Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ice and Fire and insomnia

I was severely sleep-deprived the whole month of June because I got insanely hooked on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. I plowed through the first 3 books (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords), downloaded and watched all 10 episodes of the HBO adaptation series Game of Thrones, and finished reading the 4th book, A Feast for Crows, in time for the July release of the 5th installment, A Dance with Dragons. I got to the epilogue about 2 weeks ago, and when I was done, I wanted to tear my hair out at the thought that it might take years until the 6th book comes out. I am so caught up in the story and so enamored of the characters, it's crazy. Not since Harry Potter have I been this emotionally invested in a literary series.

A Song of Ice and Fire is the sweeping saga of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, set in an ancient time of sorcery and mythical beasts: direwolves, snow zombies, mammoths, changelings, and of course, dragons. But above all, it's an epic tale of human foibles and failings, lusts and loves, faiths and feuds, ambitions and aberrations.
Martin populates his universe with kings, queens, knights, warriors, squires, pages, maesters, septons, sellswords, eunuchs, whores, bastards-- highborn or low, everyone is flawed, but no one is beyond redemption either. Moreover, no one is SAFE from Martin's merciless pen, as he ruthlessly writes off characters, even important and beloved ones, with abrupt, shocking deaths. As a result, though part of a genre that's normally steeped in the abnormal, Ice and Fire has a brutal realism to it. There's that wonderful humanity yes, and it's easy to fall in love with the characters, but there's nothing sentimental about Martin's work.

People like comparing Martin's Ice and Fire with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, but with all due respect to the great Tolkien, I find Martin's work much more enjoyable, not only because it's infinitely more reader-friendly (Tolkien could cure an insomniac with a couple of pages), but also because it has far stronger characterization. While LOTR is quest-centric, Ice and Fire is egocentric in that it really focuses on the people in the story. Tolkien uses up paragraphs to describe every tree and rock and blade of grass the Fellowship of the Ring pass on their way to Mordor; Martin takes great pains to describe a knight's cloak in detail:
the color, the material, the trim, the length, all the way down to the shape of the clasp and what metal it's made of (and sometimes it's not even a knight with a significant role). In this way, each player in the story comes alive through vividly painted verbal portraits, and it is so easy to not only identify, but identify WITH the characters.

At the heart of Ice and Fire are the major houses or families involved in the power struggle for the Iron Throne, the ruling seat of the Seven Kingdoms. The Starks of Winterfell are central figures throughout the series, and are generally perceived to be the good guys, while the Lannisters of Casterly Rock are the baddies. But I hesitate to label anyone as an outright villain, because as I mentioned already, no one is absolutely evil or purely good in Martin's universe (well, maybe except for a handful of truly deranged psychos). My favorites come from different houses, and some only grew on me after 2 or 3 books. I will not enumerate them here for fear of spoiling anyone's reading experience (i.e. revealing which characters are still alive by book 5), suffice it to say some have already been made to kick the bucket by their heartless creator (boo!).

Besides, the true enemy in Ice and Fire isn't a particular house, but "the Others", undead creatures that walk the wintery woods beyond the Wall, a formidably high structure erected to keep unwanted elements out of Westeros. However, since the humans are busy playing their game of thrones, the real threat to the kingdoms mounts unheeded as winter (and in Westeros winter can last years) draws nearer.

Even with this otherworldly touch, as well as some other supernatural/occult elements, Martin's landmark series is still firmly grounded in the harsh realities of humanity, and I often forget that I'm reading something from the fantasy genre. In spite of the medieval setting, the themes, particularly the politics, are very modern. Thus, the appeal to modern readers, even non-fans of fantasy lit, is understandable. And so damn irresistible.

I cannot rave enough about A Song of Ice and Fire, so I'd better stop myself here before I go on a full-blown fangirl gushfest. My parting shot would be that I strongly recommend people to read the books prior to watching the HBO series in order to get a better appreciation of Martin's creation, which translates so well into television but is infinitely richer in text. Then again, if you value your sleep, perhaps it would be wiser not to pick up any of Martin's books at all. I've still got the eyebags to prove it.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Heart of a hero

I'll come right out and say it: Captain America: The First Avenger is my favorite of all the Avengers movies. Iron Man rocked, Thor kicked ass, but Captain America blew me away. In my opinion, it's the most well-rounded and well-made of the trio (I'm not counting Iron Man 2), and as much as the film critic-wannabe in me tried to find fault with it, I just found myself simply enjoying it.

And maybe it's precisely because in spite of the summer blockbuster treatment and all the Avengers hype, Captain America is at the core a simple movie-- and very much in a positive way. There's a wonderfully old-school feel to it, not only because it's set in the 40s, not only thanks to the gorgeous almost-sepia tones of the cinematography, but more vitally due to the smooth, straightforward storytelling. Scrappy, scrawny kid transforms into super soldier, socks it to the bad guys, and gets the girl-- who doesn't love a good ol' underdog tale (pun not intended)?
This is the rare comic book film adaptation that doesn't use CGI and special effects as a crutch or diversionary tactic; in fact it's remarkably easy to overlook or even ignore the visual bells and whistles because the story by itself is so engaging.

Even the romantic angle of the plot is developed in a natural, non-cheesy manner. It helps that the character of Steve Rogers is so gosh-darn likeable, and it's easy to believe that any girl could fall for him... once he gets incredible pecs and abs. But of course the whole point is that it's what's inside that ripped bod that matters most, and Rogers' earnest determination, patriotism, and courage are conveyed surprisingly well by Chris Evans. I say "surprisingly" because before this, I strongly associated him with his role as the annoyingly smarmy Human Torch from the Fantastic Four films. As Captain America, Evans is subtle, sympathetic, and sincere-- quite different from Robert Downey Jr.'s wry Tony Stark and Chris Hemsworth's intense Thor (and the contrast bodes well for the upcoming Avengers movie).

But it's in the scenes where Evans plays the still-skinny, sickly Steve Rogers that he truly shines. Without spoiling anything for anyone who hasn't watched Captain America yet (although I saw it late enough as it is), I can say the best moment of the entire movie for me was the grenade scene, where Rogers is at boot camp under the command of gruff Col. Philips (Tommy Lee Jones). The scene is uncomplicated but smart, funny yet serious, and truly touching, all at the same time. It's brilliant, and exemplifies the spirit of not only the eponymous protagonist, but also the entire movie.

And may I just say how nice it is to see Tommy Lee Jones in action again? I've always thought of him as the quintessential supporting actor since The Fugitive, and in Captain America he is a welcome presence as the sarcastic, no-nonsense authority figure that is his bread and butter. Another talented actor tackling a tailor-made role is Hugo Weaving, as the villain Red Skull a.k.a. Johann Schmidt. It's hard to picture anyone else playing (and looking) the part as perfectly as he does. Props too to the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci for bringing a gentle humor and humanity to Dr. Erskine, who is instrumental in transforming Rogers into Cap. I loved Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, looking every inch like Tony's dad, mustache and all, but I did expect more witty one-liners as befitting a Stark. But of all the supporting players, I was most impressed with leading lady Hayley Atwell. She was the pleasant surprise of the movie for me (second to Evans). As Peggy Carter, she treads the fine line between femme fatale and eye candy with the right amount of grace and self-awareness, and as a result I had no trouble swallowing the idea that someone who looks like a pin-up girl could be a strong, capable army officer (whereas I still snicker at the notion of Blake Lively flying a fighter plane and running an aeronautics corporation).

Captain America delivers on all fronts: casting, acting, cinematography, screenplay, special effects, costumes, props (how awesome does Cap's shield look with those realistic scratches on the surface?) and set design are all excellent. It's an entertaining movie, a solid "origins" film, and a respectable comic book adaptation. Above all, like its hero, Captain America has a whole lot of heart. And ultimately, that's what what makes a story-- and a hero-- simply super.