Saturday, July 30, 2011

Girl on Book Action: License to Ensorcell by Katharine Kerr

License to Ensorcell by Katharine Kerr
ISBN: 978-0-7564-0656-1


Psychic agent Nola O’Grady isn’t sure that returning to San Francisco, and living so close to her very unusual family, is a good idea.  Her job, with a psychic agency so obscure that even then CIA doesn’t know it exists, can be perilous, and she’s afraid of the relatives getting involved.  Plus the warnings she’s been receiving lately from saints and angels are not making the situation any easier.

Then the Agency saddles her with an Israeli secret agent named Ari Nathan, currently attached to Interpol, and she realizes she has an even bigger problem on her hands, because tact and compromise are not Ari’s strong points.

They are forced to work together, however, to track down a serial killer who seems to have an obsession about werewolves.  He sees them everywhere and shoots whenever he thinks he has one in his sights.  Ari assumes that the man’s merely psychotic, but in truth, this mystery man is murdering actual werewolves.  Nola should know.  Her younger brother Pat, a lycanthrope, was the killer’s first victim.

Can Nola’s psychic talents and Ari’s skill with guns keep them alive long enough to unravel the greater mystery that lies behind the killings?  And can they save the werewolves and the world while stopping Nola’s family from running headlong into danger?


My Thoughts:

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you might remember the name Katharine Kerr – I mention her every time I start a new fantasy series.  Her Deverry novels are great and complex and I was a bit sad when I finished the fifteenth part and it was all over.  I have to admit, I was a wary when I heard that her next project was going to be an urban fantasy.  The urban fantasy / paranormal romance market is over-saturated right now and I didn’t want one of my favourite fantasists to join the pack.  I had nothing to worry about – yes, this is an urban fantasy, but it’s got enough quirks to set it apart.

What I liked about this book is that it defied my expectations.  It’s not about vampires and / or werewolves vying for power against each other and it’s not about pretty-pretty faeries.  Instead, it’s about a secret agency trying to keep things in Harmony, monitoring forces of Chaos around the world to try and maintain equilibrium.  So Nola sees saints and angels that may or may not just be projections of her own subconscious.  And while there are werewolves and a smattering of psychically gifted folks around it’s really about the police case involving several murders rather than Nola hand-holding various boyfriends through their emotional hangups in between orgies.

The line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy has become increasing blurred in the last few years (at least in my head if nowhere else), but this is definitely not a romance novel – yes, there is a romantic relationship, but it’s not the point of the book, the point of the story is to find a killer.  So while there is sex it’s all off-screen and tasteful. 

There is one thing that bothered me – two ideas were repeated over and over again.  First, the fact that Nola is too skinny and doesn't eat enough.  I appreciate that Kerr is pointing to the societal pressure about weight, but when Ari (the secret agent man) tells her to eat every other page it got too repetitive and I felt like she was trying to hammer the idea into my head.  And while I don't think he should be telling her how much or little she should eat, the point being made here was that Nola either has or is on the borderline of having an eating disorder.  She also blacks out a couple of times after doing strenuous psychic stuff, which he quite correctly surmises has to do with her lack of food intake.  The second is that Ari Nathan drives like a madman.  I understand the fear of other people driving and their insane habits, but they drive a lot in this book and every time they get in a vehicle there is a short passage about how Nola almost dies of fright.  Toward the end of the novel, my brain started to substitute “Yes, I know, he drives like a crazy person and she was terrified – I get it.”

The focus on family and mystery – which went hand-in-hand – was what kept me reading.  The O’Gradys are eccentric and gifted, but also in the depths of mourning for one of their own.  The murder cases interweave with the family story giving the police work a personal feel and drawing attention away from the romance aspect.  I appreciated that Nola wasn’t all-powerful (some heroines in these types of books develop new powers every time they are in peril) and that she relied on Ari as her partner – between the two of them they have the skills needed to deal with the assassins, but separately neither of them is able to gain control of the situation.  Ari doesn’t have the knowledge of the supernatural to address the situation and Nola doesn’t have the combat / police training.  They complement each other nicely.  In a way, the ultimate outcome wraps up too neatly, but I still enjoyed it.  The subplot with Nola’s little brother Michael and how it eventually connected with the murder plot just added that extra layer of narrative to make the novel as a whole complete.

I’m happy to have found a couple of new urban fantasy series to read (Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye books are the other) and I’m looking forward to picking up part two of the Nola O’Grady books in August (I think).  I want to see where things with Ari and Nola go and I want to learn more about the parallel universes, as well as the struggle between Chaos and Order.  I’m hoping that we get to see more of Nola’s family in the second book.  We still haven’t met her mother, who sounds like quite the draconic figure from what everyone in this book has said about her.  Overall, I'm excited to see Kerr use her skills in weaving a complex narrative in this new setting.  As much as I loved the Deverry books, they took up a lot of her writing time over the years and it's refreshing to see her imagination at play in a different world.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Captain America

Captain America. Directed by Joe Johnston & Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely.

: I am taking a short break from my Shirley Jackson-fest this week to turn my eyes to something a little more modern (strictly caused by getting out to see Captain America and nothing at all to do with finding the 1963 version of the Haunting to be an unendurable slog). The Marvel movies have been nothing but enjoyable this year, even Thor (a character I care nothing about) and X-Men First Class (a prequel demanded by no one). But of the lot, I was most excited for Captain America. Really, they had me at the choice to set it almost entirely in World War 2. I'm simply not that big a fan of modern day Cap. Sure it's fun to watch him be a fish out of water, but other than that there really isn't much to distinguish him from 100 other characters. But put Cap in the 40's and you've got my interest. I love the espionage, the classic adventure comic feel and the straight up pulp.

General Review
: I had a blast. Really, this was almost exactly what I was looking for. We spent maybe 10 minutes in the present (I was worried the screen time would be half and half) and it was a rip roaring adventure movie that put me in mind of Sky Captain and the Rocketeer (and I mean that in the best possible way, I loved those flicks). Captain America's brand of pro-USA zeal was the most stylish and palatable way I've seen patriotism presented in ages. Plus, it managed to fit in a full musical number that absolutely worked.

This was a great cast with no need for qualification. I love watching Hugo Weaving loom, rant and threaten and it was a pleasure to see him do so again. Also, I'm told by a certain German speaking co-writer that his accent was reasonably good and didn't make her cringe. Chris Evans sold the plucky weakling and the courageous, if somewhat naive, super hero. Though, as far as busty blondes go, I'll take Chris Hemsworth first, please (oh and while I'm being exploitative, Sebastian Stan-I'd "buck" him) . I loved Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine (the creator of the Super Soldier Serum), and believed in his gentle heart and genius. Dominic Cooper (as well as being the spitting image of Andrew Ryan) was great as Tony Stark's father, he was boisterous and charming. And of course, seeing Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones be military tough guys was a treat.

Well, we can't have me reviewing a super hero movie without getting on my soap box about the female leads. Y'know, about how they stink. Captain America was a pleasa
nt surprise. While I wouldn't say that Hayley Atwell (as Peggy Carter) was anything to write home about in a typical movie, she was a cut above the dross I've become accustomed to (a bit sad that the strongest chick lead we've seen to date is from the un-liberated 40's). Atwell didn't seem to shrink to nothing when Evans (Captain America) was in the room. For a change I could see why this powerful man would even glance her way. She was strong, poised and intelligent as well as being pretty. I also believed that she could do a job, any job, unlike some of the Megan Fox-style mouth breathers we've seen cast as leading ladies. I wasn't astonished by her performance, but it was solid and given the company she's keeping that means a lot. I will say that watching her run around after Cap crystallized one more reason I'm usually rooting for the chick villains rather than the heroines: they don't think solely with their hearts. With their libidos, sometimes. But I'm deeply tired of watching women put it all on the line for the man they love. C'mon, ladies, you can be in love and not jeopardize your military careers. And this has gotten very long and shrieking harpy, so lets change the subject.

Despite my ongoing beef with female leads in super hero movies, I don't have too many nits to pick in Captain America and most of them are along the lines of "it wasn't lo
ng enough." There wasn't nearly enough time for Bucky and Cap's relationship to play out, I know they were friends because they mentioned it, but we didn't have nearly enough time to see it. The movie went along at a quick pace, which I liked, but It wouldn't have been a bad thing to slow down just a bit to let us enjoy the characters. One more mission with Bucky and the Squad really could have made a difference.

The whole design of the movie was wonderful. Cap's armor never looked stupid (almost as difficult to do as making the armor i
n Thor not lame), though I liked him more in the leather jacket and tights, oddly enough. The final armor was a bit too much like a football uniform. I'm always a fan of Captain America in goggles. Also, it was a nice change to see the Allies looking so spiffy, I haven't seen enough movies where the slickness of the US officer uniforms is showed off. It almost goes without saying that the giant 40's technology looked cool, I love the future of the 40's. It was also nice that the Red Skull didn't spend 90% of the movie with a normal human face and that Cap wore his helmet most of the time (oh and that he didn't steal anyone's car).

You nerds don't need me to tell you to go see Captain America, in fact most of you have probably already seen it. If for some inexplicable reason you're waiting for my blessing, you do so have it. For those of you not clinically geeky, I have it on good authority from Doomwench (who doesn't read many comics, and only went with us as penance for suggesting Priest) that this was a good time even without a lot of background knowledge. Despite a few flaws and missteps, this was a solid movie and I'd be very surprised if you don't enjoy it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Tempter by Nancy A. Collins

Tempter by Nancy A. Collins
ISBN: 0-451-40215-4


Charlotte Calder was a beautiful, brainy Yuppie with a hunger for success.

Then she met raunchy rocker Adam Rossiter.  He satisfied a different hunger: sex that was fierce and sensationally satisfying.

But Adam had a hunger of his own.  He often dreamed of making love to a gorgeous woman...of sinking his fangs deep into her jugular...of drinking deeply.

Charlie had just the kind of blood Adam was lusting for...


My Thoughts:

You know, if the blurb accurately described this book I would have been less disappointed, but it really doesn’t.  Here’s what it’s actually about (also, enjoy me writing my own summary, it happens so rarely):

Adam Rossiter is a washed out rock star still wishing for the return of his fame and passing the time playing with mystical forces.  He moves to New Orleans and tracks down a group of voudou practitioners who initiate him into their circle.  Suddenly his luck seems to be improving – he books a gig after years of failure and ends up in bed with the very attractive priestess.

Then he finds the book and obsession begins to stir within him.  He treads a dangerous path that leads him from the priestess to Charlotte Calder, a successful young woman with a habit of picking the wrong kind of guy, without realizing that old, malicious powers are at play.  His dreams are filled with a younger Adam with red glowing eyes urging him to heed the dark stirrings in his soul.  What will his desire for fame and lust for blood, sex and power unleash?

I probably shouldn’t quit my day job, but that’s a more precise portrayal of what happens in the book.  One that wouldn’t have left me feeling vaguely annoyed, since the story isn’t actually bad, it just has very little to do with the blurb.  For example: very little vampire action, but some interactions with voudou gods and goddesses.

Honestly, going into this, I wasn’t expecting high literature, I was looking for something dark, but fluffy to read – something along the lines of Tanith Lee’s Heart-Beast – and I got what I wanted (even if the back-cover was misleading).  The story was dark and sexy.  It wove together different narrative strands with great proficiency – coming in at 300 pages (when did I start to think that 300 pages is short?  Oh right, probably around the time I started reading George R. R. Martin and Robin Hobb - at least there weren't any feasts in sight here, but I digress) it fits in a lot of detail and intrigue.

(Enough with the vague, introductory rambling, Doom!)

Here’s my big problem (aside from the stupid blurb) – I hated Rossiter.  He reminded me of Judas Coyne in Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, which is a bit backwards since Tempter was written in the early 90s.  I’m pretty sure that we’re supposed to dislike Rossiter and his ‘woe-is-me-I-ruined-my-own-career’ whining.  (As a bit of an aside – I wonder how many novels there are detailing the self-pitying wailing of aging rock stars longing for the return of their fame and meddling with mystical / metaphysical stuff.)  The way he treats the two women in his life was despicable.  I felt especially bad for poor little Charlie who is very much a doormat (which is to say I didn’t like her much either).  Actually, now that I’m putting all this down on the page, I didn’t like Jere (the “boring, safe” love interest and failed hero) either.  It’s a good thing that Ti Alice, Aggie and Tempter / Donatien were likeable – the fact that a guy who turns himself into a vampire through murdering children was more sympathetic than Rossiter says a lot about my feelings regarding failed rock stars.

Here’s what I did like about the book.  Collins makes sure to use the setting (New Orleans) and its history to her advantage.  It’s a story about the place and its past more so than it is about Rossiter / Jere / Charlie.  The back-story about the mansion Seraphine and the Legendre family held my interest throughout (which might be a product of my love of period pieces).  I appreciated how the past was still very much involved with the present through Aggie and Ti Alice and their struggle with Tempter.  I also liked the use of voudou in the story – I’ll be the first to admit that most of what I’ve read about voodoo practices comes in the shape of early Anita Blake novels so seeing it from a different perspective was interesting.  Another thing that caught my eye was the set-up of the vampires.  It’s possible, in this version of the myth, to transform yourself into a vampire, but vampires can also be made through bites.  Bitten vamps are slaves to their masters.  And the fangs become sexual organs pretty much, which ejaculate venom at climax, which, if it’s injected into the person who is being fed upon turns them.  Fascinating stuff.

Ultimately, I wish that we could have gotten a bit more about Donatien / Tempter, Ti Alice and Aggie and less about Rossiter / Charlie / Jere.  If you don’t hate aging, whiny rock stars as much as I do (and how could you?) and want to read a book set in New Orleans with voodoo and named mansions, you could do worse than pick up this book.  I’m going back on the hunt for Collins’ other vampire novels.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Weeks Too Late: The Haunting (1999)

The Haunting. Directed by Jan de Bont & Written by David Self and Michael Tolkin.

Preconceptions: As I mentioned last week, I've been getting all Shirley Jackson'd up (well I was until a Feast with Dragons and Wine arrived in my mailbox, anyways) and had a hankering to see some of the movies based on her books. Fortunately, terrible high school classwork hadn't ruined many of her stories for me, so I was able to read the Haunting of Hill House with fresh eyes (many thanks to the internet's own Mal for reminding me to read this and quit being such a horror philistine). Quite a few of my favourite writers have ripped off (oh I'm sorry, been inspired by) this particular novella. It's no wonder. Really, if you haven't read it, pick it up. It's creepy and ridiculously influential on the way people write horror today. Given my enthusiasm for the story, I was excited to see the two movie versions. Typically, I do the usual read the book, see the original movie, then see the re-make, but I thought I'd shake it up a bit and see the later version first this time around. Plus, I thought there was a chance of seeing Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones make out (since he's obviously more her cup of tea than Owen Wilson, har-dee-har).

General Review
: A
s usual, I'll try and keep any and all bitching about the movie not holding a candle to the book at a minimum. I will say that while I didn't mind some of the plot tweeks to make it a modern story, I did mind the subtlety and quiet creepiness being removed. Losing the sinister angles and adding scary babies was lame (though, I'll admit that frightening geometry is a favourite of mine and not something I'm sure can be done successfully in a movie).

The acting was...not good. With the exception of Liam Neeson, this was not a well seasoned cast. I've liked all of these guys in other roles, but their performances in this were about as dynamic as 80's sitcom actors. I guess, it can be chalked down to lack of experience, but really, who thought it would be a good idea to put this much inexperience in a multi-million dollar movie? Sure, Zeta-Jones was playing a shallow, surface character, but it felt less like she was playing and more like she was wandering on, delivering her lines and wandering off. Wilson was worse still, he mostly just yelled and flailed. Lili Taylor's (playing Nell, our haunted ingenue) quick changes between dreamy and purposeful were alright, but lost all punch when faced with the hollow responses of the rest of the cast. Ugh and let us not dwell on Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes (playing the housekeepers), Seldes certainly didn't sell my least favourite line of the book (you know the one I mean "in the night, in the dark"). Overall, the cast gave the Haunting the feel of a play that unwilling teens had been forced to put on, not something someone would pay to see.

The set was undeniably beautiful. It took elements from the book and probably Hell House (which cribbed lovingly from the Haunting of Hill House) and the Winch
ester Mansion. The house had more character than any of the people running around in it. It was Gothic, sprawling and imposing both outside and in. The rooms were ridiculously lush and decadent and a wonderful place for scary things to happen. But even this gorgeous construction had its faults. The carved art was too overtly unsettling by half. I found it difficult to suspend disbelief enough to accept that someone (even an evil millionaire) would want big carvings of dead and dying guys in the middle of their house. Sure, spooky is good, but that and the twirling mirror room with the organ grinder music were simply too much.

Speaking of simply too much: the music. The score was distracting and overpowering. It was constantly swelling or resting for just a moment so that it could swell again. Every time an actor was stumbling through some sort of emotion, the score saw fit to remind us what that was. Any time something frightening happened, it would roar "THIS IS SCARY!" at the audience, because ghosts trying to kill people isn't obvious enough. Jerry Goldsmith needed to tone it the hell down.

Some of the special effects were also pretty impressive. Sure, ten years leaves a few of them looking dated, but most were successfully ambitious and hold up well. The animated statues were particularly good. My favourite sequence, hands down, was in a scene where Taylor is looking at herself in a series of mirrors. One of the reflections smiles at her and then each one slightly alters her appearance as she walks past them. These were some of the only genuinely unsettling moments in the movie. Unfortunately, I can't seem to offer any praise in this review that isn't leavened with criticism. Our main ghost, Hugh Crain, looked crappy throughout. The design of the character certainly didn't help (a bit like a shaggier Cowardly Lion), but while most of the CG in this was graceful and fairly well integrated, he looked fake. I'm hardly a stickler for movies being identical to the books they're based on. Sometimes, the most enjoyable adaptations aren't the ones that copy the novel by rote, but rather take inspiration from source text. The Haunting didn't do either. It took bits of the story and then generally simplified and de-spooked the rest. There were very few things worth praising about this boring, poorly constructed pile. I can only hope that I did myself a favour by getting it out of the way and that I'm going to be blown away by the 1963 version.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Girl on...Movie? Action: Wir Sind Die Nacht

Wir Sind die Nacht (We are the Night) (2010)
Director: Dennis Gansel
Writers: Jan Berger, Dennis Gansel
My Thoughts:

My most devoted little sunflowers will probably know this, but just in case: yes, I'm actually studying vampires and doing my thesis on the most iconic vampire flick of all times.  What this means is that I’m more or less required to see at least every other new fang-banger movie (this is often torturous).  So when the opportunity presented itself for me to see Wir Sind die Nacht, a new German contribution to the ever-enlarging corpus of the bloodsucker tale, I couldn’t say no.  Now, I’m here to tell you all about it.

First, let me say that I am grateful that I’m bilingual (you didn’t know that, did you?) because it makes for a better movie-watching experience.  I always miss important visual clues when I’m reading subtitles (it’s why I go easy on the foreign films).  And sure, this particular movie wasn’t overly subtle, but it was pretty to look at, so I was glad not to have to read to follow along.

Second, don’t go into this expecting the resurrection of Nosferatu, because it’s not (nothing will ever equal Nosferatu).  What you can expect is a glitzy, blood-drenched debauch around Berlin with a touch of police drama, a bit of lesbianism, and a lot of vampires combusting as the sun rises (talk about canon! That’s how Count Orlok dies!  And if I’ve just spoiled the ending of a movie made in 1922 for you, you can go cry me a river, preferably one of blood). 

Introductory thoughts aside, let me take a step back and give you a quick run-down of the story.  Lena, a pickpocket and all-around little badass, steals money from a guy after he hits the ATM.  Little does she know that the cops are about to nab him, which results in the boys in blue chasing after her.  A handsome young police officer nearly catches her, but she punches him in the face, knees him in the balls and escapes.  For him, it’s love at first kick.  That night, a bedraggled Lena finds her way to an underground club operating beneath what looks like an abandoned amusement park and is there bitten by a blonde vampire lady.  She goes from being a nobody with nothing to a life of decadence and luxury – one of the first things Louise (the golden-locked bloodsucker mentioned above) gives her is a stolen Lamborghini.  Unsurprisingly, we follow the same plot points a lot of these types of transformation stories take - our newly turned vampire has problems accepting her need for blood (though, thankfully, she doesn't become another Louis) and she still has the hots for that pesky cop which is a no-no (all the male vampires have been killed, some by the female vampires – Nora [the quirky, fun-loving vampire of the coven] says they were too loud and stupid to be allowed to live).

It’s a straightforward plot and doesn’t add anything new to the fairly worn out vampire genre.  I think its strength lies in the characters (although these are also nothing new per se).  Okay, so I might have a soft spot for spunky misfit girl pickpockets with shaggy haircuts and piercings, but I really dug Lena (Karoline Herfurth, you might recognize her from Perfume), both pre- and post-transformation.  Something about the way she carried herself appealed to me.  The wonder at the world of the female vampires, their unabashed consumerism and then the slow dawning horror as she confronts the truth of their existence, were both well-done.  The vulnerability that Herfurth portrayed after Lena’s transformation was breath taking – the character went from unafraid and tough to frightened and fragile, as if turning into a vampire stripped away her personality and laid her bare and by the end she seems to regain a grip on who she is and what she wants.  Louise, the lady in charge, overpowers her and it isn’t until she stands up to her that Lena is able to accept her strength.  Oddly enough, the villainess is probably the least dynamic character in the whole movie.  She was flat and while there is an attempt to show that she acts from a place of deep loneliness it didn’t connect for me.  The other two vamps each have their moments of weakness that give a glimpse of their struggles and motivations, but Louise, despite some monologues about her feelings just doesn’t manage to make an emotional appeal.  She stays one dimensional, boring and unconvincing.

As far as what the story is doing with the vampire mythos, I can tell you that it’s not bringing anything new to the table.  Aside from the idea that the female vampires helped exterminate the males and now refuse to create new ones, everything remains true to canon.  Although, the only method of killing a vampire ever shown is them bursting into flames as the sun hits them, so who knows if the old stake to the heart would work.

You’ll notice that I’ve avoided talking about the police subplot so far, but I suppose I should address that pink elephant.  Handsome young police guy abuses his power some to track down Lena – which is totally not creepy right? And he gets assigned to a case that’s connected to the vampires after they initiate Lena into their life by taking her to some seedy brothel, selling her to a guy and then letting her beat the crap out of him.  Anyway, the vampires kill a bunch of people and then set them on fire and police guy is on the case!  So boring.  I guess the movie felt that Lena needed a male love-interest to balance out the decadence and debauchery of the female Coven, but it just felt forced (I know, I know, I'm getting dangerously close to Wren's anti-romance territory here, but I can't help it! It was bad!).  Slight spoilers of the end on the horizon! I think her coming to terms with her new lifestyle and rejecting it for its emptiness on her own would have been more profound – choosing a lonely existence away from the excess of Louise is a more powerful conclusion than defying what she’s been told and (probably) turning Tom into the first male vampire in however-many years (though it is very Underworld-y).  And they’ve passed like a cloud over the sun.

It might not be rewriting the genre, or reinvigorating a worn out monster, but Wir Sind die Nacht held my attention (okay, it wavered a little in some of the scenes with goody-two-shoes cop, but not much!) and left me with that buzzing excitement of having watched something enjoyable.  I think if you dig vampires, you might want to try to track this down.  I know it saw a limited release in theatres and I read somewhere that it’s available through “on-demand” cable services.  I assume that those are either dubbed or subtitled for the benefit of North American viewers.  Personally, I might have to see about convincing one of my European relations to send me a care-package with the DVD.

In closing, let me leave you with this thought: the most ridiculous (and awesome) moment of the movie was Charlotte tearing a page out of a book she was reading (blasphemy, I know) and then using it to slice someone’s throat – death by paper cut!  I might have “squee’d” and clapped my hands in an imitation of Wren when it happened.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Mary And Max

Mary and Max. Directed & Written by Adam Elliot.

Preconceptions: Well having just read the Haunting of Hill House, I thought it might be nice to watch both of the movies (I remember the more recent one being extraordinarily clumsy, so that should be fun to review). But that would require the forethought of actually renting them. Look forward to that in the upcoming weeks, but for now, I went back to the tried and true method of flicking through instant Netflix. Fortunately for me, I found Mary and Max. This movie was created by the same writer/director who contributed Brother to one of my favourite short film fests, the Animation Show (2000). If you haven't seen the Animation Show, I highly recommend it. There are a lot of excellent short films to be found in the Show, but Brother stood out. It mixed funny and sad so deftly that it didn't confuse my easily side-tracked brain. Needless to say, I was excited to see that a full length film was available.

General Review: Oh dear, this is going to be another gushy review. While I'm not on my way out to join the Adam Elliot cult, I would certainly be willing to sign up for his creepy hand-made tracts. This had all the same joking sadness that I loved in Brother. Also, despite being substantially longer, Mary and Max didn't wear out its welcome.
A quick run down of the plot: Mary is an unpopular Australian girl who writes to an American at random to ask how babies are made. Max, the recipient of her letter, is an obese New
Yorker who has Asperger syndrome. Both of their stories are told throughletters they exchange. A slight warning, yes, the movie is clay-mation and chalk full of adorable animals, but it is highly inappropriate for children. It dallies heavily with sex and death. Wallace and Gromit this is not (or my much hated Gumby for that matter).

I loved the design sensibility of Mary and Max. The look of the characters was similar to Elliot's previous work, the button eyed, kind of ugly people and of course, the big eyed scrawny animals. Naturally, I loved those cute little horrors, but my enjoyment hardly ended there. The sepia tones in Mary's world
and the black and whites in Max's were beautiful. So were the rare touches of colour when either of them felt particularly elated. The animation of Mary was particularly good, while we do get some of her internal monologue from her letters to Max, they are substantially shorter than his. Most of what we get about her comes from her reactions to what she's experiencing. I can't think of many animated films (particularly clay-mation) that make me feel so close to the characters. Despite the distance that can be caused by unrealistic clay people dancing around, I felt as connected to them as if they were actors.

There was very little actual dialogue, most of the voice acting being via theletters and the narrator. In fact, the few times we do hear characters talking to each other it's almost jarring. Barry Humphries (as the narrator) wa
s excellent. He carried that feeling of God-like knowledge (and regret) wonderfully. And Hoffman's portrayal of the subdued joy and overwhelming anxiety and anger of Max was superb.

The story, as I mentioned, is dark. The two misfit main characters find each other, but never really find their place in the world. And the connection they share isn't always a positive influence. But unlike many slice of life depressing movies, this one also keeps a sense of the ridiculous to balance it out. I can't say enough about the strength of the writing.

I'm afraid that this is less one of my reviews and more one of my recommendations. As you may have noticed, I don't have much to critique. Mary and Max walks a very difficult line between depressingly bleak and gut bust-ingly hilarious. It's both tender hearted and mean spirited. As well as all this, it's a visual treat. This is one of the better movies I've seen in a while (Breillat aside) and I think you should see it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Guest Review - Shawn O'Rourke on City of Saints and Madmen

Introduction:  Once again, we are lucky to have a guest post written by our friend and fellow-blogger Shawn!  You might remember his previous review (if you don't you can find his Locke and Key review here) and I hope you've checked out his blog where he discusses issues surrounding the growing trend in books going digital (you can find that here).  Now, without further ado and to keep Shawn's time in his lovely dress to a minimum, read on for his review of Jeff Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen.

Enter Ambergris: A City You’ve Never Been To But You Will Recognize Immediately

“What can be said about Ambergris that has not already been said? Every minute section of the city, no matter how seemingly superfluous, has a complex, even devious, part to play in the communal life.”
    - Epigraph from City of Saints and Madmen

           It seems that when it comes to fiction there are three great mythological cities that dominate the imaginations of writers and readers alike. These metropolises, divided by the aesthetics of the time, are instantly recognizable to the point that an author doesn’t necessarily create them so much as tap into their mythos. These tropes have become so ubiquitous that with minimal effort the reader will intuitively fill in the blanks of the imagined geography and architecture

           The first of these cities is the sprawling city of the modern, personified most obviously with romanticized conglomerations of New York, San Francisco, Chicago – in other words, the cities of the always present now. The second and third cities are on opposite sides of the boundaries of speculative fiction; one in the distant future with the massive world cities of science fiction, while the other is dominated by the imagery and iconography of a mythologized past. It is the latter of these conurbations that seems to have ensnared the writer Jeff Vandermeer whose books, beginning with City of Saints and Madmen, invite readers to explore the city of Ambergris.
Ambergris is a port city with a dark past, built at the nexus point of silt-filled waters inhabited by giant squid, populated by artists, criminals, and religious fanatics, and haunted by a strange pervasive fungus and the mysterious remnants of the township’s former inhabitants, the murderous Mushroom Caps. It is a world that evokes images of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere meets early 19th century New Orleans with just a dab of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. This is not to say that Vandermeer’s work is somehow derivative or unoriginal. In fact, it is able to simultaneously strike an immediately recognizable chord with readers with its ghostly old city while at the same time telling a fabulously original story.
The book itself, part of the New Weird genre, is a collection of previously published works. These include short stories, letters, fictional histories with quotations from other fictitious sources and even an annotated bibliography, all concluding with a detailed appendix that links many of the pieces together. While reading the book one gets a sense of the rich grandeur of Vandemeer’s vision and appreciates his decision not to limit his exploration of Ambergris to just one style of prose.
Capitalizing on the slightly postmodern bend of the book, the author himself even makes and appearance as an inmate of an Ambergrisean(?) sanitarium where he is being treated for insanity. Apparently he believes that he is a writer from another world who invented the city and all of its inhabitants. This conceit – which might at first strike some readers as a little heavy handed and distracting – evolves into a fascinating exploration of the all-consuming power of a big idea, and further fuels the sense that Vandermeer did not so much create Ambergris but  reveal it. The writer trapped by his own creation, unable to break from its call, is an intriguing addition to Vandemeer’s exploration of the city and its history.
And it really cannot be underestimated just how much this book is completely about the city. The characters and plot are not the primary focus of Vandermeer’s attention; they are instead vehicles to provide the reader with a lens through which to explore this mysterious place. The history section – which is exactly that, a historical narrative on the founding of Ambergris written as if one were reading from a text book or academic journal complete with source citations – is probably the most engaging portion of the book.
I would highly recommend this book to any one interested in original works that blend genre boundaries, or fans of the magical realists. Ambergris gains much of its narrative strength from the reader being able to fill the creative space with their own sense of the great and strange old city, but it is a joyful collaboration between the reader and the author, who proves himself a capable steward of the mythology that he is drawing from. His guides through Ambergris have continued with the books, Shriek: An Afterword and Finch.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Weeks Too Late: A Boy And His Dog

A Boy and His Dog. Directed & Written by L.Q. Jones (& possibly Alvy Moore, Wayne Cruseturner & Harlan Ellison).

Preconceptions: While I seriously considered subjecting you to another week of Catherine Breillat love-fest, I decided to give it a rest and watch something that had been on my list for a while. I have an abiding fondness for the post-apocalypse sci-fi movies of the 70's. They bring me right back to fond memories of my early teen years, endlessly watching this type of flick to the accompaniment of cheap pizza and Fireball. Yeah, yeah, they're a heavy handed bunch full of eye rolling social criticism and casual dismissal of women. But, with the feminist in me fully sated on French sex drama, I decided to take a few hours vacation from my sensibilities and enjoy a bit of the old Ultra-Violence.

General Review: My, my this did not disappoint in the dislike humans in general and women in specific, category. Before you pick this up, be aware that our main (human) character is a casual rapist and our leading lady is a self-serving, sexually manipulative skeeze. Sure, it's all done with a wink and a nudge and isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, but yowza, even for the genre it's overt. It raised my eyebrow more than once, so don't say you weren't warned. Now, on to the plot (in case this particular cult film has slipped you by). Vic and his talking dog Blood (able to communicate with Vic due to some kind of future science and probably nuclear radiation) roam the wasteland looking for food and sex. Blood is particularly good at sniffing out women for our futuristic rapist. Vic, ahem, meets up with Quilla June who tricks him into following her "Downunder" to a bunker town deep below the surface. The Downunder-ers try to harvest Vic's sperm and Quilla attempts to use him to overthrow their government.

Despite my above warning, there were a lot of things to like about a Boy and His Dog (besides the rather tastelessly hilarious ending). While the time in the wastela
nd is the usual (Doctor Who-style) scrambling around in a quarry and warehouse, the Downunder is actually fairly creepy. The bleached out quality given to everything by the artificial lights, the strange mime make-up and clothes pulled from the set of Oklahoma! gave everything an effective surreal feeling. The scene where Vic is being marched through a parade was particularly good. He is pulled past these strangely done up people, with the camera jouncing along and everything is overexposed. It was jarring and claustrophobic.

It's also genuinely funny in parts. Blood's disgust in human sexuality and motivations had me giggling more than once. And while it didn't always successfully encompass that gallows humour so characteristic of bleak science fiction, it did manage it more than once.

My main complaint about this movie isn't its unapologetic misanthropy (though Jones and Ellison do seem to have it i
n for the species) it's the pacing. While I perked up in the Downunder sequences, the first forty minutes of this movie wander aimlessly. We watch Vic and Blood take in a porn flick, and see them search for food and shout at each other. We spend some time running from some ill defined post atomic creatures (or horrors, if you will). But until Vic follows Quilla into the bunker, there is no sense of story. Just because the characters are meandering around, doesn't mean that the movie should. A Boy and His Dog is a short movie based on a shorter story, but it felt way too long. In a movie that clocks in at only an hour and twenty minutes, I shouldn't have felt like twenty minutes could have been easily cut. It could have easily gotten in, made its point and left, but instead felt padded.

While a Boy and His Dog gave me the very bones of what I was looking for, it was an occasionally sty
lized 70's sci-fi, but nothing more. For all my earlier criticisms of these types of movies reaching beyond their grasp as far as social commentary goes, a Boy and His Dog didn't try. It didn't explore much beyond the idea that humans are jerks given half a chance. If you're a fan of the genre, it's worth the notch on your bedpost, but it isn't a film you'd want to bring out to meet your friends. Mostly, you'll just be waiting for it to be over so you can put in Logan's Run or Omega Man.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Girl on Book Action: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Aside: Here is your obligatory warning that there will be spoilers for A Game of Thrones throughout this review, because, well, I'm reviewing the second part of the series so it's inevitable that minor and major spoilers will occur.  If you care about these things and have not read the first book (or I suppose watched the show) you can read my thoughts on part one here, or Wren's review of the first episode of the show here.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
ISBN: 0-553-57990-8


A comet the color of blood and flame cuts across the sky.  And from the ancient citadel of Dragonstone to the forbidding shores of Winterfell, chaos reigns.  Six factions struggle for control of a divided land and the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, preparing to stake their claims through tempest, turmoil and war.  It is a tale in which brother plots against brother and the dead rise to walk in the night.  Here a princess masquerades as an orphan boy; a knight of the mind prepares a poison for a treacherous sorceress; and wild men descend from the Mountains of the Moon to ravage the countryside.  Against a backdrop of incest and fratricide, alchemy and murder, victory may go to the men and women possessed of the coldest steel...and the coldest hearts.  For when kings clash, the whole land trembles.


My Thoughts:

Ah, yes, part two.  I really have a thing against part two of anything it appears (aside from the Lord of the Rings movies, though that has more to do with Karl Urban than the story, but I digress), because I’m not thrilled with this installment.  Now, that isn’t to say that I didn’t devour it, but it wasn’t a gleeful wolfing down of choice morsels, no, at times it was more like a forced-feeding (you can thank the hundred-thousand feasts in the book for all the food imagery, also, I’m hungry and putting off lunch to write this review).  After the first book, I wanted nothing more than to plunge ahead into the second, but I held off, now that I’ve read part two, I feel I need a break, that should tell you something.

So what hindered my full enjoyment?  For one, the plethora of points of view still bothers me and in this book, we find two new ones.  Theon and Davos.  I know why Martin introduces them, I see how they work in the story, but I just...didn’t care, especially about Davos.  Theon's attitude irritated me, but the part of the world we see through his eyes was at least interesting to me.  Every time the book switches to Bran I wanted to go have a nap instead of reading, even though some of the characters around him catch my interest (I’m thinking of Osha and the Reed twins).  Catelyn is still Catelyn, her hysteria and inability to use common sense haven't improved in this second book.  And while we don’t get her point of view, Cersei is becoming quite the contender for the “hysterical woman doing stupid things” trophy.  I won’t even bore you with my thoughts on “poor” Sansa and her continued insistence on the chivalry of knights, if she wasn’t so intent on her fairy tale (even though it’s come crashing down around her head) a whole lot of people might not have died in the first book.  We're supposed to hate her, right?  And speaking about irrational expectations and continuous moaning about things that will never be, let's turn back to Bran for a moment: his constant bewailing of the fact that he's crippled and can't be a knight like in the stories is getting old fast.  Him, Sansa, and their fairy tales.

I still like reading about Arya (she just gets more awesome despite all the horrible things that happen to her) and seeing Daenarys come into her own is great, too.  Here are two chicks who are going to rock the boat with a minimum of whining. Tyrion is kicking ass and taking names despite his stature and his ploys and scheming are a treat.  I think I looked forward to his sections the most.  And Jon Snow, well, he’s forlorn and tragic, stuck up in the frozen wastes.  I love the Night’s Watch and everything they get up to off in the land beyond the Wall.  I feel terribly sorry for him, all alone so much of the time with no one to love him and protect him. Erm. Anyway.  I still wish for Littlefinger as a point of view, because he is probably my favourite.  I’m also developing a fondness for The Hound.  Oh, and I almost forgot!  Jaqen H’ghar filled my heart with joy and there needs to be way more of him, like, an entire book devoted to his exploits.

Of course, it’s not all points of view and characters, there’s a war going on and all that.  Alas, alack, and well-a-day the war is a big disappointment.  Spoilers!!!  After all this setup, the two Baratheon brothers are defeated way too easily – we get all this mustering of forces and Stannis leaving Dragonstone (which is why we needed Davos) and then Renly gets killed with magic.  Fair enough and that was kinda cool, but the defeat of Stannis outside King’s Landing was, well, it felt...lame.  I hope that it serves as a lead up for something else, otherwise the introduction of Melisandre, her Lord of Light and various other religious/mystical elements was a waste of time (we could have been watching Arya fight branches).  The actual battle and Tyrion’s plans for it was great, but then it’s just...over and the Lannisters have won and it was just...too easy.  I was not pleased, not at all.  End spoilers!!!!

I understand that the overall purpose of this installment is to establish that the realm is descending into chaos.  By the end of the novel, I was thoroughly sick of nothing going right for anyone.  Nearly every decision, every action only led to further betrayal and devastation.  When things did go right, it always seemed to happen off-screen or as an aside.  There is a limit to many times I could feel upset about plans going awry, especially when some of the characters involved didn't even manage to raise my ire, much less my rapt interest.  If no one ever succeeds, the failures lose their impact.  After all this complaining, it might appear that I'm contradicting myself: claiming I like the books even though I'm tearing this one to itty-bitty shreds.  I assure you, the griping is a product of the richness of the world Martin presents and the amount of time I spend thinking about the characters and events of the novel.  It's complex enough that its easy to spend an awful lot of brain power thinking through it.  I still love the overarching ideas and the story that’s beginning to unfold, but I loved only parts of this book.  I’m hoping that the third one is a little more satisfying, whenever I decide to return to Westeros.