Monday, May 30, 2011

Game of Thrones 7 "You Win or You Die" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

"You Win or You Die" seems a straightforward idea, especially when discussing something called the Game of Thrones.  Doesn't it?  Wrong.  Because win or lose, you die.  What you do before all that, you have to decide whether you've won anything or not.  Or what you want to win.

On the one hand there seems to be a huge amount of power play going on in this, as in every episode of the HBO series based on Martin's fantasy epic.  Almost immediately this comes through as we meet Tywin Lannister, Lord of Castlery Rock, father of Jaime, Tyrion and Cercei.  He proceeds to do what many characters do in this and other episodes--try and make a point about how the world works.  Family and power, such is his message boiled down to basics.  Jaime has been a fool to attack Ned Stark.  A bigger fool not to do him in.  Stark himself has been a fool, not least for daring to take a Lannister--any Lannister--prisoner.

Appropriately enough, Tywin is butchering an animal with his bare hands while espousing all this.

Ned Stark meanwhile tells the Queen what he knows--that none of the King's children are his own, but rather the fruit of incest between Jaime and Cersei.  He's also figured out they tried to kill his son.  In an act that does seem terribly naive, he gives the Queen a chance to flee with her children.  Her reply contains more sentiment as well as ruthlessness than her father--the closeness she feels with Jaime, who shared a womb with her, and that Stark was a fool for not taking the throne himself in the war that toppled King Aerys.

Osha meanwhile (the Wyldling woman now a servant at Winterfell) gets caught up in a conversation with Theon, heir to the Iron Islands and hostage/guest of the Starks since boyhood.  She doesn't see things at all the way he does, and it disturbs him just a bit.  In her eyes, he is from The South (i.e. south of the Wall) and not a Lord because his father is still Lord.  She's also not afraid.  As she tells the Maester, she's used to men who would eat "that boy" and use his bones to pick their teeth.  Despite this she is frightened.  Very much.  Of what comes with the Long Winter.  This things have been gone for thousands of years, she's told.  Not gone--sleeping, she replies.  And now, they've woken up...

It goes on.  Littlefinger instructs a pair of his whores about how to deceive/please their customers (one just arrived from the North), not taking part but watching and talking, revealing much.  As a child he loved a high born young lady, and she loved him in her way.  So he says.  But her intended beat him a duel, which taught the young man he will never win "their" way...

Evocative that.

King Robert, meanwhile, has been fatally wounded while hunting boar.  He knows he's dying.  Can smell it in the wound.  Expresses regret he spent so little time with his son, Prince Joffrey (the Vile--editorial comment).  And he names Ned Stark as Regent, agreeing with him to cancel the order to kill Princess Danaerys.  Not that that is really possible now.  But--and here Ned makes another error--he hears no news of his children's real parentage.

The would be assassin of the Princess/Khaleesi fails, because someone we learn works for the Spider (the head of Westeros' spies) thwarts the plan.  Nothing is as it seems.  Meanwhile Danaerys slowly coaxes her beloved Khal Drogo to consider the conquest of the Seven Kingdoms.  He listens to his beloved wife (and it is very nice to see how much these two have bonded) but only up to a point.  After all, re remains Dothraki!

At the Wall, Jon Snow's uncle's horse returns riderless.  Soon after, Jon Snow is fully accepted into the Nightwatch, but to everyone's surprise is chosen from among the Stewards, not the Rangers!  He takes it badly, but gets yet another lesson in how he's being way too lordly and egocentric.  Sam sees the truth of it, that Jon is being groomed by the Lord Commander, who asked for him personally.  On top of this is what just might be something prophetic, when Sam says simply "I always wanted to be a wizard."

Magic is coming back, have you noticed?  The White Walkers walk.  There is talk of Dragons.

Back in King's Landing, King Robert's brother Renly tries to talk some sense into Ned Stark.  He knows Cersei will never sit by quietly and allow Stark to be Regent.  They need to strike now, before it is too late.  Stark's mind is more on who should be King, which in his mind is eldest Barantheon brother, Stannis.  Renly asks pointedly "Do you still think good soldiers make good kings?"

These questions keep coming up.  What helps make Martin's work so interesting is that he never provides a definitive answer.  Honestly, is there a single person we've met yet who looks like they should sit on the Iron Throne?

All this disturbs Stark, but he doesn't see any path other than the straight and narrow.  Littlefinger also has a plan, one that sounds ruthless if workable (although by now only someone quite naive in the audience quite believes anything the man says).

In the wake of the failed assassination attempt, Khal Drogo pledges to his wife "Moon of my Life" to give to their son the Iron Throne.  So that seemingly naive bit of advice from Ned Stark, to leave her alone, proved wise after all.

On the other hand, tactically he's completely outmatched back at King's Landing.  The Queen and her son the new King care nothing of King Robert's written instructions once he is dead...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Game of Thrones 6 "A Golden Crown" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

One of the most difficult lessons methinks life has to teach us is that people lie.  Sometimes they do it without any such intention.  If you want to win the Game of Thrones, or simply survive it, learning that lesson cannot be overestimated.  Or, as Sun Tzu put it, "Know your self, know your enemy and in a thousand battles you will know only victory."

Much easier said that done!

Way back in episode one, Danaerys of House Targaryan seemed such the fragile flower under the none-too-kind fist of her brother.  Remember?

Going back to the rest of episode for now, King Robert and the rest of Westeros face a disaster brewing--two of the most powerful houses look to start fighting each other.  Alas, the noble Starks are probably in the wrong.  Does anyone believe Tyrion Lannister tried to have young Brandon killed?  And is taking him to the looney Lady Lysa of the Vale really someone to find out either way?  Catelyn's sister or not, the woman comes across as worse bitch that Cercei.

Think about that for a second.

But if there is a survivor among these characters, it is Tyrion.  He tricks his way into demanding a public trial by combat--a wild gamble at best, but which pays off.  A shrewd mercenary proves perfectly willing to fight for a member of the wealthiest family in the Seven Kingdoms--and proves ruthless enough to kill Lady Lysa's knightly champion without honor, but (more to the point) successfully.

Lord Stark meanwhile finds himself drafted (again) to be King's Hand while King Robert goes hunting (killing things clears his mind, he says--in fact he waxes nostalgic for the "good ol' days" of war against the Mad King, Danaerys' dad).  Sitting in the King's stead, Stark proceeds to raise quite a ruckus.  Seems the Mountain That Rides--the gigantic and vicious knight sworn to the Lannisters--is attacking the lands of Catelyn's Stark's brother.  The King's Hand tells a hundred men to go capture him, attaining him for treason and stripping Mountain of his knighthood, then demands Lord Lannister come to King's Landing to account for his retainer's actions.  This in the wake of Jaime Lannister stabbing Ned Stark and killing the man's own retainer in the streets--all in retaliation for Catelyn taking Tyrion prisoner.

One wonders if this is how dominoes was invented way back when?

In an example of how the game of thrones is played better, Joffrey goes and woos Sansa, apologizing for his mean words and promising she will be his queen.  The poor (silly) girl, totally taken in, gets her first kiss from mini-Caligula and will no doubt do whatever he asks of her.  Sansa seems destined for an awakening almost as ugly as that awaiting a certain would-be Dragon...

Lord Stark, realizing things are getting unsafer by the hour, wants his daughters to head back to Winterfell.  They object--each for reasons of their own (Arya is finally getting good with a sword) which leads to an important exchange.  Arya points out Joffrey is not a lion.  That's his mother's family's sigil!  Sansa says Joffrey is nothing like King Robert--a fact of which she strongly approves, but which lights up a candle above their father's head (no lightbulbs in Westeros).  He goes and checks out that tome Jon Arryn found so engrossing prior to his murder--a geneology book that describes every single member of King Robert's family for generations.  Black hair.  Black hair.  Black hair.  Black hair.  Black hair.  Until...Joffrey.  Golden hair.

Of course, we're not surprised, are we?  We the audience know that Queen Cercei has been committing incest with her twin brother for...who knows how long?  Come to think of it, all three royal children are blond...

Back in Winterfell, Brandon continues to dream about a crow with three eyes.  He also tries out his new specially built saddle that allows him to ride.  While his brother Robb ponders his duties now that the Lannisters are openly attacking his kinsmen, Theon Greyjoy their ward/hostage from the Iron Islands argues about what should be done.  Alas Brandon rides ahead, finding himself confronted by some brigands--evidently Wyldlings fleeing south.  They explicitly mention going somewhere where there are no White Walkers...

Yeah, the real crisis is up north, beyond the Wall, where God-Knows-What primordial evil is brewing, bring the dead back to life as well as heralding a winter longer than lifetimes...!  No one is paying any attention to that though!

The upshot is that all the Wyldings save one end up dead.  The survivor is a woman named Osha who agrees to enter into the service of the Starks.  I am thrilled to note she is played by Natalia Tena, aka Tonks in Harry Potter!  Pardon me while I squeeeee!

But this week's episode focuses on the title, the golden crown Viserys thinks should be his.  It has dawned upon the Targaryan Pretender that the Dothraki actually love his little sister, and he finds himself jealous.  Jealous enough to do something sad and infantile and very, very, very dangerous.  Drunk, he enters into a feast where Khal Drogo and his people are celebrating a prophecy that says Danaerys bears the future Khal of Khals, whose herd shall be all people everywhere in the world.  The would be Dragon pulls a sword on his sister, demanding the golden crown he was promised.  Danaerys doesn't even blink.  She calmly translates her husband's agreement--he will give Viserys a crown of gold that will inspire dread in all who see it.  Just as calmly, she watches as the Dothraki pin him down while Drogo pours melted gold over her brother's head.

"He was no dragon," she says.  "Fire cannot kill a dragon."

Yeah, a delicate flower.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Game of Thrones 5 "The Wolf and the Lion" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

True storyBack when I first started to get into Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, there was this movie.  A really cool one.  The very first Harry Potter flick--and during the quidditch match I found myself hissing at Gryffindor!  Why?  Because their arms as the same as the Lannisters.  The vile, greedy and vicious Lannisters (except for Tyrion of course).

Lannisters (the name comes from the managers of gladitorial games in ancient Rome--the pimps of death) are the lions, just as the Starks are wolves.  This episode is about them both.  For once we don't see the lovely Danaerys or her semi-sociopathic brother.  We hear about them, though.  News arrives at the King's Council that the last Targaryan is pregnant--and King Robert wants her assassinated.  It says a lot about Ned Stark that he resigns as the King's Hand rather than have any part of it.

What's going on with Tyrion says a lot about him--and about his captors.  En route to the Aerie, tall castle of the Vale where Catelyn's sister (and the late Hand Jon Arryn's widow) rules, Tyrion points simply asks what kind of idiot gives a hired assassin his own dagger?  When the party finds itself attacked by brigands, Tyrion ends up saving Catelyn--who cannot help but notice he is making sense.  Plus he issues a warning.  How long since she's seen her sister?  The lady in question as changed...

As in, she's kinda nuts.  In fact Lady Lysa feels insulted Catelyn has brought a Lannister--whom she blames for her husband's death--there.  Think about that for a few seconds.  How much sense does that make?  Add to that the...well...weird detail she's still nursing her son.  Her son who looks at least five years old.  Catelyn publicly notes Tyrion is her prisoner, not to be harmed, which gets the young(ish) Lion tossed into a prison cell.  An impressive one.  One wall is missing, leaving the prisoner exposed to the elements but allowing no escape since there's sheer drop of several hundred feet.

Back in King's Landing, repercussions from Catelyn's capture of a Lannister starts things rolling, albeit not immediately.  Lord Stark still traces the steps of his predecessor (the aforementioned Jon Arryn), visiting the various bastards of King Robert.  His daughter Sansa crushes quite a bit on the Knight of the Flowers at the ongoing tournament, unaware he already has a secret paramour--the King's brother Renly.  In fact he's urging the man to make himself King one day, despite being fourth in line.

Parenthetically, one of many refreshing things about this fantasy is the presence of homosexuals.  Usually this genre ignores them.  More on that later as the story unfolds.

Arya meanwhile--my fave of the Stark daughters and pretty much my favorite Stark period--is learning how to catch cats.  It is to make her quick of hand and foot and mind.  Bet that would work, too.  Down in the dungeons, amidst the skulls of dragons (mentioned by Viserys last week) she hides when hearing voices.  It seems the King's Master of Whispers (i.e. spymaster) is having a conversation with the the very merchant prince who arranged Danaerys' marriage to Khal Drogo!  The wolf and the lion will soon be fighting each other, which may be too soon.  Drogo won't even consider bringing his troops until after his son is born!  Too bad Arya doesn't recognize the speakers, nor memorize their words nor understand enough to tell her father the full gist--although she tries.

A weird and melancholy scene acts out between Robert and his Queen, noting how neither is happy yet both feel an odd comradarie in mutual hate.  He even admits how he cannot recall how his beloved fiancee, Ned's sister, looked--but when she died the hole in his life couldn't even be filled by seven whole kingdoms.  She admits to never having asked, initially out of hurt, then out of spite, and now asks because she feels...nothing.

No wonder these two produced that mini-Caligula Prince Joffrey!

We end this episode with an ambush and an attack.  Jaime Lannister, learning his brother was carried off by Lord Stark's wife, demands Tyrion's return.  He does so with soldiers--and several end up dead, including Jory Cassel who takes a dagger through the eye.  Jaime's dagger.  A broadsword duel between Jaime and Stark is interrupted by one of the former's soldiers stabbing Stark in the leg from behind.  Interstingly, Jaime backhands him for that stunt.  He demands the return of his brother, then rides off leaving the Lord of the North to find medical attention.

All in all, interesting how none of the Lannisters so far have proven quite as vile as they seem--Tyrion to Catelyn, and the rest to the audience.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Game of Thrones 4 "Cripples, Bastards & Broken Things" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Rarely was a title so apt.  When Tyrion shows up at Winterfell with plans for a special saddle--one that would allow young Lord Bran to ride again--Robb Stark asks him why he did this?  "Because I have a weakness for cripples, bastards and broken things" is the dwarf's reply.

This world seems full of such.  Not least Tyrion himself.  Others are crippled or broken in other ways.  At the Wall, the Night Watch faces the coming winter and terrible times with few men, most of those unready.  Jon Snow, however, he wants to do something about it.  He's training the other new recruits, and in the process becoming their Leader.  Even Samwell, the newest "volunteer" (as in volunteered by his father, upon pain of an accident while hunting) to take the black--fat, nervous, a terrible fighter.  But winter is coming.  More, the White Walkers are back--even if nobody believes it.  Not yet.

One curious thing about Martin's epic fantasy is the relative lack of fantasy elements--which is why of course the seven kingdoms aren't ready nor trying to get ready for the danger looming.  Dragons existed once, yes.  But not for many years.  White Walkers?  Last seen eight thousand years past.  A slave girl tells Viserys she's seen a man who could change his face.  But we haven't.

Bran, though, saw a raven with three eyes.  In his dreams.

Viserys himself is broken, a stunted prince who longs for a throne but remains petty.  He actually reacts with rage when his sister sends a servant to invite him to dinner.  Why?  Because he doesn't take orders.  Neither does he react well to Danaerys growing into her own power (with a chilling threat--"The next time you lay hands on me is the last time you will have hands").  She sees him as broken now, someone who can never reclaim the Iron Throne.  Never.

Lady Sansa begins to feel broken, maybe even crippled.  Seeing her first tourney, in which a ferocious knight known as The Mountain Who Rides kills a younger man in front of her, proves sobering.  Horrifying.  Even terrifying.  Baelish, aka Littlefinger, seems to want to strengthen her and also her father.  Ned Stark himself finds himself busy following the clues of what happened to Jon Arryn, his predecessor as King's Hand.  Littlefinger warns him too, even going so far as to tell him "Not trusting me is the smartest thing you did since you arrived."

So much intrigue.  Family drama.  Politics and mystery brewing.  But almost all of it distractions.

Broken also is Lady Catelyn Stark, which leads her to do something wonderful and shortsighted at the end.  Believing Tyrion's dagger used in the attempt on Bran's life, she doesn't want him to see her on the road.  Doesn't want his family to know she hasn't been at Winterfell, the vast castle of the North.  But when he recognizes her at an Inn, she rises to the occasion.  Not addressing him, but the various warriors present--all sworn to her father's banner, Tully of Riverrun--she stirs their loyalty.  Then points her finger at the Imp, accusing him of conspiring to kill her son, demanding they seize him to face the King's Justice!

His face as they draw their swords is how the episode ends.  Rarely have we seen Tyrion Lannister at a loss for words.  Is he that good a liar?  Or is he innocent?  What do you think?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Game of Thrones 3 "Lord Snow" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

George R.R. Martin, author of the novels upon which the HBO series Game of Thrones is based, is something of an expert on the Middle Ages.  He violates a lot of expectations when it comes to what we believe about those days.  Knights on horseback.  Heraldry.  Peasants and castles, law and religion.  Because real life does the same.  Nothing ever fits into the rules.

Which is a lot of what episode three, "Lord Snow," is all about.  So far the series' focus seems to have been all about the schemes and secrets surrounding the royal court.  But--remember the very first scene?  The White Walkers no one (and I do mean no one) believes in?  All awake, the now-crippled lordling Bran (who remembers nothing of what happened to him) wants to hear from his Nan the scariest of all tales--about the coming of winter, when the snow reached a hundred feet tall, and a night that lasted a generation.  That was when the White Walkers came...

And we don't get to hear the rest.  But remember the Stark words:  Winter Is Coming.

Meanwhile lovely Queen Cersei gives her charming son Prince Joffrey some words of advice, about how when he is King the world will be as he says it is (  And that everyone who is not "us" is an enemy.  Motherly love and advice.  Heart-warming.

But the title character of this ep is up at the Wall, having joined the Night Watch and figured out the truth--rather than a noble order of honorable guardians, they are a penal colony of those without other choices.  No one believes in the White Walkers.  No one thinks the old tales might be true.  Hence the scant supplies they receive, the meager types of men who end up there (mostly felons given a choice between this and death).   Jon Snow, bastard son of Lord Stark by an unknown mother, feels betrayed.  He also feels superior.  Yet, partially as he speaks to Tyrion Lannister, he not only starts to see his life has actually been pretty sweet but also that here are men whose respect he must earn.

Danaerys, meanwhile, finds herself in a confrontation with her brother, Viserys--and both learn the Dothraki respect her but not him.  A world turned up-side-down.  Not least because she finds herself happy to tell Khal Drogo (in his own language no less) that she is with child.  Recall how the series began, her weeping in terror at submitting to this huge man?  Yet by now (a few months' time in the show) she smiles sleeping at his side.

Lord Stark has a less pleasant surprise waiting him, as it becomes clear the Realm is deep in debt--and King Robert's to blame.  He just doesn't care, as is shown in scenes like the one where he keeps asking people about their first kills.  In particular he hopes to discomfort his brother in law, Jaime Lannister.  Here again things are not as they seem.  Because we hate him, right?  Deservedly so?  But everybody else seems to despise him and why?  Because he killed a tyrant.  Even Ned Stark--whose father and brother were burned alive by the late Mad King--blames Jaime for having put this monster to death.

He also sees his lady wife who has come to King's Landing to give him some special intelligence--the attempted assassination of Bran with a special blade, one identified by the realm's Master of Coin (treasurer) Lord Petyr Baelish  as his own, lost in a wager to Tyrion Lannister!

Really, doesn't that surprise you?  And have you learned yet to doubt whether he's telling the truth?

One of my favorite characters, Arya starts getting lessons in how to use her rapier-like blade.  The Water Dance, her instructor calls it--one of the single most fun scenes yet.  Arya loves learning how to fence!  You can see it in her face!  Likewise her teacher clearly feels thrilled at finding such an avid, young and talented student!  Of all people, the staid and conservative Lord Stark arranges these lessons--and initially
seems thrilled at her prowess.  Yet as he watches, he hears the sounds of battle, and we can see a horrible memory ripple across his face.

Third episode in a row that ends with one of the youngest Stark children.  Methinks this is a pattern, and an omen of what is to come.  Not a short game of thrones is being played here.  No, not at all.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Game of Thrones 2 "The Kingsroad" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When last we left our heroes, pretty much everyone was getting ready to hit the road--with one major exception.  Young Bran Stark is unconscious, probably crippled following a "fall" (i.e. being pushed, although no one knows that) from a tower in the great castle of Winterfell.  His mother Catelyn, staggered with grief, refuses to leave his side--and shoots daggers with her eyes when Jon Snow (her husband's bastard) visits his brother to say goodbye.

Jon is headed north to the Wall--300 miles wide, 700 feet tall, made of gravel and ice to protect Westeros from what lies beyond.  He is to join the Night Watch, proud guardians of the realm for eight thousand years.  Or at least that is how he sees it.  Accompanying him to see the place is Tyrion Lannister, aka The Imp who just wants to see the thing.  He's also the one who makes his ghastly nephew Joffrey express condolences to the Starks over their loss.  It says a lot about him that it takes a strong cuffing to make him do as much.

Soon Lord Stark joins King Robert on the long trip by horseback to King's Landing, capital of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

Meanwhile, the last of the deposed Targaryans are headed inland across the Narrow Sea on the continent of Essos.  Pretender Viserys accompanies the Dothraki whose leader has married his sister, eager to begin the war which will put him on his father's throne.  Said sister Danaerys' focus proves both more narrow and far more wide.  While adjusting to the constant horse-riding and the sexual appetites her husband, she asks her handmaidens about Dothraki beliefs and one in particular about how to please a man.  Rather than merely endure her life, she seeks to gain control.  Before long, she proves successful.  Khal Drogo rather likes her interesting notion of sex face to face.  We can see this marriage becoming stronger, no matter how it began.  Danaerys, the daughter of kings and bride of a tribal lord, starts to show her mettle.  She also finds herself ever more fascinated by the dragon eggs given to her as a wedding gift.

Contrast this with Viserys, who wants to know why the Westeros knight Jorah Mormont who's joined them had to leave.  He was caught selling poachers into slavery.  The Pretender almost laughs, assuring him such nonsense will end when he is King.

One of the things I so love about this show is how vividly each character emerges.  The two siblings on the road east make for a perfect example.  Viserys eyes are totally on what he himself wants, displaying all the ethics of rat.  His sister wants to find a way to be happy, to learn, and sees beyond her own desires to the unfathomable--these dragon eggs and what they might mean (keep in mind the book series itself is titled A Song of Ice and Fire, with the next book called The Dance of Dragons--with luck we'll be seeing that dramatized in about four years).

Likewise we're getting a real notion of King Robert, who loved Ned's late sister very much.  He and Ned Stark were boys together, trained by Jon Arryn, the Hand (Prime Minister/Shogun) whose death has prompted Robert to appoint Ned to take his place.  But this King doesn't like being on the throne, longs for earlier, simpler days.  One can see why Ned looks worried.  Here is not a man who wants to be King, seems to have precious little talent at it, yet sits upon the throne.

Can we say "recipe for disaster?"

Before Jon Snow left for the Wall, he gives to his sister Arya her own sword--not a heavy broadsword but something a lot closer to a rapier.  We can see the two are close, which in turn gives a pretty strong hint of what this household is like much of the time.  She names her sword "Needle" because all great swords have names.

As Jon and his father parted, the former asks (evidently far from the first time) for some information about his mother.  I'll spoil you and say that speculation on that question is rife among the fans.  Ned promises to tell him all the next time they meet.  Methinks we can safely say that won't happen for a long while.

Back at Winterfell, an assassin tries to kill Bran, but gets his throat ripped through by the boy's dire wolf (much to Catelyn's astonishment).  More disturbing--why would anyone pay to have a boy murdered?  The blade involved is extremely good work, Valyran steel.  Catelyn believes her husband needs to know about this but distrusts regular communication.  She heads for King's Landing, leaving Robb in charge ("There must always be a Stark at Winterfell").

On the road, the vile Joffrey has turned the charm on for Sansa, Ned's eldest daughter.  He lets the mask slip however in an encounter with Arya as she practices swordplay with a butcher's son.  Arya's dire wolf Nymeria bites his wrist when he attacks her for defending her friend.  The girl wisely disarms the Prince, then runs into the woods with Nymeria, whom she frees in order to save from Joffrey's vengeance.  Methinks we have not seen the last of that creature.  But sadly, we have seen all we ever will of Sansa's dire wolf.  To placate his Queen--who reacts in righteous fury at anything going wrong for her beloved child--King Robert orders that dire wolf killed in place of the one that got away.  That Sansa actually lied for Joffrey's sake means nothing.

Ned carries out the killing himself.  It is the way of the North.  He who passes judgment should wield the sword.  Along the way he learns the scarred warrior Sandor the Hound (so-called for his distinctive helm) has found the butcher's son and killed him.

At the very moment Lady (Sansa's dire wolf) dies, Bran opens his eyes in Winterfell.  That is two episodes in a row that end with him.  Coincidence?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Game of Thrones 1 "Winter is Coming" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I've decided to review each episode of the new HBO series Game of Thrones as they come out.  And  yes--I'm behind.  So I'll have to play catch-up.

For whoever doesn't know, GoT is based on the first of a multi-novel epic fantasy by George R.R.Martin (creator of t.v.'s Beauty and the Beast).  The next book comes out in July.  I've read all of them so far and am completely addicted.  Frustrated, too.  Each of these books is longer than Lord of the Rings and the man is a perfectionist.  They take years and years to complete.  Oh so worth it though...

Episode one, Winter is Coming, focuses on introducing us to this world--specifically House Stark, Lords of Winterfell.  One of (very) few complaints about the opener is that we don't really get a sense of how huge the great castle of Winterfell really is.  In world where seasons of indeterminate length--they can last months or years or even decades--the North needs a castle that can function as a city.  Winterfell is supposed to have the equivalent of a small forest inside its walls, which wasn't really clear, alas.  But...early days.

Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark is the head his family--wife Catelyn, daughters Sansa (a very girly girl hoping to wed the Crown Prince) and Arya (tomboy to the bone), sons Robb (his heir), Bran (the climber) and Rickon (at this point little more than a baby).  He also has an illegitimate son, Jon Snow.  One day Ned rides out with his three eldest sons to judge a deserter.  The Stark way says "the man who passes the judgment must wield the sword," which he does.  Ned gets no pleasure from beheading a young man he regards as a weak madman.  But the law is the law.

What he doesn't know is that the deserter was not mad.  A member of the Nightwatch, who man a wall of ice several hundred feet high with castles attached, he had been part of a patrol to check on what was going on in the wild country north of the wall.  His claim to have seen the White Walkers (in whom nobody believes) is the utter truth.  Winter is coming.  And no one really knows what that means.

Headed back, Ned and his party come across a dire wolf (think giant prehistoric wolf) killed by a stag's antler.  The stag lies nearby, also dead.  But before death, the direwolf gave birth--six pups.  One for each of the Lord Stark's children, including an albino for Jon Snow.  Much is made of the dire wolf being the sigil of House Stark.  An omen, yes?  Ominously, no one mentions the stag is the sigil of the King, Ned's old friend Robert.  When they get back to Winterfell, news awaits that the King is en route.

A nice touch--the dire wolf cubs grow noticeably by the time the royal party arrives.  Westoros--the vast kingdom where the story takes place--is huge and most people travel by horse or foot.

Meanwhile, across the sea the last two members of the dynasty overthrown by Ned and Robert a generation earlier plot to return.  Viserys and Danaerys Targaryan are the only surviving children of the dead king (more of him in upcoming episodes).  They are pale of hair and elfin of feature, both quite young, and the brother has a plan to get the army he needs to reclaim Westeros.  It involves giving his sister in marriage to the leader or chieftan of the Dothraki--a fierce race of mounted archers rather like armor-less Klingons.  Danaerys, terrified of marriage to this gigantic brute and equally terrified of disobeying her brother, takes a bath in water she's warned is far too hot still.  Yet she hardly flinches.  She may not realize it yet, but there is steel in her soul, waiting to be forged.

Next we meet King Robert--big, blustering, fun-loving and eager to make Ned his new Hand (something like a super Prime Minister, or maybe Shogun).  The former Hand, Jon Arryn, died suddenly.  With the King is his wife Cersei Lannister and her two siblings--handsome twin Jaime and the ingenious dwarf Tyrion, aka "The Imp."  We meet him in a whorehouse, drinking wine and trading quips with the ladies.  The brothers clearly like each other, just as Cersei cannot stand Tyrion.  Neither can Prince Joffrey, the handsome heir to the throne who gives off a Caligula vibe.  Really, his name might as well be Malfoy.  I'm not kidding.  The younger royal siblings seem to quite like Tyrion, though, and he them.  He even offers Jon Snow an important piece of advice about how to live with being a bastard--choose to wear that title with pride, and the word cannot hurt.  What do you know of being a bastard, Jon asks?  Didn't you know?  All dwarves are bastards in their father's eyes.

Across the Narrow Sea, Danaerys weds the huge warlord Kal Drogo.  Among the wedding gifts are three petrified dragon's eggs.  Dragons, we're told, are extinct (having read the book I know they've been gone almost two centuries) but the eggs are still beautiful.  That night, in tears, she loses her virginity to her towering groom...

In Winterfell, Bran goes climbing amidst the towers and roofs of his castle home.  He hears something in a deserted tower room, and peaks inside.  He probably doesn't understand what he sees--

Queen Cersei and Jaime are having sex.  They spot him, and Jaime grabs the boy.  "He's seen us," Cersei hisses.  Her brother sighs"What I do for love."

And throws Bran out the window...

The publicity machine dubs Game of Thrones as "The Sopranos in Middle Earth."  Which is funny, and evocative, but not quite accurate.  Toss in Ivanhoe, plus some I, Claudius to the mix, and a few dashes of 30 Days of Night.  Episode one is by its very nature a beginning.  For me, a fan of the novels, I wish their King Robert had been a lot taller--a lumbering giant of a man.  But how I adore Peter Dinklage getting to play what must be the role of a lifetime--Tyrion the Imp already is the most fascinating character on screen.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

THOR! (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Last night I took advantage of living in Los Angeles to see a sneak preview of the latest superhero flick Thor.  If you are enough of a geek to be following these things (and I am) then perhaps you already know that Marvel Comics is trying something rather cool.  Their superhero universe is a complex, interlocked place more grounded in the (so-called) real world than their chief rival, DC.  With the success of such films as Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk,  they began setting up a future project--a film about Marvel's premier superhero team, the Avengers.

Said Avengers movie should start filming any day now, with Joss Whedon at the helm.  Squee with me if you like.

Continued effort went into this film, making it part of a greater continuity.  We once again see SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) agent Coulson, as well as a shout-out to the Hulk and a funny quip referencing Tony Stark.  More, we see another SHIELD operative named Barton whose weapon of choice is a compound bow and arrow.  There's also a fun little coda at the end, after the credits.

But how is the film itself?  First of all, it is fun.  Overdone action sequences are all too common in movies, lacking any balance with genuine peril and emotional connection to those involved (without which we don't care about any outcome).  Thor strikes an almost perfect balance--testimony to the directing skills of Kenneth Branaugh (whose Henry V remains one of my favorite Shakespeare films of all time).  The look stuns with its gorgeousness, especially an actual translation into physicality the often-outlandish designs iconic to the comic book's Asgard.  Loki (Tom Hiddleston) traditionally wears a particularly impressive and unrealistic outfit, with horns extending almost a yard in front of him--yet in the film this looks is recreated just enough.  We recognize it.  Yet it looks realistic.  No small feat.  Ditto the regal armor of Odin Allfather, Heimdall, the Destroyer and others.

Very importantly, good actors play all these roles.  Relative newcommer Chris Hemsworth plays the lead, and if he seems less accomplished or mature than Tony Stark or Bruce Banner--he is supposed to be.  Indeed that makes up much of the story.  As a great fighter and heir to the King, he behaves far too much like the star quarterback in high school.  Genuine qualities of courage and leadership mix with arrogance, impatience and a certain amount of greed.  He needs to grow up, and his father (played splendidly by Sir Anthony Hopkins) forces matters after his son almost single-handedly starts a war.  Stripped of his powers, and his enchanted weapon, Thor falls to Earth.  He soon hears his hammer fell not far away, but learns the hard way the truth of what his father said before hurling it after him--only one who is worthy may wield the hammer.  Unlike Excaliber, having the right genetics means nothing.  It all depends upon your character.

Thor himself is found by a scientist named Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), which makes for a nice updating.  In the comics she was a nurse.  Her function in the tale is as a guide to this stranger in a strange land, as well as a friend/love interest as he realizes how his own folly has led to this personal disaster.

Here frankly is also the film's greatest weakness.  For the whole middle of the story, Thor is supposed to be growing up--a lot--as well as falling in love.  One doesn't quite believe it.  Almost.  But not quite.  No complaints about the acting.  Hemsworth (looking rather like a more boyish, far less sinister Eric from True Blood) conveys a lot of personal shock, sometimes by doing nothing.  Not the easiest thing to pull off.  The pain in his eyes seems real.  But--the film seems to need a few more emotional beats to let that aspect of the story sink in.  Ditto the love story.  One senses an attraction, but we don't really believe these two have fallen in love (although the idea that they might do so feels totally right).

Please note, these are nuances.  What we see remains a riveting tale, with surprising twists throughout.  Again, very fine actors in all the roles, including the splendid Colm Feore as King of the Frost Giants (he's also now a regular on the cable series The Borgias).  Idris Elba does his usual wonderful job, in this case getting to play a character of great dignity.

But the real revelation is Loki--Thom Hiddleston's take on the God of Mischief proves refreshing beyond words.  One can safely say he steals the movie, mostly by successfully concealing his real intentions from virtually everyone--including the audience.  He makes for one of the most interesting and compelling "villains" in any superhero film yet--on par with (but nowhere near identical to)Heath Ledger's take on The Joker.

My bottom line--not quite as good as the first Iron Man.  Very close, though.