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.