Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter C

I guess it had to happen sometime. Overall I've been pretty lucky with the rereads in that generally the suck fairy hasn't visited my books.

That unfortunately wasn't the case with the letter C this time around. It may have had to do with when Jack L. Chalker's The River of the Dancing Gods came out. Mid 80's. Back then fantasy largely consisted of a choice of Tolkien or Tolkien. I'm oversimplying it a little. Both Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson had published by then, but I always found that both of those authors were highly derivative of Tolkien. The River of the Dancing Gods was Chalker's attempt to do something a bit different with the genre. The book came out just as Eddings and Feist were getting started and also Terry Pratchett, so epic and comic fantasy were about to go through a boom, and The River of the Dancing Gods tried to combine the two.

Jack L. Chalker himself said in one of his introductions to the books that it had been in part inspired by him not taking much notice of fantasy for 20 odd years, returning to it and finding that not much had changed (he did seem to be talking about sword and sorcery, but it still applies. That subgenre seemed to get stuck in a time warp when the acknowledged father of it; Robert E. Howard, committed suicide), so he tried to write something different.

When I first read it, sometime in the 80's it did seem different, but now with 30 years of reading behind me, where the genre has come along in leaps and bounds, it appears as very dated. It's a portal fantasy. Two down and outs from this world are transported to a pre industrial fantasy land and are built up as it's saviours. Neither of them really showed any reason as to why they would be singled out. Joe is a truck driver with native American blood, who predictably turns himself into a barbarian type warrior (he didn't change his name in this one, so I kept calling him Joe the Barbarian. In later books in a nod to his heritage I think he took the name Cochise) and has so little imagination that he names his sword Irving. This is a gag that works for the first two or times it's tried, but then loses it's appeal. Marge isn't meant to be there and turns into a faery magic adept, but continually needs assistance from a member of the band they form.

The story goes nowhere, it's all very predictable and a reader can work out fairly early on that nothing serious will be able to happen to the major characters so the tension is completely killed (David and Leigh Eddings' work suffered from the same problem). Then there was the writing, it seemed remarkably clunky. I must have been more forgiving, or less discerning, years ago. Another thing that Chalker tried to do was use modern language in an older world. I used to think this was cool, but now I worked out why not many people do it, it simply doesn't work, it's jarring and anachronistic.

I did intend to read all 4 books of the Dancing Gods series, but I found it so hard to get through one fairly short volume, so I decided to stop there and don't think I've damaged myself at all.

Thanks Suck Fairy. Hopefully he hasn't been sprinkling his sack of suck over the D's as well.

The Pages of 2016

This is a little late this year, but I'm not likely to finish anything that will make the list before I post this, so this is what I liked the most of what I read throughout 2016.

Readingwise 2016 was a productive year. I managed 112 books, which is up on last year's total, also over the 100 mark. That's an average of more than 2 a week, so pretty good going. I did game the system a little, because I read a few fairly short books in there, although not as many novellas as in 2015.

I'm fairly picky about this list, so even though I read 112 books, only 7 make it here. Bear in mind that I don't include rereads here, and I did a lot of rereading in 2016, so that averages it out a bit.

Without further ado and explanation here are Elfy's favourite reads of 2016:

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente - Radiance was an absolutely extraordinary work of fiction. It almost defies categorisation. It effortlessly switches between genres and at times the story line doesn't even matter, but that is Valente. She creates these amazing worlds with words and you don't read her books so much as you experience them. I can't explain Radiance, but I can recommend it and was left once again marvelling at the skill Catherynne M. Valente possesses. This may not ever happen, but the woman needs to go down as one the genre's greatest ever wordsmiths and we're lucky to have her. Radiance is so far the best thing she's written, and the book stays with the reader long after they've read the last page and closed it's cover.

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman - it was actually a near run thing as to whether I was going to put both this and Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire on the list. I guess I could have included both, but they're similar and Drearcliff Grange just wins out. The only other Kim Newman I've read is Anno Dracula (which I also loved), but I never could get my head around the sequels to that. This is a standalone, or possibly the opener to a new series. Newman's covers are always arresting, and I just couldn't walk past this one without picking it up and having a look. So glad I did. It's a sort of entry into the ever growing list of superhero books, but kind of that meets Tom Brown's Schooldays with a bit of Tompkinson's Schooldays from Ripping Yarns thrown in. The twist to that being that it's an all girls school placed in a gothic mansion on a forbidding moor, it's actually more like an inescapable prison than a school. Fun, creepy and leaves the reader wanting more. Although it ties everything up neatly at the end, there is an indication that the author can take the concept and the characters forward a lot if he wants to in the future. I'd be up for a sequel.

Gemini Cell by Myke Cole - I have read and enjoyed Myke Cole's Shadow Ops series, but none of the books have ever made this list, until now. I know most readers thoroughly enjoyed Breach Zone (the end of the Shadow Ops trilogy), and find it to be Cole's best book, I did like it, but I preferred the opener to that trilogy and felt that the 2nd and 3rd books didn't quite live up to the promise shown in the first one. For that reason I took a fair while to pick up Gemini Cell. So glad I did, though. It's set in the same world, but before the events in the trilogy, so kind of a prequel. It's a great man hunt story with plenty of military action and magic thrown in to keep the story moving along. I ripped through this, as I literally could not stop reading. The sequel Javelin Rain is every bit as good, too. If you're looking for a whike knuckled thrill ride of a novel, get Gemini Cell.

Zeroes by Chuck Wendig - I'm a big fan of Chuck Wendig's Miriam Black novels (when is the next of those coming out?), and I've liked his Aftermath Star Wars books. Despite this I was a little wary of dipping my toe into something else of his (I didn't like The Blue Blazes). This was a little science fictional with a fair bit of techno thriller thrown in. A group of cyber criminals are forced to work for the government and if they can't figure things out they're all dead. Wendig's usually sharp, choppy style suits his snarky, take no prisoners characters in this and he fits really well into a modern world. I'll be getting the sequel; Invasion.

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley - it took me a long time to take a chance on The Rook, and I think I only bought it because I saw it cheap. I did want to like it from the start, because it was by an Aussie, but every time I picked it up something about the blurb said no. O'Malley needs a new blurb writer, because while it's technically correct it gives the reader no real indication of what the book actually is. I adored Myfanwy and the way she handled her new life and her way of being inserted into it with no memory of anything before waking up in a park full of dead people. It's rather like Memento meets Monty Python. There really shouldn't be this much humour in a book with the body count of The Rook, but there is. I found the sequel; Stiletto, to be quite disappointing, so I am hoping The Rook isn't a case of lightning in a bottle.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers - I adored The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet last year and was hoping that Becky Chambers could follow it up with a fitting sequel. I should not have worried. A Closed and Common Orbit was amazing. Totally different in style and concept, although set in the same universe, but with an all new cast, she continued her world building and introduced readers to more of this world, peopled with characters that for some reason the reader just wants to hang out with. Once again she managed to tug on the tear ducts, and leave me wanting another book from her.

New Pompeii by Daniel Godfrey - for some reason I often get a late entry into this list and in 2016 it was New Pompeii. Maybe it was because I had recently finished watching Westworld, that this hit me so hard. In Westworld the frontier town and world is an artificial construct peopled by sophisticated robots, but it's an example of using advanced tech for entertainment and monetary gain. In New Pompeii, a large tech company has developed time travel and managed to exactly replicate Pompeii complete with actual Pompeiians that they have extracted from the town before Vesuvius destroyed it and them. The only thing that they didn't count on was how smart the Romans were and that their natural instinct to conquer and control would come to the fore. A fun, smart page turner. I look forward to more from Daniel Godfrey.

I hope 2017 can live up to the standard set by 2016.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Monsters, Inc. 2001

To be honest I wasn't sure what I expected Pixar to do after Toy Story 2. I would have liked a sequel to A Bug's Life, but as we're now nearly 20 years on and they still haven't done A Bug's Life 2, I was mistaken there. I did not expect Monsters, Inc.

The storyline is as random as people were already coming to expect from Pixar. The monsters that hide out under children beds and in their closets are real, but they actually inhabit their own dimension. People, especially young ones, have often wondered why do monsters lurk in their closets and jump out to frighten them when all the lights are off? What do the monsters get out of it? Well, according to Monsters, Inc. the screams of small children are what fuel their universe. It's their electricity. It's a renewable and relatively cheap power source.

For that reason the monsters need expert scarers, and the best team is comprised of James P. 'Sulley' Sullivan and his friend Mike Wazowski. Sulley is the real star of the show, Mike is his sidekick. Sulley does the scaring, Mike just runs the equipment and generally forgets to file the paperwork. Their greatest rival for the title of best monster is Randall; a creepy, reptilian monster with chameleon like abilities.

Given that the bane of animators had been drawing believable hair, Sulley was an odd choice of main character, because he's largely composed of blue fur with large purple dots, but Pixar pulled it off. Sulley's fur looks real. Mike made more sense, he's basically a large eyeball with arms and legs. He was also easy to draw, probably easy and cheap to make and quite marketable. I can remember at the time the film was released most of the marketing centred around Mike.

The one thing that scares...terrifies the monsters, a child coming through the door into their world and that's what happens when Sulley goes through a random door, cleverly planted by Randall, who is in turn working for the crablike eight eyed owner of Monsters, Inc. Henry J. Waternoose. He accidentally brings a cute child that he names Boo, through to their world.

What follows is attempts to keep Boo a secret from everyone except Mike and Sulley, deliver her back home and keep her safe from the likes of Randall and Waternoose. Much hilarity and action ensues as they do this.

Monsters, Inc. was actually funnier and better than I remembered, but two fairly large things don't work for me. One is Boo, she's cute, but I don't think Pixar could do believable humans and so Boo looked more like a cartoon than a real human girl. The other was Mike. I know I'm in the minority, but I found Mike more annoying than amusing. Sulley really could have done everything he did better without his one eyed sidekick. They also discover that children's laughter is even more powerful than their screams, it's kind of like replacing petrol with hydrogen.

There was a nice little touch in Boo's bedroom at the end where she has a Jessie doll and a plush little clownfish, which gave audiences a small hint as to where Pixar were going with their next film.


Billy Crystal as Mike was their big signing. I liked Billy Crystal in Soap, but while he went onto great fame in films, and especially as the host of the Academy Awards I never really liked his style of comedy. Like Joan Cusack in Toy Story 2, he made the character tiresome for me.

Sulley had to be written for John Goodman. I think Goodman is a highly underrated actor and it's no surprise that he's nearly always in demand. Part of the problem was that at the time he was better known for his work as Roseanne's much put upon husband in that TV show, and his name alone couldn't carry a film.

As they tended to do, Pixar cast a veteran actor by using legendary screen tough guy James Coburn as Waternoose.

The wonderful Steve Buscemi, largely known for quirky roles, was perfect for the slimy Randall.

Jennifer Tilly played Mike's girlfriend Celia, a sort of gorgon, and she does tend to light up the story every time she's in it.

John Ratzenberger cemented his role as being in every Pixar film, by doing a turn as the exiled Abominable Snowman. It reminded me of Stan Freiberg's interview with the Abominable Snowman and I do wonder if they based the part on that radio sketch.

Even though I liked Monsters, Inc. more than I remembered it was still underwhelming for a Pixar film.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Toy Story 2 1999

1999 and Pixar's 3rd feature film release brought us the expected sequel to the already much loved Toy Story. All the characters that audiences fell in love with in the first film returned and there were 3 additions to the gang in the form of Mrs. Potato Head (she was a Christmas present for Andy at the end of the first film), Andy's dachshund dog; Buster (also a Christmas present introduced at the end of the previous film and Wheezy, a small penguin toy with a broken squeaker. 4 other new characters are introduced later in the film.

I noticed in this one that the toys seem to live in a perpetual state of fear. In the first film they were terrified of losing their place to a shinier, newer toy, somehow being separated from Andy and their toy friends or winding up in the clutches of Sid. This time it's being 'shelved', forgotten or becoming part of the regular yard sales that Andy's mother holds.

The opening was interesting. In the first film it was a Wild West scenario that Andy was enacting out with the help of his toys. The second time around it was a very sophisticated space setting, featuring Buzz and his nemesis Zurg (a sort of space emperor, more of a Darth Vader rip off than anything else). It turns out to be a video game that Buzz and Rex play, Rex is particularly obsessed with it, and claims that his inability to do well at it stems from how small his fore limbs are.

While Andy is away at camp, unable to take Woody because one of his arm seams ripped accidentally, his mother attempts to sell Wheezy. Woody, being the leader that he is, rescues the penguin with the help of Buster, who is kind of a default toy (I wonder if it was a coincidence that Buster is a dachshund, just like Slinky is?), however Woody falls off Buster and finds himself as part of the yard sale. A shady looking character; Al, the owner Al's Toy Barn toy stores, tries to buy Woody and when Andy's mother refuses to sell him, actually steals Woody and takes off with him while she's distracted.

Fortunately the other toys see this and mount a rescue attempt. The rescue gang is comprised of Buzz (naturally), Hamm, Mr. Potato Head, Slinky and Rex. I debate the wisdom of including Rex, but there's no one else with a profile or the mobility required. The problem is that they're going to the Toy Barn to find Woody and Al has him stashed in his apartment across the road.

Woody encounters 3 other western themed dolls at Al's apartment: Jessie; a red headed yodelling cow girl, Bullseye; an enthusiastic and loyal horse and Stinky Pete; a crusty old eccentric prospector. He finds out that he was once the star of the toy world, with his own animated TV show and a whole line of merchandise. He was once the equivalent of Buzz. I have to confess that I never took to Jessie, she was just too over the top for me, plus she yodelled and I have never liked yodelling. I know she was quite popular and my niece absolutely adored her. Her mother had to do a hunt online to find a Jessie dolls for her to play with.

After some fairly predictable chaos the rescuers manage to get to the toy store. The scenes with them in the toy store are quite funny. Buzz encounters a new Buzz Lightyear and finds out how annoying he must have been when Woody and Co first met him. The Barbie scenes and the addition of Barbie to the gang is also good.

Woody realises how lucky he's been, Jessie and presumably Bullseye, were abandoned by their owners and Stinky Pete never made it out of the box. He does consider staying with them when his friends do find him, but reconsiders and when he wants to take Jessie and Bullseye with him, Stinky Pete shows his true colours and reveals himself as the villain of the piece.

There's a final adventure sequence with the gang rescuing Jessie in particular from the airport before she can be shipped off to a toy museum in Japan. Stinky Pete also gets his comeuppance.

This had some moments, but I don't rate it as highly as the first. It lacked that originality and I felt at times it tried too hard, plus it occasionally pushed credibility way beyond breaking point (there is no way even a magically animated toy horse can keep pace with a taxiing aeroplane). The regular references to other pop culture icons (Indiana Jones, the original Star Wars films, especially The Empire Strikes Back) were also a lot of fun.  This is the first time I can remember Pixar doing it to that extent. I also appreciated the return of the three eyed aliens from the pizza place. Mrs. Potato Head was pretty good, too, although her best work was in the 'out takes' that ran during the credits.

I'm sure after the cautionary tale of Jessie, people took better care of their toys, or liberated much loved, but forgotten ones from wherever they were.

The original voice actors: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, Annie Potts and of course John Ratzenberger all returned to reprise their roles.

Estelle Harris, best known as George Costanza's mother on Seinfeld, was Mrs Potato Head and another example of Pixar's unerring brilliance when casting their films.

Another Seinfeld alumni; Wayne Knight, was the bad guy Al McWhirter. At times I almost felt like calling him Newman, because once again his animated persona matched the one he was known for on the TV show that made his name.

Joan Cusack, who had a profile at the time played Jessie. I've never been a great fan of her performances and this may have been another factor that coloured my dislike of the character.

Kelsey Grammar as Stinky Pete, though, he was absolutely spot on. Then again Kelsey Grammar usually is. Great voice.

Jonathan Harris also had a cameo as Al's doll cleaner, but this time he used a different voice and I wasn't reminded of Dr. Smith.

It was only a cameo, but Jodi Benson voiced Barbie. Again I do wonder if this was a way of needling Disney, as Jodi Benson is best known for providing the speaking and singing voice for Ariel in The Little Mermaid.

It was a stroke of genius to use Robert Goulet as Wheezy's singing voice at the end, too.

Next we'll venture into uncharted territory.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Bug's Life 1998

I think most people expected Pixar to follow up Toy Story with a sequel, so it was a bit of a surprise that they decided to do this odd little thing about bugs.

In the same year that A Bug's Life came out, Woody Allen also did an animated feature about ants, called imaginatively enough Antz. It did okay at the box office, but it wasn't a patch on Pixar's effort. Antz was really rather like a lightweight Woody Allen comedy that starred neurotic ants, instead of neurotic people.

I don't know whether or not this was a conscious decision on behalf of the film makers and writers, but the storyline of A Bug's Life is very close to that of The Magnificent Seven.

A colony of ants (poor Mexican village) is preyed on by a gang of grasshoppers (bandits), and know that sooner or later they aren't going to be able to continue to feed themselves and the parasites that live off them. They send one of their own (well Flik is kind of exiled) to find them help, and he comes across a circus of bugs (group of fighters) and takes them back to his colony where they eventually take on the grasshoppers and emerge triumphant. Admittedly the body count in The Magnificent Seven was higher, but A Bug's Life is still essentially a film aimed at younger audiences, although as with Toy Story there are jokes that go right over the kids heads, but make the adults laugh. A lot of the bug town is full of this. It even had the 'toughest' of the warrior bugs befriending the ant kids, just like Charles Bronson's character did in The Magnificent Seven.

That grasshoppers were the villains of the piece was also of interest to me. I had a story in a Disney collection that was about a grasshopper and an ant colony. I think it was based on an old folk story. In that a fun loving grasshopper mocks the ants for working all summer, while he just has fun, but come winter he's cold, hungry and homeless and the hard working ants offer him food and shelter. He learns a valuable lesson. I do wonder if the idea of using a group of outlaw biker grasshoppers was sort of inspired by that story and it was a sly dig at Disney at the same time.

The circus had an interesting variety of bug life: there was a spider (black widow), a preying mantis, a moth, a caterpillar, a stick insect, a ladybug, twin slaters, and a rhinoceros dung beetle. The various bugs had circus skills which kind of fitted their species. The spider was an 'animal' tamer and high wire performer, her 'anima' was the dung beetle, the preying mantis was a magician, the butterfly was both his wife and assistant, the slaters were acrobats and the caterpillar, stick insect and ladybug were clowns.

The animation had noticeably advanced from Toy Story, although admittedly the animators probably found it a bit easier, because they didn't have to do any people and the attendant problems that animating hair always brought. The only thing that didn't look quite right was the bird and that was because of the feathers I am sure.

It's hard not to look at what Disney was doing at the same time and compare it. Pixar's animation comes out way ahead. At this time Disney's films looked like flat 2D pictures, whereas Pixar's had real life and was more three dimensional. In 1998 Disney's big animated release was Mulan. Props to them for moving away from the traditional European stories and using the story of a female warrior, but for invention and doing something different A Bug's Life had it all over the House of Mouse.


A Bug's Life didn't have quite the all star casting that Toy Story enjoyed. Interestingly enough, a number of the actors had bigger things ahead of them. One big exception was Phyllis Diller as the Queen Ant, her career was largely at an end by this point. I found it interesting that her pet was an aphid. Aphids were also in Antz, but they were snacks for the ants, as they are in nature.

Kevin Spacey as the leader of the grasshoppers; Hopper was also another fine bit of voice casting, as he has that menace in his voice. He'd done The Usual Suspects when he voiced Hopper, but most of his biggest work, including American Beauty was still ahead of him. I actually thought of two other actors who could have also done Hopper justice. One was James Woods, but as he'd just voiced Hades in Disney's Hercules the year before he probably wouldn't have been considered. The other was Christopher Walken, but he voiced a character in Antz. Shame, I would have really liked to have heard what Walken could do with Hopper.

Richard Kind was Hopper's brother and lieutenant Molt. He played the same sort of bumbling type that he's made a career out of and he was even drawn to resemble the actor.

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss played Atta, the queen in waiting, and Flik's love interest. She was a familiar voice at the time, because she played Elaine Benes in Seinfeld. She later became the star of her own show with Veep.

The cute little queen ant; Dot, was voiced by child actress Hayden Panettiere. Panetitere would later make a name for herself as Claire 'the cheerleader' in Heroes and then Juliet Barnes in Nashville.

Veteran actor Roddy McDowall played a rather cultured ant called Soil.

The circus had a couple of names amongst it's cast. A pre Ice Age Dennis Leary was Francis, the male ladybug with the hair trigger temper, Madeline Kahn was Gypsy the moth, David Hyde Pierce voiced Slim the stick insect and would go on to find fame as Frasier Crane's brother Niles in Frasier, Pixar regular John Ratzenberger turned up as the circus owner P.T Flea. One decision that didn't really work for me was Jonathan Harris as Manny the preying mantis, it's largely because his voice is so strongly identified as Dr. Zachary Smith from Lost in Space that I can't hear him as anything else.

Unlike Toy Story where the lead was a bona fide star, the lead of Flik was voiced by Dave Foley,  not unknown, but also not with the profile of a Tom Hanks.

If anything A Bug's Life was an even bigger triumph than Toy Story and proved that Pixar was not a one trick pony.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Toy Story 1995

Like most people I first heard of Pixar in 1995 when they released an unusual animated film called Toy Story.

I say unusual because the animation was something that had never been done in quite that scale before. It was all CGI, it wasn't hand drawn the way many of the Disney's or Warner Bros had been. To be honest at the time that worried me a little. I like animation and to my way of thinking at the time it should be done by an artist or a team of them and not by a computer program, although now I know a little more about how they do it, it's an art form on it's own and does allow for better more realistic images.

The animation in Toy Story, which while excellent is still obviously in a developmental stage. The toys look brilliant and you can even see how they've done Woody's hair to look like moulded plastic. The people on the other hand (Andy, Sid) just don't look quite right.

The story is on the face of it pretty simple. Andy is an imaginative active kid, a fairly typical 6 yo, with a room full of toys. What Andy doesn't know is that when he's not around the toys all come to life and have formed their own toy centric society. To that end when Andy, his mother and his younger sister, move house, they've got a system worked out so that they all make the move and no one gets left behind.

The leader of the toys is Woody, the cowboy toy that has always been Andy's favourite, and it is this that kind of gives him the status as leader. The dynamic gets thrown out when Andy receives a Buzz Lightyear for his birthday. Buzz is a spaceman toy that all kids are mad for due to a fairly clever and intensive marketing campaign. Buzz becomes Andy's favourite and Woody for the first time in his life gets sidelined. This affects his status amongst the other toys, particularly the sarcastic and obnoxious Mr Potato Head. It doesn't help that Buzz is a fairly abrasive character who does not seem to realise that he's a mass produced toy. He thinks he's an actual space ranger and the toys he finds himself amongst are some sort of alien society.

The closest thing the film really has to a villain is Sid. Sid is the older kid next door. He's a sociopath in the making. Andy plays with his toys and takes care of them. Sid does the exact opposite he destroys them for fun. Andy's toys live in terror if Sid and his pit bull terrier; Scud. Fortunately they're moving.

However tensions between Woody and Buzz escalate and the end result is that Buzz winds up falling out of the bedroom window and Woody is blamed for it. While on a treat for Andy; a trip to a local pizzeria/play place, Woody is taken by Andy and Buzz manages to tag along. Buzz and Woody both find themselves in a claw game and are 'won' by Sid, who intends to destroy both toys. I don't know what Woody's fate would have eventually been, but Buzz gets strapped to a rocket and was to be blown up.

With help from Sid's abused and damaged toys, Woody and Buzz escape and then have to somehow get themselves onto the moving van to be reunited with their friends and Andy.

It's not a long film, but it's not all that short and there's not a wasted moment or a slow spot in the whole thing. The scriptwriters, one of whom was a pre Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show Joss Whedon, just do not miss a trick. I particularly appreciated the name of the petrol station where Andy's mother fills up being Dinoco. Not sure how many people got that joke.

Pixar's first feature was a smash hit and now they had to answer the inevitable question: when's the sequel coming out?


Celebrity voice casting for an animated feature film wasn't a new thing. Disney had been doing it for years, most notably in Aladdin with Robin Williams, but Pixar and Toy Story took the practice to new heights.

Disney would have one or two cast members being names, but Pixar threw them around like they were going out of style. By 1995 when Toy Story came out Tom Hanks was already a 2 time Academy award winner, and with films like Sleepless in Seattle, Forrest Gump and Apollo, he had established himself as an all around good guy type. So he was perfect to play the level headed and heroic toy leader Woody the Cowboy.

Tim Allen made his name playing the gadget obsessed Tim the Toolman Taylor on TV sitcom Home Improvement. Allen's character in the show and the character of Buzz Lightyear were rather similar in personality (it's actually the only type of character Allen can play really) and they also both loved gadgets, plus the TV show was at the peak of it's popularity at the time. So another one win for the casters in the film.

Side characters were also spot on. Legendary comedian Don Rickles provided the voice for Mr Potato Head and I'm sure they wrote the character to fit the actor. Rickles may have even provided some of his own lines. Comedian Jim Varney made his name playing the incompetent, but well meaning Ernest in TV shows and films, so was a familiar voice and his slow southern drawl just fits Slinky the dachshund. Annie Potts has a sweet, feminine voice and was just how one imagined the Bo Peep doll to speak. Comedian Wallace Shawn was best known as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, but his whiny somewhat nervous voice fitted the large plastic T-Rex dinosaur toy in that he's a large toy, but very nervous and anxious all the time. Toy Story also began John Ratzenberger's long association with Pixar. He voiced the piggy bank Hamm and has been in every Pixar film ever since, he's actually considered their only regular actor. Alan Tudyk seems to be doing something similar with Disney now. Casting R. Lee Ermey as Sarge (the leader of Andy's Bucket of Soldiers plastic army) was also a stroke of genius, although it's doubtful that many, if any, of the film's younger audiences would have gotten the joke.

Next up: A Bug's Life.

The Pixar Film Project

Over the last few years during the Christmas/New Year/Summer period I and my wife have done a watch on a theme and I've blogged it. We kind of failed last year during the attempt to watch the TV series Robin of Sherwood, but this year we're going to try the Pixar films.

There is a little explanation required here of how this will work. A few years ago we did Disney films, and we did Brave (which is a Pixar film, but comes across like a Disney one, Merida was even made a Disney Princess) and also Wreck-It Ralph (a Disney film that people think is a Pixar one), so neither of those will appear. We're watching in release order so that means that the 3 franchises (Toy Story, Monsters and Cars) will be broken up by other films in between their various instalments.

When I did Disney I kind of broke the posts into sections, because while they are enjoyable Disney films do tend to run to a formula.

I'll try and do that a little with the Pixar ones and look at the film and how I react to it and cover the cast in a separate bit.

So now that's all done, scroll down and find the first film.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter B

It was strangely hard to find a book authored by an author starting with the letter B. I guess we don't have that many I want to read over and over. I'd read Clive Barker's Imajica and Holly Black's Tithe in the previous rereads. So this time I was a bit of a quandary.

In the end I decided to go with a favourite author and a favourite series in the first of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. I am aware that's not the current cover. It is however the cover that my edition has, and I also prefer it to the newer ones. I have nothing against Chris McGrath as a cover artist, but I just prefer the earlier Dresden Files covers.

Picking the opening book of a long running unfinished series gave me a few more questions to ask. Should I just read the first one, or go ahead and reread the whole 15 published so far. As the Dresden Files books are fairly episodic and self contained I decided that reading the first one only would be okay (I will reread the whole thing one day, but probably wait until the penultimate volume comes out).

I think Storm Front may get a bit of bum rap from readers. Fans now claim that Storm Front really isn't that good and the series doesn't take off until the 3rd book. This may stem from the fact that it's the first book and it was written 16 years ago now. It hasn't dated badly, but there are things in it that do make it come across more as a product of its time.

When Butcher first wrote the books he had the idea to make his hero come across as a hard boiled private eye type, that's probably why he chose Chicago as his setting. He does a pretty good job of channeling Raymond Chandler in this one, the books do move further away from that style as the story unfolds, though.

It is true that in this first book the writing is fairly raw and some things hadn't been thought through at this point, but it moves along briskly and sets Harry up as the old fashioned type he is.

The author also established some of the recurring characters in it. Karrin Murphy, the feisty little cop makes her first appearance as did the sexy, but tough, reporter, Susan Rodrigues. Readers first met the spirit in a skull Bob and Harry's giant cat Mister. Gangster Johnny Marcone and his hulking bodyguard Hendricks made their first appearances, as did Bianca; the head of Chicago's thriving vampire community (something that established book's urban fantasy credentials, that and the fact that Harry is a practicing wizard).

I'm happy to report that the suck fairy did not visit Storm Front, and it remains the fresh, fun story it was when I first read it over 10 years ago now.

I may have to delve back even further to find a suitable C author.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Great Reread Project Mark III

A couple of years ago I did a series here about my favourite books and authors. Once I'd completed it, I got to thinking that I had all these great books that I'd loved and I rarely ever reread (too many shiny new things to take my attention). I made a resolution to reread more. I'm now on my 3rd go round the alphabet and thought that this time I'd blog the rereads, we'll soon find out if the 'suck fairy' has come to visit any of my favourite stories.

I guess the above picture gives away my choice this time.

Joe Abercrombie first came to attention of fantasy readers in 2006 with the publication of The Blade Itself, the opening volume of his epic fantasy First Law trilogy.

He followed that with 3 standalone books all set in the same secondary world as First Law and often featuring characters from that trilogy.

The Heroes is the second of those. Abercrombie was inspired by works like George R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, Glen Cook's Black Company books and even Steven Erikson's Malazan series. He became one of the first of a new wave of fantasy authors favouring a low magic approach, gritty 'realistic' settings and characters who are largely absent a moral compass.

While the standalones are just that and can be read without having read the original trilogy they do feature characters from that and occasionally reference events that take place in it. To keep readers spoiler free I'd advise reading both the three books of First Law (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings), then Best Served Cold (the first standalone book) before tackling The Heroes.

A lot of readers that I've seen tend to rate Best Served Cold as the best of the standalones, if not Abercrombie's best book. I swim against the stream there. I did like Best Served Cold, but once I got into it, it became rather predictable.

The blurb on the back of The Heroes says simply Three Men, One Battle, No Heroes. That's a wonderful summation of the book, although there are more than three men and more than one battle, but there are indeed no heroes.

The book is the story of a battle between the forces of the Union and the Northmen. The Heroes of the title aren't people at all. It's the name given to a group of large standing stones, on top of a hill, which the Northmen will hold at any cost.

The Heroes covers a number of people involved in this fight. From the driven Union soldier Bremer dan Gorst, fighting to redeem himself and possibly not just seeking glory, but death in the getting of it. The leader of the Northmen Black Dow, an amoral vicious killing machine, who only exists to bring misery to anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path, his trusted lieutenant the straight edged Curnden Craw, who is sick of all the fighting, but just doesn't know how to stop doing it. There's Prince Calder, considered a coward by his own people in the north, but really just someone who's trying to survive as best he can. Finree dan Brock, a young military wife who wants to make things better for all involved, but at the same time advance her husband's career in an upwards trajectory. Corporal Tunny, a wily Union soldier, who always comes out alive and generally richer in the doing of it. Finally there's Beck, a young Northman who is trying to make himself a hero in an effort to impress a long dead father he never even knew.

The side characters in this are also marvellous, mostly from the north. I particularly liked the female warrior Wonderful and the reckless sword wielding philosopher Whirrun of Bligh. It's no coincidence that Whirrun is one of the funniest characters in the book (it's worth it just for his 'cheese trap').

Abecrombie's metaphor laden descriptions are great to read and really paint a picture. He shines when he writes battle scenes. One of these is a chapter long and puts the reader right in the middle of the action. Moving from participant to participant, the story continuing as one fighter is cut down and then picking up with the soldier who did the deed and entering their PoV. It is a masterful piece of writing.

There is no magic in The Heroes. If it weren't set on a fictional secondary world it could almost qualify as a piece of historical fiction. It is a wonderful bit of writing and a superlative example of the sub genre that has come to be known as 'grimdark'. I highly recommend it and there's no better way to say War is Hell.

Next, whatever I pick from the B's on the shelf.