Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Top 10 Science Fantasy Books

“Science fantasy” (also known in longer form as “science fiction fantasy”) is a subgenre (as well as a mashup) of both science fiction and fantasy.  A science fantasy story could either be packaged as a science fiction story that has fantasy elements, or a fantasy story that has science fiction elements.  This is a list of my favorite books (or book series) that make use of both science fiction and fantasy tropes in their storytelling. 

10.) Apprentice Adept Series by Piers Anthony

The setting of this series is on the “twin”, “mirror” worlds of Phaze and Photon.  They occupy the same space in two different dimensions, and are, basically, alternate worlds of each other.  They are distinct, however, in their “nature” – Phaze is a world of magic, while Proton is a world of science and technology.  Moreover, their inhabitants have alternate versions of themselves existing on the other world.  It’s a very intriguing, unique premise, and I applaud Piers Anthony for thinking of it.  

9.) Shannara series by Terry Brooks

I’ve always known the Shannara series’ reputation but it was only recently that I got to read The Sword of Shannara.  I’ve always thought that Terry Brooks’ Shannara books are purely high fantasy.  But then I learned that Shannara’s fantasy world is set in our “future” instead of our “past” (which is the usual of most fantasy settings).  After a nuclear holocaust caused by a “Great War”, humans mutated into traditional fantasy races like Men, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Trolls; and Elves revealed themselves after being in hiding for a long time.  Technology has been wiped out (though computers and robots are featured later on the series) but magic is rediscovered.               

8.) The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

Also known as the Heir to the Empire Trilogy (after the title of the first book), the Thrawn Trilogy is considered by many (me included) as one of the greatest tales from Star Wars’ Expanded Universe (EU).  Since it’s a Star Wars story, it automatically falls into the science fantasy category because of the presence such mystical things as “The Force” in this fictional universe. 

The Thrawn Trilogy, starting with “Heir to the Empire”, follows the events of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.  It continues the story of Luke, Lea, and Han as they aid the struggling New Republic in becoming a stable government as well as deal with the remnants of the Empire. 

Though the Thrawn trilogy, along with other EU properties, is now officially declared non-canon (in the aftermath of Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm), it is nonetheless a very delightful story, as it accurately captures the spirit of the original Star Wars trilogy and really felt like a rightful continuation.  In addition to that, the trilogy also introduced Grand Admiral Thrawn – hence, the name of the trilogy – who is arguably the greatest Star Wars villain after Darth Vader.
7.) His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

Despite its atheistic themes, His Dark Materials is a fascinating work of fantasy which involves witches, talking polar bears, and “dæmons” (the “souls” of humans embodied in animal form).  But the story also feature science fiction tropes like steam punk machines, multiple universes, and conscious particles called “Dust” (supposedly likened to Dark Matter, but in the story, it served as the basic, common composition of all energy and matter in the multiverse). 

The story focuses on Lyra Belacqua and her friends and allies, as they travel across different parallel worlds to learn more about “Dust” and save the multiverse from doom.  Along the way, Lyra is being pursued by agents of the tyrannical Church, which desires to kill her.  Meanwhile, her father, Lord Asriel, has amassed a massive coalition of various armies from across the multiverse to challenge the Kingdom of the Authority.

6.) Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune tells the story of Paul Atreidas, who grew up to become the enigmatic Muda’Dib, avenge the treacherous plot that was done on his family, and reclaim control of the planet that is rightfully his.  It is one of the most important science fiction works ever, but it was only recently that I got the chance to read it, so I wasn’t able to consider it for my top 10 science fiction books list.  That’s why I’m now giving it a slot here.  

Dune is considered by most as science fiction (while Dragonriders of Pern, which is part of my top 10 science fiction books, is actually considered by many as a solid example of a science fantasy.  So, if you want, we can just pretend that these two switch lists) but, nonetheless, I can find some fantasy elements in it, particularly Paul’s superhuman power of  being able to see past (by accessing his ancestors’ memories), present, and future at will.    

5.) Artemis Fowl Series by Eoin Colfer

I encountered both Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter at the same time, when I was in my Grade 6.  But though Harry Potter turned out to become more popular, it was Artemis Fowl who won in my heart.  I loved the premise of a boy criminal mastermind who initially was an adversary to the Fairy People – outsmarting and defeating them for the first time – but developed into an ally and friend later on.  In the AF universe, the Fairy People utilize not only magic, but high-tech gadgetries as well – making this series a product of science fantasy.   

4.) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (illustrator)

Described as a mix of Star Wars, Romeo and Juliet, and Game Thrones, this ongoing comic book series from Image Comics is my most favorite comic book of 2014.  It’s definitely one of the greatest science fantasy stories I’ve ever encountered.  

Saga tells the delightful story of Alana and Marko, lovers who respectively came from the planet Landfall (technologically-advance race) and its moon, Wreath (magic-wielding race) – two opposing sides in an interplanetary war that has been going on for a long time.  

3.) The Stand by Stephen King

It starts with the makings of a classic apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic tale.  An extremely deadly bio-weapon called “Captain Tripps” was accidentally released to the world which wiped out around 99% of the world’s population.  Then, in the second part of the story, fantasy came into play as the few human survivors were supernaturally drawn towards two destinations.  The first group, which was made up of the good guys, were led by a common dream to seek the 108-year old woman, “Mother Abagail”, and with her leadership, they established a community in Colorado which they named “Free Zone.”  On the other hand, the bad guys assembled in Las Vegas, under the evil magician Randal Flagg (a recurring villain in several Stephen King books).  Inevitably, the two groups would clash, and it’s up to a small group of Free Zoners to stop Flagg and his army.   

2.) The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis

The Space Trilogy is C.S. Lewis’ attempt on science fiction.  However, it’s much apparent that he’s more of a fantasy person as he opted to put a lot of fantasy themes in it, especially in the last book, That Hideous Strength.  It mostly involved the character Dr. Ransom’s travels to other planets (Mars or Malacandra in the first book, Venus or Perelandra in the second book) of the solar system which are actually inhabited worlds.  As far as profound and brilliant Christian themes and analogies are concerned, The Space Trilogy is as rich as Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series and The Screwtape Letters

1.) The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King


The tale of the quest of Ronald Deschain and his ka-tet towards the Dark Tower is, in my opinion, Stephen King in his zenith.  The Dark Tower series is one of the greatest pieces of literature I’ve ever read.  King pulled off making a grand epic by combining themes from various genres – like science fiction, fantasy, horror, Western, Arthurian romance, and others – as well as incorporating elements from his other writings (like The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, and Insomnia) and even himself into it.  It’s so gripping and dynamic that it’s as if the nature of what makes it compelling is as metaphysical and magical as the tale itself.   

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

To Love is "More than Words"

It has been more than three years since I last shared in front of everybody on our church's Wednesday service.  And this is my first time to share as a cell group leader (since during the past two years of leading my own cell group, as part of their training, I assigned my cell members to do the sharing whenever it's our cell group's turn to share.  Now that all the [regular] members have shared already, it's now my time to do it)...       

(RE: John 13:31-38)

One of my favorite songs is entitled “More than Words” which states that merely saying “I love you” is not at all an absolute confirmation of the authenticity of one’s love.  There is also the saying, “Love is a verb.”  It means that love is something that requires actions. 

In our passage, Jesus commands us to love each other.  And according to verse 34, the love that we show has to be the same kind of love that Jesus has shown us.  And Jesus’ kind of love is packed with substantial self-denying actions.  This is the kind of love that made him willingly humble himself to wash the feet of his disciples.  And this is the kind of love that made him willingly lay his life on the cross for us. 

Therefore – just like what the song “More than Words” stated – there is more to loving our brethren than just saying to them “I love you in the Lord” whenever we congregate.  We should show it through Christ-like action, also.  There should be willingness to serve, to be deferent, and to sacrifice with glad hearts.  We should be ready to give up our privilege, resources, or convenience to show the love of Jesus Christ.  And this love even extends to the point we should be ready to lay our lives for each other.  Just like Jesus.     

Now, carrying out this command to love each other in such a way that Jesus showed is incredibly difficult, if not virtually impossible – especially if the mandated recipient of our love is “unlovable.”  That’s why to carry out Christ-like deeds, we definitely need Christ-like motivations.  Where did Jesus draw his strength to love the unlovable?  The glory of God (verse 31 and 32)!   Jesus knew that the glory of God is supremely worth every sacrifice and every labor.  Jesus loves his Father and His glory, and Jesus loves glorifying His Father.    

In the same way, the only we can truly carry out Christ’s command to love – or any of His commands for that matter – is if we also supremely love and value Jesus Christ.  That He is a Superior Treasure that is worth giving up everything in this world.  And, thus, for Jesus’ sake, we will love others as He loved us – willing to deny any personal benefits, comforts, and advantages for others.  Jesus is infinitely worth it.  And through our loving actions, others can also see and experience this truth.        

So, basically, the key for us to be able to love our neighbors as ourselves is to first love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind.  Before we can sincerely tell others, “I love you in the Lord”, we should be able to sincerely say, “I love you, Lord.”  Furthermore, we can also logically conclude that the extent of how we carry out the commandment of loving others is directly proportional to the state of our love-relationship with God.  Our love for God is reflected on how we demonstrate our love for others. 

But, personally, when I evaluate myself of the times I say “I love you, Lord” or “I love you in the Lord” – of how substantial or shallow my words really are – I feel like Peter who declared, “I will lay down my life for you” (verse 37) but when action was required of him succumbed to denying Jesus three times.  My hypocrisy distresses and appalls me. 

But I’m comforted of the fact that Jesus grants repentance and restoration.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Peter was transformed into a resolute, courageous apostle of Christ – used by God to considerably spread the Gospel after Jesus’ ascension.  And when the time came that it was required for Peter to lay down his life, he truly did, as legend tells us that Peter was crucified upside down (by his refusal to be crucified the same way as his Savior, since he felt unworthy to be so) for his faith.  There is truly redemption in Jesus Christ, and for that, I’m eternally thankful.       

As application, I ask forgiveness for my hypocrisy, idolatry, selfishness, and lack of love.  And I thank God for his promises of granting anything I ask that will ensure my joy in His glory.  Thus, I ask the Holy Spirit to truly renew my nature so that I can totally love and value God above everything else, and, as a result, I can also be able to have genuine, Christ-like love for others.       

Thank you and to God be the glory.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The 3rd Bernel Zone Awards for Big Screen & Small Screen

For your reference of my picks for the best TV shows and movies of 2014:

In accordance to this blog’s tradition (which started in 2013), whenever it’s Oscar season, I do my own informal awarding for random, ever-changing categories.  For this year, I decided to just merge the Bernels for cinema and TV (that’s why I didn’t write a Bernels for TV last January), and I think, this combined approach is going to be the set format from now on.   

Best Movie Hero: John Wick (John Wick)

I think John Wick is now my favorite Keanu Reeve’s character (yep, even over Neo).  The character’s not only a very skilled badass, but is also chock-full of personality.  I mightily like how the character was built up, forced into the conflict, and then his real reputation eventually revealed.       
Runners-up: Batman (Lego Movie), Captain America (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Chris “The Legend” Kyle (American Sniper), Joseph Cooper (Interstellar)

Best TV Hero: Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock)

Duh.  This guy will probably always win this award whenever it’s a year that has a season of Sherlock on.

Runners-up: The 12th Doctor (Doctor Who), Raymond “Red” Reddington (The Blacklist)

Best Movie Heroine: Veronica Mars (Veronica Mars)

It’s not only because she’s my second favorite female fictional character ever that I gave her this award.  I objectively don’t have any 2014 movie heroine in mind that was able to be more interesting than Veronica Mars.   

Runner-up: Black Widow (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Best TV Heroine: Felicity Smoak (Arrow)

Arrows’ Felicity Smoak is based on a forgotten hacker character in the DC comics.  But I bet that the comics’ Felicity Smoak isn’t as awesome as the one Emily Bett Rickards is portraying in Arrow.  She’s easily the most attractive, the most fun, the most magnetic, and the most interesting female character in Arrow.  Her geeky charm, quick wit, winning personality, strong characterization, and mean hacker skills make her the female character I enjoy watching most in TV right now     

Runners-up:  Cosima Niehaus, Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix, and Helena (Orphan Black)

Best Movie Villain: The Winter Soldier (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

I was initially wary to give this award to Bucky Barnes a.k.a. the Winter Soldier considering the fact that the character is expected to eventually return being a hero.  Nonetheless, Sebastian Stan’s performance as a brainswashed Hydra assassin was deliciously menacing and engaging. 

Runners-up: Koba (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Conrad Stonebanks a.k.a. Victor Menz (The Expendables 3), Terence Fletcher (Whiplash)

Best TV Villain: Harrison Wells (The Flash)

I adore Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen, but the most fascinating character of The Flash is Dr. Harrison Wells.  It’s kinda unique that the big bad is actually among the good guys.  And the character is wrapped with too much mystery, too much intrigued, as well as natural screen charisma, that Dr. Wells is the most engaging villain I’ve seen in 2014 TV.

Runners-up: Min Joon-gook (I Hear Your Voice), Deathstroke (Arrow), Captain Cold (The Flash)

Best Movie Villainess: Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)

I thought Eva Green’s Artemisia in 300: Rise of an Empire already had this award in the bag, that it was unlikely to top the ruthless Persian general.  Then I saw Gone Girl and Rosamund Pike’s psychopathic Amy Dunne made me forget Artemisia’s badassery.  Mrs. Dunne is a distinctive, captivatingly unsettling villainess.  Her cold-hearted, manipulative, and cunning personality is disturbingly chilling.
Runners-up: Artemisia (300: Rise of an Empire), Mason (Snowpiercer), Hammer Girl (The Raid 2: Berandal)

Best TV Villainess: Missy (Doctor Who)

I’m new to Doctor Who but I’m knowledgeable enough of the mythology to appreciate the twist that The Master had turned into The Mistress. 

Runners-up: Margot Al-Harazi (24: Live Another Day)

Best Movie Couple: Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy (The Amazing Spider-Man 2)

Even critics of the movie would agree with me that one of the good things about it is the adorably corny, “lovey-dovey” chemistry of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy.     

Runners-up: Dylan Kershaw and Rebecca Porter (In Your Eyes), Logan Echols and Veronica Mars (Veronica Mars)

Best TV Couple: Park Soo-ha and Jang Hye-sung (I Hear Your Voice)

Because their story has kept me absorbed and made me swoon!

Runner-up: Richard Castle and Kate Becket (Castle)

Best Movie Duo: Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and Hiccup

Probably the greatest “rider and his mount” tandem in fiction. 

Best TV Duo: Sherlock Holmes & John Watson (Sherlock)

Again, duh.  Few duos can ever match the compelling work that Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have done with their respective characters in Sherlock.     

Runner-up: Rusty Cohle and Marty Hart (True Detective)

Most Adorable Movie Character: Baymax (Big Hero 6)

I really get the vibes that Baymax – like everything else about Big Hero 6 – has been consciously, painstakingly designed to win everyone’s hearts.  And though it would feel “synthetic” if indeed so, I’m nonetheless fine with what resulted from the intent.  Baymax is awesomely adorable, and if there’s a real-life Baymax, I definitely want one.  “Bah-la-la-la-la.” 

Most Adorable TV Character: Bernadette Rostenkowski-Walowitz (The Big Bang Theory)

Last 2014, I got to marathon The Big Bang Theory, and I discovered that this show is extremely hilarious.  The last time I had fan-level enjoyment from sitcoms was during the days I was watching sitcom reruns of shows like Blackadder Goes Forth, Mork & Mindy, and Happy Days; I also occasionally watched 3rd Rock from the Sun back in the 2000’s.  But I was never really into modern sitcoms.  So The Big Bang Theory is my first real fandom on a sitcom since Happy Days.      

The show has always been funny, but the early seasons were kinda plagued with negative social behaviors of the male characters.  However, once female characters Amy Farah Fowler and Bernadette Rostenkowski had been introduced into the show, the appalling stereotyping of geek social cluelessness and awkwardness have been smoothed off.  The girls – especially Bernadette – were great additions to the show, and definitely improved it a lot.    

Bernadette could be my most favorite Big Bang Theory character (next to Bernadette, I just equally like the other characters).  Not only is she the most attractive cast member, but her charming personality, small stature, and squeaky voice (especially this) makes her overwhelmingly adorable.

Best Dance in Movie: Baby Groot dance (Guardians of the Galaxy)

No contest. 

Best Dance in TV: Clone Party (Orphan Black)

The awesomeness of Orphan Black is summarized in this epic sequence. 

Best TV Smile: Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock)

The smile of a “high-functioning sociopath.”

Best Movie Smile: Maleficent (Maleficent)

The best three seconds of the movie.

Best Movie Fight Scene: Rama vs. Hammer Girl, Baseball Bat Boy, and the Assassin (The Raid 2: Berandal)

Every fight sequence in The Raid 2: Berandal is incredibly badass.  But the most notable for me is Rama’s gauntlet against a couple of goons, then Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Boy, and then, finally, a “boss level” duel with The Assassin.
Runners-up: The highway fight between Captain America and the Winter Soldier, the elevator fight scene between Cap and those Hydra-S.H.I.E.L.D  troopers, and Cap vs. Batroc the Leaper (Captain America: The Winter Soldier); Shishio vs. Kenshin, Saito, Sanosukue, and Aoshi (Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends); John Wick vs. Russian mobsters (John Wick)

Best TV Fight Scene: Flash vs. Arrow (The Flash)

This terrific fight scene happened in the first episode of The Flash and Arrow crossover.  Considering the limitations and budget of TV programming, I applaud everyone involved in that fight scene for overachieving.  I think I have re-watched the scene at least a dozen times over.   

Runner-up: Agent May vs. Agent May copycat (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

Best Movie Ensemble of Characters: Guardians of the Galaxy

Seeing Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, and Groot stand together in the big screen is almost as exciting as seeing the Avengers assemble back in 2012.

Runners-up: The Lego Movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Best TV Ensemble of Characters: Castle

With Psych done, Castle is now the current ongoing TV series that I’ve followed the longest.  Hence, I’ve already grown invested and fond of all of the show’s characters.  So, in terms of volume of TV characters I like, Castle has the ensemble I enjoy watching the most.
Expression of the Year:

Twist of the Year: X-Men: The Last Stand is erased from continuity (X-Men: Days of Future Past)

It was not necessarily a mindblowing twist, but the knowledge that the deaths of Jean Grey and Cyclops are negated and that everyone is blissfully together in Xaviers’ School for Gifted Youngsters, really provided a warm-hearted, delightful feeling.
Runner-up: The story is being “imagined” by a boy while playing with his father’s Lego collection (The Lego Movie); Skye is the MCU’s Daisy Johnson a.k.a. Quake, and Ward is Hydra (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.); Mary is a spook (Sherlock)

Most Memorable Quote of the Year: Rust Cohle (True Detective)

“This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, 'Time is a flat circle.' Everything we've ever done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again.” 

Speech of the Year: Sherlock’s speech during John and Mary’s wedding (Sherlock)

Sherlock Holmes’ best man speech was hilarious, touching, memorable, and just plain awesome.  An important excerpt:
“If I burden myself with a little helpmate during my adventures, this is not out of sentiment or caprice. It is that he has many fine qualities of his own he has overlooked in his obsession with me. Indeed, any reputation I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes, in truth, from the extraordinary contrast John so selflessly provides. It is a fact, I believe, that brides tend to favor exceptionally plain bridesmaids for their big day...
“There is a certain analogy there, I feel - and contrast is, after all, God's own plan to enhance the beauty of his creation. Or it would be if God were not a ludicrous fantasy, designed to provide a career opportunity for the family idiot.
[awkward pause]
“Point I'm trying to make is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy, so if I didn't understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody's best friend, and certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing.” 
Make-Up Job of the Year: Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer and Grand Budapest Hotel

It was a considerable time after I’ve seen Snowpiercer and Grand Budapest Hotel that I only learned that Tilda Swinton was in them!  I was blown away; I never recognized her at all.  Uncanny.   

Actor That I Got to Like for the First Time in 2014: James Spader

I had encountered James Spader before in films like Stargate and Secretary, but he never struck me as a versatile and captivating actor then.  Only when I started watching The Blacklist did I get to see how great John Spader is.  His performance as Raymond Reddington in The Blacklist is extremely enthralling – his voice is magnetic; his control and delivery of emotion is convincing and defined; he lights up every scene he’s in; and, just like his character, he seems to be always in control. 

Actress That I Got to Like for the First Time in 2014: Tatiana Maslany

Portraying distinctively the different clones in Orphan Black makes her the epitome the versatility.  Can’t help but be mesmerized by her prowess.

Best Movie Posters of 2014: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The most awesomely badass and gorgeously designed posters ever...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Making It More Colin Firth-Centric Would Have Improved the Already Awesome ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ Greatly

Kingsman: The Secret Service is the greatest adaptation of a Mark Millar comicbook to date.  Though I’m an avid comicbook reader, I’m not aware of this movie’s source material, so I can’t tell if how much of the awesomeness of this movie can be attributed to Millar’s ideas.  But I have a feeling that most of the credit for making Kingsman pretty awesome belongs to the guy that adapted this into the big screen, Matthew Vaughn (the director & co-writer of the screenplay). 

Kingsman is consistently entertaining from start to finish.  I appreciate all the tongue-in-cheek referencing of popular spy fiction properties and tropes, and it has some of the most viciously beautiful fight scenes this side of The Raid movies. 

But my most favorite thing about this movie is Colin Firth and his character, Harry Hart (codename: Galahad) – a simultaneous terrific parody and modernization of the gentleman super-spy trope.  I’ve always thought of Colin Firth as a decent actor; he was amazing as King George VI in the 2010 Academy Award-winning movie, The King’s Speech.  But it was in Kingsman that showed us what kind of character Colin Firth is born to play.  He was a natural being a gentleman-spy character – not necessarily 007-like, but in a delightfully distinctive way.  He carried an effortless elegant demeanor, and was able to gracefully execute the brutal choreography (unless, most of the work is done by his stunt double) of his fight scenes (heck, most of the awesome fight scenes in the movie involved Galahad). 

Colin Firth’s Galahad was definitely the best character in the movie by a mile (the runner-up is Sofia Boutella’s Gazelle, an early contender for my Best Movie Villainess of 2015) and I find it disappointing that the movie was not made all about him.  Galahad merely had a “mentor role” to the lead protagonist, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, played by Taron Egerton.  Now, Taron’s Eggsy is okay.  He’s not boring, and he actually has a couple of great character moments.  But Eggsy really pales in comparison with Galahad.  At the final act of the movie, when (SPOILERS) Galahad was killed, Eggsy was put in a “filling his mentor’s shoes” moment, and it was pretty apparent that he had big shoes to fill – there was a bit of clumsiness in his manner and motions.

No doubt, Kingsman is incredibly fun and will likely make my list for best movies of the year.  But if it had been delivered as a Galahad story, I believe it would have been much, much, MUCH better.

And I think Matt Vaughn realizes this, too.  There are already reports that a sequel is understandably on the works, and Vaughn is working on ideas in bringing Galahad back.  Because, seriously, a Kingsman 2 without Colin Firth?  That won’t do at all.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Third Time’s Not the Charm With ‘Taken 3’

Taken 2, despite the critical panning it received, was something I tolerated and even enjoyed.  Taken 3?  Not so.  It’s simply an unremarkable, forgettable movie – neither good enough to be impressed and satisfied about, nor even bad enough to enjoy lampooning.  I thought that a “being-set-up-for-murder” premise instead of another “kidnapping” premise would provide a fresh adventure for the franchise, but what resulted was a dumb, mediocre story.  If it hadn’t been a part of a popular franchise, if it didn’t star Liam Neeson, and if it hadn’t featured Brian Mills, one of the most notably badass fictional spooks ever, by itself, Taken 3 can be easily dismissed as an averagely bad direct-to-video movie.  

Liam Neeson will always have an awesome screen presence, and this holds true in Taken 3.  However, the characterization of Bryan Mills in Taken 3 is poor.   The character seemed to be less smart, less badass, and less well-layered.  It felt like Mills was downgraded into a clichéd action hero.  Most of the blame is definitely on the bad script, but the likelihood of Neeson getting tired working on a franchise that is getting uninspired by the movie could probably have contributed, too

Good, engaging characters often distract me from most of a story’s problems.  So without that aspect unavailable, finding things to nitpick is made easier.  The narrative was lazy and insipid.  The directing, editing, and camera job were untidy.  The bulk of the action scenes were unexciting and unoriginal.  The musical choice was awful.  Most of the characters were uninteresting.  In summary, Taken 3 is a waste of a great character in Bryan Mills, a waste of a great actor in Liam Neeson, a waste of the first Taken movie’s goodwill and world-building, and an overall waste of time.                      

(/Sigh)  John Wick probably ruined every action movie for me.     

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Top 10 Variations of Chess

Even if there are already several strategy video games (especially in PC) that have been developed to have more intellectual gameplays than chess, this timeless boardgame is still as popular and esteemed as ever.   But did you know that there are actually numerous variations of chess out there?  Here are my favorite modified versions of chess that employed a couple of twists to make the game more complex or crazier – hence, more interesting.      


Three-Dimensional (3-D) Chess has its origins from the late 19th century.  It features multiple boards at different levels, on which the pieces could move in three-dimensions.  This variant features different variants itself, but the most popular is the “Star Trek” version.  Star Trek’s 3-D Chess has been seen many times throughout the franchise’s TV series and movies.  Originally intended to be merely fictional, fans developed detailed mechanics to make it playable in real life. 

3-D Chess is probably the most complex chess variant I’ve encountered (yes, even more complex than Quantum Chess) that I didn’t even bother to thoroughly learn the rules.  But this is probably the most popular chess variant out there because of its connection with Star Trek, so I gave it the tenth spot.  And, besides, I have to admit that I also find it fascinating because of its intimidating set-up.     


When I first encountered the image above back in 2011, I shared it in Facebook and jokingly captioned it...
So during my research while constructing this list, I was surprised to discover that I was spot on with my jesting deduction. 


This chess variant is developed by Yoko Ono (yes, that Yoko Ono) as an art project.   Both players’ pieces are white.  Therefore, after a few moves, the board gets confusing; the players will have the difficulty of determining which pieces are theirs.  Of course, those with genius-level eidetic memory would be able to play it with ease as if it’s a normal chess game.  But for most players, they must trust each other in determining whose pieces are whose. 

“Play It By Trust” is supposed to serve as a metaphor for the senselessness of war.  Through it, Yoko Ono intended to eliminate the “conflict” in a chess game, rendering the “battle” to eventual futility after a couple of moves.  So – if I get her intentions right – the set-up instead promotes “peace” and “unity” by forcing the players to rely on each other’s memories and honesty if there’s hope of finishing the game. 

It’s either stupid or profound.  Your call.  Either way, it’s truly unique.        


In Monster Chess (also called Super King Chess), Black has the standard set of pieces while White only has a king and four – sometimes two, sometimes eight – pieces of pawns.  However, White can move two successive moves per turn. 

On paper, Black seems to have the advantage because he has a complete set of pieces.  But White’s “two moves against Black’s one move” function actually can make the game very winnable for him, especially if White plays with eight pawns.   


To win, instead of checkmating the king, one has to capture all pieces of a particular kind of chess piece.  Therefore, he can win by doing one of the following: capturing the king, capturing the queen, capturing the two bishops, capturing the two knights, capturing the two rooks, or capturing all eight pawns.  Since the king is just a normal piece here, the restrictions in castling in check are suspended.  Moreover, a pawn can now also be promoted to a king.  Also, the queen should be taken good care of, since there is only one queen and its elimination would automatically mean losing (unless a pawn has been promoted to another queen prior to the initial queen’s elimination).      


I will be doing a “two item in one spot” entry here because both variations make an interesting use of a “nuke” option, but in different methods. 

In Atomic Chess, standard board and rules apply.  The twist is whenever a “capture” happens in a particular square, an “atomic bomb explosion” happens; all pieces – whether belonging to the player or his opponent – in the eight surrounding squares are removed from play.  Pawns, however, are immune to an “atomic bomb explosion”, hence, they can’t be removed from play by it. 

In Stratomic (illustration above), the game happens in a 10x10 board.  There are two extra pawns, and, instead of rooks, the two extreme bottom pieces are nuclear missiles (those that look like inverted kings in the illustration above).  A nuclear missile moves and captures one step at a time, like a king piece.  However, a nuclear missile can also be launched.  When launched, it “nukes” – removes from play – the piece on the square it is targeting as well as all the pieces on its eight surrounding squares.  The “nuclear missile” piece is also removed from play after its use.  The king is, understandably, immune to nukes.  There are two prerequisites before a “nuke” can be launched: 1.) a non-pawn piece must have been captured prior to using it; and 2.) the nuclear missile should not be on a “state of attack” – can be captured on the next turn – by an enemy piece at time of launch.  Lastly, pawns can be promoted to nuclear missiles.    


Standard board and rules apply.  But whenever a “capture” happens, the capturer gains the movement ability of the capturee.  Example, if a rook captures a bishop, it can now also move diagonally (basically, making the rook capable of doing what a queen can do).  Or if a queen captures a knight, it is now also capable of executing an “L” movement.   


The number three spot is for Three-Player Chess and Four-Player Chess – another “two items in one spot” entry.  Sometimes, a few additional rules are applied but they are basically, at their core, three-way or four-way games of chess.  The “multi-player” aspect, simple of a twist it may be, actually enhances the difficulty and stakes.   There will always be “Unholy Alliance” and “Mexican stand-off” aspects hanging on the game.  It really makes the strategizing more complicated and exciting.


Bughouse Chess (which has also been called in other names like Exchange Chess, Siamese Chess, and Tandem chess) involves four players divided into two teams and playing against each other in two boards.  The set-up, as what the above picture illustrates, involves one of the players playing white on his board while his teammate is black on the other board, and the teammates should sit side by side.  Standard chess rules apply.  However, whenever a player captures an enemy piece, he can hand it to his partner and his partner has the option of putting it into play on his own board by placing it on any vacant square.  The team wins when either one of the two players checkmates his opponent or his opponent ran out of time.        


This mash-up of chess and boxing is actually a real sport, with federations and tournaments and all that.  It’s definitely one of the most extreme sports in the world as this taxing sport puts both mental and physical toughness into test.  A chessboxing match consists of 11 alternating three-minute rounds between chess and boxing  – 6 for chess and 5 for boxing (with sixty second breaks between rounds).  This means that after one or both players have exhausted the three minutes in the opening chess round (there is a total of 18 minutes worth of chess time; 9 minutes for each player), they would then proceed to a three-minute boxing round, then back to chess, and so on.  Anytime during the match, a player wins it if he wins in either a chess round (checkmating his opponent, opponent exceeds his time limit, opponent resigns) or a boxing round (a knockout, a TKO).  If neither of the players wins within the 11-round match, the chess game ends in a draw and the one leading in the boxing scorecards is the winner.  If it’s also a draw in the scorecard, the player with the black piece wins (I don’t know why such rule).