Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Bookshelf: Nation by Terry Pratchett

Nation at Amazon.com
It is nearly impossible to talk about Terry Pratchett’s recent work without mentioning the author’s ongoing struggle with Alzheimer’s; it’s a senseless and tragic thing which threatens to take a charming and talented person away from us. Of course, the author has been keen to remind everyone that he’s still alive and fighting and that we should perhaps wait a while before composing eulogies. Still, Terry Pratchett’s NATION (which I have to continually remind myself is NOT called Terry Nation’s PRATCHETT) is itself a novel dealing with senseless tragedy and our attempts at making sense of said situations, and getting by afterwards. Though billed as a young adult novel, it feels aimed at a broader range of readers, and it’s an engaging and provocative story which raises a lot of challenging questions no matter the age of the reader. The skill with which Pratchett handles what can be inflammatory, unpleasant, or even just familiar subject matter is remarkable.

The majority of the book centers around Mau, a boy from an island community who has just completed part of his rite of passage to become a man. (His precise age is never set down, but I’m going to say he’s a teenager because that seems to fit.) However, on his way home, he lives through and becomes the sole survivor of a massive tidal wave that destroys the society of Nation and everyone he knew. The boy’s hopes of completing the rites of manhood are dashed, and his faith in the gods who allowed this to happen are almost totally destroyed, but a voice in his head tells him to go through the proper rituals to bury his kinsmen at sea and begin re-founding Nation all by himself. He’s not alone for long, though, because the wave carries with it a ship, and the sole survivor of the wreck is Daphne (or Ermintrude, as she hates being called), youngest heir to the throne of Britain who was being transported there to fulfill some contractual business best left aside for now. She’s about his age but that’s all they have in common, and they have to try and communicate as survivors of nearby islands, and a few unsavory characters, drift in.

Response to tragedy has been an increasingly popular theme of fiction in recent years, for obvious reasons. I’m not sure things are worse now than they’ve ever been, but between sudden natural disasters and endless wars it’s gotten to be a bit much. Inevitably, how you can reconcile a belief in a benevolent deity or deities with the objective existence of death and calamity is a big question for many of us. Pratchett himself is an atheist, and no stranger to criticism of religion, so once I worked out that this was going to be a main theme I did not hold out much hope for an answer that was not, “You can’t, God either does not exist or is a right bastard.” Which, in brief, I’ve heard already.

What we get is a little more complicated. Mau falls out with the gods pretty quickly, but other characters we meet hold on to their faith, and the events that take place are open to interpretation. It’s provocative whatever position you come at it from, and Pratchett doesn’t seem interested in presenting an answer so much as prodding the reader and throwing the issue out there.

Nor is religion the only subject on the table. I’m not even sure if it’s the main one. I think it’s more about how we cope with disaster. This involves faith and the loss of same, but equally important are the social structures that are broken and torn, needing to be repaired but inevitably being changed in the process. As the official man of Nation, Mau has to make sure that people are fed and cared for, that beer gets made, that women have a place to stay, and that the god anchors are in their proper place even if Mau doesn’t believe they’re important, because others do. We essentially see a new culture born from the ashes of an old one, and that’s interesting.

It helps that Pratchett writes this all with his usual deft comic touch. The subject matter is grim, and not trivialized, but the tragedy is so quick and the need for the survivors to get to surviving so urgent that we don’t dwell on it any more than we need to. The tone instead is very matter-of-fact, and no doubt the author had to keep the pace brisk for the YA market (though young adult fiction can get a LOT more depressing than this, believe you me.)

The one part of the book that doesn’t fit at all is a plot device brought up early, forgotten for most of the novel, and raised again near the end without much urgency. There’s apparently some kind of virus sweeping Britain, and the Royal Family all caught it and died quite suddenly, and there’s an esoteric clause stating that the new monarch needs to be coronated within a certain amount of time or the entire country gets turned over to France or something, and this leads to Daphne (who is not the new monarch, but is the daughter of him, I think) being on the boat that runs way too far aground. It’s not a bad plotline, but it’s a lot more than is necessary to get her into the story, and though there’s a thematic link, it seems like a concept best explored in another book altogether. Also, though it’s not usually expected that an author give every character’s age, it would have prevented me from somehow imagining Daphne as being in her early 20s and Mau as around 10, and thus being more weirded out than I should have been when faint romantic elements started cropping up.

I enjoyed NATION quite a bit, and it’s a book that holds up well in the memory. It’s a book about tragedy that is not at all depressing, because it’s also about the aftermath and how those left behind have to pick things up and move on. It raises questions and encourages the reader to consider multiple answers. Pratchett tackles some big issues here, and then turns around and asks us what we think. I appreciate that.

Grade: A-

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Again with the Memes: 20 Actresses

Ah, the holidays. A time of low traffic and low posting, but also the end of the month and thus a time for my frentic last minute updating. Fortunately, I can just catch the tail end of a meme that went through the film blogosphere recently (starting with the Film Experience Blog and most recently at Film & Discussion). In short, list your 20 favorite actresses in no particular order. I've listed these more or less as I thought of them, and in the order that I was able to upload the images. With them, I'm posting the roles for which I know them best.

I did this in a bit of a hurry, and many fine actresses no doubt slipped my mind. My apologies to everyone who was overlooked.


Julia Sawalha- Absolutely Fabulous, Chicken Run, In The Bleak Midwinter


Meryl Streep- The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Prairie Home Companion


Emma Thompson- Much Ado About Nothing, Treasure Planet, The Tall Guy


Gaylen Ross- Dawn of the Dead (1978)


Virginia Madsen- A Prairie Home Companion, Sideways, Dune


Uma Thurman- Kill Bill, The Avengers, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen


Susan Sarandon- The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dead Man Walking


Tracey Ullman- Small Time Crooks


Rachel Weisz- The Mummy, The Constant Gardner


Jane Leeves- Frasier


Helen Mirren- The Queen, Age of Consent


Brigitte Helm- Metropolis


Tami Stronach- The Neverending Story


Joan Cusack- Grosse Pointe Blank, Addams Family Values, Toys


Charlotte Rampling- Orca, Swimming Pool


Cate Blanchett- The Aviator, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Life Aquatic


Amy Adams- Enchanted


Jennifer Connelly- Labyrinth, Requiem for a Dream


Jessica Harper- Shock Treatment, Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria


Madeline Kahn- Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Clue

I'm sure I'll think of some more, but that's the list as it stands right now. Feel free to join in.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: The Godfather Part III

Godfather III on DVD at Amazon.com
To coincide with the most recent release of the GODFATHER trilogy on DVD, all three films (the first two with restored prints) have been making the theatrical rounds. I missed the first film for nothing more or less than criminal personal negligence, but I caught II and III. I’m going to have to review the first two someday, but for now I’ll just take a look at the least-loved entry. THE GODFATHER PART III, is, to be sure, the least good of the three films, but when you consider that the first two are among the finest American films ever made, that’s not saying too much. The fact that it’s not up to this lofty standard means it gets a lot of flak, but in truth it holds up pretty well as an appropriately operatic finale to the story of Michael Corleone and the legacy he’s spent a lifetime trying to get away from. (Spoilers for the first two are below the cut, but seriously, you haven’t seen these films?)

The film takes place in 1979, after Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, natch) has moved back to New York and is continuing to try and become a respectable citizen. The first major sequence is a reception after Michael has been honored by no less than the Roman Catholic Church for his charity and humanitarian work, but in attendance is local enforcer Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), who’s been having run-ins with Michael’s bastard nephew Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), who’s inherited his father Sonny’s bad temper and masculine charms. All of this mobster business threatens to interfere with Michael’s attempt to finally make the Corleones legitimate; by paying off some of a deficit incurred by the Vatican Bank’s less-than-scrupulous accountant (Donal Donnelly), Michael will get their vote on a takeover of Immobiliare, the largest real estate company in the world, effectively transferring all his family’s holdings to this one clean business. When Michael calls the owners of his casinos to a meeting to formally dissolve their partnership, a brutal massacre takes place and he is forced to once again play the Mafia game to protect himself and his family. There’s further trouble brewing within the household, though, as Vincent has fallen in love with Michael’s own daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola.)

The plot dealing with Immobiliare and the Vatican is a rather intricate one, such that, having seen the film three times now, I’m still not entirely sure I get all of it. But it’s as fascinating as the elaborate ventures in the earlier films, showing corruption at the most rarefied heights of power and nicely playing into a brief but suspect chapter in the history of the Catholic Church. The idea is that Michael is essentially trying to wash his money clean, and atone for his many, many sins in the process. The film is the story of his attempt at redemption, and as one might imagine it does not go smoothly.

The weak link that’s been constantly attacked in regards to this film is Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to cast his own daughter Sofia as Mary. In his and her defense, the role was supposed to go to Winona Ryder, who bowed out for some reason at the last minute, and Sofia was the only person available on short notice. However, the poor girl just can’t act. She comes off as bored and wooden, and not nearly as sympathetic as the character is meant to be. This is a significant flaw, make no mistake. But it’s not quite the killer you’d expect, as the romance between Mary and Vincent (who does have a competent actor bringing him to life) doesn’t take up that much screen time. Coppola was also at a slight disadvantage in catching Al Pacino sometime after he decided that subtlety was a mug’s game; the chilling detachment of PART II’s Michael Corleone is replaced by a more bellicose personality, and the character this time is prone to diabetic fits which have the actor lurching about like the Frankenstein monster. That said, I don’t dislike his performance; if he goes over the top now and again, well, this is a bit of an opera. Literally, as Michael’s son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) has grown up to become a singer about to make his operatic debut in a Sicilian production of CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA, the performance of which forms the film’s final act.

Once again we’re treated to some amazing locations and warm visuals, though obviously the period detail has been downplayed simply because there’s less of it. A rich bronze look defines much of the picture, taking place as it does in Michael’s autumn years. The picture has a slow pace, but it’s the slowness of old age, and there’s something oddly satisfying in the way the protagonist takes stock of his life and attempts to put things behind them, even when it doesn’t work. He confesses his sins, most particularly his ordering Fredo’s death, to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), soon to be Pope John Paul I. He reflects on, and tells his children about his late wife Apollonia. Just as prominently he attempts to affect some kind of reconciliation with Kay (Diane Keaton), who has moved on with her life but never fully stopped loving him or being scared of him. Pacino and Keaton are at their best together, in a long interlude where they try to assess just where they are in regards to each other. Talia Shire returns as Connie, who in her later years has become a strangely dark figure who understands the family business better than ever. Veteran character actor Eli Wallach’s turn as the too-pleasant Don Altobello is especially memorable, and though it’s nearly unforgivable that the filmmakers failed to hire back Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, and as odd a choice as it was to have the new lawyer be played by George Hamilton, he fits in better than you’d think.

Perhaps even moreso than the other films, THE GODFATHER PART III is a tragedy, and a good deal of my affection for it springs from how gloriously it all goes wrong in the end. There’s something strangely fitting about it, and though the film doesn’t quite get to the root of Michael’s moral failings, to the why of what he does, it’s a strong reminder of just how hard redemption can actually be. It’s difficult to not just recognize sin but turn away from it, and though Michael is always haunted by what he does he can never quite give it up. This is a worthy finale, and what mistakes it makes are not nearly as significant as what it gets right.

Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Grade: B+

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Bookshelf: Dragons of Winter Night by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Link to Dragons of Winter Night at Amazon.com
And I’m out. Life is too short to read books that you don’t enjoy, and at some point around the middle DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT started to feel like work. I had been looking forward to this second volume in the DRAGONLANCE saga, on the grounds that the middle installment is usually where things get really interesting, plus the dead-of-winter angle seemed appealing and seasonally appropriate. But instead this is where Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s game fiction turned bestselling trilogy goes off the rails, losing the clichéd charm of the first installment in a morass of bad plotting and downright uninspired writing. It’s not without its good moments, but to get to those you have to wade through a lot of stuff that’s just not interesting.

My first difficulty comes with describing the plot. Our heroic adventure group have taken refuge with a group of people fleeing from the Dragon Highlords who now control Krynn. They’re sent on a quest to find the port city of Tarsis so the refugees can hopefully find some safe haven, but when they get there it’s been landlocked for centuries, and an attack by the Highlords splits them up. Laurana, an elvish girl who’s in love with Tanis (he’s obsessed with some evil warrior woman who shows up eventually) joins Sturm, Flint, and Tas in search of one of the fabled Dragonlances, weapons that can actually slay the flying menaces, while the rest of the group goes after an orb to control dragons in the midst of a haunted elven city. I think. Eventually the first group comes across a dragonorb too, and there’s some business with Sturm’s old order of knights suffering from political infighting, and there are elves and humans in conflict over who gets to keep one of the dragonorbs, and gnomes get involved somehow.

If these books were in fact drawn from a D&D campaign, this was obviously the point where the Dungeon Master made the mistake of splitting up the party and had to handle separate plotlines in the vain hope that they would intersect again. The alternative, of course, is that Weis and Hickman planned this storyline, which would be unthinkable but then again I saw the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels. The point is, this is not good plotting. The second installment of any trilogy always faces a challenge because it has to bridge two other works and thus often lacks its own beginning and end, and you often end up with lots of parallel action for some odd reason, but there’s parallel action and there’s whatever the Hell this is. I can no longer recall how anything in this book fit together, and was halfway tempted to steal someone else’s plot summary. And I understood THE AVENGERS.

This might be forgivable if this mess of loosely connected setpieces were consistently fun. There are some bits I like. The haunted city portion ends in a bit of a cheat, but it’s pretty damn moody before that. The action is generally good, and I liked the final battle. But we also have to wade through a lot of tedious political bickering, none of which reaches a level of sophistication beyond junior high debate and serves no purpose other than to reiterate the high fantasy cliché that diplomacy and debate are completely worthless.

My great failing in reviewing the previous book in this series is that I somehow managed not to pick up that it is a HUGE Mormon allegory, from the golden plates to the white Native American types. Strictly speaking I don’t object to fantasy being used as religious symbolism, but in this new context it was impossible to ignore a scene between Caramon and bar-wench-turned-warrior Tika which seems to exist solely for the purpose of establishing that he will not sleep with her until they can be in a committed relationship, essentially an abstinence message made incredibly ill-fitting by the fact that everything prior has established them as lustful stoats who could not be pried apart with a crowbar. It was what made them entertaining. Speaking of poorly wedged-in morals, an inordinate amount of focus is spent on Tas, the halfling who can’t help taking other people’s things because his culture has no concept of ownership and is absolutely not a thief. This itself is worth remarking upon for an entirely different reason, namely that his third-person-limited voice is cloying and twee, a forced roguish tone that quickly wears out its welcome. Between him, the comic tinker gnomes and the return of Fizban, the book stretches the reader’s tolerance for cutesy comic relief to the breaking point.

While we’re on the subject of characters, it’s weird how quickly the focus shifts away from Tanis, our protagonist from last time, and in fact he’s not even present for the book’s climax. Raistlin, also an interesting character, drifts to the sidelines as well. Goldmoon and Riverwind are also marginalised despite their prominence in the first book, but I actually didn’t mind that.

The prose is as workmanlike as ever, getting the job done and painting a few vivid pictures, which is why the book fails to slip from mediocre to outright bad. I do have to fault it for downplaying and often forgetting the whole “winter” thing- there’s the occasional mention of snow and/or ice, but it’s so sparse that if this were a film you wouldn’t be able to see the actors’ breath. Conveying season is a subtle thing, but if you put “winter” in your title you should indulge in a little overdescription.

I was perhaps forgiving of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT’s flaws because I was convinced this was going somewhere. About midway through DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT I decided that if this was going anywhere it was sure taking its sweet time, and at this point my only real interest was in seeing the “state of play” for the DRAGONLANCE setting, which is something I could get on Wikipedia while reading a much better book. There is simply nothing sufficiently earth-shaking here- nothing that changes the game or raises the stakes or makes me think this is going to go in some very unusual direction. It’s just more running around, without the basic dungeon crawl coherence of the first novel. This is not quite a book to be hurled across the room with great force, but I was tempted.

Grade: C

Random Movie Report #58: The Cars That Ate Paris

Link to the DVD on Amazon.comObviously there’s no way a film called THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS could possibly live up to its title, especially if said film is from Australia and directed by Peter Weir. Indeed just about any assumption you can make about a film with said title is probably wrong. Paris is a backwater Australian town, the cars do not actually eat anyone or anything, and the film is a bizarre black comedy about consumerism or rural poverty or something like that. It’s hard to tell because nobody talks very much, and though the film has some nice visuals and not bad ideas it feels strangely half-done. It’s the sort of movie that has just enough good or potentially good parts to make you regret that it doesn’t work.

The theoretical protagonist of this picture is Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri), an unemployed man who is roaming the countryside with his brother looking for work when a bright light forces them off the road. Arthur awakes in a hospital the town of Paris, where he’s told his brother is dead but he’s welcome to stay as long as it takes to recover. His injuries aren’t much, but he quickly finds that he’s not really allowed to leave, as the townsfolk have already decided that he will be a part of their community. Paris’ not-so-well-kept secret is that their economy is built entirely on causing car accidents and salvaging useful items (and the occasional new citizen) from the wreckage. This has created a bizarre form of trade where car parts are used as currency, and the indolent youth build brutal and garishly-painted roadsters. Despite this, the Mayor (John Meillon) and the elders try to create a semblance of normalcy and hope to grow and progress like every good small town. Arthur has been unable to drive ever since he killed a pedestrian some years back, so he’s trapped and might as well do what he can to fit in.

This is really a great premise, reminiscent of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE released the same year. Here it’s used as the setup for a sprawling social satire in the vein of THE LOVED ONE and THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, only on a lower budget. What it’s a satire of, I haven’t quite worked out yet- there are some jabs at consumerism in a few scenes, but that falls by the wayside and the main body of the film seems to be more about small town provincialism, or possibly the cannibalistic nature of free enterprise in a poverty-stricken environment. Were I Australian I might understand a bit more of this.

Not helping matters is the fact that there’s very little dialogue in this film. Weir takes a highly visual approach, which generally speaking is what good directors are expected to do, but while the various near-silent vignettes establishing life in Paris lay down the basics well enough, I felt starved for details. This is effectively an alternate society we’re being presented with, but instead of being immersed in it we’re kept at a distance. The film is littered with undeveloped concepts, like the hints that the hospital is performing unethical experiments on the vegetative crash victims in their care, or the building of a new health care facility that’s supposed to mark the town’s great leap forward, or Arthur’s own piecing together of what was done to him and his brother. Eventually the film decides that it’s about the conflict between the city elders and the youth gangs, but that’s so elementary that it can’t really sustain a feature.

The characters, sadly, all remain pretty one dimensional, with Arthur being particularly ineffectual (though this was the fashion at the time.) This is the real killer, I think- satire needs vivid personalities, even stereotypical ones, and though I can’t fault the cast, they have nothing to work with. It honestly feels like pages and pages of conversation were cut out at the last minute, and that the filmmakers worked out a lot more detail to the Parisians than they ever bother to tell us. It’s like going to a restaurant where wonderful smells continually waft from the kitchen, and being served scraps.

It’s not that the scraps are bad. There are some wonderful images here, notably the late appearance of one of the killer cars, an old-school VW Beetle covered in spikes like a porcupine. I think I’m not spoiling too much if I say that there is eventually an automotive rampage that has something of a monster movie quality; we can’t see the drivers of the custom dragsters, so they appear to act on their own volition. This happens at the very end, though, and I’m not sure it’s really enough. There’s not a lot in the film that’s genuinely funny, but I was particularly amused by a sudden Leone/Morricone parody during Arthur’s term as traffic cop.

Peter Weir would of course go on to better things; pictures like THE LAST WAVE and THE TRUMAN SHOW are good examples of how his surreal visions can work in harmony with a solid story. Without such an anchor, THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS is more a scattering of ideas than a fully developed satire. It’s one film I honestly think calls for a remake, but in the meantime this is really only something I can recommend to Weir fans and possibly VW devotees.

Story by Peter Weird, Keith Gow, and Piers Davies
Written and Directed by Peter Weir
Grade: C-

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Bookshelf: House of Leaves

Link to House of Leaves on Amazon
HOUSE OF LEAVES is a book I heard about in figurative whispers, which is the inevitable result of not following book chatter very closely (probably not a good idea for an aspiring writer), but it had the effect of making the work more tantalizing. This is a horror book, of sorts, but it’s also a dense and metatextual and deconstructive assembly of a story that witnesses madness, and so it has an appeal as a real-world version of the Necronomicon (that isn’t some crappy New Age cash-in.) Appropriately enough it took a while for me to track down a copy, though I’m sure real forbidden books of cosmic horror cannot be found in paperback at Borders. Though Mark J. Danielewski’s debut novel has not had the kind of insidious effect on me that it has on some readers (that altar to Tsathoggua was there when I moved in, honestly), but it’s a beautifully crafted and compelling book with only a few niggling flaws.

The book is a multilayered affair, presenting itself as a manuscript by a man named Johnny Truant, consisting of his footnotes on a text by a man named Zampanò, who died in the apartment that Johnny later leased because L.A. residents can’t afford to shun ominous and foul places when the rent is low enough. Zampanò, in turn, was writing a huge critical work on The Navidson Document, a widely-circulated film purporting to be a documentary on a haunted house. Well, sort of haunted. Instead of having ghosts, the house has a series of rooms that should not exist, reached through a door that should lead outside. This foreign space is barren and offers no clues as to its origins, purpose, or true nature. Needless to say, Will Navidson, father of the household and veteran photographer who’s been in many dangerous situations (and started making this film because he was trying to do a documentary on his family) insists on exploring, and bringing in others to explore, while mother Karen tries to be supportive but is not-so-secretly wondering what the neighborhood is like in Timbuktu.

Zampanò covers the ominous developments in the most scholarly manner possible, though his notes start to show signs of obsession as the mystery deepens. Johnny, in turn, uses his footnotes to detail his story on how working with this text is starting to drive him insane. This is one of those books wherein the arrangement of text, footnotes, etc. is key to the overall effect, and it can be very disorienting and maze-like in itself. That of course is the point- arguably this is a book meant to be re-read and skimmed and looked at piecemeal in addition to (if not instead of) a straight beginning-to-end reading. A number of typographical distinctions become important- as an example the word house is always written in pale blue. (There’s another word that always gets written in red and crossed out, but revealing it may be some kind of spoiler.)

HOUSE OF LEAVES is pretty much at the extreme minimalist end of the horror spectrum- it never even so much as defines the outline of any creeping monster waiting on the other side of the door, and our characters instead face the more existential threat of pure oblivion. Not explaining things and indeed insisting that the reality is inexplicable seems to be a popular trend in the genre, and it definitely has its benefits. At the same time I kind of miss when horror writers would come up with bizarre names and vague shapes for their terrors- something like what Lovecraft does is about my speed, and his work is no less nihilistic for it. In some ways the horror of HOUSE OF LEAVES is one of sensory deprivation- you start to imagine what might be the root of all this, but you receive so little that your imagination is essentially feeding on itself. This doesn’t make it a bad book at all, but you should it know that it’s one that asks more effort than usual on the part of its reader.

If there is really one obstacle to my getting really heavily into this book and its enigmas, it’s Johnny Truant. There are points relatively early in the narrative where his footnotes get longer and closer together as he tells you his story, and I started to outright dread seeing his font pop up. Truant’s story is the kind you’ve probably heard. He lives in Los Angeles, works at a tattoo parlor, drinks, experiments with drugs and has a friend with access to the kinds of pharmaceuticals that would make Hunter S. Thompson turn in early because he’s really got a lot to do tomorrow, he had a traumatic childhood, he has a lot of casual sex with attractive women but is in a courtly kind of love with a stripper who's named Thumper because she’s got a bunny tattooed near the entrance to what she calls “The Happiest Place on Earth”, there are late night car rides with people who should not be driving, etc. It’s very much a hardboiled L.A. narrative of the kind you get in indie films and one-man-shows and comic books, and though Johnny freely admits he’s adopting a “tough guy” voice it gets to be a little much anyway.

Having such a consciously “colorful” element to the book gets in the way of the pure existential horror, as do frequent attempts to tie the madness of the house and its alien hallways to specific psychological issues on the part of the people who explore it. Is this a true cosmic trap for the unwary or just an extension of individual drama? Strangely, Zampanò’s scholarly tone does not intrude on the same level, though it’s arguably just as deliberate a voice and it has the kind of dryness that you would imagine is not conducive to spine-tingling suspense. That Danielewski pulls this off is actually pretty damn remarkable.

The book’s presentation as a found object continues to the inclusion of pictures, a half-finished index, and various appendices, and the narrative itself becomes increasingly uncertain as one expects from postmodernist fiction. How effective this is for you, I suppose depends on how much stock you put in Derrida. It’s worth noting, though, that some cheaper printings apparently leave out some key textual distinctions (coloration mostly); I think I’ve got the right version linked up above, but you may want to double-check.

So HOUSE OF LEAVES has yet to haunt my dreams, though those of a geekish persuasion may simply conclude that I made my SAN roll. Still it’s quite cool and though the text takes some work, it’s worth the effort for the dedicated reader. It’s obviously more effective if your tastes run towards existentialist minimalism (or minimalist existentialism), but from any philosophical perspective this is a wonderfully intricate book with many, many surprises.

Grade: A-

Saturday, November 29, 2008

For Your Ears Only: Doctor Who: The Genocide Machine

Link to The Genocide Machine at Amazon.com
To wrap up Who week, I’ll take a look at one of the good Doctor’s adventures in another medium. During the period wherein the show was still canceled, an independent audio production company called Big Finish Productions obtained the license to make new DOCTOR WHO audio stories on CD. They’ve continued the Doctor’s audio adventures to this day, featuring a number of past Doctors and a few alternates. An early entry in Big Finish’s oeuvre, THE GENOCIDE MACHINE is quite fun, recalling traditional runarounds while taking advantage of the extra scope afforded by audio theatre.

The story takes place on the rainforest-laden world of Kar-Charrat, home to the greatest and most comprehensive library in the known universe, containing just about every piece of information in existence- and so hidden away, its location known only to “time-sensitives.” (No idea if Steven Moffat heard this before writing “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead” for the new series, but everyone’s just taking from Borges at this point.) The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) has arrived with his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) to return some overdue books, and is just in time to see Chief Librarian Elgin (Bruce Montague) unveil a new wetworks data storage system wherein all the information in the library is kept in a tank of water, and can be accessed at the touch of a button. In the meantime, a group of mercenaries investigating a ziggurat elsewhere in the jungle have been wiped out by robotic killers, leaving only one survivor (Louise Faulkner). It quickly becomes apparent that the Daleks have been lying in wait on this remote world, waiting for their chance to break into the library and access the data store (knowledge is power!), and the Doctor’s arrival has given them just the right opportunity. In the meantime, everyone’s hearing mysterious voices in the rain.

I genuinely think one of the great strengths of audio theatre as a medium is its ability to quickly invoke atmosphere and a sense of place. Setting this story in a rainforest, and making water and rain major elements, makes for a good level of intensity; we are instantly thrown into an alien environment, and the constant rain creates a nicely oppressive atmosphere during the outdoor scenes. The sound effects work is pretty sophisticated, handling a number of unusual elements.

Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred are both in good form here, the latter getting some very good scenes when the Daleks try to use her as a way of infiltrating the library. As Bev Tarrant, Louise Faulkner actually sounds just a bit like Aldred which can be confusing, but she’s pretty convincing on her own. Bruce Montague’s delivery is more theatrical, and I actually briefly thought Michael Gough was playing Elgin, which I suppose is a compliment. You’d think the Dalek voices would get old in what is often a dialogue-heavy medium, but this isn’t a problem for whatever reason.

The story seems padded at times, though oddly enough this makes it easier to follow if your attention drifts. However there are still some good twists and turns, particularly involving the nature of the library and the Daleks’ attempts to access the wetworks database. There’s also a running gag involving a mostly-silent cataloguer (voiced by director Nicholas Briggs) that is arguably overplayed, but there are some good payoffs.

THE GENOCIDE MACHINE is part of an arc of Dalek stories collected under the “Dalek Empire” concept, but it works as a standalone. Tucker and Briggs and everyone else involved do a fine job and it’s a fairly sophisticated bit of audio theatre, accomplishing some interesting effects and handling a twisty plot without ever leaving the listener behind. I need to look at more of Big Finish’s stuff in the future; rest assured, they’re worth keeping an ear out for.

Grade: B+

Friday, November 28, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: Doctor Who: The Movie

Doctor Who: The Movie on R2 DVD from Amazon
With DOCTOR WHO’s popularity now at an all time high, it’s interesting to look at a period when its hopes for the future seemed to rest on a long shot. The 1996 DOCTOR WHO television movie was an American co-production between Universal and the BBC for the Fox Network, and intended as a backdoor pilot for a potential new series. It was not a reboot, but a straight continuation of the classic show, and is still considered canon for whatever that’s worth. Obviously it was not the hit its producers wanted, and making the thing dependent on an American audience was probably a bad idea to start with, but despite falling into obscurity somewhat, the DOCTOR WHO TVM (as it’s sometimes referred to) has a lot to recommend it. It’s atmospheric, good-looking, and fun, and though the plot is twisty and coincidence-laden the whole production has too much charm to let that be a major problem. It’s gotten the reputation of being an “Americanization” of the concept but I think that’s being too harsh.

The Doctor (first seen in the guise of Sylvester McCoy) starts off being entrusted to take the remains of his old enemy, the Master, back to their home world of Gallifrey after his apparent execution on Skaro. (The arguments over why the Daleks would let the Doctor do anything or put the Master on trial to begin with echo widely throughout fandom, but let’s keep moving shall we?) However, the Master hasn’t so much died as turned into a slithering amorphous thing, and he manages to short out the TARDIS, which crash-lands in San Francisco on December 30th, 1999. The Doctor gets shot by a street gang as soon as he exits the TARDIS (insert your own social commentary), and Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), former Chinatown street gang member (former by virtue of his entire gang getting gunned down just prior) accompanies him to the hospital.

However, at the hospital, there’s a lot of confusion over a patient whose chest X-ray shows two hearts and seems to react very negatively to anesthetic, and in the confusion the Doctor dies. He regenerates into a younger body (Paul McGann) but with quite a few gaps in his memory, and he latches onto one face he remembers: Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), the heart surgeon who was in charge when he croaked. She thinks she’s dealing with a crazy man until he pulls a surgical probe out of his chest, and even then she’s not really convinced. In the meantime, the Master has possessed the body of an EMT (Eric Roberts), but his human form is not long for this world, so he cons and hypnotizes Chang Lee into helping him with a plan to use the Eye of Harmony, the TARDIS’ power source, to steal the Doctor’s body and all his remaining regenerations. The side effect? Having the Eye open during this procedure will eventually suck the entire planet through it, and wouldn’t you know, the deadline is midnight on New Year’s Eve.

So, yeah. Screenwriter Matthew Jacobs came up with a plotline that ultimately was too big for a 90 minute film, and a few details were sacrificed in trimming it down. There was an apparently an explanation for why the Master becomes a snake creature and how the Daleks were involved and so on, but the plot we see on screen is just a tad convoluted and relies a lot on coincidence. Some details get lost in the wash- the Doctor walks through a window and says he’s lost 20 pounds in 20 minutes both as a result of the Eye being open, but these elements of the Earth’s impending doom never come up again. There aren’t any plot holes of the “this really cannot happen given what we’ve seen so far” variety- the film doesn’t break its own laws as far as I can tell- but there’s an awful lot of handwaving involved.

The film also introduced a few controversial elements to the new WHO mix. The Doctor hints that he’s half-human, something that was intended to be a much bigger issue in executive producer Philip David Segal’s original series pitch- here it’s not even clear whether he’s serious, but the Master appears to think he is. It’s an element that might have been a problem had this gone to a series, but as such it’s just a weird quirk. Somewhat more controversial at the time was the Doctor’s romantic chemistry with Grace- up to that point he had been portrayed as mostly asexual (despite having a granddaughter), and though it never gets developed any further than a John Steed/Emma Peel type flirtation and a couple of good kisses, it was shocking at the time (as was the British press’ mistranslation of a phrase in the script, “Grace bonks the Doctor.”) The romance, plus a scene where the Master and Chang Lee in an ambulance pursue a motorcycle-riding Doctor and Grace, led to cries of “Americanization”, even though both the writer and director are British and the whole thing was shot in Vancouver. In the interim, though, the new series has taken the concepts of Doctor/companion romance and high speed action even farther, and though the TVM does some catering to American sensibilities, it doesn’t blot out the show’s roots.

Indeed, I remember that when this was broadcast, my biggest concern was whether they’d get the “feel” of DOCTOR WHO right. But from the very first scenes, where the Doctor relaxes in a charmingly steampunk TARDIS control room to an Eartha Kitt record, the atmosphere is dead on. Throughout the film maintains a great balance of whimsy and dread, with enough of the surreal to remind us that we’re still in the same universe as the old series. It helps that the dialogue is fairly snappy and clever even when the plot comes up short; there’s some very nice banter, and a spirit of good humor that makes the goofy moments more palatable.

The great tragedy of the TV movie’s poor ratings performance (in the US at least, where it was up against stiff May sweeps competition) is that this is as much as we’ve ever seen of Paul McGann as the Doctor (though not the last we heard, as he did several Big Finish audio productions afterwards.) As short on screen time as he is, McGann makes his mark pretty strongly; his Doctor is brighter than his immediate predecessors (McCoy had been a humorous Doctor to start but darkened near the end), capable of almost childlike wonder but possessing the intelligence and presence of a 900-year-old Time Lord. (The filmmakers also gave him the interesting ability to know a bit too much about everyone he meets.) Rumors often circulate among fans that McGann might appear in the future, possibly in a flashback to the offscreen Time War, but so far no dice. Eric Roberts’ version of the Master is high on the camp scale, but that seems to be the nature of the part. Daphne Ashbrook has a couple of shrill moments but is mostly charming, and Yee Jee Tso does pretty well; neither of these two were signed on in the event a series was ordered, but it’s interesting to think what they might have been like as companions.

More expensive than the average Fox Tuesday night movie, DOCTOR WHO has great production values and appealing visuals (with effects supervised by Tony Dow- THAT Tony Dow, yes). Director Geoffrey Sax composes all sorts of interesting shots, usually around themes of eyes and other circular patterns, and the use of colors- mostly blue and orangish-yellow- is striking. When the old series went off-air in 1989, it was still stuck in an increasingly outdated and stagey method of filming; low budgets and tight schedules meant fewer camera setups and fewer takes. During the long hiatus/cancellation, drama TV and its bastard cousin genre programming adopted a more cinematic style, and this film was really our first hint of what WHO would have to look like in the modern era. The TVM also benefits from a lush score by John Debney, John Sponslor, and Louis Febre; I have to confess I’m one of the few fans of the unusually superheroic rendition of
the classic theme.

DOCTOR WHO aired once on Fox, didn’t do well enough to merit a follow-up, and has since pretty much vanished in the US apart from a couple of cable airings. Universal still owns the film in part, whereas Warner Home Video handles the BBC’s WHO releases in this country, hence nobody’s made much effort to get this on R1 DVD. The project may have been doomed from the start; a DOCTOR WHO series made to the visual standards of US television in the mid-90s would be very expensive, what with the changing locations every week. After the production became a backdoor pilot instead of a proper series opener, Universal decided it would have to get a pretty big audience share to merit taking things any further (at this point they still had SLIDERS, a slightly cheaper spin on the whole “dimensional travel” concept), and of course it didn’t. Some have blamed the reliance on past continuity, spending so much time with McCoy’s Doctor instead of the proper star, etc., but really, this aired once and never again; there was no time for word of mouth to have an effect, positive or negative. The film received good ratings in the UK, and the BBC wisely decided that any future attempts at reviving WHO would be directed chiefly at that audience. Took them 9 years to try again, but I understand there was some sort of legal thing.

It’s interesting to look back on the DOCTOR WHO TV movie and see it as a taste of what was to come: faster and often looser storytelling, stylish visuals, a bit more action, and a finally-not-asexual Doctor. But I also love it for what it is, a high-spirited adventure about defying death, turning back time, and taking chances, all things that the good Doctor does regularly. It’s a shame this couldn’t be much more than a footnote in the show’s history, but at least it’s an entertaining one.

Written by Matthew Jacobs
Directed by Geoffrey Sax

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Random Who Report: Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

Genesis of the Daleks on DVD from Amazon
A late start is better than no start at all, or at least that’s what I tell myself. And I’m starting with a classic: GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, one of the best known Who stories from one of its best-loved eras, and a strong candidate for the title of best Who story ever. Not only does Terry Nation come up with a compelling origin story for WHO’s most popular monsters, he uses the show’s traditional corridors-and-cliffhangers structure as a vehicle for difficult moral and ethical questions. It’s genuinely great science fiction drama, on a level not often expected of a show that’s made its reputation as light entertainment.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companions Harry (Ian Marter) and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) are pulled away from their most recent adventure by the Time Lords, who forsee the genocidal Daleks destroying all life in the universe and want the Doctor to destroy them before they are created (or alter their development so they don’t turn out so evil.) Our heroes are unceremoniously dumped on the Dalek home planet of Skaro, in the midst of a centuries-old war between its original inhabitants, the Kaleds and the Thals. Soon after arriving they are split up by a gas attack. Sarah falls in with some rather normal-looking mutants (called Mutos) before being captured by the Thals, while the Doctor and Harry end up in Kaled territory, where they meet the wizened and sinister scientist Davros (Michael Wisher). Officially he and a bunch of other scientific elites are developing weapons to help win the war, but Davros’ real project is to develop a travel machine for the hideous mutant embryos that the war’s chemical weaponry will force the Kaleds to evolve into. The resulting creations are the first Daleks, armored killers under Davros’ control, and he aspires to make them the dominant life form in the universe. Not only does the Doctor have to try and put a stop to his plans, but he has to keep his friends from being caught in the crossfire as the war between the two races reaches its brutal end.

A child of World War Two, Nation often said that he had based the Daleks on his memories of the Nazi threat, and so it’s appropriate that for their origin story he goes to World War One. The first images of soldiers in gasmasks running across barren fields and ducking into trenches, in a war that has devolved into two domes shooting at each other across a poisonous wasteland, give the story an immediate resonance. It’s not a straight allegory for the rise of fascism in Europe, but echoes here and there (especially pertaining to eugenics) keep popping up. Nation never does explain how the entire population of the planet got reduced to two domes that happen to be right next to each other, but I’ll take it as convenience. (Similarly, the Mutos don’t really look deformed, just sort of rugged- but then that may be a deliberate callback to Nazi standards of racial purity.)

This is a grim story, moreso than average for the series- producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes would get a reputation for dark and scary shows very quickly, but this is unusually apocalyptic even for them. We know horrible things are about to happen, and though the show’s family viewing slot prevents it from going too far, it’s unusually frank in showing the horrors of war and genocide.

Of course, this is still DOCTOR WHO- it’s not without humor, and Tom Baker’s moody take on the character allows him to deliver quips and wrestle with the gravity of his situation. Indeed, Terry Nation- whose first Dalek story, the show’s second serial overall, helped establish the conventional formula- tended to write traditional runarounds, and in a way that’s what this is. The characters are separated early, they meet opposing groups and so explain the background and conflict, and have a succession of escapes, captures, run-ins with monsters, deathtrap evasions and so on as the larger plot unfolds. GENESIS OF THE DALEKS features all these things, especially since it’s a six part story and needs to reach that length somehow; there’s some padding around episodes two and/or three, and to be brutally honest I’ve yet to come across a six parter that doesn’t have this problem.

However, the constant thrills and spills actually provide a nice backdrop to the major conflicts of the story. Because there’s no one group on Skaro who are clearly the good guys, the Doctor has to actively search for their better natures, to convince them that a greater evil will arise from the immediate good of ending the war. Several characters are faced with making sacrifices in the name of greater good, whether it be leaving a friend behind or letting an enemy live. And ultimately the Doctor has to face up to the reality that if he destroys the Daleks, he commits genocide.

And then there’s Davros, one of the finest villains on the entire show. He’s a focused megalomaniac, interested not so much in temporal or political power as in a kind of immortality through his creations, bred to survive by exterminating all other life. It’s terrifying to see the Doctor finally pitted against someone as clever as he is, without any ethical barriers whatsoever, and he manages to terrify nearly everyone working for him, not that he cares. Visually he bears a weird resemblance to the near-dead grandfather in Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and his shriveled visage and grating, near-Dalek voice are the stuff of nightmares. The production design is appropriately monochromatic, and though there is a truly laughable “attack” by giant and clearly immobile mutant clams (one of Davros’ failed experiments, though probably good eatin’), mostly the production values are pretty strong.

For most of its run, both old-school and new, DOCTOR WHO has been content to be straightforward sci-fi entertainment for the whole family, and that’s just fine. Doing that right is an artistic achievement in itself. But GENESIS OF THE DALEKS uses the familiar formula of the show, and the marquee value of the Daleks themselves, to explore some serious questions of morality and to expose the most insidious kinds of evil- the dislike for the unlike, the desire for control and security, the dehumanization of war. It makes its point with only a little preachiness, and on top of that it simply shows the traditional structures and conventions of DOCTOR WHO at their most effective. If you want to see the show at its best, this is where to look.

Written by Terry Nation
Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe
Directed by David Maloney

Grade: A+

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Announcing Doctor Who Week!




Today (or yesterday if you're reading this in the UK) marks the 45th anniversary of DOCTOR WHO, the world's longest-running science fiction programme and possibly my very favorite show.

To celebrate, I'll be running a few WHO-centric pieces at the site, and if anyone else wants to join in the fun, let me know in comments or e-mail and I'll link you. Obviously the fact that this is Thanksgiving week makes it slightly more difficult than average, but I'll try to get at least three big pieces up. So stick around and have a jelly baby!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Theaters: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace poster from IMPAwards.com
I came away from QUANTUM OF SOLACE with a very unusual reaction. I didn’t like the action sequences that much, but everything else worked. This is not what the makers of the latest James Bond film were likely aiming for, and not ideally how the series should work, and yet it does. Marc Foster’s inexperience in the action genre may be to blame, but the Bond series has often chosen talent from strange places, and in this case it mostly works. The film is a step down from CASINO ROYALE, but it flows very well as a direct sequel.

In fact, this entry picks up right where the last film left off. Bond has captured one of the top ranking members of Quantum, a secret organization that both employed the lovely Vesper Lynd and killed her. Bond insists that he’s not doing this to avenge the woman he loved, but when a double agent in MI6 kills Bond’s quarry before he can say anything, he tries to find higher links in the chain for a mix of personal and professional reasons. Soon he runs across a Quantum plan to stage a coup in Bolivia to return a vile dictator to power, in exchange for which they’ll receive exclusive land rights over a seemingly worthless patch of desert. The rumor is oil, which interests several world governments for good and for ill. Of course, both the U.S. and Britain need oil and decide they’re going to back the evil guy so long as he’ll give them what they want, and that, in addition to Bond’s increasingly high body count, prompts MI6 to prompt M (Judi Dench again) to try and pull him back. But in the meantime, he’s also run across Camille (Olga Kurylenko), sometime-girlfriend to trusted entrepreneur, creepy Quantum bigwig, and Roman Polanski lookalike Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), and she’s got a vendetta of her own.

At some point somebody is going to have to sit down with modern action directors and ask them why they feel compelled to wave the camera around to create pretty streaks of color that don’t actually tell you what’s going on. The cynical answer is that fast edits and shaky cameras are needed to hook today’s audience with their short attention spans and iPods and so on, but I’m not sure that really explains it. For one thing, nobody’s actually tested this assumption. I can’t recall any well-promoted, widely-released action film that flopped because it used longer takes and a tripod. (I don’t remember if IRON MAN was this jittery, doesn’t seem like it, though.) Secondly, this approach, as used in this film, ends up being fairly inefficient. The really blurry and jumpy shots don’t convey information very well, and if you cut them from the assembly what’s left would probably flow a lot better.

A personal theory of mine is that the action movie is entering an impressionist phase, where conveying what’s happening is not quite as important as imparting a sense of disorientation in the viewer. But I think that backfires too. I was able to follow the action in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, at least in a general sense, but the jumpy edits and occasional blurriness made me feel more distanced if anything. There are big stunts and lots of things blowing up spectacularly, but I felt I was missing the full impact because the framing, the timing, the focus was always just a little bit off. Again, this may just be down to inexperience on Foster’s part. Still, it’s a trend I hope the Bond series moves away from as quickly as it can. The tripod is your friend.

Fortunately, my disappointment with the style of filming subsided soon enough as I began to get caught up in the story. In keeping with the more realistic tone set by CASINO ROYALE, the villains’ diabolical masterplan involves not world domination but the exploitation of an already frequently dumped upon people, and all the sordid dealings that the major world powers make to keep their countries on top. Bond follows a solid trail of evidence in between making people wish they’d never been born, and we get the familiar jetting between exotic locales and decadent high society events. There’s a lot more of the traditional Bond here than some critics have alleged; the formula has been tweaked, but it hasn’t exactly been thrown out.

Daniel Craig is once again in complete control of the picture; not only does he have the swagger and bravado that Bond needs, but he manages some fairly sophisticated playing. You’re never quite sure just how hung up he is on Vesper, or at least how consciously he’s letting what happened to her guide his actions. His is not an overt form of brooding- you can tell something’s going on beneath the facade but you can’t be completely sure of what. What’s still most surprising are the moments when he allows himself to have fun; Bond smiling is a disarming sight. Dame Judi Dench plays against him terrifically, even when they’re not in the same room. As for the new Bond girl- well, she’s very pretty and not a bad actress, as far as I can tell. But the producers have made an obvious mistake. Midway through the film we are introduced to Fields (first name Strawberry, though she never says it), a young redheaded agent who’s been sent on her first field assignment to escort Bond back to London. Gemma Arterton plays her as cute, energetic, clever, and frankly much more appealing than Camille, but because Camille is exotic (i.e. non-British) and has a tortured past of some kind, she’s in the lead female role while Fields, well, you know what happens to the secondary Bond girl most of the time. Complete waste of potential there, it must be said.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE is an interesting next act in Bond’s current story, and I’m definitely interested in what will happen next. As flawed as the film is in places, it gets enough right to make you think the franchise is still in good hands. Maybe they need to stop serving Red Bull to the editors and someone needs to look into making Ms. Arterton the next Moneypenny or something, but I enjoyed myself so no need to nitpick too closely. The style’s a bit tarnished, but the substance is there.

Based on characters created by Ian Fleming
Screenplay by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade
Directed by Marc Forster

Grade: B

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not A Review: Fling

FLING movie poster
I cannot review FLING. Well, I don’t think I can, going by the guidelines for critics that Roger Ebert laid down a while back. Granted, I did not technically have anything to do with the film. However, Ben Waters, the co-editor, is my brother, while director and co-writer/producer John Stewart Muller is a longtime friend of his and also someone I know fairly well. I had a free pass to the film’s Midwest premiere, met the crew and some of the cast, etc. So you see the problem. (It can be argued that I am not really a professional critic, but I try to assume the semblance of one at times.)

Here’s what I think I can do. I can say that I, personally, enjoyed it. I can’t say why, or give the kind of formal support to my thesis that a proper review does. Also, bear in mind that I’d had a few drinks and may, theoretically, have been favorably disposed to begin with. I’ve only seen it the one time so I have no idea how it looks when one is sober. So, what I’m going to do after the cut is describe the film in the most neutral terms possible. No judgement calls whatsoever. What I describe may be enough for you to make up your mind, but I will not push the issue one way or the other. Okay, here goes.

FLING is the story of a couple, Mason (Steve Sandvoss), a novelist, and Sam (Courtney Ford), a budding fashion designer. They’re both in their twenties and living together, but have an open relationship; the film starts at a wedding wherein Mason meets up with Olivia
(Shoshana Bush), an 18-year-old girl who knew him when she was much younger, while Sam hooks up with old boyfriend James (Brandon Routh.) James is somewhat old fashioned, and skeptical of the strength of Sam and Mason’s relationship; at the same time he’s never quite gotten over her, and the two start drifting closer together, even as she’s turned off by his disdain for the way she lives. Meanwhile, Mason has some good and bad times with Olivia, and tension between him and Sam mounts as they wonder whether they can keep this going.

A lot of people have sex in this film, as you might imagine, but the presentation is restrained; there’s no nudity and the sex scenes tend to fade out early. (The film has yet to be rated.) It’s not really the subject of the film the way you would expect, though the characters are obviously leading very sexually active lifestyles. (Quick question: Can you actually put qualifiers on “sexually active”? It seems to be used as a binary.)

The reason this had a Kansas City premiere (though it’s had premieres elsewhere and has done a few festivals, and I actually meant to ask about wider distribution but forgot) is that it was almost entirely shot here. Those who know the city will recognize many locations and it’s getting more coverage than usual because this doesn’t happen very often. The upside of this is that filming in KC is still fairly cheap, so they were able to shoot at some fairly prominent and upscale places. Needless to say, I was in Columbia when this took place and had the opportunity to witness none of it. Such is my life.

The camera-work is hand held, though not hugely jumpy. Note that the IMDB still lists this under “Lie to Me”, though that title was changed because it’s being used for a TV series on FOX coming up this midseason.

And I’ve run out of things to say. Obviously since people I know are involved with this film AND it’s their first big thing I would hope that many of you see this movie, or at least keep an eye out. So I’ll just leave it at that. I liked FLING a lot, but I’m biased.

Further information on where it is and will be is available on the movie's website.

Written by John Stewart Muller & Laura Boersma
Directed by John Stewart Muller

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Bookshelf: Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman


For no particular reason I’ve taken an interest in some of the fantasy settings for DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS and its various permutations. The differences between them are often subtle and incredibly geekish, but the DRAGONLANCE saga caught my attention as a unique blend of creativity and marketing. The original trilogy of books that I’m reading- DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT, and DRAGONS OF SPRING DAWNING, all by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman- were tied in with a series of modules released for the game around the same time in the mid-eighties, detailing a very linear, story-driven campaign based on one that Weis, Hickman, and others had run earlier.

So DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT is essentially the professionally published and bestselling equivalent of someone’s online game fiction, and yet it’s not bad. I’ve mentioned in the past that I don’t like how the fantasy genre is dominated by Extruded Fantasy Product that always revolves around a diverse group of characters from every corner of the author’s fantasy world going on a quest which takes them to every other corner of the author’s fantasy world in order to collect plot tokens and defeat the Supreme Evil, but in retrospect I don’t really hate the form itself. Only a handful of authors have ever done anything genuinely great with it, but a good EFP can be fun reading, and DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT works on that level. It’s surprisingly fast paced, given its length, ably juggles a good cast list, and though it has more than its fair share of silly moments they don’t drag the whole thing down too much.

It begins, appropriately enough, in an Inn, where a woman named Goldmoon, in possession of a staff with magical healing properties, is hiding from her tribe with her lover Riverwind, whom she tried to save from execution. Needless to say, dark forces are after her and the magical artifact her boyfriend obtained from a lost city under mysterious circumstances, and she falls in with a group of seasoned adventurers who have been looking for information on the old gods of Krynn, gods forgotten after a great cataclysm but still at work in the land. The staff is obviously connected to them somehow (healing magic was lost when they went out of fashion), and the disappearance of a couple of constellations from the sky portends a new cataclysm on the way. So our band of adventurers- Tanis, our somewhat moody half-elven protagonist; Caramon, a rough and tumble swordsman; Raistlin, his sickly wizard brother cursed by his studies; Flint, your requisite gruff dwarf; Tasslehoff Burrfoot, a kender (essentially kleptomaniac hobbits); Sturm, formerly a knight of Solamnia, and our two sort-of-Native-American-but-she’s-blonde-somehow refugees- set off up north to find the lost city wherein Riverwind first stumbled across the magic item in hopes of discovering more about what’s going on. And yes, there are dragons.

Stories like this are hard to review, because while the plot structure is pure Joseph Campbell by way of J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s the details which make every story stand out. The setting here is quite elaborate, with its old gods and new theocrats, lost orders, dragon-like humanoids who turn to stone when killed, primitive “gully” dwarves, and a number of details that just sort of lurk in the background. There are also, as you may have noticed, more than a few characters to keep track of; they’re very distinct and broadly drawn, so it’s not hard to remember who is who, but it’s still a big cast and they get kind of scattered at times. (This is why Dungeon Masters try not to split the party.)

The plot rambles along in a way that one might expect from something adapted from an RPG campaign; it’s episodic, but each episode is strongly connected. One distinguishing element of the story for better and for worse is a certain level of silliness. Take for example the gully dwarves, a friendly group of underground dwellers our heroes meet on their journey through the lost city. They are primitive, childlike, and most importantly, stupid. They can’t count above “two”, they speak in pidgin babytalk, and they’re so lacking in apparent common sense that it seems hard to believe they exist as a civilization. Obviously, this is fantasy, and the dwarves are funny at times, but they wear on the nerves a bit, as does Fizban, an overly comic wizard who can never remember how to cast spells.

Closest to damningly, though, and I regret having to spoil anything so I’ll try to be vague but skip over this paragraph if you insist anyway, in rather quick succession we see two characters seemingly killed decidedly dead only to come back the next chapter. The very next chapter. Now, I am all in favor of resurrecting a fictional character if it’s at all necessary or entertaining, but if you’re going to do this you should at least have a suitable period of anticipation wherein we think the character might actually be gone. Gandalf at least had the decency to wait an entire book before his reemergence.

Some of the silliness extends to the characters. Tasslehoff’s ever-so-whimsical compulsion to take things seems like a contrivance because the authors were afraid to make any of the heroes morally ambiguous, and frankly all the main character notes get pounded on repeatedly without a lot of variation over 400 pages. Goldmoon loves Riverwind, Tanis is conflicted about his heritage, Caramon has the hots for a fetching barmaid, Sturm used to be a knight, and Raistlin is bitter. They’re never quite three dimensional, though they’re not without charm.

I can’t say I dislike this book, though, even if it does feel rather inconsequential for the first act of an epic trilogy. It’s got a lot of neat ideas, and even if they don’t all congeal they still give you the feeling that this is a genuine fantasy world and not just a marketing ploy. But the real sign that this book worked for me was that I picked up the sequel without any thought. Weis and Hickman have hooked me, for better or worse.

Grade: B

Monday, November 03, 2008

Vote, vote, vote!

Tomorrow is Election Day in the US, for the None of you who don't know already.

Remember to vote, if you haven't already. There's going to be a high turnout, so expect to wait in line. Bring something to distract you during that time.

I try not to be too political on this blog. That said, I personally am backing Senator Barack Obama. I think he will actually change some of the policies that have gotten us into trouble, while McCain seems reluctant to do so, and has run his campaign (or allowed it to be run) in a very negative and divisive fashion. Some of the GOP's rhetoric has gotten downright anti-intellectual, even pissing off a few conservatives as a result; as an outright geek, I can't help but feel targetted.

If you're in California, whoever you favor for President or Congress or dogcatcher, be sure to vote No on Proposition 8. Equality is good, and marriage rights aren't just a symbolic thing. Plus, if you outlaw gay marriage, you will make George Takei angry, and that doesn't seem to be a very good idea:



So, vote. See you afterwards.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Move Your Dead Bones!

So as not to go into one of my favorite holidays on a wholly negative note, I give you a nice bit of Halloween dance party fun- the music video for "Move Your Dead Bones" from the DVD for the DTV feature BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR (which was better than I expected- I really need to review it some time.)



To the producers of this film: Why is this song not available for download on iTunes or a similar service? Or even just free? It's a catchy number and nice publicity for the film, you're missing out.

To everyone else, Happy Halloween!

Random Movie Report #57: The Beyond

BEYOND DVD cover and Amazon link
From the sophisticated to the, well, not. I knew that going from Dario Argento to Lucio Fulci would be something of a downward step, but THE BEYOND genuinely disappointed me. Fulci may be more of an overt schlock filmmaker, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I thought ZOMBIE was a fun bit of insanity. THE BEYOND delivers the director’s trademark unrestrained splatter and disregard for plot coherence in the face of cool ideas (I honestly think Italian genre cinema subscribes to the Rule of Cool more than Hollywood, or at least does so more openly.) However, it doesn’t deliver on its potential coolness; it’s the classic grindhouse movie that promises the gates of Hell opening and gives you a few shuffling zombies. It feels half-realized, like something that could have gone further and been genuinely horrifying instead of just campy. There’s definitely cheese appeal, but not a lot else.

The film takes place in Louisiana, at a hotel that is apparently rumored to be seated over a gateway to Hell. Back in the twenties, an artist/cultist who liked to paint hellish landscapes was lynched and murdered by locals, and now the intermittently British Liza Merril (Katherine MacColl) plans to reopen the property. Of course this somehow stirs up dark forces lurking in the basement, a plumber gets attacked by the dead artist’s corpse, both bodies end up in the morgue and somehow knock Joe’s wife dead, Liza is haunted by visions of an ancient book and the prophecies of an enigmatic blind girl (Cinzia Monreale), and more grody stuff happens leading up to the inevitable opening up of the netherworld. Which basically results in a lot of zombies wandering about.

In a clear sign that election news has permeated my brain, I first heard the name of the male lead- a town doctor played by David Warbeck- as “John McCain”. It’s not (the name is McCabe), but when another character was introduced as “Joe the Plumber”, for real this time, I was starting to think I was being punk’d. Fortunately the female lead is not named “Sarah Palin” or any permutation thereof, and I did not have to shut off the DVD and head off to the local Catholic church in search of holy water.

Sadly, that is the closest to genuinely disturbing the movie gets. For most of the rest of the running time, we’re aware that a big evil force is about to be set loose on the people of whatever town this is, and are essentially waiting for it to get moving. There’s horror in anticipation, but when you draw it out too much it just becomes boredom. Fulci punctuates things with a few really grody interim attacks, but they’re more gross than scary, and actually border on funny for their ludicrously extreme nature.

A key example of this is a scene where some character I’m not even sure we’ve been properly introduced to looks in the town archives at the plans for the hotel. He sees something shocking that we never figure out, is pushed off a ladder by some high force or just his own disbelief, and is paralyzed. A group of tarantulas creep up to the unmoving victim and proceed to do what movie tarantulas do to helpless victims. Which would be much creepier if so many of them didn’t have obvious rubber stunt doubles and if they weren’t making much more noise than spiders generally do. That still sounds damn creepy, but in execution it becomes just silly. It takes work to mess up something like that.

After a while, Fulci seems to check his watch and realize we’re close to the end and the gates of Hell arbitrarily open right then. What does this mean? Well, zombies. Now, I like zombies, but I was hoping for more than just that after so much buildup, and the zombies don’t even get to eat that many people. Beyond Eliza and the Doctor, there are a handful of characters who aren’t even developed to the stereotypical level seen in one of the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, and the zombie rampage is criminally short on victims. And all this builds to a total non-climax; indeed, the movie stops just as soon as we see something that has the potential to be really interesting.

THE BEYOND is one of those for-fans-only things; it’s got a few notable touches, like a cool theme and some nice visuals, but seems more a nice idea for a horror movie than a complete experience. Fulci is a filmmaker I can’t fully write off, as sleazy as some of his work is, and if you don’t expect much more than a zombie film this might be fun. Seems like a waste of potential, though.

Story by Dardano Sacchetti
Screenplay by Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, and Lucio Fulci
Directed by Lucio Fulci

Grade: C+

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Random Movie Report #56: Opera

Link to OPERA DVD on Amazon.com
Dorian at Postmodern Barney has Dario Argento Week up and running, and it inspired me to take a look at one of the Italian horror meister’s films. The most appealing one on the local video store’s shelves was OPERA, a giallo thriller from the late 80s that’s among his better regarded pictures. It’s a break from the supernatural stuff I’ve been watching, but no less eerie and still pretty fun. It occupies a space between suspense thriller and outright slasher flick, often being both at the same time, and it’s comfortable territory for the director.

The action centers around a production of Verdi’s operatic rendition of MACBETH, which like its non-singing counterpart is apparently cursed. (Unlike the play, you can’t circumvent the curse by calling it something else- at least, nobody tried.) At least that’s what it seems like when the female lead, storming out of the theater, is hit by a car. Taking over for the injured soprano is Betty (Cristina Marsillach), a young understudy following in the footsteps of her diva mother, and finally getting her big break. But she’s attracted the attention of a crazed fan, who not only begins killing the people around her but making her watch, capturing her beforehand and taping needles under her eyelids so she can’t close them. After each killing he sets her free, but always manages to track her down again. He’s masked, so obviously she can’t identify him, but she recalls seeing a memory or dream of seeing the figure when she was a little girl and her mother was alive. Whatever it is, it seems a vital clue to what’s happening now.

This is a murder mystery, at least partly, and on that level Dario Argento plays pretty fair. There aren’t a whole lot of suspects and this doesn’t seem to be the kind of mystery where every scene contains a clue to the killer’s identity that in retrospect should seem obvious, but it’s definitely possible to guess who it is. The script doesn’t cheat, and everything gets enough foreshadowing that when it actually appears or happens, it doesn’t seem like it’s been pulled from nowhere. The revelation of the killer is done without much work from Betty herself, and his motivation quickly delivered in a way that’s not wholly satisfying, but then, I’m a fan of big revelation scenes and had higher expectations than most.

As a slasher picture, OPERA plays around a lot with convention. The typical set-up for a slasher movie death involves the victim being isolated and stalked; here, everyone is in the most danger when they’re close to Betty. She has to be captured before the actual killing can take place (with at least one exception), and this lends each death scene a sense of performance that ties in with the operatic motif and the whole idea of horror film as voyeurism that film critics have been writing about since REAR WINDOW. Argento, more than anything, is known as a stylist, and here he manages to find a plot justification for making the murders so staged- the whole thing is a performance, and in that context nothing stretches plausibility too much.

Okay, there’s some business with a bunch of ravens I’m not sure I entirely buy, but it’s kind of cool.

Key to the film working as well as it does is Cristina Marsillach, who is ideal for this kind of role. She projects a very innocent beauty, seeming innately vulnerable and sweet, so of course she’s being preyed upon by some random psychopath. (Argento has an eye for this kind of lead; see also Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA and Jennifer Connelly in PHENOMENA.) It almost goes without saying that the movie looks good, with the kind of polished elegance that was becoming common with late 80s horror as it distanced itself from the grimy carnage of the first part of the decade; there’s a lot of very pretty monochromatic work, and it goes without saying that blood red shows up quite a bit too. The music score is an interesting blend of opera, mood pieces, and Italian trash rock.

So I liked this one. It didn’t completely draw me in, for whatever reason, but it had a few surprises and, despite a slow start, achieved an energetic tone. It can be enjoyed for Argento’s style, for the story, and/or for the metacommentary contained therein, so it’s a film with a few layers to it. Sort of a giallo version of tiramisu, though I’m sure I’m indulging in a patronizing and ethnocentric cliché by comparing an Italian film to Italian food. Whatever. I’ve received my own punishment because now I’m hungry for tiramisu.

Story by Dario Argento
Screenplay by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
Directed by Dario Argento

Grade: B+