princess Bride.

3. The Wizard of Oz

The Lord of the Rings trilogy may perhaps be the most honored movie on this list insofar as the Academy Awards are concerned.  But The Wizard of Oz is perhaps one of the most recognizable and enduringly popular films of all, and ranks among the most decorated and honored.  While it didn’t win a Best Picture Academy Award it did, unlike almost every other film on this list, get nominated (which really is, by itself, an honor).  And it continues to get recognized as one of the greatest movies of any genre of all time.

The 1939 movie was so defining that it left an impact on the popular culture that can still be seen and felt today, nearly three-quarters of a century after its release.  Every adaptation and interpretation of L. Frank Baum’s original stories is impacted by this movie.  There are Tony Award-winning musicals (Wicked, which I’ve seen and is a terrific musical) that exist only because this movie exists.  There’s even a latter-day prequel that’s about to come out (Oz: The Great and Powerful).

It’s had it’s impact on me, too.  I still remember the first time I saw it.  We didn’t watch a lot of black-and-white movies or classic movies growing up, but apparently this one was important enough that my dad made a big deal of it.  So we gathered together to watch this old, classic, depressingly black-and-white movie.  (As a note: I no longer have the same feelings about black-and-white stuff that I did in my childhood.)  Imagine how impressed and awed I was as my dad waved his hand magically at the TV when Dorothy first awakes in Oz, and everything explodes in brilliant, even riotous color: brighter than anything I was then used to on television.  It made me believe in the magic of the Wizard.

4. The Harry Potter Octology

The Harry Potter movies are not adaptations without faults, let it be said.  On a whole, their quality is uneven, though each of the eight movies is generally quite good and some of the entries in the series even border on great.  On average, the movies get better with each entry as the actors portraying the lead parts get better at their craft.

Given these caveats, why do I rank these movies so highly on the list?

For the sheer audacity of trying to interpret a seven-book epic fantasy series with over a million words of fiction for the big screen.  And for trying to maintain, throughout this process, some artistic cohesion and integrity and faithfulness to the books.

This was not an easy accomplishment, and if the films fell short of perfection, it was only because of how highly they aimed.  That they came so close at all to achieving it is quite remarkable.  The resulting series is a highly watchable and highly enjoyable epic fantasy series: there is magic, whimsy, adventure, danger, and love.  In short, there is everything you need to have a good time enjoying a fantasy movie, and I’ll wager these films will stand the test of time.

5. Willow

For serious fans of fantasy in film, I’m sure the inclusion of this movie will come as no surprise.  For the casual fans, this may be the first you’ve heard of it.

It has a plot that’s derivative of The Lord of the Rings… but in reverse: instead of taking the magic token into the heart of darkness to destroy it, the diminutive hero of Willow is trying to smuggle his magic token (in this case, a baby) as far away from the heart of darkness (the fortress of the evil queen Bavmorda) as he can take it, because the baby in question is prophesied to bring about the end of the evil queen’s reign.

Derivative or no, Willow really is a great movie.  While not quite as quotable as The Princess Bride, it still has some really memorable and often hilarious moments.  Try: “Go in the direction the bird is flying.”  “He’s going back to the village!”  “Ignore the bird; follow the river.”

Or: “I stole the baby from you while you were taking a peepee!”

Or: “What are you looking at?”  “Your leg.  I’d like to break it.”

Or: “That way!”

Or: “Not A Woman?!”  “Gentelman… Meet Lug.”

Again, I could go on… but if you haven’t already seen Willow, none of these quotes will be nearly as funny to you.  Combined with this quotable potential are some really snazzy special effects that were quite good back in the late 80s (and which even today are still pretty impressive): from a fire-breathing wyrm, to magical transmogrification, to a wizard’s deul with competing fireballs and ice blasts.  And there are lots of awesome, old-school sword fights.  So… if you love fantasy movies and if you haven’t already, you should take the time and watch it.

6. The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal was truly Jim Henson (in collaboration with Brian Froud of Fairy fame) at his finest.  These puppets are not your fuzzy green frogs or friendly neighborhood Fraggles.  What Jim Henson brought us with The Dark Crystal was a fully-realized fantasy world totally independent of our own.  It had its own flora and fauna, its own visual style, its own magic, its own sense of being.  There has been almost nothing that rivals it on terms of visual imagination or creativity either before or since.  I can still remember the awe I felt the first time I saw Aughra’s massive orrery swing into motion.

There are no human actors in the world of Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal.  Every character and every being in this elaborate fantasy is fully realized using honest-to-goodness puppetry.  But they never feel like puppets.  Every creature and every character feels fully alive.

The plot of The Dark Crystal isn’t spectacularly original: a diminutive elf-like hero has to go on a journey to destroy a powerful magical artifact that will otherwise allow a race of evil vultures to conquer and rule the world for a thousand years.  But even if the plot isn’t fantastically original, this amazing movie will still keep you sucked in and wanting more.

7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This was not the first adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books (not even the first live action adaptation).  Nor was it the only film in this series.  But it is the only one that I feel merits inclusion on this list.

Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” are children’s books, but of course that doesn’t mean they aren’t great fantasy stories.  And the original book of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is one of the best.  For one thing, the story of this one is different and more unique: it’s not a straightforward quest fantasy like so many others.

And of all the adaptations of the book that I’ve seen, this one ranks as very likely the best, and is likewise the best of the movies produced in this series of adaptations of Lewis’s books.  It tells a complete tale, one that doesn’t need the additional movies to enjoy.  And it fulfills the promise of magic that you would expect if you’d read the books.  All in all, this movie was a delight to see, and for that reason, it deserves a place on this list.

8. Dragonslayer

A movie that many – even many fans of fantasy – may not be familiar with is the 1981 film Dragonslayer.

In this epic fantasy tale, a wizard’s apprentice takes it upon himself to slay the dragon that is terrorizing a medieval kingdom after the wizard’s death.  The people of the kingdom have protected themselves from the ravages of the dragon by offering up their daughters as a sacrifice to the monster, chosen by lottery.  But the kingdom is upturned when the King’s daughter, upon learning that her name has been excluded from the lottery, replaces all the lots with her own name, making the erstwhile Dragonslayer the King’s only hope.

It’s  a classic dragon story ripped from the pages of mythology: but the movie delivers some genuinely unique twists on this ancient formula.

All that alone would not likely make this movie the classic that it deserves to be credited as, save for one critical element of the movie: Vermithrax Pejorative.  That’s the name of the dragon from this movie.  And even though the special effects are clearly dated by modern standards, Vermithrax stands as one of the greatest movie dragons – if not the greatest – of all time.  The creature design, the modeling: this dragon felt real, and it really breathed fire.  It was a true menace, and a true mythic monster.  If you haven’t seen Dragonslayer, and  you’re  a fantasy fan, you owe it to yourself to pick it up and watch it.  It’s truly one of the most underrated fantasy films ever.

9. Labyrinth

I don’t know… there’s just something about David Bowie’s “Magic Dance” (which is quite catchy), and his bizarre and mesmerizing turn as the Goblin King.  And all the Jim Henson creations, of course.  There are also moments of surprising sadness and profoundly absurd whimsy.

I can’t say I’m surprised that Jim Henson and Brian Froud make two appearances on this list.  That said, the creatures of the Labyrinth are all decidedly more muppet-like and are less refined than those found in the earlier The Dark Crystal.  But still: imagination abounds, here, and powerfully so.

And when all is said and done, this is just a fun movie to watch.

What’s interesting about this movie is how compelling the protagonist is: she’s fully human and motivated throughout the movie by very human emotions.  She’s not a typical, high-minded hero.  She’s not out to save the world or defeat evil.  She’s just trying to rescue her baby brother, who’s been stolen by the Goblin King.  Not because she loves the little tyke, but because of more complex motivations including guilt and fear.  She was responsible for the Goblins taking the baby in the first place, calling upon the Goblin King in a moment of resentment.  The emotional depth of the character makes the story more interesting.

10. The Neverending Story

The story-within-a-story and the interplay between book and reader made The Neverending Story a strong metaphor for my own fantasy life, as a child.  Given the enduring popularity of this film, I would venture to guess this is true for others as well.

For readers of fantasy literature, The Neverending Story is a resonant reflection of their inner lives: many fans of fantasy have reason to identify closely with the bullied Bastian, and recognize their experience of total immersion in the world of a fantasy novel that the movie portrays.

Fantasia itself is like the imagination of the fantasy fan: a shifting, unknowable, unmappable place, constantly surprising and constantly changing as new ideas and new discoveries are made.  And it is a place that can’t exist without the engagement of the imagination.  In the end, it’s a place that can’t exist without the imagination of the story’s true hero: the reader of the book.

This portrayal of the reader as hero makes The Neverending Story a unique and important entry in the Fantasy Cinema Canon.

pirates_of_the_caribbean_sm11. The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Yes, I realize that there are actually four “Pirates” movies, not three.  But, first of all, I haven’t seen the fourth movie and, second, the first three tell a complete, closed story arc.  Regardless of the existence of a mostly unrelated fourth movie, that makes the first three “Pirates” movies a trilogy.

And, well… despite some unfortunate misfires, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy really is a rip-roaring and highly entertaining fantasy trilogy.  Johnny Depp’s turn as the wildly eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow was both hilarious and engrossing.  Don’t tell me you didn’t fall in love with the character the moment you first saw him on screen, perched atop the crow’s nest of his sinking skiff.  Not to mention Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa and Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, plus Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Swan.  All fantastic actors and truly memorable characters.

In fact, not since The Princess Bride has there been such a fantastic, funny, and engaging ensemble cast in a fantasy film.  And so, despite some of the significant misfires in these movies, they still deserve to take a place on the Fantasy Canon.

dragonheart12. Dragonheart

While Draco, the heroic, good dragon of Dragonheart, doesn’t quite hold a candle to Vermithrax Pejorative, he is nonetheless a pretty spectacular cinema dragon (probably the third best to appear on screen; the second-best dragon having appeared in a mostly otherwise execrable non-fantasy flick that I won’t mention).  Dragonheart tells a fantastic, traditional heroic tale in which good and evil struggle for the fate of a kingdom.

It’s not a groundbreaking or deep movie, there aren’t many surprises, and you could even argue that the script and plot are a tad trite.  But it’s a movie that truly believes in the idea of dragons, and the fantastic world they represent.

And it did something else that was important and groundbreaking: Draco was the first fully computer-generated character with a speaking role in a theatrical film (voiced perfectly by Sean Connery, whose acting was also captured to provide Draco’s expressions).   As such, he paved the way for Gollum and, ultimately for Smaug.  And that deserves some recognition.

(Now, the less said about the uninspired Direct-to-Video sequel, the better.)

jasonandtheargonauts-skeleton-fight_sm13. The Harryhausen Cycle

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and the original The Clash of the Titans aren’t strictly a single movie series: none are sequels or prequels or at all related to the others.  But these three movies do hold something else very important in common: each is a classic of fantasy film on which Ray Harryhausen’s special effects genius was on display.

Ray Harryhausen is the pioneer of stop-motion animation, an early special effects technique that made some of the most amazing fantasy images possible for the first time.

Harryhausen made possible fantastic sword fights with animated skeletons and six-armed goddesses of destruction.  He brought to life Medusa, the Cyclops, Pegasus and the Kraken.  And he did these in an age when computer-generated graphics in movies was still a notion of science fiction, rather than movie science fact.  His artistic and technological breakthroughs made possible the most amazing movie images of his day.  And still today, his works have left their permanent mark on the popular culture.  What more can be said but this:

“Release the Kraken!”

Honorable Mention: The Original Star Wars Trilogy

Per the original rules I set out at the start of this post, I couldn’t include the original “Star Wars” Trilogy.  There are spaceships, lasers, and robots. All very non-fantasy things.  Indeed, many people classify “Star Wars” as Sci Fi or, to be more exact, Space Opera.

But let’s be frank: “Star Wars” is a fantasy movie.  There are magic swords, a wise mystic who guides the young hero (only to expire at an inopportune time, forcing the hero to step up), a beautiful princess and a dark lord.  There’s a mysterious, magical power possessed by an ancient order of warrior-wizards.  (Unexplained, of course, because we’re ignoring the Prequel Trilogy; the explanation there basically sucked, and didn’t make sense, anyway.)  I could go on, but in short, the original “Star Wars” Trilogy had all the ingredients of a major Epic Fantasy movie series.

And of all the movies listed here, none can be said to have had as powerful an impact on the popular culture as “Star Wars”.  No characters are more instantly recognizable and memorable as those from Star Wars.

So there you have it: the Not-At-All Official Canon of Fantasy Cinema.  These are the movies that are must-see for fans of Fantasy.

But hey, don’t take my word for it.  See them for yourself!

Speaking of… have you seen all of these movies?  Would you order them differently?  What movies did I miss that really should be included on the Fantasy Cinema Canon?  Talk back in the comments and share your knowledge of Fantasy Movie Trivia.

Cursing the Heavens: The Trials and Tribulations of a Big Idea

So, you know what’s awesome?

The book I’ve been writing, the secretively-titled “Book of M” is basically getting published.

You know what’s not awesome?

The person who wrote the aforementioned book getting published wasn’t me.

Okay, in all seriousness, no, “Book of M” is not getting published.  But it just so happens that the debut novel of author Meagan Spooner, called Skylark, has a premise that is startlingly similar to the premise of my own W-I-P, “Book of M”.

We’re talking, if you read the description of the book in the “Big Idea” post I just linked to, you would find a roughly 75% overlap in the world-building and ideas behind the two stories.

There are differences, of course.  The two protagonists have very little overlap.  There are several important aspects of my worldbuilding that don’t show up in the short description.  And the magic system described in Skylark has very little in common with the magic system I’ve described in my world.  And since my magical apocalypse is pretty closely tied in to the nature of the magic in my world, that means some important background details will be different.  And Skylark appears to be a Middle Grade or Young Adult targeted novel, whereas I’ve conceived of my book as being targeted as an adult novel (albeit that distinction doesn’t mean much in the post-Harry Potter, post-Hunger Games world).

It was ironic, to me, that earlier last week author David B. Coe was talking about the fears we have about our ideas on the Magical Words blog.  I responded in a comment about my two greatest fears related to my own ideas, one of which is this exactly: that however great the idea I have for my book is, someone else is writing it right now, and is better positioned to take advantage of the good idea.  Of course, David’s advice was that sure the ideas may be similar, but don’t worry about it, because your own take on it will be thoroughly and unmistakably yours.

Except, yeah, it’s easy to say that. It’s tough to embrace that notion when someone else’s book has so many similarities to the one you’re working on now.  So many that it’s positively uncanny.

So, I’m pretty anxious about it all right now.  Given the high degree of similarity between the ideas behind these two books, what are the chances any editor will ever express any interest in a book that would, at first blush, look derivative.  Would my book be more interesting to editors and readers if this other book does well, or will my book seem even more derivative.  And what do I do now?  Do I keep on writing, or, well, just give up?  It’s likely I’ll want to read Skylark at some point, but should I avoid it until I’ve finished writing my book, out of fear that reading it will taint my own creative process, or read it sooner rather than later in order to make sure I avoid being too similar?

What would you do, in this situation?

Epic Fantasy: Archetypes & Window Dressing

A couple months ago I posted a short essay in which I began examining the ideas and archetypes that are particular to the Epic Fantasy genre.  This is important to me, because while Epic Fantasy is my first and primary literary love, I don’t want to write in it simply out of habit: I want to make the choice of writing Epic Fantasy an informed and intentional choice.

In the essay, titled “Post-Tolkien Fantasy“, I questioned the decision by many latter-day “Post-Tolkienists” to eschew the common tropes, archetypes, and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque-flavored Epic Fantasy, and I questioned my own relationship with those same tropes and archetypes.

My purpose was to point out that neither Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy nor Post-Tolkien Epic Fantasy is inherently a superior mode, and that both have potentially valuable aspects as well as potential pitfalls and challenges.

I’d been thinking about the subject, in general, because my current WIP is an Epic Fantasy of the predominantly Post-Tolkien variety: inasmuch as it lacks things like a pseudo-medieval setting, magic swords, dark lords, hidden heirs, and other such archetypes and tropes.  But it was my contention that my WIP is still, despite these things, an Epic Fantasy.

In writing that essay, I referred to some of the common tropes and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy as “window dressing”.  My contention was that some tropes and trappings add to the aesthetic “flavor” of a given literary work, but don’t fundamentally interact with the core foundational archetypes that constitute the being of Epic Fantasy.  In other words: elves, dwarves, and dragons, knights, kings, and castles – these aren’t foundationally important elements of Epic Fantasy.  Their presence or absence doesn’t make or break an Epic Fantasy.

In referring to these things as “window dressing”, I entered into an exchange of ideas with a pleasantly articulate fellow named Jeff (Confidentially: I found your last name from your LinkedIn profile… but since “Jeff” looks a little like an alias I figured I’d respect that and refer to you just as Jeff) who responded to my article with his essay “My Plea for Philological Fantasy“.  Jeff approaches the topic from an angle decidedly more in favor of Tolkienesque Fantasy – a choice that I can’t disagree with.  At the same time, it’s clear that he doesn’t advocate for this choice based solely on an appreciation for the aesthetics of a Tolkien-like fantasy.  Continue reading

Writing the Book (of Kells)

I don’t do movie reviews, generally.  By the time I get around to seeing most movies, you’ve already heard all about them and you already know if you want to see them.  I just don’t get out to the movies often and when I do usually the movie’s been around for several weeks.  (For example: Brave, which I want desperately so see?  Haven’t seen it yet, unlikely to see it soon.  Maybe this weekend if I’m lucky, but likely not.)

But I recently saw a movie and I thought maybe you hadn’t seen or heard much about this movie, and maybe you didn’t even know it existed.  But the movie got under my skin and made a cozy home there, so I thought I should share it with you.

It’s a delightful animated movie called “The Secret of Kells“, and it follows the story of the young Brendan who lives in the Abbey of Kells in ancient, early-Christian Ireland.  Brendan is the nephew of the Abbot of Kells, but he is entranced by stories of the mystical Book of Iona, an Illuminated Book of the Gospels, and of Brother Aiden, the master Illuminator who is working on the book.  When Aiden arrives in Kells, his home on the island of Iona having been destroyed by Viking raiders, he enlists the aid of Brendan to finish his book.  Brendan, in turn, takes aid from the a Fae from the forest named Aisling.  (Although I heard it as “Ashley”.)  Brendan must face Vikings and an evil serpent spirit to get the ingredients needed to make the brilliant and vibrantly-colored inks used in Illumination.

The movie has a distinctive animated style which draws heavily from the art of Illumination, ancient Irish designs and celtic knots, and classic simple animated forms.  It was a beautiful movie in that regard.

The story was simple and yet profound.  It reminded me of something.  Despite being an original story – original to me, at least – it felt at once familiar.  And the theme of this magical and important book resonated with me (and in particular it resonated with me together with the novel I’m currently reading, and I expect that resonance to make its way back into my own written work).

Dear Wife and I saw some pages from the real Book of Kells during our trip to Ireland a few years back (which culminated in a visit to Dublin, where we did a short tour of Trinity College, where they keep the Book). (I understood not being able to take pictures of the Book of Kells, but I deeply regretted not being able to take pictures of Trinity College Library.  It was like something out of Harry Potter and it was pretty magnificent.)

A part of me wants to go into further about the way the movie has worked its way into my story inspiration process, but since it reflects on a work that is not a current WIP, I’m going to  hold off on that for now.

Anyway, I wanted to bring the movie to your attention, if you hadn’t heard of it already, and offer my own approbation: if you get a chance, check it out.  It shouldn’t be too hard, as I caught it on Netflix Streaming.

Gender Gap

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about perceptions that there was a demographic shift occurring in the readership of speculative fiction: a substantial tilt toward girls and away from boys, such that perhaps a genre that was once perhaps dominated largely by male readers is now substantially dominated by female readers. 

The question of gender – of readers, of authors, and of characters – has been on my mind a lot lately thanks to a series of blogs and articles I’ve seen that address the topic.

First, there was an article on the Powell’s blog by author Jennifer Dubois in which she opines about the difficulty in our society of female protagonists and narrators in fiction – and the ethical need, in her opinions, for more such characters.  The article is called “Writing Across Gender” but it isn’t really about writing characters of the opposite gender, really, as it is about writing female characters.  It was an interesting place to get my recent thoughts on the subject jump-started.

The question was inherently interesting to me, naturally, because the primary protagonist of my current novel project WIP is a female character.  I had a lot of trepidation when I began this project, I must admit.  Jennifer Dubois thinks that because:

…First, the notion that women are essentially strangers, their consciousnesses wholly foreign; and second, that this foreignness, in addition to being unassailable, is also pretty limited and boring.

But honestly, I don’t think that’s terribly accurate, or true. Continue reading

Friday Links to Chew On

So I had a couple links I wanted to pass on before they grew stale.  But they didn’t fit the theme of the occassional series I do on “Tidbits of Inspiration”.  And then I remembered I’d done a pretty large link-dump recently, and I realized that I had a good name for an occassional series of posts in which I dump links on your poor, unsuspecting readers.  And so, I give you a small helping of “Links to Chew On”:

  • Author Myke Cole shares some of the rules of writing that he’s learned: He’s got 18 rules in all, and covers writing habits, style, genre, promotions and publishing.  The rules are pretty amusing, and you should check them out.  I’d say they’re a pretty complete set of rules, and if you’re a writer you’d do well to consider them.
  • Author Brandon Sanderson is Self-Publishing: And… it looks like big news, sure.  A major epic fantasy best-seller, the author who is finishing acclaimed author Robert Jordan’s magnum opus, is eschewing traditional publishing for self-publishing!  The End Is Nigh!  Except, well, not really.  When you actually read the news, you’ll find that it’s not quite that earth-shattering.  All Sanderson is doing is taking a couple novela-length stories he’s written and published elsewhere and binding them up in a single volume.  And after reflecting on it, I recalled that a lot of traditionally-published authors (though few as big-named as Sanderson) have been doing similar experiments.  Still, it is worthy of note because Sanderson is such a big name.
  • Pre-reject your own work: It saves time and heartbreak.  And it’s fun!
  • Respect Your Fans: An interesting article that makes what I think is an important point: if you want loyal readers, then you need to respect your fans.  The article explores some of the history of Sci-Fi and Fantasy fandom and how connected and engaged those fans are – and how that connection and engagement feeds back into the development of the genre.  There are some interesting counterpoints to this idea that aren’t fully explored in the article but discussed somewhat in the comments, too.  Anyway, worth the read.
  • Speaking of Fans… Here’s a pair of articles about setting up and using a facebook fan page.  I, myself, do not have one, and I won’t bother with one until I have published some fiction in a professional market or instead decided to self-publish and thereafter earned more than the sales I could count on two hands.  But hey… if you’re already down those rabbit holes, maybe you could use a fan page?

Anyway, there are some links for you this Friday…  Have fun!

Lloyd Alexander The Documentary: A Kickstarter

I’ve talked about Lloyd Alexander before, and praised his work often.  I’ve told the story on this blog of how it was Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” series of books that first introduced me to the Fantasy genre and inspired me to become a writer.

Given how important those books were in my own development as a reader and a writer, I was delighted to discover the Lloyd Alexander Documentary project on Kickstarter.

I’ve never given to a Kickstarter project before.  But naturally, I felt the urge to kick in on this one.  Giving to this project felt like an opportunity at some kind of karmic give-back (for someone who doesn’t believe in karma in a strictly religious sense, that is).  And now, having stepped up to that particular plate, I thought this was something I should also pass along.

They’ve got until July 1st to raise enough funds for the project to go forward.  So if you have any interest in Lloyd Alexander or his works, maybe you’d be interested in taking a look at this project…

An Awesome New Worldbuilding Tool

If you write secondary world fantasy in a pre-modern, pseudo-Medieval setting, you are going to find thisverycool:

ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World

What is it?

It’s like GoogleMaps for the ancient Roman world.

You just enter in your parameters and voila!  Orbis calculates the best route for you and tells you how long it will take.  And there are a lot of parameters: not just departure point and destination, but time of year, method of travel, relative expensiveness of travel, etc.

In other words, this is really cool.

A word of warning, though: it only appears to work with a fairly updated browser (like IE 9 or a more recent Firefox installation, and you’ll want to temporarily turn off any script blockers you might have on). 

This is going into my worldbuilding and inspiration toolkit along with:

I just wanted to share this with you all.  I haven’t had a chance to play with it much, yet, but what I’ve seen of it is pretty cool.

Oh, and all those other things I just linked… I’ve shared them around here before, haven’t I?  No?  Oh.  Well, those things are cool tools to help your worldbuilding, too.  Check them out if you haven’t seen them.