14 November 2008

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time begins with a murder but not the usual kind; the victim is a dog. Christopher, who lives across the street, decides he wants to find out who killed the dog but Christopher is not your average fifteen year old either. He is unable to read people's emotions, is easily overwhelmed by sensations and information, and does not like brown or yellow foods. He goes to a special school, too, where his instructor encourages him to write a book about his search for the person who killed the dog.

I tried to describe this book to someone who had never heard of it and the closest comparison I could make was that it read like one of those small British character-driven films. It doesn't necessarily go anywhere, it just puts the reader into the protagonist's shoes for a while.

Readers who are bored by math and physics may want to steer clear of this one as Christopher uses math to clear his head and as a result several chapters outline some famous and not-so-famous math problems. There is also some very strong language used in the book, so parents who worry about that may not want to offer this one to younger teens.

Cautions aside, Curious is a challenging, touching, and ultimately sweet book that is suitable not just for teens and young adults but also for grownups.


12 October 2008

TV worth watching again and again

Some television shows are worth watching more than once and some can be enjoyed many viewings later. Comedies tend to hold up best -- from classics like I Love Lucy to more recent hits like Seinfeld to British imports like Fawlty Towers -- but sci-fi shows have a place in many collections, too.

Here's five shows no collection should be without and a couple of personal faves thrown into the mix:

1. Firefly. Cancelled before it's time, this sci-fi/space western works on many levels -- it has action, drama, mystery, a little romance and lots of comedy. Buy the complete series on DVD; if you like it, you'll also want to get Serenity, the feature film released after the show's cancellation.

2. Fawlty Towers. Join Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) as he tries to run a hotel in Torquay. There's only a dozen episodes but each one is laugh-out-loud funny. Buy the complete series on DVD; if you like it, you may also want to get A Fish Called Wanda which has nothing to do with Fawlty Towers except that it features one of Cleese's finest comedic turns.

3. Arrested Development. Possibly the most dysfunctional family ever brought to the screen, the Bluths lack ethics, business sense, common sense, and common decency, but they do stick together. Buy Season 1, Season 2 and Season 3 on DVD.

4. The Office. As funny as the British original was, the American remake starring Steve Carrell is even funnier. If you've ever had to do time in a white collar ghetto, this show will make you cringe with some of the close-to-home moments and laugh at the over-the-top antics. Get started with Seasons 1-4 collected on DVD.

5. How I Met Your Mother. If you laughed with Friends in the 90s, you owe it to yourself to check out the most recent group of twenty-something New Yorkers to yuk-it-up on the small screen. While the whole cast is solid, Neil Patrick Harris regularly steals the scene as the womanizing Barney. Season 4 just started in fall 2008 but you can get up to speed with Season 1, Season 2 and Season 3 on DVD.

6. Blackadder. Everyone I know who likes this Britcom has a favourite season; the same cast surround a character named Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) during the Middle Ages, the Elizabethan Era, Regency England and the First World War. Buy the complete series on DVD.

7. Battlestar Galactica. It amazes me that the seed of a bad seventies space opera could be reimagined into one of the grittiest most politically charged dramas in recent years. Miles away from the original, if you've steered clear of this for it's name association, forget all that and go buy the series: Season One, Seasons 2.0 and 2.5, Season Three and while you're at it, you may want to add Razor, the 2-hour movie/episode that tells the tale of the Pegasus.

8. Doctor Who. Another reborn sci-fi series, the most recent incarnation of this classic features better effects and a great cast with plenty of creepy aliens, robots and time-travel quandries. My only hesitation in recommending this great series its cost -- usually over $100 per season. Buy the Complete First and Second Series, Third Series, and Fourth Series on DVD.

27 September 2008

Ten Favourite Movies made Before I was Born

You'll notice some "great" movies missing from this list -- such as Citizen Kane -- and while there are many older movies I appreciate, I can't watch them over and over like the ten here. These are movies I have seen multiple times and that I still love to watch; I've numbered them, but they are not necessarily in order:

1. The Wizard of Oz (1939). Yes, it's cheezy and melodramatic and kitchy, but I still watch it at least once a year. A few years ago, I saw it at Cinecenta -- the first time I had watched it in a darkened theatre on a full-size screen and the tornado sequence was so much more frightening! If you've never seen it on the big screen, I highly recommend tracking it down at a repertoire theatre.

2. The Apartment (1960). This film was full of surprises for me and, while it is very dated now, it's somehow still relevant. I think this was the first Billy Wilder film I saw and certainly the first time I had seen Fred MacMurray in a darker role (I was used to seeing him on My Three Sons and in Disney films). I also finally understood why Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine were stars.

3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Sure, Gort looks pretty non-threatening to today's viewers, but the brilliance in this film is the script. It's solid sci-fi and serves as a great overview of Cold War paranoia.

4. The Italian Job (1969). OK, so this was technically released the year I was born, but I'm confident that it was made before I was born and there's no way I would have seen it in the theatre. There is so much brilliance in this film -- Michael Caine is in fine form, the sequence with the Minis was brilliantly coordinated, and the ending? That's just movie gold. The "remake" from 2003 is a pathetic shadow of this movie and should be avoided at all costs.

5. The Odd Couple (1968). I never watched the TV show so I only begrudgingly bothered to watch this film the first time around. Turns out, it's hilarious and I frequently quote the characters. Full credit has to be given to Neil Simon's screenplay at the core of this film but also to the great performances by the lead and supporting cast.

6. Pillow Talk (1959). Possibly the finest example of a screwball romantic comedy with Rock Hudson and Doris Day giving some of their best performances. If you liked Down With Love, this movie is required viewing -- several scenes are almost shot-for-shot in homage; the reverse is also true!

7. The Desk Set (1957) Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn spar when a computer is introduced into the fact-checking department at a newspaper. Librarians are still facing off against Google and this movie still makes me giggle for that reason.

8. Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948). Every time we consider building a house, this movie runs through my head. Cary Grant has an intense job with an ad agency and an apartment full of women so they decide to buy a house in the country. Turns out the house is falling down so they decide to build-to-suit. Despite the laughably low prices for real estate and construction and the rather offensive caricature that is Gussie, the family housekeeper, this movie is very watchable and very funny.

9. Singing in the Rain (1952). I don't consider myself a fan of musicals, but this is the second one on my list. Debbie Reynolds sparkles and Donald O'Connor cracks me up every time plus it contains some of the most recognizable Hollywood musical songs.

10. Rope (1948). Really tough call between this one and Rear Window (1954); both feature James Stewart in strong Hitchcock films but Rope is just that much darker and that much more masterful. Actually, they make a good double feature if you can handle the tension!

17 August 2008

X Saves the World by Jeff Gordinier (Viking Press 2008)

Jeff Gordinier is unflinching in X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Skill Keep Everything from Sucking. The book is as much a call to action for Generation X as it is a rant about the generations between which it is sandwiched -- the ubiquitous Boomers and the up-and-coming Millennials (aka Generation Y).

Gordinier echoes demographers' arguments about the parameters of Generation X while adding another level by suggesting, via Douglas Coupland, that Generation X is as much a mindset as a birthdate. He is also careful to admit that he is making broad generalizations throughout the book and that being born during a given year does not automatically make one fall into step with everyone else born that year.

That said, no matter how you slice the Gen X pie, I fall squarely into the demographic both by birth and by attitude. I'm not sure how non-Xers would react to this book; likely call us all whiners and write it off as more gloom but the crazy thing is, there's a lot of hope in this book. It feels a lot like the end of V for Vendetta; I won't spoil the ending but I left the theatre feeling an overwhelming sense that change -- real change -- was achievable.

There were sections I skimmed -- personally, I could care less about Nirvana but Gordinier hangs an awful lot of his book on the impact of both "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and also on Kurt Cobain's suicide. I also skimmed Gordinier's take on the Poetry Bus -- something I had never heard of prior to this book and will not bother to research further.

On the other hand, I reveled in his descriptions of the internet boom and bust, about the movies and the directors who speak for and to our generation, and about Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart who brought Generation X's brand of subversive humour to the main stage.

Throughout X Saves the World, I found myself laughing ("By 1999 a fecal tide of suckitude, suckness, and suckronicity was upon us..."1), nodding (oh, yeah, I have definitely encountered the "grey ceiling"), and making note of suggested ways I could help keep my world from sucking.


1 Introduction, p. xxiv

09 August 2008

Clone Wars: My take on the latest from a Galaxy Far Far Away

I thought I could super-spoiler the Clone Wars movie or I could do a review. I did both.
Clone Wars is aimed at the Kiddie Set. Instead of the scroll that we've seen at least six times before (several video games in the license have used this too), we get a cheezy news reel narration. Instead of subtitling Jabba, people react and his protocol droid occasionally steps in. Rather than aim for the kid-lit crowd, Clone Wars aims for pre-lit crowd. While all of theSepartist gizmos (robots, vehicles, weapons) are on parade; the Republic side is sparse: Clone Troopers, Navy, a few Jedi and Padme for good measure. A nice small cast that even a six-year old could remember (that's handy for when they go intoToys'R'Us the next day). There is a real video game feel to this movie. It feels like you have a bunch of challenges to overcome: some fighting based, some logic based. If a video game isn't imminent, it could be knocked off in a weekend by pulling CGI models, clips for cut sequences and a couple of light saber shaped health meters. At times, I think I saw my score climbing as I watched the film.

The fight scenes are amazing-- on par with any of the movies. The movie is high on action, low on plodding political intrigue. The movie feels like the 2-D TV series of shorts, popped into the third dimension-- almost like thatSimpsons Halloween episode where Homer gets pulled into the third dimension. In an interesting budget-saving device: holograms are used very frequently. I have to think that is for economy: why render a character in all of their shades, when you can just draw them in shades of blue. While the foreground characters have that animation detail doled on them, background characters look like they're just being dragged across the background by some intern who thinks his days at Skywalker Ranch are numbered.

The soundtrack of Star Wars is memorable. My daughter hums the Imperial March. The symphonic feel of the music is gone. Tiny snippets of John Williams-esque music can be heard. In its place, the drum, string, flute melodies that are close to the incidental music from the Battlestar Galactica TV series. As this is not a Fox joint, but a Warner Brothers release: I have to wonder what was tied up in legal tangles and could not be moved out from the clenches of Rupert Murdoch.

Almost the whole voice cast are animation people or up-and-coming actors. Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lee voice Mace Windu and Dooku respectively (keep getting thosepaycheques, boys). Ahsoka Tano is voiced by Ashley Eckstein who fits the voice to the role. She has that aggravating quality that kids will find endearing. What is "fun" (I cannot believe I am about to write this): the troopers are extra New Zealand-y. BecauseJango Fett was originally voiced by Temuera Morrison, Clone Troopers have that accent-- I was expecting them to say, "Load up the Lorry, we're off to the beach, mates!" It worked. You can tell that the Troopers get bored on those trips through hyperspace; and they're tired of saying "No, I'm Trooper-3263827-- you're thinking of Trooper-03003817659." They're all sporting different haircuts (colors and styles)-- again a nice touch-- as a clone with 10,000,000 copies of me wandering around I would like likely try to make myself look a little unique.

All-in-all: this movie is for the pre-teen set, die-hard super obsessed fans and people who like decent animation. Please park yourstormtrooper outfit at the door-- you won't be able to sit down and you'll delay the start of the movie, you geek.

Clone Wars : The Plot in all its Spoiler Glory

Highlight to read: almost all of this post is a spoiler:

The film opens with the familiar "Long Time Ago... In a Galaxy Far Far Away..." and then jumps into the action: a montage of the Clone Troopers battling the Separatists. It turns out that the Outer Rim territories where the Kamino cloning facilities where is cut off from the Republic, so there is a shortage of Troopers. TheHutt clan (led by Jabba the Hutt) controls the shipping in the Outer Rim. Someone has kidnapped the Hutt's son. Jabba The Hutt makes a plea to Chancellor Palpatine for aid-- somehow a giant slug at the rim of the galaxy has the leader of a trillion people on speed-dial. Palpatine ask Mace Windu and Yoda for help. As luck would have it, they have two Jedi available: Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. They are on the planet "Christophsis" having won out against the robot armies-- but communications have been broken. They relay a message to a Republic fleet at a staging area. In a geek-treat moment, we get to see Republic Navy officers-- somewhere on the evolutionary path towards the Imperial Navy. It turns out that Christophsis has not been secured. Anakin and Obi-wan need to lead their diminishing number of troopers vs. the robots. The droids are led by Whorm Loathsom, who looks the love child of Watto and a tusked-boar. A great battle ensues with heavy casualties on both sides. The robots fall back in time for a Republic transport to land and deposit a special messenger, a young Torgruta girl, Asoka Tano. It turns out she is an apprentice-- a padawan-- for Anakin Skywalker. The Jedi council decided that the irreverent Asoka is a match for the irreverent Skywalker. The robot army has fallen back to deploy a massive shield-- an expanding hemisphere that keeps the droids safe at they advance. Skywalker hatches a genius plan. He and Asoka hide under a box in the path of the force field. When the army and field overtake then, they are safely behind enemy lines. While on her first day on the job, she and Skywalker sneak to the shield generator. They plant explosives. They trigger a number of barrel like droids that battle the two Jedi. In a page from Buster Keaton, Asoka uses the force to bring down a wall on the droids surrounding Anakin, leaving him safe in the hole in the wall. Meanwhile, back at the battle, the troopers have been picked off. Kenobi is surrounded and surrenders. He tricks Whorm Loathsom into negotiating the terms of the Republic surrender. This a ploy to kill time so that Anakin and Asoka can bring down the shield and luckily so that Yoda and re-enforcements can arrive. Almost instantly, they start using nicknames for one another: "Snips" and "Skyguy" (guess which is which).

Yoda instructs Anakin and Asoka to find and rescue the Huttling. Kenobi goes to bargain with Jabba the Hutt. Rotta the Hutt is held by Asajj Ventress, pupil of Dooku. Whoever designed Ventress for this film came off of an Angelina Jolie binge (bee-sting lips, sultry voice).
I was expecting Ventress to admit that this wasn't a kidnapping, but a botched adoption, then try to adopt Asoka. She is holed-up on PlanetTeff in a Bohmarr Monastery (man, I bet those walking hookas are regretting never getting door-lock or firearm technology perfected-- it seems like everyone loves to take them over and move in). Helping her is an assortment of droids and a weaselly droid, 4A-7. The Republic forces go to Teff. The monastery is high on a butte; so the Jedi and troopers have to mount a vertical assault-- it makes for a great visual. The droids-- largely B1 droids-- are defaulting the monastery courtyard. They are amazingly stupid-- almost Jar-Jar stupid. At the top, Anakin mows down most of the remaining droids and leaves the troopers to mop up. 4A-7 comes out and feigns gratitude for the rescue. Anakin and Asoka go into the monastery to the detention level [a) Why does a monastery have a detention level? Do people pepper their quiet contemplation with assault and battery? b) I want a detention level!]; they know it's a trap. They dispatch some very dumb B1 droids and make it to the cell where Hutt's baby boy, Rotta. I was thinking this would be a douche-bag heir apparent of Jabba. Instead, it's an infant: a bowling ball with arms, a tail and a maw. Rotta is sick, adding to the urgency of getting him back to his parents-- of course I say "parents" but in sci-fi tradition, there is no sign of Momma the Hutt-- underlining that popular premise that females are there to be dying mothers, spunky hard-to-get-girlfriends or marketing ploys. For Ventress and Dooku, this is all part of the trap. They want to frame the Jedi for the death of Rotta. The droid army springs out of hiding (how is it that the security staff on my way in to see this movie could scan me for the presence of a camera; but the Republic forces cannot scan a planet for robots?) and attack the Clone Troopers. Anakin, R2 and Asoka find a way down to a secret launch pad. Once down there, Ventress pounces on them and the droids attack. They need to escape, but they don't have a ride. Beneath the landing pad is a nest of giant 10 meter long dragon-fly-type insects. Asoka spies a ship on a nearby landing pad on another butte. I hit X-A-X Anakin and Asoka hitch a ride from one of these insects, while R2 jets behind them. They get to the other landing pad. 4A-7 is there loading his ship for departure with the help of some B1 droids. All of the robots are deactivated with extreme prejudice. Anakin tries to get the ship ready to go. Reinforcements have arrived just in time again. Kenobi goes into the monastery in search of Ventress. The two of them get into a pitched light saber battle (yawn). As this movie is the kick-off for the TV-series; and Return of the Sith showed Dooku sans Ventress, the writing is on the wall. Someone has to be the bad guy-- er, girl-- for the TV series and eventually die-- but not today. She escapes in the nick of time (she'll be back.... she'll be back...).

Senator Amidala comes into the Chancellor's office to discover that Anakin will be doomed if the Hutts think the Jedi betrayed them. She asks to plead with Jabba directly and Palpatine is against the idea. She suggests that she talks to Ziro TheHutt who live in Coruscant (in the "Old Town" sector-- on a city that covers a whole planet, what is that? Is Old Town the size of Europe?). She goes down to this place that looks like a speakeasy-- with a Thith band doing Swing music. Ziro: he's sort of a cross between Jabba theHutt and Truman Capote, with body tattoos compliments of Prince. Amidala pleads her case and Ziro promises to take it to Jabba. Before she leaves, she spots that one of Ziro's droids is armed with a B1 issue blaster. She dashes back to Ziro's room to overhear theHutt and Dooku (who is popping in via hologram) scheme to kill Jabba the Hutt , kill Amidala and let Ziro take over control of the Hutts (--Fab-Ulous!--). She is taken prisoner. B1 droids (aka the "Jar-Jar-Droid" line) trigger here hologram and up pops C-3PO. She calls for his help. Later, near the climax of the story, C-3PO and a squad of Clone Troopers rescue Amidala and capture Ziro.

Anakin and company get their Spice freighter jalopy on course for Tatooine (two questions here: Do people ship anything but Spice? How can Tatooine be a backwater but show up in six out of seven movies?). On Tattooine, Anakinet cetera are attacked by Dooku's droids. They make a crash landing and trek across the Dune Sea to Jabba's Palace. In the meantime, Dooku has whitewashed the Jedi involvement, convincing theHutt that the Jedi have already killed his son.

They formulate a cunning plan: Anakin with a Huttling sized backpack treks into the snare of Count Dooku. They get into a heated battle (if you've seen Revenge of the Sith, you know how this battle has to end). It turns out that the Jedi pulled a fast one. Asoka actually has the Huttling. She encounters three of Dooku's bodyguard droids and fights them. Somehow the plucky apprentice wins versus them. Anakin makes it to Jabba theHutt . He falls into the trap that Dooku has set up. A moment later, Asoka and the Huttling show up. The Hutts a re reunited. Jabba still wants to kill the Jedi (good idea-- Anakin's daughter will eventually do him in). Intervention by Amidala and a confessional Ziro (Fab-Ulous!) changes his viewpoint and he both sets the Jedi free and agrees to allow Republic access through his shipping lanes in the Outer Rim.

All ends well and I'm sure there are more adventures to come (wink wink).

20 April 2008

Sublime Stitching and Subversive Seamster

Crafting and DIY culture is all the rage these days and there are plenty of books to support emerging and weathered crafters; this is a review of two of those books.

First up is Sublime Stitching: Hundreds of Hip Embroidery Patterns and How-To by Jenny Hart (Chronicle Books, 2006). Embroidery is the craft-of-the-moment and every indie crafter worth her salt has been jumping on that bandwagon. I learned basic embroidery way back in eighth grade and have been improving on my skills ever since. I picked up Sublime Stitching thinking it might help me bring my skills up to date since the book I usually reference was written in 1956. Alas, that old book is infinitely more useful than Sublime Stitching which is primarily a book of patterns rather than a reference -- there are only 48 pages of text (including the index and photos) and the remaining leaves are patterns.

I can't even admit to being very inspired by Jenny Hart's designs, but I suppose for someone who can't draw, they would be useful as guides. Personally, I am happy that I took this book out of the library rather than purchase it but only because my skill level seems to exceed that of Sublime Stitching's intended audience.

Next up is Subversive Seamster: Transform thrift store threads into street couture by Melissa Alvarado, Hope Meng and Melissa Rannels (Taunton Press, 2007) which is on the other end of the inspirational scale. With increasing media emphasis on going green Subversive Seamster's message of repurposing thrift store clothing merges the green and DIY/craft movements.

While there are some projects I would never attempt (there is no way at my age that I would wear a skirt made from a football jersey), others (like the bottle wrap made from a sweater sleeve) are no-brainers. The real message of Subversive Seamster however, is that with a little planning, you can make wearable clothing and useful accessories out of even the ghastliest of thrift-store cast-offs; the authors really empower the reader to think outside the seams and get creative.

If you are a needlecrafter, I heartily recommend Subversive Seamster, but only beginners should pick up Sublime Stitching.

Sublime Stitching
: **
Subversive Seamster: ****

We're Back!

First, an apology to our readers for the very long break. We didn't forget you... we've just been busy. Hopefully in the next few weeks we can catch up on some of the many books, games, movies, and other media we've consumed since last fall.

Thanks for standing by.