Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Splice

Splice. Directed by Vincenzo Natali & Written by Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor & Vincenzo Natali.

Preconceptions: Oooh! This looked to be an intelligent sci-fi flick, partially funded by my hard won Canadian tax dollars. I can think of few artistic projects I'd like to fund quite as much as a smarty pants sci-fi movie. And double ooh! Sarah Polley is in it. I'd also heard quite a few people buzzing around about how neat this movie was. All in all, I was jazzed to have an opportunity to watch it.

General Review: For those of you who, unlike me, are not desperately trying to believe that Canada has a movie industry, the plot run down is fairly simple. Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) are tragically hip (ha-ha Canadian humour) scientists who have been splicing animals together for...science, I guess. And some sort of protein strain that will improve the health of livestock, or something. Anyways, they're meddling with unknowable forces and decide to throw a bit of human DNA into their Tesla-cocktail. It'll shock you to hear that things don't go particularly well after that.

Ugh. Well. This movie got my hopes up a couple of times. The creature design and CG integration were really something special and I'm still quite partial to Sarah Polley...but wow. Splice had some very specific ideas about gender roles that it was determined to shove down my wholly unwilling throat. Every time the flick started to do something a bit complicated about how men and women react to having children, it veered off into tired and demeaning cliches. Apparently, we're meant to buy that men can't be expected to control their sex drives and that women are incapable of rational thought once their nurturing instincts kick in. Yup. This edgy movie about futuristic technology has 1950's expectations about gender. Space age!

The graceless handling of sex issues wasn't the only thing that twisted my panties, though. Nope, it was also weak sci-fi. It's another movie talking about man being punished for trying to play God. Didn't I just do a review on Frankenstein? Y'know a sci-fi/horror novel from the 1800's, that covered this issue? Why let me have a look: yes, I did. Splice has nothing new to say on the subject of unwise scientific tinkering. I know there is insightful sci-fi out there, exploring new themes, this just isn't it. And having the main characters be sexy young people who say nerd a lot doesn't make this movie any more relevant.

Visually, yes it was impressive. I liked the look of the creature and how it aged and developed. It looked great interacting with the cast and the sets. Delphine Chaneac and Abigail Chu both did some excellent physical acting to make the CG believable. The sets were fairly simple, but I believed I was in a large R&D building despite only seeing a few rooms in it. This was all done for a reasonable budget, but didn't look cheap or like it was being filmed in the director's basement. It was shot competently and I didn't feel ill watching it.

Excellent CG, being well shot and a couple of good actors were all this movie had going for it. The script was unconscionably weak. Issues that demanded to be taken seriously, like our main characters finding out they were lying to each other and being discovered in huge ethical breaches, were shoved aside for a slap-dash horror ending. Instead of having to deal with the dilemmas brought up in the second act, the writers decided to make a monster fighting scene instead. While I'm typically all for monster fighting, if you're writing a smart character piece that (up until the last ten minutes) is entirely driven by cerebral issues, you can't throw a battle in at the end, clap your hands together and consider it a job well done.

I finished watching this movie feeling completely unsatisfied. It didn't solve any of the problems it created, its depiction of what could have been complex characters was cartoonish and shallow. Also: it wasted a perfectly good alien monster. Please, take my word on it, save yourself the energy you'd squander being irritated by this movie and give something else a try. Like...oh say...Moon.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Girl on Book Action: The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

The Drowning City by Amanda Downum
ISBN: 978-0-316-06904-5


Symir: The Drowning City.  Home to exiles and expatriates, pirates and smugglers.  And violent revolutionaries who will stop at nothing to overthrow the corrupt Imperial government.

For Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy, the brewing revolution is a chance to prove herself to her crown.  All she has to do is find and finance the revolutionaries, and help topple the palaces of Symir.  But she is torn between her new friends and her duties, and the longer she stays in this monsoon-drenched city, the more intrigue she uncovers.  As the waters rise and the dams crack, even the dead are plotting.


My Thoughts:

You know, this book was quite enjoyable.  I’m glad that I decided to check out Amanda Downum’s work after encountering one of her short stories in Lovecraft Unbound and since I’m a little late to the party I don’t have to wait too long for the second part in this trilogy to be published.

Now, let me gripe just a little before I tell you all the good things.  My complaints are rather minor ones anyway.  The only real issue that I have is that, at times, it might have been nice to know more about the world in which the story is set.  I’m not expecting to have 50 pages of info-dump about the history of the place, and there was a good bit of world-building interweaved with the narrative, but I admit to feeling a little lost in some spots.  I wanted to know more than I was told, which I feel is as much a compliment as a complaint – I was interested in the history of Symir.  And I cared about the back stories of the characters, and the religions and social structures and governments and all that so I wanted more.  That’s the griping done with, on to more positive things.

I really liked Isyllt; she was believable and a solid main character.  She wasn’t all-powerful and perfect; in fact, she gets hurt and sustains some permanent injuries over the course of her adventures.  Her necromancy was fascinating and I’m hoping that in the second book there is more explanation of her powers and what she can do with them.  I especially enjoyed the binary opposition between Isyllt and Asheris who was fire to her ice. I might have been partially biased toward Asheris because it’s been unusually cold in these parts the last few days and his furnace-heat was mighty appealing as I cowered under blankets and clung to cups of tea to keep my fingers from freezing.  Anyway, I digress.  Most of the characters had enough depth to them to make them memorable and none seemed like they were just thrown in to move along the plot or provide a brief distraction never to return.  The relationships between the cast were at times painful, at times touching, and sometimes tense, but always intriguing.

Something else I appreciated, aside from the lush setting and believable characters, was that Downum isn’t scared to kill someone off, or break their heart, or maim them.  People get hurt, people die and only a few are left standing at the end.  I dislike novels where there is no sense of real danger when the heroine is off fighting against the odds, because you know that she’ll just magically get out of whatever trouble she’s in.  Not so here, there might be victory at the end, but it comes with a high price, which is as it should be in a novel about espionage and revolution.

Oh, and I haven’t actually discussed the setting at all.  It was lush, warm and damp.  I felt like I was in some sort of Asian version of Venice – what with the canals and the constant talk of curries and rice and monsoons.  What really stuck with me throughout was the sense of humidity and warmth – which again might have been a reaction to the dismally cold weather hereabouts.  I also completely identified with Isyllt’s discomfort in the humid, warm place with her pale skin and dark hair and while she ultimately dealt with it with some grace, I know that I would have been a wimp about it and sulked in some relatively cool place, wishing for home.  Who says I'm a wuss about the weather?

All in all, I recommend this novel.  It’s fairly short and for its length (about 350 pages) it packs in quite a bit of intrigue, fighting and magic.  Personally, I’m looking forward to the second part as I very much want to learn more about Isyllt, her powers and what other trouble she will get into.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Dark Star

Dark Star. Directed by John Carpenter & written by Dan O'Bannon & John Carpenter.

Preconceptions: John Carpenter has done a couple of horror movies I really love. The Thing (1982) is a favourite. In the Mouth of Madness, while less good, was one of the first Lovecraftian movies I saw in my formative years and has a special place in my heart. But it's been a long time since he put out much of anything except for the two truly awful Master of Horror shorts, so I was pleased to sit down in front of Dark Star, one of his early flicks. I had another reason to be excited to see this movie as well, it's been cited as the inspiration for a couple of my favourite things: Red Dwarf and MST3k.

General Review: Oh me, oh my there is a lot John Carpenter music in this movie. I respect the man as a director, I do, but every time I hear one of his synth scores I want to give up and watch something else. However, I have been rewarded, more than once, with a fun movie for putting up with the score and so I was determined to ignore it and solider on. Sadly, I can't recommend you do the same.

The run down of the movie is pretty simple. Four guys are stuck out on a deep space mission to blow up unstable planets in order to make systems easier to colonize. They've been on this mission for over a year and are starting to go space crazy (like you do). Their captain died and their ship is starting to deteriorate. As one of the only people I know who doesn't dig 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was pleased to see someone poking fun at it (this is one of the few things Doomwench can't call me a philistine about, however, since it seems to be beneath her notice). Unfortunately, Dark Star fell into the trap that too many parodies do: it sometimes just became the thing it was making fun of. Yes, John Carpenter, I agree that many of the scenes in 2001 were painfully long without really building much atmosphere, but seeing you do the same on a shoe string budget, completely without jokes, isn't funny. It's even MORE tedious. I'm not sure how a movie that didn't reach the hour and a half mark felt long, but Dark Star succeeded. I'm fairly certain there is a meaningless small talk scene that I'm still watching.

Fortunately, it wasn't all snooze inducing scenes and watching the bearded men of space chit-chat. Watching the crew communicate with their dead, cryogenically frozen captain was actually chilling. I think it was meant to be wry and sort of funny, but it was successfully horrific instead and something that would make for a neat sci-fi horror idea. You wouldn't think the beach ball alien (the only intelligent life the crew have found and, subsequently, brought on board to be a mascot) who is chased around the ship in a funny, Looney Tune way, could become anything frightening, but O'Bannon later re-worked the creature into the Alien (y'know from the Alien movie series). Weird.

The acting is about what you'd expect for a 1970's low budget movie where the writer is one of the main actors, but given the lackluster dialogue I don't know that a pile of talented performers would have improved things. Strangely, O'Bannon looked quite a bit like Kurt Russel in the Thing, Carpenter seems to have a type.

There are also some fairly funny scenes where the crew are attempting to talk a sentient bomb into not exploding and some successful black humour. But all these good elements are pearls strung between the long "look how 2001 we're being" scenes that don't have jokes or spectacle. By the end of the movie the good parts had even started to become irritating because I'd nearly be at the point of turning it off to try something else when they'd tease me into giving Dark Star just a few more minutes. "Ah," I'd think "we've finally gotten to the good part." Nope. We never really did.

I could see how Dark Star influenced some other shows that I'm quite partial to and that was neat, and I could see what Carpenter and O'Bannon were reaching for. If it'd been funnier, weirder or scarier it might have succeeded. But it was a patchwork of different things that didn't hang together well and the writing just plain wasn't strong enough.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Girl on Book Action: In the Night Garden: The Orphan's Tales, Volume I by Catherynne M. Valente

In the Night Garden: The Orphan’s Tales Volume I by Catherynne M. Valente
ISBN: 978-0-553-38403-1


Secreted away in a garden, a lonely girl spins stories to warm a curious prince: peculiar feats and unspeakable fates that loop through each other and back again to meet in the tapestry of her voice.  Inked on her eyelids, each twisting, tattooed tale is a piece in the puzzle of the girl’s own hidden history.  And what tales she tells!  Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars – each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before.  From ill-tempered “mermaid” to fastidious Beast, nothing is ever quite what it seems in these ever-shifting tales – even, and especially, their teller.  Adorned with illustrations by the legendary Michael Kaluta, Valente’s enchanting lyrical fantasy offers a breathtaking reinvention of the untold myths and dark fairy tales that shape our dreams.  And just when you think you’ve come to the end, you realize the adventure has only begun…


My Thoughts:

Ah, my pets, in truth, I very much wanted to read Valente’s new book, but this little Doomwench spent all of her book-buying money for the next little while and thus cannot read The Habitation of the Blessed just yet.  (The sad fact is that it might be for the best considering the onslaught of a research paper not written in English and much needed thesis readings).  Fortunately for me, and you, dear readers, I did still have In the Night Garden waiting patiently on my ever-growing to-be-read shelf, so my Valente craving was sated.  Now, without further blathering from yours truly, let me tell you about this lovely thing.

I loved every moment spent turning the pages of this book, adored letting the story-within-the-story-within-the-story wash over me and pull me into the black depths of the horrible things happening.  I don’t have words to express how I feel about the intricate web Valente weaves; how she pulls the threads of the seemingly disparate narratives together so skillfully that you barely even notice that she’s done it.  Suddenly you go – but I know this character from an earlier story and your memory dredges up a whole new backstory to what you were reading, which adds layers upon layers of meaning and depth.  Sometimes, I wanted to cry, because life is very hard and the people in this book are not spared from gruesome fates like in some other fairy tales.  No, here maidens are turned into monsters by evil wizards and there is no magical fix, only a slow coming to terms with the horror and wonder of new shapes.  Here, grandmothers seek revenge and fail, dying in their grandchildren’s arms amid a wash of blood.  Girls can be foxes and geese can be girls.  The stories are magical and heartbreaking.

Some of the outcomes might be seen as predictable, but I see them more as archetypal myths and Valente shows quite a bit of skill in tapping into them.  A myth is something we recognize in the deep recesses of our minds, so of course we might see the outcome early on, that doesn’t mean the story is any less important, beautiful or worth reading.  Not everything is about a suspenseful, surprise ending – you know, that whole bit about the journey being more important than the destination is often true, especially when it comes to lyrical, meandering fairy tales.

I thought that perhaps for the purpose of this review I would pick my favourite of the stories-within-stories, but I realized that I can’t, because they are all interconnected in a way that doesn’t allow for favoritism of that sort.  I do have to say that I was quite fond of Knife in the first part, “The Book of the Steppe,” and the history of the griffins and Giota in “The Book of the Sea” was so lovely and sad.  Honestly, the whole thing left me with a wistful, melancholy sort of feeling, aching with the beauty of it.  Reading this was like being in a wonderful, terrible dream (and if you’ll allow me a small personal confession, I’d much rather be dreaming these stories than the recent batch of stuff my subconscious has spewed up while I sleep). 

The language, of course, was sublime.  I love the way Valente strings together a sentence.  And I rather wished that I had someone to read these tales to me, because I think they would sound amazing.  And, as we all know by now, I am a sucker for a pretty type-face and layout and In the Night Garden has both.  For a bibliophile like me, the way this book looks is a feast.  More books need to come with gorgeous illustrations and pretty lettering.

Hmm, so I’ve gushed quite a bit and I know Wren is going to read this love-fest and tell me that I need to think of something negative to say, because otherwise how do my dear readers know that I’m thinking critically about the book I’m presenting to them.  Normally, my fallback in these situations is that I mention that there were typos, because most books of any length will have at least a couple, but alas, I can't remember coming across any here.  So, I’ve thought about it and I’m drawing a rather profound blank…I guess, umm, the book was sort of heavy?  You know, to hold up while I was reading.  My arms got tired after a while.  So there’s your critical engagement.

Now, stop reading this review (it’s about to end anyway) and go find a Valente story, maybe buy one of her novels and let her take you away on a sea of language to the realm of myth. 

If you require an instant fix, and I know you might, why not try “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Time/Space” which you can read at Clarkesworld Magazine here or, if you prefer you can listen to it here (also via Clarkesworld - and the narration is really good).  You can also find my review of Valente's also excellent Palimpsest here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Under Milk Wood

Under Milk Wood. Directed by Les Orton & written by Dylan Thomas.

Preconceptions: Hmm, modern movies? Movies people have heard of? Doomwench writing movie reviews? I think things have gotten far too accessible around these parts. In order to combat this, I've dug up Under Milk Wood, a short animated film, based on the poem by Dylan Thomas. That should put us firmly back on the unbeaten track. While I've read a bit of Thomas, I'm not much of a poetry enthusiast and hadn't read this one. Not being able to speak to the accuracy of the movie version will be a nice change of pace.

General Review: Be warned that this movie is only minimally animated. While the backgrounds are quite pretty and the character design is good, we spend a lot of time staring at unmoving paintings. Any time that the movie can get away with a character standing stock still to deliver their lines, or we can hear the lines coming out of a picture of a house, we will. Fortunately, good voice acting and solid writing makes up for sparse animation, every time. In case you, like myself, don't spend your evenings in a Masterpiece Theater style study, reading leather bound poetry (I've seen Doomwench's house and I know she doesn't have one of these rooms and yet, it's still where I picture her spending her time) here is the skinny on the poem. It's a wry look at the beauty and mundane horror of simple village life. We start by getting a look at the dreams of the townsfolk and then follow them through a typical day, knowing what we know about their secret fears and hopes.

It isn't a surprise that it's pleasant to listen to Richard Burton read pretty words. He'd probably win second prize in a nice reading voice contest (the winner, of course, being Stephen Fry). What is surprising is how well I followed along through the different feelings of the piece: the grotesque, the idyllic beauty and the comedy. This movie switched its gears constantly but kept me on board. It managed to walk the fine line (extremely fine for me, due to my lack of sophistication) between these contrary feelings. I laughed with Under Milk Wood and I felt uneasy at the everyday madness. I also felt roaring support for Miss Cottage who plans to "sin till [she] blows up." This flick is full of similar great lines.

The voice acting deserves more than a nod, as well. I could have easily been bored by the often stationary animation, but I wasn't because of the excellent voices. Not only is it studded with aging big time stars, but the overall size of the cast made Milk Wood feel like a village full of distinct characters, rather than a small room with five guys in it (something that's all too common in animation).

While the animation is bare bones, Orton made a lot of interesting choices. There is a subtle difference in how the characters look in dreams and in real life. Another more overt, but still good visual choice, was the way the blind Captain imagines the things he hears. The look of the movie is very cool.

You might think that Under Milk Wood isn't going to be your thing. I think you'll be surprised. It's funny and weird and will give you a shot of culture without feeling stuffy (plus, animated nudity).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Girl on...Movie? Action: The Last Rites of Ransom Pride

The Last Rites of Ransom Pride (2009)
Director: Tiller Russel
Writers: Tiller Russel, Ray Wylie Hubbard

Aside:  I know what you're thinking, why is Doomwench reviewing another movie?  Well, it's because I want to, of course, and not at all because things are still rather insanely busy around here.  Don't worry, I'm not planning to make a habit of this movie thing.  I much prefer my books.  Alas, alack and well-a-day sometimes things don't work out the way we would like them to and then we have to tell you about a film instead of a lovely example of the printed word.  That's just life, my pets.


Well, my dears, it is a little known fact that I am passing fond of Westerns.  I find it rather likely that this attachment stems from having watched Clint Eastwood’s fantastic A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my formative years – thanks, mom.  I had a near-life-size poster of Clint, in his Western garb, taped to the back of my bedroom door.  If you chanced to look in on me at this tender age, you might have found me putting the movie score on my parents’ record player, turning the volume up and prancing across the couches and their overturned cushions as if they were mountains, pretending that I was about to save our hero from a nasty fate.  How I ended up a vampire-loving goth girl I’ll never know.  Let’s end this traipse down memory lane, shall we, and talk about the current state of the Western, which is saddening.  In the last 10 years, I can name only two good showings in the genre: 3:10 to Yuma and HBO’s Deadwood.  I suppose there have been a couple of attempts to do a good Jesse James movie – but I haven’t seen them.  And then there was Appaloosa which couldn’t keep my interest for very long.  Now, you being astute readers can probably see where this is going – when I was flipping through Netflix late last night looking for something to entertain me, I came across a Western made in 2009 that I had never even heard of before.  I had no choice but to watch it.  And I was intrigued enough by what I saw to write about it here.

My Review:

Was this a good Western, a la Tombstone or any of the others I mentioned above?  No, not so much.  Was it quirky and strange and somehow endearing?  Yes, though with some problems.

Now, I’m not going to talk about historical accuracy or the superficial plot – I wasn’t expecting a realistic representation of the times, I’m watching a Western after all.  I also wasn't after a profound plot.  I wanted to be entertained and I was.  Good enough for me.  My only substantial problem with this flick was that the director chose to use these quick flashback / flash-forward shots and combined with the superfluous and overdone transitional shots of bleached out animal skulls and random landscapes it got to be a bit disruptive.

Overall, I really loved the visuals and the imagery in this movie.  I liked the sort of bleached out look of everything (except when we were looking at our 100th animal skull) and the splashes of colour here and there.  I also appreciated that this movie is set in the early 1900s so you have this strange tug and pull between machinery (early cars and a motorcycle) and your outlaws still on horseback.  When I think “Western” I tend to think in terms of the 1800s and I haven’t really spent a lot of time considering what the West was like after the turn of the century.  In my mind, it just stops being the Wild West without any sort of transitional period.  Continuing with my impressions of the look of the thing – I liked the costumes, especially what our heroine, Juliette Flowers (actress Lizzy Caplan whom you might recognize from True Blood, or a variety of other titles, but True Blood is what I knew her from) wears throughout.  Totally not historically accurate, but sexy and neat!  I also really like the sound of her voice (she’d be welcome to read me to sleep each night) and I wish the roles she had involved more speaking.  Throughout, there is a sense of the grotesque mixed with burlesque running through the imagery – we encounter dying Siamese twins and a dwarf travelling as some sort of theatre troupe / sideshow; and there are a couple of deliberately strange brothel scenes, and of course, the Bruja (Cote de Pablo, she’s in NCIS! Took me a while to figure that one out) in her elaborate dresses made from bits of animal pelts and I assume bones.  Yeah, I found the whole thing, barring the jarring flashes, to be visually intriguing.
When it comes to acting, aside from the not-necessarily-good but memorable Dwight Yoakam in the role of reformed outlaw turned man-of-God Reverend Early Pride, the women outshone the men.  Of course, this might be a product of the script (or my personal bias toward strong women), but at any rate, the boys definitely didn’t put forth anything worth remembering.  Jon Foster could have been any generically attractive actor and his character was a spineless follower, also, his name was Champ…really…it was Champ.  Scott Speedman (whom you might remember, or rather not remember was the utterly dull Michael in Underworld) as the dead Ransom Pride was good only in the sense that I didn’t recognize him, though I suppose he didn’t really need to give a great performance, as we only saw him through flashbacks.  I did buy that he’d get himself shot, so there’s that.

Let me wrap this up.  I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, even though the excessive flashbacks / flash-fowards started to make me worry about having seizures. And the overuse of the transitional skull shots were dull and disrupted the story.  Sometimes I just like to watch a chick be a badass, even if it’s totally unrealistic given the historical context and The Last Rites of Ransom Pride delivered on that count with its two kick-ass chicks battling out over the dead man’s body and a supporting cast of ineffectual men.  I think if I had to sum my opinion up in one word I’d say it was endearing, because I liked its quirkiness, its feeling of anachronism and I’m a sucker for a Western, even if it’s an unconventional one.  If you are of a similar mind, you should check this out – it’s readily available on Netflix streaming. 

And as a concluding side note: it’s a Canadian movie, shot in Alberta.  So there is that.  Go Canada!  I have a feeling this flick is better than that gunslinger without guns movie they've recently been trying to shove down our Western-starved gullets.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Children of Men

Children of Men. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron & written by (big breath) Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby.

Preconceptions: I have a vague recollection that some years back, this movie was all the rage in nerd circles. Perhaps I was being contrary, or perhaps I just watched fewer movies back then, but I never got around to checking out Children of Men. I ran into it again and, remembering all the buzz, decided to give it a thorough teeth and hoof inspection (something I usually reserve for the significant others of friends).

General Review: Well...here is another instance of a movie being quite a bit longer than it needed to be. If the movie was indeed a horse I was inspecting, I would be able to comically play the xylophone on its ribs. This is my clever way of saying it had absolutely no meat. For those of you who haven't seen it, we're in the near future (2027) and we're in dystopia again. This time, instead of being chased by mutants/zombies/plague/fog, the human race has lost its ability to breed. The English have taken to throwing refugees in camps and our hero (Clive Owen), has to protect a young refugee woman, at the behest of his ex-wife. Children of Men is a short film idea, that has been thrown on the rack and with bone cracking efficiency, stretched out to past the hour and a half mark. We spend the first half of the movie driving around in Clive Owen's car and the second half running around in a series of dilapidated apartments.

I scoff at the sets, but the visuals were the only thing about this movie worth mentioning. It's been a long while since I saw such believable speculative technology in a flick. The science and technology seem like natural progressions of what we've got now and I could see how they might come to exist. Speaking of natural progression, I also liked the attention to detail in costuming. Characters in their late 40s early 50s were wearing styles similar to those worn now and there were also quite a few aging faces with tattoos and piercings. Unfortunately, much of my enjoyment in the look of the movie was spoiled by my old nemesis, the shake-y camera. There were shots that were clearly done with a dolly but had shakiness added, to spite me, specifically, and make me ill, I can only imagine.

For such an all-star cast, I was also left extremely lukewarm regarding the acting. Yes, there were some clever bits of dialogue that were well pulled off and a few visual gags that worked well (including a quite good slow car chase). Whether it was just a committee written script or the script liberally sprinkled with lackluster acting, I felt nothing towards the characters. Clive Owen was a dull hero with a rough, grizzled outside but was a big sensitive wuss on the inside. After watching him be a tough guy for a half hour, seeing him break down and cry wasn't the surprise it was supposed to be. It was inevitable and left me snorting rather than feeling his loss. The movie certainly wasn't afraid to kill characters off, but in order for that to be successful it needed to make me care about them first. There wasn't a solitary character that I was rooting for.

Children of Men felt like there was a smart script, deeply hidden, in the extremely bland mush. Watching the first few minutes, I was congratulating it for feeding me bits of the world in news snippets and propaganda tapes as we walked through the city. I felt like I was smart for keeping up and that the movie was smart for making me keep up. Moments later Michael Caine blunders on screen and practically shouts the exposition to us. Yes, Michael Caine, I get that no babies are being born and lots of people are being treated badly. Yes, Michael Caine, I see that we're in a dystopia. Thank you, Michael Caine. It was the same with every other glimmer of cleverness the movie presented me with. There were charmingly subtle moments between Owen and Julianne Moore, where you can sense their relationship has been shattered by a great loss. Then every facet of their give and take is explained in a few fumble-handed speeches.

This movie is a sackful of wasted potential. I liked a lot of the directorial choices (puke-o-vision aside) and would be more than willing to check out some of Cuaron's other work. I liked the cast (though given their performances, some of them were real disappointments). I liked the subject matter, there was some real room to look at the way pregnancy and birthing has been fetishized in our culture. Despite having all these things going for it, Children of Men was nothing special. It ran in place and wasted my time. Don't let it waste yours.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Girl on Book Action: Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas

Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2301-9


You know what we’re talking about.  Wherever you’re from, there are stories – about a ghost, or a strange, unexplained phenomenon, or some thing that people don’t even want to talk about for fear of summoning it.

You could call them urban legends or folktales…or you can deny that they exist.  But they do.  And they’re in this sublimely chilling collection of original tales.  The authors, including award winners Richard Bowes, Gary A. Braunbeck, Pat Cadigan, Ramsey Campbell, Jeffrey Ford, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Joe R. Lansdale, Kit Reed, Catherynne M. Valente, and Kaaron Warren, have written stories set in the places they know well – East to West, North and South, in big cities and small towns.  Other stories explore dark legends from places as far-flung as England, Spain, Russia, Southeast Asia, India, Fiji, and Australia.

All these tales – from the utterly creepy Texas terror of Lansdale’s “The Folding Man” to the small-town avian horror of Carrie Laben’s “Face like a Monkey;” from the modern legends of Campbell’s “Chucky Comes to Liverpool” and Ekaterina Sedia’s “Tin Cans” to the centuries-old hauntings of Bowes’s “Knickerbocker Holiday” and Reed’s “Ackbar;” and the other spine-chilling stories brought to life in this collection – share the power to evoke to evoke the primal fears that still resonate within each of us, proving that these Haunted Legends are alive today.


My Thoughts:

I have a confession to make, dear readers.  Up until the last couple of years, I didn’t really read a whole lot of short fiction.  In fact, I almost loathed anthologies and aside from the obligatory anthologies purchased for school, I owned only one (Poppy Z. Brite’s Wormwood: A Collection of Short Stories, in case you were wondering).  I’ve given it some thought and I think the reason I stayed away from short stories is that I preferred the full-immersion of the novel to the much less long-lived short story.  Alas, we must all grow and I have come to embrace anthologies and the works they contain.  I have since learned that they are a wonderful gateway drug into the works of new authors and all of my previous squeamishness has abated.  All of which is a roundabout way of getting to my point, which is that reviewing a collection of tales is a bit of a challenge in comparison to reviewing a novel.  Which stories do I discuss?  Do I list them all and give you my 2 cents?  Do I pick the best and the worst, leaving you to surmise that any I don’t touch on are middle of the road?  Choices, choices.  So why don’t you keep reading to see what I decide to tell you?

If you read through the back-cover blurb I’m sure you noticed two key names that will invariably lead me to want to purchase and read a book: Caitlin R. Kiernan and Catherynne M. Valente.  So let me begin with their respective tales.

“As Red as Red” is Caitlin R. Kiernan’s contribution to the anthology and it deals with the supposed vampires of New England with a touch of werewolf myths as well.  It has all the things I love about Kiernan’s work: water imagery, drownings, the interweaving of dream and reality and a lingering sense of unease when you get to the end.  On another level, I connected with this particular tale because of my own research – while I’m not a folklorist digging up real stories about vampires, I have read quite a bit about the superstitions surrounding supposed real vampires (albeit in Europe).  Interested yet?  You should be, and if you need a little more convincing, read my review of The Red Tree - a book I love more than is seemly.

Moving right along, Catherynne M. Valente’s story is utterly different from Kiernan’s, but not any less charming or haunting.  Set in Japan, “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai” has the same linguistic sensuality I loved in Palimpsest.  Really, the only word that comes to mind is “beautiful,” in every sense: the language, the imagery, the characters, the story.  It was wistful, melancholy and haunting.  Really, I think the anthology is worth having for just these two.

Let me give you a very brief overview of the other stories I thought were excellent.  Kaaron Warren’s “That Girl” left me feeling sad and at the same time intrigued with the old woman’s ability.  “Akbar” by Kit Reed transported me to the too-hot subcontinent of India; Steven Pirie’s “The Spring Heel” introduced me to the legend of Spring-Heel Jack, which I knew nothing about before and want to know more about now; “Tin Cans” by Ekaterina Sedia was creepy and talked about one of my favourite historical topics – Soviet Russia.  I really can’t stop this list without mentioning Lily Hoang’s “The Foxes,” and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Folding Man,” two very different tales that left a lasting impression on my mind.  As you can probably tell by the length of this list I’ve made – there are a lot of good stories in this collection.  While they aren’t all spooky ghost tales, they stick with you, adding a bit of lore to your inventory, making you want to seek out more information about different stories you might not have heard about before.

Honestly, I could have listed the majority of the collection above.  The only stories that really didn’t work for me were Pat Cadigan’s “Between Heaven and Hull” which made me feel like I had missed something very important because I just didn’t get it – and who knows, maybe I did miss something; and the other was Ramsey Campbell’s “Chucky comes to Liverpool,” which I didn’t care for at all.  Chucky is perhaps the most dull horror monster in movies and puts me to sleep (with the exception of the riotously bad Bride of Chucky).  I actually contemplated not reading the story, because I have zero interest in the premise of Chucky, but I'm a completionist so I stuck it out.

If you’re a fan of urban legends, or any of the authors who contributed to this anthology I say it’s well worth your money.  And if you're like me, you're likely to find a new drug of choice among these authors, or perhaps a new creepy-crawly to add to the list of things that go bump in your night.  I for one am looking out for Spring-Heeled Jack...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Boy of the Month: Misha Collins

Where you know him from:

  1. Castiel, an angel on Supernatural
  2. ...
  3. ???

Why I think he's dreamy:

Misha is one of the lesser-known boys on my list. He's had bit parts in ER, Monk, Nip/Tuck and CSI, among other
shows, but he's mostly know for his work in Supernatural. I've always described Supernatural as "Buffy, but with cute boys", and that was even before Misha joined the show. While few hetero women would kick the Winchester boys out of bed for eating crackers, Castiel is by far, in my opinion, the most attractive man in the cast.

Not knowing anything at all about Mr. Collins after his first appearance on Supernatural, I soon found out that he is insane, in the nicest possible way. According to The Internet, Misha is a published poet, once worked as a White House intern, worked as a producer and copywriter for NPR, worked as a carpenter to put himself through school, took an EMT course, started a software company, spent time in seclusion at a monastery in Nepal, built his home and most of the furniture in it by himself, and enjoys attending Burning Man. He also has a turtle named Drydraluxlaloud, which is named so because the idea came to him in a dream.

I next discovered his Twitter account, from which he posts such things as his emergency room photos after a serious biking accident, fictional accounts of being held hostage by the queen of England, and orders
to his followers, affectionately dubbed "minions". After a convention where he requested his minions each to bring an egg and a sheet of construction paper (and many did), Misha soon realized that he could help channel his overwhelming power over his followers into something positive. Eventually this resulted in the creation of the charitable organization "Random Acts", which tries to better the world in both small ways, such as distributing flowers or buying shoes for a young boy whose father had lost his job, and large ways such as making significant cash donations to orphanages in Haiti. (This is not out of an altruistic impulse, according to him, but simply to help him in his quest for world domination.)

Recommended Viewing:

If you are not already watching Supernatural, WATCH SUPERNATURAL. It nicely fills the Buffy-shaped hole in my heart. Plus... ya know... cute boys.

Whatever you do, DO NOT watch the horrible, awful, based-on-true-events movie "Karla". Misha plays a really reprehensible man to whom rape and murder are recreational activities, and whose wife (played by Laura Prepon) is also involved in all of this, even though one of the murders is of her younger sister. Watching this movie will make you feel dirty, and not in a good way. Trust me on this one.

I'm not a fan of elective-surgery-based entertainment in general, but Misha's appearance on Nip/Tuck was... interesting. (Warning: NSFW. Or for those with delicate constitutions.)

In Summation:

Misha Collins is attractive, accomplished, spiritual, altruistic, whimsical and funny as hell. How could you not adore him?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Kenneth Branagh & Kenneth Branagh & Written by Steph Lady & Frank Darabont.

Aside: It's a Halloween Spooktacular! That's right, for our dual review over your favourite holiday and mine, we're doing Frankenstein. Alright, alright, who am I kidding? We do monster movies for most of our tandem work, but this is the one time of year where it's seasonal...far less so than a stirring Christmas review of say, Dracula 2000, so go along with us.
Preconceptions: As usual, I had plenty of advanced warning about the movie and book we'd chosen to review for the end of the month. I thought I'd be a clever dick and find something a little off the beaten path and not just do the original black and white flick or Branagh's big budget version. But then I saw what there was to see off the beaten path, movies with descriptions like this:

"Two centuries after Mary Shelley's story took place, the mad scientist who made Frankenstein has figured out a way to keep himself and the creature alive. In present-day America, Detective O'Connor is investigating a slew of gruesome killings. When the trail leads her to the doctor and his creation, she discovers their bizarre development over the past 200 years as they've faced both good and evil."

So here is a stirring review of Branagh's epic Mary Shelly's Frankenstein!

General Review: I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea regarding my feelings on Branagh, I think he's an excellent actor, a top shelf director and not at all hard on the eyes. When I suggested in passing that Terry think of reviewing him, I said: "Hey, he's pretty cute when he isn't being insufferable." Naturally, her response was: "But he's always being insufferable." And this neatly brings me to my main problem with him, when he directs a movie he stars in things get a little egotistical. Alright. A lot egotistical. I know for a fact his Hamlet had so many stars and sets so lush that it could have been one of the giant 1950's studio monstrosities (like the Ten Commandments), but the camera was so far up Branagh's nose it could easily have been missed. I wish I could say that he'd put some of his ego aside in this movie about over bearing pride, I really do. But we spend, no kidding, nearly ten minutes of him scantily clad, wrestling his monster around in what might as well be oil. And we watch every flex of well toned abs and biceps. Now, I'm a woman who can enjoy a bit of well placed eye candy, but I felt the same way watching this that I do when Tarantino films his leading lady's feet: like I'm reading a magazine where the pages have stuck together. The fact that Branagh's masturbatory material is himself doesn't make this a more comfortable experience.

While I do think the man needs to be brought back down to the realm of us mere mortals, this was a better effort at modesty than some of his other films, and oil wrestling aside, I did find his ego easier to bear in this than in Hamlet. We get to see the sets fairly clearly in Frankenstein (even when he was on stage) for one thing. And while I usually try not to get too hung up on window dressing, the sets are worth mentioning in Frankenstein. I saw bits and pieces of this movie back in the long, long ago of 1994 and I had vague recollections of it being dark to the point of murkiness. I don't know what has addled my memory, but in the real world, Frankenstein was surprisingly vivid and colourful for such dark subject matter. We spend a lot of time in pretty locations and vast manors, but we aren't skimped on the mad science laboratories either.

I know it shouldn't surprise me that watching this felt a lot like seeing a good Shakespearean tragedy adaptation, except with monsters in it, but it caught me off guard. And I mean that in a good way. The story of a man being punished for reaching too far, too quickly is one that lends itself to that style of movie and for all my complaints Branagh really does shine at this type of thing. It was also nice to see Helena Bonham Carter playing a character who isn't mysterious, evil or crazy at all. I know that's become her thing, but it was a pleasant surprise to see her being a reasonable, supportive and loving character as change of pace. Another thing that I shouldn't be surprised by, but was, was John Cleese's skill at the serious role of Victor Frankenstein's mentor. No matter how many times I see him do more than just comedic acting, it just doesn't stick in my head that he can do it. The only real casting misstep is Robert De Niro as the monster and while I don't have a tremendous respect for his range, it wasn't his ability that caused the problem. They monster-ed him up hard for this role, but even under the stitches, the make-up, the prosthetics and the contacts all I could see when I looked at him was De Niro. His face is just too familiar and recognizable for me to buy him as a monster. Not to mention, he seemed rather on the small side and the camera tricks didn't beef up his height enough. Well...those problems and his voice sounded too New York-y when he was surrounded by English accents (so I guess his acting was at least partially to blame, after all).

When we weren't staring at Branagh's glistening pecs, the directorial choices were mostly good. Victor's reasons for hating death and being willing to commit abominations are hammered at us hard enough that we can almost forgive him being the most selfish man alive (though less of a whiner than in the book) and that is a hard line to walk. The mad science scenes are wonderful frantic (and they have enough brass, cogwheels and gurneys to make a steam punk connoisseur spill their tea in delight). The classic "it's alive!" shouts are present and shockingly not corny. Actually, now that I come to think of it, the death keening and "noooooo's!" are also genuine. Finally, I was also pleased that when the monster gets his bride, she isn't just a pretty girl with a few basically cosmetic scars and monotone Marge Simpson hair. Nope, she is just as messed up as he is.

I wasn't actually looking forward to watching this movie again, I figured it would be like seeing Coppola's Dracula. Nothing could be further from the truth, Frankenstein wasn't dated by the cast, the effects or the story (even more surprising given how old a chestnut this is). I found myself actually having fun watching it instead of just enduring it so that I could write the review. I think there is a pretty good chance you'll like it too.