07 November 2007

Dead in the Water (NFB/CBC 2006)

The question that director Neil Docherty asks on behalf of some of the poorest people around the world is "How can companies buy, sell and trade water, our most basic need?" Dead in the Water boils the answer down to greed, bullying, and a lot of smoke and mirrors.

I'll start by saying that I watched this during a week-long union education school, but it also aired as part of the CBC documentary series The Fifth Estate. Dead in the Water traces much of the global water trouble back to the privatization of public utilities spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan in the 1980s. In most cases, water supply and sanitation are tied together in privatization deals but since sanitation provides little or no profit, it is often of little concern to private companies.

Dead in the Water asks a lot of questions and while it does provide a lot of numbers, they don't always answer the questions. On the other hand, the numbers are hard to ignore: 25 per cent of the world's population don't have access to fresh water and every 8 seconds, a child dies from a water-borne illness.

At the end of the film, it's pretty clear that the fight for public water is not over and it's not going to be easy for either side.


Buy Dead in the Water through the NFB (National Film Board)

12 October 2007

The Automat of Movie Rentals

We received a flyer today for a new video rental store in the neighbourhood: Niko Video. It seems to be an automated kiosk -- available 24/7 -- that stocks over 1400 movies (new, top rentals, and standard films plus adult titles) in each kiosk.

Films can even be reserved online up to 3 hours ahead of pickup. They advertise rentals as low as a dollar (I presume that's for the not-so-current titles) and are accessed by way of a member card that stores a cash balance (like a gift card); the cost of the rental is simply debited from the balance.

Now I'm curious. Expect a follow-up.

16 August 2007

Count Karlstein by Phillip Pullman (Yearling Reprint, 2000)

This story moves fast and never takes itself seriously for even a paragraph. Like A Series of Unfortunate Events, or many works by Edward Gorey, or even Pullman's later series, Count Karlstein centres on young children in peril. Here, however, it's easy to see the lump in Pullman's cheek as he writes with his tongue firmly planted therein.

From the first time he slinks on to the page, it is clear that Count Karlstein is a villain. In fact, there are few characters in this story who are not painted with outrageously broad strokes, but that is all part of the fun. Young children (and silly adults) should get a kick out of the story which is just scary enough to pull the blanket a little tighter but not enough to put the book down or cause any nightmares.

The story which involves a nefarious plot to sacrifice Karlstein's nieces to a mythical huntsman is told from several perspectives, allowing for the book to remain in the first person while enjoying a more omnipotent flavour.

24 June 2007

Night Watch (Fox Searchlight, 2004); Day Watch (Fox Searchlight, 2007)

Night Watch and Day Watch (now in limited North American release) are the first two installments of a trilogy based on novels by Sergei Lukyanenko. Central to the stories is the existence of "Others" -- vampires, shapeshifters and witches -- who live among humans. These others have long been divided into those who hunt humans (the Dark Others) and those who do not (the Light Others); while not exactly good versus evil, it makes for similar plot points. Those who do not hunt the humans watch the others, by day, night or twilight. What they are watching for is any sign that the balance has been tipped for when that happens, and the truce is broken, war will break out between the groups and no one will be safe.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these films. I wouldn't have bothered if I hadn't been tipped off, and even then I will admit that when a friend said to me, "Oh, you have to see this great Russian vampire movie...!" I was skeptical. But one night when I felt like renting "something different" I noticed Nightwatch on the shelf and grabbed it. Since then we bought a copy and when Daywatch came to town, we made sure we were in the audience on the first weekend.

The first thing you'll notice when watching the films in Russian with English subtitles is that the subtitles get into the act. The words crumble or turn to blood or use some other equally clever effect. Under the subtitles are two very entertaining films which use humor and violence as needed to carry along the otherwise dramatic story.

**** 1/2


Night Watch (on DVD) at Amazon.ca
Night Watch (paperback) at Amazon.ca
Day Watch (paperback) at Amazon.ca
Twilight Watch (paperback) at Amazon.ca

11 June 2007

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Corgi Books, 1991)

It took me a long time to get to this book, which had been recommended to me by three or four different friends. I've never read any of Terry Pratchett's other works, and if this is representative in any way, I don't think I'll bother. Similarly, like most of Neil Gaiman's works, I love the ideas, the worlds he builds, the alternate realities, but ultimately the writing is not well suited to the page.

Yes, sacrelige, I know. The man (Gaiman) is very entertaining and has a huge following -- myself included, oddly -- but I consistently find that his stories are those of a storyteller and they need to be read aloud. Good Omens is no different.

I love the idea of an angel and a devil, each of whom has adapted to life on earth over a couple thousand years, agreeing to quietly screw up armageddon so that they can maintain their comfortable lives. I even smiled at the many puns and page after page of wordplay. Never have footnotes been more amusing. However, after a few chapters, I just wanted them to get on with it. I'm sure, listening to the story being told, it would have held my interest, but reading it just got tedious.

In the end, it did pick up, and I enjoyed the last few chapters as much as the first; I just could have done without the middle.


17 April 2007

Drive (Fox, 2007)

I read the promo and thought, "Huh. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but dramatic," and it turns out I wasn't far off. Take that movie (or Rat Race, the more recent rip off, thereof), add a dash of The Amazing Race and sprinkle liberally with the creepy mystery of Lost and you have Fox's latest serial drama: Drive.

Drive brings together a broad spectrum of people who are participating in an "illegal underground cross-country race" with a rumoured prize of $32 million, but not everyone is racing for the money.

I'll admit, I tuned in to see Nathan Fillion, who played Captain Mal Reynolds on the short-lived but well-loved series Firefly, and Dylan Baker, who is one of my favourite character actors. I also expected to see a complete trainwreck of a show, but I got sucked in, and fast. The fact that there is a huge ensemble cast helps, as does the frantic pace, and the many mysteries to unravel. There's a lot of grey in the characters and the writers are taking their time revealing some of the real reasons or motivators behind each character's participation in the race.

It's set to lead into 24 on Monday nights on Fox and I suspect I will continue to tune in. Like Lost, Desperate Housewives, Prison Break and other serial dramas with a mystery to solve and/or a destination to reach, I can't imagine it being done well past one season but time will tell.

EDIT: After less than 3 weeks on the air, FOX has cancelled this show.

10 April 2007

Meet The Robinsons (Disney, 2007)

At some point along the way, I got sucked into this mostly typical story of an orphan who makes good.

On the surface, there's not much going on in Meet The Robinsons, the story of Lewis, a kid who likes inventing things. After 12 years and 124 interviews at the orphanage, he still hasn't found a family. After a curious series of events, Lewis finds himself in the future with a kid named Wilbur Robinson who seems to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist. I'm not giving you more than three guesses as to who has to save the day but, as I say, at some point I got sucked in enough to get choked up when Lewis inevitably finds the people who adopt him.

While there's a lot of Disney crammed into this movie, there's also a whole lot of William Joyce, who wrote the book on which the film is based. Joyce is all too familiar to parents as the creator of Rolie Polie Olie and George Shrinks, among others. Film buffs might also recognize his name as a concept artist for Toy Story and a producer for Robots. Joyce regularly visits the "world of tomorrow" in his books -- the 1950s version of the future with round swoopy lines, zeppelin-inspired ships, and helpful robots, all in technicolour -- and all of these themes are found throughout The Robinsons.

There are some obvious flaws with the movie. Some of the sequences are too jumpy even for short-attention-span kids, and there might be a few scenes too scary for very young kids. Overall though, it is a family film -- aimed at kids but with a bucketful of tongue in cheek jokes for the parents -- and I was as entertained as my six-year-old. Fans of Joyce's book or his other work will no doubt enjoy Meet the Robinsons.

*** 1/2

16 February 2007

Haunted: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Anchor Books, 2006)

I picked this book up almost cold -- it didn't even have a dust jacket, just a plain grey hardcover book. All I knew about the author was that he had written Fight Club, and I had seen the movie, plus other literate people I knew both read and recommended his books. So when I found Haunted at the United Way Book Sale in the fall, I grabbed it for a mere $2 and then it just sat on my desk until a day I wanted something different to read.

Haunted is certainly different.

Haunted is two, maybe three books in one. There is the novel itself, the basic story of the writers gathered together for a retreat gone wrong; plus there is the collection of short stories that each of the fictional writers tell; and then there's something .... else. Maybe all the talk of ghosts, the gore, the skeletons in everyone's closets, maybe all of that eventually got to me, because by the end I was convinced the story had taken a hairpin turn ducked through a tunnel and somehow returned the way it came. Then again, maybe that's what Palahniuk intended.

Ultimately, this book disappointed me. I kept hoping the next chapter would be different, better, illuminating. Instead each one made me think I'd been duped. Palahniuk clearly likes to play with the reader's head, and I finished reading Haunted, but it was like watching one too many horror films; eventually you start seeing the fake blood and rubber corpses for what they are.

25 January 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (Warner Bros. 2006)

Intense. Brutal. Vivid. Unforgettable.

All of these terms accurately describe Guillermo del Torro's El Laberinto del Fauno, released as Pan's Labyrinth in English. The story, set at the end of the Second World War in Spain, centres around Ofelia, a girl young enough to believe in fairies and old enough to see the danger in her situation. She and her pregnant mother have been brought to live in an old mill in the mountains of rural Spain. It is the base of operations for her stepfather, Captain Vidal, in his fight against the guerilla fighters living in the mountains. The Captain's housekeeper, Mercedes keeps a watchful eye on Ofelia, especially after her mother is confined to bedrest, but it is she who tells Ofelia that the ancient, crumbling labyrinth in the nearby woods has always been there.

The trailers, posters and promotional material all focus on the fantasy side of this film and I worry that some viewers will go in with unfair expectations. While Ofelia does escape into the world of the Labyrinth, she is also firmly rooted in the real, violent, world at war. Writer/director del Torro neither glorifies nor downplays the violence between the soldiers and the guerillas and it is some of these scenes, more than the fantasy sequences, that are burned into my brain with such clarity. There were audible gasps from the audience around me through some of these same scenes.

Pan's Labyrinth is, in the end, a tragedy in the truest sense; there are many deaths but in the end, there is still hope. The theme of destiny runs throughout each of the storylines from the way Ofelia's mother met the Captain to the lives of the guerillas to Ofelia's connection with the Labyrinth.

The creatures of the Labyrinth are at once otherworldly and also completely organic. The centerpice -- the title character -- is Pan, but there are other creatures lurking in and around the Labyrinth, too. Some seem to be entirely digital, others only partly so, but all fit perfectly into the surroundings. Pan is brought to life by two men: actor Doug Jones in an elaborate costume and makeup, plus a pupeteer who manipulates the upper facial features. Considering the dark, creepy look of the fantasy world and the realism of its creatures, it is no surprise that both Best Makeup and Best Art Direction are among the six Academy Award® nominations received.

I hope that people will see this film, not for the promise of a Jim-Henson like world, but for the dark, tragic, memorable film that it is. I hope, too, that the beauty of the film transcends its subtitles (though it is a shame at times to look away from the screen to read them) to find a large international audience.


23 January 2007

Wiching Hour Theatre by Craig Shaeffer (Creative Guy Publishing, 2005)

Witching Hour Theatre takes place inside the fictional Starlight Cinemas, one of those movie houses that run double and triple features for one low price. Larry Wilson is a regular at the "Witching Hour Theatre," the horror film triple feature that runs every Friday at midnight. Larry is a creature of habit, that's pretty clear, but he also has a bit of a crush on Nicole, the girl behind the concession counter. When things start to get a little weird one Friday night, Larry finds himself tangled up in horror film cliches, trying to be Nicole's hero.

Craig Shaeffer knows how to pace a story. At just under 60 pages, Witching Hour is a quick read by any estimation, but it is also a suspenseful page-turner. I read this in an afternoon, not wanting to put it down for longer than it took to refill my coffee. Shaeffer's knowledge of horror films comes through clearly in the story, as does his sense of humour. Like the Scream franchise, Witching Hour's protagonist is aware of typical, overused plot devices in the horror genre, yet can't stop himself from acting the same way when he is in the same situations as characters in movies he ridicules.

Best to read this with the lights on; popcorn optional.

*** 1/2

Buy Witching Hour Theatre chapbook directly from Creative Guy Publishing
Buy Witching Hour Theatre ebook from Fictionwise

22 January 2007

Playing By Heart (Miramax, 1998)

I have to start by confessing that Playing By Heart is one of my very favourite films. I can't give you a clear reason why this should be among the films that I turn to when I want to be entertained, but it has something to do with a very strong ensemble cast and a slightly soapy feel that pays off in the most satisfying way.

I get warm squishy feelings watching the budding relationships between Trent (Jon Stewart) and Meredith (Gillian Anderson) and between Joan (Angelina Jolie) and Keenan(Ryan Phillipe), though the Stewart/Anderson chemistry rings much more true than that of Jolie/Phillipe. Hannah (Geena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery) are preparing to renew their vows but have to get past some skeletons in the closet. While the film does not lack funny lines and sharp dialogue, Paul gets some of the best, delivering one of my favourite lines of all time and espousing some interesting philosophies about the nature of love.

The film is an exception for writer/director Willard Carroll, most of his work has been on childrens' films like The Brave Little Toaster series and Tom's Midnight Garden. It's a shame, too, because he shows a real ear for dialogue and the messy world of romantic relationships. The only big criticism I have is with the timeline. Events seem to take place inside of just a few days, but I suspect they are spread over several weeks.

Did I mention the soap opera feel? It is, at times, very overblown and melodramatic, but at the same time, it is touching and sweet, and even though I have seen it many many times, I still enjoy spending time with the characters, and that says a lot.


02 January 2007

Sci-Fi Faves

I thought I would break from the pattern and review a few of my favourite Sci-Fi films. I'm going to ignore the usual top tens and all of the Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien and Matrix franchises. I know that most of these have earned "mixed reviews" but I have watched all of these more than once (most I have watched five times or more).

Here are my faves, in alphabetical order:

Dark City. This one is soooooo under-rated. I love the dark feel, the creepy concept and the payoff. Add to that some fun acting (Keifer Sutherland chews up the scenery as an Igor-type lackey) and you get one of my favourite late-night films.

Demolition Man. OK, this one definitely falls under "guilty pleasure." Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes are a cop and a criminal from the past, who end up duking it out in the future. But I LOVE the version of the future, from the "fast food wars" to the "three shells" there is so much subtle alternate history that I can forgive Stallone and Snipes. Plus a perky Sandra Bullock is the love interest.

Fifth Element, The. Although there are scenes ripped right off from other movies (notably one scene almost frame-for-frame from Heavy Metal), there are also some really original concepts and lots of eye candy. Gary Oldman is right over the top, and Bruce Willis is in perfect form.

Galaxy Quest. If you are a Trek fan, this cheesy meta-film movie is hillarious. Normally I can't stand Tim Allen, but he rocks in the lead. The premise is that a bunch of actors hopelessly typecast from a long-cancelled sci-fi show end up actually being contacted by aliens and travelling to space. Supporting cast includes Alan Rickman, Tony Shaloub and Sam Rockwell.

Lost Skeleton of Cadavera, The. OK, this one is purposely cheesy. An homage to the great B-Movie creature-features of the 1950s, the Lost Skeleton has a monster, aliens, and yes, a talking skeleton, complete with obvious strings attached. If you love B-Movies, you owe it to yourself to rent or even buy this gem.

Mars Attacks!. Yes, it's cheesy ... what else would you expect from Tim Burton, the man responsible for Beetlejuice and Ed Wood? There is some very, very dark humour in Mars Attacks -- starting with the flaming cattle of the opening sequence -- which makes sense once you realize it was inspired by pulp comics from the 1950s.

Minority Report. Oh, how I hate Tom Cruise... but this film transcends his Cruise-ness with another dark, creepy rendition of the very near future. The concept is that Washington DC uses a "pre-crime" unit to stop criminals before they commit their crime -- how do they find a criminal? Using telepaths, of course. Based on a Philip K. Dick novel.

Serenity. This fan-favourite deserves a wider audience. The universe Joss Whedon created for the TV Series Firefly looks pretty good on the big screen; it's much more gritty and realistic than the plastic universes of Star Trek and similar films. The characters are well-rounded and the plot includes nasty aliens, government cover-up, and lots of action; Serenity is what all good sci-fi should aspire to.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. This one got unfairly panned, but its retro feel blended with high-tech delivery make it doubly enjoyable. Giant robots, a mad scientist, a nod to Conan-Doyle's Lost World, a perky reporter, a daring hero and more await you in this adventure that I suspect was intended to launch a franchise.