Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Century Too Late: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray. Written by Oscar Wilde.

: What's this? That's right, I'm pitting my movie addled mind against a classic piece of literature. We're pulling the old switch-a-roo on you this week and my lovely collaborator Doomwench will be reviewing the movie. And check us out, this book/movie paring only just barely counts as a vampire story, what with Dorian ruining people lives like some kind of a social succubus (or y'know, more accurately but less alliteratively an incubus). Perhaps this means we'll one day be able to learn and grow enough to review something not vampire-y at all.

Preconceptions: I'm a fair to middling Oscar Wilde fan, having read a lot of his essays, enjoying the hell out of the Importance of Being Ernest and sighing like a ridiculous groupie over Stephen Fry's portrayal of him in Wilde (the movie). I bought a copy of this book over a year ago, but what with one fantasy book about sex with dragons and another (I am a woman of classy literary tastes, which is why I don't usually write book reviews), I hadn't gotten around to reading it. I assumed since I enjoyed all of his other stuff (usually with a mean chuckle) that I'd dig this too.

General Review
: Just in case you read even more trashy novels than me and you haven't heard the plot of this book, I'll give you a quick run down, there will be spoilers (can I even spoil a book that's over a hundred?). Basil is an artist who falls madly in love with the super hot Dorian Gray (totally platonicly, of course) who he has taken to painting. Henry, Basil's friend, demands to meet Dorian. Upon doing so Henry decides it would be fun to corrupt Dorian and shape him into a hedonistic fop. During their meeting, Henry goes on and on (seriously, for some 20 pages) about how great it is to be young and fresh. Dorian has to face up to the fact he won't be young forever, but the painting that Basil is doing of him will. He wishes the painting could age rather than him. Dorian slowly begins to fall under Henry's influence and eventually becomes every bit the thoughtless dilettante that Henry is. He notices that his wish has come true and that the bigger a jerkwad he is the older, more haggard and meaner the painting looks. He waffles for a long while about becoming a better person, but never gets around to it. Eventually, he can't stand seeing his bad choices paraded in front of him in the portrait so he stabs it and dies.

Pretty cool idea for a plot, right? Sounds like a particularly good Twilight Zone episode with a handful of homoerotic undertones thrown in for spice. I'm sad to say that where this falls out is in the writing. And don't think it's just because I don't like or understand the 1800's style. Despite my predilection to reading books that are little more than lycanthropic porn, I also get pretty excited about Austen, Dickens and Browning. No, unfortunately, I think Wilde falls into the trap a lot of the really stellar essayists and playwrights fall into when writing a novel: it's a completely different medium and shouldn't be approached the same way.

When we were paying attention to the plot, I was fully absorbed. But the vast majority of the book is a lot like reading a philosophical dialogue barely veiled in plot, while this was interesting (and who doesn't enjoy a well written philosophical dialogue?) it wasn't a novel. Yes, it was thought provoking and made me ponder the nature of beauty, different types of love and morality, but so do my ethics textbooks and essays. There are plenty of novelists who manage to strike a good balance between story and message, but I think Wilde didn't manage it this time. I wish he'd taken another kick at the can with this book under his belt, because he is an exceptionally good writer (making a really controversial statement there).

When I started this, I was also excited to see some of those famous quotes in their proper context (y'know, like: "the only way to get rid of a
temptation is to yield to it"). This proved to be another disappointment. The first few pithy statements made me laugh and feel intellectually smug, but there were so many of them that it became distracting. A lot of the time they were crow barred in and jarred me away from the story. While these witty comments worked well in Wilde's plays, I didn't care for them in the book.

But don't let me turn you entirely off, there is plenty about Dorian Gray to recommend it. There was a lush sensuality (no, I'm not trying to sell you a blasphemous dessert) captured in this book that was deeply effective. Its portrayal of languid indolence zapped right through me and made it a lot more likely that I'd cuddle up and read than get up and do the dishes. I can't think of many books where the atmosphere hits me quite so hard.

The characters are also worth mentioning. Dorian's fall from grace is one of the more believable ones I've read. The fact that he starts off weak and vain probably helps, but reading him justify his reprehensible actions to himself clinches it. Sybil (Dorian's girlfriend) is a genuine ingenue who's innocence doesn't come off as syrupy. It's actually pleasant to watch her be happily in love. Henry, despite being heavily involved in some of the yacky sections, is by far my favourite character. His gleeful debauching of Dorian and stealing him away from Basil (who I thought was a rather dull character foil for our bad boys) was a delight to read.

The Picture of Dorian Gray wasn't what I was expecting. It was about half novel and half philosophical discourse. I liked both parts, but they didn't meld into the cohesive whole I'd expect of a writer of Wilde's calibre. There were definitely moments that felt like I was being forced to read something for a class, not something I usually face when reading good lit. It's worth reading for the good bits, but be warned that it's an uneven reading experience.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Girl on Book Action: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
ISBN: 978-0-316-15454-3


Breathtakingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family’s past connect to an inconceivable evil: the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages. The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe – in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, so exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world.


My Thoughts:

Well, hmm. I’m a little torn over my feelings for this book. On the one hand, there are a number of things I really enjoyed, on the other hand, I was often terribly bored or annoyed and really just wanted to get to the end so I could read something else.

The thing that bothered me the most were the constant jumps between the different story-lines. The book is set up as a story within a story within a story type deal, tracing the history of involvement with this mysterious book, which is fine. I like those kinds of onion-structure narratives. What bothered me was when there were two or three paragraphs from one story-line and then maybe two pages of a different one and then a chapter break and then we were back at the original story-line. This jumping back and forth made it really hard to get involved with any of the stories, because the moment you were connected you’d be wrenched out and into a different story and time. Fortunately, toward the middle of the book, Kostova started to just tell one strand at a time for a while, which made it much easier to enjoy the mystery and the descriptions of beautiful and exotic (to me) places.

I didn’t like the end at all. Everything wrapped up way too neatly if you ask me and the attempt in the epilogue to undermine that neat ending and rekindle some of the mystery seemed somewhat cheap.

The amount of research and careful planning that must have gone into the writing of this book is respectable and I tip my hat to the author for her dedication. I really appreciated all of the descriptions of monasteries and libraries and the life of a Graduate student – I only wish I was such a good student. It’s a little strange to think that my thesis topic would, in the world of this book, make me a potential person of interest for Vlad the Impaler, but hey, if he wants to come over and have tea some cloudy afternoon I’m okay with that. Anyway. The book does a great job of making you want to travel to Istanbul and Budapest, so if you’re the kind of person who likes to travel it might give you a slight case of wanderlust.

Spoiler alert, I’m about to discuss actual plot elements.

Something that I’m not sure I agree with, or how I feel about it, is that Kostova turned Vlad into some sort of militaristic, undead bibliophile collecting books through the millennia. I have no idea if this is historically accurate or not, but it sort of struck me as an odd thing to include, considering that she was doing her best to make him be a monster. A love of books, even in a bloodthirsty tyrant, seems to me to be an endearing characteristic. So, I don’t know how I feel about it. I mean, I like it – I just don’t know that I like it as part of this story. I suppose it was necessary as a motif for his actions throughout the book.

End spoilers.

So, on the whole, I’d say it was an okay read. Certainly not one of my favourites, and definitely not as gripping as the blurb would lead you to believe. If you’re interested in libraries, monasteries, Vlad the Impaler, or simply following a bunch of crazy historians around on a quest, you might like it. If you’re looking for a quick, thrilling read you may want to look elsewhere. There is action here, and mystery, but it’s not edge-of-your-seat type stuff.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Weeks Too Late: I Sell The Dead

I Sell The Dead. Directed & Written by Glenn McQuaid.

Preconceptions: I heard about this movie entirely by chance, as my cohort saw an ad while it was still in production. She showed it to me and I thought "huh, neat looking zombie movie" and promptly forgot about it. I came across it again, nearly a year later while looking for a bit of new horror to watch (knowing full well that the horror genre was sorry for the last movie I saw, and it certainly wouldn't hit me again). I rented this strictly on the strength of the trailer, which made it look quirky and about a variety of undead monsters rather than strictly zombies, something I haven't seen before.

General Review: I'll admit it, I don't like horrodies (the clever portmanteau movies that mush horror and comedy together have been stuck with). I am well aware that I'm the only person in the universe who didn't like Shaun of the Dead, finding the switch between serious drama and comedy too jarring (I never claimed to be sophisticated). But while this movie fell firmly in the horrodie camp (whimsical harp music during gore and all), that wasn't my main beef with it. Though, while I'm on the subject, this movie didn't even manage to confuse my brain with fear and sentiment in the off-putting way some other movies of this genre do. It managed to evoke neither. It was terribly unfunny and didn't even manage to cause a startle response to something jumping out of a box (the lowest form of horror).

No, while that would be enough to turn me off, this movie did something even worse: it attempted to create a camp, B-Movie atmosphere on purpose and failed at it. While I won't say it's impossible to set out to create something campy and cult from the get go (Hedwig and the Angry Inch comes to mind) it is nigh impossible. I understand the crass desire to cash in on a cult movie. I understand wanting to be hip and ironic (though a whole lot less, crass comes easier to me). What's great about a good low budget movie is when the writing and clever shooting makes up for the low budget. Waggling how cheap the movie is in front of our faces isn't endearing. Saying: "ha-ha, we don't have to write compelling or interesting characters because it's a cheap movie and, ha-ha isn't it fun to watch this suck, ha-ha!" doesn't fly with me. Sometimes, it can be fun to watch something suck, but not usually when it's on purpose.

This movie had a lot of potentially interesting ideas and if it had been written better it could have been neat. Grave robbers are fascinating and could be either blackly funny or frightening (or both at the same time, if you're playing to a more emotionally developed audience than me). Having them run into a pile of different undead foes is a really good idea. It makes sense, given their line of work and something I haven't seen anyone take a serious stab at (I still haven't).

The cast is basically not worth mentioning. They must have had a sandwich to feed him, so Ron Pearlman was in it. Dominic Monaghan (who played Douchey McBand, AKA Charlie, on Lost) was in it and I got the feeling he might have been able to play something a bit more complex if he'd been given a chance, but I couldn't say for sure. There was a lot of scenery chewing all around, but I'm not sure who I should blame this on the actors or the director.

The directing (except for the directing of the actors), wasn't that bad. While McQuaid didn't make very good use of most of what he had, he did put a competent looking movie together. The small budget didn't make the movie look small. I didn't feel like we were in someone's backyard in the outdoor scenes and the different graveyards were distinct. The monster make-up was also alright, if uninspired, a lot was borrowed from the Evil Dead movies (which I love, but c'mon can't we get past them and try some new ideas?).

If you're expecting a charming, funny little movie, look elsewhere. There was a kernel of a good movie in I Sell The Dead, but only a kernel. If McQuaid had taken the project more seriously, rather than just aping cult classics past, it might have blossomed into some delicious popcorn. C'mon man, take your tongue out of your cheek and perhaps strive to make a good movie rather than a deliberately bad one.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Girl on Book Action: The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker
ISBN: 0-765-34907-8


Kage Baker’s first fantasy novel is the tale of Smith, of the large extended family of Smiths, of the Children of the Sun. They are a race given to blood feuds, and Smith was formerly an extremely successful assassin. Now he has wearied of his work and is trying to retire into safe obscurity in spite of all those who have sworn to kill him.

To get there, he agrees to lead a caravan from the inland city of Troon to the seaside city of Salesh. The caravan is dogged by murder, magic, and the brooding image of the Master of the Mountain, a powerful demon, looking down from his mountain kingdom upon the unwary travelers passing below.


My Thoughts:

If you’re looking for a quick, fun fantasy read, this novel might be a good bet. It’s fast-paced, hilarious in parts, but with an underlying criticism of our wasteful treatment of the planet. When it comes to environmentalist messages, Baker’s novel fairs better than the illustrious Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood, since Baker is never heavy-handed with her depiction of ecological devastation. Let’s finish with these generalities and get to the meat of the thing.

Lord Ermenwyr has to be one of my favourite supporting characters ever. At times infuriating, he provides not only comic relief, but also a decent amount of moralizing, world-building information and does a fine job of moving along the plot. And, at the end of the day, you just want to wring the sniveling little bastard’s neck, but in a loving, exasperated sort of way. Although, I suppose in all fairness to applying a critical eye, his interventions were at times a little bit on the side of deus ex machina. I’m willing to forgive this flaw, because I liked the nonchalant way in which he carried it off.

Smith made for an engaging lead, as well. I really have no complaints about him, his decisions make sense, though I think a bit more exposition of his past might have added depth to him. I understood why he acts the way he does, but his motivations could have been spelled out more forcefully. Although, the ambiguities may serve their own purpose, as when you get to the moment in the book you really don’t know what choice he’ll make.

I think my only real complaint about the novel is that some of the world building could have been stronger and more detailed. Most everything is explained at one point or another as the narrative progresses, I just wanted there to be more – more myth, more explanations, more descriptions. As it is, there is a complete world and a good narrative there, it just could have been…fuller.

One example where more explication would have been nice is that while there is Smith (the main character) there is also Mrs. Smith (no relation) and two further Smiths all within the first 30 pages of the book. Eventually, there is a creation myth that explains why the name Smith is so popular, but that is probably a good two-thirds into the story and at that point you could miss it if you weren’t paying attention.

Story-wise, I liked that there was a build-up to the main event. It almost felt like reading three novellas, chronicling the important events in Smith's life, so there wasn't a lot of boring exposition detailing his day-to-day life. While filling in some of these in-between times might have provided more of the world to allay my feeling that it could have been fuller, I think it worked well as it did. Baker doesn't let her story get bogged down in events that have no bearing on the story she wants to tell. What's important is that in each section, you learn about the world, the characters and you get a real sense of the people and this is what makes the book so strong.

Overall, I recommend this one. The characters make it memorable, if nothing else. I’ll be looking for more of Kage Baker’s books (well, at least I will be once I make a dent in my rather considerable “to-read” pile).

Post Script: The winner of the poll, with a unanimous six votes is His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik, which I'll be reading in the not too distant future.  Thanks to everyone who voted!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Ponyo

Ponyo. Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Preconceptions: I'm a big Miyazaki fan and it was only the hurly burly of day to day life that kept me from seeing this movie in the theaters, not lack of desire to see it (going to movies alone holds no fear for me, not even to kids movies). I've heartily enjoyed all of the rest of his filmography and didn't expect this to be any different.

General Review: What? Another kids movie, you ask? And a Disney movie, at that? Don't be fooled, my cupcakes, much like Spirited Away this is a Miyazaki movie that's just being brought to America by Disney. And yes, it's still a kids movie, but Miyazaki knows what I like: adorable little horrors having adventures.

His movies have something else I like: complicated villains. Even the ones that are trying to destroy all of humanity or who've taken a serious dislike to our hero have sensible reasons for what they're doing. These flicks give the watching children more credit than most movies do, presenting them with some moral ambiguity. While I found this in books pretty early on, I don't remember being faced with it in cinema until I was well into my teens. I think it's probably good for developing brains to be forced to deal with antagonists that aren't twirling their mustaches.

While Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson) isn't the best example of this in Miyazaki's flicks, he does represent something else that is more complicated than usual kid's fare: he is a father who's unwilling to let his children grow up. I mean, he's keeping them in a glass bowl (his kids are fish, and while we see their mum and she doesn't appear to be a fish, it does make me wonder about their conception). But, because this is Miyazaki, it isn't quite as simple as that, his daughter trying to grow up (and turn into a human) is also causing some catastrophic events. So it isn't even just a father being overprotective.

I'd also like to take a moment to enjoy how good the voice acting was in this. I remember the dark days when to see a cool anime (or Japanamation as it was called at the time) you'd have to sit through some right terrible voice acting (when you couldn't find the subtitled versions). Now the translation to English basically always comes with the pile of voice actors and the occasional screen actor. For all the crap I've just given Disney, this was well done. Noah Cyrus (yes, Billy Ray's other kid) was particularly worth noticing. I wasn't sure what to expect when I thought "magical fish sorta like the little mermaid" voice, but she nailed it, squealing for ham and all. Tina Fey was so good I didn't even realize it was her (and I just finished watching some 6 hours of 30 Rock). I also enjoyed Betty White as Yoshie, she's got a great voice and (to flagrantly steal a joke) as the last remaining Golden Girl is a national treasure.

I will say, that despite all my raving, this isn't Miyazaki's best work story wise. There is a lot of wandering around not having adventures or really being set back. Forging ahead was all Ponyo and Sosuke (the little boy helping his fishy friend) needed to do in this, not be particularly clever or brave. Plodding away doesn't make for great drama. The stunning visuals saved the meandering from being dull (and swapping animation styles to show the wavering look of being under water was really cool), but even they couldn't sharpen up the uninspiring climax. Throughout the story we're promised that Sosuke will have to prove his love for Ponyo in a dangerous test and that there would be dire consequences if he failed. (**If you don't wish to be spoiled, please skip the next paragraph**)

What was this big test? Saying that he'd love her (so I guess that means more fish children in future generations). That's it. No proof of love, no daring do, just a quick sentence and everything is all fixed. I'm not even sure if this can be called a climax, I think I'm going to call it the fizzle. With the fizzle of the movie taken care of everything goes back to normal and Ponyo becomes a little girl for real.

If you haven't seen a Miyazaki movie before, don't start with this one (go see Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away instead), it's pretty good and absolutely gorgeous, but it isn't the best of its kind either. If you've liked some of his other flicks, chances are good you'll enjoy this one as well.

Random Thoughts: Ponyo probably didn't have the best fish care advice I've ever seen in a movie. The fish spends a lot of time being petted and flapping out of the water (I wonder how many goldfish this has effected?).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Girl on Book Action: Reader's Choice Poll #4

Candidates for Reader’s Choice Poll #4

I know, it’s been a while. I’ve been busy. I’m actually not sure about the timing on these. Am I polling too often? Not often enough? Should I be doing it like clockwork, say, every 2 months? Every 3? What do you think?

As always, the poll will be open for 1 week and I’ll be reading the winner as soon as I finish whatever book I happen to be reading at the time. Anyway, on to the choices for this month’s poll.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Once again I’m beginning with the fic-lit pick. This book was recommended to me by a fellow Grad Student a while ago and I saw it at the used bookstore and decided to give it a try. The story sounds intriguing, although I’m not sure how the title of The Reader relates to a story about a love-affair and a criminal trial. I suppose I’ll find out when I read it.

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

A very dear friend was reading these books last year and would tell me about how much she was enjoying them and a little bit about the story and I was interested at the time, but then life happened and I was very much distracted. It’s an alternate history of the Napoleonic war that includes dragons (DRAGONS!!!) and the first part in a series. Nearly a year later and I’ve finally picked up a copy and decided to include it as the fantasy pick for this poll.

Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The re-read pick, which turns out to have been the most difficult to select. I’m trying to strike a balance between offering lit-fic and fantasy-ish books on these polls, and since last time I had two lit-fic options and only one fantasy I decided to do the opposite this time. The problem with most of the books that fall into this category and that I’ve read is that they are not stand-alone novels and if I start a series I’ll want to finish it. So, even though I only recently reviewed Kiernan’s The Red Tree, I decided to put up Silk. Make of that what you want.

Girl on Book Action: Cthulhu's Reign edited by Darrell Schweitzer

Cthulhu’s Reign edited by Darrell Schweitzer
ISBN: 978-0-7564-0616-5


Some of the darkest hints in all of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos relate to what will happen after the Old Ones return and take over the Earth. In “The Dunwich Horror,” the semi-human half-breed Wilbur Whately speaks in his diary of traveling to non-human cities at the Earth’s magnetic poles “when the Earth is cleared off,” and hints at his own promised “transfiguration.” Very few Mythos stories have ever touched on this. What happens when the Stars Are Right, the sunken city of R’lyeh rises from beneath the waves and Cthulhu is unleashed upon the world for the last time? What happens when the other Old Ones, long since banished from our universe, break through and descend from the stars? What would the reign of Cthulhu be like, on a totally transformed planet where mankind is no longer the master?

It won’t simply be the end of everything. It will be a time of new horrors and of utter strangeness. It will be a time when humans with a “taint” of unearthly blood in their ancestry may come into their own. It will be a time foreseen only by authors with the kind of finely honed imaginative visions as those included in Cthulhu’s Reign.


My Thoughts:

Pretty neat concept, right? Made you curious, didn’t it? Let me tell you now, save your money. If you find this collection used or can get it from the library go for it, but I wouldn’t spend the $10 on it. I say this, and yet, I also have to say that individually none of the stories are bad – just dull. I found myself feeling bored a lot of the time. And a definite downside to this book is that there are no stories written by female authors. A fact which, if I had done my homework prior to purchasing this book would have led me to refrain from spending my $10. To my feminist sensibilities this omission is a big faux pas. (I have since done a little bit of reading around and found that this lack of women is very much a genre thing. Apparently not that many women write in the Lovecraft universe, although, judging by the presence of female writers in other Lovecraftian anthologies the editor could have found something to include women.)

Another overall issue was the shoddy editing – there were a lot of sentences with misplaced words, tense shifts and other little nitpicky things that an editor should be picking up (in my humble opinion). You can find sentences such as this one: “There have since been thousands of Cthulhu Mythos stories by other writers since Lovecraft’s time” (Schweitzer, pg 5 [emphasis added by me]), throughout the introduction and to some extent also in the stories. Oddly enough, the glaring mistakes seem to end about half-way through the collection, otherwise I might not have finished it.

Let me briefly go through the stories I enjoyed, so as to give credit where credit is due.

“The Walker in the Cemetery” by Ian Watson did a pretty good job of establishing atmosphere and the complete hopelessness of being confronted with Cthulhu. I particularly liked the setting within the cemetery and the use of the memorial statues to give depth to the sense of place. I think as far as settings go, this one was my favourite, although that has less to do with being a story about Cthulhu and more to do with simply thinking it’s a neat place.

“Her Acres of Pastoral Playground” by Mike Allen is probably my favourite story in this collection. To me, it embodied the surreality of the Cthulhu Mythos in combination with something very human. The tone, the story and the relation to Lovecraft was done really well. It's difficult to talk about this story without giving away the end / plot too much, but I'll try to say something at least and if you have a fear of spoilers maybe you should skip ahead to the next one. I think what I really liked is the sense of isolation and the main character's struggle to retain a sense of normalcy in the face of the complete insanity of a world taken over by Old Ones.

“The Holocaust of Ecstasy” by Brian Stableford left a lingering impression, as well, although I cringe a little at the use of the word “holocaust” in the title. I think what I really appreciated about this particular story is that it felt somehow more imaginative than some of the others – tiny spoiler alert: I mean, the protagonist is a human-fruit, which really struck me and underlined the absurdity of standing against cosmic chaos.

So these three stories really stood out, which isn’t to say that the others were not good stories. Depending on your preference you may enjoy different ones. “The Seals of New R’lyeh” (Gregory Frost), “Nothing Personal” (Richard A. Lupoff), and “Spherical Trigonometry” (Ken Asamatsu) were all good, but didn’t stick with me the way the other three did. Laird Barron’s “Vastation” intrigued me, but ultimately left a little too much to the imagination, I never felt that I was “in” the story. And lastly, Fred Chapell’s “Remnants” was good and I enjoyed it, but it seemed out of place in this anthology due to a rather positive ending. The doom and gloom, madness and mania of the other stories weren’t really present in this one, which makes for an uplifting ending to a possibly depressing book, but also led to a bit of a narrative rift.

There are a few stories I haven’t mentioned here. Those are the stories that really didn’t leave much of an impression on me.

I think that if you’re looking for a Lovecraft-inspired collection you would be better off getting Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow, while it also had some stories that left me underwhelmed the ratio of solid stories was higher and it also featured stories written by women.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Going Postal

Going Postal. Directed by Jon Jones, Written by Bev Doyle & Richard Kurti (Mucked Around With by Terry Pratchett).

Preconceptions: I am a ridiculous fan girl for Discworld and Terry Pratchett and Going Postal is one of my favourites. For those of you who haven't read it, do, but the basic plot (I know I don't normally do plot summaries, but this is hardly a big blockbuster you've all heard about) is that a con man (Moist von Lipwig) is forced to revitalize the post office in a major city (of the unlikely name Anhk Morpork). The post office is probably cursed and the ruler of the city is a tyrant, with the power of life and death over our anti-hero. Moist is helped and hindered by Adora Belle Dearheart, the chain smoking proprietor of the Golem Trust (think a day labour office for giant clay men).

When I heard that Sky was going to do a movie (alright a TV movie) of Going Postal I was ecstatic. While overall it's neat to see the characters I know and love dancing around on TV, I have had some problems with the previous Sky movies. My main issue is that they aren't all that funny and the books are hilarious. The narrator is such a huge part of the comedy of these books, particularly the early ones, that removing narration really strips the jokes. Fortunately, Going Postal is one of the later books so there are lot more non-narrated jokes. The teased cast pictures looked good (though I always pictured Adora Belle as being curvier than Claire Foy). I was all ablaze to see it.

General Review: Still not all that funny. I don't know what it is about the translation from book to movies, but while I liked some things about this movie, it wasn't particularly funny. The lack of laughs wasn't the only problem I had with it.

Oh boy did the Golems suck. I know it's a made for TV movie and I know they had to make a whole pile of them appear on screen at once, but jeez. It wasn't even just that they looked like a bad Doctor Who monster of the week, or the Thing in the (1994 Roger Corman) Fantastic Four movie: they were highly emotional. They sounded a lot more like Marvin the robot than they did proper automatons. They gave world weary sighs!

The thing that bothered me most was how neat the plot was. Going Postal (the book) was a mastery of disconnected plot lines all working separately to come to the finale. Of all the things lost from book to movie this is the one I missed the most (even more than the jokes!). It takes a skillful hand to tie the disparate plot lines into a satisfactory story. This movie just sliced away the unruly threads (Gordian Knot style) and we were left with something a lot more bland and standard. The mass of different plot points also showed off Moist's brilliant mania, his ability to see all of the different events taking place and weave them into one delicious con (I'll stop the thready metaphor now, I promise).

Without the plot to show Moist's charmingly hyperactive brain, it was all on Richard Coyle's acting ability. And here I must pause in my irritated nerd ranting to give some high praise. Richard Coyle was
awesome, he had the frantic energy I loved about Moist. Not only did he capture the character's attitude, but he looked the part, the bland handsomeness that was transformed into something a lot more striking by force of personality.

As you well know I can rarely stomach romance, but Moist and Adora Belle are an exception. Their witty Bogey and Bacall (or Han Solo and Leia for that matter) repartee cut right through my usual objections. It didn't stand up in the movie. The dialogue wasn't as mean, funny or clever. I didn't mind Adora being pushed further along the dominatrix matrix, but she never really seemed to warm to Moist or to trust him under her cutting exterior. By the end of the movie I didn't feel like they were much closer than they had been at the start.

Despite the bad dialogue and plotting, Adora Belle did have one thing going for her: Claire Foy. Much like Coyle's performance, Foy's captured the character and improved the dross she had to work with. In fact, with very few exceptions (like David Suchet as a scenery gnawing Reacher Gilt) the cast was top notch. I was worried about the change of Jeremy Irons for Charles Dance as Lord Vetinari (the ruler of the city). I shouldn't have worried, Dance was a cut above. His delivery of "do not let me detain you" made me clap my hands in delight. I could go on and on about the cast, Ingrid Berdal was wonderfully feral as Angua and Ian Bonar captured Stanley, a man raised by peas. They changed the actor who played Ridcully and I'm beginning to wonder if constant actor changes are a British movie thing or just something that is happening with these movies.

The city still looks great, where the economy of special and practical effects made the Golems look sucky, it worked well in the creation of Ankh Morpork (the unlikely name of the city). Only showing small portions of the streets, rooms in the Palace and post office made it possible for them to make what we did see look good.
Let me be frank, no matter how good or bad Going Postal was, I was going to enjoy it.

From a critical standpoint, I know there were a lot of issues, but seeing characters trotting around and enacting one of my favourite books was just as great as I thought it would be. If you're a fan of the Discworld series and can shut off the angry nerd voice in your head (I had quite a bit of trouble with this, myself) you'll probably get a kick out of Going Postal. If you aren't a fan, I'm sorry to tell you this probably isn't going to get you on the Discworld bandwagon.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Girl on Book Action: Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
ISBN: 0-345-33766-2


Here are the confessions of a vampire. Hypnotic, shocking, and chillingly erotic, this novel of mesmerizing beauty and astonishing force – a story of danger and flight, of love and loss, of suspense and resolution, and of the extraordinary power of the senses. It is a novel only Anne Rice could write.


Aside:  Here I am, concluding our trilogy of Interview with the Vampire related reviews.  Please to enjoy.

My Thoughts:

If I were you, I’d be wondering why I would use that terrible blurb. Well, my little poppets, let me explain. I wanted to show you how utterly bad it is. I mean, it’s really nothing more than a whole bunch of nouns strung together that could be applied to almost any book, because it tells you absolutely nothing about this novel aside from it being about a vampire’s confessions and that it’s written by Anna Rice. All of that other stuff is useless fluff.

What is going to be difficult about writing this review is that I’m very familiar with the movie, which I like – it’s the kind of period piece that really appeals to me with the costumes and sets. I’m a sucker for those, really. I will, however, make a concerted effort to avoid discussing any comparison between the book and movie. You can find that sort of thing anywhere, after all.

Right then, I suppose some of you might be aghast that I’m studying vampires and this was the first time that I’ve read Interview with the Vampire. I just never felt compelled to read Anne Rice’s stuff, and if that loses me goth-girl creds, I guess I just have to live with that. I spent the teen years others devoted to the Vampire Chronicles to pining for Poppy Z. Brite novels (that I had a hard time finding in the suburban cookie-cutter jungle) and reading the early Anita Blake books (which gives me back some cred-points, at least the PZB does).

Lets move on to the actual review, shall we? The first thing I want to say is that there is some lazy writing in here, for example, a lot of times when there could have been an action sequence what we actually got was “what happened next was swift and confused.” Now, for the first while this didn’t bother me, but it happened often enough that I noticed it – you can only get away with so much. Rather than give the impression that vampires have super-human speed and that humans are incapable of perceiving the precise actions of a vampire with their human sight, it came off as Rice not wanting to think about the actual choreography of the scene. Lazy.

The plot was okay. I think at this point we’re so inundated with vampire stories that whatever was remarkable about this novel is old news. Louis was annoying for the most part and his inability to make decisions grated on my nerves. What he needed was to grow a backbone and stop simpering after one person or another while whining about how lonely he was all the time. I’m all for expressing loneliness or what have you and the strange predicament of an immortal life, but with him it was always “Lestat isn’t what I want him to be, I don’t want to hang out with him anymore,” and then a few chapters later, “Oh I miss Lestat, I never appreciated him.” Blah blah blah. Learn to live with your decisions and don’t let a five year old with a temper-tantrum problem run your life. Or do, just don’t complain about it later. Ugh, he was so painfully passive.

I did enjoy the part in Eastern Europe – I thought that was fairly well-done. And I liked the Paris vampires, too, even though I suppose you’re not supposed to like them. At the risk if spoiling part of a book that was published in 1976, what I liked about the Paris vampires was that they were what you would expect a vampire coven to be - reclusive, ridiculous, and deadly. They kill people in front of audiences and get away with it - which Louis finds repulsive (of course). What you're supposed to see in them is something grotesque and obsolete compared to the modern, beautiful Louis. Given my feelings about Louis, I much preferred these Paris vampires, except for Armand, who was little better than whiny-fang, err... Louis.

Now, I know I just made a big hoo-ha about how much I didn't enjoy the majority of this book, but now that it's all over, I kind of maybe like it a little, I guess. Right, that's what we call "pulling a Louis." I think it might be time to read the Lestat book, and perhaps regain some sort of backbone. At least that vampire wasn't wasting eternity dithering around, avoiding all possible decisions and whining about, well, everything.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Men of Interview with the Vampire

I first saw "Interview with the Vampire" in the theater in 1994. I've considered myself an aficionado of horror literature since fourth grade, when I first discovered Edgar Allen Poe. So of course I was deep into my Anne Rice phase by the time her novel was adapted to the screen. While watching the film again for the first time in at least a decade, I found myself remembering my impressions of the movie the first time I saw it, along with my rather different thoughts now. As such, for this review, I thought it best to give you both accounts.

Christian Slater

1994 opinion

Oh my God, Christian Slater is adorable. I loved him so much in "True Romance", and "Pump up the Volume". Also "Heathers"! I watched "Gleaming the Cube" about eight million times. Isn't it funny how I used to have such a thing for skater boys? ;p Anyway, Christian is very cute in this movies in his nerdy glasses. Ew, he smokes in this movie.

2010 opinion

"Interview" is probably the last thing I actually enjoyed Mr. Slater in. In 1998 he starred in "Very Bad Things", after which I think he lost my good opinion forever. Still, he was pretty cute in his nerdy glasses in this movie. Except for the smoking, ew.

Brad Pitt

1994 opinion

Brad Pitt looks weird in this movie. And what sort of strange accent is he trying to do? Well, at least he looks attractive in the early flashbacks. He's very pretty, but not really my type, and not a particularly good actor. Also, is he wearing red lip gloss?

Current opinion

Brad Pitt has never been my type, although I will admit that he was handsome in "Interview", and still handsome today. He's a little too all-American, cocky and overconfident for my taste. In "Meet Joe Black", my favorite scene is when he gets hit by a car. Still, at least his acting has gotten better, or he's become better at choosing roles that fit his style. And since he did create the iconic vision of Tyler Durden on screen in "Fight Club", I do have some warm and fuzzy feelings for him.

Antonio Banderas

1994 Opinion

Hottie. But he looks weird in this movie.

2010 Opinion

Hottie. Luckily he has that amazing voice, because he looks weird in this movie.

Stephen Rea

1994 Opinion


2010 Opinion

Oh, at last a real actor. A real man. The fact that they gave the star of The Crying Game this small, sad little part is an insult. Probably they didn't want to make Mr. Pitt look too bad by making him play opposite a pro-fessional for too much of the movie.

Tom Cruise

1994 Opinion

He's dreamy. Seriously, he hasn't looked this good since "Legend". And he's awfully gay in this movie, and I mean that in the nicest, sexiest possible way. Sure, in parts of the film he's a dessicated monster, but he gets better. I think he's probably the best looking guy in this movie, and that's saying a lot!

2010 Opinion

Sigh. I want to look at 1994 Tom Cruise and find him entrancing. And while he was stunningly handsome in this movie, I find it difficult to just go with it. It takes quite a lot to make an actor's personal life affect my perception of his work, but unfortunately, Mr. Cruise found the line, crossed it, and then put up a sign saying he'd crossed it. I see his crazy and cruel portrayal of Lestat, which I had thought to be quite decent acting at the time, and just imagine that's what he's like in his private life. So thanks, Mr. Cruise, for being bat-poop crazy enough to make me not enjoy looking at a cute boy. It's a first for me.

In conclusion:

Both 1994 me and 2010 me agree that while "Interview with the Vampire" was not a perfect book to film adaptation, it is certainly full of cute boys. And we both wish that River Phoenix had been alive to play Christian Slater's role, though we certainly think it was sweet of Mr. Slater to donate his salary to charities that Mr. Phoenix had endorsed during his lifetime.

(River Phoenix, August 23, 1970 – October 31, 1993)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles

Interview With The Vampire. Directed by Neil Jordan & Written by Anne Rice.

Aside: Well, this Tuesday brings us to our first trio review. It is, as usual, on the subject of vampires. Expect an excellent forthcoming review by Terry on Thursday and read my other lovely cohort's review on this book on Saturday. Also: Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, really? Long damned title.

Preconceptions: Unlike Doomwench (who we all know has much better taste than me), I did read a lot of Anne Rice in my formative years. Do I need to point at the picture of 15 year old me again? Of course I read a lot of Anne Rice. I was ecstatic that a movie was coming out and that Anne Rice was writing the screenplay (wouldn't want one perfectly crafted word to be changed, after all). I remember clearly swooning over Tom Cruise (yes, Tom Cruise, if you're younger than me, let me say that the world has really altered in a lot of dramatic ways) and feeling genuine sympathy for Kirsten Dunst (who I still like, no matter what people say about her performance in Spiderman). While this felt like a perfect project for the lot of us to collaborate on, I was worried about tainting my fond memories. I remember what it was like seeing the Lost Boys out of my teen years and I didn't want to lose my nostalgia for Interview as well.

General Review: I had braced myself for a painful two hours; a painful two hours filled with kicking kid me up and down the street for enjoying something that my more sophisticated (not actually sophisticated, just more so than a teenage girl) palate would find distasteful. I actually did nothing of the kind. While I wouldn't call Interview great cinema, I enjoyed seeing it again.

This isn't to say that the movie was perfect, it contained some wincefully clumsy writing. Many things were referred to as a "dark" something, a dark gift, a dark eternity, a dark kiss, a dark ale...wait, not so much that last one. I know I was supposed to feel at least some sympathy for Brad Pitt as Louis, but his whining didn't engender any. Neither did his fang lisp (weird that he was the only one who had it though, kudos to the rest of the cast). It was also strange to see Pitt before he'd really gotten his acting legs, I'm used to being able to take his excellent performance for granted. He was at least partially to blame for unlikable Louis, a stronger actor might have made the part more bearable.

Lets not dance around it, Tom Cruise was great in this. He was cruel, sexy (despite the big vein in the middle of his forehead, which I had trouble looking away from) and funny. He captured the Puckish, egocentric nature of Lestat that I loved so much in the books. Kirsten Dunst's performance is also worth mentioning. She played some difficult things believably -the awareness that she'd never grow up and her ability to manipulate her vamped parents (I wonder if she ever had to explain why she had two daddies to the other vampires?).

I was worried that even if the story/acting/directing held up that the effects were going to date the movie. There are some cheesy effects that place a flick very much in its era. While there were a few notable groan moments (like the "I can nearly see the strings" wire fighting), it didn't look that early 90s. Though, the less said about the Guns n' Roses cover of Sympathy for the Devil (and Christian Slater having a major movie acting job) the better. I dug the fangs, less delicate than the little Dracula points, but it didn't look like they had to unhinge their jaws for them to be feasible. The eyes and faces going from human to vampire was very smooth and otherworldly. Mostly, the effects aged gracefully.

If I may continue to be shallow (given the movie we're talking about I think I'm safe to do so): there were some outrageously bad wigs. I mean fine, if it's difficult to get a wig that looks good on one character, mores the pity, but all of them? It shouldn't be this difficult to make a gaggle of Hollywood hunks look hunky. Perhaps they should have borrowed someone from the BBC to help with the be-wigging. Those guys are always having to make guys look like they've got long hair. Overall, the costuming and hair in this movie were awesome, but the bad wigs stood out almost as badly as the crushed red and velvet getup they put Antonio Banderas and his followers in (they looked like they were in Halloween costumes provided by Spencer's Gift).

The Bad Wig Brigade:

Less superficially, this movie managed to portray a real sensuality (or "dark" sensuality if you prefer). Putting aside my usual hur, hur those guys seem gay jokes, there is some damned fine sexual tension. And if a movie must make its vampires sex symbols (something I think we deserve a long break from) at least this one succeeded at it (you wouldn't think it'd be hard, what with all the piercing). Between the bodice ripping and man on man biting it was a successfully sexual movie.

I'm glad this collaboration got me to watch this particular movie from way back. It wasn't quite as good as I remembered (y'know, it being the best movie made in years) but it held up surprisingly well. If you know a little goth girl who's looking for a vamp fix you could do a lot worse than recommending this to her.