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