Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Girl On Book Action: Sex Is Comedy

Sex is Comedy. Directed & Written by Catherine Breillat.

: I seriously considered venturing out into the world to give the CG train wreck that is Green Lantern a look this week, but after vomiting my bored hate all over Dracula, I decided to see if I could find something I'd enjoy, instead. I adored Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard. It was chalk full of interesting subtext, playful visuals and gorgeous saturated colours. I decided to treat myself to another one of her movies and fortunately there are a few on instant Netflix. I picked Sex is Comedy at random from her filmography.

General Review
: My first thought as I watched the opening sequence was "Nooooo! A movie about a director, written by a director about how hard it is to be a director! Why oh WHY didn't I go see Green Lantern?" I spent an uncomfortable 10-20 minutes wondering if I'd misjudged Breillat, or whether I'd just picked out the most self-indulgent of all her movies by random chance (and there are few things more masturbatory than directors making flicks about directing). But little by little, I was drawn into the story, which was a lot more complex and interesting than it had any right to be. By what felt like the 40 minute mark I realized that I was actually almost finished and that I'd been entirely consumed by the story.

While Sex is Comedy certainly didn't change my opinions on movies about directors being directors (or writers being writers for that matter, ugh) it did raise my already high opinion of Breillat. She turned an unbelievably hacky and overused premise into a fascinating piece. Oh and it certainly helped that rather than b
eing about moving making as a whole, Sex is Comedy was more about trying to film a sex scene. And, I suppose here is as good a place as any to warn you that yes, it's in French so the usual reading caveats stand (yes, Dracula has driven me back into the arms of foreign films).

To break briefly from my sycophantic praise of Breillat (on a related note, d'you think there is a cult devoted to her? It's not for me, it's for a friend), lets talk about the cast. I can't think of many actors that have really captured a moment of (seemingly) genuine inspiration. Sex is Comedy had two. Anne Parillaud (as Jeanne the director) and Bart Binnema (as the Director of Photography). Both had these intense moments of brightness crossing their faces. You could see the wheels turning and the ideas welling up behind their eyes. Even if the flick had nothing else going for it, it would have been worth watching to see those moments (fortunately, for my attention span, there was more). The weird and wonderfully acted sexual tension between Parillaud, Gregoire Colin (the Actor) and Ashley Wanninger (Le
o, the First Assistant) was also impressive. There were all these wonderful little moments where something romantic could have easily happened, but then they were all pulled back to making the movie. The relationship between Collin and Parillaud was particularly good, and walked the creepy line between being paternal and sexual. Collin's pouting seemed to waffle back and forth between an ignored lover and a chastised kid. It was very effective and unsettling. Roxane Mesquida (as the Actress) reprises some of the role of Elena from A Ma Soueur! (AKA: Fat Girl), except playing the actress playing Elena (which she was, meta anyone?). Making A Ma Soueur! was the inspiration for Sex is Comedy and if I ever did any research ahead of time, I'd probably have watched it first (but don't be surprised if you see it in upcoming weeks).

What particularly surprised me about the movie was that there were some very funny scenes. A deep reflection of the director's craft doesn't usually lend itself to much more than self-deprecating humour. You know the kind, the: "Oh even though I'm spending simply boatloads of money and time making a movie about me, I'm very modest. Aren't I funny and strange, ha-ha?" type of jokes. Nope, Sex is Comedy did quite a bit more than that. There are some ridiculous moments of fooling around with a fake penis, some played entirely straight. And a few hilarious scenes where extras refuse to disrobe and Mesquida's stage mom follows her around with a blanket to cover her up.

My one major complaint about Sex is Comedy is the pacing. While, for the most part, we move along at a good clip and scenes don't overstay their welcome, even Breillat can't seem to stay away from too much directorial navel gazing (well, navel if we're lucky, given the self-gratifying these type of movies usually swing towards). The few times my interest began to flag were during the sequences where Jeanne talks about how important it is for her to get this that or the other thing out of a scene. I get the need to have a scene or two like this, if she's not invested in the movie, it won't really matter to her if it fails. But we get caught in at least five over-long conversations that aren't really necessary and that are far less interesting than the rest of the story. Given the excellent pacing of the rest of the movie, these sequences were jarring and yawn-worth

Well, my sweetmeats, I'm afraid you're going to have to get used to seeing Breillat's name around these parts. Of the directors I've discovered while rummaging around for interesting things to review, she is easily my favourite. While overall, I'd say I enjoyed Bluebeard more (Sex is Comedy was endeavouring to look more realistic and so it lacked the heavily saturated colours and beautiful imagery I liked so well in Bluebeard) this was a strong, funny movie. It managed to keep me interested in a topic I find completely tiresome and left me hungry for more of Breillat's work. If you haven't checked her out already, to the surprise of no-one, I'm going to suggest that you do.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Heart-Beast by Tanith Lee

Heart-Beast by Tanith Lee
ISBN: 0-7472-3916-9


After the violent death of his father, Daniel Vehmund seeks refuge in an exotic faraway land.  But his peace is shattered after contact with a fabulous diamond stolen from an ancient tomb.  Thenceforth Daniel is doomed at every full moon to become something else – something dark and powerful and savage.  And nothing originating on this earth can destroy it.

Beautiful redhaired Laura lives in rural poverty with two appalling sisters and her selfish, grasping parents.  But her life of drudgery is miraculously transformed when she is wooed and wed by a wealthy local squire.

Shadows gather, however, when a traveling magician persuades her lovesick husband to buy for her a very unusual gem.  For this is the same diamond which blighted Daniel Vehmund’s destiny.  And when Daniel himself at last returns home, his fate and Laura’s are devastatingly intertwined.

And all the while some dark malignant presence continues to prowl the woodlands and hedgerows...


My Thoughts:

I’m beginning to develop a serious problem in my reading habits.  I find myself constantly enjoying secondary characters more than main characters and thus, I am left with the task of mourning one literary crush after another (I hope you all remember the episode with Lord Tezdal *sigh*).   True to form (and my growing predicament) Tanith Lee presented me with a secondary character I simply adored - and then proceeded to kill him in a superbly depressing and lengthy fashion.   Fortunately, I knew enough about Lee's writing going in to realize that her unrelentingly bleak and soul-crushing novel would add to my literary-crush woes.

This book delivered everything I was expecting: a suitably Gothic atmosphere, reasonably interesting characters, elements of the uncanny and a bleak ending.  That said, it wasn’t perfect and a couple of things did bother me.  The first, of these is that I don’t quite understand how the diamond works – why does it turn Daniel into a monster, but no one else?  This is never explained explicitly enough.  I mean, there is a lot of talk about how it unleashes a darkness that was already inside him, but he’s not the only person with that kind of stain.  The other thing that began to irritate me was that sometimes we’d switch to the point of view of characters who are outside the narrative, seeing things from the point of view of the “extras” so to speak.   One section in particular stands out in this regard.  Slight spoiler ahead.  It’s toward the end of the book, when some flighty girl we see twice in very brief conversations is suddenly the focus of the story.  She seeks out a caravan to have her fortune told.  I understand that the scene was meant to show that the magician character was in the area, but learning the girl’s fortune was really not even tangential to the novel.  End of slight spoilers.  Last in the complaint department, I have to say that I know the doomed love affair is supposed to be the one between Daniel and Laura, but I felt little sympathy for either.  My compassion was for Hyperion, the jilted husband, not either of the protagonists.

Griping aside – I loved the different settings.  The description of the Eastern city was amazing and made me long for warmth and spices (given the long and cold spring we’ve had that’s not really surprising).  And then when we got to England and Hyperion’s mansion...well, all I can say is *swoon* and I want live there!  It seemed Gothic and perfect.  Milkmaid Laura really doesn’t do him justice. 

Turning to the characters, I also liked how detached Daniel is from his surroundings – everything rolls off him, nothing truly touches him.  He’s not a part of this world and it quickly becomes clear that he’s not part of any world.  Oddly enough, I didn’t like Laura.  You’d think that I’d be all for her strong-willed pride, her desire to be more than the rest of her family, her ambitions, but mostly I was annoyed with her.  In the end, it comes down to the fact that all her bluster about independence comes to nothing, not only with her agreeing to marry, but with the decisions she makes in the last section of the book.  She’s not as strong as she likes to think she is, she’s just wilfull, but not in a liberated way, more in the way of a petulant child.  I understand the fairy-tale elements at play here, but I was rooting for Hyperion all along (a fool’s devotion, that).  He was earnest, good and maybe a bit flighty, which is to say, he was doomed from the first page (and if you’re wondering why I didn’t label that as a spoiler ... it’s a Tanith Lee novel, so you can safely assume that everyone suffers a terrible fate of one sort or another).  Now, where was I?  Right, gushing about Hyperion. 

Real SPOILERS ahead:

In the last 80 pages of the book, Hyperion really comes into his own – his light-heartedness is tempered and he becomes a touch more serious, more sad.  And my heart really went out to the guy – he really loves Laura, but she’s all “Daniel, oh Daniel, let’s have earth-shattering sex in my husband’s house while he sits alone in his study where he can hear us.”  Sure, she tells him to leave – but maybe she should have been the one to clear out.  It’s his house!  His death scene, the sad little banquet he puts on for himself, was heartbreaking.  He deserved better than that, is all I’m saying.

Right, I’m done bemoaning things that were inevitable.

Alright, I’ll admit, this wasn’t exactly high literature, but it was entertaining, bleak and sexy.   While it certainly left me feeling a bit crushed beneath the a weight of cosmic dread at the futility of fighting against an unbeatable monster, it also gave me that giddy feeling I get when I read something that’s so deliciously good.  I really need to read more of Lee’s stuff.  Apparently I enjoy having my heart toyed with as long as its done in a sufficiently Gothic setting.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Bram Stoker's Dracula

Bram Stoker's Dracula. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola & Written by James V. Hart.

Preconceptions: I seriously considered hiding under my desk and giving this one a miss, or possibly pulling a Doomwench and getting someone else to review it for me. I did call in for back up, and some of the jokes in this may be blatantly ripped off of AAlgar (it's way more fun to do the "whoa, Dracula" Keanu impressions when there is someone else around). While I'm fully willing to acknowledge that Dracula is culturally imp....zzzzzz...wah? huh? Time for school already? Yeah that's pretty well how I felt about the book and doubly how I felt about this movie. Here is where I would normally apologize for my lack of taste and sophistication, but not this time! I don't like Stoker and while he might have come up with a good idea, that doesn't make him an interesting writer. So I'm stomping my little foot and being unrepentant. What's more Bram Stoker's Dracula came out in the prime of my goth-ing years, I should have been enthralled. Not so much. I was hopping it would be better than I remember it being. I mean, I hadn''t seen it in years, and it's possible that I'd think better of it. I mean, Coppola knows what's what and Oldman is one of the greats of our lifetime.

General Review: Uuugh. Uuuuuuuuugh. Does grunting and hiding count as a review? Because that is all I want to do when I think about it. I can think of few movies that I had as much trouble getting through in one sitting. I spent the entire movie bargaining with myself. When I finally reached the end, I owed me at least three ice cream cones and a pony. Seriously, this might as well have been called Bram Stoker's Waiting for Gary Oldman To Come Back On Screen. Every moment not spent with him (alright and occasionally with Anthony Hopkins and Tom Waits who were pretty funny) was almost unendurable. While Dracula has many, many problems (each of which I intend to slice from the living body of the flick and present to you in all their glistening, spurt-y glory) the cast was by far the worst. Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves were...were....everything that is terrible and uncharismatic in actors. It was as if Katie Holmes in Dark Knight, Natalie Portman in Thor and Hallie Berry in everything traveled back in time and created children containing all their defects. Oh and throw Cuba Gooding Jr. in there too for good measure (and I guess for sperm). I typically have a soft spot for Ryder and even Reeves has his place, but these two do not belong in an English period piece. And they certainly shouldn't be playing opposite each other. I've seen tile grout with more chemistry and believable, sustained accents. And for all the passion between them, it might as well have been Tile Grout Theater. Reeves' lackluster performances in...well...his entire filmography (except Bill and Ted) made him the first actor me and my friends dubbed a "coatrack" actor, that is that all the other actors just have to make due with him as a prop rather than an equal. They were both wooden, unlikable and totally unbelievable as anything besides furniture.

Even Gary Oldman (who's praises I sing, sing, sing) was brought down by working across from Ryder. While the sequences between them were certainly easier to swallow, they hardly set the screen on fire. Oldman was fantastic, one of the only things that kept me from wandering off and pretending I'd never agreed to watch this. He was excellent as old man Dracula, young prince Dracula and monster-y Dracula. And selling "I don't drink...wine" and "the children of the night, what beautiful music they make" how impressive is that? Nobody should be able to breathe life into those old saws. Hopkins as crazy ol' crackpot Van Helsing was also fun, even if he can't do a German accent any more than Reeves can do an English one.

Having recently re-watched the original
Nosferatu I get what Coppola was trying to do. Yes, he was paying homage to the silent horror flicks, but what he ended up with was something expensive that looked cheap. In trying to mimic, oh I'm sorry homage, the style of those movies, we were constrained by tight shots of tiny looking sets. What could have been a glorious balls to the wall period piece ended up being cramped and ugly. The races across the Carpathian Mountains look like they were done in sound stages the size of my bathroom. And I'm relatively certain London could basically fit down one street. Despite aping the style choices from silent flicks, Coppola didn't manage to copy any of the charm (though he did manage to create a vampire orgy scene that effected the formative years of many, many people).

The writing was shrug worthy, nothing exciting but not much to get m
iffed at either. It followed most of the story beats from the book, adding the rather stupid conceit that Mina was Dracula's girlfriend reborn (rather than just looking like her). I always prefer my Helsings as eccentric loonies, so I enjoyed that take on him.

The effects were also a fairly mixed bag, Oldman, like Schreck before him, looked awesome in his Dracula make up. For some reason, they couldn't find Reeves a realistic looking gray wig and he spent half the movie looking like he'd wandered through a fake snow factory. The bat-creature was impressive and the wolf man, like all wolf men, was terrible (one day Hollywood will figure out how to do it, in this I believe).

It is deeply ingrained in me to dig vampires. I spent a whooole lot of my girlhood and even more of my womanhood happily sighing over some terrible vamp-y tripe. But even for me, Bram Stoker's Dracula is just too much. There are so many missteps, even ignoring the main one of paying any attention to Stoker. If you're feeling like a little undead trash, do yourself a favour and find something else. Shadow of the Vampire is genuinely good;
Interview With the Vampire is more than tolerable; True Blood (Sookie, uh-huh, yeah) is deliciously trashy and there is always the over the top Blade. Stick this one through a high powered shredder and lets all pretend it didn't happen.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Girl on Book Action: The Waste Lands by Stephen King

Aside:  An aside right at the beginning, you say.  Well, yes.  Here is your obligatory spoiler warning.  I’m reviewing part three of The Dark Tower and I don’t want you to read possible spoilers in the blurb.  If you’re interested in my thoughts on the subject and you haven’t read the first two books, I suggest you head to my review of The Gunslinger right now.

The Waste Lands: The Dark Tower III by Stephen King
ISBN: 0-452-26740-4


With The Waste Lands, the third masterful novel in Stephen King’s epic saga The Dark Tower, we again enter the realm of the mightiest imagination of our time.  King’s hero, Roland, the Last Gunslinger, moves ever closer to the Dark Tower of his dreams and nightmares – as he crosses a desert of damnation in a macabre world that is a twisted mirror image of our own.  With him are those he has drawn to this world, street-smart Eddie Dean and courageous wheelchair-bound Susannah.  Ahead of him are mind-rending revelations about who he is and what is driving him.  Against him is arrayed a swelling legion of fiendish foes both more and less than human.  And as the pace of action and adventure, discovery and danger pulse-poundingly quickens, the reader is inescapably drawn into a breathtaking drama that is both hauntingly dreamlike ...and eerily familiar.  The Waste Land is a triumph of storytelling sorcery – and further testament to Stephen King’s novelistic mastery.


My Thoughts:

A curious thing happened when I was reading this book.  I wasn’t really enjoying it – so much so that I put it down after 70ish pages and read The Stolen Throne instead.  But, I made a commitment to finishing the series, so I went back to it.  A handful of people had assured me that it gets better and that they all really enjoyed part three.  I heard a lot of “Just wait until you get to this part with so and so, it’s awesome!”  Or “Oh, when you get to Blaine, he is super-scary.”  Each time I reached one of these supposed milestones of awesome, I was underwhelmed.  The only upside is that there weren’t all that many updates as to the status of Roland’s balls.

I think my problem really comes from not liking the characters.  My feelings on Roland are neutral, I still prefer my protagonists / heroes to be quick-witted, but at least Roland is consistent and reliable (so long as you don’t stand in the way of him getting to the Tower).  I don’t care for Susannah at all, which, considering my feminist leanings irks me to no end.  I feel as though I should like her, but I just don’t.  She doesn’t interest me at all.  Eddie grew on me in this book, but not much.  He does some awesome things and he injects a touch of sarcastic humour I appreciate.  Also, Roland keeps comparing him to Cuthbert and without knowing a whole lot about the guy I’ve decided I like Cuthbert (does that mean I actually like Eddie?).   Jake...well...Jake is a kid and I have a strange prejudice against child-protagonists.  I guess I like Oy best – which, considering he’s some sort of raccoon-y animal says a lot about my feelings about the other characters.

Why do I keep reading then (aside from the fact that I said I’d read them all)?  The world keeps me coming back – Roland’s world.  I seriously loved being in Lud.  The decay and the madness of its inhabitants as the world winds down around them left me feeling haunted.  I was enthralled.  Blaine didn’t scare me, but these people did with the way they were clinging to any bit of flotsam in the ocean of debris - to the point where they think that a loop of music is a message from the machine-ghost gods to sacrifice one of their own once a day.  And they were fighting battles against each other without even remembering the reason they are on opposite sides.  The absolute lack of meaning in everything they do, the soul-crushing knowledge that the world is dying and there is nothing left aside from mad despair...that’s sweet honey to draw me back again and again.  Please, sir, can I have some more?

Related to my interest in this dying realm are some of the underlying themes and ideas – the interconnectedness of the world, the beam, the Dark Tower at the center of everything.  I like the overlap between Roland’s world and “our” world, I like that the Ageless Stranger and Roland’s nemesis, Marten might or might not have been Merlin (though he says he wasn’t).  The fact that events in one world become the basis of fiction in the other and that dreams seem to move between the two fascinates me.  The Gunslingers themselves, at least as they were in the past, also interest me.  I want to learn more about them and how they served as knights-errant and diplomats and basically beacons of hope in their world.  We get some glimpses of this past sprinkled throughout The Waste Lands and I want more of that too.  So, basically, I want to watch the world crumble and descend into madness and I want to see what it was before the decay set in.  I don’t care about what Susannah, Eddie and Jake do.

At the end of the day, or should we say book, what it comes down to is this: I said I would read the whole series and I will do just that.  Hopefully, you’re all enjoying following me along on this journey, whether you’ve read the books and like to watch me suffer, or you’re reading them because I’ve started to do so (I actually doubt anyone is doing this, but stranger things have happened).  So, I’ll leave you with this thought: I had better get to see a bunch of Cuthbert soon so I can either confirm or deny my possible new literary crush.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Sexy Bookshelves, Installment 2

It's that time again, my sunflowers!  Time for another post showcasing delicious, sexy bookshelves.  This month, you get to see one, yes only one, of my very own shelves.  To assist me in telling you about my shelves, I've recruited the ever-lovely Morrigan and my sadistic paramour, Pinhead.

Here you see the top two shelves, and you may notice that the shelf actually begins with the letter "Do."  That's because "A-Da" are on a different shelf.  As you can see, Morrigan disapproves -12 of my collection of LKH novels, and well, she's right to do so.
 The bottom two shelves are less embarrassing to share with the general public, but their contents led to a duel between Pinhead and Morrigan - both wanted to claim the delicious and unsettling works of Caitlin R. Kiernan for themselves.  I can tell you - it was a bloody, horrific battle and neither of them won.  Thankfully, none of the books were harmed.
 My cat decided to make an appearance in the pictures!  Her expression clearly states "Wow, you sure are a crazy lady!"  Not only can you see the whole shelf in this picture, you can also see parts of the "to-be-read" table.  Also, Pinhead has claimed the higher ground, while Morrigan roams the lands of Katharine Kerr and Caitlin R. Kiernan, turning irritating former templars into toads when the need arises (no, neither Katharine Kerr nor CRK write about templars).

One last picture, taken this week to show how the shelf has been reorganized recently.  Look at all that empty space waiting to be filled up!  I best go do some reading.

If you'd like to see your very own sexy shelves here, please do send them to us (girlonbookaction at gmail dot com).  We need our fix, you know!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows (Part 1)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1). Directed by David Yates & Written by Steve Kloves.

Aside: Well, this week I was supposed to watch Bram Stoker's Dracula to dual review with the fabulous Dindrane. Unfortunately, several factors meant I wasn't able to get around to it. Sure, I didn't realize it wasn't on streaming Netflix, so I had to get a hard copy. Sure, I reached the endgame for my second play through of Dragon Age 2 and was almost finished World of Goo. But when it comes right down to it, I didn't watch Bram Stoker's Dracula because I remember utterly, utterly hating it. By all rights, it should be a favourite movie: beautiful sweeping sets, vibrant colours, period costumes and not to mention sexy chameleon Gary Oldman vamping it up. However, I don't remember any of those things clearly. All I remember is feeling bored and patronized through the whole thing, oh and not liking Mina. Still, I'll keep my promise to myself and sit through it sometime this week, but I decided to watch something I was excited for instead: the first half of the conclusion of Harry Potter.

: While overall I enjoyed the Harry Potter books a great deal, Deathly Hallows is not a favourite. It's affectionately dubbed: Harry Potter and the Endless Camping Trip by some and more sleazily Harry Potter: Sleeps Rough by disgusting old women (alright, by me), for a reason. The book is a huge tome where not nearly enough happens. Instead of a tightly plotted story, we spend most of our time watching teens wander around squabbling with very little sense of purpose. While I'm sure this was deliberate (to a point), to show the oppressive force of Voldemort's power and generally that teenagers are sulky losers, there is only so much fiddling around a reader can deal with. While I've mostly enjoyed the movies (though some merely to clap my hands at wizards and little more), they did often feel rushed. Some of them barely managed to get through the plot points let alone do them well (a compliment to the book series, which often successfully juggles a lot of plot and characters). I didn't expect that was going to be much of a threat in this flick, given that the teeny tiny plot is being spread awfully thin to cover two movies.

General Review
: Well, I enjoyed this. Firstly, it had the Lord of the Rings effect: it was a fairly faithful movie adaptation of a book I thought was too long. It condensed the experience into a more palatable length. (And one day I'll be back to tell you what I really think of Lord of the Rings, at which point many friends will cast me out into the gutter for my disgusting anti-Hobbit sentiments). But I enjoyed more about this movie than it being shorter than the book, and getting to see several Daniel Radcliffes in very little clothing (more on that disgusting tid-bit shortly). Really, it was one of the better movies. It wasn't warped all out of shape trying to fit too much story into too little space, like so much shrunken laundry. We had time in this to explore ideas and enjoy the settings and characters without being quickly rushed into the next room. I haven't loved Yates' pacing in the past, but he has improved drastically.

Casting has never been an issue with the Harry Potter movies, they've all been filled out with a who's who of excellent a
ctors and surprisingly good child actors (though I never warmed to Tom Felton's Draco or Timothy Spall's Wormtail. They always feel outmatched by the rest of the stellar cast like a common Katie Holmes). Emma Watson continues to be delightful and (naturally) my favourite character. She believably plays brainy, strong and courageous. Imelda Staunton reprises her role as Delores Umbridge, who, to my mind, in both the movies and books is the most oppressive and frightening villain. Seriously, a teacher who abuses her authority WHILE putting on a sweet falsetto voice? Shudderful. As for Radcliffe, I've been outed more than once on my wholly inappropriate attraction to that ridiculously young actor. For those of you who share my shameful attraction, you'll be glad to hear that he continues to fill out disturbingly and to impress playing the heroic but not always likable (well not to me, anyways) Harry.

Kloves adaptation was quite good, while he was doubtless part of the problem with the rushed feeling of the other movies, there wasn't any of that here. We neatly sliced out some of the more tedious sections, but kept the feeling of hopelessness that pervaded the book. Something that falls somewhere between the original books, directing and screenplay writing were the superb scenes in un-magical London. After spending so much time in the colourful, complicated setting of Hogwarts and the surrounding areas, abruptly putting us into the normal world was an excellent touch. The contrast of the grey, drab city made the occasional use of magic and colour pop (a fight scene in a cafe was particularly good). After spending the last six movies lavishing us with bright otherworldly settings, it was jarring (in a good way) to suddenly be forced into an everyday city. Also, the CG integration, which these movies typically have done well (with the exception of that troll early on in the series, yes, it was another grey globby monster), are even better than usual.

Like the books, this movie is darker than its predecessor and if you were put off by the childish wonder in the first few movies, I think you'll find basically all of that has been beaten out of the series by this point.
Admittedly, some of that has been replaced with equally unpalatable teen angst, but since we move along at a good clip there isn't much time to be bothered by it. I hardly think it's necessary for me to sell anyone on Harry Potter. It's a ridiculously successful franchise with oodles of fans. If you've enjoyed the previous ones, you'll enjoy this one. If you were kinda lukewarm on the book, I expect you'll have a similar experience to me, and enjoy it quite a bit more.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Girl on Book Action: A Guest Review by Dindrane about Dracula!

The Blurb:

Traveling through two hundred years of popular culture and myth as well as graveyards and the wilds of Transylvania, Leslie S. Klinger separates fact from fiction and provides information on every aspect of the Stoker novel (including a detailed examination of the original typescript with its shockingly different ending). Employing the superb literary detective skills for which he has become famous, Klinger mines this 1897 classic for nuggets that will surprise even the most die-hard Dracula fans.

My Thoughts:

The New Annotated Dracula has a pretty ambitious premise: to distill the intervening 100+ years of scholarship, mix it in legibly with the various versions of the original text that have less solidity than we’d like, and serve up a coherent tale that makes this whole bloody original (ha!) something exciting and new again. The main editor, Leslie Klinger, was recently lauded for his work annotating the complete Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, and his skill as an annotator and researcher is unquestionable. The text takes as its base the unabridged novel, which is slightly different than the version usually published; all along Klinger points out which paragraphs were stricken from the text and posits thoughts about why. We also get to see into Stoker’s unpublished notes, as Klinger mentions “this was different in the Notes...” and so forth. All of this is great for aspiring writers and lit scholars, as well as fans who wanted to see the text as it evolved (and maybe devolved again).

Before we tackle the annotations, however, it behooves us to talk about the novel itself. Only a person who has been imprisoned in an isolated Transylvanian castle wouldn’t know about it, but GoBA caters to all kinds, and a polite guest like myself always supports her host. Dracula is, in some ways, two stories in one. To begin, we get the story of Jonathan Harker, a young lawyer who has been sent to Transylvania to oversee the legalities of Count Dracula’s purchase of a house in England and his move to it. Harker soon begins to see that his host is more (or less) than he appears and learns that he is a prisoner. He meets the Strange Sisters--three female vampires who are after his soul, his blood, and his manhoo--... um, pride. Eventually, Harker escapes as Dracula leaves for England, and the reader switches to the tale of Harker’s friends in England, including his fiance (then wife), Mina. We meet Lucy Westenra and her three suitors, including a psychiatrist, whose patient Renfield is one of the more famous characters in literature. Lucy falls prey to Dracula, much to the dismay of her several boyfriends (if that’s spoiling you at this point to hear it, you deserve it), and it looks like Mina is next. The thwarted lovers of Lucy, the Harkers, and “Dr.” Van Helsing vow to stop Dracula and avenge Lucy, eventually chasing Dracula all the way back to his Transylvanian castle.

Now as a recovering, card-carrying gothgirl, it’s impossible for me to say I do not love Dracula, all things unheimlich (“uncanny”), and the surrounding Gothic tradition of literature. Besides, he’s Irish, and hordes of ancestors would drive me batty (ha!) if I didn’t adore him. I can, however, say that this particular book is... well... let’s just say not the sharpest fang in the tomb. Setting aside the few bits of anti-Semitism and sexism, there are still sections of problematic writing. Stoker, God rest his soul, was ambitious, imaginative, and brave, but also, alas, almost entirely unencumbered by editorial skill. There are errors in dating, geography, and simple plotting that really should have been caught by a competent writer, even one working from a hellish collection of source texts, notes, and several different versions of his novel. In short, you can like and enjoy something, even respect its place in legitimate Canon, without being blind to its very real, and very frequent, flaws.

The New Annotated Dracula is a new beast; it not only points out many of these errors in logic and textual discontinuities, it revels in them. It even sets out from time to time to justify these “errors” and attribute to Stoker perhaps more mastery than he possessed, and it does all this while pointing out some scholarship and thoughts about the text that are not frequently discussed or even realized by the average casual reader (or rabid fan). For example, there are a lot of very suspicious things about the American suitor of Lucy, Quincey Morris. It has been suggested that he might even have been in league with Dracula all along, and the annotations trace these inconsistencies and suspicious behaviors throughout the text, making things that looked badly written on the first read seem much more, well, sinister with the annotations whispering in your ear. Klinger does the same with Mina, post-Dracula indoctrination. As a personal note, Van Helsing has always struck me as a quack, and the annotations make this even clearer; the man is a danger to himself and others, and he ought to be in a cell next to Renfield’s.

The most irritating thing about the text is that the editor employs a “gentle fiction,” and pretends to believe throughout that the events here really happened, and that some of the textual errors are due to Stoker covering up the facts to protect Dracula (or other reasons). The editor is so involved in this fiction that it’s hard to tell in some notes if he’s truly evaluating the text or pretending to accuse Stoker of a “cover-up.” This confusion of fact and fantasy casts doubt upon the scholarly value of many of the annotations. Some readers may find this sort of thing fun, but it seems more likely that someone would pick up a text this heavily annotated and hope for scholarship, not credulity and wankery about “real” crimes. It makes more sense in the context of the editor’s Sherlock works, where that sort of thing is common and part of the Game, but it makes no sense in Dracula.

But the text does more than simply point out problems and mock/attempt to integrate them. We get historical instruction, such as a bit about coffeehouses (see the excellent The Victorian Underground for more on this). The text is also packed with images, from movie posters to woodcuts to Count von Count; secondary texts; an introduction by Neil Gaiman (fangirl squee); a fascinating article about “Dracula’s Family Tree;” an introductory article on “The Context of Dracula;” a story struck from the original text by Stoker and later published separately, but that may have been the original first chapter, etc. Just assembling and editing this trove of resources was an impressive undertaking, not unlike Stoker’s own assembly of his disparate texts into a “novel.” The notes alone will please a reader (death’s-head moths! trepanation! Victorian “medicine”! Romany lore! horses!), and the maps are legitimately useful, but the bibliography... oh, the bibliography. It’s enough to make a bibliophile weep with desire. Many of the notes are longer than chapters, and document wonks have to love that, even with the annoying “gentle fiction” in play.

At this day and age, it’s pretty damn hard to come to Dracula with any semblance of “fresh.” We all know the story to death (ha!), the characters (some of them anyway) have moved on to bigger and better things, and a whole genre of fiction has evolved to take this ball and run with it. That said, perhaps because we think we know Dracula so well, it’s good to be reminded that maybe, just maybe, we don’t know it (or Stoker) quite as well as we thought we did. Say what you will about the continuity and characterization issues, each character has a distinct voice, and that’s more than most paranormal books will get you these days. You may finish the reading still not knowing if Stoker was a sloppy writer or an erratic genius, but, all in all, this is one book that you can really sink your teeth into. (Sorry... I truly did try to resist.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Announcement: Upcoming Guest Post by Dindrane!

Well, my little sunflowers, we once more bring you a guest post! And, breaking with tradition, this time we found an actual for-real girl to write a review, rather than putting more boys into dresses (as much fun as that is, we are GIRL on Book Action).

I also have a confession to make. Wren and I have been talking about what our next book / movie crossover review should be and Dracula kept popping up in our list of possibilities. Now, my dear daffodils, I ... am not a fan of Stoker's novel. So, rather than depriving you of the wonder that is Dracula, I found someone to read that boring, ill-constructed drivel! It's a win-win-win really.

Alas, without much further ado, let me tell you a little about our illustrious guest blogger. She sent us this blurb (written by her friend) to whet your appetites:

Dindrane is a writer, scholar, translator, professor and freelance classicist for hire. When she is not assisting the animal kingdom in the overthrow of humanity, she reads. She has, in fact, read more books than you. Do not test her on this. When she is not reading, she is serving as Minister of Anime and Manga Studies at Need Coffee Dot Com. She lives and works in North Alabama and is under the misguided assumption she is boring.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Weeks Too Late: X-Men-First Class

X-Men: First Class. Directed by Matthew Vaughn & Written by (deep breath) Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, With Story by Sheldon Turner & Bryan Singer.

: X-Men 3 sucked. It wasn't the glorious, spiteful 'giving in to studio pressure (to show why the things they wanted are stupid),' suckiness that was Spiderman 3. Also: no dance numbers. Nope, X-Men 3 basically had nothing going for it (except for enjoying the on the nose casting of Kelsey Grammer as Beast). I figured after the death rattle of a handful of Wolverine movies that we'd hear nothing else from the X-Men until they were inevitably re-booted.

The idea behind X-Men: First Class was ludicrous. I didn't think the charm of Professor X and Magneto could survive the loss of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. I mean really, James McAvoy? Mr. Gnomeo & Juliet? And Michael Fassbender? A TV actor until Tarantino pulled him out of obscurity. These are the replacements for a couple of the greatest actors of our time? I scoff pretty damned hard X-Men. Matthew Vaughn is alright, I (and I believe no one else in the world) rather liked Stardust and Layer Cake wasn't a bad Daniel Craig fix, but he's hardly shaken the foundation of the world with his directing. All in all, I was surprised by the positive buzz I was hearing about this flick, but I heard more than enough of it to wrest myself out of an LA Noire stupor and go to the theater.

General Review: Well shut my mouth like that of a 1940's woman (meaning with a playful slap-yeah back in that stupor). Once again, the nerd word of mouth was totally right and my gut reaction to poorly made trailers was totally wrong (well nearly). Before I go any further, I would like to officially retract any and all jokes made at McAvoy and Fassbender's expense (particularly Fassbender, because I would very much like to be friendly with him-meeeeow!).

Not only were they both individually talented, taking over roles that had been defined by other actors, but their chemistry together was perfect. Gay jokes aside (and believe me it's difficult) the bonds of friendship between the two characters came off as genuine and heartfelt. I bought every moment of the whole "friends with utterly opposing ideals" thing.

The two leads were hardly the only strong actors. I was expecting to find Jennifer Lawrence (baby Mystique) callow and utterly uninteresting when compared to Rebecca Romjin, but was pleasantly surprised. Her story of self discovery never bored me or felt too teeny-bopper. Kevin Bacon was another unexpectedly good casting choice. He looked strangely like the sharp featured, frock coat wearing Sebastian Shaw, and carried himself with the heavy menace I always associated with the character. January Jones, as I'm sure you already heard, was one of the few missteps in casting. She wasn't much of a femme fatal, and lacked in both power and waggle (bitty little hips for anyone playing Emma Frost). I prefer my Emma's English, but I could have handled the change if I didn't find her utterly tedious.

As for the directing: Yowza! We got to see spectacle and interesting gimmicks as well as having personal moments between the characters. And neither the flash or the substance was lessened by the other. I wasn't desperately waiting for the quiet debates over philosophy to end or wondering if now would be the opportune bathroom break during the action sequences. The balance and the pacing were wonderful. I dug the 1960s setting and the period costumes and sets were awfully fun. Speaking of costuming, I also liked the New X-Men-y yellow uniforms, it was a good compromise between black leather and green spandex.

There is also a lot to be said about the writing. This story could easily have been a mess. While it seems as though there are too many plot threads for one movie, they all remain clear. None of them made the movie feel jumbled, or like it was trying to do too much. Most of the characters had an arc, but they didn't seem forced. Connecting the whole mess of threads back to World War 2 and the Cold War was impressive.

Unfortunately, X-Men wasn't all cute men platonically sharing a bed and complicated weaving of cold war fear with fear of the unknown. There were some jarring moments of less talented writing. They are things I might have dismissively waived my hand at and ignored in a movie that wasn't as well executed, but because the bulk of X-Men was so skillful these stood out badly. Yes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a good allegory for Beast's arc, but having Beast and Professor X say flat out "HEY! I sure am like that Stevenson book, aren't I Professor?" was more than a bit much. Rinse and repeat with Magneto announcing that he was just like Frankenstein's monster, searching for his creator (a particularly eye rolling moment in an otherwise bad ass scene). Put together, it almost felt like one of the sixty writers of this was trying to show off that they'd read a book. Well, pat on the head writer number 49, but lets not do this again. Some of the prescient jokes ("Ha-ha! I hope that I, Professor Xavier, never lose my beautiful hair!") and giving names to thing ("Oh, Charles, you should call them the X-Men! In fact, you could say it was their first class." ...well maybe not as far as that, but nearly) fell flat. I sometimes felt choked by the bow that was being neatly tied around things. But, like I say, I only noticed these because it's easy to see small flaws in something that was so well crafted over all.

Don't let the truly awful trailer or X-Men 3 talk you out of this movie. It's a treat and the few warts and hiccups aren't nearly enough to spoil the overall good experience. Despite all common sense the 5th movie in a series is really one of the best so far. I'm sure you've heard scores of other people raving about X-Men, and I'm going to add my voice to theirs: X-Men is great, go see it.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne by David Gaider

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne by David Gaider
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2408-5


After his mother, the beloved Rebel Queen, is betrayed and murdered by her own faithless lords, young Maric becomes the leader of a rebel army attempting to free his nation from the control of a foreign tyrant.

His countrymen live in fear; his commanders consider him untested; and his only allies are Loghain, a brash young outlaw who saved his life, and Rowan, the beautiful warrior maiden promised to him since birth.  Surrounded by spies and traitors, Maric must find a way to not only survive but achieve his ultimate destiny: Ferelden’s freedom and the return of his line to the stolen throne.


Aside: Here is what I imagine is going through your heads right now, my little turnips: “Doom, you are taking this Dragon Age thing a little far, don’t you think?  Franchise books - really?  Those almost always end in tears of bitter frustration.”  Since my Morrigan action figure is giving me that look that plainly says "Morrigan disapproves -12," you’re probably right.  I assure you that my initial starry-eyed feelings on Dragon Age 2 have faded.  I now openly lament the fact that it feels more like the prologue to a game rather than a true game in itself, but that hasn’t stopped me from wanting to spend more time in Thedas (as I write this I’m nearly done my third play through of DA2 - it would be more but I went back to play both Origins and Awakenings again).  I've gone from the honeymoon to the marriage, here, in love despite the flaws showing through the shiny surface.  So, you really cannot hold it against me that when I saw the novels at the used bookstore I simply could not leave them there to languish unloved on those deliciously overcrowded shelves.

My Thoughts:

All that said – this book pretty much delivered what I expected: a story I enjoyed, characters I cared about (even though Loghain is a bastard in the game), prose that at times quite literally made me wince and enough fantasy clichés to possibly feed an entire army of darkspawn.  In other words (aside from the wincing) I loved every second of it (yes, even the clichés). 

There are two things you need to know about me when it comes to writing and reading.  One: I am a woman who loves long, convoluted sentences (so much so, in fact, that Wren spends a lot of her time editing my reviews to shorten my paragraph-long word perambulations – you should thank her, right now, yes, I mean that) and going hand-in-hand with that I prefer sentences to have variety – a subclause here, a short, poignant one there, etc.  Yes, I know, I am a demanding mistress of letters.  Second: I believe that behind the majority of good writers there stands an amazing editor (very few writers are able to truly edit their own work – some things you just don’t see when you’re that close to a thing, no one holds it against you).  Why am I telling you about all this?  Well, this novel needed a keen editor.  Someone who would have fixed the short, clipped sentences, and the fragmented sentences that didn’t make any sense, and just generally polished the story.  Someone with an ear for sentence rhythms and how they flow together so the prose would have been less wince-inducing.  Also, an editor worth a lick would have caught and cut out the jarring colloquialisms that infected some parts of the novel (especially the dialogue).  The writing really needed help (though I have read worse – I wasn’t quite ready to break out the corrective pencil with this book, which I have done with others in the past – seriously, it’s spelled suave not sauve, but I digress).    And while we're discussing flaws an editor would (hopefully) have caught...Did I mention that there was nearly a whole chapter that summarized events that happened off-screen?  Yeah, so that was boring.  As it turns out “show, don’t tell” is still excellent advice.  In the end, though, the story took over and I could largely ignore the lacklustre prose.

Ah, I feel better now that I’ve gotten that off my chest.

Let’s move on to the clichés and why they don’t have me tearing out my hair in agony.  See, really, this novel is the story of Arthur (yes, that Arthur, saviour of Britain, ruler of Camelot) set in a fantasy world with the usual minor alterations.  I truly don’t say this in a negative way – more in the Campbell / Jungian archetypal way.  Here, we have the young Prince, his sort-of friend Loghain and the fierce, but lovely Rowan  – can you see where this is going?  You see, Maric is Arthur, Rowan is Guinevere and Loghain is Lancelot.  Maric also finds a magical sword, which he pulls out from beneath a pile of stones (really!).  We all know this story – and most of us can admit that we love this story.  It’s a story about reclaiming what is rightfully yours and bringing peace to a world filled with turmoil and tyranny.  And it's a story about love that cannot be - between Maric and the elf Katriel, between Loghain and Rowan and between Rowan and Maric; it's a story about sacrificing personal happiness and romance for the greater good (for some reason, as a society, we love stories about star-crossed lovers almost as much as we love stories about reclaiming lost thrones).  Yes, maybe it’s a bit derivative – but at least it wasn’t a slightly dressed-up Lord of the Rings (ugh).

I don't want you to be confused, despite all my griping and justified complaints, I actually enjoyed this book.  Indeed, it exceeded some of my admittedly low expectations.  However, I don't think it's for anyone who isn't already a fan of Dragon Age.  Personally, I will snap up any opportunity to see more of this world.  Visiting other places in Ferelden was a treat and so was learning more about its history and characters.  We also get to see a few familiar faces (Flemeth makes an appearance and King Cailan – though clearly not as king, and Loghain, obviously), which makes Thedas come to life in the imagination with a "hey, I know these people."  As much as the stilted prose bothered me, I liked the development of the characters.  Watching Maric grow into a King, and what it costs him to do so, was so good.  Rowan broke my heart (of course she did).  And Loghain, well, I won’t go so far as to say I like him now, but I do respect him more than I did before.  Ultimately, that’s still the strength of Dragon Age stories – the characters.  It doesn’t matter that a lot of them are archetypes, that the tales stray into the realm of cliché, because the characters truly draw me into the world.

You might judge me harshly for my unabated love for all things Dragon Age, but we all have our weaknesses (and our guilty pleasures hidden in plain sight on our bookshelves).  If you suffer from a similar affliction to my own – withdrawal because you’re waiting impatiently for DA2 DLC – you might want to give this book a go.  Of course, if you’re nitpicky about the quality of your prose you should go read...well, some pretentious claptrap instead.  Similarly, if you’re the kind of nerd who is going to pick apart continuity or geography or whatever else might irk your purist mindset, I suggest that instead of reading this novel, you take a very deep breath and go outside.  I have been doing this recently and I promise you, the sun only hurts a little and the fresh air will clear your head a bit.  Now, if you hate Dragon Age, why are you even reading this review, much less considering this book?  And if you have never played the games, I suggest you do that first.  I’m not sure that the novel would stand up on its own – although I am curious about if it would, it’s a difficult thing for me to try to judge.  Anyway, I’ll leave you with that wishy-washy conclusion – I have darkspawn to slaughter.