Category: 1998


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I think that every movie lover that grew up in the 90s has a soft spot in their heart for the Scream franchise. None of the sequels were as good as the original (though Scream 4 was a very clever lambasting of modern horror tropes) but even they all had that self-referential, pop-culture obsessed magic that made the first so special. I used to think that part of the reason why they were so good was because of Wes Craven, but as hit or miss as the man has been in his career, I’m actually starting to be willing to give more credit to the franchise’s screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, and 1998’s sci-fi horror gem The Faculty has confirmed that suspicion.

I say this because even before I knew that The Faculty was written by Kevin Williamson (a fact that I didn’t discover until the end credits rolled), the film felt so similar to Scream yet I had trouble putting my fingers on exactly why. The Faculty is a science fiction horror flick in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, not a teen age slasher flick. It’s protagonists aren’t obsessed with horror movies. But, it’s clever self-aware protagonists felt related to Neve Campbell and her kin, and they had their own pop-culture saturated conversations. A film where the heroes weren’t easily replaceable drones, The Faculty was the hip sci-fi equivalent of Scream elevated even more by the tight direction of popcorn auteur Robert Rodriguez.

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After discovering that their high school is ground zero for an alien invasion, a ragtag group of high school students including geek Casey (Elijah Wood), goth Stoakely (Clea Duvall), and drug dealer Zeke (Josh Hartnett) decide to take the fight to the faculty of their school, who are quickly being replaced by alien imposters. When they discover that they may be the last pure human beings left in their town, the group has to find the original alien queen and destroy her to save the town but they quickly learn that not everyone in their group is as human as they think.

Much like the first Scream film, what makes The Faculty so immediately enjoyable is the instantly endearing and sympathetic cast. Although it’s quickly apparent that the film’s high school has a lot more problems than just an alien invasion (like almost psychotically violent bullies and cliques), the main characters seem well-rounded and smart. They act the way you’d act if your high school had been invaded by aliens. They aren’t just immediately setting themselves up to die. A key to a good horror film is that you care about the fates of the protagonists, and I found myself invested in seeing if Casey and the rest of the crew would make it to the end of the film.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film has an almost ridiculously deep field of supporting players. I could name all of the future big talent in the film and take up several paragraphs in the process. To wit: Robert Patrick (Terminator 2), Laura Harris (Warehouse 13), Famke Jannsen (X-Men), Salma Hayek (Dogma), Piper Laurie (Carrie), Jon Stewart. And those are just the teachers. Well, Laura Harris is one of the kids now that I think about it. Throw in Usher, Jordanna Brewster, Wiley Wiggins, Danny Masterson, and others and this film was veritable who’s who of 90s talent. And they all delivered but special props must be given to Elijah Wood and Laura Harris.

Also, for a film from the late 90s, the special effects in the film aged remarkably well. Although there was occasionally an air of camp in the film, it was always in a fun tongue-in-cheek way and you had to know that certain moments were intentional visual throwbacks to classic sci-fi flicks like The Thing and Species. Very rarely did I find myself pulling out of the film because something was cheesy or particularly fake looking. As a matter of fact, I lost track of the number of times where the film made me say “holy s***” because of one especially gruesome moment or another. The film knew how to use gore to good effect.

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At the end of the day, The Faculty is pure smart popcorn fun. Much like last year’s criminally under-appreciated Cabin in the Woods, The Faculty proved my suspicion that one of the only ways to successfully do horror these days is to verge on deconstructing the whole genre. The Faculty isn’t exactly scary but it wasn’t meant to be. But it’s smart. Razor smart and while it may not have had the lasting cultural impact that Kevin Williamson’s Scream franchise had, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that The Faculty is just as good as the first Scream and one of the last great gasps of the 90s horror renaissance.

Final Score: A-

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First things first. Andre 3000’s ‘fro in that picture is legen-wait for it-dary. Just damn man. That is like a Black Dynamite afro. Secondly, I’ve got a friend that considers Outkast to be the GoAT (greatest of all time) when it comes to hip-hop. I’m not sure if I’d go that far. That’s either Kanye West or a Tribe Called Quest to me, but Outkast definitely comes in right behind those guys. They certainly have the greatest rap song of all time, “Bombs Over Baghdad,” and the album that song is on, Stankonia, is a perennial contender for the greatest hip-hop album of the 2000s. However, we’re moving back to the 90s and their classic album Aquemini and the song that spawned a lawsuit, “Rosa Parks.” Why the hell can’t Outkast get back together? Seriously, Stankonia is perfection. Speakerboxx and The Love Below were great but they were two separate solo albums that happened to be released together. I’ve loved Big Boi’s solo output (“Shutterbug” is definitely going to be my song of the day someday), but I want a new Outkast record. Who’s with me?

American History X

Growing up in rural West Virginia where the African American population is only 3.5% of the overall population (and that’s mostly confined to the population centers of Huntington and Morgantown), you’d be forgiven for thinking that my exposure to American racial tensions was slim to none. Of course, you’d be wrong. Even before my family became the foster parents for a family of four African Americans from Pittsburgh, we were an anomaly in a small town with a lingering history of racial resentment. Philippi,WV, has a small section of the town known as Chestnut’s Ridge where de facto segregation has caused virtually all of the black and bi-racial citizens to live there. People in Philippi often refer to the Ridge as “(Racial Slur) Ridge.” When my grandmother cheated on my grandfather with a black man and had a bi-racial daughter (who in turn would get pregnant when she was very young by a black man herself), my family was thrust into the racial animosity eating away at our town.

Barbour County’s African American population is almost entirely bi-racial. There are few, if any, solely black citizens. So, of course, it would fall upon my family to quadruple the African American population overnight. Although there were never any outright incidences of violence or bullying against my foster brothers and sisters because they were black, I could still hear faint whispers of the “N” word on the school bus and catch hateful stares at my siblings (who I would eventually be as close with as my biological sister) when they weren’t looking. Our bus driver would hold them to different standards of behavior than the other kids, and there was always hesitation by many to let them fully integrate into the community. I’ve spent my entire life being very sensitive to the plight of minorities in America, and I think my biography has given me that perspective a lot of young, rural white people simply never had.

Perhaps, that’s why I’ve always found Tony  Kaye’s 1998 race relations magnum opus American History X so fascinating and so incendiary. If ever there was a film that should have been required viewing in high school’s across the nation when studying racism, it was this (along with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Providing no easy answers or any pat solutions, American History X instead chooses to be a stark portrayal of the harsh realities that produce American racism, and the ways that hate and bitterness destroy ourselves and our families. Although the film has some problems, including a supporting cast that simply can’t live up to the standard of Edward Norton’s phenomenal lead performance, few American films have ever been this brutally honest about the state of racism in America (or at least, racism circa 1998).

Told with a liberal dosing of flashbacks, American History X is the tale of a fateful 24 hours in the life of the Vinyard family. The oldest son, Derek (Primal Fear‘s Edward Norton), has just been released from prison after serving time for brutally killing 4 Crips who were trying to steal his car, including curb-stomping one of the gangstas. Before going to prison, Derek was one of the leaders of a Venice Beach gang of white supremacist “skinheads,” but after seeing how hate and violence have only ruined his life and the life of his family, Derek has a change of heart in prison. Now that he’s out, he’s got a mission to keep his brother Danny (Terminator 2‘s Edward Furlong) from suffering the same fate as himself as Danny finds himself sliding deeper and deeper into the world of the skinheads.

Almost everything great about this film rests on the shoulders of Derek Vinyard. Whether it’s Ed Norton’s performance or the writing, Derek holds the film together when some of its less impressive parts threaten to distract. Writer David McKenna’s decision to make Derek an intelligent, charismatic, and articulate figure was wise because it allows Derek to be more than just a caricature of racist ignorance. Yes, Derek ultimately is ignorant, but he is undeniably smart, and the script uses Derek as a mouthpiece for the sort of talking points that show how impressionable youth fall under the spell of racism in the first place. They use Derek to explore how insecurity and fear and economic downturns can be exploited to make stupid kids believe that blacks or Hispanics or Jews are the roots of all of their problems. And the film makes his conversion to grasping how stupid his views were slow, painful, and tragically realistic.

It also doesn’t hurt that Ed Norton delivers the greatest performance of his career. To be able to turn Derek Vinyard into a terrifying figure of your worst nightmare of modern racism and then slowly chip away at his rough edges til what’s left is the compassionate, caring young man he was before his father was murdered by drug dealers is an incredible achievement. Although skinhead Derek is a human figure, he is in no way sympathetic. He’s very clearly a bad, bad person. Yet, the sensitivity and nuance of Norton’s performance (and perhaps the non-linear nature of the story) means you’re always seeing the dichotomy of Derek’s character and the internal battle between hate and love that allows you to ultimately sympathize with this man. I’ve never seen Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, but his performance must have been beyond stellar to have beaten Edward Norton for this film at the Oscars.

Unfortunately, I can’t generate the same praise for the rest of the supporting cast. Avery Brooks, Elliott Gould, and William Russ shine in smaller supporting roles, but other, major players embarrass themselves to the point where I wonder how I didn’t notice these things when I was younger. Edward Furlong’s performance doesn’t just wilt in comparison to the star turn from Ed Norton. It is simply an objectively awful turn in one of the film’s pivotal roles. His cultural capital was still high at the time thanks to T2, which is how he must have landed the role, but he simply comes off stoned and/or utterly oblivious in virtually every second of his performance. The film is meant to be seen from his eyes. We see Derek through Danny, but Edward Furlong has the emotional range of a toaster oven, and when the lenses are focused on him, the film drags (which is to say nothing of equally bad performances from Fairuza Balk or smaller players in the various racial gangs).

For the most part, the film’s cinematography is superb and really draws you further into the film’s world. While the story told at the present is shot in color (with great hand-held camera work to add the verisimilitude of the scenes), the flashbacks are in a haunting black and white. These moments embrace the cinematic possibilities of the story with a sweeping score, more unconventional and high-concept shots, and a greater willingness to play with perspective. One of the film’s best scenes is a basketball game between the skinheads and a local black gang which, if taken at a completely straight face, is meant to come off like some typical Glory underdog sports match, but it’s the ironic and subversive undertones of the game which make you realize how bad it is that you’re rooting for the skinheads in this game. And of course, there’s the brutal and shocking scenes of violence including a prison rape and the now infamous curb-stomping scene which to this day I can barely watch.

Few films have explored racism with such an eye for the truth. Most of the American films that deal with the problems of racism in this country are told from the point of view of those being oppressed. We very rarely see a story about how the racists and the oppressors wind up in their sorry state in the first place, and that was what made American History X so shocking and controversial when it was released. Time has come down in the film’s favor, and it’s often considered a cult classic of the 1990s. I would have to agree. The film may have its share of problems (in addition to the poor supporting performances, it often tries to awkwardly lighten the mood by playing some of the racist tendencies of certain cast members for laughs, i.e. Ethan Suplee), but they pale in comparison to the raw power of one of the most honest and revealing films of the 90s.

Final Score: A

 

Sorry that there hasn’t been a real movie review in a couple days. I’ve been in the process of moving (again) from Philippi to Morgantown. So, between all of the packing and the drives back and forth among geographically disparate counties, my time has been less available than usual. I’m going to watch a movie tonight before I go to bed (and get the review finished tomorrow before I head to work) so there will be at least one movie review between now and tomorrow’s Song of the Day. Back to the business at hand. I hate Courtney Love, but god damnit, Hole was a great band in their prime. Case in point. “Celebrity Skin.” The only other chick who could rock as hard as Courtney Love back in the 90s was Shirley Manson with Garbage (whose new album is actually pretty good). I’m going to get started on watching some movie ASAP so I’ll leave you all with this short and sweet post.

After a month of (mostly) newer acts, I’m going to try and work my way backwards a little bit and pick some older bands for this Song of the Day series. Since we’re getting to the point where bands from the early 90s are becoming classic rock (how weird is that for all of my fellow 90s youths), we’ll start with the late 90s and and work back from there. One of my favorite 90s indie rock/pop bands is of course seminal Scottish band Belle and Sebastian. While I’m embarrassed that I learned about them because of (500) Days of Summer, that movie had a pretty wonderful soundtrack (even though they actually weren’t on it ironically enough) so I don’t have to feel too guilty. One of their best albums is 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap, and today’s track is the album’s eponymous single. It’s a beautiful pop song but the line “Color my life with the chaos of trouble because anything’s better than posh isolation” is just perfect. There’s a ton of other great tracks on the album (“A Summer Wasting” and “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career” immediately spring to mind) and I’m not even sure if “The Boy With the Arab Strap” is my favorite, but I’m heading to Wheeling Island to play in a Texas Hold’Em tournament and I’m leaving in 20 minutes so I don’t have time to put that much thought in it. Enjoy.

I’ve been home for a little over twenty four hours and already I feel completely unmoored from my regular blogging routine. Maybe, it’s the fact that I’m watching Game of Thrones on its regular hour of Sunday night or the fact that I have such terribly slow internet that I can’t even watch Community on Hulu on my PS3 (though I can use with my computer), but for some reason, I just feel like I’m in an entirely different universe than the one I was inhabiting back in NYC. When I realized that it was 10 PM and I hadn’t picked my song of the day post yet, I was scrambling because my sister wants to play Texas Hold’Em with my dad and I, and I just couldn’t think of any good songs to play (I’m barring myself from using any bands that I’m seeing at Bonnaroo until after it’s over because it’s going to be a series when I get back from the festival). So, I was talking to myself about trying to find a good song to use and my sister said “You Get What You Give” by 90s one hit wonders, New Radicals. So, why not? It’s a fun power pop song and I have a pretty deep love for some catchy power pop. Hopefully tomorrow, I”ll be able to put more thought into the whole process.

 

I used to be one of those wide-eyed classical romantics. I believed in true love. I believed that monogamy was the basic building block of the human mating process. I believed that there was just one person out there for me and it was a matter of time til I found her. Perhaps because I stopped believing in silly things like fate, religion, and destiny, I’ve completely come to understand how silly the last belief was, and while I’d like to believe that the first two might be true, I have my serious doubts. People complain about the destruction of the conventional marriage and the erosion of the family, but maybe we only created those social constructs because a long time ago we needed them to survive. What happens when we’re able to survive in a world without the nuclear family? Do our inherent hedonistic tendencies subvert the idea that most people are capable of loving just one person the rest of their life? Is there anything wrong with recognizing that perhaps this just isn’t possible for you? To me, it’s a far more honest approach than being in a relationship where you proclaim monogamy but secretly yearn for infidelity (or even cheat). The whole question of modern love and the lies that are inherent in our perhaps fantasy love lives lies at the center of James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy and while it has some flaws (a terribly unnecessary ending), it’s still a thought-provoking and razor sharp film.

In a considerable inversion of the “love triangle” tale, James Toback’s story presents a far more morally ambiguous (and therefore more intellectually satisfying) tale. Carla (Austin Power‘s Heather Graham) and Lou (Natasha Gregson Williams) both wait outside of the same NYC apartment and strike up a conversation. They’re both waiting for their boyfriend to come home and as the very talkative Lou begins to spill details about her boyfriend, Carla realizes they’re waiting to see the same man. They’ve both been dating Blake Allen (Robert Downey Jr.), a narcissistic actor/singer with a bit of an oedipal complex, and they both showed up on his door step to surprise him at the exact same time. They decide to break into his apartment to confront him about his infidelity, and while Blake turns out to be exactly the sort of wishy-washy cheater you expect him to be, Carla and Lou’s ambush doesn’t settle things as cleanly as they want, and they’re forced to examine that perhaps they aren’t as morally clean as they want to believe either.

This movie literally boils down to three people talking for 90 minutes (with one graphic sex scene between two of them at the halfway mark), so if that’s not your thing, you should just go ahead and stop reading now. This movie isn’t going to be for you. These characters never shut up (especially Lou), and if you find the concept of three self-absorbed bourgeois New Yorkers talking about rich white people problems as completely unbearable, you will really, really despise Two Girls and a Guy. I enjoy a good philosophical discussion, and this film tries to reach right into the heart of why people cheat. It examines why we create these fictions in our lives that we know we can’t maintain. It looks at what it is in us psychologically that makes some people able to be happy with one person why some of us can’t really find that. It asks whether that first group of people are even happy at all or if they’re just pretending. It even acts as a commentary on why actors pursue that field because it allows them to create fictions that fill the holes of unhappiness in their lives. Unlike the last “talky” film I watched, Interview, I never felt like Two Girls and a Guy stretched itself beyond its capabilities in terms of the questions it asked, and even if it didn’t provide clear answers to all of those questions, that was also one of the main themes of the film, which is that life is one massive moral gray area.

Before I talk about the performances (one amazing, one good, one subpar), let me just state that Robert Downey Jr. has aged like a fucking champ. This movie is 15 years older, and while he certainly looks younger in this film, is it weird for me as a straight man to say that he’s only gotten more handsome since this film? Seriously though, Robert Downey Jr. stole this film. He’s supposed to be the bad guy (kind of), but he’s such a consummate performer (and he’s playing a character who’s so absorbed in his own performances and deceits and fantasies) that you can’t help but understand why these women still have very complicated feelings for him even after they discover that he’s a cheating bastard. I overuse this word to describe highly passionate performances, but Downey Jr. could be downright feral in this role, and it’s a reminder of a day when he known more for picking high-risk, emotionally demanding roles instead of a never-ending string of good roles in blockbusters (not that I’ll deny a man a living. I just miss the more unpredictable Downey Jr.). Heather Graham was surprisingly effective in this role because I’ve never thought of her as a good actress. Unfortunately, Natasha Gregson Wagner was mostly annoying, and she couldn’t keep up with the better performances surrounding her.

The above photo is a promotional still of the movie and not an actual screenshot (like I normally try to use). In an unsurprising fact, if you do a Google search of “two girls and a guy,” it’s going to provide you with more pornographic images than actual screenshots from this film. Anyways, if you are a fan of the subversive 90s romantic dramedy subgenre that I feel will never live up to the standard set by Chasing Amy, you should give Two Girls and a Guy a try. Yes, Natasha Gregson Williams is incredibly irritating and the ending seems even more forced and unnecessary than Interview‘s, but if you can look past those minor quibbles, it’s a fun, fresh, and witty examination of modern relationships. If every rom-com/romantic drama were as brutally honest as this, perhaps the sexes in this nation would have a more sincere and genuine conversation about relationships than the unrealistic escapist fantasies that Hollywood prefers to foist upon us.

Final Score: B+

I’ll keep this post short because I’ve got a concert tonight and won’t be returning home from work afterwards until very late. This has the potential to be the last concert I go to as an intern at Baeblemusic (there’s a slim possibility that I’ll be covering the M83 concert at Terminal 5 which would be amazing) so I have to make the most of it. The act I’m seeing is seminal 90s pop-punk band Eve 6 who just reunited to make their first new album in almost a decade. I interviewed the band for work which you can read here. And as a continuing series on this band’s attempted comeback, I’m covering their show (I’ll also be reviewing their new album, Speak in Code, which is surprisingly decent). I’ve loved the jam “Inside Out” since I was a a little kid (I was 9 when it was released) and unlike a lot of its contemporaries, it’s aged remarkably well. So, enjoy a blast to the past when you used to rock vans and went through your skateboarding phase.

We’re seven days into the month of May now (which somehow sounds like the start of an Arcade Fire song), and if you’re wanting to listen to this month’s (or last month’s) Spotify playlist for my Song of the Day series, click here and give it a spin.

Happiness (1998)

Back when I was reading Gravity’s Rainbow, it became quickly apparent that one of Thomas Pynchon’s main goals (besides a masterful deconstruction of the moving parts of a novel) was to intentionally shock and offend his readers as much as humanly possible. Whether it was the scene involving coprophagia (sorry) that caused me to nearly projectile vomit while reading or the graphically depicted orgy sequence with in detail descriptions of threesomes, anal sex, cunnilingus, and fellatio as well as protagonist Slothrop having sex with a 13 year old, Thomas Pynchon wasn’t playing with kid gloves. I wouldn’t consider it exploitation or pornography any more than I would accuse Ulysses of being pornographic (despite the masturbation scene) because of Pynchon’s abilities as a writer. While I’ve sat through my fair share of dark and depraved films for this blog, I’ve yet to watch something quite as intentionally transgressive and subversively voyeuristic as Todd Solondz’s (Storytelling) jet black dramedy, Happiness. This film will only even be watchable by .01% of my reading audience, but if you can stomach it’s challenging material, you will be rewarded (perhaps the wrong word) with one of the most brutally honest and raw films I have ever seen.

Happiness is a series of inter-related tales about the many members of one family (and one of their neighbors). Billy Maplewood (Dylan Baker) is your seemingly ideal father, a psychiatrist with a beautiful house in a wonderful neighborhood with a loving wife (Cynthia Stevenson) and three darling children. However, Billy is also a pedophile and over the course of the film his dark fantasies cease to be imagined and become real. Joy Jordan (Hung‘s Jane Adams) is a struggling songwriter weaving her way out of dead-end jobs who hides her insecurities and depression behind an obviously false cheery facade. Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a successful writer who believes herself to be a fraud without an original or sincere bone in her body despite her success and suffers in her imagined loneliness. Allen (The Big Lebowski‘s Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a lonely computer geek who is paralyzed with fear over women and prank calls them with vicious sexual insults while masturbating. Over the course of this film, we see these people sink to the lowest that a person can fall (among other individuals) without the script or camera ever flinching away for a second.

Happiness won the National Board of Review’s Best Ensemble cast award for 1998, and it was well deserved. Philip Seymour Hoffman is potentially at his best since Capote. There was just a raw ferocity to it. It was muted and withdrawn because of Allen’s introvert tendencies, but Hoffman simply made the character appear like he was going to explode at any second and when he called these women, there was this terrifying misogynistic anger. It was just superb. Jane Adams is about as underrated an actress as they get, and she really sold the dichotomy between Joy’s cheerful appearance and her own personal anguish. The real star of the show was Dylan Baker. To make a character who methodically raped and molested two children and essentially offered to jerk off in front of his own son a sympathetic character is both a testament to Baker’s remarkably human performance but also to Todd Solondz’s script which showed this man as someone with an illness, not some inherently evil monster. Baker’s performance was just one of the most nuanced, courageous, and wrenching acting jobs I’ve seen since Jackie Earl Haley in Little Children.

The film is 2 hours and 20 minutes long, but manages to never feel like that because of the pure intensity of the script. While there was one story that never seemed to click with me (the story of Joy, Helen, and Billy’s wife’s mother), the rest of the film sunk its hooks into you and refused to let you look away (even when you desperately wanted to) because it was so sincere and authentic. Had this film been played any differently, it would have easily ventured into exploitation territory, but instead, the film is transformed into an abrasively intimate look into the lives of people who are searching for happiness but will never find it. The film doesn’t make judgments; it simply shows this world and all of its terrible truths. The fact that it manages to be darkly comic at moments simply speaks wonders for Solondz’s screenplay as well. Not since The Savages and Tess have I seen a film that was this unrelentingly pessimistic and cynical, but it’s the same brutal vision that makes it such a remarkable feature. When a film can turn the simple act of pouring salt on your food into one of the most emotionally rich moments in the film, you know you’re in for something special.

The only reason this film isn’t getting perfect marks is because of the one part of the ensemble that didn’t click with me because simply every other aspect of the film was almost beyond words. This is visceral, stomach-turning cinema at its finest. I actually don’t recommend this hardly any of my readers because the material is simply so tough and intentionally offensive, that you will likely watch it in complete disgust and never listen to my recommendations again. However, if you can place your preconceptions at the door and sit through this deeply layered and subtextual film (that I swear managed to make me literally laugh out loud on several different occasions), you may find a film that ignores all of the rule of mainstream morals and fairy-tale happy endings and instead challenges you with an adult and mature conversations about what it means to be happy and what we go through to achieve something that may very well not exist in the first place. Todd Solondz, I salute you.

Final Score: A

SPOILER ALERTS

Well, it only took about two weeks and a thousand pages of reading, but I’ve finally finished the second book in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, 1998’s A Clash of Kings. With a story that spanned continents, encompassed hundreds of named and important characters, and featured more scheming, plotting, and battling than the War of the Roses (which I feel is a major influence on the novel), A Clash of Kings served up a sequel to A Game of Thrones that was as necessarily epic as one would expect. While I may not place this one in the same deified spot as the original book, it still proved addicting enough to keep me coming back from more, staying up til 7 in the morning reading cause I couldn’t put it down, and insatiably hungry to jump into book number 3, A Storm of Swords.

A Clash of Kings picks up shortly after the end of A Game of Thrones. With the murders of both Ned Stark and the king, Robert Baratheon, young Joffrey, product of the incestual relationship between Queen Cersei and her twin Jaime Lannister, sits upon the Iron Throne, while his uncle Tyrion serves as the new Hand of the King. Despite his claim to the throne as Robert’s heir, two others have staked up claims to be the new King of the Seven Kingdom’s, Robert’s two brothers, Renly and Stannis. Robb Stark has also been deemed by his people to be King of the North and has broken all fealty to the Iron Throne. Across the Narrow Sea, Daenarys Targaryen mourns the loss of her husband Khal Drogo while celebrating the birth of her three dragon and is ferried to a mysterious kingdom known as Qarth where all would see the Mother of Dragons but nothing is as it seems. At the Wall, the brothers of the Night’s Watch strike north in search of Jon Snow’s missing uncle and to prepare for war against the barbaric wildlings. The Stark children are spread far and wide. Sansa is a hostage of the Lannister’s at King’s Landing, Arya travels in hiding as an orphan boy hoping to get back to Winterfell, while Bran rules Winterfell while brother Robb wages war against the Lannisters and defends his homeland.

The book clocks in at nearly 1000 pages (969 to be precise, not counting the appendices), and with the exception of Martin’s tendency to go into Tolkien-esque (and by that I mean excessive) ramblings about the myriad details of the world that the characters possess, I never felt like any of that space was wasted or filler. Page after page, he simply delivers one of the darkest (at times depressing) and mesmerizing fantasy tales of all time. While my head began to spin trying to keep track of the book’s ridiculously large cast (this is coming from someone who has no problem following The Wire), as long as I understood each character’s motivations, ambitions, flaws, and strengths, I couldn’t help but to continue reading the book. I have become so emotionally invested in the point-of-view characters from the series, that I feel each and every one of their triumphs and tragedies as one of my own, and since Martin puts the Stark brood through more hell than kids in an Orson Scott Card novel, it’s an emotionally grueling journey, and if you thought that Martin wouldn’t be able to surprise you anymore with where he takes these characters, you would be so very wrong.

If there’s anything about the second book that keeps it from being quite the masterpiece that the first one was, it’s that I almost felt like Martin was afraid to take quite as many risks in this book. By the end of A Game of Thrones, several main characters and a healthy chunk of the supporting cast are dead. Ned Stark’s death, while tragic and sad, was an emotional high point of the first book, and it showed you that Martin was not playing with kid’s gloves. There was never a death of that magnitude in the second book, and I was sort of disappointed by that. I’m not saying I want Jon or Arya or Tyrion to die. That would really piss me off, but if Martin does something like that, and he does it well, the books are better for it.

Before I go to bed tonight, I imagine that I will have read at least 100 pages of A Storm of Swords. I am incredibly thankful that I started reading the series now and that I haven’t had to wait nearly a decade between books like his more veteran fans have had to between A Feast for Crows and the soon to be released A Dance With Dragons. By the time that I finish book number 4, A Dance With Dragons should be released within a month or so, and I will be eagerly awaiting it more than any new release for a book since the last Harry Potter book.

Winter is coming.

Final Score: A-