Category Archives: Review

Review: 100 Episodes of Night Vale

Welcome to NightvaleFor four years now a surreal horror story has been broadcast over the tangled nodes of the internet. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale has appeared in twice-monthly installments since June 2012, making it one of the longest running fictional podcasts around. The 100th episode has gone live, which is a good excuse to talk about it. This show has everything: Battles, intrigue, revenge, subterfuge, love, philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence, and interns.

The genius of the show is its format. It’s presented as a radio show, which makes Welcome to Night Vale one of those rarest of fictions – a second-person format that works. As a listener, you are presumably within the isolated town of Night Vale, and affected by and involved with everything that happens there. The format lets the story wander between third-person reports of events in the town and first-person commentary by Cecil, the presenter. Although eminently likable, he is an untrustworthy narrator, projecting his emotions and judgments onto whatever he is reporting. It’s fun hearing the monologues of other people in the town and getting completely different perspectives — it’s a good storytelling technique to have people present their own versions of the truth instead of a monolithic narrative agreed to by everybody. The format also allows for repeating segments, such as the existential nihilism of Traffic and the musical tones of the Weather.

Night Vale is a Poeish and Lovecraftian place, ruled by hooded figures, terrorised by glow clouds, invaded by cities hidden under the bowling alley, and generally harassed by secret government agencies. Anything that happens in an episode, no matter how throw-away a punch-line or bizarre a revelation, is maintained throughout the show. The Faceless Old Lady Who Lives In Your Home was introduced as a creepy concept, and Hiram McDaniels, a literal five-headed dragon, was a metaphor taken literally, but they ran against each other in the Mayoral election. This is what allows the show to work – from the viciousness of librarians to the completely forbidden nature of the dog park, everything is retained and becomes a normal part of the Night Vale world.

Cecil is the announcer of Night Vale Community Radio, and it is his dulcet tones which make up the majority of the podcast. The fact that his voice is so nice to listen to is a main element of the success of the podcast. The normal manner of reporting the weird phenomenon is a sublime juxtaposition, used to great effect. He also adds the main personal element to the show, particularly through his relationship with his boyfriend, delightfully revealed in wistful digressions, interviews and phone messages. A good argument could be made that the show is love story.

Like any great fiction, a lot of meaning can be read into Welcome to Night Vale. The show satirises pretty much everything, starting with the terrifying nature of our bosses. For politics there is a huge race for mayor, complete with dirty tactics and outright threats, but the votes are ignored and the winner (spoiler alert) is ultimately decided by pulses coming from Hidden Gorge. There are arbitrary rules of society that must be followed, places that are off-limits for no explained reason, constant manipulation by secretive organisations, and the peppy evil of conglomerating corporations.

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale has a peculiar aesthetic that will enchant fans of folk horror and bizarre circuses … but beyond that it is a marvelous story, that is well-constructed and superbly performed. Start from the beginning and enjoy the show. The podcast is free, with the writers and crew earning a living by touring live shows, selling related merchandise, and soliciting donations. There’s also a book out.

http://podbay.fm/show/536258179

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Radio Monash

Review: The DC Movies & What Went Wrong

Let me tell you, yet another review, this one more of a meta-review on the direction of a movie studio. The End of the Decline for DC? That’s right, I’m calling it. Or at least, Suicide Squad shows they finally realised they’re heading in the wrong direction.

No, The Backstory Isn’t Important

One of the big problems with Suicide Squad is the inordinate amount of time spent on backstories. They gave several minutes of screen time at the beginning of the movie to all the anti-villains getting captured – bearing in mind there are six of them – and filled in more detailed backstory for a couple of them, as well as setting up the plot overall.

Each particular backstory was well thought out, but that many at the beginning of the movie really began to drag. They simply weren’t necessary, and they detracted from the overall story.

All that was needed was for Amanda Wallace to indicate she was putting together a team of bad guys, some of whom have powers. That’s it, that’s all the set-up that’s required. That way, all the fight scenes from the bad guys getting captured can be moved into the body of the movie, where they can be used to further the plot rather than backstory, and be used to give a good surprise. The powers would be an impressive surprise rather than something that was foreshadowed to the point of tediousness.

I am reminded of Fast and Furious 7. Warner, watch it, study it, learn from it, and run free…

Review: Suicide Squad

suicidesquadposter

Suicide Squad has been the hope of fans that DC might start making movies that aren’t depressing soliloquies on the interchangeability of good and evil. Which is odd, considering Suicide Squad is specifically about “bad guys” acting as heroes, but it’s the tone people seem to want changed, rather than the message.

I went into the movie with high hopes, and didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought. The tone of Suicide Squad fails to live up to the wacky-punk of its promotional material and trailers. This makes sense – from what I understand, the movie was filmed in the tone of BvS, and then desperately recut at the last second to try to make it more like the trailers, which were clearly more popular.

It did succeed in a few places where BvS failed. Most importantly, it was internally coherent. I’ve heard people say that BvS is really good if you’ve read the comics, but that just means that it failed as a movie. Movies aren’t supposed to rely on people already knowing the story to tell a coherent tale. Suicide Squad tells a good story of the “good guys” using the “bad guys” to save the world, with fairly standard depictions of the government-run as heartless and evil. Refreshingly, the bad guys were all depicted as actual bad guys, even if a few of them are eminently relatable.

I’m not a fan of this Joker, even as I recognise the different style it’s promoting. Put simply, this Joker isn’t beguiling. Previous incarnations (Batman & The Dark Night) were gifted orators, and even if you didn’t agree with them you could see how they might convince others – think about The Joker talking to Harvey Dent in the hospital. This incarnation had none of that seductive banter, which is a shame because in this movie, where they show a psychiatrist falling in love with the Joker. That wasn’t believable, at least as it was shown in the movie.

A major part of superhero movies are the fight scenes, and they were good in this movie, but there weren’t enough of them. There was a lot of bluster and macho posturing, but that tends to fall flat in the action stakes. A lot of the action sequences from the introduction, where they provided the background of the characters, should have been put in the story. They could have been more exciting, and served the plot instead of the backstory.

All in all, I give the movie 7/10. It had some good parts, but there should have been a lot more. They could have gotten away with a bit more wacky oddness, and a bit less exposition. I mean, the most surreal part of the experience was watching Stephen Hawking hawking cars before the feature. If you like the previous few Batman movies, and you’re a fan of the comics, you’ll like this movie.

Review: Blink

Blink is a dimension-hopping secret agent story. Agent Smith works for the Utility Company, a top-secret US agency that deals with the sort of issues that can’t get reported in more pedestrian secret agencies…you the know the drill. His latest case is the result of one scientist’s successful effort to breach the barriers within the multiverse and allow travel between two parallel realities. One of them starts messing with the other, and the inevitable complicated conflict arises.

This is a fun read. There’s plenty of action and twists and turns to the plot to keep it fresh. It clocks in at 107,000 words so the length is good value – there’s even two interludes, allowing you to relieve yourself the restroom or buy more popcorn if you wish. The main difference between the realities is reasonably well thought out and surprisingly realistic, although the tone may cause non-Americans to roll their eyes.

On the downside, the novel could have done with a good line editor. Also, while complicated plot twists are an inherent part of this genre, some of the twists in this book – especially towards the end – don’t bear scrutiny, to the point where it can break the suspension of disbelief. If you’re willing to dive back into a fun story after a WTF moment – for example, if you like James Bond movies – you should give this book a try.

Batman & Supeman Vs Movie Critics

I haven’t read any of the reviews of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice because I wanted to see the movie with an untainted mind. Still, when the titles are all along the lines of “This is the worst movie ever” and “I would rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty spoon than see this again”, the sentiment is pretty clear.

My official verdict: The movie is pretty good. There are great visuals and a steady (if slow) build up of suspense and threat. DC is sticking by its grimdark approach to superhero movies, which I’m OK with – there a people who say they should take a lesson from Marvel, but then all the superhero movies would be the same…and they’d probably be criticised for not trying something new.

Ben Affleck played Batman the same way all the other actors since Micheal Keaton have. Henry Cavill played Superman the way you expect him to be played, with possibly less smiles. The actors for the support characters did their job, and Gal Gadot was great as Wonder Woman. I’m looking forward to that movie now.

However, there were some things I thought were mistakes, or which could have been changed to improve the movie.

Too long a set-up
The set-up of the premise – that Batman was going to try to kill Superman – went for ages and ages and ages. A third or a half of the movie. Seriously, they should have checked out Fast & Furious 7, which introduced the main villain and had the entire premise set up in two minutes. If the audience is suspending their disbelief enough to accept an invincible man who can fly and shoot laser fire from his eyes, it isn’t much to ask them to make the leap that some people want to kill that man, possibly for erroneous reasons. Then straight onto the action. There are some subsets of this point:

  • Origin Stories are pointless: Let’s be perfectly clear. WE DON’T NEED THE ORIGIN STORY FOR SUPERMAN OR BATMAN. PUTTING THEM IN, EVEN BRIEFLY, IS A TOTAL WASTE OF SCREEN TIME.
  • Superman’s Screen Time Was Wasted: Superman’s personal story could have been edited from the film and it would have been just as good, if not better. The only scenes which added were the scenes where he interacted with Batman and Luthor, and the hearing. If the other scenes had been left out it woud have added to the overall impression of him as this distant and overpowered being, instead of changing that to merely indecisive. Or else they could have been used to add more viewpoints and consideration to the themes, rather than just have Supes look mournful and confused.
  • Batman V Superman
    Batman Is a Second-Rate Villain: You know how villains, such as Batman’s line-up of adversaries, often lose because they spend all their time blabbing to the hero instead of just dealing the death blow? Considering how many people he’s thought, you’d really think Batman would know better.

    Featuring The Joker as Lex Luthor: Apparently DC thought that since the Joker is their most popular villain, possibly their most popular character, the movie would be improved by having Lex Luthor talk a lot of oblique nonsense. I don’t think it suited the character at all. Jesse Eisenburg played the character well, but he should have been playing a different character. I think if he’d had better dialogue and direction he would have made a great Luthor. This might lead into the greatest problem of all with the movie:

    The Characters Aren’t Consistent With Their History: I’ll be honest, I don’t much care about Batman or Superman, so I didn’t particularly care that they both seemed rather cavalier with life. However, I think a major idea behind those characters is that they don’t kill people, and changing that really changes the character. I can see how that would annoy fans.

    Finally, the title – Dawn of Justice. What the hell did that have to do with the movie? If it’s setting up the Justice League, it’s pretty lame. You don’t title the movie to be a hint about a sequel.

    Review: Miniature Symphonies

    Miniature Symphonies is a book of song-inspired vignettes, ranging from flash fiction to short essays to emotional soliloquies to the occasional rant. The songs range from heavy metal to jazz to rock to rap, an eclectic mix that means you’re bound to recognise and enjoy at least some of the songs, and be left scratching your head over what some song you’ve never heard of must be like to inspire the piece that was written. The same treatment is applied to books about music and musicians, and films about music and musicians. According to the author: “This book is to offer up the idea of inspiration and how close writing, music and film can be.”

    F.J. Gouldner has a distinctive voice, and a worldview that is chock full of freedom and individuality and anti-government libertarian anarchism. This comes through in his interpretations of the songs that inspire him, screeds of individualism and fighting-the-power. There’s also a healthy dose of a desire to protect close family and friends. Then there are pieces like Carny, which look at how a life can go very wrong. There is a (seemingly) autobiographical bit at the end which gets downright disturbing, and is a brilliant piece of writing if it’s not completely true.

    If you’re into music, looking for short pieces and celebrate freedom, try this book. FJ Gouldner blogs here.

    Review: If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love

    If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky is a second person POV story that works really well. It starts with a tone of wistful reverie – what would the world be like if you were a dinosaur? What would my life, our lives, be like? It flows nicely from this to show nonjudgmental love, and then to accepting that sometimes you have to let people go.

    The reverie is illustrated with a poetic tactic, starting each paragraph by musing on the final sentence of the preceding paragraph. For example:

    They’d work until they’d built you a mate.

    If they built you a mate,

    This works as a poetic device to add cadence to the musing, but is also very useful in showing when the musing ends; the sudden abandoning of this trick coincided with considering actual past events, rather than completely imaginary hypothesis.

    The story flows on, naturally becoming more melancholy, until the situation that started this wistful reverie is revealed. It is disturbingly mundane, which emphasises that it is the mundane that we should truly fear, not the fantastic.

    It is the language that makes this story good, the ideas that crop up in the daydream, the poetic use of words. A couple of favourites:

  • “deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs”
  • “decanted their lives”
  • All in all a good read, to the point where I’ll be following the links at the bottom of the story to read her other work.

    Review: Things You Can Buy For A Penny

    Things You Can Buy For A Penny by Will Kaufman has a number of interesting features about it. The point of view is a sort of second person – the voice is one of a storyteller narrating the tales to an audience. The storyteller has a slightly superior tone, as if the tale is meant to be instructional.

    The story has a good rhythm and good foreshadowing, starting by talking about stories that would later appear, working through them backward (with each story influenced by the one that is set at an earlier time) and then forward again through the protagonists. I liked that structure and thought it was effective at maintaining interest, and linking the disparate tales.
    As for prose, it is fairytale lyrical, a very good choice for this type of story (after all, fairytales are exactly odd stories that are meant to be instructional).

    I felt as if there was something lacking from the story, something that stopped it being great, but I can’t figure out what it is. It could be that the story seems very familiar, either because I’ve read it before or because I’ve read something very similar. I knew how each story would go, and how the overall story would end, so maybe it lacked any surprise for me. Also, maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so tired and stressed when I read it.