Sunday, 23 March 2014

Picking Up Plans in Palma

Well here again readers do I have the pleasure of reviewing a piece by fellow blogger Matthew Quinn. This one comes once again from his excellent alternate history universe (which I have mentioned before) and deals with some good old fashioned spy vs. spy action over who gets the plans to the big old battle station parked in orbit.

Since this potentially decides who wins World War III, the stakes really couldn't be higher! Taking place in a world where an uber-Calvinist Afrikaner Confederation (comprising much of Southern Africa, India, and the Middle East) has combined into an alliance of various vassal states vs the League of Democracies (United States, Germany, United Kingdom and colonies, among others). It's a Cold War threatening to go hot and we get some interesting looks at the world and culture behind it.

The story I present to you is: Picking Up Plans in Palma

The story of course takes place in Palma within the Confederation and our hapless young spy (who isn't even a field agent) is sent in to pick up the plans after an informant gets caught due to a high ranking traitor exposing multiple people. Therefore Connor Kelly, an unlikely field agent, gets sent into the fray.

It's a fun spy story with lots of interesting twists and turns but shows us an interesting side of the Afrikaner Confederation. Connor is dating a Confederate expat, one who's a flaming liberal by the Confederation's standards but insanely conservative by American standards which makes for an interesting contrast at home. Due to her origins she's also under intense scrutiny from the American intelligence services, something with make's poor Connor's life even more difficult as he falls under scrutiny for potentially being a liability.

There's also more interesting cultural separation as we learn that people flee the Confederation because of the new near theocratic Theonomic Party which has taken power in the Confederation. It's religious intolerance and Dominionist tendencies make it unpalatable to many Afrikaners and even twist the guts of many moderates (as Connor himself finds out). It's a great cultural comparison.

There's some wonderful spy craft in evidence with lots of interesting action I just can't spoil. Suffice to say its an action packed, but fast read.

I'd heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a good spy thriller on Kindle, and I'd recommend any of Mr. Quinn's other work as well. He's established a wonderful universe and I'm looking forward to seeing more of it.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

Well for my first movie review of the year I'd like to give you a review of 300: Rise of an Empire, the rather unexpected sequel to the cult classic 300. Was it worth the money it costs to go to the theater these days? Yes, and here's why!

Well I have to say I had been waiting for this unexpected sequel to 300 since I first heard about it and I've been trying to keep my expectations low just to make sure I didn't ruin for the movie for myself. It had an effective marketing campaign and it wasn't played as a re-tread of 300 but rather a wider use of the same style. This made it intriguing and set the stage for what would hopefully be an excellent action movie.

The good news is that it manages to do just that. The opening ten minutes are a bloody fantastic flashback which gives us a fictional version of the Battle of Marathon and it is an amazing show. I saw this in 3D and while normally I'm not one to like it I have to say the style here worked out very well. The intense violence and extreme use of blood was amplified by the 3D aspect and made for a fairly enjoyable visual spectacle.

If you liked the action in 300 you won't be disappointed by the action here. Its that signature fast paced bloody slow motion style that made the first movie so enjoyable. We get it in spades here and even get to see it applied to triremes ramming each other in the Aegean Sea! Let me say it makes for some spectacular viewing!

This but with far more rock and blood.

Though I can't say the film is historically accurate (and is better for it really) it shows some impressive skill at taking what naval combat way back in the day was like and adapting it to the big screen. You really feel the hits as rams strike home, feel a savage joy as you watch boarding actions and counter boarding actions and see the main characters match wits and put their strategies to the test, many times in fairly ingenious ways.

The characters themselves are fun to watch. We get a repeat performance from a few former 300 stars such as Lena Hedy as Queen Gorgo, David Wenham as Dilios, Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes, and Andrew Pleavin as Daxos. Its actually nice to see them reprise their roles as it gives continuity to the story and a nice bit of depth seeing it all as part of a greater drama. There's also very little sense that the film directors are just shoving these characters in our face and telling us to like them, here it's just them being treated as part of a larger story which is nice.

Then of course we have our two main characters who really run the show. Though as a caveat yes Xerxes is a bigger character here, but he's really more of a vessel in through which part of the plot is conveyed. His journey to becoming god-king is actually fairly unspectacular and delivered entirely in narrative flashback, it's a breathtaking sequence and one which is well crafted but it doesn't change the fact that the two main characters are Themistocles, portrayed by Sullivan Stapleton, and Eva Green as Artemisia.

These two characters just steal the show honestly, and the banter and match of wits between them is what drives the plot. Stapleton as Themistocles just nails his character, a man different from Leonidas in every way, he's an ideologue fighting for a united Greece and a commander who has to take a much more flexible approach to his tactics than Leonidas did. It's his skill for battle and the desire to see the men under his command survive that makes him human and far more able for the audience to relate to. There's also a bit of a sub plot where his actions at Marathon haunt him for how they affect the future, but his speech about the weight of command and how his orders produce widows and orphans is one that stuck with me after the film. He also manages to carry the bad ass warrior leader role very well coming off as a flawed but brilliant hero.

Then we have Eva Gree as Artemisia, and holy crap have we got a villain! She gives new meaning to the term femme fatale, and she carries her role beautifully! Honestly I have to agree with Movie Bob where he says she probably sets the standard for how roles like this are portrayed. She's a swashbuckling unhinged killer with a brutal goal of vengeance on her mind and her back story makes this totally understandably and even gives her otherwise villainous character a mildly sympathetic outlook. Until she starts dismembering people and throwing her officers overboard in weights for failing her of course. Her scenes are all memorable and she comes off as powerful, charismatic, and totally unpredictable. She's honestly a joy to watch in this role and I have to say one of the best female villains in ages.

Story wise the movie is much more grand than 300 with a sweeping plot which encompasses the fate of all Greece and no less than three battles. Really its just a fictionalized retelling of the battles of Artemisium and Salamis, but it does them wonderfully. You get this sense of drama and feel the raised stakes as the two characters pit their will against one another on screen. Yes there's a bit of a sub plot with the continuation of the story of Leonidas and Gorgo after his brave last stand, but that's merely a backdrop against the larger battle for Greece. The secondary characters are all still fun to watch and they still have some deep moments and little scenes that touch you as you see them. It's a great story that compliments the action of the film.

The score is wonderful and is really a re-tread of the score from 300 but that's what makes it good and just pumps you up for the action to come while establishing proper mood.

If the movie has any weak points its that it really does undercut Xerxes character to an absurd degree, making him a mere plaything of Artemisia, almost wrapped completely around her finger. That does make his presence more of a weight on the film, but it establishes an interesting mission for Artemisia versus Xerxes will. There's also just enough action to fill in the points around the drama and story but I did leave the theater feeling that there could have been more action in there.

All in all though the film is really satisfying and I couldn't have enjoyed it more. I'd heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to see a damn good action film.