Review: Spartan

I can’t believe I’ve never reviewed Spartan before. I’ve watched it at least four times, most recently during my trip. It stars Val Kilmer as a shadowy special operator – so shadowy it’s never clear what branch of the services her’s from, though it’s strongly hinted that he’s a Marine, which is kind of odd for the kind of operator he portrays. The president’s daughter has disappeared, likely kidnapped, and Kilmer’s character will do anything (and allow the death of any number of secondary characters) to get her back.

If you are running a Covert Forces or Direct Action style campaign, this is great inspiration. It’s an especially good portrayal of a special operator used in a domestic context.

Oh, and it has Clark Gregg – Agent Phil Coulson himself – in a small but important role.

More of a thriller than an actioner, ex-Delta Force operator Eric Haney consulted with David Mamet for this movie, and the two went on to develop the Unit TV series. This gives the movie the veneer of authentic spec ops action as well as having that great David Mamet dialogue.

“You have to set your mother-fucker to recieve.”

If you dig on political thrillers with hints of black-bag ops, this movie will likely satisfy.

I give this movie 4 chambered rounds out of 5.

There is more information on Spartan here.

You can find more information on Direct Action here.

You can find more information on Covert Forces here.

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Something Fishy!

I’ve got an hour to kill before boarding on my flight starts, before I am winging my way home, and I’m killing a beer along with the time. Getting rid of coins I can’t exchange is my excuse.

So when you read this I will be comfortably back at home, able to sleep in my own bed and finally certain for the first time in days if the food I am about to be served contains seafood, which I abhor.

I’m generally a good traveller. I’ve done a lot of it. Food is my problem. I’ve always disliked seafood. I’ll pass on anything that lives or grows in water. When I lived in Korea, at a time when my tastes had matured to include a lot of vegetables I wouldn’t eat as a child, I made an effort to try everything. I ate everything from cod to grilled silkworms. This experience verified that even with my tastebuds deadened with alcohol, I didn’t like seafood. I didn’t like the taste, I didn’t like the texture, I didn’t like the smell.

Being back in Korea is no problem. I lived there long enough in the past to know exactly what I can and cannot eat. Without even knowing the language – and I do know enough Korean to know the foods – I’d be able to tell by sight for most dishes.

Not so for Japan. Every time I took a chance and ordered by sight, I got seafood. Now, granted, that was only twice, but frankly that was enough for me. I am now very suspicious of Japanese food. Thankfully, there were enough restaurants with English in the menu (though these were substantially fewer than what I was used to from Korea) or a server with enough English to say: “No fish. Pork.”

For those of you out there also thinking about visiting, if you hate fish, you need to be cautious. If you eat everything, I think venturing out and taking a chance with your meals would be hella fun.

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Review: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

I can’t even remember if I ever saw Ghost Rider. I’m pretty sure I haven’t. I had no intention to see the sequel – Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – but it was one of very few English language choices on the TV as I was butt in seat recently. I figured with Nicholas Cage headlining, it wouldn’t be boring.

I have to admit, I was entertained.

Here’s the thing: this movie bears no no real scrutiny. The plot has plenty of holes in it and much of the story exists just to pad out the movie or hit marks that the producers or directors wanted to hit. This is no masterpiece.

The big question: would I watch it again? Yes, I absolutely would. There’s a charm to this kind of movie when it is done with enthusiasm and love. Both of those seemed to be up there on the screen. And the cast? Cage is always amusing, but this movie also boasted Idris Elba, Cirian Hinds, and Christopher Lambert.

Be warned, if you cheese tolerance is low, avoid this. If you think b-movies can be fun, you’ll probably enjoy this. It’s led me to be curious about the original.

Then again, GR:SOV boasts the directors of Crank, whereas GR has the director of Daredevil, so maybe I’ll just continue to avoid the original.

I give Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3 flaming flatbed trucks out of 5.

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Review: Prince of Wolves

I really enjoyed Dave Gross’ Master of Devils with its nod to Shaw Brother’s martial arts/wuxia movies of the 70s and 80s. The article in which I had read about Master of Devils also mentioned Prince of Wolves as a mix of fantasy-gaming fiction with the old 60s Hammer horror films. That certainly piqued my interest, considering how well Master of Devils tied wuxia and gaming fiction.

I just finished reading Prince of Wolves, and I have to say it delivered as well as Master of Devils. Radovan and his “boss,” Jeggare are in what seems to be an emulation of the Balkans, complete with werewolves and vampires, frightening castles, silent monasteries, and lots of empty, barren land in which to be waylaid. The atmosphere and setting definitely replicate the sense I remember from those few Hammer movies I saw on TV Sunday matinees.

I don’t want to qualify this review with “for gaming fiction,” but I do bring different expectations when reading gaming fiction than what I bring to other fiction. The bar is much lower. That said, both Master of Devils and Prince of Wolves are enjoyable outside of the gaming fiction ghetto. These are fun reads, delivered with technical skill and bravado, bursting with apparent enthusiasm. I was sold on these books as being descendants of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and that’s the kind of story they deliver – these are swashbuckling tales that provide enormous entertainment.

The only hit against this story is that it follows the same format and structure of the Master of Devils a little too closely. Saying too much would constitute a spoiler, and perhaps even saying just that will tip people off who have read one when they read the other. However, that’s a minor gripe. If this is the structure of the Radovan and Jeggare tales, than that is something I can live with.

I give Prince of Wolves 4.5 silvered daggers out of 5. This is a highly enjoyable, light read that delivers on a great mixture of sword & sorcery and Hammer horror.

You can learn more about Prince of Wolves here.

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Review: The Yellow Sea

I’m a fan of both Korean cinema and film noir, but I hadn’t seen the Yellow Sea, a Korean noir from 2010. This extended trip has given me a chance to catch up on a few things, and one of the first was to see the Yellow Sea, all 140 minutes of it.

That sounds like a long running time, but it went incredibly quickly. The Yellow Sea is engrossing, tense, and intense. I honestly can’t properly do justice to my immersion in this film. I was totally its slave for its running time.

A great movie, but not necessarily one I’ll be watching again. There are a few reasons for that. Like Hotel Rwanda, this is a great movie that demands a large emotional toll. I wasn’t exhausted from my viewing like I was after Hotel Rwanda, but this was a brutal movie – in the sense that it offered a very grim and very gritty view of the world.

Also, the lack of readily available firearms in Korea means that the action took place with knives and axes. This creates a much more vicious film than one with guns. People were stabbed multiple times and heads were crushed after being split. The violence was so personal and so visibly costly to both the victim and the perpetrator that I began to be seriously anxious when it looked like more blood would be spilled.

That sets it apart from other great Korean films like Man from Nowhere, and especially from something action-packed but light like the Good, the Bad, and the Weird. The violence here is much closer to that of a Bittersweet Life, but even more brutal, if that can be achieved.

The Yellow Sea is the perfect noir in that it takes a morally questionable individual and keeps upping the ante, the stakes getting higher, the opposition getting stronger, and the whole time he and you are trying to figure out just who is doing what to whom and why. The movie does answer these questions, but it stays true to its sensibilities and the denouement is just as grim and brutal as the climax.

The ending, thankfully, offers some small source of optimism.

In the end, I have to give this 5 bloody kitchen knives out of 5. I don’t know if I want to watch it again, but in the days since seeing it, there hasn’t been one in which I haven’t considered the movie and its story.

You can learn more about the Yellow Sea here.

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Review: River of Stars

Cover for River of Stars

One of my favourite fantasy authors is Guy Gavriel Kay. His works generally take historical periods and – to a greater or lesser degree – add magic. His worlds are not entirely second worlds, more like slightly altered historical Earth, with the serial numbers filed off.

His Under Heaven, taking a fantasy lens to Tang China just before the An Shi Rebellion, was fantastic. It’s tough to say until I actually re-read it and the Sailing to Sarantium duology, but it might be my favourite of his works, and that’s saying a lot.

River of Stars is a sequel to Under Heaven, but returning to the Kitai empire hundreds of years after the events of Under Heaven. It looks at the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty while touching on the Outlaws of the Water Margins and the career of Song general Yue Fei.

I want to start by stating that I enjoyed the book. I recommend it. Saying that, I had a slight sense of disappointment reading River of Stars, and I am having a hard time quantifying the reason for this. Could it be that it seemed somewhat detached? There was an emotional distance between the events, the characters and the readers which did not allow total immersion in the story. However, it’s not as if I wasn’t invested. I tore through the novel as quickly as real life would allow.

Was it that the end seemed anti-climactic? Even setting history aside, the main plot couldn’t have ended any other way. Certainly, some secondary characters may have acted differently while remaining true to their characters as depicted, but I think the decision of the protagonist on which the climax pivoted fit perfectly with that character.

But in the end, this is a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Even one of his disappointments (I had a similar feeling after reading the Last Light of the Sun) is far and away better than almost any other recent fantasy. I am in no place to criticize his technical skills, and while I can imagine changes I might make were it my story, that would have created a much different work, and not necessarily a superior one.

If you like Guy Gavriel Kay, you will surely enjoy River of Stars. If you are a fan of historical fantasies – or just fantasy fiction in general – I strongly recommend River of Stars. I give it 4.5 recurved bows out of 5.

You can learn more about River of Stars here.

You can learn more about Guy Gavriel Kay here.

You can learn more about Under Heaven here.

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Dispatches from South Korea

I’ve been in South Korea for just over a week, and have been honoured to have participated in my Korean family’s Lunar New Year (Sollal) celebration, which included the sacrifices to the ancestors (which was fruit and prepared food we later ate . . . so not really sacrifices), kowtows to the elders (which included my nieces and nephews kowtowing to my wife and I), and a huge lack of internet. I’m at my sister-in-law’s place now with some internet, so I hope to have some time to compose some posts. Then again, there’s talk of visiting the East Sea (to heck with your Sea of Japan nonsense), which – I’m sorry – wins out over writing some posts. However, here are some previews.

Prince of Wolves? Delivers exactly what I expected and makes me excited to read King of Chaos. If you liked Master of Devils and dig old Hammer horror films, do yourself a favour and check this out.

Yellow Sea? An amazing South Korea neo-noir which packs a lot of tension and action into two-and-a-half hours.

River of Stars? Another outstanding novel from Guy Gavriel Kay, though I consider Under Heaven better. I’ll try to figure out why.

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