Harry Plotter

Lev Grossman's The Magician King is clearly meant as the second book of a trilogy, with all that that entails, both good and bad. Ostensibly, it's two stories interwoven into one. The first deals with Quentin Coldwater, who found his way into the fantasy land of Fillory in The Magicians, and is now growing bored of ruling it. He sets out on a minor quest that quickly develops into a journey with world-shattering repercussions. He's joined by his fellow ruler Julia, and the second chunk of the book details her rise to magical power, an accomplishment much harder-earned than Quentin's education at a fancy academy.

The book tackles its big themes very well, from the prices we pay for wish fulfillment to people's inability to enjoy their station in life, no matter how exalted it is. Once it gets down into the details, though, some problems bubble to the surface.

Quentin is supposed to be an incredibly gifted magician, but his powers wane for no reason when the circumstances call for him to be in peril. Characters are introduced, then brutally dispatched in order to provoke an emotional response that isn't entirely earned. Quentin's quest shifts violently in setting and tone half a dozen times, with not enough connective tissue to tie it all together.

It's rare that the second book in a trilogy can stand alone as an impressive work, and I'm afraid this one is no exception. Still, I'm sticking with Quentin and Co. If nothing else, The Magician King nicely raises the stakes for the next book to drive home.

The Magician King: B-

King Me

I was fully prepared to wait a while for Wes Anderson's new movie Moonrise Kingdom. I popped it into the "Saved" section of my Netflix queue, where it would linger until it took its place at the end of long list of available discs. By happenstance, a friend of mine suggested catching a late night showing of it at the Tivoli, so I actually got to see it before it's been discussed to death, then forgotten by the culture at large. How refreshing!

This movie fits nicely into the Wes Anderson oeuvre. If you're generally a fan of his movies, you'll like this one. If you think he's twee and pretentious, you'll think this is twee and pretentious. I enjoyed it; if I had seen it later, it's very possible that over-generous hype would have somewhat ruined it. As it is, it may just be my second-favorite of Anderson's movies (just below The Royal Tenenbaums).

In Moonrise Kingdom, an unpopular, nerdy boy scout and a troubled, violent girl form an easy friendship and a blossoming romance. Convinced that nobody would understand them, they plan a getaway, and hide in the woods of the small island that they both live on. The local adults, from the scoutmaster to the police chief to the girl's parents, are hot on their heels. That's the basic structure, which is made a lot deeper by some impressive acting. Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton are always reliably good, and Bruce Willis fits impressively well into this group as the mild-mannered police chief. Edward Norton gives my favorite performance as the lonely scoutmaster who fills his time by being hyper-capable and stern about his scouting duties.

Add in some gorgeous set locations, excellent music (Quick aside: This movie features Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra", and weaves it in thematically, which delighted me. I played that piece in college, and enjoyed the hell out of it, even if the viola part is a bit subdued), and Anderson's patented quirkiness, and you've got a pretty charming little film.

Moonrise Kingdom: B+

Reader's Digest

Most of the pop culture items I write about on this blog are properties that I'm well aware of before I consume them. I'll have gotten a recommendation from a friend, or read a promising review, or something like that. Once in a while, though, it's more fun to just enter blindly into something that looks interesting and see how it goes.

That's what I did with the UK television show The Book Group, which had a short, twelve-episode run from 2002-2003. I was leaping around the available shows on Netflix Instant streaming, and this one caught my eye. The premise sounded intriguing, so I decided to try it out. It captured my attention from the very first episode, and I stayed fascinated through all twelve of them, though not always for good reasons.

The initial storyline couldn't be simpler: Neurotic American expat Claire is building a new life for herself in Glasgow, Scotland. In an effort to meet new people, she starts a book group that attracts a wheelchair-bound Scottish man who works at a community center, three bored soccer wives, a closeted dopey guy, and a pompous, drug-addicted loser from England. Ostensibly, they meet to discuss the book that one of them has selected, but the theme of said book usually sets them off on a path of fighting, hooking up, or self-reflection.

At least, that's what the first season (Episodes 1-6) entails. It was enjoyable to watch the disparate personalities bounce off of each other, and although some of their traits were a little broadly drawn, the performances were enchanting (the standout being Janice (Michelle Gomez), a woman who wants nothing more than to be loved by everyone, and imbues every word and action with hyper-dramatic flair).

Unfortunately, something turned during the break, and the second season (Episodes 7-12) pretty much runs the show off the rails. Though the characters had wacky ideas in Season 1, their actions were always grounded in reality. In Season 2, they shatter the believability by following their insane ids wherever they may lead, from banging teenagers to implausible career changes. The book group participants split off into separate storylines for no discernible reason. Claire retreats into a fantasy world for no discernible reason. Major new characters are wedged into the group dynamic for no discernible reason. Everything is bigger and louder and over-the-top, and it doesn't serve the show well.

Perhaps this was the television equivalent of a one-hit wonder. Season 1 was a brilliant little gem that faded all too quickly. It would have been nice to see what better writing in Season 2 could have led to, but all in all, I'm glad I stumbled across The Book Group. It's given me the newfound zeal to go discover some other ignored show that I might wind up loving.

The Book Group - Season 1: B+
The Book Group - Season 2: C

Save the Date: Assassin's Creed III

Event: Assassin's Creed 3 release date
Date: Tuesday, October 30

I enjoyed the first Assassin's Creed game, but it didn't blow me away. The story was incredibly intriguing, but the gameplay was a bit sparse, and protagonist Altair was somewhat of a cypher. After seeing some beautiful clips of Assassin's Creed II, I felt I had to give the series another shot. Boy, am I glad I did. The story became even more expansive, the setting much more visually appealing, the protagonist (Ezio) more deeply realized, and the game itself was exponentially more entertaining. So much so that I also bought Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, even though I'm not much for expansions. That one was amazingly fun as well, so I regret I haven't had a chance to play the other expansion (Assassin's Creed: Revelations). After three games, though, I felt it was time to give Ezio a rest.

It seems the game designers felt that way, too, because here comes a new Assassin's Creed game. Now that our protagonists have explored exotic locales like Crusade-era Jerusalem, Renaissance Italy, and Constantinople's Ottoman Empire, the action comes closer to home by shifting to the Revolutionary War in America.

This series has been on a hot streak, and I can only hope it continues. Break out the controllers! It's time to slice and dice some Redcoats.


Guilty Pleasure: Midnight Madness

What do Winnie the Pooh, Grease, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, The Simpsons, An American Werewolf in London, Anna and the King, Animal House, and Family Ties all have in common? They all involve people who star in one of the silliest movies of all time. Midnight Madness is a perfect example of a guilty pleasure; it cannot by any measure be called a successful movie, but I love it just the same. It has no weight to it at all. The story in a nutshell: an eccentric weirdo plans out a city-wide scavenger hunt in Los Angeles, then eggs various college rivals into forming teams to compete. Hijinks ensue. In fact, this movie may be nothing but hijinks. It has absolutely no nuance to it, but you could probably guess that after seeing this:

In a way, this movie perfectly represents all of the wacky '80s competition movies, from The Wizard to Girls Just Want to Have Fun, but manages to be far zanier than all of the rest put together. All the tropes are present and accounted for, from the dumb jocks to the noble protagonists to the evil cheaters. This was Michael J. Fox's movie debut, and though I doubt he shouts that fact from the hills, he doesn't fare any worse than the rest of the cast.

The acting is hammy. The jokes are broader than the Pacific Ocean. The plot is wafer-thin. And yet, I snapped up the DVD, and will happily watch it whenever I have the chance.


MDNA Sequencing

It seems like Madonna has always inspired stronger reactions from people than other artists. People either adore her or despise her. By some quirk of fate, I'm not in either camp. When I hear a song of hers, I'm equally capable of liking it, hating it, or not feeling much of anything at all. She'll be touring for her new album MDNA soon (or has possibly already started - I'm not interested enough to research it), and apparently, one of the perks of buying a ticket is a free copy of the CD.

One of my friends bought a couple of tickets, and since that meant he had an extra album on his hands, he gave it to me. I thought it'd be fun to go in and give it a complete listen with zero expectations. I hadn't heard any of the songs (with one exception), read any reviews, or encountered any sort of online fan or hater movement, so I could be sure that my reactions were genuine, and weren't being warped by hype.

Unfortunately, my reaction is that this may be my least favorite Madonna album to date. I've only listened to it once, so it's entirely possible that a couple of the songs will grow on me. It seems unlikely, though, since they struck me as so lukewarm on the first pass. Musically, the album is nothing special, but not terrible. "Girl Gone Wild" has a decent backbeat, and there's something to like in a bunch of the others, like "Superstar", "I'm a Sinner", and "Masterpiece". Where this album really goes wrong is in the lyrics. If a song's music is interesting or catchy enough, problems with the lyrics can be forgiven, but in this album, they stick out like a sore thumb.

"I'm a Sinner"
Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross
Died for our sins, it's such a loss
Saint Christopher, find my way
I'll be coming home one day
Saint Sebastian, don't you cry
Let those poison arrows fly

"Love Spent"
If we opened up a joint account
Would it put an end to all your doubt
Frankly if my name was Benjamin
We wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in

If you were the Mona Lisa
You'd be hanging in the Louvre
Everyone would come to see you
You'd be impossible to move

You'd be impossible to move??? The hell? Anyhow, I mentioned above that there was one song I remembered hearing before listening to the album in its entirety, and that was "Give Me All Your Luvin'", which Madonna performed with Nikki Manaj, M.I.A., and a cast-of-thousands at the Super Bowl. I'm sure that wasn't an accident, because it's by far the best song on the album, and the only one I can envision myself actively seeking out to listen to. Madonna has had countless ups and downs in her deservedly long career. She changes her image like a chameleon, and there is a ton to admire about her. In terms of pure, listening joy, though, MDNA misses the mark, and you'd be better served by firing up your old copy of Ray of Light.


Royale Pain

The ruthless winnowing of characters has always held an appeal for me, so I happily read The Hunger Games trilogy well before it became a big deal. Once it started getting a lot of attention, I began to see a deluge of internet comments sneering that the concept had been completely ripped off of a Japanese property called Battle Royale. I wanted to compare for myself to see if that argument had any merit, but since I don't handle gory movies well, I opted for the book, instead.

This book is fascinating. Each year, a totalitarian Asian government keeps the populace subjugated by isolating a class of teenaged schoolchildren and forcing them to fight to the death. Each student is given a map, some supplies, and a randomly-assigned weapon, then turned loose. They also have explosive metal collars strapped around their necks, and as the game progresses, portions of the island that the students have been trapped on are declared "Forbidden Zones". Anyone caught in a Forbidden Zone goes kaboom.

Coming from a Western perspective, it was a little tough at first to keep the names straight (there are over forty characters to keep track of, all of whom have names like Toshinori and Yoshimi and Mitsuko). Once the story really gets going, though, it became much easier, thanks in no small part to the fact that all of the characters have distinct personalities. There are no background ciphers here; no matter how little time is spent with a character, author Koushun Takami gives them depth and makes them relatable. The ways these students react to their horrific situation are just as thoroughly explored and varied. The main protagonists (Shuya and Noriko) try to band people together and look for ways to escape the island. Some students murder with glee. Some attempt to be stealthy. Some only want to hide. Some panic. Some lose their grip on reality. Some decide that even attempting to survive is fruitless. Some seek to strike back against the government that put them there.

Now, to the argument that The Hunger Games was cribbed from this: It's pretty much bullshit. Aside from the base story idea of young people forced to kill each other at the behest of the government (which is not an incredible stretch, creatively), there are very few similarities. Arguments can be made that Battle Royale is a superior product -- and I'd probably agree with several points someone with that view would make -- but there's really no indication that Suzanne Collins stole any ideas. Both stories have things to recommend about them, and both can be enjoyed independently, without any parallels necessarily needing to be drawn between them.

I was a little dismayed when I picked Battle Royale up from the library, because it's thick, and with a hectic schedule, I worried that I wouldn't be able to get through it in my allotted two weeks. I tore through it in a day and a half. It's a riveting, exciting, saddening story, and if the internet whining accomplished nothing else, I'm at least grateful that it brought this novel to my attention.

Battle Royale: A

Peep, Peep, Fun, Fun

What I'm Watching: Peep Show

We're getting into the summer TV season, which means I don't have to worry about keeping up with things week-to-week, and can delve into trying to catch up with a glut of shows I've missed. I had no intention of also taking on a new show, but after recommendations flowed in from multiple sources, I added the British comedy Peep Show to the Netflix Instant queue. It's a spectacularly unsentimental show, about a pair of roommates. Mark just wants to be an everyman, but can't seem to navigate any portion of his life, from his friendships to his job to his long-term crush on a coworker. No matter how well-intentioned he is, he screws up every situation, and when he tries to fix them, he inevitably makes them worse. Jeremy is an egocentric guy who can justify anything to himself. Stealing, cheating, drugs... You name it, Jeremy has a very good reason why it's okay that he can do it, even if he considers it a failing in others.

It's a funny show, but since it derives its laughs from watching these two fail at their schemes over and over again, it can get kind of bleak if I watch too many episodes in a row. It's got those short, British episode orders, so I'm already into Season 3, despite having started only a week or so ago. It's amazingly how consistent the writing is; the characters' core personalities haven't changed much at all since the very beginning. By limiting myself to a few episodes a week, I'm pretty confident I'll enjoy the series as a whole, but I'd better be careful not to overdo it, lest I wind up as depressed and inept as the characters.

Shorties #1

I'm always consuming a bunch of pop culture items simultaneously, so for those things that don't have my undivided attention, there's Shorties. Let's zoom through!

#1: Conversations With Other Women: An interesting little film, in which Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart play exes who reunite at a wedding and rehash their relationship. The entire movie is shown in split-screen, which means there are two perspectives on the story at all times. (Grade: B)

#2: "Callisto" - Xena: Warrior Princess - Season 1, Episode 22: I never watched Xena regularly, but the character of Callisto always stuck in my mind, so I put on the episode named after her one evening. Turns out she stuck there because in a show where overacting was the norm, Hudson Leick outhammed them all. And yet, I still enjoyed the hell out of her. (Grade: B)

#3: Dragon Age II: When I first played through this game, I was amazed at how it seemed to take a giant step backwards from the first one. The main quest storyline was interesting, but less work went into almost all other aspects. Conversations were stiff and not terribly engaging. Maps were repeated over and over. It was still fun, but as an extension of Dragon Age: Origins, it was disappointing. After finishing the game as a mage, I recently replayed through as an archer. Though it still suffers by comparison, I enjoyed it more this time. (Grade: B-)

#4: The Sims 3: Unlike Dragon Age, this series only gets better with time. In The Sims 3 you can actually leave the house and explore town. Everything from the bathroom tile to the dinner you cook is insanely customizable. You can direct conversations, hobbies, and even lifetime goals. Really, there's an easy way to tell that this game has got you hooked: you start worrying more about your Sim's needs than your own. (Grade: A-)

#5: Ella Minnow Pea: I've read this book a few times, and always find something to like in it. It takes place on a fictional island off the cost of the United States where the man who coined the phrase "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" lived. This phrase appears in lettered tiles on a statue in the center of the island, and when the tiles start falling from the statue, the corrupt high council interprets this as a sign the citizens should stop using that letter altogether. Since the novel is composed of letters and notes written from one islander to another, as the letters fall from the statue, they fall from the novel is well. It's a fascinating twist for a story, and certainly a must for word nerds. (Grade: A)

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