28 December 2005

Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (Odessa Films, 2001)

If B-Movies are your idea for a fun evening, then do yourself a favour and pick up the very odd Canadian indie film: Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Written by Ian Driscoll and directed by Lee Gordon Demabre, JCVH offers a little bit of everything: vampires (who hunt in daylight), kung-fu fighting, song and dance numbers, a priest with a mowhawk, a beefy transvestite, a mexican wrestler, an ass-kicking saviour, and much much more.

Surprisingly, the film has attracted little criticism. It has been screened for religious organizations but the jury is still out on whether the film presents enough of a positive image to counteract the obvious blasphemy. For the record, I think it does; it presents a modern Jesus as someone who can combat evil while still forgiving the evil-doer.

JCVH is a typical low-budget production, but the editing and sound production give it an edge over its competitors. The fight-scenes are well choreographed and well-paced; there's a suitable amount of blood and gore (it gets the point across without being excessive). Music is used to great advantage and someone had a great time adding in sound effects that range from the surreal crunch and squish of a vampire's bite to the silly boink and clunk of cartoon-style violence.

This is a full-length film, clocking in at 90 minutes and at times the story does drag a bit. Overall though, the film is a juicy addition to any B-movie fan's collection.


Buy Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter on DVD.
Buy other JCVH merchandise from Odessa Filmworks.

More info at IMDB and Odessa Filmworks.


Book of Lost Souls (Marvel/Icon 2005- )

Jonathan lived in the nineteenth century. Jilted by his true love, he is driven to suicide and just before he jumps into a river, a stranger happens to give him a book (as a weight, of course). Jonathan jumps and is resurrected in the 21st century. While a talking black and white cat named Mystery is his guide, the Dark Man seems to be his master. The cat, it seems, is not the only mystery in this world created by writer J. Michael Straczynski (Amazing Spiderman, Babylon 5) and artist Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil).

I recently picked up the first three issues, drawn to them by Straczynski's name alone. Happily, I was not disappointed. Each issue (so far) contains a single story while also gradually revealing the overall arc of what Jonathan is doing, for whom, and why. The writing is, as expected, very strong -- I especially like Mystery's tone -- and the art fits quite well with the story. My only complaint is that so far it doesn't look like a terribly inventive premise, though the strength of the writing is enough for me to continue reading the series.

The Book of Lost Souls debuted in October 2005. It is an ongoing monthly series, available in comic stores now; issue 4 hits shelves on January 11, 2006.


Read an interview with Colleen Doran about the project.
Pre-order Book of Lost Souls trade paperback (collects issues 1-6).

Buy A Distant Soil: Coda by Colleen Doran (volume 4 of the series).
Buy the Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J. Michael Straczynski.
Buy The Amazing Spiderman v.9: Skin Deep by J. Michael Straczynski.

18 December 2005

Dennis Leary's Merry F#%$in Christmas (Comedy Central, 2005)

Dennis Leary promised to put the X back in Xmas with this holiday special and he sure as [expletive deleted] did. It premiered November 27th on Comedy Central; in Canada, it aired last night on the Comedy Network.

With special guests ranging from the Barenaked Ladies to Carmen Electra, I was looking forward to settling in for an hour of raunch with a holiday twist. Instead, most of it was about as un-funny as an average episode of Mad TV. From the racist re-telling of A Night Before Christmas (set in "tha hood" and read by actor/comedian Charlie Murphy) to the very nasty mock infomercials suggesting viewers donate cash to get flat-chested teen girls breast implants (you can buy t-shirts for the non-cause if you really want to), it was like watching a trainwreck. Even the opening song, the titular "Merry F#%$in Christmas!" was weak, despite being animated a style reminiscent of the Rankin-Bass holiday specials.

There was only one laugh-out-loud sketch (there would've been two, but the promo spot gave the other laugh away) in which Dennis Leary lamented the lack of "dangerous toys" under the tree these days.

I recommend skipping this turkey.


Comedy Central is selling the CD-Single of "Merry F#%$in Christmas!" with "over 15 minutes" of bonus comedy material.

If you are looking for some funny Dennis Leary, pick up a copy of Dennis Leary [Limited Collector's Edition] on DVD. It contains material from No Cure for Cancer and Lock N' Load, plus the video for his hit song, A**hole.

11 December 2005

Bad Cinema Experience

In a small digression from our usual reviews, I would like to take a moment to rant about the recent change to the cinema landscape in our hometown. When Cineplex-Odeon acquired Famous Players from Viacom, it meant there was an overlap in 13 "zones" across Canada which meant that 35 screens had to be sold off to other interested companies in the interest of open competition.

So, at some point in the last few months, Silver City started accepting Cineplex gift certificates and the once-modern Capitol 6 along with the University 4 Cinemas were bought out by the Empire Theatre company.

Today was our first visit to the University 4 under the new management. The new management fumbled big-time today, leading to a very unpleasant start to our visit. We wanted to buy tickets for two adults, one child, and get our concession vouchers all at the express wickets. Unfortunately, the machines kept giving us "CARD ERROR" messages -- we tried three cards before getting in line at the kiosk where we were told they could only take cash. The poor kid inside the kiosk looked like he was having the worst day of his life... I'm afraid my grumpiness didn't help him any. We pulled out of the line and debated going to the bank machine to grab cash... meanwhile many other people were trying the express wickets and getting the same error message. By now, management was well aware of the problem, but no one put up a sign; no one stood by the express wicket to direct people to the kiosks -- all of this had to be weathered by the kid in the kiosk.

Only after we had gone to the bank, got back in line, and finally got to the front of the queue did the management re-appear with some signs printed on official letterhead with their apologies. It turns out the interac system was down (which includes credit card transactions, I guess) -- this is not uncommon on a shopping day this close to Christmas, but their poor handling of the issue still ticked me off.

Next was our trip to the concession where the trainee was doing juuuuust fine (we often order soda water which tends to confuse those who don't see a big shiny light that says "soda water" (hint: there isn't one -- it's what is mixed with the syrup to get your soda of choice so there's either a small button or you pull instead of push a lever)). So anyway, the trainee was just about to put the lid on our drink when been-there-a-week-longer fella decides to pull rank. "What's wrong with that drink?" Not wanting to wait for the inevitable back-and-forth I interrupted, "Don't correct him, he's right. We ordered soda water." The other fella shut up and went to get our popcorn.

So zero-for-two I'd say, and we'll likely be choosing a different theatre for our next cinematic outing.


EDIT - Update, 15Dec05:

Mike was unhappy enough about the service that he emailed Empire Theatres and included a link to this post. Mike was very clear in his complaint that while he realized the problem may have been beyond their control it was their handling of the incident that made the experience an unhappy one. The result was a relatively prompt reply (within 48 hours) including an apology. Given their response, we will likely give them another chance but I'd like to wait for them to work out some of their growing pains before we go back.

07 December 2005

Syriana (Participant/Warner Bros 2005)

There are a lot of jobs that you couldn't pay me to do -- anything involving international intrigue is high on the list. Syriana plays out not only in the oil-rich countries of the Middle-East, but also in the powerful cities of Washington, DC and Geneva, Switzerland.

Syriana is taut and finely woven. It is a thriller, a mystery, and something more. The official website describes it as "a political thriller that unfolds against the intrigues and corruption of the global oil industry." Regardless of how it is described, Syriana makes Michael Moore's revelations look like crass infomercials. It is raw and unflinching and has an undeniable impact on the viewers. The packed house with whom I viewed the film was eerily silent and still for the first few screens of credits -- it's that intense.

Like Traffic, the last award-winning film from screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, Syriana relies on handicam (a.k.a. queasycam or wobblycam) filming for a large number of shots. While this technique does enhance the tension and urgency, it is really easily abused and it was the weakest aspect of this film. The script, based on the memoirs of ex-CIA agent Robert Baer, is solid and its direction, inspired. Most of the performances are top-notch. George Clooney burns with energy as CIA agent Bob Barnes, but the real standout is Alexander Siddig as Prince Nasir, the reform-minded heir to the Emir. There's already "Oscar® Buzz" making the rounds and you can add me to the list of Siddig's supporters.

Syriana doesn't ask the audience to stop driving their cars or boycott big oil companies but it does pose some bigger questions. It leaves them unanswered, in part because there are no answers.


Buy the memoir See No Evil by Robert Baer.
Buy the soundtrack for Syriana.
Buy Traffic on DVD.


18 November 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Warner Bros 2005)

When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was originally released, fans were surprised by the size of the tome. It should be no surprise to those fans that in just over two and a half hours of run-time there is a lot of text that just didn't make it into the film. Rest assured though, not one page of script was wasted in this movie.

We find Harry Potter at the Weasley's house as they set off for the Quiddich world cup. Unfortunately, Lord Voldemort's followers, the Death Eaters disrupt the festivities and that attack sets the mood for the rest of the movie. Even the exciting announcement of the Tri-Wizard Tournaments to be held at Hogwarts is tainted by anxieties over the possible return of Voldemort and when the Goblet of Fire provides an unprecedented fourth name -- Harry Potter of course -- things can only get worse.

Each of J.K. Rowling's Potter books has been progressively darker than those which preceeded it; the films seem to amplify the darkness in sometimes unexpected ways. Goblet of Fire is the darkest so far, earning its PG-13 rating for some very tense and scary violence. There are some bright spots here, though, mostly in the form of teen dating.

Visually, Goblet of Fire is stunning. The visual effects are well-integrated and well-used with a few exceptions, none of which was jarring enough to break the action or the illusion. The sets are similar to those used in the Prisoner of Azkaban, perhaps because a large part of the action takes place outside the school on the grounds of Hogwarts, used extensively for the first time in the third film. Make-up crews for Goblet of Fire deserve a nod, too -- especially for "Mad-eye" Moody's creepy yet comical artificial eye.

There is a nervous energy to this film, and it really isn't suitable for young children or anyone who is easily scared when their favourite characters are threatened. For those who have been waiting, Mike Newell's direction fits perfectly with this script and its adolescent stars.


Buy Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (paperback book)
Buy the Harry Potter Collection (6 DVDs)


Tithe (Simon Pulse, 2004)

Teen fiction can be a tough market, but Holly Black seems to have cracked it with Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale.

Sixteen year old Kaye has been living a rough life on the road with her mom's rock band. Her unconventional life gets even weirder though after she returns to her childhood home and finds she can perform magic and talk with faeries that she had long ago convinced herself were imaginary friends.

Kaye soon finds herself deeply immersed in the world of the faeries, caught between two feuding faerie kingdoms, and forced to play an important role. Only her best friend's brother seems willing to help but there is little he can do as a mere mortal.

The book has enough violence and gore to satisfy teen fans of vampire fiction and similar genres, plus the usual teen dating dilemmas, but it is in creating the faerie world where Black really excels. The feuding faeries are played one against the other in intrigue out of a political potboiler keeping the reader guessing to the end.


Buy Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale
in paperback.

06 November 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Brothers 2005)

When I was a poor kid, I really identified with the Charlie and The Chocolate Factory book by Roald Dahl. Living in that ramshackle hut with all of his family and never complaining. The idea of him dividing scintillas of the Wonka bar over the year between one birthday and the next struck a chord. It was many years before I learned that there was a film version of this book. It came out in 1971, full of psychedelic colors and weird ideas; it seemed like that chocolate was easier to digest with a hit of LSD. Nevertheless, I liked that movie a lot.
When I heard that Tim Burton was going to tackle this story, I thought: Great! I am a big fan of Tim Burton and his capability of using childlike eyes to spy a world fit for adults (even adults who see the world through Goth lenses). But then I had a horrible flashback. I remembered a world overrun by talking apes; stupid plotlines a rapper turned rapper: Planet of the Apes. Batman was his kingmaker film but Planet of the Apes proved that he could wreck one of my favorites by remaking it. Well, Planet of the Apes was a fluke. Burton's version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory captures the spirit of the book and only strays a ways to tell the story, do it in less than two hours and satisfy Burton’s need to use his films as psychotherapy.
For the uninitiated: Willy Wonka is a reclusive chocolatier who shut the doors to his factory years back. All that comes out the Wonka gates are Wonka bars of all varieties to the joy of children everywhere. Then, one day, he puts out a call: there are five golden tickets in his chocolate bars. The bearer and one guardian are allowed access. Four annoying brats procure tickets. Plus, poor Charlie.
I always liked the Wonka factory for the sheer stupidity of it. Most factories have conveyor belts and ovens. Willy Wonka’s factory is a magical place with dwarven Oompa Loompas, nut cracking squirrels, purple inducing candy and problematic teleporters. It’s a dangerous place for children: full of ironic justice and just desserts. I was thinking: “sure you can shut out the world, but how do you explain the squirrels and rivers of chocolate to those food inspectors?”
In the shadow of the Michael Jackson trial, Willy Wonka with the velvet clothing and Prince Valiant haircut rings creepy. Seeing Wonka usher in a number of children and ply them with chocolate actually felt uncomfortable: like a parable of the Michael Jackson case. Of course, that isn’t the case, it’s just a sad case of bad timing. Put that out of your head and you can fully enjoy the magical tale of Charlie’s journey through Wonka’s factory. It’s full of touches: equally sarcastic and colorful. This movie is more entertaining than the 1971 musical; and closer to the book.

This movie comes is available on DVD


Jarhead (Universal 2005)

Like the book, the movie Jarhead follows the enlistment of Anthony Swofford into the US Marine Corps during the late 1980s. He goes through grueling basic training and is then assigned to train as a scout-sniper: elite marksmen who are trained to take out targets with devastating accuracy. It must have been a downtime for the US military. In 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the world was at peace. What a crappy time for a marine. As luck would have it, long time allies, Saddam Hussein and Iraq were tricked into invading Kuwait. The world cried foul and a coalition of nations positioned troops in Saudi Arabia. Diplomats pushed Iraq to withdraw from its tiny neighbor and the troops waited: some of them waited for upwards of 175 days. It is said that warfare is long periods of boredom interrupted by terror. Swofford’s platoon had to endure just that. Stationed in the dessert, they drilled and fought boredom by talking; guessing when their loved ones would cheat on them; masturbating; and talking about masturbation. The monotony drives Swofford to the edge. He was trained to be this surgical tool: to assassinate key targets from a mile away and instead he drills with his fellow jarheads. Finally the war comes. They move into Kuwait to kick some Iraqi ass. They do get shelled by the Iraqis who promptly retreat. At one point they’re shelled by airborne tank killers—US tank killers. They find evidence of collateral damage; and the Iraqi sabotage of the Kuwaiti oil fields. Do they engage the Iraqis and put all of their training to the test? I won’t spoil the story for you, but sufficed to say: this was a war fought from the air. It was a one-sided war. America was braced for massive casualties but lost more troops to accidents and friendly fire than they did to the Iraqi forces.
Jarhead has so many levels that it brings something new to this well traveled territory. Full Metal Jacket explored this same territory in a 1960s setting. The terror of Saving Private Ryan is almost the opposite of Jarhead. According to cinema, we know how ludicrous the military is: everything from Stripes to Catch 22 to Private Benjamin has taught us that. Jarhead doesn’t move into parody territory, but it does carry an undercurrent of sarcasm: e.g. when a drill sergeant is slapping Swofford in the back of the head and asking Swofford why he’s in the military, Swofford replies, “Sir! I got lost on the way to college! Sir!”
Swofford: the author of Jarhead is the central character of Jarhead. He’s well played by Jake Gyllenhaal who turns in a solid performance as a man who would rather be anywhere else but he needs to earn money for college. The mess of his family is described in a short montage: a depressed mother; an institutionalized sister; a father who managed to never leave Vietnam behind. Swofford is simultaneously eager to snipe his first kills; and repulsed by the disregard for human life that is common in war and in the military.
Swofford’s platoon is made up of losers, rejects, psychopaths and unskilled men who needed the work. Swofford’s spotter, Troy, is played by Peter Sarsgaard: who fills out the role as Swofford’s foil. The supporting cast is rounded out by Jamie Foxx as Staff Sgt. Sykes, leader of his squad. Some of the troops want out. Some who love the marines are about to get tossed. Sykes is the exception: he’s happy where he is and the marines aren’t about to throw him out.
In Vietnam, soldiers were thrown into the fray, mowed down and spat on when they came home. By the time of the first Gulf War, military reconnaissance had become so evolved that air strikes scrubbed out the enemy and troops were sent to mop up. The US military is so good at killing and so good at surviving enemy fire that the majority of their casualties come from friendly fire. The soldiers—especially the marines— are left with this sense of pent-up rage that can’t be satisfied on the battlefield. They’re so effective at warfare that they come home victorious to cheering crowds. Whether it’s a hated Vietnam vet; or a Jarhead who’s getting accolades for surviving boredom—both of them came home feeling they got something they didn’t deserve.

The book, Jarhead is available for sale


30 October 2005

American Gods (Harper Collins, 2001)

In Neil Gaiman's America, Gods from all cultures live among regular folks, though they don't exactly live regular lives. Some have gone a bit crazy having been forgotten, unworshipped or disrespected; others have found creative ways to channel the energy they need. Of course America has also created its own gods -- Media, Internet, Commerce, and so on -- and a war is brewing between the old and the new gods for the masses' worship and sacrifice on which they feed.

American Gods follows a convict who goes by the name of Shadow. It follows him out of jail, where he finds the life he left behind in crumbled ruins, and into the employ of a man who calls himself Wednesday. Shadow is hired as a bodyguard, but it is soon clear he has a much bigger part to play. Shadow moves guardedly and skeptically through the world, usually choosing to observe rather than interact with people. He is well-read and he practices coin tricks to keep his mind focused. Gaiman slowly reveals details through Shadow's experiences and dreams, being careful not to reveal too much at each waypoint. The result is an inevitable but satisfying conclusion.

The recently released Anansi Boys is a spin-off from American Gods, following the family of Anansi who plays a small role in this book.

Buy American Gods.
Buy Anansi Boys.

24 October 2005

Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Madness (Atheneum, 2004)

This small collection of four of Edgar Allen Poe's creepy tales is aimed squarely at the tweens and teens set and published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Simon and Shuster's Children's division). The illustrations by Gris Grimly -- pen and ink and with watercolour -- lend a graphic novel feel to Poe's dark, dry wit. Included are abridged texts of "The Black Cat," "The Masque of the Red Death," "Hop Frog" and "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Both "Hop-Frog" and "The Black Cat" were new to me and so the images I hold of those tales will now always be Grimly's -- and that is not a bad thing. As the writer discusses his growing aversion to the cat, listing the many reasons, Grimly counters with exhibits A through F: six smaller illustrations in the sidebars pinpointing each of the reasons the writer hates the cat. The illustrations of the climax of "Hop Frog" are horrific and gruesome without being gory -- Poe fills in the gore nicely, though, fear not. Like the Gorey-illustrated War of the Worlds, the combinaion of Grimly with Poe's text is a near-perfect match. Kudos also to the graphic designers for setting the text in Locarno, a slightly-off-kilter decorative serif font that enhances Grimly's images as much as it embrace's Poe's writing.

If there is a comic-book enthusiast on your Christmas List who might be ready for an introduction to some classic lit, this is a fine option; it would also make a great gift for any self-identified goth, fans of Tim Burton's films, or of course horror enthusiasts.

Buy Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Madness illustrated by Gris Grimly.

20 October 2005

2046 (Sony Picture Classics, 2005)

2046 is the number of a hotel room that a writer uses for inspiration to write 2046, a scifi story about a journey on a train to 2046, a place to recover lost memories. On the train are androids with whom travellers "must never fall in love."

If the film had focused on the train and the androids, I'd have been able to see the film I expected to see. Instead, 2046 is about a man who treats women as objects and will not let himself fall in love.

Many reviewers will tell you this is a beautiful, moving film; I will not. There were a few scenes which were beautiful, some that were moving, and some that were jarring. Mostly, the scenes were long. Wong Kar Wai draws out the action and the inaction in life -- a woman considers a draw on a cigarette, s-l-o-w-l-y brings the cigarette to her lips, takes a drag then slowly watches the smoke she blows into the air. Then the writer says , "Sometimes scenes from my life show up in my work," and we see the same woman, in a different costume, take the same impossibly long drag of a cigarette.

I kept wondering when it would end. The writer, Chow, kept talking about different women he had mistreated and each time a relationship ended, I thought, "OK, roll credits!" and another scene would open. The long feel of the film combined with of seeing a drama-romance when I was prepared for a scifi mindbender resulted a big disappointment.

I'm sure there is an audience who will love this film -- I just can't count myself in it.

15 October 2005

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Aardman Films, 2005)

Wallace and Gromit make their feature-film debut in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a clever and funny little film, suitable for all ages. (If you haven't seen Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit shorts, all three films are available together on DVD and they are well worth watching, over and over again.)

In The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wallace (Peter Sallis) and Gromit are the owner-operators of Anti-Pesto, a humane pest control company. When we join the action, the town is preparing for the annual Giant Vegetable compettition, hosted by Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham-Carter). While Anti-Pesto has no trouble dealing with regular rabbits, a monstrous rabbit who feeds by moonlight poses a bit more trouble. Will Anti-Pesto be able to tame the beast or will Lady Tottington be forced to turn to her suitor and avid hunter, Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Finnes)?

Like Burton's Corpse Bride, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is filmed using stop-motion animation techniques. (If you look closely, you'll see fingerprints on the figures.) The film took five years to make and many of the figures were recently lost in a warehouse fire.

Typical of the best family films, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit has humour aimed at children and at their parents -- many of the funniest jokes for adults are names or written cues with double meanings and nods to classic flims. Children enjoy the physical humour which is most evident through Gromit, Wallace's dog who does not speak.

Highly recommended.

Buy Wallace and Gromit in Three Great Adventures.

09 October 2005

War of the Worlds (New York Reveiw of Books, 2005)

The colourful cover of this book is deceptive. Inside the bright magenta and green cover crawling with spindly-legged aliens is H.G. Wells classic speculative invasion tale The War of the Worlds with drawings by Edward Gorey. In fact, Gorey is also responsible for the cover art -- but not the colour. Gorey created the pen and ink drawings to accompany Wells text in 1960 for the Looking Glass Library; the edition has been out of print for nearly 50 years and now reissued by the New York Review of Books.

War of the Worlds has been thrilling readers, listeners and audiences for over a hundred years (the first edition was published in 1898) and more than once has incited riots when mistaken for actual events. Whether or not you saw the Spielberg-Cruise summer blockbuster based on the book, if you haven't read Wells original text, you may be surprised by the suspense; Gorey's eerie organic drawings add a distinct otherworldly touch and the two combine for a very satisfying read.


Buy The War of the Worlds in hardcover
Pre-order War of the Worlds on DVD (to be released November 22, 2005)

06 October 2005

Serenity (Fox 2005)

Are you sick of Star Trek? The noble future fully of sappy altruism? The captain at the center of it all, sending red shirts to the surface to die? How about the regrettable Star Wars franchise with its senate chamber full of boredom? Well, hello Firefly! The short lived TV series (14 episodes—- 11 aired) is set in 2540’s in a future that looks more like Blade Runner set on fast forward. Earth was ruined by some unspecified catastrophe (knowing humans, it was probably a self-inflicted wound). The people fled to another star system rich in habitable planets where they terraformed many of these worlds. Some are beacons of technology and sophistication. Some are desolate outposts. The crew of the cargo ship Serenity ply those lonely, lawless outer worlds.

The crux of the Serenity movie is the mystery of River Tam (Summer Glau): a teenager who was surgically altered and conditioned to become a psychic and a super weapon. Her brother, a brilliant surgeon rescued her from the government forces who were altering River and used the Serenity for passage. From that moment on, the Serenity was the target of bounty hunters, government forces and elite special agents. River starts to exhibit some very peculiar talents and Serenity’s captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), starts to dig to get to the answers: What did they do to River? What is she hiding?

To satisfy fans with questions and novices who have sat down to munch popcorn and watch the movie, Serenity answers a lot of questions. The fate of Earth. How did River’s brother spring her from captivity. How the Reavers came about. And, what happened to the crew after the final episode of the TV series. In many ways, this is episode 15 with a big boost in budget and a lack of standards-and-practices weasels censoring good TV. Just as the TV series had a strong vibe from Joss Whedon (Toy Story, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), this movie is the same. After such a choking diet of political correctness from the Star Trek franchise, Serenity is very welcome. The crew talk about offing River. They shoot people who they don’t like (and do so with little angst). Sometimes they don’t listen to the captain. Sometimes the captain acts like a coward. It feels like a real ship that had to fit into a real future. Best of all—and I cannot believe I am saying this—is the Western feel of the show. Holsters, six-shooters, dusty towns ripe for holdups. All of the stuff that seem incongruous with spaceships and high tech, but it actually works. We can’t predict the future. Every time I’ve seen Star Trek and others shows set in the future, I’ve said, “I don’t know what the future will look like but it won’t look like this.” Will it look like the Wild West? Probably not. Nevertheless, it looks good and it has an internal consistency.

To sum up: Serenity is a great movie. Unlike many movies, it actually put me on a roller coaster. It was tense. I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me. This was all because, for the first time in a long time, I couldn’t outguess the plot. Based on the tradition of the Western, Whedon did telegraph doom for the crew but like so many things, the plot takes an unpredictable course that makes this movie worthwhile—even if you’re not a Firefly fan.

Buy the Firefly Series on DVD

30 September 2005

Enchantment (Del Rey, 2001)

Orson Scott Card is well-known for writing science fiction (e.g. the Ender series) and fantasy (e.g. the Alvin Maker series); Enchantment falls in the latter category. As a young man, Ivan lived in Russia but was later uprooted, ultimately moving to America. He studied ancient Russian languages like his father but felt little connection to his roots. So when Ivan decides to return to his homeland, most people are surprised.

During a run, Ivan finds himself staring at what appears to be Sleeping Beauty and he finds himself drawn back to the spot time and again though he feels it must be his imagination. What follows is an imaginitive look at how Medieval Russia differed from the history books; how easy it would be for Ivan to change the course of history; and how two people forced together must make the best of the situation. The villain in the story is none other than Baba Yaga, famous throughout Russian folklore. Eventually, the time-crossed pair must escape to Ivan's time and the reader is able to see the modern world through Medieval eyes.

The story works on many levels -- it is a romance, it is a fantasy, it has comic moments and tragic. It is one of those stories which takes a while to get into but is difficult to put down once the action starts. I highly recommend this novel to anyone interested -- even slightly -- in folklore, time travel, or good old-fashioned storytelling.

Buy Enchantment in paperback.

21 September 2005

Corpse Bride (Warner Bros. 2005)

In a dark, near-monochrome world of carriages, corsets, family fortunes and fishmongers, Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp), has been promised to Victoria (Emily Watson), daughter of the now penniless Lord and Lady Everglot. On the eve of their wedding rehersal, Victor is exceptionally nervous and after a particularly embarassing faux pas he runs for the hills in disgrace. He gathers his resolve in the middle of the forest and begins to recite his vows, placing the ring on a twig. Only problem is that the twig is the skeletal arm of the once-jilted Emily (Helena Bonham Carter): the Corpse Bride.

What follows is a typical (if darkly twisted) farce with zippy musical numbers and enough eye candy to keep your brain busy for the full 76-minute runtime. If zombie corpses, talking maggots and animated skeletons are not your cup of tea, you might want to check the other films at your local cineplex. Luckily, for those of us who carry Nightmare Before Christmas lunchboxes, own copies of Edward Gorey's books and decorate their homes with reproductions of Jose Guadalupe Posada prints, this film exists.

The Corpse Bride, based on a Russian folktale, marks Tim Burton's return to stop-motion animation. Scale and artistic abilities aside, this film uses technology which is widely available: Apple's Final Cut Pro and Canon digital SLR cameras. While the details of Corpse Bride are not quite as rich and varied as Nightmare Before Christmas, they still exceed the detail of many live-action films.

Burton fans will recognize many of his usual cast of collaborators -- Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Albert Finney and Christopher Lee have all starred in multiple Burton films and Danny Elfman has been musically interpreting Burton's visions since 1985's Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Fans will also notice many nods to Burton's own films and those of his inspirations -- the piano Victor plays is a "Harry Hausen" and the first musical number in the world of the dead is clearly an homage to the very first of Disney's Silly Symphonies, The Skeleton Dance (1929).

In the end, if you are already a Burton fan going into the theatre, the Corpse Bride will not disappoint; on the other hand, I doubt it will win Burton a wider audience.

Every Burton fan should own Nightmare Before Christmas
You might also like Edward Gorey's Amphigorey
Check out Viva la Muerte, a collection of Posada lithographs

15 September 2005

Proof (Miramax, 2005)

Robert (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant mathematician, is rightfully proud when his daughter Catherine (Gwenyth Paltrow) chooses to follow in his footsteps. When his health declines, she drops out of school to care for him and to continue her own research by his side. After his death, she tries to come to grips with her possible inheritance: his insanity.

The latest in a string of aren't-mathematicians-crazy/reclusive tales out of Hollywood (see also: Good Will Hunting, Pi, A Beautiful Mind), does not stray too far from the path. Paltrow gives another award-worthy performance, and she is well-supported by Hopkins and Jake Gyllenhaal as Hal, a grad student who is convinced Robert was working on something brilliant in his latter years.

The fact that Proof was adapted from a stage play should not surprise any viewer -- the dialogue is still quite theatrical at times. I was pleased that the creative team allowed Paltrow to look plain instead of stereotypically bookish, but I do wish someone had given directions other than "If you want to seem crazy, yell louder."

On the other hand, the movie is entertaining; there are some very funny exchanges between Catherine and Hal, some very touching father-daughter moments, and lots of frustrations and revelations in between. Proof doesn't require a knowledge of advanced mathematics -- the only in-joke is explained -- and it doesn't focus on the work itself. Instead the focus is on the people and the work they do and the way mental illness touches a family. Like Broken Flowers, Proof is aimed at an adult audience -- not the adults who expect bawdy humour or gory violence, but the adults who can appreciate watching people interact and show emotion.

Buy the original play by David Auburn.


05 September 2005

Worst Jobs In History (Spire/Channel4, 2004)

Tony Robinson, perhaps best known for his role as Baldrick in the Blackadder Series, hosts this vivid series about some truly awful jobs throughout Britain's history from the Roman and Anglo-Saxon times through to the Victorian Age.

Most of the jobs which Robinson highlights in the Worst Jobs in History are either smelly and dirty or put the worker directly in harms way either through risk of death or injury or risk of disease. Consider for example the wode dyer, responsible for dying wool and cloth with wode to produce a deep indigo colour. The problem (aside from blue hands) was the stench of the wode as it was steeping; the smell was so strong that Queen Elizabeth decreed the dyers could not live within 5 miles of any royal residence.

Robinson draws the viewer in by actually performing some of the jobs himself, or at least parts of the jobs, and describing the smell of some of the stinkiest jobs in great detail. Along the way the viewer not only learns about the social history of the British people but also the origin of words and phrases like "toady" and "pin money" which survive today.

Some of the jobs are also a bit grizzly (executioner, violin-string maker, mill-scavenger) and parental discretion may be in order. Otherwise, the series is highly recommended for older children (over 12) and adults.

Buy the book: Worst Jobs In History: The Most Unenviable Jobs Of The Last Two Thousand Years

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (Tristar Films, 2001)

As I was growing up, local TV stations put all of these great, crappy B-movies: It The Living Colossus; I Married A Monster From Outer Space; War of the Gaurgantuas; the list goes on and on. I really miss those movies. In 2004, a troupe of actors banded together and made an ulta low budget homage to those movies: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.
In the plot, a scientist and his wife go into the mountains to search out a meteorite that has is "lousy with atomosphereum"-- super powered and revolutionary new material. In the mountains, a space ship from the planet Marva crashlands. It's occupants, Lattice and Crowbar, have to find some atomosphereum and effect repairs. That's not the worst of their problems. Their mutant has gone missing and means its going to paint a murderous path through the lowly earthmen.
Also in the mountain is a mad scientist, Dr. Richard Fleming. His goal: find the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. The Skeleton is a haunted set of bones in a lost cave. For Fleming to reanimate the skeleton he needs-- you guessed it-- atomosphereum.
These different parties meet up and try to connive their way into posessing the atomosphereum meteorite. Add to this "basic" plot Flemings, minion, Animala: a woman dressed like a beatnik who has been made from forest animals. This movie is over the top camp. It looks like its been shot with $50 in props. The dialogue is purposefully worse than the product of Ed Wood's pen. Raiders of the Lost Ark did the 1940s serials better than they could have ever been done. In the same way, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, does the B-movies better than they could have done them. If you dread B-movies, you will likely choke on this piece of gold. Otherwise, seek it out. It's worth the search.

04 September 2005

Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Granta, 1991)

If there is a cannon for books one should read to their children, Salman Rushie's Haroun and the Sea Of Stories should certainly be on the list. I first encountered this book as an audio book and later picked up a paperback edition; both are worth having though the audio book (read by Rushdie himself) is currently out of print.

The story is set in the mythical land of Alifbay where Haroun's father is a renowned storyteller whose stories suddenly dry up one day. As Haroun tries to fix the problem, he travels to the Sea of Stories where something very sinister indeed is underway.

Rushdie's chatty narrative is perfectly suited to this tale of storytellers and their sources. He weaves quirky characters (like water genies, flying mechanical birds, and armies arranged like libraries) and odd details (like P2C2Es also known as "Processes Too Complicated To Explain") into an unforgettable tale of one boy's journey to not only help his father but also restore his own faith in his father's gift. The writing manages to be contemporary and timeless at the same time and readers should not be surprised to find themselves laughing out loud.

Buy Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Bugs of British Columbia (Lone Pine Publishing, 2001)

Like other Lone Pine Field Guides, Bugs of British Columbia is visually stunning and packed with useful information. Self-proclaimed "bugster" and "nature nut" John Acorn presents British Columbia's 125 "coolest" bugs -- colourful, weird, or hard to miss -- accompanied by detailed paintings by Ian Sheldon.

Each bug is showcased on a single page with a painting and short text write-up; the bugs are collected in like groups: moths, butterflies, beetles and so forth with colour-coded page tabs for easy reference. Whether you consider yourself a "bugster" or you just want to identify the creepy-crawly thing in your backyard, this is a great book to have on hand.

Recommended reference book for all ages.

Other Lone Pine Guides:
Buy Bugs of Washington and Oregon
Buy Bugs of Alberta
Buy Butterflies of Alberta
Buy Bugs of Northern California
Buy Bugs of Ontario

The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D (Dimension Films, 2005)

In the world of make believe, a boy (Taylor Lautner) is raised by sharks. He grows gills, razor teeth, a fin out of his back. Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) is borne of Lava and the volcanoes. They are both the creation of an imaginative introverted boy, Max (Cayden Boyd). Along with Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Max has invented a whole world—planet Drool; the Land of Milk and Cookies; the villain Mr. Electric (George Lopez)—much to the chagrin of his teacher (the alter-ego of George Lopez); and his parents (David Arquette and Kristin Davis); and his schoolmates. Max keeps all of his imaginings in a little notebook. When the school bully steals Max’s book, he is crushed. Sharkboy and Lavagirl come to the rescue. They need that book of dreams for them to exist. From there, we are launched into the dizzying world of 3-D.The movie is almost wholly digital and CGI. Virtually every shot has CGI and 70% of the movie takes place on the other side of cardboard 3-D glasses. It doesn’t look good. Rodriguez has a flare for color. His Spykids movies are brilliant bursts on the screen. Sin City has gouts of color. 3-D needs to make half of the things blue; and half of the things red. Every other color is a square peg in a round hole. The end result is a washed out grey that occasionally flies out from the screen. It’s a gimmick that makes a weak movie weaker.
Kids are imaginative. Kids are great. Kids are full of wonder. Should they pen screenplays or plots for big budget Hollywood features? No. No, they shouldn’t. I am confident that Rodriguez’ progeny, Racer, could become a talented filmmakers in his own right: he gets to learn at the feet of one of the best directors alive. But he’s not there yet. Sharkboy and Lavagirl is the polar opposite of Sin City. While Sin City is dark, purposely repugnant, gory, forced into the two dimensional world of comics books but ultimately fascinating. Sharkboy is cotton candy bright, syrupy sweet and tricks its way into the third dimension. Worst of all: it’s a boring exercise in wish fulfillment, coming from the “Maybe it was all a dream” school of story writing.
Enough about my opinion: this was movie made by adults from a child’s imagination. How does a child feel about this movie? I took my four-year old. So far, she has been a good indicator of the staying power of a film. Finding Nemo (from two years ago), she quotes ad infinitum. The Incredibles from 2004 is still near and dear. Sharkboy, the most recent movie she has seen of the three is a forgotten puff of smoke and light.

Buy Shark Boy and Lava Girl on DVD

Revenge of the Sith (20th Century Fox, 2005)

Twenty-eight years ago, Hollywood was sent reeling. After decades of sci-fi being schlock for kiddies; or depressing dystopian futures; George Lucas brought out something new from many old ingredients. Star Wars spawned three movies; then Lucas returned to the galaxy far far away to present prequels and stitch a past to his landmark 1977 film. Revenge Of The Sith follows two movies set in the hey-day of the Galactic Republic. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) has grown from a slave boy to brooding Jedi Knight prophesied to be the Chosen One in the battle of the light vs. dark. The Galactic Republic is in the latter stages of a galactic civil war. Anakin with his master and teacher Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) are part of the elite Jedi, leading waves of clone troopers to counter the separatist forces. Behind the scenes, a Sith Lord Darth Sidious (Iain McDiarmid) is manipulating both sides of the conflict. In the guise of Emperor Palpatine, he is also mentoring Anakin; fermenting a distrust of the Jedi in their star pupil. Events unfold and Anakin falls to the Dark Side. He becomes Darth Vader. He and Obi-Wan fight a pitched battle and Vader suffers the crippling, disfiguring fate that we’ve been curious to see since 1977.
This is the pay-off of the prequel trilogy, if not the whole series. Is it the best of the series? No. But it is really a strong outing. Best of all, it’s dark. At the beginning of Star Wars the Empire is in control; the Jedi are all but extinct; Vader was bested by his mentor, Obi-wan. We know that by the end of Revenge Of The Sith all of this has to be set up. We’re prepped for the bad news in an almost masochistic way. In many ways, the first two prequels were just teasers and this is what we wanted to see all along.
Where does this movie fall down? Dialogue. After the blind luck of passable dialogue in Star Wars, the words from the actors went downhill. Lucas co-wrote the other screenplays and you can tell that the comparably strong dialogue came from the likes of Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. When Vader meets his fate, he cries, “I hate you!” to Obi-wan with the same gravity and tone that comes from a five year old denied a new matchbox car.
I think what I got from this movie were the subversive themes that background the plot like a tyrannosaurus behind a pack of raptors. When Yoda and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) talk about the prophecy that the Chosen One will bring order to Force, I thought: Why do that? There are hundreds—thousands-- of Jedi and two Sith Lords. That’s the kind of imbalance people strive to be on the winning side of. Well, they get their wish. I enjoyed the “pride goeth before a fall” aspect of the Jedi council who try to shape the fate the Republic and bristle when their absolute power is questioned. Kudos go to Jackson for presenting cool and ferocity in almost the same moment.
When you tell a fairy tale to a four year old, they’ll sometimes ask, “And then what happened? Then what happened?” You keep telling the tale and filling in the blanks. At the end of the Revenge of the Sith, I left the theatre sated. The fairy tale that happened once upon a time in a galaxy far far away is done.

Buy Revenge of the Sith on DVD

Madagascar (Dreamworks, 2005)

When Marty, a zebra who lives in the Central Park Zoo turns 10, he decides to head for the wild by taking the train to Conneticut. When his three friends (a lion, a giraffe and a hippo) go after him they all end up in crates bound for Kenya but land on the island of Madagascar instead.

Madagascar is a typical animated kids' movie with a group of friends who get split up but rejoin to battle a common foe. Like most modern kids' movies, Madagascar is also jam-packed with pop culture references for the grown-ups in the audience, though the gags here are average at best. The exaggerated antics of four pampered, city-bred animals are certain to please the younger audience members.

The Madagascar soundtrack features some pretty typical songs meant to evoke other movies and keep the adults in the audience happy -- Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World (as used in Stand By Me), Vangelis' Chariots of Fire main theme, and the Bee Gee's iconic Stayin' Alive (from Saturday Night Fever). The best song on the soundtrack is also the best musical moment in the movie -- Sacha Baron Cohen's cover of I Like to Move it Move it which had all the kids around me wiggling in their seats. The producers also selected the track to run over the credits when I was once again surrounded by dancing toddlers.

Recommended for young children (10 and under).

Buy Madagascar on DVD (available November 2005).
Buy the Madagascar Soundtrack on CD.