Review: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

When a strange old lady turns up at your house and tells you random facts about five-dimensional space, you should probably call the police.

Fortunately, that does not happen in “A Wrinkle In Time,” where reality can twist and bend, and strange worlds are just a tesseract away. Madeleine L’Engle’s classic sci-fantasy is many things — a coming-of-age tale, a rescue quest, a clash between good and evil — spun with rich, luminous prose and eerie alien worlds.

On a stormy night, the strange Mrs. Whatsit takes shelter in the Murray household, and informs Mrs. Murray that “there is such a thing as a tesseract.” Teenage Meg Murray suspects that that the tesseract has something to do with her father’s mysterious disappearance. So she, her little brother Charles Wallace and her classmate Calvin go off to get more answers from Mrs. Whatsit and her pals, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which.

The three old woman soon whisk the kids off on a journey through time and space, to worlds and creatures that are utterly alien to them. But it turns out that Mr. Murray has not merely become lost on an alien world — he has been ensnared by an evil intelligence that threatens them all. To save her family — not to mention the entire universe — Meg will have to face the most horrifying threat of all.

“A Wrinkle in Time” is a book that defies easy classification — it isn’t typical fantasy or sci-fi, it’s a CHILDREN’S novel that integrates physics and philosophy into the story, and it’s rife with religious symbolism. L’Engle also had a truly sublime writing style — she wrote in a rich, almost sensual style with lots of little details that make you feel like you are actually THERE.

And L’Engle had the rare talent for making you feel like the universe is a vast, strange place filled with wonders and terrors, which are physically bizarre but spiritually familiar to us. This is a story where you can be instantly swept from our planet to a dark world filled with four-armed eyeless yetis, or a grey planet of perfect order, and somehow it feels wholly real.

And while the characters sound like stereotypes — the weird old ladies, the plain girl, the child genius, the popular boy — they really aren’t. Meg seems kind of whiny and wangsty at first, but once the kids get swept up in their quest she gets to show her inner strength at last. Charles Wallace doesn’t bug me as most child geniuses do, and Calvin serves as the “normal” one who serves as a source of strength. And the Mrs. W’s are absolutely delightful — eccentric, kindly and utterly mysterious.

“A Wrinkle in Time” is one of those rare books that can change the way you see the universe — and it’s a friggin’ good read too. A richly imagined, exquisitely written story.

Review: Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Royce the thief and Hadrian the swordsman are known as Ririya — for the right price, and given enough time, they can steal pretty much anything.

They are also the last people you would expect to be suddenly in the middle of a massive political and religious war, but that is what happens in “Theft of Swords,” the first of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations omnibi, which compiles the first two books of his epic fantasy series. Rather than overstuffed mythology or dark-and-gritty realism, Sullivan crafts a tale with most of the fantasy tropes which somehow manages to feel fresh, fun and complicated.

In “The Crown Conspiracy, a foppish noble hires Royce and Hadrian to steal a legendary dueling sword… but when they get to the place where it’s hidden, they don’t find a sword. They find the king’s corpse instead. In a matter of minutes, the two find themselves framed for the king’s murder, and the enraged Prince Alric orders them gruesomely executed the very next day. Fortunately for the pair, Princess Arista knows that someone else killed her father, and she fears that soon the same person will assassinate her brother.

So she is willing to free them, with the stipulation that they kidnap Alric for his own safety, and take him to someone named Esrahaddon. Given the choice between death and babysitting a bratty new king, Royce and Hadrian decide to drag the king on a road trip, but they quickly discover that they are being hunted. And they also learn that this conspiracy to seize the crown has a lot more elements than a simple assassination…

In “Avempartha,” Royce and Hadrian are approached by Thrace, a young girl from the village of Dahlgren, which is being ravaged by an unseen monster. They end up coming with her, because she was sent by a “Mr Haddon,” aka the long-imprisoned wizard Esrahaddon. When the thieves arrive in Dahlgren, they find a broken community haunted by the deaths of loved ones, and constantly threatened by nightly attacks.

Even better, Esrahaddon reveals that the monster is an unkillable magical weapon. The only way to destroy it is a magic sword INSIDE the tower. Which is on a cliff. Surrounded by a very deep river. With no way in. But more complications arise when the Novron Church sends representatives to oversee a strange contest — the person who successfully slays the Gilarabrywn will be considered the Heir of Novron.

Most high fantasy these days falls into two basic categories:
– Derivative of Tolkien, where the author chokes the story on excessive worldbuilding that the story doesn’t actually need.
– Derivative of Martin, where the author bogs down the story on grim, dark grittiness until it’s no longer entertaining.

And what makes “Theft of Swords” so charming is that it isn’t like either of these. Sullivan embraces a lot of fantasy tropes and cliches (elves, dwarves, wizards, Europeanish medievalish culture), but the story he spins out of them is oddly refreshing. He weaves out a genuinely epic story, based on centuries of fictional history and complex international politics, but the story itself stays a pretty intimate affair. And he imbues it with a sense of history, as Esrahaddon laments that a land that once thrived on culture, technology and magic has fallen into stolid ignorance and primitivism. It gives the feeling of a once-great civilization that has decayed, and its history is mostly forgotten.

It’s also pretty fun to read — Sullivan’s prose is nimble and quick-moving, with lots of clever dialogue (“It’s my first day.” “And already I am trapped in a timeless prison. I shudder to think what might have happened if you had a whole week”), wild battles (especially against the Gilarabrywn), schemes from religious and political figures, and the brewing sense that a wider war involving the elves is about to bloom. And despite the seriousness of the situation, he weaves in some quirky humor (a dramatic heroic confrontation between a knight and the Gilarabrywn… ends with the knight getting anticlimactically flattened).

Hadrian and Royce have a touch of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser about them, but these are very distinct characters on their own — one a dark, mysterious thief with a rather cruel outlook and a murky past, and the other a soft-hearted mercenary who totes around three swords and has an ancient fighting style. They’re confident, smart and spend their free time hanging out with the beautiful local madam (whom Royce clearly carries a torch for), a rough bartender, and an assortment of rogues and weirdos.

And the supporting characters are equally interesting — Alric starts out as a bratty prince, but slowly matures into a good king as he realizes what must be done to save his country. The timid monk Myron provides plenty of comic relief (“They are even prettier than horses”) but also a poignancy and innocence, and there’s also the mysterious handless wizard Esrahaddon and the strong-willed, magic-using princess Arista.

“Theft of Swords” is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable pair of high fantasy novels, which manage to tell entertaining adventure yarns even as they set the stage for a much bigger, more epic conflict. One of the most entertaining, fresh and cleverly-written fantasy series in years.

Review: Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello

The screaming blonde in the shower, the creepy hotel, the guy who keeps his mummified mom in the old family home… everybody knows about “Psycho,” if only by cultural osmosis.

But probably not as many people know about the history of the classic Alfred Hitchcock movie, and just how tough it was to bring it to the screen. Cue Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” which compellingly sketches out every single step of “Psycho” — from the bizarre serial killer who inspired the book to the mysterious PR campaign.

It begins with Ed Gein, a serial killer who inspired Richard Bloch’s pulpy horror novel “Psycho.” It was an unlikely choice for the great Alfred Hitchcock to adapt — a small, gritty weird story with a shocking twist ending and two graphic stabbings. But it did appeal to his “fiendish” sense of humor, and gave the great filmmaker a chance to make what he wanted — something fresh and “young,” something in the “Les Diaboliques” mold.

He then proceeded to make a movie that went against all the “rules” — he ignored Paramount’s horror and disgust, he hired a relatively inexperienced screenwriter, he used the crew from his hit TV show, and he cast the film’s biggest star as the woman who is brutally stabbed after only forty minutes.

Rebello goes through the production step-by-step, following every aspect of the casting, the props, the camera techniques, the infamous shower scene (the blood is actually chocolate syrup), the performances, the costumes — just about every single aspect of the moviemaking process. And from there he follows the story of “Psycho” into the movie theatres, where Hitchcock’s film disgusted critics, shocked audiences, and ended up becoming his magnum opus.

I usually find highly “technical” books about moviemaking to be dull — I’ve never made a movie, nor have I been on a movie set, so the behind-the-scenes descriptions of camera angles and lighting are simply something I can’t visualize. Maybe it would be different if I were able to go onto a movie set and see these things personally, but currently they are as impenetrable to me as the inner workings of a space probe.

But Rebello managed to make this interesting. In fact, he managed to make every step of the process fascinating — which probably wasn’t hurt by an entire chapter devoted to a grotesque serial killer, Ed Gein. His writing style is detailed and rich in details, letting you envision virtually everything he has to say.

He also mines a LOT of interviews for information about the shoot, and not just the actors either. There are countless delightful anecdotes about making “Psycho,” such as the way they tried to film the falling-down-the-stairs scene. Or Joseph Stefano talking about how, as he and Hitchcock were plotting out the shower scene, they were interrupted by the director’s wife Alma — and promptly started screaming. Some of this stuff is hilarious.

It also gives a fascinating portrait of Hitchcock — an accomplished artist who loved twisted, weird stories, with a wickedly mischievous sense of humor and a lot of eccentricities. Rebello doesn’t delve too deep into Hitchcock’s psychology (which is always a dangerous road for any nonfiction writer), but he lets the various anecdotes about the Master of Suspense form a portrait on their own.

But while he gives a lot of attention to Hitchcock’s personality, style and artistic contributions, he also makes it clear that the movie was the masterwork of many different people — from actress Janet Leigh (who spent days seminaked in the shower) to the dude who butchered a bunch of melons to get the right “stab sound.” Credit for the work is spread around liberally.

“Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” is a fascinating, full-bodied look at the inner workings of a humble little movie… which just happened to be one of Hitchcock’s greatest films ever. A must-read for any enthusiast for the medium of film, “Psycho” and/or Hitchcock.

Review: Jason by Laurell K. Hamilton

Some time ago, author Laurell K. Hamilton came out as polyamorous and bisexual. This information is for all the people out there who don’t read the highlights of her life… lucky jerks.

Normally I wouldn’t comment on the personal life of an author in a review of one of their books, but that almost impossible to do that when it comes to Hamilton’s second Anita Blake side-novel, “Jason.” This novel is effectively part of Hamilton’s ongoing fictionalization of her real life. Unfortunately, that means it’s full of “kinky” and “edgy” sex as imagined by a sheltered evangelical Christian grandmother who only vaguely knows what BDSM is.

Jason has a problem — he’s in an open relationship with his lesbian-leaning bisexual girlfriend JJ, but she’s not fulfilling his BDSM wants. She is totally okay with him having someone else do that for him, because she isn’t into that. Yeah, the “problem” in this book isn’t really a problem, but for some reason we’re supposed to think it is. The real issue that is a single person in the vast far-reaching web of Anita’s lovers’ lovers is NOT into BDSM orgies. God forbid!

And of course, since JJ is bisexual, she needs to have both male and female lovers. Because we need one of the most harmful stereotypes of bisexuals, presented casually as a fact.

Jason wants Anita to educate JJ on how sex in the Anita Blake series works, which is that everyone must like the sex that Anita likes. So Anita is going to have sex with JJ, among other people, while also forcing her lover Jade to do things that terrify her, then blaming her when she doesn’t like them. Effectively, Anita now has a white girlfriend, so she doesn’t want the Asian one anymore.

Here’s the problem with “Jason,” as well as most of Hamilton’s recent books — nobody is allowed to be anything but what she is. According to her, you are an awful person if you are monogamous, monosexual (in practice or in sexuality), don’t like painful sex, aren’t okay with “sharing” or don’t want to participate in orgies. God forbid she accept that different people express their sexuality in different ways.

It also takes place in a parallel universe where all people ever think or talk about is sex. Seriously. One character laments that she doesn’t like taking showers because “you can never take a shower without a man thinking you want sex.” Maybe on Hamilton’s home planet that is true.

And anyone hoping for vampire hunting in this “Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” novel will be bitterly disappointed. The characters spend the book either:
A) Having sex
B) Talking about sex

Both of these are absolute torture, especially to anyone who doesn’t like Hamilton’s very specific fetishes (such as having her private parts “worried” as if by an angry terrier) or her tendency to talk about sexual body parts with the passion and eroticism of a half-asleep octogenarian schoolmarm. And it’s full of cringeworthy things that she thinks are cool — for instance, after some group sex, Nathaniel and Jason fist-bump like a pair of frat boys.

And you could play bingo with the tired, overworked Anita Blake tropes on display — casual misogyny, biphobia, hatred of blondes, random rage, bashing Richard, Nathaniel being creepy, Anita whining about her dead mom/ex-fiance/looks/anything imperfect like Jason not drinking his coffee, and pages and pages of descriptions of clothes and hair.

But the most hideous part of the book is how the character of Jade is treated — since Jade is wildly androphobic and won’t “get over it” for Anita’s convenience, Anita decides to FORCE Jade to have sexual contact with males. She does this, sobbing and terrified. So we learn that Anita wants a girlfriend to emphasize how she’s “edgy” (in the pop music “I kissed a girl and I liked it” sense), but doesn’t want to be bothered by actually caring about an abuse survivor. If ONE therapy session doesn’t “fix” her then she clearly isn’t willing to be fixed.

Needless to say, Anita now comes across as more evil than your average Bond villain — all she needs is a shark tank for people who have displeased her. Anyone not “therapied” into a happy polyamorous Stepford wife is tormented, and she now demands that people sit in order of how much she likes them. Most hilariously, she has to be massaged into sexual bliss to avoid blowing up during a conference. She’s like a mad monarch, but less impressive.

“Jason” manages to be disgusting, unintentionally hilarious AND grotesquely boring — an impressive feat for any paranormal romance, especially one that doesn’t even have a plot. Dodge this silver bullet.

Review: Jujutsu Kaisen Volume 1: Ryomen Sukuna

There are a lot of ways that shonen manga heroes get their powers or abilities… but I don’t think anyone before Yuji Itadori gained them by swallowing a decayed finger.

But it definitely allows “Jujutsu Kaisen Volume 1: Ryomen Sukuna” to stand apart from the pack. Gege Akutami’s breakout fantasy/horror manga series doesn’t stray too far from shonen tropes here, but it does distinguish itself with some nimble humor, a likable protagonist, an intriguing villain, and a promising supernatural world of curses to explore.

Supernatural occurrences in our world are caused by curses (which look like weird, very imaginative monsters) manifested by cursed energy. The most powerful of these was the malevolent Ryomen Sukuna, whose twenty fingers are capable of causing all kinds of chaos. The only ones who can destroy these curses are jujutsu sorcerers, who use their own cursed energy to exorcise harmful curses.

Which brings us to Yuji Itadori. When his friends accidentally unwrap one of Sukuna’s fingers, they’re attacked by powerful curses that first-year jujutsu sorcerer Megumi is unable to deal with. To save his friends, Yuji swallows the finger. Not his brightest moment. But surprisingly, he turns out to be one of the rare people who can control Sukuna, rather than being killed or possessed.

So the eccentric Gojo manages to get a deal for Yuji: the jujutsu sorcerers will allow him to live until he consumes all twenty fingers, which will allow them to kill Sukuna once and for all. Yuji transfers to the Tokyo Prefectural Jujutsu High School, where he’s in the same class as Megumi and the pushy Nobara. But none of them are prepared for just how nasty things are about to get.

“Jujutsu Kaisen Volume 1” has various familiar tropes of an urban-fantasy shonen series – you have the secret magical organization that fights evil stuff, various monsters needing to be slain, an eccentric but powerful teacher, a tough but big-hearted teenage hero and his complementary friends, and so on. None of this is bad, mind – it’s more important for a story to be good than to be wholly original, and Gege Akutami’s opening chapters are pretty solid work.

Of course, the introductory chapters are a little rough, but still very effective, and Akutami has a knack for tugging the heartstrings, comedy (the punching stuffed animals) and bloody fight scenes. He has a real talent for generating creatures that are grotesque and unnerving, such as the grinning fish-man or the stretched-face creature asking about receipts. Whenever a curse appears, even a weak one, there’s a sense of grinding dread that can only be dispelled by its exorcism.

The art is similar to the writing – it’s a little rough, but effective. Akutami’s style is lanky and angular, with lots of detail and greater realism given to his fight scenes and monsters. The guy has talent, and it should be rewarding to see how his art evolves over the course of the series.

Yuji Itadori is a pretty classic shonen hero – he’s a teenage boy who isn’t the brightest, but is ridiculously strong and has a will of iron. He’s also given a personal goal (to make sure people have good deaths), but isn’t unchallenged in his goals: one of his fights has him freaking out and lamenting that he doesn’t want to die, which is painfully relatable. The rest of the main cast is also pretty solid – Megumi is reserved and uptight, but has a more compassionate side; Nobara is brash and capable; Gojo is the weird and cheerful mentor figure.

For those who have enjoyed series like “Bleach” or “Kekkaishi,” “Jujutsu Kaisen Volume 1: Ryomen Sukuna” is a solid beginning to the hit series, leaving you hungry for the next volume.

Review: Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Even though many have tried, only a few fantasy books have the qualities that come naturally to “Lud-In-The-Mist” – a quirky sense of humor, a complicated and timeless plot, and a sense of the ethereally magical that makes you feel like you’re walking on the thin edge between the real and the mystical.

And while not as influential as works by the titans of the fantasy genre, Hope Mirrlees’ classic novel is nevertheless a haunting and engaging read – it’s as if “The Hobbit” had been written by Lord Dunsany, edited by Neil Gaiman and given a few extra flourishes by Peter S. Beagle. It’s a sweet pastoral story that slowly blossoms out into a very unique story — there’s a little murder mystery, an amusing village of hobbity people, and a quicksilver dream of beautiful fairyland and otherworldly danger.

Fairy is forbidden in the town of Lud — not just fairy creatures and their exquisite fruit, but mentions of them, the dead who walk with them, and the Duke Aubrey who left with them. But all his life, the steadfastly dull Mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer has a lingering longing/fear for a strangely magical musical note. Despite all this, life remains boring and rather pleasant — until Chanticleer’s son Ranulph begins acting strangely, claiming that he’s eaten fairy fruit.

After Chanticleer sends his son off to a farm for a vacation, the teenage girls at Miss Primrose’s Crabapple Academy suddenly seem to go pleasantly insane, and then race off into the hills. Life seems to seep out of the old town, and Nathaniel must connect the present crises to a past conspiracy, all of which hinges on Fairyland, fairy fruit, and the sinister doctor Endymion Leer. The journey to discover the truth will take him out of the everyday world — and change him forever.

“Lud-in-the-Mist” is not one of those stories where the fairies and elves feel like humans with pointy ears, and their magic can be easily understood. Mirrlees conjures a dreamlike atmosphere and faraway lands that are only glimpsed in passing – there’s the underlying feeling that there’s a frightening, exquisite world that is barely separated from ours.

Some parts of “Lud-in-the-Mist” are pleasantly familiar, even if you don’t live in pastoral British regions of the early twentieth century. Little charming towns full of staid, prosperous people who try to avoid the dark, wild things that dwell outside their borders, and definitely The strange and exquisite is always just out of sight, and Mirrlees’ writing is capable of bringing that to life.

She also is capable of spinning up a very solid plot to match the fantastical atmosphere – she intertwines a fantasy and a murder mystery seamlessly into one another, and then winds Chanticleer’s personal journey into it. Her writing style also evolves over the course of the story; during the first parts of the book, her style is pleasantly cozy, mellow and reminiscent of the era in which she wrote it. But as the story blossoms into a tangle of crises and mysteries, Mirrlees’ writing becomes more lush, exquisite and haunting.

It also has a hero who doesn’t fit the usual mold of a high fantasy lead character. Chanticleer is very reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins – who was first written several years later – being a pleasant, boring, stodgy middle-aged man. But we learn that he has a brave, eccentric interior that gradually transforms him from respectability to something more attuned to the fairy world. And the other inhabitants of Lud are similarly engaging and just a little bit quirky — fairy-struck teenagers, snippy old ladies, the haughty farmer’s wife, the quietly malevolent Endymion Leer, and the happily mad people.

While it doesn’t have the fame that many subsequent fantasy novels still enjoy, Hope Mirrlees’ “Lud-in-the-Mist” is a thing of beauty – funny, exquisite and boundlessly clever. Most of all, it will leave you feeling like you just ate fairy fruit.

Review: Twixt

Once upon a time, Francis Ford Coppola made movies like “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.” He also made “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” but that doesn’t eclipse his accomplishments.

But Francis Ford Coppola clearly has entered the “I’m going to do whatever I want, even if it makes no sense” phase in his career. Exhibit A: “Twixt,” a baffling little movie that twines together ghosts, vampire bikers, child murder, Edgar Allen Poe and a big messy knot of subplots that may or may not be real.

I once tried to summarize “Twixt” to an acquaintance, and ended up babbling incoherently about Poe, vampires, ghosts and dead children. But I’ll try to tackle it anyway: Second-string horror author Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) is touring for his latest novel, and ends up in a small town that doesn’t even have a bookstore. That evening, he encounters a strange, ghostly young girl who calls herself “V” (Elle Fanning).

He soon finds that strange things are afoot in this town — time seems to be frozen (none of the clock faces move), there is a gang of bikers who may be vampires camped out on the lakeshore, and the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe visits him in his dreams to reveal half-forgotten secrets. And what does all this have to do with the recently-murdered girl lying in the police station?

It’s really hard to even pass judgement on “Twixt” — it would involve understanding what the director was trying to do… or thinking… or understanding ANYTHING. It feels like Coppola had four or five different ideas for stories (“Vampire bikers! A vampire/ghost orphan! Dream messages from Poe! A failing author with personal issues!”), and so he squashes all of them into one movie.

The result feels like a mad hybrid of Stephen King and David Lynch. The small-town setting, the supernatural threats and the eccentric characters feel somewhat like something King would put in a story… but the way it’s presented is wildly Lynchian, with giant lumps of misty symbolism and blurred borders between fantasy and reality. You could watch this movie a dozen times, and still not be sure what is happening.

For instance, one scene features Baltimore wandering into a blue-lit bar, where he listens to two people who speak in an affected, dreamlike way and occasionally sings “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” After one of them attacks V, they babble some more about how the clocks do not work and time cannot be measured… and Baltimore just leaves. Utterly baffling… and no, it is never referred to again.

I suspect that Val Kilmer was just as baffled, because that’s effectively the performance he gives — total confusion. He does a decent job with Baltimore’s frustration and grief over the problems in his life, but most of the time he’s left staring around in confusion. Elle Fanning isn’t in much of the movie, but she does do a good job as a girl who may be a ghost, a vampire, a dream, or whatever.

But one thing that Coppola does not fail at is making the movie beautiful — it’s a misty, night-hued story that drifts over lakes, through ruined stone walls, through moonlight-dappled forests. Some of the greenscreen is a bit obvious, but it doesn’t distract from the hauntingly lovely, surreal visuals that fill most of the movie.

Francis Ford Coppola has become the elderly winemaking version of people who make amateur horror shorts and put them up on youtube. “Twixt” is utterly baffling and bizarre, but at least it’s a pretty kind of baffling/bizarre.

Review: Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1

Once upon a time, Xie Lian was the beloved crown prince of a beautiful kingdom, who ascended to godhood in his teens. But then he interfered in mortal affairs, made things worse, and was cast out. He ascended to godhood a second time… and was kicked out again.

And in “Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1,” we find out what happens when this unfortunate godling ascends to deityhood for the third time. This donghua series (think anime, but Chinese) based on Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s novels of the same name, is a slow-burn that mingles romance with a uniquely Chinese brand of high fantasy, where the powerful or virtuous can become deities, but the tormented and tragic may become something else.

Upon his third ascension to godhood, Xie Lian discovers that nothing has really changed – he’s deeply in debt, and none of the other gods like or respect him. The usual way to pay off his debt is by receiving merits from the worship of mortals… except people stopped worshiping him eight hundred years ago. But there is another way – he can investigate a certain mysterious problem on a rural mountain, where seventeen brides have been abducted by a mysterious “ghost groom.”

With the assistance of the sulky, combative Fu Yao and Nan Feng, he goes undercover to find out what is abducting the girls – and ends up being escorted up the mountain by a handsome, mysterious stranger dressed all in red, who turns into a swarm of silver butterflies. But that man was NOT the ghost groom – which leaves Xie Lian to uncover the horror that lives atop the mountain. To make matters worse, the locals are also searching for the ghost groom, which only makes things more complicated when things inevitably go pear-shaped.

After that, Xie Lian decides to set up a shrine to himself in an abandoned shack, with the help of a young man named San Lang, who is very obviously not what he pretends to be. But trouble finds Xie Lian again when someone tries to trick him into going to the Half Moon Pass in the Gobi desert, near the dead city-state of Banyue. Even weirder, the other gods seem to avoid talking about this.

Along with San Lang, Fu Yao and Nan Feng, he sets out to the pass to find out what’s going on there, and ends up encountering a sandstorm, a few dozen merchants… and a cave full of scorpion-snakes. But that’s only the beginning of the undying terrors that still dwell in Banyue, killing anyone unlucky enough to pass through. And soon Xie Lian realizes that someone in Banyue has a very strong connection to him.

I personally like my romance stories with a heavy dose of plot, which makes “Heaven Official’s Blessing” perfectly balanced – even if the slow-blooming romance weren’t part of the story, it would still be a solid fantasy-horror series with gods, ghosts, goblins, zombies, and a really freaky undead face in the ground. The ethereal beauty of the lead characters and their sparkling heavens is a stark contrast to the nightmarish creatures that lurk in the mortal world below.

It’s also a fantasy that feels distinct from its anime cousins – its world and cosmology are uniquely Chinese, drawing heavily from Taoism and other Chinese beliefs. The two supernatural mysteries are pretty well-developed, both horrifying and yet tragic, and the stories occasionally slow down a little for either some mild comic relief (Fu Yao and Nan Feng’s constant fighting) or an ethereal romantic moment between Xie Lian and his mysterious red-clad man of the silver butterflies.

The animation is quite lovely for the most part, with some really beautiful moments standing out in the Puqi Temple or when the red-clad man escorts Xie Lian up the mountain. The only area where it falls down is when CGI is inserted, usually where it’s not needed. It’s very clunky.

Xie Lian is an easy character to like – perpetually unlucky and unpopular, yet unfailingly earnest and kind to everyone around him (as long as they don’t beat up girls). Howard Wang gives him a low-key, soothing kind of voice even when he’s upset. The mysterious Hua Cheng (whose identity is blatantly obvious) makes for a solid love interest, and the cast is rounded out by Fu Yao and Nan Feng, a couple of clashing, abrasive young men who actually do care about the disgraced prince.

“Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1” is an animated show that perfectly balances out a slow-growing romance, beautiful animation, and solid fantasy/horror. For those seeking an alternative to anime, this might do the trick.

Review: The Eternal (1998)

A mummy movie is possibly the easiest kind of horror movie to make — it comes to life and terrorizes the living. Simple, but effective.

And yet “The Eternal: Kiss of the Mummy” (aka “Trance”) has managed to screw that simple formula up. Despite the ever-interesting presence of Christopher Walken and some pretty cinematography, the story itself is a flaccid, flabby mess of plot holes and basic writing errors — including some of the least sympathetic characters I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Nora (Alison Elliott) and Jim (Jared Harris) are a pair of wealthy alcoholics in New York, who have decided to dry out on a visit to her grandmother in Ireland. Yes, they plan to dry out in the land of Guinness, because apparently it doesn’t count as booze. But when they arrive, Nora immediately blacks out and crashes the car.

And it keeps getting better — her grandmother has that highly selected senility you only see in movies, and her weird uncle Bill (Walken) only seems interested in the bog-preserved mummy of a druid witch who murder-suicided in the Iron Age. Of course, the mummy comes back to life… for no reason that’s ever explained… and she looks exactly like Nora. Now she apparently wants to steal Nora’s body… even though her own body seems to be working fine.

Director/writer Michael Almereyda seems to have only a vague idea of how proper storytelling works. Important characters appear without introduction two-thirds of the way through, logic is constantly violated (so Niamh doesn’t realize that a cigarette is ON FIRE, but she knows what whiskey is?), and the awkward climax ends up pretty much making no sense at all.

Worst of all: huge oozing lumps of exposition are constantly thrown at us like lumps of excrement… from people who couldn’t POSSIBLY know what they are talking about. How does Bill know the history of Niamh? Magic, apparently. How does Alice know all about her powers and intentions? Never explained. It becomes infuriating after awhile, especially when you realize that Alice is JUST there to exposit.

Almereyda tries to compensate by draping the movie in a dreamy atmosphere and Ireland’s peaty, raw beauty… but it’s not enough. The movie sludges by at a painfully slow pace, with lots of people wandering around and having the world’s slowest conversations, most of which are pretentious muckity-mystical drivel (“Every day; all the time. You wake up, open your eyes, take a breath, start over: that’s how it is”). And of course, Alice monologues over everything. EVERYTHING.

And rarely do you see a movie that is so padded, yet STILL manages to drag by at a snail’s pace. For instance, several characters fall down the stairs. There’s apparently no symbolic meaning to it — they just fall down the stairs because it eats up a few minutes of screen time and looks dramatic.

It also has a cast where you root for nobody, because nobody is likable. Christopher Walken comes the closest merely by being himself — weird, off-kilter, and utterly unconvincing as a lifelong resident of Ireland. But he sadly exits the movie after only a few scenes, and we’re left with… everyone else.

I kept waiting for a moment to come when we start to like and empathize with the lead characters — a pair of rich, irresponsible alcoholics — only to eventually realize that Almereyda intended for us to like them already. Elliott and Harris are mediocre and charmless here, especially since Elliott has to play the dual role of Nora and Niamh, which she does with slack-jawed dullness worthy of Kristen Stewart.

And the character of Alice is the most naked, blatant “exposition fairy” that I have ever seen in a film. I kept thinking that she was the love child that Nora claimed to have aborted, but it turns out that she is nobody special. Just a source of pseudo-mystical narration… and nothing else.

Watching “The Eternal: Kiss of the Mummy” is like being slowly dragged facedown through Ireland’s mud — it will leave you cold and miserable. And eventually, you’ll want a Guinness to dull the pain.

Review: The Modern Faerie Tales

Over the past few decades, many urban fantasies with a similar theme came up – some girl discovers that she’s part/all faerie and becomes enmeshed in that world. Success varied.

But of particular note is the trilogy that helped popularize that trope – Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside,” a darkly glittering collection of clever, entrancing urban fantasies that spin up spellbinding stories of the fair folk… and then add a little grime and blood to the mix, without sacrificing any of its beauty.

“Tithe” introduces us to Kaye, a young girl who has spent years traveling with her mother’s rock band… until one night when her mother’s boyfriend/guitarist tries to stab her. With nowhere else to go, Kaye and her mother return to her grandmother’s New Jersey house for the time being, which brings back memories for Kaye of the imaginary faerie friends she had as a child.

… except it turns out that faeries are very, very real, as she finds a wounded faerie knight named Roiben, whose life she saves. Soon Kaye finds herself enmeshed in the secret world of the faeries, and discovers a shocking fact about her own life – she is a changeling, a faerie girl swapped out with a human baby, under a glamour so strong that no one knew what she really is. Unfortunately, finding out who she is comes with a lot more danger.

You might be expecting the second of the Modern Faerie Tales to deal with more of Kaye’s adventures, but instead “Valiant” switches the narrative over to Valerie Russell, who runs away from home when she discovers that her mother is having an affair with Valerie’s boyfriend. She makes her way to New York city, and falls in with a gang of teenage subway-dwellers.

She also finds out about the magical underbelly of the city, since it turns out the kids are friends with a troll named Ravus, who makes a mysterious drug that makes faeries temporarily immune to iron… and allows humans to use magic. Unfortunately, a lot of faerie exiles are being poisoned, and Ravus is suspected of the crime. Only Val can save him by uncovering the true murderer.

“Ironside” returns the action to Kaye and Roiben, as the faerie knight is about to be crowned. But when a drunken Kaye declares her feelings for him, he gives her an impossible task – find a faerie who can tell a lie. Devastated, Kaye tells her mother the truth about what she really is – and then begins a personal quest to find the “real” Kaye Fierch, who was kidnapped as a baby.

Meanwhile, Roiben has become tangled up in Silariel’s schemes, and so Kaye also becomes involved in a forthcoming battle for the throne of the Unseelie Court. In order to be together with the man she loves – even if he seems cruel to her at first – Kaye will need all her wits and strength – but even that might not be enough to stop the Bright Court’s queen.

The Modern Faerie Tales are stories that very much deserve the label “urban fantasy,” primarily because Holly Black’s writing feels like a genuine blend of the fantastical and the gritty. Faerie ethereality and glamour is mingled together with grime, wire and subway tunnels of New York; there’s both a delicate timeless beauty to the stories, and a sort of raw rough punk aesthetic.

The same goes for Black’s writing – it’s dark, it’s wild, and it’s studded with moments of poetry (“red and gold flames licked upward. A sea of burning oil and diesel fuel spread to scorch everything it touched”). And she never turns away from the uglier facets of her world — the faerie courts contain casual brutality against the weak and helpless, and Val ends up addicted to a magical drug.

Her heroines are no less compelling, even if they have little to do with each other. Kaye starts the story feeling a little too edgy, fey and immature, but Black smoothly causes her to grow up as she learns who she truly is, and demonstrates her selflessness and love for her family and Roiben. Val is more of an awkward tomboy than a rock’n’roll girl – a wounded girl losing her way and herself, as she struggles to find a place to belong. And there’s a variety of likable supporting characters, like a hunky troll, the icy knight Roiben, and the nerdy gay friend Corny.

Amongst the stories about “I’m a faerie and never knew it,” Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside” stands out as one of the best – darkly glittering, dramatic and perfectly blending the urban and the ethereal.